Author's Note: When I wrote the Clopin/Herli stories I really tried to create a whole world for them and cover a significant amount of their lifespan. So a lot changed over those years of their life. This was one that attempted to cover the loss of someone who'd been very important to Herli, and the birth of her last child, at what was in that time, a very advanced age (thirty-three) at the same time, using the themes of death and rebirth.
Yes it's clumsy, it's messy, it's flawed, I would change a billion things if I edited it… but as with the rest, it's been left intact.
Time was running out for both of us.
I could feel it tip toeing, keeping step with our shadows, darting forward every time our attention was diverted to stroke the backs of our necks, than scampering back when we turned around. I was anxious, on edge. She was calm and serene. I feared my day, while she had accepted hers.
I was about to give life and Abigail was about to lose hers.
When I'd learned of my imminent motherhood I'd gone to Abigail, as I always did. It was she who gave me the herbal drinks and soothing ointments to keep up my strength and make my body healthy, and god knows I needed it. It was Abigail who examined my body with soft, cold fingers and experienced eyes, who soothed me through the months of emotional topsy-turvy, and quieted my fears that this one would not be like the others...
It was the first pregnancy I'd had in four years. The first one in more than double that I had not lost within a few months.
When the second full moon came and passed without my shedding blood for her I'd felt a nausea that had nothing to do with my condition. Not again, was all I could think. Please don't let it be once more lost dreams and broken hearts, weeks of preparation only to have them all torn apart with a sharp sting that ended in a stream of blood and tears. I'd gone to Abigail with tears in my eyes, my steps dragging. She'd listened with silent sympathy as I told her my fears, my pain, and asked her to give me the thick, black concoction that would end it all before it had a chance to begin.
"Does Clopin know you're here?" was what she said to me when I'd finished.
I considered lying. But she would see through it immediately.
"No," I said huskily. "Nor does he know I'm pregnant."
She clicked her tongue, not the sharp staccato sound it had been eighteen years ago when I'd come to stay in the Court, now it was thick and worn.
"He'll find out, eventually." she said softly, her back bending stiffly as she folded herself into her chair, whisps of white hair coming loose and floating into her eyes. "You won't be able to keep it secret, and then what will you do, when he learns you willingly destroyed something the two of you created?"
"We've come through worse than that!" I retorted, my fists kneading my skirts where she couldn't see them. "We've overcome all obstacles."
Her sparse eyebrows folded upwards, wrinkles of flesh bending around them. "You want to place another in your path? You haven't had enough?"
Despite myself, rigidly sitting upright with my ankles crossed and my hair thrown back, I could feel the tremble run through my body which led straight into tears.
"We have four children already!" I choked out. "It's enough. I've lost so many, I can't put myself through it again, Abigail. I can't. It's not fair. Not to me, not to Clopin."
With an effort she extended one brown paw to cover mine, squeezing my hand tight, her face creasing with a small, understanding smile.
"Ah, little one. You want, instead, to take the easy way out then?"
"You needn't speak like it is such a crime!" I spat out through tears.
"Oh it isn't! But for you of all people to ask such a thing - ! You do not want even to try? What if this child lives? What if you carry it to term and hold it in your arms afterwards? The pure pleasure of your body's hard work, who will grow up nurtured in your love and loving you. Will you deny yourself that possibility?"
"I could die!" I said defensively. "I almost did, the last time! I have a husband and children who need me, I will not risk it all for a child who will probably be taken from me before I've even set eyes upon her!"
Abigail slowly settled back in her chair, her worn brown face soft in the glow of candlelight, her black eyes shining softly. "Ah, so it is to be a girl, then?"
I started a little. I had not thought if it before then, but it was true - since I knew of this child I had thought of it as a girl. I had known the sex of the four children I had given birth to whilst I carried them in my womb - but not the ones I had lost. My heart went cold, and I stared down hard at the blue fringing of the scarf around my waist.
"It doesn't mean anything." I said softly, and sensed her shrugging her tiny, bird-like shoulders.
"As you say. You wish to go through with it then?"
