Prologue - The pigeons
- Not again! - Mario shouted out, just when he entered the hallway.
His boots were soaking wet, and his clothes, similarly to freshly made laundry, dripping down with heavy water drops. He angrily shoved his hair away and threw his leather bag on the floor.
- What? - Hugo's little head emerged from around the kitchen corner.
- Look at this! That lousy, old dog!
Mario gestured frantically towards a pile of dead pigeons, placed in the very middle of the corridor.
- Uh-huh... - His younger brother nervously bit on his lower lip. - Should I go get dad?
Mario shook his head.
- He's got his hands full, don't worry about that.
- So, what do we do?
- We get these out of here and roast them. Then, we feed them to the dog - he sighed, pressing on his forehead with a few of his fingers. - I don't want Cathmayer to go nuts over that again. God only knows what he's going to do when he finds out for the fourth time this month. Go, start a fire. Hurry up!
The little boy ran back to the kitchen, and Mario went to the basement to grab a linen bag for the dead birds. The same bag he had to use three times that March already. He grasped it fast, without even turning the light on, then came back upstairs. He hung his jacket on a chest of drawers and kicked off his boots next to it. Then he put the pigeons in the bag and rushed to the kitchen.
Hugo was in the process of lighting up the hearth. There was already a small tongue of fire flickering around wooden stumps, but definitely not big enough to roast anything on it. So he took some dry hay from under the table and threw it into the stove. The fire spread right away.
The boys proceeded on to plucking the pigeons's feathers, it took them barely three minutes. They put the white fluff away in another linen bag.
- Get them in there, I'll go find the dog. - Mario patted his brother on the shoulder and went to the living room.
The dog was laying in front of the fireplace, with its paws stretched out. Panting and licking its nose from time to time.
That stupid mutt could get us beheaded. - He thought.
- Hey, you! - He slightly poked the animal with his foot. - Food. Come on, up.
The dog didn't need to be told twice. It got on all fours and ran straight to the kitchen, from where a tempting aroma of roasted meat was now coming.
A second later everyone heard a loud scream, followed by a high-pitched cry. A child was born.
Not now. - Mario sighed nervously. He knew it wasn't the best day for the baby to be born. Deep inside, he was still hoping the labor would prolong until at least next morning. It would've been easier to get everything done without that storm raging on.
He quickly turned to his room to grab the basket and the blankets. He only wished for it to stop raining, it was already cold and he didn't want anyone to get pneumonia while walking up the hills. He shook his head, along with any hope he might have left.
- Is it here? - Hugo creeped in on him, barely making a sound.
- Heavens up above! - He jumped in place, letting go of the basket. - I told you not to sneak like that!
- I'm sorry. - His brother rolled his eyes. - So, is it?
- Yes. I think so.
It wasn't like Mario knew much about childbirth but he remembered all the times his cousins were born. Their mother would help his aunts with their delivery and take him with her, as he was too small to be left alone, and father had to work. He could remember all the babies crying out the same way as that one. Hugo cried out like that, too.
- Do you think it's a boy or a girl?
Hopefully, a boy. Otherwise, she might not live long enough to grow up.
Just when he finished that thought, he heard his father's voice coming from the attic. He grabbed the basket and blankets, realizing he was needed and had a task to complete now. Then, he ran past Hugo, straight to the hallway.
- Yes? - He stopped with a slip, right next to the attic ladder.
- We can't get her out today. Not when the weather is like this. Do you want to take a look at her? - His eyes were filled with strange pride while he was saying that. Mario couldn't remember last time he saw his father looking at him similar way.
It was a she.
- Should I call Hugo? - he asked.
- No, no. I'll get him later. Come.
Mario never said he wanted to see her. He never said he didn't either. He simply didn't take time to decide and wouldn't oppose his parents. He started climbing up. His retinas were sharply entered by warm, dim light of candles lit up in the attic. Delicate smell of herbs and blood tickled his nose, almost making him want to sneeze, but he restrained. He didn't want to scare the baby or make her cry. It would feel as though he added up to his parents's problems. So he just entered the bedroom and quietly walked to mother's favorite chair, after which he decided to slowly look up. He saw their mother, half asleep, covered with a duvet and a blanket. She was holding the newborn, wrapped in some towels, a little stained with blood smudges and herbal mixture miss Ann prepared for them in town.
- You can come closer. - Mother smiled gently.
He approached, the quietest he was capable of.
