The full moon made the late summer night as light as a cloudy day, but Ingrid couldn't keep walking. The pains. The relentless, recurring pains. This place should work. The stream slowed, its surface smooth. The water must be deep enough here.
A contraction struck as she settled onto the grassy bank. Her fists grasped tufts of grass and tugged as the clench of pain squeezed her swollen body in a vice.
When it passed, she shivered when the cool night air wafted over her sweaty skin. She'd stripped off her dress to keep it clean, wearing only her shift for modesty. If someone found her now, being undressed would be the least of her worries. Pregnant and unwed, she would be put on trial for the sin of a premarital sexual relationship.
She broke bits of rotting wood off the fallen log beside her, wishing she were breaking Søren to pieces instead. If only Ingrid could get away from him, but she hadn't been confirmed in the Church yet. Until she married and passed into her husband's care, her older half-brother had the right to decide everything in her life. And he declared that she wasn't ready for Confirmation. It was Søren who wasn't ready to let her go. When she got her proof of Confirmation, she could go somewhere else to work. Until then, she was trapped with him.
Another contraction gripped her body, so she bit down on the piece of wood in her hand. She didn't dare yell. Since her water broke in the afternoon she'd managed to walk quite a distance from home and she didn't think there would be anyone around, but the risk was too great. It wasn't just the fine, which she'd have no means to pay, or the shame of public confession, but the pressure from everyone to name the father. What could she say to that?
Hatred for the father of the life within her--and for the thing itself--grew along with the contractions. She pounded her fists into the ground. As the pains wracked her body, she prayed for God to punish him for his sins.
The pain eased. She threw the wood in the water and emptied her sack. The rocks that tumbled into a pile had better be enough. Her time was coming.
Tears coursed down her cheeks from remembering what she didn't want to remember. Nights spent sobbing over the death of Maren and her babe. Maren had begged Ingrid to stay with her instead of going for help. The baby didn't come and both died, only moments before Søren got home from his day harvesting the lord's fields. Søren had beaten her again and again for failing to get the midwife.
Even worse memories came with the next contraction. The first night he came into her bed, he had said, "You cost me my wife and now you'll take her place." She hadn't even had her first monthly courses yet, but spent the next morning scrubbing blood from her sheets.
She hadn't known what to do. It was a sin--that much she understood from church sermons. But it wasn't just God that punished the sinful. The Blood Shame was what she feared most. Those guilty of that were executed and their bodies burned to purge the sins.
The contractions came closer and closer together. The pain raged through her body along with anger and guilt. It was Søren's fault. He forced himself on her.
Yet it was her own because she didn't make him stop. An older girl from the next town had tried last year to charge her master with raping her. But she hadn't gone bruised and torn to neighbors, so instead she was fined and punished for sexual relations outside of marriage.
When Søren realized she was with child, he'd ranted and raved and beaten her. When he kicked her stomach, he ranted that it was her fault she was pregnant and he was going to beat it out of her. Eventually she had healed, and the baby continued to grow inside her like a worm in an animal. Its movements inside her sickened her.
The pains came so fast. They wiped her mind clear of everything but pain and hate.
Her body demanded she push. She felt herself tear and grabbed the sack. She jammed a handful of the fabric into her mouth and bit down. No screaming. Not a sound. Just get it over with. All of it.
She pulled the wrinkled, slimy creature from between her legs, still tied to her by the intestine-like cord. The baby--her baby--was quiet and still. Instinct took over and she rubbed the film and mucus from its mouth with her sweaty shift.
It breathed. She pulled it closer, wiping more of the birthing fluids from its body. Was it twisted and broken from Søren's beatings?
She looked upon the tiny being in her arms, and it was perfect. It--he--cried. Weeping, she cradled him gently and crooned.
This baby could not possibly be tainted by the sins of his father or her own sins.
The last time Søren had come to her bed a few months earlier, he'd said, "Get rid of it yourself when it comes, or I'll feed it to the pigs."
She took the knife from among the rocks and the ball of yarn. She tied a piece of wool around the cord a short distance from his body then cut him free from his tether. Her milk began to flow, so she held him to her breast and he suckled hungrily.
God had let her birth this little boy. He had given him ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes, each with little tiny perfect nails. No matter what Søren said, God couldn't have allowed the baby to survive first the beatings then the birth yet intend for her to drown him in the stream.
Drown him! She shook the thought out of her head. How could she have ever thought to do it?
The afterbirth passed. She held her perfect son to her breast and let him nurse his fill, all while making plans.
