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The Limits of Enchantment

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The Limits of Enchantment

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Author: Graham Joyce
Publisher: Gollancz, 2005
Atria Books, 2005

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Historical Fantasy
Contemporary Fantasy
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(17 reads / 8 ratings)


England, 1966: Everything Fern Cullen knows she's learned from Mammy -- and none of it's conventional. Taught midwifery at an early age, Fern becomes Mammy's trusted assistant in a quaint rural village and learns through experience that secrets are precious, passion is dangerous, and people should mind their own business.

But when one of Mammy's patients allegedly dies from an induced abortion, the town rallies against her. As Fern struggles to save Mammy's good name, she finds communion with a bunch of hippies living at a nearby estate...where she uncovers a legacy spotted with magic -- one that transforms her forever.


Chapter One

Mammy pressed her ear to Gwen's distended pink pot, and everyone in the room had to hush up. That was Gwen of course, ready to split like a fruit, and Mammy also of course, and Gwen's friend Clarrie, who stood with her arms folded and a ciggie between her lips and a stick of ash hanging over the bed, and me. And we all listened.

"Make it easier if you told me, Mammy," Gwen said, but Mammy flapped an arm through the air, hush up, and pressed her ear closer to the spot she'd shown me just north-northwest of Gwen's navel.

Mammy straightened her back and turned away from Gwen. "Can't tell."

"I know you can!" Gwen protested, running her chafed hands over her own massive belly. "You'd a looked me in the eye. So now I know."

"She knows, right enough," Clarrie croaked, without removing the ciggie from her mouth, then a tiny cough made the stick of ash just miss the bed. "Old Mammy Cullen knows."

Mammy did know, but wouldn't let on. "Let's see what nature give us and be glad," Mammy always said.

But Gwen wasn't having that. "Oh Mammy, if I just knew, I could relax and this one would be out and it's not as if it will be any less loved either way."

Gwen had four brawling and bawling red-cheeked boys and desperately wanted a little girl to put a bit o' balance in the house. Mammy would listen and was usually right but she was not infallible so she never liked to say.

At last Clarrie took the cigarette out of her mouth. She expertly nipped the lighted end between a finger and a thumb callused from the canning factory and dropped the stub in her apron pocket. "Let the girl have a listen," she said.

My hand flew up, as it always did in these moments, to the three iron hair grips pinning my hair at the temple. Gwen mouthed at me like a fish, go on. Mammy wrinkled her nose and motioned me toward Gwen's swollen mound. I put my ear to the spot and listened hard. Then I got up and because the other two were hard at watching my lips, I touched my left earlobe.

"She thinks it's a girl, and I do, too," Mammy said, and Gwen started blubbering.

"But she ain't said a word!" Clarrie protested.

Mammy was more interested in scolding Gwen. "Now look at you, filling up! And where you going to be if I'm wrong?"

"You ain't never wrong, Mammy, they all say! Thank you, Mammy! Thank you so much! Oh I could die happy!"

"Die? You ain't going to die! And I'm offen wrong about it. Offen."

"She never said a bloody word!" Clarrie complained again, lighting up another Craven A and looking at me.

No, but we had our own way of speaking, and just as I'd touched my left earlobe I'd looked at Mammy for a response because I knew we'd both heard trouble. Mammy wiped her forefingers together, just the once, to confirm the difficulty I'd picked up in the heartbeat. There all right, but too flat. Trouble. Oh dear for everyone, and I'm going: stay calm now, Fern, stay calm.

Gwen was right in that she relaxed immediately and within half an hour after Mammy's pronouncement that little baby girl was inching her way out. But where we all wanted to see her boxing the air with her tiny pink fists, something was wrong. The baby had the cord around her neck, like a noose, and you could tell she was starved of oxygen. Mammy got her fingers between neck and cord and quickly freed her, but there was so little.

"Flat," I said to Mammy in an underbreath, not wanting Gwen to hear.

But Clarrie sensed something and stepped round to look. Taking her ciggie from between her lips she blurted, "But she's so blue!"

"Blue?" said Gwen.

"Stand aside and shut it," Mammy said sharply to Clarrie. The baby was all out now, but limp. Mammy flicked its feet hard. Then she slapped it. "Sucker," she said to me, but softly. I rummaged in Mammy's bag and I found the fine-bore length of rubber tube and handed it to her.

"Is it all right? Tell me it's all right, Mammy," Gwen was saying, so I attended to her bleeding with swabs, more to distract her so that Mammy could do whatever she could. Mammy laid the baby down and stuck the tube down its throat and sucked hard. She spat into a bowl. Mammy slapped again, but the blue thing was still flat. Almost lifeless now. Almost nothing.

There was no hiding it. Clarrie had gone silent, and Gwen was paralyzed and I felt the flush of fear travel between us, and we all looked to Mammy. But Mammy seemed to be listening hard, and not at the baby but at the window. Her head was cocked slightly.

"Bucket of cold water, Fern, quick as you can. Use the rainwater barrel. Cold."

