Crib

The tired man sat with his back against the hard ridges of his daughter’s cradle, struggling to keep his eyes open. Within the crib the child moaned in her sleep, but did not wake.

Mortem was glad. He didn’t like Ilsa to rise until the sun did, for fear of what she might see or hear in the hours before. She would not understand it, of course, but she would remember, and Mortem didn’t want any more of the infant’s youth to erode in such grim shadow.

He stared into the dark corner of the room, where his visitor stood, as always, she who should not be heard by his daughter. She stooped with her back to Mortem, still, quiet, the funeral hush of stale velvet and dead flowers. Or of a boat stranded, circling, at sea.

Mortem coughed and shuddered. The Lamia wore a wreath of elemental cold in even the most oppressive summer; now it was a blade across the wrist of the night’s crisp frost, cutting to the bone. It could not be seen in the air, unless one counted the pearly billow from Mortem’s own lungs, but it, too, had a sort of presence, and it was all he could do not to shrink from it.

“Is it you?” he asked, of the dark.

She did not answer, but he knew the jag of the Lamia’s silhouette against the moonlight, the way its edges shook with a sort of feral hunger. Mortem had seen her every night since Ilsa was born, and had memorised the knobs of her spine and the exact angle of the sunken head like syllables of some foul poetry.

Only once had he glimpsed her face. A night his throat had run dry of the stories he always told to keep himself awake, and his eyelids, bereft of a distraction, shivered near-closed, and she had turned- but Mortem couldn’t remember what she had looked like, only the cold, grasping terror of how close his failure had come.

Another three months and these vigils would be over, Mortem told himself, squeezing a tightened fist until it squeaked. The vigils would end, and he could forget about the Lamia until Ilsa had grown, and must know the truth before she whelped her own child. But that time was far away, and all that mattered now was waiting her out while his back and shoulders locked and the lack of sleep drove him half-mad.

At last 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 the air before rain, and cringed; she would be back again by nightfall.

Mortem rolled the crick from his neck 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. It was a pure thing, that ignorance, pure and sweet. Gently Mortem reached out to touch Ilsa’s downy cheek with one coarse finger.

“There goes another night, little one.”
The bedroom door created open and Mortem’s wife entered, tousle-haired and dull-eyed with sleep.

“All’s well, Ana,” said Mortem. “Go back to bed.”

“But I see you so little,” she said, putting a hand to his stubbled jaw in the same way that he had touched their daughter.

“All day you’re out at sea, then when you come home all you want to do it eat and sleep until darkness falls. Your workmates are more a wife to you than I am.”

“It’s not going to be forever, love. And you could sit up with me, if you wanted to. We could face the night together.”
Ana winced, her face closing against him.

“No. I can’t stand it. Her. I’ve been thinking of bringing a priest to the house, you know, or a wise-woman-“

“Don’t do that,” said Mortem sharply. “It’s been tried before, and it only makes things worse. Why do think I don’t just stand up and chase her out? Strange things happen if you meddle with things like her.”

“They’re happening already.”

Ana fussed around the cot, picking at Ilsa’s blanket. Her thin fingers shook like those of a rheumatic old woman.

“You said she’s only supposed to visit at night, your Lamia.”

“Yes. Every night until Ilsa is a year old. That’s how it’s always been, as long as we’ve had the curse in our family-“

“Not anymore.”

A vein coiled like a worm in Ana’s temple.

“I see her at the front gate, sometimes,” she said, in an abrupt, stilted voice. “When I come back from running errands in the village she- she’s there, just crouching there, like something half-dead and crawled up out of the sea. You’ve never warned me of that.”

A feeling of slippery unease moved 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. One of us must work. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“But what if she tries to take Ilsa? Or-“

One slim, white hand raised to still his panic.

“She’s always gone by the time I get to the gate. If she could take the baby, she would do it. I think she- she looks for you there, Mortem.”

Mortem nodded tiredly; this would not surprise him. There were many stories as how the curse attached itself to his family, each as damning as the next.

Some told of a distant ancestor who had ravaged a woman on some faraway Isle, incurring her vengeful spirit to follow him home across the sea and take his firstborn from him. Others detailed a captain who, having abandoned his pregnant wife to the perils of his sinking ship, found himself hunted by she who had still-birthed their whelp into chill depths when he attempted to begin his life anew.

