"Cold are the people, winter of life, We tremble in shadows this cold endless night, Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping, Flowers that will echo the sunrise. Fire of hope is our only warmth. Weary, its flame will be dying soon. Voice in the distance, call in the night, On wind you enfold us, you speak of the light. Gentle on the ear you whisper softly, Rumors of a dawn so embracing, Breathless love awaits darkened souls, Soon will we know of the morning. Spirit among us, shine like the star, Your light that guides shepherds and kings from afar. Shimmer in the sky so empty, lonely, Rising in the warmth of your Son's love, Star unknowing of night and day, Spirit we wait for your loving Son." -- "Night of Silence" by Daniel Kantor
The first few years had been the worst. The first few years, the memory of that frantic flight over land and sea had still been tangible, left liquid on her tongue like the sour stink of midnight fears. It had taken her two years before she had stopped looking over her shoulder every time she heard a noise that could not be immediately identified, two years before she had stopped starting like a frightened rabbit at every brush of shadows against the corner of her eyes. All she had known had been that one overarching fact: if they catch you, they will want to take him back. And she had been bound by more than oath, not to let that ever happen.
She had been hunted, before then; she had worked in one of the most dangerous jobs that anyone could choose, and had been good at that job. She knew what being hunted felt like. But it hadn't been before her feet first rested on the soil of Lea Monde that she had truly known, soul-deep, what it was to be prey.
Ten years after those few days -- days that had seemed to fly by and yet drag with the pain and terror nipping at their heels, days that had never seemed quite real even while they had been happening -- those fears had mostly faded, turned shadowy and as insubstantial as the aura of history and menace that had seeped through Lea Monde's streets. Generally, she could sleep through the night without trouble, could rest her head against the pillow and close her eyes and not once again smell the thick weight of dust and the taint of history underlying it. Every year, though, there was at least one night when it all came back to her.
And so Callo had learned, year after year, that it was best not to try sleeping on that night, lest she accomplish nothing but tangling her bedclothes and leaving her hollow-eyed and shaken the next day. Not the anniversary of that rushed escape, much as her psychologist's mind might suspect it. No, the one night of the year when insomnia would win was the longest and darkest night of the year; Midwinter's night, the eve before the Festival of the birth of St. Iocus.
Intellectually, she knew that the birth of the historical St. Iocus was highly unlikely to have taken place in the ways set forth in Holy Writ. The story simply did not add up; there were too many details that could not have happened in the way that the story told them. Intellectually, she knew that tonight was a night no different than any other, save for its length. In her younger years, when she had been at university in Venice, she had once sat in a cafe on the Rio di S. Trovaso listening to two intellectuals far too over-impressed by their own importance debating whether or not St. Iocus had even actually existed, or whether he had simply been pieced together from various provincial legends to provide a focal point for a nascent religion bent on conquering the minds and hearts of the world.
Intellectually, she knew that on this point if nothing else, Church doctrine was ludicrous; in an educated world (and she was an educated woman), for people to believe that the spirit of God withdrew from the world on Midwinter night to meditate upon the birth of His greatest prophet was, simply, superstitious nonsense. If there were a God -- and a younger Callo Merlose had spent many an evening with her fellow students debating that very point -- it was unfathomable for man to think that He would concern Himself so closely with His creations for every night but one.
Intellect and rationality, however, seemed aeons away from the tiny cottage on the outskirts of the small village where she, this year, made their secretive and shrouded home. And for a woman who had once walked the streets of Lea Monde, had once felt that touch of something ancient and unknowable uncurling in her very bones, the supernatural was not so very ludicrous at all. Belief, after all, was a powerful tool. It creates the world thus believed in.
