Friday April 10th marks the launch of Wales Arts Review’s new short fiction series, Story:Retold. The series features many of Wales’ most renowned authors reinterpreting some of the classic Welsh short stories collected in Dai Smith’s recent Story I anthology. We begin with the first story from that collection, Arthur Machen’s ‘The Gift of Tongues’, a work which has been reimagined from the point of view of an Irish serving girl that has fled the potato famine for a new life in Wales. In ‘Word Made Flesh’, Jo Mazelis takes Machen’s early 20th Century palette and paints a completely new portrait, fuelled in part by the ‘proto-feminist fury of Jane Eyre.’
Sleepless I am. ’Tis as if the moon’s broad face was leaning over me whispering softly, ‘Wake up, Molly! Come on Molly Finnegan, you’ve work to do.’ Then I must get up, slipping my feet into a pair of the old man’s socks, wrapping a soft warm shawl around my shoulders.
’Tis lonely by day but at night, though still alone, I feel myself to be mistress of the house. At first I was cautious, creeping down to the kitchen only to steal a cup of water or a crust of bread, never lighting a candle, never opening any door but those I really needed to. One night I dropped a tin jug onto the flagstone floor. Such a crash it made, falling then rolling along with a resounding rattle. I was certain he would cry out, ‘Who’s there!’ and come running down the stairs to discover me. I stood stock-still wondering whether I should hide or pretend sickness. In the one case he might raise the alarm and then the constable would find me, in the other he might fear contagion and many a servant has been turned out onto the street even on the brink of death. Or so I am told. No, I thought, I shall simply say I am very thirsty. Hang my head in shame. Fall to my knees and beg the master’s forgiveness. Ask that he do anything, beat me or dock my pay, anything but send me from his door.
Such were the urgent plans that went through my head as I stood there trembling, my heart thudding in my breast, my breath coming and going as loud as the winter wind on the shore at Rosses Point. Or so it seemed.
Tick tock tick went the big grandfather clock in the hall. No creak of bedsprings came, no step sounded from above. Tick tock. Then click as the two hands of the clock met at twelve and the gears of the mechanism seem to draw a rusty breath. Then bing bong, bing bong it rang out, bing bong bing bong. Then twelve sonorous bongs to mark the hour, so loud that I imagined all the dead who lay in their graves beyond the window would stir and rise to shake their ghastly fists at me.
But nothing. Only the moon winking through the beech trees and an old owl crying out, twit twoo.
That was a long time ago and suffice to say I have long lost my caution in my nightly jaunts for it is clear that my master, the Reverend Thomas Beynon is a very sound sleeper. Let cats shriek and caterwaul and he will sleep on. Let lightning send its brilliant flashes over his lidded eyes, let thunder crash and wind roar. Let the barn over yonder catch fire, as it did this last summer, for the straw was as dry as tinder. Let all the village folk call and cry and run or ride upon galloping horses. Let old Mrs Cadwalader beat upon an iron saucepan with an enormous spoon as she screams in her high pitched Welsh, ‘Tân! Tân!’ Let five stout men, miners all, come clattering up the path to our yard and let them work the rusty pump and rattle their buckets and swear in four different languages, Welsh, English, Spanish and Italian. Let the church bells ring out and dogs howl and still he will sleep.
‘Sleep well, did you sir?’ I said that morning after the fire.
‘Moderate,’ said he with that weary note of complaint that is always in his voice. ‘I don’t sleep well as you know, for my burden is great and the troubles of my flock keep me from rest.’
‘Indeed sir,’ said I. ‘A learned mind such as yours must be like a great fire that glows with hot embers long after the flame has died away.’
‘Yes. Yes. Now is my porridge ready?’ he says craning his head toward the stove in anticipation.
He never really listens to anything I say. I can see it in his eyes which though seemingly distant are really inward looking. He thinks only of himself and expecting only trivial matters from my lips does not pay attention. He might as well be listening to a cat. Or a dog. Or a pig. Or the chattering of starlings.
Later that morning he comes into the kitchen to tell me that the Cadwaladers’ barn is naught but a heap of blackened timbers.
‘You must have slept all through the noise and alarm,’ says he, shaking his head ruefully.
I said nothing.
‘We will pray for them and get up a subscription for the rebuilding of their barn.’
