by Kelly Sandoval
Kelly Sandoval‘s fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Shimmer, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Because she hates free time, she edits the online short fiction magazine Liminal Stories with Shannon Peavey. She lives in Seattle, where the weather is always happy to make staying in and writing seem like a good idea. Her family includes a patient husband, a demanding cat, and an anarchist tortoise. You can find her online at kellysandovalfiction.com.
SHE IS A GOOD MOTHER.
She lines her newborn’s crib with iron bars and nails horseshoes above every door in the cottage. Then the windows. And, when she still can’t sleep, she hangs one directly above the crib, so it spins and twists and warns.
“Fairies, Katherine?” Stephen asks. “Where’s this fancy come from?”
She holds her daughter to her breast, looks down into her piercing blue eyes. The color of any babe’s eyes.
It means nothing. Nothing at all.
They name the girl Elizabeth. Stephen’s choice. Katherine sings the name like a lullaby as she nurses. It’s a name like a fleet of warships, like virtue unquestioned. There can be nothing fey about an Elizabeth.
Elizabeth screams through her christening. Every baby does.
“Good lungs,” the priest says.
“She’s usually a quiet thing.” Stephen smiles, like it’s nothing.
It is nothing.
“She just doesn’t like being wet, is all,” Katherine snaps, drying Elizabeth’s face with her sleeve.
They walk home in silence. A sudden, aching quiet.
“Are you well, Katherine?” Stephen asks. “I know a baby changes a woman, but—”
Katherine can’t look at him. She doesn’t need to. She knows his serious face, his kind brown eyes. Stephen is a good man. They’ve always gotten on more than passing well. Impulsively, she squeezes his hand. “Oh, Stephen. Forgive me.”
“No need for forgiveness,” he says. “You’re a good mother. And a good wife.”
She is a good wife.
She keeps their cottage clean, spins while Elizabeth sleeps, and wears only somber colors. She doesn’t go out on her own. She doesn’t speak to strangers. She doesn’t meet men with skin like fresh snow and smiles like forever. She wouldn’t lie with such a man while her husband was away. She can’t remember how he tasted, like honey and heat.
Her daughter doesn’t have his smile.
She makes daisy chains and drapes them around Elizabeth’s neck. Ties bells to her dresses and braids them into her fine blonde hair when it’s long enough. And even with all her care, she knows they’re still watching. She finds their gifts when the moon shines full. Crowns of emerald leaves and gowns of spidersilk, just Elizabeth’s size. Katherine buries them in the garden, and ignores the way her cabbages sparkle.
Elizabeth grows. Wild and rushing as a kitten and Katherine sees so much of herself in the girl.
“Don’t wander near the forest, Elizabeth.”
“Attend to your spinning, Elizabeth.”
“Don’t talk to the cobbler’s boy, Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth, stop, stop, stop!”
Just stop. Don’t let them see you burning. They will come and name you theirs. They will take you away.
“You stifle the girl,” says Stephen. They do not talk as well or as often as they once did. Even the birth of a son, brown eyed, solid, and unquestionably Stephen’s, makes no difference.
Stephen loves both the children. He sweeps Elizabeth into his arms and swings her in the air so the bells in her hair ring, and her laughter too, is a bell, and Katherine wants to scream.
Do you not see what she is? Do you not see what I did to you?
The boys come round before Elizabeth quite reaches fourteen. Long-limbed and hungry-eyed, they prowl about just for a glance at her. When she fetches water, when she accompanies Katherine to the market, when she takes her brother outside to play, they are passing by, or delivering a message, or simply staring.
There are more of them with each passing season.
“Don’t encourage them, Elizabeth,” Katherine warns.
And Stephen says, “Well, we’ll need to pick one eventually. We can’t keep her forever.”
Elizabeth says nothing, but watches the forest with eyes more blue than a mid-summer sky, and doesn’t mind her spinning. She looks so like him now. She is a sin, made flesh. She is all the memory Katherine has left of him.
She is fifteen, and beautiful, and real. She cries herself to sleep each night, and Katherine lays awake, listening to her daughter’s spirit break.
“I’m worried about the girl,” Stephen tells her. “Do you think she’s gotten herself into trouble? One of those boys? I could—”
“It’s nothing for you to worry about,” Katherine tells him. “Girls go through such things. Let her be.”
And, as the weeks pass, Elizabeth cries less and less. She does not smile at the boys, or at anyone. Her spinning is perfect. The moon waxes and wanes and Katherine finds no gifts beneath her daughter’s window. She tells herself she’s won.
Then, while Stephen sleeps, she goes to find her girl. Elizabeth is standing by the doorway, not crying, just watching the clouds drift across the crescent moon.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” she says. “I had a dream. It woke me.”
“I know,” Elizabeth answers, in a voice as colorless as iron. “I used to dream all the time. Not anymore. Sometimes, I barely remember.”
They are giving up on her. They have hooked and tugged at Elizabeth’s heart and now they are tiring. Perhaps they’ve heard Stephen’s talk of dowry and feel it’s kindest to let go. Or perhaps they’re only fickle.
Katherine suspects the latter. But, it doesn’t matter. The result will be the same.
The light will fade from Elizabeth’s eyes. They will be only blue. She will marry the cobbler’s boy. Katherine will take the horseshoes down. She and Stephen will remember how to speak to one another.
Everything will be as it should be.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers.
Elizabeth meets her gaze in the moonlight, not understanding. “Mother, what’s wrong?”
“Old, sins,” she says. “Sit girl. Let me see your hair.”
Elizabeth’s hair, pale as moonlight on water, is held back in two modest braids. Katherine unweaves them one at a time, and the bells sing as they fall into her hands. Next, she lifts the iron cross over her daughter’s head. She stands and walks to the doorway, where the horseshoe hangs. She has to drag a stool over from the hearth to reach it. Stephen hates the things. She thinks he’ll hate their absence more. Hate her, for what she’s doing, and everything she’s done before. Still, she takes it down.
Elizabeth’s eyes are so bright, Katherine could spin by their light.
“Go, girl,” she whispers and kisses her daughter on the forehead. “Walk your dream paths.”
Elizabeth doesn’t ask questions. She’s already dreamed all the answers she needs. “Thank you,” she says, smiling at last.
Katherine watches her until she reaches the trees, until the forest glows with a brief silver light, until she can see nothing but shadows.
She is a good mother.