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Trade Paperback
480 pages
Mar 2003
Waterbrook Press

Thorn in My Heart

by Liz Curtis Higgs

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My mother groan’d! my father wept.
Into the dangerous world I leapt.

Glen of Loch Trool
Summer 1764

"Breathe not a word of my visit, Jean. Not to a soul." The midwife merely nodded, opening the bothy door wider to receive her unexpected guest. Rowena McKie brushed past her into the cottage, then eased her ungainly body onto a rough bench. Her skirt caught on the splintery wood, and she snatched it free with an impatient yank. Another ragged seam for Ivy’s busy needle and thread to mend. "Tell me the babe’s coming soon, Jean. Mr. McKie can’t sleep at night for worrying."

Carrying her husband’s heir through the long days of a Lowland summer had ground Rowena down like corn at McCracken’s mill. Her feet were swollen, her knees ached, and even fresh meadowsweet could not ease the burning in her stomach. Rowena pressed her damp palms against the unfinished oak and took the deepest breath she could. She’d come to the midwife for answers and had no intention of leaving without them.

"Now, now." The older woman leaned over and squeezed Rowena’s shoulder, her touch as gentle as her words. "Nothin’ mair than nerves. Yer first time and all." Jean’s eyes were wreathed in wrinkles and blue as forget-me-nots. Her dress was made of striped drugget, the too-snug bodice made for a younger woman. Beneath the ragged hem poked her bare feet, browned by the sun, the nails grass stained but neatly trimmed. "Ye were right to come knockin’ on my door. What would folks in the glen be sayin’ if I didn’t tend to Mr. McKie’s firstborn? Yer time is still a month off, but when it comes—"

"A month?" Rowena’s eyes widened. "Are you daft, woman? I’ll not last a week like this! Can’t you see how the child moves within me?" To prove her claim she arched her back, inviting the midwife’s inspection. "Look for yourself. Like a wild goat kicking his heels to one side, then the other."

"Mair than one wee goat." Jean smoothed her hands across the fabric of Rowena’s dress, measuring the shape of her distended figure with a practiced eye. "Twa, I’d say."

Rowena’s mouth dropped open. "Twins?"

The midwife nodded thoughtfully. "Boys, I’ll wager."

Speechless, Rowena stared down at her belly. Her husband, Alec, had pleaded with the Almighty to bless her barren womb with a son. But two at once? Another kettle of fish, that. She rubbed her aching sides, feeling the child—children, if the midwife was right—moving beneath the gentle pressure of her hands. The walls of Glentrool were built with a large family in mind. Would her aging body be so accommodating?

A swift kick in her abdomen seemed an uncanny answer. "Speak the truth, Jean. This constant commotion, the sharp pains in my ribs. Surely this can’t be the usual way of things, even with twins?"

The midwife chewed on her lip, continuing to press and prod Rowena’s middle. "Twa bairns are always harder on the mither. But I fear somethin’ is amiss." A note of compassion crept into the older woman’s voice. "How auld are ye, Mistress McKie?"

"Too old to be having my first, if that’s what you mean." The worst of her many worries had come home to roost. "I’ll be thirty-eight come November."

Jean made a st-st sound against her teeth. "If I weren’t so certain this was the Lord’s doin’, I’d be gatherin’ stanes for yer burial cairn. But seein’ how the Almighty has placed his hand upon yer womb, I’ll be usin’ these instead." She reached into the money pouch tied at her waist and unfolded her fingers to reveal two silver coins in her palm. "All ready to tuck into their fists. Ye know the custom?"

Rowena nodded, relieved to hear the woman’s confident tone. Jean was a woman who feared the Almighty, not a common wutch. The silver pieces cast no spell; they were meant for good luck and the blessing of wealth. It seemed Jean expected the children to live. And so, please God, would she.

Rowena rose unsteadily to her feet, hoping the change in position might offer some relief. Instead it yielded another vicious kick from her hidden offspring and a jolt of pain at the base of her spine. Jean’s passing comment crept into her bones like a damp mist, chilling her. "You said something is amiss?"

The midwife nodded slowly. "They’re twins…but not the same. Verra different lads. One stronger than the other. By and by, the older will serve the younger."