He pours cream from the jug over his porridge then adds a generous sprinkling of sugar. Smacks his lips. ‘I think a boiled egg, Molly, will see me through this difficult morning.’
All his days are difficult. Every day is fought through with his brave soldiering. He is armed with a knife and fork and slays the bacon, the sausages, the ox tail, the tongue and kidneys and chitterlings.
‘Just a morsel I’ll take, only to keep my strength up,’ says he.
‘Tis black pudding you’ll be wanting for strength,’ I say and look at him, awaiting an answer. Then as encouragement I add, ‘The blood, sir is said to a source of…’
‘Yes, yes. Though black pudding always wants bacon to set it off and make it palatable…’
To look at him you’d never think he ate so well for he is close to six foot but as thin as a boy of twelve. All legs, all neck, narrow shoulders and long arms that seem weighed down by wrists as big as goose eggs and hands that seem much too long to belong to him, but with fingers that must have been made for a gigantic woman, for they are finely formed and tapered yet so big even he hardly seems to know what to do with them.
Then there is his great beard, white it is and soft as downy feathers, he hardly ever cuts it and it hangs from his face reaching halfway down his sunken chest and sometimes you might see a bit of egg yolk dried in it. Or gravy. Or pie crust.
‘You’ve food in your beard, sir,’ I say. But as I said often a time he doesn’t listen to me and off he goes to disgrace himself in the pulpit, threatening hellfire and damnation with bits of cabbage stuck to his front teeth, gravy in his moustache and raisins falling from him onto the prayer book like manna from heaven.
I came here to be his servant as a girl of fourteen in 1851 and it’s nigh on another fourteen years since then. So I figure half my life in Ireland half in Wales must fix me somewhere in the sea between.
I think my sleeplessness began back in The Great Hunger. You could tire yourself out with work by pulling a plough that’s meant for a horse or building a road from nowhere to nowhere and you might fall asleep on a rough pallet, but your empty belly will wake you with its gripes and hollow torments.
I left Ireland on a ship piled high with grain and livestock bound for the mainland. We named her The Good Ship Irony and laughed though twas more for the sake of boldness as we were all full of fear for the future.
Yes, I’m certain that’s when it began, my wakefulness. The first few weeks in Wales I just lay in my bed willing myself to sleep, tossing and turning. Then as I said I began to get up and tiptoe downstairs so that I could have a bite to eat. But then there I was in the kitchen at two in the morning and wide awake. Ah the weariness of dead time! It almost maddened me, the nothing in the middle of the night. Then at last taking my chance I opened the door to his library. As luck would have it the fire had not quite died away and I added a few dry sticks to it, then a lump or two of coal and away it went, blazing up a treat. I perused his bookshelves – a great number of religious works notably ‘Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.’ I merely thumbed that book’s pages as such stuff is as nothing to me.
The Reverend thinks I cannot read or write being a poor Irish girl, but I did my book learning in a hedge school as many of my countrymen and women do and so having my letters I spent many a long night reading.
Then came one bitter winter when the fire in the library had quite gone out and no coals or logs were set ready but were locked up in the coal shed. All the keys, except those for the wine cellar and the tantalus, were on a chain kept on a hook in the boot cupboard, but this night the master, being forgetful had not returned them to their rightful place. I searched but could not find them. By then I was chilled to the bone and my teeth were chattering.
I remembered that after he had locked the back door he went to wind the clocks. He was distracted, muttering to himself the first lines of the sermon he was composing. ‘When the moon turns to blood,’ he said. Then ‘A blood moon will come.’ His voice with that quiver in it that he uses for his sermonizing.
As a rule he’ll wind the clocks, put those keys in his pocket, then lock the doors. ‘The auld fool,’ I thought. ‘He’s put all the keys in his breeches.’
I went upstairs and very quietly opened the door to his room, thinking to find the keys but in the dark it was hopeless. On he slept. He did not snore but I could hear the slow rhythm of his breath and see the rise and fall of his shoulder under the white sheets. He has an eiderdown on his bed and lovely cotton linens and woollen blankets. How I envied him then for the peace and comfort of his childlike slumber. I remembered that terrible winter of 1847 and how for warmth even strangers huddled close to one another. Like sheep will do in bitter weather and are we not all the Good Lord’s flock, I said to myself, are we not all His poor creatures cast out of Eden?
