The Midwinter Babe

by Amparo Bertram
story by Angelle Horste

Cast of Characters:

SETTING: A one-room cottage in the middle of winter. A pot hangs over the fire in the fireplace and a couple of pillows are scattered about. ELSBET sits in a chair near the fire, knitting. JONNAS paces the room, obviously anxious and jumping at every sound, real or imagined.

ELSBET: (sighs and shakes her head) Jonnas, love, haven't we enough worry just from our day-to-day living? Must you conjure more out of tales meant to frighten children?

JONNAS: (checking the door automatically) Tales with a grain of truth. Midwinter is a time of great power--the light of the full moon dancing over the freshly fallen snowflakes... (He turns to face his wife.) It is said the Old Ones creep up without warning, Their skin white and cold as the snow, silent as shadows.

ELSBET: Superstition, the lot of it. You should know better than to believe such things.

JONNAS: (strides to her side and picks up her yarn) We all have our superstitions, do we not, Elsbet? Why else need a childless woman knit clothes for a babe?

ELSBET: (holds up her work, a small sweater) Aye, but my superstition brings me hope to brighten my heart, the hope that one day we will have a child to wear this and keep the cold of a lonely winter night at bay. What does yours bring you but fear?

A noise comes from offstage. Both look to the door, startled, then at each other.

ELSBET: Naught but the wind, surely, or a creature prowling in search of food.

JONNAS: I've no doubt 'tis a creature, but no child of our Mother Nature.

ELSBET: Hush, love. I'll have none of that kind of talk. This night will be just as quiet and uneventful as the last, and the one before that.

More noise is heard offstage, then a slow thumping at the door. JONNAS dashes to the fireplace and takes an old sword from the mantel. He brandishes it at the door. ELSBET: Jonnas, you put that away upon the instant!

JONNAS: I'll not let Them take us.

ELSBET: Nonsense! Would you threaten a weary visitor, freezing from his travels and in search of rest? Where is your heart? We must answer the door and see if we can offer help, even if it be a complete stranger. Who is to say when we might one day need a stranger's aid?

JONNAS: (lowers sword grudgingly) You're right. It must be a poor soul indeed out in weather such as this.

JONNAS opens the door, only to step back in surprise as three cloaked shapes stumble in: BROTHER, supporting a swooning MIEARETH, and SISTER, holding a small bundle. A tinkling, as of tiny bells, is heard when they move.

ELSBET: Oh, my! (She puts aside her knitting.) Jonnas, get them in front of the fire, quickly.

The cottagers assist the cloaked strangers, settling them by the fireplace.

ELSBET: (to BROTHER) Welcome to our humble home, good folk. Here, let me take your cloaks and dry them for you... (She reaches out for the garment, but he jerks away.) No? Very well. I'm sure they'll be fine, now that you're out of the snow.

JONNAS: You're lucky you found us. There's no telling what dangers are abroad tonight.

ELSBET: (gives her husband a Look) Well, they're safe now. (She notices MIEARETH's poor condition.) It seems you've encountered your share of troubles, dear. What happened? (She moves closer.) What can we--?

BROTHER blocks her way. SISTER stands behind him, gently rocking her bundle.

JONNAS: My wife only means to help.

BROTHER and SISTER exchange glances. They reach an agreement and back away. ELSBET goes to MIEARETH's side and makes her more comfortable by tucking pillows behind her.

ELSBET: Now, is there anything else I can do?

BROTHER and SISTER exchange glances again and join hands. They speak in unison, their voices in musical harmony.

BROTHER & SISTER: The soup we see above the fire--if you could spare a drop for our sister? We have nothing save our gratitude to offer in return.

ELSBET: Never you mind about that. I'll see to it that each of you gets a brimming bowl.

ELSBET takes three bowls from the mantel and dippers soup into them from the pot over the fire, then hands them out. SISTER sits down in the chair and begins carefully feeding her bundle, which the cottagers realize must be a baby. BROTHER kneels beside MIEARETH and assists her. We still see nothing of the shrouded figures, except possibly white gloves.

JONNAS: (putting his sword away) What brings you good people on such a night? You must be desperate, to take a baby out in this weather.

BROTHER & SISTER: (reaching out and joining hands) We journey to save our sister's child, she who was born as the sun peeked above the rolling hills of our homeland, promising the dawning of a new day. The sun has set three times since that birth, and every time we hope she lives to see it rise once more.

