Human Child

HUMAN CHILD Illustration 2

Human Child

by Pauline J. Alama

 

Come away, O, human child!

To the woods and waters wild

With a fairy hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping

than you can understand.

–W. B. Yeats, “The Stolen Child”

 

Along the wooded bank above the shore, a few stray apple trees grew among the oaks and thorns. It must have been the remains of a neglected orchard, for someone had grafted a spray onto a stock: a thing against nature in nature’s own flesh, and thus, a break between worlds.

Around the grafted tree I set my trap: the rowan twigs I had gathered by moonlight, laid end to end with tiny wads of cobweb to bind them. The boughs made a circle open on one side, the side nearest the water.

As I set each piece carefully in place, I whispered the binding charm I had learned in my furtive studies in the abbey library. Thanks be to God and His Mother, my memory has always been sharp as Godfrey’s sword fresh from the whetstone, for I never faltered or missed a word of the spell or the prayer. When the chant was done, I littered dried oak leaves over the rowan twigs to hide them. I set out my bait: a flat hearth-cake round as the moon. It was not as fine as a raised loaf, but I had neither village bakery nor abbey refectory, only a poor campfire and my own unskilled hands to knead the dough. It would have to do.

My heart in my mouth, I hid myself in the brush, praying I could not be seen from the water–praying furiously in case anyone above might heed my prayer, faithless nun that I was.

The wind off the water scoured my skin red and tangled my dull brown hair, stripped of its nun’s veil but untamed by a matron’s headdress, bared to the wind like a child’s or a camp follower’s. Hunched against the chill, I stared at the sea and waited, my breasts aching with milk.

At last I saw the glimmer in the mist: a shining woman walking toward me over the surface of the waves. When I saw the babe asleep in her arms, I had to bite my fist to keep myself from calling his name aloud.

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A year before, I’d had no idea of ever having a child–or a man, for that matter. I felt as immovably part of the abbey as the stones in its walls. Though there was no ardor in my calling–indeed, no calling, except my father calling it a waste of time to seek a husband for the plainest of his daughters–nonetheless I felt at home among the abbey’s books, copying and learning.

But the stones in the walls could be shaken, and so could I. War came to the abbey, a dispute we knew nothing about till the pillaging army came within sight of our door. Duke Reynard, in a quarrel with our own Duke Robert, decided to spite him by sacking the abbey where Robert’s sister was abbess. Our Duke sent men to defend his sister and her holdings–not, to her chagrin, his best lordly knights, but a company of hireling soldiers. On the other hand, these hirelings may have been his best warriors in truth, for among them was Godfrey.

I noticed him at once, how different he was from my sarcastic father and supercilious brothers: how patiently he explained what we must do, and explained again, and explained yet again to those too panicked to hear him, gently but unswervingly setting us about the needful tasks of a household under siege. He was firm as rock, a foundation I could trust.

Under his spell, I would have felt ashamed to cower in a safe chamber. I wanted to do something, anything–to protect the abbey, I told myself, but if these tasks brought me to Godfrey’s side, that was not an unwelcome turn of fortune. So all through the battle, I fetched water for the fighting men. When the enemy shot flaming arrows to set the abbey alight, I brought wet cloths to smother the fire. Once during the battle, I remember offering Godfrey the pitcher; his hand grazed mine. For a moment he smiled, and my heart blazed.

By day’s end, Godfrey and his company had driven off the enemy. We nuns settled down to make the best of our damaged abbey. Godfrey came upon me alone, mourning over the casualties of the library–ancient volumes soot-darkened, and the copy of Augustine I’d been laboring on for the past eight months quite ruined.

“Barbarians!” I was muttering.

“Beg pardon?” Godfrey said, striding into view.

“Oh, not you, Sir,” I said. “I mean Duke Reynard and his vandals. Let him copy every page they marred! If he can write.”