I crept closer to his bed and gently lifted the covers and crawled under, settling into that space beside him where a wife would sleep. But it was cold, the sheets like a thin crust of ice. I shivered, then wriggled closer and closer again. He was curled up with his back to me, in the dim light I made out the pale knots of his back bone, the white wings of his shoulder blades. Naked he was. As shamefully naked as the day he had been born! I’d have been less surprised to find him in a hair shirt or even his holy vestments! But still I suffered and trembled. And still he slept.
He slept and I wriggled closer for, like a moth attracted to the light of a candle, I was compelled towards any source of warmth.
For a man I had always conceived as being like a stone, his heat, once his flesh was against me, was very great. I fitted myself in behind him, my face against his neck, my breasts against his back, my knees drawn up into his knees, my feet under the length of his feet. Quickly his heat passed into my body and the shivering fell away. I was like butter left out in the sun; I melted into him and must, very quickly, have fallen asleep, which had never been my intent.
I woke as dawn was breaking with a last beautiful dream of a summer’s day still sweetening my mind with its scents of new mown hay and summer stocks.
As luck would have it he hadn’t woken before me and I rose and hurried away to my room to dress, then I returned straightway to rouse him as there was still the matter of the lost keys without which there would be no fire, no tea or porridge, no hot water for washing.
The following night was even colder and while there was coal aplenty to be had I found myself hankering after the plump eiderdown and fine sheets, and the man himself like a great oven throwing off his warmth like a sun. So into his bed I got once more.
This went on all through that harsh winter and into spring when I at last gave up my nightly invasion.
The man himself was unchanged except that on the day in early May after the first night he had slept alone in nigh on six months, he complained of bad dreams in which Hell turned out to be a very cold and unpopulated place, not the busy furnace he’d always believed it to be.
‘It’s very disturbing to me, Molly. Do you think I’m sickening for something?’
‘You are sickening for a wife,’ said I.
But he did not hear me.
Through June, July and August he seemed more miserable than ever, even his appetite fell away and of an evening he took to drinking a medicinal draft of Brandy, followed by tincture of laudanum.
By October the temperature had dropped and there was frost. I had spent my wakeful summer nights in reading Robinson Crusoe, The Heart of Midlothian and Mansfield Park and very happy that made me, but now here was the cold again wrapping its chill fingers over me like a wraith. Hardly thinking of it really, up the stairs I went and boldly into the Reverend’s room and bed.
He was moaning very pitifully as I drew close to him, whimpering like a frightened pup. ‘Those terrible barren dreams,’ I thought. ‘They still torment him.’ But then as I pressed myself into him the noise stopped. ‘Oh, blessed mother of Jesus!’ I thought, ‘I’ve woken him.’ But no, his breathing lengthened and slowed and he, shifting a little, seemed to snuggle closer to me.
In late October the weather grew unusually warm again; ladybirds settled on the windows and some shrubs began to grow buds, but pitying the man I did not leave off my nightly vigil but crept into his bed and slept beside him, always rising before him at dawn.
I had always missed the old country, but my family now all being dead or scattered to the far ends of the earth, I found comfort in the religion of my youth. Which I confess I had abandoned, converting to Protestantism as a girl of twelve so that I could at last attend school. I was the only country cousin in my class, one of only three converts in the entire establishment and I was treated so cruelly by teachers and girls alike that after just six months I left. Then I worked in a tea shop doing the most menial of tasks until I had saved enough money to bring me across on a boat to the mainland and thence to my current position. At the interview I was asked my religion and I gave it as Church of Ireland which was how it stood on paper no matter how it was in my heart.
I have a few Mass cards that I keep hidden under my mattress and twice in these 14 years the Reverend has sent me alone to Newport to buy certain items he cannot obtain here and so I have twice gone to confession at St Mary’s, but not since I took up my secret cohabitation of his bed.
‘Is it a sin?’ I wonder. A venial sin, for it cannot be a mortal one. I do not know him carnally and I do not covet him. It is only the mutual grace of our innocent slumber, that precious human warmth given surely by God for our comfort.
