All Hallows’ Day

Picture credit: Valeria Vaganian

It was one night at summer’s end, the sun starting to weaken, when June had told him. Private like, as they lay in bed ready for sleep. She’d taken again. 

“You might have another lad next spring,” she’d said, a smile in her voice he could tell, squeezing his arm in the darkness.


Dart was making repairs to the store-house. Some animal – badgers, he suspected – had tried to burrow and scratch their way in under the rear wall, scattering soil and rocks in a wide semi-circle and weakening the wall itself: a stockade of horizontal logs held in place by vertical posts. First he had to clear the footing by the wall, rake the debris away to one side, see how bad the damage was. Not a bad job for a dull day in October, the ground damp and sweet-smelling and the rain holding off. Working on his own, with time to think.

There were too many of them. Brand had warned him back in the spring when there was still plenty of frost, long before June took again and her monthly bleeding stopped. A handful was enough, Brand had said. Dart knew the rules, he said. They were perched on stumps by Brand’s fire, supping beakers of Spinna’s dizzy-making ale. He had held up his hand with fingers stretched wide in front of Dart’s face, as if Dart was a simpleton who needed to count: one, two, three, four, five. Maybe the ale made Brand so blunt, Dart so accepting. Five kids: enough and more than enough. Yes, one or two might die, it happened often as not, Brand conceded. That still left three, which was plenty. More than plenty if they were all girls. Which was nearly true in Dart and June’s case: four girls and a boy.

Strange that, Dart thought. When it was animals, they kept the females but turned most of the males to meat sooner rather than later. You didn’t need to keep more than one bull, two to be safe: they were only good for one thing, everyone laughed. With people it was the opposite: too many females meant too many babies, too many hungry youngsters. And later on, too much feuding and bloodlet.

His grim conclusion seemed to prompt carefree laughter. He looked around. It was a group of the older women at work close by, brushing the soil off the onions and turnips recently lifted, sorting them ready for storage. He showed no sign, but he enjoyed overhearing their gossipy talk. 

The communal harvests of barley, peas and beans were already stowed in thick linen sacks, on rough shelving in the store-house. The sacks sat in a row at chest height, like fat hens at silent roost. They looked like plenty, but he knew come blossom-time next year the village would be down to the last of what they had saved.


It was best to fill the angle of wall to ground with as many medium-size rocks as could be brought from nearby, found poking out of the ground in the woods or retrieved from the cool bed of the river. No use to the monks, so no theft.  Nothing smaller than an apple or medlar, or animals hungry enough would bat them away with paws or muzzle. Lumps the size of a child’s head, say, were best: too heavy to be dislodged easily, but not so much weight it was a strain to carry one in each hand. 

It wasn’t easy to be sure, but Brand reckoned they’d been on this stretch of land, by this river, for seven years. Seven years sounded about right to Dart. That was when he and June had properly got together, made it definite and public that they were a couple now, each of them agreeing not to look at any other man or woman. The clan had finished building the first few shelters here, dragging more logs to the cleared space, hacking and splitting and shaping the timber all through the long days of that summer. Everyone seemed pleased for them. Brand and Spinna had organised a party, a boar was roasted and shared out, they drank all the ale and most of the firewater they’d been storing up. There was dancing to Owen’s bagpipe, the others adding their whistles and drums. Old Marva and her daughter sang. That was a fine time, one of the best.

Then the babies started coming, regular as the summer crops, a child each year. And now they had to stop; should have stopped already. Stop putting it in, Brand had said, or put a wrapper on it. And if she takes, bring her to Granny Ash as soon as you know, so she can sort June out before it’s too late.

Dart understood why; so did June. It wasn’t complicated. Starvation, or fighting to take someone else’s supplies and risking injury or death, a feud that could go on from fathers to sons with no end in sight… None of that was complicated. The clan had just enough food to get by: ten dwellings, ten families. It was 62 bodies altogether, Brand said, a number that he and Tor, Marva’s husband, had arrived at by careful survey. 

