Goose feathers crackled in her ear as her head twisted against the pillow, sweat-matted strands of hair plastered to alabaster-pale skin. The room was quiet: dawn wasn’t far off and the partially shuttered windows glistened as Aurora’s nascent glow picked out the early winter frost edging the glass panes.
Another pain gripped her distended belly and she groaned low in her throat, making a noise not unlike one of the Devons when it calved down in the fields of the estate. Her calving, though, was taking place in a bedstead of age-blackened oak that had dominated this bedroom since the original workmen had hammered in the wooden pins holding it together, and those who had carved the diamond lozenges and serpents cavorting around the family crest had been nothing more than dust and memory these past three hundred years.
She sighed as the contraction released her body. The gold silk fringe of the brocaded bed-hangings, the green-and-gold acanthus leaf pattern unchanged in execution, the fabric simply reincarnated as needed, fluttered in the breeze brought in by her lady’s maid, Viola, as she bustled into the room.
“The doctor is on his way, my lady,” Viola said in her comforting Yorkshire burr, placing a bowl of steaming water on the nearby washstand beside a stack of clean towels. Moving to her mistress, Viola’s busy hands straightened the once-crisp linen sheet, now laying limply crumpled at the foot of the bed, and checked the newspapers lining the mattress. “Your water still hasn’t broken, my lady?”
Viola’s mistress, Lavinia, Lady Knaggs, Countess of Ainsworth, twitched her restless feet with a sigh. “As you see.”
“Ah, well, the body knows when it’s time, my lady,” Viola clucked, walking to the windows, now brushed with the first golden-rose blush of sunrise. Reaching over to close the wooden shutters, the maid’s movements were arrested by Lavinia’s harsh “Stop!”
Viola’s head turned, the fresh sunlight picking out those few strands of silver in her robust head of chestnut hair. “My lady?”
“I want to see the light when- when it happens.”
“But, my lady! The cool air that could come in, why- It might hurt the child, and you, my lady!”
Lavinia smiled wearily. “Nonsense, Viola. It’s 1915, not 1515. Leave the shutters open.”
The other woman frowned uncertainly, but complied. “Shall I call for some ice chips, my lady, to soothe your throat?”
Lavinia nodded, distracted by the approaching contraction as the muscles of her womb rippled and tightened. With rapid panting breaths, she struggled as the pain grew and her world narrowed to the ring of fire created by that pain. Hands twitching convulsively in response, her hazy attention was caught by the sensation of silk cobwebs enmeshing her fingers and cutting into flesh. She looked down to the green ribbon wrapped around her palm. Sophie’s ribbon. A spasm gripped her frame, separate from the increasingly frequent contractions pummeling her abdomen, and a new pain lanced through her heart, bringing a gasp to her lips.
Viola rushed over, mistaking her cry for one of need, but before any need could be addressed, Lavinia felt an uncontrolled release as something within her lower body gave way. “My lady! Your waters, they’ve broken!”
With a smile, Viola called for help and began efficiently stripping the bed, gently turning Lavinia to the side as the sodden newspapers were taken away, new ones put in their place, and a clean sheet was laid on the mattress. All the while, Lavinia stared out the window.
Sophie . . .
A tear trembled on her lashes when her eye was caught by the sight of a single snowflake drifting gently down to land on the glass. Lavinia smiled and the doctor walking confidently into the room assumed it was for him. But her smile was for the memory of a day similar to this — was it just two years ago? — at the beginning of winter. The ribbon’s purchase had been inspired not only by the happy color, reminiscent of the previous summer, Sophie’s fifth, but by the silk’s similarity to Sophie’s brilliant green eyes. Lavinia had thought that fitting.
She recalled a happy child who had flown to her mother’s side, her beautiful raven-wing hair snapping behind her like a pennant, cheeks rosy and those green eyes sparkling. Plump arms encircled Lavinia’s neck as she knelt on the nursery carpet and scooped the girl up, swinging her through the air to the delight of Sophie and the disapproval of Nanny. Nestled in the crook of Lavinia’s elbow, she drank in the warm, clean smell of her daughter as the child burbled with pleasure. Lavinia pulled the ribbon from her pocket and Sophie’s starfish hands darted out to grab it before pulling back nervously. The silk’s sheen, so luxurious and expensive-looking, gave the girl pause. Setting the child down, Lavinia wrapped the ribbon around her daughter’s head, tying it into a bow at the crown, the slight bit of fabric nearly disappearing into the thick mass of black curls.
