The Spaewife's Secret
I listened from the top of the stairs, hugging the wall like I always did when they fought. I could tell my father had been drinking, more than usual, which meant my mother would take the brunt of his irritation. If there was any left over, I might catch some punishment as well. I told her shedidn’t have to defend me to him, that it didn’t bother meanymore, what he said about me, but she always smiled and hugged me tightly, telling me that she was my mother and it was her job to love me and loving me meant defending me to anyone, including my drunk of a father.
His words were slurred on a good day not having been brought up proper or been educated like most, and drinking only accentuated that fact. My mother’s incessantneed to point it out only made it worse for her, but she always did it anyway. Sometimes I think she wanted toshow him that she wasn’t afraid, even when she was. Sheliked playing games with him like that.
“He’s weak,” he yelled, smashing a glass against the wall, no doubt after it flew by my mother’s head. “He’llne’er work th’ fields, what good will he be?”
“He’s not weak,” she cooed in her motherly voice. But I was. He knew it. She knew it. And I knew it. My father’s words became incoherent mumbles
under the clatter and crash of dishes and whiskey bottles breaking into pieces against the walls. I slid slowly, step by step to the bottom. I knew what was coming if my father saw me, but I wanted him to know I wasn’t afraid of him either, even though I was. She’d told me not to be fearful of him; fear was what he wanted from us. To the devil, fear was control, and we weren’t meant to be controlled.
On the landing, I leaned against the wall trying to listen to the rain falling outside, but the storm inside was louder. I looked around the corner at my mother pushed up against the wall, and my father pushed against her. Hiswords were whispers and the fight she’d had secondsbefore had vanished.
“Should hae taken care o' it whin ah had th'chance.”
I couldn’t hear anything else, but that I heard like he’d whispered it in my ear and not my mothers.
My father stumbled, reaching for something before pushing himself against my mother again. The blade of the knife he’d grabbed from the counter glinted in the glare of the kitchen light that swayed back and forth. He moved it slowly, up her thigh and under the hem of her dress until hestopped. He’d nicked her skin with his unsteady hand, and a thin trail of blood was beginning to streak her pale skin.
I moved out from the shadow of the landing andinto my mother’s line of sight. Even at that moment, she had love to show me, begging with her eyes to leave it beand go to my room, she’d be up when it was over to readme a bedtime story. And she always did.
I snuck back to my room as quietly as I could, trying not to listen to her cries as I went. With the door closed and the rain pelting the side of the house, I could barely hear her. I cowered under the covers with my favorite book, even though I knew I’d outgrown the children’s stories of fairies and monsters. She’d read it tome anyway.
“Started without me did yah,” she whisperedstanding in the doorway.
Her face was shiny, painted with tears and she’ddone what she could to clean the blood from her leg, but it looked as if it had stained her colorless skin. She crept toward my bed and slinked under the covers next to me.
“What are we reading tonight?” she asked as if thecruelty my father had waged on her minutes before hadn’thappened.
“Mither, ye’r bleedin’,” I said, pointing to her leg. “Ach, it’s nothing. Dunnae give it another thought.”But I did. It was all I thought about; that, and how I
was too weak to protect her from him or anyone. “This is a good one,” she cooed, changing the focus
of the evening back to the book. “This is ma favorite.” It was my favorite too, so I let her read withoutquestioning it further, but I wasn’t listening. I didn’t haveto, I knew the story by heart. I knew them all by heart. Instead, I thought about what I wasn’t supposed to giveanother thought to, and the fact that I was too weak to
protect my mother from him. “The horse didn’t move as the husband placed the
rope around its neck. The creature was still, almost invisible in the night. The husband grasped its long mane and pulled himself up onto the beast, but, as soon as he wasseated, a glare of wickedness surfaced in the horse’s eyes.”
She continued to read the story of the water horse, the beast made of evil that was said to live in deep lochs and rivers. By day the creature could come ashore in the form of man, the devil himself, my mother would say, and tempt women of the nearby villages with the sins of theflesh. At night, the creature would wait by the water’s edge,ready to devour them and their children.
In the story, the husband is carried away by the water horse and devoured at the bottom of the loch, leaving the boy to fend for himself and his mother. He defeats the water horse with the words of warning from a wandering old woman he finds in the hillside. The boy puts the creature to work, plowing their fields so that he and his mother have food for winter and can survive without the meager means the husband would have earned.
“’N’ that is th’ story o’ th’ water horse. For no man could master th’ beast, yet, a wee laddie once did.”
My mother closed the book and kissed me lightly on the forehead before slinking back out of the room and down the hall to her own room where she would cry and beg for forgiveness and release from the devil’s grip. Ilooked down at my crooked leg and cursed a God I didn’tbelieve in for sending me into this world a cripple, incapable of protecting my own mother like the boy in the story.
I was old enough to know that the story of the water horse was just that, a story, but I wondered what had made it true all those years ago when someone had written it down and if anyone still believed that it could be real. True evil lurked in the shadows of my own life wearing the skin of my father; why couldn’t it take the form of a horse?