Dart didn’t know about that; what he knew was there were two hands’ worth of families, with three, sometimes four or five, children in each family. Except some of them were no longer children: they were full grown, bearded or breasted, only not yet paired off in households of their own. And some of them, it seemed, in no great hurry the way he and June had been. More interested in the company of their own kind: a couple of the girls always seen together, fiddling with each other’s hair, whispering and such, two or three of the lads who loved to wrestle and play-fight, only showing an interest in the girls as friends to gossip and banter with. Then there was Nora and Larch, Dart and June’s age and been together as long, but Nora had never taken for some reason.

Still and all, it was a great many stomachs to feed, and barely enough grain and roots, fowl and swine even in the good years. And what could the village barter with to get more? They had no smith and forge pounding out prized ironwork, no skilled carpenter to make a chair or press that another village might covet. Only a simple loom for weaving the wool of their meagre flock.   And you’d have to work a good long while for the monks, their new thane, to get anything extra out of them; they’d argue you were just working off your tithe. Push comes to shove, any man who needed more than their fair share would have no choice: you’d have to leave altogether, beg for a place as a servant wherever they’d take you in. And bring along the wife and kiddies?  Don’t be daft.

It was only when he looked closely that he could see the holes where the mice got in; not big enough for rats, thankfully. His work needed to be good enough that the gaps were closed and couldn’t come back. A task he took pride in, cutting and stripping the willow whips, plaiting them into an impenetrable mesh that held the clay tight as it dried. He was finished before sunset, pleased he could tell the women they could stow the crops with confidence.

Food was getting scarce again, the village at its limit. They’d raised enough swine they could afford to kill a male or two each season, no more than that. Sometimes they could have fish, but they came and went mysteriously from their known gathering spots in the river; there were hens’ eggs and the occasional chicken for the pot, as long as the damned foxes didn’t get at them. They’d had milk from the nanny goat, but after the billy slipped and drowned they hadn’t another to mate her with, so no kids and no milk since. Brand had tried to barter with the clan beyond the river; he’d come back with his face clouded with anger and frustration and wouldn’t even tell what they’d asked for in exchange. The strongest boy, the prettiest girl, some of them had speculated. If so, it was an insult, an abomination; how dare they demand such a thing, like in the bad old man-killing days that the elders told stories about at meeting, as a warning. Those times must never return, was what they were trying to say.

Nobody could promise that things like that never returned, child-theft and such. But you could take steps. Like not getting overrun with youngsters.


They’d had fair success on the hunt. After they’d given the monks their half and the remainder was shared out, he came away with most of a rabbit. They’d still be hungry at the end of the meal tonight, he knew. Should he have argued for more, a whole rabbit? He had decided not; it would have risked another speech from Brand, another warning about too many mouths. Their position in the clan was safe, he reckoned: he knew Brand valued him as strong enough, and fair. But he also knew how easily a row could erupt over some trivial complaint, some petty grievance that set one household at odds with what the group expected. 

Maybe this made Dart the more cross with June when he got home and found the fire had been let die again.

“You know after hunting I’m usually cold and wet. Especially now the days are shorter.” 

“I’m sorry.”

“How many times have I shown you.”

“I know! Keep one big piece going, make sure it is well alight.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“Easy for you to say. I’m here with all these children to keep an eye on, keep them out of the river at least. And I should be helping the other women with the beets and parsnips. But I have to stop again and again, to feed Sister’s babby or our own. Your own.”

“Where’s Sis then?”

“Lying down again. Voiding. I’m worried. Everyone’s worried.”

At this Dart softens.

“We must hope she recovers. And quick.”

