Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Magpie Tales - Limbo

Photo courtesy of Tess @ Magpie Tales

Margaret didn’t know exactly where her sister was buried, most other Limbo babies were the same, lost somewhere without a gravestone.
Her sister Lily died two years before Margaret was born, a part of the past that drifted in night whispers through her childhood, muffled adult voices talking aloud and at times, the faintest change of air as she warmed herself beneath the blankets, never feeling completely alone, thinking perhaps she had a guardian angel.
In life she never understood her mother’s anger, it was only after her mother's death that Margaret learned the full truth.  At school she'd been asked to pray for Limbo babies, the ones with original sin who could never enter heaven. Older, she’d heard stories of how some arrived at graveyards in shoe boxes, given to men whose job it was to find a place beyond the consecrated ground.  And then others, the ones that arrived in the dark of night; a father burying his son or daughter as close to the holy earth as he could manage it, tight against a fence or graveyard wall, a limbo land beyond the boundaries.
In the end it was her Dad that told her, him still grief stricken after her Mother's loss, his old stories coming out in waves.  The spot her parents chose for Lily was a special place, picked for its beauty, in the hope that being somewhere beautiful, they would bring the baby close to God.  Her Mother was too sick to leave her bed, but together they agreed on Cooley Woods.
Growing up Margaret only ever seen the woods from a distance, and even when she learned the truth, she thought it pointless then to go.  She told herself, her sister Lily could be anywhere.  It took a while for her to understand, that knowing the exact spot wasn’t ever necessary, that the very act of going there, was all that really mattered.
Today, wrapped in her heavy coat with autumn leaves underfoot, she breathes in the crispness of late September.  In the distance there are cut down trees, fallen soldiers into the landscape.  What intrigues her most are the scattered openings in the forest, flattened pieces of earth with walls of trees, like secret rooms compiled by nature.
The rustling of branches become louder, but it does not unsettle her, the opposite in fact; it’s like the forest has its own language and for the first time in a long time she is at peace.
Amongst such beauty, she feels the sense of eternity that her parents must have hoped for and standing there in Cooley Woods it’s as if the final missing piece of jigsaw from her life, has somehow fallen into place. 
As she knelt down, touching the hardened soil, she feels warmth from the forest floor, in their own way, just like in childhood, when she thought perhaps she felt her guardian angel,  the sisters meet once more.

The above story is fictional.  However while I was growing up, part of the teaching of the Catholic Church was that any baby who wasn't baptised, including stillborn babies, still had original sin on their souls, and therefore could not go to heaven, instead they went to a place called Limbo.  The latter is no longer Catholic teaching, but one of the aspects of this belief was that the babies could not be buried in consecrated ground.  BBC did a documentary about this and it stayed in my head for a very long time afterwards.



  1. wonderful. esp the part -knowing the exact spot wasnt nessecary

    I've heard so many stories of limbo growing up, of grieving fathers paying the gravedigger to place a baby in the next grave to be used. It's heartbreaking. And probably a cynical invention to get children baptised asap, or maybe i'm cynical!

    and the "warmth from the forest floor", thats beautiful.

  2. Thanks Words A Day. Actually I found it very hard to write. I just hope I did so with proper care.

  3. Outstanding beauty..truly a deeply felt piece..
    From the moment we're born, some institution imposes its values on us. Imagine that a stillborn seemingly has a debt to pay! Is there no such thing as a clean slate?
    Indeed, who are we, unstamped by religion, society? I vote for pure souls, God within.
    Lily, truly of "the fields"...

  4. This was beautiful. And so sad. I can't even imagine the burden a grieving parent must feel and then having it increased by the imposition of believing that their child in in "Limbo." You did a great job with a very difficult topic.

  5. This short story is quite precious, laden with emotion and inference. Happy you commented on my piece and guided me here.

  6. Appreciate your comments Lyn and Lolamouse, and Kim you should check out that poetry site that I mentioned.

  7. Very sad, but also very interesting about the state of "limbo". Well done.

  8. An extremely touching short story. I rather think that in extended families there are several who have been settled into limbo land.

  9. Powerful stuff L. Beautiful writing.

    And though I knew about the limbo concept, I never realised that the babies weren't allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Travesty.

  10. Wow, what a powerful vignette you've composed. I had to reread it, with each reading finding another piece that caught me by surprise.

  11. You did this subject justice. I have a lot of feelings around this subject. I was a lovely piece and I will be rereading it from time to time.

  12. Thank goodness the Catholic church came to their senses on this subject. Excellent post.

  13. As Dr. M & I were discussing the other day, the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for (me being smug in my Protestantism). But really, did they just go out of their way to make people as miserable as possible? I love your story though - I could feel the grief & the sense of a story not quite told.

  14. Fascinating story - I love the history behind it. Heartbreaking, too. I'm sure little Margaret's sister was welcomed to heaven with open arms...

  15. ... bless the beasts and the children. I will never think about being in limbo in quite the same way.

  16. Thanks guys for the supportive comments, I was very nervous about this one as I know how sensitive an issue this is for many people.

  17. You have shown me a new definition for Limbo, my friend... my god!! What a sad but beautiful read...
    I got goosebumps reading it...

    "What intrigues her most are the scattered openings in the forest, flattened pieces of earth with walls of trees, like secret rooms compiled by nature." -- this line evoked the deepest of emotions in me... so so beautifully written..

    Hats off to you on this wonderful magpie, my dear...

  18. O what and outstanding piece of prose...how did I miss it the first time...well I have found you now and I am making sure I will be back for more good reading...bkm


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