In this excerpt from Our Man on Earth, which tells the story of Merlin’s conception by a demon and the virtuous mother whose strength won him to the side of good, the infant Merlin discovers his ability to shapeshift.
The mother, Meylinde, is being kept in a tower, because in that day having an illegitimate child meant the punishment of being burned at the stake. An advisor convinces the judge to let her stay in the tower with two midwives, since the child doesn’t deserve to die for his mother’s supposed crime. That’s where we pick up this story.
One fine mid-afternoon just at the beginning of summer, with the sun creating a straight shaft of brilliant light streaming in to the center of the floor, and a blessed cool breeze giving the room a bit of light and air, Meylinde was sitting at her plain desk, studying her scripture. Rossa and Farah had seen that she was provided for and then begged off for the fine afternoon, expected to return in the early evening to help Meylinde assist in putting the child to bed. This situation suited Meylinde fine, and she was enjoying the peace and quiet left by the sleeping infant as she relaxed and spent her time in contemplation.
She had looked over at the child before settling down, and found him sleeping blissfully in his cradle. She was happy to have these uninterrupted moments of quiet time, and gave thanks that the midwives would go spend long periods away—she would have to subtly encourage this—as she felt varying levels of discomfort having them always watching, knowing everything unusual that happened would be reported back to her minders, not to mention the gossip of the common people all around the town. She could tell from the comments of the midwives that her situation was of special interest among their friends and relations, and that whenever the midwives left her, they were peppered with questions about her, and especially the child. On their walks home from her tower, the midwives were accompanied by those asking if anything new and strange had happened, before the gossips then told the midwives their opinions about exactly what was going on.
Meylinde was lost in her book when she became aware of an eerie silence pervading the room. She heard only the vague pounding sounds of the nearby blacksmith and children laughing from the world outside, and she felt a moment of concern for her baby pass over her. She turned. Unable to see inside of the crib, she stood up and walked over to make sure the child was still sleeping contentedly.
Instead, there was a small white owl in its place.
Meylinde stood for a moment’s stock still, her eyes blinking as she tried to register what she was seeing. The owl seemed to be looking directly at her, with its big wide round eyes, and it blinked at her a few times.
“Merlin?” she asked upon composing herself and, after ensuring he was not in the cradle, wildly turned about the room to see where he might be. The child was as yet unable to crawl and yet with him, anything could be expected.
Meylinde took an involuntary step back, eyes searching wildly to find the infant. He could not have gone far. Her hands were held in the air as she whirled all about, looking for the child. Just as she spied her shawl hanging over the edge of the bed, and thought that she might throw it over the owl while it was still sitting quietly in the cradle, she heard an infant’s giggle.
When she turned, Merlin was sitting back in his cradle, fingers in his mouth, giggling away. He laughed with irrepressible delight.
“Merlin!” Meylinde said while rushing to the side of the cradle. The child’s eyes followed her, giggling excitedly. When he saw her, clearly happy to see him but on the edge of her patience, hands hanging loose and slack with open mouth unable to form words, the infant clapped his hands and laughed in wicked delight.
“What am I going to do?” Meylinde asked herself and for moment turned away to place her hand on her forehead, shaking her head in disbelief. She asked herself again, “What am I going to do?” and turned back to the child.
In his place was a coiled black snake.
Meylinde screamed and drew back. She then covered her mouth with her hand, hoping no one had heard her and would come to investigate. She had her shawl in her hand, and thought to throw it over the snake, but was too afraid to come any closer.
The snake was coiled and staring at her with its beady gaze, its tongue stuck out and slowly waving in the air. Meylinde noticed that it did not look like any regular snake, rather it had large exaggerated scales and a simple, puffy body… It looked instead like the drawing of the snake that she had shown the child.
She stumbled backward and sat down in her chair, slumping forward to let her gaze fall to the ground in front of her. Was this also a test of the demon? Was he still around her, trying to tempt her now to despise her own child? Or simply drive her mad with exasperation? For every time she attempted to get close to the child, just as she started to feel moments of intimacy with him, some strange and bizarre circumstance would make her doubt her very senses.
She brought a hand up to her forehead, and wiped the small bit of sweat there as she shook her head, wondering if she would be able to continue on with this without breaking. In this train of thought, she raised her eyes to the cradle, only to find Merlin gazing back at her, eyes just above the line of cradle top as he gripped it with his two small chubby hands.
The infant exploded with laughter as she drew her breath in shock.
“Merlin!” she said, rising to her feet as the child laughed delightedly and clapped his little hands. “What am I going to do with you?” she asked again, the question only making him giggle more, delightedly squealing as he rolled about against the soft blanket. “Oh, my good lord,” said Meylinde. “What will I do with a child such as this?”
The child stopped laughing, turned serious and gazed at Meylinde directly in the eyes, then became a mouse.
It was as simple as that. One second there was an infant in the cradle, and in the space of a half-second his body shrank, and suddenly there was a mouse.
Meylinde could hardly react, her mouth fell open involuntarily as her shoulder slackened, and the shawl fell from her hand to the floor. The transformation had happened as plain as day in front of her, as though something as natural and plain as a slice of bread. There was no strange feeling, no aura of significance, nothing that would indicate anything out of the ordinary, she had simply watched her child transform into a mouse in front of her eyes. The quiet rang through the tower as before, including the strikes of the blacksmith’s hammer and children playing outside.
The mouse began jumping in the cradle, making graceful arcs through the air as it went, initially a dance to delight his mother, then seemingly more like the testing of his abilities in this new shape. By now Meylinde was as one astonished, able to watch what was happening, but making no attempt to draw sense out of it.
The mouse jumped about here and there, then suddenly leapt up to the front of the cradle, where it became a sparrow.
Meylinde watched it as a thing unfolding before her that she had no control over, and no way to affect with her actions. The sparrow cocked its head a few times and jumped back and forth along the edge of the cradle, as though performing for his mother, while also experiencing the sheer delight of its new nimbleness.
It cocked its head this way and that, and then, with a particular movement, cocked its head toward the open window.
Meylinde’s head turned to follow its gaze and saw the bright window there, the large spaces between the bars, and the open sky beyond. The fresh breeze blew in, carrying the scents of the early summer, bright flowers and the new, fresh growth of leaves.
“Merlin, no,” she said.
The bird quickly turned its head toward her, then once more toward the open window.
Meylinde raised her open hand. “No,” she said firmly. “Merlin….”
But that was it. The bird was gone—out the open window.