Rowena’s mouth went dry. Twins but not twins. A bad omen after all. She would see them baptized by the parish minister at the earliest possible hour. But the older serving the younger? That was not the Scottish way of things. Staring hard at the woman’s unblinking blue gaze, Rowena searched her lined face for assurance. "Is this a word from the Almighty?"

"Tis that, aye." Jean’s gray head bobbed slowly up and down. "Time will prove me truthful."

"I’ve little doubt of that." For the moment she would let the subject rest. Jean Wilson was the finest howdie in Galloway. Rowena knew she would be in good hands when the time came. "I’d best be home before Mr. McKie discovers I’m gone and frets himself sick. I slipped out the door without telling him where I was going." She shrugged slightly, knowing Jean would understand. "He’s fash enough these days, watching my belly grow." Rowena moved toward the door, gathering her light plaid about her shoulders. Summer or not, the evening winds blew a stout breeze across Loch Trool. "Don’t stray far, Jean. I’ll be sending my maidservant Ivy Findlay round soon enough. You’ll be here when she calls?"

"I’ve not missed a birthin’ in the glen all these years, Mistress McKie."

"Aye. By God’s mercy, mine will not be the first."

Bidding her farewell, Rowena left the thatch-roofed cottage behind and picked her way along the winding path toward home. Awkward as she was of late, riding on horseback was impossible and a carriage out of the question, with no proper road and bogs at every turn.

Rowena slowed her steps, more exhausted than she could ever remember. And no wonder. Twins! All well and good for Alec, nearing sixty, to pray for an heir. He didn’t have the burden of carrying the babes. "Nor the challenge of bearing them," she announced to a wheatear that flew over her shoulder, its black-and-white tail flirting like a lass’s fan.

She tilted her head back, taking in the steep slopes rising all around, so different from the rolling hills of east Galloway where she’d spent her girlhood. Mulldonach loomed on the right, where Robert the Bruce had claimed his first victory against the English troops by rolling great boulders down the steep slopes and crushing the army. Ahead rose Buchan Hill, once the hunting ground of Comyn, Earl of Buchan, now covered with McKie flocks. Rough and craggy at the top, the mountains gave way to slender stretches of grass and sparse, piney woods along the meandering loch.

At the heart of the glen stood the granite walls of Glentrool, the only laird’s house for miles and her home for the last twenty years. Guests marveled at the imposing tower house with its round turrets and soaring chimneys that stood in the shadow of the Fell of Eschoncan. When asked how it had been constructed in so remote a setting, Alec borrowed a tale from the Bruce and insisted, "The stanes rolled doon the mountain, and the hoose built itself!"

When Archibald McKie, Alec’s father, bartered a bride for his son from the distant parish of Newabbey, Glentrool had welcomed her with pine-scented arms. Bartered was not quite the way of it, Rowena reminded herself with a chuckle, but it was not far from the truth. Her brother, Lachlan, had urged her to marry Alec, and she’d agreed sight unseen. It was not merely the vast McKie lands that had appealed to Lachlan’s greedy nature. The fine gold bracelets McKie’s manservant had slipped around her wrists were enticement as well. "A bonny bride is soon decorated," young Lachlan had whispered in her ear, pocketing the silver McKie’s man had pressed into his own hands. "Haste to his side, lass, and let him see what his coin has purchased."

Rowena and Alec were married a fortnight later with their parents’ ardent blessings.

How young she’d been! Eighteen, green as Galloway grass in May. What had she known of marriage, of life in the lonely glen, far from village and friend? She’d learned to care for her older, steady-tempered husband, even to love him as the years passed. Respect had not come so easily. Alec gave in too readily to her wishes. He was more wind-bent willow than stalwart oak, good man though he was. Rowena shook her head, thinking of all the times her headstrong nature had overwhelmed his passive one. "Such a heidie lass I’ve brought under my roof!" he would say, then pinch her cheek a bit harder than necessary. Willful she might be, but before summer’s end she would present him with not one heir, but two. It was a secret too good to keep, yet too dangerous to tell until the babes were safely tucked in her arms and away from the fairies’ grasp.

"Och!" Rowena yanked her skirts clear of a prickly blackthorn bush, imagining the seasons to come with two strong-willed young sons. Who would help her raise them when their father grew too old and weak to be of any use? Her parents were gone. And her brother lived in distant Newabbey, separated from her by mountains and moors.

"I’ll be needing your help, Lord," she whispered, stepping gingerly along the mossy banks. "If I’m to raise my sons worthy of their father’s blessing, I canna do it alone."

