Mother and Son
The confused dream slithered away and disappeared into a fog of green, white, smothering black, and an echo of her mother's voice.
Clara prised open her eyes.
"It's nearly dawn! You have to get up!"
The door to her cell swung open with a bang. Acolyte Ines stood at the threshold; the candle she held shed a very unwelcome light.
"Go away," Clara grumbled. If she rolled over and pulled the blanket over her head, perhaps she would be able to capture the dream that had been stalking her the last month.
Ines, though, was as persistent as biting flies. Clara yelped as she felt her blanket yanked away and frigid air slapping her neck and feet. The Father's Winter had not yet fully given way to the Daughter's Spring. It had been a dark and bitterly cold trudge back to the Mother's House and the streets of Cardegoss were still slick with ice.
Ines set down her candle on the press and poured water into the basin. Judging from the faint wisps rising from the ewer, the water was even warm.
At least she hoped those mists were steam. Clara blinked blearily. Steam, she decided, and not those odd gray blobs that would follow her in some homes and every time she drew too close to the awful Zangre.
A murmur of voices chanting scales drifted down the corridor and into her room. The Mother's singers were already warming up and Clara could hear her own absence from the altos in the flat, off-key notes.
"The Choir Mistress sent me," Ines said, sounding as brassy as the choir. "You are needed, obviously."
Clara pulled herself up to sit on the edge of the cot and felt the fatigue in every aching bone. "I only just came back from a birthing. I couldn't have been asleep more than an hour," she muttered through an ear-splitting yawn.
Ines wrinkled her nose. "Yes, I can see and smell that. Was it at least to a good end?"
That depended upon one's perspective.
"Mother be praised, yes," Clara replied instead. "The cord was wrapped around the babe's neck. But all ended well." For the mother and her daughter. For the moment.
Ines signed herself, forehead, lip, navel, and groin, then spread her fingers flat over her heart. "A good omen to this Daughter's Day! Surely there will be a rich purse for the Mother's House!"
"Surely," Clara replied dully, though she knew it would be otherwise. The Castillar dy Barbagoza and his lady hadn't been pleased when she'd shown up at the servants' backdoor of their town villa last night. But she had been watching the young cook in the house closely throughout her pregnancy and had needed no summons to know when the girl's labor had begun. Like so many others that came into the world through her hands, this babe would undoubtedly be passed off to the Bastard's orphanage at first opportunity.
She didn't know where the instinct for birthing came from that warned of trouble before it had begun and encouraged when she did right. The insistent voice was so like that of her own mother, who had lain down upon her eleventh childbed and never risen from it. Clara had held her hand as she'd passed to the Mother.
She scrubbed her gritty eyes, dashing away the tears that had been coming too frequently lately. There were so many births in Cardegoss this season and, try as she might, she couldn't save them all. Written in her heart was every mother and child who had gone to the gods because she had arrived too late. To prevent those awful might-have-beens, she would persevere through the exhaustion and constant, wearying arguments with the other midwives and physicians over her unorthodox methods.
"You need to hurry!" Ines said, turning about to leave. "And you need a wash. I even brought you warm water, so don't waste it!"
"Thank you for your charity, sister." Ines' seeming thoughtfulness in bringing the water was simple self-interest. They were usually next to one another in the Mother's choir and Ines didn't want to sit through the long Daughter's Day ceremonies to come with someone who reeked of blood and afterbirth.
Clara forced herself out of bed, quickly washed, shivered into someone's clean robe she filched from the laundry, and jogged to the choir for their last warmup. Her late, out-of-breath arrival merited the usual frown from the Choir Mistress and titters of disapproval from the other singers. Then, they all processed into the Temple just as dawn broke on a cold Daughter's Day. The acolytes, dedicats, and divines of the five gods all joined in prayer and then the solemn chant to greet the Lady's season of Spring.
Farewell Father, now to the Lady,
Come o'er the eastern hills, and let our winds
Kiss thy perfumed garments; let us taste
Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls
Upon our winter land that praises thee.
The Archdivine himself extinguished the last fire burning in the Cardegoss Temple proper, a lonely candle flickering in the east window.
With all the hearths out until the maid who would play the Lady of Spring lit the Temple fire anew, it was a cold breakfast in the dining hall at the Mother's House. Then they would process back to the Temple for the rest of the Daughter's Day ceremonies.
There were the usual disdainful looks at her rustic table manners but Clara was too hungry to pretend to be ascetic and she wolfed down several hard biscuits softened with goat cheese and honey. She hated fasting and was relieved they didn't do it on Daughter's Day. Her gluttony always merited snide observations that she was dedicated to the wrong god. Given all the children she delivered who were destined for the Bastard's charity, maybe His order would have been a better fit. Surely I am an out of season mistake to make a mess of so many things.
