Birds sweetly singing in my eyes this day
Sweet flowers blossom when I smile
But my soul is stormy and my heart blows wild
My sweetheart rides a ship on the sea
Though my soul is stormy and my heart blows wild
Where might my lonesome lover be?
Birds and Ships – Billy Bragg & Wilco ft. Natalie Merchant (lyrics by Woodie Guthrie)
The sun is setting over the water, but Michelle isn't looking at it. After four months of staring into the dying light as it sank below the horizon, she has forgotten that sunsets can be beautiful. They just mark another day.
The cottage they are holding her in is surprisingly nice. It's small, but she doesn't need much. A small kitchen, with food delivered every week by someone during the night, left on her doorstep in a basket. Tucked in among the vegetables and loaves of bread are bottles of vitamins, the kind an expecting mother has to take. Her small room is painted in shades of blue, blue that seems pale white in direct sunlight and deep, ocean dark at night.
Sometimes she stares up at it while she is trying to fall asleep, her fingers running over her expanding stomach, and wonders if David has ever seen the sea.
The first time the nurse came, Michelle is surprised out of her skin. She had gotten so used to silence that when there was a sharp rap on the door she almost screamed. But when she opened to door, the firing squad she had imagined was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a woman. She looked about forty years old, with graying streaks in her honey-colored hair.
It was a surprise to see another human being. The king – she refused to call him her father anymore – was very serious about his ruling of no human contact. There were guards, yes, but they remained constantly out of sight. She could walk outside her little house, but she knew that if she wandered too far, she would run in to a soldiered perimeter and go no further. She didn't try.
"Michelle Benjamin?" the woman said.
Michelle laughed, a little out of amusement and a lot out of shock. "Who else?"
The woman nodded in a calm, no-nonsense matter. "I am Hanna Weis. I'm your doctor."
Michelle blinked. "I have…a doctor? But the king – "
"Doesn't know about this," Hanna interrupted. "It was arranged by your mother."
"My mother," Michelle said blankly. Her mother. The woman who said she would protect her, who allowed the king to throw her into this pretty prison.
"Sit," Hanna said. Michelle did, slowly, at her tiny table. Hanna sat near her and began taking things out of her bag. Michelle had no idea what they are – for all the work she did on health care reform, she never knew anything about medical practices. Especially not ones that concerned pregnancy. She never thought she would be pregnant, anyway. The radiation therapy had taken care of that.
And then along came David. Blessed by God, destined to be king, destined to be her husband.
"Your voice sounds good, like you've been using it during your exile," said Hanna, jerking Michelle out of her reverie.
"I've…been singing. To the baby." At that, Hanna's lips curl up in the tiniest of smiles.
"That's good. The baby can hear you, you know. Sing to it, talk to it…next time I come, I will bring an ultrasound machine. Then you can know the baby's gender, if you like."
Michelle shook her head with a smile. "I think I already know." Hanna raised her eyebrows but didn't say anything. If she knew anything about this family…well, she could only assume that the exiled princess had been talking to God as well.
After the check-up, Hanna lay a gentle hand on Michelle's shoulder. "I'll be back in a month." There was something comforting in her voice that told Michelle she was someone to be trusted. Someone she could trust to take care of her and the baby. So she smiled up at the woman and watched her go through the door and walk down the path into the woods.
When she couldn't see Hanna anymore, she feels tears prick the back of her eyes.
She's never alone, though. That's one thing Silas did not foresee when he sent her here. No, she has the baby to talk to. She has God to confide in. And she has David, locked somewhere deep in her chest. She is not alone.
There is a thin white band around the finger where her ring used to lie. Now that it's gone, worn by her husband, the mark where she wore it refuses to go away. With a smile, she thinks there's a reason for that.
None of this is to say, however, that she does not feel loneliness, that the empty darkness in her house at night does not frighten her. Sometimes she thinks she hears voices in the house at night, a woman whispering in the dark. She wakes with a yell but there is no one there, only a tree branch rattling in the sea breeze or the crash of the waves on the rocky shore.
Sometimes she worries that she only sings of sadness to her child. Her favorite song to sing is of flowers and birds, but also of a love lost at sea. She does not mean to tell her child that there is only sadness in the world, so she tries to sing of happier things. Song of sunlight, birds taking flight, horses, a place called home. She even tries singing a hymn of Gilboa once, but the words stick in her throat and she can't sing anymore.
When her child is kicking fiercely, only the song of birds and ships will make the child stop and listen. So she lies there, stroking the belly that grows every day, and sings of sorrow.
The second time Hanna came, exactly one month later, Michelle actually smiled when she found the doctor outside of her door. It was a cold winter day, crisp and bright with no snow.
