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February 8, 1787
Aima woke to the sound she always woke to. Crying. Baby Gabe was hungry again. Funny that no matter how loud the storm was outside it was always his pitiful wailing that got her up. She looked down from her pillow at the writhing mound of swaddling clothes in the trundle bed below her. It looks awfully like a maggot. A little maggot that feeds off my living flesh. Aima pulled herself into a sitting position, scooped up the squealing infant, and forced a breast into his puckered toothless mouth. The creature stopped crying and began to suck, a greedy little pig at his mother’s tit. Or his wet nurse’s. How was it that she had to feed this thing that wasn’t even hers? Her baby was Johnny. Johnny, who she birthed and loved. Johnny, who Death took from her. Gabe is no Johnny. Not my blue eyed boy. He doesn’t deserve my milk. But how could she think these things. It was because of this little maggot that she wasn’t out on the streets. It was because of this little pig that she was sleeping in a bed with linen sheets instead of in a shallow grave. She may be a milk cow, but she was no ingrate. She had milk, didn’t she? Why let it go to waste? Yet no logical thinking could ever quite suppress the sour anger that rose in her gut whenever she looked at him.
There came a knock at the door. Aima’s head snapped up. It echoed up from downstairs, oddly sonorous above the moaning wind outside. She looked out the window beside the bed. There was no horse or carriage in the road. Who could that possibly be? After midnight and in this hell of a storm? She shrunk back into the cushions and clutched Gabriel tighter against her. It usually made her feel special that she was the only servant Master Albert hired in his big house, but with Albert gone she wished she wasn’t so alone.
The knock came again. Whoever it was, leaving them out there for much longer would probably provoke some anger. And hadn’t Master Albert said to keep the house while he was gone? Didn’t that mean answering the door? Playing hostess to his visitors no matter what time of night? He wouldn’t give such a big responsibility to just a milk cow, would he? Such a big responsibility meant she was more than that. Meant she must be brave enough to answer doors late at night in hellish storms.
Aima climbed out of bed, awkwardly trying to hold Gabe with one arm at the same time. She shuffled in bare feet down the silent hallway and down the stairs.
The knock came again. Something in her arms let out a whimper and she realized she was still holding Gabe. What will this visitor think when a slightly dirty girl with bed hair and a shift comes to the door carrying the master’s baby? Would it be any better if she wasn’t carrying Gabe though?
Yet Aima had no time to finish her thoughts. Halfway down the stairs to the parlor, her ankle twisted beneath her. The world flipped over. The ground came up to kiss her face.
And all went black.
The first time she woke, her only thought was of the pain. Pain. Her skin felt warm, and wetness dripping from her forehead and into her eye. Something had dislodged inside her face. Something deep and important. Yes, yes, she could have sworn she had more teeth before… Before what? Before… The world began to swim into focus. Floorboards, the bottom of Albert’s front door, a spider, spinning, spinning in the corner. The floor. She was lying on the floor. Why was she lying on the floor? She did not have to sleep on the floor anymore. Albert had said she could sleep in his room, sleep in his room with the baby. Understanding came with another sharp tap at the door. The door! There was a knock at the door! Albert said to answer the door! She had been walking downstairs and her ankle twisted and she fell! She had to answer the door! Aima pushed herself up on her elbows, pain, and then her knees, oh the pain! She tried to stand, my ankle! Oh! Oh! Oh, Oh, Oh! A rain of stars fell across her eyes, and all was night once again.
The second time she woke her first thought was, Where is Johnny? Then she remembered; Johnny is dead. Someone groaned, and it was at least ten seconds before she realized it was her. She bit her lip to make herself stop, and slowly sat up. It wasn’t Johnny she was looking for; it was Gabe. That much she knew. She had been carrying him when she came downstairs to answer the door, tripped, and thwacked her head. How long had she been passed out? Long enough for the blood on her head to dry. Not long enough for the person at the door to give up and leave though, judging by the shadow of someone’s feet in the crack below the door. Where was Gabe? She had been holding him when she fell. Had she dropped him? He should be right here, at her feet then, or still clutched at her chest. She had lost the baby, lost the baby she had promised Albert she would protect. Calm yourself Aima, babies can’t go far. He probably just crawled away—but that was nonsense. Gabe was only four months old, and shouldn’t he be crying? She would hear that. She just had not looked hard enough. Aima turned to her left, and to her right. And then behind her. And that’s where she saw him, and the sight forced her heart into her mouth.
