Published Issue 094, October 2021
The first part of Many Carvings was published in Issue 084, October 2021. Click this pumpkin icon to finish where you left off reading in print.
“Light the lamps, Alaster,” the boy’s mother said, lifting her needlework to squint at a stitch. Alaster lay on the floor, too obsessed with his brother to be bothered by the chill of the wooden planks penetrating his nightshirt. The month-old infant cooed from his crib and his kicking feet made the most delicate thuds, a noise that pleased Alaster. It reminded him of pulling carrots from the ground and wiping away the dirt and hearing the earthen clumps break on the ground.
He pushed himself to all fours and then went to light the lamps. An October gale gusted against the house, speeding him along. He liked to think of each wick as a person with an oval flame of hair. The fire always seemed to bow toward him at first, like a curtsey to thank him for life. Then it stretched with fuel like a person waking in the morning, arms up, back arching. When he was a little younger, he gave each flame a name and pretended they were all family members. But those memories embarrassed him now.
He knelt by the crib and smiled. “I think William wants to eat.”
“He’ll cry if he does, Alaster. None of my boys were ever shy about their hunger, you least of all. Your father warned me when I married him that appetite is prominent among all Cheverus men.”
Alaster asked if he could have honey then, but his mother smiled and shook her head. “It’s much too late for that, child.”
“Would you read to me then, like Father does?”
His mother paused a moment, then her hands worked faster. “Aren’t you too old for stories?”
“Father reads me different stories now.”
“About generals and soldiers and—”
“I must speak to him about that.”
Alaster looked up to see if his mother was cross. She didn’t seem so. But there was something in her expression he didn’t understand. Did she not like stories? Why had she never told him one from a book?
“Your father will be back soon enough. He’ll have stories from the market, I’m sure.”
“I wish I could have gone with them. It’s not fair that Benjamin gets to go.”
“Benjamin is fifteen. You’ll go with them soon enough. But now you have little William to watch over.”
Alaster couldn’t help pouting. He’d never been to the city, and this was Benjamin’s third straight season helping Father at the market with the other men. He always came back with tales of wonder. People singing and strange animals wondering here and there, and drinks and candies found nowhere else. The tastes Alaster’s imagination created always turned to sour envy on his tongue.
He looked down at William and thought, When I’m older, I’m going to go to the markets while you stay behind, but I’ll bring something back for you.
Alaster kissed the baby on the forehead. Drowsiness overtook him shortly thereafter, and he had little memory of his mother turning off the lamps or picking him off the floor. He did remember a sleepy protest that he was too big to be carried, but his mother was very stout, like most of the village women. It would be a few years yet before he truly became too heavy for her.
He woke to the sound of a fierce hammering from the front door and the baby wailing in his parents’ room. Alaster heard his mother up and on the move. He left his bed and instantly shivered in the night’s chill. The banging gained urgency. Alaster thought there must be an army outside demanding shelter.
As he came to stand beside his mother, Alaster heard a voice shouting to be let in.
“It’s Benjamin! But why is he here, Mother? What could have happened?”
Each question engraved a new line upon his mother’s face.
“Go tend your brother.”
“But my brother is—”
His mother’s expression shut him up. He’d only seen her look this way once, a few months before William’s birth when word arrived of an accident in the field. Mother simply said, “Jonathan,” in the same hushed way she said Jesus in church, and took off running despite her condition. But Father ended up not being hurt too much, and Ms. Sibley came to tend his injury.
“Thank you for coming so fast,” Mother said as she, Alaster and Benjamin gathered to watch Ms. Sibley apply a poultice to Father’s ankle. Alaster fixated on the old woman’s hands, so big at the knuckles, so slow and careful with Father’s bandage — and then so swift to touch his mother’s stomach.
“A shame the accident, if it had to happen, couldn’t have occurred two months from now. What’s the expression? Kill two birds with one stone?”
But it’d be three more months before William was ready, and then Ms. Sibley delivered him just as she’d delivered Benjamin. She’d wiped her hands clean on a rag, smiled at Alaster and said, “Easier than your brother, but not as eager to arrive as you.”
“Alaster — go to William. Now.”
He blinked back to the present as the door rattled and Benjamin again begged for admission. Alaster retreated to his parents’ bedroom and knelt by the baby’s crib. “Hush,” he said, stroking the infant’s sparse hair. But William went on wailing, drowning out all other sound. After a few minutes, Alaster couldn’t stand not knowing what was happening with Benjamin and left the bedroom to see. He found his brother holding a sheet of paper before his mother’s face.
