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The Children are Waking

The first day of spring.

By Claudia NeavesPublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 12 min read
The Children are Waking
Photo by Aniket Bhattacharya on Unsplash

Abel discarded another shovelful of earth and wiped his brow. It had been a tame winter and though the ground was soft, the morning sun was warm, sending trickles of sweat down his hairline and the back of his neck. Birdsong filled the air and from the short distance to the house, Abel could hear the slam of the backscreen door. He nodded to his brother, Adam. That would be Mother. If Mother was up, then it meant it was almost time for the Wakening. The boys felt a pang of excitement. They had been digging since sunrise, after all.

It was Adam who lifted the final shovel, heard the thunk of wood that meant they had reached the casket. The two of them gave a content sigh and began to brush away the rest of the dirt. Mother approached them, leaning over the pit. She shivered and wrapped her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.

“Stand by me in the sunlight, momma,” Abel said. Mother shook her head.

“I want to see them,” she whispered back. Abel shrugged and he and Adam began to lift open the casket’s lid. There they were, the four of them snuggled together in quiet embrace. Mother shuffled impatiently. “Oh, hurry, get them out. Hand me the baby,” she said reaching out her arms. The boys forbade her from climbing into the grave pit herself. You’re too frail, momma. This is men’s work.

One by one they passed the bodies up, lying them gingerly on the green grass. Mother clucked as she undressed them, commenting on their appearance, the state of the clothes, how much she had missed them. When the last child was undressed, Adam helped Abel pull himself out of the pit. Abel couldn’t help but to feel a shadow of unease that he had been the last one out, even if it had only been for a moment. Mother picked up Toby, the youngest, and cradled him against her chest. Adam lifted the twins into his arms, leaving Abel with Vanessa. Lying naked among the clovers and the grass, she resembled something quite otherworldly. Her dark hair was matted and teased into something wild and her hollow cheekbones cut a certain elfin image. Abel thought he felt her stir when he held her. This would be Vanessa’s sixth Wakening, her first occurring when they had adopted her when she was only ten years old. Mother had said she would be likely to rouse first. Every year she was right.

The four of them marched to the house in a motely parade. Mother led the way, her shawl fluttering in the breeze. Anna, the sister, was waiting for them on the back porch. She gave a giddy clap when she saw them and guided them to the two large basins billowing with steam. She pointed to the one on the left.

“Drop Vanessa in this one—that’s it careful now. And put the littler children in here. There you go, Adam, careful with their heads.” Anna muttered a few incoherent things as the children were submerged into the nearly boiling water, then went to work. She plunged her hands into the water, seemingly immune to the heat and began rubbing the limbs of the children. “That’s it, good job,” she would murmur, rolling their wrists between her palms or splashing water onto their cheeks. Mother did the same for Vanessa, while the boys stood back to observe.

Because though they had witnessed many Wakenings before, it never failed to amaze. Thawing a child from months of winter, after all, was nothing short of a miracle. Cheeks pinked. Little fingers began to twitch, then tremble. Mother had been right again. It was Vanessa who took the first breath, gasping, choking until she finally was able to bring air into her lungs. She looked around wildly at her family of spectators then down at her own body. In the hot water, Vanessa could see her skin burn from thawing pink to raw rashy red.

“Get me out,” she cried. Mother took her face in her hands and kissed her on both cheeks before she helped her out of the scalding tub. This time the onlookers averted their gaze. She stood shakily on two feet as she wrapped herself in the threadbare towel Mother provided. She let herself stand there for a few moments, almost in a daze, before drying and dressing in the white shift hanging on the clothesline. Back to the tubs she too plunged her hands into the water, rubbing and massaging back to life the children in the tub. Mother patted her on the back and said, “such a good helpful girl.”

The twins woke next, Lilah, and then Leah. They screamed, clutched at one another, and had to be dragged forcefully from the tub. This was only their second time, but once they were dried and dressed, they began to smile and chirp to one another about the dreams they had Below.

Anna rubbed Toby’s chest vigorously. “Oh, he’s not Waking, momma,” she moaned. Vanessa pinched his cheeks. Mother stood back and cocked her head, thinking.

“He’s only four years old,” she assured them. “The little ones take longer.” Vanessa frowned and pinched harder. In autumn, his cheeks had been chubby and rosy red. Now even in the hot water he looked thin and blue. She wondered for a moment what Mother would do if Toby truly never Woke. The lady from the orphanage came every summer. If she came and didn’t see Toby, then maybe—

Toby wretched open his eyes and began to cry. He had cried when they placed him Below too. Even after the drug numbed his body drifted him to sleep, his eyes had been wet with tears. He didn’t know any better, the family repeated to one another. Didn’t know how important it was to the family to have the adopted half Below for the winter months. Anna and Mother pulled the little boy out of the tub and cradled him in the towel.