“He makes a cross for his name, just like Duke Robert,” Godfrey said. “I just came to say–sweet holy saints, have you read all these? I mean, that isn’t what I meant to say–”

All of them?” I said. “Not a tenth of them! And now I’ll never have the chance to read this one.” I shook a damaged tome at him. He flinched back a pace. “All, indeed! Do you think I’ve been shut up in this place a hundred years?”

“No, of course not,” Godfrey said hastily. “I only thought you must be fiercely clever.” He smiled ruefully. “I make a cross for my name, too. My father thought grammar wasted on a boy not given to the Church.”

I looked at him clearly for the first time since he’d entered. He still had soot in his hair, and a cut on his arm hadn’t been bandaged.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “You’ve been bleeding, your men have been bleeding, and here I am, grieving over dead books! I must seem monstrous to you.”

“No, no. Never that,” Godfrey said. “You stood before the storm of arrows with us, you and your water pitcher, as brave as any knight–braver, for you were unarmed. I wanted to thank you.”

He took the ruined book from my hands, laid it gently aside, and stared at me for some moments as if unsure what to make of me. Then, rapidly, as if he had to hurry before his conscience caught up with him, he seized me about the waist and kissed me.

He later confessed to me that he’d expected to be smacked for his impudence. He was prepared for the blow; he was completely unprepared for what I did, which was to hold onto him like a falcon to its prey, returning his kiss with equal passion. After the shadow of a life I’d led, play-acting a calling I’d never felt, Godfrey was so real, so solid, I had to cling to him like a floating spar in a shipwreck.

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The army departed, and I went back to the remnant of my library. Months went by, the damage to the abbey was repaired, and my belly swelled till no habit could hide my transgression.

For the good of my soul, I was condemned to stand barefoot at the pillory in my nun’s habit. No need for the constable to cry out my sin to passers-by in the marketplace, for my very flesh proclaimed it. There was a stiff north wind, and my bound hands and swollen feet were nearly numb by the time Godfrey happened to pass.

He swooped down from the saddle. “Maud!” he cried. “How–When–Oh, Christ’s wounds! Have I done this to you?”

I whispered hoarsely, “Godfrey, hush. People are staring.”

“Weren’t they staring before?” he said.

“At you, I mean. They don’t need to know –”

“Let them stare,” he said. “Let them do what they like, so long as I may take you away from here. Would you come with me, love?”

“Take me how? Come with you where?” I said.

“Never mind that. I’ll manage it,” he said. “What about you? Would you go back to the abbey if they let you? Or would you rather–could you love me?”

“Love you? Godfrey, I thought I’d already given ample proof of that,” I said.

“Then it’s settled. I’ll be back for you, brave Maud.” He rode off in a tearing hurry.

When night fell I stood at my post, my back knotted, my feet like clubs. The crowd of jeering passers-by was gone, and a sleepy, bored night watchman was the only witness when Godfrey returned–not with a company of defenders, not with a single ally, but with two horses and an extra cloak. Later he told me he’d gone to the abbey to ask for my release as a reward for his defense; failing that, he’d begged his lord for aid. But with no man’s blessing and no man’s help, he came for me nonetheless.

Ignoring the watchman, he rushed straight to my pillory and cut the ropes that bound me.

“Hey! What’re you about?” The watchman stumbled groggily to his feet as I struggled to move my stiff hands.

“I’m a dream, lad,” said Godfrey. “I’ve come to warn you of your soul’s peril. When you wake, repent and give a purse to the poor.”

“Get on, you rascal,” said the watchman, drawing his sword. “Dream, my arse. Get away from the wench.”

Sighing, Godfrey drew his own sword. “Don’t make me hurt you, Ned. I just want the woman. Tell them a fairy stole her; half of ’em will believe you.”

“Have some respect for the law!” Ned the watchman brandished his sword.

Godfrey disarmed him with one swift crack across the sword-hand. When Ned scrambled for his sword, Godfrey kicked him. It was nothing like the tales of chivalry that once fed my girlish dreams, but it was effective. Every time Ned tried to rise, Godfrey knocked him down.

“All right, then,” Godfrey said. “I’d hoped one person would be generous today. But all hearts are turned against us, Maud, except each other’s.”

