Posts Tagged ‘Maureen Bowden’

Hildegarde’s Cuckoos

By Maureen Bowden

 

Twelfth-century, Eibingen Monastery, Germany.

 

Hildegarde von Bingen, or to be specific, her eighty-year-old body, sat at the ancient oak desk in her cell. Her mind was absent, roaming through the Ether. She scanned the Akashic Records, the Cosmic Mind, until she found what she was seeking. After absorbing the information she sent her consciousness back into her body, and awoke.

 

An aged, obese, cat lay sprawled across the desktop. Her black, grey-speckled fur sprouted in tufts between bald patches, like a worn-out yard brush. Sensing her mistress’s return to the physical plane, she opened one yellow eye, and purred a greeting.

 

Hildegarde’s voice rang with triumph. “I’ve found it, Sappho. I have a welcoming nest where my latest little cuckoo can thrive.”

 

Sappho raised her tail, emitted a blast of flatulence with the nonchalance of advanced age, closed her eye again, and sank back into oblivion.

 

Hildegarde wafted her arms in an attempt to disperse the methane, rose to her feet, and left the cell. She walked into the monastery’s tranquil garden, breathed in the twilight scent of honeysuckle, and prepared for time travel by sending a silent prayer to She Who Nurtures. The feminine aspect of the Universal Intelligence responded to the prayer, and Hildegarde vanished.

 

 

Seventeenth-century, Palace of Whitehall, England.

 

Hildegarde von Bingen materialised unsteadily on her eighty-year-old feet, straightened her wimple, and approached the court of King Charles II. She was confident that nobody would challenge her. The little Queen, Catherine of Braganza, was making another attempt to produce a live child, and although the nobility disapproved of the Queen’s Catholicism, they were unlikely to begrudge her the company of a holy woman of her own faith in her hour of need.

 

Hildegarde, was familiar with the palace layout, having visited previously on similar errands. She made her way to the royal confinement suite and entered. A midwife, three physicians, six ladies-in-waiting, seven servants and five aristocratic observers who had no business being there, were clustered around Catherine’s bed. The midwife held up a newborn female child. Hildegarde sent them all into stasis. They became still, oblivious to her presence, their consciousness suspended.

 

She took the Queen’s newborn daughter and wrapped her in a shawl embroidered with Charles II’s heraldic symbols, which was lying across a crib at the foot of the bed. She carried the baby into the palace grounds and then she vanished.

 

Seconds later she returned with a dead female child concealed in the shawl, hurried to the confinement suite, placed the tiny body in the midwife’s arms, folded the shawl, and laid it across the crib. She retreated to the doorway, removed the stasis, and as she closed the door behind her she heard a lady-in-waiting whisper to a servant, “Tell Lady Castlemaine the infant was born dead. She can put away her poison until the next time.”  

        

   

Twelfth-century, Eibingen Monastery, Germany.

 

Hildegarde materialised once more in the monastery garden. Sappho, who sat waiting for her on the doorstep, attempted to rise and balance her fat body on arthritic legs. Hildegarde picked her up and carried her back to their cell. She placed the cat on the bed they shared. “We’re both growing old, my girl,” she sighed. “I don’t have much time left to find a successor, and if I fail, many gifted children, born in inauspicious circumstances, will be denied the opportunity to make the world a better place.”   

 

She lay awake through the night, dwelling on the problem, but another matter distracted her. Each time she closed her eyes she saw the face of the young woman on whom she’d foisted Queen Catherine’s daughter. When Hildegarde had taken the child to a twenty-first century nursing home and sent the occupants of the delivery room into stasis, the mother had remained conscious and watched her make the exchange. Such a thing had never happened before, and she felt it was significant that it should happen now. She resolved to investigate after she’d had a few hours sleep. Not wishing to disrupt the child’s formative years, she would time her visit for a later date.

#

 

Twenty-first century, England.

 

Eighteen years ago I gave birth to twin daughters, not identical, they grew from separate eggs, but the girls I raised are as alike as any siblings would be expected to be. They both have dark hair and eyes, like Carlitos, my handsome Portugese husband, and they share a sense of fun that enriches our family’s life. Only I know that they’re not sisters.