I took in a gasping breath of air, the sweet taste of incense tickling my throat. It would be foolish to cling to this hope she'd just given me. A false hope. I was clinging tight to the pendant around my neck, the old gift Clopin had given me, the gold of it warming my hands and the silver chilling it. Ah, so strange that. It had been wrong of me to come here without telling Clopin, eighteen years of living as one and I'd not had the courage to tell him...
"I will talk to Clopin about it." I finally muttered.
It would break his heart to lose another child also. And I knew he would want to do what it took to keep me safe and happy. After six losses I could not imagine he would have much faith in a positive outcome.
Abigail did not respond. She was poking at her small fire with a long iron pole, her eyes watery and bloodshot. A withered old hand raised to her mouth as her shoulders wracked with coughs, and it was with sudden narrowed vision I watched her. I had not failed to note she was ageing, my old and dear friend. Ageing intolerably. She had been very old when I had come here, and time had only pulled her further down that unavoidable path. It seemed only a year ago she was tottering busily around the Court, scolding all the young men who put a foot wrong, mixing remedies and being sought for advice of every nature. Now she seldom left the tent, and held audience even seldomer. Certain ointments and powders she always kept on stock had run out and she had not bothered to replace them. She'd given away all the animals she'd kept, and her tent, which she once kept immaculate, was in a state of disarray she seemed neither to notice or care about it. I'd questioned her about it once or twice and always the answer I had was -
"I have no one to keep it pristine for, child."
I'd offered to come by and help her with her medicines and her cleaning, I who hated keeping my own home clean, but she'd laughed at me, a raspy sound and said -
"You have enough to do to keep your own man happy. I'm an old woman, I've learnt over time how to keep myself content."
I hadn't dared admit it to myself, but this sudden disinterest in her had frightened me.
She had not lost her mind at least. It was still sharp as ever, and saw as deeply. She was not plagued by confusions, or small forgetfulness, and I thanked all that was Great for it. It would of terrified me to see it, to see wise old Abigail reduced to just another old woman, with frequent blank expressions, shaking hands, and an inability to do such simple things as make a cup of tea for herself. At least she had chosen her disinterest.
But it had not made it easier by any means. Coming to the Court, a lonely, angry, stubborn and frightened child it had been Abigail who had been solace for me. Leaving my home land of India, I knew I would never see my own maman again, that she was forever on one side of the ocean, and I on the other. She and Abigail were as different as sugar and salt but Abigail had quickly become her surrogate. I'd come to depend on her, not merely as a source of comfort, as a confidante - but as someone who could show me myself when I was facing life's little difficulties, who helped me look inside my own heart and find what I wanted and what I was.
Just sitting there with her as she regarded me calmly through eyes that were bright through the old folds of flesh around them, eyes that were gentle but probing - was hope such a foolish wish? I'm thirty three now, I've learned life can open beneath you when you least expect it. But it can also give generous gifts to apologise.
I sighed a little, the tears long since dried on my cheeks, and rubbed a finger against the soft silky blue of my scarf, it's gold coins chinking softly. I stole a glance at her and she bowed her head once, waiting patiently. I gave her a rue smile.
"I will tell him I'm pregnant. Perhaps I will broach the issue of - of what I came here today for - at a later date."
Her face became dazzling with her smile, her eyes crinkling heavily at the corners and sparkling with joy. She knew she had won already, I was taking my chances with this child.
I laughed a little and tossed my bright skirts up and over my legs, stretching as I stood and shaking my head.
"I should not be sentimental at my age." I said, half-lightly.
"Love forever keeps one soft, and you are blessed with more than you fair share." she said lovingly. "There is not a thing Clopin does he does not indulge in."
"All the better for I and the children!" I bent over her chair to press my lips against her sweet-scented cheek. "Thank you Abigail."
Her smile was crooked. "Thank you, little one." she said softly, and I squeezed her shoulder tight before turning to walk out, skirts whispering against my calves, the swish of the tent flap as I pulled it back and let it drop almost - but not quite - hiding the sound of her voice as she said.
"I did not want my last act upon this earth to be the death of an innocent babe."
