By Kate O’Connor
She was born with her eyes closed and made no sound until the midwife slapped her little bottom. Even then it was only the tiniest of bird-peeps. At first, I thought I had been sent for her. She was pale and so very small. There was barely a breath in her tiny body. As I reached for her, a firm tug at my cloak stayed my hand.
The child’s mother lay a short distance away, clutching at me with pain-clawed hands. Her hair was lank and stringy with sweat. Her dark eyes were dim in her fine-featured face, but they studied me with an intensity I was unused to. She was dying. I was there for her.
“How can I leave her without a mother to care for her?” She sighed, the weight of the richly embroidered blanket pushing the air out of her. Now that she had my attention, she was calm. “No matter how much I love him, my husband is not a strong man. He might not be able to look after her. Does it have to be now?”
“It does.” These things could not be negotiated or changed. The room full of servants continued on without seeing me. Few ever did if they weren’t dying themselves.
Her eyes fixed on me. She was beautiful in her pain, balancing on the tipping point between life and death. “Will you look after her?”
In my astonishment I answered without thinking. “I will, if that is what you want, but what could Death possibly have to offer a living child?” The living were usually desperate to spare their loved ones my company.
“You will never be far away. She should have a godmother who will never leave her.” She smiled and closed her eyes for the last time. I kissed her forehead, reaching my hands through her physical form and gathering the threads of her life together, bright goodness twining inextricably with shadowy misdeeds. I tucked her bundled essence beneath my cloak and turned back to the luxuriously appointed room. I lingered for a while, watching my new goddaughter through the usual frantic activity. She slept quietly, alone in her basket as the servants tried vainly to revive their lady.
I picked the infant up and wrapped her in a blanket. Her tiny, perfect hand took hold of my finger and she cooed softly. The few wisps of hair on her head were the color of fading lilies. It was the first time I had held a child as it grew stronger and more alive. The warmth of her breath was the most beautiful thing I had ever felt.
“The child needs milk.” One of the servants spoke, drawing my attention back to the room. The woman was looking directly at me. It seemed that while I held my goddaughter, they took me as one of their own.
“The cook has a babe and enough milk to spare for a second,” another answered.
“I will take her,” I replied, wrapping the tiny girl more snugly in her blanket as I stepped into the hallway. I brought her to the kitchen and sat with the young woman until my goddaughter was nursing, watching her pale cheeks begin to blossom.
“What is her name?” the woman asked.
“She has none,” I answered, stroking the child’s hair one more time as I got up to leave. The baby still had not opened her eyes.
She sat quietly on my knee while the physician examined her. She weighed scarcely more than grave mist. Her delicate doll’s hands rested in her lap, too still for a real child’s. Her father drifted in the background, sometimes moving forward to flutter at the physician’s shoulder, sometimes staring out the window.
“There is nothing wrong with her eyes, my lord. She just doesn’t seem to see the world in front of her.” The doctor was young, fresh from his apprenticeship. His face said he was uncomfortable with his diagnosis. “You say she is not a frail child?”
“No.” I answered when it became clear the lord of the house was lost in his thoughts, as he had been so often in the years since his lady’s passing. The young man shivered at the sound of my voice. A man in his profession, even one so young, learned to feel when I was near, even if he saw only a lowly housemaid in front of him.
He studied my goddaughter more closely, clearly thinking the scent of death he caught came from her. He took her tiny hands in his, counting her heartbeat in the indigo veins decorating her thin wrists. The rhythm was strong and even. She said nothing, leaning back ever so slightly into my arms. This was yet another in a long line of such men who had examined her and she spoke rarely, even to those she was close to.
“Have you consulted with a priest?” the physician asked, sitting back on his heels and releasing her hands. “I can find nothing worldly wrong with her.”
“Priests, philosophers, hedge witches. Each one sends me to speak to another.” The lord finally joined the conversation. He ran a tired hand through his thick hair. “And they all say the same.” Silence settled over the room again. My goddaughter’s sightless eyes stared straight through the physician. Unlike so many of the others, he looked straight back into her blank gaze.
“I know it isn’t my place to say so, my lord, but maybe the girl just needs a proper mother. Nothing can replace a mother’s love.” The young man began packing his bag.
“Perhaps you’re right.” I watched the idea take root in the lord’s mind, growing rapidly into a light in his eyes. I tucked my goddaughter more tightly in my arms. Even so young, she had seen enough of me that the mortal world was nothing to her eyes. I hadn’t known the effect my continued presence would have on her until it was too late, and now I knew of nothing that could cure her. A new mother would do her no good.
