Margot is telling it…

You want the truth, so I shall tell it warts and all. I am an old woman who has seen life and all its troubles. And I have known great evil too. What you saw in the gorge was bad business. And I am ruined by it. Do not set your heart against me. There will come a time when you will understand. For the wages of my sin might buy your freedom, and much more besides. But know this young Jacques: the most precious thing you will ever own is your own soul. And Mother Church will do her best to rob you of it. I sold my soul to the Devil many years ago, but you, my precious boy, redeemed it. Who that monk was I cannot say for sure, for there are many like him, and all come from your line. So let me tell of your terrible sire…

Every midwife remembers their first delivery. Well, mine was none other than the abbot of Belloc. He was born right here, on that hearthstone. ’Twas All Saints’ Eve. My father was ploughing late, and I was spinning with mother by the open door. By and by, a lady came staggering up the lane.

‘Has she fallen from her mount?’ asked I.

‘Best mind your work,’ said mother, ‘her attendant will be nearby.’

But there was no attendant, and not a hunting horn to be heard. We watched from behind our distaffs as she faltered up the lane. Not a soul came after her, not a knight, nor baron, nor page. She cried for help, so we ran to her aid. ’Twas then we saw she was heavy with child. She wore fine clothes embroidered with gold, and her flaxen plaits were decorated with pearls. But when we saw her dress all soaked in blood, we feared the child miscarried.

‘How far gone?’ asked mother.

The lady didn’t know. She said her name was Jacotte. But she wouldn’t tell who she was, or from whence she came, only that her master sent her.

We asked no more and suspected a bastard or concealment of birth. For as every midwife knows, half the world is begot from illicit union; and many a man has caused many a woman to stumble, and will be the ruin of many more. So we took her inside and prepared for labour.

I got fresh linen from the cupboard and put some water to boil. Mother helped Jacotte undress and felt her swollen womb. The child was alive and kicking. I was just fifteen, so you can imagine my surprise when mother said:

‘Get to it Margot.’

She had taught me well, so I took myself to task. But nothing on God’s earth could have prepared me for what I was about to bring into the world…

Jacotte was a fine young woman with strong muscles. But the child was buttocks foremost with its back bent double. I could not receive it so, for the passage was too small, and ’twas not safe to draw it out. I bid her pant like a dog and refrain from straining, lest the babe tore her tissues. Then I anointed my hands with hog’s grease and gently thrust it back. Still the child would not turn to passage, for the waters had long since broken. So we rocked Jacotte back and forth on the bed ’till she felt it turn. But now the child was feet first, with both hands at its hips. Jacotte’s groans turned to desperate cries. We could wait no longer. For the labour spent in turning the child did so much weaken Jacotte, that she had not strength to push. The child was growing limp, and we feared ’twould soon perish. So we sought to bring it out feet first. I gave Jacotte a potion to dilate the womb and stop it from clamping. Then I put her in a squatting position and gave her sneezing powder to make her strain. And all the while, mother compressed the belly to coax the babe out and prevent its return.

We timed each spasm so the child made passage with one hip in front of t’other. I could feel it slowly turning in the womb. Inserting my hand, I gently groped within, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I thought I felt a shoulder, but it turned out to be a knee; so I put the knee in its proper station and brought the leg back down…

The labour was long and difficult. Dusk fell and Jacotte was taken by fierce gripings as waves of pain swept over her, ebbing and flowing. She grew hot and cold, and her plaits stuck to her breasts in damp coils. By and by, the feet and legs were hanging out. The child was facing Jacotte’s inner left thigh. When ’twas born to the cord, I took it by the hips, and wriggled it back and forth, still turning. Then the shoulders followed, same path as the hips, slowly turning…

Jacotte was screaming and cursing, and holding mother’s hand so tight that her fingernails drew blood. The child was now facing Jacotte’s back. That was the inner turning. The birth was half complete.

Push Jacotte! Push!’ cried I.