 

My labour was long and excruciating. I lay back and sighed with relief when the midwife said, “You have two beautiful, healthy daughters, Ellie.”

 

She made me comfortable while the nurses washed, weighed, and did whatever was necessary to the babies. Then the weirdness started. One of nurses whispered, “She’s not breathing.”

 

The door opened, and an old nun came in. Everyone in the room froze. Time seemed to have stopped, but not for me. I stared at her wrinkled face. Her eyes were alert and she stood tall and straight, with a vitality extraordinary for one of her age. She stared back at me, raising her brows in surprise. A newborn baby kicked and squalled in her arms. It was wrapped in a shawl decorated with fleurs-de-lis and the stylised lions that appear on coats-of-arms. She placed the child on the nurses’ worktop, picked up a tiny lifeless body, wrapped it in the shawl, and carried it to the door. She faced me again, winked, left the room, and closed the door behind her.

                

Activity returned. I could hear two babies making full use of lungs and vocal chords. Terrified, I yelled to the nurse whose whisper I’d heard, “What happened? You said one of them wasn’t breathing.”

 

The midwife turned back to me. “Nobody said that, Ellie. They’re fine. You’re exhausted. It’s normal to be a little confused.” She placed the babies in my arms.

 

I knew I wasn’t confused. One of the children wasn’t my daughter, but I didn’t know which one. Over the years I tried to convince myself that I’d imagined the entire episode, until yesterday, when I saw the nun again.

 

I left my veterinary practice, ‘Lark Lane Pet Care’, when afternoon surgery was over, and I found her on the doorstep, reading the brass plaque that listed my qualifications. “Greetings, Ellie,” she said. “I’m pleased to see that time has been gentle with you, and you chose a worthy profession.”

 

A range of emotions: bewilderment, anger, and fear that she’d come to reclaim one of my daughters, engulfed me. My voice shook as I confronted her. “I saw what you did eighteen years ago. You can’t have her back. Go away.”

 

She smiled and stroked my cheek. Her fingers were soothing and her eyes were kind. My fear subsided. She said, “It was eighteen years ago for you, my dear, but it was only yesterday for me. Don’t worry. I pose no threat to you and your family.”

 

I believed her, but I was still trembling. “Who are you?”

 

“My name is Hildegarde von Bingen. You may call me Hilda.”

 

“I’ve heard of you. You lived centuries ago. Are you a ghost?”

 

She laughed. “No, I’m flesh and blood, like you. People have called me a writer, healer, musician, mystic, sorceress and saint, but I’m just a woman with an excess of curiosity, who’s had time on her hands. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot left. You interest me and there’s much I can tell you, but only if I interest you.”

 

“You do.”

 

“Good. Is there anywhere close by, where we may obtain refreshment?”

 

I took her to Starbucks and bought two cappuccinos. The cashier glanced at Hilda’s wimple, which resembled an elaborate origami creation, and shrugged, probably assuming it was a complicated hijab.

 

We found a table in a quiet corner where our conversation was unlikely to be overheard. “Start talking,” I said.

 

She sipped her coffee, and nodded. “Some people are special. They are born to be great leaders, scientists, social reformers, or what I call joy bringers, who generate happiness simply by their presence. They make the world a better place.”

 

I felt my anger rising again. “So, do you distribute them when they’re born, like lottery prizes?”

 

She scowled. “Certainly not. Be quiet and reserve judgement.”

 

I believe I blushed. “Sorry. Please continue.”

 

“Thank you. Occasionally, a special one is born in a time and place in which he or she would be unable to flourish, possible even unable to survive. They are my cuckoos. I find them appropriate nests.”

 

She told me about The Akasha, the record of humanity’s history. “Time is like a river, flowing from a mountain spring, on its long journey to the sea. I can look down on it from above, and see the past, present and future. Within it I find what I seek.” 

 

I didn’t doubt what she told me. It awakened an intuitive awareness and I needed to know more.

 

She continued, “I am a servant of She Who Nurtures. Some call her a goddess, some acknowledge her as a force of nature. To me she is The Lady and I do her bidding.”

