I spread my daughter’s ashes on the wind, the grey of her a sand in the white of the sky, then she was gone again.
There hadn’t been much of her to burn.
My Ma had said it was a blessing, of a kind, when I had bent and bled and screamed for the loss. It would have hurt more, had Ann been born, and gone hungry, as all our children do, now our crops are all rotted away. But I couldn’t imagine that, would rather have seen my daughter smile just once than lose her before she’d even had a face, at all.
I stood a while on the hill, or walked; I don’t recall. It seemed that I was there for hours, in the quiet and the snow, and seemed a mere minute, also, time scattered like the dead.
When I came down the hillside again I felt frost gnaw wetly through a hole in my boot that hadn’t been there, when I’d made my climb. I saw, too, loose threads about my dress and shawl, which now were nearly rags, as though I’d worn nothing else for many months, and never thought to darn them.
Under these tatters my belly swelled, of nine month’s fill. I pressed my shaking hands to the dome of it and noted a kick against my palm.
I fell back into the snow, and wept.
I’m sure, then, that I heard voices in the wind, the sweetling chime of bells. It struck me that queer things were said of these hills, that the folk lived there were fond of mischief, and women, and would play upon both, had they the chance. It frightened me that I could not recall having glimpsed such people, nor my time amongst them, which now I was sure I had.
The strange folk had taken my memories and filled the hollow with their child.
I knew not what to make of it, whether to fear, or else be glad. Having nowhere else to go I went home to my parents, who were as thin and withered with grief as by hunger, for they had long thought me lost. Still, only three months I had been gone, and as they looked upon the swollen mound of my belly they crossed themselves, and would scarce speak of my condition.
“Go to England,” my Da told me. “Tis the only way. We can’t feed the thing. It will eat more than the three of us, together.”
But I was too full with child to make the voyage, and knew, besides, that travellers were like to fall, sour and yellowed with disease, on the ships before they reached the docks. So it was that I was trapped in my room like a swollen fruit, waiting for my time to drop.
Day and night sickly dreams tugged me like thread through the eye of a needle. Images came to me of lying on my back in white hills, rubbing grit and soot between my thighs, of chambers cool and gently dark underground, where I knew the sweetness of bread and peaches, as I never had in waking life. Where I endured soft kisses of lips whose shape I could never remember when I opened my eyes again.
There would come a tapping at all the windows when no soul was there, and gifts left upon the sills– money, sometimes, or gemstones my Ma was too afraid to sell, although I urged her to, for all our sakes. I could not move to do it myself, so vast was I with the child that my back near broke in two when I attempted to stand.
Helpless, I watched my parents dessicate, like wasps dry and dead in summer grass. I myself seemed not to hunger at all, as though I had truly eaten of those feasts, in my dreams. Guilt swarmed me, then, for as I gleamed with vitality my Ma and Da edged as near to the hearth as they could without burning to warm their wasted bones.
At last the child came, the pain of it a tide that washed my mind clean with its horror. I watched as if above myself the blood drench my mother’s sheets, the knobbled hands of the midwife folding my silent wain into a shawl. Briefly I thought, in that quiet, I had lost my heart again, and screamed– but then a warmth was pressed into my arms, kicking, ruddy, alive.
My son. My impossible son. He was mine.
Fat as a lamb, he was, his eyes like blackberries, so wet, so dark, so wide. His mouth, crimson as the sheets, was serious, as though he was old the moment he was born, and his hair was pallid, ash, something of his father, who still I couldn’t remember. I loved him as I had my daughter, in an instant, and feared him, as well, for I knew nothing of his origins but those flickers of fantasy that came to me, abed.
My Ma and Da would not come to him. They stood on the threshold of that room, haggard banshees with wrought faces, starved pits knocked between their ribs like fishing holes through polar ice. Looking upon the fatness of my boy– my Ash –they each shook their heads.
“Not right,” said Da.
“Not right,” said Ma, and touched the golden cross at her narrow throat. “It will take all we have. You’ll see.”
I wouldn’t hear it, although I knew the stories of the strange folk as well as they. I could not hate this soft child that loved me, as filled by love as my belly had been with him, and so he became like breath to me.
As the land about us shrivelled and stank with plague we were joy, my son and I, content only with each other. I could watch his face for hours, delighted by its smallest motion, and when I sang to him he was rapt by it, his gaze already sharp, intelligent. Ash was as hungry as my parents had feared, gnawing my teat until it bled, but he did not hurt me, or else I wouldn’t feel it until my Ma shrieked to see the crimson on my blouse.