Next came the outer turning as the shoulders emerged. I shut my eyes and pictured the head squeezing in the passage, flexing chin to chest. I knew the cord was pinched and dared not pull. Now the child was hanging out with just its head inside. I feared it might sever from the neck and putrefy the womb. But little by little, the face emerged, still turning. Well, it looked normal enough besides a red birthmark on the left cheek. There were no signs of fault or dislocation. But as Jacotte gave the final push, the head turned right round…

By the virgin! The child had another face! Twas a Janus looking contrary ways. But the rear face was very malformed; it looked like a turbot fish, all squashed and lopsided; the nose was almost absent, and seemed cut off, with just two gaping holes; the little mouth was a narrow slit above the chin, that wheezed a spume of bubbles. But what frightened me most were the enormous black eyes, glaring like an owl. I nearly fainted on the spot.

We cut the cord and thought it best to let Nature take her course. So we wrapped the child in swaddling and hid it in the cupboard. But Jacotte grew distraught and began wailing for her babe:

Où est mon enfant?’ cried she. ‘Donnez la moi à l’instant!

‘Be still,’ said I. ‘The babe is sleeping. You’ve lost much blood. You shall see it in the morning.’

I calmed her nerves with hemlock seeds in a draught of wine. And she soon fell fast asleep, exhausted from her unnatural labour.

Time passed and night drew in. We sat by the fire, tending Jacotte, hoping her child would pass in peace. All was quiet, but for the embers crackling in the hearth. At length, I crept to the cupboard and opened the door. The Janus was writhing like a maggot and its great black eyes seemed to peer right through me.

‘It frightens me mother.’

‘Come away,’ said she. ‘Shut the door and let it alone.’

‘What could cause such deformity?’ asked I, sitting down beside her.

‘Nature always strives to bring forth the best she can. But this is a fallen world, and she brings forth what she must. Do not ask the cause. The cause is a mystery of God. Who knows what will happen when spirit and flesh collide?’

‘What a curse, to bear a child like that,’ said I.

‘A curse indeed,’ said mother. ‘They say God is the maker of all things, who raised from nothing every creature, spiritual or corporeal. But I don’t believe God would make a such monster.’

‘I fear what will become of it.’

‘’Twill will not survive long,’ said she. ‘Say a prayer for its soul. The good Lord will take it by dawn.’

I sat by the hearthstone where the afterbirth glistened like a jellyfish, all purple and blue.

‘You must bury that by morning,’ said mother. ‘And the babe with it.’

I began to weep:

‘Oh mother! I can’t! Let father do it!’

‘’Tis best he does not see it. I have buried many mooncalves in my time; and you shall bury many more. You brought it into the world: you must send it out.’

‘Send for the priest,’ said I.

‘The priest?’ scorned she. ‘What priest would behold that thing and not suspect an evil pact?’

‘But where shall I lay it to rest?’ asked I.

‘Far away, lest it darkens our door. Down river is a row of willows, and beyond them a standing stone surrounded by six elms. You cannot miss it. I bury all the mooncalves there.’

Thunder purled down the valley.

‘There’s a storm coming,’ said mother. ‘Dry your tears now, and throw a log on the fire.’

I stoked the fire but my tears kept flowing. Mother took my hand and said:

‘Don’t be sad my child. I’m proud of you. A breach birth is never easy, and you handled it well. You delivered the babe and there’s naught else to be done. Put it down to experience. Many a birth brings sorrow and death. Your concern is not with the babe now, but with the mother.’

We sat there for a while, watching Jacotte’s dress sparkle in the firelight, its silver threads shining like dewy webs.

‘I’ve never seen such fine vestments,’ said I. ‘She must be a lady of high estate.

‘Riches always bring trouble,’ said mother.

‘Do you think she ran away from home?’

‘’Twill do no good to ask.’

‘But I wonder where she’s from?’

‘Not from these parts, to be sure.’

‘Then where?’ asked I.

‘Over the hills,’ said mother. ‘There’s madness in the mountains.’

‘You think she’s moonstruck?’ asked I.

‘I know not. But there’s something odd about her. The sooner she’s gone, the happier I’ll be. The hill folk own to turning themselves into beasts.’

‘Beasts mother?’

‘Yes, beasts,’ said she. ‘There’s more witchcraft in the hills than I can tell, or ever intend to tell. Some folk become cats, and slink into cots to suck the blood of young children. Some become wolves, and prowl the dark forests, to devour unwary pilgrims.’

