I am now midway through the month of November. While some are growing moustaches or preparing for exams, I am trying to write a novel in these slim 30 days. I posted my pre-writing process when I began, and thought I would include my first chapter. I still haven’t named the piece, so The Curse of Téarian is a tentative guess. But here is the beginning of my myth.
The dying woman’s cry pierced the night, startling Brigid from her faraway thoughts. The old woman was sitting in an aged rocking chair by the empty stone fireplace, comfortable with her evening habits even when the heat of late spring chased away the need for a fire. She was mending lace, yellowed and frayed with age but still strong. The old woman set down her work next to a candle on a little table and moved arthritically to the open window.
Not far across the field that surrounded her cottage, up the hill from the roughshod collection of huts where the Docksmen lived and worked, Brigid could see the carpenter’s little home. Though not nearly as ancient as her own, and somewhat larger than her single room, the cottage still had that mix of earth and ingenuity now replaced by the strong, wooden houses on the other side of the square. Even in the graded blues of early night, the moon was full enough that the old woman could see the uneven texture of the river mud walls and the hand-hewn trim around the window. She remembered how the screaming woman`s great grandmother had laboured for days to stain the wood with sour berries she had collected in the meadow. She had even braved the berries at the edges of Elfwood, the old forest that haunted Téarian in every generation. The bright red colour drained from the wood faster than it left her stained hands, but over the years the trim deepened into a handsome cherry. Smoke curled steadily from the stone chimney, lingering in the rustling dried grasses of the thatch roof before disappearing into the night. It was a picture Brigid had seen from her window on countless warm evenings, and the serenity of the scene made her forget for a moment the chaos that was inside.
A second scream, more desperate and raking, brought her back to the present. The only thing in Téarian more deadly than fishing the Meer was giving birth, and by the sounds that poured out of her neighbour’s home, the old woman knew that there would be a funeral the next day. Perhaps two, she thought mournfully. Brigid allowed others to believe that she was cleverly detached and eminently practical, but it was a farce. She felt every death in her village as if it was her own.
In some very important ways it was.
The carpenter’s wife cried out again, deeper, determined, drawing from the strength of generations of Téarian women who had lived to see their children grow. Then the cottage was quiet, until Brigid’s sharp ears picked out the sound of a child’s cry, much like the faint grunts of the little hedgepigs that dig for roots in her garden at night. The old woman breathed a sigh of relief. Women knew the risk of giving birth, but she always regretted when little ones were lost before they lived.
The tiny sound of tinkling glass drew Brigid in from the scene outside her window. Her mantel was a thick, rough plank taken ages before from the great trees in the little woods at Puck’s Barrow and set in riverstone around the fireplace. Upon the mantel, next to a small wooden box full of buttons, was a glass bowl. The old woman carefully took the bowl down from its place and set it upon her table. It was filled nearly to the brim with small glass balls, each one individually reflecting the soft flickering light of the twilit room. Brigid called the tinkling orbs, “Sféars,” though she knew there were more ancient names for them, names she had forgotten over her long years. There were 186 Sféars to be precise, one for each of the villagers of Téarian. She hoped there would now be 187.
Brigid reached into the bowl, closing her eyes in concentration and searching with her fingers to find the warmest Sféar amongst the cool glass orbs. Instead, her fingers fell upon a Sféar that was freezing to the touch—so cold that burned the tips of her fingers. The old woman’s heart sank as she drew the icy Sféar out of the bowl, ignoring the sting of the cold. She allowed the globe to roll upon her palm, staring at it like she was appraising a rich jewel in the manner of the Cliffdwellers, or choosing grain seed like the farmers on the north side of the river. The little orb danced with light as it circled the old woman’s wrinkled palm.
Finally Brigid held the Sféar in her fingers and drew it up in front of the candle. Instead of seeing translucent candlelight as anyone would expect when holding a glass ball in front of a light, it darkened to almost perfect blackness. As the Sféar rested between calloused fingers, the dark image began to widen. Brigid was soon able to see an eye—a hint of gold-tinged green surrounding the black pupil and expanding into blood-shot whiteness. The image widened again. A single tear fell upon a flushed cheek and trickled out of view. Then Brigid was able to see both eyes, and wet-sand hair plastered onto a sweaty forehead. Finally, the old woman could see the newborn baby resting her mother’s naked breast. The woman kissed her child desperately as she wept openly.
