The Paper Child

My bairn smells of books. Though he should smell of milk and sleep. Or home. Not this one, crowded thick with woods and darkness. And more books than sky. That was Peter’s boast when we walked with the heather and the winds. Where Mam told me the hills were high enough to see tomorrow and, if I wasn’t careful, it would get caught in my ringlets. Here, the wind is a creeping thing that hardly makes you steady your bonnet. It rests in the yew trees. My bairn cries and I tuck him close. No wet nurse for him, though Peter says it’s the way here. But the ways here aren’t my ways. Aren’t the ways of heather and rock and heights that settle inside you and make you their own. I sing the songs my mam taught me, and I press my face to my bairn and sniff deep. But all I smell is books.

Peter laughs at me. The whole house smells of books, he says. Not just the house, but the country all the way up until you get to the fens. That’s how many he has. He handles them like china from a lost dynasty. He can hardly bare to part from them. And when we do walk out in the gloaming of the yew trees, the autumn dusting us, his hands twitch. See, he says, I smell of books. Jamie must have caught it from me. And he laughs. He laughs but his eyes are dark as the mahogany corners of his study.

I dream in winds. Winds of the high places, not the wingless ones of here. The gandaguster that half tugs you into the sky and the swaf that pulls your hair back to talk a secret in your ear. Mam said they live on the other side of as far as you can see. You can only dream yourself there, dawtie. And I pushed heather in my hair and tried to sleep my way there. Now I try to dream myself home. Jamie cries and I coorie him and hush sing but the air is stale and stings my throat. His smell of books becomes my smell. What harm is in books? Peter took me to his library and placed one leathered and musty in my hands. It’s worth more than two cottages in the village, he said. But I saw no value in it. Only pages that would crimple if the curtains pulled back and the sun fell through. How he flapped when I opened the cover and he swiftly returned it to its shelf. I tried to wipe its smell from my fingers.

The winter comes. It creeps in behind the sodden autumn hardly making your breath white. The yew trees drip. The garden is a bog. Yesterday, I walked until I was drookit, and my dress left a puddle in the hall. Peter blathered on at me that I would catch my chill. Chill! I long for chill. For frost so sharp you can taste it on the dawn. For stars that pinch you with their light. But most of all, for a feefle snow. Dance like the feefle snow, Mam said. She took my hands and we spun and spun until it felt the world would never steady itself again.

What were you doing at blue o’clock in the morning? Peter says. I was watching Jamie. I try to keep the bite out of my voice. Watching or sniffing? And which book does he smell of today? Shakespeare’s folio? Pepys diary? I look away. I feel him take a handful of my ringlets and press his face to them. You used to smell of heather, he says.

I tuck my frets away. I ask for dried lavender and I fold it in Jamie’s blankets and smother him with the scent. Frost troops over the fields and I take the cold in great gulps. Gulps deep and smarting. For I’m trying to breathe in the place where the cold comes from—fox prints in snow, the white sprint of hares, and the mirrie dancers colouring the night. Peter finds me in the garden as the sky stirs between the yew trees. A feefle snow, I say. Our hands meet and we spin and spin. He unties my bonnet and the snowflakes fill my ringlets and then his hands are in my hair. After, we warm ourselves at the fire. The hall smells of holly and merriment. I rest my head on Peter’s shoulder and he says the soft names he called me in the high places. Night settles in the windows. Stars peep from the yew trees. We will walk arm in arm to church at midnight and, after the prayers and lessons, we will sing Christmas all the way home.

Winter melts: the larks sing, hedgehogs scurry across the garden, snowdrops wilt, and Jamie crawls. He crawls to me, his face as round and rosy as an apple ready for biting, and I swoop him up and whirl him. When it’s mizzling, I hold him to the window and point out the wrens with worms in their beaks and the blackbirds plucking moss. He chortles and it warms me. Peter tosses him in the air and catches him. We laugh louder than rain.

I hear something when Jamie crawls. A faint rustle. Not when Peter’s reading him a story and stomping and fe fi fo fumming about the nursey. Not when the magpie is in the yew trees chattering like a clipmalabor. Only when all else is still and hush, I hear it – like the old pages of a book turned softly. I strain my ears. Jamie crawls to me. There it is again. I strip him and shake his clothes. But no paper falls out. He cries. He shakes his fists. I hear it again. I pry his chubby hands open, but they’re empty and the smell of books wafts over me.

