Never a cry as it wasted away—so they told Maura of the orphan brought into her home. Off came the swaddling for the cold snap and a ride up the country lane, to a child so thin, so ghastly pale, that she thought it had given up the ghost in the doctor’s carriage.
“It won’t take the bottle,” he told Maura with Cait Brennan at his side. “There might be something wrong that we can’t diagnose—a defect not shown outwardly.” It—for children under a month old such impersonality was to be expected. Seldom was boy or girl heard for what God might yet reclaim. “Miracles are nothing to demand, least of humble womenfolk. But we all know how good you are with little ones.” The infant had gone into the old bassinet aside the glowing hearth, blanket replaced with care. Cait knelt there yet. How the young woman ached to help. The doctor was not a bad sort, just not so good as Cait when it came to love for a fellow creature.
Not Maura’s first waif, by far. Women died in childbirth all the time. There was advantage to be found in a place of one’s own, even a cottage outside the township—and even in being a cripple. Better to house a strange child, put it in the heirloom bed—no longer of much use otherwise—than take a daily ride to town and back.
“Miss Brennan will check in afternoons, every day this week,” he said. “She’ll bring fresh cloth. You needn’t change a diaper. She’ll do that for you.”
“No bother.” A prior morning the vicar had made the discovery outside the church. The very notion—to leave it so, whether for the frosty earth or soil of its own.
“Would you try while we’re here?” the doctor asked.
Maura took up the babe. A sparrow bone brought more heft and color, and it did not move. Breaths were faint, shallow. Offered the nipple, it pursed, took a white drop.
“Wonderful!” the doctor said, and Cait smiled through tears.
What had taken husband and child had also left the gait. Chores in the yard had gone beyond her. Selling the livestock and leasing out grazing rights had brought enough a competence to keep herself fed, she and the old brood mare, now a buggy horse. Lord knew why, but her milk had never stopped in those three narrowed years. Nursing duty was a good trade—with that bargain she might buy a shawl, or a cake, or know at least that she had the choice. Two pounds sterling on the table, and the medical establishment took leave. The coins went to the poke she kept hidden up the flue. Maura bumped back on her crutch to her stool and found the knitting. Any shawls coming to that frugal household would be crafted there, and any cakes done up from scratch.
She glanced up to see small eyes fast and awake. Catlike, a banded green flecked with gold. Sunken yet—dark in the sockets—but alert. The eyes took inventory. And as she hobbled up they found hers and did not break away.
Maura laid a hand on. “You just say when you’re hangry, dear,” all but a whisper, and she went to the stool again. Under breath she sang a lullaby, leaving out words where words were no use. When she looked up from a purl the eyes were on her eyes. So a tune was no comfort. Deaf perhaps, or some affliction of the ungrown mind. She stood and bumped over once again. Eyes to hers—no movement otherwise. She took it up in the blanket to dandle at her shoulder. Being held was another nourishment—a babe needed that no less than it did milk. No utterances, no stir as the infant rode it out, dead weight in her gentle grip. She heard its breath in her ear, measured and patient.
The mare nickered in the stall. Maura went to the window to look at the building across from the well. Whitewash and thatch, same as that she slept in, with a broad plank door for the cart. Nobody outside, or none seen. She had an inkling of the mare’s speech, the sounds it made for company drawn close, and those it made for trouble.
The baby’s breath sped but it had nothing yet to say. In truth the horse was easier to understand. Eyes on her eyes. She realized that on looking out she had set the babe to the crook of an arm. Nearness to a breast was what had brought the speed. Maura opened her blouse and gave.
Bitten hard—a cry more for surprise than pain. Marua did not drop the babe nor falter in her stance. The mettle of a parent, even for a child not her own. She looked down. Eyes to hers, it fed with a sucking chew. Strong latch—what an appetite.
“Thank the good Lord you’re toothless,” she said.
Eyes on her eyes—a lock that had grown as unsettling as the bite. She found it difficult to break the gaze. At movement Maura glanced to the window. Somebody was outside, gone behind the well or to the stalls. “Doctor?” she said, and hobbled for the door. “Cait?” The brood mare whinnied—a scream cut short.
Her good foot began to drag, little better than the lame. A drowsiness set in. She turned for the bassinet to lay the child down and instead found herself on her own bed, laid aside. Vision swam. The room was unmoored and had gone into a turn. Rest for a moment. Shadows on the windowpane. Footsteps in the yard.
Nighttime. The hearth had gone dead. In pitch darkness and cold she heard the chew. The babe was yet on her. Thank heaven she had not rolled atop. She had lain through the day in a sweat. Salt burnt the corners of her eyes. No soreness in the breast, not much feeling at all in truth. The babe must have just resumed suck, for hours had gone by.
Outside, a step—the intruder. She listened closely. There was a light wind in the leaves and whispering in the chimney flue. The babe breathed in and out through its nose. A scrape at her door. The turn of a screw into wood, driven fast, squeak by squeak.
In fright she tried to set the babe aside—and so caught a fright much worse. Deep and guttural, a growl spoke into her chest. Through lung and bone she heard it as much as in the ear. Something had come to feed. No—the babe. The blanket was yet on, and she felt the shifting of its four scrawny limbs. Five toes at thumb and finger, grasping back, cold and small. She had never heard a child make such a noise. Trying to rise again—to check the window—she felt a barb. Numbness spread fast.
