Feathertide – Beth Cartwright

A midday sky at a midnight hour. It was the Night of the Great Winter Star: crackling bonfires and chortling mirth, warmth in the cold and light in the dark. Jewelled colours somersaulted through the sky, momentarily mapping out new constellations in the darkness. The swish of a rocket and the swirl of a wheel. Frost shimmered on the rooftops and left long, glistening trails along the pavements. The world stood – watchful, whisperful, wonderful – counting down the minutes to the end of something frayed and worn at the edges, and to the start of something woven with promise and hope. The old unravelling into the new, when another year was safely tucked up into the warm folds of memory. A luminous star-filled sky; wish-ready. It was the night I was born. That morning, a heavily pregnant Lemàn had been out buying fresh mackerel from the old weatherworn fisherman at the port. They greeted each other with a customary nod and a half-smile and nothing more; he knew what she needed. She waited as he quickly worked his glittering nets between his hands, untangling the fish and separating them from the clinging crustaceans, a bucket for each. Despite his swollen fingers and knotted knuckles, he still caught more fish than anyone else half his age. Experience had taught him well. A faded salt-stained cap tamed his buoyant grey curls and a clay pipe balanced at the side of his mouth as he rattled through his treasures, tossing the broken pieces back into the sea and whistling the old songs of long forgotten sailors.

It was the second batch Lemàn had sought that morning; the first devoured before she’d even arrived at her doorstep, and with a deep rumble in her belly she had headed straight back down the hill to the port, seeking to satisfy what she already knew to be an insatiable hunger. Lemàn’s craving for fish, morning, noon and night had grown stronger during the last eight months, and now it was all she could swallow without feeling empty and hollow inside. After about the sixth month, when her belly was as ripe as a summer fruit, her cravings grew so desperate that she no longer bothered to boil the fish into a soup or take the time to sprinkle them with herbs carefully chosen from the market. Instead she bit right into their scales, tearing their skin apart with her teeth, picking at the splinters of tiny bones left behind in her mouth, her lips sleek and oil-smeared. Although she had the face of a doll, there was nothing dainty about her. Her limbs were long and sinewy and her hands were made for strangling; it was therefore with great ease that she was able to sling another sack of mackerel over her shoulder, as though it was filled with nothing but feathers. About to climb back up the hill, she suddenly felt a strange twinge deep in her belly. Dismissing it as just another hunger pang, she quickly dropped the sack to the ground, where she unknotted the top and reached inside to scoop out a fish. At that moment, a sharp, stabbing sensation felled her like a woodman’s axe. This time, the pain was lower than her belly, and unlike anything she had ever felt It was the Night of the Great Winter Star: crackling bonfires and chortling mirth, warmth in the cold constellations in the darkness.

The swish of a rocket and the swirl of a wheel. Frost shimmered on the age. Experience had taught him well. A faded salt-stained cap tamed his buoyant grey curls and a clay before. Of course, she knew she was carrying a child, but she’d not kept any dates. She just watched her stomach grow and evolve like the phases of the moon, a crescent slowly made whole, until its milky fullness was ready to spill. Then it was just a matter of time. ‘She’ll come when she’s ready,’ she’d tell anyone who asked. She knew I was going to be a girl, because she’d seen me in a dream. I was playing with washed-up shells on a long stretch of empty beach, collecting broken pieces of green glass, like pretend emeralds, the colour of the sea.

The tide was still a long way out and the sand was dry golden powder like the remains of a city which had long ago turned to dust. Circling above me was a bird, solitary and blue and beautiful, but its shadow grew larger and larger and the world grew darker. Then with a rush of air it swooped, but she was too far away to pull me to safety. It was always at that moment that she woke up with a pounding heart. Now I was ready. Wincing in pain, Lemàn fell against the crumbling wall of the inn. Hunched and panting, she steadied herself until the pain suddenly subsided like a break in a thunderstorm and she straightened. Abandoning the fish on the ground like coins, she staggered back up the hill. The fisherman kicked the mackerels into the gutter for the beggar cats who roamed the streets, silent as floating feathers, and put the empty sack back in his boat. He didn’t like to see anything go to waste.