 

There was something I dreaded asking, but I had to know “What about the babies the cuckoos replace? Do they have to die?”

 

She reached for my hand, and I saw the sorrow in her eyes for the tiny lifeless bodies she carried from their mothers. “Throughout history,” she said, “many children have failed to survive. That will always be so. Among the gaps they leave I seek appropriate nests. My cuckoos must be matched to their new homes or they would be regarded as misfits. The child I brought to you was Catherine of Braganza and King Charles II’s daughter.”

 

I understood. “Catherine was Portuguese.”

 

“Yes. Your husband carries the House of Braganza DNA.”

 

“Why did you take their child?”

 

“The King’s jealous mistress was afraid that a legitimate offspring of royal blood would supplant her batch of bastards in his affections. She kept a supply of poison to ensure that none of the Queen’s babies lived.”

 

My heart was pounding as I asked, “Which one of my children died?”

 

“I don’t know, Ellie. I didn’t see them born and I made the swap before you named them.”

 

“So I won’t know until one of them turns out to be special?”

 

She shook her head, “Haven’t you guessed? They’re both special. They’re joy bringers.”

 

So I’d never know, and I didn’t care. I felt only relief. They were both mine. Nothing would change that.

 

Hilda said, “What are their names?”

 

“Grace and Jessica.”

 

“Beautiful names. What do they plan to do with their lives?”

 

“Gracie wants to be a doctor, Jess wants to be a stand-up comedienne or a celebrity chef, maybe both.”

 

“Are the two occupations not mutually exclusive?”

 

I shrugged, “Probably not. That’s the twenty-first century for you.”

 

“Ah, yes,” she said, “talking of which, as a twenty-first century healer of animals, perhaps you could assist Sappho. My cat, not the poet.”

 

“What’s wrong with her?”

 

“She’s old. I know you can’t fix that, but she suffers from arthritis, and I suffer from her flatulence.”

 

“Finish your coffee and come back to my surgery. I’ll find something that might help.”

 

On the way back to ‘Pet Care’ I asked her about the cuckoos who became great leaders or whatever. “Anyone I’d know among them?”

 

“Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Winston Churchill.” She frowned. “That one was a mixed blessing. Belligerent old drunk, but better than the alternative.”

 

“What about further back?”

 

“Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, Jeanne d’Arc.”

 

“Joan of Arc? You didn’t do her any favours, Hilda, She was burned alive.”

 

She gave me a smart slap on the back of my neck. “There you go again, prejudging. Jeanne was born in East Anglia in the seventeenth century, within sniffing distance of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. A girl who heard voices wouldn’t have escaped his attention. He would have hanged her before she reached adulthood. Her destiny lay in fifteenth century France, so that’s where I took her.”

 

“But she lost in the end,” I said.

 

“Did she? Her spirit inspired and transformed the French national identity. Without her, France would not be the great nation it is today.” She patted my shoulder. “Ease your tender heart, Ellie. She didn’t burn alive. The Lady took her soul before the flames reached her.” 

 

“I’d like to know about The Lady.”

 

“So you shall. We’ll talk many times, and before my lifespan runs out you’ll know her as well as I do.”

 

I was still contemplating the implications of that promise when we reached the surgery and raided my herbal remedies’ cupboard. Hilda filled her pockets with lotions, potions and pills.

 

The kitten that I’d found abandoned in my waiting room the previous week emerged from the empty surgical gloves container that served as her makeshift bed, and ran in circles around my feet. I picked her up.

 

“Who have we here?” Hilda said.

 

“I don’t know where she came from but she seems to have adopted me.”

 

She tickled the kitten under the chin. “You attract cuckoos, Ellie. Take good care of her.”

 

“I will. You take good care of Sappho.”

 

We walked to the door. “I’ll come again soon,” she said. Then she vanished.

 

My life was changing. An adventure awaited me. It was terrifying and wonderful.

 

“It’s time you had a name,” I said to the kitten. “I’ll call you Hilda.”

 

#

   

Twelfth-century, Eibingen Monastery, Germany.

