Hands Clasped by Alice Godliman
We hear rumours of her journey as she flies towards us through Europe. Her cloak covers towns first, the busy ports, then it grows outwards from the seams of main roads. It will cover us all in time. Father Matthew says it is Pestilence sent from above, punishing us for our sins. He believes hands clasped in prayer will halt the spread of the bloodstain covering the world, keep our village safe from sores and lumps and hacking coughs stopping the breath. We hold our breath and our hands, waiting.
She runs through the forest. Prayers to the Lord are not heard, for she is not the Lord. Weeping to the Virgin goes unfelt, for neither is she the Virgin. Our village has been safe, thanks to the will of God, they say, but they’re wrong. We cannot feel Him here, not in the ugliness of mundane disease and festering illness.
I listen to the witch at the edge of the path, by the hedgerow, who understands the truth: Plague is still coming. She will reach us. God cannot stop her.
I ask, hoping to learn more. “What does she look like?”
“She comes with eyes coal dark and fingernails rimmed with red. A ragged cloak carrying sickness. Her feet don’t touch the ground and she hears no pleas. Her teeth are sharp. She steals our lives. She chokes our babies. She is sent by the devil.”
* * *
Tomorrow I am to be married. Am to cease resting in the house of my family, and join the house of my husband. I hesitate to call him my love. He seems kind enough, but has big hands and a loud voice. When I met him six years ago I hid behind the skirts of my mother, only slightly too old for such childishness, frightened by the loud voice of this stranger. It was just last week our hands touched for the first time, under the watchful eye of Father Matthew, monitoring us for any depravity. My hand felt trapped under his, like the time last winter a storm knocked the spire from the church, falling on top of a young doe grazing in the churchyard. She lay under its heavy stone for hours, eyes wide, whites yellowing, until the blacksmith’s boy put her out of her misery.
Today I sit alone, in the quiet of what is – for one last day – home; I try not to think of the wordless cries of the dying animal.
But a woman screams from next door. The wails that can only come from the mouth and the heart of one who was once a mother, just a second ago, but is now a mother no longer. The sickness has taken that from her.
We had been safe for too long. She is here.
It is as if she comes straight for me, flies between cottages and farms to alight at this door, my home for only one day more. She stops at the doorframe, looks at me, as if waiting for something. I wonder- if I feel her embrace today, will I never have to feel that of my husband? I remember the Hedgewitch and her description. Her eyes are dark, yes, but warm, a lit coal. Her cloak looks thick and whole, not ragged or diseased, yet her feet, just as promised, don’t touch the ground. She hovers, barefoot, just an inch from the dusty floor. I step towards her; step towards her understanding smile which reveals normal sized and shaped teeth – not fangs at all.
Her warm hand cups my cheek.
“Is it my time?”
“Do you want it to be?” Her voice was clear but quiet, the sound suggesting the warmth of a breeze in summer and the smell of baking pie.
I think. Here I was all I would ever be, in a cold world, with a loud husband with hands like rubble. She was warm, calm, and beautiful. “Where are you going next?”
“Across the sea. West.”
I had never seen the sea. “Can I come with you?”
She nods, and I clutch the hand of death, as I had once clasped the hand of my mother, then the hand of my best friend, then my own hand in prayer. I hold it as I was dreading having to hold the hand of my husband. I step away and her cloak sails behind us as we step out the window, though I hardly could have fit through the small opening before. The church bells chime the hour, startling a deer who bolts into the undergrowth. We are hand in hand, fitting together like pieces of a shattered dish, moving away from this life.
Alice Godliman is a writer, poet, performer and workshop facilitator based in Manchester, England. Her work often deals with nostalgia, smashing the patriarchy, and loving women, through the lens of mythology or fairytales. She’s performed for International Women’s Day and Reclaim the Night as well as events around London, Manchester and at the Edinburgh Fringe. You can read her work in Dear Damsels, Dear Movies Zine, and Blood Orange Tarot. You can find more of her work at @alicegodliman on twitter or instagram.