JONNAS and ELSBET make exclamations of horror at the story. They feel incredible sympathy for the strangers.

ELSBET: Wherefore have you come so far from home? (wary of contagion) What illness has stricken her?

BROTHER & SISTER: No illness, nor sickness, nor disease of any kind, but a...contamination of the blood, passed on to her from her father.

JONNAS: It sounds serious.

BROTHER & SISTER: Ultimately, fatal to both mother and child. Not in itself, but because there are those who would kill them on account of it.

ELSBET: How terrible!

JONNAS: (thinking) What of the father? Has someone already claimed his life?

BROTHER & SISTER: The father...we do not know his fate. He wronged our sister and vanished into the night like the lowest of animals. (They pause.) If we found him alive, he would not be so for long.

MIEARETH, who has remained silent up to this point, gathers her strength and speaks. At the sound of her voice, BROTHER and SISTER release hands and give her their full attention. Her voice is light and unearthly.

MIEARETH: No, my brother; no, my sister. That is the same hatred which has prompted our hasty flight. If we deplore it in our kindred, we must banish it from ourselves. This is the hope my daughter brings--the hope of reconciliation between our people and his. The hope of peace.

ELSBET: (aside to JONNAS) They must be escaping from feuding families, sick of conflict. We should do our best to show them that this is a peaceful household.

JONNAS: (to visitors) You are welcome to stay with us as long as you need. Our fare is simple, but it has been a good year and we have plenty; our cottage is small, but the walls are sound and offer protection from the elements.

BROTHER and SISTER join hands again, but this time BROTHER clasps MIEARETH's hand as well. All three bow their heads for a moment, almost as if in prayer. Finally they speak, their voices in three-part harmony.

THREE: We thank you for your generosity, but we cannot accept. Our mere presence places you in danger.

ELSBET: Danger? What kind of danger?

THREE: Danger from those of our family who wish to purge the outsider's blood from our line.

MIEARETH, exhausted from the effort of speaking, drops out of the link.

JONNAS: You mean, your own family is trying to kill the child? Because of her father?

BROTHER & SISTER: The child, our sister Mieareth, and any who attempt to shelter them. We are being pursued. If we were to remain here, those who follow our trail would come upon your home and kill us all. We are safe for tonight, but we must leave when the sun begins its journey through the sky.

ELSBET: You're just going to keep running? You barely made it to our door--how can you continue? If the winter kills you, then of what use is flight?

BROTHER & SISTER: There are those with enough power to safeguard us. They live at a distance we despair of traversing, yet they are our one hope. As long as we have hope, we must go on.

ELSBET: (picking up a ball of yarn) Hope...

A connection is made in her mind with her earlier conversation. She thinks fast, walking to the opposite side of the room, tossing the yarn from hand to hand. The visitors go back to finishing off their meal, while JONNAS watches her, perplexed. Finally she turns back to them and broaches her idea.

ELSBET: (hesitantly) There are animals, I've heard, that have an unusual way of protecting their young. When a wolf nears them, the mother will pretend injury and lead it away. If you...

She falters, unable to put her desires into words. BROTHER and SISTER look at each other, then at their sister. MIEARETH slowly pushes herself to her feet, stands between her siblings, and addresses them.

MIEARETH: I know what you are thinking--your fears, your prejudices. I have experienced the brutality of which they are capable--but who threatens us now? Their kind or ours? (She pauses while her siblings bow their heads.) I fear for the life of my child, but my greatest fear is that she will not survive another day of travel.

BROTHER and SISTER reach out for each other's hands, but MIEARETH blocks them.

MIEARETH: Wait. We must consider this seriously. Those who pursue us will not pause for these people if they have our trail to follow. Knowing that my daughter is safe will give me the strength to reach our friends. If these people are willing to protect her, despite what they are... What say you?

JONNAS: (taken aback) What do you mean, "despite what we are"? We may be poor, but any child under our care will have all the necessities of a good life.

MIEARETH: Any child?

She unfastens her cloak and lets it fall to the floor, revealing that she is a Faerie woman, not human. ELSBET gasps and backs away, while JONNAS reaches for the sword he put down earlier. MIEARETH stands quietly, a figure dressed all in white, the clothes matching her skin and hair. (Optional: BROTHER and SISTER push back their hoods as well, revealing that they, too, are Faerie.)

ELSBET: (in shock) The Old Ones...

