In the Shadow of the Moon

The Advance Review Copies of SEEDS have been sent out and I am now waiting nervously for the first reactions. The following story did not make it into the TOC as it didn’t quite fit with the others, but it still remains one of my most favourite pieces of writing because I can still remember exactly how I felt when I first put it together. It has been published online and on Curious Fictions in various forms, and this is its forever home now.

Content warning: child death

My dearest Lydia, you’re in my memories all the time of late. I know why, especially with the anniversary and all, nevertheless, it’s hard. I thought I’d put my thoughts to rest when you were. I try so hard to stop myself. I know there is no gain in pulling back the scabs that seal the past. Now what was offered to me for the future is so extremely near. A tight band pulls around my stomach. It hurts, my love, and am afraid. But I must keep focused. This is my second chance to do things right.

A headache struck me down while I was working at the store. I came home a little earlier, and I saw them — a bunch of flowers wilting in the driveway. As always, they were left for you. A confetti spray of petals painted in pale blues and pinks. Thin stalks wrapped in a shroud of cellophane, tied with yellow ribbon. They looked expensive; not a simple supermarket posy snatched and bought as a second thought. I’m sorry that I cannot tell you what they were. Unlike my mother, God rest her soul, who could name each bloom she laid her eyes on; their genus, species and Latin names all catalogued inside her, they are just flowers to me. Pretty, but anonymous.

It used to make me feel uneasy, strangers leaving gifts for you without permission, but I know it’s meant with good intent. People process things in their own ways. It would be wrong of me to intervene or to deny them that. You were indeed well loved by all.

Placing them there on the edge of the road is not ideal. I always worry that they will get… oh, Lydia! I cannot say it. I’m sure you know the words I mean. I suppose at least this way they get noticed. It seems silly to hide them away in the other place. They wither and fade and get forgotten far too quickly. This way you are remembered. You are still seen.

I’d just turned forty-three when I found out about you. Your arrival was unexpected and unannounced. I thought maybe you were food poisoning. Can you imagine? A miracle is what the midwife called you. An angel given unto me from God.

“Life will always find a way,” she’d told me solemnly, as if she were quoting from a bible verse. I’d stifled a laugh and wondered if she knew that her grand line was from a movie, nothing more. It didn’t matter. The miracle was mine and Eduard’s own. God had nothing to do with it at all.

When I held your pink and wriggling form for the first time, your tiny arms and legs kicking in flushed-cheeked frustration at the blanket you were swaddled in, I felt time stop. My entire world pinched into sharp focus, drawn only onto you. Mute and terrified, I cradled you with trembling hands and gazed down at your beauty. Blue eyes with flecks of gold and amber; black hair that all fell out and grew back blonde. Plump and smooth and oh, so loud! I’d never known what true love was until that moment. Nor total and absolute fear.

“Behold!” the Universe proclaimed to me. “Your ward. Your charge. Your Divine Providence. They are relying on you now. You have responsibilities. Whatever else you do, don’t fuck it up.”

Now, here we are.

Mrs. Campbell, Irene, from a few doors down, came around a little earlier. She often does. Unlike some, who cannot face me or don’t know what to say, she takes time out of her day to stop a moment, to ask me how I’m “getting on.”

Do you remember her, Lydia? Her coarse, white hair and liver-spotted hands. Her quilted housecoat, a faded remnant from the 1970s. She remembers you very well. Her attention used to make me anxious. Her matchstick fingers always plucking at your soft, gold curls and pinching your pale cheeks. I had to fight the urge to slap her hands away, as if the very touch of her declining years might taint yours in some way. How ridiculous! How stupid of me.

Do you know, I heard her singing in the garden one morning after you had gone? Of course, you don’t. How could you? I’m sure her voice was beautiful when she was younger, but now each note was high and reedy, cracked and twisted by old age. Despite the splintered melody, her words danced in the sunlight. Her song rose and dipped like butterflies in motion. Beautiful, delicate and free.

“O, calm my mind, deep water,
I drift on my dreams far from shore.
When those wild, white horses race to the sands,
I’ll be lost to the sea e’ermore.

I float free on the wide, deep water,
Neither land nor sea can hold.
Where my dreams belong in the wildness,
The water will wash o’er my soul.”

My heart was fractured, Lydia. I’d cried all night. I was fully spent. As my body heaved under a great weight, a heavy blanket of my sadness, I released myself completely and embraced the morning air. I knew nothing of the song, or even what the words meant, but it offered to me, in that moment, a tiny fragment of peace. A fleeting, and much needed, touch of hope.

When I remembered it later and asked her, she nodded once and smiled before she answered.

“It’s an old folk ballad, my lovely.” She sipped dark rosehip tea from her best china cup and looked up past my shoulder, lost in a moment only she could see.

“Wild women who came before me, my ancestors who lived and loved beside the sea, they used to sing it as they worked.

“People always think it is fire that is the most powerful of the elements, but without water we would have no life. It’s in our blood. It is our tears. It surrounds us all in safety before we gasp for breath, thrust bald and naked into the world. The water makes us so, my lovely.”

She reached out and placed one hand over my own. Her head tilted, bird-like, inquisitive and strange. Her eyes, so often pale and damp, rimmed red with age, were curiously bright as she locked them onto mine.

“The tide often takes, my lovely, but the tide may also return. You might gain a small comfort in that.”