“But why would Jonathan write when he knows—”
“He told me to read it to you, Mother.”
Alaster crept closer, keeping close to the wall. William’s cries became distant to him.
“Dearest, a great illness has struck at the market. More people are ill here than well. It is a devilish thing, but with God’s help we will persevere. Already I am feeling better just writing to you. I return Benjamin to you since he remains healthy. I know you will disapprove of the decision, but he is a capable boy and I did not send him back alone.”
Mother said, “Who did you return with?”
“Martin Huntley’s oldest? Is Martin ill, too?”
“Yes, Mother. We traveled the entire way back together and—”
“Where is Cameron now?”
“At home talking to his own mother, I suppose,” Benjamin said, adding a laugh that Alaster thought almost mocking. This drew him closer and his presence caught his older brother’s attention. Benjamin fixed him with a bold, assured stare. He seemed even taller than before, though that couldn’t be possible. He and Father had been gone not even a full week.
“What sort of illness was it, Benjamin?”
“How should I know?”
“Was there coughing?”
“How was your father’s appetite?”
Benjamin shrugged. “He was eating.”
“And keeping it down?”
“There’s that, at least,” Mother said, gathering her gown around her as she turned. Alaster thought she looked miserable. In most times of trouble, she’d say, “It’s in God’s hands now.” But she hadn’t said that when she thought Father was hurt. And she didn’t say it now. Alaster figured she wanted to consult Ms. Sibley but there was nothing to be done at so late an hour. And the market was so far away.
“Are you hungry, Benjamin?”
“Are you sure? You must have traveled for hours.”
“Our fathers gave us bread for the trip.”
“Then go to bed. You too, Alaster.”
But Benjamin went straight to his parents’ room. Alaster and his mother exchanged looks before following.
“What are you doing, Ben?”
“I’ve missed my brother.”
He picked William up and cradled him. Alaster’s face went hot when the baby’s cries turned into contented coos.
“He missed me.”
“Settle him back into the crib, Benjamin. It’s time for all of us to sleep. In the morning, I’ll visit with the Huntleys.”
“You don’t believe me, Mother?”
“What sort of question is that? I only want to find out more details.”
Alaster watched Benjamin slowly return William to the crib.
“I told you—”
Mother reached forward and grabbed him by the back of his neck. “I’ll assume this defiant tone comes from being exhausted. Go to bed now — both of you.”
In their room, Benjamin flopped upon the mattress and was asleep at once. Alaster didn’t realize how quickly he’d become used to having the bed to himself. Now his brother’s large, sprawling body reduced him to the left edge. He couldn’t sleep on the verge of teetering.
“Ben, give me room,” he said, prodding his shoulder.
A drowsy, distant tone came from Benjamin’s lips. “I will . . . I will . . .”
“Then do it.”
“I will . . . I will . . .”
Alaster rose up to peer at his brother in the dark. Ben’s lips moved but a different voice came from his mouth. A whisper like the dry rustle of wheat fields and as scratchy as winter bramble. Then it was Ben’s voice, clearly saying, “I will, I will.” Then the whisper again. Alaster wondered if his brother was dreaming of talking to someone.
His brother let out a short burst of laughter with an even meaner edge than the laugh he’d given earlier. Alaster settled back onto his little slice of mattress and clutched himself. He did not sleep even after Benjamin went silent and his breaths came and went at the slow, steady pace of dreams.
But drowsiness stole upon him at some point. He woke with the bed to himself again and a feeling like he’d been the one dreaming. Ben was still at the market with Father. There’d been no midnight return, no news of illness.
Alaster tossed the blankets off him and changed clothes before leaving his room. He heard his mother’s faint voice calling for him.
Entering his parents’ bedroom, he found her in bed, still dressed in her gown. She lifted her arms as he rushed to her.
“Sick,” she whispered.
So last night was not a dream.
“Could you have what Father has? Maybe Benjamin—”
“He took . . . took . . .”
Alaster leaned closer. “Took what, Mother? Where did he go?”
“Huntley . . . William . . .”
She rose an inch toward him, beseeching with a fervor that lasted seconds before she collapsed back onto the bed and turned her face to the wall. Alaster saw sweat pooling at the base of her throat. He drew back and his heels struck William’s crib. He turned and gasped at the empty box.
“Benjamin took William?”
