The spotless lamb slumbered into silence.
A pale blue teacup had pricked the pure lamb red. Gushing blood soon followed, streaking through the evening, bleak sky, and pitter-pattering down the cobble road. The little, pretty dying one did bleed, and never before had his shepherdess which it had been her own.
Eloise Clary, the shepherdess, would have stained the countryside black if given the choice. In curses and tears, she cried out to the skies for her own life to be taken. The winds were her sole answer. If she had not loved the lamb so much, one would think her insane. Yet above all else, she was desperate. The clouds could be colored in her own blood, but not her lamb’s -- not her little shepherd’s.
Though around the same size, the beloved “lamb” was not an animal, but a young child. More than that, he was not simply her assistant shepherd-- he was her son. Pierre was a tiny boy for the tender age of eight. With a sun kissed tan and bright eyes, the child looked to be around six; yet as he bled and grew pasty white, one could see him as an ageless spirit.
Before leaving the cottage, Pierre was restless and shrieked when bundled into her arms. He cried out once, twice, then once more. It was in the matter of four screams that his energy vanished. His gnashing of teeth and crying began to fade with his blood, and all had ended from leaving the cottage door. Empty of blood, empty of tears, Pierre was mute. Silence clutched onto the boy like a lurching demon, tugging at his wound slowly.
Stained in hues of scarlet and clots of black, the child looked as if he had been bleeding for weeks -- yet it had only been an hour. An hour was enough to wisp his energy away, taking everything pure and precious from what it means to be a little boy. An hour was enough for his cries to be no more, for his light to dim out. Yet within a nighttime, the boy would be no longer. As the foot bled more and more, silence approached him with delicacy, leaning into Eloise’s breast. It was a race against time before silence would be the one who’d cradle him at last.
Eloise sprinted, heart-racing and breathless.
She carried her little shepherd, or as she called her “lamb”, through the French pastures. The countryside, like most of Southern France, held sacred silence in the night; yet, the silence of the country rest sourly against her. Only the sounds of her panting breath, and the boy’s tiny sips of air, gave life to the dead road.
“Vincent!” cried out Eloise, “Vincent, help!”
Upon a distant hill sat the humble homage of Vincent Surat. An elderly man, and also the sole friend the shepherdess had, sowed these hills for decades. It was a home that decayed from storms and war, birth and death, fire and ice. But what more, it had seen Pierre too many times to recall. His blood was a familiar scent in the home.
A candlelight flickered from Surat’s open window.
Urgently, Eloise rushed to it. She was running barefoot, so as she reached the high hill, the moist grass had nearly tripped her. She stumbled; but in due time, she sailed to the door and hit it repeatedly. Her hands had left a bloody stain on the door, but it didn’t matter. Her stain matched the ones from before.
Within the sixth knock, the door opened.
A voice called out, hoarsely, “Come in, my dear. Come in. When did it begin?”
“Just an hour…”
The voice began to cough violently.
Eloise brushed him aside.
She did not have time to respond to Vincent’s harsh bickering, nor had any intentions to care. Upon entering, she stepped into Vincent’s foyer. Bleak as that evening’s sky, the dimly lit room was voiceful and cluttered. It was the strangest room, with paintbrushes dangling from the ceiling and broken piano keys scattered across the floor. Yet, to almost anyone who’d enter, it was home.
Among the vastness of the room laid a burgundy settee sofa. Eloise unwrapped Pierre from the linen cloth, placing him on the couch. Blood poured out and soaked into the cushions. She stooped low, then crouched to begin recovering the open wound.
When Vincent could at least reach the two, he was taken back by the immense blood. She heard his gasp, and she defended, “He wanted to hold the teacups. I told him and told him only to look, but you know he loves the color blue. He couldn’t help himself.”
“Eloise, did you not know any better? With his blood, he shouldn’t be playing around!”
With the turn of her head, the shepherdess brought death to his eyes.
She stared ominously, and whispered in conviction, “With his blood, Vincent, he shouldn’t be alive.”
A peak of sunlight tickled Eloise’s nose. It wrinkled then sneezed. When the shepherdess opened her eyes, she faced a familiar ceiling of her childhood. Her tiny hands lifted above her, fingers twiddling in the sunbeams. The reality of the night before had not stuck her until hearing eerie silence. Her ears were open. The blood, the screaming, the crying… had it only been a mere few hours? She urgently listened for the comforting voices of either Vincent or Pierre, but only hearing a tea kettle boil, she grew worried.
“Pierre?” called out Eloise, her voice breaking.
There was no response.
