“You will not go in there!” she hissed.
The man closed his eyes and sighed.
A breeze stirred the trees outside. Through the window, their shadows fell and quavered from the barred door to the other side of the hallway. Then he was in front of her.
“I must,” he said. The words were softly spoken, but his jaw clenched after them and his eyes would not release hers.
“No. Not this time,” the woman replied, shaking her head. Moonlight spilled through the window and crossed the new mother's face, contrasting her cheeks with the dark smudges beneath her eyes.
The man who moved like shadows glanced around the small house. Midnight hovered in the open rafters, waiting for its moment to fall. It was in the twinkle of the darkness and in the deepening cool of a far-gone evening. He heard it, too, in the evening-song outside: frogs and insects in their nocturnal chorus announcing the progress of the night.
“You don’t know what you’re doing.” He kept his voice low, but each word was enunciated, staccato. "Let me through to talk with the child."
“No. I know you. I know the stories. You’re here to decide when my son–” her words caught, “my baby–”
“He will decide, not me.”
"I don't believe you. I know the stories," she whispered. "Evil magic–you talk with babies, but if one cries out, you kill it--"
"I do no such thing!" The dark grey man's eyes were hot coals waiting to spark, his voice low and measured. "I let them choose--"
"You've never killed a child?" Her voice was fierce.
The embers behind his charcoal eyes flicked, then emptied abruptly.
"I give them a choice--"
"You've never choked one?" She quirked a knowing eyebrow up at him.
He froze. Not a muscle so much as twitched--only his smoke-colored tunic and long, slate hair continued to sway with the shadows. His skin turned ashen and he closed his eyes.
"Let me through. Your son must choose his time."
“No! He’s my baby. You bring death!” She clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle a rising shriek and the sob she couldn’t contain.
The man spun a quarter-turn from her and winced, with a faint shudder. Unwilling to face the child’s room as he reeled, he shut his eyelids tightly, a white-hot flare igniting. It was gone as soon as it came.
Before he turned back, he heard the new mother sniffle, and glanced at her over his shoulder. He saw her bent at the knees and hips, her back hunched as she wrapped her arms around her waist and lower abdomen. He studied her for a moment, the struggle against her pain clear in the grimace he watched her fight to hide.
The strain on her body is too much, too soon, he thought. His eyes darted to her, again. She loves the child, ...and she’s scared.
Another silent sigh, and the dark grey man braced as he flowed around to face her.
The new mother immediately straightened her body, as much as her pain would allow, and stiffened for the next foray into battle.
“Your son…,” he spoke with a forced gentleness and chose his words carefully, “needs to choose. He can’t know everything that will come,” he laid his hand on the staff tucked into his wide belt, “but I will see the paths... You have my word: I will not lead your child to harm.”
“But this thing isn’t your decision?” she asked, and looked up at him with shining eyes.
“No,” he whispered.
Noiseless tears began to stream down the mother’s face. She shook, holding herself more tightly in an unmet need to fold her body and lie down.
“But what if I lose him?” Her voice barely made a sound through muffled sobs. “Please, don’t make me lose him.” She leaned on the wall at her back, no longer able to stand on her own.
“The infant must choose his time… I cannot force or change his choices. They are his.” He whispered, “I’m sorry,” and cast his gaze toward the floorboards. Turning, he went to the door and tried it again; but the lock held tightly.
“Then I can’t let you in,” her voice gritted from behind him. “I will protect my son… Even from you. Even from himself.”
“This isn’t protecting him!” he seethed. The man who moved like shadows swept toward her, barely able to close his eyes before their flame flashed upward. “He will not have another chance to choose. If he doesn’t decide, now, his life will be fully subject to the will of others. He’ll have less control than most over what he endures, and for how long!”
He was right in front of her, and he saw her strength, her heart, breaking. Her breathing constricted, coming in fast gasps as more tears rolled down her face. Tremors wracked her body such that it knocked against the wall, depriving her of its support.
The new father rushed into the hall, awakened by the knocking. At first, he didn’t see the dark grey man, his tunic and softly waving hair blending with the shadows. At first, he only saw his wife, and caught her just before she fell to the floor. He also didn’t see the shaded hands that held her up, before he could reach her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, though her ragged gasps wouldn’t allow her to answer. “Honey,” he stroked her hair, closed his hands firmly on her arms, tried to penetrate her panic with his wide-eyed stare. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
The dark grey man laid his hand on her trembling back. Seconds passed, then her muscles relaxed into a light shiver, her lungs finally able to fill and empty at a manageable pace.
As he gathered his wife to him, the new father saw the man half-hidden in the darkness.
The dark grey man watched as the father registered a succession of emotions at lightning speed. His jaw slackened and his eyes bulged: shock. Then they narrowed, as his teeth ground and muscles tightened: fury. Next was the raising of his eyebrows and drooping of his shoulders: recognition. Lastly, the blood drained from his face and his eyes hollowed: fear.
The hollowed eyes darted from the dark grey man to the door behind which his newborn son slept, and back again.
The man who moved like shadows held the father’s gaze for a long moment, then addressed the new mother.
“You cannot keep him locked away,” he said. His voice flowed like shade at a warm dusk, but there was no wavering within it. “To keep him from choosing won’t keep him from dying. It’ll keep him from living.”
A new rush of tears filled the sob that followed.
“But I–” she stammered, when she was able to speak. She looked from the dark grey man to her husband, “I can’t unlock the d-door. I s-swallowed the key!”
The faintest of smiles fell across the face of the man who moved like shadows; but his eyes didn’t crinkle and the smile moved on to get lost in the shifting greys.
“No bit of metal can keep me out; but love…love protects. Though, I assure you–” he deliberated over his words, “I can pose no threat to your son.
“You are the locked door.” He held her gaze solemnly and steadily, though his voice remained soft. “Will you love your son enough to let him live?”
Her lips quivered, but she closed her eyes and nodded, tears spilling down her face.
The door to the room with the sleeping child swung open.
The dark grey man smiled slightly and nodded.
“I will talk to him, in just a moment. You cannot listen–neither of you. You say you’ve heard the stories. Then you should know that,” he swung his gaze at each, and it was suddenly iron: strong and heavy, admitting no resistance. “He won’t remember, afterward, what he chose; but now, at least, he will get to choose.”
The new mother doubled-over, unable to even cry out. Her pain–exhaustion and too-fresh wounds–became overwhelming,
The dark grey man slid his arms around her, sinking with her to the floor.
The new father’s brow furrowed and he reflexively reached for the man who held his wife.
The grey man fixed him with stern eyes, gave the merest shake of his head, and the father straightened, a wide-eyed flush rushing his face.
The man rested the new mother’s face onto his shoulder and gently stroked her hair. He rocked with her, back and forth, in a slow, hypnotic motion, as he held his hand to her back. His eyes drifted closed as he murmured something too faintly to be heard, and soon her body was still, except for her even breaths.
The man continued to rock with her for some time, until the new father saw her torn body relax, all traces of pain leaving her face in a peaceful slumber.
“Take her, now,” the dark grey man whispered. “Let her sleep, but stay with her. I must talk with the child. He will be safe as we do, as long as you stay with her. You have my word.”
The father nodded, carefully lifted his wife into his arms and–sparing a final, pained look at the dark grey man–carried her to their bed.
The man who moved like shadows drifted up from the floor to quietly enter the room with the sleeping child.
As he stood over the suspended cradle, the child stirred, opened warm, black eyes, and smiled.