Alaster thought he understood. Father sent Benjamin back to avoid being sick, but somehow Mother became ill too. Now Mother wanted them all to go to the Huntley farm. But why would Ben have left without him?
She tried to speak but her voice didn’t reach a whisper. The sound of her struggle made his chest hurt. He went to Father’s desk and took out a piece of paper and a pencil.
“Write out what I should do and I’ll do it.”
Mother’s eyes shifted to the pencil and paper and she began to cry. She made a pushing motion, shooing him away. He felt certain staying here brought her pain, and he took off running without another thought. His feet slapped at the single dirt path leading to the main road. Once there, Alaster turned left. Not the direction of the neighbor farm families like the Huntleys and the Mastersons.
He went on without a conscious thought until he arrived at Ms. Sibley’s little cottage.
No smoke came from her chimney, but Alaster heard sounds from within. He knocked on the door. “Ms. Sibley, it’s Alaster. Can you come and see my mother? She’s sick.”
A sound like many mouths stifling laughter came from the other side. Alaster stepped back. He felt the sunlight’s gathering heat on his narrow shoulders. It wasn’t strong enough to thaw the ice creeping up his spine.
“Child, why are you here?”
He spun around to find Ms. Sibley standing there, wrapped in layers of warm garments. She must have started the day early, venturing forth when the temperature was far less comfortable. She carried an open basket in her left hand, overflowing with mushrooms and roots and sticks and fallen leaves, as if she’d collected according to random fancy. But the pumpkin cradled in the nook of her right arm drew most of his attention. He’d never seen one so perfect, its unblemished orange skin blazing in the daylight.
Start here to finish where you left off reading Many Carvings in Issue 094
Ms. Sibley came closer. “Alaster, I see, and not long out of bed from the looks of it. What’s wrong?”
He fought to draw his attention off the pumpkin. “Mother—she’s sick. Father too. At the market.”
“How do you know about the market?”
Alaster explained about Ben’s return and the letter Father wrote.
“I know,” Ms. Sibley said, moving toward the door. “Many doctors have been summoned, and I’ve heard there are road signs posted now warning travelers away. I fear it is plague.”
He gasped. “Mother and Father have the plague!”
“Don’t fret, Alaster. After all, Fall is upon us, and that’s the season for many maladies.”
“Will you come?”
“Yes. I have business at the Whitmore farm anyway. Mrs. Whitmore’s baby is due next week, but I have a feeling it will happen today. I always have a sense about these things, and I’ve only been wrong once. My error stands before me.”
She placed the basket and the pumpkin down at her door. Its orange skin seemed to brighten and deepen by the moment. Alaster stared at it until Ms. Sibley cleared her throat. “Does something vex you, child?”
“Where did that pumpkin come from?”
“My patch, of course.”
He looked around. She had farmed only the most modest plot of ground, enough to sustain herself. There was certainly no pumpkin field.
They started walking back the way he’d come. “So why are you here and not Benjamin?”
“He was gone when I woke up. He took William and I guess went to Mr. Huntley’s place.”
“I’m sure he was rushing to please Mother.”
Ms. Sibley’s pace quickened and Alaster found he had to run a bit to match it.
“How are things between you and Benjamin since little William came along?”
“Benjamin isn’t less mean.”
She laughed. “No, I daresay not. But is there jealousy? Do you fight for the child’s affections?”
“He’s only a few weeks old. He doesn’t know us.”
“For the last sixteen years, I have been the first to greet the children of this village—except for you, of course. A newborn’s eyes are so tired, like they already understand the miseries in store for them. The wisdom of infants surpasses all of us.”Ms. Sibley’s pace grew even faster, so that she seemed to glide over the ground. Alaster did not see how her old legs carried her like this and had to run to keep up.
They reached Alaster’s home and he started for the door, but Ms. Sibley seized his shoulder. “No. Your mother sent you away to protect you. Honor that wish. I’ll go in alone.”
A piece of paper on the floor caught his attention. He bent to pick it up as Ms. Sibley went past him, heading toward his parents’ bedroom.
Alaster felt certain he held the note Ben read to Mother last night, but as he turned it over he found only gibberish. Why would Father write this? And how could Ben have read it like it made sense?
Ms. Sibley’s footsteps drew his attention. She wasn’t gliding now.
“Alaster,” she said.
“How is Mother?”
“Sleeping deeply—and cool to the touch. We should let her rest.”
“But I brought you here to help!”
“Sleep is often the best doctor of all.”
