“And then,” she breathed, her eyes wide to show the wonder of the story, “Ali Baba cried out…”
“Open Sesame!” crowed Hannibal, delighted.
“Open Sesame!” smiled back his mother.
Hannibal’s face split in a wide grin. He loved bedtime. He never had to be told twice to come back from the creek, wash and climb into his calico nightshirt. Because bedtime meant – stories. Wonderful stories – told not just by his mother – but by marvellous Queen Scheherazade. Spinning her magic every night of his life. Well – his face shadowed, just for a moment – every night for weeks and weeks and weeks now. Weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. Months. Nearly forever. It was – forever – since she had last looked sad. MORE than forever, when he had been sent to stay at the Curry farm. Then Nate had told him he was going to have a new brother or sister. Mr. Curry had overheard and shook his head warningly at his oldest son.
Nate’s face had fallen. He had glanced worriedly at Hannibal. He had never mentioned a new brother or sister again.
The trees had begun to lose their leaves before Hannibal had been allowed home for good. When his father fetched him, or Mrs. Curry took him to visit his mother, she had scarcely looked round. Hunched under the sheets in the big bed, she had stared and stared at the wall. No matter who spoke to her – no answer. Mrs. Curry explained she was very ill. Hannibal believed her. Sometimes when he went in – he thought the room smelt of – blood. Like the killing shed – after a pig’s throat was cut. Doctor Wallace had explained his mother was very, very sad. That is why she could not talk. It did not mean she did not WANT to talk to him. She just – could not. Hannibal had been confused by that. When people were very, very sad – did they not cry? His mother never cried once. Her eyes were dry. Wide, empty – and dry.
When he returned home, his mother was out of bed. But, she still stared for hours at the wall. Even at Christmas – and his mother usually loved Christmas – she had had no laughter. When she opened the present he had made, her smile had been so sad.
But now it was spring. His mother was happy again. He could make her smile. He loved to see her smile. Her whole face lit up and her eyes crinkled, into sparkling slits.
“Open Sesame!” he trilled again, tilting back his head to let the words echo off the low ceiling of his room in the loft of their small farmhouse.
“AND,” asked his mother, seriously, “What else did Ali Baba have to do to open the cave?”
“Tap the little rock!” he cried, bouncing on the bed.
His mother’s fingers tapped – oh, so gently – on the headboard.
“Did you hear it?” she whispered. “You have to listen really hard. Listen, Hannibal!”
He strained his ears. Everyone always said his hearing was so sharp he could catch a spider spinning a web in the next room.
Click, click, click, went the tips of the nails.
“I heard it! I heard it!”
“Then – the cave – opened!” she exclaimed, voice full of wonder, “What did Ali Baba see?”
“Gold, treasure, jewels!”
“Riches beyond the dreams of avarice!” she agreed.
“Ali Baba thought, ‘If I steal all this treasure – I can win the hand of a beautiful princess. I can eat the finest food. I can drink the finest wine. I can wear silks and satins… AND…”
“I need never work again!” crowed Hannibal.
She nodded, “Because although Ali Baba was very clever and very handsome and very brave – he was also – very, very lazy. Whenever his brother told him to go out and chop wood, he would grumble…” Queen Scheherazade lowered her voice to imitate the grumpy Ali Baba, “‘I hate chopping wood – it’s so hard on the back!'”
“So hard on the back,” repeated Hannibal, grinning up. “Go on… What happened next?”
A shadow fell over the swept boards of the floor. Hannibal looked up. His father stood at the head of the loft ladder. Glass of whiskey in hand, his handsome, laughing face was smiling at the storyteller and her audience. He gave a jerk of his head. Hannibal’s face fell. He knew this meant his mother would go back down.
“Finish the story!” he protested.
His father laughed.
“Hannibal – you know Queen Scheherazade can NEVER finish a story. She has to leave you wanting more. What will happen if the Queen ever finishes one of her tales?”
“She will die,” said Hannibal, solemnly. He knew this was true. His mother had always told him this. “The Sultan will – kill her!”
“But as long as she continues to fascinate her Sultan – the powerful Shahryar – she is safe,” smiled his mother. She tucked him up, kissed him and moved to the ladder. “Go to sleep now.”
“Goodnight, Hannibal,” came his father’s deep voice, as they went down.
After a moment, Hannibal did what he always did. He slipped out of bed and went just to the very edge of the hatch, so he could see his parents downstairs.
His father was kissing his mother. He could hear a very low murmur.
“You said it wasn’t the right time last week – so is it – safe now?” The sound of another kiss, “Your Sultan needs to be fascinated.”
They were hugged together so close a single shadow was cast on the wall, flickering in the light of the oil lamps.
“You’ll still be – careful – Alex? Please,” came his mother’s voice, so soft even Hannibal’s sharp ears had to strain to catch it.
“Of course,” the answering voice was warm.
Hannibal’s father kept one arm tight around Queen Scheherazade, with the other he first drained his glass, then poured another half inch of whiskey, which he took with him, as he led his First One – the Light of his Darkness – into the bedroom.
Crawling back into his bed, Hannibal wondered what his father had to be careful of. Perhaps it was to make sure he and his mother never – finished a story. If that ever happened – she would not be safe.
“This particular elephant…” said Scheherazade, as she sat cross-legged amidst her audience, “This particular elephant,” her fingernail tapped on the beast etched so delicately into the wood, “belonged to the Caliph Hārūn. Hārūn ruled all the land as far as the eye could see. He ruled all the land as far as the swiftest stallion could gallop in a day. He was a most mighty, most powerful Caliph…”
“What’s a Caliph?” asked Jed, obscurely. At least, Hannibal assumed that is what he asked. It was hard to tell what Jed was saying at the best of times, let alone when his mouth was full of cookie. ‘You were small once’, his mother would say. But Hannibal did not believe he had ever been so small, nor so bothersome as Jed. Life had been less annoying before Mrs. Curry had started to insist that Esther and him ‘let Jed play too’.
“It’s – kinda – a King!” snapped Beth. “Shush!” As an afterthought, she added, “An’ don’t talk with your mouth full!”
Jed chewed his cookie stoically. Hannibal’s mother reached over to ruffle his curls.
“A Caliph IS a ruler, like a King. Just as Beth, Beth the wise, says. The Caliph’s word is law. His people can have no other will than his. And at this time – which was long ago – the Caliph was the mighty Hārūn. And this particular elephant – named …”
“Abul-Abbas!” crowed Hannibal. Of course he knew the name of every elephant in the room. How could he not? Every elephant in the room belonged to him. The whole room belonged to him.
“Abul-Abbas!” agreed his mother.
“I knew that,” dismissed Esther. “We ALL knew the elephant’s name, Hannibal! Nothin’ for you to look so smug about.”
“Jed didn’t know,” smiled kind Queen Scheherazade, “Jed has only just been introduced to the ponderous, pacing, perspicacious pachyderm, Abul-Abbas.”
“El’phant!” agreed Jed. He poked at the picture, with a podgy and sticky finger.
“Abul-Abbas was the wisest of beasts,” went on the Queen, removing a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiping the hand of her youngest listener, “Many times and oft had he travelled around the land with his master the mighty Caliph. But one day Hārūn decided to send a gift to another powerful ruler. An emperor! The emperor Charlemagne. The Caliph – whose riches were beyond the dreams of avarice – determined that the gifts he sent would outshine even those delivered unto Solomon by Sheba’s radiant queen. He sent Charlemagne a present consisting of silks, brass candelabra, perfume, balsam, ivory chessmen, a colossal tent with many-coloured curtains and a water clock that marked the hours by dropping bronze balls into a bowl, as mechanical knights moved around and around.”
Hannibal blinked. This was all new. He determined – once he had his mother to himself again – and at a time when he had not just taken a huge bite of his own cookie – to return to the water clock and the mechanical knights.
“But, most precious of all, Hārūn sent the elephant named Abul-Abbas. Abul-Abbas, carrying all the other rich gifts upon his back, travelled beyond the lands of his master the Caliph. He travelled across deserts. He travelled across plains. He travelled…”
“Sarah!” the voice of Hannibal’s father rose through the hatch leading to the loft. “Are you up there, Sarah? Because Nathanial’s here and he’s accusing you of theft. He reckons you’re hiding three pieces of his property. He wants them back!”
