Harry Bird sighed, closed down the computer, and went to sit on the sofa. He yawned, stretched, and sat back with his eyes closed. A large, ginger coated cat with a white bib and white socks, rather pregnant, paced into the room and, not without difficulty, jumped onto the sofa and thence onto his lap, where she sprawled on her side. He stroked her, and caressed the bulge of her tummy.
“Hello, darling. It’s okay, I’ve done. It’s all balanced now and I can relax.”
The cat purred and stretched, then shimmered and became Kat, his equally pregnant wife. She sat up and leaned into his embrace. “Harry...”
He chuckled. “I know that tone!”
She giggled, but became serious. “Harry, I know you trust me, but I want something you’ll find hard...”
He shifted slightly and chuckled again. “It’s usually hard when we’re like this!”
She shook her head and remained very solemn. “Aibhilin,” she pronounced it Aveleen, “will be a Solstice baby. I want her to be born in my circle.”
They had, a few months previously, created a miniature stone circle in their back garden and Kat had consecrated it for ceremonies to help her friends.
Harry was used to having his world-view expanded by his unusual wife, but this was, indeed, serious. “You want to deliver our daughter outdoors, in our back garden, in the middle of winter?”
“Yes.” her voice was very quiet indeed. “I know it’s a lot to ask. But you know I’ll be warm enough.”
“That’s not my concern. What about a midwife? Doctor? I can’t imagine anyone would go along with that.”
“No. But Mam will. And I’ll call on Viviane.”
“Who’s Viviane? I don’t think I ever met her.”
“Well, no. Though she was probably watching when Naomi and Rebecca were born. She’s also called Bebinn in Ireland, Lucina in Italy, Hathor in Egypt, and many other names elsewhere. She’s the Goddess of childbirth. My Mam will help. You know my due date is the twenty-ninth. If she doesn’t come along on the twenty-first, I’ll go to the hospital, okay?”
“Well, okay. I suppose. IF your mother will come, and IF you promise to co-operate if there’s any problem.”
“Hello, Harry ... it’s Rhiannon Donahue.”
“Um ... hi. I’m sorry – we never talked about how you’d like me to address you?”
He heard a pleasant chuckle. “No. What would you be comfortable with? I’m happy for you to call me Rhiannon ... or, if you prefer, ‘Mam’. I know my husband won’t mind you calling him Conor. I’m sure I’d prefer not to be ‘Missus Donahue’.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Then, Rhiannon, if you don’t mind.”
“Good! Now. My daughter tells me she wants me to collude with her in a childbirth of dubious legality and rationality.”
He sighed. “Yes. Rhiannon, I trust her. I’m not entirely happy, but that’s inevitable given my sceptical background. If you’re willing to come, I’m sure enough of her abilities to at least give it a try.”
“Her due date is the twenty-ninth, right?”
“And the Solstice this year is the twenty-first. I’ll have to check what the time is. But we usually work on the sunrise time. The astronomical solstice varies year by year. I’ll check and call you back.”
There was a click as the phone was disconnected, and Harry went, half-heartedly, back to what he had been doing, but gave up and went to make a cup of tea. It was over half an hour before the phone rang again.
“Harry? The Solstice where you are is actually at ten-forty-four, but dawn is eight-twenty. Here’s what I suggest. If she starts contractions, or her waters break, call an ambulance and let me know. If I don’t hear anything, I will come on the nineteenth, and we’ll see what happens. If she’s right, she’ll start some time after midnight on the twenty-first and probably deliver at dawn. If she hasn’t delivered by ten-forty-five, I think we should call an ambulance and get her to the hospital. But, you know, I suspect she’s right. If so, that baby’s going to be a handful, I assure you.”
“Rhiannon ... thank you. Thank you so much. I feel a lot happier now.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad I was right about you.”
With a week to go to the Solstice, Kat was becoming nervous and unsure. She was waking often in the night and then, at five o’clock in the morning she didn’t return to bed but found a small rush mat and went outside. It was a clear night and the moon lit the back garden brightly, reflecting off a sharp frost. Oblivious of bare feet, she padded out to the centre of the circle, placed the mat and knelt upon it, facing east.
Harry, disturbed by her leaving the bed, drowsed for a few minutes. When Kat didn’t return, though, he surfaced and swung his legs out of bed, found his slippers, and grabbed a gown as he made his way, via the bathroom, downstairs and out into the garden.
Kat was singing, though he couldn’t understand the words. As he watched, a woman appeared in front of Kat. At least, she looked like a woman, but she appeared to be glowing, her garments so brilliantly white he was dazzled and had to keep looking away. He couldn’t resist looking, though, his eyes drawn back to the figure.
She wasn’t tall, and appeared slight in figure, but somehow she exuded power and ... majesty? Yes, majesty. Unconsciously, he slipped to his knees in the frost.
