I have often given thanks that we cannot see into our futures — that we do not wake on some morning and realize how the coming hours will affect the course of our lives. Some changes, of course, we could look forward to, but what of horrible battles and untimely deaths? I learned as a child what tragedies a day can bring.
Since then, I've never wished that sort of sight on anyone...
The only distinct memory I carry from my illness is the feeling that my eyes were open, even though I knew they were not. I tried to force my lids apart, but it was as if an invisible hand held them closed. There had been voices babbling above my fevered dreams throughout that winter. Round, indistinct faces hung over my bed from time to time, but what remains with me the most is looking down at myself from somewhere near the rafters of my father's shop. I watched myself sleeping, twisted up in sweaty bedclothes, a cold beam of sunlight catching the auburn highlights in my damp hair.
It must have been a dream. But the feeling shocked me into waking at last.
That, and the screech...
I floundered for something to cling to as the sound reverberated, then died, in the cold. My fingers met coarse wool, and I opened my eyes.
I was safe, curled up in a nest of blankets in my very own loft, but it still took a moment for the blood drumming through my ears to quiet. I braced for a swell of pain as I turned my ear against the pillow, but it seemed the contents of my head had finally shrunk to their proper size. They no longer screamed to be let out.
The noise came again, and this time I recognized it for what it was, a horse's cry of impatience at being tied up too long. Through the thin walls of the shop, I could just barely pick out the stomp of its hooves crunching through crusted snow.
And then there were voices billowing over the edge of the loft.
I held myself as still as possible, straining to catch something of Papa's bartering, but the rhythm of this conversation was all wrong. It did not match the shifting, sliding, back-and-forth way of Papa's haggling.
The longer I lay there, the stronger my sense of wrongness became. Mama and Papa's voices were not part of the group downstairs.
I lay still, imagining a gang of thieves rummaging through the casks of wine in the storeroom, having tied Mama and Papa to their bed to prevent them from interfering. Or, what if my parents had interfered and the thieves had done them harm? I imagined a giant club descending on my father's head and shrieked into the covers.
Whatever awful thing was taking place downstairs had to be better than what I was imagining. I slid trembling feet to the boards and stood. When blackness rushed behind my eyes I almost decided to stop there and sink back into bed, but the feeling passed and I remained upright.
I clung to the bed, and then the wall as I made my way to the edge of the loft. My head no longer throbbed, but it seemed only tenuously connected to the rest of my body. The disjointed sensation grew worse when I passed the curtain and reached the banister where the landing opened up onto the dark room below. I grasped it to steady myself when I saw how far I had to fall.
The shop's only illumination came from the hearth in the far corner, what little sunshine filtered down from my loft, and the few chinks around the main door. Moments passed before I could focus on the three dimly-lit figures gathered around the fire exchanging grim conversation.
My first thought upon seeing them was that none of them belonged there. Not without Papa or Mama with them, at least — and neither of my parents was in sight.
Two of the figures I recognized. The slight, bent-over man sitting on Papa's stool was our nearest neighbor, Cunningham, and the rotund woman enthroned beside him was his wife. I knew Papa considered Cunningham a friend, but I held no love for his wife — an intimidating matron with a brood of twelve.
The youngest of the Cunninghams was of an age to be my playmate, but, because of her mother, I had always shrunk away from forming any sort of lasting friendship. Mistress Cunningham smacked the bottoms of unruly neighbor children as frequently and surely as she did her own offspring. Even adults on the street weren't immune from her frequent tongue-lashings. My nightly prayers usually included a message of thankfulness that my own mother was nothing like Elsie Cunningham's bossy dame.
I cringed against the stair-post, thankful Cunningham's wife was focused on the conversation and not yet disturbed by my presence. I didn't want to do anything that would start her after me.
It was the presence of the third figure that nearly made me forget why I was there. I saw the gleam of elaborately brocaded silk under the stranger's heavy blue cloak. Her neck and head were wrapped in a blue cowl and headpiece, much like the kind great ladies wore, or so I had been told. I had seen very few truly great ladies in my lifetime — and never before seated at Papa's fire.