The mother’s face suddenly went rigid with pain. Her eyes filled with horror at her own mortality, and flashed a peculiar kind of longing. Brigid stared intently at the image on the globe as the mother strained for breath, gasping and pulling at the air.
Suddenly the Sféar filled with smoke. Brigid knew it would be painful, but she held the darkening orb until it crumbled like ash between her fingers, watching until the mother’s life was completely gone from her. Absentmindedly wiping her fingers on a damp part of her apron, she turned back to the great glass bowl, to the many Sféars which was filled with the souls of each villager. While she mourned every loss, as the village’s Soul Keeper she did not have luxury to mourn for long. It was her task to be always watching, always on guard until the time came.
The Soul Keeper reached in again to the bottom of bowl, the cool spheres rolling along the back of her hand, and immediately felt the warmest marble. She knew that when she held the new child’s Sféar to the flame, the reflective image would tell its future. The future would change almost constantly, Brigid knew. Tomorrow was not fixed, but shifted with each decision and event. She was once told that each choice a person made was like a pebble dropped in a pond, each of the circular ripples the result of a single action. But Brigid always thought it was more like the sand-ripples on the beach of the Meer, hard and defined until the next high tide. Or perhaps the future was more like wrinkles on a bed sheet that shift and reform as her hands move across the surface.
The old woman was never able to fully understand how the future worked, but she was not overly concerned with this child’s job or spouse or successes and failures. Instead, she simply wanted to see if it would live, or whether her dear neighbour, the humble carpenter, would mourn in rapid succession the loss of a wife and a child. She would not watch the Sféar for long—she never perceived the details of a child’s death if she could help it—but she would look just long enough to see if the newborn would learn the layered languages and many flavours of this world.
Instead, the Sféar showed the image of the child, a girl, sleeping in a woven reed basket and wrapped in swaddling clothes, a misshapen bald head resting on a pink pillow. Brigid’s soft smile disappeared as the image never changed on the orb’s surface. The picture did not, as it should, show the rolling out of the girl’s days: her growing, her toddling and falling, her tears and laughter of years ahead. Instead, the image stayed in place, as if Brigid was in the same room looking down upon the child’s bassinette from above. The image remained fixed as if the little girl had no future.
The old woman collapsed into her rocking chair. Dread rested upon her like the weight of mountains on the shoulders of the valley. All of her fears about this moment surfaced, and Brigid felt lost—like she was being tossed about in the waves of the Meer in a storm, or swept away from the ford of the Tahôm River toward the Mill’s churning wheel. As the Soul Keeper it was her task to prepare the village for this day, but she always hoped it would not come in her time. The little girl’s future did not matter because whatever paths she took they would all lead to the same place in time.
It was the generation of the Exchange.
The carpenter awoke with a start to a warm, silent room lit with the pale grays of pre-dawn. Theron was still in his chair, and it took him a moment to remember that his entire world had fallen apart. He couldn’t remember what had happened during the night, exactly. He knew that some men had come and taken away his beautiful young wife. His heart tore as he thought of her cold, empty body, once so full of light and laughter, which he had wept upon until the women pulled him away. The women would be back when the light was stronger, he knew, so he sat still in his chair, allowing himself to be overwhelmed by complete emptiness.
A sudden thought drew him out of his stupor. The child. He jumped up from his chair and looked across the room to the little bassinette his wife had woven from the reeds she gathered near the cliffs. He walked across the room, uncertain of what he was to do. He recollected from the ghosts of memory that it was a girl. What would he do with a girl? His cousin could take the child, he knew. Their family did well, and she would grow up helping on the farm and getting a proper education. His wife had had such great hopes for their little family, and now….
Theron peaked over the edge of the basket expecting to see a child. He had seen many before, and they had never made much of an impression upon him. But as he peered down at the swaddled infant, he looked into her open eyes. Except the Cliffdwellers, who were not really part of Téarian but who brought their younglings in to town on market days, every child he had seen was born with blue eyes. But in the brief moment her eyes were open, he saw that this child had green eyes, flecked with gold—just like her mother. Theron knew immediately that this was not just a child, but his daughter. Determination steeled itself in his broken heart. He would raise her.
