Thirty Heartbeats

Thirty Heartbeats”

by Roxana Arama

When Diegis got his hands on his mom’s magic mirror, they were shaking. He wasn’t allowed in her workshop alone, but she’d gone to the village to see a patient, and Diegis wanted to know why she locked herself in there every day.

The mirror wasn’t remarkable in any way. A round silver-backed piece of glass encased in a wooden frame with a handle worn by his mom’s fingers. But the image inside was alive, showing what Diegis had seen that morning, when his mom gave him a long list of chores without heeding his time or needs. His heartbeat responded to his renewed annoyance.

Make sure you boil the roots,” she said, putting on her cloak.  “The wood needs chopping—”

The image swirled to black.

Stunned, Diegis put the mirror down and hurried out. His mom had opened a window into the past? How far could the mirror see? And why did it cut off like that?

Over the next few days, he learned he could only revisit moments of intense emotion. Like his first day of school, ten years ago. That cloudy morning was just as he remembered, the boys glaring while he walked to the school door. “The witch’s boy,” they whispered around him. He stared them down, ready to tussle. But what he didn’t remember was his mom walking at his side, hand on his shoulder. And he didn’t remember her leaning down and whispering, “Don’t worry, you’ll do great.”

By his seventh try, Diegis had discovered that the moment he revisited was always thirty heartbeats long. The calmer he was, the longer the mirror let him peer into the past, but never at the same event twice. And because the mirror looked only at its handler’s life, Diegis’s mom remained unaware of his sneaking into her workshop when she was away.

He dived deeper into the past. Mostly bad memories he remembered well, like when he ate poisoned berries and suffered a whole night, throwing up, with terrible stomach cramps. He’d always remembered how alone he’d felt, trapped inside his all-consuming misery. But in the mirror, his mom was also there, wiping his face with a washcloth and cleaning his bedpan.

The mirror was like any other tool that needed practice to master. After a few weeks, Diegis was able to stay calm while reliving a strong emotion. It was a high-balancing act that didn’t always succeed, like when he watched himself falling from the oak tree. Seeing his arm bent that way terrified him all over again. The image turned black, but not before he saw his mom bringing a splint and a jar of numbing ointment. That part, Diegis had forgotten.

At supper, he glanced at her stern face, wanting to thank her for the times she’d been there for him. But he couldn’t—too embarrassing. Instead, he said, “Why are you locking yourself in the workshop every day?”

She patted his hand on the table. “Trying to learn from past mistakes. See what I could’ve done to save the lives I lost.”

So that was what the mirror was for. But if she didn’t mention it, he wouldn’t either.

Can you show me?” he said.

Show you wounded warriors, feverish children, women in birth pains?” She shook her head.

Her last words troubled him, and the next morning he woke up heartbroken from a dream he couldn’t remember. He waited for his mom to go gather medicinal plants, then looked in the mirror, hoping to understand his sadness.

He saw complete darkness wrapped in a drumming sound. This wasn’t a memory, but it had happened—Diegis was sure. He recognized that tight and pulsing space. That loud drumbeat… was a heart. The mirror showed Diegis inside his mother’s womb.

Please don’t take my baby,” she cried.

That wasn’t the witch’s voice, though.

Diegis took a deep breath to slow down his heart so he could hold on to that crucial moment.

An older man’s voice, muffled, said, “I won’t keep a bastard under my roof. Let the crows have him.”

The mom Diegis had known all his life replied, “I’ll buy her baby.” Then she spoke closer, “Now push!”

Diegis’ heart answered with a jolt that put an end to that incursion.

Everything around him now looked foreign. His whole life had been a lie. Who were his people?

He didn’t know how long he’d waited, but when the witch arrived, he was still in her workshop, holding the mirror. “I heard my mom’s voice. Here.”

I’m your mom.” The witch took the mirror away. “I didn’t know it could do that…”

Who was she?”

The witch frowned. “She… died giving birth to you. A village girl who fell in love with a carpenter.”

Hope spurred Diegis. “Where’s he?”

Killed by her father. To avenge her death.”

Hopes crushed, anger was all he had left. “You bought me like livestock at the market!”

He had to find his father’s people. He grabbed a satchel and started throwing things inside, for the road. The witch followed him around the house. His heart raced so fast it hurt.

But the mirror had trained him to slow down. In the time he counted thirty heartbeats, a question formed: How would this moment play in the mirror, years from now?

He wiped a tear and looked around. What he saw was a terrified woman watching him with red-rimmed eyes. He could spare her the anguish if he just went to her, hugged her, and called her “Mom.”

But he couldn’t. She’d lied to him.

He took a deep breath. She’d lied to protect him.

She’d never trusted him.

But she always answered his questions. Maybe she’d been afraid of this moment?

No, she was afraid of losing an apprentice who—

She’d saved his life.

You’re my son,” the witch said. “Don’t go…”

They’d always been together. They could sort out the rest.

His hands shaking, Diegis put the satchel down and whispered, almost asking, “Mom…”

_______________

Roxana Arama is an award-winning Romanian American author. She studied computer science in Bucharest, Romania, and moved to the United States to work in software development. Her short stories and essays have been published in many literary magazines, and her debut legal thriller, Extreme Vetting, was an Editor’s Pick from Publishers Weekly (BookLife) and won several book awards. Her second novel is The Exiled Queen: A Roman Era Historical Fantasy. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her family. More at roxanaarama.com.

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