How it plagued my thoughts, those words, in the days after! With an effort I held my tongue - she had not meant it to be heard, of that I was certain - but it would not come off my mind. It overshadowed the thoughts of the babby I was nursing within me, made me distracted and distant within my home, although for the most part it went unnoticed. My two elder - Harlan and Lena - were grown up now and living in homes of their own. Lena is to be married soon, and Harlan is a metal worker, a highly skilled one at that. My two younger - Clopin and Ahvel - are with us still, only just ten years old and wrapped up in their shav's world, too young for responsibility, too old to stay at home with their maman.
But Clopin noticed, as he always did, my distress and my preoccupation. After Abigail's final words I had not told him he was to be a papa again, though I am certain he suspected. One evening after too much wine and the children gone safely to bed, he managed to coax my fears for Abigail out of me, then cuddled me while I cried, giving in to those emotions peculiar to motherhood.
"She is an very old woman, kitten." he said soothingly, pulling my hair up between his fingers and letting it slide through them again. "Surely you knew this day would come eventually?"
The truth is Abigail had always appeared to me as omnipotent. The mere possibility of her death was as alien an idea to me as living without my husband.
"Not so soon." I whispered, clinging to him as though I wished to climb inside of his skin, wiping my eyes on his tunic. "Not now." He held me tight and rocked me slow, soothing me with one of his slow, gentle songs, before sliding one hand down to mould over my belly.
"Is that why you have kept silent about this?" he asked me softly, looking me keenly over.
"A time of joy should not overshadow one of sorrow?"
I snuffled sulkily. "How did you know?"
He laughed a little. "A man does not live with a woman for eighteen years and not become accustomed to her body's cycles, kitten."
"Most men don't notice."
"Now, why in the world would you equate I, Clopin the Gypsy King, with most men?"
I smiled at him sadly and rested my head in the crook of his neck, and his hands moved up and through my hair again.
"And how do you feel about it this time, my lune? What did Abigail say when she examined you?"
I froze a little. I did not have to tell him what I had truly gone to her for, true but still -
"She's given words of encouragement. She has had only a positive aura."
He held me a little tighter, the rough scrape of the stubble on his cheek oddly soothing, as was the tangy scent of his skin. "And you, what do you feel?"
"I..." I paused. Clopin would love to be a papa again, and I a mama, but this would be our last opportunity. I knew that. Leave it go any longer and we will not want our peace disrupted by a screaming babby, not after our younger two make their own way, and my womb has never been very fertile anyway... "I want this babby, Clopin. I want to try."
He sighed above my head. "Are you sure? After the last time...I'm not sure I want you to take the risk."
"But you would not try and stop me would you?" I pulled away from him, searching his face frantically and clinging to his arms, my heart thumping hard. Ah, I know I had gone to do the very thing he suggested - but things had changed, and Clopin could be very determined to get his way at times. A half second later and he was coaxing me back with those impossibly strong, slender arms, and those impossibly bewitching eyes.
"No, no." he told me soothingly. "My concern is only for you. If you want to have this child then you know I will be delighted - but not if it is at your risk."
I pushed my face against his chest and breathed in deeply, thinking hard. Oh, I wanted this babby - another girl. Three boys was a blessing from the Heavens - the twin boys had been considered a miracle and for a short while the rom saw me as an excellent wife - but I wanted another little girl, whose hair I could plait and who I could dress in lace and ribbons and bequeath my jewellery to. To teach again about the Moon, our mother, the treasures of home - the fine art of coquetry. To pass on to her, as tradition saw, the stories of her mother, her grandmother, her great-grandmother and so on - all the way down my mother's family into Turkey from where she first came. OH yes, I wanted this babby.
I clenched my fists in Clopin's tunic and kissed his shoulders. "I am sure. I want to take the chance. I want this babby."
"Alright then, little one. I want this babby too."
"A little girl." I whispered to his chest, rubbing my face gently there. "One you can protect again."
His chuckle was slightly dry. His relationship with Lena was strained and had been for many years. We stayed silent for a few moments, I curled up on his lap, and he seated in the centre of our bed, and the soft draperies and flickering candles were at once a caress and a comfort, the heady scent of incense enveloping us completely within our own space, our own world. Please don't let one of the children walk in now, and disrupt it all...
