Behind the house was a shallow grave, marked by a plain headstone with two shadowy figures drawn on it. They appeared to be touching hands as they passed by one another like ghosts.
Living up on this windswept and treeless slope would have been particularly undesirable to most people, considering the climb and open exposure to the elements. Though Julian may actually have held such sentiments, he never uttered a word against it. To him there was a sacredness in this place, as to others there was in the far off church whose steeple broke through the clouds.
Inside, the single room was well lit when the window hatches were open, and quite dim when they were closed. It was furnished with little more than their straw-stuffed mattresses, a table and three chairs, and a wood burning stove, with its chimney pipe running up through the ceiling. It was not infrequent that their goat or one of their sheep would nudge its way in through the door when it was cold outside for some heat off of the stove.
Julian had worked hard to complete construction of this cottage before Bilal’s birth. In his haste, he greatly compromised the initial plan of construction, reducing the size, eliminating a second room, and employing substandard building technique and unskilled labor. Though latent deficiencies revealed themselves in subsequent years, Julian so valued having had a home into which Bilal could be born that the perpetually dripping ceiling and unstable floors did not bother him in the least.
Not only did Bilal come into the world through that cottage, that portal, but that is also where his mother, Belleanna was delivered from it. Her death followed a tortuous labor, during which the crude practices of the midwife did little to abate the onset of an infection so severe that in her last days delirium and pain supplanted any joy or relief that might have otherwise accompanied the birth of her baby.
The giving and taking of life in that little cottage was so nearly simultaneous that the spirits of mother and son almost seemed to touch one another as they crossed their respective thresholds of immortality and mortality.
On the night his wife passed, the wind drove the rain hard against the cottage walls. The thunder claps echoing through the valley below and startling lightning flashes did not move on and abate as usual, but seemed to hover eternally all around the family. Though Julian could have descended the hill to summon the doctor, it would have been pointless, as the old doctor could have never accomplished the ascent up the mud path. Julian also believed that this die had been cast.
It was cold in the dark room. The animals were huddled near the new born baby in the warm perimeter of the stove. The acute smells of new life and death within that room would have overwhelmed men of less mettle and slower blood flow.
Julian held his wife’s hands and touched her face in the dim light as she closed her eyes and departed. He could not weep. Instead, in between the thunder, Julian heard the far off bells out in the church tower chime.
He calmly turned away from the still body, dipped his fingers in a bowl of goat’s milk on the table, and pressed them against the lips of the baby, who was entirely unaware that anything was out of the ordinary.