Cunningham's wife, draped in a russet under-dress with a white apron and kerchief topping off her red face, seemed to be of another species altogether. Even the richest women in our harbor town — and I counted my own mama among them — could only dream of brocaded silk.
I decided this person must have come to our home from a faraway land by one of the ships in the harbor. No one on the whole isle of Alban could own such finery, except, perhaps, the queen.
Yet the longer I observed her, the clearer it became that, despite her splendor and her agitation, the stranger seemed at home in her surroundings. She sat and talked with the Cunninghams as if she met with locals in dark merchant's shops every day.
I puzzled at this situation until my legs began to tremble and I lowered myself onto the top step. The voices carried clearer from that vantage point, yet I still could only grasp a few words as they flitted up to through the railing.
"... Anne... and Dickon?"
"This blessed morning, m'lady... never knowing..."
As the half-heard talk dragged on, I began to worry again why Mama and Papa were not there. Why were the Cunninghams sitting in front of our fire entertaining a guest? They had their own hearth next door to meet with highbred ladies, if they so chose. I craned my neck further through the bars, hoping for a peek at my parents' bedchamber door, but it remained hidden in shadow.
"And Abby?" the stranger asked.
Frustrated at hearing my name, but not what came after it, I scooted down a step further and then another, hoping to learn something important. Engrossed in their intense conversation, the adults had still not caught sight of me. "Aye... just the kind that struck me and my Alf twenty years back... Sick as dogs we were, but our Jack barely touched..."
As I placed the weight of my right foot on the fourth stair down, it creaked. All three heads spun towards me, gaping. "Why, it's the young missy, out of bed!" Cunningham exclaimed as if no one else could see me.
His wife lifted her considerable frame off her stool and started clucking in that frightful way of hers, "Abigail, what ye be doing out of bed? Ye be getting over fever!" As she lurched to the base of the stair, I clambered to my feet, desperate to reach the safety of my bed before she could get to me. But I rose too fast and my vision swirled. I shut my eyes and gripped the nearest post as tightly as I could, willing my legs to work again.
Below, Mistress Cunningham continued her tirade, "Get back in bed — bed, I say — Ye be sitting there in the draft with your naked feet — Oh, if your poor mama could see ye…"
I swallowed and opened my eyes to look down again. Mistress Cunningham was making huffing progress up the stairs, but it was the stranger that caught my interest. Her heart-shaped face tilted up at me in a look of hazy maternal indulgence. Even in the dim room, I could tell her eyes matched the color of the harbor on a clear summer's day and my breath caught. There was something so very familiar about this stranger, even though I knew I had never seen her before.
Unfortunately, that brief glimpse of her was all I got, for Cunningham's wife had reached the top of the stairs. She grabbed the scruff of my neck and forced me back from the banister, though once she sensed I was not completely unwilling to go, some of her rough manner vanished. Having remade my bed with dry linens, she tucked the covers around me with almost as much care as my own mother did.
I sighed and wiggled my toes underneath the blankets, glad to be once again warm and comfortable. "Mistress Cunningham, who is that woman?"
"Why child, that be your Aunt Kate."
That revelation pushed thoughts of sleep aside for a moment. "Aunt Kate? The one who lives in the king's palace?"
"And how many aunts do ye think ye have, child?" the matron wondered as she smoothed down the covers once more.
"But why is she here?" I asked, attempting to wriggle into a sitting position. Dame Cunningham put a hard hand on my shoulder, uttering warnings about what happened to bad little girls who left their sickbeds before they should, so I had to content myself with mulling over what I knew about this almost-mythical aunt I had never met.
Aunt Kate was Mama's sister, but her life had always seemed as fanciful to me as any of the fairy tales Mama recited for me at bedtime. Indeed, I asked about Aunt Kate nearly as often as I asked for fairy stories or the legends of ancient Alban kings.
It never took much to coax Aunt Kate's tale out of Mama. She always began by saying that long before I was born or even thought of, there had been two unmarried sisters living in our village. Anne, the younger, had always known she was going to marry Richard le Marchand, a laughing imp who grew up to be one of the most promising young merchants in town.
"But how did you always know you were meant to marry Papa?" I would always interrupt, knowing how she would answer, but still having to ask.
