Then she died.
I crawled into the heather alongside her and touched her face. I leaned down and put my head on her chest. I heard the last beat of her heart. Then her breath sighed out and all went still inside her. Around us, the wind blew softly and her bees busied themselves in the blossoms. Her body was still warm and she still smelled like my mother. I put my arms around her and closed my eyes. I rested my head on her breast and wondered what would become of me now that the woman who had loved me so was gone.
The day was just cooling when my father came looking for us. He had been to the sheep fields, I knew, for he carried on his arm a big bouquet of the little white roses that grew along the path. He came to the wooden gate in the low stone wall that surrounded the garden, looked in at us, and knew. He knew she was dead before he opened the gate. Still he ran to us, as if he could run back to a time when it wasn’t already too late. He dropped to his knees by her body and set his hands to her. He breathed hard and flung his heart into her, searching her flesh for some sign of life. He dragged me with him, and I knew what he knew. She was irrevocably gone.
He gathered us both up to him, threw back his head, and howled. His jaws stretched wide, his face turned up to the sky, and the ridges of muscle in his neck stood out.
He made no sound. Yet the grief that poured through him and up to the sky soaked me and choked me. I drowned in his sorrow. I put my hands against his chest and tried to lever away from him, but could not. From impossibly far away, I felt my sister. She battered at him, demanding to know what was wrong. There were others, ones I had never met, shouting into his mind, offering to send soldiers, to lend strength, to do anything for him that could possibly be done. But he could not even verbalize his pain.
It’s my mother! my sister suddenly grasped. And, Leave him alone. Leave us alone! she commanded them all, and they receded like a tide.
But still his grief roared on, a storm that battered me with tempest winds that I could not escape. I squirmed wildly, knowing that I was fighting for my sanity and possibly my life. I do not think he even knew he held me trapped between his thundering heart and my mother’s cooling body. I wriggled out from under his arm and fell back to the earth and lay there, gasping like a fish out of water.
The slight distance I had gained from him was not enough. I was plunged into a maelstrom of memories. A kiss stolen on a stairway. The first time she had touched his hand and it was no accident. I saw my mother running down a beach of black sand and stone. I recognized the ocean that I had never seen. Her red skirts and blue scarves flapped in the wind and she was laughing over her shoulder as my father chased her. His heart had pounded with joy at the thought that he might catch her, might playfully hold her in his arms, for just a moment. They were children, I suddenly saw, children at play, only a handful of years older than I was now. They had never grown older, neither one of them, not really. All their lives she had remained that girl to him, that wondrous girl just a few years older than he was, but so worldly wise, so female to all that was so male in his life.
“Molly!” he cried out, the word suddenly breaking from him. But he had no breath to shout it; he gasped it out. He crumpled over her body, weeping. His voice came in a whisper. “I’m all alone. I’m all alone. Molly. You can’t be gone. I can’t be this alone.”
I didn’t speak to him. I did not remind him that he still had me, for that was not what he was talking about. He still had Nettle, too, and Chade and Dutiful and Thick. But I knew his heart then; could not help but know it as the feelings gushed out of him like blood from a killing wound. His grief mirrored mine exactly. There would never again be anyone like her. Never anyone who would love us so completely, with so little reason. I gave myself over to his grief. I sprawled on my back on the earth and watched the sky darken and the summer stars begin to appear in the deep-blue sky.
A kitchenmaid found us there, shrieked in horror, and then ran back to the house to fetch help. The servants came back with lanterns, half-afraid of the master in his wild grief. But they had no need to be cautious. All strength had gone out of him. He could not even rise from his knees, not even when they tugged her body from his arms to carry her back to the house.
It was only when they reached for me that he roused himself. “No,” he said, and in that moment he claimed me as his. “No. She is mine now. Cub, come here, to me. I will take you in.”
I set my teeth to his touch as he picked me up. I kept my body stiff and straight as I always did whenever he held me and looked away from his face. I could not bear him, could not bear his feelings. But the truth was on me and I had to speak it. I caught my breath and whispered by his ear the poem from my dream. “When the bee to the earth does fall, the butterfly comes back to change all.”