“My lady? My lady?” Anxious voices broke into her thoughts as an acrid odor was forced into her nostrils. Lavinia blinked rapidly and she spoke Viola’s name. That woman’s concerned face, hovering above Lavinia, broke into a relieved smile. The bottle of smelling salts was removed from Lavinia’s presence and a wave of nausea washed through her from the change in atmosphere. She closed her eyes, breathing through the sickness, and when she opened them, Viola was gone, replaced by man’s face, a stranger until from the back of her mind Lavinia dredged up a name: Dr. Mowbray.
Lavinia tried out the name on the stranger and was once again rewarded with a smile.
“Very good, your ladyship,” Dr. Mowbray replied, setting aside the tools of his trade. “You had us worried for a time.”
“I was- I was dreaming.” She raised a tired hand to a swimming head and the sight of Sophie’s ribbon, bound tight enough to indent the flesh there, did more to revive her than any smelling salts could. Her face contorted as yet another contraction, hard on the heels of the previous one, gripped her body. She whimpered sharply.
“Looks as though I arrived just in time,” Dr. Mowbray said, placing his hands on the taut skin of her belly, able to feel each ripple as the muscles worked to expel the child in her womb. He turned to an dozy Lavinia. “I have a feeling it won’t be too much longer; this little one seems quite eager to come out and meet the world.”
A dry cloth was laid across Lavinia’s clammy brow and an ice chip slipped between her dry, cracked lips. She sucked on it with a grimace. People say ice has no taste, that it’s simply frozen water, plain, neutral, empty. But ice tastes bitter. Lavinia spit the chip out as bile filled her throat. She could never again suffer the feel of ice in her mouth without thinking of that day . . .
It’d been winter, that same winter — the Winter of the Ribbon, Lavinia thought somewhat sardonically — but deeper in. Snowflakes fell against the glass of the manor’s windows, against the manicured grounds, building up and softening the outlines of the countryside. It was the first big cold snap of the season and that which had once been flowing water was now ice. Which meant Sophie was to go ice skating for the first time, as promised to her by her papa: Lord Knaggs, the Earl of Ainsworth to his tenants and Burke’s Peerage, Godfrey Montague to everyone else. He’d promised to take her as soon as the pond was frozen over, so every day Sophie made Nanny take her out to check and every day Sophie had returned with a dejected face. Until that day in January. That day Sophie had come racing back to the house, her face split by the biggest grin, her voice breaking as she shrieked her joyous find at the top of her lungs.
From this same bedroom window, Lavinia had watched her husband and daughter walk from the house toward the pond. Godfrey’s head was tilted indulgently, listening to Sophie’s excited ramblings as she bounded around him in circles like an over-eager puppy, that green ribbon bound against her raven head standing out against the albescent landscape. Though Lavinia had been invited along, she held back to give the two of them some time together, as they didn’t normally get much of it. Fifteen minutes she gave them.
Fifteen minutes was all it took.
The screams reached her while the pond was still out of sight. Her running feet skidded on the snow, quickly bringing her to a nightmare come true. The dark, jagged hole in the ice was a gaping wound, slick with slushy water. Her husband lay sprawled on the pond’s frosted surface, seemingly miles away from the edge. And Sophie . . . Sophie thrashed in the water, screaming and pleading for her papa’s help. Her tiny mittened hands could grip the fractured edge for mere seconds before sliding off, barely allowing her to stay above the surface. Between the inky blackness of the water and the oil-slick darkness of her hair, Sophie’s ribbon somehow shone out like a beacon, bringing Lavinia unerringly closer. She stepped onto the ice, sliding toward Godfrey, who didn’t seem to be moving at all.
“Stop!” His quick gesture to halt her progress put him in danger, but she couldn’t stop, not with Sophie so close. It was only as she stood by Godfrey’s feet that she saw, with sudden clarity, the network of cracks spreading out from his body, heard the sickening groans coming from beneath her feet.
“The ice is too thin, Vinnie,” he called, creeping forward a mere, excruciating inch to hold out his hand to his drowning daughter, her mittened hand just touching his fingers before falling away again. The ice gave another jolt and he closed his eyes in despair. “Go back to the house. Get help, quickly! Please,” he pleaded.
For one split second, Sophie managed to find a hold on the ice and those beautiful green eyes met her mother’s before she lost her grip and slid beneath the surface.
“NO!” Lavinia reached out a helpless hand, her howl of pain echoing through the trees. As Godfrey turned to her, his eyes — a match to his daughter’s — met his wife’s and he let out a similar cry of anguish as Lavinia, heedless of herself or her husband, crashed headlong into the murky pond.
