Through the slip and howl of rain and wind the child was born. The old women shook their heads. It was not a good sign.
They counted the fingers and they counted the toes and looked carefully into her clear blue eyes. They could see nothing wrong but as the wind rattled at the broken shutters, they shook their heads again.
The child cried lustily. Her mother smiled and sighed, as the red stain spread across the sheet and a slow drip on the stone floor, fought with the falling rain. The old women shook their heads. No, it was not a good sign to be born on the day of the dead, as storms shook the valley. But it was the way of it. The Soul had chosen and it had been written.
They wrapped the howling babe and the milk-skinned mother in white sheets which smelled of lavender. Far away, across the mountains and the steppes, there were rumours that the anti-Christ had been born and the world would soon end. And for the young mother, it had, but for the child, it had just begun.
As it had for the father, although for him, like the child, life was entwined with death and the shroud would never be completely unwrapped. He sat cradling the child by the fire and imagined that he heard the words: ‘ftou, ftou, ftou’ as the three old women made their way out through the door.
The child‘s deep blue eyes were fixed on her father; like the orphan bird, he was in the instant of necessity, made mother. As if instinctively, he turned and spat three times into the fire – the hiss almost shrill in the deepening silence which the fading wind had thrown upon the room.
Later, as he slept in the chair, his face shining pale behind his deeply tanned skin, the women came back and took the child to a nearby house where the new mother had enough milk for more than one babe. He woke as they prised the baby from his arms, and then the tears fell. They took him by the hand like a small child and led him from the room.
The women then worked slowly; tenderly washing and dressing the young woman for her new life, murmuring small incantations and prayers which would guide her during the waiting time and then, through the journey beyond.
A spider spun a small web between the bedhead and the window-sill and a cockroach scurried across the stone floor, disappearing through a crack in the flagging as the water dripped from sodden cloth onto cooling, settling flesh, breathing in oceanic saltiness, the memory of its source.
Light, tripped, bright and sudden through the faded shutters, tracing a line across the body, as if separating it into one world another; the shades drawing back as the sun brightened. It shone upon the wedding dress which had been taken from the drawer, shaken, the lavender flowers falling upon cold stone and glistened on the fine gold necklace they placed around her neck, and the small, garnet drops, returned to her ears. Her eyes and mouth gently closed, she remained silent as they dressed her hair for a heiros gamos which had come much too soon.
And when it was done they placed a diadem of woven celery leaves upon her brow; crowning the ever-present reality of death in life and honouring both dead and divinity. The celery harvest had been particularly bountiful that year and Maria had tended it herself, with particular care, even as she had struggled to kneel with her distended belly and the baby kicking furiously, as if demanding her mother’s attention.
Maria had been whispering to her unborn child of fantastic tales of myth and legend, thinking, that if it was a son, he would need to know such things and if it was a daughter, she would need to know even more. But she did not talk of Tartaros or Hades, where all would go in time, nor of Elysium, that wonderful realm at the western end of the earth, inhabited by those who favoured Zeus. And the smell of sulphur from the River Styx could not be detected in the midst of such rich and rotting mulch which surrounded the celery. There were seven plants. Maria counted, and the child within her body nodded in agreement.
It was the story of Narcissus that Maria told her hidden child, for this was the story of her own mother, the grandmother, long dead, who would never know the child yet to be born, at least not in this world. Maria had never known her mother, and her daughter would never know her, but her mother’s death was of the mind, not the body and that is a very different and more complicated thing. It is however, all death, and the only remedy is found in stories.
She did not like to look in mirrors because she saw her mother’s face reflected back at her. But there was only one mirror in the house and that was old and peeling and it was easily avoided. She did not know it but her child would never face such a thing, for she would have no memory of her mother’s face and no clear image of what it had been. She would have to imagine what her mother had looked like. And she would, both in days and in dreams, for we need to create our past even more so when we have not lived it.
All relationships are sourced in stories, but when they are told about the living, there is a greater chance there will be some truth in them. When they are told about the dead, whether the literal dead, long buried and decayed, or the living dead who remain alive in body but not in mind, there is often very little truth and a great deal of imagination. But perhaps that is the purpose of all stories; to protect.
Maria has gathered the celery plant to her face and inhaled deeply, before pulling herself to her feet and going inside. The storm clouds had begun to gather at the end of the street. It would bring rain.
She barely noticed as she tripped lightly on the stone step; the child was moving and she had a sense the time was coming. Already she had begun to move beyond the world of the material, into that ephemeral space where birth and death hold hands and transformation sings the song of life.
‘Come,’ her mother called as she lay the celery on the kitchen table. There was no need for words, in that way of women, she simply knew. ‘Come,’ she said, holding out her hand to her daughter. ‘It is time.’
Maria nodded and followed her to the stone stairs which led up to the bedroom. She leaned on her as they took the worn and polished steps, one by one; ascent into a place she had only imagined but one where she trusted what would be, just as her mother had done, so many years before.