"Aren't you worried about eating so much you won't be able to sing?" Ines asked, while nibbling daintily on a piece of dried fruit.
"That's not your affair, and uncharitable besides," Mother Divine Juditz injected. She nudged Ines with her hip. "Go make yourself useful, Acolyte, and leave us be."
Clara scooted over on the hard bench to make room for the Divine and helped herself to another biscuit from the platter on the table.
"The door warden complained to me of your late arrival. I reminded him that the gods and not you control when a babe is born. Though, why did the Castillar not invite you to stay the night?" the Mother Divine asked.
"I wanted to come home," Clara fibbed. In truth, they had wanted her gone.
"I was not aware that the Castillara was with child?"
"No." Clara concentrated on eating and not looking at the Mother Divine.
"Might dy Barbagoza be sending a purse in gratitude to the Mother for seeing another babe safely delivered in his household?"
Clara shrugged. "Maybe." Not if the Castillara has anything to say about it.
"I see." The Mother Divine's mouth set into a firm line. "So you just spent all night birthing another bastard?"
When saying anything would just make it worse, invoking one of the litanies could usually stop the criticism. "Praise the Mother of Summer, for She guides my hands," Clara intoned as piously as she could with a mouth full of biscuit.
The Divine took so long to answer, Clara paused in her very dedicated chewing. Mother Juditz was staring at her, squinting.
"Mother Divine?" Clara finally asked, washing down the last of the biscuit with cold cider.
"Yes, I think She does, for which her Son is undoubtedly grateful," Mother Juditz replied. "Report to my office after the service, Acolyte."
"But I should see to…"
"You shall attend upon me, Clara."
"Yes, Mother Divine."
Mother Juditz pivoted away from the bench, rose, and swept away in a swirl of green. Clara debated taking another hard roll. Surely the Mother Divine was going to scold her for working too hard, spending too much time saving foundlings at the expense of those who actually tithed to the Temple, sleeping too little, and making up the difference with too much food and tea.
She snatched another roll from the table and pretended to not hear the usual, "Haven't you had enough?" snickers. She was still eating when the Choir Mistress ordered them out. Clara dashed into her cell to pull on another pair of thick stockings and to line the pocket of the borrowed robes with wool. The wool caught on her sticky fingers but at least she was warmer.
She queued with the other singers on the slick cobbles of the cold Temple square and the Daughter's Day celebration began.
Given the length of the ceremony and who was attending, Clara strategically muscled her way into a hiding place behind a solid wall of altos. Let the others hope for notice by the Royals, Nobles, and Divines of Chalion. Blocked from view, Clara would not have to look upon Roya Orico and Royina Sara during the whole of the tediously long ceremony. The suffocating black cape that followed the Royals everywhere always left her with a headache and nausea. She'd long since stopped asking if anyone else could see the choking black thing as everyone just thought her even more odd.
She sensed the dark miasma roll into the Temple with the Royals and determinedly stared at the green robe in front of her as everyone of Cardegoss arrived to give the Lady of Spring her due and, not incidentally, the Temple its quarterly gifts.
"The Royina looks pale," Ines whispered. "Perhaps she is finally blessed with child."
There was a note of uplift in Ines' voice – she posed the question everyone in all of Chalion asked daily.
"Possibly," Clara whispered back, another lie, even though she spoke it in the Temple on the Daughter's Day. She knew – as surely as she had known the babe last night was slowly choking on her own cord and that the woman in the second row on the right was pregnant with twins – Royina Sara would never bear a child while that black abomination clung to her and the Roya. Clara carried a terrible guilt for feeling so profoundly grateful that she would never have to endure what all of Chalion desperately wished for – she would never be summoned to the Zangre to deliver a child. The Royals were barren, both of them.
Everyone held a collective breath as the girl playing the Lady of Spring tried to kindle the flame that would relight the Temple fire. Though Clara couldn't see the ceremony, the maid's hand sounded unsteady. There was a crack of flint and steel, one, two, three times. Then, a relieved sigh swayed through the Temple as the spark caught.
When the Choir Mistress cued them for the hymn, Clara lifted her eyes to the ochre roof of the Temple and began to sing,
Now that the winter's gone, the Father hath lost
His snow-white robes; and now no more the frost…
An overstatement, given the cold.
