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Here, the author of the acclaimed Confessions of a Pagan Nun takes us to fourteenth-century Ireland for a strange and luminous tale of the elusive nature of identity and of triumph in adversity. The Changeling of Finnistuath is the story of Grey, a peasant girl who is raised as a boy, and who, until adolescence, never doubts herself to be male. The revelation of her womanhood marks the beginning of her journey—including son, whore, warrior, and mother—each of which brings its own special wisdom, but none of ...
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Here, the author of the acclaimed Confessions of a Pagan Nun takes us to fourteenth-century Ireland for a strange and luminous tale of the elusive nature of identity and of triumph in adversity. The Changeling of Finnistuath is the story of Grey, a peasant girl who is raised as a boy, and who, until adolescence, never doubts herself to be male. The revelation of her womanhood marks the beginning of her journey—including son, whore, warrior, and mother—each of which brings its own special wisdom, but none of which, she discovers, can ultimately define her. In the course of her adventurous life, Grey deals with all the challenges of her tumultuous age—from political oppression to corrupt Church hierarchy to the horrors of the Black Death—ultimately finding peace and a kind of redemption by embracing the beautifully impermanent quality of identity that her unusual life has enabled her to understand.
Despite the trouble darkness could cause, Mary had prayed to go into labor with her eighth child after sundown in case God would not answer her fiercer prayer that the child be a boy. In the dark, it would be easier to hide the child's gender from its father, easier to conceal the truth if the truth was as horrible as Mary suspected. Like the vast majority of poor and conquered people, Mary did not expect God to give her what she wanted or even what she needed, only some meager solace, just enough solace so one bad to continue to believe in God's power and shiny the proper gratitude. She thanked God for his wise mercy in starting the labor after sundown. She did not scold God for the fact that she would have to pay the Midwife for the beeswax candle she brought with her in addition to paying six hen's eggs for her services. And what was the need of such services after seven children had slid from her womb without assistance? None of them breech, none of them sickly although three had died within the first two years of their skinny lives.' But the Midwife showed such kindness to Mary and seemed to be the only one in the village who could keep secrets. During negotiations for a lump of goat cheese, Mary had thrown into the bargain the story of her woes with her husband and the new creature inside her belly. The Midwife, who spoke little and listened with all her features, gave everyone in Finnistuath, even people on opposing sides of a scuffle, the impression that she was an ally. So Mary had poured out her soul with her tears. Whether as a matter of business or compassion, the Midwife offered her services, which would include an unimpeachable discretion and aid in keeping Mary's husband well away from the infant's naked arrival.
In the candlelight, the Midwife saw the head of the child squeeze between the thighs. The eyes were shut tight, and the hair, dark and thick, was slick with its mother's fluids.
Gregory, the man of the house, had been sent out by the Midwife to stand by the door and keep unwelcome invisible entities from slipping in to enter the newborn's soul with its first breath. Gregory the Goatherd, though a half-wit, had learned to be enormously vigilant-to wait and watch for wolves and other dangers for hours. He stood outside, his back straight, hearing only the groans of his wife and the coaxing whispering of the Midwife behind him in the cottage. A strong wind was beating the pines and rowan and oak trees about, and Gregory was staring up at the stars, wondering how they remained so still in all that wind. So still and so clear. His mouth hurt where a tooth had recently come out, all black and as crumbly as coal. He had only six teeth left, four in the front, which he thanked God for. He was a grateful, humble man, aware that he knew very little about the world in general, and a lot about goats in particular. He also knew that in the world a man who died without a son was pathetic. Gregory of Finnistuath was happy to be humble, even half-witted, but not pathetic. He would rather be a criminal, hanged in the public green, than be considered pathetic. And that is exactly what he told his wife when her big belly became taut with another baby. He said, "I'll tell you this-and may Jesus, Mary, and Joseph haul me away to Hell in a cart if I'm false-I'd rather be hanged in the public green for a criminal than be pitied for an unblessed lout. I'll not have another daughter born to me house after seven. I'll kill the thing with me own hands rather than waste the food we have on a weakling thing that can't carry me name or ease me work. It'll be a son or it'll be dead, and I'll hang for the sin." That's what he had told Mary who had had enough of babies dying. She had lain three down in the ground, and touched their cheeks gone cold. She heard them some nights, crying from beneath the ground. Muffled, distant crying, weak but persistent.