It isn’t true of course. This is not how it happened for me. But I wish it was for it would make better sense of my life. Reality tends to be so much more mundane and who wants to be ordinary, especially when such a high price has been demanded? If the beginning had carried within it the elements of fate which connected to the years which followed, it would have been easier. I could keep this story but everyone knows I am not Greek. My great-great-grandmother was, so perhaps that explains the yearning and the superstition and the fate… but it isn’t true.
Does it matter if we make up stories of pure fancy? We make up stories all of the time from our perceptions and from the perceptions of others. Who is to say my story of Maria is not true, that it did not happen once and has been ‘remembered’ by me as part of cellular memory; that ancestral inheritance buried in cell, blood and bone?
The truth was and is, I don’t really know anything much about my birth except that my mother was mostly unconscious and it was long and I was born with hay fever – allergic to life even then.
We make up stories all the time even though we do not know it. This world and all that we experience is a construction, a creative act, so why not consciously create stories which fit better with who we are? Because then they are called lies but if all is perception then isn’t all of life some sort of lie? I suppose at the end of the day it comes down to how many people agree with your story. The more powerful you are the more likely it is that more people will agree, but few of us have that power and even fewer would want it.
So this is a story I shall hold to myself, a fantasy of beginning and becoming and birthing which sings itself into being even though it never happened. The mind can play tricks on us though and the more often I repeat this story to myself, the more I will believe that it is true. How much that might matter I shall find out in time.
So why did Death become my companion at such a young age – or at least the sense of Death, the fear of Death? Did angels write with fine-feathered quills in that book of time when they calculated my astrological chart; ‘Saturn must be strong for her task is to work with the fear of Death.’
Who can say? Saturn is strong, conjunct my Sun, sitting on it in essence, squashing, limiting, confining, sometimes suffocating, but that is the effect Saturn has anyway. Up close and personal just intensifies the experience. And then there is the Eighth House! That house of transformation, of death, destruction and renewal and rebirth in some form or another. I realise that most of this is meaningless to those who have no knowledge of astrology, but bear with me. You can of course always look up these references if you need to make better sense of what seems nonsensical. We always have the choice, when we confront our ignorance, to pursue information and knowledge. What is surprising is how many people choose not to do so. But then not everyone has the curiosity gene in optimal function. Does curiosity work hand in hand with a fear of Death? It might. Fear always makes us want to have some measure of control or believe we have some measure of control; or at least believe in the illusion of control.
Death they say concentrates the mind fearfully and I use the word both in the sense of ‘fear’ and in the sense of ‘mightily.’ We always want to understand that which we fear and that in turn, opens the door to curiosity.
Are we born curious? Some of us are although it is innate within a baby and child to be curious because that is how we develop. It is in the asking of questions, consciously and unconsciously, that we learn.
I think we begin learning in the womb – why would we not? We can feel and hear even if we do not see and feeling is our first and perhaps greatest teacher.
In more recent times the experiences of the child in utero has begun to be more appreciated but mothers have always talked to their unborn babies and I think that mothers have always known they were listening. How can you not share a body for nine months and, in the doing, share everything?
My mother was pregnant with me when my older brother was nine months old. He had been a challenging baby, with eczema, I was told and long walks with the pram to get him to sleep.
My father was angry when told there was another child on the way, but that hardly seems reasonable since any man involved in the sexual act with his wife, without taking precautions must expect conception to be a possibility. It was probably just fear with yet another mouth to feed. I remember him as loving when I was very little so whatever annoyance he felt soon passed.
But did I feel unwanted? Who can say? Perhaps I just felt my mother’s fear in that ocean of creation within her body. She never felt better, she often said, than when she was pregnant. She was strong, sturdy, loved walking and loved her food. She did not drink or smoke; my father did both. She did not seem to mind him smoking but she did not like him drinking. I wonder how soon into their marriage he began to hide it. Or perhaps from the beginning it made him irritable or even angry and she feared that.
So, it would have been a healthy beginning for all of the 43 weeks, if my mother has it right and I was born three weeks late. Reluctant even then, to appear, or perhaps I had a sense of what my life would be, or I had reincarnated reluctantly.
If I had been born on August 15, the due date, at the same time I was born on September 5, three o’clock in the afternoon, I would have been a Leo with my Moon in Taurus and Capricorn Rising, and someone quite different to the Virgo with Moon in Aquarius and Aquarius Rising. I would still have had Sun in the Eighth House but not Saturn – Pluto instead conjunct my sun in its Scorpionic place. And I would not have had Jupiter in the Twelfth, my great protector! Then again, perhaps I would not have needed that protection although Pluto in the Eighth in Leo would have been a challenge.
But I was born three weeks late and no doubt arrived at the time and the place where I was meant to be, with parents I had chosen and from whom my lessons would be learned – like it or not. Did my mother walk from George Street, Parkside where they were living, to Wakefield Street Hospital on the edge of the city of Adelaide? Possibly. She loved to walk and they did not have a car, although no doubt they knew friends or family who did.
