Content warning: violence against a child, animal death
The first face the babe awoke to was not human, but canine. It startled her, the fuzzy muzzle and liquid brown eyes hovering so close over her own, and she cried out heartily.
There was no smell of mother here, but there was a warmth not unlike hers which wrapped around the baby and lifted her into the air. A new face peered down. It was twisted – corner of the mouth raised here, funny pink slashes across its dark cheek there, and an eye not quite opened – but it was human. This face smiled and a voice cooed so softly that the curiosity swirling within the child did not dissolve into fear.
Something wet and warm brushed her cheek, something that made her stomach clench in hunger. She sucked on this soft thing, craving the liquid in which it was soaked, though it wasn’t quite as sweet as Mother’s milk. Occasionally the woman who held her stole the cloth away, evoking tears and screams, but it returned quickly, soaked once more in warmth and sweetness.
The dog, though she had no word for it yet, frightened her for many days. She had never seen a creature like it, and it snuffled loudly with its wet cold nose against her head. Cold was something the baby was coming to know well; she felt it often now, and it seemed that parts of her body were made of nothing else. Eventually she came to know the dog as a source of warmth and eventually safety and comfort. In the baby’s mind these were the beginnings of love.
But she was also beginning to learn hunger. She’d felt the desperate need for food since the moment she was born, but as her fragile body tried to grow, she found milk-soaked rags inadequate. It was then that she learned true hunger – a hunger that was both fear and pain, a hunger that made her sleepy and weak, and a hunger that made her try to eat things that made the woman shout out and wipe her tongue.
Maman Tee, as the woman came to be called, began to act strangely, casting worrying glances at the child while she rested in her nest of rags against the dog’s warm fur. She cried often, except on those odd days when a visitor would come and exchange shiny circles of metal for a bag of odd smelling plants or a bottle of cloudy liquid — all of which the child had tried to consume at some time or another. After the stranger left, Maman Tee would disappear and come back with food. Real food that filled the child’s belly and tasted good against her tongue. Those were the merry days – when Maman Tee would laugh and sing with the dog barking and running circles around her feet. The child would hold tight to the warm neck of her saviour and fall asleep being swung about in her arms.
Then one day men came to the door. They banged and shouted. Maman Tee left and when she returned her face was different — crestfallen and tear-stained yes, but swollen too and the wrong colour. She held the child and wept. After that there were no visitors for a long time, and no singing or laughter either. And worst of all, the hunger returned until the child could no longer remember that she had ever felt anything else.
Finally, there came an evening when, after the child was laid to rest, Maman Tee sat over her for a long while inspecting the hollows of her cheeks and thinking on the hollow in her tiny belly. Still on the verge of sleep, eyes closed and body still, the child felt the blanket lifted from her chest and up and over her face. It tickled, but after a moment the pleasant sensation turned to panic. There was no air, only a gentle pressure over her face which she flailed against with the little strength her arms could muster.
Just as she began to drift into blackness, the blanket was torn away and Maman Tee lifted her to her breast. They clung to each other, weeping hot tears.
“I’m sorry. Oh God, I’m so sorry.”
Maman Tee kissed her all over.
“I’m so sorry, my baby, my love.”
The child didn’t understand her words, but she accepted her love and drifted off to sleep with her head resting against the woman’s shoulder.
When she woke the next day, the dog was gone. She was old enough to understand its disappearance by then, comprehending that objects and people and dogs should not disappear without a reason. In her own way she asked after him, but Maman Tee had no answer that would satisfy the child.
“She’s taking care of you, my love,” she would say, but the babe heard only her sadness and saw only her tears.
That night they had food, and with it the remembrance of times of joy and song, but to the child’s disappointment the songs did not come. Maman Tee did not eat with her, and nor did she sing or smile.
Genevieve emerged from the Mayor’s house with Darnell at her side. The pistol was concealed once more, and the only evidence of what had transpired was splattered across Darnell’s white shirtfront.
“Well that did not go as smoothly as I might have liked,” she said, pushing herself along the street in the direction of Ste. Ygrette’s only inn.
“I apologize for my slow response, Mademoiselle,” Darnell answered, hanging his head.
“No, not at all, you did what was required. It’s just a pity. I quite like dogs.” There were curious eyes upon her, she could feel them staring down from windows and out from alleys and doorways. No, this was certainly not the best start she could have hoped for. Not that this was ever going to be an easy job. “We need to get you changed, before we start a bloody panic.”
The room provided to them was cramped with bulky wooden furniture, and Genevieve groaned as she tried to manoeuvre her way to where their luggage was stored. Darnell undressed, replacing his shirt behind her.
“They could have afforded us a nicer room,” she complained, giving up and waiting for Darnell to finish, “Given that we’re here to save them and whatnot.”
“I’m not sure they can afford us anything else,” Darnell replied, fastening the last of his buttons, “The Mayor seemed to only be squeaking by, and that doesn’t say much for the state of the town’s finances.”
“True,” she admitted, managing to turn her chair to face him only by bumping into the towering armoire behind her half a dozen times, “Fetch me a new pair of gloves, will you? These ones smell like gun powder now.”
He reached past her into one of her cases and passed her a pair of silk gloves, identical to the pair she was removing.
“Thank you,” she told him, and seeing the tension between his brow she added, “And honestly, you did well. After this many years I wish you wouldn’t doubt yourself so much. You should take a sabbatical after this assignment. I most certainly plan on taking one.”
His smile was subtle, but rare enough for Genevieve to judge it as genuine.
“Alright… now off to that old lady’s house. What was her name again?”
“Annette,” Darnell answered, retrieving his jacket and aiding Genevieve back into hers.
“Yes. That one. I have a feeling she’ll have a great deal of insight for us.”