 

Hildegarde von Bingen materialised in the monastery garden and hurried to her cell. “Sappho, I’ve found my successor,” she called, “and you’re about to be given a new lease of life”. She placed the lotions, potions and pills on her desk. 

 

Sappho lay on the bed, snoring softly, with her legs in the air. Hildegarde smiled at her long-time companion. “But that can wait. Sweet dreams, old friend.”

 

— End —

 

Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 110 stories and poems accepted by paying markets, and one of her stories was nominated for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She also writes song lyrics, mainly comic political satire. Her husband sets them to traditional melodies and he has performed them in folk music clubs throughout England and Wales. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll. Shakespeare and cats.

River Witch

by Maureen Bowden

 

I first saw Melusina perched on a rock alongside the narrow river that runs through our local park. I assumed she was wearing a swimsuit, but her long auburn hair concealed it. She didn’t notice me, but I was close enough to see her pupils dilate when she looked at Freddie, who was posing with a football, showing off his prowess to the neighbourhood bimbos.

I sat beside her. “You fancy him, don’t you?”

She turned to me. Her eyes were so dark, I felt like I was teetering on the edge of an open coalmine. “Why does that concern you?”

I took a mental step back from the black chasm. “I’m his sister.”

She laughed, and a shiver ran down my back. “Relax. Your sibling’s safe. I’ve vowed never again to get involved with a mortal, but there’s no harm in looking. Right?”

“Right,” I said, “but are you telling me you’re not mortal?”

“I’m not telling you anything. I was thinking aloud.”

“Well, keep doing it. I’m interested.”

She turned the coalmines on me again. “What’s your name?”

“Fiona. What’s yours?”

“Melusina. I’m a river witch.” She slid off the rock, into the water, and I caught a glimpse of her true form. “You can Google me.” She flicked her tail and swam away.

Google was illuminating, as always, but not necessarily true. No problem, I thought. I’ll check the details when she comes back. I knew she would. How could a badass version of the little mermaid resist Freddie with his pop-star smile and ballet dancer grace?

The following Saturday afternoon I spent an hour in the park sketching my brother, as he lounged on a lakeside bench, playing his guitar and singing a self-penned protest song about oppressed workers: ironic, as he was a stranger to anything resembling work. The song was mediocre but he was a good model: blond hair gelled to rigidity, high cheekbones and hips as slim as a Barbie Doll’s. You know the type.

I finished the sketch, packed my pad and pencils into my satchel and left him basking in the adoration oozing from his latest squeeze, Sophie Melancamp, the receptionist from Vision Express. She lay on the grass at his feet.

I walked alongside the river that fed the lake, and I wasn’t surprised to see Melusina swimming close to the bank. We reached her rock. I sat on it. She stayed in the water.

She didn’t preamble. “What’s your brother’s name?”

“Freddie.”

She sighed. “That’s what I used to call Siegfried. He reminds me of him.”

“Google said Siegfried was your one true love. Was he?”

She shrugged. “I don’t remember. A thousand years is a long time to hang onto trivial emotions. What other pearls of wisdom did Google cast before you?”

“You left him and your children because he spied on you taking a bath. Why so modest?”

“I didn’t wish to see fear or repulsion in his eyes when he witnessed my transformation.” She pulled herself out of the river. Her tail shed its silver scales and divided into long slender legs, and she draped her hair across her shoulders, covering her naked body.

“Yet you allowed me to witness it.”

“You’re not a man.” She made it sound like a dismissal. Why should she care about my reaction? I didn’t matter.

“Was he frightened or repulsed?” I said.

“I didn’t stick around to find out. I’d warned him. I’d stay with him if he promised never to watch me bathe. That was our bargain. He broke his promise.”

“But how could you abandon your children?”

“I knew they’d manage without me, and they did. One of their descendants married the English king, Edward IV. Your royal family are of her bloodline.”

“Do they grow tails when they’re in the bath?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen them in the bath.” She reached for my hand and kissed it. “May I stay with you for a while, Fiona?”

My stomach fluttered. This was a disturbing turn of events. I knew she was dangerous and I should scream and head for the hills, but she fascinated me, and I didn’t pull my hand away.

“You may, if you let me paint your portrait.”