She stripped off her shift and swaddled her baby boy in it. Then she took the sack she'd brought--for other purposes--and wrapped it around him as well. Finally she washed herself in the cool water of the stream and pulled her dress on over her naked body.
Looking frequently to be sure he slept contentedly, she gathered an armload of sturdy branches. Moses floated to safety in a basket. Her boy would sail to safety on a raft.
She paused again to nurse him. Then she tied the branches together with her strong yarn, thanking God she'd brought the whole ball instead of just a length. She floated the raft on the water, pushing down to make sure it floated well.
After pulling the little raft up onto the bank, she sat with her son in her arms, rocking him, humming, and nursing.
Finally the sun began to lighten the sky.
Ingrid kissed her son's forehead and adjusted his makeshift swaddling. "I love you. Grow up to be a good man." She wished she'd brought a blanket for him.
She put her precious bundle onto the raft and waded into the edge of the stream to push him into the current.
It was the season for eel, and the fishermen always began at dawn in the sea at the mouth of the river. "God, keep him safe," she prayed. "Let the fishermen find him and give him a family who can love him." The Blood Shame must not taint his life also.
She stood in the water until his raft disappeared beyond the next bend. "Go with God. I love you."
My copious thanks and a great deal of "I owe you one" to the Fiction Workshop's beloved Rhino, @carolkean. This story wouldn't exist or be anywhere near fit for public viewing if it weren't for her. All errors and weaknesses remaining in the story are, of course, my own responsibility. A discussion with Carol reminded me of the history that sparked this story. Then she did editing for me, usually at the drop of a hat, to help make sure I could get it out on time for the contest despite also preparing for and flying internationally!
My thanks also to the rest of the Workshop, especially the "night shift" crew for their support, tolerance of my excessive insanity the past week, and the brainstorming session that helped keep it from turning into a novella. It may be a smidgen over length, but it isn't anywhere near a novel.
I don't have time (on trip) for extensive details on the history here. My story is set in 1700s Denmark. I think around 1740-45 has all the laws referred to in effect.
I was inspired initially by a TV show about Danish history, that mentioned the 1705 case of Inger Christensdatter, who buried her newborn in a manure pile to try to avoid being charged with "lejermål"--sex outside of marriage. The baby was found, she was tracked down, then her baby died. Instead she was charged as a child murderer and sentenced to beheading and having her head put on a stake to warn others. She ended up dying in prison before the execution took place. But she was beheaded after death and her head put on display, so she couldn't escape her sentence.
I wanted more intensity and desperation behind my character's actions and ended up researching the rape and incest laws of the time. The incest laws are called "blodskam," which translates to blood shame, and gave me the title. I am not 100% certain the sentence listed here applied to sibling or half sibling cases, but I'm not sure it wasn't either. I read something about the one step up or down cases being considered most serious, but I just couldn't stand to have her betrayed by her father, so instead it is her much older brother from her father's previous marriage.
Death during or soon after childbirth is common, so Maret's death fit the time period. Calling the person whose field Søren was harvesting a lord might be inaccurate. I am not certain of the proper title of the owner of the Herregård that leased small farms to men in return for payment and labor. But the basic idea matches well with calling him a lord.
Finally, confirmation laws were enacted in the 1730s. Youths had to pass a test and be confirmed in the church to become an adult who could legally take a job or marry. You usually had to be 14--Ingrid's age--for Confirmation but many petitioned for dispensation because of poverty. You had to be confirmed by 19, according to my reading. After Confirmation, you got a booklet as proof that allowed you to take a job, etc. The common practice was for girls and boys to then be sent into service, working as maids or farmhands, away from home to help support their families. Using these laws kept Ingrid from having a choice to flee.
Eel fishing I should have done more research on, but once the idea was in my head, I couldn't get it out and I had issues with time. Also much of it is forbidden today and those laws kept getting in the way of my searches, as well as my uncertainty on Danish terminology for the devices used. My husband fished eels as a boy, usually where the drain from town let out into the sea. I might have tweaked the schedule by having men start at dawn--he always fished after school. Call it artistic license. The eels were most readily caught in a certain season, generally sometime in August, when he'd be back in school. He fished primarily by running a lot of worms on a length of very strong thread and coiling it up. No hook. The eels would bite on and they'd get pulled up. But that and some other methods used required people monitoring the equipment all the time, which worked well for my needs. And since they wouldn't have drains, I figured stream mouths would have a similar attraction for eels.