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THE NIGHT THIEVED
The midnight sky darkened, black as the love bugs eating away at her mother’s heart. If Louisa listened closely, she could hear them chewing. Tiny bites that crackled and clicked, as if their teeth were very sharp. And in the quiet of the night, when the only other sounds were the groans of the old building settling and the lonely call of a lune lark, Louisa could not block out the persistent nibbling.
She should have been curled with her blankets beside the fireplace, asleep like her mother, but the stone hearth had gone cold, and there was no more wood to burn. So she sat by her mother’s bedside, listening to the love bugs tick and tock like a clock winding down.
In her hand Louisa held a threaded needle. Careless of the mending in her lap, she stabbed the pad of her thumb through the length of fabric. She held back a yelp and sucked the pinprick wound. With only embers in the hearth, it was much too dark for sewing.
Shadows crowded the corners and settled under her mother’s eyes and in the hollows of her cheeks. They changed the shape of her face, sharpening every bone.
Louisa looked away. Her eyes fell on the pile of mending her mother took in from the neighbors, a task that afforded their food and their kindling and their rent, except that it sat there ever unfinished. Whenever Louisa offered to help, her mother gently refused her, insisting she was neither too tired nor too ill.
Though she would have liked to pretend otherwise, Louisa knew better. She tried very hard to sneak in late-night mendings, but tonight the gloom pressed in, and she struggled to focus on anything other than her mother’s shallow breaths and the shuffling in her chest.
Louisa scratched her elbow and rubbed her knee. Sometimes she couldn’t quite convince herself that the love bugs weren’t crawling over and beneath her skin, burrowing closer to her heart no matter how tightly she locked it against them.
She’d heard their gnawing and chewing all twelve years of her life, but tonight they ate faster, as if they raced for the very last bite. Soon there would be nothing left beating inside her mother’s chest. All of her heart devoured.
Darkness pressed in through the window. It spilled on the floor like tar, so thick it blotted out everything in its path.
Louisa set aside the mending and rose from her seat, levitating ever so slightly. She crossed to the window on nimble feet that never quite touched the ground. Maybe the shadows held her aloft. Maybe it was the air. She didn’t know the how or the why of it, only the feel of it. Like there were marshmallows under her soles.
Soot gathered in the corners of the window. She peered through the hazy glass at the spattering of factory lights still burning and the darkness that swallowed everything else. The night thieved even the stars and the moon. With a shiver, she swept closed the tattered curtains her mother always left parted.
A slow breath wheezed from her mother’s mouth. “Keep them open.”
Louisa’s fingers tightened on the fabric. She drew the curtain to the side once again and then turned back to her mother. “But it’s so dark outside.”
“Not any darker than when you close your eyes. And yours should already be laced shut by your lashes.” Her mother spoke softly as she angled herself against the headboard, not quite sitting upright, not quite lying down. The shadows tried to hide it, but a small smile bloomed on her face. “I’m disappointed I didn’t wake to your snoring.”
Louisa laughed, pleased by the teasing. Maybe her mother was feeling a bit better. “I don’t snore.”
“You’ll never know for sure, will you?”
“I suppose not.” Although she did not like to turn her back on the night, Louisa drifted to her mother’s bedside. “I’ll just have to believe you.”
“Now there’s my sweet girl.” Her mother pulled her arm out from under the blanket and reached up, trailing her fingers through the ends of Louisa’s long, black hair.
Louisa smoothed her nightgown and sat on the chair once again. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t padded or that the back was very hard and straight. Not one part of her body touched the wood; a thin layer of air cushioned her, just as it did when she walked across the room or slept before the fireplace.
“I’m sorry if I woke you,” Louisa said, though she was sure she’d been very quiet. After all, her feet made no sound, as they never touched the floorboards.
“Oh, no, it wasn’t you.” Her mother placed a hand to her chest, right over her frail heart. “They’re the ones keeping me awake. They’re so restless tonight.”
Something prickled at the base of Louisa’s spine, as if a love bug tiptoed across it. She squirmed on the chair. “I can hear them.”
Her mother attempted to smile again but could not hold up the corners of her mouth. “Not for much longer.”
Louisa froze in place, her lips setting into a grim line. She twisted her fingers in her lap. “Please don’t say that.”
“You’ll have to believe me in this too,” her mother whispered.
“I don’t want to,” Louisa said stubbornly. Her thumb throbbed where she’d poked it.
“Come closer.” Already, after only their brief exchange, her mother’s voice sounded strained from use.
Louisa knelt just above the floor beside the bed. She took her mother’s cold, white hand in both of her own. “Should I fetch Mrs. Morel to mix a healing tonic?” Louisa glanced at the ceiling, where, in the apartment above, their landlord slept.
Her mother shook her head. “There’s nothing more she can do for me, Louisa.”
“What can I do for you?” Louisa clasped her mother’s fingers. She would bring her extra blankets or warm water with squeezed lemons. Something to comfort her mother until morning.
A sheen of sweat beaded her mother’s forehead, and a shiver ran the length of her body. She smelled of autumn roses after their bloom, something faded and oversweet. “Just stay by my side.”
“I’m here,” Louisa said in a small voice. “Where else would I go?”
Her mother’s eyes flicked toward the window. “Sometimes I wonder.”
“That’s silly.” Louisa never left her mother for long, not if she could help it. She did not even attend school, taught at home by her mother instead. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You won’t mean to, but one day the wind might carry you away. The sky is vast, and like the Spark Woods beyond Plum, something you might become lost in. I could not bear to lose you to the forest of stars.” Her mother drew her eyes from the night as if it pained her and settled them heavy and searching on Louisa. “You must promise me you’ll be careful.”
Louisa slouched under the weight of her mother’s words and those still unspoken. “You have no reason to worry about me.” But in truth, anytime her mother mentioned the forest of stars, Louisa quaked with fear—that the wind might blow her so high she’d float past the sooty fog and be lost forever in the stars no one in Plum could even see.
Her mother’s gaze once again returned to the window. In the silence that followed, the love bugs licked their mouths and chomped off chunks of her mother’s heart. They had never been so loud. The sound of their feasting rang in Louisa’s ears.
“Mother.” Louisa’s voice quavered.
“I have every reason to worry.” Her mother touched her tongue to her cracked lips, as if she did not want to release the words she’d readied. But then they fell fast and rough, pushed out from the place deep inside that had always tended them. “I think of it every day. That you might be more like William than I imagined.”
“My father?” Her mother hardly spoke of him. Louisa knew it pained her too much, that the very thought of his name fractured her already-broken heart. Louisa leaned closer so her mother could whisper the rest.
“Yes, your father.” Her throat moved with the effort of swallowing. “Just before you were born, he lost his grasp on the world.”
Louisa’s thoughts spun all around, too fast for her to catch.
“He floated out this very window, up and into the air.” Her mother clutched Louisa’s hand, holding her in place. “I reached for his coattails, but they slipped right through my fingers. He lifted higher and higher, touching the clouds and moving with them as the wind blew north.”
“What happened to him?” Louisa asked. Although she knew something must have happened to her father long, long ago (after all, she had never once met him), she hadn’t known this secret. And she hadn’t realized she took after him, that he too was made of hollow bones and too much air.
Her mother’s voice crackled like broken glass. “I never saw him again.”
But that Louisa had already guessed. All this time, her mother had waited for him to return, watching the window as if he might fall from the sky and back into their lives. He was the only one who could have chased away the love bugs. Louisa had tried and tried, but all the love she poured into her mother leaked through the fissures in her heart, never quite enough to fill it or seal it or make it whole.
“I’m afraid for you.” Her mother’s fingers trembled. “So promise me. Promise me you’ll always be careful.”
Louisa didn’t like the urgency in her mother’s voice, and she didn’t want to make the promise. Not because she wouldn’t be careful, but because it felt like a last promise.
And last words.
Louisa bowed her head. There was not enough time for all the things she wanted to say, only this final moment to put her mother at ease. She opened her mouth but found herself too choked up to utter even the smallest sound. A silent sob rattled through her.
“Shh.” The gentle shushing and the pressure of her mother’s hand soothed the raw edges inside Louisa.
She swallowed. “I promise.”
“Oh, my sweet girl. How I love you.” All the rest of what might have been said trailed off. Her mother’s eyelids fluttered and then shut.
Silence descended upon the room. A horrible, clutching stillness. It swelled and swelled, like a held breath, but her mother did not exhale.
“Mother?” Louisa said, gripping her limp hand, afraid to let go.
The quiet stretched on, a stillness more terrible than the gnawing of the love bugs, which had ceased all at once, in time with the final beat of her mother’s lonely heart.
“Mother!” Louisa cried. “Please don’t leave me.”
But her mother was already gone.
Louisa could not stand the quiet, how it engulfed her. Her throat clogged with tears as she released her mother’s hand. She clutched her own to her chest, eyes bleary as she looked at her mother’s still form. Louisa’s heart beat fast, but she would not let it break. The love bugs could squirm through the smallest sliver of space or the tiniest crack.
She would not let them eat her heart.
Every day since her mother’s last breath, the wind wailed. It churned the clouds overhead and the smog coughed up from the factory’s smokestacks. Black flecks blew all around, and a layer of soot stained the ground like the darkest, dirtiest snow.
With her skirt fluttering around her knees, Louisa looked down the street. Not a single footprint marked the blanket of ash.
And she would make none of her own.
When they’d gone out, her mother had always placed her boots down so carefully, perfect soot-prints left in the grime. They’d made a game of it, her mother an arm’s span ahead, face turned back with a smile, and Louisa hopping step to step after her—no one in Plum the wiser that Louisa’s feet never touched the ground.
But her mother was no longer here to guide the way. Not through the sooty streets. Not in any part of Louisa’s life.
Taking these steps without her mother felt impossible, but Louisa turned up the worn collar of her black coat and stalked forward. The wind ran beside her, stirring up ash and twisting and tangling her hair so it whipped around her head like strands of black lightning.
Had she really been there, her mother would have braided it for her. Louisa could have done it herself, of course, but even the small act of plaiting one strand over another brought a thick ache to her throat. She would have given anything to feel her mother’s fingers in her hair, how gently she worked out a snarl.
How, when her hands were busy, she might let something slip about Louisa’s father. Little bits that Louisa collected and held close—that his hair shone as black as a starless midnight sky, the same shade as Louisa’s own, that he was a night owl and sketched by the light of the moon, that he had once worked for the theater as a stagehand—but never once had she mentioned how he floated on air.
It seemed something Louisa should have known much sooner. It was a terribly lonesome feeling to have, every story of her father filled with holes so she could not see the whole of him. Not even the few spare photographs her mother had taken could trap his image, as if he was about to drift out of the frame.
Louisa took what tales she could from those faded black-and-white pictures. In one, her father ran fast with a long-tailed kite, his face no more than a smudge. It was taken the day her parents had met. In another, he stood just above the ground with his back to the lens, plucking an apple from a tree. And her favorite: the one with her parents together, their figures so small she couldn’t see either of their faces clearly—and Louisa a small bean in her mother’s rounded belly. They posed before a wide-striped tent, the sky above them dark but for the stars. Their fingers linked, as if her mother hoped to keep her father grounded. Louisa had always wondered where the photographs were taken, none more than this last one that she was a part of too.
As she walked along, Louisa glanced up, casting sad eyes at the clouds. She wanted her mother beside her. She wanted to know her father. The first was impossible.
The second was only nearly impossible.
Tears brimmed her eyes, but she couldn’t cry in case the love bugs were watching.
Not now. Not ever.
Louisa let the wind numb her. She straightened her back, taking deliberate steps as she neared the crowded streets of Plum Square, which were surrounded by black-shuttered buildings so tall and narrow hardly any sun reached between them. Here, someone would have to look very closely to notice how her feet hovered above the ground, but she heard the whisper of her mother, reminding her to be careful.
Sidestepping a group of boys her age, Louisa clutched her bag. They rushed for one of the stands along the square, knocking elbows as they went and shoving schoolbooks from one another’s hands, vying to be the first in line for a sticky bun (which was sure to come with a sprinkling of ash as well) or some other sugary treat.
She continued on, past the stalls with sweet rolls and scones and candied apples that smelled so much like happiness her lips twitched.
Louisa scanned the crowd, searching for the one vendor who was so inconsistent in her attendance at the market that it would be a wonder if Louisa could find her. All around the square she went, until at last Louisa spied the young woman at the edge of the alley, perched on a stool, two wooden buckets of flowers at her feet.
Although the flowers sagged in the bucket, all the best picked over earlier in the day, their heavy heads and velvet petals were as beautiful as the woman who sold them. They shone brighter than anything else in Plum Square.
The woman smiled as Louisa approached, an expression that seemed more appraising than warm. “Pretty flowers for a pretty girl? For a heart-sworn friend? For your most loved and cherished mother?”
The words chimed like bells and came as fast as the wind, blowing into Louisa all at once.
“What do you favor? The sweetest, rubiest-red roses? The hardiest chrysanthemums? Carnations to match your snow-white cheeks or asters to match your eyes?”
Louisa shook her head, finding her voice at last. “My eyes aren’t purple.”
“Come closer, then.” The woman adjusted her thick skirts, layered teal, plum, and gold, which were so long they fell past her toes and swept the ground. Dirt dusted the hem. “Let me better see.”
Louisa crossed the distance between them. Her fingers curled around the strap of her bag.
The flower seller touched the wilted rose struck through her hair and plucked off a creped red petal the same shade as her lips. Rubbing it between index finger and thumb, she leaned forward. Louisa squirmed under her sharp inspection. “It seems I was mistaken. Your eyes are a troublesome swirl of black and blue. But I haven’t any flowers with me to match sorrow.”
Louisa looked at her toes. She had not masked her feelings as well as she’d thought. “The daisies, please.”
She and her mother had picked wildflowers each summer (before the love bugs had consumed so much of her mother’s heart), arranging them in a glass jar once used for jam. Her mother had never said so, but Louisa had always imagined her father (faceless though he was) with a fat bunch of daisies in his hands, offering them up to her mother because he knew she loved them best.
Louisa slipped her hand into the pocket of her coat and tightened her fingers around one of the coins tucked deep inside, hoping it would be enough, for she could not spare more.
The woman reached down and plucked the flowers from the bucket. The stems dripped water, but Louisa accepted them without complaint and handed over the coin while nodding goodbye. She’d gone no more than a few steps when the woman called after her.
“That’s a neat trick you have there. It almost looks as if you are f loating. Are you a street performer? An illusionist? A levitationist?”
Louisa stiffened, too aware of the odd shadow that fell beneath her feet. She turned her head ever so slowly. “I am none of those things. I’m just a girl.” (Oh, how she wished that were true.)
Her heart pounded in her chest so loudly that she worried the love bugs could hear its call. She forced herself to meet the woman’s eyes, pretending she had nothing to hide and nothing to fear. The vendor made no comment, and her silence was even worse than the questions—full of knowing. Louisa shrank back, looking away and scurrying off before her secret let itself loose.
But the vendor’s too-observant gaze followed her.
Copyright © 2020 by Heather Kassner