"Hanna!" Michelle says brightly, stepping side to let her in the door. The doctor doesn't smile, just tugs the collar of her coat more tightly to her throat and steps inside. "Good to see you."
"I'd imagine it would be," Hanna said blandly. Michelle paused as she shut the door.
"I don't mean that it's good to see you, as in it is good to see any other form of life." She sat at the table across from Hanna, a sort of calm serenity surrounding her. "I mean it's good to see you."
Hanna stopped taking out her equipment and stared at Michelle, who just looked back at her. "I can't help you get out of here, if that's what you want me to do."
"Did I ask you?"
Hanna looked down. "No."
"Then let's get on with it."
Twenty minutes later, as Hanna was packing up her bag again and Michelle had gone to make herself a cup of tea, the doctor abruptly stopped and placed both her hands on the table. "You have no idea, do you?"
Michelle furrowed her brow. "What do you mean?"
Hanna turned to Michelle, her face serious. "Your brother committed suicide. Four days ago."
It was strange, but Michelle wasn't surprised. The baby gave a hard kick, and she put her hand over the spot. "Oh." In her mind's eye, she saw herself and Jack when they were children, running across the grassy lawn of Alter Mansion. That was before she got sick, before Jack had found the darkness in him, before any of this…
"I just thought you should know." Hanna began walking toward the door, but paused before she reached it. "And I'm sorry about before, when I was harsh with you." She turned and gripped her bag. "I'm your doctor. You should be able to trust me when you can trust no others." She swallowed. "So, just so you are sure, you can trust me with your life. With the life of your child. I might be here by the request of your mother but I…you can trust me."
Michelle lay both hands on her swelling stomach and smiled. "Thank you," she said softly. Hanna nodded, hugged her coat around her, and stepped out into the freezing winter air.
As the door closed, a gust of cold breeze buffeted Michelle in the face. She closed her eyes and breathed it in.
One night, as she is preparing a small dinner of split pea soup with ham, something in the dusk outside catches her eye. She looks up, eyes searching the lavender darkness, but sees nothing. She goes back to stirring the soup, but then sees it again. There, it's snow.
Michelle smiles, really smiles, and walks to the window. She had always assumed that there would be no snow here, that it was too close to the ocean, but there are flakes falling outside, disappearing as they hit the frozen ground.
Before she really knows what she's doing, Michelle is out the door and into the pale dusk, tilting her head back and laughing as the snowflakes melt on her cheeks. The baby kicks, and she puts her hand on the spot, lifting her shirt to place her warm palm on the skin of her swelling stomach.
"See, darling? It's snowing. Isn't it beautiful?"
She isn't sure if she is talking to the baby or to David, but it feels good to share the moment with someone. The loneliness is starting to house itself as a dull ache in her chest, and sometimes she wonders if it will still be there when her exile ends. With Jack gone, with David still somewhere in the wild, who will she talk to? Who will she share her life with?
The baby gives two hard kicks, and she smiles. There is her answer.
The pea soup gets burned, but she doesn't mind.
Hanna returns in a month and one day, with an armed guard hauling in the ultrasound machine. Michelle watches him curiously, but he doesn't meet her eyes. She wonders what he thinks, seeing her tiny, pregnant, and in exile. She assumes that her mother has bought him out so that he won't tell anyone that she is pregnant, but she wonders what he thinks.
"Alright. Are you ready, Michelle?"
"As ready as I'll ever be, I guess." Michelle lies back in her bed, hiking up her shirt over her rounded torso and only jumping a little as the cold gel is spread on her skin. It takes a few minutes, but then she sees a shape on the black and white screen that can only be the baby.
"There," says Hanna, her tone satisfied. "There's your baby."
Michelle thought she was ready. She thought she was strong enough to do this only, to carry all the weight herself. But as she stares at the little moving shape of her child, she finds that tears are leaking out of the corners of her eyes. She bites her lip, tries to stop, but can't close them because she is too busy staring at the screen.
"There…wait. Is…that's another child."
Michelle sucks in a breath. "What?"
"You are carrying twins." There is awe in Hanna's voice.
"Twins," Michelle echoes in shock. In the logical part of her brain, she realizes that it had to have been a probability. She was a twin herself, after all, and didn't the trait pass through the female line? But to go from having been unable to have any children to carrying two…
Hanna turns to her and sees her shaking with the effort it takes to hold back the sobs. Then the dam breaks and she can't hold it in anymore. Michelle lets out a strangled noise and presses her hands to her mouth, pain lancing through her limbs and settling as a fiery ache in her chest. Her cheeks are wet with tears, and she can barely see Hanna through the ones still in her eyes.
