top of page
  • Writer's pictureDaniel Rova

The Third Child


Abram knew Kala was pregnant before she did, at least that is what he told himself. He had known with their other children as well. That, or Kala had simply let him believe so. Either way, watching Kala move through the fields with the other women was all he needed to know she was with child. 

He paused his repair atop the wooden palisade to admire her. 

Kala took deliberate steps through the swaying stalks of sickly corn, whereas others moved without thought. Normally, she held the wicker basket at the front of her waist like everyone else. Instead, it was suspended on her hip. Abram took a deep pleasure in knowing the subtle movements of his wife. The way she parted her long dark hair over her right ear whenever it obscured her face. How she bit her tongue when she was focused, like now, or how she adjusted the loose linen dress she wore when the hem bunched together at her ankles. Mother’s Blessing, he was a lucky man. 

Kala was unlike anyone else in Jasper Bay. 

There were sinewy-legged Coastals like himself, and more than a few stout-shouldered Inlanders, too, but Kala and her family were the only Islanders to speak of in the entire community. She was dark and slight where Abram was pale and tall. Their children took much of their mother’s appearance and mannerisms – and they were probably the better for it – but to a babe they all had his dark green eyes. A color not too dissimilar to the jasper agates filling the bay below the walled town they called home. 

The community of Jasper Bay was built on a hill overlooking a mile-long rocky beach and the ocean beyond. To the north was a river and watermill, and to the south the fields where the women harvested what little there was to gather. This fall had not been kind to them, and as always, the forest was to blame. Not always was it so, as the entire broken world seemed ready to rip them from its once fertile bosom. The onshore wind was incessant and bracing, flattening starter crops before ever a bloom or bud appeared. The ocean was no better, mother to not only the wind, but tsunamis that wiped clean any traps or docks they might have foolishly tried to erect. The mountains to the east were no help, often belching clouds of ash and fire, blotching the sky black and suffocating the fields for weeks or months. 

But for now, it was the forest they feared. 

As Abram returned to his work nailing metal and wood scraps to the palisade, masked men in thick oilskin jackets slashed and burned back the ever-encroaching forest. Only yesterday they had managed to clear it back a dozen paces, yet upon dawn’s first light it was as if not a single ax had been swung. Branches that had been hacked back snaked over the edge of the walls, dropping fat bulbs of toxic seeds into town. Their distinctive green-brown skin smelled something fierce, and if eaten, an unpleasant death would follow after days of dysentery and delirium. 

The men picked the seeds and chopped the day-old saplings that sprang from the forest floor like weeds. They were milky white, and just as toxic as the seeds, so the men wore heavy jackets and tight masks. And even still, after a day’s hard work, they came inside sporting blisters, rashes, and upset stomachs when the trees’ toxic oils managed to find bare skin. “Mother’s piss,” Hark said, eyeing the growing forest as he patrolled past Abram on the palisade’s walkway. He shouldered his rifle, one of only a handful still working. “Mark me, it’ll be worse tomorrow.” 

“She may yet show us mercy.” 

Hark snorted and continued about his duty. 

Abram let the matter lie. Not even Hark’s sour breath could ruin his joy. Instead, he watched as Kala moved through the fields, tossing aside more ears of corn than she kept. She paused at the center of the field where a giant oak tree stood. Unlike much of the flora in the forest, this tree was as many had once been, benign and beautiful, an ancient token of grace and strength. After decades of wind, ash, and flood, it still stood, unmarked and unbroken. Few things could be claimed as much nowadays. 

The other women passed on, but Kala stared at the tree, her stoic face unreadable to any but Abram. He felt what she felt, knew what she thought because he denied the same words and memories that had seared themselves into his soul not long ago. 

But today he chose to be joyful. 

And not think of the shadows of tomorrow.


 

Even at night, the late spring heat clung to Abram’s clothes and matted his hair, suffocating all but his senses, and even they had begun to dull. Thankfully, the rains were gone, but in their wake followed a dampness that made the forest bolder. Abram still bore the scars of today’s work in the clearcut. 

If it was even right to call it that. 

The generator chugged a guttural chant, one that was at odds with the patchwork temple Abram, his family, and rest of Jasper Bay’s dozen or so families gathered in tonight. Refined oil was rare, only acquired from passing edge traders brave enough to enter the countless dead cities that littered the coastline. No one else dared go to them, not only in fear of the jealous consortiums who preyed upon the roads between, but the bitter shades of the past that lingered within. Abram’s grandparents had once lived in a city, but they had been very young, and what remained of their memories had weakened to almost nothing since their passing so long ago. 

They would have loved to meet Mathew and Sarah, Abram’s young children who sat in the front pew with Kala’s parents. 

Bare light bulbs strung across the ceiling illuminated the dais and the metal tub of water that Abram and Kala stood in. Abram wore his best attire, a pair of pressed and washed threadbare slacks rolled up to his knees, and the only white dress shirt he owned. The dress shirt was tighter around his midriff than it had been a few months ago, which he took as a good sign. Not many people could claim such vanity. 