He cast a longing glance toward the bedroom door. As he did, Ms. Sibley pinched the paper between her thumb and forefinger.
“What is this, Alaster?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I don’t know. Something Benjamin had.”
“May I see it?”
He let go of the paper with more reluctance than he could explain to himself. It felt like surrendering a secret. Ms. Sibley’s eyebrows rose.
“I don’t understand. It’s just letters and symbols,” Alaster said. “But Ben said Father wrote it and he read from it. It said there was a sickness in the market and that’s why Ben came back with Cameron Huntley.”
“Cameron,” Ms. Sibley said, clasping her hands together. “How well I remember delivering him. My first, I think. I knew he’d be a sharp lad. His mother bled like she’d given birth to a razor.”
Alaster just stared as Ms. Sibley walked past him to the door. “Come along,” she said like an afterthought. “I will take you to the Huntley farm where you can join your brothers. Then I’ll continue on to the Whitmore home. That baby is coming within the next ninety minutes. I feel it in my marrow, and I don’t want to miss the birth of a second child.”
The promise of seeing Ben coaxed Alaster to go with her. Their walk took only twenty minutes at the old woman’s aggressive pace, with Alaster’s side aching as he worked to keep up. Only the sight of the farmhouse gave him a second wind. He dashed ahead of Ms. Sibley, calling Ben’s name, certain it was his brother coming around the corner. He stopped cold, realizing it was Cameron. Stocky, a year older than Ben and a little larger, Cameron had always seemed a friendly giant. Alaster remembered being much younger and begging rides on his back. Cameron never refused him.
“Stay back,” he said now, and Alaster stopped.
“There’s sickness here. My ma is sick.”
“Is that so?” Ms. Sibley said, stepping to join them.
“Mine is too,” Alaster said. “She sent Ben and William here to stay with you. She told me to go, too.”
“They’re not here.”
“Where are they, Cameron?” Ms. Sibley said.
“Ma thought it best they didn’t stay so they kept on going.”
Alaster spun towards Ms. Sibley and bit his lower lip as a tremble overtook him. But the old woman kept her attention on Cameron.
“May I see your mother?”
He nodded. Ms. Sibley told Alaster to stay outside. He hugged himself and waited—but not for long. Ms. Sibley returned looking very pleased.
“Cameron’s mother is sleeping as well, and likewise cool to the touch.”
She started back toward the road.
“But what about my brothers?”
“Likely they too went on to the Whitmore house. It would be the next practical place. Might as well continue with me.”
Alaster looked back in the direction of his home. How nice to be there when Mother woke up feeling better. But how long would that be? Imagining a wait of hours, alone and lonely proved foul water for seeds of hope. It’d be much better to find Ben and return together.
They set out for the Whitmore residence, a mile south of the Huntley farm. Ms. Sibley did not hurry now. Perhaps she knew time was on her side.
“Have you given much thought to your future, Alaster?”
No one had ever asked him such a question, and his immediate thoughts embarrassed him with their frivolity. He’d imagined himself a pirate, a soldier, or an adventurer. So many beanstalks climbed, so many giants bested. But he knew these weren’t answers to an adult’s question.
“I’ll be a farmer, like my father.”
He frowned, knowing only one other profession. Old Reverend Peterson’s face flashed through his memory.
“Maybe a preacher?”
Ms. Sibley grunted. “Stay with farming.”
Her tone confused him. Both his parents considered Reverend Peterson to be an important man, though Alaster had never felt much comfort in the man’s craggy features. Perhaps he was not so prominent after all. Wouldn’t Father have sent Ben straight to him? Wouldn’t Mother have sent her boys to seek his help first?
They reached the Whitmore home. Ms. Sibley did not bother knocking before opening the front door.
“As I suspected,” she said with clear delight.
He looked around Ms. Sibley and saw Mrs. Whitmore on the living room floor, undressed in a way that made him blush and turn his head, though he lost to the temptation to give her several quick, fascinated glances. Mother had been concerned for her. He remembered her saying so last week. “I worried that William might delay until your father had gone to the market. But I have two strong boys to help. Mary has no one. At least she’s young and very healthy.”
She didn’t look so now. Her body rippled with strain.
“How did you know?” she said through moans and gritted teeth.
“Just a sense of the season.”
“I thought I was going to have to bear this alone. With Adam at market—”
“Is he sick, too?” Alaster said.
Mrs. Whitmore seemed to become aware of his presence for the first time and tried to work a blanket over herself. Ms. Sibley soothed her.