“Not me,” protested Mr. Curry, “Keep them! Sure and aren’t all three of them nothing but trouble from dawn to dusk?”
“Pa!” called down Esther, dangling her head – upside down – at the top of the ladder. “Come up, come up an’ see Abul-Abbas.”
“Come and see who?” smiled her father.
“The most mighty elephant Abul-Abbas!” she explained. “An’ the other el’phants, too!”
“Sure, and I’m hoping they’re house trained!” joshed Mr. Curry, as he mounted the ladder, followed by Hannibal’s father.
The two tall men made the loft look small. They could only stand upright where the two slopes of the roof met in a peak. Both fathers came over. Hannibal’s father sat behind Queen Scheherazade and circled her with his arms. Mr. Curry squatted down beside Jed, who was still tracing the outline of Abul-Abbas with his finger.
“Oh! The crib!” said Mr. Curry. “Isn’t it years and all, since I’ve seen that?”
“Hannibal’s crib!” confirmed Esther, “Mrs. Heyes tells us stories ‘bout the pictures.”
“It’s not my crib now!” Hannibal explained, hastily, in case Esther should mislead Mr. Curry. “I mean -” he clarified, “It IS still MINE. But I don’t sleep in it now. I sleep in the bed. The crib’s just here for – for lookin’ at.”
“Is that a fact, now?” said Mr. Curry.
“THAT’S Abul-Abbas,” went on Esther, always so keen to show she knew as much as Hannibal. Though she did not, he thought, frowning. “And that – that’s Queen Scheherazade herself – tellin’ stories. An’ next to her – listenin’ – is the Sultan. An’ there’s Sinbad. He appears more’n once ‘cause he has so many adventures. An’ that…” she paused, uncertain for a moment.
“THAT’S one of the Djinn!” Hannibal jumped in delighted to be able to show that HE knew more about HIS pictures, than Esther, who – though he supposed she was his best friend – was still only a guest. “They all look diff’rent. They’re tricky. You hafta watch the Djinn!”
“I knew that!” shot back Esther, “EVERYONE knows that!”
“You didn’t!” he said, “You didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout the Djinn till I told ya.”
“Don’t I recollect you decorating this, now, Alex?” said Mr. Curry, ignoring the squabbling.
“Hannibal’s mother drew all the pictures,” Esther told Jed.
“But then my father went all over ‘em with a red hot poker so they’re burnt into the wood,” said Hannibal, scowling at Esther. She always tried to get in first. And last. He pointed across at the bed, on the other side of the loft. “He did the elephants on the headboard too but they belong to – to Gen’ral Hannibal, not the Caliph. I get another one ev’ry birthday. Burnt in – it’s red hot! Tsssstttss!” he hissed, to show how the poker burnt the wood.
Jed blinked. His eyes moved over the swirl of etched pictures.
“It’s not exactly a poker, son,” smiled his father. “It’s a mite smaller than that!” His tanned finger stretched out to trace one of the etched lines on the crib. “It took – what – close on six months to finish.” He kissed the back of Queen Scheherazade’s neck. Her arm curved round, behind, to stroke his hair.
“I remember!” said Mr. Curry. “Because Sarah and Lizzie were carrying at the same time. She was carrying Zach. And wasn’t I shaking in my boots in case she wanted our crib done up the same fancy way?” He grinned, “Wasn’t I thanking the luck of the Irish that me darling Lizzie can’t draw? Leastways not so you’d be knowing an elephant from a horse!”
Beth was frowning at this.
“That doesn’t make sense, Pa,” she said. “Zach is years older than me, let alone Hannibal. How could Mr. Heyes be decorating a crib for Hannibal before even Zach was born?”
Both his parents were silent. Mr. Curry was not cross, but Hannibal saw him frown and shake his tawny head at Beth. Hannibal thought he knew the answer.
“It’s ‘cause I was a long, long time coming!” he stated importantly. He glanced up at his mother. “Isn’t it? An’ – ‘cause I was a miracle. You thought it was a miracle when you got me for keeps. Didn’t you?”
She nodded, reaching out to stroke his hair.
“I still do!” she smiled. More to Mr. Curry than to Hannibal, she added, “After the first two…” she did not carry on with whatever she had been going to say. Instead, she said, “When I heard him – actually crying – it WAS a miracle. At first, I thought it was – you know – like before – just in my head.”
Hannibal’s father gave her a little squeeze.
“Nah,” he grinned. “That was real enough. I’d never heard as much squawking. He made enough noise to raise Cain.” He too reached over and ruffled Hannibal’s hair. “You must have lungs made of leather, son. Squalled up a regular storm – you could shatter glass!”
Hannibal frowned. He was not sure he appreciated that.
“I was a miracle!” he repeated, firmly – in case anyone was missing the crux.
“More than we‘d dared to hope for,” his father said.
“Mirac’las!” Hannibal had no intention of this fact being lost by the adults allowing conversation to drift off this important point.
“Was I a miracle?” Esther asked her father. Hannibal scowled.
“Sure and weren‘t you all miracles?” Mr. Curry answered, comprehensively. “I can remember the picture crib at our house,” he added, “when Hannibal stayed.”
“I don’t have the crib!” objected Hannibal, disgusted. “I’m not a baby. I sleep in Jed’s bed!”
“Not now!” explained Mr. Curry, “the first time you stayed. When you WERE a tiny baby.” A grin split his good-humoured, freckled face, “And, your Pa is right. The squawking was something to hear right enough. On and on!”
“Why?” he frowned.
“Why all the squawking?” teased his father. “I always assumed you were just naturally obstreperous.”
“No! Why was I stayin’ at – at their house.” Hannibal thought for a moment. He turned to his mother. “Was it same as last time? Was it ‘cause you was sick – too sick to look after me?”
She nodded. Although she smiled at him her eyes looked sad.
“I told you,” said his father and again his arms tightened round Hannibal’s mother, “you’re naturally obstreperous. Gave your mother a real hard time. Although I have to admit she seemed to think you were worth all the trouble.” He shook his head slowly as he looked at his son. In a mock serious tone, he went on, “Can’t think why. If it had been up to me we’d have swapped you for a puppy!”
Esther spoke up, clearly thinking Hannibal had been the centre of attention for quite long enough.
“Did I give Ma a real hard time?”
“No!” dismissed her father, “You were like shelling peas. I’d hardly got the kettle boiled before YOU arrived.”
She was clearly thinking this over. Hannibal watched her face first pucker, then relax. He supposed – since Esther liked shelling peas and popping the pods – she’d decided to take this as a compliment.
“Of course!” went on Mr. Curry with a grin. “Haven’t you made up for it by being more trouble than a barrelful of pixies ever since? If you find anyone actually offering these puppies in exchange Alex you‘ll be letting me know! I could be tempted!”
Jed shuffled a little closer to the crib. Pointing again at the etching and looking at the storyteller, he issued a command.
“El’phant… Go wan!”
Hannibal’s father passed around the plate of cookies, as Queen Scheherazade continued.
“After the waxing and waning of many moons, Abul-Abbas, laden with the treasures of his master the Caliph came unto a mighty river. This river, which men do call the Rhine, gushed in a torrent, before the gilded toe nails of Abul-Abbas …”
“They painted his – his TOE-NAILS?”
“Indeed they did! With the most precious gold leaf! Each nail, on each of his four huge feet was so adorned, for everything was done to make Abul-Abbas the finest elephant in the world. Now as the waters flowed, fast and furious, before Abul-Abbas…”
His mother was not listening properly at breakfast. He could tell. His father could tell too, Hannibal saw that. She was not really looking at his father. She was looking – Hannibal screwed up his face as he considered – she was looking through him. As though he were made of glass.
“Sarah,” his father said. “Are you not well?” Nothing. Just the same absent smile. “Sarah!” She started. Her eyes came back into focus. “Have you heard one word I’ve said?”
She blinked a few times.
“You were talking – about the wheat? Getting on with the cutting and stalking.”
“Are you feeling quite well? Is anything wrong?”
