The gestation period for a Gentry babe is brutally short. Later, one is hard-pressed to remember any of it. As soon as ever I spew her forth into the world (this time, it is a girl; I've been dreaming of her), she will be taken away to be raised elsewhere, and I will not remember her face. Of my other children, I know only the names, but these I feel were all—or for the most part—in very bad taste.
When I am spared a moment of lucidity (this, I confess, happens but rarely; most days I lie in a kind of swoon or stupor, and the ivy patterns against the window form the queerest fantastical faces, and sometimes I think they're singing to me), I scold my relatives for allowing someone like me to retain titular power over her innocent progeny. Or would it be nominal power? I can barely remember my own name most days—how should I be accountable for the appellations of infants?
I came under enemy enchantment at the soft age of fourteen. For some reason it pleased the Gentry that I should breed their changeling babes, will me nil me, and breed them I have, though I had little else to do with them. Since then, it's been fumes and nostrums, narcotics and elixirs. I have existed in a kind of padded dream designed by the Abbot's wizards to protect me from further Gentry meddling—although, if you look at my record, these potions hardly seem worth their weight in piss. I have now borne three Gentry babes in as many years and will any day deliver myself of a fourth.
As I seem this afternoon to be granted a brief window of lucidity, I am here going to voice my suspicion that either these potions are little more than prayer and sugar water, or the Abbot, for reasons of his own, desires my body to be the fertile flower pollinated by any passing Gentry, that he has use for my changelings in the great war against them, that he has placed me under drugs and supervision and allows the whims and whammies and magical caprices of the Gentry to be worked upon me without a care for my own well-being—but no, no. This is paranoia. I am in my mother's cottage. She would never allow it. She's a hetch, you know—the finest hedge witch east of Braseling. Am I writing this or thinking it? Perhaps I am speaking out loud. Your eyes are so green, so gold, so full of leaves. But like the ballad, your smile is sly. I do not know if I trust you. . . .
Dear Aunt Hortensia,
Your last letter tells me that Darren gets on very well at your villa. I did not perfectly recall that you owned a villa. But now I remember mother telling me you were a famous courtesan in your day, and that the King of Leressa nearly made you his consort, but you would not settle for a morganatic marriage, so he gave you a villa instead. It all comes back. Do you still see His Majesty? No, you wouldn't, for he is dead these ten years, isn't he? Murdered during the First Wave of the Gentry invasion, lured into a bog by a 'Lisp's blue candle flame and drowned. Did you weep, I wonder? But we were talking of my oldest son, Darren.
Did I really name him Darren? A stodgier, more stuffed-shirtish, unfortunate prig of a name there never was. You might have alerted me to my error sooner. I had not crawled to his cradle after his birth but I learned you had whisked him off to live with you. I don't mind that he lives with you, Auntie H—indeed, I do not like children. But can we not change his name? I feel I have asked you this before, and that you answered me already. Ah, yes. It is here in your letter. You write that the child is now four years old and firmly fixed in his Darrenness.
That is too bad. I wonder if he is like his father? If you want my opinion it would be simple enough to ascertain Darren's patronage by countenance alone. As you probably know, I never met Darren's father. I was outside one morning in my garden, digging for potatoes, when all of a sudden a quite large potato opened five of its eyes and winked at me in the most lascivious manner. I didn't faint. I never faint, Auntie H, don't you dare think it of me, but I don't know quite what happened next.
Sensations. All through me. The smell of mud in my nostrils. Never before had I smelled mud like that, and never have since, mud that made me want to roll in it with my mouth open, the richest, blackest, cleanest mud, full of the most squiggly delicious worms, the greenest loveliest moss, the sharp edge of quartz crystals raking down my back. I remember they left marks like fingernails. . . .
Five months later, Darren. Five months, you will perhaps not know, is the time it takes to grow a potato from seed in these parts. We have very vigorous soil here. Mother said it is due to volcanic activity in an earlier age. If this is so, I have lived too long off the fruits of this land. Indelicate as it may seem to commit such a thought to paper, I confess to feeling as fertile as the earth in my potato patch.
I do not mean this rudely, Aunt Hortensia, but is Darren very squat and brown? Does he have more than two eyes? I seem to remember a profusion (or do I mean a protrusion?) of eyes blinking up at me from his cradle, but I can't tell if I was dreaming. After all, he was already gone by the time I managed to visit him. Wasn't he? My affliction is dreaming, Auntie, as you know.
