The Triple Births
In the cold of the early morning, Deichtine woke to find the lifeless body of the child beside her and the tears burst from her eyes. Her grief reached such a pitch that no one in the hall could blot out the sound.
“Ah child,” crooned Ness as she held the distraught girl in her arms, “What has been given has just as easily been taken away. Cry not for there is no fault with you or your love for the child. Sure ‘tis the way of the world and a hard way it is for all that live in it but none harder is it than for us women. Here child, drink this.”
Deichtine snatched up the copper cup Ness handed her and drank deeply of the dark Burgundian wine, oblivious of the tiny fly that struggled feebly again on the surface of the wine.
The sour smell of sweat mingled with the tang of peat smoke in the dimly lit hut as the women crouched together. Tlachtga started crying. She was anxious, overwhelmed, and she knew she wasn’t ready. It wasn’t right. Everyone knew when a woman carries more than one baby in hers uterus, both mother and children are naturally malignant. Such a monstrous abundance as triplets reflected on her. Tlachtga arched her back as another wave of agony rolled through her body, her scream absorbed by the heavy thatch above her head. The midwife leaned forward to massage the girl’s ankles, her hands moistened with a decoction of flaxseed and peas. This had never happened before, not in her lifetime and nor that in her mother or her mother’s mother. In fact, she had never heard of it before but she knew the risks were not only for the girl squirming on the pallet beside her but also for the world outside the hut was fraught with mortal risks. The triple births of Macha had led to Conor, the king of the Ulaidh, bringing death and destruction for the heroes and the kingdoms.
The young girl panted, her breaths harsh in the dim light and, before she could stop herself, part of her hoped that the life inside her wouldn’t make it. Calatin was a powerful man, with many sons, warriors all of them and … the pain pierced her again and the gemstones the midwife had lent her to ease childbirth were doing nothing for her … it was the féis of Samhain, the start of the Celtic year, the time when cattle were brought back in from the summer pastures and livestock were slaughtered for the beginning of the darker half of the year when her body would open split open to reveal the public manifestation of the hidden and forbidden acts that had haunted her since Imbolc. This monstrous abundance she carried did not presage well for the kingdom of Connachta. Tlachtga struggled to control her raging mind. Ever since the mid wife had whispered to her that she carried three lives within her, she had been in a turmoil. How would her lord take it when he found out. He assumed she was bearing his own child and had so vaunted many a time in the hall. Yet it was his own three sons who had raped her, nine moons ago at the féis at Imbolc. She felt powerless then, unable to speak to her new husband, unable to forget the shame of what had occurred so suddenly and so violently. Unwilling to believe what the midwife had assured her of, she had soon felt the truth kicking and moving inside her. The midwife had tried to explain, scratching with a stick in the dirt. One infant head down, another head up and a third lying sideways and she could feel them now, that way as the agony consumed her again and she screamed as the pain coursed through her.
“Cathbad,” Deichtine called nervously “I need your help. I don’t know what to…”
“Is it that you think I don’t know what you need?” The draoidh replied, rising up to his full height from among the grove of oak trees where he had been inspecting the scat left by his totem, the wild boar.
“Come here to me now, child, for you are among the women blessed among them all for what has happened to you. Didn’t you have that dream that Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann, appeared to you?”
Deichtine, her eyes widening, nodded, bewildered by the draoidh’s foreknowledge and yet, for all that, chilled by his presence and the feeling that she had become, unwillingly, part of something bigger and more awful than anything she had ever experienced.
“Sure, wasn’t he the little fly you swallyed in the cup of wine Ness gave you?”
Deichtine nodded again and Cathbad continued.
“And in the dream, he told you that the child which you had cared for in this world was his, and that you are now heavy with child by him again and that you will bear a son who is to be called Sétanta. The colts that had been given to the boy are to be given to this Sétanta, and it is for Sétanta that the colts are to be reared.”
Even as he spoke, Deichtine felt the life stir within her and knew his words to be true.
“But Cathbad, help me, I beg you.”