‘Don’t speak like that,’ said I. ‘Not this night of all nights. And not about Jacotte and her poor baby. All your silly talk of magic. ’Tis wicked to say such things. Jacotte is no witch.’

‘How can you be so sure?’ asked mother. ‘We know naught about her. She may not be a witch, but a raving madness plagues the hills. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.’

‘What did you see?’

‘I saw many shepherds stricken with palsy, who foamed at the mouth and barked like dogs. In one village I saw thirty such men, howling at the moon. Some put daggers to their throats; others jumped from the cliffs and dashed themselves on the rocks. And I met many wanton girls who were in a great hurry to be burnt.’

‘Burnt?’ gasped I.

‘At the stake,’ said she. ‘They willingly confessed to all manner of terrible crimes. There was one such maiden who swore she had betrothed the Devil. Was it witchcraft, lunacy or despair? I know not. But I was asked to deliver her child.’

‘And did you?’ asked I.

‘I had no choice in the matter. Three men took me on horseback high into the mountains. Their village was remote and shrouded in gloom. We came to an ostal built into the rock. I didn’t want to enter. There were bones about the threshold and charms upon the door. To keep the devil at bay, they said. I was afraid God would chastise me. But at that time, I myself had a terrible longing – the longing to be pregnant. ’Tis a longing you can’t resist. And I pitied the poor girl in her pangs of labour. I did not believe she was a malignant witch. So I went inside and delivered her child.’

‘Was it a monster?’ asked I. ‘—Like that thing in the cupboard?’

‘ No,’ said she. ’Twas a healthy little girl. But the father disowned it, and shortly after, the mother did away with herself. She jumped to her death, just like the shepherds. What became of the child, I never knew. Perhaps it died with her.’

‘What a tragedy,’ said I.

‘Yes,’ said she, and wiped a tear from her eye. ‘It broke my heart to hear of it. But I was young then, and didn’t understand. Some women suffer a grave melancholy after giving birth. It can drive them insane. As if the pains of labour were not enough.’

‘Please God, I’ll get married and bare healthy children,’ said I. ‘But I think I should love whatever God brings.’

‘Fool!’ scorned she. ‘The very thought of it! A mooncalf? I’m all a fright of myself. There’s no joy in a creature like that. No joy at all. ’Tis so poorly made, you’d be ashamed to look at it. You might love it at first, as only a mother can. But what little love you had would soon wane cold. ’Tis not worth dirtying your hands over such a wretched creature. Some are not meant for this world. Some things are better off dead.’

I was shocked to hear these words:

‘Mother!’ cried I. ‘How can you be so cruel?’

She stopped and covered her mouth:

‘Forgive me child. What am I saying? But think what will become of Jacotte, to see that two-faced goblin with its bulging black eyes. She’d loose her wits. God help us all. Pray it dies quick.’

There came a shrill cry from the cupboard, more like a screech-owl than a babe; it echoed in the hollow and the cauldron rang with the sound. Mother shuddered and said:

‘Such unholy cries! It curdles the blood! Hark, it makes the cauldron chime!’

Mother was right: the cauldron was ringing like a bell, and the iron trivet was juddering on its legs. The cries faded and all went quiet again.

‘Has it died?’ asked I.

‘Go and look,’ whispered mother.

‘I dare not.’

‘It cannot hurt you. Open the cupboard door, put your ear to its mouth, and listen. It might have breathed its last.’

‘You go,’ said I.

‘No,’ said she. ‘You must learn to do these things alone. What are so you afraid of? ’Tis just a helpless child.’

‘’Tis bewitched,’ said I. ‘You heard it! It sounded like an owl! And it made the cauldron ring!’

‘I shall not sleep a wink with that thing under my roof. If the child is dead, we can put it out. Please Margot, do as I say. Go and look.’

So I crept to the cupboard and opened the door. I found the turbot uppermost, wriggling like a worm. ’Twas white as death and its great black eyes almost popped out of its head. Then opening its horrid mouth, it commenced to shriek and wail. I was so affraid, I might have thrown it to the floor in repulsion and disgust. But at that moment, my heart was rent with pity. I didn’t think twice. I took the Janus in my arms, and rocked it gently:

‘Hush, hush, little baby,’ cooed I. ‘Sleep, sleep my precious one, and you shall go to Paradise…’

The child was surprised at my face, and for a moment I thought it would shriek even louder; but it seemed pleased with my voice and beat the air with its little hands. In no time at all, the babe stopped bawling and went quietly to sleep. Very gently, I put it back in the cupboard and shut the door.

