This is torture.
Someone once told me that fear of the unknown is a waste of energy, that reality never lives up to the horror that we expect. I wish I believed it. That would mean the hard part is almost over. But as I sit here waiting for the future to knock at the door, every minute that passes only brings with it more certainty that the worst is yet to come.
I’ve been in this cold, lonely cabin with my newborn daughter for a week, watching for signs of abnormality in her. Each day sets me more on edge. There’s nothing to do here but wait, and watch. I’ve cleaned the kitchen, the washbasin, the fireplace and the wood floors a dozen times already, checked on the horse and seen to his needs. When I tried to read a book, the words meant nothing, and so I gave up on that days ago. But the wait is almost over. The Woods-witch will come tonight, though I don’t know exactly what she will do to my child. What I’ve paid her to do, God help me. My chest tightens with panic every time I think of it, and I consider taking my child and riding far away.
The baby cries and a chill rushes through my limbs, propelled by my racing heart, but she’s only wet.
She watches me, calm and curious, as I change her. My husband would tell me not to fuss, to let her be, but he’s not here. I hold her close until she’s asleep again. Watching her deep, peaceful breathing, I can’t help but be calmed.
And I can’t help but remember the last one.
The lost one.
After my son and my first two daughters were born normal and healthy, I thought we’d escaped the curse that plagued the people of Darmid. In spite of centuries of work to rid our land of it, the magic here is often too strong for a young body to survive. Three pregnancies, three children alive at their naming days. . . . I should have known that our luck couldn’t hold out forever. When so many families have babies only to lose them a few weeks or a month later, did we really think that God smiled on us so much that we’d be spared?
At least if we were fools, we weren’t alone in it. Children are everything here, a resource too rare to be taken lightly. A pregnancy is news that brings a tentative sort of joy, but I knew in my heart that this child would be as perfect as the first three.
She almost was. The birth was easier than the others had been, and barely two hours after the midwife arrived at our home I held a screaming, red-faced infant in my arms. The midwife expressed cautious optimism.
“So far she looks strong as any I’ve seen, Mrs. Greenwood,” she said as she cleaned the newborn’s wrinkled skin. She wrapped the baby in a soft blanket and handed her back, and I unwrapped her to count tiny fingers and perfect toes.
“No sign of strangeness,” she added. “You just let me or the doctor know if anything unusual happens. Anything at all.”
I just nodded, too lost in the miracle of new life to wonder what her instructions hinted at.
It was my son who first noticed it. Three weeks after the baby’s birth he came to me, nose wrinkled, asking “Why’s the baby buzzin’?”
I followed him to the nursery, holding my long skirt up as I stepped over the wheeled wooden horse he’d left on the floor. Everything seemed normal. The white curtains danced in the breeze that came through the open window, and hoofbeats clattered over the cobblestone street outside. The room smelled of clean laundry and freshly-bathed baby, and my new daughter slept in the white-washed cradle that had kept her brother and sisters safe through their infancies. I touched her. She stirred, sucked her fat lower lip into her mouth, and soothed herself back to sleep.
“No more stories, Ashe,” I whispered, and ushered him out of the room.
“Not tellin’ stories,” he muttered, but went on his way.
A few days later, I understood that he hadn’t been joking. There was nothing physically wrong with her, but when I held the baby, the hair on my arms stood on end. It reminded me of the air during a lightning storm, frightening and exhilarating. I called my husband into the room and passed her to him.
He frowned, held her closer to his face, closed his eyes. “She looks, feels, and smells like a baby. Nothing unusual about her. Are you feeling well, Lucilla? You look tired.”
I smiled and took her back. “No. It’s just silly nerves, I suppose. My imagination’s running wild.”
He placed an arm around my shoulders and leaned in to kiss the baby’s head, then my cheek. “It’s probably to be expected after what happened to the Sterns family last week. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen here. She’s fine. She’s safe. She’s normal.”
I wanted to believe him, but still the sensation persisted. When I mentioned it to the midwife on her next visit, her lips compressed into a tight line.
“The magic may be acting on her,” she said.
My heart froze. No one talked about it after they lost children. Was this how it began?
“Speak to the doctor,” the midwife advised me. “He might have some idea how to protect her.”
Fool that I was, I listened.
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