Eloise sat up from the floor, back sore and aching, looking to the burgundy couch. Just like a pastry, rolled up in a thin sheet, there was a sleeping figure--Pierre.
The child was at rest, but not in the most peaceful way. His knees were drawn up to his chest, and the chest moved in a restless wave. His lips, crinkled like dried seaweed, drew in deep wallows of air. Inhale, exhale. He breathed as every little boy should. She sighed in relief upon seeing him.
He survived the night.
Take as much air as you need, little one, thought Eloise to herself. On hands and knees, Eloise crawled over to Pierre and kissed his forehead gently. A warm, protective emotion settled her softly. Her mind fluttered to the times before, to a younger and more healthier Pierre. Her thin fingers started to comb through Pierre’s bangs. He did not stir. Carefully, she released Pierre. However, as she left the boy’s side, her morning was shaken.
A tea kettle boiled and screeched horrifically loud, so much so that it had almost shaken the sunrise away. Jolting as if in pain, her head spun towards the kitchen, where she could vaguely see the shadow of Vincent Surat.
Vincent was an old, tiresome man since his adolescence. His face was worn and rugged, the crusts of it were unwelcoming to any eye. One would guess from his physique that he had worked the land all his life and was retired. Yet, at 75, he still labored in the fields. Although three tenant farmers took care of the land during harvest, Vincent worked restlessly to prepare the soil and sow the seeds.
Ambitious and determined, Vincent Surat was, by far, the oldest and most outspoken patriarch of the church. The words he spoke carried great, passionate depth for the congregation. They were words that even the young Pasteur Bernard could not articulate. Fellow worshippers would rarely question Vincent’s word; however, that annoyed him. He felt that the people were becoming ignorant and their ignorance offended him. To question his word, Vincent thought, was the very essence of any relationship-- whether it's a relationship to a person or to God.
When people would praise his wisdom, he would rebuke with, “Just because the Scriptures say to not look down on the young folk doesn’t mean you should be looking up to me anytime soon.”
When those words were echoed, an uncomfortable laugh would be the first reaction. Yet sure enough, the congregation learned to question rather than blindly believe.
But Eloise would, from time to time, hear Vincent’s true perceptive. When sitting next to Eloise, Vincent would mutter, under his breath, “And if the day comes when these folk start taking my advice, shoot me.”
Though elderly, Vincent Surat’s spirit proved to be anything but. Everything he could offer was spared to Eloise. All his wealth and his former life of luxury faded, because of his love for Eloise. But he was satisfied. Like a father, he brought her up at the tender age of sixteen. Broad shouldered, rough and stern looking, however, Vincent’s facade could be easily mistaken.
Vincent’s elderly body scurried back to the fire, where he removed the kettle. Satisfied, he smacked his lips and made his way to the table.
In a brittle, tiresome voice, Vincent said, “Look at what you made me become.”
Eloise tilted her head, taken back.
“I should wring your neck for this. Tea. In my past life, I’d sooner drink dishwater than His Highness’ elixir. Now, here and I am, thanks to you, Eloise. If it was not for you and Pierre, though, I suppose it would be gin…”
Chuckling in a hearty puff, Vincent’s soft grin spread across his face. In his heart of hearts, Vincent knew better than to tease Eloise. She was a kind, gentle spirit who, despite every duty she bestowed, was undoubtedly genuine and vulnerable as any. He said reassuringly, “Be still, Eloise. You’re going to wake the boy.”
Lifting the kettle, Vincent poured his tea into two teacups. As the mixture dripped, his mind was elsewhere, more specifically on the boy.
Had it only been two years since the horrible, sleepless nights began? Yesterday night was no new event for Vincent to bear, nor would this be his last. Vincent could recount every single night the shepherdess brought Pierre to his home with a new wound.
But Eloise could not. The two long, strenuous years had taken a toll on the gentle woman. Days with Pierre were but a blur to her. But Vincent knew. In the two years, Eloise rushed Pierre into Vincent’s home around seventy times.
It is true that Pierre’s disease held no remorse. When he bled, he bled both day and night. It didn’t matter what day or hour it was. Death does not sleep, after all. And to make matters worse, Christmas time always seemed to be the most deadly, somehow. His bleeds were ravenous, dreadful and lustful for his death. In the year 1915 alone, Pierre stood on a thin thread between Heaven and Earth six times. Vincent couldn’t help but wonder when the thread would lift the boy away.
It had to be soon. He continued to pour and sighed bitterly.
Eloise’s voice shook him from his thoughts, and the stinging tea brought him into reality.
