The Misbegotten

By: Katherine Webb

1803


The day the child walked in from the marsh was one of deadening cold. A north wind had blown steadily all day, making ears and chests and bones ache; the child’s bare feet crackled through a crust of ice on the watery ground. She came slowly towards the farmhouse from the west, with the swollen river sliding silently beside her and the sun hanging low over her shoulder, baleful and milky as a blind eye. A young woman quit the farmhouse and crossed the yard towards the chicken coop. She didn’t see the child at first, as she wrapped her shawl tightly around her shoulders and turned her face to the sky, to watch a vast murmuration of starlings that was coming to roost in the horse chestnut tree. The birds chattered and squealed to one another, shifting in flight like a single amorphous being, like smoke, before they vanished as one into the naked branches.

The child kept walking, right through the gate and into the yard. She faltered when the young woman did notice her and call out – not hearing the words, just the sound, which startled her. She stopped, and swayed on her feet. The farmhouse was large, built of pale stone. Smoke scattered from its chimneys, and through the windows of the lower floor a warm yellow light shone out onto the muddy ground. That light pulled irresistibly at the child, as it would a moth. It spoke of heat, of shelter; the possibility of food. With jagged little steps she continued towards it. The yard ran slightly uphill towards the house and the effort of the climb caused her to zigzag, stumbling left and right. She was so close, so nearly able to put out her hand and soak it in that golden glow. But then she fell, and did not rise again. She heard the young woman cry out in alarm, and felt herself handled, gathered up. Then she felt nothing more for a time.

The child woke later because of the pain in her hands and feet. The unfamiliar warmth of her blood caused them to itch and throb and tingle unbearably. She tried to fidget, but was held too tightly. She opened her eyes. The young woman from the yard now held her on her lap, wrapped in a blanket. Beside them, a fire roared in a cavernous fireplace. The heat and light were staggering. There was a beamed ceiling over her head, and lambent candles on a nearby shelf, and it seemed like another world.

‘You cannot mean to put her out – not with it so cold!’ said the young woman. Her voice was soft, but passionate. The child looked up at her and saw a face of such loveliness that she thought it might be an angel that held her. The angel’s hair was very, very pale, the colour of fresh cream. Her eyes were huge and soft, and very blue, fringed with long lashes like tiny golden feathers; she had high cheekbones, an angular jaw, and a pointed chin gentled by the hint of a dimple in it.

‘She’s a vagabond, make no mistake about it.’ This was an older voice, grim in tone.

‘What does that matter? She’s a child, and she’ll surely die if she spends another night without shelter, and food. Look – look at her! Nothing but bones, like some poor chick cast out of the nest.’ The young woman looked down, saw that the child was awake, and smiled.

‘She’ll be unlatching the door for her people in the night – you mark my words. She’ll let them in and they’ll carry off everything we have, including your virtue!’

‘Oh, Bridget! Don’t be so frightened, always! You’re a slave to your suspicions. She will do no such thing – she’s just a child! An innocent.’

‘There’s none so innocent in this house as you, Miss Alice,’ Bridget muttered. ‘I speak from prudence, not from fear. Which way did she come?’

‘I don’t know. One moment she was not there, the next, she was.’ The young woman pulled a feather from the child’s hair with her fingertips. ‘It was like the starlings brought her.’

‘That’s naught but fancy. She’ll be crawling with lice and vermin – don’t hold her so close to you! Can’t you smell the rot on her?’

‘How can you speak like that about a child, Bridget? Have you no heart?’ Alice cradled the child closer to her, protectively. The child pressed her ear to Alice’s chest, and heard the way her heart raced, even though she seemed calm. It raced and it faltered and it stumbled over itself. She felt the rapid rise and fall of breath beneath her saviour’s ribs. ‘To put her out would be tantamount to murder. Infanticide! I will not do it. And neither will you.’

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