He hoisted my awkward bulk into the saddle. I could not sit well on the horse he had brought for me, so I rode in his arms like a sack of plunder, jostled so violently that I thought my travail would come on that night. Praise be to God’s fair Mother, it did not. We were long on our road before Toby was born.

But alas, we were not far enough from home to be married, for a reading of the banns would have sent word back to our old home and revealed us as an outlaw and a nun. Nor were we far enough from the outraged Duke Robert or his venomous neighbor Reynard so that Godfrey could find service with another lord. There was no rest for us, but we must take our new child and flee into foreign lands. Like ravens, we must follow the wars, for a lord hard pressed in battle would not look for reasons to turn away a deft-handed soldier.

But war, ever plentiful where it’s least wanted, eluded us. Godfrey’s little money leaked away; at each way-station, our comforts dwindled. And so it chanced that in a strange country one night we slept in the open air under a grafted tree. I fell asleep with my month-old baby in the crook of my arm, and woke without him.

Godfrey, bless his heart, blamed himself, thinking some old enemy had tried to strike at him through his son. But I had read of such things, and I knew by the faint sound of distant bells what sort of foe I must pursue.

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And now, there she was: the bright damsel carried out by the waves as if she were no heavier than foam. Tall and queenly, slender as a birch tree, graceful as a swan, she wore only a silken shift, her white arms bare, but the cold did not trouble her, nor the wind coarsen her face. Her hair, like mine, was unbound, but hers was a glory of gold, more splendid than any jeweled and embroidered headdress she might have worn. Her face was young and perfect, with the piercing beauty men forge into songs or wars.

She stepped from the water’s surface to the shore and smiled to see the hearth-cake on the bank above her. She flowed forward lightly as a wave and shifted Toby to the crook of one arm to pick up the bread, as wonderful to her folk as the rich spices of the East are to us.

I sprang from my hiding place, brandishing the last rowan wand in my left hand and an iron chain in my right. “By rowan and cold iron, I have you! Give me my child, or feel the weight of this chain.”

“Stop,” she said, her voice as melodious as church bells, as cold as the iron in my hand, “or your child will die.”

I froze in place. “Devil! You’d avenge yourself on a baby?”

“I have not said I would harm him. You would,” said the elfish woman.

I would?” Rage filed my mouth, so I could hardly speak.

One corner of her perfect mouth twitched in cool irony. “Hear me out, Sister Maudeleyne. I’m sure we can come to an agreement. You are a woman, and can talk reason. A pleasant surprise: I expected your man.”

“I thought you might,” I said. “I sent him in the wrong direction. He was expecting a warrior to fight. He wouldn’t know how to fight the likes of you.”

“But you know better,” said the fairy in a patronizing tone. “I confess, you cloister-bred magicians are surprisingly resourceful. Such a cunning circle! What did you use to join the ends of the rowan wands?”

“Give me Toby back, and I’ll tell you,” I said.

“Is that why you think I took him? To learn your petty secrets? I’ve faced down sorcerers that could turn you inside out with a thought, little Maud.” As she spoke, the fairy crept closer to the opening of the circle.

Could she escape after all? I had no more of the herbs I’d used to cast the spell. If she broke free, I might never see Toby again. Heart in my mouth, I blocked her with my body, brandishing the chain. “Stand back, or cold iron will burn you!”

She flinched back a half-step, and I dropped the last rowan-wand into place at my heel, closing the circle. I could not bind this last wand like the others, or I might not be able to take Toby out of the circle; no doubt some fairy food had passed his lips by now, perhaps enough to catch him in any tighter spell I might spin for his abductor. I would have to guard the exit with iron and with my wits. “You’ll stay here till I have my son back. Whatever you want in exchange for him, name it and be quick! Or did you take him only to heap torments upon me–as if I needed any more?”

“Arrogant mortal! You think I do this because of you? It’s for the child’s sake,” said the fairy, raising Toby higher in her arms.