‘It wants feeding,’ said I.

‘Feeding?’ scorned mother. ‘You’re too soft. What were you thinking, prattling to it like a duckling? Must you encourage it to live?’

‘The child is strong. I felt it struggle. ’Twill not die so easy. Perhaps Nature intends for it to thrive.’

‘Nature intends no such thing. ’Tis a blot on Creation and a discredit to God. A mooncalf like that will only bring misery and death. I have never seen such terrible deformity; it reeks of malediction and disease, and of everything that is filthy and ugly in mankind. Would you be a mother of monsters and freaks? Or a midwife of such hideous and frightful children? This is no harmless crooked humpback. ’Tis a Janus. A Janus. Do you understand? There’s no place in this world for creatures like that. Its entire life will be an everlasting torture of physical and mental suffering. The child must die.’

‘Hark at you,’ said I. ‘The murdering midwife. That does not sit well with me.’

She wagged her finger and scolded:

‘Don’t put me to shame my girl. I’m older and wiser. Think about it. Could you live with such an intolerable affliction? Well could you? Without falling into a pit of misery and despair?’

‘No mother,’ said I, abashed.

‘Of course not,’ said she. ‘To suffer such a life is worse than all the pains of hell. A Janus. What a lamentable state—to be neither one thing nor t’other; hiding from the world and dwelling alone, fearing your dreadful secret will incur mockery or death; knowing that your lifelong condition is forever incurable and without resolution; feeling so thoroughly expelled from human kind and the simple joys of life. ’Twould try the patience of Job. Believe me Margot, there’s naught in this world that folk fear quite so much as secrets of the flesh. A Janus is fated for a life of enmity and sorrows.’

‘Forgive me, mother. I wasn’t thinking.’

She wagged her finger again:

‘—And whatever happens, don’t breath a word of this to your father. He’s been troubled enough by evils and will only be troubled more. That fiendish goblin will scare him half to death. And what then? Say no more about it. When the time comes, I will show you what to do.’

‘I won’t kill it,’ said I. ‘I can’t.’

‘We shall see,’ said she.

‘What will you do? Drown it in a sack? How beastly!’

‘Fear not. I shall not harm a hair on its head. But nor shall I raise a finger to save it, either.’

‘Neglect is murder all the same,’

‘You judge me wrong,’ said she. ‘You will soon come to understand these spiritual works of mercy. For every good midwife knows the secret of a sweet and painless death.’

Before I could protest further, Jacotte stirred and moaned:

J’ai mal à la tête. J’ai grand soif.’ [I have a headache. I have great thirst].

I went to her aid and mopped her brow, for she was stricken with fever. Taking a cup from the pail, I put it to her lips. She drank and gasped:

Que de peine vous prenez pour moi.’ [How much trouble you take for me].

‘’Tis no trouble,’ said I.

Où est mon enfant?’ she asked again.

‘Hush,’ said I. ‘The child is sleeping. Rest now. All will be well in the morning.’

She babbled with a runaway tongue, and I could not fathom her words, for she was still drowsy with hemlock. But when I rose from the bed, she threw off her torpor and clasped my hand in earnest:

Aidez moi! Ce n’est pas cette terre!’ [Help me! ’Tis not of this earth!] cried she.

A fearful terror seized me, for her eyes were full of mortal dread. Then she rasped:

Mon fers sont faites de feu!’ [My fetters are made of fire!]

At once her body went limp and she fell into a deep slumber. I looked at mother. Mother looked at me. And the wind moaned in the cupboard, which rattled and knocked, as if all the imps of hell were forming ranks behind it.

Little did we know the trouble we were in…

Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2006

Image Credit: Modified plate of Diprosopus from ‘Human Monstrosities’ Volume Three, by Barton Cooke Hirst (1892); the original image was of a heavily disected specimen. I retouched this image to remove both the abominal and cranial cavity disections. The Janus in Unus Mundus has a contrary cranio-facial-duplication, one face looking forward, the other back, but this was the closest medical specimen of a newborn with this terrible condition that I could find.