Merry Christmas, everyone! Happy holidays all around. So, this is that other OUAT fic that took me months to write just the first chapter for. Letting you know right now that each of these chapters are going to be quite long, so expect extensive waiting periods between them. Enjoy!
Note: lots of references in this story. I won't point them all out - only the few that seem important to explain.
"The silkworm moth, Bombyx mori, which lives in white-fruited mulberry trees is a member of the Bombycidae or spinners, a subspecies of the Lepidoptera which, together with the Saturnidae, includes some of the most beautiful of all moths . . . The fully developed silkworm moth, however, is an unprepossessing creature measuring a mere one and a half inches across and an inch lengthways . . . A few days after the last sloughing one can notice a redness on the throat, which heralds the onset of metamorphosis. The caterpillar now stops eating, runs about restlessly, and, seeking to leave the low earth behind, strives to gain greater heights, until it has found the right place and can start to weave its cell . . . During its first day of work, the caterpillar spins an extensive, disorderly fragmented web which is used to secure the cocoon. And then, constantly moving its head back and forth and reeling out an uninterrupted thread almost a thousand yards long, it constructs the actual egg-shaped casing around itself. In this shell, which admits neither air nor moisture, the caterpillar changes into a nymph by sloughing off its skin for one last time. It remains in this state for two to three weeks in all, until the butterfly described above emerges."
—W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Chapter 1: Child of the Owl-Glass
Another shudder passed through the stilts of the platform on which the house stood. Wood vibrated like a fiddle string under the bullying gust. Samhain held her breath and stilled her body. She entertained the notion that, maybe, if she kept still, the house would remain standing. Just a silly, superstitious thought. The house had survived many such storms at this time of year, as had all the other houses lining the bay. They were essentially identical – all built from the same timber, all structured the same way, all equally vulnerable and resilient to the elements. If any one of them did decide to collapse, there was not much anyone could do about it.
Pointless as it was, the action lent Samhain a little peace of mind until the wind calmed. She dared to only lift her hand and rest it on her ballooning abdomen to quell the kicking child. The unborn infant's restlessness mirrored the storm brewing outside. She smiled and wondered if he was fussing because of the weather, or because he was two weeks overdue. If the first, nothing could be done to abate the storm; if the second, it was his own fault. But she couldn't criticize him. He had warmth, food and protection in there. Who would willingly give that up for the real world?
Sadly, she needed him to give it up soon. Her skin sketched like a drum's head and, while she enjoyed running her fingers along the taut flesh, she feared her sides would wear thin and split. Her belly might simply explode with pregnancy, and that would not be a pretty mess to clean up. Alberich would definitely disapprove. He'd stumble through the door after yet another visit to the tavern, gape like the fish he caught, then toss up his hands before hurling himself into bed and moping over the world's determination to make him miserable. If she survived, Samhain would be left to deal with things herself.
The air quieted and the shaking wood finally settled. A caged breath escaped out a pair of dry pursed lips. Samhain stared at the distant horizon where clouds, dark and heavy like soaked sponges, lingered above the gray water and the crescent shoreline of their meager village. Despite the impending storm, she had rolled up the curtain and taken a seat by the window. On the very bench where she kept the spinning wheel, in fact, to let the brisk air splash across her flushed face while her hand turned the wheel with a tap. She'd spent most of today on her feet. It had been impossible to abstain from motion, what with both the doctor and Madame Holda, the village's apothecary and most experienced midwife, ordering her to keep indoors. Her water could break at any time. By stepping outside she ran the risk of bringing her child into the world on a waste-spattered street or a pungent dock. A shame they didn't live further inland – Samhain wouldn't have minded giving birth in a field of tall grass or among sheep and cattle serenely grazing nearby.
The restriction should have encouraged her body to rest. Instead it hankered for activity. She swept, dusted, and even knelt on the floor to scrub out a bloodstain from when she'd sliced open her hand from gutting her husband's catch. She moved across the room in a frenzied search for things to straighten, polish or put away. Feet ached from walking across the cold floorboards; they ached more when she sat down, missing the pressure of cold but familiar wood beneath them. Samhain's nerves tingled with so much frenetic energy that, in an attempt to relax, she spent half an hour fussing with her hair. Her fingers couldn't stop twining into the mousy-brown locks. They curled and tugged and raked through until her scalp burned. The fervor seemed to belong to another body—possessed by an invisible, insatiable lover. She finally wove it in a tangled, haphazard braid and got up to sweep the room again.
By early evening she had expended enough energy to sit quietly at the spinning wheel and breathe in the briny air rolling off the bay. Wisps of hair tickled her eyes and cheeks; she no longer had the strength to care. Her interest latched onto the growling skies and the enthusiastic movements of the incubated creature she carried. Maybe the storm was an omen—or an assurance—that today was the day. Which would break first, then? The storm or her water?
A laugh trickled out of her at the curious similarity. If Alberich were here and heard her thoughts, he might have regarded her with stunned offense. What woman in her right mind laughs at such an idea? The storm would unleash hellish fury on their tired town. The houses on the coastline could withstand rising water thanks to elevation, but if the waves lapped over the raised docks and the sea wall, no one would be safe. All this peril, and for what? It was not a prosperous settlement. Overfishing had all but depleted the bay's host of underwater inhabitants. That didn't stop Alberich from setting out at dawn each day and spending long hours in his old rowboat dipping the impotent hook into the water, begging nature to yield its fruit. Sometimes he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in his failure. Just as he took a perverse pleasure in chastising Samhain for her spinning and selling of yarn and thread, regardless of how badly they needed the money.
She turned in her seat and glanced at the basket next to the bed – woven from hazelnut, deep and long and sporting a high handle that joined the longer ends. It overflowed with her labors. She would have taken her wares to market sooner had Alberich not snagged her into another pointless row over it. He'd whined over their poverty and the cheating fishmongers who contributed to it; he'd griped, too, over the money she'd thrown away on wool and spun when those precious coppers could've been saved for something of actual value. "Like more mead?" Samhain had calmly asked. "Which would you prefer: to be very poor, or just plain poor with a wife who earns half the income?" That really set him off. But he was as impotent in a temper as he was in anything else. He grabbed the poker from the hearth and beat the straw-stuffed mattress while she stood by and watched—one hand on her abdomen, the other on her hip.
It wasn't his failure as a provider that frustrated her. She could handle failure the way anyone can handle stepping in horse dung in a careless moment. Anger and complaints don't change circumstances; it's best to accept it and with any luck learn from the mistake. One often doesn't, of course. Such is life. What rubbed Samhain's patience raw was Alberich's stubbornness. His blood flowed with the salt of his native bay. He was practically a fish himself in the self-punishing way he returned to the water, and then to the market where the dangling worm of profit lured him into the fishmongers' nets. He refused to consider alternate employments or move to another village. He didn't stay because it secretly made him happy; he lusted for riches as much as the next man, though without the fire of ambition to fuel any serious pursuit of wealth. He seemed to believe that this life, for all its hardships, was what he deserved, yet he still had the right to rail at it. Had Alberich ever gotten stuck in quicksand, he would've preferred to curse the world rather than contrive a means to climb out.
