The depth of night is a space for magic.
I shifted my limbs, searching for islands of coolness on the sheet, but within minutes the heat of my body had tipped itself into my new outline.
I was wide awake.
I flailed against the insufferable swaddle of cloying heat and swallowed yet again the recognition of newly-empty space beside me.
An ember in the grey, I lay, processing my consciousness. The room – a colourless box of quadrilaterals and misshapen shadows around me – had become a negative of real life. Or was it a dreamworld?
I swung my legs out of bed, thankful for the whisper of air that trickled over them, delicate as a trailing chiffon wedding veil.
My clammy skin craved cold. I ducked under the curtain and pushed my head through the open window into the vast night, my eyes closed in expectation of relief.
The stillness cradled my face like a warm palm.
Below, the dark grass rekindled the memory of cool feet. I imagined sprawling in it, sucking out the cold of the earth and dispersing it throughout my warm body. Sleeping there.
The sun lounger languished decadently on the patio, beckoning, promising delectable al fresco slumber, or respite, at least, from the stifling heat.
I opened the kitchen door, punctuating the still with a hollow click – at night, every sound is distinct, perfectly nestled in the silence bolstering it from either side. Of late, my disharmonious cries had frequently fractured the calm, penetrating so much further in the dark than in the daylight, it seemed. I imagined them funnelling through the ether, stretching thin until they disappeared.
Waking the dead.
The cool stone was delicious on my feet as I walked across puddles of pale moonlight.
I lifted the sun lounger easily onto the lawn, crushing pliant blades of grass with my soles, embedding my imprints as I rolled self-indulgently, slowly, from heel to toe, heel to toe. There I lay flat and still, letting my thoughts spill and swim in emptiness.
I was in a night palace. The blackness poured into every chink in the landscape.
Above me, the moon looked like a round window. Someone was at home and they had left the light on.
I rolled onto my side, finally ready for sleep. But the darkness was thin, diluted… and not just by moonlight. It was inexplicably marred by an incongruous blot of light which was now in my line of vision.
Behind the silhouette of the thick trunk of the aging apple tree was a peculiar glow, close to the ground, compact.
I sat upright. A cold rush plummeted from my head to my toes and a swirling heaviness swooped inside my skull.
I would have to douse it.
But it was not lively; there were no orange fingers twisting and reaching for dry bark, no smoky gauze and no hungry crackling.
The light seemed to squat there, solid, silent and golden. Contained.
Now I was on the balls of my feet. To lower my heels felt too brave. To run, foolhardy. My hands hovered in front of me, as though half-heartedly haunting, and I led with my left ear, more prepared to hear than see something first… to work up to the visual shock of something that so blatantly signalled ‘unnatural’.
A hoot! Just an owl.
What I saw when I dared to look directly, took my breath away. It was beyond comprehension, outside the possibility of belief.
I explained to myself that this, all this – the madcap idea of sleeping in the garden at night, this… vision had been manufactured, manifested by me. It was a fantastic dream.
A golden baby angel under my apple tree? No part of that made sense.
It was no different than a pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.
I was gazing at an image of a golden cherub, yet it was not carved from stone, or precious metal.
This was a living child with the chubby flesh of a four-month old, delicate arcs creased across his bent arms and legs and his hair curled like an emperor’s. Behind the polished orbs of his shoulders, a pair of beautiful golden wings were closed together, parentheses at their widest, and swan-necking in to form two delicately elongated points. They appeared to be wet, as though just painted. This tiny child seemed to be lit from within and lay in a pile of leaves which looked spectral in the radiance of his aura.
He moved like a baby, his chubby limbs jerking, his fingers and toes curling; he looked into my eyes, smiled and reached up. A rush of pleasure cascaded through my body and I stooped down with my arms outstretched.
I drew him against me, feeling his weight settle on to my chest. He fitted perfectly against my body. His little head turned sideways and nestled against my shoulder. I stroked his satin back with my fingertips and ran them up his feathery wings. He shuddered. I cupped every part of him and tried out each tiny foot in the palm of my hand.
He slept on me as I stood beneath the apple tree under the moon. I closed my eyes and breathed in his hair, sinking my face into his silken curls. Not once did he murmur. I dared not move.
The navy of the sky diluted to a softer blue and tufts of rosy clouds paraded their gilded edges. Birdsong stitched layers of sound on top of the quiet until the quiet had gone, just like the night. We were still there.
I tipped my golden cherub away from the warmth of my body to look at his sleeping face. He was already awake and smiling at me. His eyelashes framed his amber eyes like strands of gold thread. He didn’t make a sound.
I clasped his little fist and uncurled his fingers. His tiny fingernails were like gold leaf. He wriggled his shoulders and I held him at arm’s length as his wings began to fan open, reflecting the early morning sunlight. Within the golden feathers were patterns, like the filigree of ancient metalwork. They framed him in large and beautiful symmetry. I turned him gently, curving him over my forearm, and as I did so, his wings folded neatly together behind him. I could see the ropey stalks to which they were attached running either side of his spine.