She shook her head, decidedly.
“I’m fine. So, Nate will be helping all day again?”
“Uh huh. He’ll be here any minute.”
“And me!” exclaimed Hannibal, indignant, “I’m helping too!”
His father ruffled his hair.
“You’re my right hand man! My prop and stay! My linchpin! Couldn’t do without you!” he smiled.
“And, you’ll be gone all day?” checked his mother.
“All day, every day while the weather lasts.” He drained his mug. “What about you? What are your plans?”
“I mean to be as busy as you!” she smiled. I’m going to wash all the bedding and all the curtains.
“It’ll be a bit hot on a day like this,” he remarked. “Don’t overdo it.”
“Oh, I’ll get most of it done before the sun’s full overhead,” she said. “And think how quickly they’ll dry. It’s got to be done sometime.” She swirled the last inch of tea in her own mug. “Of course, I will be very busy. It’ll be a big help that Hannibal is out in the fields with you all day, he’d only be under my feet if he came back.”
“I wouldn’t!” protested Hannibal.
His father grinned. “Don’t worry son. You’ll be far too busy to get under anyone’s feet. Men’s work. Far more important than laundry! Huh?”
“Yes,” he said, not quite mollified, “I will be far too ‘portant.”
Hannibal was feeling very grown up indeed helping his father and Nate Curry cut the wheat. He was also – he had to admit – feeling tired. But, glancing at the sun, almost directly overhead now, he knew it would not be long until lunchtime. Yesterday, he had fallen asleep at lunch. His father must have moved him under the wagon, where it was cool in the shade because that is where he had been when he woke. Hannibal shook his head. Not that he needed a nap, he wasn’t a baby! Even Jed no longer needed a nap every day. Still, another glance at the sky, he would be glad to hear his father call for a break.
His father and Nate were both squatting by the wagon. They appeared to be poking at the hub in the centre of one of the wheels.
“Sheared through!” his father said.
“Won’t matter while we’re loadin’,” sniffed Nate, “But…”
“But, we won’t haul much like that!” agreed his father. He squinted at the house and barn. They looked very small in the distance. Then he looked, appraisingly, at Hannibal. “Hannibal,” he called. Hannibal walked over. With his tall father squatting like that, their dark eyes were almost level. “You’re a big boy now. If I asked you to run an errand back to the barn – going straight there, coming straight back – that’d be okay, huh? It’s a long way, but you can see it from here. Can’t get lost?”
“‘Course I can’t get lost!”
“See this bolt,” his father held it out, on the flat of his palm. “In the top drawer in the barn – where I keep my tools – you’ll find another bolt exactly like this one. Except not cracked. Exactly the same size, you understand?”
“‘Sactly like that one. Sure!”
“Could you fetch it back? So Nate and I don’t have to stop work.”
Hannibal nodded. That sounded easy enough.
“Good boy! My right hand man!” He lifted off Hannibal’s shady hat, ruffled the dark hair and replaced it, on the back of his head. “Off you go, don’t run too fast in the heat. No great hurry!”
Passing the house on his way to the barn, Hannibal looked at the window. No movement. No sound. Something else, no laundry hanging in the sun. Hannibal slowed. His father had said, ‘no great hurry’. He would just run in and see his mother. Not to get under her feet. Just to tell her about his important errand.
The house was very quiet. Very quiet and very hot. The stove must have been boiling water all morning. His mother was not there. But, she had to be there.
“Mother,” he called.
He looked at the entrance to his parent’s bedroom. There was water splashed around the door. Hannibal paused, small fist gripping the handle, he was not supposed to go in without asking first.
“Mother!” he shouted again. Nothing. No, not nothing. Breathing. He went in. The big metal tub was in the room. Water pooled around it. His mother’s hair spilled over one side where her head lolled. It made no sense. His mother did not take her bath in here and not in the middle of the day. She bathed after he was in bed. There were screens to put around and the tub was placed before the stove.
He could hear himself beginning to cry. He ran toward her. His foot kicked an empty bottle laying on the floor and it spun away, clanging against the metal. His mother’s face was poached pink and clammy. She must have climbed in when the water was real hot. Too hot! Strands of hair clung around her face. She had been sick, sick on the floor. He reached out his hand but did not dare to touch her. Maybe she could hear him sob, because her eyes flickered. He did not think she could see him.
Her mouth moved. No sound came out, but as her lips twitched again, Hannibal knew she was saying his father’s name, “Alex”.
Hannibal ran out of the room, out of the house, out of the yard. He ran as hard as he could. He ran and stumbled and picked himself up and ran and ran toward the two tiny figures working in the far field. He knew there was no point in shouting until he got much closer than this. They could not hear him shout until he was much closer than this. But still he shouted as hard as he could. And ran. And fell. And ran. And shouted. And ran.
Finally, his father saw him. Waved at first. Then saw his son falling – flailing – failing. His father began to run too. His long legs closed the gap at once. Nate Curry followed him. His father plucked Hannibal out of the dirt. Hannibal had known he should not have shouted while he was so far away. He gasped and tried to say a word, tried not to sob. His arm was pointing back toward the house.
“S-s- sick,” he wailed.
His father stared past Hannibal, at the farm. His eyes grew very dark. He stood up. For a moment he was very still amongst the uncut waving ears. Then he set off running. He checked. He turned and caught his son, bleeding at knees and palms, up into his arms. Hannibal had never realised just how strong and swift his father was until that race to reach the house. He could hear Nate following – and he knew Nate was fast – but they left him far behind.
Placing Hannibal on the porch, his father snapped, “Don’t move!” as he went into the house. Noises. A deep groan.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Nate Curry was covering the final yards to the house. His boots thudded past Hannibal on the wooden porch. He opened the door. The voice of Hannibal’s father sliced the air, sharp as a scythe.
“Stay back! Get out of here!”
Nate drew back as though hit. He gulped. He backed up a step onto the porch. Hannibal could not understand why his father sounded so angry with Nate. He saw his father come to the door.
“Sorry Nate, sorry, didn’t mean to yell at you,” His father passed a hand over his brow, “I need you to – to go ask your mother to come over straight away. Then run on into town, fetch Doctor Wallace. Tell him – tell him, Sarah’s real sick.”
“Sure, Mr. Heyes.” He turned.
“Wait,” Hannibal saw his father looking at him, still bleeding, filthy and tear stained. “Take Hannibal to your place, will you? I’ll fetch him back when …” He took a gulp of air, “I’ll fetch him,” he finished.
“No!” squealed Hannibal. He did not want to be taken away. He wriggled away from Nate. “I won’t! No!”
His father was already going back into the house. He wheeled round.
“I haven’t time to argue, Hannibal,” he snapped. “Go with Nate. Mind him. Wait for me to come for you.” He placed his hands on his hips and stared sternly down, “Do you hear me?” he demanded.
Hannibal could feel his lip shaking. He did not dare argue with that voice.
“Yes,” he said, resentfully.
“Yes – sir,”
“Don’t worry, Hannibal,” said Nate, clearly trying to be kind, as he strode away, leading Hannibal by the hand. “You’ll be home before you know it! C’mon now – you don’t wanna make me any slower getting the doctor for your ma, do you?”
His father fetched him back that evening. He was not cross any more. He squatted down and apologised for snapping.
“I was very worried about your mother, Hannibal. I didn’t have time to explain why you had to come here. I needed you to do as you were told. Do you understand?”
Hannibal shrugged and then he nodded. He half understood. He understood his father was worried. He could see that now. He might be smiling at his son, but his eyes were clouded with anxiety and there were tight lines around his mouth that had not been there since – since last summer, the last time Hannibal had been sent to the Curry farm to be out of the way. What he did not understand was WHY was he in the way? Why could he not help?
“I’m going to need you to be very good and do as you’re told when we get home, Hannibal. Because your mother is very tired. She’s going to be fine…”
“Really?” asked Hannibal, in a very small voice. “She looked real sick.”
“Really,” said his father, firmly. “You’ll see! But she’s had a bad time. And she’s got a lot on her mind. Will have all through the summer. So she needs both of us to be good. And to do as we’re told. Alright?”