He didn’t wake, but I could see his belly rise and fall with deep slumbering breaths, and my own breath came easier. The sight of his little rosebud mouth, slack with sleep, made my heart tighten and my breasts swell painfully. “It’s for the child’s sake that I’ve come,” I said, reaching for him.

“He’s not for you.” She pulled him away.

“Not for me?” I cried. “What is he to you? I bore him in blood and pain. I nursed him till my nipples bled.”

The fairy retorted, “And for all that, do you believe him yours to save or kill as you please?”

“Who spoke of killing but you?” I said. “I love him.”

“Your love will kill him,” said the shining woman. “What can you give him but shame, suffering, want, disease, and in the end, death, always death? In my world, the flowers do not fade, nor the leaves fall, nor the beloved companions age and die.”

“How pleasant for you,” I said acidly. “But Toby is a human child. This is his world.”

“It need not be,” said the shining woman. “I can give him the milk of immortality and make him like us. Such a beautiful child, beauty more befitting my kind than yours.”

It was true: somehow from my plainness and Godfrey’s rough martial looks had sprung a beauty unexpected, like flowers from a rock.

The fairy saw me nod, and pressed on. “Such a fair one should never be allowed to die.”

“He is as fair as you say,” I conceded. “But why take a babe without his mother?”

“Only such a young thing as this can drink the milk of immortality,” said the fairy. “You will die, whatever I might do; and if he stays with you, so will he.”

My heart constricted. “Is he ill?”

“There is sickness in all your kind,” said the fairy impatiently. “I will take that burden from him.”

“A likely story. If your gifts are so wholesome, why didn’t you offer them openly, instead of stealing my child while I slept?”

“I know your kind,” said the fairy. “You say, ‘my child,’ like ‘my horse,’ ‘my gown,‘ ‘my land.’ In your cloister, you read of Solomon: remember his judgment. Would you cut the boy in half to possess your share of a dead child?”

“The Devil may quote Scripture,” I growled, though her words shook me. Who was I to cheat my boy of immortality? Did I do wrong, with my rowans and cold iron?

“Is that what you fear–that I am some sort of devil, trying to give your son the world at the price of his soul?” She saw me hesitate, then smiled her cold smile. “No, I don’t think that scruple would sway you. You must have had doubts, or you’d still be a nun, Godfrey or no Godfrey.”

I did not ask how she knew so much about me, but she was right: by the time I met Godfrey, my vows were a hollow shell. The longer I stayed in the abbey, the farther away God seemed, till I was not sure what I believed. Maybe in my secret heart I wanted everything that befell me: the child taking root in my womb, the shame, the pillory, the exile, the endless road, anything but to die sterile and cold within the abbey walls. All the same, I said, “It’s not so simple as that. I don’t doubt Toby has a soul. But I–I’ve heard too many who bleat about their care for others’ souls while they make hells on earth for them.”

“And so,” said the fairy, “will you consign your child to the hells of sickness, suffering, and death in hope of a heaven beyond?”

“Or should I give him up to you, and deprive him of heaven and mother-love at once, judging him too weak to bear human sorrow?” I countered, though her words sowed doubt in me. “Besides, sorrow’s not all there is to human life. There’s courage, which the deathless cannot know. There’s honor–”

“And dishonor,” the fairy cut in, inching closer to the weak link in my circle of rowan wands, “and poverty, and the ill name of bastard. What kind of life will you give him? You live among cutthroats and camp followers, traveling in search of war so your not-quite-husband can kill and maim enough to scrape together a living. He can’t choose the side of right, but must fight on the side that can pay, or you will all starve–with honor. Your son will know squalor and scorn–and war, constant war, and the hells on earth that war builds. And for that you dare pretend that your mother-love, and the hope of a distant heaven you half believe in, can compensate? If, indeed, he can reach that heaven. How will he keep his soul unstained in the muck you’ve borne him to? For that wan hope, you would cheat him of all I offer: the gardens of the Apple Isle, the music the moon sings to the sea, the comradeship of the fairest creatures in earth or sea or sky, and my love, the love of an immortal heart, forever. What gives you the right to deny him all this?”