He protested in other ways besides griping and weeping. Samhain no longer went to the tavern to retrieve her melancholic spouse; it only caused a scene. She did consider making an exception tonight, if only to get out of the house (to the deuce with the doctor's orders). Then memories of the stench of bitter ale and sweaty bodies after a long day's work filled her mind and upended her insides. No, Alberich could come home at whatever blessed hour he desired. It didn't matter to her if she delivered the child tonight and he was still drowning himself in golden oblivion on the other side of town. He'd be useless. Madame Holda would give her all the support and guidance she needed when the time came.
With her index finger, Samhain traced a fragile line over the curve of her belly, delighting in how full she felt. Pregnancy inhibited mobility and would probably ruin her figure, but she didn't give those facts much thought. She cherished a greater truth, although it may have been just a notion bordering on fancy: she felt both very large and very small. Outside the sky churned and the water rumbled with terrible awesomeness; inside her abdomen she felt she was carrying an ocean, and within that ocean a leviathan whose undulations commanded the tides. What kind of soul lived inside the creature inside her, she wondered. Was the soul already formed, as the clerics proclaimed each week at their public services in the village square? Or did it exist in a state of multiple—maybe even endless—possibilities? A universe of potentialities yet to be realized. How immense, and yet how miniscule they both were in the face of nature and the heavens.
Samhain's head swam at the contradiction, and her mind started to float away, like it had unlocked a secret hatch out of reality's glass-walled prison and now wanted to escape. Gripped with sudden, inexplicable fear, she sucked in some air and hopped to her feet. Her limbs tingled and prickled from the motion. After giving her face a sobering rub, she walked to the kitchen to prepare dinner. Inactivity and solitude would drive her mad if she let them.
Five steps. That was all it took, after an entire day of movement. Five steps before a rush of heat and liquid erupted between her legs. Samhain heard the splash and looked down. A puddle lay between her calloused feet. She waited a few seconds, half-expecting the baby to slide out on its own. Then, feeling oddly calm and remarkably unchanged, she abandoned the kitchen for her room to fetch her outdoor garments. It crossed her mind as she dressed that Alberich might make some accidental effort to return home tonight. If she was still absent, he might throw a fit and go bang on doors demanding to know where his wife was. They owned no paper or quills, so she couldn't leave a note. Inspiration soon struck. Samhain waddled around the bed and, holding up her stomach, crouched and reached under to pull out a shallow basket. In it she stored an array of sentimental items that, while not valuable in the monetary sense, possessed sufficient importance to her. She rummaged through these items until her clever fingers found a pair of wool baby booties joined together by the laces. Smiling, she started to push herself up when she noticed something else. Her heartbeat quickened.
A bone-carved comb – the kind used to pin up a woman's hair – poked out of the chaotic pile. Or, rather, the swan's head that served as part of the spine of the comb poked out. Samhain plucked it up. It'd must have been a few years since she last laid eyes on it. Alberich had given it to her on their wedding day. The finest gift she'd ever received. Now she'd nearly forgotten it. She couldn't recall where he'd bought it, but she remembered the gratitude and glee she's felt as a young, still optimistic bride taking it from her husband's lightly blistered palms. It was evidence of a happier time. Not idyllic, since peasants could never hope for more than tolerable cohabitation and breaking even with rent and household expenses. Samhain couldn't in that moment remember when exactly things turned sour. Very likely a progression, like the way dirt builds in corners over time. In the beginning the specks don't seem that unsightly. After enough missed chances and neglect, though, the results can be staggering.
Samhain blamed the stinging in her eyes on the mood swings that came with pregnancy. She was a practical woman. Ironically, she was also a woman of impulse. With her arms braced against the bed, she elevated herself enough so her knees could lift her the rest of the way and her feet could find their center of gravity. She tucked the baby booties into her apron pocket and wrapped up the braid into a bun that she then pinned down with the swan comb. The remaining preparations followed. Her ankle-high boots were frayed around the front rim of the soles. Her toes poked out as though she were wearing sandals. Better than nothing. When a clap of thunder sounded overhead, she donned her cloak and pulled the hood over her head. She snatched up the blanket she'd knitted over the last few weeks from her spinning stool. Just after she stepped out the door, she took out the booties and tied the laces around the outside handle. If Alberich couldn't decipher their meaning, he might be lucid enough to understand the puddle she'd neglected to mop up. Probably not, though. He might presume the roof had a leak, instead.
The house shook one more time with Samhain's exit, as if in warning or protestation. She shook off the phenomenon. It would have been better if they had employed a neighbor or a street urchin to send word to Holda. Alberich was so despondent, though, and Samhain was regarded as a somewhat peculiar character in that town. She was an outsider with a different set of customs and notions, so they neither of them had any close friends to prevail upon. If Alberich did have friends, they were sharing a succession of drinks with him right now. Besides, even in the face of dangerous weather, Samhain was only too happy to finally go out and make the trek to the pharmacy herself. Her nerves were only rattled while walking along the wharf, since it stood exposed to the water and wind and nothing guarded her against their encroaching force. Once she reached the end of it, past other humble houses, and descended the creaky steps to the street, most of her anxiety dissipated. She even sighed with mild pleasure from the gusts that pawed at her skirts and showered her face with cool kisses. The rest of the walk still proved challenging with her girth, her tattered boots and the growing dread of her inevitable contractions. Other than that, she was in fairly good spirits. A few passers-by threw a glance her way but did nothing. She silently thanked them for their distance. She needed to allocate what energy she had to her legs and to girding herself for the pain to come.
Drops of rain began to patter on the dirt streets and thatched roofs. Pedestrians wrapped themselves up while dashing madly for shelter. Even if she wanted to, Samhain couldn't hasten her pace much more. That was fine. If she kept at a steady rate, she'd be across the village and at the threshold of Madame Holda's in little time. If only her cargo could exercise more patience. The weight within her turned in a frantic somersault. Tiny hands and feet pressed against the walls of the fleshy dungeon. Tightening her grip on her skirts, she made an effort to quicken her stride just a little. A flash of lightning and more thunder applauded her decision.
Her route through the alleys that separated the rows of huts and hovels remained clear until she reached the main street, which would take her straight to the pharmacy. Before she could round the corner, a gaggle of mumbled chants accented by the dampened ring of a gong met Samhain's ears. She gasped and stepped back into the alley. The action might have been a little puerile; she didn't care. She remained in the protective shadow of a low house to observe the approaching clerics.
Seeing the brown robes brought her some ease. They were novices, compelled by piety and an elder to tread through the rain. The elder, a fat fellow with a crimson robe that pinched him in the middle and under the arms, set the tempo with his little gong. The dull thud of the mallet against the wooden dish depressed her more than the droning of the walkers. She had nothing to fear from them; she wasn't a whore caught in the light of day—well, what little light the storm allowed. She was married, albeit to a wet blanket. Alberich still legally qualified as a man and as her husband. No one who knew her gave her pregnant state a second look. But the clerics set everyone on edge. It was wiser to keep out of their way, even if they were just novices.