“The child is assisting me. I take it his brothers are not here?”
“Brothers? What? No—no one. Sick? What does he mean? What—”
A sudden scream overtook her as her body convulsed. For all Ms. Sibley’s talk of assistance, Alaster found she needed none. Her hands slid along the young woman’s thighs as she settled into a position that blocked much of Alaster’s view. His stare alternated between the floor and Ms. Sibley’s back. His heart beat very fast, almost like he had two in his chest. As Mrs. Whitmore’s screams became piercing, as her voice bled into so many frantic pleas and prayers, Alaster found his hands clenching. Something was wrong. Something had to be. He’d not been allowed in the room when Mother gave birth to William, but he’d listened and there wasn’t nearly this much agony. Ms. Sibley liked telling Alaster he was too eager for the world, hence his early arrival. Could a person be the opposite? Could a baby be reluctant to breathe the air? Could it be afraid or perhaps think the time, the moment, not right?
He stepped closer and to the right. The baby was halfway out, its head like a slick, shiny gourd in Ms. Sibley’s hands. The rest of the body belonged to a mysterious place Alaster could not understand. He watched Mrs. Whitmore writhe as the baby kept coming. A terrifying, fleshy string was attached to the infant’s stomach, and as the feet came through the cord brought with it a purple mass that reminded Alaster of calf’s liver sewn up by a drenched skein of yellow and red yarn. He pointed at the deformity, thinking it must be some dead twin.
“It is the cord, and the rest is called afterbirth. It is nature’s way. Now go to the well and bring a pitcher of water.”
He left but he saw the cord in his imagination. He lifted his shirt and looked at his belly button. Had there once been a cord there? Had there been one on William? The questions distracted him so much he spilled most of the water on the way back and had to refill the pail.
When he returned, Ms. Sibley began cleaning the baby and Mrs. Whitmore, whose eyes were shut in obvious exhaustion.
“Alaster, go to the kitchen and bring a knife.”
“To cut the child free of its cord, of course.”
He left and came back with the only thing he could find, a heavy butcher’s knife. It seemed light enough in Ms. Sibley’s grasp, though. She smiled at the blade, then brought it down on the cord. Alaster winced, convinced the baby would scream. But it seemed to feel no pain of separation. Ms. Sibley wrapped fresh linen around it and put the child into its mother’s arms. Mrs. Whitmore offered the faintest of smiles.
“Adam will be so pleased. He thought he might be too old to become a father.”
Ms. Sibley only turned to the window and said, “The day has lapsed more than I realized.”
“I’m very cold just now,” Mrs. Whitmore said.
“Alaster, start a fire.”
He did, bringing wood from a pile just outside the door. As the blaze caught, he turned to see Ms. Sibley gathering the afterbirth and the cord into the bucket.
“I will dispose of these for you.”
“Thank you for everything,” Mrs. Whitmore said. “But do you have to go already? I am very tired and worried. What will I do if something goes wrong tonight? Without Adam here . . .”
“I cannot stay, unfortunately. But Alaster can.”
He flinched. “I can’t. I have to find my brothers. I have to—”
“You need to stay where you can be both safe and of use. Your parents would want this. Should Mrs. Whitmore need anything, you’ll be able to help.”
“I would feel much better about it,” Mrs. Whitmore said.
He looked between the two women. His mother would have him stay here and be of use. But where were Ben and William?
He turned toward the door—
“Please,” Mrs. Whitmore said.
—and pivoted back.
“Good lad,” Ms. Sibley said, patting his head. “I’ll go now. Come and find me should anything go wrong here, though I’m sure all will be well.”
“Tell Benjamin where I’m at if you see him. And will you stop in and check on Mother on your way back?”
“Yes to both, Alaster. Such a good, brave boy you are. It would have made me so proud to say I helped bring courage such as yours into the world.”
He beamed at her and was still beaming as he watched her leave, full pail in hand. As soon as she disappeared, Mrs. Whitmore called for him.
“The fire needs more fuel.”
Then she needed more water.
“Alaster, will you help me sit better in this chair? Can you bring a pillow for my back? Alaster, fetch my quilt from the bedroom. Can you see if the chickens look like they’ve eaten today? And the pigs?”
The evening found him exhausted.
He sat by the hearth, clutching his knees against his chest as he stared at the fire. How were his father and Cameron’s father and Mr. Whitmore? Was Mother still cool to the touch? Was she awake? What if she needed more water, more fuel for the fire and a pillow for her back and a quilt for her lap?
