Edition 20: A Song For First Hours by Kirstyn McDermott
The baby monitor was silent. It wasn’t the soft ambience of a sleeping infant but rather a cold, plastic void. Wishing they’d paid extra for the model with an inbuilt camera, Hespa rolled out of bed. She didn’t bother to wake Martin; a dead battery in the transmitter was the likely culprit and there was no use both of them losing sleep over it.
Halfway down the hall, she paused, breath catching in her throat. As usual, the door to Lisel’s room stood generously ajar but from beyond it there came a faint glow, almost a shimmer in the air, like the play of summer heat on a long bitumen road.
She all but ran the rest of the way.
Bending over the crib was a thin, pale figure who straightened swiftly as Hespa lurched into the room. The slippery, shimmery light seemed to emanate from that strange frosted skin, or perhaps it was the spider-silk hair that glowed, or the robes that fell in spangled waves from shoulders narrow and sharp.
“Get away from her!” Hespa gasped, hastening over to where Lisel lay sleeping with little hands curled loose into fists.
She scooped the baby up, held her tight against her chest. She could feel her own heart pounding triple time. Her hands shook. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What were you doing?”
The thin, pale woman smiled a thin, pale smile. “Not one likely to surrender her name for the mere asking of it.” She pointed toward Lisel. “As to my purpose, I was simply kissing my daughter good night.”
“Your daughter?” Hespa followed the line of the woman’s finger.
On Lisel’s forehead there was a flash of not-quite-silver, as though left by lips painted with the tears of lonely mirrors. She rubbed at the mark. It didn’t even smudge. She rubbed harder, and harder still, until the baby awoke with an indignant squawk.
“Shh,” Hespa soothed, rocking gently. “Shh, Li-Li, shh. Mummy’s sorry.” She glared at the strange woman. “Lisel is my daughter.”
“For now.” The woman’s smile remained unwavering. “Babies aren’t even remotely interesting but, in another thirteen years, this one will be delightful. You can consider her yours until then, I suppose. Until I come back for her.”
“She will always be mine.”
“No. She won’t.”
The shimmer that surrounded the woman became a pulse, subtle and cruel. The room grew chill. And Hespa knew, in the same certain, uncomplicated way in which she loved her newborn daughter, that in thirteen years she would lose her.
“I’ll do anything,” she said. “Anything you want. Just don’t take her.”
The woman raised an eyebrow, cocked her head to the side. “Be careful, little mother. Anything might be more than you’re willing to give.”
Hespa squared her jaw. “Anything,” she repeated. In her arms, Lisel began to fuss. “Shh, Li-Li, hush now.”
In a blink, the woman stood right before them, stooping to sniff the length of Hespa’s throat. Her eyes, when she straightened, glittered like broken glass. Hespa swallowed. The baby—her baby, hers—sagged heavy in her arms.
“Your voice,” the woman said. “Give me your voice for thirteen years and your daughter shall be free at the end of it.”
“My voice?” Hespa was already shaking her head. Her diaphragm spasmed at the prospect.
“Or else continue as you are. Enjoy your daughter for all of those years—talk to her, laugh with her, sing her nursery rhymes—some parents, after all, get far less time than that. But if it’s always and forever you truly want…” Long fingers brandished an elegant crystal vial, stoppered with silver. “Here, little mother, breathe into this.”
Hespa stepped back. “It’s not fair. She’s my daughter, she needs me—please, let me speak to her at least if no one else. You can keep my voice from the rest of the world forever if only she can hear it.”
“I have no need of it forever, little mother.” The woman smiled that thin, pale smile. “But let it never be said that I am cruel. I will return your voice for one hour each year, the very first hour of your daughter’s birthday, during which you may speak to her—and only to her. I trust that’s a fair concession.”
“One hour? Couldn’t I have—”
“You mistake me for common folk, given to bartering.” The woman removed the stopper from the vial, offered it again to Hespa. “A final caveat: you may not, at any time, by any means, reveal to your daughter or to anyone else, the reason for your silence. Do that, and I shall fetch her to me right that moment.”