I thought about her words for days. They were still in my head that afternoon when I saw the pendant for sale at the travelers’ market. Jade green. Carved. As big as your full fist. The shape was curious, suggestive of a running horse, scored deep by the curve of powerful waves. I had to have it, Lydia, cost be damned. I would have offered up my soul for it. Perhaps I did.

I wore it every day thereafter. Never in such a way so it was seen. It always rested underneath my clothes, close to my bare skin. The weight of it pressed squarely on my breastbone. The leather cord that it was strung upon left a thin, red line, a pressure mark, at the nape of my neck. It was my own sacrificial albatross. My great penance and atonement. Each time I cried, I cleansed it with my tears. And when it led me to the ocean’s edge one stormy Sunday, I did not hesitate to do what I was asked.

Your father, Eduard, he didn’t understand, but he didn’t have to. He wasn’t burdened by the guilt in the same way. Oh, that damned rabbit. If only I’d locked it away in the hutch that morning, you wouldn’t have chased it. Would not have run out past the gate like you did.

We wouldn’t have been thrown into such a mess.

Irene knew. She tried to tell me. Sometimes, what the tide may take, the tide returns. The ebb and flow are endless and ever changing. Each new wave so different from the last. Like a deep breath, we watch as they rise and fall. The water horses scramble to gain purchase on the land. Their great hooves strive in desperation to feel rough sand and shale beneath them once again. They rage and roar, so furious at their banishment. Cursed to race against the shore but never feel its welcome arms. To be embraced no more.

Unless… Unless there comes a break in the waves. A turning of the tide.

There now, look closely. An open doorway. Through the rock. Inside the cliff face. I step through and breathe. I hear Irene’s words in my head, whispering on the breeze like Mother Nature’s song. The ocean takes, the ocean gives. I listened, and I saw. I accepted the gift that was offered to me. And yet…

“It’s time to move on.”

I said those five words every day.

Others said them too, although not out loud. They said them with their mournful eyes and nodding heads. Their kind hands resting on my shoulders. In their actions as they brought me endless mugs of reassuring sugared tea. How long is ever long enough? Is the time measured in months or years? They only wanted to make me feel better so that they might feel better too. I had to find my peace away from them.

Every day I’d sit out in the garden. Even if it rained. I pushed and pulled the old fractured, splintered wooden bench. I placed it so that I could sit and face the house. I always took a book with me, but never read it. My coffee would be forgotten and grow cold. I counted the glass panes in the windows. The grey tiles along the roof. When that was done, I’d note the patches of green moss and dry, peeled paint. All that, just to stop the memories.

I realise now we should have moved, most other people certainly would have. But your father was stubborn, and we had barely unpacked. The bank manager, inevitably, had the final say. So, we had to stay.

When I saw you that night at the end of the bed, exactly how I remembered you, your golden hair a halo, gilded by the autumn evening light, I knew I was right to not let go.

I lay breathless, prostrate, moist and slick. The mattress hot and damp beneath me. The sheets, starched white Egyptian cotton, spilled and crumpled on the floor. I felt a bead of sweat between my breasts. It slid, gained speed, and curved its way around my spine. I shivered, even though I was not cold. I joined again with Eduard. When his climax came, mine followed. In the shadow of the moon, I saw you smile.

In the morning, I thought I’d imagined you. Six weeks later, when the sickness hit me, I knew what I’d seen was real.

And now, the pendant cord has broken. Make of that what you will. The jade horse fell. It smashed into a thousand tiny fragments on the hardwood kitchen floor. I know it’s time.

I remember something Irene once told me. She held me close in soft, frail arms as I sobbed and wailed in anguish, caught squarely in the iron jaws of grief.

“There are times when the world may seem so dark you will feel smothered, as if you have been buried, thrust deep within the Earth. But like a seed, nurtured by the tender hand of sun and rain, my lovely, you will grow again. You’ll rise.”

I stand alone at the edge of the ocean. The silver moon reflects a sickle curve across the moving surface. A wave of pain rolls over me. I clutch the swell of my stomach. I feel the kick of your foot underneath. Despite what Eduard and the doctors say — that it’s impossible, I am deluded; you are a phantom of my mind and nothing more — I’ve always believed you didn’t leave me, Lydia.

I feel the water break. My water break. I watch the tide turn. I step into the shining sea and let it bathe away my old regrets as a flower of red begins to bloom.

Oh, Lydia! My beautiful daughter. My wild and free and curious child. You did not leave me. Not completely. This I know.

I’ll see you soon.

This is the full poem that I wrote to accompany this piece of writing. Irene says it is an old folk song, but I think it is more a lament, a song of mourning for those who are gone.

O, calm my mind, deep water,
I drift on my dreams far from shore.
When those wild, white horses race to the sands,
I’ll be lost to the sea e’ermore.

I float free on the wide, deep water,
Neither land nor sea can hold.
Where my dreams belong in the wildness,
The water will wash o’er my soul.

These waves cannot hold my wishes
I rage at the loves I have lost
All the babes I once held to my bosom
All the bridges I left uncrossed

Hark, then, to the unspoiled whispers 
The songs sung to the wind and the sea
The children we raised to the starlight
Are now joined wi’ the moon, ever free 

Wi’ your hand in mine, I’ll walk now
Into the warm welcoming deep
I ask o’ the ocean to wash ‘way all my tears
As I stand on the edge and weep 

O, calm my mind, deep water,
I drift on my dreams far from shore.
When those wild, white horses race to the sands,
I’ll be lost to the sea e’ermore.