Hannibal nodded. His father took his hand and began to walk along the road home. Hannibal tugged at the big hand holding his. The handsome face, not quite so careless and laughing as usual, looked down.
“Can I ride on your shoulders?”
“May I ride on your shoulders?”
“I suppose. Up you come!” After a few yards, Hannibal tapped imperiously on the crown of his father’s head. “Uh huh?”
“Faster!” he ordered. “Like a battle elephant!”
“I think elephants are kind of on the slow side, son.”
“NOT in battle!” responded Hannibal, firmly. “Ramming speed!” His father obediently broke into a gentle run.
Back at his own house, Hannibal looked up rather uncertainly.
“Go on in,” his father smiled, nodding at the bedroom door as he hung up his own and his son’s hat.
Hannibal opened the door and peeped round. A grin split his face. It was true! His mother WAS fine. She was in bed and did look tired. But her hair was glossy and shining again. She was sitting up, wrapped in a pretty shawl. The sheets were clean and fresh, white as snow. Her face lit up with pleasure when she saw him and her smile crinkled her eyes. He ran over, to be gathered into a tight, tight hug.
“Come and sit by me,” she said.
“No dusty boots on the bed,” he reminded her.
“Just this once!” she smiled. “But what a good boy you are to remember.” He shrugged. He ought to remember, he was reminded often enough. “Say ‘Hello’ to Mrs. Curry,” his mother prompted him.
“Hello,” he said, obediently, to Mrs. Curry who was seated on the far side of the bed. Then as an afterthought, “They’re missing you at home, ma-am.” She raised her eyebrows with a little questioning smile. “Complainin’ ‘bout no pie for after supper,” he added.
The smile widened a touch.
“I daresay they’ll cope just this once!” She began to rise to her feet. “Still, I’ll be on my way.”
His mother caught her hand. Hannibal could see she was gripping Mrs. Curry’s hand very tightly.
“I can never thank you enough, Elizabeth. You know that.” Mrs. Curry shrugged. She looked – not angry exactly – but not pleased. Hannibal wondered if she had quarrelled with his mother. Or maybe – he saw a glance she gave him – it was his father who had annoyed Mrs. Curry. His mother bit her lip. “And I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve been to you. Over the years.”
Mrs. Curry’s face softened a little. She looked more like her usual kind self.
“You have had your share of troubles, certainly. Over all these years.”
By now Hannibal was sitting beside his mother, cuddled up to her side. He knew it was really past his bedtime.
“Is it time for a story?” he prompted.
“I think your mother’s tired, Hannibal,” said Mrs. Curry, gently.
“Not too tired for a story,” she smiled. She looked up, “But, please, I’d like you to hear it too, Elizabeth. After all, it’s midsummer, it’ll still be plenty light enough to walk home.” Hannibal thought Mrs. Curry was hesitating. “Please,” repeated his mother softly. Mrs. Curry sat down again. His father pulled up another chair and sat on the other side of the bed. The side where Hannibal was nuzzled into his mother’s soft down pillow.
His mother, once again enchanting Scheherazade, began.
“This is a story of the princess, Abassa. Now, Abassa was the beloved sister of the Caliph Hārūn. Hārūn loved his sister so much, that he wished her to stay with him forever.
‘Oh my sister,’ he would say, ‘truly thou art closest to my heart. Never shall you marry, nor never leave my court, nor never love any man above me thy brother and thy King. This is my will. This is the will of the Caliph!’
And Abassa would reply, ‘The will of the Caliph is law. Be it forever as thou does command, my royal brother and my King.'”
Hannibal settled himself down more comfortably, beside his mother. Her arm went around him, hand gently stroking his hair.
“There was in the court a handsome young lord, named Jafar. He was a most daring rider, the master of a plunging, fiery stallion.”
“Did he have a sword?” checked Hannibal.
“His curving blade could split, from end to end, a strand of silk tossed high into the air,” she confirmed.
“OK, go on!” he ordered, simply.
“Jafar won the heart of princess Abassa. Although they knew it was against the will of the Caliph, they married. This was a great secret. For they knew only grief could result from their love, if ever it came to the ears of Hārūn.”
“Did he find out?” asked Hannibal.
“He did,” replied Queen Scheherazade, “For Abassa grew great with child…”
“Like Mrs. Curry?”
Mrs. Curry gave a tiny gasp of laughter.
“I suppose, even in the magical East, it would be pretty much the same, Hannibal,” she said.
The story continued.
“Seeing this, the Caliph Hārūn grew very angry. He knew his sister had disobeyed his will. He knew she had yielded to blandishments from Lord Jafar.”
“What’s – blandis’mens?” interrupted Hannibal.
“Sweet-talk,” answered his father, succinctly.
Hannibal committed the word to memory.
“Abassa was delivered of a fine son. A little prince, most fair of face. The Caliph when he looked upon his nephew, loved him. The child delighted his eyes. But his jealousy against his sister, was bitter as the grave.”
“Was he a bad man?”
“He was the Caliph,” answered his mother, simply. “His will was law. To defy the Caliph was to defy fate. Abassa and Jafar knew that. When they allowed themselves to love they chose their own path.”
“I think he WAS bad,” decided Hannibal.
His father’s hand reached out, first to tuck back a strand of his mother’s hair, then to carelessly flick Hannibal’s nose.
“So do I, son.”
Queen Scheherazade went on.
“Thus spake the Caliph;
‘Oh my sister, hear my words.
You, will stay fast within my court – until the moon has waxed six times.
For six moons see the little prince, each and every day. Let love for him bind fast around your heart. Let your only joy be in the sight of your fair son.
Then, at the waning of the sixth moon, I will banish you from my court and from my land, forever.
To your dear lord – so full of grace – I will give the loveliest maiden of our realm to wive.
Your son – so fair of face – will grow tall and strong and wise without you, others will him raise to man’s estate.
And thou – thou will I cast out. Never to see your lord, never to see the little prince, again.
This is my will. This is the will of the Caliph!’
And it came to pass as the Caliph had decreed. Each time Abassa saw the little prince, each time she held him, each time she kissed his hand or face or foot, he was dearer to her than before. Love for the little prince bound fast around her heart.”
“Like I am fast in YOUR heart?” checked Hannibal, glancing up.
His mother dropped a kiss upon his head. Her eyes met those of Mrs. Curry.
“Just like that,” she confirmed. “Like all sons are dear to their mothers’ hearts.” Mrs. Curry dropped her gaze.
“Go on, Sarah,” she said, quietly.
“Abassa could not bear to think of parting from the little prince. One morning, she cried aloud her grief.
‘I love the little prince more than light and air. I would give everything of which I am possessed to lift this curse of banishment. I would give everything of which I am possessed to see my son grow to be a man.’
And… Who do you think heard her, Hannibal?”
Hannibal thought for a moment.
“Maybe the Caliph?” he hazarded.
He felt his mother’s hand, softly stroking his hair.
“Not the Caliph. But a powerful djinni!”
“Like the djinni of the lamp that Aladdin found?”
“Just as powerful!” confirmed Queen Scheherazade.
“What did he look like?”
“He shimmered in the morning sun,” went on the storyteller, “sometimes he was all of gold, then bronze, or palid silver, or snow-white pearl, but changing always in the light. At all times bright as glass, it hurt the eye to look upon him.”
“Mmm,” grunted Hannibal, “Did he have a sword?”
“A mighty double bladed scimitar, sharp as sharp and curved as an eagle’s beak!” she offered.
He thought for a moment. That sounded satisfactory. “Go on,” he permitted.
“Thus spake the djinni; ‘Most royal princess, I have heard your words. What will you offer, if my magic so prevails that you do see your son grow to be a man?’
‘All my jewels that burn with light.
All my gold shining bright.
All my treasures cunning wrought.
All my horses swift as thought.
Let me see my son grow to be a man and all is yours, oh powerful djinni.’
But the djinni laughed.
‘I am a djinni! From nothing I can conjure jewels, gold, treasures, horses. Rich as thou art, what is all thy wealth to me?’
Abassa’s heart was heavy at these words. But because she loved so well the little prince, she tried again to bargain with the djinni.
‘Behold I am most wondrous fair.
A silken curtain is my hair.