"Oh, child," says Hanna softly, sitting next to Michelle on the bed and wrapping one arm around her. Michelle crumples, collapses into the only other human she has seen in months and months, and lets herself cry. Hanna makes soothing noises and tells her everything will be okay, and Michelle wants to believe her so badly.
That night, after Hanna leaves, Michelle lies in bed staring up at the ceiling, running her hands over the swell in her torso that now houses two lives.
"David," she says softly to the empty house. She opens her mouth to say more, feels like she should be telling him that she is having two of his children, wanting so badly to tell him, but the words don't come.
She curls on her side and hugs her stomach as the tears stream down her face.
Some morning much later, when her form is weighed down by the growth of two children instead of one, Michelle is standing out in her small yard, which is more of a meadow anyway. The ocean is crashing in front of her on the grey morning, a seagull spinning above her head and shrieking about something. She has wrapped herself in a huge coat but slips her hands inside the zipper to rub her swelling belly.
"See that there?" she says softly, the words almost eaten up by the waves and the sea breeze. "That, over there across the water? That's where your dad is. Somewhere." A lump rises in her throat. "And he's coming back someday."
Something wet touches her cheek. She lifts her hand to feel it, but it has already melted. Tilting her head back, dark curls tumbling down her back, she stares up at the grey sky and watched as snow falls from the clouds.
A smile makes her lips curl at the corners, the muscles slightly stiff from lack of use. The snow melts as soon as it touches the grass, which is just beginning to turn green again, but it still makes her smile.
Staring up at the clouds, Michelle laughs.
That is not to say that everything goes well, or that Michelle is fine with the constant silence and loneliness. When she is sick in the morning, there is no one there to keep her hair back or to stroke her neck and tell her that it will soon pass.
When she wakes up in the middle of the night, pain lancing through her stomach, there is no one to ask if what is happening is hurtful to the children. She must wait until Hanna appears, month after month. As she nears her due date, though, the doctor begins coming more often, which is nice.
The loneliness is hard, but Michelle is adapting.
She misses David with an intensity that scares her, however. She hadn't known him that long before she lost him, and yet he seems as essential to her life as the two tiny beings she carries within her now. She misses his solid warmth, his smile, his goodness in the face of everything terrible that happened in his life. She misses the way she feels when she is with him. Her heart feels terribly hollow, sometimes.
Still, she dreams of her smiling, golden-haired children and believes that everything will come to pass as it should.
It's a Friday afternoon when someone knocks on her door. It is not the soft tap that precedes Hanna's visits, but a sharper rap that almost makes Michelle jump out of her skin. Slowly, achingly, she hauls herself out of the chair in the tiny sitting area, putting down her book, and walks to the door.
On the other side of the glass in a pale yellow jacket, is her mother. Michelle's heart jumps erratically in her chest and she can't tell if she's ecstatic or horrified. The queen just raises her eyebrows and waits to be let in.
"Hello, mother," Michelle says slowly as she opens the door. Queen Rose sweeps in, Hanna following much more slowly. "And how have you been these past months?"
"Fixing the havoc that you and your brother wreaked," her mother replies. Michelle doesn't bother protesting what she assumes her mother has fortified in her mind. Of course she and her brother are to blame. How could the king himself have done anything wrong?
"What brings you here?" Michelle sits back down in her chair, and then notices that Hanna is carrying a huge bag and pushing an entire cart full of supplies. The queen herself is carrying a bag.
Her mother's eyebrows shoot up. "Have you forgotten that you're about to give birth?" Her eyes dart down to Michelle's now-huge stomach. "Because you are carrying twins, Dr. Weis believed it best if we induced labor slightly early, to reduce the risk. And I had always planned to be here for this."
Michelle is confused at the emotions roiling in her chest. Part of her is desperately glad that her mother is here, that she has finally come. Another part of her realizes that her mother put her here in the first place. "Why didn't you come earlier?"
Her mother gives her a slightly patronizing smile. "I can't just jet off all the time without your father wondering where I am."
"Why not? He leaves constantly and you never know where he goes." Michelle couldn't resist the blow that she knew would wound her mother the most. The queen took it well, her smile just sliding into a more forced position.
"I was saving you time. I was protecting you."
As Hanna sets up whatever equipment she has brought, Michelle swallows angrily and turns her head to look out the window. The sea is calm today, the sky grey. "And what about Reverend Samuels? Is he coming as well? I want my children baptized."
Something shifts in Rose's eyes, and she frowns. "The reverend has been dead since the day your father took the kingdom back from Jack. They're calling it the Day of Revelation, now."
The bottom of Michelle's stomach drops. The Reverend is dead? But she and David…they saw him. They spoke to him. He married them. Had he died after they had spoken? Or…
To cover the unsettled feeling rising in her stomach, Michelle swallows and looks back at her mother levelly. "I thought the Day of Revelation was supposed to be the end of the world."
