Mortem sat with his back against the hard ridges of his daughter’s cradle, struggling to keep his eyes open. Ilsa moaned in her sleep, but didn’t wake, nor would she ever again, if Mortem failed to last since sunrise. That was the only rule, at least the only one that Mortem knew.
He stared into the dark corner of the room where the Lamia sat with her back to him, her neck stooped, listening. If he hadn’t known better Mortem could easily have mistaken her for a pile of dirty clothes, an oddly-shaped shadow. But he’d seen her every night since Ilsa was born and was familiar with the shape of her: wet, black fabric draped over a body as thin as riverweed and shaking with feral hunger.
Mortem had only glimpsed her face once, when his throat had run dry of stories and his eyes hovered almost closed. The Lamia had turned, her motions as quick and twitching as a sandlizard, her flat, lipless features watching intently for the moment sleep came and she had won. But Mortem had raised his voice and found another story in him, something nonsensical about chairs and spindles, and the telling of it had been enough to keep him awake.
Another three months and these vigils would end, Mortem told himself. They would end, and he could forget about the Lamia until his girl had grown and whelped her own child. Every firstborn in Mortem’s family had endured the same curse, a boon some ancestor had brought down upon them all, although what he’d done to earn it precisely no-one was sure.
There was a story that some great-great-great Grandfather had ravaged the pregnant wife of another man and caused her to lose the babe, another that he’d left his own spouse and young children home alone in the heart of winter, the weans starving to death one by one until their mother was left, cold, mad with hunger and vengeful as the ice winds.
Nobody really knew which was true, or if it was some other crime that had brought the Lamia back, generation after generation, a sickness in the blood made flesh. Even her name was something borrowed from a foreign myth someone had heard once and thought fitting, for this ghost, too, was a thief of children.
But Mortem had never cared much who she was, only wished he knew some way to drive her from his doorstep. As it was he could do nothing but wait her out, wait her out while his back and shoulders locked and the lack of sleep drove him half-mad.
Birds began to chirrup and the sky beyond the window lightened to the colour of dishwater. The Lamia, a burr on the dark, was suddenly indistinguishable from the wall, as if the sunlight had leeched her away. But still Mortem felt her in the room, the oppressive damp of air before rain, and shuddered, knowing she’d be back again by nightfall.
Mortem rolled the crick from his neck, wiped down his sweaty palms on his trousers and stood up, his knees popping one after the other in their sockets. In her crib Ilsa smacked her lips and blew a bubble of saliva, oblivious to the ordeal that had been endured on her behalf. Gently Mortem reached out to touch her downy cheek with one coarse finger.
“There goes another night, little one. All this will pass, in time.”
The bedroom door created open and Mortem’s wife entered, tousle-haired and dull-eyed from her own slumber.
“All’s well, Ana,” said Mortem. “Go back to bed.”
“But I see you so little,” she said, putting a hand to Mortem’s stubbled jaw just as he had touched their daughter. “You’re out at sea all day, then when you come home all you want to do it eat and sleep until darkness falls. And even before Ilsa it was more of the same. Your workmates are more a wife to you than I am.”
“It’s not going to be forever, love. You could sit up with me, if you wanted to. We could face the night together.”
“Oh, no,” said Ana, and shuddered. “I couldn’t stand it. Her. I’ve been thinking of bringing a priest to the house, or a wisewoman- I know your family have tried before but…”
“Don’t do that,” said Mortem. “Why do think I don’t just stand up and chase her out? Strange things happen if you meddle with things you don’t understand.”
“They’re happening already.”
Ana fussed around the cot, picking at Ilsa’s blanket. Her thin fingers shook like those of a sick old woman.
“You said she’s only supposed to visit at night, your witch. But I see her at the front gate, sometimes, when I come back from running errands in the village. She never looks at me or the baby. Just past us. She’s always gone by the time I reach the garden.”
A feeling of slippery cold eased down the nape of Mortem’s neck. He looked into Ana’s eyes, searching them, finding them cool and guarded.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“You’re struggling enough. You can’t stay at home with us throughout the day as well as night. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“But what if she tries to take Ilsa? Or-“
“It’s you she looks for, at the gate,” said Ana, flatly. “I feel it. I- I don’t know why.”
“It’s my curse,” Mortem said, softy, and leaned forward to kiss Ana on her cold brow. “I’ll get us through it. Don’t worry any more.”