As he watched, Kat stopped singing, gazing up at the figure in front of her, and spoke, though again, Harry could not understand the words. The woman bent forwards and laid her hands on Kat’s head and stooped to speak in her ears. She straightened up and looked straight at Harry, then beckoned to him. He didn’t respond immediately and realised that it was fear, or awe, or a combination of both, which held him back. But the woman beckoned again, peremptorily and, reluctantly, he rose to his feet and stepped into the circle.
As he passed between two of the stones, he felt a curious, indescribable sensation. The nearest he could come to it was remembering a science experiment in school involving a generator of static electricity. It had caused a prickling sensation all over him. Then, he was conscious of warmth, then, the Presence of the woman. He fell to his knees again, his head down. That close he couldn’t bear to even glance at her.
Soft, incomprehensible words, then the gentle pressure of a hand on his head. Words forming in his mind. “Husband of Kathleen – do you love her?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Enough to die for her?”
He hesitated, but said firmly, “Yes. Even that.”
“Dying for her would hurt her badly. Are you willing to take part of her pain? It would be the worst physical pain you have ever experienced.”
“Will that help her? Take her pain?”
“It will help, but she will still have some pain. You could not endure all her pain.”
“I will do whatever I can.”
“That is good.”
“Lady, I don’t know you...”
“I have many names, but you may call me Viviane.”
“Lady Viviane, will my wife, my daughter, be well?”
“Play your part truly, and all will be well. But you will pay a high price.”
Her voice – and reality faded into blackness. He only came to again as the sky was lightening with the pre-dawn. Kat was watching him with a worried expression as he opened his eyes. “Well, there’s no tedium involved in being married to you,” he smiled.
“Harry – are you all right? Whatever possessed you to enter the circle?”
“She – Lady Viviane – she beckoned to me.”
“Oh, Harry...” she broke off. “Harry, what did ... did you ... promise anything?”
“I told her I was willing to die for you.”
She paled. “Oh, Harry...”
“Don’t worry, she said that would hurt you. She asked if I would share your pain.”
She sighed. “Oh, Harry – you have no idea, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Harry – immortals, like Viviane – you need to be careful what you give them. She doesn’t like men very much. Ah, well. No use worrying now. Come on, let’s go inside.”
They got to their feet, and as she turned to head indoors, he wrapped his arms around her from behind, caressing the baby bump. She gave a sigh of satisfaction and leaned back against him.
Dawn, midwinter, and it’s time to be up and about. After a disturbed night, coffee was the order of the day and, for once, bacon, egg, sausage, beans, fried bread, toast. Kat smiled and shook her head, sticking to muesli. About half-past eight, as Harry was finishing up, the phone rang and Kat, already on her feet, answered it. She pressed the handset against her chest. “Harry, it’s Geoff Sanders. He wants to talk to us, and bring a friend.”
“When? This evening?”
“No, he says the weather is too bad for his team to work, so any time today would be good.”
“Could we feed them lunch?”
“Sure! Something suitable for a recent heart-attack victim. Not salad, midwinter. Chicken. Stir-fry.”
“Is that okay?”
“Sure. At least I think so. Olive oil. Fresh veg.” She lifted the handset. “Come to lunch? Twelve? One? Okay. See you then.” She hung up, or switched off, or whatever, and turned to her husband with a smile. “One o’clock. Have you anything pressing?”
“Yes, and I know just what to do about it. Bed.”
“Perfect.” Kat held out her hand to her husband and towed him out of the kitchen, not that he was resisting at all.
A different voice – Geoff Sanders...
A year ago, I was a sad, bitter, angry man; my wonderful, beautiful wife died in childbirth and I blamed my daughter Penelope. I don’t understand how she grew up as normal as she did, but my attitude caused her to be very withdrawn and she had a terrible stammer, so it was painful to listen to her, and hard to understand. She met a young man – David Tomlinson – shortly after we moved north for me to take up a job as a construction foreman. He offered her the love and consideration I should have given her, and she fell for him. He came to me to ask my permission to marry her. That came as a shock. I pointed out she was over eighteen and didn’t need my permission, but he insisted. I suppose that shook something loose in me and I began to recognise just how much I’d failed Penelope, though I backslid pretty soon after. I was drinking far too much and eating the wrong things since I no longer had my daughter to shop and cook for me.
Well, I was heading straight towards losing my job when I had a heart attack and nearly died. The first thing that saved me was the presence of the company nurse, Clare Howells, who immediately recognised what was happening and got me to the hospital. Even then, it was touch and go, I’m told. The second thing that saved me was a visit from Kathleen Bird, a friend of Penelope and David. I still don’t know what, or how she did what she did, but over a very few minutes, my pain eased and my heart rhythm stabilised. The staff in Coronary Care couldn’t understand what had happened. They were shaking their heads and took sample after sample of blood, all that. But I was so much better they transferred me to a ward and I was sent home much earlier than I would normally have been. I asked Kathleen what she’d done, but she just smiled and said, “I’m a witch.”