Samhain quieted her breath and leaned against the wall of the hut. It was the last abode on the main street before the buildings became more commercial. She thought her location wouldn't draw much notice. Indeed, the novices shuffled with their heads bowed in meditation and prayer. The elder trained his gaze on his herd. They cared more about keeping their hoods draped over their heads and stopping their robes from flapping scandalously in the gale. Their modesty better suited a troupe of shy maidens. The rain intensified. Samhain tugged at her cloak and silently ordered the group to hurry along. They entered her sights and trudged along the muddy road, ever at a snail's pace, until she could see the back of the elder's sweat-stained cowl. Before she could take off in the opposite direction, a loud rattling of metal befell them. The clerics whirled around. Samhain ducked into the alley again with an exasperated groan. After a moment she peeked around the bend.
A wagon-like vehicle, set on four large iron wheels, rolled down the street toward the clerics. The sight stole Samhain's breath because, among other reasons, no animals were pulling it. Somehow it moved forward of its own accord, or perhaps at the command of the bag-eyed dwarf who sat in its front end. His small hands worked the levers with practiced movements. His head was covered with a blue cap that sported a golden tassel. The dwarf arrested his deadened stare on the road. The machine bounced around him over the ruts made by other wheeled transport. The only clues as to the source of the vehicle's locomotion were the pipes and funnels that extended from the sides and reached upward like smoke stacks. They expelled streams of gray-blue clouds that made the air taste of ashes.
More remarkable than its self-generated motion was the shape. The dwarf sat on a high, leather-covered seat overshadowed by the neck of a giant mechanical goat. Its forelegs, bent at the knees, straddled the driver; the massive hooves partly concealed the front wheels. While the wagon moved, the goat's horned head wagged with chillingly lifelike animation. Even its mouth imitated the manner in which real goats chew their food. Samhain could vaguely discern the outline of the separate, interlocking plates underneath the hairy covering. The horns – two lengths of naked, twisted steel – spiraled up and curved out and in in the silhouette of a woman's hips. The eyes must have been cut from red quartz, and a candle must have been placed behind each socket—how else could she explain the unholy scarlet glow they emitted even in the ensuing downpour?
As the wagon drew closer, Samhain trailed her eyes along the body and encountered another surprise. The lower half of the mechanical beast did not belong to a goat. A fish tail emerged from the white hairs of its middle and curved over the goat's back like a scorpion tail. The fluke flapped with the wagon's jolts. While it didn't appear to be covered in fabric like the goat, the realistic sheen of the scales was too believable to be the work of ironsmiths alone. Perhaps a special paint had been slathered on to make it shimmer like that. Its sections also fit more tightly together than those of the goat. Samhain briefly fantasized about the wagon descending into water and, fishtail lowered, swimming off toward the boundless horizon, bleating mockingly at the sad land-bound folk.
The sight enchanted her into nearly forgetting both the clerics and the purpose of her outing. A sudden punch from inside came very close to provoking a shocked yelp. Samhain bit her tongue and crushed her lips together. Still no contractions, but it wouldn't be long. Her mind and feet agreed to stay in place for just a little while more. She needed to know the reason for the mechanical wagon's presence. The people who drove them – a scarce and queer menagerie of individuals, usually non-humans who barely qualified as citizens in the kingdoms – showed off such technological oddities to win attention and coins from a simple-minded audience. Samhain didn't count herself as simple-minded, but that didn't prevent her from being fascinated by the spectacular contraption. She would have gladly continued enjoying its mere existence even if it hadn't crept up behind the drenched clerics. They too heard the commotion and halted their march to confront it. The novices trembled at the artificial beast and its master and huddled close to one another. The elder, by all indications the more worldly man of faith, pointed his mallet at the dwarf. Samhain spied the coat of sweat on the man's chubby face.
"Behold, brothers! Here is yet another dark force of this world. You quake in the face of this monstrosity because it has no place in the Kingdom of Light! It is an unnatural thing, born of hubris and ungodly schemes. But you shall not intimidate us! You and your grotesque creation will not interfere with our holy quest!"
"Get outta the way," grumbled the dwarf. "Can't you see it's rainin'? This needs to get stored by the docks before the coverings get ruined."
"Let the abomination rust!" The elder hollered his address directly at his novices now, calling them to arms with flailing hands. He might have been more impressive had he tossed aside the gong and mallet. Instead he looked like a raving band player who couldn't find his music troupe. "Brothers, stand firm! Here is temptation! Here is the stain of the black world coming to cast our hamlet into darkness."
"Oy, you wanna get run over?" The dwarf had brought the wagon to a halt. Water pounded against the metal and fur and Samhain felt sorry that it should all be soiled by the ignorant stubbornness of the fanatics. If the fanatics hadn't become such a powerful entity in the village, she might have tried to intervene. "I got a job to do. Get outta the way if you don't want to be crushed."
"You see?" roared the elder. Samhain heard murmurs behind closed windows. No one came out, but she didn't doubt people were listening. "You see what they do? They wish to crush us! Magic wielders are the true blasphemers, but worshippers of the fire and hammer—the forgers of nightmarish machines that will rob you all of your purity—see people as vermin to be exterminated! Or as children to be tricked and exploited!" With that the elder whipped back round and roared (with a touch of wheezing), "Begone, before I call upon my fellow Soldiers of Truth to eradicate your poisonous presence! Leave and take your foul metal creature with you!"
Leaning back in his seat, the dwarf scratched his gray beard and snickered. "Yeah? I'd like to see that. But I'm thinkin' your 'brothers' would rather stay inside and worry about 'eradicating' me after the rain lets up. I suggest you do the same. Outta the way, now!"
The elder tried to release another warding tirade. He didn't even get a full sentence out before the mechanical wagon thrust into full throttle and hurtled down at the clerics. The novices screamed and scattered. They threw themselves into the gutter along the street where a river of waste, now a little diluted by the rain, caught them. The elder waited till the very last moment to leap away in the opposite direction towards Samhain's feet. His ungainly frame shortened the length of the leap and prevented his legs from meeting the ground. He slammed onto the earth and rolled over. Mud clung to his robes and stained them as brown as the garments of his disciples.
The goat's head reared from the wagon's acceleration. Grinning, the dwarf picked up a funnel next to him and mimicked a real goat's bleat. It came out the false, oversized goat's mouth. The beast laughed at the clerics while rolling down the road, then took a sharp right before disappearing from view. The sound could still be heard for a full minute after. As it grew fainter, the bleating laugh continuously heightened in pitch.
It hadn't crossed Samhain's mind that, with all the commotion and terror left in the wake of the machine, anyone would give a care for her presence. The elder did, unfortunately. He stumbled to his feet and started scraping the mud on his clothes while she observed everything with a grin. An explosive "You!" frightened her more than any thunderclap. She jumped and tried to flee down the street toward the pharmacy. The cleric elder, quicker than she expected, had her by the wrist before she could escape.
"You were there the entire time, weren't you? Have you no shame? Where is your courage? Where is your sense of duty? I can see you have no conscience!" His fat hand tightened around her so hard Samhain truly feared he might fracture the bone.
"Please," she protested in a controlled tone, "I must see Madame Holda. My baby—"
"Aha! You're going to see the witch, are you?" The elder hauled her towards him and allowed her a view of his heated glower. Squinting dark eyes flickered with radical fire. They scorched her, and neither the rain nor the wind could douse the heat. "That fiend cannot be trusted. But you may already be a fiend, too. Do not go to her. If your baby is about to enter this life, let us deliver it and shield it. Have the child blessed by the bishop. Unless you've already damned it by entangling yourself with a witch."
