This extract is from a novel in progress and is set during the 1600s, in New England.
A fortnight before the birth of my brother, mother woke me with a silvery whisper. I had, since she had grown heavy with lethargy and child, taken the habit of watching over her in her sleep. I would wake to the stillness of the house, well past midnight. Rolling from bed, I would crouch to quiet the filling of the chamber pot before I would crawl in silence from my quarters to my parent’s, rising slowly to my feet, holding my breath at the threshold of her chamber, watching. I would see her lying next to father, covered by the rough rhythm of his breathing, the curve of her belly outlined in moonbeam striping from the warped gaps in the shutters, fastened against the night. Most often she slept through each night in total blackness, a sudden snore or shushing hiss from father, startling me as I stood vigil, would inspire no movement from her. The way she eased herself into bed at an early hour, tired to her bones after a day of soft labor, tending to smaller, gentler tasks with each passing week, I knew she would rest deep and unmoving until moonlight would set, give way to first of day, ready to greet the rose of her cheek with its own. And yet I moved silent as windless snowfall for her. I stood sentinel until satisfied her sleep would remain undisturbed. Only then could I return to my own bed, to the warmth of the coverings I had abandoned for my nightly guard. Settled again, I would join her, another stony sleeper, dreaming oblivion until the cockerel warned of coming day.
After months of obsessive keeping, my vigilance faltered. Mayhaps I had grown lethargic myself, or what worries troubled me had been reassured by regular repetition. Ah, I had not thought – mayhaps mother had always known. Sweet mother. Sweet sleep, gentle rest.
It was the depths of darkmans. I did not wake, but was awoken. Her voice coaxed me away from the fog of a strong sleep. My child, she said, My heart. My eyes opened. The dark shape of mother felt warm and inviting.
She pulled down the top corner of my covering. Come, little one. I rose, reached for her in the dark. Her hand was there, open and warm. I stood, leaned against her. I remember how cold the floorboards felt on my bare feet. It was as if the wood was glazed in ice. I do also remember, with my hand in hers, somehow, I thought I could feel her smile in the dark.
Without the soft light of the candle, she led me across the hall to her chamber. Father was asleep. I felt a sense of something mysterious and secret unfolding before me. Mother led me to the window. She touched my cheek fondly. She released my hand. I stood still as she unlatched and opened the shutters. I spoke no words.
Mother pulled me closer to the window. She held me tight against her side. I was looking up at her. Her face was beautiful to me, illuminated by the distant lights of the deep. It was not until I had watched her for some time, observed the resolute intent of her staring, that I looked through the window. Above us, the familiar stars were joined by a brilliant comet, stretching its wings across the skew. I was filled with wonder. It was as if she had conjured the sight for us to share. I still do not know how she knew it would be there, sweeping the ether above us. I had not seen it on a previous day or night, but mayhaps she had.
My child, soon you will have a brother. Mother’s voice was softer than the shaking of the stars. I did not know how she knew I would have a brother in place of an infant sister, but as she knew of the comet, so she knew what sex she bore. She waited between words, patient and calm, speaking between father’s rustling breaths. Every word seemed precious to me.
She spoke to me of the night of my birth. She told me golden moonlight glared off the pane of the same window we stood at, minutes past midnight, the night I was born. She said that golden shine made the water and blood slicking the soft folds of my flesh glow cherubic – You were a moonchild, plucked from the darkness, she said, given to light my life. I did not speak. I leaned closer to her, placed my small hand on her belly, a tiny island drifting slow on the curve of a vast globe. It was warm, the closest physical feeling to how she made me feel in my heart. I felt alive and dreamed waking of living forever with her. I felt empty of fear or thought and full of mystery and hope and love. Your brother will be born beneath this star and its silver light. A starry lambkin. I envisioned this child as mother spoke, my brother to be, a soul yet to be lost, waiting for its time to descend from the comet, as I had from the moon. I remember the thought, that we were as moths, drifting through the night, before we were welcomed to these mortal coils. I remember that in that moment it was my first realization, feeling the clear desire that she never die. I wanted her to leave with me on that soaring star and journey together to God. You will be my treasures, my silver and my gold. I did not know then that the comet would return, set in an eternal cycle, a prisoner of the sun until it would diminish into that darkness it once, on that hallowed night, so beautifully interrupted.
Mother spoke no further words. With small steps, she returned me to bed, clinging over the short journey to her side. In bed again, her face hidden from me, I stared at her outline. Words and emotions and a humming warmth mingled in my chest but I spoke not. Mother bent down and kissed my brow. I watched her return to her chamber. I am sure I fell away into warm, dreamless sleep.
