Michael was the middle child.
Anna was born when Momma was twenty-three, dated the same as her first grey hairs. Momma often said it was the strain of Anna, so much all at once, that aged her into motherhood. Anna grew into a solemn adolescent, a prematurely mature girl who watched rather than participated.
Joshua was born to her parent’s doddering old age, at nearly forty each they had mellowed into kind, permissive child-minders. Often it was Anna who scolded, Anna who held them responsible for their actions.
Michael was born on Christmas.
The baby came out with a caul on its face. Anna suffered a sudden, indescribable fear that the birth had gone terribly wrong, that something had crept inside her mother when she wasn’t watching. Her aunt hissed and spat through her fingers. Only the dull washerwoman they had for a midwife kept a calm head. With the least filthy cloth she could find, she wiped the baby’s face into being and plunged him into a pan of warm water. Momma screamed and bore down from between her thighs. There was no placenta.
Michael had flaming red hair.
Anna had taken after her parents, dark and olive-complexioned. Joshua, in his time, developed freckles, but inherited her grandfather’s curly brown mop. Michael was fair, milk-pale, with startling green eyes. Her aunt wouldn’t hold the baby. Grandmother wouldn’t hold the baby. Momma took the difficulty of his birth as a sign that he was a miracle child; after all, three boys and a girl had spaced between Anna and her brother, all at rest beneath the roses in the garden. She doted on her boy, while Anna sat with the women in the kitchen. They shook their heads at a question that hadn’t been asked.
Michael was pretty.
Everyone said so. Girls loved to run their fingers through his hair, pull bits of it out for lockets. The bullies at school decided he was too fair to hit, though they made no such exception for his siblings. Anna and Joshua were forever his dark shadows, noticed second if they were noticed at all. They held no bitterness in their hearts. It wasn’t as if he did it on purpose, Michael just had…a way about him.
Michael was always a little sick, but never ill.
It was odd. He always complained of chilblains and headaches and tummy aches and sore joints and cold until Momma would cradle his spindly body and rub liniment made from tallow and linseed oil into his stick limbs. But when the whooping cough came down on mountain winds, Michael’s door was the only one left open. He stayed healthy and rosy-cheeked on his mother’s knee while Auntie made endless mugs of soup and tea. She would not touch the boy, not even to move him. She had not held him since the day he was born.
Michael had never truly gotten in trouble for anything.
He often happened to be a bystander in childhood scuffles, just by chance arriving before anyone upon the scene of a crime. He had a smile that could melt candle wax. Anna was never sure why her heart was still when she looked at him. Perhaps it was his gaze; he always seemed to be looking at some impossible distant horizon within himself, never at other people. Perhaps it was his jovial heartlessness, nothing was safe from his humor. It might have even been the love Momma spent on Michael, spending all of herself for his wellbeing, leaving nothing for her or Joshua. In her twelfth year, Anna found out something very important.
Anna was afraid of her own brother.
There had been claims of a “walking sickness” down in the next valley, adults spoke of it in hushed tones that indicated significance without actually describing anything. Aunt came down from the hills, white cloth around her head, and conferred with Momma. Some distant cousin, or perhaps an unfamiliar brother, had taken to walking after a mine accident. Anna overheard little, in between fetching bread for the table, before Momma’s adamant tones drove Aunt from the house. She would not hear a word on it, (though what it was, Anna did not hear) and blood meant nothing.
There was much about blood in those days.
Anna grew taller and fuller in the hips. The women of the washing house showed her how to clot between her legs during her monthlies, as Momma had grown too into herself and her love of Michael to notice her daughter becoming a woman. Anna’s features were not dramatic enough to gain much notice from schoolboys, who were joining their fathers in the fields anyway. About the only one who noticed was Michael, who smiled in a way that made her uncomfortable in her skin.
When Michael was nine, Aunt tried to brand him with crossed iron.
Michael squalled and ran into Momma’s arms, perhaps it was only Anna who noticed that his eyes showed no fear. Aunt was barred from the house. Before leaving she painted something on the windowsills with water that dried before the sun went down. That night Michael was terribly unwell and lay gasping like a fish in Momma’s arms. Anna was made to fetch a cloth and wipe the sills clean. She tasted the marks and found it was salt water, nothing else.