When next I go to Newport I will ask the priest there and pray he does not make me promise to stop. In the meantime Christmastide draws closer and as I go about my tasks I go through the Masses of my youth. I picture myself arriving at the church, dipping my fingers in the holy water and making the sacred sign of the cross. And there is my mother, her cheeks are rosy with the cold and in her arms she carries my youngest sister, Concepta. Here is Daddy standing tall with his cloth cap in one hand and the two boys, Brandon and Cormac hanging onto his other hand, two fingers a piece. And look, already sitting in the pew are Fenella and Aileen, my two beautiful older sisters and beside them there’s Finbar, the handsomest boy in the county of Sligo and my own darling brother.
Now the altar boys come swinging the smoking thuribles of incense, and we kneel and stand and sit and cross ourselves and kneel and pray. Then the priest opens his mouth and his lips move but no sound comes…
No sound comes because I have forgotten the Latin words.
No sound comes because Mammy and Daddy are dead and so are Concepta and Aileen. Finbar is in America with Brandon. Cormac’s on the high seas off Nantucket, a red-haired Jack Tar. No one knows where Fenella went.
I stop what I am doing, drop the scrubbing brush into the bucket and close my eyes where I am, kneeling on the tiles in the passage. I search my mind in vain, but nothing comes to me.
I am filled with an unbearable sadness that feels like a thousand weights attached to me by as many fish hooks. Or perhaps the sadness is all around me like the sea that traps a drowning man, sooner or later my mouth will open as his will, and all the pain will rush into my mouth and down my throat filling my lungs, destroying my life.
Days go by like this. I scrub the steps of the church, clean the grate and light the fire and during the service I try to join in the singing of hymns but the Welsh tongue, except for the odd word or two, is alien to me and that is another sadness.
The day before Christmas Eve I go to the meeting house as I am bidden. The women of the village want vases of holly on display as the berries are plentiful this year. They have cut the branches and left them heaped in the entrance, so I gather these up and carry them in, a great bundle of glossy green leaves and ruby berries. I go to the raised dias where the Reverend’s Windsor chair stands by the simple pine table. I am struck as always by the lack of ornament; where are the gold candlesticks, the richly embroidered cloths of silver and satin, the high altar, the crucified Christ with beads of blood at his head, his ribs, his hands, his feet? Where are the ranks of candles each one lit in prayer? Why is the air not perfumed by incense?
I lay the holly on the table and go in search of some vases, there is a cupboard in the vestry and in it I find them, sure enough; put away with dying blooms and water still in them. I tip them into the sink and as the rotting stems fall I remember the stench of the blighted potato fields back home, the black putrefying mess that stretched as far as the eye could see.
‘Oh, but we are a cursed people!’ my mother had cried more than once, and I felt the curse upon me then, but my curse was the curse of escape, as I was cast out as surely as Cain had been.
I almost wept but fought it, ruthlessly scrubbing the vases before filling them with water and then holly. I worked so furiously the holly’s sharp spikes caught my hands and arms, drawing pinpricks of blood to the surface.
When all was done I hurried back to the house to make the Reverend’s tea, my mind now turning upon the most shameful of thoughts; that having no place in this world I should destroy myself and hope that God might send me to purgatory rather than straight to Hell!
That evening I served the master a good Irish stew of neck of mutton that he says is cawl and not Irish at all.
‘Are we allowed nothing!’ I said to him in a fury.
‘Delicious!’ said he, wiping his bread over the nearly empty bowl.
I get up violently, pushing my chair back so that it tips and crashes to the floor, then I run from the room and out of the house. I think I heard him say ‘Molly?’ but that is unlikely in truth.
I roam amongst the tombstones that surround the meeting house and as it is not quite completely dark yet, I read the names on the granite tombs and wooden crosses. I don’t know why, perhaps I am still searching for Fenella.
A group of poor children pass just beyond the wall, they are singing as they go, the German carol ‘Silent Night.’ They wear layer upon layer of clothes, men’s jackets with ragged sleeves turned back and belts or string around the waist, and long scarves knitted from scraps of wool, the girls in red flannel petticoats with check shawls over their heads. All had hobnailed boots that clattered and echoed on the cobbles. I watched them as they went, envying their little community, their joyful solemn song. None of them noticed me but when I said Fenella’s name very low, almost soundlessly, one child stopped and looked me straight in the eye. Wisps of pale hair escaped from under the knitted hat she wore, her face was luminous like an Italian marble. A ghost child, I thought, but then she smiled and skipped away very prettily to catch up with the others. I stayed where I was for a very long time looking up the road where the children had disappeared, certain they would return. An hour perhaps two passed like this, then the cold drove me back indoors.
