Ráth an Bheirt Bhan, Leinster, Ireland

Sigrid sat up hopefully.

Sigrid sat up hopefully at the sound of thumping in the hallway. Like Eirik’s old, faithful dog, her heart still leapt at any Eirik-​​like sound, in spite of a thousand thousand past disappointments. 

And this sound was so very Eirik-​​like! Not because he was clumsy, she thought proudly, but because he was a tall and mighty man who could never learn the habit of stooping to the level of lesser beings, in spite of a thousand thousand past bumps to the head.

The Gaelic curse that followed a particularly ominous clatter proved, however, that it was only her brother-​​in-​​law Murchad. He threw open the door and stumbled into her room with a banging that was louder than even a flailing Murchad ought to have made.

He threw open the door and stumbled into her room.


“Ach, hallo, Sigi!” he called wearily. Then he took a deep breath and reapplied himself to his task, which appeared to consist of maneuvering a bulky piece of furniture through the door and around the sharp corner.

Sigrid bit her lips to hold back a giggle, unwilling to spoil his innocent absurdity by hinting that he was being absurd. 

At last he had the table inside and himself positioned behind, but as soon as he tried to charge up through the narrow passage into her room, he stopped with a yelp and kicked the unfortunate table ahead of him.

“Son of the devil!” he spluttered. “May Satan smash you and pick his teeth with the splinters of you!”

'Son of the devil!'

Sigrid fell back onto her pillow and laughed.

Murchad squirmed and twisted as he attempted to nurse each of his injured hands in the other at the same time.

“Who made this house?” he wailed. “Just wide enough for the damned table, and not a finger more!”

“Irishmen!” Sigrid crowed.

He laughed grudgingly at their favorite joke. “The fingerless people of Eire!”

“Lay a hand fore and aft and carry it in, old boy,” Sigrid suggested. “Don’t let yourself be outwitted by the witless people of Eire.”

'Lay a hand fore and aft and carry it in, old boy.'

“I certainly shall not,” he grumbled.

He did as instructed and toddled down the hall, wagging the heavy table before him.

“Why are you bringing a table in, anyway?” she asked him. “I didn’t ask for one.”

“I was hoping to eat my supper with you, Sig. Ach, damn!” He dropped the table with a thud.

“What now, skipper?” she giggled.

“The chair!”

'The chair!'

Sigrid sat up to look. Indeed, he could go no farther with the table because the chair was in the way, and he could not move the chair because the table was in the way, and he could not push the table aside because the wardrobe was in the way.

“Oh, Murchad,” she sighed. “You never think these things through.”

“No, I never do,” he said miserably.

“You’ll have to go backwards out the way you came with the table, and come in and move the chair and start again.”

He sucked in his breath and glared at the table with such Scots fury that it would surely have run off with its tail between its legs if only the people of Eire had equipped their tables with eyes to see and tails to tuck.

“I’m going over it,” he announced.

“Ach, Murchad, don’t be a man! Just take your time…”

“I’m going over it,” he repeated as he laid a tentative knee upon the tabletop. “I carried it – by God, it can carry me!”

'I carried it--by God, it can carry me!'

“Be careful – it was built by Irishmen, remember.”

“And I was built by a Scot!”

“Don’t stand on it!” Sigrid wailed.

He obviously meant to stand on it: one boot was already flat on the table, and he balanced his weight between it and his two hands as he attempted to lift the last boot from the floor.

“I shall simply… jump down…” he announced shakily – just before he pitched head-​​first onto the floor.


“I’m all right! I’m all right!” he hollered even before he could have been certain of the fact himself. “Sweet Jesus…”

'Sweet Jesus...'

Sigrid threw the blankets off her legs and then sat shivering as she reminded herself why she must not rise. 

“Are you all right?” she asked, unconvinced by his protests.

“I’m all right… I’m all right…”

Sigrid pulled the blankets back up to her breasts and settled herself in cozily to snicker at him.

Sigrid pulled the blankets back up to her breasts.