Can you hear it? I say. Peter closes the book of folk tales. Listen. I raise my finger. Jamie crawls and gurgles. What am I listening for? Peter tilts his head. Can’t you hear it? He looks at me, his eyes dreich, and I want him to see me as he did in the high places. So, I take his hand and we stand at the window. A green rain is shaking the primroses. The air is thick with late Spring. A cloud breaks and the sun comes. I entwine my fingers in his and I tell him: Mam said Summer comes on a thousand silver slippered feet and you can hear them on the last day of May. He pulls me against him.

I don’t listen. I keep the windows open to the roar of summer, even when a daggle rain bends the yew trees, even when a goselet rain bursts onto the floorboards. I sing until my voice bumps against the walls and I dance with my feet as heavy as I can make them and I fe fi fo fum louder than Peter. But still I hear the rustle. Even when Jamie turns in his sleep. Is it just my fancy? I used to dream of the bodach and weep myself awake. Mam pulled my ringlets off my face. She lit a lamp, and she threw salt in the hearth. But the shadows had its shape. I was half dreaming. Perhaps, I’m half dreaming now?

Jamie rasps. And Peter hears. He hears before I tell him. For I thought it was my fancy, so I plugged my ears with summer sounds—bees and storms and the heat that swells like a song. The doctor comes and presses a stethoscope to Jamie’s chest. He listens. Peter pulls me close. The room pauses. Normal, the Doctor says, and he blathers on about fresh air and warm drinks, but all I hear is Jamie rasping.

We spend whole days in the garden—out with the sparrows, in with the bats. When Jamie naps, I coorie him under the yew trees. The bench is warm and squirrels dart past my feet. He toddles on the path, his face an apple, but his voice gone. All gone. No gurgling. No chortling. Just rasping. Peter watches us from his study window. I call to him. He looks down. The heat is green and gold and sticky through my dress. Jamie swelters and cries, but he cries in rasps. I cover my ears. We stay outside until the stars and I carry him in asleep.

Peter paces through the night. I half sleep. I try to dream my way to wild places, away from gardens and walls. When I do slumber, I’m running through the frith, the deer forest, and the ferns are clinging to me. I wake to Jamie’s cry—the rasping. Peter sits on the bed, his head in his hands. Why haven’t you gone to him? I ask. He doesn’t look up. I run to the nursery. Jamie’s face is red. His hands are fists. I whisper to him and stroke his cheek. But his skin feels like paper. I snatch my hand back. Can’t you shut him up? Peter stares at me. I shake my head. He grips Jamie’s crib. His hands are white. Jamie rasps louder. And then his face flattens and pales and flattens and pales. I cry out. I try to grasp his fist, his chubby fist. It flattens in my hand. Jamie is paper. He flails his paper fists. What have you done? Peter staggers. I didn’t. I didn’t.

Jamie is paper. But he still toddles. He still cries. He reaches for his rattle but his paper hands bend. He can’t hold it. I shake it for him. He makes a sound like laughter if laughter was paper. He smiles. I lift him gently so gently onto my lap. I can’t coorie him for I will crumple him. My tears come and I turn my head, so I don’t dampen him. I hear Peter and the doctor outside the door. It opens. The doctor’s face falls. He says he will not return to this godless house. This is your doing, Peter says. You birthed him. He goes. The door slams. It’s just us. Me and my bairn. But it isn’t my doing. What is paper to do with me? What are books to do with me? If I had made Jamie change, he would have become a thing of the high places: rock and wind and sky.

I lift Jamie from my lap. I watch him toddle. I stroke his paper cheek. I leave the room. I will have him back again—chubby and damp and gurgling. I will coorie him again. I know how. I light a lamp and I carry it to the library. I stare at Peter’s books. Books he held as if they were his bairns. He said there were too many to count. I try not to breathe in their musty stench. I smash the lamp. Flames burst and rush. I feel their heat. I watch them climb the shelves. I watch them gobble the books. Paper falls in burning flakes. I smell ash. I run. He will be him again. I open the door. I stagger. Jamie is paper. Flames crawl over him. Flames bite into him. He burns and burns.