Mama would ever give a laughing sigh and say in the same mysterious tone, "Because we understood each other — Now, no more questions or I shall stop the story!"
This usually satisfied me, but I do remember pressing the point just once, "How did you know?"
"You'll see someday, Abby. You'll see," she said, patting my knee and continuing as if I had never stopped her.
Her elder sister, Kate, had no lack of suitors at first — but none caught her fancy. One after another, she dismissed the young, and not so young, men who approached her with flimsy excuses — one had a nose too large to pass on to future offspring, another talked too much about himself, and a third had too many quarrelsome relatives.
Once Kate became known throughout the harbor as a finicky prospect, the young men began ignoring her in favor of other village maidens. Much to her family's dismay, this did not seem to bother Kate in the least, for she maintained she would marry for no less than her one true love, and would die a spinster if he never came along. Only Anne, who had married for love as much as common sense, even began to understand her reasons, but the family had to content itself with this, for Kate proved to be unmovable on the subject.
A year after Mama and Papa's wedding, King Phillip declared war on Brocéliande. The king and his knights had stayed in the harbor several weeks while arrangements were made for their transport overseas, and one day while the sisters were walking together on their way to market, Sir Stephan de Coville happened upon them on a crowded street. For some reason, the handsome young knight just happened to look Kate's way at the moment she had turned to notice him.
"I'll not say he fell in love with her at first sight — but he did follow her home, his horse prancing behind the whole way. I'd never seen her face so red," Mama laughed. "Sir Stephan began haunting the house with the most desperate wooing. He only let up when he sailed."
A few months later, a thwarted army returned home, and Sir Stephan with it. King Edmond of Brocéliande had rebuffed our army's assault, and time grew short to make another bandy that season. So, Sir Stephan won no glory in fighting — but he did win Aunt Kate. They were married in the harbor church at the conclusion of that long, tense autumn. The knight took Kate away with him, back to King Phillip's palace, since he had no grand estate of his own. Aunt Kate had prospered there, and it was not long before the king had appointed her a lady of the queen's own chamber.
I would look up at the towering cathedral at the end of our street sometimes, not believing Mama when she told me that was where Aunt Kate had married her handsome young knight. Part of me realized my mother's sister was a real person while Cinderella was not, but the distinction was never altogether clear. I had never met Aunt Kate, after all, and her story was so much like those of the common-born girls who were swept off their feet by handsome princes in my favorite stories.
Unfortunately, I knew Aunt Kate's fairy tale had not gone on so happily. My Uncle Stephan had died, perhaps a year after their romantic wedding. But, Aunt Kate had never returned to the seaside. By that time, Queen Margaret had decided she was quite indispensable, and she had been at the palace ever since.
Except, now she was talking with Cunningham just downstairs!
I was almost excited enough at the prospect to ignore the nagging feeling tugging at my heart. The arrival of letters from Aunt Kate had always been a cause for minor celebration, so why was Mama forfeiting the right to greet her only sister to the neighbors?
"Where are Mama and Papa?" I demanded of Cunningham's wife.
"Don't ye be worrying about that. They be safe enough child." With one last tug at my covers, she ordered, "Now, sleep," before lumbering back to the stairs. I didn't dare defy her, but it was not merely her insistence that lulled me back to sleep. My trip to the banister had drained me more than I had first realized. Slowly, all the questions and thoughts spinning in my head melted away as I settled into my warm bed.
I woke to something cool and wet against my brow. As my eyes focused, I realized the strange woman from downstairs was now perched on the side of my bed. She had changed from her finery into one of my mother's work dresses and tied a kerchief about her hair. Wringing a damp cloth into the bowl of water resting on her lap, she turned towards me with the clean rag in her hand, but stopped when she noticed I was awake.
We looked at each other.
"Are you really my Aunt Kate?" I asked.
The stranger smiled wanly. "Of course I am. Don't you think I look like your mama?"
I realized, then, why this stranger had seemed so familiar to me. Mama was there in her high forehead, blue eyes and ever so-slightly pointed chin. A smaller, baby-faced version of those features greeted me in the looking glass each day.
I nodded, but thinking of Mama made me remember my worries. "Aunt Kate, where is she — and Papa?"