Samhain held onto her nerves as stubbornly as the cleric held onto her arm. She feared him, but she feared letting herself be taken into his power or the power of his superiors even more. They might have meant well in trying to purify the souls of the villagers. Their methods, however, inspired more terror than a conquering army. She seized the hand that restrained her and grunted trying to pry him off. "Let me be! My baby is coming. Madame Holda is a good woman, and she and the doctor told me to go to her when the time came."
"You cannot trust any of them! Apothecaries, doctors. They're all agents of darkness. They're charlatans bent on manipulating you. They have no faith in the Higher Powers. The gods will protect your child so long as you are in our care." The cleric grabbed at her other hand to fully capture her. "Stop struggling. Come!"
She didn't care how it made her look, or that it could provoke the cleric to violence. Samhain shrieked bloody murder. The rain and thunder obscured her cries. Nevertheless, it did the trick. The cleric released her right wrist and clamped his hand over her mouth. She caught the offending hand and, holding it so he couldn't withdraw, bit him between the thumb and forefinger. His scream was no more successful in cutting through the storm. Samhain wrenched her left hand away and, scooping up her skirts, fled down the street without worrying about any fellow townsfolk coming to the zealot's aid.
Her speed amazed her. Panic and adrenaline did wonders to the body. It came with a price, though. The weight of her child returned tenfold once she reached the front door of Madame Holda's pharmacy, The Owl-Glass. Her muscles started aching and her lungs begged for air. If her body was giving out under this fleeting strain now, she dreaded how she would fair during labor. Gasping, she pounded her fist on the door. A glance down the street assured her that the cleric, a retreating reddish-brown lump, had given up. Left her to damnation, it seemed. She sighed and knocked again. The cloak stuck to her arms and back, and the water seeped through to her blouse. Her boots squished with water when she stamped them to keep warm. The mud snuck between her toes. It was grainy like sand. For some reason Samhain didn't mind it half so much as that cleric's vicious grasp and the thought of being surrounded by hooded men who chanted prayers she half-understood while her body writhed with birth pangs.
A shivering hand lifted to knock again. Before it met wood, the door swung back. A wiry woman with shoulder-length, wavy silver hair stood in its place. She was well layered in grays and greens. The tawny skin of her face folded into deep wrinkles that accentuated the sharp contours of her cheekbones, nose and chin. Despite her reed-thin figure, she filled the doorway with her presence. Or maybe the entrance was just narrow.
"Well, well," the old woman chirped. "Looking ripe and drenched, dear. You should've worn something with animal skin in this maelstrom. How far along are you?"
Samhain took the greeting and inquiry as an invitation. Even if Madame Holda made her almost as nervous as the clerics did, she trusted her more. The woman cared for the villagers for a living. Daring to be rude, Samhain stepped onto the threshold under the awning that sported the gold-painted letters of the pharmacy's name. "My water broke about half an hour ago. No contractions yet."
"Excellent." Madame Holda chuckled while pulling back Samhain's soaked hood and undoing the clasp of her cloak. As her fingers worked, she turned her head and yelled toward the back of the shop. "Ursa! Samhain is here, as I told you she would be!"
A minute passed before a tall, voluptuous woman barely out of adolescence staggered in from behind a curtain woven from coarse wool. In her haste she nearly toppled a shelf of glass vials, flasks and bottles smacked with labels and filled with mostly clear, colorless liquids. It was just one of many shelves that filled the shop, all arranged in categories and managing to look chaotically cluttered at the same time. Quarters were tight due to both the size of the room and how many elixirs, drafts and potions could occupy it. Samhain had visited a handful of times in her life, and it never seemed any easier to navigate. The tall shelves cut down the dispersion of natural light. Not that there was much to be had today. Madame Holda slipped the sopping cloak off Samhain in time for a gust to rattle the building and everything within. Glass tinkled and hopped. Shelves groaned and sent Samhain's heart at a frantic pace. She also felt her body, particularly between her thighs, enter into the first wave of agony, and she thoughtlessly squeezed Madame Holda's hand. Tall and awkward Ursa joined them.
"And so it begins," said Madame Holda, patting Samhain on the back. "All right, dearie, just breathe. That's right, deep and steady. Ursa will get the bed ready in the back, unless you think you can make it upstairs to our quarters. I have a cot down here already just in case."
Stairs suddenly seemed an impossible obstacle. Samhain didn't know how to feel about giving birth in the back of an apothecary's shop, but now that she was indoors and starting to convulse in preparation for the new life yearning to escape her womb, nothing else occupied her thoughts but settling into the closest bed and getting it over with.
The backroom was a stunning discovery. Few people had the privilege (or permission) to glimpse past the curtain into Madame Holda's storeroom of books and brewing equipment. Samhain couldn't tell if it was actually more spacious than the front of the pharmacy, or if it was simply an illusion of the furniture arrangement, and the fact Madame Holda had cubby holes to store and conceal her materials. Unliuke the front, the back room had a homey ambiance; space had been made to accommodate movement and rest for the apothecary and, judging by how easily Ursa retrieved the smelling salts and herbs from the cavernous cabinets, her daughter and possible apprentice. She could imagine the pair bustling about in the early morning hours cooking concoctions at the long table with funnels, bulbous vials, dripping nozzles, dishes and bowls, and a huge magnifying glass with which to examine their handiwork. It fascinated and frightened Samhain with all its mystery.
Something else in the backroom frightened her more.
The women led her to the bed, then helped her walk around when her contractions ebbed and she needed to gain a sense of what position felt most comfortable. A little pacing also gave Ursa time to finish making the bed. It still needed an extra bottom sheet to preserve the mattress from stains, as well as a surplus of blankets and pillows. Seeing Ursa did not trouble Samhain, but it did remind her of the stories she'd picked up around the village regarding the two of them. Madame Holda had lived there for as long as anyone in their prime could remember. She was old, but her stony determination and graceful guidance in leading Samhain and letting her lean on her belied her years. Sometimes called Mother Holda by those more intimately acquainted with her—or just particularly grateful for her help—she possessed an almost timeless quality. Samhain doubted any natural ailment could touch her. Her wrinkles added character, not age, to her visage. Her twinkling eyes and quick grins left the young woman wondering if the old lady was in on some cosmic joke no one else knew.
Yet Madame Holda must have been human all the same. She had married, or so people said, which seemed proper considering the existence of her grown daughter. A few people muttered that her husband had run off when he learned she really was a witch. Others claimed she'd turned him into a turtle or toad for nosiness or infidelity. Then there were a few individuals (maybe more believed it but kept quiet) who said that the lovely if not ungainly Ursa was actually Madame Holda's husband, enchanted for some unforgivable deed and forced to not only be a woman, but a maiden subjected to Madame Holda's will and the interest of men who loitered around the pharmacy or stopped by for remedies or advice. Men didn't like coming into The Owl-Glass for some reason, though, so Ursa bore the brunt of attention only when she stepped outside. Madame Holda never intervened; that neither confirmed nor denied the outrageous rumor. But they were only rumors, and Samhain would not subscribe to or investigate them now. Her only concern was whether Madame Holda did resort to some form of witchcraft in her work. It hardly mattered except that the cleric's words remained fresh in her ears. Yet even that question became moot. Not a single child had perished under Mother Holda's direct care, thanks to impeccable skills or well-concealed sorcery. Perhaps both. Either way, the child's health came first. If Madame Holda could guarantee the infant's survival, who was she to question the old woman's methods?