Whichever of these tales was true, if any, Mortem could not pick at the Lamia’s wrath; he only wished that he could soothe her, and save them all from misery.

“It is my curse,” Mortem said, at last, and leaned forward to kiss Ana’s cold brow. “Let the old one search for me, if that is all that she can do. I’ll get us through this. Don’t worry any more.”

The following weeks passed as they always did, cleaving to the same drudging routine. By daylight Mortem chapped his hands on nets as he and his workmates dredged the black, barren ocean for some scant catch, listening to the muttering of the waves and gulls screeching across a pitiless white sheet of skyline.

He had told the other sailors of his life, once, but they had only stared at him, thinking it no more than a stammered folktale.

Since then Mortem had kept his silence, and was comforted that this, at least, was a thing that would not change.
When the fishing was done he would trudge home and look at the gate, waiting each time to see the creature like a drowned woman there, all tangled hair and wet rot.

But it was only in that same moist corner of his daughter’s room that the Lamia appeared to him, and slowly Mortem began to suspect that, for whatever reason, Ana had lied about those daytime visitations, or had left something of them unsaid.

It would not be the first time she had betrayed him, after all. Mortem had come home too many times to rings of salt around the front door of the house, broken shells on windowsills, prayers etched in chalk on the walls. Each time he would throw the charms away or scrub out the words, but it didn’t matter, for those nights it was always harder to stay awake, and he would turn in anger upon his wife and her cack-handed magic.

“You understand what happens if I sleep, or if you make her angry? You must not break the rules, Ana. Listen to me.”

But his wife was a girl still, fifteen years younger than he, and stubborn as a unbroken horse; Mortem knew that it did no good to resent her. But as of late he could not help himself.

During his night vigils Mortem often heard Ana stir in the room next door, pacing a fractious route up and down the floorboards, yet she never joined him in his watch, and Mortem had long given up hoping that she would.

God, he wished that he didn’t have to do it alone. The abject stillness and watchfulness of the dark nursery was getting to him. Mortem found himself flitting through waking half-dreams, dreams that he’d dragged a net full of rotting infants from the seabed, that he was guarding a cradle full of trodden black snow instead of a child.

Each time Mortem would jolt fully awake again, his eyes rooting to the Lamia, her haggard form having inched a step closer.

He dreaded to think what would happen if she touched him. There were times that he got the sense that she wanted to, just as much as she desired to take the child.

The final night of Mortem’s watch came after what felt like a decade of such haunted hours, by which point he was sallow and trembling with exhaustion. He sat with a pot of black coffee and a lit lamp beside him, hoping that such companions would fend off the clawing of slumber.

Still he felt his eyelids 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 that remained between him and sleep. He’d heard stories of uncles and cousins giving in just minutes before the long year was done, not even realising that they had failed until they woke and saw the empty cradle beside them.

Mortem wondered how many children had been lost before the parameters of the curse were understood; the Lamia never said a word to explain herself, or if she did then he had never heard her.

He stared at the creature’s back, the anonymousness of it somehow more unnerving than the fish-eaten hole of her face had been. He wondered what she thought, if a thing like her could think, 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’ll 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, already knowing she would not answer. “Make them 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, a floating capsule on an arm that was not his. The fourth time his head dipped Mortem jerked back up to find the Lamia crouching only inches away from him, her breath dank on his face, her features indistinguishable in the dark now that the lamp had died down.

With a hoarse shout Mortem shrunk back, hands crossed before him, for all the good it would do. The Lamia peeled herself away from him like a wet leaf and returned to her place by the wall.

She did not walk so much as undulate, her shape throbbing like the feeler of a black anemone in some ocean trench. Not a corpse, nor even a ghost, then, this Lamia; she was something strange and sickening alive.

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 pulling him down had snapped away, and although it was still dark it was then that Mortem knew he had won.

But it was only when daylight crowned the windowsill that he put his face into his hands and cried, great, rough sobs that burned on their way of him.

Wiping his eyes on the backs of his hands Mortem slowly stood up and leaned into Ilsa’s crib. He lifted her up and began to rain soft kisses all over her wispy scalp. She awoke grudgingly, mewling at the disturbance. Her fat fists coiled about the sweat-soaked front of Mortem’s shirt, and he held her against him, breathing the milky scent of her with an almost greedy fervour.