She stood in the garden, her slender fingers drifting idly over the sharp-thorned roses. She cocked her head when I approached.
“Are the ones you take with you frightened?” she asked. Her golden hair was tied in a neat knot at the back of her head. The faded dress she was wearing had been mended many times over by her careful needle and mismatched thread.
“At first,” I answered, watching her hands find a pale pink blossom and explore its velvet petals. Her mist-blue eyes stared into the middle distance. Shortly after her father had married again, the attempts to cure her blindness had stopped. “Why do you ask?”
“The servants say that you’ll be coming for Papa any day now.”
“It will be tonight. Soon.” I hadn’t known until I said it. I hadn’t been paying attention. I should have been, since it was her father. “Do you want to come with me?” I wanted her to see that it was gentle – that the fear was a passing thing. It would break my heart if she were ever afraid of me.
“Yes.” She nodded, her fair face as smooth as it had been when she was a child. She never smiled and rarely cried. I thought perhaps it was my influence again. She had grown up with only one foot in the world of the living; my visits were an expected and welcome thing in her life.
We moved through the halls like a pair of shadows. The lady of the house had retired for the evening, taking her daughters with her. An old servant was asleep outside the door. His snoring continued uninterrupted as we entered the sick man’s room.
Labored breathing filled the silence, deepening it until it was a solid weight. He moaned weakly, coughing his life away in thick, gagging heaves. I watched his pain settle on her, rounding her shoulders and stifling her voice. For long moments she stood there, saying nothing.
“It is hardest just before it happens.” I moved towards him. His wet eyes widened and he turned weakly away from me. My hands slipped through his human flesh, past his failing heart and into his spirit. I searched for a moment and found the thread I was looking for. I pulled it free, tugging a filament loose and holding it out for her.
“This is his love for you.” It glistened in the dim room, illuminating the motionless corpse on the bed.
She took it in her hands, winding it through her fingers as carefully as if it were the finest silk. “Thank you.” Her voice was serene and her face remote. It occurred to me that maybe I had made it worse, taken her further from the human world. Perhaps I should have left this last mystery until it was her turn to face it.
“The invitation arrived this morning addressed to all the ladies of the household. My stepsisters are going. The whole house is in a stir about it. They say the King is picking a new bride.” She sat in the kitchen peeling a small mountain of potatoes.
“Will you be going with them?” There had been parties in the house before – the lord’s second wife was fond of them – but my goddaughter had never cared to take part, preferring instead the quiet of her sewing or giving the horses a brushing.
“Of course not. Those invitations never mean to include the servants.” There was a faint edge in her voice that I had not heard before.
“You are not a servant.” Until becoming responsible for her, I had never noticed differences in station in the living world. I wanted her to be cared for and happy. I wanted to see her take an interest in something, to grow and thrive. Here in her stepmother’s kitchens, she moved from one day to the next as though sleeping.
“I might as well be. What does birth matter when I have dirt on my face and rough hands? Besides, somebody needs to keep this place running. The lady and my sisters have other things on their minds.”
“Dirt washes off, my love. They are only mortal. They will rot with dirt over their heads just like the poorest cowherd.” If I could have shortened the lives of her stepmother and stepsisters so much as one day, I would have done it, but it had never been within my power to name the time of a mortal’s passing. With her father gone, they punished her for every lapse, real or imagined. She took it in silence, driving them to further acts of persecution.
“I forgive them.” She shrugged her elegant shoulders, feeling for another potato.
“You have a good heart.” I thought of it as a child’s heart, clean and untouched by the world around her.
“No. If I weren’t angry with them, there would be no need for forgiveness.” Her short fingernails dug into the potato’s thin skin, leaving tiny, pale crescents in their wake. “But I hear you, Godmother. I won’t forget. Dirt is only permanent when we’re dead.”
I looked at her in surprise. Her emotions ran so deep and slow that I often forgot she had them. There was so much more that went on behind those blank eyes than she chose to share.
The evening of the ball came. I arrived at the estate, hoping to convince her to go. Mortal life was so short, and she had yet to really start hers. I found her in the back garden with an unattended basket of mending beside her. An air of sadness hung around her as heavy as a shroud.
“Godmother, do you think it will be wonderful?” she asked. The wistful question caught me off guard. It seemed even she was not as removed from dreaming of a better life as I had feared.
“Would you like to find out?” I wanted her to say yes. I wanted her to choose to reach for something different.
“No. I would just make a fool of myself. I couldn’t find my way in the palace with all those people. Which thread do I need for this?” She picked up a worn skirt, smoothing it across her lap and finding the tear by feel. There was the barest hint of tension between her eyebrows.
