Lamenting Lullaby

The snow shower 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, traipsing 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 rail 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 it has.

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 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 home.

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.

“Alexei…see?”

The tears came, and I couldn’t see.  “I see, my love. They’re beautiful, like you.”

“My crowning achievement.”

“Yes.”

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.”

“I know.”

“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 said, her voice weakening.

“What?”

“Your violin, 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 tell me of Jesika was still standing next to the bed, holding my children, looking at me, worry and concern for my sanity and her safety plainly seen in her expression.

“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.”

“Sir?”

“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.”

She 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 a lullaby.”

She 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, but slowly, they faded from my grasp as I swooned, and fell.

********************

“…lost them all?”

“…wife and twins, on the same night!”

“…on earth happened?”

“…murder…”

“…poison…”

“…went insane…”

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.

And by the ivory light of the winter moon, I tune my violin, and play, and play, and play….

Lyra’s Harp

 

The manacles were tight, chafing my wrists, my flesh lined like dried beach mud, blood pooling on their rusted edges before making red rivulets down.
Flies still drank from the wounds, surely infecting me.
Things sloshed and grated inside where they’d broken me.
My tongue kept running over what was left of my teeth.
The guards carried me drooping between them like a prize buck.
Broken indeed.
I tried to gain my balance so I could walk and they let me go and tripped me; I fell on my face, hurting my already swollen jaw, deciding at that moment to stop struggling.
They dragged me now, pulling me up by the chain between the manacles, making me pump my legs to get my feet under me, but they pulled too fast.
The cool marble slithered against my kneecaps as the draft in the high-ceilinged hall chilled my sweat.
I shivered.
“Where are you taking me?” I slurred, my voice little more than a raspy, gravelly whisper.
They didn’t answer.

*************
Decked in opulent gold and white, the Hall was festive in appearance, full of light and color.
After the drear of the dungeon it hurt my eyes, so I averted them.
The sound of laughter mocked even as the guests moved away from the stench and appearance of me, lest the vermin that burrowed into my rags leap onto new, expensive sources of nourishment.
On the raised dais was Lyra, the royal harpist, with skin of honey wrapped in cloth of gold, with a single thick, raven plait of hair adorning her left shoulder like an ebony laurel.
A delicate, intricate armband of gold and rubies rested on her bicep, the jewels refracting the candlelight into sanguine embers.
Her slender arms seemed to ripple the very air itself as she played the large, gleaming harp crafted specially for her skill.
I knew not the song, but its melody was high and clear, sweet and haunting.
I knew not if I cried through swollen eyes, knew not if her beauty inspired the song, or the song enhanced her beauty.
A guard’s rough fingers burrowed into the lice-laden scruff on my chin and tugged my head down.
“Avert your eyes, you craven cur. She is not for such as you.”
I tried to speak. “We were—“
A fist hammered my right cheek and another warm streamer of blood dribbled down my lips to my chin to spatter the immaculate tile beneath me.
I dimly saw her react, infinitesimal though it was; a small hitch of breath, a quick sideways glance of alarm, covered as quickly as it came.
I didn’t know if anyone saw it other than me, but for me it was water in the desert.
Betrothed…we were betrothed.

************
2)

The king’s priest held up a staying hand, and they hit me no more.
The chief councilor standing on the king’s right smirked as the guard grabbed my hair and made me look up.
“That is enough,” the priest said.
Lyra had ceased playing, but would not look at me; I couldn’t blame her, though I wanted her to more than anything.
The guests were watching too, curious, having no context of what came before this bizarre turn of events.
I was bearing the scrutiny of the entire hall in a defeated state not knowing, or caring, what happened to me now.
Finally the king spoke. “It is my understanding the two of you were to be wed? Is that right?”
I dared not speak; somehow I found the strength to nod though a shooting pain seemed to set my head on fire. I knew brains could swell from beatings. I wondered if that happened to me. I had some time to figure that if Lyra wasn’t looking at me, it was more than she could bear.
I am grotesque.
“Is that something you still desire?”
“Yes, your Majesty.” It took more effort than it should have just to speak; my broken teeth were mangling my words.
“Why? You do know I had your harpist in my bed?”
I hadn’t known, and I guess I showed it.
Lyra…she had no choice. He made her do it.
“She was not a willing participant, but eventually she relented. At least physically. Not that it mattered.”
He leaned forward on his throne, for some reason studying my broken face intently.
“Do you still want her now?”
If I said no he would kill her without a second thought, and I couldn’t live with that more than the fact that he’d dishonored her.
“With all my heart.”
He sat back, smiling. “Fool.”
He said something in the priest’s ear, and I saw his brows arch and his eyes widen.
“Are you sure, majesty?”
“Have you known me to ask you anything twice?”
The priest swallowed, shook his head, and turned to the guards still holding me up by the manacles.
“Bring him.”
Lyra’s face was dawning with a realization that I was still too stunned to see.
The king turned toward her. “To me, harpist.”
Her eyes downcast, she stood, smoothed her skirts and approached the throne, doing obeisance.
“Look upon him.”
Fighting everything in her telling her not to, she did, her eyes glimmering.
The king steepled his fingers under his chin. “She loves you, yet. I wanted to see if she would hesitate, or shut her eyes, or look away. As battered and bloody as you are, she yet looks upon you.”
It was as if the hall had emptied and a storm cloud gathered inside.
He turned to the priest. “Marry them.”
Murmurs of shocked surprise and even some protest rippled outward among the guests.
This was not seemly, by any standards, for a king to do, but the sycophants among them applauded what they thought to be his mercy and generosity.
The priest opened his mouth to protest.
“MARRY THEM!” The king’s long knife was in his hand; anything further would spill the priest’s own blood.
What smattering of applause there’d been came to a dead stop.
The priest flinched back, and his shoulders drooped as he reached for Lyra’s hand.
Squaring her own shoulders, knowing now her fate was sealed to mine, she took it as the guards once again dragged me by the chains, now coated with flesh as well as blood, before the throne. They grunted with effort now as my weight had borne them down but they’d not been told to let me stand.
The priest babbled, droned, incanted.
I heard nothing, saw nothing, and somewhere in the midst of my shame, Lyra’s gentle, calloused hand touched my swollen cheek.
I smelled the sandalwood on her palm, and saw the deep rich red of her painted nails.
In my periphery I saw her profile, head up, eyes front, soldiering for both of us through the humiliation that marked our union. She would not bend before this king, nor break before this court.
“You may kiss the bride.”
The guards looked to the king, who nodded.
They helped me gain my feet, balance me, and the priest put Lyra’s hands in the middle of my flattened palm and broken fingers.
He nodded at me once, then stepped out of the way.
Lyra wiped my mouth with her sleeve, and gave me a light but lingering kiss on the lips.
The king roared at them in rage to execute me, even as my heart seemed transported, even as they snatched me away and dragged me off to butcher me.
Lyra had thought to heal me, and would now be a widow on her wedding day.
Her screaming for them to stop and pleading with the king for mercy he would not grant were the last notes I heard from her in this world.