Callo curled her fingers more firmly around the mug of tea that rested in her hands and tucked her feet underneath her as she arranged herself more comfortably in the windowseat that this particular cottage, the latest in the endless parade of crofthalls and cabins, sported. Outside the window, the snow blanketed the ground; under it, she knew, the soil was sleeping, waiting for the touch of spring to wake it again and coax forth life and color from the garden she could already begin to imagine. She felt like the ground, cold and dark and chilly, slumbering beneath a coat of pearly white and wishing for a ray of sunlight to dispel the cloak of gloom that rested over her shoulders. Behind her, snug against one wall in the room that had little space to spare, the branches of a pine tree brushed the walls of the cottage, symbol of the life that the birth of the prophet would return to the world. Underneath the tree, the gaily-wrapped presents awaited the dawn's light to reveal themselves.
She had hesitantly suggested to her son that perhaps this year, they did not need to keep the full tradition, that perhaps he might want to dispense with the trappings of childhood. He was, after all, starting to become a young man, and she remembered her own childhood well enough to remember that she had, after a time, started to think it all quite silly. He'd looked startled at her, as though she had suggested doing away with something as elementary as breakfast. And so she had put on her sturdiest shoes and gone out to return snow-capped, dragging the tree behind her, swearing (under her breath) in three languages as the branches scratched her face and hands. Never once had she suggested that they have someone else do it for them, of course. They were used to seeing to themselves, the two of them. Self-sufficiency was not simply a way of life; it was their only defense.
For a moment, she believed that perhaps her thoughts had conjured him up, hair in disarray and clad in the much-mended and still quite tattered pajamas he was beginning to outgrow. He blinked at her from the doorway, owlishly, and padded across the tiny room on silent feet to rest one hand against her cheek. The touch dispelled the thought that perhaps she had conjured him; the skin was roughened by work and weather, but no less affectionate for that. "Maman," he finally said. "What are you still doing awake?"
She smiled at him; she couldn't help it. Her son -- her son not of body or blood, but her son no less. "I couldn't sleep," she said, softly, and unwound herself from her position to make room for him on the seat. He slid up against her, resting his head against her shoulder the way he had when he had been younger, and she could feel her heart swelling with love for him as she laid her cheek against the soft blond hair so unlike her own. Soon, he would be too big to fit against her, too conscious of his own gawky adolescent dignity to even make the attempt. She treasured the moment while she had it. "I could ask the same of you."
It took a long moment before he answered, while he looked out over the snow-covered gardens himself. "I thought I heard something," he finally said, judiciously. "It woke me, and I thought we might have a visitor."
So much was left unsaid in those simple sentences. The fact that they did occasionally have a visitor, one who came more often than not in the middle of the night like a ghost and left with just as little fanfare, silent footsteps somehow yet managing to fill the entire cottage with their presence, was a matter that they never discussed. Like so much else in their lives, there were so many things that were simply accepted as fact, never discussed between the two of them. She knew, clinically, that such silence was unhealthy; yet there never seemed to be a time when talk of such matters would be appropriate. "No," she finally said, choosing her words carefully. "I rather think that we're on our own tonight."
Her son nodded, accepting this for the simple fact that it was. So trusting, so real he was, she thought, and remembered unbidden for half a moment the weight of tiny arms clinging to her legs on a dawn so far away in years as well as in distance. "Are you all right?" he asked, after another of those long silences.
She had never lied to him, had made it a point of never answering one of his questions with less than the absolute truth. Like so much else, they had never spoken about it, but she knew that he treasured that fact, relied upon it. That was the only reason that the words fell from her lips. "I can never sleep on this night of the year, really," she finally said, and winced a little at the banality of her own words. "There are too many memories that the darkness conjures up."
She had given him the best education that she could provide, scrounged somewhat from what books they could find and the tiny and impossibly under-provisioned village schools, but mostly from her own knowledge and memories. They had called her genius once, a label which she had disputed, but whether true or not she retained information for an impossibly long length of time. She would venture to guess that he knew the human mind as well as she did -- the thoughts and fears, the hopes and dreams, the aspirations and inspirations and thousand indignations that flesh was heir to. And even if he did not, he knew her; she sometimes suspected that he could see into her very heart.