Her mother just smiles.
After a few injections of something, Michelle begins experiencing what has to be the worst pain she has ever felt. Even her medical treatments as a child weren't this outright painful – they were horrible and draining and she had literally been at Death's door, but they hadn't been this…sharp.
Her mother is surprisingly supportive. Sympathetic and strong all at the same time, Rose grips her daughter's hand and firmly tells her to keep pushing. Hanna is a calm, soothing and sure presence at her feet, every once in a while giving Michelle a gentle squeeze of encouragement on her calf.
But Michelle cries. She cries and screams and thinks she will break in half from the pushing. Surely she is too small to be holding these two children inside of her, let alone to push them from her body. She's tiny, she knows, and she's sure she'll break.
She wants David to be here so badly. She even thinks she sees him, sometimes, in her mother's place, holding her hand and beaming in worried adoration. But then she squeezes her eyes shut to push and he is gone.
She even thinks, in a few moments of intense pain, that she wants her father. She wants his sure presence by her, his solid – or so she thought – faith.
But she grits her teeth, yells, and pushes. She has been alone for almost eight months. She can do this by herself as well.
Still, tears stream down her cheeks as she screams. This is too much. Will it ever end? If it ends, will she end with it? She wishes for David's surety, his strength. Without knowing, she is calling out to him, to God, to anyone who will listen. Her mother tries responding, but she is too far gone.
Then, the pain ceases and she sees Reverend Samuels standing in the doorway.
"Reverend," she breathes between pants. Sweat has plastered her bangs to her forehead. Just seeing him there, calm washes over her. She tilts her head back for a moment with a sob.
"Reverend Samuels isn't here," she hears her mother say, as if from somewhere very far away.
"He's here," breathes Michelle. "He's here." Her smile stretches into another sob.
"He's not here, Michelle." The Reverend's deep voice resonates in her chest, though he doesn't speak loudly. Michelle raises her head to look at him. "He was not there that night in the church, either."
"What – " Michelle says brokenly. Her mother is calling her name, but she can barely hear it. "Then – "
"I am here," He says in the Reverend's deep, velvet voice. "I am here, Michelle, and I will not leave you."
Michelle is shaking, sobbing, gasping for air. "You're here," she whispers.
"I am. You are not alone, Michelle Benjamin." He's standing near the bed now, and she has to tilt her head to look up at him.
"Shepherd," she whispers.
"Michelle Shepherd," he acquiesces with a smile. "You do not walk alone."
One last lancing pain spears her and Michelle presses her eyes shut in a scream. When she opens them, tears clouding her vision, Reverend Samuels is gone and Hanna and Rose is standing at her feet, holding two small shapes.
Wearily, brokenly, Michelle sags back in the pillows, tears streaming down her temples and into her sweaty hair.
"Michelle," says her mother in awe. "Meet your children."
"A boy and a girl," echoes Hanna.
The two babies don't look terribly like either herself or David, but the minute she lays eyes on them she feels the absolute truth in the words her mother said almost a year ago. A mother will do anything for her children. Anything.
They are put next to her on the bed, because she is too weak to hold them both. Her eyes fill with tears, but she can't blink because she is staring too avidly at the two small forms in front of her.
"Samuel," she breathes softly. "And Ellie, for Eli."
"You name them for the Reverend and David Shepherd's brother," her mother says from her side. "Though one is a traitor and the other is the family of the one who left you alone."
"I'm not alone," Michelle says, a smile creeping into the corner of her lips. The words of the Reverend, or whoever was speaking through the Reverend, have settled warmly near her heart. She is not alone.
"David is dead."
It takes a moment for the words to reach her mind. Finally tearing her eyes from her two children, she looks at her mother in horror. "That is a twisted joke to play on a brand new mother," she says slowly. "Why would you say that?"
"Because it's true," her mother says flatly. He was caught in Gath, sent back to our beautiful city of Shiloh and executed for treason against the crown. It's as simple as that. He's gone."
There is no more strength, no more tears, in Michelle to cry anymore. She stares at her children, who are moving restlessly beside her. Her mother leans over her and kisses her hair. "You did well today, my love." Michelle hears her footsteps walking through the door.
Hanna leans in to lift the babies away, but Michelle motions for her to stop. "No," she says, her voice breaking. "I need them here for a little while."
Slowly, Hanna sits on the bed and strokes Michelle's arm. "Oh, darling," she says softly, caringly. At the sound of the sympathy in her voice, Michelle feels a gaping wound open in her chest.
Trembling, she lies in the bed surrounded by three people, and feels so alone that she might disappear.
To be continued.