Sunday, November 30, 2014

Redemption Song 1776 by Ceinwen Haydon

Ceinwen Haydon imagines an ancient tale of tragedy, loss and religious redemption.

I shut the front door quietly, hunching against the freezing rain. Snow would not be long in coming this night I'd wager. The shower glistened in the lamplight at the end of the garden path and I pulled up the hood of my cape. I walked passed the closed shops, still bright, redolent with the colours of the winter festival. The icy dampness surged into my shoes each time my foot pressed on a rocking paving stone: I misjudged all too often, and cursed roundly.

I went out that night to fulfil a promise. One made a year since, when I knelt with the ragtag and bobtail congregation that gathers on this sacred eve. My senses were assaulted by the stench of damp tweed, cinnamon, stale drink, goose fat, flatulent emissions and lavender, as I knelt to pray. I huddled gratefully in their midst, warming my poor perished body against the heat of the convivial herd.

That night I had no front door, no inside to enter from outside, no matter how cruel the elements. I had returned from sea, to this small Northumbrian town, intending to keep a promise to my lass. My eye had had an optimistic gleam, as I strode on with nuptials on my mind. Presents from the orient lay in my mariners' sack. Celebrations would burst forth, in the depth of darkness, at the turning of the year.

Broken promises are a sulphurous curse! I was too late. Eight years ago, when I'd last held Katie's hands, and looked into her deep brown eyes, I'd promised to return within twelve months and a day. But my new life at sea was compelling, and time marched on. Work came thick and fast and time was spent too easily. Now my reckless complacency called me to chilling account: I found no bonny, bright eyed girl to dance with, nor even a full flowered woman to take to my bed. I found instead a gravestone where, they said, my Katie lay.

I'd come home. Some six years since a pestilence of disease, the pox, had laid this place low. So many poor wretches had succumbed: my mother, father, sister and my youngest brother in that number. One brother had survived, and he had fled to the Americas swaddled in grief. I was alone. I roared to the stone grey heavens, swirling in ferocious blasts of wind, "Why, oh why?" Why had I survived those torrid foreign waters, when all I loved had died at home?

What else could I do on that night of my returning? That night, the eve of Christmas no less. I drank in the tavern, recognising no-one, silent in my corner. Food, a pie and peas, lay untouched upon my platter. When the witching hour approached I sought sanctuary in the midnight mass that called my fellow men to prayer.

As I have told above, within that Norman edifice, that church, the warmth of many bodies eased my cold distress. On my knees I silently implored to God Almighty, "Dear Lord, I beg thee give me a purpose, or take my soul and let me die. I am undone. Only you can save me now. If you can find me a mission I will give my all. After twelve months I will return to this same pew, on this sacred night, and give thanks for my salvation, or take steps to end my life."

As the stream of comics, penitents and inebriates left the church that holy morn, my elbow was grasped by one I knew, but had not noted. As our eyes locked I saw Joseph Smyth, the man who'd courted my own sister, Sarah. She should have stood there by his side, his wife. As with Katie, the frozen ground embraced her now. "Come home with me dear Daniel," he said, the first to call me by my given name since my returning. "You can share my barn, the manger wherein my sheep take shelter. The sole remains of my farm."

I followed Joseph, shivering from trauma and from the hoar frost (that pretty frigid lace). Once inside the hay strewn refuge we drank wine once more, and he gave voice to his pain. When he was spent and crying freely, I embraced him and called him brother.

At length I beseeched him to tell me in what dread way my Katie had died. He uttered words that struck me as lightening from a summer storm, "Daniel, she died in childbed."

"Not the pox then?" I stuttered.

"No Daniel, your youngest brother Sam was due to wed her, believing as we did that you were dead or gone for good. Samuel was the spit of you when he was grown, and Katie held a fondness for you both that brooked no breach by any other man. As is the custom, in these country parts, they were betrothed, and so were sanctioned to mate, prior to taking marriage vows.

"As was hoped, conception blessed this coupling. The babe was born. Heart's ease came, then on its heels despair: Katie, taken by childbed fever when the mewling bairn was but six days old. Sam, heartbroken, gave the pox easy access and followed her not two weeks later to his grave."

The wine traced a web of notions through my vibrating, addled brain: does this child live? Katie's child, Sam's? I seized Joseph's arm, "Tell me, tell me, a girl child or a boy? Alive or dead?"