The cups had overflowed. It gushed and flooded the wooden table, making the surface soggy. The old man winced, flinging the empty kettle away. He clutched his burning hands tightly, rubbing them to soothe the pain. Eloise quickly rose and rushed to Vincent.
She took hold of his hands. Her hands were soft and warm. She said nurturingly, “Vincent, you ought to be careful.”
The poor man shrugged his shoulders. He said nothing in return, but let out an ashamed laugh. Using her dress, she started to wipe his hands. The pain soon dwindled, and shortly after, he took his overfilled cup and drank happily. Plopping a few sugar cubes into her own, Eloise followed suit.
After a moment of tea and silence, Vincent was the first to speak. Vincent was always the first to speak on mornings like these, where Eloise was lifeless and her heart shattered. Staring towards Pierre, he said, “Do you remember the day you found him, Eloise?”
She did not reply.
Vincent did his best to continue.
With arms outstretched, he closed his eyes to imagine the day, “Wandering on your river banks, you said. Half-naked, bruised, nearly at Heaven’s gate. It’s a pity the boy traveled South from wherever he came, though Heaven forbid he would travel North into Switzerland. He could have found a suitable hospital, but instead, he found a home. I can remember his first night, Eloise. I thought he would die that very hour. But look at him. You can hardly recognize him now from two years ago.”
It didn’t take the sharpest memory to recall the fragile, Romani boy from two years ago. There was no piece of rag could fit him, for he was so emaciated and ill. Yet as she looked at the boy shriveled on the couch, she could hardly tell a difference. Although Eloise managed to add weight to his tiny body, his bones still protruded. As for his health, it was deteriorating. This was the worst of Eloise’s miseries, for she could spare a meal to keep him full, but she could not sacrifice her days for his. She tried, but there was no prayer or plea that could to end the bleeding. He was to die.
“Age does that,” she replied, cooly.
“Yes, you’re right,” agreed Vincent, “Age certainly does change people, but so does intimacy and nurture.”
“What did I say? Are you upset by my remark?”
“That! Please Vincent, please. Don’t make me feel this way,” Eloise insecurely glanced back and forth between the child and Vincent. Her eyebrows tightened, as the word ‘intimacy’ unsettled her, “I cannot stand when you use these words, Vincent, and I know you use it to spite me. You always do. And now, Pierre does, too. I am beginning to think that Pierre speaks better French than I do.”
“Eloise, Eloise,” hushed the old man, with a promising look. He hadn’t meant to say unfamiliar words to the girl. With his finger, he lifted up her chin to give her a sense of control, “I am saying that I take pride in Pierre. And in you. I always have.”
Eloise frowned. The man was clearly mad. What quality of hers could Vincent be proud of? There was nothing more modest and plain as Eloise the shepherdess. Most twenty year old women were well off, married and surpassed bearing a child or two, while Eloise had not once kissed a man. Eloise Clary was the plainest woman anyone laid eyes on. With overgrown, stringy blonde hair, she was so easy to miss. Though her sprightly eyes may catch a few men’s eyes, it was her homely scars and filthiness that drove each man away.
Yet as for Pierre, Eloise could list a thousand reasons to love him, if not more. It wasn’t a love for his social standing, by any means. Someone would more likely spit on a gypsy runaway like Pierre than on a lady like Eloise. Pierre’s petite, but fascinating physicality weighed no reasons to her love, either. It was beyond his striking beauty, dark Romani skin, or that infectious smile. It was what Eloise could not see in herself-- hope, even in the midst of death. Eloise had offered him a home, a name and all the love he needed; yet, he offered her something far greater. From the moment the boy had entered into her life, Eloise’s life blossomed into both shadows unnumbered and a surreal bliss.
There was no end in sight for her little boy’s suffering. He suffered, endlessly, from what many viewed a curse. There was no name for his condition, or that Eloise or Vincent knew of, but a disease well known across Europe. It was a disease of the blood, where any small scratch would render a vicious bleed. And one day, it would bring the most painful death. Neither Eloise or Pierre spoke of this death in their household, for it was assumed by Eloise that Pierre could not comprehend it.
Yet to Pierre, death was a reward that he’d reach the fastest. A diagnosis wasn’t needed. In the end, Pierre knew it would end in death; yet, the boy did smile. Smiling so far, in fact, that it often hurt his cheeks. Pierre’s grin confronted the entire world. Yet Eloise could not help but to think that Pierre smiled at death itself. This eight year old child was an endless beam, looking death in its eyes and smiling, only for death to smile back. One day, Eloise thought, one day, it will.