When Michael was eleven, the walking sickness came to the valley.
It caught infants first, babies would still in their cribs and bleed of all color. The old man they paid in eggs and milk to be a night watchman was found stone cold in a hayfield. Momma took to barring the door before sunset, dandling Michael on her lap in the rocking chair as if he were an infant again. It was in these days of watchfulness that Anna found she had no friends. She had only to smile at someone before her brother swept over in a cloud of easy charm. He alone did not seem affected by the air of doom that lay over his home.
Aunt said her younger brother was a revenant, a walker.
Aunt’s house stank; from the garlic garlanding the door, from the meadowsweet rotting on her table, from the cats buried under her doorstep. She said the boy was thrice-cursed. She said she had told Momma to throw her faceless infant on the fire, that God had decreed the child lost long before he left the womb. Anna drank bark tea and tried not to wince at the bitterness. Her aunt said that as the eldest of the family, and one who was too close to be colored by charm, the deed fell to Anna. Anna spoke her first words of the night to ask what deed she meant. Aunt laughed and gave her a club of wrought iron. Anna also left with a wreath of brambles, which she buried as soon as she left sight of her aunt’s house. She did not know what to do with the club.
Her brother Michael knew, she knew.
He often smiled at her dowry chest, where she kept the club wrapped in her wedding shawl. Now Michael would come to her in day, branding her cheek and arms with kisses. His lips were always cold. Anna did not feel she could push him away, though she felt the dragging insistance of his affection. He loved her, loved her so much, she must love him. Musn’t she?
Michael would never stop.
Now every child in the village was home ill, and now Joshua had rosy bruises blooming on his neck and chest. Momma had taken to bed, issuing care of Michael in a high, cracked voice. Anna spent long hours of daylight away from their home, away from the smoke and the sick and away from her brother’s smothering affection. He followed her. She felt that he kept himself just visible enough to be a threat, and now wrath bloomed in her heart. She tried to beg God to forgive her, tell herself it was merely years of favor put off that made her sick with anger. Then the day came when she had been followed once too many, the day when she whirled on her brother and sent him to the dirt with a shove. His face showed only surprise, not hurt, not anger. While she still held steam, she asked him why.
He said, “What?”
He said, “Why what?”
Why, Michael. Why.
Here he smiled sadly, his perfect lips shaped a cupid’s bow that dragged the corners of his eyes down.
“You don’t understand.” He looked off to the horizon. “I have so little and you…do you see?”
He sounded so pitiable and Anna so wanted to forgive her brother that she nearly relented. Nearly. It was then that she saw it for the scene it was, a masterwork of emotion, a study in martyrdom. Michael looked so perfect, so impossibly sad that it was unreal. Anna turned and left for home without looking behind her.
Anna was the eldest and Michael was the middle child and Joshua was the baby who had gone missing in the night.
He might not have been missed until morning if Anna hadn’t woken to her mother’s hacking cough. Joshua was not in his trundle bed, nor in the toilet shed, or the pantry. Michael’s shoes were missing. Joshua’s were not.
She caught up to them on the hillside.
Michael did not carry Joshua, but led him beside, while the boy trotted to keep up with his pace. It was almost the scene of a little brother eager for a treat, but for the haggardness of his face. Anna said his name, and Michael came to an abrupt halt. He turned to smile at her gently, easily, as if there was nothing odd with what he was doing.
He said, “Sister?”
Anna held her hand out. Michael was not gripping the boy’s hand, it was Joshua who did not seem as if he could wrench away. Anna slid the wedding shawl from her body and called again. Joshua gathered himself as if to jump and staggered a few paces from his older brother. Michael, still smiling, held his hand out without saying anything. Joshua tottered between the two as if drunk. It was Anna taking his arm, Anna sliding the shawl down his feverish little shoulders that decided the matter.
Michael said, “Unfair.”
Anna said, “Nothing is.”
They caught sight of her in the torchlight from where they gathered in the town square, wending her way down from the hills. She was like an angel, an unassailable vision wrapped in white. In her arms she carried a bundle whose arms and legs dangled from their white sanctuary. Anna gazed impassibly back at the crowd, chin up and out, waiting.
It was nearly dawn, and Anna knew only one thing in this world was certain.
Her brother Michael was dead.