“You’re an artist?”

“Trying to be.”

“It’s a deal. Bring me some clothes.”

I brought her a summer dress, sandals and underwear. She pulled the dress over her head, slipped her feet into the sandals, and threw the bra back to me, “That won’t fit,” followed by the panties, “They’d get in the way if I had to transform in a hurry.”

I took her home to my one-bedroom flat and led her into the living room that doubled for a studio. “You can have the bedroom,” I said. “I’ll use the bed-settee in here.”

She looked at the paintings leaning against the wall. “They’re good. Have you sold many?”

“Not yet. I make my living illustrating children’s books, but if I can get together enough paintings to hold an exhibition I hope people will start buying them.

“I can make it happen.”

“How?”

“I’m a witch, remember? Put my portrait in your exhibition.”

We began next day. She posed naked. “Can you make the tail come?” I said.

“No. I can only transform when I’m submerged in water.”

“I could fill a bucket and chuck it over you.”

“If you do I’ll hit you with the bucket.”

I painted the tail from memory.

Our time together was the happiest I’d ever known, but I knew it wouldn’t last. She was interested in Freddie, not me. She examined my sketches of him serenading Sophie in the park. “Is he a musician?

“No, he’s a university student.”

“What’s he studying?”

“Social interaction via the medium of graphic novels.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’ve no idea, but it doesn’t seem to involve much work.”

“Does he visit you often?”

“Yes, whenever he wants money.”

He turned up one evening with an empty wallet and a winning smile. Melusina was sitting in my antique rocking chair plaiting her hair.

Freddie ignored me, sat cross-legged on the rug beside her, and said, “Hi. I’m Freddie.”

“I know,” she said, sliding out of the chair, and joining him on the rug. “I’m Mel.”

I sketched them getting acquainted: the whispers, sly, predatory smiles, and touching fingers. The following week she moved in with him. I coped with my desolation by focusing on my artwork. The sketches would form the basis of the final painting for my exhibition.

It was a success. Agents for two foreign businessmen offered me obscene amounts of money for my portrait of Melusina with the tail. I sold it to the highest bidder for enough to finance a comfortable lifestyle even if I never sold another painting. I did, however, sell others, and continued to do so as fast as I could produce them. My reputation as an artist grew. So did my bank account.

I found a new apartment. It had a large studio situated to catch the setting sun’s blue and gold light, and two bedrooms, in case Melusina came back. I had everything I wanted except her. Freddie had her.

I sent them details of my new address. They sent me a ‘Good Luck in Your New Home’ card, bearing a picture of a country cottage. I suspected it came from The Card Factory’s discount shelf.

Six months later she turned up at my door, pale, trembling and her hair in a mess. She sat in the rocking chair, gave a deep sigh, and closed her eyes. I placed a cushion behind her head and poured her a brandy. “What’s up?” I said.

“Your brother’s given me a gift I didn’t want.”

I knew what she meant. I’d anticipated this. “You’re pregnant.”

She nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

“I came here to say goodbye. Freddie won’t want a child and he’ll lose interest in me. I’m leaving before that happens.”

“Don’t go,” I said. “When the baby’s born bring it here. We’ll raise it together. I’ve always wanted a child.”

She drained her glass and passed it back to me. “So, why don’t you have one of your own?”

“I don’t like men.”

“Use a sperm bank. You can afford it.”

“I’d still have to give birth and I don’t want to do that. Please bring your baby here.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You may not like men, but I do.”

Of course she did. I’d been fooling myself. “So you’ll flick your tail, swim away, and in a thousand years or so another pretty boy will take your fancy.”

“No. I’m done with mortals.”

“You’ve said that before.”

“Yes, but I’ll have my child with me this time.”

“I thought it was a gift you didn’t want.”

“It was, but maybe motherhood will help me to grow up.”

“Mel, please don’t go.”

Her dark eyes seemed to see into my soul, and I knew she understood. “You don’t want just any child. You want mine.”

“Yes, if I must lose you.”

“Alright. I’ll stay until the baby’s born, I’ll give it to you, and then I’ll go, but there’s a condition.” I held my breath. “I’ll come back in seven years time and you must allow the child to choose between us.”

