The snow was ending, and the moon shone bright, full and high and clear against a sky of black crystal, with shadowy clouds gilded by a silver nimbus. They traipsed across the heavens like gypsy scarves, obscuring and revealing the cold, glittering stars so far away.
On any other night, it was a breathtaking scene, but tonight my hands gripped the cold balustrade of the balcony so tightly that if the moon itself were in them, I would have crushed it to powder.
Her cries reached me through the thick oaken doors, and her screams ripped the winter silence asunder.
They told me this might happen. I prayed that it would not, but now…
The midwives, bless their plucky souls, had been efficient in their ministrations, but now, the rest, being up to Jesika, had taken a turn for the worst.
They sent the youngest of them to tell me. “Mr. Laskin, you’d best come, sir.”
One look at her brimming eyes told me all I needed to know.
They told you…They told you! Be strong, Alexei. Be strong, and see her on her way.
I followed, biting back the sobs that threatened to burst my jaw.
They stepped back from the door like a parting black curtain, faces somber, eyes downcast and full of tears.
On the bed, my Jesika, trembling, the last of her strength fleeing, holding our twins in her thin, shaking arms, and smiling through the sweat that left her spent and sodden on ruined, reddened sheets.
The tears came, and I couldn’t see. “I see, my love. They’re beautiful, like you.”
“My crowning achievement.”
Her breathing hitched, and blood marked her lips as she coughed, reflexes making her hold the strangely silent babes tighter.
The young midwife wiped Jesika’s brow and mouth, and poured a sip of water through her lips.
“I’m leaving, Alexei.”
“They’ll be my legacy, too.”
“Yes, Jesika, and a worthy one.”
“You must name them. Take your time with that…” Her coughing racked her.
The babes began to slip from her arms, and one of the midwives took them while the other again cleaned her face.
“Your violin…” Jesika whispered.
“Get it. Play for me, Alexei. One last time.”
I bolted, retrieved it, not bothering to tune it, and ran back.
I heard the midwives crying before I got to the doorway, and stepped aside as they filed out.
The youngest who came to me still held my children.
“Mr. Laskin, her eyes…?”
“I see, child.”
“Her eyes are still open, sir. Would you…do you want me to…?”
“Place the children beside her.”
“Place the children beside her, and attend them.”
One of the midwives came back to the door. “Natalya, we must –“
I shut the door in her face. “Attend them, Natalya. Please.”
Natalya did as I requested, though she was uneasy.
“I’ll not harm you, child. I’m going to play for my family. My wife sleeps in death, and my children in life. I will play them all a lullaby.”
Natalya turned away from me as I tuned the strings, watching the children, not daring to look at Jesika’s frozen smile.
I began an improvisation, slow and in a major key, happy, but not bright.
The children opened their eyes, and looked at me with those sage stares, rapt, as if they knew what I was doing, and why. Brother and sister, bonded in life, already bereft of a greater fealty than I could give.
Natalya sat, trembling, her hands ready to catch them should they list, or cast themselves off the bed.
But they didn’t move except to blink, and gurgle, raising their little hands toward me.
And then I played for Jesika, a somber, loving dirge that was a testament to her will and strength and beauty, my fingers as sure of her song as my heart had been of her love.
The twins began to cry, as if they knew what I was doing, and why.
And when Jesika’s eyes closed, Natalya retreated to a corner of the room, her mouth open in a silent scream; her tears wouldn’t stop, and her breathing became hiccoughs. She was but a shadow, and time was lost to me as the song caught me up. In my mind, I danced with them in an open field, all of us smiling and laughing, and time was lost to me as I swooned, and fell.
“…lost them all?”
“…wife and twins, on the same night!”
“…on earth happened?”
I hear the whispers, the gossip, and I see the fear as they pass me, when they have occasion to be around me, which is rare. I rarely go out now. Soon, I won’t go out at all.
I don’t remember much, except a song; something in me remembers a song.
A lullaby, it was.
A lullaby for my family, now sleeping all together in the ground.
I kneel in the hard, hoary grass, and place the parchment of our wedding vows before me. Behind me, weeping angels mark the graves of my little ones, Viktor and Irina, placed by Jesika’s side.
And by the ivory light of the winter moon, I tune my violin, and play, and play, and play….