From the moment her seed sprouted into life inside me, I could feel her tendrils growing. Day by day, creeping and clinging, like the ivy that destroyed mama’s garden.
I light a candle in the turnip I’ve carved earlier in the day, and place it by the cracked window. The glass is dirty, cloudy so I have to squint to see outside into the black, moonless night. The wind sings its sorrow, wailing and whistling as it pitches dead leaves through the air, scratching at the window.
I feel her move inside me, jostling and prodding, prying my ribs apart, reminding me of the day she was conceived. I feel a wave of nausea, but it quickly passes.
Shadows from the candle move like fairies in a bizarre ritualistic dance across the walls of the darkened room. She is telling me she’s ready.
Mama’s garden was her pride and joy. Flowers and herbs and healing plants flourished in abundance, surrounding our cottage like sentinels. Every day she planted and nurtured and tended with love. In turn the plants allowed her to use the power within them.
Women from the village, even with their scowls and scepticism, came to our cottage for help when the village physician couldn’t, or wouldn’t provide it.
From the tenderest age, I watched mama relieve the pain of the disease that made fingers look like gnarled, knotty branches. I saw her take away fever and rashes from children. I witnessed her wipe away maladies of the stomach, and heal disorders of the blood. I glowed with pride as mama helped the weak grow strong and return hope to those who had lost it.
One night she brought out her bulky leather-bound book, filled with the notes and drawings she had made over the years. It contained recipes, pressed flowers and herbs – and journalised records of how she had used the gifts that Mother Nature had given. I called it her spell book, even though mama insisted there was nothing magical about it.
Mama brought new life into the world too, and I watched many small fat babies, like seal pups bark their way into our living room. It was joyous times like these that mama shone most brightly, the light inside her illuminating everyone she touched.
But not all the women who came to her were happy about the miracle of new life within them. So mama helped them too. I didn’t understand at first, but she explained it to me.
“Sometimes Shona, love is not present when new life is created. Mother Nature herself knows nothing of love. Her purpose is to replenish, renew and to recreate all things. But a child conceived out of violence or hatred, or destined to be born into a world of poverty and abuse is sometimes more blessed not to be born at all. But there is always choice, and love will usually find a way.”
I asked her if I was conceived in love. She smiled and hugged me tightly, as the sweet scent of her settled over me like a protective shroud.
One day, a stout angry man from the village came pounding on our door. He called himself a doctor and shouted at mama for a long time. He said the villagers were talking. He ordered that she stop delivering ‘useless panaceas’ to the people, and to stay away from the womenfolk – or there would be consequences.
Mama didn’t argue back. She just nodded and closed the door in his face.
Later that afternoon, we were in the greenhouse and mama was teaching me about the plants.
“Always watch for ivy, Shona. Ivy is a greedy, malicious plant. It needs ultimate power and if left to its purpose, it will strangle almost everything that thrives in its path.”
What she said frightened me.
“But we don’t have any ivy growing here mama. We’re lucky…aren’t we?”
“Yes we are. For now.”
More men from the village came to our cottage. They were not looking for help or healing. It started in the night. Mama and I would hear sounds in the garden, and in the morning, plants would be ripped from their beds and trampled.
One morning, we found several panes of glass in the greenhouse broken, and the pots inside smashed.
Once, we found two rabbits hanging by their necks from the oak tree.
“Why are they doing this to us mama?”
“They only have their ignorance Shona. They mistake what they’re doing for bravery. They don’t know any different because It’s the one thing that gives them strength. Don’t worry, they’ll soon get tired of bothering us.”
But worried I was…even while she kept calm, tending her garden, repairing the damage.
On the afternoon that changed my life, mama was in her greenhouse. I was in the cottage cleaning coals from the fire. A man appeared at the door. His bulk plugged the doorway, blocking the light from the room. I fell backwards in fright.
“Who…who are you?”