I had to agree. If I refused I’d never see the baby.

I spent the next five months stocking up with everything a new baby would need. I was terrified, but happy. Seven years might be all the time I’d get to be a mother, but it was better than nothing.

She returned late one night. Her belly was distended and she leaned against me for support. “When’s the baby due?” I said.

“Sooner the better. I’m in labour.”

My throat dried and my heart pounded. “I’ll call an ambulance.”

“No,” she screamed. “Nobody must see it when it’s first born. I know what to do. I’ve done it before. You can help me.”

I barely remember what I did, but it was an easy birth. After we cleaned and dried her son his tail split into legs. We laid him in his cot and he slept.

I made her comfortable. “Will you be alright?” I said.

“Yes. I heal quickly. Thank you, Fiona. Now go to bed.”

When I awoke next morning her bed was empty.

Later that day Freddie came looking for her.

“Where’s Mel?”

“She’s gone,” I said.

“Where?”

“I don’t know, but she’s not coming back.”

He glanced at the baby in my arms. “Is that—?”

“Yes. It’s your son.”

“What am I supposed to do with him?”

“Leave him with me. It’s what Mel wanted.”

He looked puzzled, but not distressed. He was always too selfish to be distressed for long. He and Mel had made a good match. I wondered if the outcome would have been different if she’d revealed her true nature to him and he’d accepted it. I doubted it. “I suppose you expect me to give you money,” he said.

I laughed. “Oh sure. Like I expect the Tooth Fairy to show up when required, and leave a gold coin under his pillow. Close the door on your way out, Freddie.”

A month later he phoned to say he’d left University and was taking a gap year, exploring the Australian Outback with Sophie Melancamp. It’s more likely that they were sunbathing on Bondi beach.

I named the baby Alexander. Each time I bathed him his chubby legs fused into a golden-scaled tail. I took him to a deserted beach on moonlit nights, and we played in the breakers. He swam, dived and twisted, gurgling with contentment in his natural element.

I sketched him, painted him, and added his image to one of Melusina’s portraits. I told him stories about his mother: the beautiful mermaid. He was interested, but she couldn’t compete with Spider Man and the Ninja Turtles. I also told him about his father, but as Freddie had no super powers to recommend him he had no place in Alexander’s list of priorities. I did. He called me Auntie Fi, he loved me, and he was dearer to me than his mother had ever been. We were happy, but a dark dread haunted me

On his seventh birthday I took him to the river. Melusina was sitting on the rock where I first saw her. “Xander,” I said, “this is your mama.”

She slipped into the water and beckoned to him. “Come and swim with me, Xander.” I resented her using my pet name for him.

He pulled off his clothes and joined her. His legs fused into a tail and he laughed and reached for her hand. I sat on the bank and watched them. He waved to me. I waved back and tried to smile while my heart was breaking.

“Would you like to come and swim with me in the sea?” she said to him.

He called to me, “Can I, Auntie Fi?”

“Yes, if you’re sure you want to go with her, but she won’t bring you back.”

“You can come with us.”

“I can’t, Xander. I don’t have a tail.”

Melusina said, “You can come, Fiona. I’ll transform you, and I’ll take care of you and the boy.”

I thought about what she was offering me: a life of freedom, roaming the oceans with the only two people who were ever important in my life. If I refused I might lose them both, but I knew she’d never change. She’d continue to leave discarded lovers and children scattered across the five continents, and some day she’d discard us too.

“Thank you, but no. I’m a mortal and I belong on the land.” I turned to Alexander. “You have to choose between us.”

He pulled himself onto the bank, transformed, and ran into my arms. I kissed his wet hair and held him close, waiting for his answer. “I want to stay with you, Auntie Fi.”

The fear that had oppressed me for seven years scuttled off into the sunset. Good riddance. It could take the river witch with it. I looked at her, expecting to see either sorrow or anger in her coalmine eyes, but I saw relief to equal mine.

She inclined her head in acceptance, dived beneath the rippling water, flicked her silver tail, and was gone.

—«»-«»-«»—

Maureen Bowden