He squats beside the cold embers and shoves most of the scraps away. Then he builds a small mound using moss and twigs from their dry store, and takes his favourite flint and edge stones from where he keeps them tucked into the rear wall of the cabin. Two of the younger children have come to watch. He can’t help smiling at their awed fascination with the bit of magic he’s about to perform; he was just the same at their age. Squatting again, he strikes until a spark leaps to the moss, where it turns into flickering yellow tongues, more light than heat at first, and then a deal of smoke. Bending even lower as if at worship or in submission, he blows steadily until the flames have spread through the twigs and he can add a few larger seasoned limbs. Soon there’ll be heat enough to boil a pot of water. He’ll scoop off a little of it to clean the blood from his hands and forearms. Then June can cook the peas and carrots. Should go nicely with the strips of coney meat they’ll hold over the fire at the end of pointed sticks until they are browned and firm. A welcome change from the pottage they’ve had most nights recently. His mouth is watering thinking about it.

Once the fire is properly started, he goes over to her, the babby at her breast getting a comfort feed, and kisses her cheek.

“I’m sorry. You have too much to do, too many to look after.”

He leaves it at that, for now.


The cockerel started up and June was awake straightaway. No need to get moving yet, not until the babby started snuffling and rooting, although she could do with a piss. It was good just to lie here for a while, the warmth of her Dart alongside, deep asleep. She worried about him, worried about the future for both of them. From the time she’d birthed the youngest, he’d turned strange on her. The babby was well past the twelve-month, and not getting much milk from her anymore. By now she’d have expected Dart to be eager to resume relations, more than eager. It was so different from before, all the years they’d been together. Before, she couldn’t keep him off her, and hadn’t wanted to. Now, most of the time he would just lie beside her, put an arm over her, and fall asleep. Most of the time. Not always.

She had never forgotten what her mother had said to her a few days before she and Dart were to settle for each other, for good. Her mother had sat down with her to shell a basket of freshly-roasted cobnuts, just the two of them. 

“If you love your man and want to keep him, as soon as he lies down in bed with you of a night, put your hand on his thing. Just gentle like, sort of as a reminder. A reminder that you appreciate him, and that he belongs to you, and so forth. If it makes him frisky, well, where’s the harm? If it doesn’t, all the better: he may feel too tired for it, never mind. But you’ve done your bit. You’ve reminded him you’re always there for him. That you’re his woman. And, fair exchange, that he’s your man. D’you see?”

Then she gave June her warmest smile, and hugged her.

“That’s if you really love him, mind. If you really want to keep him by your side.”

Then she released June and turned away, adding, “’Course, not all men are worth it. Not worth taking that much trouble. Don’t forget that, neither!”

And that was the sum of Rea’s marriage advice. June had been too stunned, at her mother’s frankness as anything else, to ask questions.

Now Dart was telling her they had to stop. He didn’t say Brand had spoken, ordered more like; he didn’t need to. She knew more children would be a problem. She could see how the level in the meal box was dropping lower and lower and they weren’t even past mid-summer. They could fill up on berries and soon a few of the apples would be ripe, but how could she bake bread if they had no meal left? And what would they live off in the weeks before harvest-time, if he didn’t have luck catching fish and dropping wildfowl? Every time she visited her mother she took a good look at what Rea and Crow had left in their press, and saw they were no better off.  

But how was she supposed to push him away, when he said he couldn’t help himself, that it’d surely be alright just once in a while, if they counted the days right and could expect her bleeding was about to start. 

And now she could tell. It wasn’t alright. Or it was alright, if you loved carrying new life, a whole new person by this time next year. She knew she had taken, recognised the signs, the lightheadedness, the feeling sick first thing in the morning.