Reluctantly, Hespa nodded. She kissed Lisel’s head, that sweet baby smell sparking tears sharper than the eyes of the horrible creature who stood, hand on hip, waiting for her price to be paid.
“I love you, Li-Li. I love you so much.”
Then she leaned forward and emptied her lungs of all the breath she could muster.
Quickly, the woman recapped the vial and tucked it into a pouch on her belt. “Done,” she said. “I shall see you again, little mother, on your daughter’s first birthday.”
She stroked Lisel’s back, a smooth, possessive gesture that pained Hespa to witness, and then moved across the room to the wall mirror that Martin’s sister had given them. The frame was bright pink, crowded with fairies and rainbow-maned unicorns. With a shimmer and a faint pop that Hespa felt more than heard, the woman vanished into the glass.
Immediately, Lisel began to howl.
Shh, Hespa wanted to tell her, hush now, it’s over, but the words, the sounds, would not come. Instead, she closed her eyes and held her daughter as tight as she could, heedless of the tears that spilled, hot as fresh grief, down her cheeks to collect in the corners of her dry and newly barren mouth.
Over the next few months, Hespa systematically hunted down and removed all mirrors from the house. The fairies and unicorns went first, returned to her sister-in-law with a written note of apology, followed by the full-length standard in the bedroom, the doors from the medicine cabinet, and two make-up smudged circles that she prised from their cheap compact cases and threw, in pieces, into the bin.
Even the beautiful antique hand-mirror that had once belonged to Hespa’s grandmother and which Hespa had hoped to one day pass on to Lisel, she instead gave to Eleanor. Her agent of eight years had teared up and asked once again if Hespa would please reconsider seeing the vocal specialist from Germany, please, everyone said he was a miracle worker.
Think of it as a sabbatical, Hespa had written in one of the cheap spiral notepads that now infested her handbag, her coat pockets, the glovebox of her car. The world’s hardly starving for lounge singers.
Martin appeared more distressed by the banishment of the mirrors than by her missing voice, though Hespa knew this wasn’t true. The mirrors simply gave him something to yell about, a permissible channel for the confusion and dread that had pinched at his face since that first morning he’d stumbled into Lisel’s room, sleep-bleared and squinting, to see why his daughter wouldn’t stop crying.
“For godsake, Hespa. How am I supposed to shave?”
You’d look good with a beard.
“Can you at least give me a reason why?”
Trust me. Please.
Trust me. She’d written those words so often, Hespa felt like making a laminated flashcard for future reference. Also one for, I can’t. And, I’m sorry.
It was strange, and sad, to think that she and Martin used to joke about how in sync they were, how they always knew what the other was thinking, how love was the only language they needed. She’d even written a song about it once, a ballad so deliberately schmaltzy it came right back around to earnest. Hespa never wanted to hear that tune again.
Now, late on the eve of Lisel’s first birthday, Hespa stood motionless by the crib, watching her daughter’s little chest rise and fall as she slept. Lisel’s soft, dark curls would have been long enough to hide the shimmer on her brow—if the mark hadn’t slowly spread to cover half her face, obscuring both eyes and most of her nose like the caul on some fate-touched babe.
A caul that no one save Hespa could see.
At midnight the fairy clock on the wall—a replacement gift from Martin’s perplexed but unflappable sister—fluttered its wings and Hespa held her breath, waiting for what exactly she did not know. Nothing happened. She tried to speak. Still nothing. Just the same hollow, arid sensation in her throat with which she’d lived for the past year. Furious, frustrated tears pricked at her eyes.
That vile, deceitful, child-stealing—
Her ears popped. Behind her there was a chuckle, clear as a chime, and Hespa turned to see the thin, pale woman standing by the window. “That clock is almost two minutes fast. Gave you a fright, did it?”