“It’s the first day of spring, baby,” Mother whispered as she rocked him. “Happy first Wakening.”

The table was laden with food and drink. Pitchers of tea warmed by the sun, plates full of sandwiches and finger foods. Mother had all the children sit together, quite the pretty picture dressed all in white shifts. Anna brought the rest of the food to the table. A ham dripping in honey and glaze. Loaves of fresh bread. Crocks of jams and butter. One of the twins reached for a crock of jam, but Mother smacked her hand. Hard. Even Toby knew to bow his head for prayer before eating.

Adam stroked Vanessa’s long dark hair as Mother prayed, thanking God for their Awakening Blessings. Abel looked on jealously. They had both promised to one day marry Vanessa. Vanessa didn’t care which. She only wished they would sort it out themselves and marry her quickly.

Wives didn’t have to go Below. At least she didn’t think they did.

When the prayer ended, Mother watched the children gorge themselves. The older girls helped Toby before piling their own plates high with fruits, bread, and meat. Abel poured Vanessa a glass of blush colored wine—her very first—and she accepted it with a dry smile. Her hand trembled when she brought the glass to her lips for the first taste. Greedily, she downed the rest before accepting a second. Abel laughed, let his hand brush hers as he handed her another glass.

They didn’t seem to want the luncheon to end. Even Mother stayed at the table too long, stuffing her pipe while Anna and her brothers regaled the children with tales of the winter. Vanessa’s body hummed with the intoxication from the wine, but she kept her mouth pressed in a firm line. She was looking at Mother’s shawl, the delicate pattern of crochet that she wrapped tight around her shoulders when a cool spring breeze wafted in from the forest. The forest where Vanessa herself had been buried for the past six frosts.

“Was it a very hard winter, Mother?” she asked abruptly, interrupting Anna. Mother let her eyes slide over Vanessa in her white shift, the empty glass of wine still in hand. Mother smiled.

“It was a very mild winter. Another blessing.”

Vanessa continued.

“And the harvest? We had such a bountiful harvest in autumn. Did the harvest last?”

“We were truly blessed this winter.” It was Anna who answered this time. Vanessa cast her eyes over her adopted sister. A glimmer of pearl shone against the honey blonde of Anna’s curls. Vanessa let out an incredulous snort.

“Enough blessings to sell at market? I like them, by the way,” she said gesturing to the earrings. “They must be new. Like Mother’s shawl.”

That was crossing a line. Mother stood then, and Vanessa did the same, rising so she stayed eye level with the older woman. Adam or Abel, she wasn’t sure which, said her name. She ignored them.

“I think we’re finished,” Mother said at last. She turned her attention to the younger girls, who sucked in identical fearful breaths. “Help your sister clear the table. Chores start tomorrow.” She turned and strode inside the house. Anna followed. Vanessa tried to lock eyes with Abel or Adam but they too rose from the table and followed their mother inside.

“You help too, Toby,” said Lilah to the boy. She handed him a dishrag and instructed him to dip it in a bucket of suds. “Wash the table like this.” Toby closed his bony fingers around the rag and smeared butter and jam into the wood.

Vanessa let herself be angry for a few more moments before she joined them. Arms laden with dishes and glasses, she bumped open the screen door with her back and dumped them into the kitchen sink. She glanced around the small home, taking note of the things she felt looked new. Had that quilt been there before? A truly blessed winter indeed, she thought venomously. She imagined the family cuddled together beneath that quilt, reading or tending to the fireplace, while the rest of the Blessings slept underground.

She didn’t remember much about the Below. Mother’s drug kept them from waking, well at least not waking much. The children might stir, or moan, but they usually didn’t wake fully. If you asked Lilah or Leah they might recall feeling cold or hungry, but if you asked if they remembered the Below they would deny it. But Vanessa was different. This was her sixth time after all.

To Vanessa, the Below was a halfway world. A world between the living and the dead. Cold silence enveloped her, the shivering bodies of the younger children her only comfort. There weren’t always others to keep her company. Before Toby, it was just the twins. One year, it was only Vanessa. And before—

Vanessa hung her head. She let strands of dark hair fall into the dirty dish water. Before the year she was alone in the Below, there had been another boy. An older boy named Riley.

