Excerpt from "Child Ballads" Book 1

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What bluid’s that on thy coat lap,
Son Davie, son Davie?
What bluid’s that on thy coat lap?
And the truth come tell to me.

From Child Ballad #13A, “Edward”


In Arrastra Commune in the Lake District of Western Britain, the sound of water is always near. In the winter the trickling rains become downpours as they join with the rivers that rush into the lakes. The old ash trees and oaks that shade the forest creak and sway in the wind, their branches dripping, their roots sipping the fresh water from where it softens the hard soil. Birds take shelter in the hollows of trees, huddled together for warmth until the downpour ends, and then, when the sun at last begins to shine, the rabbits poke their noses out of their burrows only to be startled off by the arrival of swift barking hounds. At night comes the low, mournful hooting of owls, the quiet beating of their wings, and the anguished howling of nearby wolves who are starving for the yellow moon.

Diverus’s family lived together in an old abandoned hotel outside of the forgotten city of Windermere. Once a vacation destination, Windermere was now in ruins, though it sometimes caught the attention of raiders hoping to find some useful stone unturned. A total of eight families shared the hotel lodgings, and abided by house rules they had jointly decided on.

Diverus’s family dwelling was located on the first floor, the first door on the right located off the lobby. The other families with young children lived on the upper floors, but because Diverus’s family had gotten there first and because his mother, Imani, had taken a liking to the master bedroom and the wallpaper that was still marvelously intact, they had claimed this best location for themselves. On the walls, as the only centerpiece in sight, hung one of the family’s most precious treasures: a poster of Ramsay in his younger years when he’d been the star of the Manchester Ballet Company. Back in Ramsay’s late teenage years the company had done a promotional shoot, and even Diverus had to admit that his father had been handsome, or beautiful, almost to a fault. Young Ramsay was captured in mid-air against a white background, wearing dark brown skin-colored tights and no top. His toes, in brown shoes, were pointed perfectly, and his chin was tilted upward, his eyes following the line of his fingertips out toward some invisible point in space. Looking at this picture, Diverus often found himself getting lost in thought, as if transported to some other plane or realm of existence. His mother would find him standing there and shake him teasingly by the shoulder, saying, “What are you doing, Divey? Dreaming of being a dancer?” But the joke wasn’t really funny because no one was a dancer anymore. No one danced at all, it seemed, not even in their rooms all alone.

On an evening in early winter the rain had stopped suddenly and a hushing chill had taken its place. Diverus’s mother, Imani, was standing in the lobby, bent over the indoor firepit where they took turns boiling the water and doing the cooking for the group. She had gotten started early because she was feeling restless, so none of the other homemakers had joined her yet and she stood there alone watching the raw potatoes dance in the boiling water. She had been listening to the rain and when it stopped she heard its silence. Her eyes flickered to the window. There was something still falling, she noticed, but slower than the rain had been; thicker and more substantial.

Imani left the pot untended and walked to the window, standing close to the glass so she could see through her own reflection to the world outside. There was something sweet and heartbreaking about snowfall. She watched the flakes fall and dissolve onto the wet dirt while she remembered her own childhood and Christmas vacation—the way the world had been then; a world that had vanished.

She stood watching for a long time, letting the potatoes boil themselves, and the snow was starting to stick when Imani saw the figures in the distance running toward the hotel. Even in the dark and from far away, Imani knew the shapes and manners of her own two sons. They were running so fast; they must have been having a race. Ramsay wouldn’t be far behind them. Imani smiled to think of him chasing after them, calling out to “slow the heck down!” because he wasn’t in the shape he’d once been. Even an athlete like him couldn’t compete with the vigor of teenage youth, which was in full bloom in Diverus and just beginning for Spens.

Diverus was in the lead, she saw, outpacing his younger brother by an admirable distance. He was running so hard it was like his shoes were on fire. His whole body was thrown into the effort of it. Imani saw him stumble and she gasped—a mother’s instinct—but he righted himself and kept on going. 

But there was something odd, she now saw, about the way they were both running, wasn’t there? Spens’s arms were flailing and he kept wiping at his face. Maybe it was just the snow. Maybe they were both excited, or exhausted, poor things, from their long day out and with it raining, too.

But if that was all, then where was Ramsay? She should have seen him following after them by now. And where was their umbrella? She’d made them pack it, even though they’d thought they wouldn’t need it. If they’d lost it, well, then she’d have to teach them a lesson! There was no replacing artifacts such as that without costing an arm and a limb these days.

Imani realized she was biting her nails, watching her children throwing themselves headlong down the slight hill that led to the hotel. She paced back over to the pot and tested the potatoes only to discover that they’d gotten overboiled in the time that she’d stood there, staring at the snow.

“Well god damn it!” she cursed, quickly removing the pot from the fire and beginning to fish out the spuds. She’d reuse the water for the rest of the meal. She worked quickly, eyes darting between the door and her work, trying to distract herself from her anxiety, and when she had finally fished out the last potato the door burst open.

Diverus stood there, dripping wet and bent over double with wheezing. He clung to the doorframe with one hand and looked up at her with a haggard expression that seemed almost menacing in the firelight. His eyes, she thought. There’s something wrong with his eyes.But she shook the thought away as soon as she’d had it. Nothing good came from thinking thoughts like that.

“Honey?” she said, trying to make her voice warm and reassuring.

“We’ve got to go,” Diverus said, not moving to come into the room.

“What?” Imani took a step in his direction. “Come on in, now. Close that door. You’re letting in all the chill.”

At that moment, Spens arrived, bursting in through the door from behind his older brother. His afro sparkled with moisture and he wasted no time running for her.

“Mom!” he called, and then crashed into her for a hug, his lithe body wet and hot against her, taller than her but resting his head on her shoulder like he was still a little boy. His heart was pounding like all hellfire. He must have seen something out there—something he shouldn’t have.

“What happened?” Imani demanded, trying to fight her own rising panic. She directed the question at Diverus, but when he didn’t answer, she looked instead at Spens. Spens, however, had buried his face against her shoulder and was rubbing snot all her over her neck, his body shaking with tears that were silent except for an occasional gasping sob. He was gripping her so hard, it hurt.

“Diverus! What’s going on?” she cried, and she saw Diverus’s eyes change to those of her child again.

“Dad…” was all he said, looking at her pleadingly for half a second, and that was all it took for Imani to know.