“Eirik may strike his head on the ceiling, but what will he say when I tell him this Murchad struck his head on the floor?”

“Who put this floor here?”

“Irishmen!” Sigrid squealed.

Murchad grunted and examined the hand he had been holding to his head.

Murchad grunted and examined his hand.

“You aren’t bleeding, are you?” she asked worriedly.

“No. I think I got splinters though. What the devil did I land on to get a bump on my head and still get splinters in my hand?”

“A little bit of everything,” Sigrid giggled. “Ach, Murchad! Come here and let me see your hand.” She clapped her own hands and reached as far out of the bed as she dared. “Even you aren’t ordinarily this clumsy.”

“No… I suppose I’m not,” he said dazedly.

“Next time forget the table, and simply bring a sandwich and napkin and eat off your lap. Why do you want to eat supper up here with boring old me anyway? Isn’t Synn feeling well?”

“No… I suppose she isn’t,” he mumbled.

Sigrid sat up. “Just one moment, skipper. Is there something you’re not telling me?”

'Is there something you're not telling me?'

Murchad folded his smashed and splintered hands into a meek little ball and flushed as red as his coppery face would allow.


Sigrid tossed the blankets neatly aside and went as far as swinging one leg over the edge of the bed before she remembered, and her body stiffened and quivered like a plucked string. She pulled her leg carefully back beside the other and pressed her knees tightly together.

“Don’t get up, Sigi!” Murchad pleaded. “Synn didn’t want to trouble you…”

Sigrid laughed shakily. “So the first thing you did was come up here and bang and holler and fall flat on your face to distract me from thinking anything was wrong?”

Murchad did not deny the substance of her accusation, except to mumble, “It’s not the first thing I did. I did wait all afternoon.”

'I did wait all afternoon.'

“Ach, Murchad!” Sigrid groaned.

Then the substance of what he had said struck her, and she shook like a reed.

“All afternoon?” she asked.

And she never told me, she added in her head.

“All afternoon and this morning,” Murchad said with hushed and trembling eagerness. “She didn’t even tell me until she couldn’t eat her dinner. And even afterwards she sat and played with Aed until his nap time.”

“All through her pains?”

'All through her pains?'And she never told me.

“That’s how strong and brave she is,” Murchad said with shy pride. “Any other woman would be howling by now, but not Synn. She said it could happen today or not, so she’s not getting excited till it does. But she said that to me last time and told me to be quiet and go and sleep, and when I woke up – there was Aed!”

He laughed foolishly for a moment, and then he clapped his smashed and splintered hands over his cheeks and whimpered, “Sweet Jesus! Don’t tell her I was crying over a bump on my head!”

“She couldn’t eat her dinner?” Sigrid asked uneasily. Synne had even come to check to see that she had eaten hers.

“She tried!” Murchad said. “She swallowed a bite, but… is it a bad sign if she can’t eat?” he whispered.

'Is it a bad sign if she can't eat?'

“No… But it’s a sign.”

“I ate it for her!” he pleaded.

Sigrid stared at him.

“I wanted to do something to help!” he explained. After a moment’s consideration he added, “That was rather silly of me, wasn’t it?”

“I would never call you a waste of food, old boy. What’s she doing now?”

'What's she doing now?'

“She’s in her room, in the dark,” he said shakily. “Doesn’t answer me so much any more. The woman says to let her be now. She’s all a-​​looking down inside of herself now.” He crossed himself and croaked, “God and all the saints and all the angels help her!”

“You had better leave at least a little cherub to help you, skipper,” Sigrid said wearily.

She threw out an arm to allow him to help her rise. He bent to take it, and then they both remembered.

Sigrid yelped and threw herself back on her pillows.

“I’m sorry, Sigi!” Murchad gasped. “She told me not to bother you, and – here I am!”

'Here I am!'

Sigrid waited until her breath had slowed.

“Is that what she said?” she asked dully.

