A shrill scream pierced his dream, cutting through its ethereal fabric, yanking him awake. His eyes snapped open, taking in the darkness of the room. The night was ripe and deep, sprayed with silvery dust of moonlight outlining the chair, the covers on the bed with the form of his legs beneath, and the wardrobe standing on guard to the side of the door. Another scream pushed Damon to sit up, hugging himself involuntarily as the liquid cold streamed through his insides, frosting as it went. The crescent moon hung listlessly over the black tree tops, not a single cloud in the sky to cover its stare. He shivered, afraid to move or breathe.
His memory thrust him back eight months, and he saw the servants hurrying around, all pale as one, and his mother’s unnaturally white face on the pillow, blood on her neck seeming black in the poor light of fireplace and candles; his father’s face radiating more anger than fright Damon felt and expected to see. “Go to your room!” he yelled, but Damon’s feet grew into the floor, his eyes glued to his mother’s motionless face. Giuseppe, out of patience, grabbed him painfully by the arm and hauled a few feet away from the door, his eyes blazing with fury. “What did I say? Go to your room or I shall have you flogged in the yard for everyone to see!” He left his son alone in the corridor where Damon registered shreds of the servants’ conversing while they darted in and out of the mother’s room, carrying water and towels. “…bad fortune… must have been a bobcat… rabid animals… lost too much blood…” Damon didn’t remember how he got to his room. His heart thrashed against the inside of his chest like a mallet, his head throbbed. He was never more afraid in all seven years of his life. The thought of his mother dying almost sent his soul out of his body. He didn’t know how to live without her. He never thought he could.
Another scream made him blink, coming back from the dreadful February night to the present here and now. He breathed in short gasps, trembling. His mother screamed in her room down the corridor, and he could hear the low buzz of other voices, commanding something he couldn’t make out. It was time – he remembered suddenly, but it didn’t calm him down a bit. He needed to see her, to make sure she was all right. She couldn’t be all right screaming like that. She screamed again, making him cower inwardly, shivering. He felt unbidden tears of fear stinging the back of his eyes.
Unable to sit and do nothing, he ran out of his room and down the hall where his father stopped him, his arms folded, his eyes gaining angry gleam. “Go back to your room, it is fine.”
“What is happening?”
“The child is coming. It is a joyful moment for our family.”
He looked nowhere near joyful, and it scared Damon more. He trembled with both fear and cold, his bare feet freezing. “Is she going to be all right?”
“She should. The doctor is with her. Now go back and wait there. You cannot see her now.”
The vision from the past surfaced in Damon’s mind’s eye: her face as pallid as the pillow’s case, the dark trickles of blood on her neck and the lace of her travelling coat. “Push, mistress, push,” Hattie, his wet-nurse, encouraged. His mother moaned and said something, too quiet to hear. A low voice answered, Doctor Fells, with white hair and bushy white moustache. Sometimes Damon wondered what kept a man so ancient in his body for that long. Another scream cut through his head with a painful thrill, and he let out a sound between a gasp and sob.
“Get back to bed, Damon,” the father said, looming closer like an omen. “You will see her in the morning.”
“I want to know she is fine.”
“She will be.” Impatient, sharp tone. Nearing the need to ensure his son obeys with a hand to the back of Damon’s head.
Damon looked up at his father, meeting his eyes with a shade of dark steel lacing his own, his arms wrapped around him for some warmth as he was still trembling. “When she is, I shall go.”
Mary’s strangled scream, streaming through the buzz of Doctor Fells and Hattie’s encouraging voices, had them both start and look at the door. Giuseppe shifted, forgetting his son’s insolence for a moment. Damon gnashed his teeth not to cry. He didn’t feel his feet anymore and felt they might fail him soon enough. His fingers dug into his upper arms unwittingly, bruising the flesh. Then came a baby’s cry. Somehow, it unsettled Damon, and he turned to Giuseppe, catching a small smile on his father’s thin lips. Giuseppe looked back at him, sparks of triumph dancing in his eyes. It felt more eerie than not hearing his mother’s screams anymore. The baby cried, as though being strangled. It made Damon want to raise his hands to his ears and muffle out all the noises before they drove him out of his mind.
Doctor Fells came out first, shuffling. It was impossible to see if he was smiling or grimacing under the moustache. “It was a hard night, but they both made it,” he told Giuseppe, briefly acknowledging Damon with a nod. “She is to drink more warm fluids and stay in bed for a few days. I shall be visiting.”
“Thank you, Harold. I appreciate the late visit.”
“It is my duty.”
Finally, Betty and Lizzie came out with basins and sheets. Damon felt a sick jolt in the pit of his stomach at the sight of blood all over them. “Come in, Massa,” Betty said, curtseying, before they went on. Damon followed his father into the room.
It smelled of blood and something else, a sickly smell that made his stomach lurch. A chandelier cast dim, uneven light over the side of the bed and a part of the room. His mother half-sat in bed against a pile of pillows, her eyes closed, her face still strained with a hint of suffering, as though something still hurt. Hattie stood by the side of her bed, holding a bundle of blankets and sheets to her vast bosom. Her smile was blindingly white on the black, glossy, round face, and seemed to be floating all by itself in the dark of the room. “A boy, Massa,” she said as Giuseppe approached her and peered at the baby.
Mary made an effort to open her eyes, saw Damon, and smiled. Damon’s heart fluttered with relief, and his legs went weak. She held out a hand to him, he took it and sat by her side. She looked at her husband. “Stefan. His name is Stefan.” A mere whisper, so faint it scared Damon anew. He squeezed her fingers, and her eyes returned back to him, her smile subtle and warm. “You have a brother now, Damon.”
Damon managed a meek smile, wanted to say something but didn’t find what. Mary didn’t seem to need him to. She pulled him by the hand, and he leaned in to her. Her cheek was still wet with sweat. “He is so helpless and fragile,” she whispered, her breath surprisingly hot against his ear. “Promise me you will take care of him at all times, please, promise me you will look after your little brother for me.”
A cold foreboding clutched at Damon’s heart as he pulled back a little, staring into his mother’s eyes. Orange flickers danced in them, her heart beat frantically against his own while she still embraced him. He felt the urge to hold on tighter to her, as if she was slipping away, but didn’t. She was so fragile herself he was afraid he was hurting her even now in this subtle embrace. “I promise.” She gave him a smile of warm appreciation and loosened her hold.
“Your mother needs rest, Damon,” Giuseppe said. “Go back to bed now. We shall celebrate tomorrow.”
Uneasy and weary, Damon returned to his room. Gradually he learned to recognize the bond between his heart and that little being that was his new brother, learned to see his mother in Stefan’s eyes, gestures, stroll, and to love him even more for it. But on that night of November 5th he could only feel his heart clenching for no reason, as though he sensed something ominous creeping his way. His mother’s plea sounded like a masked goodbye, and it added a whiff of despair to every other moment he had spent with her afterwards, for all the five years that was left for them to be together.
- "Giuseppe's Boys" -- part 1