"It will please Abigail..." Clopin murmured into my hair. "...a new life coming to the Court...it will invigorate her again perhaps."
I raised my eyebrows and nuzzled him. So he'd noticed the change in her as well.
"Perhaps it will..." I answered him. "Perhaps it won't."
He sniffed and grinned down at me. "It will. I am sure. She is not done yet."
Not done yet.
Could Abigail ever be done? She was essential to the Court. No one knew so much as her, no one saw so deep. Was she supposed to leave life, to leave us - incomplete? I snuffled again and wiped my tears on Clopin's tunic. He tickled me under my ribs, a terribly sensitive spot, then laughed again when I batted him away.
"Come here, my one, my lune" he coaxed me tenderly, laying me down on the bed and holding me close.
I pulled away a little. "Abigail said it is dangerous for you to lie with me now, after all the troubles I have had. Not until the babby is born and I am healed."
He nodded, hair rustling the pillows. "The gajo say to be rewarded, one must abstain from pleasure. I suppose it is true in this instance. Still," he sighed and rolled onto his back, stretching his arms up high. "It will be a long nine months."
I mimicked what he was doing, stretching my arms up high. They were not as long as his, and my hands were terribly small in comparison.
"Seven until the babby is born. But then it could be at least a month before I am healed. Perhaps longer. I will be tired and old, probably I will have hideous wrinkles and saggy breasts. You will no longer want me. You will turn from me in disgust."
He reached a hand over to mine and grasped it, covering it tight. "You ridiculous little thing. The rubbish that pours from your mouth could put shame to what litters the gutters of Paris!"
I grinned at him. I knew it was rubbish, but I so loved it when he swore I was all that could inspire him...if you understand my meaning.
He rolled back to me and pulled me tight to him again, dropping kisses on my cheeks and eyelids, sparkling gifts I accepted happily. "There are ways to get around this difficulty. At any rate, my primary concern is your comfort. You'll truly be esteemed as a queen for the next year or so, I imagine."
"That sounds suitable." I agreed with him smugly. "And is only what I am deserving of."
He pinched my rear mischievously. "Only so your hair will not turn grey and your tits saggy."
I whacked him hard and he apologised, laughing. Then he became grave again, his mouth straightening, his eyes fixated on my mine. "Herli - if there are any difficulties - if you are ever sick or in pain - I will make Abigail stop it." he hushed my protest before it could be said, a swift kiss "I do not want to do that - but I will if I feel you're in danger. If I have to choose between you and the babby both - dying - or simply the unborn babby - then I choose the latter. You must realise I will not change my mind on this matter."
I pouted, and could feel my eyes swim with tears again. Ah, he was being protective and decisive again - unfortunately that also entailed an almost unbearable domination. He laid the law down rarely - but when he did, that was the end of the subject. He covered my face with soft kisses again, sipping up my tears and rubbing my back and shoulders.
"Do what Abigail tells you" he said to me solemnly "And it will not be necessary, my kitten, my love."
When did I ever not do what Abigail told me? One knew her advice was always solid and the best one could do would be to follow it. And follow it I did.
I began the next day, going to her tent to be administered ointments and potions - after four children I knew very well how to care for my body - but Abigail was, as I said, comfort - not to mention she had everything I needed.
And it would seem Clopin had been right. She greeted me, not from her chair, but by the entrance to her tent when I arrived, a smile wide and welcoming on her small brown face, her hair brushed back and plaited neatly. Oh it surprised me! But gladdened me too!
"Rub this on your belly to avoid stretch marks, little one." she said informatively, jars and bottles clanking busily against one another as she rumbled through them.
"I know that, Abigail."
"Shush. Take this after meals and this after drinking wine - that way it will not go to the babby's head. Many babbies have been born with the fatal taste for alcohol because their dajs did not control themselves."
I sighed with a smile, and accepted it. She knew I knew all of this - why then was she telling me? In fact, the second time I had become pregnant she had expected me to remember everything from the first time. But she was moving now, moving freely, not seemingly fettered down as she had been before, and so I let her, obediently nodding and holding my tongue.
