As she wakes Linka feels the hopeless weight of failure at the discovery of another month’s flow seeping from her body. The flush glazed her thighs and stained the snow-white linen of her nightgown a fierce geranium red.
Linka has longed for a child since she was a child. Even her daydreams are filled with vivid images of a brass-brown, woven reed basket, overstuffed with a plump, peach–skinned infant whose chubby arms reach to claim her.
Erek believes she has become bewitched by the constant cooing of babies, heard only in her head, to the point where she will never conceive. He knows he has become the unhusband, useful to Linka for one purpose only. They have been married for four years and he has yet to give Linka the one gift she craves above all.
He agrees to travel with her from their small village to a nearby town. Linka wishes to seek the advice of a midwife with many more years of experience than the wife of the local sheepherder, who delivers the village babies when called upon. The woman examines Linka and discovers she is quite capable of conceiving a child. The couple returns in silence to their home. Erek feels silver-black clouds of guilt hovering above him. He allows himself to assume an unspoken culpability for their childlessness. His blameworthiness exists without understanding. He finds himself muddled and sorrowful on Linka’s behalf.
Her heart-rending melancholy increases each day until Erek can no longer frame a way to live within its depths. He feels Linka has become not his wife, but rather, a featureless womb which he is incapable of filling with the child she weeps for. After a week Erek leaves their home forever. He takes only a rough cloth sack containing his clothes and his tools. He cannot bear to hold Linka even one last time, let alone whisper his feelings of woeful inadequacy to her again.
Linka’s behavior becomes evermore exotic after Erek’s departure. Awash in shame, she seeks out one of the young, unmarried men in the village whom she has known since they were childhood playmates. Confronting him, Linka bows her head and is unable to meet his startled eyes. After swearing him to secrecy, she explains what she wants from him. He cries an emphatic No! This is madness! The act she requests would require a duty on his part to assist with the raising and support of such a child. He is not ready to assume an obligation of this magnitude. In addition, he asks her how he would speak of this situation to any woman at a time when he is ready to marry? No, Linka. I cannot. I will not. He leaves her, shaking his head in wonderment about the lunacy of such a request.
As is wont to happen in a small village where everyone soon enough knows everyone else’s business, the women of the village begin to gossip ceaselessly about Linka. While they feel a certain pity for her, they hurry past her cottage and cross the road to avoid speaking with her. They cannot bear to look upon her pale, blotched face with eyes reddened from constant weeping. Her sanity is now being questioned.
A woman who, in the past, was friendly to Linka, tells a friend from a nearby town the tale of Linka’s obsession. The friend, upon hearing the meddler’s anecdote, repeats a story she once overheard of an elder who has passed more than one hundred years in age. A woman who might be of some help to Linka.
Linka soon hears the story and determines the way to the village of the elder. She knows that a fee must be paid. So she weaves and sells shawls as delicate as angels’ breath in soft, muted shades of foxglove, spring green, aster and cloud blue throughout the warm months in order to earn the required payment. She also knits baby sweaters, caps and blankets on needles as fine as human hair until the wee hours of the morning.
When the leaves begin to turn, Linka sets off on the journey to the faraway village of the aged woman. She sings lullabies and children’s songs and makes plans for the life of the child she believes soon will be hers. Linka stops only to eat a few berries from the bushes at the side of the road and drink water from nearby, fast-running streams. She sleeps in the woods on soft beds of pine needles, but only for an hour or two at a time. Her whole being thrums with the energy of coming motherhood. She carries the clothing for the baby in a bundle tied with speckled brown twine. As she walks, her heartbeat becomes the words, a baby a baby a baby, as she steps briskly along.
After three days of travel, Linka approaches the wooded village where the old woman resides. Linka’s whole being swells with the hope that she will finally know fulfillment. The accounting of how she might come to possess the child that she cannot now envision living without.
A cottage built of reeds, moss, and fallen branches sits in a clearing at the edge of the woods. Linka’s heart is racing and her breath comes in short, eager bursts. She summons the courage to tap at the cottage door, woven of curly willow stems, grasses and trailing vines.
A tiny, bird-like woman opens the door and bids her enter. Her head is wreathed in a luminous aura of pure white hair. Her wizened face is pleated with the wrinkles of many decades. The cottage is quite small and the furnishings are spare. Linka explains why she has come and the elder nods and pats at Linka’s arm as she speaks. Tears collect in Linka’s eyes like crushed crystals, then overflow as she tells of her desperate wish for a child of her own.