The baby was staring at one point in the unknown somewhere. Her eyes were black and shiny, which made them reflect the candlelight quite nicely, she almost resembled a little doll with that face expression. And Mario couldn't help but think her lips looked just like his own. Messy, brown hair, a little thin, if anybody asked him, rosy skin. Even if he didn't know for sure, he couldn't doubt he was looking at his sister.
- She's healthy and strong, she should be fine. - Father came into the room.
Mother nodded slightly, as if not entirely convinced.
Everything seemed awkwardly off place there. And above it all, the child. Not even crying, even though thunderstorm behind the window wouldn't stop striking. Mario's nose still filled up with the scent of fire, hay, soaked clothes, and pigeon meat. Mother and father almost cheerful at the arrival of someone whose existence was illegal. And the peace that has fallen in the attic.
- What's her name going to be? - he asked.
- We've been thinking of Lilah or Micah. These were your grandmothers's names - father explained.
- I don't think Lilah applies to her. That's more of a noble name. And we're not noble. Momma was, living in her giant mansion. - His mother shrugged.
- Micah it is, then. Do you want to hold her?
Again, father wasn't going to wait for a response. He simply came up to the bed and took the little body from their mother's arms. He wrapped her in an additional, clean towel, probably understanding that Mario wasn't to keen on the blood, then handed the baby to him.
He knew how to hold a baby. He's held plenty before. But this one felt unreal, almost like a product of his imagination. Maybe it was because, when Hugo was born, he was too young to remember holding his sibling? Maybe it was that odd feeling of embracing one of your own for the first time? He wasn't sure. But still, holding that little girl made his knees weaken and his core shake. She smelled like a mix of something sweet and the herbal mixture. Ms. Ann added up some extra lavender, just for them. Usually, it was too expensive for them to even look its way, but the lady knew their mother, they used to be friends back when they were young. And Mario supposed she also knew about Micah. It felt so weird, saying that name in his head. He honestly didn't think the child would be given a name. The original plan didn't include that. He expected everything to go quick, without excessive thinking, yet, his parents must've been thinking of a name for quite sometime. It was a family name, after all, so they weren't abandoning her completely. It wasn't first thing that came to them kind of a deal.
He felt a bit angry at his parents for getting attached. And, while he could understand his morher, who had been carrying that baby for nine months, he couldn't get a hold of father's mind. He shouldn't be encouraging such behavior, knowing how fragile mother's psyche was.
- Where's Hugo? - father asked.
- Probably in the kitchen.
- I'll get him.
And, just like that, he left them alone.
The room felt almost empty with father gone. Almost, for the baby, though still not exactly real to his perception, certainly wasn't invisible. If there wasn't for the situation, he would have said she was the highlight of the show. And she was, to some extent, as next hours were supposed to be fully about her. They owed her that much.
Father and Hugo came in shortly after.
- Look, Hugo. That's Micah. - Their dad nuged his younger son to come closer.
He was always really gentle with his brother, liked him more. Or, maybe it was just that he was the youngest. Used to be. Mario almost smiled at the thought of Hugo becoming the middle child. Did it still count, though? With the little one going away?
Hugo took a few steps forward, then looked inquiringly at their mother who smiled.
- Help him hold her, Mario - she asked of him.
He cautiously put Hugo's arms in the right configuration, so that the baby's head was supported properly. Little boy's face was white from emotional overwhelming. His eyes were looking up and down the child in a quite chaotic manner, and it seemed to Mario that he was afraid. He tried moving away, once making sure his brother was holding the newborn right.
- Don't let go, don't let go! - Hugo muttered hectically, almost tripping over himself while trying to keep Mario close.
- It's ok, Hugo. Mario, have your hands there for security. - Father ordered him with a slight smirk on his face. He appeared amused with how uncomfortable Hugo was.
Boom. A loud one, way to close.
Everyone twitched. Hugo almost dropped the baby, and Mario had to catch her.
- What was that? - Mother pulled herself up on the bed.
- It sounds like...
Father didn't manage to finish his sentence when another boom echoed through the valley. Mario realized it was gunshots pretty fast. Some neighbors would take him hunting from time to time, he was useful with setting up traps and checking the previous ones for prey. Those men had firearm on them nearly every time, as it wasn't as hard to get as white armor, and much more efficient. However, the sounds they just heard were slightly different. And it made him feel uneasy.
- God! - Father shrieked. - He's shooting electrocutions in the rain! He's gonna kill himself!
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