She pushed me down onto the cushions in front of her chair, and took up my smooth pale hands in her withered brown ones.
"I think you should try and stomach some meat as well, Herli."
I suppressed a shudder. I did my duty in preparing the carcass of chicken and cow for my husband and my children, but the thought of eating it myself was repulsive to me. I shook my head decisively.
"No, no. I will eat oats and milk and cheese. That will have to do. I will not eat meat."
She clicked at me, it was sharper this time. "Wilful child!! Oats, like the horses?"
I whinnied at her cheekily and she laughed, raspingly, clapping her hands together with a sound like dry leaves.
"Ah! Well, you have given me something to do with my final days!"
I started. "Don't say that, Abigail." I said uncomfortably. "Don't speak nonsense like that."
She chuckled again, black eyes sparkling with amusement. "Nonsense, the young one says! Well! Such nonsense is simply the facts of life. I thought my time would end with me sitting each hour away, merely waiting and growing bored with the waiting - but no. Good Fortune has sent a new babe and her mother in my path to care for. New life, new joy! I will leave this world happy and fulfilled."
I stood up and stomped my foot, every piece of jewellery on me clanking angrily against the other. "Stop it! Stop saying that!!" my voice wavered on hysteria and she looked at me with surprise, with my red-rimmed eyes and my clenched fists. How quiet and calm and clean she seemed, all bundled up amongst the rugs of her chair.
"Now Herli," her voice was chiding. "You're a grown woman now. No tantrums. You may not like it, but it is the way things are. I am not upset about it, and nor should you be. Don't you see? You have given me my final duty. When this babby arrives safe and sound in your arms, then I am done."
Then she is done.
What a jolt it gave me. I wondered if she and Clopin had been speaking privately. I cursed them both and then took it back. I railed at the coloured ceiling of my tent then cried to the cushions strewn on its floor. How self-possessed she was, as if it didn't even matter.
So it went on.
She was resigned to her fate, and I refused to accept it. The months were evidently in a hurry - both to bring my babby into the world, to take Abigail from it. How they flitted past, easily, sneakily, so I did not even realise that I was then in my third, then fourth - now fifth.
She came alive once more, my Abigail, more alive than she had been in a year. With each month that passed saw her yet more lively still. She slowly tidied her tent, allowing me to fold away her old shawls, to straighten her ornaments, to collect her herbs. She brewed again, even once or twice allowing visitors to ask for advice and fortunes read. She sang with me, old wavering szgany lullabies, we cooed to the babby in my stomach, and fancied she cooed back. I translated the Hindi carols my mother had trilled and she laughed at my simple rhymes
"For life, for you
For love, it's true
My child, be with me,
My child, go swiftly,
My child, for you I dream,
I dream, I do"
But when we finished this simple lilting melody, we both sat silent, hands folded in our skirts, and sighed.
She still moved so slowly - but it seemed with more energy. Her old rasping cough still wracked her shoulders - but for not so long. She asked more often about my children and Clopin, something she once always used to, then had stopped doing.
Altogether she was possessed of more energy, more vigour - more purpose.
We ate oats and drank concoctions of milk and herbs together, gulping them down greedily. We railed off babby names one by one.
"Valentina." she said to me cheekily
My least favourite woman in the Court. I sneered "You must be joking. Persephone."
"Too romantic. Francoise."
"My, that brings back memories!" Lovely, lovely Francoise - I missed her. "Francoise is a possibility .But one Clopin will protest. Papusza?"
"Clopin will treat her as a doll, no need to name her as one. Lorelei?"
"A name fraught with ill-omen. Name her as a lorelei and the men will see her as one. Eva!"
"Somewhat too fraught with cliché."
"So it is."
So it went on.
