This post is part of a blog tour for Paula Brackston‘s new novel, The Winter Witch. It is the story of Morgana Pritchard, a young woman in 19th century Wales who is the subject of rumours in her village. Morgana’s mother marries her off to a farmer named Cai Jenkins in the hope that she will be safer in a community where she is unknown – but it seems that some people there already have some idea of Morgana’s secret.
The Winter Witch has a very down-to-earth approach to depicting magic, which I particularly appreciated. By arrangement with the publisher, Corsair, I am hosting the opening sequence of the book; we join Morgana as she is about to marry Cai…
Does the spider consider herself beautiful? When she gazes into a dewdrop, does her reflection please her? Her web is finer than the finest lace, her body a bobbin working her own whisper thread. It is the web people admire. Its delicacy, its fragile strength. But the spider, poor creature, is thought of as ugly. She repulses some. Sends others into fainting fits. And yet she is beautiful, or so it seems to me. So nimble. So deft. So perfectly fashioned for the life fate has chosen for her. Like this one, here, in my palm. See how she ponders her next step, testing the surface, this way and that, her tiny feet tickling my skin, the hairs on her body sweeping my hand as she moves. How can something so exactly suited to its surroundings, to its existence, not be deserving of our admiration? How can a form so elegant, so neat, so sleek, not be recognized as beautiful? Must everything be pretty to be adored? The ladybird has black legs and a beetle body, but girls exclaim over the gaiety of her red wings and the cheerfulness of her spots. Must we always bedeck ourselves in prettiness to be thought pleasing? It would appear so. A woman must look a certain way to be worthy of a man’s attentions. It is expected. So here I stand, in a borrowed white gown, with flowers in my hair and at my waist, gaudy as a maypole, looking how I never look, presenting an aspect of myself that does not exist. It is a lie. How much happier I would be to don the gossamer spider’s web as my veil. And to drape myself in my customary dark colours, the better to blend with the shadows, the better to observe, and not to be observed.
Mam is impatient. No, not impatient, a little afraid. Afraid that I might slip away, hide myself in one of my many secret places, and stay hidden until this moment has passed. This moment not of my asking. Not of my choosing.
Can she really wish me to go? To leave the only home I have ever known? To leave her? Surely a daughter’s place is at her mother’s side. Why must things change? Why will she not allow me to make my own choice, in this of all matters?
‘Morgana, what are you doing?’
I am found. She peers in at me, stooping into the low entrance of my holly den. Blood hurries to her lowered head, flushing her face. Even in the dim light the prickly shelter allows I can see she is agitated. And that the rosi- ness of her cheeks is set against a worrying pallor.
‘Morgana, your dress . . . you will make it filthy sitting in here. Come out.’ She withdraws and I can put off the moment no longer. I ponder the spider in my hand. I could take her with me; pop her in my petticoat pocket. At least then I might have a friend as my witness this day. But no, she belongs here. Why should both of us be uprooted?
There, little spinner, back to your web.
I return her to her rightful place. I wish I could stay with her in this dark, close space, this earth womb. But my wishes count for nothing now. My fate has been decided. I squeeze out of the den.
Outside, the sun hurts my eyes. The brash light illuminates my silly dress and showy flowers. I feel most horribly bright. Most ridiculously coloured. What nonsense we are all engaged in.
‘Duw, child, you have enough mud on you to plant potatoes. What were you thinking? In your wedding gown.’
She tutts and huffs and frowns at me but I am uncon- vinced. I see fear in her eyes. She cannot hide it from me. She ceases beating at my skirts in an effort to remove the dirt and places her hands on my shoulders, holding my gaze as firmly as she grips me.
‘You are a woman now,’ she says, having just this second called me child. ‘It would serve you well to behave as one. Your husband will expect some . . . manners, at the very least.’
Now it is my turn to frown. Husband! Might as well say Owner! Master! Lord! I turn away. I do not wish to look at her while my heart is full of anger. I feel my bottled fury bubbling within me, and something shifts, something alters. Sounds become distant. Voices meaning- less. There is such a pressure inside my skull, such a force fighting to be released. My eyelids droop. My movements become slow and leaden. The sensation of falling back- wards grows.
‘Morgana!’ The urgency in Mam’s voice reaches me. Calls me back. ‘Do not, Morgana! Not now.’
I open my eyes and see the dauntless determination in hers. We are, after all, alike in this way.
She turns me on my heel and all but marches me from the garden and along the lane to the chapel. With every hurried step the plain stone building comes closer. I will enter it as my own person and leave belonging to another. How can this be?
‘Here.’ At the gate to the graveyard Mam suspends our marching to fuss with my hair. ‘Let me look at you.’ She looks, and I know she sees me. And I know that when I am away from her there will be no one to look at me in the way she does. And the thought brings with it such a weight of loneliness I have to steady myself to bear it. Mam touches my cheek. ‘All will be well, cariad,’ she says.
I shake my head.
‘I want only what is best for you,’ she insists. ‘It is all I have ever wanted.’ I feel her hesitate. A jay bobs past on its uneven flight and laughs at our pain. ‘He is a good man, Morgana. He will give you a home, a life. A future.’ She sees that I do not care what he will give me; that I would rather stay with her and have none of these things. She has no answer to this.