“Here.” The woman plucked the crystal vial from her belt and held it out. “Breathe in deep, little mother.”
Hands shaking, Hespa unstoppered the vial and sucked its contents deep into her lungs. She tried to speak, coughed harshly, and tried again. “That shimmery stuff on Lisel’s face. Make it go away.”
“You needn’t fret, it’s harmless. It merely marks her as mine. Potentially, that is.”
“But I can’t see her properly.”
“As I recall, seeing your daughter was not part of the arrangement. You only wished to speak to her.” The woman pointed to the fairy clock. “And while you argue, precious minutes are ticking away.”
“You’re not going to stay, are you?”
A thin, pale hand flapped the air. “That would be rude. This is your hour, with your daughter, as promised. I’ll be back when it’s done.” The woman stepped toward the window. “About the mirrors? A clever gambit, but I don’t need them. Any reflective surface will do—even my own mark. Wherever the child is, you see, I will have a way to her.”
She smiled, not altogether unkindly. “Twelve more years, little mother, that’s all. The time will pass in a matter of breaths.”
Once the woman had vanished, Hespa rushed to the crib with outstretched arms. “Lisel! Oh, Li-Li, my darling.” But at the sight of her sleeping daughter, she paused, a familiar pang in her chest. The little girl was so beautiful, so perfect, so peacefully unaware of the struggle in which her mother was engaged—Hespa couldn’t bear to disturb her. Because what could she even say to the child, really, at this young age, that would be properly understood? Lisel hadn’t spoken yet either, a fact that Hespa knew worried Martin more than he would admit.
More minutes snuck by. Hespa squared her shoulders. She refused to squander any more of this hour in ludicrous, voluntary silence.
Instead, she opened her mouth and began to sing. Nursery rhymes at first, and half-remembered songs from her own childhood, and then, slowly, almost shyly, a new melody. Or, more truly, an old one. A vague but lilting tune Hespa had found herself occasionally humming while Lisel was still growing in her womb. She had suspected, at the time, that she might tease it into a song one day and was mildly surprised to have forgotten about it until now. Melodies and snatches of tune used to slip in and out of her mind like schooling fish—until these last awful months when predatory shadows loomed too ominously over her thoughts—but when one flitted about for as long as this had, it usually stuck.
Hespa sang it now, softly, over Lisel’s crib. No words as yet, merely nonsense syllables and sounds with flavours that fit, as she coaxed the melody forth, fed it and set it free to find its feet. It was her daughter that she kept in mind the whole time: her daughter as she was now, soft and pudgy and smelling of all that could ever be right in the world; and as she would be one day, strong and fierce and brave, a young girl—a young woman.
The song belonged to Lisel and Hespa sang it with all her heart.
“That was pretty,” the woman remarked when she returned at the end of the hour. “A shame she slept through it.”
Hespa merely glared before leaning forward to spend her breath into the vial. She refused to waste another precious word on this hateful creature. From this moment, they would all be for Lisel’s ears alone.
The years passed. At times so slow, the seconds dragged over Hespa’s skin like tattoo needles, sharp and unrelenting. And then too fast, days flitting past in a blink as Lisel began to walk and then to run, to ride a bike without her training wheels, to insist on playing alone in her bedroom with the door firmly closed.
The caul grew as well. It spread over the little girl’s face and down her throat, and Hespa took to carrying a baby photo around to remind herself just what her daughter looked like underneath. All she saw when she looked at Lisel now were distorted reflections of her own face, lips twisted taut, eyes warped and goggling.
When their daughter was three, Martin insisted she go to preschool, two days a week at first, then three and occasionally four.
“She’s so quiet, Hespa. She almost never speaks.”
Some kids are quiet.
“Not like this. She needs to be around people who can talk to her.”
The first day without Lisel at home, Hespa learned that it was in fact possible to howl herself hoarse without making a single, solitary sound.