Somehow, in her fall, Aima had not dropped the baby—she had thrown him. Gabriel lay sprawled facedown in a pool of red in the far corner of the parlor, at least ten feet from where she had fallen. Johnny, my little Johnny in his bed sheet funeral shroud. Aima’s breath was coming short and fast and her head began to pulse. Her ankle was hurting too much to stand, so she dragged herself over to where Gabe fell, and turned his limp body face up.
Gabe’s eyes, his blue eyes, stared like glass from his pale bloodless face; the pupils were dilated into huge black orbs. His mouth gaped open slackly, and Aima realized for the first time that a new tooth had popped through his toothless gums. His head though, was what made Aima’s heart ache. It was now flat on top, where it had it the floor. Broken at the soft spot that she was told never to touch. Wake up, wake up sweet Johnny. Don’t die, don’t die my little boy. Aima picked Gabe up in trembling arms. His little limp body seemed like a thousand pounds. Not dead, not dead, alive—he must be!
Her face grew hot, her heart fluttered, and desperate words bubbled unbidden from her lips,
“Hail Mary, full of grace.?Our Lord is with thee.?”
Aima’s hands wrapped themselves around little Gabriel’s lopsided skull, squeezing, pressing the sides, Don’t die my Johnny, beautiful Johnny boy, fever doesn’t take good boys. Blue eyed boys.
“Blessed art thou among women,?and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,?Jesus.?”
Broken things can be fixed. They can. That’s what master Albert had said when she arrived on his doorstep with a hollow belly and the corpse of an infant. I will fix you Gabriel. Fix your pretty head with your blonde hair and cradle cap. I will fix you my beautiful blue-eyed boy.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,?”
His head moved like bread dough in her hands—bread dough with bone shards and raspberry filling and glassy blue eyes that stared at her from under a shattered brow.
“Pray for us sinners,?now and at the hour of our death.?
Squeeze his beautiful head make him whole again!
Wake up Gabriel! Wake up! Wake up Johnny my beautiful blue-eyed boy!
Somewhere, far away, a girl was screaming a garbled prayer, and someone was pounding on a door, but all of that was in another world.
Blood ran from Gabriel’s little nose and into his mouth, over his first little tooth. His eyes were open, but lifeless as a pair of marbles. Goodbye my Johnny. Fever does not take blue-eyed boys, but Death does. He does.
Aima placed the corpse down on the floor, for it was a corpse. She could see that now. Her head was pounding so loud she could hear it:
Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock!
She looked up. The door! There was someone at the door! That’s why she came downstairs! That’s why she fell! That’s why Johnny, no, Gabriel was just a mangled, lifeless corpse. Who could it be? At this time of night? In this storm? To have waited so long to be let in?
It is Death. It is Death at this door.
But that was nonsense. Anyone could see that. It was Albert. He was home early and he would see what she had done! But he wouldn’t be angry. No, he would not be angry at what I had done to his child. He will hold me and say everything is all right. He will. I know Master Albert! He will!
Aima staggered to her trembling knees. I must get the door for master Albert. He will know what to do! Broken things can be fixed.
She staggered to her feet. The pain! Oh the pain! My ankle! But she stood. She did. Because she needed to get the door. She fumbled with the latch. She pushed it open.
She stared out into the thrashing storm.
There was no one there.
The knocking. I heard the knocking!
Who could it be? Who could it be?
The rain sheeted in the darkness and the wind moaned as if in answer.
It is death. It is Death at this door.
She stood there, on her broken ankle, a broken infant at her feet and she began to sob. And then she began to scream.
How do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death?
How do you like him?
But the only answer was the wind.