The high-pitched wail of a newborn resounded through the forest. Sergiane clutched the swaddled child to her chest and ran through the dark. Here and there the light of the just-past-full-moon broke through the leaf canopy or reflected off the eyes of some nocturnal forest creature. Leaves tangled in her hair and branches scratched at her cheeks. She stumbled over a raised tree root, threw her weight onto her knees to avoid crushing the child, and slammed into the ground. She stifled a cry and held her breath to listen to the thud of heavy feet and the snapping of twigs not far behind.
Breath tore through her lungs as she searched for a hiding place. There was a small hollow, just above her head, in a nearby oak.
“Calm.” She touched her fingers to the baby’s forehead and placed it in the hollow.
The baby shoved a fist into its mouth, closed its eyes and sucked furiously.
She steeled herself for Marvel’s arrival. He stopped, gasping for breath, the knife she’d forced from his hand still in his shoulder. He grasped a tree to steady himself and smiled at her. It was the smile she’d seen so many times, a smile that had warmed her heart, a smile that, in the past, she couldn’t help but return. Only now it meant something else and the eyes, above the familiar mouth, were different. They weren’t the eyes of the Marvel she knew.
“Where’s the baby, Sergiane?”
“Marvel, please. She’s just a baby.”
“She’s an abomination. I need to feel her blood on my hands.” He shuffled toward her, hands clasped in front of him. “She’s evil. You must feel it too. This is my purpose in life, this is what my nightmares have been telling me. I must end this evil.”
He lunged, catching his foot on the same tree root that had tripped her. He landed on his face and bellowed in pain. Before Marvel could move, she picked up a large moss-covered rock, dropped to her knees and smashed the back of his head. He grunted, put his hands on the ground and tried to push himself up. She smashed again and again, until his skull cracked and his wet brains oozed out onto the dirt.
Sergiane dropped the rock, put a hand on the rough bark of the oak and staggered to her feet. She stood for a while, staring at Marvel. His head was a bloody porridge of brain, bone, blood and hair. She’d killed him. Her man was dead.
2 years earlier
Sergiane hummed as she swept her cottage. The dirt eddied in the wind and settled into the shape of a face. A visitor approached. Goosebumps rose along her arms. She heard movement in the forest and leant the broom against the wall. The crunch of leaves and branches grew louder until a strange man emerged.
“Sergiane?” The man strode toward her.
He couldn’t have been much older than her own nineteen years. There was nothing exceptional about his appearance; pale skin, brown hair, hazel eyes, average height and a thin, muscly body. She ushered him into the kitchen and sat across from him.
“You’re a stranger to this island.”
“Yes. A merchant seaman.”
Sergiane nodded. “How can I help you?”
“Townspeople say that you’re the woman to see about ailments. Name’s Marvel, by the way.” He smiled and reached across the table to shake her hand.
That’s when it happened. The crooked curve of Marvel’s mouth and the crinkles that formed at the edges of his eyes made her, for the first time, imagine being close to man. To feel his heat and weight against her. To possess his attention and concern. To not be alone anymore.
Sergiane held onto Marvel’s hand for a moment longer. She followed the trail from her hand to his and up his arm to his face. Their eyes met and colour rose to his cheeks. She withdrew her hand.
“So, what’s ailing you, Marvel?”
He sat back and rubbed his hands over his face. ‘Nightmares. Every night I dream that a great swirling hole opens up in the ocean and the only way to save our ship is to throw a person into the hole. Then all the others—I can’t see their faces in the dream—chase me. They toss me in.” Marvel clasped his shaking hands together. “I’m falling toward the sharp teeth of the world when I wake up. It doesn’t sound so terrible when I tell it out loud, but I wake up sweating and I’m starting to fear going to sleep at all.”
“I’m no interpreter of dreams, Marvel.” She liked the shape of his name in her mouth. “But I can make you an amulet against bad dreams.”
“I’d be grateful.”
Their eyes locked together again.
“Could you return tomorrow to collect it?”
“Aye. We’re not sailing out for three more days yet. I think I’d like to see you again, before I leave.” He looked at his hands and rubbed at an invisible patch of dirt.
She sensed that he had as much experience with women as she’d had with men and decided not to let the opportunity pass.
“Hmm…Perhaps you could give me the afternoon to prepare your amulet and then return this evening and share a meal with me?” Sergiane’s blood rushed so noisily through her body that she barely heard his response. She did see him nodding and smiling with reddened cheeks. When he rose he knocked his chair over and hit his head on a pan hanging from the ceiling. She laughed as Marvel rubbed the back of his head. He laughed too.