The following weeks passed as all the previous had, the aching toil of trawling black, barren waters of a scant catch by day, the endless watch by Isla’s bedside at night, each feeling longer than the last. It was as if the Lamia sensed her time was shortening and, thus, supped the wakefulness from Mortem, through the air, through his skin, through the motes of shadow she crouched in.
Although Mortem had looked for her at the gate each afternoon it was only in that same moist corner of his daughter’s room he saw her; he suspected that, for whatever reason, Ana had lied about those daylight visitations, or had left something of them unsaid.
Sometimes Mortem heard Ana stir in the room next door, pacing a fractious route up and down, but she never joined him, and Mortem had long given up hoping she would. The abject stillness and weighted quiet of the room was beginning to get to him. He found himself flitting through waking half-dreams, dreams that he’d fished a net full of rotting infants from the seabed, that he guarded a cradle of trodden black snow instead of a child. Each time he’d jolt fully awake again, his eyes rooting to the Lamia, her haggard form having inched a step closer.
The last night came after what felt like a decade of such haunted hours, by which point Mortem was sallow and trembling with exhaustion. He sat with a pot of black coffee beside him and a lit lamp, hoping the brightness would fend off the clawings of slumber. Still he felt his eyes rolling closed, his head tipping on his neck.
Ramming his spine against Ilsa’s crib Mortem focused on the bruising sensation of wood on bone, the last barrier between him and sleep. He’d been told stories of uncles and cousins lost hours before their first birthday, their parents giving in, having not even realised they’d failed until they woke. Mortem wondered how many had been lost before the parameters of the curse were understood, for the Lamia never spoke to explain herself, or if she did then Mortem had never heard her.
He stared at her back, the anonymousness of it somehow more unnerving than her face had been. He wondered what she thought, if a thing like her could think at all, or if she was all empty hunger and spite.
Mortem was seized by some stupid sleep-deprived whim to speak.
“What if I married you, old woman? I could give you all the children you could ever want. How about it?”
The Lamia turned her head to one side, her mouth opening with a dry crack. It was impossible to say whether it was meant to be some kind of laugh or merely a reflex, like a lizard parting its jaws in the sun.
“What do you do with the ones you take?” Mortem asked, knowing she would not answer. “Make them empty, like you? Or swallow them whole?”
It was like talking to a hole in the ground, or to the sea. The quiet made Mortem want to scream, but he didn’t have the energy for it and besides, he didn’t want to wake the child. He forced himself to sip more of the coffee, the unsweetened acridity making him want to retch. In her corner the Lamia rolled her thin shoulders, a restless motion, as if a spider had run across her back.
Mortem’s head nodded, once, twice, three times, the lure of sleep so strong that he no longer felt real, even the cold metal flask in his hand detached from him. The last time his head dipped Mortem jerked back up to find the Lamia crouched only inches away, her dank breath on his face, her features indistinguishable in the dark now the lamp had died down.
With a hoarse shout Mortem shrunk back, shuddering as the Lamia peeled herself away from him like a wet leaf and returned to her place by the wall. Mortem’s heart was beating so hard that he felt it in his neck and the backs of his hands. He swallowed, his mouth clicking dryly. The leaden grogginess had snapped away, and although it was still dark Mortem knew then that he had won.
When daylight crowned the windowsill Mortem put his face into his hands and cried, great, rough sobs that stung on their way out and tasted faintly of blood. He slowly stood up and leaned into Ilsa’s crib, lifting her out and raining soft kisses all over her wispy scalp. She awoke and mewled at the disturbance, her fat fists coiling about the sweat-soaked front of Mortem’s shirt. He held her against him and breathed the milky scent of her like the first ragged inhale of a man nearly drowned.
Then he carried her to his own bedroom, holding her out to Ana, who was already sat up, awake.
“She’s gone,” said Mortem. “It’s done. We won’t have to think about her anymore, not until Ilsa’s grown. We can sleep again.”
“Thank God,” said Ana, dully.
She barely looked at Ilsa, staring past her at the wall. Her face was as grey as a dead man’s tongue, and when Mortem touched her shoulder she flinched.
“Ana,” said Mortem. “I know it’s been hard. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
At last Ana relaxed, allowing Mortem to put an arm around her and draw her into a kiss. She tasted unwashed, sickly, but Mortem was sure that he didn’t taste much better.