As she had said, that same comet was still adrift the night my brother was born, shining its light down, making the ground glow the silver of salmon-scales. Mother had entered into her chambers two nights before. She had stayed in bed since then. I was not allowed to see her during this time. Save father, the midwife and an attendant servant, no other entered therein. During those three nights, I often woke, stood outside the closed door of her chamber. I would wander out and stare up at the comet, remembering the way its light had brightened mother’s countenance. It would depart, but not before leaving a piece of its light for us to hold, I thought, a laughing star it had collected from the deep.
The night of the birth of my brother, the house was full of life. The midwife did not leave mother’s side. Father rushed in and out of the chamber, with pails of water, replenished and warmed by the attendant servant, whirling around the hearth. I watched as father appeared and disappeared in the frame of chamber door, arms draped with cloth one moment, hands empty, held stiffly before him in another.
After what seemed a night lengthened beyond its natural stay, a shrill sound and weak bleating trickled out to me, muffled by the closed door and the low drum of father’s voice. I did not understand the words spoken. It was not long before the aching cries of my brother ceased. Hidden as he was from my sight, my mind filled with imaginings. I felt both a creeping dread and a stiff curiosity rising in me. I wondered if he had departed entire, preferring the flight of comets and the coolness of night to the hot weight of life.
I waited to be called by father but he did not exit the chamber. The midwife was the first to open the door. She walked directly to the attendant servant, spoke to her in hurried whispers, then left our home. I do not remember any one of them speaking to me that night. I sat on my bed and waited.
After a time, the midwife returned with several men. They entered in her wake, no words spoken between them. Together, they bunched their way into the chamber. The first person to speak to me was a young woman, not unlike mother, who trailed behind the midwife and trio of men. She told me that I had a new brother. She told me that he was strong and whole. She told me she was to be his wet-nurse. She told me that mother was no more.
I never saw mother again. I remember the distribution of coins, collected on behalf of the departed, at a flavorless feast waking the corpse. I saw the fine linen shroud that wrapped what I was told was my mother, the crown of dandelions and the last cornflowers of the year, the soft shield of ferns blanketing the shroud. I was given a ring, a skull and crossbones carved into one side, a shaky similitude carved on the obverse. I tossed it with a handful of soil, watched it fall from my hand, land with a dull sound, fall off to the sides of the body at the burial.
There was a body, I knew this, yet I knew it was not her. I was told by a forgotten host of villagers and relatives in the days of mourning that faith was a healer of sore wounds. I found otherwise. Faith was a great and exacting punisher. True faith, not the professorial mask, allowed conversation with devils and divers hungers. It left me to the pain of being tossed from the maw of one beastly dream to another. I thought of her words and I whispered an imitation of her voice to myself when I laid restless in bed. I recalled the dark outline of mother, waking me from sleep to see the comet with her. I prayed that I could wake her then, from what sleep she wandered, to see comets and streaks of rushing light and sunshine with me again. I could not believe she was no more. I heard her quiet steps behind her closed chamber door when the wet-nurse hushed the cries of my brother. I snuck out into the night and scoured the ether for a view of that cursed comet, thinking if I could see it, I would know if it had taken her in its departure, across the heavens, to God. Those thoughts and prayers and dreams were a flame to me in that long ninth year of life, granting me warmth, singeing my grasp when I snatched to possess. As I grew, the feeling did not fade but grew with me, changing as the shifting of a forest from season to season. I hated and found comfort in the knowledge that the eternal void, in exchange for my brother, was filled with another point of soft light.
She has been dead now these many years. In that time, I have spent many nights looking up at the heavens, feeling from time to time that one of that great host was watching me, whispering to me as once she had. My only prayers in my aged heart remain for her, that her soul has not drifted away in darkness, that a softer, eternal night sky, with more dots of luminous light than expanses of ebon-blackness has lit and will light her way. I pray we will meet again.
I later learned that the same comet that graced the birth and death of my blood had led the Holy Magi to the Holy Christ. I learned that its roaring has graced the darkness since creation, from moonrise through moon-shine to the faded-dark Dawn brings, plucking the stars from their place in the indigo robe of Nox just before she rises over her. I have learned that it is an angel, a great destroying angel, keeping its rotation, as sentinel and judge, reminding us of the beauty of burning, foul and fair. I have waited for that glittering besom since it illuminated the wet and wrinkled skin of my brother that first night of his life. And now it is back, setting the axel-tree alight.