Over the next few months Marvel crewed ships around the archipelago and spent as much time as he could with Sergiane. Within half-a-year of their first meeting they joined together in a simple ritual to prove their undying love.
Not long after their joining ceremony, Sergiane squatted over the cess-pit in her yard and whistled to a sparrow on the roof of the cottage. It had been well over one full moon since her last blood and her breasts were heavy and tracked with blue veins. She hadn’t mentioned it to Marvel when he’d last had shore leave, she wanted to be sure. The summer sun warmed her back and she sighed as her full bladder emptied. She wiped herself with a square of moss, glanced down and saw a dark red smear on the light green. Her hand shook as she folded and wiped again. More blood. She threw the moss into the cess-pit, pulled up her bloomers and rushed into the cottage. She seized a jar of dried herbs, labelled Bleeding in early pregnancy in her mother’s graceful script, from the pantry.
Fertility issues were a speciality of Sergiane and her mother. She’d prepared this particular blend of chaste tree berries, cramp bark, black haw, partridgeberries and oat flowers many times. Some miscarriages, she knew, were meant to be—an error in form or composition such that it was a mercy the child wouldn’t be born—and some were due to imbalances in the body and upsets of the soul. This tea would only help the latter. She sipped her tea at the kitchen table and lifted her left breast, then her right. They seemed lighter, less pendulous and no longer ached at her touch. The baby had already left her.
Sergiane fell pregnant four more times. After a month or two each tiny life was washed away on a tide of blood. She called upon all her knowledge of midwifery; altered her diet; brewed special teas; made offerings to the spirits; chanted; prayed and wore her most powerful fertility amulets in contact with the skin beneath her slip. Even Marvel carried an amulet next to his heart and drank a brew to strengthen his seed. All to no avail.
At Marvel’s suggestion they consulted an ancient, shrunken witch on the mainland, renowned for her expertise in fertility issues. They sat in her kitchen holding hands under the table. As Sergiane had expected, the witch’s suggestions were remedies and charms she’d already tried.
“Have you consulted the spirits?” The witch touched her fingertips together in front of her face.
Sergiane blushed. “Well, I’ve tried. I’m not terribly good at it. My mother died before she taught me properly. I need more practice. I can call up faces, but I can’t understand what they’re saying.”
The witch pursed her lips. “At least that’s something I can do for you.” She waddled over to a chest near the hearth and retrieved a little metal box. She dipped her index finger into the white, pearlescent powder in the box, brought her finger to her nostril and inhaled. Within moments the pupils of her pale blue eyes expanded until her eyes were deep black pits. She rocked back and forth, murmuring under her breath.
Several minutes later she came out of her trance. “I’m afraid it’s not good news, my dear.” She reached over to touch Sergiane’s hand.
Sergiane pulled her hand away. “What do you mean?”
“You aren’t meant to bear children. The spirits warn it could be disastrous to even try.”
After that Marvel told her to let it go. He didn’t mind not having children; he only wanted her. Sergiane wouldn’t accept their childlessness. She’d come from a long, unbroken line of healers and had always envisioned passing her knowledge on to a young black-haired version of herself. She knew there were magical forces in the world greater even than nature. You just needed to know how to wield them.
Sergiane met, in secret, with a witch on the mainland who had a reputation for dabbling in dark and forbidden magic. The woman gave her a grimoire and showed her the appropriate ritual. Sergiane packed a deerskin bag with the items required and mentioned nothing to Marvel.
Several months later, while Marvel was away at sea, she stood in the kitchen mortaring leaves to replenish her jar of anti-impotence powder. She felt a gush from her vagina, clenched her thighs together and stumbled back to sit on a kitchen chair. She’d carried the baby for almost six months. Her belly had started to round and her hair had grown shinier and fuller. It was the longest she’d carried a child. Her womb spasmed and the life within her waned. The ritual couldn’t be performed until the full moon, two nights away. She lay on her bed for two days, concentrating on keeping the tiny heart inside her beating.
When the moon rose on the second night she collected the deerskin bag and put her pet rabbit, George, in a small cage. Blood trickled down her thighs as she walked through the forest to the dandelion field.
The dandelion field was situated on a ley line—a place of great magic where the skin between the worlds is thin. She closed her eyes, held her palms out and wandered through the knee-deep dandelions, searching. She arranged a circle of stones around a spot where pure magic geysered up through a crack in the fabric of the world and sat cross-legged within the circle. From within the deerskin bag she produced the grimoire, a candle, a vial of seawater and a bronze dagger. She touched the wick of the candle with the tip of her finger and said, “Alight.” The wick burst into flame. She wet her finger with the seawater and drew a vertical line in the middle of her forehead. Beside that she placed a smear of dirt. She put one hand on the grimoire. It snapped open to the ritual.
“I, Sergiane, harness the power of soil, wind, fire, water, hearts-blood and magic to restore and return that which nature has claimed.”
Electricity charged the atmosphere. Her plait rose into the air. A high-pitched buzzing filled her ears. She took George out of the cage and held him by the neck with one hand. With her other hand she grabbed the dagger and plunged it into the rabbit’s chest. She cut the beating heart, no bigger than a strawberry, out of the rabbit and placed it in her mouth. It slid down her throat, warm and slippery. She clenched her jaw to suppress a retch. Sergiane plucked a dandelion puff-ball from the earth beside her. The world disappeared. She sat in complete silence at the centre of the darkness.
“Child inside me, I wish for your return and restoration to what you once were and what you should be.” She blew on the seed head. Dandelion seeds swirled in the air. Power from deep in the world’s core surged through her, like magma through a volcano and brought life back to her womb.
Sergiane carried the child to full term. As the birth became imminent Marvel stayed with her.
The squalling baby arrived in the early hours one morning—with brown hair, like her father, not the curly black hair she’d always imagined. The moment the baby exited her watery cocoon she had an effect on Marvel. It began with scowls and angry mutters under his breath. Within a day of the child’s birth Marvel picked up the kitchen knife with the intention of killing her.
The baby slept on as Sergiane lifted her from the tree hollow. The forest was silent except for the rustle of leaves and the creak of wood bending in the wind. The forest animals had been silenced by the brutality.
The baby wailed as they approached the cottage. Sergiane knew another calming spell wouldn’t work and neither would walking around rocking and singing lullabies. Milk trickled from her breasts. The child had repeatedly refused to suckle, latching on well and then turning her head and spitting out the thin white liquid. Sergiane tried once more. The effort only incensed the baby further. She suspected the child hungered for something else. She placed the red-faced baby in her wicker bassinet and picked up a square of muslin. From the back of the cottage she collected a shovel and headed back into the forest, towards Marvel’s corpse and away from the baby’s relentless cries.
With a heave and a burst of power from within, she rolled Marvel onto his back. A sharp waft of stale sweat rose from his body. The knife was slippery with blood. She laboured to pull it out of his shoulder. Once it was out she sat back on her haunches to catch her breath. She leaned over Marvel and opened his shirt, button by button. She tried not to look at his face and kept her eyes on the black hairs which circled his nipples and the inked pictures which adorned his skin. Above his heart a big-breasted mermaid, with Sergiane inscribed underneath, gazed at her. She sobbed and remembered the times she’d rested her head against his chest. She drove the knife into his flesh and cut a deep gash. She found his cooling heart, used the knife to sever it from the attached blood vessels and wrapped it in the muslin square. She picked up the shovel and began to dig. She could have used magic, but she wanted to feel the blisters form on her fingers and her muscles ache with effort.
The black fabric of the sky had faded to grey and the stars were winking closed when Sergiane returned to the cottage, filthy, thirsty, hungry and exhausted. She didn’t know which need to attend to first and barely had the strength for any of them. Her child’s insistent need roused her. First she would prepare the heart.
She packed wool into her ears, fed the fire and put a kettle of water on to boil. The baby’s cries pulsed dully through the wool. Sergiane unwrapped the heart, laid it on a wooden board and chopped it. Once the water was bubbling she poured just enough to cover the minced heart and left it in a bowl to cool. She brewed a poppy and liquorice root tea and mixed the rest of the hot water with cool water. She stripped off her soiled dress, stepped into the wash tub and scrubbed away the blood and dirt from her deep brown skin. No man would touch her skin ever again. Marvel had died so that the baby could live. He was gone. Unless… No, her affair with dark magic had ended.
Sergiane ate a hunk of bread and poured herself a mug of tea while the heart-broth cooled. She poured the chunky, black liquid into the square of muslin and tied it in a knot at the top. She held the muslin to the screaming mouth. The child began to suck. Her whole body relaxed, rocked every few minutes by a spasm of her agitated diaphragm. The baby’s skin faded from purple-red to a pink-tinged ivory. Once the child had stilled Sergiane unwrapped her and removed a red-stained cloth from her chest to reveal a clotted wound.
She lifted the sucking baby out of the cot, inhaled the yeasty scent of the child’s scalp and lowered herself into the armchair by the fire. She held the baby tight against her to ease the pressure in her leaking breasts and listened to the awakening birds and the crackling fire. Finally Sergiane closed her eyes and hoped the life she had chosen to save was the right one.