Walking Backwards for Christmas: Between the Walls: Bethany’s Tale

Walking Backwards for Christmas, Chapter 6, Part 5 — Between the Walls: Bethany’s Tale

BethanyGramfer removed Bethany’s mask and held her for a long while, comforting her in the way he’d sometimes held me, and more often held my Auntie Gene. Bethany’s face returned to its unearthly pallor, her gown to its simple white satin. Eventually she recovered herself.

Call it unwillingness to give up the fantasy of being Queen of Christmas, call it a need to hide a bit, call it vanity, pure and simple, but Bethany slipped the mask back on, recovering the regal red velvet gown and her earthly coloring, before she sat once again on the throne of honor. If she felt she needed the protection, we understood.

For the first time, I was able to look at her closely. She looked to be 16 years old and, at 5’5”, nearly 18 inches taller than either Stan or I. Separately, spontaneously, we thought it mightn’t be amiss if we sat on one of her knees each and held her as if we were younger brothers. We did and she held us as if we were for several minutes.

Stan slid down, eventually returning to his seat, but I remained in her lap. Call it impetuousness of an 8-year-old, perhaps further emboldened by the “Dutch courage” of the brandy and claret. I know that as an adult, I wouldn’t have dared to ask what I did next. But, I was a child, far from being an adult, and it seemed both permissible and essential to ask.

“Whoy d’ya do it, Bethany? Whoy d’ya stay? Whoy d’ya warn us?”

Her smile reminded me of Grammer’s smile at Gramfer’s funeral.“I stay because I must, because thou needest me in lethe as thou didst in life. And, because I cannot leave whilst yet I am thought ill.”

“Needed in loife?” I asked.

“Ere went I into service,” she replied, “I lived with my grandmother, my aunt and my mother – all Cunning Women, trained in the ways of divining. I too learned the Craft, though it fell upon me, as the youngest and most fit to do so, to depend, to go into service and send money home to the others. For the labour as was my hire, gladly accepted I the wage. The house was not without its comforts, e’en for such as me.

“If I did not eat as well as others there, well . . . neither did I at home, so I did not count the loss.

“But always have I thought we come here to serve each other, and I found acceptance, of sorts, from the master of the house to the stable boy, and a purpose, in my search and in the remedies I afforded them. I did so freely, without expect.

“Still, some quandaries be greater – and riskier – than others, and there were those, from scullery maid to kin of the master, who were of need of the remedies I provided with Uncle Henry.

“And, there were those, e’en who’d had the remedy, who claimed I took them, whilst others who found relief in my antidotes and tonics sat in judgment and censure on the other girls and me alike. They deemed me a witch and I was done.

“Bound was I in front of the Church, the stripes of a lash falling across my naked back ’til I grew too single and too agonised to resist. Then dragged was I to the Ford, bound wrist to ankle and flung in the Blythe. In vain didst I struggle to have e’en one precious gulp of breath. Deeply immersed in the river’s waters ’til at last it didst claim me for its own.”

© 2014, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.