Such thoughts passed like shadows across the surface of Samhain's mind as she lumbered about and breathed through her contractions. None of her musings disturbed her as much as the strange object that occupied a large portion of the back wall. A three-piece mirror shaped like an enormous owl seemed to flap its wings at her every time she crossed the room and glanced at it. The wing-like panels of glass were attached to the middle mirror on hinges. Had they been flush against the wall like the owl's body, the entire thing would've matched the length of Alberich's rowboat.
"Admiring my owl-glass, I see," said Madame Holda, grinning. She gripped Samhain's arm like an iron manacle. "It has quite a history. An old piece from my grandparents. I like having it back here while I work. I find it helps me think, and it keeps me company when Ursa is elsewhere."
A question perched on Samhain's tongue, but a surge of pain cut her off. She cried out and leaned into the apothecary. It wasn't only her birth canal that felt like it was tearing in two. The baby just might split her body in half, from crotch to sternum.
"Time for the herbs!" Madame Holda exclaimed all too cheerily. Ursa reappeared from somewhere with a bowl of crushed leaves and seeds. Her mother took a candle from the table and touched the flame to the powder, producing a burning, pungent vapor. It smelled of wood smoke and cinnamon and caused Samhain to sneeze when Madame Holda made her inhale it. Then a cloudy haze of lightness invaded her skull. It tingled like duck feathers against her skin, and travelled down her arms and chest and pooled into the most agonized areas. Her knees wobbled. Madame Holda and Ursa each clutched a shoulder and elbow and propelled her to the bed. Samhain dumbly obeyed orders to arrange her hips on the pillow near the foot of the mattress and prop her legs up and apart for complete access to her genitals. Ursa leaned her back onto the hill of blankets and pillows and, after she settled and relaxed, mopped her forehead with a wet rag.
The drug's fumes blurred her senses for what felt like mere minutes. When her mind grew more lucid, however, Samhain thought the room looked darker than before, as if the day had turned to night. She still felt the contractions, and now more frequently, but the pain was bearable.
"How long has it been?" she mumbled. Her mouth tasted so dry it shocked her. She lamented hearing the rain on the roof. "Could I have some water?"
Madame Holda sat on a low stool at her feet, massaging the soles like they were made of dough. "Almost two hours now. You're doing splendid, dearie. Ursa, fetch the fisherman's wife some water. What with this weather, you could just stick a cup out the window and wait a few minutes!"
The idea would've appealed to Samhain had a crack of thunder not erupted overhead. She gasped from the clamor, then again when she felt the baby kick and twist around inside. Madame Holda stood and placed a hand on her abdomen while Samhain leaned back on the pillows to groan.
"He's frightened," the hoary midwife mused. Her declaration did not correlate with the thoughtful look etched in her face. She seemed to be considering something. Nothing urgent, given the gentle touch of her fingers and the lazy tilt of her head.
Samhain stared up at her with watering eyes. Her tongue itched with thirst and refused to form words. Thankfully Madame Holda turned her golden-brown eyes to her face. "No need to fret. Children ought to be frightened. When they are, they tend to run to you rather than away from you." She patted the skin below Samhain's navel. "He'll be a good son."
It was just the storm, she told herself. She was frightened, even though there were no trees to fall down on them. The building stood as tall as its neighbors, so there was no reason to fear that lightning would strike it. Who could really say, though? And what could be done? There was nothing to do but dig one's fingernails into the sheets and endure it. Such helplessness made Samhain sick. She grabbed the cup of water a little too forcefully from Ursa before greedily gulping it down. It was no use caring.
"A thirsty fish!" The old woman cackled. "Not surprising. After a while you become your occupation. Or your husband's occupation."
A quick headshake. "I'm a spinner."
"Oh, that's right. A woman earning her own living. But your house must still reek with dead fish morning, noon and night."
Madame Holda returned to the stool. Instead of rubbing Samhain's sole in earnest like before, she grazed her fingertips over the top of her foot. The tickling sensation normally would have made Samhain kick her tormentor. Instead she found it soothing. It balanced out the pain stabbing her from within. She pushed her pelvis forward while keeping her feet planted on the short bedposts, hoping to relieve some pressure and not disturb Madame Holda's massage.
With a dry chuckle she said, "Always. I can't stand it."
"That'll never do, dearie. Can't stay in a place you can't stand. If it's so unbearable, you have to take things into your own hands." Suddenly the old woman's palms were on her heel and the balls of her foot, and she rolled and bent the foot back so the ankle cracked. At the same time another contraction rolled through Samhain's tired frame. She stilled her leg as much as possible. She clawed into the sheets and mattress and held on for dear life. When she growled through her teeth, she saw Madame Holda nod.
"That's right. Don't hold it in. No one's going to hear you in this storm, anyway."
From then on Samhain didn't restrain her cries. They didn't bother Madame Holda or Ursa, who kept herself busy fetching odd items her mother needed, like oils to rub around Samhain's opening to facilitate the birth. Her body clenched and expanded relentlessly. Tears navigated like wayward ships off the edges of her face, as though they had reached and toppled over the ends of the earth. Above her the belligerent sky raged on. The house's body groaned from the wind. Water started dripping between the planks in the ceiling. Madame Holda called for buckets, which Ursa promptly retrieved, and paid the leaks no more mind.
Now and then Samhain couldn't resist turning her head toward the strange mirror. Looking at it sent shivers everywhere in her already quivering flesh, but the mystery of its purpose held her interest captive. In truth, it was a useless mirror. There was hardly a flat surface in which a person could examine her reflection. Two concave domes, as large as a human head, served at the owl's eyes. Every image reflected in them shrunk and became distorted. The object or person appeared to be sucked into a vacuum. Convex domes the size of apples dotted the owl's belly, which was otherwise warped into indentations made to resemble feathers. The same design had been applied to the wings, only more extensively. A glass beak reached out from beneath the eyes. The dimensional contrast between the eyes and beak almost endowed the owl-mirror a lifelike resemblance. Once, while Samhain stared at it, the house rattled and the wings shook a little, as though the huge bird were about to fly off. She gasped and twisted her head away, then blushed at her nervous state. A throaty chuckle from Madame Holda deepened the hue of her cheeks.
She didn't ask how many more minutes or hours passed. Time had become irrelevant. It was more important to cling to the moment and wait for the long anticipated sign of deliverance. At last Madame Holda scooted between her legs and said, "It's time, dearie. You're open good and wide. Give us a push."
A new kind of pain roared through her like a wildfire. Samhain pushed on all the same and unleashed her screams. She worked muscles she didn't know she had for as long as she could endure, and then stopped to rest and pant. Ursa still flitted about behind her mother carrying things, but she lingered more than before to watch her mother and occasionally meet Samhain's eye. She didn't like it when their eyes locked. There was something distant and foreign in the girl's gaze. The details of the distasteful rumor about her came unbidden to Samhain's thoughts and made her grimace out of more than physical discomfort. Ursa did not appear to know the difference, for she continued with her duties without any sign of confusion or offense.