“Mrs. Whitmore, I think I should go. Just to check on my mother. I can come straight back.”
She didn’t answer. Alaster rose and found her asleep with the baby cradled at her breast. The baby’s eyes were closed, its mouth slightly open. Neither would realize he’d left.
He tiptoed to the door.
“Womb to earth, and earth to womb, I bind thee to new skin and new sires.”
He turned and took a cautious step toward the mother and child. “Ms. Sibley?”
The words continued in her voice. Alaster peered through the dark and listened.
“Soon your true heart beats within another chest.”
He crept closer and let his sight confirm what his ears told him.
Ms. Sibley’s voice came from the baby’s tiny mouth.
“And you’ll receive my milk through a foreign breast.”
A sharp, familiar laugh came from the sleeping baby. Alaster turned and ran through the cold night. He passed the Huntley house, which was entirely dark and cold, and finally came flailing toward his house. He collapsed against the door, wheezing and gasping. His fingers failed on the latch several times before he fell through and crumpled on the floor.
After a minute, his lungs began reclaiming air. Alaster got to his hands and knees. “Mother,” he whispered, crawling forth. By the time he reached her bedroom, he could get to his feet. He stepped through and saw her in the dark. It did not seem like she’d moved since the morning.
He reached her bedside.
Alaster gripped the edge of the mattress to steady himself. Then he leaned forward and touched her face.
He kept his hand against her cheek determined to melt away the ice he found there. Ms. Sibley had called her cool to the touch. God, for a fever now! Her stiff fingers clutched nothing but time, and time had escaped her grip. Alaster grabbed her shoulders and shook her and wept. “Wake up, Mother. William’s here. I’ve got William. And Father’s here. Mother! Father says you have to wake up!”
There was no mad flight from the house, only a dazed stagger as he retraced the morning path that took him to Ms. Sibley cottage. As he neared, the sound of voices singing gave him pause. They belonged to children and the sound echoed from the forest behind the house.
No one stood at the front, though light showed in every window. He snuck up to the nearest one and immediately clapped both hands over his mouth to stifle a gasp.
The window looked in upon a cramped kitchen. A black stove blazed in the corner and Alaster felt its heat on the glass. Several knives of different sizes and shapes lay upon the table. Mrs. Whitmore’s pail and the pumpkin he’d seen this morning were there too. The gourd’s waxy skin caught the firelight and made it seem like a ball of flame.
Ms. Sibley entered. Alaster’s eyes widened at her appearance. She wore no clothes, and her naked body seemed split in two, one half younger than her years, the other half far older. The youthful breast, firm and round like a pumpkin, caused a stirring in him. But just as quickly the ancient breast soured the feeling like milk left out to curdle.
She held the cord from Mrs. Whitmore’s baby stretched between her hands and spoke nonsensical words to it. As she began to writhe, Ms. Sibley placed one end to her own stomach as she touched the other end to the pumpkin.
The fire in the stove flared and suddenly the cord came alive like a wriggling snake and held its attachments on its own. Now Ms. Sibley stepped forward and took up the longest of the knives. Brandishing it in both hands, she drove the blade into the pumpkin and sawed until she could pull the top off like a hat. Setting the piece aside, she dipped her fingers into the gourd, scooping the wet innards of seeds and guts into a mushy pile. She worked fast, still chanting, a sound like a flock of black birds cawing in a mown field. Once the gourd was hollow, she reached into the pail and took up the purple afterbirth, cavorting it between her fingers like a baker with dough. After several squeezes, she crammed the fleshy mass into the pumpkin.
As soon as she finished, the cord connecting them burned like a wick. Ms. Sibley showed no alarm. With a single sweep of her hands, the fire rose up and entered the pumpkin. Alaster saw a glow rise out of it, a light that ceased only when Ms. Sibley put the pumpkin’s cap back into place.
She took up another knife.
Alaster’s fascinated horror kept him in place. He did not hear the noise behind him until it was too late. Fingers seized his shoulders and tore him away from the window. He wilted under the grip and whimpered until he saw Ben staring down at him. But it was Cameron Huntley who’d seized him. Ben’s arms were occupied with a baby. Alaster blinked, certain it must be William. But the child was much smaller.
Mrs. Whitmore’s newborn.
Ms. Sibley came out the door. “Trouble, my children?”
“Yes, Mother,” Benjamin said.