Lying flat on her back, her tears ran down her temples and into her hair. She had been lying flat on her back for eight days, and cried so many tears they might have worn grooves.

“Don’t worry, Sig. She has her women to help her, and she’s done this before. Don’t get up,” he pleaded. “Simply lie down and rest yourself and your baby, and I shall – ”

“Is that what she told you?” Sigrid interrupted.

'Is that what she told you?'

Murchad hesitated in confusion. “Aye…”

Sigrid sat up and propped herself up on her elbows. “She never told you to let me rest myself and my baby.”

“I’m certain she did!” he protested.

“I’m certain she did not.” She swung her legs out into the empty air. “Help me up, Murchad.”

'Sigi, no!'

“Sigi, no!” he whimpered. “She’ll have my head if I let you get out of bed. Just as soon as she’s done having my baby!” he squeaked.

It was already too late. Sigrid’s center of gravity had shifted, and the weight of her legs was dragging her out of the bed. Her nightgown clung to the sheets, and her naked body slid effortlessly through it. She was falling.

She was falling.

Murchad stopped wailing and caught her before she had bared more than her knees. He swung her up higher than he expected and stumbled backwards, for Murchad was a stronger man than he yet knew. He held her like a baby.

“Sigi!” he pleaded.

Sigrid clung to his shoulders and hid her face in his hair. He held her so tightly, so neatly folded, so like a swaddled little package that she felt safer than she had lying down. Her tears would wear new grooves alongside her nose and down his collarbone.

Sigrid clung to his shoulders.

But if she had thought for eight days that she could lie down forever, she knew that even Murchad’s unsuspected strength could not hold her for long.

“Put me down, skipper,” she mumbled, “and help me stand.”

“Sigi, you mustn’t!”

“Murchad, your wife has been trying to get me to stand for seven days.”

“But your baby!” he whispered fearfully.

“My baby has been dead for eight days. Now put me down.”

“Ach, Sigi!” he whispered. “Sigi!”

'Ach, Sigi!'

He shifted her weight awkwardly on his right arm, but finally he gave up and made the sign of the Cross over her hip, for it was as far as he could move his hand.

Then he put her down.

Though he only held her with his arms, she could feel his strength all the way down into the back and legs and bending knees that squarely supported her weight and his.

So long as he kept both feet upon the earth, her sister’s husband was as strong and sure as a tree, and like a tree he had roots that kept him still. For a moment she envied her sister. She envied the strong babies he fathered and held.

He set her down so gently she could not name the instant she had begun to stand until it was long past. She only noticed that her weight was now her own to bear. Sickened in advance, she spread her feet on the bare floor and waited for something to happen.

Murchad watched her with eyes of leery gold. “Are you certain, darling?” he asked hoarsely.

'Are you certain?'

Sigrid did not answer him, for she was looking far down inside herself. Mothers were mothers, and birth was birth; and six times before she had stared down into the same chasm. She knew the hour no more than Synne, but she was as certain as Synne that it would come.

Nothing happened. She knew that it would not necessarily happen as soon as she stood, but sometime in the next hours or days, she would stand or squat or walk or roll over, and then she would feel it.

Nothing happened.

For eight days she had lain in her bed until the hair on her temples was stiff and crusted from salty tears, and in spite of her sister’s pleading, and in spite of the threats of the women that her dead child would rot her womb and kill her, she had sworn that she would not rise again. She would not endure that painless agony again – that sickening feeling of loosening and detachment – that dead, wet weight – that ghastly, sluglike slithering of the clots and clumps that fell out of her and moved no more.

She had sworn that she would never look upon a dead gray baby again. Mothers were mothers, and she had bathed the little bodies, and swaddled them in handkerchiefs, and blessed and buried them herself, but she was so certain she would die if she had to do it again that she thought she would prefer to die leaving it undone. She would smuggle her unbaptized daughter into Heaven in her womb.

She knew now it had been a daughter. They had all been girls.

“Are you certain, a mhuirnín?” Murchad asked softly.

'Are you certain?'