She paused at the doorway of their cabin and looked out across the common yard. She moved her hands to her hips and flexed her sore back, and looked to the sky for signs of the rain clouds that would spare her having to carry water to her garden. She took a deep breath or two and savoured the smell of vigorous growth of vine and leaf in the squash and bean patch. The alders and hazel they grew for coppicing were long past blossom-time, but their leaves were a fiery red and gold. Blackbirds and thrushes sped back and forth across the clearing, their singing frenzy rising above the shouts of the older children, who were out of sight somewhere down in the meadow. June’s hens were mingling with the neighbours’, but it didn’t matter; they always came back to their own roost to lay. She could see three of her own chickies, playing horses with the other children, it looked like. Where was the oldest, Tam? Tagging along with the bigger kids probably; she knew he liked to get away from his siblings and what he called their silly games. Then the babby cried out behind her, hungry after a long nap, and June went to her, untying her shirt to give her the breast.


She had agreed to it.  When Dart argued it was to protect their children, so they wouldn’t starve in the months ahead, she nodded. Then came the arrangements: talking to the Wikka, who chose a suitable day and explained she needed time to find and prepare the special kind of lily roots and wormwood rue; getting Rea to agree to mind the children for however long it took; and persuading Brand to donate a sturdy young hen to pay the Wikka, since they had no fowl they could spare. By rights the preparations should have brought them relief, lightened their spirits to know they were in control. But their hearts were heavy, grieving for the child they would never know. Better a lesser cruelty now than the unbearable one of starving to death later, cast out for their recklessness. It was for the good of everyone, they told themselves, but didn’t believe it.  

But what higher power could allow this misery, let people reproduce to excess, beyond what their stock and crops could sustain? Death, sickness, accidents, fires and floods, even murder: after talking to Brand and Crow and the elders Dart could see some point to these, if he thought about it hard enough. Take sickness: it happened to plants, animals, fish, maybe caused by some disorder in nature – a flood or drought, say – so why not to humans too? But creating so much of a thing that you then had to go around destroying some of it for your own good, that made no sense. And now there was this new religion, the one the monks had brought with them and tried to explain to the village, a religion they’d heard was spreading forcefully from far away in the East, from countries said to be hot and dry beyond any Englishman’s conceiving. From what the monks claimed, this religion would protect every child in the world, wherever they were born. They said it was so powerful that even if a great throng of people gathered and needed fed, this could be managed with just a handful of loaves and fish. If you were baptised and believed. Imagine! No more hunger, enough for every mouth, no matter how many! 

Perhaps Dart and June should have visited the monks more often, tried harder to catch this new faith in all its power. But it was too late now; the seed was sown, sprouted, and growing. At least she couldn’t feel any quickening yet.  


When the older children had finally fallen asleep, he could leave them and the babby in Rea’s care. He promised Rea he’d not stay; he’d just see if June was well enough to walk home with his help. Then he’d come straight back. He hated the idea of her being away from them all, even for just one more night. He was heart-sore, he wanted her home so badly. 

It was a bare half mile to Wikka Ash’s shelter in Nether Woods. He hadn’t been there more than a couple of times, and tonight the low and waning moon gave little light, but he covered the distance fast, a lover’s speed. Rea had reminded him the cabin was half-hidden by a blackthorn copse, and that helped him find it at last.

When the Wikka sees him at her door she sniffs and turns back into the room. “Well, the encumbrance is gone. Don’t have to worry on that score,” she mutters, almost defensively.

He wonders why she has put it like that; is it to remind him she has earned the agreed payment?

“But your woman has taken it badly. She needs a good long rest.”

“Well, we knew she’d be upset about it, never really saw the need.”

“Not like that,” the Wikka says, irritated by his typical man obtuseness. “I mean she’s poorly, gone a bad colour. And I can’t get a word out of her.”

“Let me see her.”

The Wikka sighs and tries to make him wait. “It’s not thought a good thing: the father interfering when the mother is recovering.”

“Not interfering, God damn and blast you! I just want to see her and talk to her.”

The Wikka reluctantly stands to one side. As he moves past her into the darkness of the sleeping area at the back of the room, she mutters: “Past talking, I reckon.”

He hears what she has said, but because in the gloom he is struggling to find his way beyond a table and a clothes basket and her sleeping dogs, he doesn’t properly attend to it.