As I returned to the house, my mind seemed suddenly cleansed. At the door I turned my gaze upward to the great cloudless canopy of blackness and the eternal stars. Are they watching me, I wondered, all of my family and all of the saints? Then it came to me, the Mass sung at midnight, what Daddy called the Christmas Preface. The Latin words half-sung half-chanted by the priest, ‘Quia per incarnate verbi mysterium.’
I held it in my mind, turning it over and round and through, repeating it in all its mystery and glory. These words should never escape again, I thought, I will store them in my heart and pump them round my body deep and red in my blood. This is my truth and my light.
I saw that the Reverend had already gone up to bed; that in the dining room my chair had been righted and the soup bowls removed. He would dismiss me from his service in the morning I was sure. Perhaps from Christian charity he’d let me remain until after Christmas, but I would surely be cast out.
‘Quia per incarnate verbi mysterium.’
In the kitchen on the table I found he’d left a folded sheet of paper propped against the bread crock. My name on it.
My fingers trembled as I picked it up. This must be the letter of my dismissal and no wages left with it. Not a single farthing. Where would I go? What would I do? What dark crevice of sin would catch me? Should I starve or become a fallen woman?
Verbi mysterium. Quia per incarnate.
I opened the paper, my eyes already swimming with tears that blurred my vision and made spangles of each flame in the room. The paper was almost empty except at the centre inside the fold were three words.
Don’t leave me.
It was his handwriting yet still I feared some mischief for I had always thought of myself as invisible to the man.
Don’t leave me. Verbi mysterium.
I sat for a long time by the fire, barely moving, hardly thinking, yet at the same time it seemed that a swarm of bees danced and hummed in my head.
At last the fire was reduced to a few embers and it was past midnight. I went up the stairs and into his room, not even changing into my nightgown first. I undressed taking off my brown wool frock, my flannel petticoat and vest and stays and camisole and stockings. Naked I was. As Eve had been. And innocent.
I lifted the covers, glimpsing my Adam’s back, pale and naked, before I settled in beside him, pressing my flesh against his flesh and softly whispering, ‘Quia per incarnate verbi mysterium’ over and over until at last sleep overcame me.
I awoke at first light to find that in the night he had turned towards me and his arm was thrown over me and his leg was hooked over my legs and his head was nestled in my bosom. I wriggled to free myself and he stirred in his sleep and muttered some words into the pillow that seemed familiar yet I could not quite decipher them.
I tiptoed over to the chair and gathered up my clothes in a bundle then went to the door meaning to slip back to my own room to dress. The door creaked as I opened it but under that noise I swear I heard my name whispered in a quick and urgent appeal, ‘Molly!’
I did not turn towards the sound afraid that I should see the old man’s eyes open and feasting upon me with lust as in the bible story of Susanna.
Most of that day I kept to the kitchen and he to the library and in the evening I feigned sickness in order that I might avoid the Christmas service so I did not see what happened. Did not hear the poor man, in a wretched state of confusion, speak the Latin Mass. Had I been there all eyes might have turned to me accusingly, in older times his pious congregation might have burned me for a witch.
I left the next day and made my way to Cardiff where I found work in a temperance hotel.
Some time later I chanced to meet one of the miners and his wife who recognised me.
‘Well now,’ they said. ‘You’ve heard the news?’
‘No,’ said I.
‘Old Thomas Beynon only lasted a week and a day after you left.’
‘Wasted away to nothing he did.’
‘Dew! He always was very thin though!’
‘Well, after the funny turn he’d had that Christmas…’
They chattered on but I no longer listened to their words. Instead I heard a sound like the sea in a shell, a distant lonely murmuration, that must have been like the emptiness of his nightmares, for in his lonely sleep he had discovered that Hell was a cold and barren place to be cast out for eternity.
See Wales Arts Review tomorrow for Fiction Editor John Lavin‘s in-depth interview with Jo Mazelis, in which they discuss the Story: Retold project, Jo’s new novel, Significance, and a great many other topics.
original artwork by Dean Lewis