When it became clear that the baby would not live beyond another midnight, his mother wrapped him in warm wax and sealed him in her arms, and walked out into the dark before the dawn, to take him back to the crossroads. The baby lay pale and still, breathing lightly as a bird, in small white puffs on the cold morning. His mother sang to him, the song of the whispering grass, and the grass sang in harmony, to mark their passing on the swirl of sounds that last day of his life. The sounds of grasshoppers whirring their dew-drenched wings, and of a chameleon's eyes swivelling dry in his ancient head, as he climbed a slow stalk to watch the woman walking with her baby. The chatter of a flock of seed-eaters, rustling their tiny nests; the plod of a tortoise in their wake, grateful for a path to follow. The sun rose, impervious as a marigold.
It was very far to the crossroads, because to walk back over a year is a long, long time, but it could be done in just one day because everything is different, and faster, when you are going backwards. You have already been there, so you know what has happened, and there is no need to learn each moment. So the mother walked slowly because there was no rush, and the distance was fixed to the very first instant, and the year's tears splashed one by one on to the baby's quiet face.
A quarter of the way back they came to the place of the snake, and in the same puddle of early sunshine there lay the puff adder, warming his thick body, his patterned head like a playing-card spade, flat and shocking on the ground. The snake forked his tongue, sniffing for the baby. But the baby in his wax was sealed from time, then and now, and the moment retreated. The mother crouched and spoke to the snake. On the way back she said, the story is different, because of what happened afterwards, so this time I do not kill you. There has been too much killing in this story. See I have brought you instead twelve hen's eggs, and she took them gently from her pocket and fed them to the snake. The snake swallowed them, and bulged heavily away. A francolin bubbled and chinked in alarm, and ran from the snake on her red legs, calling her chicks, tumbling after her like big glass marbles.
And half way back they came to the glittering water, where the boat still rocked in the bullrushes, their velvet heads heavy with bright bishop birds. It had been midday then; it was midday now, and the day lay hot on the water. The air about the boat whirled where the man had swung the baby, and his cry left a trail like an errant windmill dark above the water. The water surged where the baby had fallen, and the dog leaped again from the midday mirage to save the baby from drowning. But the baby was quiet in his wax seal, half way between his death and his birth. The dog swam back and he whined into the woman's dreadful face. The voice of the man painted red flags in the sky and the voice of the woman tore them to scorched rags and flung them black about the wind.
And so she trudged the rest of the way, the weight of the baby heavy on her heart, and she came at length to the crossroads. The land was a barren waste, stony and forbidden, the badland beyond the law, where the baby had been born. Under the blue-black midnight sky the cross shone white, marking the baby's birthplace. The road curved sharply around and into the stone hills and vanished. The mother sat down with her back to the rocky slope, and cradled her dying baby. Her face was bleached with sorrow, the multiplied grief of then and now. She had wept again all the very first tears, and her eyes cracked in their sockets. She looked out over the wasteland, lit by hard starlight and fraught with nameless shadows, and she waited for the white owl.
He came flying like an omen out of the stone hills, following the curve of the vanished road, and alighted on the cross. The mother spoke to him with the voice of a year. Do you remember this time, she asked, and the owl said yes. Do you remember what you said to me? You said, someone will love your baby. And I would not let you take him, still bloody from my body, because who could love him better than I? I remember, said the owl. I have brought him back to you, said the baby's mother, to the time of his birth. Will you take him now and tell him a different story? The owl looked gravely at her with his old, gold eyes. You know, he asked, that you will never be told the story? That you will not remember this story, because it will not have happened? I know, said the mother. She kissed the baby's bloody face, and stroked his new-born waxy body, and put him on the white owl's back. His tiny fingers twined into the strong wing feathers. He snuffled and sneezed a husky, dusty sneeze, and opened his milky eyes. He looked about him hazily as the owl bore him away.
New: 18 April, 1996 | Now: 11 April, 2015