Inside the one-room cottage where a new life was compelled to emerge, the Midwife and Mary-and perhaps the baby now-could hear the sounds of the wind. The four sisters were sleeping fitfully in their place in the corner, side by side like logs at rest at the bottom of a hill.
The child fell out like a calf from its mother onto the twisted blanket. Mary fell back and moaned. The Midwife hummed one low note and shook her head. She lifted the child, which began to wail in breathless, quivering cries, and wrapped it in a stained blue cloth.
"I will pay you what I said," the mother whispered. She could see the Midwife's dry yellow hair and wrinkled face in the light given off by the candle that the woman now held in her right hand, cradling the newborn in her left arm.
"Her cheeks are red," the Midwife said. "Her hands are grabbing the air. In old times she would become a warrior, I would say."
'"He.' You must say 'he,' Midwife." Mary propped herself up on her elbows. "He is to be called Gregory for his father."
The Midwife handed the child, who now looked silently and wide-eyed at the candle's flame, to its mother. Mary lay down to receive the infant and said, "You'd better tell him to come in now."
Outside, Gregory muttered, "I'm no bad man." He was speaking out loud to the stars, which he didn't understand, though once the Baker had explained that they did indeed move, only not by wind, and that they could determine the fate of a man, even of a whole village or country. The Baker had told him and the Plowman one night that there were seven planets, stars that wandered the night sky and were like urges that passed over men and countries. In fact, it was Mars that caused the King of England to steal other peoples' lands. Gregory had no idea, among all the sparks in the deep blue sea of sky, which ones wandered, much less which one was Mars. "I work hard," he said. "I'm no bad man."
The Midwife was suddenly beside him with her candle blown out, standing still as though she had been there for a long time, forever, or was formed of wind and darkness.
"You've got a son, Gregory" she said.
"Is he sound?" he asked. The hole in his gums throbbed. He didn't want to show this Midwife, a woman he did not like, the joy that was pounding in him.
"Oh, sure he's sound. He's as sound as can be." She looked merry, and even laughed to herself and looked down at the ground. She was wrinkled but spry, even pretty in some way when she smiled, her teeth being good.
"I'll go in then," Gregory said.
"Well, but there is, after all, something you ought to study on, Gregory. The child had a suspicious encounter coming out. A moth fluttered by its genitals, a yellow moth."
"What does that mean? What harm's been done?" Gregory's mouth hung open, moisture collecting on the lower lip. His eyes, though, seemed dry and ready to blame the Midwife for any trouble.
"No harm that I can see. But it's best to take precautions. It's best to keep the boy's manhood covered well. There's been an interest shown by spirits. The boy should never go naked in front of anyone but his mother until he is wed or put in the ground. That's how I divine the thing." She looked casually up at the stars as Gregory nodded and rubbed the wiry curls on his chin. He was befuddled.
"I'll walk on home, then," she said, "while the moon is still up."
Gregory was muttering something about the hardship of maintaining such a rule when the Midwife left him. She walked down the road laughing a little to herself, past several other hovels. She wondered how she had so quickly thought up the good excuse for Gregory's not checking on his son's parts. She felt sorry for Mary and hoped the Goatherd's wife had the wit to remember their ruse when Gregory said something about the moth or the protection of his son's penis.
The Midwife felt no sin in lying, because she didn't believe in sin. She believed in grace, in God's understanding of human dilemmas and suffering and in his sense of humor about it all. God knew a fine joke, she thought. Look at the creatures he created-the waddling hedgehog and the twitching mouse-and look at the situations he arranged people in-men scurrying from a neighbor's shed with their trousers around their ankles followed by the neighbor's wife pulling straw from her hair as she answered her husband's call for supper.
And to prove the point that God, or at least his minor cousins, made mischief, the wind took her shawl from around her shoulders and kicked it down the road a bit before she could step on it and snatch it up.