A slender sapling is my waist.
Of honey sweet do my lips taste.
That love so rightly kept unto my lord Jafar, alone, is yours to use, oh powerful djinni, if you will let me see my son grow to be a man.’
Again the djinni laughed.
‘I am a djinni! From nothing I can conjure maidens fair as thee, to be my concubines. Lovely as thou art what is thy body’s use to me?’
At these words, the sun was very dark to Abassa’s eyes. But because she loved so well the little prince, a third time she tried to bargain with the djinni.
‘What boon is it, thou crave’st of me?
If in my power, I’ll grant it thee.'”
His mother paused. Hannibal looked up at her. One finger tickled his cheek.
“What do you think the djinni wanted?” she asked. He thought hard and then shook his head. “Do you remember the djinni that helped Sinbad?” He nodded. He knew all the adventures of Sinbad. “What did that djinni want more than anything?”
Hannibal puzzled for a moment.
“He wanted to be a real boy!” The words of the story came back to him, “He wanted to be mortal!”
“That’s right!” she congratulated. With a wistful smile, she went on, “So what do you imagine this djinni asked of princess Abassa?”
“To be a mortal?” ventured Hannibal, uncertainly.
She kissed him again.
‘Royal princess, to see thy son grow to be a man will take the most precious gift thou hast! It is not thy wealth, nor thy lovely self, I crave – but a soul. I’ll trade my magic for nothing less. Give me thy immortal soul.’
Abassa was dismayed at this demand. She knew her soul was far more precious than any treasure. More precious than her own body. She knew it would be the most wicked thing she could do – to sell her soul. But when she thought of the little prince and of how short a time was left to her, temptation entered her heart. ‘What pleasure is my soul to me away from the little prince?’ thought Abassa. And, ‘However precious is my soul is not my son, more precious still?'”
“Did she do it?” asked Hannibal.
“At first she refused. For she knew it was a wicked thing. But the djinni was a subtle tempter. And Abassa, she was foolish, she listened to his coaxing words.”
“Was it blandis’mens? Sweet-talk?”
The fingers of Queen Scheherazade twined in his hair.
“The djinni conjured the sound of her son’s laughter in Abassa’s ears. He conjured the sight of her son’s smile before her eyes. He conjured the feel of her son’s soft skin upon her fingers. He conjured the touch of her son’s lips upon her cheek.
‘What is your soul compared to all this?” he tempted her.
And Abassa listened to the powerful djinni.
Then he enticed her in another way.
‘I think thou art a coward, afraid to grant my wish. A mother’s love is weak indeed if she fears to give all she has.’
Now this was cunning of the djinni. For Abassa began to doubt herself.
‘Is the djinni right?’ she thought, ‘I hesitate not because it would be wicked, but because I am a coward.’
Again the djinni tempted her.
‘What mother would not give all she had to stay with her son?'”
There was a pause. Scheherazade looked at Mrs. Curry. Mrs. Curry gave a sad smile.
“Poor Abassa. The djinni was very clever. A mother would do almost anything to stay with her child.”
He felt his mother’s arm hug him close.
“What do you think, Hannibal? Should Abassa strike a bargain with the djinni?”
He shook his head. “Nope!”
Mrs. Curry looked surprised at his definite answer. “Why is that Hannibal? Because it is never right to do a wicked thing?”
“Nope!” he replied, in a matter of fact tone, “‘Cause it’ll be a trick! The djinn, they can be real tricky. You hafta watch ‘em. Think real, real hard before you wish.”
Mrs. Curry frowned, “Oh , you think the djinni is lying to Abassa?” she asked Hannibal.
He wriggled and rubbed his nose, before answering.
“Not lying,” he said. “Not ‘sactly lying. But you hafta watch ‘em. They – they…” he searched for the right word, from the hundreds of tales he had heard, “They ‘quiv’cate. You hafta check ‘sactly what they’re sayin’.”
He felt another kiss upon his hair.
“That’s my clever, clever boy!” came his mother’s warm voice. “But Abassa was not so wise as Hannibal the wily one.”
He grinned. He liked that!
“Go on!” he gave permission.
“Abassa yielded to the temptation of the djinni.
‘But let me see my son a man and you shall HAVE my soul,’ she cried.
As soon as the words left her lips – fear entered her heart.
The djinni grew as tall as the highest tree. His laugh rang out so loud it sounded thunder in the morning light. A silvered mirror clattered at Abassa’s feet. Full of dread, she picked it from the floor. In its hollow face she saw her son. In the passage of a minute she watched him grow to be a man. Tall and straight and wondrous fair. But a mirror is only glass. Cold to kiss. Cold as ice to her fingers. She saw the little prince a man, but he did not know her love. He had no memory of Abassa. He did not even know her name. The djinni had tricked her with nothing but a picture. She had given her soul for base cold metal, not a living child.”
“Told ya!” said Hannibal, “Tricky!” A pause. “Go on!”
His mother hugged him tighter but did not speak.
“Go on,” agreed Mrs. Curry. “What did Abassa do next?”
His mother shook her head. “No more – tonight,” she said. “And so I live another day, my tale’s unfinished.”
Mrs. Curry blinked.
Hannibal sighed, but was resigned.
“You see,” he explained, kindly, “She can’t end by finishin’ a tale. ‘Cause then she’ll be dead by morning. It can never stop at ‘Happy Ever After’. Has to go on for a thousand an’ one nights.” He wriggled again. Making the most of being snuggled, warm, by his mother’s side. He knew if Queen Scheherazade had no more to say that night it could only be a few minutes before he was sent to his own bed. “Sometimes…” he admitted, “Sometimes, you CAN finish a story. But you hafta start the next one straight way. You have to go…” he took a deep breath and gabbled, “Happyeverafter.Onceupponatimealongtimeago… Just like that. Can’t leave a gap.”
His father smiled, “Time for bed, Hannibal.” Hannibal felt his face fall. He clung still tighter to his mother’s side. His father’s hands gently prised him loose. “Come on. Your mother’s tired. Let her rest. Say ‘good-night’ to Mrs. Curry – like a good boy – and I’ll carry you up and tuck you in.”
“G’night Mrs. Curry,” he repeated, obediently, yielding to the inevitable and transferring his arms to wrap around his father’s neck. He rested his head on the strong chest. His father still smelt of – of the wheat and of the sunshine and of the waving field. Had that really only been this morning?
As he rode up the ladder in his father’s arms, he asked, sleepily, “Will you tell me another story?”
“Maybe a very short one. Would you like to hear more about Sinbad when he found the island of the Rocs?”
Hannibal nodded, his eyes were closing. As his father helped him unbutton his shirt, he could hear the soft sounds of his mother and Mrs. Curry downstairs. But he could not make out any of the words.
“After a month of living at his ease in the fair city of Baghdad,” began his father’s rich voice, “Sinbad the sailor again grew restless of his life of leisure. To his friends he exclaimed; ‘Dear companions of my adventures, let us set to sea! I am possessed with the thought of travelling the world of men and seeing their cities…” Hannibal shut his eyes the better to see the winged Rocs, which prey upon the giant snakes. His father’s voice grew gentler… And quieter… The pillow was so soft…
“Please – more cake?” requested Jed.
“You’ll have to ask Hannibal,” said his mother, “I baked this one especially for him, for his birthday.” Mrs. Curry looked at Hannibal, “May Jed have another slice?” she prompted.
“Sure,” smiled Hannibal. He did not mind sharing. There would be another cake waiting for him at home anyhow. Although – he hesitated at the disloyal thought, however true – it would not be anything like as good.
His father often joshed his mother about her baking. Only last month he had taken down the big dictionary and quoted from the definition of “cake” over his own birthday sponge.
“Cake: cement, coagulate, congeal, dry, encrust, solidify; block, lump, mass, slab…” His father’s dancing eyes had looked up from the page, to his laughing mother, “Have you been reading this, Sarah. Getting it all mixed up with the recipe book?”
“Every word you say,” she had teased back, “is earning you another slice! Hannibal and I will be unselfish, it’s all for you!” She had pretended to be unable to get the knife through the surface. “Just run and fetch the saw, would you darling? And better bring the chisel too.”
