The blood in her cheeks was freezing. Lightning burst in the night sky, each flash casting a smash of light over Castle Bergens, sat high and far in the Carpathian mountains. It would appear so stark and bright before vanishing once again into darkness. It looks like it’s getting closer, Little Maxi said when the lightning once more threw up the mountain range. Lizbeth pushed him along, bade him comfort wee Tilda, who was inside, out-screaming the thunder. As he ran in, she stood there at the gate just a moment more, her red hair whipping in the water and wind, watching the storm play out.
A spiderleg of lightning struck the roof of the castle, spitting up sparks. One, then another. It did look bigger somehow. A third bolt struck the castle. It looked swollen. Pregnant. A slice of rain caught her eyeball and, wincing in pain, she looked away. When she had thumbed the water away and looked back up, the castle was gone.
She returned to the cottage and bedded down the children. Then, as she had done every night since Micael disappeared, she sat by the fire, chair positioned towards the window and waited. She was asleep when the lightning stopped; when the air quieted; when Castle Bergens sank into a more permanent darkness.
She dreamed. Micael was wandering the moors, and the wind tore out his hair. His scalp bled, his mouth made no sound, his voice engulfed and torn by the howl and the thunder. His skin peeled away, the calloused palms of his hands, the scar tissue across his collarbone, the bags under his eyes were shredded to the storm, leaving his muscles exposed, red and sticky and glistening. He lurched forward.
She awoke to a sharp rapping at the door. She lifted her head slowly, her neck stiff and tender. Then, out of instinct, she placed a hand to her forehead. The air outside was calm, the faint morning light playing over her face, warming her cheek against the occupying chill. The fire had died. Another rap at the door.
With a slight moan, she lifted herself out of her chair, an ache throbbing in the small of her back. When she was sure on her feet, she crossed the small length of the homestead, pausing to straighten the lining of her cotton pinafore, before unlatching the door. She opened it to reveal the slightly bedraggled figure of Doctor Bergens.
He had dressed in a hurry, the collar of his shirt was bent and his hair was a damp tangle. He seemed to be in pain, fighting his shortness of breath and trying to contain his heaving chest by standing as upright and still as possible. His cheeks were pink and a fat bead of sweat trickled down his temple.
Behind him was an older man, a gamekeeper perhaps, holding a hunting rifle. Bergens, noting the expression of concern on her face, turned to the man and held up his hand. The keeper moved back.
“Madam,” he said, his voice cracking slightly from the strain of appearing unstrained. “May I?”
Dumbly, she stood aside and he stepped into the cottage. As he passed her she smelt in his wake, beneath the smell of powder, a sickly sting of sweat. It was damp and filthy rush of smell, of an exhausted body, wet hair and dirty flesh.
“Please, take a seat anywhere,” she said, still confused by the intrusion of the doctor. Bergens had a famed dislike of the simple farming people that lived in the shadow of his mountain. Lizbeth and Micael had a deal of trade with the castle, supplying it with a few crates of berries from month to month. At first, the Doctor had visited them personally, to sample the produce and offer his hand by way of thanks.
A biologist, he had said to her once, the first day they had met, many years ago. A surgeon. I’m interested in the human condition.
Then the Doctor began to send a small fleet of representatives to the farms. They would take the crops, and disappear back up the mountain. Finally, the men stopped coming and farmers like Micael were simply summoned. The farmers would load a single cart with all their stock and a nominated fellow would make the day trek to the castle. The mountain roads were treacherous. Occasionally, the man sent with the cart would not return. Rumours spread, but everyone knew the roads were hard. Six days ago, it was Micael’s turn to make the journey.
“Lovely … home,” the Doctor wheezed, “yes … lovely.”
He had not yet taken a seat, but was peering around the cottage, gaze wandering under chairs, around corners, to the attic space above. He leaned a black gloved hand against a wooden beam to steady himself.
“I realise that I have not yet … for some time anyway … thanked you,” he said, his eyes wandering still. “…Yes.”