A brisk trotting alerts us to the arrival of my betrothed. We both turn to watch the white pony stallion leaning into the collar of its harness boldly as it pulls the tub-trap up the hill, hastening the moment I have been in dread of all these months. The day is warm, and the little horse’s neck is slick with sweat but it is clear he, at least, is enjoy- ing his outing. In the trap, which is mercifully free of flowers or ribbons, Cai Jenkins closes his hands on the reins and brings the pony to a halt. He is a tall man, lean, but strong, I think. His face is angular, almost severe, but softened by a full mouth, and light blue eyes. They are startling and bright – the colour of forget-me-nots in sunshine. He ties the reins and steps down from the narrow wooden seat. His wool suit is loose on his bony frame. Mam never promised him I could cook. Will he remember that, later? It is a bad idea to make assumptions where people are concerned. When he climbs down from the trap he moves easily, a man clearly accustomed to a physical life. But the hint of shoulder blades beneath his jacket suggests he does not do well. No doubt he has felt the lack of a cook since his first wife died. Three years ago, that was. He loved her, he actually told us that. Came right out with the words.
‘She was all and everything to me, see? I will not pre- tend otherwise,’ said he, sitting in our parlour, Mam’s best china in his hand, tea growing cold while he filled the room with his unnecessary words. He had looked at me then, as if I were a colt given to biting and it would fall to him to devise the most effective manner of taming me.
‘I want to be honest with you both,’ he said. ‘A drover must have a wife to qualify for his licence. There is no one in my region . . . suitable.’
Why is that? I wondered then and I wonder now. Why is there no one nearer his home fit to be his bride? Why has he to travel to find someone suitable? How am I suitable?
‘Well,’ the teacup in Mam’s hand had rattled as she spoke, ‘there is a great deal said about love and not much understood, Mr Jenkins. Respect and kindness have a lot to recommend them.’
He had nodded then, smiled, relieved that it was agreed. This was to be no love match.
Now he takes off his hat and holds it, too tight, in his hands, his long fingers turning it restlessly. His sandy hair is unruly, beginning to fall into curls at his collar, and in need of cutting. His gaze cannot settle on anything nor anyone.
‘A fine morning for it, Mrs Pritchard,’ he says. Mam agrees. Now he puts his eyes on me. ‘You look . . . very well, Morgana.’
Is that the best he can do?
‘Shall we go in?’ Mam is anxious to get this done before I take it into my mind to bolt. She still has a firm hold on my arm.
Inside, old Mrs Roberts stands next to the pitifully small floral displays. Mam oohs and aahs and thanks her. Reverend Thomas is all welcomes and delighteds. Mam puts me where I am to stand and Cai Tomos Jenkins stands beside me. I will not look at him. I have nothing to say to him.
The reverend starts up his words and I go to another place. Somewhere wild and high and free, untroubled by the silliness of men and their plans. There is a piece of hill above Cwmdu so steep that even the sheep won’t tread there. The surface is neither grass nor rock, but shifting shale that defies the hold of foot or hoof. To climb to the top you have to lean sideways into the slope, let your feet slip down half a pace for each you ascend. No good will come of fighting the mountain. You have to work in harmony with it. Be patient, be accepting of its unsettling ways, and it will slowly bear you up to the summit. And at the summit you will be made anew. Such vistas! Such distances! Such air that has not been breathed by damp lungs, or sucked in by furnace or fire. Air that fills your soul as well as your body.
‘And do you, Morgana Rhiannon Pritchard, take this man to be your husband . . . ?’
At the mention of my name I am pulled back into the chapel with a speed to make me dizzy.
‘Morgana?’ Mam puts her hand on my arm once more. Something is expected of me. She turns to Reverend Thomas, imploring.
He treats me to a smile so unsuited to being there I wonder it does not slip off his face.
‘I know you cannot speak, child,’ he says.
‘Does not,’ Mam corrects him. ‘She can, Reverend, or at least, she could when she was a very small child. At pres- ent, she does not.’
She omits to tell him to exactly how many years ‘at present’ applies.
The smile falters a little, leaving his eyes and remaining only around his wet mouth.
‘Quite so,’ says he. Then, louder and slower, ‘Morgana, it is necessary that we know you consent to be Mr Jenkins’s wife. Now, when I ask again, if you agree, just nod, as clearly as you are able.’
Why does he assume silent to be the same as simple? I feel all eyes upon me now. The reverend speaks a few lines more, and then leaves a gap for my response. There is a sound in my head like the waterfall up at Blaencwm when the river is in full spate. The heat of my mother’s short breath reaches me. It is not the breath of a well woman. I know this. And, knowing this, I nod.
I turn and look at my husband. He smiles down at me, a faltering gesture of friendliness as he slips the narrow band of gold on to my finger.
‘Excellent!’ cries Reverend Thomas, hastily declaring us man and wife and snapping his good book shut with a puff of dust to seal my fate.
I grind my teeth. The door of the chapel flies open with a bang as it hits the wall. The reverend exclaims at the suddenness of the wind, of how abruptly the weather can change this time of year. A fierce rush of air disturbs the interior, rattling the hymnals in the pews, and tearing petals from the more delicate flowers.
I turn my gaze from a startled Cai Jenkins. I feel my mother’s disapproval upon me.