It seemed to take hours for Sigrid to drag her gaze out of that pit and look into her brother’s face again. Though they stood in the light of candles and the twilight sky, his eyes were the very color of sunlight shining through shallow water onto a bed of brown leaves. For a moment his otherworldly beauty made her breathless. He was a gilded angel come to carry her and her baby away.

Then he spoke and seemed no more nor less than Murchad again, with his broad, flat face, and his big nose, and his sheepish smile.

“For my dog is saying you’re wrong.”

'For my dog is saying you're wrong.'

“Your–dog!” Sigrid choked. She did not know whether to scream or laugh. She glanced quickly around in search of the animal, but of course he could not have been there. Murchad’s dog might go unseen a while, but it seemed he could not go unheard.

“Listen, Sig,” Murchad pleaded with sudden eagerness, “my dog is knowing these things, and – I’m not saying he knows more than you – ”

Finally Sigrid laughed, and then she remembered how in their youth Eirik had used “my dog he say…” to tell her all the things he dared not, and she caught two handfuls of Murchad’s tunic and sobbed.

Murchad hugged her, but he gabbled on. “Listen, Sig, Cúcú always barks at pregnant ladies, and he’s barked and barked at you ever since you came – ”

'He's barked and barked at you ever since you came--'

She groaned, “Mur–chad!”

“It’s true! And you heard how he barked when I took him past your door to fetch Aed’s hat this afternoon. A-​​barking and a-​​scratching – ”


“And, Sigi.” He pushed her far enough away that he could smile slyly down into her wet face. “Don’t tell Synn, but I knew she was expecting this one before she ever told me. Before she herself ever did!” he whispered. “Because Cúcú told me!”

“Dog-​​dog!” she giggled.


“Dog-​​dog!” he agreed proudly.

“Ach, Murchad!” She sighed and patted his breast. “You are the most superstitious boy I ever saw.”

“It isn’t superstition!” he gasped. “It’s plain dog sense! He’s knowing, is that dog. He barks at all the ladies when they’re expecting, and all the animals from cats to cows, except not the mares because one of them kicked him once – ”

“Murchad!” she laughed. “A male dog!

'I know!'

“I know! But I’m thinking he wants to be the sire of everyone on this land, and it irks him that he can’t.”

He laughed openly at his dog, and then he looked down into Sigrid’s face, and his laughter faded just as his gentle eyes began to glow with compassion.

“So,” he murmured, “I simply wanted to say, if you’re certain, then I grieve for you, and may God bless you and yours, dear love, and I shall kick Cúcú for telling lies. But if you aren’t certain, then I beg you, don’t give up hoping, for it’s a sorrowful thing to say a being is dead when he isn’t. I’m knowing,” he added hastily, “for they were all saying it about me, and somehow in my heart I knew.”

He pulled her too close to see up into his grim face.

“My own mother had Masses said for me,” he whispered.

Sigrid squeezed him tightly.

Sigrid squeezed him tightly. Dog sense notwithstanding, Murchad was the most superstitious and most painfully sensitive man she knew, and she could guess how much that speech had cost him. Murchad never said much at the best of times.

“Eirik and Brede and Synn and I never stopped believing,” she reminded him.

“Bless you, darling. So don’t give up hoping now. You know it isn’t like you, Sig.”

He stood back and steadied her before him at the length of his arms, until she stood as sure on her feet as he.

“The strong, brave women the women of Denmark make,” he smiled softly. “Bless you!”

The strong, brave women the women of Denmark make.

At the length of her arm she traced her fingers along the line of his jaw, moved by something like her childhood desire to touch and hold the moon when it was low and gold.

“Nor do the women of Eire labor in vain,” she murmured dreamily.

“Were you certain, though, dear heart?” he whispered.

She stared into the glow of his eyes until they seemed to cast a light far down inside of herself, and she looked, and she saw a second light like a reflection.

“I am certain now, Murchad,” she breathed. “God bless you.”

'I am certain now, Murchad.'