Another whipping crack from above sounded as Samhain pushed again. A light shower suddenly splashed onto her face and neck, and she could not have been more grateful, even if it did interrupt her attentive breathing.
Madame Holda could have been more pleased. She grunted harshly. "This won't do. Ursa, more buckets! Then get over here and help me move her. We'll be lucky if the baby's born before we're flooded."
In the end Ursa came to help her mother move Samhain first, then positioned some buckets where her body had been to save the linens. "It's still dry here," the elderly midwife said, pointing toward the space just in front of the owl-mirror.
Samhain's stomach would've dropped to her feet had her inflated uterus not been pressing it up. "N-no. I'd rather not—"
"Oh, dearie, my owl doesn't bite!" Madame Holda laughed like a crow and set her stool down in front of the mirror. "Sit here. We'll do this the old fashioned way. There was a time when midwives claimed that birthing a baby on a stool was more practical. Before that, you had to do it standing up! We'll catch it, my dear, never fear!"
Attempts at further arguments fled in the face of the encroaching rain and Madame's Holda's persuasive hands. Samhain turned away from the mirror to sit. From this position she could ignore the looming bird and see the rest of the room, now taken up by a coalition of buckets. Drops clinked against their metal bottoms. The sound sent a tingle just beneath Samhain's clit. At the same time the walls of her vagina stretched with newfound elasticity. A startled cry escaped her. She wasn't entirely sure if she was in pain or just surprised. Either way, the sensation rippling through persuaded her to remain on the stool and sit as far forward as possible.
"Nearly there," cooed Madame Holda. She placed a hand on Samhain's back and held her hand. "Give us a good squeeze now. Mind if I tell you about my owl?"
"Mother," rejoined Ursa. Her voice was as rough as the bark of a pine tree, and as deep as a bear's growl. She mimicked Madame Holda's actions on the opposite side. Samhain couldn't believe how much higher and more nasal her mother's voice was in comparison. But they shared the same scratchy timbre.
"Oh, hush. It will help her concentrate." The apothecary smiled and squeezed Samhain's hand again. "As I said before, it was my grandparents'. My grandfather was a glassblower, and they both had a mischievous sense of humor. There'd been a man living in their village who liked to belittle my grandfather's skill. He was a scholar, one of those educated types who didn't have a single intelligent thought in his head. My grandfather had no proper education, but he loved to gloat about his wares and his talents. One day the old gentleman looks down his long nose at my grandfather, smirks and says, 'If you are so skillful, make me a mirror that truly reflects the world.'"
The wind closed in around the pharmacy like a giant gauntlet. Madame Holda interrupted her tale to tell Samhain to push again. She did. The muscles of her core throbbed. She could barely breathe from the effort and pain.
"So my grandfather talks it over with my grandmother. How do you make a mirror that truly reflects the world? That's what mirrors do, don't they? But then they realize something. Mirrors really don't show the world for what it is. They only show the surface of things. So my grandfather crafts this mirror. When the old gentleman sees it, he laughs and declares, 'Your mirror is horrible. I can't see anything in it. And why an owl? How does it reflect the world as it really is?' My grandfather says—"
On instinct, Samhain pushed again. She pushed, but nothing seemed to be moving forward. "Oh, gods!" she cried after she could no longer make her muscles obey.
Madame Holda knelt on the floor and peeked between her sweating thighs. "Damn. It's breeched."
Confused terror helped Samhain recover her voice. "What? What does that mean?"
"Means it's facing the wrong way, that's what. The baby's coming out rump-first." Madame Holda sat back to see both Samhain's and Ursa's faces. She combed a wrinkled hand through her tangled hair before sighing. "Ursa, the tongs. I'll wrench the little beast out of you if I have to. But keep pushing."
For the first time that day, Samhain experienced a true wave of panic. The pain had been one thing; the possibility that her child wouldn't make it hadn't even crossed her mind. What did it mean that her child was coming into the world bottom-first? Was he not getting enough air? Would he suffocate? Could she not stretch enough to get him out?
How did Madame Holda know her baby would be a boy?
Questions did nothing to change the situation, so Samhain discarded them and did as the apothecary ordered. When Ursa returned with the tongs and handed them to Madame Holda, she came back to Samhain's side and bathed her face with a refreshed rag. Her skin bled heat and perspiration, and the cold water on the cloth only briefly soothed it. In fact, Samhain was sure her body was doing more to heat the rag than the rag did to chill her down. All the same she hungrily leaned into every touch. She wished she could drink the water through her skin.
Her body was ready to squeeze and push the baby out again just as Ursa's hand dipped to her chest to wipe off the sheen of sweat. Samhain's heart skipped as the girl's hand caught on the thin leather string around her neck and pulled up the pendant she'd tucked into her blouse. It clinked against her collarbone. Such an inconsequential sound, but it was enough to make Madame Holda glance up. Suddenly the breeched infant dwindled in significance. "What's that, there?"
With a gasp Samhain seized the pendant. The metal started to warm in her moist palm. Now in her protective grasp, she ran her thumb along the mostly smooth, concave underside and the two foreign characters imprinted into the surface. The front of the pendant had straight carved lines that radiated from the middle. Two indented circles connected the lines together; one in the center, the other halfway between the first circle and the ornament's edges. Samhain had never decided whether the design was supposed to resemble a wheel or the sun.
"Nothing," she muttered between pants. "How's the baby?"
"Push again," said Madame Holda in a guttural tone, her eyes nowhere near Samhain's nether regions. "What's it made of? Looks like gold."
"It isn't." Samhain hid the necklace inside her blouse again. She had good reason to do so, as both Madame Holda's and Ursa's intrigued stares proved. The pendant, if Samhain remembered correctly, had maybe a trace amount of gold, but was mostly forged from bronze, copper and some other common metals. It glimmered brilliantly, though, and in a village as poor as theirs, people turned into magpies when they laid eyes on anything shiny and potentially valuable. The pendant was a lid that had broken off a strange device with a strange name that in this moment of agony and thirst eluded her. Instead of an explanation, Samhain gave Madame Holda a partly beseeching, partly threatening expression.
The corner of the apothecary's mouth spasmed up into a smirk before she nodded. "Another push, dearie."
Samhain did while leaning back into Ursa, who had since abandoned the wet cloth to support her. She grabbed the edge of the stool with one hand and Ursa's wrist with the other and unleashed a bodily cry that unlocked an extra store of strength. Her womanly muscles shuddered and pushed like a group of laborers moving an enormous stone block. For a fleeting moment the tongs in Madame Holda's hands came into her sights. She shut her eyes and shut out the image as best she could, and pushed again. After each cry, she took several quick breaths to combat the dizziness. Relief was nowhere in sight until the cold clamps slipped inside her vaginal walls and Madame Holda started grunting. A minute later the mass of flesh and blood moved again, as did the pressure inside her birth canal. It was the home stretch of this murderous marathon. Samhain clenched again and shoved the little body from behind (or the head, rather) while Madame Holda yanked from the front (or rather the behind). Inch by inch it came into the world, reluctant to the bitter end.