I eased into this pregnancy. I did not have the dizziness, the hard heaviness or the frightfully tender stomach I had with the ones I lost. It was difficult on me, yes, very. But the future seemed rosy. Slowly, I lost my nervousness, my apprehension. I planned ahead, pulling out what babby clothes from the others would do, sewing news ones as need be. I was not so tired, nor so pale. Clopin was true to his word and indulged me shamelessly and somewhat shamefully. He made a game of it, as he invariably did, getting romantic to the point of sheer silliness, railing off elaborate poems as he arranged the pillows for me and my swollen stomach, presenting my meals with a flourish that belonged to the King's most ridiculous Advisor. He brought my coloured scarfs to wrap around my shoulders and bangles for my wrists and comforted me when I could no longer fit in my favourite dress - seldom worn as it was, being silk and therefore far too good to wear. Still, it was nice to fit it.
Somewhere along the way, amidst Abigail's gummy smiles, cheerful philosophy and words of encouragement I convinced myself the end was still far away, somewhere off on the horizon, not visible against the glare of the light. Somehow I never saw her clutching the back of a chair to catch her breath, the tremble in her walk, or the heady awkwardness which had taken over her speech and actions. Although an aura of tiredness swept over her during the seventh month, she seemed a different woman altogether since I had become pregnant; we two were near to inseparable. The mere stroke of her hand or the scent of her incense upon the air was a comfort, a condolence, an assertion I was not alone in this, here was a woman who'd had so very many children before in her life, and who loved me and was helping me with mine. We no longer spoke of death, or accepting fate. Somehow, I assumed it was no longer happening. She, on the other hand, had simply accepted it and needed to dwell upon it no more.
And so it came that it was my eighth month, and this brings me back to the beginning of my story - and also the end of it.
I entered Abigail's tent one afternoon, late, when the sun in the sky in the world above had begun to fade into the horizon. It had been so very long a time since I seen the sun. I was not allowed to leave the warm safety of the Court during my pregnancies.
She was sitting, cosied in her chair, her eyes soft and glazed over as I entered, waddling gracelessly with my stomach wide and expanded in front of me.
"Almost time, now." she said softly, a strange little smile on her face.
I assumed she meant until the babby was born and I ran my hands over my belly, proud and smiling. "Very soon, less than a month." As time drew nearer, my pulse rate had increased steadily. How could it not, after all the disappointments of the past? Outward certainties were inward doubts. For so long now I had become convinced this birth would be a success, but as the day got closer my apprehension returned. I smiled at her in confidence, however, knowing - and somewhat hoping - she would see through it and soothe my fear.
It did not go quite like that. She started, as though she had not realised I was there, and then nodded kindly on me. "Ah, so you have come... to accept it then? That is well. It makes things... easier."
Still misunderstanding her I laughed sharply and lumbered over to her chair. "I've accepted it for a long time, Abigail. You know that."
She appeared not to have heard me, but continued, her voice quiet and slow. "It is strange...even an awenydd...such as I...cannot always see clearly..."
My heart stopped suddenly before taking on an unsteady rhythm once more. Something was terribly wrong. She was huddled up tight in her chair, appearing smaller and frailer than before, and her breath was shallow. No, no - this was all wrong. But still she went on, not seeing me as I gasped in fright and clutched at her cold hand.
"...I admit...I did not expect it be ...quite like this..."
"Abigail?" I questioned her in increasing alarm, my pulse rate doubled and my skin cold as ice - but still not so cold as hers. "Abigail, do you want me to fetch someone?"
She shook her head slowly, a cold, drawn out movement. She was still with me then.
"Abigail, what's happening?" I pleaded with her desperately, foolish tears already beginning to make their way down my cheeks. I was terrified. The glaze in her eyes had only grown heavier, and her hand was light as a feather, and hard as a block of ice as I clutched in between mine, kissing it and trying to warm it desperately.
Slowly, her head turned to mine and she gave me one of her sweetly gentle smiles, one of the very same that had first enchanted and comforted me so long ago..
"Silly child! You know...you know..."
I shook my head, stubborn as always.
"No! You've been so well lately! It is imagination, I will fetch someone.."
"Silly child!" her voice was hard. "It's over now!"
"I don't want it to be over!" I slammed a fist hard against my thigh and cried out. My heart felt as though it were being wrenched in too. I grasped at her hand again, as though I could keep her here by force of will alone. "I need you! My babby needs you! What will I do if you go?"
