On the far side of the hill that slopes up from the front gate is where Marcus goes to grieve. They are all of them grieving, every hour of the day, and the little farm is heavy and shadowed with it, but the hillside under the hawthorn tree is where Marcus goes to be alone with his grief, to let it close over his head like water and bear him away, blind and deaf to all else.
He should not let himself be overwhelmed so, should be strong for Cottia--children die and women weep over them, and his tears will change nothing--but who is there here to pass judgement, when Esca’s own tears have soaked into the earth in a bitter flood, and he forgets for long hours at a time what he is doing, forgets where he is.
It is Cottia, Marcus thinks, who is in truth the strongest of them, going through her days standing straight and pale, her eyes very far away. She is broken, but still she goes on and does not get lost in this grief, as her men do. Sometimes she wakes in the night, thinking she has heard the baby crying to be nursed. When she remembers, she makes a low, pained noise and buries her face in the pillow. She does not cry, as though she has long spent all of her tears.
Marcus begins to understand the nature of that deep, dry grief on the day that he takes the little pile of wooden animals Esca had carved for the baby and burns them on the hillside. The tears feel a scarce breath away, barely caught back, but they do not come. The wooden hound with its lolling grin collapses into white ashes. That had been the little one’s favourite because it had been made to look very like his floppy eared playmate; at least they had joked so, for all that a seven-month old baby will treasure anything he can put into his mouth. Marcus takes a deep, shuddering breath.
Perhaps there will be other children--Cottia wanted a houseful of children, it seemed a lifetime ago that she had told them--children who would also gum at the wooden dog and bang the elephant on the hearth until his trunk fell off again. But Marcus cannot bear the ghosts that linger, cannot stomach the thought of saving these dead child’s toys, with all of their memories, for children not yet living.
In truth, he cannot imagine that future, those children. As hard as he tries, there is nothing. He cannot see Cottia, whose face is so thin and solemn now, flushed again with happiness, pressing his and Esca’s hands to her belly where the baby is kicking; cannot imagine Esca carving another menagerie of toys and bringing home new soft pelts for the cradle. If there is another son, what will they call him? For Marcus cannot imagine ever giving his name to another boy, who will be forever overshadowed by the memory of this first child that the gods did not see fit to let them keep.
It does not seem possible to him that they can do this again, the three of them. But Cottia is strong, so strong, and she will not bend or break beneath even this grief, Marcus knows. And Esca, fierce and fearless, will follow her strength, and what can Marcus do but go with them, into whatever future they will forge from the fuel of their grief and loss.
A little eddy of wind scatters the ashes of the toys, until they are only a faint stain amongst the fallen leaves and dry grass, and Marcus turns to go home.