“Suppose I leave the cake,” he had frowned up, “Suppose I just eat the candle, would that satisfy you? It kind of looks the easier option.”
Both his parents had been very happy for weeks now. Had seemed to be very happy. Hannibal had caught both of them from time to time staring into space looking worried and sad. But together, or with him, the summer had been long and golden and laughing. Full of stories. Full of play.
“Carpe Diem,” his father would smile. And Hannibal knew, for he had been told, that meant, ‘Seize the Day!’
“Gather ye rosebuds, whilst ye may!” his mother would tell him, her arms full of wildflowers with which to make the table pretty.
“Eat, drink and be merry,” his father had said, as he poured himself a whiskey, with which to wash down a slice of his sunken birthday cake, “for tomorrow…” he stopped short.
“Tomorrow is another day!” finished Hannibal.
His father’s smile had taken a moment to come back. “That’s right, son.”
That evening, Hannibal had done what he nearly always did. He had climbed out of bed for one last peep down at his parents. His mother was sitting in her rocking chair. His father sat on the floor, beside her, his head leaning back in her lap. She was stroking his hair. Her hand moved down to stroke his neck, round to the open front of his shirt. His father caught the roving hand, kissed it and laughed.
“At least there’s one bright side we don’t have to count the days and keep thinking ‘careful, careful’!” He kissed the hand again and placed it back at the top of his chest. “You can’t get more pregnant!”
“Every cloud…” his mother had smiled. The hand tugged at the first button.
Hannibal’s father jumped up from the floor. He gathered up his mother and strode off, bearing her in his arms, to the bedroom.
“And then, one day, a handsome prince rode by. He saw Snow White in the glass coffin and fell in love with her. He begged the dwarves to let him take Snow White back to his castle.”
Esther was leaning forward, chin on her hands, listening intently. Snow White was her favourite. Hannibal wriggled a little in his seat. He wondered if it would soon be time to go home. The story of Snow White was okay he supposed; but he preferred Aladdin, or one of the Sinbad tales. And, he liked Mrs. Curry very much, and she wasn’t BAD at telling a story – but unlike as with baking, she was not a patch on his mother.
“The dwarves were sad to lose Snow White. But as the Prince seemed to love her, they allowed him to take the coffin. As it was lifted one of the dwarves dropped his side, the coffin fell to the floor. This dislodged the poisoned apple caught in Snow White’s throat. The prince…”
“This prince,” interrupted Hannibal, “did he have a sword?”
“Er – yes,” said Mrs. Curry.
“Shush!” said Esther. Hannibal sighed. Mrs. Curry continued.
“The prince was delighted when he saw Snow White awake. He helped her to her feet. Snow White looked at the handsome prince and loved him at first sight. The prince rode off with Snow White, upon his charger…”
“What colour?” checked Hannibal.
“WHITE!” snapped Esther. “Chargers are ALWAYS white. Everyone knows that. Shut up!”
“Upon his magnificent milk white charger,” went on Mrs. Curry, doing her best. “They returned to the prince’s castle. There he married Snow White. And they lived happily ever after!”
“Go on,” said Hannibal, urgently.
“That’s the end, Hannibal,” answered Mrs Curry.
“No!” he protested. He could hear his own voice beginning to rise, “No, you must NEVER let it come to an end. Start the next one…” He tugged at Mrs. Curry’s sleeve, “HURRY – or you’ll not live until morning. ‘Once upon a time’…”
“Once upon a time there was a beautiful young girl, called Cinderella, and she had a cruel step-mother,” pronounced Mrs. Curry. “There, Hannibal, will that do?”
He nodded. “Should be okay. But you mustn’t leave a gap! Gotta break the story leavin’ the Sultan wantin’ more.”
He saw a shadow on the floor. Swivelling round in his seat, his face broke into a grin. His father stood in the doorway.
“Time to go home, son. Say ‘thank you’ to Mrs. Curry for having you.”
“Thank you,” he said, “Thank you for the cake.” After a moment, he added, “An’ for the story. An’ – everything.”
“You’re welcome, Hannibal,” she smiled. “See you very soon.”
As they left the Curry farm, Hannibal pulled at his father’s hand.
“Did you finish my birthday elephant?”
“Nearly, just got to do a little more on the tusks,” confirmed his father.
“It has tusks?”
“Yup, your mother’s made this one an African elephant. A bull! King of the herd. Ivory tusks as – as curved as a scimitar!”
Hannibal gave a little skip of happiness. The sixth addition to the parading beasts on his headboard sounded most satisfactory. The only downside was it would be another full year before his mother drew the next ponderous pachyderm!
His mother was seated in the rocking chair. The stove made the room cosy. Winter sunshine brightened the windows, but in an hour or so it would be dark outside.
Mrs. Curry was at the window.
“Is Alex coming?” his mother asked, shifting a little to try and get comfortable.
“I can’t see him yet.”
“I won!” crowed Hannibal, from the floor, where he sprawled on the floor playing ‘Snap’ with Esther and Jed. “Look mother,” he nudged the chair, “I won!”
“You won that game!” corrected Esther. “I won last!”
Hannibal nudged the rocker again. A frown appeared between his mother’s eyes as the movement jerked her head.
“Tell her I won more. It’s three to one,” his voice was rising.
“No! No! The second game doesn’t count! Jed dropped the deck!” Esther gave Hannibal a push to emphasise her point. It knocked him against his mother’s chair.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Hannibal! Can’t you see I’m trying to sew!”
He felt his face grow red at the unfairness. He stared up. “Wasn’t me, that was her!”
“Wasn’t!” said Esther.
The frown between his mother’s eyes deepened, but Hannibal did not think it was at him and Esther. She saw him staring. She gave a little sigh, then ruffled his hair.
“Try not to keep jerking the chair, it goes right through me. There’s a good boy.”
“If you squabble I’ll take away the cards,” said Mrs. Curry, though more to Esther than to him.
“But he’s changing the score…” she protested, shrilly.
The cards were confiscated. There was a short mutinous silence. But they both knew arguing with Esther’s mother was not an option. Not an option that would get them anywhere anyway.
“Can we have a story instead?” asked Esther.
“Mrs. Heyes is better at stories than me. Ask her. But if she‘s tired, no pestering.”
“Can we have Snow White? It’s my favourite. Please, Mrs. Heyes.”
“No! Sinbad. The one where he shoots with his bow an’ arrow an’ the King of the elephants carries him off to the elephants’ graveyard,” protested Hannibal.
His mother shook her head, reprovingly. “Esther asked first. I’m sure you can spare her a turn.”
“But you don’t do Snow White!”
The line between her eyes relaxed. She smiled. “It’s not in my usual repertoire, but I think I can manage, Hannibal. Let me remember.”
“Once upon a time lived a beautiful princess called Snow White and she had a wicked step-mother,” Esther prompted, helpfully.
“Once upon a time, in a fair and fertile land there dwelt a Queen,” began Scheherazade, “and this Queen, although most favoured amongst women, saw the sun darken in her eyes.”
Esther settled down on her back, hands clasped behind her head, to listen. It was not the usual opening for ‘Snow White’ as told by her own mother, but she had every confidence that Mrs. Heyes knew what she was doing once started on a tale.
“The blessings upon this Queen were many,” explained Hannibal’s mother, “for she was fair of face, with a nature sweet as honey. Best of all she was beloved of the King, her husband. And the King he was a prince of men. None more handsome, none more brave, none more wise, than he, in all the land. This King he loved his Queen right full. And she did dote on him. When she was with him all went well with her. But when the Queen did sit alone there came a frost upon her heart. And then the sun grew dark.
For the Queen had been married many years and not one child had lived. ‘Alas, I am of barren stock!’ sighed she.
A crib of ivory had been wrought upon her wedding day. Most wondrous was the working of the carving; most marvellous the shaping of its sides and base. The crib it was a treasure far past price.
‘But worthless is it now to me,’ sighed the Queen, ‘For I am a barren, blasted tree.’
Again the Queen lamented. ‘All my hopes are buried in quiet graves. I tend flowers upon the earth but have no living child to love.’