“She isn’t Mother! What’s the matter with you, Ben?”
Ms. Sibley now stood before Alaster, who averted his eyes with a fierce turn of the head. She pinched his chin and forced him to lock gazes.
“Benjamin is no longer your brother, Alaster. Like the other children, he has answered to the call of his true mother. Long have I waited to bring my sons and daughters into my arms, and then into the arms of their Father.”
She had Cameron bring him into the kitchen. Alaster kicked against him to no avail, stopping only when Ms. Sibley picked up the knife again.
“Place the baby on the table, Benjamin.”
“No,” Alaster whispered, frozen inside at the sight of the helpless baby surrounded by so many blades. Ms. Sibley must have guessed his anxiety and laughed. “What concerns you? Do you see scars upon my children’s faces?”
She put the pumpkin beside the infant, took up the knife and brought its tip against the shell. Another chant came from Ms. Sibley’s lips. The knife’s tip glowed with a brilliant silver light as she stroked it across the pumpkin like a painter. Several minutes passed, and when she finished the chanting also ceased. Alaster saw a perfect duplication of the newborn’s face carved into the gourd. Its features blazed with orange light.
“Now he too is mine—like the others. Like everyone but you, so quick to come into the world. Tell me, Alaster: are you equally as eager to leave it?”
He craned his neck toward Ben. “Mother’s dead, Ben. Do you hear me?”
“Our real mother!” He turned to Ms. Sibley. “You’re a witch! Did you kill her?”
“All of them,” she said.
Ms. Sibley looked piteously upon him. “Poor Alaster, of all the children born in the village since I came, you alone are not mine. Which means you alone are now an orphan.”
“Father’s not dead!”
“Yes, he is,” Ben said without emotion. “I killed him.”
“As I killed mine,” Cameron said.
“As all the young men who accompanied their fathers to the market did,” Ms. Sibley said. “It was my wish. And my children follow my wishes.”
She motioned Benjamin forward and he came to suckle briefly from her decrepit left breast.
“May Alaster have some too, Mother?” he said, pulling back.
“My milk is for my children alone. Take the baby to the nursery and place it next to William. Both will want a feeding soon.”
Alaster watched his brother obey, then glanced at the pumpkin.
“You did the same thing to Will?”
“Yes,” Ms. Sibley said. “Would you like to see? Earlier you admired that pumpkin very much. But I will show you something far more wondrous. A last glance at the world before your eyes close forever to it. Bring him, Cameron.”
Cameron forced Alaster forward. They left the cottage and started into the woods. Ms. Sibley carried the infant’s gourd under her arm. The voices of other children rose again in their strange hymns, growing stronger as they penetrated the dense forest. From the sound, it might really be every boy and girl he knew. Dozens and dozens.
They came to a glade filled with a vast patch. There must have been several hundred gourds scattered across the ground, all attached to their vines. A frost had come over most of them, a touch of gray on the otherwise vibrant orange shells. Ms. Sibley led them into the patch, stepping around the orbs. Many of the pumpkins looked entirely normal, but here and there Alaster found one with carved features glowing in the dark. He recognized so many faces.
Then he saw Ben’s pumpkin, perfectly capturing his face as it was now.
Alaster shook his head and looked away.
“Benjamin wasn’t a day old when that carving was done,” Ms. Sibley said.
“How can that be? How do you do it?”
“Alaster, don’t assume I’m the carver just because I hold the knife. My Husband works through me, and his art is so much more subtle and skillful than mine.”
“Your husband?” Alaster’s voice barely registered.
“I’m sure you can make a guess, good Christian lad. Unfortunately another in the village was starting to make a guess as well. Poor Reverend Peterson, muttering his suspicions out loud. My hand was forced, and the plan had to begin earlier than desirable. I would have preferred an army of adults. But obedient children will do.”
Alaster’s throat went dry. He just hung his head and watched Ms. Sibley kneel with the freshly carved pumpkin in both hands. She brought the stem against one of the many vines and spoke unrecognizable words. Another flash of light and then the pumpkin became part of the patch.
“Now he is my child forever.”
Alaster began to sob. “I want . . . I want to see William’s.”
“You needn’t look far,” she said, gesturing to a pumpkin only a few feet from Ben’s. “No point separating blood brothers, is there? Yours would have been here as well.”
She knelt and held up a pumpkin with his baby brother’s face cut into it. She lifted it as high as the vine would let her, almost chest level.