I do not think Darren shares a father with the twins. I had forgotten the twins until now! Who owns them, I wonder? Is the term "owns" erroneous? I cannot tell. I will ask my mother and make further inquiries of my relatives.
As the twins are, or were at one point, mine, I hope they are happy. If they have ever written me, I am sure I do not know what I have done with their letters. I just cannot seem to respond with any kind of temporal efficacy. Besides, they must be quite young yet.
No one has berated me for my pregnancies. However, I cannot help but think there is about certain of my aunts an air of disapproval. Do you see it too? As if every time I spoke, great quantities of dung beetles fell from my tongue, or like the sound of my voice is as unpleasant as chewing on frog guts, or like I carry an odor of skunk with me. Nothing so breezy as one of those creatures wafting its anxious spray, but rather one who is three days dead and rotting in a pile of bones in some coyote's den.
But between our current theocracy (mother has taken to frowning whenever I ask her about the Abbot. She forbade me to swallow any more of his wizards' potions: an imperative for which I can only thank her, as not a one of them tasted better than drinking my own waste water, and besides that, here I am, belly near to bursting with my fourth Gentry babe, and this despite swallowing every sour mouthful!) and the Second Wave of the Invasion (to my mind, far more insidious than the First Wave, which resulted in many deaths, but not, I think, in quite so many births), I cannot be held responsible for the state of my uterus. I move through an occluded world. Ignorant? Or the victim of an enforced amnesia?
You smile. You tap your twiggy fingers against the windowpane. Yes, I know you're very clever and can hear me even when I'm only thinking, as now. Except my mouth is dry. It is possible I have been talking out loud again. Or singing.
My mother worries about me. She has set wards and enchantments about our cottage and thinks it little enough, knowing, as I do, that the Gentry have ways of stealing through the cracks. Come now, will you deny it? There you are, beaming and fluttering, in sunray and snowfall, the color of an autumn leaf, a westerly breeze. I cannot help being touched, though I remember little of it after.
Dear Grandmother Elspeth,
Some of my cousins—Mewsie's get—were in to visit the other day. Mother wouldn't let them up to see me, but I heard them very clearly through the walls. Caro said:
"Chosen consort! Gentry-bride! Pah! There are natural enough explanations for every one of her scandalous lyings-in. Likely she is using the Gentry Invasion to camouflage her weakness for stable boys!"
I was too adrift to answer then, but I will defend myself here, and next time you see Caro, or Günter, or Bernard, or any of them, you may quote me directly.
First of all, I did not even know we kept stable boys! It would be extraordinary if we did, for we certainly do not have any horses! Mother used to keep chickens, but the red fox came and killed them all, then slunk into my bed that very night and kissed me with his bloody mouth and got me with twins, and I do not think she has owned so much as a pullet since!
I know none of this for certain. It has been a while since I was allowed access to the out of doors.
Thank you for your letter! Such fine materials and artistry went into the rendering of it! Mother says the like can only be had from the Holy See at Winterbane. What favors do you perform for our venerable Abbot that he gifts you with illuminated vellum and peacock-colored inks and a young monk, no doubt, to take your dictations in perfect calligraphy?
I tease you, dearest grandmother. You tell me news of the twins. Do not think me ungrateful.
So little Sebastian Morgan is mad about the militia, is he? This obsession would certainly be hard to avoid with the infantry quartered at Feisty Wold, so near the Holy See.
I am including with this letter a scarlet coat with golden frogs that I embroidered. Mother has carved him a wooden sword, and says not to mind the marks along the blade, they are not runes or blessings or wards or anything that might upset the Abbot; it is just a toy. Not a shrubbery within stone's throw of your courtyard will neglect to beg leniency of my second oldest son's blood-thirst. He is too tall, you say, for a two year old? With red hair? Tell me, does he have a tail? His father had a fine one with which he tickled me until I screamed. I cannot remember if it hurt or not, but I remember I screamed.
"Sebastian Morgan seems in extreme good health," I informed my mother, thinking she would be glad for the news.