JONNAS: Get away from them, Elsbet! They've deceived us, using foul tricks to gain entrance to our home.

He threatens the Faerie with his sword. BROTHER leaps to MIEARETH's defense, interposing himself between her and the blade, while SISTER wraps her arms protectively around the baby. MIEARETH gazes at JONNAS sadly, not saying a word, though she puts a hand on her brother's shoulder to stop him from becoming violent. ELSBET moves to her husband's side and clings to his sword arm, preventing him from causing their visitors harm.

ELSBET: Please, love, they have done us no wrong. Let us hear what they have to say.

JONNAS relents, lowering his sword, although he doesn't relax too much. MIEARETH nods at BROTHER, who steps aside.

MIEARETH: Some members of my family are willing to put us to death in order to purge the human contamination from our bloodline--that is why we were forced to leave our home--yet others (indicates her siblings) are willing to risk their lives to save us. The first human I encountered was interested only in taking advantage of me, and yet you offered us food and shelter with no thought of repayment. There is both good and evil in each of our races. My daughter is a bridge between the two. (She spreads her hands in supplication.) If we can accept her human blood, can you not accept that part of her which is other than human?

The cottagers struggle with their feelings, moving to center stage. Behind them, MIEARETH takes her daughter from SISTER, who cedes her the chair and sits down on the opposite side from BROTHER.

ELSBET: 'Tis only a wee babe, Jonnas. Would you have it freeze to death?

JONNAS: (wavering) But...they're not like us. Who knows how a child of theirs will behave? They are said to have unnatural powers--what if it turns against us as soon as it recovers its strength?

ELSBET: Would we not do as much for a lost lamb, though it is not human, or even a wolf pup, despite its teeth and claws?

JONNAS: Aye. (He thinks of another question.) How long would it be in our care? A fortnight? The remainder of the winter? Until midsummer?

ELSBET: What--what do you mean?

JONNAS: We cannot keep another's child forever, you know that. How will you feel when the time comes to give her up?

ELSBET: I... (She hesitates, then makes up her mind.) I don't care. It's worth it.

JONNAS: (sighs) Very well, if that is your wish.

They turn back to the Faerie and announce their decision.

ELSBET: We have agreed to protect your daughter, as if she were our own, until you are able to return.

MIEARETH: Time runs differently in our realm than it does in yours. Though it may be only a few months before our pursuers are convinced to give up, for you here in the mortal world it might seem like years.

JONNAS: Years?

MIEARETH: (nods sadly) I will not get to watch my daughter grow and blossom into womanhood, but at least I am comforted by the fact that she will survive, and I will see her again one day.

The cottagers' last reservations vanish as they realize this is the answer to all their dreams. BROTHER and SISTER simultaneously help MIEARETH to her feet, each with a hand on one of her arms.

THREE: For our ruse to be effective, we must leave now, before those who follow come any closer.

ELSBET: Now? But you've barely had a chance to rest!

THREE: Even so.

MIEARETH takes one last look at her daughter and then gives her to ELSBET. Her siblings, one on each side, help her to the door.

JONNAS: Wait! (The three look over their shoulders.) ...What is her name?

MIEARETH: In our tongue she is called Mieara.

ELSBET: (with difficulty) Mia...Meera...

MIEARETH: I believe it translates into...Mary.

The Faerie exit. (Possible scene: in the distance--the side of the stage toward whcih they are headed--we see another group of Faerie waiting with arms outstretched and welcoming. The Faerie begin singing the Hymn of the Morning.)

"Olynna Le An'Igeal"

Olynna le An'Igeal
Cu liridella yse dom
Mamuri pac meacun com
Olynna le An'Igeal

Zi retti le An'Igeal
Nisemma buris fessarine
Tredia vexintarmoline
Olynna le An'Igeal

Liwessyn di An'Igeal
Petricca joro nex vingeer
Ca cuma kira nessynteer
Olynna le An'Igeal

***

Poetic Translation:

"Rejoice All Ye Faerie"
aka "Hymn of the Morning"

Rejoice all ye Faerie
Who toward the sunrise gazes turn
To see the light of oneness burn
Rejoice all ye Faerie

Be happy all ye Faerie
Sing out joy like a waking bird
And always be true to your word
Rejoice all ye Faerie

Greet the morning Faerie
Go ring the bells and beat the drums
For soon enough the evening comes
Rejoice all ye Faerie

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© 1995 Amparo Bertram. First performed at Twelfth Night, 1996.