The father tentatively reached toward his child, but she began to cry before he could pick her up. He stared at the crying child, squirming within her tight package of blankets. He smiled for a moment, then felt a twinge of panic. What’s wrong? he wondered as the child’s cries grew louder and more persistent. With great fear he drew her from the basket and pulled her close to his chest, holding her like he held the newborn piglets on the farm: her little feet in his large right hand, her stomach resting on his arm, and her head nestled into his elbow. For a moment, her cries stilled, but she soon began to scream again. The cries cut into Theron’ heart like fingernails gripping his bare arms.
“Where are the women?” he shouted, growing more frantic in the growing light of his cottage. He wandered through the room gently rocking the child, trying to soothe her until someone arrived to help. But no one came, and the new father was suddenly haunted with the question: What if she is ill? He obsessed on the question, and the fear of losing his little daughter after just finding her erupted inside of him. He knew he had to act.
Even as he slipped on his boots—still holding the child gingerly on his right arm—he could not think of when his old neighbour had actually ever healed anyone. But somehow he still knew that she was a healer, and he was determined to see her. He stumbled across the field just as the sun was rising on the eastern edge of the Seam—the great, impenetrable mountains to the north. The golden sphere shone brightly across the valley, and the long shadow of the cross on All Saints Church fell upon the Soul Keeper’s cottage in front of him.
Brigid was not surprised when she heard the pleading knocks upon the door. She was up after a restless night, the kettle boiling cheerfully on the little black stove. For a moment she considered ignoring the knock, hoping not to get involved. It was her duty to stay unattached, she knew. If she was going to shepherd Téarian through the Exchange, she couldn’t connect personally with the victims. Though she could no longer remember when she first heard the ancient lore that determined the rules of the Soul Keeper, she knew that becoming attached to the Promised Child, the one to be taken in Exchange, was a path filled with great suffering. Still, the knocking persisted. With a sigh she opened the door.
The frantic father tumbled into her kitchen intending to plead for aid. But when he saw Brigid he could no longer remember why he thought she was a healer. He struggled for words on his best days, and in fear and worry and weariness, all he could do was quietly say, “Help.” Without a word the Soul Keeper took the child and laid her upon the table between a heavy book and a large pot of molasses.
“Pour some hot water into a bowl,” she directed Theron without looking up her task. As he went to the stove, she regarded the bundled girl before her. She carefully unwrapped the swaddling clothes, knowing that a quick move of her hand would end the child’s life in this very moment. Her father would mourn now, having only lost his progeny. But in the years to come, when she is lost to the Exchange, he will lose her not just as his offspring, but as his comfort, his joy, his hope, his love. With the old woman’s action, the baby would never grow up to see the dark days ahead, when the Seam’s shadow would overtake the valley and the spirits would once more venture out from Elfwood. With the quick movement of her hand she could determine the child’s future and save her from her fate.
Even as she entertained this thought, Brigid knew that she would not challenge the fates in this way. She was the Soul Keeper. It was not up to her to decide who should live and who should die. Most people have the power to take life, but she had never seen anyone exercise that power wisely. She had witnessed generations of men eager to deal in death and judgment, yet always unable to accept the consequences that came from their violence. She had the best reason of all to take a life, yet it was still not reason enough. The child would live, but Brigid would be careful not to become connected in her storyline. It simply wasn’t done. It wasn’t wise.
Stuck between life and fate, the Soul Keeper put her hand on the crying child’s forehead and began to sing softly, whispering the words of an old hymn in a language she had long since forgotten. Theron returned to her side, standing anxiously with a bowl of hot water.
“Please help her, Brigid. If you can help her I promise….”
Brigid looked up suddenly and tried to stop him from making a promise. But he paid her no attention.
“If you can help her I promise the girl will come and serve you when she grows old enough.”
“I don’t need a servant,” Brigid responded gruffly. She looked at her neighbour, well into adulthood but still a little child as he stood before her in violent desperation, a steaming bowl of water in his rough, carpenter’s hands. She knew that she wouldn’t be able to negotiate with him: there was no treasure even the greatest kings on earth can leverage against the death of a child, much less the self-deprecating defences of an old hag.