Bereft of a voice, she turned to music in an attempt to communicate with her daughter. But Lisel showed no interest in Hespa’s guitar, not even when, in desperation, she strummed a Wiggles tune or whatever asinine pop song was shimmying through the charts that week.
For three months, Hespa sat Lisel in her lap at the upright piano, running through scales and Itsy Bitsy Spider and other simple melodies. But it was clear that the girl did not wish to learn. Every time Hespa placed those small, chubby fingers over the keys, Lisel would half-heartedly plunk out a few notes then cross her arms over her chest. Patiently, Hespa would place her daughter’s hands back on the ivory.
A standoff that continued until the day when Lisel began to bash down on the piano with both fists instead, shouting a refusal that Hespa could only half grasp. Lately, it seemed the caul was muddying the girl’s speech, blurring and bending her words so that sometimes it hurt to hear them.
Hespa grabbed her daughter by the wrists and shook her, hard. That small, shimmer-masked head snapped around and Hespa’s own enraged features snarled mutely back at her from Lisel’s face.
Even through the caul, she could not mistake the bawling of a terrified child.
Shocked, Hespa released her daughter. Shame flooded her body. Bile rose in her throat.
There were no more piano lessons.
Hespa waited, alone, in Lisel’s bedroom. In a few minutes it would be the first hour of her daughter’s eighth birthday and it would also the very first of such hours that she would be spending by herself. She still hadn’t forgiven Martin, not fully, but she did regret the discordant piano-thumping session she’d launched upon after he returned from dropping Lisel off at her friend Neeli’s place.
“You can stop yelling at me,” he’d snapped at last. “She wanted a big birthday sleepover and the Sankars have a big house.”
We could have squeezed her friends in here.
“Space isn’t the only problem, Hespa.”
A sigh. “Most of her friends are…they feel uncomfortable here. You must have noticed how she almost never brings anyone home to play.” A hand, resting on her shoulder. “We can have a family celebration tomorrow.”
She should be here tonight.
A slight, suggestive squeeze. “I thought, since it’s just the two of us…”
Hespa had shaken her head, fingers once again moving over the keys. Softer chords this time, a gentle demur tinged with apology. After a few moments, Martin had kissed the top of her head and left, his footsteps marking time with her playing as they faded down the hall.
On the wall in Lisel’s room, the fairy clock fluttered its wings—Hespa made certain it kept good time these days—and the thin, pale woman materialised beside the dresser mirror. She offered the crystal vial but Hespa refused it, instead flipping a page in one of her notepads and holding it out for the woman to see.
Not tonight. She isn’t here. Tomorrow instead?
The woman shook her head. “That’s not our arrangement, little mother. Either accept this hour now or wait another year. Timing cannot be changed on a whim.”
Hespa snatched the vial and breathed its contents in. “That’s not fair,” she said.
“Few things are,” the woman replied.
“And if she was here, she wouldn’t be awake. She’s never awake and I can’t…” Hespa had been about to say that she was never able to wake her daughter during their hour together but, even as she began to speak, she knew the words to be false. In truth, she’d never tried to wake Lisel, not once. She’d always intended to wake her—to talk with her and sing her the newest elaboration of their song—and yet each year she’d allowed the girl to sleep.
As she would have this year, Hespa realised. And as she would the next.
The woman smiled. “Our arrangement makes no note of wakefulness.”
Hespa narrowed her eyes. “I don’t suppose, if I can guess your name, you’ll agree to call this whole thing off.”
Laughter tinkled. “You have been reading too many household tales, little mother. I go by several names, as it happens, but it would make no difference were you to somehow discover each and every one.”
“What if I found another little girl to take Lisel’s place?”
“You could do such a thing? Offer up someone else’s child?”
For a beat, Hespa’s heart was still. Then she shook her head. “Of course not.”
