‘No Shelter’ (Part Two) by Timandra Whitecastle
(Read part one HERE)
The midwife tuts.
She clicks her tongue, starts rummaging around in her battered black doctor’s bag. I fear it’s going to swallow her. It’s huge; Mary Poppins has got nothing on this midwife. She mutters something about indecency, and how folks used to introduce themselves to each other before making out.
It’s funny how she says that, making out. I nearly roll my eyes. Dude, making out is not what causes babies. Shouldn’t she know? My skin itches. It’s dry, like the baby is sucking all my moisture into its greedy little self.
“The introductions came later,” I say. “Hi, my name’s Anna, backwards and forwards A-N-N-A.”
I should have said my name was Strawberry Daiquiri. Would have been funnier.
She looks at me, mouth corners turned down even farther.
“What was his name? You ever stop to ask?”
Great impression of my mom. The midwife says it in exactly that slightly hysterical tone: if so-and-so jumped from the bridge, would you do the same? To which the only correct response is: would you? Sheesh, adults. The midwife never asked me for my name when I showed up in front of her hidey-hole, a wolf pup at my heels, a piece of cardboard held high over my head, the words #AMPREGNANT PLS HELP written in ALL CAPS. Suddenly I’m glad I didn’t tell her my real name. Call me Ishmael or, y’know, Anna. The stories we tell each other, eh?
My mother always said she called me Ebba for the tide. The ebb and flow, that sea change. It’s so you remember, child, what the waves wash up, they reclaim. And vice versa. Oh, I remember. I remember checking the etymology of my name on a smartboard in the school (along with DIY water filtration). It’s a female version of the old German name Eberhart, Boar Heart. Thanks for story time, Mom.
On the midwife’s ratty leather couch, I repeat my silent vow never to become my mother.
So sometimes I changed our names, my name, his name. So what? Names were not the details of the story that mattered to him. I told him a story every night, retold some story I remembered from my past.
I had a past, not much of it, true, and it mostly contained growing pains and a mother and siblings and friends. But I had long since dispensed with this past. I had spent the year before he came recovering from the loss of it. Was there anyone alive who didn’t have to get over something, too? I should ask the midwife, what’s her story? What’s her past? How did she get here, this point in the narrative where we both meet?
My past, the world that came before the Plague—it came in halting stories, books, movies, shows I remembered, every evening, to live on to the next day. You liberate the past in its revival in the present. In its retelling, you reshape it, breathe life into it. The word made flesh. A story is a hungry ghost. Just ask Scheherazade.
The aelf’s fascination with what came before—it filled the empty spaces between us. It fed us both. Repetition fueled us. Once more, with feeling. I sat cross-legged on blankets and cushions and raised my arms, conjuring 1,001 nights, weaving the invisible threads, and one story led into the next, as though gaps and holes had never existed, as though all the little stories were one big story, a never-ending one. And they lived happily ever after, every single night.
One night, the music he put on sounded medieval. Some CD he had found in the music room. Two voices began in Latin and were joined by two more, then two more, until a whole bunch of singers were holding forth together. Like a chant, but it was song, a melody.
“What is this?” I asked.
“You,” he said, using my language sparsely. “Us. Music. Story. Human magic. How you live on.”
Yeah, well, as brands of magic go, his kind healed the dog. I mean resurrected her. I mean first he had killed her, and then he did something to make her rise again. Talk about living on. The air had prickled around us, went dry and static, raised the hair on my arms in a burst of electric current, and she had sat up and wagged her tail, with the blood on her chest still caked into her fur. Barked at me in recognition.
He thought it’d make me happy.
My dog—she couldn’t bark.
In the early days, we had run into a spot of trouble with some ogres from the supermarket lair. It was my fault. We had watched it for days, observing nothing. I figured maybe its occupants had left. I figured if I crept up at dawn and quietly rummaged around in the huge trash cans, I’d maybe find something edible or useful before anyone’d notice. It was a breadcrumb trail of unopened ravioli cans that nearly did us in. The dog heard them, though, and uttered her last bark in warning. They shot her in the throat for it. I ran, dragging her away with me, her little head lolling in my arms, blood all down my front. I wouldn’t let her go, so I patched her up as best I could. She was my dog, for chrissakes. She was the only one alive who knew me from before. I nursed her before tending to my own wounds, and she lived, but remained silent. That was my dog.
She wasn’t meant to bark anymore.
I didn’t know what words to use to tell him this.
After he had resurrected her, when she hadn’t drunk from her water bowl for over a week, we went out looking for her. Across the track field, into the woods, we spent hours yelling her name from the top of the hill. He drew lines—wards—into the gravel of the playground. A summoning charm perhaps. I never asked. Instead, I took him back to the school, into the art room, and hunted for that picture from Renoir, Le déjeuner des canotiers. I tapped the dog in the reproduction.
“Look,” I said, making sure my voice didn’t waver one bit. “She came here.”
He marveled, and stopped with the summoning charms.
Truth be told, I had buried her a second time by the goalposts on the football field. I didn’t want her coming back again.
Worst few minutes of my life, when I twisted her snout further and further to the side, her growling and whimpering, scratching my arms bloody, until the vertebrae crunched. The sound rang dull over the deserted playground.
The stories we tell—it can work both ways, see?
END OF PART TWO