Her memories were not many. They gave her gas during labour and I was as reluctant in the hours of arriving as I was in the weeks before, but made it under my own steam. The doctor’s words, often repeated to me as I was growing up, were: ‘Well, she isn’t pretty, but she’s mighty cute!’
I was also supposedly, born with hay fever – allergic to life, or my mother from the beginning. It seems unlikely but who knows. It was yet another story often repeated, no doubt because I did suffer from chronic hay fever from childhood. So did my mother, and at times my father. All of us at odds with the world around us.
The first photo I have of myself was taken when we were living in George Street, Parkside. I look about six months old. And I look both serious and curious. Mum looks loving, although she said many years later when I was well and truly grown, that she wished she had hugged me more. So did I, as child and adult.
But with 65 years between then and now, the voice in my head says: “How much does it matter? Does any of it matter? What is the point of writing down what you were told, think you remember, imagine you experienced, in a lingering disjointed sequence of biography? Not much in the scheme of things, I suspect. Material is easily destroyed, whether paper or computer, and then, what has been said becomes unsaid, often in an instant. I have thought more than once, and perhaps I will do it, of taking my forty years of journals and piling them high and setting fire to the lot of it. No doubt there is quite a bit which would be best burned, and a few others would second that outcome. But, as with most things, I suspect the Fates will decide what, if anything survives, and what, if anything, others might find of value.
Why do we write our stories in the first place? Partly to release and express ourselves and our lives and partly to offer to family who might be interested, some insights into their parent, grandparent, great-grandparent or more. To put it down, to record it, in a comprehensive way akin to the graffiti and art which humans have inscribed, on anything close to hand, since someone first picked up a stone, to say: I was here!
We want to leave a mark, send a message, out into the cosmic unknown, which may or may not be received and even if it is, may not even be understood. As these words roll across the blank page I find myself smiling at the pointlessness of it all. But then, I also believe that all things serve a purpose and even if these words burn one day along with all the rest, or are never read, that somewhere, somehow, they will always exist simply because they have been created.
At worst it is a cathartic exercise for my ever-active mind and, who knows, maybe someone might find some of it interesting. Where was I? Ah yes, in my mother’s arms a few months after arriving in this mad, sad, bad and ridiculous world. Perhaps I knew that, even then, hence the grim look, but I prefer to blame Saturn.
My mother was about to turn 26 when I was born. We shared the same month, just ten days apart, both Virgos although I expect with that high forehead and leonine rise to her hair, she was Leo in some way, as I was meant to be and never was, arriving late to my own party. But I would have had Saturn to contend with anyway.
I did not know her time of birth but did a guesstimate chart for her which showed Moon in Scorpio and Leo Rising with her Virgo Sun ‘holding hands’ with Saturn, as does mine. I did not discover astrology until I was in my thirties, and so this greater understanding of her nature was intuitive until that time. She certainly had the sunny persona of a Leo and the powerful, brooding emotions of Scorpio – a heady mix for the staid, obsessive Virgo at core.
There was something sunny about her nature, at least when she was the best of herself. For much of her life, and mine, it was darkness which ruled. Its shadow had been cast a few years earlier, before my older brother Wayne was born, when the demons of anxiety and depression first began their haunting.
It was probably inevitable that I was also given the middle name of Hilda – after my dead maternal grandmother Hilda Gertrude and my very much alive, paternal grandmother, Hilda Rose. I am sure the name meant nothing to my mother other than in a familial sense and I hated it until I grew up and discovered that it was sourced in legends of feminine warriors like the Valkyrie Brunhilde and others of Norse, German and Saxon legend. Looking at my maternal line I can now see I would need all the help I could get.
Or perhaps my mother, insightful and intuitive as she was, wanted me to have a middle name which would empower me in a way that hers did not. Or in a way that she wished it had empowered her own timid mother. My paternal grandmother was the very essence and spirit of a Valkyrie, much to my mother’s cost at times.
So Hasch in essence has the same meaning as John which is common in English, Welsh and German and comes from the Hebrew yohanan, or Jehovah has favoured me with a son, or may Jehovah favour this child. The name was adopted into Latin, via Greek, as Johannes. It is also the source of my mother’s middle name, Jean.
I think it was her mother’s sudden and early death which really haunted her and which she never resolved. Hilda dropped dead in an instant in the hall of their Parkside home on March 5, 1946. She was 51, not far away from turning 52 on June 20, and my mother was 22, and, by her side, able to do no more than cradle her mother’s head in her hands.
Fifty-eight year later, almost to the day, my mother would also die and I would miss the moment, despite trying to be with her at the end, spending two nights sleeping in a chair at the Julia Farr Centre, and finally opting for a good night’s sleep, only to have her leave when I was gone.
But, in the meantime, a few months after her mother’s death, my parents would marry, and that, as they say, is where it all started.