“No matter if you did. It’s your child who bears my mark.” The woman passed the crystal vial from hand to hand, rolling it between her slender fingers. “Now then, little mother, what’s to be done with the rest of this hour? Considering the circumstances, perhaps I should simply scoop your voice back up and go on my way.”
“No.” Hespa straightened her back. “I have a song for my daughter. And, whether she’s here or not, I intend to sing it.”
As she grew older, Lisel became a quiet child once again. Withdrawn and solitary, she seldom saw friends outside of school and appeared to spend a remarkably scant amount of time using her newly bestowed mobile or even socialising online, all of which worried Martin. He insisted she see a psychologist. Hespa refused to go along, afraid of sitting mute in an office somewhere, her own reflection staring back in rebuke from her daughter’s silver-spun face.
There’s nothing wrong with being quiet.
“Because you’re such a bloody expert on that.”
Hespa played the piano a lot when Martin was home. Often, she played it loudly.
But she was worried as well. Over the years, Hespa wrote several letters to her daughter, trying to forge a connection. She told Lisel how proud she was, how grateful to be her mother, how much she loved her. Mostly, the letters went unacknowledged. A couple came back with red ink scrawled across the top.
If nothing’s wrong with you, why won’t you speak?
If you love me, why won’t you say it?
Hespa replied to such questions in the only way she could. One day you’ll understand everything, Li-Li. Trust me. Please.
The very last letter she wrote was returned in a crumpled wad, left beneath the closed piano lid, with a savage red sentence that hollowed Hespa to the core.
I wish I had a different mother.
Hespa counted the days, trying not to fear too much the shimmery, garble-tongued thing her daughter had turned into. Sometimes, when alone in the house, she opened the folder on her laptop where she kept the handful of photos from before she caught the thin, pale woman bending over the crib. Photos of a newborn Lisel, fat-cheeked and wrinkle-fingered, dark hair tousled above a smooth, untainted brow and all the promise of the world dangling before her.
So few years since then, and yet too many, for her daughter to have become such a stranger.
It was five minutes to midnight and Martin was snoring as Hespa slipped out of their bed, throat dry and heart hammering in her chest. She was careful not to disturb him, though it probably didn’t matter; like his daughter, he never seemed to wake during the First Hours. But who knew? This year, this last year, all bets were surely off.
Moonlight shone through the half-curtained window in Lisel’s room. The girl was flat on her back, one bare foot peeking out from beneath the blankets. Her skin shimmered, right down to the tips of her toes. Hespa wondered what it felt like; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d touched her daughter on any part of the girl’s body that wasn’t safely shielded by clothing.
Soon, there was a faint, familiar popping in Hespa’s ears.
“Thirteen years, little mother. How cunningly they have flown by.” The woman crossed over to the bed, stooped to kiss Lisel’s brow. “Wake up, daughter mine. It’s your birthday.”
As Lisel stretched and swung her feet onto the floorboards, Hespa reached into her dressing gown pocket for the notepad and pencil she kept there. She scribbled furiously onto a new page and thrust it into the face of the woman by the bed.
“Never fear, I haven’t forgotten. I shall leave your precious vial behind.” She extended a slim, white hand to Lisel. “Come, daughter. We must depart.”
Enraged, Hespa pushed herself between them. YOU PROMISED!
“Promised what, little mother?”
Hespa gritted her teeth, pencil moving with such force it punctured the paper in several place. Said you wouldn’t take her if I gave up my voice. Kept my side of the bargain. NOW KEEP YOURS.
“What I said was that your daughter would be free. And she is, more than free, to go wherever she chooses, with whomever she chooses.”
The woman spun away, the hem of her robe brushing Hespa’s ankles, and stalked over to the window. With a savage jerk, she pulled the curtains open. Hespa couldn’t tell where moonlight ended and the glowing aura that surrounded the woman began.
Slowly, Lisel followed.
Hespa grabbed for the girl’s arm, determined to hold on to her daughter, to keep her close come what may. But Lisel recoiled and shrank from her touch, mouth moving around sounds that Hespa found impossible to decipher.