One day in winter, the Queen sat in a room in a tall tower. She sewed a seam of silk as fine as gossamer. Ice lay upon her window, but it was not colder than the ice which clutched the heart of this fair Queen.
‘Alas, I would give all my beauty to bear my lord a living child!’
Frost seamed the iron, which fastened fast her casement, but it was not so bitter hard as the thoughts of this young Queen.
‘Alas, I would give all my youth to bear my lord a living child!’
The Queen drew back the iron bolt, threw open the glass, she breathed in the chill, chill air. Snow lay upon the windowsill, but it froze not so numb as the soul of this most beloved Queen.
‘Alas, I would give – I would give the love of my most sweet lord unto another if first I could bear for him a living child.'”
“Did one of the Djinn hear her?” asked Hannibal. The Djinn tended to listen out for tempting offers made by Queens and Princesses.
“No,” said his mother. “The Djinn tend to stay in the East. This story is happening somewhere in Europe. Close to the Rhine, the mighty river crossed by Abul-Abbas.”
One Queen continued the story of another.
“In her distraction, the Queen ran her needle deep into her finger. The steel it sank so far it touched upon her very bone. The Queen held out her hand above the white, white snow. The heart’s blood flowed red as red upon the white, white snow. The heart’s blood flowed warm as warm upon the cold, cold snow. And down it sank – and down – and down – to the blackest ebony below.
‘Give me a living child!’ cried aloud the Queen, ‘With skin as white as snow!’
Still flowed her heart’s blood.
‘Give me a living child! With hair as black as ebony!’
The blood still flowed and melted still the ice.
‘Give me a living child! With lips as red as blood!’
The moon it waxed and waned – and waxed again – the Queen grew great with child.”
“Like you!” exclaimed Hannibal. Neither his mother nor Mrs. Curry answered. But they did not need to. He was six now and not blind and not stupid.
“After the moon had waxed nine times, the Queen was brought to bed of a fair daughter. A most lovely princess. Her skin was white as snow. Her hair was black as ebony. Her lips were red as blood. Best of all she was a living child. The Queen, she died that very night. And very soon her lord the King, he gave his love unto another.”
“Was he a bad man?” checked Hannibal.
“No!” protested his mother. “He was a good man! It is a very good thing to be able to love again.” She touched his cheek gently. “There is no benefit to be had from mourning the dead, Hannibal! It makes no difference. The Queen was dead and gone forever. Whether he waited a day or a year or the rest of his life. It made no difference to her.”
There was a stamping on the porch. The door opened, in walked his father.
“Shush, Mr. Heyes,” ordered Esther. “We’re having Snow White!”
He gave a laugh and exchanged a glance with Mrs. Curry, who was frowning and shaking her head at her daughter.
“Shall I go out again, Esther? Let you come and fetch me when I won’t be in the way?”
She gave him a kind look. “No. You can stay, long as you sit down and be quiet!”
“Yes, ma-am!” he grinned, hanging up his hat and beginning to unbutton his coat.
The storyteller resumed.
“The King he gave his love unto another. A lady renowned throughout the land for beauty. She was accounted fairest of them all…”
But Hannibal could see some of her attention was now on his father, as he took off his coat and ran his fingers through his hair. His face was glowing from coming into the warm room from the chill outside. He came over to sit in his own chair opposite the rocker and tapped his knee for Hannibal to go sit in his lap.
“Me too!” said Esther, getting up from the floor.
“Me too!” chirped Jed, trotting over.
“One leg each for Hannibal and Jed,” he said, “Esther, because she’s a lady, can climb up and sit on the arm. Will that do, ma-am?” he asked, pulling her up and slipping an arm around to hold her in place. She nodded, leaning back against his chest. “Think we’re all set again,” he smiled. “Carry on, my First One, Light of my Life.”
“The new Queen was accounted ‘fairest of them all’. And the King he gave her all his heart.”
“But she was bad,” put in Esther. “She was a wicked step-mother!”
“Like Cinderella’s!” said Hannibal. “And Hansel an’ Gretel’s. They’re always wicked.”
His mother looked at him, snug in the lap of his handsome father, crowded there with the other children.
“Only in stories,” she said, slowly, “And not even always in stories. Once upon a time there was a little prince. He loved his mother very much. Together they would laugh and play and sing.”
Esther sighed. She liked listening to Mrs. Heyes, but you did have to put up with the ‘starting another without finishing the last’ habit. She snuggled down a little further. She could hear Mr. Heyes’ heart beating away under his vest.
“But one day the little prince, he lost his mother. She had been taken by the Djinn and he knew he would never see her again. His father tried to cheer the little prince. We have each other, my dearest son, we can ride and fish and hunt. Many in this land have no one, so we are rich indeed. One day, this lord, he brought home a gift unto the prince. A step-mother.”
Hannibal blinked. He did not think much of that. If it had been an elephant, or even a puppy, that would be another matter.
“She was young and fair and very kind. Her nature it was honey-sweet.
‘I can never be your mother, little prince,’ she spake, ‘but I can laugh and play and sing. We can be friends. I never had a brother. Nor thou never had’st a sister. Perhaps we can cheer each others’ hearts…”
Hannibal had been staying at the Curry farm for nearly a week now. Well, four nights – that was nearly a week. What he wanted more than anything to know was would he be home for Christmas? He counted – he did not have to use fingers, he had always been good with numbers – Christmas was six more nights away. Deep down he already knew he would not be going home as quickly as that. He knew Mr. and Mrs. Curry were planning a stocking for him just the same as for their own children.
His mother had not been sick when he had left home. She had been very slow and very tired; there had been dark circles below her eyes – and his father’s – but she had not been actually sick.
“I don’t think it can be long now, Elizabeth,” she had said, “Not more than a few days.”
“Would you like me to take Hannibal?” asked Mrs. Curry. And his mother had nodded. She had nodded, then kissed him goodbye.
No she had not been sick then. But he knew she was sick now; and, deep down, he knew there was no chance she would be well by Christmas. Still he had to hope. He counted the days again. Six. Perhaps – perhaps it would be more sensible to hope to be home by New Year. How many days until then? One, two, three, four…
“Han’bul,” yawned Jed, from the bed. “Ain’t you comin’?”
“In a minute!” frowned Hannibal, he pulled his nightshirt towards himself and started to unbutton his collar. Now he had lost count! He began once again to enumerate the days. One, two, three…
Jed yawned again, then shrugged and burrowed down under the covers away from the chilly air in the bedroom. He buried his nose in the soft pillow.
Hannibal’s hand ceased to move on his shirt buttons. Three, four, five…
He heard the door open. His head jerked up and he stole – softly so as not to disturb Jed – to the top of the stairs. More than anything he hoped it was Mrs. Curry. Because, if Mrs. Curry came home, it meant his mother was a little better and could be left.
Mrs. Curry had gone over to their farm not yesterday but the day before. Mr. Curry, Nate and Zach had been running errands and messages back and forth. Yesterday, Mr. Curry had come back very late. Nate had still been up . Hannibal of course was supposed to be in bed. But, he had heard the sound of Mr. Curry returning to the house, trying not to let in the cold. He had crept to the top of the stairs and listened, with his sharp ears.
Nate had poured out a mug of tea for his father. As he handed it over, Hannibal heard him ask, “The baby?”
“A girl. Perfect, but…” Mr. Curry shook his head, sadly. Hannibal saw Nate’s shoulders droop.
“An’ – Mrs. Heyes?”
A hopeless shrug, then again Mr. Curry shook his head.
“Sure and didn’t they know, right enough, after the last…” Mr. Curry looked at his young son and stopped. He put his hand on Nate’s arm for a moment and tried to smile. “Where there’s life there’s hope, son. Isn’t that what your Ma tells us your wise old grandfather would always be saying?”
Hannibal, straining to hear, shuffled forward. In the darkness his foot hit one of Jed’s toy soldiers left on the floor. It toppled over, not loud at all, but enough to swivel two heads up to the listening face, hiding in the shadows above.
“Go back to bed, Hannibal,” came Mr. Curry’s voice, soft so as not to wake the others. He looked at Hannibal for a moment and moved toward the stairs. His voice sounded even kinder on the next words, “Hang on, son, won‘t I come tuck you up, right enough?”