Anyway, I went home from the hospital and began eating properly and exercising as I was told. Penelope helped a lot, and so did Clare, but there was still something wrong, so I went to see Kat. You know, I never believed in magic, or witchcraft, or psychology, or mind-reading, that sort of thing, but I couldn’t dismiss what had happened in the hospital when she touched me, so even though I didn’t understand I let her sit me out in her garden in a stone circle for heaven’s sake, then she appeared in a robe like some ancient priestess and chanted something I couldn’t make out and knelt in front of me. After that, I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, but my dead wife spoke to me. Told me off in no uncertain terms, though more in sorrow than anger. I was out there all night, and when I woke up, laid on the grass just before dawn, I was, well, different. Healed, I suppose.
When I went back to work, I made sure Clare got some flowers, and she was the first person I went to see, and asked her to have dinner with me one evening. She agreed, and, well, we got on so well that after a few dates I asked her to marry me. I don’t deserve the happiness I’ve got, either being forgiven by the daughter who, let’s be frank, I abused, or by marrying a wonderful, caring, beautiful woman.
Which brings us to the point. Clare kept asking how I’d recovered so quickly from a very bad heart attack, then how I’d changed so radically. All I could say was that Kat had helped, along with David and Harry, and seeing Penelope set free from the damage I’d done. Then she wanted to talk to Kat. I kept putting it off, but in the end made the call, and we were invited to lunch with Kat and Harry...
But back to the story...
Harry opened the door to their guests. “Come in! Good to see you looking so well, Geoff.”
They entered and Harry closed the door. “Keeping him in line, Clare?”
The pleasant-looking, dark brunette woman chuckled, her voice a mellow alto. “Oh, he’s pretty sensible – for a man, that is.”
“Come through – I hope you don’t mind eating in the kitchen. It’s much easier for Kat that way.”
“Not at all,” Clare answered. “much more comfortable. And I’d hope we are close enough friends not to be formal.”
Harry ushered them into the kitchen, where Kat was presiding over a large wok. She turned and smiled. “I started this when I heard the bell. Won’t be long. Good to see you, Clare ... Geoff.”
“When’s your due date, Kat? You must be near term, surely?” Clare’s voice betrayed a degree of concern.
“Twenty-ninth. But I’m pretty sure she’ll be early. Don’t worry – I’m not straining, and it’s been an easy pregnancy. Besides, Harry’ll clear up for me afterwards.”
Clare left it at that and they chatted about inconsequentials for the few minutes the meal required. Having eaten, Harry made drinks – Rooibos for Geoff and Kat, coffee for himself and Clare – and sent the others to the lounge.
Kat sank gratefully into a recliner, but left it upright. “So ... is it Clare, or Geoff, who has questions or a problem? It’s really lovely to see you, but I do suspect it’s about more than our company.”
Clare nodded. “Yes. And I’ll say right away I’ll respect your privacy. But I can’t help wondering what you did for Geoff. I mean, speaking as a nurse his recovery from the MI was remarkable, and just as remarkable was the change in his character after he came back from hospital.”
Kat was smiling. “You aren’t the first to wonder about me.”
Clare raised an eyebrow in query.
“Tell me, Clare – are you a sceptic? A cynic? Pragmatic?”
“My training means I look for a scientific basis for everything,” the other woman said, “but of course I run across things that don’t fit the curve. I was brought up in a church-going household, but I suppose I’ve drifted away from that. Most of the time, anyway.”
“But you’ll agree there are things you can’t yet explain scientifically?”
“Well, I always say I’m a witch,” Kat explained, seriously. “You don’t have to use that term if you prefer not to. My mother, before she married, had abilities that she lost after and now she can only do little things which can be explained away. I’m a seventh child of a seventh child back at least ten generations, but that may have nothing to do with what I can do.”
“So ... what can you do?”
“I can calm someone who is upset or angry. I can often read what they are thinking. If I try, I can make someone do something they don’t want to do, forget something, believe something that is untrue. When I met Harry I was in a strange relationship with a man who was trying to make me do bad things – steal, hurt, manipulate. Now I only do things to help.”
“You certainly have, what ... a presence...” Clare said slowly.
“And part of what happened to Geoff can be explained in psychological terms. But in the hospital, I ... shared his pain. Not just the pain of his physical heart, but the pain and anger he was carrying from the loss of his wife. I ... the easiest way to explain it, was, I reached into his physical heart and dissolved the blockage, and reached into his emotional heart and ... turned ... the channels of his emotions. They were in a sort of deep rut, and I diverted them so he could begin to deal with them.”
“Forgive me, but...” Clare began.
“Darling, I know it’s hard to believe, but she did heal me. Both heart and mind.”
“Do you have a problem with nudity?” Kat asked with a smile.
“No, not really...”
“Well, I’d rather wait a minute or two for Harry, then I’ll give you a demonstration of my abilities.” Kat then began some stories of working in the park café to fill in the time until Harry arrived. “Harry, dear, Clare needs a demonstration.”