A swooping gull squawked in annoyance; the cats had got there first. Finally, she fell through the doorway and crawled up the stairs, demented by pain as she collapsed on her bed. ‘She’s coming – she’s here – it’s happening!’ Her cries were so loud that they shook the walls. A clatter of heels and a jangle of jewels quickly followed, and a cluster of beautifully adorned women gathered around her bed as she fell sweating and panting against her pillow. One of them held a damp cloth to her forehead as she writhed on the sheets. ‘Push!’ they chorused like a joyful choir, holding hands prayer-like, lips pursed in wonder as they exchanged excited glances and nervous giggles, their eyelashes fluttering like a release of summer butterflies. Lemàn needed little encouragement and pushed and pushed, but I was stubborn and refused to move. She was strong and had the patience of a desert cactus. Only when night came and the room was lit by the flicker of candles did I begin to stir. My head appeared before the first stroke of midnight, but my feet were slow to follow and it wasn’t until the sound of the chimes had died away that I had fully emerged.

It was impossible to say which day I had been born but it is said that babies born on the Night of the Great Winter Star suffer from a melancholy disposition and will be forever followed by sadness. Nobody wanted that. Slippery as a fish, I was quickly swallowed up in a huge pile of blankets and placed on Lemàn’s heaving chest. Like a boat, bobbing rhythmically on the ocean, moored by an unbreakable bond, I lay and blinked in my new world, and eyes blinked back, as though I was a miracle. They warbled and bubbled like a happy coop sprinkled with the morning grain. ‘What a good head of hair!’ exclaimed one of the women, her own, a whirl of candyfloss. ‘It grows all the way down her neck.’ ‘Such a beautiful orange colour, like a sunset,’ marvelled another. ‘A flame to light a midnight room.’ ‘What’s that?’ one asked suddenly, clasping her hand to her chest.

The whores peered closer. ‘Goodness, it looks like a tiny cluster of feathers.’ ‘Is it some kind of birthmark?’ Abandoning the fish on the ground like coins, she staggered back up the hill. The fisherman kicked the mackerels into the gutter for the beggar cats who roamed the streets, silent as floating feathers, and put women gathered around her bed as she fell sweating and panting against her pillow. One of them held ‘What a good head of hair!’ exclaimed one of the women, her own, a whirl of candyfloss. ‘It grows Suddenly, a door slammed somewhere in the depths of the house and the sound echoed all the way up the stairs and along the corridor; the room hushed. The patter of the whores’ excited footsteps had aroused suspicion from below. Moments later the door flung open and everyone quickly parted as a woman glided swiftly through. Her cheekbones sliced through her skin, hard and sharp like the glinting blade of a knife. Her hair, pinched tight at her temples, whitening her skin, was swept high in a complicated conundrum of pins on the top of her head where it sat like a hive.

Sorren, the mistress of the house, had arrived, and nobody dared to speak and nobody dared to breathe, as all eyes fell quickly to the floor. She fixed her stalactite stare on me, and Lemàn clutched me tighter against her chest. The room wilted; her words carried the power to destroy us all. She stepped closer. ‘Our visitors must not know there is a child in this house, they would not like it, and neither would the authorities. Do not be careless,’ she admonished. ‘She could be taken from us … or worse!’ exclaimed one of the women. The other whores tutted at the thought and furiously shook their heads. They were my guardians, each one promising to love and protect me as fiercely as though I was their own. ‘Your worry should be for the business, not for the child,’ she snarled.

The whip of her words stung, and the woman who had spoken out realised too late her mistake and stifled a sob before shuffling back into the shadows. Then her eyes, full of scorn, flashed from me to Lemàn and she took another step closer, bringing with her the waft of funeral lilies. Her eyes narrowed as they suddenly fell upon the tiny feather cluster growing from my shoulder. Her mouth twitched and for a brief moment she had let it reveal something, but what? Confusion, alarm, fear, regret and the brief flash of something else – recognition. Stiffening her shoulders, she stood with rigid authority while addressing the room. ‘Our visitors do not like to think of us nurturing anyone’s needs but their own. You must keep her well hidden, and quiet; there is room in the cellar. Do not let this become a distraction.’ Her eyes fell back to Lemàn, holding me in her arms. ‘Do you understand?’ Lemàn bowed her head and so too did the other women; like roses in a windswept garden, they nodded rhythmically in deference to the queen bee.