Her voice became gentle one more, only half-answering my questions. "Well, it is over...it is true, I thought it would be a few more months...I was wrong...I'm just too tired, Herli. There's nothing left to be done, best to let go."
It was on the tip of my tongue to exclaim Rubbish! Go to sleep, in the morning you will be better! Somehow I could not believe that after the renewed interest she'd been possessed of lately that it should so happen to simply end. But the words would not come, for the evidence was in front of me. She was retreating fast and in upon herself, and nothing I could say would bring her back to me. Desperately, sorrowfully, I darted down close to her ear, clutching her arm as she leant her head back against her chair, her white hair scattered down over her eyes and cheeks, her breath coming shorter still, and sang to her the lullaby, that lullaby we first laughed at, then sighed over –
"For life, for you
For love, it's true
My child, be with me,
My child, go swiftly,
My child, for you I dream,
I dream, I do"
There was a soft whispering sound, like seraphim's bells, and then silence. Fearfully, I raised my head to confirm what I knew.
Her head still rested gently against the back of her chair, the many-coloured crocheted rug thrown over the back of it rubbing softly against her face. It was not the awful, staring death I had seen before, this one was quiet and still. Her eyes were closed, lashes on her cheeks, and her mouth was straight. Her body was completely motionless. She did not look as though she slept. She looked as though she were dead.
My shoulders shook harshly as I began to cry, huddled next to her, first silently then with a quiet whine which pulled itself out of my chest. My fingers dug hard into the little paw I still clutched close, and I bit down hard on my lip. This couldn't be real, surely - how had it been yesterday she had chuckled quietly after her soup with me, then today just drift away so quickly? A spark of memory - her hand shaking as she lifted the spoon to her mouth, the broth running down her chin and the hard lump in her throat as she'd swallowed. I hadn't wanted to see.
Something inside me broke and then my legs were wet. With a wail I leapt back, terror quickly overcoming me so that I stumbled awkwardly and fell down hard. Worse luck! It was pure instinct which led me to scream out in panic, for I had no faith now. I tore at my hair from my place on the floor and sobbed hopelessly at the small brown body in the chair across from me, and accepted that it was over.
I was heard. Once those who had sprung to my aid got over the shock of seeing Abigail, silent and dead, in her chair, they rushed to me. Fearful, grasping hands clasped me up and hurried me back to my tent, whilst others stayed behind to administer to the shell that was left there. Tante Marie bounded in with Tshaliba and began work straight away, mixing herbs and drinks, but I saw straight away that, like me, they held no hope. I had been with a dead woman - at the very second of her passing. Add to that my terrible history, and this babby was considered detlene already.
It was the longest labour I ever had - sixteen hours - and every moment a torture. My babby was arriving early, I could not let myself believe safe and unharmed. The contractions grew closer together and more intense as Tante Marie marched me up and down, back and forth, pressing herb-soaked cloths against my forehead, and they masked my screams as ones of pain and not grief. Someone - Jean I believe - had run to fetch Clopin from the tavern, who arrived in a panic and held me up when I fell against him. When he saw my fear he grew strong for me and coaxed me to have faith. Perhaps if he had had any I could've mustered the belief - but I saw he had given up the babby for dead, and his words, uttered with only the best intentions, did not ring true in my ears.
"She's gone, Clopin" I clawed at his shoulders, crying hard.
"Now, little one, you must not believe that." he proclaimed soothingly.
"Abigail - " I said between sobs. "Abigail is gone."
He pulled me closer, his long features falling down. "Oh, kitten." he said helplessly, and sighed.
Finally, it was time, time again. I was supported over the straw and linen, and stripped of my garments. Again, as he'd done every time, Clopin refused to leave. But oh wonder - they let him stay. He had barely to argue with them. I knew then they feared not only for the babby's life. I clutched his hand gratefully when he knelt done next to me, and he wrapped a supportive arm behind my back. He had stayed the last time also - and had been appalled by what he saw. That he would go through it again gave me strength, a strength I could not find had he been condemned to stride up and down outside of the tent. He pushed my hair out of my eyes and held me up as the pains wracked my body and Tshaliba squatted before me and urged me to push.