“Would you force her to stay, little mother? Would you keep her in chains for the rest of her life?”
Hespa glared at the woman, fingers clenching to claws at her sides.
“Is that how you would love her?”
So smug that smile; how satisfying to wipe it right off her face. As Hespa lunged forward, teeth bared, the woman lifted her arms in defence. But it was the vial that Hespa wanted, and she had her hands around it in an instant, was wrenching it free from its pouch even as the woman grasped hold of her shoulders and shoved her across the room.
Hespa stumbled to her knees, the vial slipping from her fingers.
Crystal shattered on the floorboards, and a wispy miasma spread through the air. Hespa breathed in as much as she could.
“Lisel,” she croaked. “Lisel, don’t go.”
Her daughter regarded her mutely for a moment before turning away. She took another step toward the woman who waited with arms outstretched.
The girl paused. Hespa took another breath, deep as her lungs could bear, and began to sing.
It came as a trickle at first, her voice uncertain and wavering, words catching at the back of her throat. Then stronger, and stronger still, called forth from thirteen years of love and terror and loss until the song roared from Hespa’s mouth like a waterfall. Uncontained, uncontrollable.
She sang as she had each of the First Hours, for her daughter, of her daughter, and as she sang the shimmery caul that enveloped Lisa dulled and began to fade.
“Enough!” the thin, pale woman commanded. She marched over to Hespa and slapped her hard across the mouth. “Stop your caterwauling!”
Hespa tasted iron, but kept on singing. Amid the anger contorting those icy features, she had glimpsed a bright and unmistakeable flash of terror.
The woman slapped Hespa again, even harder. “Don’t punish yourself, little mother. She’s mine.”
And then it came. A voice pitched higher and keener than Hespa could have managed at her very best, a counter melody travelling first alongside her own, entwining and balancing, before rising above. Far, far above, soaring too high for Hespa to catch it, and so she trailed off, sank back on her heels in wonder.
Lisel’s song was mesmerising. And her face, so beautiful, so fierce. With the caul now gone, Hespa could see Martin in those features, and something of her own mother as well. Tears slid hot down her cheeks. Her daughter, her Lisel. At last.
The thin, pale woman shrieked and cowered, hands clapped over ears, elbows drawn sharp together. “Make her stop! Make her stop!” Then, with the sudden, thunderous crack of a glacier calving, she shattered into a million glittering shards.
Abruptly, Lisel stopped singing. She blinked and took a hesitant step forward. “M-mum?”
“Wait!” Hespa pointed to the girl’s feet, bare and tanned and possessing ten of the most adorable toes on earth. “You’ll cut yourself.” But the scattered shards were already disappearing, like stars winking out before dawn.
“I-I didn’t want to go.” Lisel started to cry.
Hespa scrambled over and pulled her daughter into a huge bear hug. “You don’t have to go anywhere, Li-Li, I promise. I promise.”
The girl’s hair smelled of shampoo and sweat. Hespa would be happy smelling nothing else for the rest of her life.
“Let me look at you,” she said, leaning back to hold Lisel by the shoulders. She wiped the tears from her daughter’s perfect face and smiled.
“There,” she said. “I can see you now.”
Kirstyn McDermott has been working in the darker alleyways of speculative fiction for much of her career. Her two novels, Madigan Mine and Perfections, each won the Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel and her most recent book is Caution: Contains Small Parts, a collection of short fiction published by Twelfth Planet Press. When not wearing her writing hat, she produces and co-hosts a literary discussion podcast, The Writer and the Critic, which generally keeps her out of trouble. After many years based in Melbourne, Kirstyn now lives in Ballarat with her husband and fellow scribbler, Jason Nahrung, where she is currently pursuing a creative PhD at Federation University.
Kirstyn’s personal website: http://www.kirstynmcdermott.com
The Writer and the Critic: http://writerandcritic.podbean.com/