Riley had been bounced from home to home. He was wild. He couldn’t sit still. He didn’t pay attention in the schoolhouse. He refused to bow his head in the church pews. When the preacher brought him to Mother’s door, they said he might make a good farm hand. They had acres of crops and animals. Her own sons, Abel and Adam, were exhausted from overwork. Anna, the youngest, was much too frail. Mother spent much of her time tending to Anna in her sickbed. So, when Riley arrived, they put him to work. He did well on the farm. They adopted Vanessa next. Riley was patient with her. He taught her to milk the goats. He taught her to chop firewood.

“This will keep us warm this winter,” Vanessa had told him. It was late autumn, and a chill whipped through the slats of the shack that used to be the barn. Riley shook his head.

“Do you think Mother would share this firewood with us?” He sunk the axe into the ground and regarded her coolly. Vanessa shrugged. Mother and her family ate first. Riley and she were permitted at the table only after the chores were completed. Anna and her brothers bathed inside in the tub, but she was told to bathe and wash her hair in the river. Vanessa had never considered it was a matter of sharing. She just assumed she was too dirty from chores to sit with the family or in Mother’s nice clean tub.

“You don’t have to share firewood,” she argued instead. “Everyone can sit around it.” Riley laughed without humor.

“And if it’s a harsh winter and we run out of food? Will Mother share that?”

Vanessa placed her hands on her hips and jutted out her chin.

“So what? We’ll just freeze and starve this winter?”

And so Riley explained the Below. He explained how Mother and Father adopted extra hands for the summer and harvest. How at first frost the children were invited to the table. How they feasted and laughed. How Mother thanked God for her special Blessings. Into their warmest pajamas, into the large bed where Abel, Adam, and Anna usually slept. Mother kissed them and passed them each a hot mug. Medicine, she called it. The medicine was spiced and hot. Vanessa recalled how it burned all the way down. Her eyelids grew heavy when Mother told her she when she awakened in the morning, it would be the very first day of spring.


But Vanessa did not last until spring. She opened her eyes, but there was only blackness. The air was stiff and biting cold. She let out a low whimper and searched for Riley’s hand in the dark. He gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze.

“Close your eyes, Vanessa,” he had whispered. “When you next wake, it will be the first day of spring.”

Now, six years later, it truly was the first day of spring. Riley had long been gone. Mother suspected he had up and run away. Vanessa had never wanted to believe it. If he had run away, why wouldn’t he take her with him? She gazed out the window, like she might see Riley at the tree line. Waiting for her.

Arms snaked around Vanessa’s waist, pulling her from her daydream. Abel’s voice filled her ear as he buried his face into her neck.

“I’ve missed you,” he breathed. Vanessa pretended to melt into his grasp, but still had her eyes set on the trees.

“Will you marry me this summer then?” she asked. Her voice was low. The other children were just out of earshot, moving onto the next chore. Even little Toby, toddling after the other girls, learning to be a productive member of the family. Mother and Anna might have been in the bedroom. Vanessa thought she heard them quarreling, although it very could well be just whining about her. Abel put his lips to her neck.

“Of course. As soon as we can.” It sounded like a lie. Adam had promised the same thing last summer. She wiggled, resisting his grasp. Abel held tighter.

“I have to finish the dishes.”

He stayed. He stroked her hair, weaving promises into each midnight colored strand. The longer she stayed, the more real it felt. The sudsy water felt less like the scalding tubs and more like an everyday sink full of dishes. His arms felt less like her winter entombment, and more like the embrace of a lover. It was easy to pretend, to forget.

Her stomach was full of bread and butter and jam. Her heart fluttered at Abel’s touch. Yes, it was so easy to pretend. She leaned backwards into his tall frame, and listened to the hitch of his breath. Yes, it was so easy to forget.

Sinking into Abel, there was only one thing of which Vanessa was certain, and it wasn’t something she was likely to share with Abel or the rest of the family. Abel took her hands out of the water, spun her to face him, but Vanessa turned, instead pushing him against the countertop. He stroked her face like he might kiss her. Vanessa kept her eyes on the tree line. There, past the unmarked grave where she spent her winters, past the family secret that kept Abel in his siblings clothed and fed, was her certainty. Whatever it took, whomever she had to kiss, whichever halfhearted promises she had to believe, there lie her certainty.

She was never, never going in that damned casket again.


About the Creator

Claudia Neaves

Mother, Soldier, Physician, Reader, and Writer

If you like me on the page, you may enjoy a more immersive listening experience. Catch my episodes, Destinations and Beyond a Shadow on Full Body Chillls by Audiochuck

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