Then he carried the infant to his own room where Ana was already sat up in their bed, waiting for him.

“She’s gone,” said Mortem. “It’s done. We can sleep again.”

“Yes,” said Ana, dully.

She barely looked at Ilsa, staring past her at the wall. The woman’s face was as grey as a dead man’s tongue, and when Mortem touched her shoulder she flinched away.

“Ana. I know it’s been hard. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too.”

At last Ana relaxed, allowing him to draw her into a kiss. She tasted unwashed, sickly, but Mortem supposed that his breath wasn’t much better. He kissed her again and again, until he felt her warm to him, convinced himself that she had.

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 that 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; upon realising her course was late and her bilious grew bilious Ana only shook her head.

“Why did any of your family marry and have children?” she asked harshly. “How could they, when they knew what would come? How did we?”

Mortem, dismayed, found that he could not answer, nor find the right words to comfort her. As his wife’s belly swelled she otherwise became thin and sallow, her shoulder blades like cuttlefish bones, her wedding ring spinning loose on her finger.

A doctor Mortem brought to the house diagnosed Ana with melancholy, advising she eat more and rest, neither of which seemed to make much difference.

Ana spoke very little, now, if at all. She only shivered and cried, withdrawing so far into herself that Mortem paid a nursemaid to watch Ilsa, not trusting Ana to manage alone.

The day their son, Arne, was born Ana’s bleak fearfulness veered into sudden hysteria. She clutched at Mortem, her face a pitted horror.

“Promise me you’ll watch Arne like you did with Ilsa. Promise me.”

“The Lamia won’t take him,” said Mortem, shocked by the suddenness of Ana’s grip. “She is done with us. She’s never taken a second-born child- I don’t know why, but that’s the way it’s always been. That will not change now.”

Ana shook her head and leaned in close, her sunken eyes glossy with the zeal of a sinner confessing to a priest.

“Please. I’ll never ask for anything else from you. Only this.”

Mortem felt helpless to deny her. It couldn’t do any harm, after all, and besides, Ana would never know if he wasn’t able to stay awake all night. He merely had to pretend, and her paranoid nerves would be satisfied.

That evening Mortem took his old place on the nursery floor, much to the bewilderment of Ilsa, who didn’t remember the days of his watch. Arne, who lay still and peaceful in Ilsa’s old crib, gripped Mortem’s finger with a red, wrinkled hand. Its smallness made him ache.

Ilsa lay awake in her own bed for an hour, stubbornly resisting sleep so as to be part of whatever game Papa was playing. But at last she, too, was snoring, and not long after Mortem fell into his own dreams.

He awoke to the sound of crying in the dark, not a new-born’s shrill but a toddler’s, Ilsa’s. Mortem opened his eyes to see his daughter’s white face staring at him in the dark- no, not at him, past him, into the crib.

“The lady,” sobbed Ilsa. “The lady.”

Fear clogged Mortem’s throat like water in the lung.

He turned so fast that he jarred his spine. There was nobody behind him, bur Mortem didn’t quite trust his eyes to tell him the truth anymore. Stumbling to the crib he thrust his hand within, fingers closing on something wet and soft, then something sharp. Sharp and broken and as delicate as an eggshell-

There wasn’t enough moonlight for Mortem to see what he was touching, but he knew.

In his mind he envisioned the Lamia with her mouth yawning open, a black furrow of pitiless hunger.

The way Isla must have seen her.
Mortem staggered out of the nursery into his bedroom, finding Ana awake in the dark, her thin-fat-deflated form sobbing with miserable heaves.

“You,” Mortem said, his voice as thin and as high and taut. “You knew she’d come back. How?”

He held out his hands, slick with blood and fragments of skull. Ana let out a scream, but Mortem pressed on, repulsed by her grief.

“Tell me why she came back. Why my son is dead. Tell me why, tell me, tell me.”

“Ilsa,” said Ana, at last. “She’s- she’s not yours. There was someone else, another man, just once, when you were at sea-“

“No. No.”

This was another of those murky dreams, surely, dead babies and filthy ice-

“I was ashamed, Mortem, that’s why I didn’t tell you. And it was better, anyway, safer, a child that wasn’t yours…. but then she came anyway, the Lamia, 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

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.

Published by (Not actually a Lady) Ruthless

I'm a 26 year old horror writer! Non binary. Stuck with this domain because I'm lazy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: