My mother hushed me the instant I arrived back from my lecture that day, first whilst my eyes still struggled to adjust to the lamps of our dusty ballroom, and again whilst I stacked the fat, windswept books in my arms upon the rosewood dresser that stood just inside the heavy door. 'You'll wake the baby,' she insisted, from beneath the black shawl that covered her bowed head, a widow's vestment, whilst glancing quickly behind me to ensure that I'd closed the front door against the frigid Moscow wind.
'What baby?' I asked, distracted by her shadow flickering restlessly behind her, throwing a patch of ominous darkness across the dim parquet floor. I thought fleetingly of a black horse from our past life before wondering if we had a visitor, that being the only explanation, although it was already past eight.
'It's behind the door, dear,' my enigmatic mother replied, now a small black figure beside me at the dresser. She had not embraced the modern fashions and her lace coverlet and diminutive height made her a thin, empty Matryoshka doll, her once rosy cheeks now hardened and lined. A wave of guilt flowed through me: it was just her and the maid here most days, living small lives on the stage of our ruin, but my studies were far from there and my friend's convenient lodgings avoided an evening-long journey home through the strafing cold and wind. My hands still glowed red from that day's exposure, the memory of the last lines I'd read still bright in my mind. 'On the sideboard,' she elaborated, 'where we keep the crystal and the napkins for best.'
I paused before turning to face her, hoping for a glimmer of reassurance that this was not old age's confusion, but she did not laugh and did not explain further, so I asked her again with the softness of my whole body, what exactly she meant. Another moment and I attempted a jocular re-questioning, but that froze in the air and fell to the earth, dead. Somehow, my mother was serious. She leant against our grand piano - the only valuable that she would never sell - and pointed to the corner of the room concealed by the swing of the open door as if a gift lay behind it. Not that we'd given gifts in the longest time, of course; my father had sufficiently drowned us in gambling debt to force us to give great parts of our great house over to lodgers, tenants and rats, which reaped us a little upon which to live. I folded my cold hands around the thick edge of the monstrous oak door in worried acquiescence - a door that was once the creaking announcer of grand dukes and duchesses - and pulled it until my joints locked straight and the lower edge began to squeak reluctantly along the floor.
To my profound and utter surprise, on the revealed sideboard lay a waxen baby, swaddled in a blue blanket, a felt baby cap with a small ruffle tied tightly around its head. Its eyes were closed and its cheeks were ghostly white. It wavered before me like a dream.
'Mother, whose baby is this?' I asked, wavering a little under the weight of my responsibility for her; it crossed my mind that this might be day one of ten thousand. The image of a frantic, hollow-eyed mother came unwillingly to mind, smashing through the leaded ballroom windows to shred my mother alive with maternal claws and teeth; but the baby slept peacefully on, quiet as an icon, barely breathing on the hard wooden surface. 'Why is it here like this? Mother?'
But my mother was walking down the room, her French heels tapping like fingernails on a tabletop beneath her long lace veil, which danced on the parquet behind her: the translucent inch spoke of lost luxury over a widow's plain outfit. She reminded me of a floating Japanese ghost, her feet hidden beneath her skirts, but she understood no laughing reference to this, her knowledge being mainly domestic. When she returned, she pressed a warmed hi-ball of Dubonnet into my trembling hand.
'Please, Mother, explain this,' I commanded. 'Where did you get this baby?'
'It's yours, dear,' she said, quite simply, the serenest of angels, all traces of my lucid mother vanished beneath an impression of madness, and an audacious disregard for family, biology or truth. I feared that she had left me; her hand was not where I could find it; but a baby lay there, unquestionably, and after a mute moment her terrifying sincerity hit me like a rifle butt and the hi-ball fell from my hand, throwing ice shards into the curtains and amongst the legs of the sideboard. If I'd been home more, I dreaded, I might have noticed the insidious effects of my father's death, and might possibly have managed to hold onto her a bit longer, through the slippery, passing years.
At the smash, the baby's eyelids parted, revealing eyeballs like black onyxes. They gazed at me, posing a benevolent question, as a little colour started to appear in its cheeks. Lingering Dubonnet burned with each breath.
'This is not my child, mother. Did you get it in the park maybe? Please, think of the worry this must be causing.'
But she remained silent, gazing at the thawing child, sipping her drink deliberately, holding it close to her to conceal the subtle shaking of her hand.
'Mother,' I continued, my enunciation slow, 'how could this be my baby?'
An air of condescension began to circle around her and she flicked her eyes up to me, her gaze hard, the knuckles of her clutching fist clamped white around her drink.
'Well,' she said in a low, clipped tone, 'I am very disappointed. I see I've mistaken all your book-learning for worldliness, and your adulthood for maturity; how your predecessors would laugh at you,' she said, creaking a bent arm upwards to the oil paintings of our fathers that circled the faded ballroom, staring out at us from the dimness above the level of the lamps. She scoffed. 'The modern ignorance astounds me.'
'Mother, what do you mean? What are you talking about?' I could not account for this, I thought, right before she grabbed my wrist between her finger and thumb and locked it rigid; I jerked my wrist away but she held me still and turned me back to face the child.
'What did you think, my dear? Did you think that you could outrun your own body? Did you forget that you're a woman?' She laughed brassily, a tone I'd never heard in her. The room echoed darkly with a choir of her voices. 'Everyone's time comes. I don't know why you look so shocked: he's always been here in this house with us, just waiting for the time to appear. Didn't you feel him?' she asked, as my mind flew in circles, bumping against sharp edges and glancing into darkness. 'Didn't you imagine him once in a while, behind your eyelids, late at night? Didn't you ever once wonder what it would be like to hold your baby in your arms?'
The pressure of her assertions was too much, she was too close, her implacable belief began clouding my vision like a fog. I tried to fling myself away from her insensible tomfoolery, but my zealot mother moved her grasp from my wrist to my elbow and turned me around with the pressure of her thumb. The ballroom echoed and I then felt the icy eyes of my forebears pressing on the back of my neck. They, and she, forced me to look at the baby on the sideboard, and a momentous shiver ran upwards from my heels to my crown like an inauspicious wind. Without speaking, my mother pinched me hard as a warning and then ran her scrawny arm along the polished wood grain, picking the baby up and pressing him into my arms.
My gut lurched, a weathervane turning, and when I found my voice, it was loud.
'Mother, this is not my baby! I do not have a baby, I'm a student, you know this. As if we would allow this to happen - and think, what about my education?' I demanded, casting a desperate glance out over my lost books on the dresser. 'What about all my plans? And mother, wouldn't I know, of all things, if I'd been about to have a baby?'
My tearful ferocity brought a maid to the doorway, who, oddly, I didn't recognise; my mother caught her eye and dismissed her in one troubled movement, and the maid slunk away once more.
I felt giddy as a twinge of something resembling recognition snuck across my burning brow. The baby's eyes closed again, not a foot from mine, and his snoring came at once, tuneful and tender, like a lover's sigh. At that moment, his spine fell between my radius and ulna, a rib within ribs, and our pulses harmonised within two beats of their meeting. Vomit rose and I swallowed it. My rational mother looked beatific.
'See, you know him, don't you, my dear? He responds to you, he sleeps so peacefully in your arms. Just look at his colour rising,' she said, her hand to his smooth forehead. 'He has always been here waiting, my love. I cared for him a little, the servants a little more. You weren't to see him until fate decreed it, and fate decreed you see him today.'
Time stopped. When it started again, I was tear-stained and swollen, overwhelmed by the truth, and the momentous betrayal.
'I didn't know I had a baby,' I rasped. 'Why has it happened like this?'
'This is how it happens for everyone. You're not a mother, and then you are: the blessed saints look upon you and you switch one hell or splendour for another.' She paused, her affection for me returning. 'Look, child, you must understand that you can only live your life and read your books and stand in the rain for so long before you must stop that, and hold your child until they are grown. Your arms give him life, so now he will grow from a baby to a child, like a seed after a winter underground. You must know that you'll love him?'
I found myself nodding.
'He's always been here,' she chanted, her edict simple, 'on the sideboard, behind the door, just waiting for the moment to appear.'
It was then that the horizons of my life - almost immeasurable just an hour before - began to fold in towards me, collapsing over and over, until the mountains of lost potential formed a boundary around my son's sleeping face, encircling a whole new existence. I felt like a flipbook closed halfway, the back cover face up in someone else's hands; but his sweet scent contained the traces of an extinguished candle, the wick still glowing. Suddenly, I was addicted to his breathing, and the ring of potential around his face began to glow, a different colour, and a strange, exhausted thrill ran through me, the like of which I'd never known.
'My books, mother,' I asked, an afterthought, aware again of the backpack cutting into my shoulders, 'what were they exactly? Time-wasters? Decoys? I mean, will I even graduate?'
My mother sighed.
''Who's to say? They were what they were. But now you are a mother.'
With that, she smiled into my eyes from beneath her black lace and squeezed my blanket-filled hand. My son gazed at me with his onyx eyes and I looked down into their black depths, seeing both life and death beneath the surface. My backpack grew heavier, the books becoming insistent, but they were trapped behind me now, my baby-filled arms now an absolute blockade.
I looked to my mother, but she tutted softly and went off to plan dinner.
My heart burst.
My books stood inert.
For the very first time, my baby screamed.