Part One: The Witches of Dornoch
Chapter Five: Christina
Ben (54) is married to Christina (33), their daughter (8) is Janet. Ben is a pockmarked ploughman who upset Dornoch by marrying a young beauty and invented a new type of plough.
The northern autumn of 1682 was wet. Incessant rain filled rivers that broke through dykes, cattle pugged mud that blocked ditches, downpours formed rivulets that carried precious ears of grain away, spring-sown crops went mouldy, and autumn sowings were delayed. Teams of oxen stomped the Dornoch fields into quagmires and plough wheels clogged and dragged the heavy ploughs to a standstill. Only Ben’s lighter Swing Plough, with no team of oxen to pug or wheel to clog, kept operating, even in the rain, which meant that Ben’s services were once again in high demand.
Christina and Janet tended to the stock and all the other chores so Ben could devote his days, from first light to after dark, to the plough. In the evening Christina fed her husband and washed the mud off him and massaged the knotted muscles of his legs and back and neck and mighty arms, as he fell into an exhausted sleep. No one in Dornoch worked as long and as hard as Ben. On the 16th of September, when a special service was called and the rest of the parish spent the day in the Cathedral praying for deliverance after a night of horrors when a fiery portent burnt a trail across the sky and fairies were seen dancing down the lanes, Ben was the sole figure to be seen on the fields working his plough behind his two horses.
Because he had only three furrows to go Ben decided to ignore the pelting storm that suddenly blew in from the North Sea and to finish the strip before heading home. Because the light was fading Ben failed to see a bog hole ahead, and the plough shear sank into it and pulled the horses up with a wrenching jolt. Because of the huge icy raindrops beating into his face, and his exhaustion, and his drive to get the job finish, Ben tried, with a mighty lurch reminiscent of his youth, to jerk the plough free – and fell face down into the mud, immobilised by excruciating pain in his back. He extricated his face, gasping for breath through the mud in his mouth, but he couldn’t rise. The rain pounded the muscles of man and horses but they did not move – the horses stood stock still so the rain would be shed without penetrating their coats, and the man lay helplessly paralysed in the mud.
In the darkest storm of her life Christina groped her way along the furrow with Janet clinging to her dress, until the white rump of a horse loomed like a ghostly statue, and she stood on Ben lying like a half buried corpse. With a desperate cry she sank to her knees in the mud and clawed around trying to turn Ben over screaming at him to speak to her. To her relief, and terror, he gave a cry of pain. Janet shrieked at what sounded like her father, but a father she had never heard before. Christina turned his head and wiped the mud from his mouth and eyes and got Janet to help her lift him up, but as soon as their efforts bent his back he let out a cry and fell back. Christina left Janet standing over Ben and stumbled back down the furrow to seek help. Janet stood shaking, her terrified tears lost in beating raindrops that were swept from her face by the searing wind.
An interminable hour and a half later Christina returned with Stèphan and Isaac MacGowan, and a litter. By putting Ben’s cries of pain out of their minds they got him onto the litter and carried him home and onto his bed and covered him with blankets. Janet stoked the fire while Christina spooned ale into Ben’s mouth, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t eat. She lay against his back, trying to calm his shaking with the warmth of her body, willing him to sleep, until they both started drifting in and out of consciousness.
The morning light seeped into the byre-house endowing the smoke that hadn’t seeped out with a mysterious presence, and with enough visibility to show that Ben’s mouth was blue. He was chanting Bible passages through chattering teeth and when he saw Christina he started chattering over and over about a turtle, how she was not to sell the turtle, how she was to cook the turtle and make a soup and how they would feast on the turtle soup that evening when he returned from his day on the plough. There was no turtle.
When it stopped raining Christina told Janet to go and fetch the pastor, but Ben stopped her, he didn’t want to see anyone. He told Christina to see that Isaac had tended to the horses and plough and to fetch Ben’s Boot and the Poxman’s Pulley so he could explain an idea he had had about how it could be modified to help the plough operate in saturated soils. She obeyed but when she returned Ben had fallen into a fitful sleep. Stephan and his wife brought some clean blankets that were piled on top of Ben until his clattering turned to panting when they removed the wettest blankets. They tried to roll him over but his cries of pain stopped them, so he remained on his side staring at the fire and the door of his smoky world, his face as grey as the smoke, but for his pockmarks that were as grey as the ash. Only his eyes retained colour. Christina wiped yellow froth from Ben’s mouth and washed his face and lay with her elfin green eyes staring into his cow brown eyes.
When an afternoon calm settled on Dornoch like autumn leaves, Christina opened the wicker door to let flaps of smoke fold their way out and beams from the descending sun reach in towards Ben, then disappear, then return provisionally. Ben told Christina to make the turtle soup and for her and Janet to dine on it by the fire where he could see them. Christina made lentil potage and poured it into the turtle shell bowl then she and Janet sat by the fire where Ben could see them as she ladled the potage into two wooden bowls and they consumed it slowly with bread. Ben’s breathing was heavy and he started coughing up red froth.
When Janet went to bed by the door Christina undressed and lay pressed against Ben’s once mighty back weeping quietly at Ben’s painful wheezing breaths, wishing the pain to stop, dreading to hear the breathing stop, saying: “I love you Ben. I love you Ben. I love you Ben.” Christina didn’t sleep that night, when the breathing stopped she kept on saying: “I love you Ben”. When Janet got up and stoked the fire then went back to bed Christina got up and washed herself and combed her hair and put her best dress on before she went to face her husband. He lay on his side with his brown eyes staring out of his pockmarked face at Ben’s Boot and the Pox-Man’s Pulley lying beside the turtle shell.