People of Letters

Response Gallery

Grace  Nichols

Calling the Caul

Grace Nichols

Calling the Caul by Grace  Nichols Click image for a larger view

Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Accession number: 1907.1.13

Remnant of life behind a museum's glass
what magic powers still inhabit your foetal mask?
You who were once a wet web of mystery
now an objet d'art in this Pitt River's gallery
yet still bearing the signs of birth's hallmarks.

Guardian spirit to the newborn
speak to me of the child's facial form –
the soft pods of eyes
the dreaming lips
the miniature breath
beneath your breathing linen –

Speak to me of the little psychic behind the veil
the clairvoyant in a womb of space
armed with the charm of a lucky amulet –
destined to live a long life and achieve greatness –

They say that these born-with-caul ones
by water can never be harmed
(unlike those unsung souls
who jumped history, mid-Atlantic)
these little caul-bearers
these underwater-survivors, can never drown
but will be borne by the tides safe and sound

For, gifted with the vision of a see-far eye,
they have gathered unto themselves
the amniotic waters of the womb
and kept it as their own heirloom.

Remnant of life behind a museum's glass
Talisman that shadows the child's safety
Protector of the sailor on the perilous seas –
you who once graced the visage of a child's form –
I hear the strains of your newborn's song.


Why did I choose this thin now dried out piece of human tissue known as a caul, as my object to write about from among the many objects on display in the English section of the Pitt Rivers Gallery in Oxford? The Child's caul as it was labelled was spread out under a small piece of glass and although over a hundred years old still evoked for me a sense of mystery with its connection to birth and associations with the sea.

In nearly every culture a child's caul, which is made of the amniotic fluid of the womb and covers the child's head or face, is regarded with awe and as a sign of good luck. Among the superstitions associated with it, is that those born with the caul, the caul - bearers as they're known, can never drown and are gifted with psychic powers.

It's been said, that cauls which are easily peeled back from a baby's face, were sometimes stolen by midwives who delivered babies in the olden days and sold to sailors. Sailors would pay a high price for this charm which supposedly protected them against drowning, their biggest fear. Being born with a caul is apparently a rare occurrence among births. In my poem, I decided to address the caul directly.