“This one, but leave that for the moment. I have something for you.” I put my present into her outstretched hands.
She felt the package, unwrapping it delicately. I watched as her slender hands traced over the familiar shape. The crystal shoes glistened in the moonlight, clear and perfect as her face.
“You know I can’t give you your sight, even for a night, but these will act as your guides. As long as you wear them, you can put no foot wrong.” I had put a little of myself in them. The shoes would show her the shadows of the living world. With them on, she would see more clearly than those without her disability.
Hope bloomed on her face, then fell again as quickly. “I can’t go. I have nothing to wear.”
I smiled, though she couldn’t see it. “I have borrowed everything you need.” I dressed her in a gown a foreign princess had been buried in, adorning her with the crown jewels of a kingdom lost millennia before this one had even been a dream. “As long as you return to me by midnight, you will look like a queen.” I waved my hand, fashioning a pale, glistening coach out of the low-lying mist.
She slipped the shoes onto her feet. “Why midnight?” There was something new in her voice – a fresh spring bud of excitement.
“I can only lend you these things until the world changes and moves towards morning. Death is only half the magic in the world. For the other half of the day I am only strong enough to take spirits. This requires more magic than that.” A silver carp floated belly-up in the garden pond. I scooped it out of the weed-choked shallows and breathed on it; its scales drifted to the ground like dead leaves. I arranged its sharp bones into patterns and stretched its rotting skin over the new shapes. With a thought, I sent them moving and growing until six silver horses stood ready at the front of the white coach.
That done, I looked my goddaughter over as she stood in the moonlight. There was something different about her as she stood in her finery. It was almost as though she were fading from my sight.
She put a trembling hand in mine and the distance between us was gone as if it had never been. “I’ll go until midnight, then. So I’ll have something to think on while I work.” She spoke more to herself than me, squaring her shoulders as I helped her into the coach. A quiet ache started somewhere below my breast as the door closed behind her. Perhaps I had been mistaken to encourage her. Perhaps it would have been better to keep her home and let her live her life through dreams.
I walked behind her, invisible to all eyes. No one asked her name when she came to the gates of the palace. The wide-eyed footmen held the doors open as she walked towards them. The people she passed paused to bow low. She noticed none of them, drifting through her lonely twilight world.
The bright noise of the party washed over us as we came through the door and into the ballroom. She stopped at the top of the long stair leading down onto the marble floor. I felt the tremor that shook her slight frame as if it were my own. She half turned back towards the open door. A hint of deep uncertainty cracked through the crystalline façade of her composure.
I moved out of the way, staying out of sight. If she wanted to run, to return home, I would be the last to stand in her path. To my surprise, she caught her breath and turned to face the room again. Her face stilled abruptly and, for the first time, I noticed that we were not alone.
The King stood three steps below us with a compassionate half-smile on his young face. His eyes were sad, and the air around him was colored with recent loss. I knew him well. He had loved the Queen that illness – and I – had taken from him barely a year past. He had been a soldier before his father’s death. I had visited him too often.
“It can be a bit overwhelming at first, my lady.” He bowed, offering her his hand once he had straightened. She stared at it for a long moment through the shadows, then took it tentatively in her own. Something entirely mortal passed between them. Perhaps it was their shared loneliness, perhaps their losses or their wary dreams. Whatever it was, it made her lips turn up at the corners. The smile that blossomed on her face transfixed both me and the King. He had no way of knowing it was her first, but I watched it strike him as deeply as it split my own heart.
I stood back as they walked down to the waiting crowd below. She didn’t spare another glance for the door and he not another for anyone else in the ballroom.
She was late home, returning in the worn dress she had been wearing for her chores. The shoes came off as soon as she was through the gate, though she cradled them to her chest. Something had changed in her. “I’m sorry, Godmother. I lost track of time.” She held the shoes out, her hands hesitating.
“Did you enjoy the party?” I ignored the offered shoes for the moment. She didn’t need to know that I had gone with her.
“Yes. I suppose I did.” Her answer came slow and unsure. “I danced with the King.” The smile she had found earlier rippled across her face, awkward and lovely as a newborn fawn. “He knew you very well, Godmother. I didn’t expect that of a king.”
“Will you see him again?” I could see in her posture that she knew what I was asking. The whole kingdom knew he was looking for a new queen.
Her face was blank again and she was silent for a long time. “He needs a wife who can help him find a way to be happy. Who can help him run his kingdom and recover from the hardships his life has brought.” She shook her head, frowning. “I know nothing about such things.”