Perhaps that was why she was not surprised when he ventured, after another long pause, "But the sun always rises again, Maman."
So precious, so wonderful, so real. Her arms tightened around him and she breathed in the scent of his hair for a moment, the lingering touch of lavendar and chamomile from the soap she bought down in the village. If nothing more, she could look back at the end of her days and see this life, the life that she had not brought into this world but had spent her days shaping and guiding, and count the time well-spent. "I know," she said, and to her consternation could hear her voice catch. "And there are bright lights even in the darkness. But it's not a night that makes for easy slumber."
"I was dreaming, Maman," he said, turning against her embrace to look up at her. The shape of his face struck her once again, so unlike her own, so like one that she had known for so short and tumultuous a time. She could no longer remember the prophet's face, but it looked back at her every time she met her son's eyes. "I was dreaming that I was sitting in a great stone hall, wearing silk and velvet, and waiting to open my presents."
She had never been sure how much he remembered, of the time before they had come to this tiny cottage and quiet and unassuming lifetime. They had talked about it, at first, when he had been younger and had woken with his own nightmares. As time had gone by, he had stopped bringing up the matter, and perhaps she had felt the silence better paid respect to the gravity of what they had both lived through. Or perhaps she had just been unwilling to give voice to their experiences, to her own silent fears.
Belief, after all, was a powerful tool. Speaking of things could make them real.
She was casting around for something to say to him, some way to answer his words, when he spoke again. "I think it would be a very lonely thing, to be a Duke's son, don't you?"
Sudden relief spasmed through her, and for a long moment she couldn't speak. He remembered. "I think that it would depend upon the Duke," she managed, finally. "And on the son."
He cocked his head to one side and looked back at her, measured gaze skimming over her face. So sober, so serious; all through his childhood he had been so calm, so precise. She had more than once called him the grownup of their strange partnership. "I don't think that I would like it at all. I love you too much, Maman."
She simply tightened her arms around him again. There were times, so precious and few and far between, when she realized with a blinding flash just how special he truly was, just how blessed she was. "I love you too, Joshua," she murmured into his hair. "I'm so sorry, darling. I'm so sorry it had to happen this way."
He pulled back after a moment of submitting to the embrace, and looked her directly in the eye. "Don't say that, Maman." His tone was forceful, heavy, weighted. "Don't ever say that. You gave up everything you had to keep me safe. Don't think that I don't know that. And I would rather be your son and here and safe than -- than the most powerful man in an entire country."
"You should have silk and velvet," she whispered. "You should have everything in the world. If I could give them to you, I would."
"Oh, Maman." As he looked up at her -- and oh, she knew that he would not be looking up at her for long, for she was a small woman and he would be a tall man, just another proof that they were not related by anything more than common cause and love -- she could see the ghosts of the past in his eyes, ghosts she knew were echoed in her own. "I don't want all of that. All I want is to be safe and happy and with you."
She had no response to that, could have no response to that. It was he who finally broke the silence, changing the subject firmly. And all of a sudden, he was thirteen years old again. "It's almost dawn, Maman. Do you think that it would be cheating to open our presents a little early?"
That startled her into a laugh. "I suppose it is cheating, caro mio, but I won't tell if you won't."
He nodded and slid down from the windowseat. "All right. I'll go and make the tea, and start breakfast." He turned to go, then turned back. "I love you, Maman," he repeated. "Happy Festival."
How had she been this blessed? How could she have been so lucky? "I love you too, caro. So much. I'll be in in a moment, all right?"
He nodded and turned back again. She could hear him humming under his breath as he opened cabinets and took down pots and pans to begin breakfast; she rested her cheek against the cool pane of glass and looked back out over the snow.
Sometimes she forgot that there was life sleeping beneath there after all. Sometimes she forgot that spring would come. But her son had reminded her, as he always reminded her, as he was a living reminder: the sun always rises again. Maybe this year, she would try to grow roses.
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