I hesitated, my heart squeezed between tongs. Should I let him accept this gift, pass into a life of wonder and delight that I could never share? Would it be crueler to let him go, or to take him with me, knowing that along the road any of a hundred mishaps might end his life: smallpox, measles, a tumble from horseback, the hazards of war?

I remembered, too, the nights when all my nursing and rocking and singing could not comfort Toby, when I was so tired of his wailing that I was tempted to leave him at the church door for a better mother to find. Here was a better shelter than the church. I could even say truthfully that I didn’t abandon him: he was taken. Why wrest him back into my own clumsy hands?

And what did the hope of Heaven weigh in all this? Could anything I did endanger his soul? Saint Augustine said sin is an act of will; this choice would be no will of Toby’s. Perhaps if I took this sin on myself, he could spend a thousand years in innocent enjoyment of an Eden without temptation, and find his way blamelessly to God at the world’s ending.

I frowned, unable to tease out the tangle of moral uncertainties. Then I saw that, reading my frown, the fairy smiled, and the light that dawned in her face was a glow of pure triumph.

She will never doubt like this, I said to myself. She will never ask herself, have I done right by the child?

She will always be certain she is right. And I suddenly knew that as surely as Lucifer fell, anyone so ungodly certain of her own rightness would inevitably be wrong.

I swung the chain like a lash and caught her round one snow-white arm, murmuring a charm Solomon used to chastise unruly spirits. The fairy shrieked and recoiled, and the baby woke and wailed.

“Give me my son back, you smirking hypocrite!” I shouted. “I know your kind. If you cut a child in half, you believe with all your heart it’s for his good, and smile benevolently over the blade. Let go of him!”

The fairy struggled, but the chain obeyed my charm, creeping up like a serpent to her neck. I longed to snatch Toby at once, but to be sure of his safety, there was one more thing I must do. I plucked three golden hairs from her head and wound them around my finger for safekeeping. Then I pulled my son from her slackening grasp and clutched him to my heart, though he howled and thrashed against me.

The fairy clawed the air around her throat in agony, torn between the longing to tear off the chain and the horror of touching it with her hands. “Foul witch!” she shrieked, “Remove your curse!”

“Not till my son is safe,” I hissed. “Swear by your name you will not come near him again. By your true name!”

She swore, half choked with pain. The name she swore by was a gabble of sounds that I cannot set down here. I lack the gift of discerning names, and did not trust that she used her true name indeed. But I had what I needed to make sure of her.

“Beware crossing our path again,” I said. “With these hairs of yours, I will weave a charm to bind you even if your oath fails.”

She pleaded hoarsely, “You have what you want. Release me.”

I drew the chain back with a murmured counter-charm and kicked the last rowan wand out of place to break the circle.

Without a backward glance I ran and ran and ran, swollen breasts jolted painfully with each step, while Toby cried like a soul in torment. Only when I’d left the grafted tree far behind did I dare stop to feed him. He thrashed about in my arms, too distraught even to nurse till I forced his mouth to my nipple. He sucked furiously, and I sighed with relief to feel the milk flow out of me: not the milk of immortality, but of human life and death.

Soon his thrashing ceased and his body eased into a natural sleep, less peaceful than in the fairy’s arms. His breathing sounded thick and snorty. Was it croup or just heavy slumber? I wondered whether he’d grow up to snore like Godfrey. I wondered whether he’d grow up alive.

“Toby, my heart, my child,” I murmured, “I have chosen for you: a world, a life, a death. Did I do right? Oh, did I do right?”

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Pauline J. Alama’s quest fantasy The Eye of Night was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award. Her short fiction appears in numerous anthologies, most recently Sword & Sorceress 31, Mysterion, Dragon Super Pack, and It’s Come to Our Attention(For a full list, see sites.google.com/site/paulinejalama) A former medieval scholar with a weakness for folk music, she conceived the idea for this story while listening to Heather Alexander’s gorgeous musical setting of W. B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child.”

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