The semi-darkness of the single room competes with the last golden rays of the setting sun. They strike through the open spaces in the branches and green growth woven together to shelter the elderly woman. An amber glow fills the room and Linka could swear she feels a quickening in her belly.
Linka is to call her Meena. They have a meal of coarse-grain bread, goat cheese, and a fennel and leek soup. After eating, the fee is exchanged. Linka is then instructed to sleep on a pallet of blankets assembled for her. She is close by the glowing, orange coals of a fire laid with meticulous care in the center of the cottage. Before she closes her eyes, the old woman gives her a cup of tea brewed from herbs selected to soften her sleep. Linka travels deep into tunnels of dreamlessness.
Meena wakes Linka long before the sun rises. She has prepared a bowl of warm milk and bread which she urges Linka to eat. She also brews another cup of tea and tells Linka this one will lessen the fierce pangs of expectation and prepare her for the experience to come.
Linka listens as Meena tells her to go quickly through the woods to the other side. There she will come upon several rocky paths, any one of which will lead her to the dark sea below. Linka is to make her way to the shore of grey sand and wait for her baby to come to her. Meena holds Linka close and wishes her much happiness with her little one.
After thanking Meena, Linka runs through the dark woods. She trips several times over protruding roots and fallen logs. She takes care not to allow her bundle of baby swaddling to become lost when she falls. Linka reaches the edge of the woods opposite Meena’s cottage just as the sky is beginning to lighten. She bolts down the first rocky path she comes upon. When she reaches the shoreline, Linka sits, settles her heavy skirts around her, and confronts the murky, white-capped sea. She waits.
Although she longs to lay her head upon her bundle and rest, she sits upright as the first fine beads of sun slant over the horizon. She thinks she observes a scarce bit of color amidst the few clouds floating inland on a brisk wind.
The clouds reach out toward the warming sand like gauzy fingertips. Linka is astonished by the awareness that the wisps of color she imagined present in the sunrise are, in fact, a parade of splendid kites. The different shapes and sizes, dip and dive on the drafts of cool eastern winds. All are fashioned from sumptuous materials, in resplendent hues and exquisite configurations. Here, a cesious, blue heron shaped kite, followed by a faded, almond parchment butterfly. A rose-colored, silken, half-moon lofts to the right. An extravagant lavender star floats high above the others.
Linka jumps to her feet, discards her shoes and woolen stockings, and runs toward the incoming tide. She sees that each kite is tailed by a long length of pale, lemon-hued linen. Clutching each length of linen are the two shell-shaped hands of a newborn babe.
Linka screams with joy, ties her shawl around her heavy woolen skirts, and clambers into the icy waters so she might catch one of these rosy-cheeked babies to her breast.
Are you my baby, Are you mine, little one? Linka calls out as the kites float overhead, just out of reach. As she struggles against the incoming tide, she watches the kites glide closer to shore.
She wades into waist deep waves, arms outstretched, so she might snatch her child into her arms. The wind shifts a bit and the kites drift away, then back again. Linka strides farther into the sea, arms straining upward, trying to swim in place. The freezing water lashes her bare legs and catches hold of her upper body and raised arms . The babes are almost within her grasp.
Stunned by the sight of a falling baby, she pushes deeper into the sea. Her sodden skirts drag her down, as the star baby’s fingers slip from the kite tail, and the wee one falls swiftly into the ocean. Linka shrieks in terror. She fights the frightning waves and screams aloud as yet another baby loses its grasp, and sinks beneath a watery curl.
Sea-salted water splashes in and out of her mouth as she paddles in place, directly under a russet-haired baby attached to the butterfly kite. She has no doubt she can catch this child if it begins to fall. The baby lets go and vanishes through Linka’s waiting hands, lost to the water. No! My baby! Mine! She panics as more and more babies fall from their kites to the sea.
The rough waves lap over her head and she tries to swim toward the last remaining child who clings to one of the bird kites. Are you my baby? She screams as the little one disappears beneath the water. Taking a frenzied breath, Linka dives far below the wave, searching for the child. Her heavy woolen skirts pull her deeper into the grey-green depths of the icy sea. She feels slight chafings and scratchings at her frozen bare feet and legs. As she peers through shadowed waters, she sees tiny baby fingers clutching at her legs, ankles, and the hem of her skirts.
Linka strains to hold her breath as her lungs burn with unbearable pain. She is overtaken by the intense need for air. With amazing strength, the gathered babies are pulling her deeper and deeper. When her lungs feel as if they will burst, Linka gasps. Her mouth fills at once with dirty seawater. She swallows, strangles and relents, following the determined little ones down and down and down.