The man didn’t speak but in his face I recognised evil, though I had never seen it before. I screamed, and moments later, the man stumbled forward into the room and fell, revealing mama in the doorway with a shovel in her hand. It was as though she had felled a tree.
The man groaned on the ground. He rubbed his head, then clambered to his full massive height. He reached for mama, wrapped his giant arm around the tiny frame of her shoulders, and with his other hand, snapped her neck.
What happened then is not something I want to say here.
I buried mama in the outskirts of the garden, or what used to be the garden.
Since her death, ivy has found its way into our peaceful, beautiful sanctuary. It has destroyed her life’s work.
The child is pushing from me, eager to enter the world. I think about the violence in which she was conceived and the ugly life into which she will be born.
Sometimes I speak to mama in my dreams. She says that no matter what, my role is to protect and nurture this new life, show her life’s beauty, as she showed me. But I can no longer see any beauty.
Some of the women that mama helped came to see me. They tried to be kind. One of them said I could come live with her in the village. I told them to go away, and never to come back.
I brave the wind, wrapping myself in layers to ward off the cold. I stumble to the greenhouse, by now entirely suffocated by ivy, all but one of the plants inside choked to death.
Belladonna. The beautiful lady. Green, defiant, heavy with ripe, luscious, deadly berries. I take the pot and make my way back to the cottage.
I make tea from the leaves and roots. While the kettle boils, I strip off some of the plump berries and stuff them into my mouth.
I think about one warm spring afternoon in the garden with mama, incredulous as I watched the birds feast on those berries.
“But they’re poisonous mama, the birds will die.”
I remember her smiling,
“Each and every one of Mother Nature’s creatures has its own miracles of chemistry, Shona. Her purpose is not to destroy life, only to have it flourish. She knows nothing of poison, but there is power in her creations to kill, and equal power to heal. You must learn as much as you can about this power.”
The child inside me kicks ferociously. I have never wanted mama so desperately, and I am overcome with anguish.
I tip the tea into the sink. I take a glass and fill it with salty water, gulping its contents. As the first stomach cramp seizes, I vomit, filling the sink with a horrible gush of undigested black berries. My vision becomes blurry, and I know the Beautiful Lady is doing her work.
Mama’s spell book sits on the table by the cracked window. The wind wails its sorrow at what I have done, fluttering open the pages of the big book. It opens at a page displaying the plant I know as belladonna, and directly beneath it, mama’s notes in her neat, pretty handwriting. At that moment I know Mama is trying to help me.
I reach into the herb cupboard and take the glass jar containing the Calabar bean, and another labelled Goldenseal. I know these to be deadly to humans too, but I have to trust that mama, and her teacher, Mother Nature are with me.
I crush the little Calabar beans with the Goldenseal according to mama’s notes in the spell book. I make a paste with a little water and spoon the mixture into my mouth.
Another excruciating cramp clenches me and my body gives a violent shudder, followed by a series of painful tremors. I feel hopeless, lost and alone. The child wriggles inside me – I can see my swollen belly undulating with her movement. For the first time I am full of fear and helplessness – not for me but for the child.
I lie on the sofa and close my eyes. Desperation is clawing at my heart. I have never felt so lost and alone. Mama’s face appears in my mind, as clear as though she were in the room. She is smiling. Every fibre of my being aches with longing. I want her here so badly. Then a searing, tearing pain unlike anything I have ever felt wracks my body. And everything goes dark.
When I wake up, thin shafts of sunlight are streaming into the room. I find myself in my bed but I don’t remember how I got there. I look down at my belly, no longer swollen. A faint, whimpering cry comes from beside me and I look down at the little being, squirming like a kitten, and somehow wrapped in a cotton blanket.
I pick up the tiny bundle and hold it to my breast. At that moment, all the demons that ever dared to show themselves to me disappear. I unwrap the baby and see that it is indeed a girl. She bears a tiny heart-shaped birthmark on her left cheek – just like mama.