I didn't need telling twice. I raced downstairs, grabbed the nearest bowl to hand, and filled it with icy water from the rainwater tub outside and brought it back to the room. I knew what Mammy wanted, but Clarrie said, "They don't do that anymore. It'll ketch pneumonia."

Mammy ignored Clarrie and plunged the baby into the cold water. She held it under and brought it up again. Then she plunged it under again. "Linseed meal, Clarrie, go and get me some, sharpish. And you, Fern, gold dust."

Clarrie was gone for the linseed, but before I left the room I heard a tiny cough, like the spluttering of the water pump when you primed it. The baby coughed. It made a tiny gasp. "Don't dawdle now, Fern."

I had to go down to Gwen's pantry and rummage about for mustard seed, which Mammy called "gold dust." I ground up the seed in a mortar and pestle I found in the kitchen. Before I'd finished, Clarrie--who lived in the next house--was back with her linseed meal. I took it from her and made the wet poultice then took it back up to the room.

Gwen had the baby with her now, wrapped tight in a towel. Mammy inspected my poultice, took the baby back from Gwen and unwrapped the towel. She smeared the yellow poultice all over the baby's back, then wrapped her in the towel again before handing her back to her mother. "She'll not get pneumonia," Mammy said pointedly, looking hard at Clarrie.

"Oh Mammy!" Gwen said. "It's the little girl I wanted. Will she be all right?"

Well even though the danger had passed, Mammy would never say anything would be all right because she told me nature was imperfect; but she was wise enough to know she had to behave now as if it would be. "Write her down," Mammy said to me. "Write down her time and her weight. Write down as Gwen has had a healthy little girl."

Mammy's precision in these things was her one concession to the bureaucrats who exiled her from her true calling. Though she herself couldn't read or write, and claimed to see no point in the practice, she was proud that I could. It was her way of showing to the other women that we, too, could keep records if records there must be. So I took out my notebook and I wrote: to Gwen Harding, daughter, eight pounds nine ounces, sixteen minutes past four pm, 4th February, 1966. And as an extra flourish of my own I wrote Full moon baby.

Gwen was lost in the moment of new motherhood. Her friend Clarrie was happy again, too. She puffed away at the fresh ciggie wedged between her teeth, manufacturing a new stick of ash. "They say as you're always right, Mammy. And you was right about that lickle gal, too."

I had tipped off Mammy, when I touched my left ear, that I heard it was a girl. That had confirmed it for Mammy enough to take a chance and tell Gwen, and I was pleased because after dozens and dozens of these I was getting nearly as good as Mammy, who'd taught me not to go by how they were carrying but by the heartbeat, because a girl will beat slower than a boy and after a while you can tell them apart long before you get to look what's between their legs. Though we hadn't known what you can never know, that in this case the slow heartbeat was caused by another thing altogether. But they--that is, Gwen and Clarrie and all the rest of them--never knew how we did it because it was just one of the many things we few kept to ourselves.

And we mostly did keep to ourselves. Which was why I was so surprised the next day.

Blowing up for a gale it was, rough February weather, though fine enough for washing, and the corner of a hung-out sheet flapped at me, like having a bite at my leg, so I snapped back at it and put it in its place. You don't let them talk at you, those flapping sheets. My tiny Hitachi transistor radio softly broadcast the pirate station Radio Caroline from the doorstep. Though the batteries were a price just to keep it going, I liked it on while I worked and sang along where I could. Not that Mammy liked the pop tunes. Not at all. Rubbish she called it. Rubbish and rot.

But I was singing away when there was a rustle behind a cotton sheet, and a dark shape, and I stopped singing and took a step back. I suddenly wished that Mammy were there. Then the sheet was snatched away to reveal a face, deadpan yet humorous under a head of soft copper-colored curls. It was Arthur McCann, so tall he slouched in his black leather motorcycle jacket. His drainpipe jeans were so blue I wondered how he got them so.

I turned my back on him and carried on hanging out. "You frit me. I was going to grab that garden fork."

"Take a joke, Fern. No harm meant." I remembered Arthur from school. His eyes were as blue as his jeans, and he blinked at me with delicate eyelashes. I checked the three iron grips holding my hair back, and from there my hand went to the hole in the elbow of my cardigan. "You'll catch it if Mammy finds you here. She'll be back from the village anytime now."

Arthur stepped from behind the sheet, and it flapped in the stiff breeze. "Can't keep hiding behind Mammy Cullen, Fern." He inched closer. I could smell beer on the wind. "Got to give some bloke a chance."

Arthur was a tough from the neighboring village of Hallaton. That's a mad place. There are things I could tell you about that village. I had a wooden clothes pin clenched between my teeth. "Chance? What chance?"

I reached up for the clothesline knowing my waist, hips and buttocks were all displayed for him. Though my back was turned, I could feel his ghost arms wanting to settle on my hips. Hussy, Mammy would call me, but I bent over my washing basket, flapped...

Copyright © 2005 by Graham Joyce


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