* * * * *

Rowena was anything but alone when her time came. Half a dozen women gathered about her birthing room to witness the birth of the McKie heir. Rowena vaguely recognized their faces through the pain that hung over her like a shroud, yet she could not think of a single one of their names. Was that McTaggart’s widow in the stiff gray bonnet? Or one of the McMillans from Glenhead? Every one of her neighbors would later insist that she was present at the birth. Rowena heard the women murmuring, felt their eyes on her. For the moment they offered more gossip than comfort.

She sat propped up in the midst of the enormous bed she shared with Alec, its heavy curtains drawn tightly back. The autumn sun streamed through the casement window and across her pillow, warming the room. In the hearth a fire blazed, to be used for boiling water as needed and for staving off the chill the evening air would bring. For now the heat only added to Rowena’s misery. "Jean," she whispered, her mouth parched, her breath coming in gasps. "Thirsty."

The midwife dipped her finger in a cup of cool water and ran it along Rowena’s lips to moisten them. "I canna gie ye anythin’ to drink, Mistress McKie. Later, I promise, ye can have yer fill." Jean put the cup aside, then leaned over her, almost singing in a voice low and rhythmic:

"Breathe now. There ye go. And again. That’s the way." Jean smoothed Rowena’s hair back from her brow and adjusted her pillow, then reached for a blue thread of spun wool stretched out on the bedside table. "Gie me yer ring finger, Mistress McKie."

She obliged, lifting her hand from the sheets bunched around her in a futile attempt at modesty. As instructed, she breathed as deeply as she could while Jean’s nimble fingers wound the blue thread around her finger, above her thick silver wedding band.

"Keep her safe from the fever, Almighty God," Jean intoned, tying the string in a neat bow, then squeezing Rowena’s fingers against the knot. "‘Twas your mither’s and yer granmithers thread before that, aye?"

Rowena nodded. Both her foremothers had bravely survived their labor without succumbing to childbed fever—spared, it was thought, by the common blue thread. Rubbing her thumb over the worn wool, Rowena prayed it would bring her good fortune as well. So little about birthing was within a woman’s control. Jean had placed the family Bible under her pillow, as custom dictated, and an old nail under her bed for safe measure, lest a changeling be substituted for the healthy babe. God alone knew how the day would end.

The midwife eyed the women gossiping across the room, then leaned closer and whispered in Rowena’s ear, "Come midnight we’ll see the lads born." The two women had not breathed a word of their expectations to anyone, not even to Alec McKie. What, and bring ill luck knocking at the door? No, indeed.

Rowena studied Jean’s face, hungry for more news. "Before midnight? Wednesday then?" The month, the day, the hour—every detail of the birth had a meaning. "Or will it be Thursday?"

"Hush now." Jean reached down and pressed two gnarled fingers to her lips. "The Lord knows, Mistress McKie. Trust him."

Before the hour ended, trust in God was all Rowena had left. Excruciating pain cleft her in two as the twins fought over who would appear first. Day dragged into evening. Eyes bleary, arms drooping at her side like broken wings, Rowena staggered around the room until she could walk no more. Drained of strength, she crouched in the bed, hands clutching her knees, and begged the heavens for mercy. At the end she could do naught but push when Jean demanded it, then fall back in an exhausted stupor, only to push again a moment later.

In desperation, the neighborhood women circled her bed, holding aloft their cherished family Bibles, pleading for the Almighty’s enemies to be hurled into the Red Sea. "Help me," Rowena pleaded again and again. It was taking too long; it was all taking much too long.

The starless sky was black as pitch and every candle lit when the midwife finally shouted with glee, "I see a tuft of bricht red hair!" A cheer rang about the room, then busy hands hastened to their duties. Everything moved at a faster clip. Drenched in tears and sweat, Rowena made a final effort to end her agony. One floor below, the workings of an ancient clock began to grind loudly, preparing to strike the hour.

A cry split the air first.

"He’s here! Yer son is born!" crowed Jean.

One. Two. Three.

Rowena sank into the bed, barely conscious as the distant chimes rang.

Four. Five. Six.

She could hear the babe whimpering as Jean called out, "Och! There’s a second child, there is! Hanging on to his brother’s heel for dear life."

Rowena felt the urge to push again.

Seven. Eight. Nine.