But "Mmn," was all she said. Was she talkative as a child? To me she seems more laconic every time I wake. To be truthful, I do not wake often enough to take accurate measurements.
For this conversation, she was sitting on her rocker in one corner of my room. Creak, creak, moooooaaaaan. That is the sound the rocker makes. I find it soothing, really. Like a heartbeat. A mortar sat in her lap. Every time she came to a forward stop, she ground down at its contents. From the powdery sting in the air, I surmised the bowl was full of whole peppercorns. I sneezed. (Sneezing, Grandmother Elspeth, in my state, gives me accidents, but from the number of towels beneath me, I conceive that mother has more than prepared for this. Besides, I find the suddenly pungent quality of the air invigorating.)
"Sebastian Morgan," I repeated to her. "There is a name I can almost be proud of."
My mother rocked back. The ready tension in her shoulders and all the lines of her face relaxed for one infinitesimal moment. I wish she would not work so hard.
"You were nearly coherent at his birth," she recollected.
"Was I? I recall nothing of it now."
I consulted your letter again, Grandmother.
"She writes that Sophia Candy—ugh! I was not coherent for long, was I?—Sophia Candy wants to take orders. Listen to this: 'A very pious toddler, young Candy has aspirations to the Abbacy.'"
I laughed, but mother did not.
"Isn't it marvelous? One changeling in the army, another in the church. And did not Auntie Hortensia write just last week—was it only last week? No, don't answer! It was three months ago or something of that lapse; I can read it in your eyes—to tell us that Darren bodes well to be a politician, with his gravity and knack for diplomacy. It is almost as if, as if . . ."
As if it were all on purpose, I almost said, Grandmother. But what do I know of these matters? I am not eighteen, and have spent most of the last four years in bed!
"We need a strong Abbess," grunted my mother, rocking forward again, grinding. "Our current Abbot meddles with . . ."
For a moment her gaze met mine. All the women in our family have dark eyes.
"Unholy spirits," she finished.
"Well," I told her, "Sophia Candy does not come by her devoutness from me."
"No," my mother agreed.
"Mother, is there no legal way to change her name? Some fee we might pay and have done with it? We cannot have an Abbess Candy!"
"You are not religious," she reminded me. "Besides, one takes a Saint's name with one's orders. She might be an Abbess Sira or an Abbess Rahzad."
"Either! Both! Anything but Candy." I lapsed back into my pillows. "Have I given birth yet?"
"No." My mother's voice was so gentle I presumed I was going under again. She came close to me, bringing her wooden mortar with her. The smell was so strong I started sobbing.
"Soon," she said. "Not yet but soon. Close your eyes."
I did, I do, I think I'll put this letter down now. My pencil grows heavy. . . . —E.A.
There is a rhyme about pepper.
Black Piper whistles to rupture what's tight
White Piper softens and moistens and serves
Green Piper sings out the young and the bright
Red Piper seals, Pink Piper preserves.
It is possible I just made up that rhyme, or heard my mother singing it when I was asleep. Regardless, I wake up covered in a crust of pepper. My mother has basted my body in honey, has crusted that honey thickly with black, pink, red, green and white pepper only partially ground.
I ask you what it is for, but it is mother who answers. My voice seems a meager thing in my throat.
"You lost a lot of blood. The pepper will give you back some heat."
She speaks so low I do not think you can hear her through the windowpane, and I am glad, I am glad, because she is mine and you shall not have her too! She is the best hetch never caught and tried by the Inquisition at Winterbane. I have told you that, I think, have I told you that? What did she have to trade them to make them leave her and me be?
Her craft is solid. I had been cold and now am growing warmer.
"I had another baby?"
"And the placenta? Did I deliver the placenta?"
If I fear anything in this world, it is the idea of carrying around a rotting placenta inside me. I am always more concerned about the afterbirth than the birth. Have you noticed this? You, who are always with me. Sometimes I do not think you care a jot if I live or die so long as I perform my duty.
"It is drying on the windowsill now."
She shows me the placenta when I prove too weak to turn my head. You will eat it before dawn, I know, and grow strong, strong enough, perhaps, to leave my windowsill and go torment some other girl. But I do not mean that. How could I? I desire no other maid to suffer from your winks and taps and smiles. Also, I would be a little jealous, I think.
"Is it a boy or a . . ."
"What did I name her?"
