From the darkness came singing. It inveigled into my sleeping sensation of floating in green light.
I woke. For a while, within closed lids, I tried to restrain that fading dream which had left me smiling. But it had gone. I opened my eyes but the darkness was no less. I was not used to real night. In the city, all I had ever known, the day never truly ends. But here, now, for miles, there was nothing but fields and sky and distant mountains. A few scattered homes, long slumbering, dotted the countryside. My eyes adjusted and through the open curtains, I saw white random stars in a pigment beyond black and deeper than imagining.
I listened. I was not used to real night. In the city, noise never reduces, its rhythms ebb and flow. Nighttime brings sharper definition to each sound. But here, now, there was nothing but a throbbing silence. There was no flowing traffic, no predictable siren or anticipated shouting. The only sounds I recognised were in the room with me. My husband Stephen, deep in sleep, breathed soft and slow. I reached to touch him, my invisible, unconscious guardian in the shadows. Our baby stirred next to me, her mouth suckling as she dreamt of being nursed perhaps, but she did not wake. Somewhere in the distance a dog, or something, yelped. Somewhere nearer by an owl, or something, screeched. With a tiny squeak, a scrap of night shot past the window: a bat. Maybe.
‘Don’t go into the country. It’s not for you.’ That’s what Mamma had always said as we endured those scorching, heart-straining summer days in the city. The traffic was angry with the heat, sweating into the smog. Voices shouted from streets and open windows, impatient, risky. My friends went away, offered to take me with them, but she kept me home. School arranged trips, the cost waived for people like us but she said no.
Mamma had brought me up with a protective fury. I thought it was because I was different. Everyone said I must be delicate but appearances deceive. Mamma’s skin tanned, even in the city. Her working hands were hard and a little rough, her knuckles lumpy, her muscles knotted. She was tiny but could lift a bully twice her size by the scruff and shake him. She was tiny but I was tinier. My bones were so small, the bullies tried to snap my fingers like candy sticks, but never could. My skin seemed so thin, they called me porcelain girl as they traced my veins, tinging my whiteness with a subtle jade. They said my blood was green and that it had pooled into my eyes. They said I must be adopted or my father had been a ghost. I was different.
‘Who was my father?’
‘Never mind him.’
‘Am I really yours?’
‘Always and ever. Let them try to take you away,’ she’d say.
‘Who wants to take me away?’ I’d say.
‘No-one,’ she’d answer, ‘but just let them try.’
And I remembered then, a long ago remembrance of a knock on the door in the night and Mamma tense. In my memory, I see us like mice, backed into a corner. Me, no more than two years old, tucked behind Mamma and Mamma shielding me with her tiny frame, hiding me behind her skirts, armed with… what? A wooden spoon? A saucepan? What else would there have been? And after a long time, footsteps retreating and Mamma relaxing and gathering me into one of her enveloping hugs before we went back to sleep in the bed with the rose patterned quilt. Is that a real memory? Or another dream?
‘Don’t let them take her,’ she’d said to Stephen at the end, ‘if I’m not here to protect her.’
‘Who’d want to take her?’ said Stephen.
‘No-one,’ she’d said. ‘And the baby,’ she’d said, ‘keep her safe like I kept Tara safe.’
‘I will always be with you,’ she said, ‘I’ll never leave you.’
But you did Mamma, you did leave me. Your hand was still clasping mine long after you’d lost the strength to breathe, tears dried in trails running from your tired eyes, still fixed on mine but empty.
And when Mamma was gone, after all those necessary things had been done and the last thing had been organised and it was all over and everyone but me had filed her death away, I could not sleep. And I could not cry. And Stephen brought us out of the city.
‘It’ll do you good,’ he said, ‘the peace and fresh air.’
‘Mamma said I didn’t belong in the country.’
‘She had run away from it,’ said Stephen. ‘Perhaps you and she left in disgrace. It’s a shame we couldn’t have brought her and shown her there was nothing to fear anymore.’
I had slept for the best part of four days, waking to feed the baby, to eat and wash, to talk a little. Now I thought of Mamma and, in the darkness, the tears came. I longed for Stephen to wake but he slept on and the baby snuffled but did not stir. The noises of the strange countryside studded the night, unpredictable and startling. Another dog, another owl, the bat. And singing. A song both distant and near, both inaudible and deafening, both wordless and full of meaning, both enticing and…
I knew the song.
I rose and went to the window. There was nothing to be seen apart from stars and the shadowy garden. I tiptoed downstairs and opened the back door looking into shrubbery monotone and indecipherable. The song was louder and yet still distant. It created an image beyond myself as a small girl hidden from a knock at the door; beyond my first steps towards Mamma; beyond my tiny finger curling round Mamma’s finger. Before that, there had been the same song.
I recalled floating, curled in emerald waters. I remembered viridian eyes and jade skin, suckling something sweeter than milk.
The song ceased. A voice from the shadows, strange and yet known, said:
‘Stolen Daughter, you have returned.’
[to be continued]
Words and photograph 2017 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without the author’s express permission.