Unlike the act performed to make babbies, my body did not grow used to giving birth. Every pain, every agony was as intense as the first time. The smell of blood was as strong on the air, and my sweat seemed to burn through my pores. All I could think of was getting this cursed lump out of me, this empty shell which caused me so much agony in so many ways. It spurred my pushes, inspired my screams. Every time I shut my eyes I saw Abigail's warm black ones in front of me and I screamed again, screamed that she had left and taken my babby with her, both of them gone and never to be again. For a few brief moments, I wanted to die.
A second later and that wish slipped out of me with my babby. It was over. I slumped back, drained thoroughly, gasping for breath and oddly relieved I could now sleep and forget it all. My tired body, which seemed to so hate growing life, was jittering slowly into relaxation, my mind too weary to focus on grief, for either it or Abigail. As Clopin stroked my cheek, I knew Tante and Tshaliba would clean me and care for me, and take away the little corpse before it could reawaken my sorrow. I let out a long breath and fell back further on the straw, letting exhaustion overwhelm me. As my eyes shut and the world washed out, I fancied I heard the first lusty cry of a babby. More likely a griever for Abigail.
When I awoke the tent was dark, and mercifully free of the scent of blood. I was between the cool, soft sheets of our bed, and clean all over. Clopin was seated next to me, his silhouette grey in the dim light, something bundled in his arms. He was speaking softly, cooing, but I could not hear him, groggy with sleep and misery as I was.
"What was that, love?" I whispered, a weak hand outstretched to rub his arm.
He turned to me quickly, bending over to kiss my forehead, my eyelids, my mouth. He was smiling, a true smile. How could he smile now?
"Ah, there you are, kitten. We've been waiting."
I sat up a little, sniffily little sobs escaping my mouth.
"Who is waiting? Waiting for me?"
"I have been. And she has been." He turned around further, his smile growing wider, and moving back so the single candle by the bed illuminated what he held in his arms.
A small cry escaped my lips and by pure instinct my arms stretched out, hungry for what it was - my babby. Alive. Clean and warm, her pink eyelids squeezed shut, her tiny, perfect fingers clutched in front of her. Clopin held her as though she were a gift from Heaven - oh she was. Tenderly, lovingly, he leant over and put her in my arms, wrapping his arms around me when I had her safely. Pathetically, I began to cry. Clopin chuckled sympathetically and pressed warm lips to my forehead. I nursed my babby close and wept over her head, pulling aside the nightdress that had been placed on me so that I could feed her as soon as her eyes opened. Whether it was the warmth of my breast, or my tears plopping onto her little black head, her eyes opened, luminous black ones, exactly like her papa's. She gazed up at me calmly for a few seconds before her tiny mouth opened and she took the nipple I offered her. I laughed a little through my tears, delighted with a hope I couldn't believe. Oh was this a dream? Here was my babby, the babby I had given up as lost, alive in my arms and suckling hungrily. Clopin kissed my neck and nuzzled my softly.
"She was well from the beginning, my lune." he told me. "Crying loudly as soon as she came into the world. We thought it was a miracle, we all stood around with our mouths open for moments before we thought to wrap her up!"
I sniffled and kept crying, smiling down at my babby. So I had not lost out completely after all. My Abigail was gone now - but she had left my babby with me. Her gift from the Heavens. My babby's eyes opened again and she blinked up at me as her little mouth continued to drink. My cries got harder, a strangely glorious mingle of grief and joy. Yes Abigail's gift - she had not truly left me. There was a part of her in this babby, a strength, a will - something that would continue to thrive. That would live stronger each day, and make me think of her every time I looked at this treasure, my daughter.
Clopin was smiling fit to burst, his chest swelled out, and his arms strong about us both.
"What will we call her?" he asked me contentedly.
I ran a finger down my babby's soft brown cheek. "Serephine." I whispered. "For joy of life, of love."
My babby opened her eyes and blinked placidly at me, then clicked her tongue approvingly.