Anyway, at the time of which I speak, my sister Derde had recently attained her womanhood. This was no secret, try as she might to conceal the monthly crimson stains on her underskirts and the woman’s stink that accompanied them. Negotiations had already begun for her wedding to Kazim of Narbat and, unlike herself, she was putting up no resistance. They had always got along passably well, and the arrangement was evidently satisfactory to all concerned, though she had been more than once caught in the company of another: a fellow from, I think, Yishub.
But something was wrong. We all felt it. From a fun-loving, defiant spitfire she turned, it seemed overnight, melancholy, morose. Whenever I tried to talk to her, she would either not answer or burst out with a furious "Shut up!", and if I tried to persist she would start shouting at me till I had no choice but to back off. What was the problem?
The answer was not long coming. That evening when we sat to sup, Grandma was with us. (We kids were always delighted when Grandma came to dine. She had a daemon in her that ate all she ate before her body could absorb it. So to spite It she never swallowed her food, only sucked the essence from it and left the rest on her plate, whence we could filch and down it.) But it wasn’t a feast day, so if she was here, something serious was up. But Derde wasn’t there. I looked at Ma.
"Where’s…?" I started, but she looked at me and I shut up. We ate in silence, Ma every so often looking at the door. We had just finished when it opened, and in came Pirhah the midwitch, followed by our sister. Her evil mood had left her, and she stood in the doorway looking around at us with a mixture of sheepishness and relief. In her hands she held a small object, wrapped in linen.
"Come in, girl," commanded the witch. "We must finish it."
Derde entered hesitantly and knelt at her accustomed place. Pirhah followed suit. She then removed from her pouch and placed on the table a grinding‑bowl and pestle, followed in turn by two clay vials.
That done, she looked at Derde, who began to unwrap the object she carried. We all craned to see, but it was not until she had finished and held out her hand that we got a good look. Cradled in her hand was a tiny creature, pink and dead. From its belly a shining tube connected it to a shapeless mass of dark flesh of almost its own size. At first I thought it might be a newborn rat, but on closer inspection his body was indisputably human, and even more undeniably male, though the features of his face were strangely unformed, as if a sculptor had begun forming a child of clay, but been interrupted before completing his work. I had never seen anything like him, but demurred to ask what he was. There was a Mystery here, one at which to boot I probably should not even be in attendance, so I waited in silence.
Derde sat for a moment, gazing down at the strange being. She then bent her head and kissed him gently, and placed him in the bowl. Pirhah picked up one of the vials and uncapped it.
"We are here," she said, "to say hello and farewell."
She began to pour honey onto the dead thing in the bowl, addressing him thus:
"For the sake of our sister, thy mother, that she might enter her woman’s life a virgin bride, and not an object of scorn and reprobation, thou hast given thy life before thou ever knewst what life was. For this we thank thee, O tiny brother of ours, son, grandson, nephew; all of these art thou to us here gathered. We will never know thee, never see thee born, to grow and be a man, but still we thank thee."
The vial empty, she picked up the other and from it sprinkled a mixture of herb and spice into the bowl.
"And to the soul who would have worn thee, I who have slain thee can only humbly beg thy understanding and forgiveness, and offer my prayer that thou mightst, upon thy next attempt at incarnation, find thyself in as loving a house as this. Good luck. The Gods be with thee."
She picked up the pestle and began mashing the contents of the bowl into a fragrant paste.
"And now, that we might not ever forget thee, and the sacrifice thou hast made for thy mother and all of us who love thee, we take thee into us, and make thee a part of us, to be with us always, until we ourselves are as thou art this night."
She gestured to Derde. My sister reached out a finger, scooped up a small portion of the pulpy mass and put it in her mouth. She closed her eyes and swallowed, and a slight shiver shook her, before she looked again and smiled. Ma did the same, then the other girls, then me. He tasted beautiful, my little nephew that never was, better than any sweetmeat; but before I could savour him fully he had melted on my tongue and slid smoothly down my throat, and my body was all suffused with a sudden strange joy.
I opened my eyes, hoping for another taste. But Luni had already taken his turn, and the last morsel that lay invitingly in the bowl was obviously reserved. Pirhah picked it up carefully; instead of consuming it, however, she wrapped it delicately in the cloth in which it had arrived and held it out to Derde. Derde took it in her two hands and sat, head bowed. Ma stood up and beckoned us to leave her alone, and we followed her outside. As I went out, though, I looked back, and saw my sister’s lips moving silently, addressing her dead son in private words of grateful grief.
After that, she was her old self again. The betrothal was concluded with Kazim and his family none the wiser, and the wedding… Well, that’s another tale entirely. I’ll tell you another time.