Jean’s voice rang out, louder than the chimes. "One mair push, Mistress McKie, and ye’!l have twa bairns lyin’ in yer arms."

Ten. Eleven. Twelve.

The whole gathering held its breath until another lusty cry rang out in the crowded bedroom. The clock was silent now, but all else was in an uproar.

"Twa sons, they are! Twins!"

Rowena fell back on her pillow in a faint, while all around the room merry bedlam reigned. Amid the clamor Jean made short work of the cords with a sharp knife, then fed each child a wee spoonful of salt to chase away the fairies and gave them a quick dunking in cool water from the loch to make them strong and healthy. Dazed, Rowena could do nothing but watch as every precaution was taken. A candle fashioned from the root of a fir tree, cut into thin splinters and seeping with turpentine, was carried around her bed three times. Rowan twigs were tossed on the fire. Prayers were said by each woman in turn before passing a dish of oatmeal and water and supping three spoonfuls. With two fragile lives hanging in the balance, this was no time to put aside the old ways.

Jean left the others to their business and tended to Rowena’s needs, clucking and fussing as she helped her sit up. She propped a bolster behind her, then firmly pressed a shivering, squalling infant into the crook of each arm, their wet bodies tightly wrapped in newly woven linen. "Nothin’ alike, yer lads," Jean murmured, leaning closer as she pushed aside the soiled sheets. "See how the red one wears a hairy cloak, and the other has naught but a bit o’ goose down on his head?"

Rowena could not take her eyes off their tiny faces, pinched and wrinkled, their hungry cries piercing her soul. My sons, she whispered, brushing a light kiss on each head, fighting tears. Afraid to speak the names she’d chosen for them until the lads were baptized, she pressed her cheek to their damp heads and in her heart lifted them to heaven in prayer: Evan Alexander McKie, the one with a full head of red hair and a lusty cry. James Lachlan McKie, his downy-capped younger brother. "May I love them both the same," she said softly.

"‘Twill be a challenge, different as they are," Jean agreed, patting her arm. "Not even born on the same day, these twa. But both McKies, no mistakin’ that."

Rowena pulled her attention away from her sons long enough to meet the midwife’s sympathetic gaze. "What do you mean they weren’t born on the same day?"

Jean glanced behind her, then crouched down until they were eye to eye. "Did ye notice the clock chimin’?"

"Aye, but..." Rowena’s limbs suddenly began to shake uncontrollably. "Wh-what..."

"Not to worry. To be expected, this chill of yours. ‘Twill pass soon enough." Ever efficient, Jean tucked woolen blankets around Rowena’s legs and shoulders, then lifted a cup of tepid tea to her lips. "Now then, about the time of birth. This red and birsie son of yers was born when Wednesday was on the wane. But this smooth one came after all twelve chimes ushered in Thursday. D’ye see how it is?"

Rowena stared down at their damp heads. "Wednesday’s child is full of woe," she whispered, a rhyme spoken by every Scottish mother from time out of mind.

Jean nodded, her jovial expression growing more serious. "Aye, so it is. And ‘Thursday’s child has far tae go."

"Oh, but not yet, wee one." Rowena swallowed hard, horrified at the mere thought of the younger, smaller twin being taken from her side. Jamie. The look of his sweet, brown-tufted head had already stolen her heart. "Please, not yet."

"Have no fear. Both will live." Jean’s voice was low but firm. "The second one, born past midnight, will have the power to see the Spirit o’ God abroad in the land. He’s gifted, that one. Remember what I told ye the month last? ‘The older will serve the younger.’ See that ye don’t forget when the time comes."

"When might that be?" Rowena’s shivering continued as she drew her babies closer still. "How will I know?"

Jean shrugged, not unkindly. "We niver know when or where, Mistress McKie. Like any mither, ye must stand at the ready. Almighty God will show ye what’s tae be done." Jean squeezed her shoulder with frank affection, then gently touched each infant’s head. "And now, mistress, what else may I do for ye this nicht?"

A fresh spate of tears rolled down Rowena’s face and over her trembling lips. "Tell Mr. McKie..." She choked on her words, clutching her babies tight against her swollen breasts. "Tell him his prayers have been answered. God has seen fit to make him a father."

Excerpted from:
Thorn in My Heart by Liz Curtis Higgs, copyright 2003. Used by permission. All rights reserved.