So, when the door opened, Hannibal hoped against hope it was Mrs. Curry. Because where there was life, there was hope. That is what Mr. Curry had said. AND when Hannibal tried very hard he could remember last year, last summer. His mother had been very sick then. He was sure – he thought he was sure – he could recall Mr. Curry shaking his head and looking very solemn last time. Just the same. He thought he remembered it being just the same. AND, that time, his mother had got well. She had been fine! She had been just fine – eventually – last time. So, she would be just fine this time. Eventually. Maybe by New Year. It stood to reason. He hoped. So – please – please – let Mrs. Curry walk in.
It was not Mrs. Curry. It was Nate, looking very pale. He held a silent conversation with his father. They stepped into the bedroom and shut the door. Hannibal could hear nothing but a murmur.
Mr. Curry was coming out. Hannibal retreated back to the bedroom. Mr. Curry climbed the stairs and beckoned to Hannibal. He looked at the motionless golden tousle of curls peeping from the quilt and put a finger to his lips. Once Hannibal was back in the big kitchen, Mr. Curry squatted down and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Your mother’d like to see you, son. I’m going to take you over.” He looked up at Nate and Zach, “I’ll be back soon. Nate, I trust you to look after things. Don‘t wake the others. Zach, mind your brother, go to bed when he says, do you hear?”
Hannibal nodded. It was not as good as Mrs. Curry coming home but it was not too bad. After all he had been taken to see his mother last time. And last time she had been fine. Eventually. This would be just the same.
They did not speak on the walk back home. When he and Mr. Curry walked in the big room was empty. The bedroom door was shut.
“Lizzie,” called Mr. Curry, “Alex!”
Hannibal’s father came out of the bedroom. He looked exhausted, as if he had not slept for days. But he still managed a smile for Hannibal and swept him up propping him on one hip so their faces were level. Hannibal wrapped his arms around the strong neck and hugged tight. He did not ask any questions. He was not quite sure he wanted to hear the answers. He would think very carefully before asking a question. Just like you did with the Djinn.
“Nate said she’s been calling for the boy,” said Mr. Curry.
“Uh huh,” nodded his father, “She WAS. Since then she’s – she’s kind of – ” He looked at Hannibal and hutched him a little more securely on his hip. “Listen Hannibal,” he said, seriously, “Your mother’s real sick – you know that, don’t you?”
“Uh huh,” Hannibal hoped very much he did not start to cry. It would not help anyone and it might make them think he was too upset to see his mother.
“She would like to see you very much. She told us all she wants to see you, more than anything. But because she’s sick she may not talk to you properly. She is too sick to really know what she is saying. Do you understand?”
“So, whatever she says, you know what she really means is ‘I’m real glad you’re here, Hannibal’. Okay?”
“Uh huh.” He could feel his lip wobbling. He shut his mouth tight and clenched his fists. He would NOT cry.
“And if she doesn’t seem to – to know you. That’s only because she’s feeling real bad. She knows, underneath, it’s you. Understand?”
His father, still holding Hannibal firmly on one hip, strode back into the bedroom.
His mother was in bed. She looked very hot. Red. Mottled. Sweaty. Someone, probably Mrs. Curry, had braided her hair to keep it from sticking everywhere; but a few tendrils were still plastered to her cheeks. A wet cloth lay across her forehead. She was not lying still but tossing her head from side to side. He could see that under the covers, from time to time, she shifted and thrashed her legs. Above, on the coverlet, her fists clenched and unclenched.
Mrs. Curry sat beside her on the far side of the bed. She had a basin of water on the cupboard, packed in a larger bowl of snow to keep it cool. A supply of fresh towels for his mother’s head lay ready. And a medicine bottle, so Doctor Wallace must have been there.
The room smelt of – mostly of the strong lye soap you use on linen, but underneath, in the warmth, he could smell blood.
His mother was talking. He could see her lips moving constantly, without a break, without leaving a gap.
Hannibal’s father set him beside the bed.
“Sarah,” he said, “Sarah, Hannibal is here. It’s Hannibal.”
Still her head rolled from side to side. He could hear the words now – though her voice was very hoarse.
“Oh no, my Sultan, no more tale tonight, see the sun rise, fair and bright!”
Her eyes flicked straight over Hannibal and his father. Hannibal was sure she did not really see him.
“She did defy the fates and so her doom was sealed.”
“Sarah,” called his father again, “Sarah, try and hear me!”
The head rolled towards him. For a moment it rested steady on the damp pillow. She was looking at – maybe – his father. Maybe. Perhaps she was looking straight through him.
“Behold, my lord and love is wondrous fair! I open unto my beloved. My fingers drip with myrrh.”
“Sarah,” his father had captured one of the clenching and unclenching fists and was holding it tight. “Hannibal is here.” He spoke into Hannibal’s ear, “Say ‘It’s me, mother, Hannibal.’ Speak up, so she can hear.”
“Who but a fool would wager with the Djinn?” gasped his mother, thrashing again. “Oh death! Where is thy sting?”
He braced himself. He would NOT cry.
“It’s me, mother. It’s Hannibal.”
“And then the Sultan he was sore amazed, thou shalt live another day!”
“It’s ME!” he said louder, “Hannibal. Hannibal the – the wily!” He thought she was looking at him.
Her eyes stared into his.
“They reckoned not the speed of fiery Hannibal the Great. Hannibal bound torches tight to horns of cattle. A monstrous army did he feign!”
He reached out and put his hand on that of his father, which – in turn – held his mother’s. She took a few breaths, without more words. Still looking at him.
“For unto me a son is given. And his name shall be callèd Wonderful!”
A spasm shook her. The eyes squeezed shut.
“Alex!” she called, “ALEX!” Then, “My end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword!” Her eyes opened. The focus had gone. Mrs. Curry changed the cloth on her forehead and bathed her throat.
“They knew full well their love could lead nowhere but grief. I am a barren, blasted tree!” his mother told Mrs. Curry.
Her head turned back to his father. She pulled away her hand from under his and gripped his wrist tight.
“On honey-dew have we been fed! And drunk the milk of paradise! Here comes a candle to light me to bed. Here comes a chopper to chop off my head.”
Her voice was rising.
“Oh – I am rent in twain! A serpent gnaws unceasing at my loins.” The legs were kicking weakly under the covers. “Oh – I am RENT in twain!” she cried again. “The steel plunged in unto the very bone!” Hannibal saw his mother was clutching his father’s wrist so tightly her knuckles shone snow white. “Here’s the smell of the blood still!” she gasped, voice falling again.
“I think you should take Hannibal now,” murmured Mrs. Curry. His father nodded and pulled gently at his own wrist. Hannibal thought he did not want to tug away – not while his mother clung on so very hard.
“The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies. And as the sun arose -behold – it was the ending of the hundredth night.”
His father pulled very gently at his caught hand. She let him go. She was looking at Hannibal. She held out the freed hand to him. She could just reach his cheek.
“Hannibal led war elephants through snow covered alps,” her voice sounded almost calm. “Oh my prince, may’st thou live happy ever after!” Her hand fell back on the coverlet. Her eyes stared at nothing. She was very still. The legs stopped the shifting under the sheets. The chest still moved, it shuddered under the cover. Her breath was noisy rattling like the links of a chain pulling across the barn floor.
Hannibal felt his father’s hands on his shoulders.
“Say, ‘Goodbye’ then, I think it’s time to go, son.”
“NO!” cried Hannibal. “She can’t stop there, she hasta carry on!” He wriggled out of his father’s gentle grasp and shook his mother’s shoulder. “Go on,” he said, “Once upon a time…” He stared, outraged, at Mrs. Curry and then up at the dark eyes, so like his own. “You KNOW,” he exclaimed, “You both know she can never stop on happy ever after – else she’ll be dead by mornin’!” His father captured both his hands, circling him from behind. It was a hug, but it stopped him touching his mother again.
The chest shuddered again. Then a pause. Weaker.
He wriggled, but his father did not let him go. He picked Hannibal up. Hannibal was staring hard at his mother’s mouth. It did not move at all as he was carried out. She did not say another word. She had finished.