“Is this about Micael?”
The question seemed to take him aback. His eyes, which had been avoiding hers since he had wandered into their home, finally met hers.
“Micael? Your husband?”
“He hasn’t returned from running supplies. He-”
“Yes, of course,” replied the doctor nodding animatedly. “I heard. Received the shipment, lovely of course. So of course … here I am. Condolences. Anything I can do.”
He caught sight of Maxi and Tilda’s room.
“Children?” he asked, angling his head towards the door.
“Yes,” Lizbeth answered, and before she could continue with their names, Bergens quietly moved towards the door and peered around it. She followed him, stopping to notice that the doctor had left a wet handprint on the wood where he had leaned. She placed her fingertips to it and when she withdrew them, she saw that the liquid was red; watered blood. She looked up, the doctor had now fully entered the children’s room. She followed quickly.
Doctor Bergens stood at the end of their bed. They were still wrapped up in blankets, tiny mouths open, dead away.
“Names?” he asked, voice barely a whisper.
She stared at him, shocked, afraid, and beginning to form a knot of anger in her belly.
“Names?” he asked again.
“Maxi and the little ones Tilda.”
He nodded, and with one of his fingers, slowly opened their cupboard door a crack. He peered inside, nodded again and walked past her out of the room. She followed, closing the door behind her.
He was bent over the hearth now, gazing at the fireplace. She joined him, anxious not to let him alone with any part of her home. She stood, watching him. He had regained his breath, but there was still a liveliness to him, a ferret-like activity behind his eyes and clothes. He was like a child waiting to run. Finally, he spoke.
“Parenthood,” he said. “The care and attention.”
“Do you have children of your own?”
He looked at her, his eyes larger now, younger. He paused, as if for thought.
“I do not.” He ran a finger along the mantelpiece. “Do they ever run away?”
“Your two quite adorable children.”
Last year, Micael had gone out into the night to search for their boy. He had been gone for hours. She had sat in her chair by the fire, and she had waited. Early the next morning she had been awoken by a soft kiss on her forehead. Micael standing over her, Maxi in his arms.
“Where did he run to?” asked the doctor.
“The river, the woods beyond.”
“But he came home. They come home, I imagine. Always.”
“Doctor,” she began, summoning herself. “If you know where he is, tell me. Please.”
“The father and the children. You care. You do care. What makes one wait and care. Love is …” he trailed away, staring into the soot and the ash. “It can be made. Of course it can.”
“Doctor,” she said again, clutching him hard by the arm, pressing the bone of her thumb hard, as hard as she could. The doctor winced, in pain. She asked again, “Where is he?”
He looked straight back at her.
“My dear woman. I don’t know.”
He moved away from her towards the door, rubbing his upper arm. He opened the door and made to leave.
“I shall see you again. I’m sure. A terrible thing, of course.”
“Where are you going?” Lizbeth asked.
He paused, turned to her.
“To the river,” he replied. “The woods beyond.” Then he was gone. As the door closed behind him, Lizbeth caught one final glimpse of the keeper and his rifle.
She sat, exhausted by her sudden flush of anger, in the chair by the fire. The morning was still young and, weak with confusion and a sudden vague sense of hopelessness, she fell back to sleep.
She was dreaming. The world was dim and smeared out of focus. A creature, stitched of parts. Two different faces, joined at the seams. Hair and scalp woven together. Mismatched legs, arms that were placed on his torso at unnatural angles. Over his collarbone, a recognisable feature of scar tissue. She was dreaming. This shadowy figure, barely perceptible, stood over her and kissed her softly on the forehead. Then he lumbered away. She wanted to rise to call it back, but her body wouldn’t. It wouldn’t.
She woke at the sound of children. Maxi and Tilda were laughing in their room. The afternoon sun shone through the window, and she felt the familiar pain in her neck. She instinctively placed her hand to her forehead. Her fingertips came back red, and sticky.