Dawn light. The room had grown frigid. Maura felt about for a bed blanket. Her arm was weak and stiff. The babe was yet on her, chewing. She looked down and a deadened horror marked the change. The babe’s face had grown long. A skin had formed between them, flush red. No mouth there, not any more, only a single flesh. Eyes on hers—these unchanged, green and gold. The babe’s skin was that same hot shade, and it had begun to grow plump. The crook of that arm would not straighten out and her breast had shrunken. She drew a breath. The dart of its tongue gave her chest a pang.
In time Maura rose. The infant allowed it. She swung her feet off the bed with care. Dizzy. Her free hand found the crutch. The slower hobble took her to the door. She threw the bolt, yet the door would not come open. She pushed at it. The door leaf had been set fast. Maura remembered the driven screw, squeaking at the turn.
She went to the window. Close as a reflection a face rose up to meet her. A filthy shawl hid the most—the white face of a man, eyes green and flecked. Pitiless.
Reeling backward, she fell onto the floorboards. Another stab—warning again. Eyes on her eyes. She stared at the intruder in the glass—the father. The clothes were ragged—an outlaw, worse—and all below the eyes lay concealed. The deeper cold outside showed her his breath steaming through the mask. He ducked out of sight.
Maura should have felt more fear, she knew. But haziness kept her calm. Like a drug, it had come on with the bite. In time she got back on the bed. There was nothing else to do. A sucking chew. Eyes on her eyes. Cold had her teeth in a chatter. She would have to start a new fire. Hesitant at first, leery of the sting, she rose again. She felt the growl but quieter than before—only a caution. She brought herself before the hearth, trowel to scut. Lighting a safety match was hard with a single hand, but in time she got it done. So cold. She piled on coal—half her store—and the fire blazed. The exertion left her spent, and she crept back to bed. Nothing to do but lie still, take the warmth, let more hours pass—hours that she wept dry. So afraid. She would no longer look to the small face.
Nothing to do—until she heard the hoofbeat. A rider on approach.
Maura lunged up from the bed. The speed surprised them both. She ignored the stab, the growl. Whatever venom it had in store had been used up to keep her down.
“Cait,” she was shouting. She beat the door with her crutch. The thing snarled into her chest and she heard the sound in the back of her very teeth. “Cait, run.”
To the window. The top of her crutch broke the glass and she cried out through the shards. “Cait, run. Cait.” She saw the horse, Cait’s puzzlement. Eyes on hers—but these of a worried friend. The man in rags pounced from behind the well. A long knife shone in hand. The horse went down screaming, Cait with it, drenched in the spray of a cut artery. Maura screamed at the attacker—cursed him.
The stabbing into her chest had become a torment, but fear and anger ran ahead. Cait was in a crawl. The horse’s crushing weight had broken a leg. She looked to Maura—horse blood, not her own—as the man came up behind her, knife at the ready. He took Cait by the hair—was dragging her to the stalls. Alive—to where her husband had kept straw for the brood mare.
Fury won. She reached into the broken frame to snap out a shard. Looking down to mark the cut she saw the little face. The strange eyes were no longer on hers but on the glass. A muted cry, high in pitch—a shout into her bones and past her. Maura sawed, gnashing teeth. A crash—the man had left Cait and was ramming the cottage door with a shoulder. Glass parted flesh down to yellow fat, upwelling blood, and a hollow, not a trace of breast milk left. The small face tore away on a gobbet and the ribcage was shown in the wound. Maura screamed with all her wind. Through the slough of a false jaw it screamed back, misting her with the blood, and Maura saw a tongue dart, forked and bladed, from an open pharynx. New teeth in circles, like those of an eel brought up from the deeper stream. A grub, a parasite. Hungry yet—need its only mind.
She pried it from the crook of her dead arm and threw it to the floor. Her legs slid out from under in the blood. Brought up the shard, too slick now to keep a grip.
The father broke through. He rushed up in his dark rags to raise the knife. Maura brought up the good arm. The knife drove through the block and caught her in the shoulder. She felt that newest bite from a distance grown long. He crouched in a straddle above her legs, above the spawn. Pinning her back with the other hand he wrested the blade free. Her batting snatched off the ragged shawl. Another open pharynx, this one full of teeth. The grub was between her legs, screaming with the thwarted hunger. The tongue sought any hold, scoring and splintering the floorboards. The father stood to bring the knife down hard, a double-hand blow.
Taking up the grub she thrust it where he stood—and where closest.
The knife flew away. How he screamed, the pitches inhuman, pushing at his own brood latched on between his legs. Maura was fading but had the will, and the leg, for a kick. The father stumbled backward into the blazing hearth. Live coals flew. The rags caught fire and he stood alight, abandoned to a run. At last he came down on her bed. A billowing thump as the linens caught fire. Smoke poured up and flames leapt, too bright to see through. From within the blaze she heard a second shriek—higher, failing, gone.
No strength left. The raw wound in her chest no longer bled. The burn had spread into the thatching on the roof. From outside she heard a voice. Cait Brennan was beside herself, unable to crawl closer. “Maura,” she cried out, and for aid. How the young woman ached to help—and Maura took heart that she would live on to help again.