Slowly their lives returned to the way they’d been before Ilsa was born, or in most matters, at least. Neither of them slept well any more, although they knew that the Lamia had gone, and as Ilsa began to walk and sound a few words they kept her closer to them than ever, fearing the day they could no longer watch over her bedside.
When Isla was three years old Ana became pregnant again, quite unplanned. There was no joy in the announcement; Ana cried almost daily, only shaking her head when Mortem tried to comfort her. As her belly swelled Ana otherwise became thin and sallow, her arms and legs jutting above and below her dress like cuttlefish bones, her wedding ring spinning loose on her finger. A doctor Mortem brought to her diagnosed her with melancholy and anxious fixation, advising she eat more and rest, neither of which made much difference.
Ana spoke very little, now, if at all. She only shivered and cried, withdrawing so far into herself that Mortem paid another woman to watch Ilsa, not trusting Ana to manage alone. The day their son, Arne, was born Ana’s insular fearfulness veered into hysteria. She clutched at Mortem, her face transfixed with the zeal of a sinner confessing to a priest.
“Promise me you’ll guard Arne like you did with Ilsa. Promise me.”
“The old witch won’t take him,” said Mortem, shocked by the suddenness of Ana’s grip. “She’s never taken a second-born child. Only the first, remember? I don’t know why, but that’s the way it’s always been. I don’t see why that should change now.”
Ana shook her head and leaned in close to Mortem, her sunken eyes unblinking.
“Please. I’ll never ask for anything else from you. Just this.”
Mortem felt helpless to deny her. It couldn’t do any harm, he supposed, and besides, Ana would never know if he didn’t stay awake all night.
That evening he took his old place on the nursery floor, much to Ilsa’s bewilderment. Arne, who lay still and peaceful in Ilsa’s old crib, gripped Mortem’s finger with one red, wrinkled hand, so impossibly small that it made Mortem ache to look at it. Ilsa lay awake in her own bed for an hour, staring at Mortem despite his gentle commands for her to sleep. But at last she, too, was snoring, and Mortem, too, soon fell into dreams.
He awoke to the sound of crying in the dark, not a newborn’s shrill but Ilsa’s strident peals, unusual for a child who didn’t often cry. Mortem opened his eyes to see her white face staring at him in the dark- no, not at him, past him, at the crib.
“The lady,” sobbed Ilsa. “The lady.”
A huge, sweeping wave of fear knocked Mortem off-kilter. He turned so fast that he jarred his spine, seeing nobody behind him, yet not trusting his eyes to tell him the truth anymore. Stumbling to the crib Mortem thrust his hand within, felt his fingers close on something wet and soft, then something sharp and broken and as delicate as an eggshell.
There wasn’t enough moonlight to see what he touched, but Mortem knew, he knew.
In his mind he saw the Lamia with her mouth yawning open, her pitiless hunger, as Isla must have seen her.
Mortem staggered out of the nursery into his bedroom, finding Ana awake in the dark and sobbing with great, miserable heaves.
“You,” Mortem said, his voice as thin and as high as a woman’s. “You knew she’d come back. How?”
He held out his hands, slick with blood and coated with fragments of bone. Ana let out a scream, but Mortem kept approaching her, his red hands upturned.
“Tell me why she came back. My son is dead. Tell me why, tell me, tell me.”
“Ilsa,” said Ana, through wheezing breaths. “She’s- she’s not yours. There was someone else, another man, just once, a long time ago. When you were at work, so many long hours away from me. I couldn’t tell you. I was ashamed. And then when the Lamia came anyway I thought it wouldn’t matter, that she wouldn’t know, she wouldn’t care, a child is a child. But then when Arne was inside me I- I could tell-“
Mortem doubled over, lowing like an animal, unable to stop himself. So many hours of throwing net and reel into lonely waters for this woman, for his family, a thousand hours being the husband some unnamed ancestor of his hadn’t been- and now here he was, with the blood of his dead child under his fingernails.
“I’m sorry,” said Ana. “I’m so sorry.”
He took a halting step towards her, his right hand seizing her neck. As Ana’s pulse beat against his palm Mortem thought again of the Lamia, how unimaginable such cavernous anger had seemed, before. It didn’t seem so unfamiliar, now.
“Mortem,” said Ana.
Her voice thrummed against Mortem’s fingertips. He closed his fist over throat and began to squeeze until that thrum was still again.