Is my mother laughing at me? She is smiling, but in a way that harrows the edges of her eyes. I grope for fitness of thought. Clouds, nothing but clouds. All I can do is wail.
"No, no, I named my other daughter Sophia! Sophia Candy! We were just talking . . ."
"Well," my mother interrupts briskly, "this one is also named Sophia. Just Sophia. Not Sophia Candy—who will likely change her name when she takes orders."
"Saint Sira," I recall, "Saint Rahzad."
"Both!" My mother smiles again, with more warmth.
"That won't be for almost two decades!" Barely are the words out but I wonder if my two daughters will ever meet. If it matters that they share a name. Or a mother. "Have they taken her away yet?"
"Your Auntie Mews is arriving soon."
Some names taste exactly like medicine. The vile kind that never does much good anyway. But mother ignores my scrunched face and piteous moan and is calm.
"After thirteen children and six grandchildren, Mewsie knows how to raise a child. Sophia will have guardians in the older children and playmates in the younger."
You do not need to mutter so, and scowl at me, and carry on. Do you think I cannot read in my own beloved mother's careful tone and shift of eyes that Sophia will be tyrannized over by the teenagers, loathed by the youngsters, and ostracized by all? I am not a fool. Our world does not suckle Gentry babes with the milk of human kindness.
I stir on my couch. I tug my mother's bloodstained skirt.
"I want to see this one. It is likely this time I will remember her, now that I have been put off all my elixirs . . ."
No loosed breath or cry betrays her surprise, but I see the shock; it whitens the corners of her mouth. But also—notice! She is smiling as she turns, smiling still as she leaves the room. Proud, maybe, that I am asserting myself. You are smiling too. I sense a conspiracy afoot. My mother and the ivy at my window, heads together, plotting. For me or against? If I were not covered in honey and peppercorn, I should demand an account!
I will see what of this mess I can scrub clean. A new nightshirt has been laid out for me. I do not suppose you will turn your back?
Do you not find it somewhat uncanny—if not out and out bizarre—that this last Sophia is my fourth child, and I have not so much as held a one of them in my own arms? When I had my garden (since Darren's conception I am not allowed to enter it), I would weed and water the soil, I would turn the earth and fret if it rained too much or too little. In the end, I harvested my own roots and fruits and vegetables, shelled the peas and scooped the gourds myself. There is some satisfaction in holding the thing I have nurtured before it is goes to be consumed.
Our world eats Gentry children. Or my relatives raise them. It amounts to the same thing, does it not? Ah, we are in accord. At last.
The knob turns. My mother enters with the last Sophia. The infant is craning her head almost all the way to stare at me. At us. Like an owl. I do not remember if her father was an owl. There may have been feathers. Sometimes, on those nights when the moon smiles most thinly, you will wear feathers and a mask made of small bones. You think I do not remember everything?
I observe aloud, or think I do, "She sits up very straight for a newborn!"
My mother sets the last Sophia in my arms. "Careful. She was born with teeth."
So tiny. Five pounds or less in gown, blanket and diaper together. Her hair is a silk of black over a skull soft as petals. She smells like lavender and fresh cream. Gentry babes will only eat cream, and only from cows. Human milk gives them colic and turns them pasty and mean. My mother leaves us. Mutual examination follows. Thus we occupy ourselves a good ten minutes.
"Who is your father?"
"He is right outside your window," replies the last Sophia. "But I do not think you should let him in."
"Why ever not?"
"Because you are weak and not ready for another babe. And because," she pauses, "having dwelled inside you for some time, I am grown interested in your person. I do not believe your best use is as host to husk."
I compliment her on her prodigious command of the language, but she merely shrugs.
"You spoke out loud often enough during my gestation. I garnered what I could. At first I wondered if you might be mad, as some humans become who have too prolonged a contact with the Gentry, but soon realized it was more complicated than that." Sophia's milky lip curled. Not humorously. "You have performed remarkably under circumstances that were—are—hardly under your control. Although, if you will leave your window open . . ."
"It grows so stuffy in here! I am not permitted to leave. Indeed, most days I have not the strength to rise from bed."
Again, that shrug, but more subtly, as if the movement wearies her. Her head bobbles on the slender stem of her neck. I support her more firmly on my lap, seeing that the last Sophia is not so strong as she initially wished me to perceive.