“He can’t belong to you . . . not William . . .”
“His heart is mine.”
Ms. Sibley gave him a smile of gleeful sympathy. Then she went back to Benjamin’s pumpkin and cupped it in her hands. “Bring a knife,” she said.
Minutes later, Ben appeared, blade in hand. Moonlight cut itself on the edge.
Ms. Sibley’s fingers closed around the handle. She plunged the knife into the top of William’s pumpkin, and a sickly, wet sound commenced as she sawed. Alaster’s scream was stifled by Cameron’s large hand smothering his mouth. Nothing stopped Ms. Sibley’s knife. She tossed the cap aside, drove the knife into the soil with evident satisfaction, and reached within the gourd.
“Mine, all mine,” she cooed, lifting a small beating, human heart. Blood ran down her boney white forearms like ink as she held the heart above her head. She stood and spun around, gnashing her teeth at the pumpkins all around her. “All of you are mine! All of you are His! Rejoice in your Father!”
The children of the village, boys and girls of all ages, began to leave the dense forest and enter the glade. They did not sing now. They stood in solemn expectation, heads bowed just a little in submission.
Alaster’s head bowed too as bitter resignation filled him. Through tears he saw Benjamin’s pumpkin almost at his feet. Part of him wanted to kick in the face. The flash of violence shocked him. Why blame Ben? He’d been under the witch’s command since birth, unaware of his dire state until the witch brought her spell to fruition. What did she want? The town? Power? What would she do to the children if not send them forth to spread her vile plans to other villages?
He stomped his foot in powerless frustration, his sole coming down on the vine that connected Benjamin’s pumpkin to the patch. As he did, Ben gave the faintest grunt. Alaster looked over and saw a strain on his face, a brief clarity in his eyes. No one else seemed to notice, and his eyes clouded back to submission a moment later.
Alaster stomped again. This time he pressed his foot against the vine as hard as he could and twisted his ankle.
Benjamin blinked. Then he looked around.
Then they made eye contact.
Alaster would have done anything to bear down on the vine with all his weight. Cameron’s grip kept him from that. He twisted his foot again. His movements now caught the witch’s attention. She seemed startled, unsure.
Benjamin shouted. He launched forward and seized the knife from the ground in one move, then stabbed it into Ms. Sibley’s ribcage. She howled like a wolf and dropped William’s pumpkin as she staggered. A frantic wave of her hands brought the other children to her defense. Cameron threw Alaster aside and headed toward Ben, who started retreating. Alaster began tearing at the vines, even biting them as he tried to break the pumpkins free. Each separation freed a corresponding boy or girl.
Ben was gaining allies.
The witch came at Alaster now, bounding across the patch, blood dark as lamp oil flowing from the stab wound. Alaster scrambled, knowing he had to find Cameron’s pumpkin. He was the oldest boy and the only one stronger than Ben.
He saw Cameron’s carved face glowing like fire and clawed his way toward it, wrapping both arms around the pumpkin, shrieking as he twisted all his weight against the vine. Cameron froze in the distance but it wasn’t enough. Alaster saw the witch’s dark shadow falling over him.
Then he heard Ben shout his name. Alaster and the witch both looked to see him charging across the patch, slashing as he went. The witch chanted and the pumpkins began to explode around his feet like cannon bursts. Ben screamed, losing his balance. He threw the knife as he went down. The blade went over the witch’s head and struck the ground a few feet from Alaster’s right hand.
He seized it and cleaved the knife into Cameron’s vine.
The pumpkin fell heavily to the ground, and Cameron staggered, squinting like someone waking from a long dream. He moved toward the witch, who now straddled Benjamin, both hands around his throat. Alaster rose to attack.
“No!” Cameron said. “Cut the vines! All the vines!”
Alaster worked with the knife, moving faster than he thought possible. He slashed everywhere, at every pumpkin both enchanted and ordinary. More children became free by the second. Cameron meanwhile had knocked the witch away from Benjamin and the two older boys stood shoulder to shoulder against her.
The freed children gathered at their backs.
“You’ll all die,” she said. “Without your connection to the patch, the hearts within will wither soon. Poor children. Come back to your mother and Father.”
“We’d rather die,” Ben said, “and be with our real parents.”
The children fell upon her.
Read Josh’s last Birdy piece, The Disciple of Many Faces, here.
Check out Sean and Josh’s last collaborative fiction piece, Bright Rain, here, or head to our Explore section to read more stories by them.