“Teeth,” she said. “A mouthful of them. Soon he’ll be after our food, as well as the milk, and what then?”
I saw that she and Da were conspiring, for all their pains to keep it from me. They locked scarce rinds and grain away where I could not get at them, but I did not care. Sweetmeats were left on the windowsills by my unseen benefactors, and still I had those glistening dreams that left me ever-full.
I did, however, worry for my boy. He grew quickly, large for his age, at six months old, though dainty as our family’s stock had never been. A child of silence turned suddenly to wails and screams of hunger, and I rocked him for hours, wild with helplessness. I would have kept him at my breast, but my milk had dried through his fevered suckling, and they would never give more again.
Once, desperate, I took an axe and stole into a neighbour’s barn to slay the sole pig I knew was hidden there, having heard it grunt and squeal, from afar. It was as thin and rangy as a street dog from lack of feed, but still I cut its throat and carried it home to sate my ravenous child. Even the blood I drained and fed to him, through a rag; Ash took it greedily, his soft mouth ichorous, and full as a moon at harvest.
The neighbour did not come to demand we pay for the sow, although they knew from the trail I had left behind that I had taken it. They, like all that lived near us, feared my unnatural child, and would not come near the house, drawing themselves inside with prayer when they saw me walking with Ash in my arms.
One morning, from a high window a rifle shot came, glancing my shoulder by a hair’s breadth. Within a day the home from which it had come went up in flames, dry brick and thatch razed to char before anyone cut put it out.
With this attempt on our lives I withdrew even further into my fear, anticipating that my son would be snatched from me as surely as my girl– my Ann –had been. It was not the neighbours I suspected most, but Ma and Da, who had grown, through their superstitions, to hate their grandchild, who they saw as no relation to them at all. They watched Ash as they might a cunning rat, their flat eyes avid.
I pitied them. Their flesh was now so spare that their mouths and fingertips were grey as slate, and I wondered, often, how they had gone on for so long and not died.
Their hunger made them cruel.
There came a night I awoke, wrenched up from the pleasantness of underhill dreams to the sense that something was not right. Opening my eyes a fraction I saw my Ma in my room, a withered wraith, stooped low over Ash’s cradle. I saw, in her hands, the pale bloom of a pillow, pressed down upon the face of my child.
At once I sprung at her, dashing her frailty against the wall.
“Are you mad?” I whispered. “What have you done?”
Thank God, my son still breathed, although he was quiet with shock, his black eyes pensive.
“Can you not see what it does to us?” Ma hissed. “As your father and I weaken it grows strong, and fat. The creature, its kin– they only keep you well so that it has someone by its side, to protect it. Will you let us die for a changeling’s sake?”
“No one is to die,” I said, but I wondered, as she said it.
The the ashes on the hill had been remade as a child, again, as though feeding some hungering magic. Death was life, and life death, a chain the strange folk ran through their hands as easily as daisies. Was my parents’ health the element that kept their young one alive?
Whatever the case, I knew my boy and I could not stay in the house, or anywhere in the village, where folk did not want us. I made up a bag of things and swaddled Ash in a sling on my back, striding out with him across the fields, up to the hills. No goodbye did I give my Ma and Da, who watched, as solemn as ghosts, from the doorway as I set off in my patched old boots. It seemed to me that they had long gone away, leaving only poppets of their places, corn and thread.
Callous I was in my love for my boy, mean, and vicious as hunger. Nothing mattered but to see him safe, and feeling his wriggling warmth at my back was all that drove me up through the grassy peaks that had one worn coats of snow.
I wandered about gloom in stumbling arcs, ashamed that I did not know how to summom the folk that had given me my child. Hoarsely I called to them, begged that they open up their warrens again and take me, this time forever, me and my lovely boy.
Sometimes I thought I caught a glimpse of some wan figure. Sometimes I thought I heard a silky laugh, or footsteps in the grass.
But no door parted to me in the darkness, and at last I knelt in defeat, bringing my child out of his sling, into my arms. I rocked him, and whispered into the velvet of his arched ears that he would never want for food again, he would see. He must be patient.
Presently Ash tugged at my dress with one rounded fist, and by chance a gleam of moonlight found his eyes. He peered up, alert, past my shoulder, and again I heard some rustling movement, close behind me, a tread so heavy that it could only be a man’s.
“Dadaí,” said Ash, softly.
How sweet, the first word of a child.