"Perhaps I would have done the same," she concedes. "There is nothing I hate more than being cooped up. Saving your presence." She makes me the most curious little boneless bow. "I do not know your name."
It is almost an apology.
"Esther Aidan." A strange delight to recollect those two little words, lost to me until I reach for them, at my daughter's own request.
"Esther Aidan, then. Are you going to give me away?"
As if her words herald the event, I hear the cataclysmic boom of Auntie Mews's arrival downstairs. She always travels with at least three dogs and twice that in children. They never stay with us; our cottage is too poor and not clean enough and we do not keep servants, which Auntie Mews cannot do without.
"Mewsie!" my mother greets her, with all evidence of enthusiasm. Well, they are sisters. I never had one—I do not know about them.
"I have a sister," the last Sophia says softly.
"You do," I confirm, surprised. Had I spoken? Or is she like you, with an ear pressed to my very thoughts? "And two brothers."
Whatever response she may have made to this is swamped by Auntie Mews.
"Milla, my dear babe! Where is the newest changeling? I'll scrub the malice out of her! And when she gets a little older, I'll spank it out. Wash her unnatural mouth with soap. Won't be a tarnish of magic left by the time she comes of age."
"She's with Esther at present, but . . ."
"With Esther?" Mews's horror—or is it humor?—grates like a grizzly bear clawing at a tree. In my arms, the last Sophia bares her barracuda pearls. "Esther's not bonding, is she?"
"No. She is simply curious."
"Precious good that'll do her. Next good storm blows in, she'll catch the preggers again. Has she been taking her medicine? I brought more from the Holy See. And a letter from mother."
"Have some tea, Mewsie. Would your kiddies like some biscuits?"
I stop listening, the better to study the thing I dandle.
The last Sophia, I will say, does not appeal to my maternal instincts. I do not think I have any—no more than you have an instinct for charity. But she is interesting. What's more, when she talks, I understand everything. To the chronically confusticated, clarity has a deep allure. Her eyes are sharp enough to cut me. All the women in my family have dark eyes.
What do you want, child? What can I give you? Words surge. New thoughts. A wave. I do not know what will be left of me when it recedes.
"Will I give you away, you ask, to live with my Aunt Mews and her large pink family? What will they do with you? I will tell you. They will raise you right, dress you in pink, take you to church, punish you for fancy's flight or any slight poetical leaning, for tears, tantrums, for keeping quiet, for talking. Auntie Mews will certainly not let a baby speak until she feels a baby should speak, and then only in that spit bubble patois fit for mortal babes. But I think—and whence comes this notion, my last Sophia? Is it mine own or applied from without?—I think you might be happier in scarlet and gold than in pink, might prefer a wooden sword to a doll. You might even like to learn about the magical properties of peppercorn at my own outcast mother's knee. I confess I have not known you long, but I see that in you which would shrivel under Mewsie's iron rule. It would be iron, my last Sophia, make no mistake. She will gird you in iron if that be what it takes. But I, if I kept you, would not. Fragile alien that you are, I might still do you some good. If I can but keep my wits! It is unlikely. They wander. They scatter like raindrops on a windowpane. You thought me mad even from the womb, and perhaps you were correct. Your mother is a broken thing. . . ."
"I can help you," the last Sophia whispers. "Esther Aidan, I can help you. Only—keep me by your side. Bring my brothers and my sister home. Perhaps not to stay, but from time to time, that I might know them, and they us. We will need each other in the days to come. There is a war, but we will do what we can to protect you."
She is so tiny. She is too new to help anyone. Even now her proud head droops to her breast. She yawns. Her fist flails near her eye. She is still marked from her passage. Likely her continued presence under my mother's cottage, far from enhancing our security, will draw to our thatched roof the flaming arrows of Abbacy and Gentry both.
But even if she is of no use to me whatever, even if I must die for it . . .
"You are the last Sophia," I tell her. "I will not give you away."
Her eyes are closed now. She does not hear me. But I hear her soft sigh, and when she shivers, I draw my blanket up around her. And you, who pretend you are ivy overgrowing my window, you sigh too, and your green and gold smile is—for once—not unkind. That is some kind of triumph, I am certain. And this: the child sleeps. But I am awake.