"Be mischievous, then," she said aloud. On a night like that there was no telling what unseen characters were out and about to have a little fun. But the Midwife had a streak of merriment in her that diluted her fear. And she loved God like a brother. She talked to him often, though the priests taught that a layperson could not speak directly to God. That windy night, she reminded him that she had finished his work many a time, making sure that a new being breathed its first breath, just as Brigid of Ireland had been midwife to Mary when she gave birth to the baby Jesus. The Midwife had let this one's strong little hand grab her finger. She wanted it to be one of the children who grew to walk and to speak.
"I want to hear what that this one has to say," she told God.
The Midwife remembered only images of the troubles caused by the King's men in her father's town. Dust. Sweating, grinning horses kicking up dust. Her mother's orange hair falling in spirals from her comb. Her Father striking her, his youngest child. She didn't know why. Perhaps because she was wailing as her older brother and with older sisters were putting things in baskets. They went into the woods with others from the village. And she kept hearing the phrase "swept out." And this put a picture in her head of huge straw brooms pushing flailing people and dust and dogs and chickens and baskets and cups out of the town and into the woods.
"Who is living in our home now?" she had asked her mother. The father had answered, "Some English bastards and their lazy children."
And there were constant stories of men going to avenge their displacement and humiliation, going to join various chieftains whose names ended with "the Great" or "the Industrious" or "the Undefeatable." "The Normans and the Irish are on the same side," some Norman or Irish inevitably said when in the company of both. Every man was under suspicion, his allegiance unreliable until a sword's blade was run through his chest or his son or brother was hanged. Then one knew the man's loyalty, because one knew his enemies. One could speak at his wake about his sacrifice for the cause, or count on the surviving members of his family to hold a grudge like a flag and be first to fight. Most Normans in Ireland called the English their enemies, were said to have become more Irish than the Irish, speaking Gaelic and letting their hair grow long, going barefoot into skirmishes, later sung as battles.
On the way to Finnistuath, the mother's village, everyone in the family but the Midwife perished. A traveler, who knew the fate of the little girl's family, tool her on his back to Finnistuath and handed her to her grandfather. She had no recollection of what had happened of her parents and sisters and brother. She had no recollection, in fact, of their journey after leaving the woods near their home other than dreams of a small girl crying out to trees and bushes and hearing no human answer.
No one asked the Midwife to recall those days or explain her heritage. All they needed to know in Finnistuath was that she grew up to be the Midwife and she was poor. A midwife had a status that transcended lineage or nationality, like the druids who used to be able to go from one chieftain's table to his enemy's and be well fed and welcome at both. A woman screaming in labor, her husband sweating and powerless beside her, cared only for the skill of the midwife, not her heritage. If anyone asked her about it, the Midwife of Finnistuath said that she belonged to the same hungry tribe as most of the people of Finnistuath, except those associated with the English Manor that sat like an arrogant cow at the south end of the village.
"But we all live on the same land and drink from the same spring," the Bailiff had grumbled one afternoon when a few of the villagers had gathered to watch the felling of a dead birch.
"Ahh," the Midwife said, "the greatest trick of kings is to fool the poor into thinking we have common cause with the rich simple because we live on the same bog. Then the poor get their heads split open in fine battles they fight so the rich can keep their wine cellars well stocked."
The Midwife talked to herself now, rather than God, as she walked the road past time Big Bog, wondering it a child born female could truly live her whole life as a male. And if this were possible and offended no god, then perhaps the world had no order other than what was arbitrarily imposed by humans. In that case, perhaps a poor man could decide he should be rich and take himself and his friends and sweep the English from their manors. Perhaps the English and all rich men understood this well enough-the flimsy nature of one's identity. Hence they protected their status with guards and stone towers, and with priests who explained the allegedly fixed and god-approved nature of their privilege.
"That's why the world needs fairies." she said and supposed that scores of little heads, hidden behind ferns and rocks, nodded with her.
Excerpted from The Changeling of Finnistuath by Kate Horsley Copyright © 2003 by Kate Horsley. Excerpted by permission.
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