Then she turned and swished from the room. As her footsteps faded, the women let out a collective sigh of relief, and just like that their wish was granted – I could stay. ‘What a quiet baby,’ pondered one of the women suddenly, her face crumpled in confusion. ‘Aren’t babies supposed to cry when they’re born? Do you think there’s something’s wrong with her?’ Their previous amazement suddenly turned to growing alarm, and their smiles tipped to frowns. But there was nothing wrong with me at all. What reason did I have to cry? I was staring at the most sparkling, adoring eyes, like a gallery of stars taken down from the sky, just for my delight and amusement. I couldn’t have been more content. I captivated a whole room. Slowly the women drifted away, until it was just me and Lemàn left, and there, through a half-opened hatch in the roof, I caught my first glimpse of the outside world. A sky filled with explosive fire; a world of dazzling colour and magical light that danced over the town.

A world of wishes, half whispered, half-understood, and rockets that reached for the moon. For years loss had slowly rinsed her of all colour, but that night her cheeks had the rose-pink glow of a summer evening. Her hair – more silver than grey, lit by the luminous sky – fell softly against the pillow; the colour of wishes in a fountain. Tenderly, Lemàn stroked my head and nuzzled her face against mine. ‘You’re my little firecracker,’ she said into the blaze of my hair, and with dancing fingertips she began to explore every inch of me. Suddenly she gasped in astonishment. Nothing could Moments later the door flung open and everyone quickly parted as a woman glided swiftly through. nobody dared to speak and nobody dared to breathe, as all eyes fell quickly to the floor. She fixed her hidden, and quiet; there is room in the cellar. Do not let this become a distraction.

’ Her eyes fell back ‘What a quiet baby,’ pondered one of the women suddenly, her face crumpled in confusion. ‘Aren’t my first glimpse of the outside world. A sky filled with explosive fire; a world of dazzling colour and fingertips she began to explore every inch of me. Suddenly she gasped in astonishment. Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw then. There weren’t just a few little feathers on my shoulder; the skin behind my neck was covered in them, so small and pale that nobody else had seen them. Unfolding the layers of swaddling, she discovered they grew in wisps down the length of my back, so delicate and fine they were like the top of a dandelion. She laughed then, as though she should have expected them all along. Smiling in wonder, she ran the tips of her fingers up and down my spine. It tickled.

Soft down covered the whole of my body in a golden light, fuzzy as a little peach. ‘You remind me so much of him,’ she whispered into my ear, before sinking back against the pillows, overcome by a feeling of completeness and fatigue. Gathered above us, around the edge of the hatch, were several birds, their heads tilted in curiosity as they watched me lying there in Lemàn’s arms. When she spotted them, a storm fell over her face and for the second time that night, she held me a little bit closer. ‘I will not lose you to the sky,’ she whispered, and with her last burst of energy she reached for the pole and hooked the end round the clasp, giving it a sharp, sudden pull. The window clattered shut, and, with a dark spread of wings, the birds flew away, vanishing into the night. I turned and grumbled in her arms. Then a single glossy feather floated through the air; it brushed against my cheek like a goodnight kiss, and fell onto the bed unnoticed. She murmured my name then: Maréa, after the tide … never imagining that one day I would float away. have prepared her for what she saw then.

There weren’t just a few little feathers on my shoulder; the skin behind my neck was covered in them, so small and pale that nobody else had seen them. Unfolding the layers of swaddling, she discovered they grew in wisps down the length of my back, so delicate and fine they were like the top of a dandelion. She laughed then, as though she should have expected them all along. Smiling in wonder, she ran the tips of her fingers up and down my spine. It tickled. Soft down covered the whole of my body in a golden light, fuzzy as a little peach. ‘You remind me so much of him,’ she whispered into my ear, before sinking back against the pillows, overcome by a feeling of completeness and fatigue. Gathered above us, around the edge of the hatch, were several birds, their heads tilted in curiosity as they watched me lying there in Lemàn’s arms. When she spotted them, a storm fell over her face and for the second time that night, she held me a little bit closer. ‘I will not lose you to the sky,’ she whispered, and with her last burst of energy she reached for the pole and hooked the end round the clasp, giving it a sharp, sudden pull.

The window clattered shut, and, with a dark spread of wings, the birds flew away, vanishing into the night. I turned and grumbled in her arms. Then a single glossy feather floated through the air; it brushed against my cheek like a goodnight kiss, and fell onto the bed unnoticed. She murmured my name then: Maréa, after the tide … never imagining that one day I would float away.

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