He is sleeping. Gentle snores rumble in the darkness from the other side of the room where my husband rests.
I sit on a low bench beside the window. The fire in the hearth glows red with dying embers, casting shadows over the walls of the stone cottage.
Tentatively, I rise, reaching for the woollen blanket. I remember the days when I sat patiently with bobbins and shuttles, weaving colours and dreams with nimble fingers, while my belly was heavy with child.
Now it seems like my dream has turned into a nightmare. My child lies sick in my arms, listless and pale. An evil sickness slithers through the village, marking the very young and the very old for death.
I have made my decision. I have no more prayers left and I have wept my eyes dry of tears. If I am betraying God, by turning back to the old ways, then it because he has betrayed me. My child is dying and my faith in the unseen, One God is dying too.
Gently, I unlatch the door. Carrying my child in my arms, I hasten to the well. A mile away from the village, the healing spring of water stands beside a drover's road, on the edge of the forest. Even in daylight, the well is a strange enough sight. The trees surrounding the well are weighed down by bits of cloth, or clooties, tied to their branches. Each scrap of cloth had been held in a trembling hand. Once dipped in the well and tied to the trees, they hang, drying and decaying, silent pleas to the gods.
The moon is clear and stars, like pinpricks against a black cloth, shine bright. The days are ripening into late autumn and there is the hint of the first frost on the ground. I wrap the blanket more closely about my shoulders, covering the baby I carry. I hear the night time rustles of foxes or badgers in the woods. The fear I should normally feel, is overwhelmed by a greater fear. What if God, the maker of heaven and earth, should see me? What if, in his anger, he chooses not to understand my desperation?
I approach the well. Moonlight plays on the clooties, painting them silver. A gentle breeze twitches them and they sway, like fingers keeping time to an unheard melody.
Here I must lay my child down and walk away. The fairies will come and take my boy and sprinkle water from the well upon his body. He will be healed. Here I must leave him for they do not perform their magic before an audience.
Suddenly I am aware that I am not alone.
"Who is there?" A man uncovers a burning lamp. The well, the trees and their silent burdens are bathed yellow light. His voice is strong, not tempered with superstitious fear. In the light I can see he is simply clothed in the garb of a servant of the unseen God. I am caught.
I withdraw into the shadows, concealed behind a veil of scraps of cloth.
"I won't harm you."
I trust the voice. He sees the bundle in my arms and shakes his head sadly. Guilt cleaves through my body like a sharp knife. He holds out his hands and I surrender my burden.
"Lord of Life, Thou who breathed life into the first man and made him live, humbly I beseech Thee for that same life giving breath." Gently he peels back the blanket and sets his face close to the face of my child. As he blows I feel someone's breath against my skin. It's warm and sweet with the perfume of honey. Intoxicating, it fills my senses and lifts my heart. The dust of doubt and anxiety that has settled inside is blown away, and joy ripples though me.
My baby lets loose a strong protesting wail and kicks as the servant of God hands my child back.
"There is a better well, you know." He gently touches one of the scraps of cloth. "It's a well that doesn't disappoint, or hold out false hope. And it's right here…" He touches me lightly, just over my heart.
"It's a living well."
Author's note - The Clootie Well is at Munlochy not far from where I live. It looks just as I described in the story. It is reputed to be a healing well dedicated to St Boniface (or Curidan).
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