Water filled her nose and ice filled her mouth as her groping hands searched for any sign of Sophie. She had to be here, she couldn’t have disappeared! This was a farm pond, for god’s sake, not the Atlantic Ocean! There, was that her coat? The fabric brushed by the tips of her fingers, eluding her grasp. She tried opening her eyes, but the frigid water stung. Her hands grew more frantic, searching through the turgid water as her lungs burned. Suddenly hands from above grasped her neck and shoulders, lifting Lavinia above the surface. She rose, spluttering, gasping, fighting like a wildcat.
“No! Let me go! I have to find her, let me go!”
Godfrey’s arms wrapped around her chest like bands of steel, pulling her from the water as sturdy men yanked on Godfrey’s legs, creating a human chain from the shore. As the ice continued to whine, splintering and shattering and threatening to tip them all into the pond, Godfrey hissed in her ear, “Stop! Vinnie, stop.” He shook her slightly, though it was impossible to feel through the shivers which racked their bodies. “She’s gone. Sophie’s gone. Don’t fight it.”
“Don’t fight it, your ladyship.” The voice, different. Lavinia’s eyes focused blearily on its source: Dr. Mowbray. His worried face glanced up from between her bent knees. “Don’t fight the impulse to push, your ladyship. Your baby is ready to come out and your body is telling you how it’s to be done.”
Lavinia’s hand was squeezed by a warm, work-roughened palm held fast against her own. She smiled. “Viola.”
“Yes, my lady. I’m here.”
“Push, your ladyship! Now!” With the doctor’s directions and Viola’s gentle strength to aid her, Lavinia did as she was ordered, heels dug deep into the mattress, sweat tracing the lines of her face. Her hands reached up to clasp her knees and the green of the ribbon flashed in the light.
“Och, I wish you hadn’t brought that gruesome thing into the room, my lady,” Viola sputtered, quickly crossing herself. “‘Tis bad luck.”
“Sophie would want to be here to meet her baby brother.” Lavinia missed the concerned glance that flew between her maid and Dr. Mowbray. “Or baby sister, my lady,” Viola said with forced heartiness.
“No, Sophie is going to have a brother.” Again that look of concern, but Lavinia’s focus was taken up with the final moments of weary exertion as her body, strained to the limit, finally succeeded in bringing forth the new life it had so carefully nurtured for nine months.
Unable to keep the surprise from his voice, the doctor announced “It’s a boy!” to an equally astonished room. He lifted the child by its ankles, who expressed his disapproval of this undignified position by letting out a lusty squall. Dr. Mowbray and Viola chuckled their approval.
“He’s a healthy one, my lady,” Viola said as she settled Lavinia back against her pillows. The doctor, meanwhile, clipped and tied off the infant’s umbilical cord before depositing the child into Viola’s capable hands to be cleaned and swaddled. The final cramps of childbirth emptied Lavinia’s body and it was again Viola who took care of the cleaning up, once Dr. Mowbray examined what was delivered to make sure it was whole and sound, satisfied nothing had been left behind that might putrefy.
“My lady!” The butler, eyes properly averted, sidled into the room, his voice holding as much excitement as its owner would allow. “A telegram has arrived. It’s his Lordship: He’s alive. Wounded, but alive.” Suddenly it seemed as though the entire staff had made its way into Lavinia’s room, but she didn’t mind. The smiles wreathing their faces were warmer than the glow emanating from the marble-fronted fireplace.
As the baby was placed in her arms, Lavinia felt as though the tight band around her chest was suddenly cut free. She looked at the hand which had held Sophie’s ribbon and found it empty: the sweat-rumpled silk had fallen away, disintegrated into nothing more than ragged shreds on the counterpane. The room emptied as the first snowfall of winter softly pattered against the window panes. Lavinia gazed at gruntling bundle in her arms with a drowsy smile. “I believe it’s okay to be happy again, you think?” A soft hiccup was her only reply.
I figured, however late I posted it, this would stand well as my tribute to Mother’s Day. I hope I’m correct in that assessment.
Right now, this Medium account is all I have as a hoping-to-one-day-be-published author, other than my Twitter account @ https://twitter.com/DragonWench1 (which isn’t much in regards to promoting my writing; my views… yeah). So if you like this story, click on the little heart to recommend it and share it with your friends. And if there’s anything you’d like to say about my writing, a question, a criticism, a diatribe, whatever, feel free to leave it in the comment section below. Thanks for stopping by!