Now he is standing over a low platform where a body is lying flat on its back and perfectly still, the face white as candlewax, eyes closed and the mouth gaping open in an expressionless downward curve. He doesn’t recognise it is June, cannot believe it is her. For a long time he is unable to move or speak.


The first days after the burial, there is plenty of help. Neighbours mind the children, share their meals with them, make sure the hens and pigs are fed. Brand asks Dart what help he’d like, says he’ll help any way he can. Dart wants to strike him, tell him how much he hates him, but what use would that be? Instead he looks away and mumbles they will manage somehow. Eventually Brand leaves.

But it isn’t true, about managing. When Dart goes to Rea and Crow, Crow reminds him that they are getting old, don’t have the health or energy to take on much, that they’ve got June’s sister and her children to think about too. And June’s sister is no help at all, hadn’t even been well enough to stand by the grave for the length of the ceremony. As soon as she had scattered her bunch of marigolds on her sister, she had staggered back to her hut.

Dart moves through the days like a ghost, a beaten dog. He stops speaking. It is a great effort to get up, move his body through space, and get the chores done. The eldest, Tam, keeps asking “Where’s Ma gone, Pa?” The next ones down watch alertly for his answer, while the youngest ones put up a barrage of pleading and crying. Dart just looks at them all, stony-faced, as if he knows no more than they do. He is good for nothing in the way of work, and Brand and the other men leave him be for the meantime. In the mornings he stares at the cold embers in the hearth without seeming to recognise them; he has no memory of the pleasure he once felt at striking flint and creating sparks that brought scraps of tinder fiercely to life. Tam brings him the stones, then tries to get a spark himself, over and over.

Some days Dart eats nothing, does nothing but walk aimlessly in the woods. He seeks out a particular old oak that has become surrounded by holly and yew. One limb of the oak came down years ago in a storm, and there’s little leafing out on the other branches. He can see into the trunk, where grubs and birds and rain damage are hollowing the tree from the inside. It’s not even worth felling, the timber too damp and rotten for the workshop or the fire. That’s me, he thinks. He talks to no-one, stands by the river often, but is unable to think clearly enough to form a plan to walk into the water and let himself be swept away and be done with it. He stays out in all weathers, careless of what he wears, as if willing the elements to inflict a sickness upon him. If there’s any food left when he returns to the cabin at night, he eats quickly, tasting nothing. Now comes his only comfort, when he lies down to sleep among the children, their warm bodies wrapped around him, meaty restless blankets that cough and snuffle and rise and fall to their own rhythm. 

Neighbours and kin share what food they can, especially when they hear the children wailing. Rea comes when she is able, washes their hands and faces, checks their grubby clothes for any large tears or caked-in filth. As the days turn to weeks, the children grow restless. They quarrel often, and sleep fitfully at night. There is more hitting and crying. The other children begin to avoid them. Everyone says it’s a shame and a sadness and can’t go on. But it does.

When autumn is turning to winter, on a day the monks have told everyone should now be called All Hallows’ Day, Dart and his children have a visitor. It is one of the older monks, Dart doesn’t know his name. He says he is come with a proposal. Behind him stand Nora and Larch.

About Michael Toolan

Michael Toolan taught English at universities in Singapore, Seattle, and latterly Birmingham UK, where he now lives and writes fiction. Two recent stories appear in Scottish Arts Trust anthologies: A Meal for the Man in Tails (2021) and Beached (2022). He Is revising a second novel while seeking representation for his first. He is a member of Tindal Street Fiction Group and Writing West Midlands' Room 204.

Michael Toolan taught English at universities in Singapore, Seattle, and latterly Birmingham UK, where he now lives and writes fiction. Two recent stories appear in Scottish Arts Trust anthologies: A Meal for the Man in Tails (2021) and Beached (2022). He Is revising a second novel while seeking representation for his first. He is a member of Tindal Street Fiction Group and Writing West Midlands' Room 204.

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