Her fingers tensed as she patted my arm. "Don't worry about that right now — You must focus on getting better. You've been a very sick little girl."
Cunningham's wife might have been able to quiet me with that kind of logic, but I held no fear for this woman who looked so much like my mother. "Why won't you tell me what's happened to them? I want Mama!"
Aunt Kate blinked and looked away, but her grip on my arm tightened. "Your Mama and Papa were sick with the fever too."
Vaguely, I remembered Mama saying my cheeks looked as red as Papa's when she plucked me out of his arms at the Yuletide party. That was the last thing I could clearly remember before falling ill. "Are you taking care of them?" I asked, not sure where else my parents could be, but under the stairs, sick in their own bed. That explained, at least, why they were not greeting guests.
Aunt Kate averted her face, shaking her head.
"Then, where are they?"
"Abby," she looked directly into the depths of my eyes; I saw hers full of unshed tears. "Your mama and papa were very sick, even worse than you — So bad, that Cunningham had to send for me."
I nodded impatiently, wanting her to come to her point. She sighed and gripped my hand as she started over. "Abby, your mama and papa — they didn't get better, as you did — They — They went to Heaven to be with Christ and all his saints."
I knew something monumental had happened. The intensity of Aunt Kate's message passed through her fingers into mine, but I puzzled at her words. Images of Paradise painted on the walls of the cathedral floated behind my thoughts. It seemed a golden place, full of stiff and solemn people. Surely Mama and Papa weren't going to stay in Heaven, were they? Hadn't they merely gone there for a visit? But, under my aunt's unwavering gaze, the realization dawned. I was an orphan now, like those foundlings the nuns took care of.
My mama and papa were both dead.
It could not be.
I began screaming for them. "Mama!" I screeched again, tearing at the constraining bedclothes, when no one responded. "Papa!"
Aunt Kate grabbed at me, but not soon enough. I flailed my way to the landing, teetering near the stairs before regaining my balance. I was just as lightheaded as I had been before, but panicked as I was, I could not pay heed. I could only be thankful that no Cunninghams were in sight to block my way.
Somehow I made my way down the wooden steps without tripping over my nightshift. Aunt Kate called out, her footfall behind me, but I rushed on. All I saw was the heavy wooden door — Papa's own craftsmanship — lurking across the shop. A crack of light outlined it for me.
I trembled in relief when I saw it. Mama and Papa would not wastefully leave a candle burning if they were gone. Calling out to them again, I pushed against the door and rushed into the room, only to startle Mistress Cunningham, who was seated at the bedside with a bowl and rag of her own. She huffed and started bellowing, "M'lady!" But I ignored her, following her hands to see the work she had started.
The bed-sheets were pulled back to bare the curls on my father's chest, the candlelight only partially explaining the sallowness of his skin. Mistress Cunningham's wet rag lay on his shoulder where she had dropped it. I fixated on the sight, expecting to see the rise and fall of his chest, a flutter of exhalation disturbing the coarse hairs sticking up over the covers.
"Papa?" my voice quivered. With horror, I turned to the other shape on the bed, but the blanket had been thrown back, covering her completely. "Mama?" I took a step, wanting to lift it away so she could breathe.
"Abby!" Aunt Kate's hands were on my shoulders. Before I could move, she was whirling me around to bury my face in her skirts, protecting me from the sight.
"M'lady!" Cunningham's wife was protesting again.
"Oh be quiet and leave us alone!" Aunt Kate's voice shook. I realized, then, that she wept. I had never seen an adult cry before — and certainly had never heard Mistress Cunningham addressed so sharply. I wasn't sure what to do. But, as the matron slunk away, I realized it was right to put my arms around the back of Aunt Kate's legs, to seek all the comfort she could give me, and offer what little support I could.
I could smell the musky scent of Mama in her skirts, could almost believe it was really her. But I could not forget what I had just seen. It left no room for doubt. I knew I would never wake again hearing Papa bartering with a customer, or fall asleep to Mama's tales of fairy godmothers and prince charmings. But for this newly rediscovered relative of mine, I was all alone in the world.
I had to release the ache. I had to cry. I had to wail.
Aunt Kate and I clung to each other until our tears stopped. And then she, the last of my living blood kin, led me away