I remember being born.
In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.
Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.
I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.
My mother left me a complicated and burdensome inheritance.
My father hid the dreadful details from everyone, including me. He moved us back to Lavondaville, the capital of Goredd, and picked up his law practice where he had dropped it. He invented a more acceptable grade of dead wife for himself. I believed in her like some people believe in Heaven.
I was a finicky baby; I wouldn’t suckle unless the wet nurse sang exactly on pitch. “It has a discriminating ear,” observed Orma, a tall, angular acquaintance of my father’s who came over often in those days. Orma called me “it” as if I were a dog; I was drawn to his aloofness, the way cats gravitate toward people who’d rather avoid them.
He accompanied us to the cathedral one spring morning where the young priest anointed my wispy hair with lavender oil and told me that in the eyes of Heaven I was as a queen. I bawled like any self-respecting baby; my shrieks echoed up and down the nave.
Without bothering to look up from the work he’d bought with him, my father promised to bring me up piously in the faith of Allsaints.
The priest handed me my father’s psalter and I dropped it, right on cue. It fell open at the picture of St. Yirtrudis, whose face had been blacked out.
The priest kissed his hand, pinkie raised. “Your psalter still contains the heretic!”
“It’s a very old psalter,” said Papa, not looking up, “and I hate to maim a book.”
“We advise the bibliophilic faithful to paste Yirtrudis’s pages together so this mistake can’t happen.” The priest flipped a page.
“Heaven surely meant St. Capiti.”
Papa muttered something about superstitious fakes, just loud enough for the priest to hear. There followed a fierce argument between my father and the priest, but I don’t remember it. I was gazing, transfixed, at a procession of monks passing through the nave. They padded by in soft shoes, a flurry of dark, whispering robes and clicking beads, and took their places in the cathedral’s quire. Seats scraped and creaked; several monks coughed.
They began to sing.
The cathedral, reverberating with masculine song, appeared to expand before my eyes. The sun gleamed through the high windows; gold and crimson bloomed upon the marble floor. The music buoyed my small form, filled and surrounded me, made me larger than myself. It was the answer to a question I had never asked, the way to fill the dread emptiness into which I had been born. I believed—no, I knew—I could transcend the vastness and touch the vaulted ceiling with my hand.
I tried to do it.
My nurse squealed as I nearly squirmed out of her arms. She gripped me by the ankle at an awkward angle. I stared dizzily at the floor; it seemed to tilt and spin.
My father took me up, long hands around my fat torso, and held me at arm’s length as if he had discovered an oversized and astonishing frog. I met his sea-gray eyes; they crinkled sadly at the corners.
The priest stormed off without blessing me. Orma watched him disappear around the end of the Golden House, then said, “Claude, explain this. Did he leave because you convinced him his religion is a sham? Or was he . . . what’s that one called? Offended?”
My father seemed not to hear; something about me had captured his attention. “Look at her eyes. I could swear she understands us.”
“It has a lucid gaze for an infant,” said Orma, pushing up his spectacles and leveling his own piercing stare at me. His eyes were dark brown, like my own; unlike mine, they were as distant and inscrutable as the night sky.
“I have been unequal to this task, Seraphina,” said Papa softly. “I may always be unequal, but I believe I can do better. We must find a way to be family to each other.”
He kissed my downy head. He’d never done that before. I gaped at him, awed. The monks’ liquid voices surrounded us and held us all three together. For a single, glorious moment I recovered that first feeling, the one I’d lost by being born: everything was as it should be, and I was exactly where I belonged.
And then it was gone. We passed through the bronze-bossed doors of the cathedral; the music faded behind us. Orma stalked off across the square without saying goodbye, his cloak flapping like the wings of an enormous bat. Papa handed me to my nurse, pulled his cloak tightly around himself, and hunched his shoulders against the gusting wind. I cried for him, but he did not turn around. Above us arched the sky, empty and very far away.
Superstitious fakery or not, the psalter’s message was clear: The truth may not be told. Here is an acceptable lie.
Not that St. Capiti—may she keep me in her heart—made a poor substitute saint. She was shockingly apropos, in fact. St. Capiti carried her own head on a plate like a roast goose; it glared out from the page, daring me to judge her. She represented the life of the mind, utterly divorced from the sordid goings-on of the body.
I appreciated that division as I grew older and was overtaken by bodily grotesqueries of my own, but even when I was very young, I always felt a visceral sympathy for St. Capiti. Who could love someone with a detached head? How could she accomplish anything meaningful in this world when her hands were occupied with that platter? Did she have people who understood her and would claim her as a friend?
Papa had permitted my nurse to glue St. Yirtrudis’s pages together; the poor lady could not rest easy in our house until it was done. I never did get a look at the heretic. If I held the page up to the light I could just discern the shapes of both saints, blended together into one terrible monster saint. St. Yirtrudis’s outstretched arms sprang out of St. Capiti’s back like a pair of ineffectual wings; her shadow-head loomed where St. Capiti’s should have been. She was a double saint for my double life.
My love of music eventually lured me from the safety of my father’s house, propelling me into the city and the royal court. I took a terrible risk, but I could not do otherwise. I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind.