“There’s a crack in the ceiling.”
Above us, the crack ran like a thin scar over the length of our bed. The night sky shone through the break, wider than it had been the night before.
“It’s a bad omen.” Hector’s cold toes nudged mine. “If it’s a spider-crack then it means death is in the house.”
My hand settled over my belly, thinking of the parsley tea we’d bought the day before. “You already know there’s going to be death in the house. Get back to bed; you need to haul hay tomorrow.”
He ignored me. “It seems more lightning shaped. Lightning is good.”
I pulled the sheets over my head. “It’s just a crack.”
“Gracie!” he hissed, smacking the sheets to grab my attention again. “Gracie! There’s a shooting star.”
I heard the news long before Hector returned home. The town crier shouted himself hoarse that the Queen had died in childbirth during the night, as a star streaked across the sky. The new princess was the Queen’s seventh child. The King himself was a seventh son, with a pedigree and dynasty of his own. There was prophecy to the star’s fall and the King announced that he would promise his daughter to a newly-born seventh son of a seventh son.
When he returned home early for dinner, still reeking of sweat and hay, Hector stared at our two children at the table and the four equal mounds of rocks outside. Emma and Charles scarcely survived their births. The others clung to life, blue and twisted, for only a few hours. Hector never spoke directly, never ticked each name off his fingers, but the words of the town crier – still shouting into the night – spoke enough for us.
Hector was a seventh son. With a lineage of his own: a dynasty of poor farmers with large families. There was nothing of royalty in Hector; you could see the workers’ bloodlines in the breadth of his shoulders and the snub of his nose. The only promise he held was the luck associated with such a birth.
“The gods are good, Gracie.” Hector’s watery eyes were bright, the piles of gold he imagined shining through. He didn’t need to say the rest. Birthing a seventh son only meant ensuring that that the seventh child was male. All we needed was one more, another son, and I was already pregnant. “First a falling star, now the lightning shape in our ceiling.”
“I thought you said it looked like a spider?” Indeed thin fissures splayed off the crack in all directions, like a spider uncoiling itself above our bed. “It means death and you know why.”
“No,” he said earnestly, his hand reaching out for mine. It hung empty in the air before he knocked three times on our table. “It means luck.”
His mother hadn’t survived her pregnancy with him. No, Hector came into the world under the guiding knife of Mirwalda, our town’s witch. Though it softened over the years, there was a raised scar on the side of his cheek from the graze of the witch’s blade as she cut him away from his mother. My abdomen stung with phantom pain as I imagined the knife hovering over my own belly – I scarcely avoided the knife during the last two pregnancies.
I found no joy in childbirth; the pain always grew worse with each swell of new life. Of the two children that survived, Emma was my favorite. When she was born, she looked nothing like Hector; carrying my dark hair and watchful eyes. Charles was harder to bear; the last month I ached and cried. For the full nine months there was constant, painful, yellowish bile. His birthing took days, and when he emerged, Charles looked just like his father.
“You promised me.” I pulled the parsley tea from its hiding place, a small pocket in my apron. The small cloth bag held just three spoonfuls of tea. It had cost us two sows to pay the midwife for it – a fortune considering the poor crops this year.
“This will be the last one, I promise.” Hector gripped my hands with desperation. The touch was brief and warm, like all his touches were intended to be. His hands burned from the mid-day sun, grease and dirt still embedded in lines of his knuckles.
“I can’t, you know that I can’t.” My stomach cramped at the memory of my last pregnancy. It took weeks before I could sit upright without nausea or dizziness.
“This will be different. It will be our seventh. You know what that means, what it could mean for us. No more cold winters, no more hungry nights.”
“There is no prophecy, Hector,” I snapped. “There are just the lies the court tells the King.” There was a small burn of satisfaction as his face fell and his hands pulled away. I should have taken the tea days ago. He had wanted to wait for the crescent moon, claiming it would lead to a speedy recovery. “What’s the point? The child will die, just like the others. I don’t want any more piles of rocks.”
“You’re stronger now; you could bring the child to term this time.” Even he didn’t look convinced by his argument.
There was still a part of me that wanted to believe him, that it would live and I would love it as I loved Emma. Perhaps I could bring the child to term, but I knew, just as I could feel the phantom knife over my abdomen, that death followed this child.
Another tactic then. “Think of the lost work, the lost wages. I won’t be able to stack hay or clean the stalls. I’ll be useless. With the late thaw and all the rain, we’ll barely survive the year as it is.”
“Think of the wealth, Gracie. The riches. Our bed is made of pine; the moon was waxing when we conceived. These are all good signs.” Hector gripped my hand firmly, his breath strangely sour as he leaned in to kiss my flattened lips. “Next week we’ll go to the midwife, make sure it’s a boy. And then you’ll rest. We’ll hire a farmhand and you’ll do nothing but get fat and healthy. It’ll be worth it—you’ll see.”
He pocketed the herbs and shuffled me to bed, promising nothing but soft foods and quiet for the next eight months.
I did not believe Hector’s superstitions. To him, everything was a sign or a warning. He left bowls of milk on our doorstep for the fey, carved runes into the corners of our house for protection. He wanted a reason, a meaning, behind every action.
There was magic in this world, even I could not deny that. But I couldn’t believe it lay in herbs and tchotchkes for a man like Hector to wield. Magic belonged to women, to the witches that lived outside of town.
The child burned in my belly. A wooden totem that Hector bought swayed in a non-existent breeze, catching my attention throughout the days. It twirled under my watch until I felt the child spin in response. Every morning Hector prayed, blessing both me and the totem, as though my life was linked to the wooden doll. The toy would be an easy thing to burn or crush, but to destroy the totem would show I believed the prophecy. Besides, Hector would just buy another, spending money meant for repairing the crack in our roof.
I wanted a solution of my own.
Every forest path led to the witch’s cabin, along them the canopy of trees turned into shrubs, and the ground became more muck than dirt. Mirwalda’s home was half tilted into the marsh-land, nestled in the soft moss and magic that kept the building somewhat above-water.
Inside, Mirwalda sat at the only table in the house and puffed on a pipe. The smoke swirled and floated into the air until it was lost in the rats-nest of curls that piled on the witch’s head. Mirwalda’s eyes were bright and ageless but her body hunched, ill fit and sagging—like she was wearing borrowed skin.
The moment the door closed behind me, I told her the truth. “I can’t have this child and my husband can’t know.”
Mirwalda laughed deeply at my words, her blackened teeth clenching the pipe so it didn’t fall. “That’s the first time I’ve heard that today. Probably the last time I’ll hear it all year.”
The witch tapped her pipe against the table. Letting the ashes pile at the center. The ashes blended into the other smudged streaks across the grain and the crumbs piled like molehills across the table. “Place your thumb in the ash. Draw a line and circles — no less than two, no more than five.”
The flakes powdered beneath the weight of my thumb.
“Good…good. If what you say is true, and you do not want this child, why didn’t you go to a midwife? They have herbs: pennyroyal, parsley tea. Stonesee root grows like a weed outside of town. You’d get this for free.”
“No, I need something stronger than herbs. A few days ago my husband hung a fertility idol he bought from a traveler.” I hesitated under the witch’s mocking smile. “I can feel it working. Please, he needs to think it’s a sign of the gods so he can let go of this foolishness and leave me in peace.”
Mirwalda tapped her pipe against the table again, squinting into the barrel to make sure it was empty. “A traveler? Hmm, that’d be Rhys. He’s talented. Even the cheapest talisman of his is sure to work. You need strong magic to counteract that—won’t be cheap.”
“I have money.”
“I have no use for money, you see a crown?” The old woman’s knobby fingers began to stuff tobacco into her pipe. “I need a mule, a chicken, a new pot.”
My husband would notice a missing animal. But the small pile of gold hidden under the bed, the coins that now clinked in my boots, those were mine. It was the only thing that was mine. “I can’t—”
My fingers twisted on the handle of my basket. A blue gingham fabric covered my small offering of eggs and baked bread. Eggs were an easy thing to overlook at home, just a few skipped meals. A missing chicken would be harder to explain
Mirwalda chuckled lowly. “I know that look—you’re afraid of what your husband will say. All husbands are fools. I know your Hector. Knew everything about him once his blood landed on my blade.” Her hands rummaged over her clothing until she pulled out a small blade. “He wasn’t born cruel—few children are—I usually make sure that only the good survive.” She sniffed her knife as though Hector’s blood still lingered on the blade. “He’d see magic in a pile of manure though.”
“He thinks that there’s a prophecy for this child.”
Mirwalda shrugged. “There’s a prophecy for all children. A promise in each whether realized or not. Life must have bittered you to forget such things.”
“I know how to manage those seeded with bitterness.” The witch took another drag on her pipe. “Magic costs, so does my goodwill, but my advice is free. What if I told you it was a boy you carried, would that change your mind? I’d bet if you brought that news to your husband, he’d find an appropriate gift in exchange.”
For a brief moment I imagined it, let myself see the child grow into a strong boy. I could see myself walking home with the good news, prepared to spend months resting in bed. But each fantasy ended at the door of my house, ended with the piles of rocks that greeted me every time I returned home. “It’s not about whether it’s a boy or not. I know this child will bring death. It will kill me, I’m sure it will.”
Mirwalda shrugged. “Anything can kill you. Still, you’re the furthest along. Other women are asking for conception miracles. The miller’s wife is further along but she’s carrying a girl, poor woman left sobbing when I told her.”
Desperation welled up; I couldn’t return home to the mocking fertility idol. Hector only saw the potential promise of future riches, all I could see was the pain and illness that would linger in the meantime. “Please, there must be something you could do, something I could give you. In the summer I can give you some of our crops.”
Mirwalda stretched her fingers, staining them with ash and drew sigils across her table. She hummed tunelessly until her fingers stilled. “Your husband, he is a true seventh son. His mother came to me once when she was young, always a brave little thing. Brave even when I was cutting her open.” She wiped her fingers on her dress. “Many other villagers are counting miscarriages and bastards, but you have an honest claim.”
“Please. I can’t face more graves at my door.”
Mirwalda held up a still grey-stained hand. “In my mother’s time, long before birds had wings and stones were silenced, there was a saying: a seventh dynasty ended, a seventh dynasty begun.”
I knew these words. It was a rhyme I heard often in my youth. “Woe to the mother of a seventh son.”
She nodded. “Your mother taught you well.”
“My father.” Before he died, my father ran an alehouse. Drunks loved stories and my father learned the best. He’d stand behind the bar, shouting old fables over the din of the patrons. Most ignored him, but there’d always been an extra coin or two at the end of the night from the few that listened.
“Even so. Do you know what that means?”
I shrugged. There wasn’t much to know. The stories of seventh sons were always varied, always tragic. Some turned into deer and were hunted and shredded by wolves. Others gambled away their luck. Some spurned old crones who turned into vengeful witches. Their lives were bright, but they were also short.
“The mother of a seventh son will watch their child fall from grace. You’ve heard those stories I know, but they all start at the birth of the child, even before that the mother is punished for challenging the will of the gods.”
“A seventh son is a powerful omen, a prosperous one, but since there must always be balance, it is also an unlucky one. A seventh son of a seventh son will be strong, clever, handsome—this is a guarantee. Your son could be strong—will be strong.”
These were promises I heard before, from the midwife, from my husband. Promises like this meant nothing, couldn’t mean anything while those rocks sat outside my home. I didn’t want to picture this son that the witch spoke of. “It’s just a story.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I’ve been promised these things before.”
“Ah, but you’ve never had a seventh son before.” Mirwalda teased. “There are potions I can give you to ensure the child’s birth.”
“You’re not listening to me.” I grabbed my basket and tossed out some of the eggs onto the ash-covered table as payment. Two quick steps and I reached the door. My hand gripped the handle before the witch stopped me.
“You say you don’t want this child. You also don’t want your husband — I can see it. This birth would solve both of your problems and would leave you a very wealthy woman.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want the child.” I tugged the door handle but the heavy wood refused to open. Finally, I turned back to the witch and said softly. “I don’t want the pregnancy. That’s different.”
“Hmmm…and the husband?” Mirwalda plucked up one of the eggs I’d left on the table. She balanced it on its tip before giving it a deft spin. The egg turned and turned, never wobbling its pace. “How much would you give to have him just fade away?”
Her words stopped me, but then they were meant to. My father warned me that I had chosen poorly, blinded by a young man’s bright red hair and charmingly poor background. But I prided myself that at least I had chosen, unlike my friends whose marriages were arranged like chess pieces. Hector wasn’t a violent man; we only ever fought with words, short barbed things meant to peck at each other. He would push and I would pull until we’d reach a delicate standoff. Over the years of our marriage, I found it difficult to feel anything besides constant irritation. Hector wandered from one scheme to the next, blaming any failure on the will of the gods. If it were up to him, he’d never make a decision. He’d just wait for the dice to fall the way he wanted them to. There were debts, though Hector never wanted to speak of them.
Mirwalda snatched the egg from its spin and, with one hand, cracked it into her mouth. She slurped it down noisily while beckoning me back over to the table.
Once I settled back into the chair, the witch started speaking again. “You were correct before. This child will bring death, but not yours. As I said, seventh sons of seventh sons are unusually strong. Twice as strong, twice as clever, twice as lucky as the average man. There is a reason for such a thing.”
“Magic,” I said dully as my hand cradled my pouched-out stomach.
“No. Something old and deeper than magic. I’d also call it a prophecy for lack of a better word, for it’s never steered me wrong. A seventh dynasty ended, a seventh dynasty begun. Woe to the mother of a seventh son. Think upon these words. Carefully.”
“A dynasty ended.” I repeated slowly, going over the verse again in my mind. “Wait…ended?”
“As I said, a seventh son is a powerful being. Such power requires a source.” Mirwalda leaned over and squeezed my hand, just like Hector squeezed it days ago. “Take my potion. Keep the fertility idol. Visit the midwife. Endure this. There is no magic I can give you than is stronger than the magic inside of you right now. I promise you, on the eve of the birth, your husband will weaken. The child will grow and strengthen, and your husband will…not.”
The words chilled me, but not as much as the rest of the verse that ran through my mind. “And my son, you said this curse…prophecy would affect him too?”
The witch looked confused. “Does it matter? You’ve had your fill of children, you’re tired. I can see it, you love the first. What do you care what becomes of him? He will grow and swell within you, then you will expel him and he’ll no longer be yours. But what will be yours is the favor of the king’s family.”
My breath caught. “You’ve never had a child, have you?”
“Maybe I’ve had hundreds. Don’t presume.” Mirwalda glared.
“What if I have the child…but don’t want to give him away?” I asked softly, “What if I kept him?”
She snorted in response. “There is always a balance. You came to me this morning. Where did your husband go? Pfft. Your husband has already informed the king’s guard of your health. They will visit whether you want them to or not.”
My stomach dropped at the admission. I shouldn’t have been shocked or surprised. It was just like Hector to chase whatever sparked his imagination.
“My advice was free, my time is not. And you’re wasting it. I’ve given you all I can, what you do is up to you. Go lay in your birthing bed for eight months, or go throw yourself off a cliff. The choice is yours.”
As I grabbed my basket and shakily returned to my feet, Mirwalda shuffled to her kitchen and pulled a vial of green liquid from the dusty shelves. “If you choose to have the child, drink this. It will help ease any pain in bringing the child to term. Three sips everyday. The bottle will refill until the child is born.”
She tossed it at me. I grabbed it out of the air, the potion warm and alive in my hands. I remember the times I dragged myself to the cabin, stomach clenching in pain. “Why did you never give me this before?”
“You weren’t useful before.”
I gripped the vial tightly, sure that it would break. “And now?”
Mirwalda grasped my chin, forcing me to bend until I met her gaze. Her other hand gripped mine, squeezing until the corners of the glass bit into my skin. “This potion is not free. You can bear the child without, but I doubt you would. You fear pain and death, this releases you from that.”
She let go and smiled when she saw that I still held the potion.
“You said you didn’t want gold?”
“I remember your husband, remember the qualities of his blood. You have that child, I’ll know. Once you have the riches, I want the remains.”
She glared. “The body. I want your husband’s body. Even a seventh son has a small measure of power, I want that.”
I hesitated. If it was prophecy, then it wasn’t murder. I couldn’t be blamed for the will of the gods. He wanted the child; it was right that he should face the consequences too. Perhaps Hector would be pleased that he was destined for a witch’s magic. All the card readings that promised Hector great things, had they all been pointing to this? When I nodded in agreement, Mirwalda had already turned away.
“Leave the bread,” she ordered, “and send the next girl in.”
I gave birth on a Wednesday.
Hector slept through the night, a deep unnatural slumber that had begun only the month before, as I screamed in the kitchen. My eldest, Emma, held my hand and helped bring her brother into the world. With the final push, our kitchen illuminated with glow of a falling star, casting strange shadows onto the vial of potion I kept near. The baby was small, just as small as all the other births. He was born blue, with a shock of black hair atop his still face. My heart froze and broke until the midwife swatted him and the child gave a sharp cry. His eyes opened quickly, too quickly; the mid-wife gasped, already a dark brown instead of blue. I could see my features in his small face.
He was mine. My Oliver.
Emma didn’t want to touch him, but I found it difficult to let Oliver of out my arms. When I held him, his legs kicked out like he was already itching to run. I thought about hiding him when the King’s guard arrived, tricking them by handing over another’s child, but Mirwalda was true to her word, the only other babe in our village was the Miller’s daughter.
The King’s guard arrived at the week’s end with Mirwalda at their side. She touched my hand and I froze, letting the guards push past me. Any of the lies I prepared caught in my throat, unable to be voiced. My son wailed as they took him away in a wet-nurse’s arms. In Oliver’s stead they left a bag of gold, and a promise that a new bag would appear in exchange for every year of his life.
My husband still slept in the bedroom, Charles curled at his feet like a cat. I barely saw the boy during the brief time I had Oliver. Hector’s normally deep breath, grew labored and rattled louder with each passing day. It wouldn’t be long before Mirwalda returned to claim him.
Above him a new crack spidered along the length of our patched ceiling.