When Samhain screamed again like a blood-crazed warrior, her voice harmonized with another. Smaller, higher, shriller. The tearing and pressing and burning ceased. Samhain collapsed into Ursa's arms and gasped like a dying fish. Dried tears had left crusty trails on her face. Foul bodily odors filled the air. None of it mattered. She was glad to be free of pain and able to breathe properly. It was done. She didn't even mind when Madame Holda summoned Ursa to fetch the scissors, leaving Samhain to support herself on the stool. Arms quaked, drained of blood and energy, so she sat forward a bit more to not rely on her tired limbs. She shook with exhaustion and relief and was nearly on the verge of crying again, only now with a smile on her face.
Then she looked down and saw that Madame Holda had cut the fleshy cord, the last physical anchor to the infant, and had wrapped the child in her apron, as if hiding it from Samhain's view. The air stilled in her lungs at the sight of the midwife's expression. Her grizzled brows pushed together, her mouth bent in a ponderous frown, and her dark eyes kept roaming over the bundle in her arms. Ursa sat to her mother's left and wore a much more open look. Her eyes rounded so much Samhain could see the whites without trying. Her lush lips parted into a soundless cry of shock.
"What is it?" she wheezed. "Is something wrong?"
Both women looked up, their expressions unchanged. Samhain started, then reached out to Madame Holda's lap. "Please, let me see. I can handle it."
She didn't know if that was true. Nevertheless, Samhain would not have any secrets kept from her. The child was hers; it was her right to know what had gone wrong. At least it wasn't stillborn; that much she was assured of by the cries and the wriggling inside the stained apron.
Madame Holda didn't move. "Well . . . he's got all his extremities in the right places. In fact he's in right-old shape. But . . . well, just try to stay calm, dearie."
A nod, and the child, still swaddled in Madame Holda's apron, was in Samhain's hands. She pulled back the white cloth. Instantly a sharp wail stabbed her eardrums, followed by quieter but still unpleasant whimpers and whines that were too high-pitched for a normal babe. So she told herself, but even that fact paled into inconsequence on actually looking at the babe.
In the room's poor light, she couldn't tell at first the color of the skin. It was not the hue but the glittering scales that seized her attention. At a touch her hand withdrew right away; the skin still had the softness and the usual folds and mounds of fat expected of babies, yet it was coated in a rough, flaky layer that felt like a continuous scab. Samhain was afraid to scratch at it, should it make the infant bleed by accident.
When her eyes adjusted, she realized that there was indeed something off about his complexion. Not exactly green, nor gray, nor bronze nor gold, but some amalgam of them all. The tips of his fingers were guarded by dark nails already tough enough to claw into her skin when she grazed his palm with her thumb. He grabbed her, his whines turning into eerie coos. Samhain wanted to tear her finger away. When she tried, though, the baby's grip tightened. The strength of his newly formed hand set her heart racing even faster.
And then the eyes. Dear gods, was what wrong with them? Most children's eyes are a little too big for their heads when they are born; the scaly baby's orbs were as big as coppers, and the irises swallowed up the whites. Their green-brown color was offset by grey streaks that radiated from the pupil, making them even more unnatural. The only genetic connection between this thing and her, from what Samhain could tell, was the wisps of light brown hair on his bulbous head.
Her breath grew thin and shallow. Panic strangled her. Her hands numbed, threatening to drop the infant. Samhain lifted her gaze to Madame Holda and Ursa in a desperate search for answers and reassurance. Ursa shared her terror with gaping mouth and trembling shoulders. Madame Holda merely raised her eyebrows.
"Can't say I'm all that surprised," she said after a spell of silence, disturbed only by the heavy thrumming of rain.
Samhain couldn't even form words. She just scoffed.
The apothecary shrugged. "What else can you say? You've given birth to a fish. One way or the other, you become what you consume."
"That's hardly helpful," Ursa growled. "What do we do with it?"
"Up to the customer, dearest." And so mahogany eyes locked on Samhain. "What will it be? No one would know. We're the souls of discretion."
Words floated through Samhain's mind like shriveled leaves on a river, none of which had sunk yet. She'd just fought her way through labor; now they were discussing throwing away the fruit of that battle. Yet for a child, or a person, to go through life looking like this—she couldn't begin to imagine what that would be like, nor what it would be like as a parent to withstand the looks and the whispers for the child's sake. She could ignore only so much gossip; everyone has their limit. Scenarios of such a life, gloomy visions of admittedly questionable verisimilitude, danced through her brain and pricked her skin with cold needles of fear. Her hands numbed enough that the baby started to roll out of them toward the floor.
"Ho, there!" Thin, sinewy arms shot out and caught the tumbling infant. Samhain jumped in her seat. She awakened from her thoughts to Madame Holda cradling her baby and aiming a pointed glare at her. "Pull yourself together, child. We'll get rid of it if you want, but think it through. Yes, people will make him an outcast, either the feared monster or the butt of many jokes. He'll need resilience to loneliness and a sharp sense of humor. He'll probably be the most interesting person you'll ever meet. That's not to say he won't suffer. He will. But everyone does. The tragedy of life that binds us all. Still, it's up to you. But don't be hasty, dearie. Deciding a child's fate is a great and terrible power."
The infant started crying again. There was a ring in his yell that resurrected the memory of the mechanical goat-fish, or fish-goat, Samhain had seen when daylight still graced the world and the rain didn't beat down so loudly. A quiet rumble of thunder failed to deter the shrieks.
"Little beast's hungry," said Madame Holda with unexpected affection. Swiftly wiping her hand with a cleaner portion of the apron, she slid her forefinger into his mouth to pacify him. Buggish eyes rolled up toward the apothecary's face and smiled. Then his jaws clamped together. Madame Holda yelped and ripped out her finger. All three women observed the deep bite along the knuckle and a thread of blood, mixed with thick saliva, dribbling down her finger. Ursa leapt up for a bandage without being asked, though she pressed her mother in a shaking, punctuated tone if she was all right.
"Little beast bit me!" declared the apothecary while staring at her wound in wonder. She did not bother to wait for her finger to be swathed. Her hand grabbed the infant's chin and squeezed his mouth open. She barked with laughter. "Teeth! This little fish is a shark! Look at those nasty things! Well, so much for breastfeeding. I'll help you work around that. To think, though, that he's tasted blood before milk!"
The incident left Ursa scowling at the creature and Samhain sitting dumbfounded and woozy for many more minutes. But the apothecary snickered and flicked his nose with her bandaged digit. The baby shrieked but did not cry anymore.
It became clear with the passing of the storm and the increasing weariness of the women that night had in fact come. Madame Holda returned the child to Samhain's arms and with Ursa hauled the bed over to the owl-glass. Samhain put up no more resistance to facing the object again while she lay down, propped up by pillows and accompanied by her sleeping son. He was now full with one of the apothecary's formulas specially concocted for newborns who couldn't be breastfed. She'd been instructed on what to do to relieve the pressure from milk in her breasts, and was even given a demonstration so she could rest comfortably. Tired as she was, Samhain couldn't sleep. From time to time she wondered what became of Alberich. Did he try to return to the house in the storm? Was he still guzzling or snoring at the tavern, just as she was lying awake away from home with people she barely knew? Did he even care how she was?