“Please help her,” he pleaded. Brigid looked down at the child once more, who had ceased crying as if to hear the outcome of the promise. Then she heard the slightest shift of metal upon the mantel, in the wooden box, where each button was the promise of two people in Téarian, the symbol of their covenant. Whether it was made publically or secretly, it was recorded forever in a crude box in this humble cottage. Before her clever mind had a chance to deny the grieving father his promise, the old woman’s heart had betrayed her. She knew that a button had been added to the box as her heart made a covenant with Theron before her lips even had a chance. Brigid sighed deeply in resignation and went about her task.
To Theron she simply nodded, then spoke brusquely.
“Where are the women? Why aren’t they helping?”
“I don’t know,” the relieved father responded. “I expect they will return, but I think they are tending to my wife.” He faltered only a little as he spoke the word out loud, permanent for the first time.
Grimly the old woman walked to her stove, retrieving a small piece of pottery that she used to cook seeds on the stove top when midwinter flavours were scarce. It was like a lamp from the stories of the East, almost covered at the top with a spout on one side. She then went to a cupboard where she had a little goat’s milk and poured some inside the pottery, which she then put inside the bowl of hot water. As the milk was warming, she went to her only closet and found a small blanket that had not seen use in many months. With a kitchen knife she cut the cotton into diapers. Speaking softly and with a little pleasure at her tutelage, she showed Theron how to change his daughter and swaddle her again. The little girl screamed as her first diaper was taken off and her skin touched the cool morning air in the cottage. But she was soothed again by the closeness of the soft blankets against her skin.
Then Brigid took the dish and carefully tipped drops of warm milk through its tiny spout. At first the child closed her lips to the strange texture of the pottery. Soon she began licking the sweet nectar off her lips with little stabs of her tongue, followed by tiny grunts of pleasure. After careful prodding and Brigid’s immovable patience—the carpenter thought he would explode at the slowness of the process and his little girl’s occasional cries of hunger and frustration—the child was sucking contentedly. A half hour later, with a litany of little warnings and snippets of advice, the Soul Keeper set the sleeping child in Theron’s arms. He looked at her for a moment, then, drawing from his very little experience, turned her over like a piglet and held her to his chest.
“I don’t….” the large carpenter began tearfully as he stood before the small old woman, though she had seemed much larger to him just moments before.
“Don’t mention it,” Brigid responded tightly, fighting back her own combative feelings of joy and hopelessness.
“I am your servant for life,” Theron spoke woodenly, in the tradition of his people. But, more naturally, added. “And my little one will serve you in her youth and your old age.”
Brigid wanted to debate, to deny and send the man away with a healthy child and a stern rebuke. But she could not. The covenant was made in their hearts, even if she denied it in public. Promises were absolute in Téarian, and so many nights in her memory she had delivered broken halves of buttons to doorsteps in the village under the solid darkness of a new moon. Their half-buttons, the symbols of the villagers’ broken promises, would never leave them, though none of the offenders would ever know why. These broken promises would appear throughout the house, discovered in places the owners thought closed and hidden. Many promise-breakers, she had noticed, would take to wearing the broken buttons on strings around their necks. Most were buried with them, which was fitting in a village too poor to bury their dead with precious gold and jewels.
“What is the child’s name, then?” Brigid asked as Theron turned to leave the cottage. He looked at the Soul Keeper, realizing that he had one more task before he collapsed into sleep on the wood-plank floor next to the woven basket. But the decision was already made as he looked down into her unusual grey-green eyes, which were drooping once again as she moved in and out of sleep.
“Christina,” he answered firmly. “After her mother.”
The old woman stared at her neighbour. She was not a witch or a magician, but over the years she had come to trust the power of words in this little valley. She knew that if curses could be spoken aloud, so could blessings.
“May she share her mother’s laughter?” she said wistfully. She paused for a moment as she prepared to bless the father, and finally decided on the only blessing she could think of that could possibly prepare them for their fate. “And may your wood-hewn hands skillfully carve this child of hope.” Theron received the blessing as incense in his nostrils, like the prayers of the saints, then turned and left the Soul Keeper’s cottage.