Angrily, Deichtine brushed away the tears she could feel seeping down her face. “Hasn’t Fergus already declared that I am to be given to Súaltaim? How can I go to his bed when I am already with child? Help me, I beg you, sure you must have the knowledge to make this shame on me go away.”
“Shame, is it? Arr-aagh, go on with you, woman, sure haven’t you been chosen and even I can not foresee what the gods have in mind but one thing is certain, whatever I can do can just as easily be undone”
Cathbad reached out his arm and touched Deichtine gently on the shoulder. “Lookit, child, what has been done cannot be undone for the ways are foreseen and nothing that mortal man can do will bring about their changes unless it is the will of the ancient ones.”
Deichtine turned her tear-stained face up towards the unbending form of the draoidh “But Cathbad, there must be something you can do, you who can cure the bloody flux in animals and who can …”
“Quiet, say no more,” Cathbad commanded. “I will do what I can, but even that, I know, is nothing compared to what has already transpired and what will happen. Come to me tonight before the moon rises and meet me here in this grove of trees. I can give you a potion.”
“Oh, yes, Cathbad, help me, save me from this … this shame,” Deichtine interrupted, gesturing at her still flat belly beneath her tunic.
With a gasp, Tlachtga realized that the midwife was directing her strained pushing, massaging her greased belly downwards and towards the hearth and she took a deep breath.
“Two more pushes, my love” the midwife crooned and the first of the infants slid out into her hands. Swaddling it quickly, she passed it to a slave crouching by the pallet and returned her attention to the labouring girl.
Gently she explored the girl’s belly and could feel the child was upside down, its feet pressing down where the head should be in the birth canal. Moistening her small hand with the oil, she firmly manipulated the child back into itsproper position.
While the girl gasped and attempted to recover her strength, the mid wife leaned down and expertly opened a small ankle vein to assist in relaxing the girl.
‘Again my heart’, she urged and with several fierce pushes the second infant was delivered. The third infant which had been lying sideways suddenly shifted, flipping head down. Arms up over its head, it slithered into the old woman’s hands. Three daughters born at the one birth, deformed, each of them having but one sense.
The potion was bitter and thin and the smell off it nearly made Deichtine gag but by holding her nose, she was able to force it down in great sickening draughts. Be warned, Cathbad had told her, whatever the potion does to rid your body of the unwanted life within, the gods’ will can not be so easily thwarted. Barely able to place the empty beaker on the floor beside her, Deichtine felt her entrails twist within her and her spine arched in agony as she grunted with the effort. Again and again, her body twisted involuntarily and her bowels churned, a viscous fire consuming her entrails, eating away at the very life force within her. Gasping with the agony, she fell to her knees, retching and spitting a thick, mucous like saliva. Again, her body writhed and it felt as if the very spirit within her was being torn asunder. A burbling sound filled her ears, rising in pitch until she vaguely recognised that it was her own voice, broken and guttural, climbing to a shrill scream. A wetness filled her lower body and the girl collapsed in a welter of her own blood and juices.
“Still, now child, the worst is over,” Cathbad’s voice was a soft hypnotic drone while his hand was cool on her brow. “Rest now, little one, for your womb is empty and will remain so as long as you can maintain a fast. Your body has been purged and there is nothing more that I can do for you.”
Cathbad paused and gently wiped the girl’s sweating face with a cloth moistened with dew he had collected while the sun was still young, being careful to avoid touching her mouth.
“But what of my giving to Súaltaim, will anyone know what has happened?
“Worry not about that, Deichtine, for the gods will find a way that is closed to mortal man. When you go to Súaltaim, you at once will became pregnant to him, and bear him a son, just as you had so recently fostered and just as you had also in your womb until now” avowed Cathbad. “For the gods will not be denied. This triple-conceived child, born of woman and the Gods, will be hailed by all, by warriors, kings and seers; his praises will be sung for many generations; he will avenge all your wrongs; he will defend your fords; he will fight all your battles because all this has been foretold just as three spears will end three kings.