He'd been a bit more tender, a little more considerate in bygone days. But he'd never been truly gentle or loving. Samhain hadn't expected it when they married—her parents had propelled her into finding a husband for security, and at the time Alberich appeared to be a content enough soul and infatuated enough with her that she thought she could make a marriage with him work. A childish part of her wished she could turn back the clock and seek a better, stronger love elsewhere. But a wiser voice, or a more cynical one, had taken root to chide the naïve inner youth. Men like Alberich crowded this world like termites inside a decaying tree. They weren't bad per se, but they could be brutish and coarse, determined to prove their manliness at the cost of loving their wives and children as they should. In all honesty, Samhain hadn't wanted a son. The world needed more women. And for her foolish wish, the gods gave her not just a son, but one who would face the world's cruelest quips and unkindest judgments.
Awareness of her child's vulnerability beckoned her hand to stroke his back, even if his skin sent little shock waves through her. To distract herself from her revulsion, she turned toward the mirror and stared at the owl's soul-swallowing eyes. "Mother Holda?"
Madame Holda, slowing down with lethargy, still moved around stoking the tiny fireplace and nudging the buckets when new leaks opened up in the ceiling. She paused at Samhain's voice. "Still awake, dearie? What is it?"
"Your story about the owl-glass—you never finished it. What did your grandfather say to the gentleman?"
The old woman straightened her hunching back and smirked. "Ah, that's right. Where did I leave off? Did I tell you what the gentleman said? He asked how the owl-glass truly reflected the world."
Samhain nodded and rubbed a circle on the side of the baby's head. The scales tickled the finger pad. She felt an urge to giggle. Must have been more tired than she thought.
The apothecary, or midwife, or witch, or whatever it was that best described the enigmatic, magnetic woman that was Madame Holda, sat on the stool, her bones creaking, and tilted her head at Samhain. "Well, my grandfather smiles at the man and answers him: 'The truth is, life is an illusion. It's a mess of lies, misperception and misunderstandings. Now and then we get something right, but we can never be sure which bits we see correctly. Sometimes, if we stay sharp, we can still make out the truth within the lies. You look in this mirror and you know that how you appear in the owl isn't how you actually look. Even if you did, though, you can still piece together the general idea of how a person looks, when you give it enough thought. Also, no one sees the exact same thing at different angles, and you can't really understand how someone else perceives things until you stand where they stand.'
"The gentleman listens to my grandfather, miffed at his logical explanation. When my grandfather finishes, the windbag sniffs and ask, 'Why an owl, then? Because they're the wisest creatures in nature? Because they ask us whooo we are? How very witty.'
"My grandfather shrugs and answers, 'That was actually a mistake on my part. I'm a bit deaf sometimes. I asked my wife what shape I should make the mirror to best reflect the world. She suggested an hourglass to show how twisted life really is. But I misheard her. I thought she said owl-glass, and by twisted, I thought she meant how an owl can twist its head around. So I didn't question her. Then one day when I was already well on my way to building my mirror, my wife came into the workshop to see my progress. When she saw that it was an owl, she asked why I hadn't taken her suggestion. I told I had and repeated what she said. When she realized what happened, you know what she did? She laughed. Laughed and laughed while looking into the mirror. And that's when I realized that I'd been right all along. An owl doesn't say, "Who?" It says, "Hoo hoo!" So does the world. It prefers laughter over learning.' Then he pushes the snooty gentleman in front of the owl-glass and says, 'Wouldn't you say that's an accurate reflection?' The gentleman leaves in a snit and never bothers my grandfather again."
Another thunder clap, deep and soft like a chuckle, sounded in the distance. The rain lightened to an intermittent pitter-patter, although water continued to drip onto the floor and into the buckets. Once in a while a burst of wind knocked against the shop to startle their nerves. Other than that, a lulling quiet suspended Samhain and her company in a peaceful trance. She could not feel the minutes passing or the night deepening. All anxieties about returning home were forgotten for now. So long as the odd thing in her arms slept, Samhain could will her world to pause, to take a breath. In the owl-glass her tired body reflected back in distorted waves, interrupted by the round protrusions in which tiny versions of herself, too small to clearly see, watched her in return. The bird's wings hugged around the bed, which caused them to also mirror her at an angle. Blurred facial features, a mound of brown hair, tanned skin and soiled sheets swirled together across the appendages.
Clearing her parched throat, Samhain flipped her head back to Madame Holda. "Is that really what happened?" she croaked.
Madame Holda spread her weathered lips into an imp's smile. Her dark eyes, hooded by wrinkled lids, twinkled even in the gloom. "Who's to say? That's just how he told it. He loved telling stories. I wouldn't be surprised if he made most of them up as he told them, but at least they were entertaining. That's what people care about in the end—a good story. Doesn't have to be true in any way, though that's usually a bonus. Just as he said: the world cares more about being entertained than learning anything meaningful."
"But that itself is a truth," Samhain pointed out. "And he was trying to show the world as it is with the owl-glass, wasn't he?"
"You're free to believe what you want, dearie."
The old woman patted her on the shoulder. "You should sleep. The child will be up again crying to be fed before you know it. Got a name yet? Better pick one if you're going to keep him."
Samhain groaned and rubbed her face. She and Alberich had discussed it a few times. More like they'd argued over which side of the family the child would get its name from. Alberich's people, and those of many in the village, came from the north while Samhain's people originated from the west. They carried two different lineages of names. Purely for the child's sake, Samhain relented on naming the child in Alberich's ancestral tongue. It surprised her, in fact, that several of its words had passed into the common idiom of the realm. They had come no closer to deciding, however, so Samhain took the task upon herself.
"I'll have to think about it."
"Yes, do that. Sleep on it. Ideas come most easily while you sleep." Madame Holda's leathery fingers brushed across Samhain's forehead. In an instant she fell asleep.
She dreamed of many things, both past and present. She relived the day of her son's birth, particularly the storm, and how her house and the entire world trembled underneath it. The owl-glass flew into view and hooted at her frustration before transforming into Madame Holda, then into the fish-skinned infant, then into the bleating mechanical sea-goat. Then she was somewhere far away—in a grand room full of light and sparkling things she couldn't identify. The ground shook from an earthquake and sent her falling hard onto the floor. The marble tiles cracked open beneath her. In the tumult she heard a pained, mournful cry of despair and need. Samhain looked around but saw no one. It rang from every direction.
The cry changed into a scream, and her dream ended.
Samhain opened her eyes and ears to her squirming, scaly, sickly-colored newborn. His mouth was open and screeching and displaying tiny sharpened teeth. And there was Madame Holda with a bottle of formula at the ready for the early-morning feeding. After the pair calmed down the babe and satisfied his avaricious appetite, Samhain told her the name she'd thought up for him. Madame Holda grinned.
"Ah, yes. That'll do. It'll do very well, I should think."
Samhain: pronounced 'SOW-wen'. Commonly believed to mean "summer's end".
Rumplestiltskin: variation of Rumpelstilzchen, meaning "little stilt rattler".