The need to look at him was insatiable. I turned him around again so that he faced me. He rested on my crooked arms and I held his head in my palms. He continued to smile, his eyes never leaving mine. I kissed his soft cheeks, his forehead, his nose, his chin, his arms, his tummy, his feet, and he laughed like a tinkling bell. I can only describe my state as one of utter rapture.
His smile never wavered, but something was wrong. Little lines began to creep across his skin, shrivelling it like the skin of drying fruit. Was he dehydrated?
“My poor baby,” I whispered. For the first time, I was stirred out of my dreamlike state and acknowledged the reality of this surreal situation. I hurried back to the house with him and placed him on the sofa.
“Stay there, little one.” He watched me leave.
I threw open kitchen cupboards, bewildered and confused.
What was I looking for? What do you give to babies?
I warmed some milk and tipped it into a bowl.
I propped him on one arm and held a spoon to his lips, but he could not be persuaded to take it.
He turned his head towards me.
“I have no milk for you, little one,” I whispered. “I have never had milk.”
But still his little mouth opened against my body.
The urge to comply was too great. I let him suckle for comfort. As I watched, his skin began to heal, becoming moist and shiny again. When he lifted his head, I gasped. A drop of milk, like a tiny pearl, sat on his lip. I wiped it with the back of my little finger, noticing how strangely wrinkled the back of my hand had become, the skin hanging in folds. I tracked the skin up my arm, aghast at the age spots and crepey skin that had replaced the supple skin I knew.
His eyes never left mine as we sat there, nor mine his. Something was passing between us, being given. Or taken.
The hours ticked by and shafts of sunlight moved around the room, warming us when we were enclosed by it, captured like some Michelangelo painting. My little cherub glinted so brightly that it hurt my eyes to gaze at him. The hands turned, the world revolved, we sat motionless.
By the time the sun had shifted to the side of us, his skin was beginning to break up again, like the parched earth of the salt flats.
Again, he suckled, and I felt the embodiment of energy, a type of slippery, mercurial plasma, pull away from me with the last failing grip of resistance, leaving me empty of it. This weight of weariness I had never before experienced. It was an effort to sit without hunching. My finger joints had swollen like large knots and the hair that hung near my eyes had become coarse and grey.
For how much longer could I do this? I feared that to nurture him – even once more – would strip the very last of life from me.
I loved this child. Could anyone else?
Later, as the sun dropped low behind the trees, again I saw his skin pull into tiny concave pockets, rimmed by flaccid skin. Like cracked china, it began to split.
My own body sagged, empty and used.
I had nothing left to give.
I tried to tempt him with milk, water, honey, but he just smiled serenely, showing no interest as he withered in front of me. I stroked his drying body and flinched at the gold dust which coated my deformed fingers.
Brush a moth’s wing and it dies, they say.
I was losing him.
I held him against me, and laid a hand on his folded wings, careful not to apply pressure. As the minutes passed, he became lighter and lighter, deflating like a punctured bag, until I was aware that my palm was against my chest with nothing between.
He had gone.
All that remained was gold dust.
I desperately wanted him back and pressed the glitter into my arms and my face, needing him in me, to be part of me. I howled with a strength I thought I had lost, wrapping my arms around myself and letting rivers of tears flow.
I did not move until it was dark, and the round window was lit again in the sky.
I took off my cotton top and shook the remnants of my angel into a pouch of material. It was like a couple of handfuls of shimmering sand.
As he had suffered demise, so my body had rejuvenated, skin, joints, hair; I was whole again physically, but there was a void within me which gaped like a silent scream.
The night was warm, but my veins ran cold as I carried my precious bundle outside to the apple tree. I made a shovel of my hand and scooped against the fabric, feeling the golden grains seep through my fingers. With the gentlest of movements, I let them scatter over the spot where I had found my baby angel, finally shaking out the last of the bright dust from my top and pressing it to my cheek.
The glimmer was dying, barely visible on the ground.
I could still picture him, and with all my might wished him back.
As the night became deeper, each tiny speck was extinguished until there was no trace at all of my baby.
I was wrung out by morning, standing under the branches, my head hanging, my eyes scratched by the burning tears I had shed. Nausea wheeled in my abdomen, and an overwhelming fatigue sat upon my shoulders.
I needed to shower – my soles were black – then rest. My head spun.
What had just happened?
In the bathroom, I opened the cabinet and let my hand rest on the pink box which blocked the painkillers I was reaching for. A flicker of something, less fleeting than hope, traversed my thoughts.
Feebly, I removed its contents and tried to focus on the instructions.
I placed the plastic wand on the washbasin, not even daring to hope for magic as I attempted to shower away the grief.
When I stepped out, a plane of light, like a slide from heaven, was slanting through the roof window, and in its shaft, like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, was the wand.
I looked at its little window and thought back to the moon. The communion. Two blue lines were in partnership, side by side.
Someone was at home.
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