But the warm sun thaws the benumbed earth,
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth
Now do a lark of singing birds bring,
In triumph to the world, the youthful Spring:
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the Daughter's Day…
The ceiling swam and swirled, turning from red tile to green glass….
I have heard you, daughter. My Son sends a guide in your darkness.
Clara blinked and felt a sharp, jabbing elbow to her ribs.
Ines was glaring at her; the Choir Mistress was frowning.
Had she dozed off? Did I just sing that? What?
Badly rattled and cheeks burning with shame, it took her two more stanzas before she could concentrate sufficiently to pick up the refrain again.
The hymn concluded and Clara looked wildly around, searching for the voice that was surely her own mother's. Her eyes swept by the roiling black fog that engulfed the Roya and Royina as they knelt before the Lady of Spring's avatar to deliver the Royacy's gifts to the Temple. Chancellor dy Jiornal and the rest of his clan came thereafter, followed by all of Cardegoss.
Clara's eyes slid to where the Divines stood and saw Mother Divine Juditz. The Divine's mouth was hanging open in what looked like shock.
Too many hours later, the Quarter-gifting concluded, and they were finally able to process out. Her head was pounding so, Clara barely mouthed the words of the recessional.
The usual berating for her carelessness and absence of mind began the moment they stepped out of the Temple. The Choir Mistress, Ines, and the other altos all vented their displeasure and disappointment.
"Mother forgive me," she muttered and hurried away to the privacy of her room for a good cry. She'd just fallen into her bed when Mother Juditz intruded.
"You were supposed to come to see me, Clara."
The mindless apologies and little prevarications and evasions rolled off her tongue. "I'm sorry, Mother Divine. I don't know what came over me. I'm very tired. It was a daydream. I shall endeavor to do better. Of course, I shall clean the privies as penance…"
Mother Juditz clucked a sound of disapproval with her tongue. "You've become too adept at lying, Clara. I don't like it." She gestured to the door. "Wipe your nose and follow me. There is someone I wish for you to meet."
She felt marginally better as she followed Mother Juditz down the hall and up the stairs. The Divine was snapping at the acolytes and dedicats to stop gawking and get to work. She singled out Ines for the special privilege of cleaning the privies.
As they approached the Mother Divine's office, Clara felt an inexplicable force drawing her closer on a swell of inexplicable joy.
"Nothing," she lied. Something strange and exciting was calling to her from beyond the door and she was impatient to greet it.
Mother Divine clucked again, sounding like a very critical hen. "I do hope this is a habit you unlearn." She pushed open the door.
Clara pulled up short, gasping in surprise, and then stumbled into the room when the Mother Divine gave her an ungentle shove. "Go on now. No dawdling. And no lying!"
She beheld a being who shined with a light so pure it made her heart ache. She had to turn her head aside to avoid the blinding, wondrous glare and, only then, secondarily, did she perceive the mundane. He was a man, a very strange man, older, Roknari in appearance, but in rough clothing.
"Learned?" the Mother Divine said.
"You perceived correctly," the man said, speaking beautifully accented Ibran.
"Eh. I thought so. Stupid of me not to see it sooner."
"See what?" Clara stammered. She couldn't tear her eyes away from … the Learned? So he was a Divine, but dressed as a common servant?
"Clara, this is Learned Umegat, recently come to Cardegoss on Temple business, of which I suspect you know far more of than you've let on, so credit to you for discretion."
And then, incredibly, the Mother Divine gave the five-fold sign of the gods and bowed, low, in humble obeisance, first to the Divine, and then to Clara herself! "The Mother's Order of Cardegoss is at your service as the gods will, as surely they do. I shall leave you both for now."
"Your Temple oaths remain, my daughter, but I recognize when I, when indeed we all, must cede to a higher authority. Praise the Mother of Summer, for She guides your hands. I'll see you are not impeded again. The Divine will explain."
Mother Divine Juditz backed carefully out the door and shut it.
Learned Umegat took her hand. His touch tingled all the way up her arm and she felt from him a sense of sympathy and understanding she'd not experienced since the night of her mother's passing.
"Who are you that Mother Divine treats you so? What are you?"
"Our Mother and her Son, the Bastard, are well-pleased with your service, Clara. I am sent on their behalf."
She raised her trembling hand to Umegat's frosted temple. A green spark flared between them and a scent of sweet summer grass filled her senses. "Our… Mother? To me?"
He nodded. "One who gives as you do to those loved so well by both our gods should not labor alone, unknowing and blind in the darkness. You have called and I am here."
Clara buried her face in her hands and wept.
Poems are adaptations from excerpted work by Thomas Carew and William Blake