Dan stalled and shook his head. "Let that rest anon, you have had enough for one day."

"No" I responded. "No, the truth, the truth before my heart goes cold."

"You have sought the truth undimmed, very well, I will tell you all I know. The child, a girl named Grace, lives, but she has no sight. A pretty maid she is, nearly six years old. She abides with the old widowed priest, the very man who shrove us all tonight. He is tender to the canny child, but moithers about what will happen to her when he departs this life. Who will be her guardian, her guardian and her friend? Who will be her guide, and who will be her eyes?"

At this news I sped without delay, along the frozen street, up to the tied church house. I knocked the door as if the hounds of hell were at my heels. The startled ancient peered from the upper casement. After an age, or two minutes maybe, the latch was drawn, and I was admitted.

I could tell you of much grieving, distress, kind and unkind words. Many utterances made between us two, some born of desperation, and other ones of hope. All these, and more, spilt forth in that long Christmas advent night. But I will not taint the priest, who sought to protect the child. Or belie my wretched self who sought to love: and in loving find redemption, find a life.

So in the end this man of God gave me his blessing. As the ice thawed that spring, I found a house to make a home and Grace came to me. I love her for herself, and for Kate and Sam. Her bright smile shines without the need to see, and I am both amazed and humbled by her strength, her wit, her gentleness. I earn my money honestly, a jobbing farmhand. I spend my pennies frugally. I am investing now and in the future that is to come. I yearn for Grace's safety, her fulfilment and her happiness.

And so it is tonight that midnight mass calls me again: I must keep my promise to my God, even though the log fire and its warmth seduce me and bid me stay indoors. A kindly woman Kirsten, my new wife, watches over Grace, as her own belly swells. This elemental winter weather is but a test of my resolve. Wet shoes are nothing of importance.

God Almighty sifted through the gone before, and found a life for me. I must bare my soul, confess my sins, and give him thanks. He saved me when desolation and despair looked sure to smother me, sure to corrupt me with anger and hate. It began with Grace, such a small girl with so much love, and then Kirsten came and made me smile, and now she is with child. Against the odds, I start anew. Christmas midnight bells stroke our hearts to bursting: Christ redeems us all. Amen.

9 comments:

  1. first class story beautifully written. covers interesting themes, redemption, regret, hopelessness, all superbly woven together.
    great!

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. A lovely, positive story and particularly fitting at Christmas, with its theme of redemption. Well told too. Thank you.
    Beryl

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  3. Hi Cweinwen, the style of writing was superb in that it captured the period of the story with mood and atmosphere. I could feel the cold freezing rain and easily empathize with the emotional pain of the character. I enjoyed reading this.

    James McEwan

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  4. The descriptions, the FEELING of this story are outstanding. As with James, I shivered in the rain, lost my balance on the rocking paving stones, endured the depths of despair. And revived in the discovery of life. Very well done.

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  5. Good evening Michael, Beryl, James and Jim,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story, and for your encouraging feedback. Happy Christmas to you all and my best wishes for a peaceful New Year. I very much look forwards to reading your work again in the year ahead, and thank you to Charlie for running this wonderful site,
    Ceinwen

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  6. A rewarding story to read, and the language authentic. I felt as if I was in the shoes - rather icy ones - of 18th century man, heart and soul exposed but to be mercifully cloaked and warmed in the simple message of Christmas.
    It's not easy writing in a historical style and I think you do it well. You are probably familiar with Virginia Woolf's Haunted House short story collection - there are at least two historical stories in that collection and this put me in mind. Anthony Burgess is good as well on inventing new historical language.
    Brooke

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  7. Hi Brooke,
    Thank you very much for your review, and also for your suggested reading, that's really helpful. I hope that you have a good festive season and a peaceful New Year,
    Best wishes,
    Ceinwen

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  8. A whole classic novel's worth of a story in such a short piece...surely a synopsis for an historical film or TV costume drama?...well done Ms Haydon...more please.

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  9. Ceinwen -- I am new here (my story was just accepted) and "Redemption Song" is the first story I've read on this site. It was *so* good. I especially liked the historical voice and how it remained consistent throughout. It really took me back to a time long ago. And with a good hook, too -- would he be saved within the year, or fulfill his commitment to die? Lots at stake. Very well done!
    ~Casey

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