“Perhaps you should let him choose for himself what he needs.” I saw mortal relationships all the time – hands entwined as they tried to hold me back, bonds of love that shone through the darkness I brought. There were long goodbyes and short ones as the threads that wove their spirits pulled tight together. I had seen love that let there be an end to pain and suffering and souls that would wait on the edge of peace until the other arrived to travel with them. The first gossamer fibers of it were there between my goddaughter and the king. It was little more than a wish right now, but given a chance, it could weave a lifetime for them.
“If he asks me, I’ll go with him, but I will not chase after him hoping. Even if he does come, he will see what I really am and leave just as quickly. It was a dream, Godmother, nothing more.”
I took the shoes from her still outstretched hands. “We will leave it there for now, then. You should get some sleep. Tomorrow is another day.”
Many nights later, I left one of the shoes in a basket of carrots in her kitchen and made my way to the palace again. I passed through now-quiet corridors, unseen by the handful of alert guards who remained on duty. The door to the King’s chambers was simple wood. He had moved from the royal suite the morning after I took the Queen. I had watched him go as the servants prepared her body.
I placed the second shoe on the floor before the door and knocked softly. The shoe would lead him straight to its match, if he wanted to follow where it led. There was no compulsion in it. The choice was his.
A true soldier, he was at the door within moments. He looked up and down the hall, eyes growing wary when he saw no one. Then his gaze dropped down and his face changed. He reached downwards with a shaking hand.
He touched the crystal slipper with light hesitancy, as though afraid it would vanish as thoroughly as its owner had. Rumor had it that he had been searching almost since the ball had ended. She was unaware, scrubbing pots and washing floors, even more silent than usual. When the shoe remained solid, he scooped it up, cradling it to his chest as the first beginnings of hope made his face glow.
There was far more noise in the entrance hall than usual for this time of morning. She never looked up from kneading the bread dough. I sat by the fire, helping with the mending. There was flour on her face and hands and her hair was tucked under an old, faded rag. She did not hum or whistle. She scarcely seemed to breathe.
The noise from the hall faded further back into the house. It was odd that none of the servants had come down. If there were guests, the kitchen was usually bustling. Now, though, the only sound was the thump of dough on the board.
“My lady.” His voice vibrated like a spring leaf in the empty kitchen. She turned towards it incredulously, her hands flying to her mouth to cover her gasp. He stood in the door, alone and tentative. I wondered how he had kept her stepmother at bay.
“You found me,” she spoke with soft wonder.
He walked unsteadily across the small room towards her. He took in her flour-covered rags and mist-blank eyes as he caught her delicate hands in his. “I did.” He spoke as softly as she.
“You’re here.” Tears came to her eyes and spilled down her face, tracing thin tracks through the flour on her cheeks: her first shed because of another mortal being. I watched the color of her eyes brighten and change as her mortal sight returned to her. She turned her wondering face up towards his. “I can see you.”
“You always have.” He touched her cheek, brushing away her tears even as his eyes glistened with his own. “Will you come with me?”
She looked at him with eyes turned the color of the summer sky and a bubble of joyous laughter burst from her lips. “I will.”
He offered his arm, face radiant, and she took it.
At the door, she stopped and looked back. Her new eyes passed over me, though I made no attempt to hide from her. They were wholly mortal eyes now. “Godmother?” she asked and the uncertainty in her voice was a fresh heartbreak. Did she think I had abandoned her?
“You will see her again.” The King put a strong, comforting arm around her shoulders.
“Yes.” Her smile came quickly now. “Though perhaps not for a long time.” There was hope in her voice, hope for a long life with the one she loved. Hope for a world where I was far away.
I sighed as she turned towards him, the throbbing ache of losing her a painful joy in my chest. I would watch her as well as I could as she moved towards morning.
“Godmother Death” © Kate O’Connor
First appeared in Black Apples (Belladonna) April 9, 2014
After graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kate O’Connor took up writing science fiction and fantasy. Her short fiction has appeared in venues including Intergalactic Medicine Show, StarShipSofa, Diabolical Plots, and Escape Pod. In between telling stories, she flies airplanes, digs up artifacts, and edits an aviation magazine. Her website can be found at kateoconnor3.wordpress.com.
Digital Illustration “I Waited” © Kim Myatt
Kim Myatt is a self-taught artist from the UK. Welsh-born but now living in Nottingham she likes to spend her time – when not feverishly painting – wandering wild places, visiting old and dusty museums and dreaming of one day owning a cat. Her artwork draws inspiration from dark romanticism, gothic novels and half-remembered folk-lore.
Kim is available for hire to work on private as well as commercial projects., She’s on Twitter at twitter.com/Ysvyri .