Kala was beautiful, so much so Abram found it hard to look anywhere else. She wore the traditional long red robes of motherhood, her swollen belly pressing through the thin linen of the shift. She had worn it before, and if the Mother graced them, would wear it again. Despite the heat, Kala shivered in the water. 

Abram squeezed her hand, but she only looked forward.

Matron Ophelia stepped onto the dais, her sunken face cut to darkened angles by the harsh light. She smelled of earth and woodsmoke, and kept her wiry gray hair wild. Blue tattoos swirled around her arms and legs and neck, marking her a mystic from a Coastal tribe Abram was not familiar with, though he avoided their kind as much as he could. Magic was as dangerous as cities. Yet, she was no stranger here. Ophelia had pulled Abram from his mother, as she had both his children from Kala. 

The generator paused, and for a brief moment the familiar sounds of the night filled the temple. The wind gusting, the trees groaning; beasts of the night prowling and howling, their sharp claws scratching at the palisade walls. Then, the chug-chug-chug of the generator resumed, and the congregation sighed in relief. If only for a time, it was nice to pretend the night was a peaceful and quiet place. 

Ophelia rested her hands on Kala’s shoulders, who flinched. 

“Rest easy, Child,” Ophelia said, addressing the temple. “For you bear the fruit of your sacred union. A Third Child waits to be born.” 

Everyone bowed their heads. “Praise the Mother’s Mercy.” 

Ophelia nudged Abram. 

Abram blushed. “Apologies, Matron.” 

A few people in the crowd giggled, including his daughter, as Abram took Kala by the fat of her arms and lowered her into the pool so only her face and belly were above the water. Abram looked up ruefully, and Sarah laughed again. 

His son, Mathew, only looked at his feet. 

“In our ignorance we smote the sky,” Ophelia said, stepping into the pool as she spoke to the congregation again. “In our arrogance we boiled the ocean. In our hatefulness we burned the forests. The mountains trembled and the lakes froze, and in our ignorance our cities rose, and rose, and rose.” 

Ophelia helped Abram pull Kala’s robe back to expose her distended belly. It glistened under the bright lights as it beaded with sweat and water. Abram found himself staring at her navel, wondering about the magic that lay in such simple flesh. 

“A babe in the woods, She abandoned us,” Ophelia continued. “Once her favorite child, now lost and forgotten, made to survive in the dark with her jealous and hungry children. Amid the vengeful seas and skies, the terrible mountains and trees, we scratch and struggle for forgiveness.” 

“Fear the Mother’s Fury.” 

Ophelia pulled an ornate knife from a leather sheath at her side. It was well-honed and sharp enough to cut the air. Abram swallowed hard as the knifepoint lingered above his wife’s belly. 

“Blood for blood, life for life. To give back what was given.” 

Abram held out his hand to Ophelia. In a well-practiced motion, she sliced the blade deep across his offered palm. Abram winced out of habit, even though Ophelia always cut the same hand and he had enough built up scar tissue to keep it from hurting. Fresh blood quickly pooled in the palm of his hand. Ophelia turned it over and droplets of blood splattered on his wife’s stomach. Ophelia did not turn his hand back over until the water was pink and Abram was lightheaded. 

“Blood for blood,” Ophelia said, holding up Abram’s hand. “Life for life.”

“Bless this gift the Mother has given.”


 

“Daddy, do you think it’s going to be a boy or a girl?” 

Abram wiped the beading sweat from his brow as he balanced Sarah on his lap. She was just shy of her fourth birthday and as inquisitive as ever. Her green eyes danced in the firelight of the small common room. Despite it being the middle of the summer, they only had enough bulbs to light the temple and little else. In the adjacent bedroom, where Abram and his family slept, he heard the rhythmic breathing of Kala working through her latest contractions. “Either is fine. I’ve already got one of each.” 

“I want a girl!” Sarah said, bouncing so much Abram had to grab her and pull her close. “What should we call her?” 

Abram ignored Sarah, and instead turned to his older son, Mathew, who was pushing a toy animal across the floor. It was like no animal he had ever seen before. It had four legs, a strong snout, and heavy hindquarters with a mane of fine hair running along the back of its long neck. His grandparents might have known what it was called, but all he knew was Mathew had desperately wanted it when the edge trader came by last year, and Abram had been too weak to say no. 

“What about you, Mathew? What do you want them to be?” 

Mathew shrugged and turned away. 

Kala’s parents waited on the other side of the room, near their own bedroom in the common house. Kala’s father held her mother’s hand while she prayed. Although Kala had been through more than enough births, it was always a dangerous time. So many things could go wrong. Not a year ago, their housemate’s wife had died in labor. Ophelia never said what happened. All Abram knew was that her husband walked into the woods that night and never returned. 

Abram put Sarah down and walked outside to get some fresh air to clear his head. The entire village was there to greet him. They nodded and smiled, asking how Kala was doing, and he said what he knew to be true. They patted him on the back, and although they knew he did not drink, offered him a swig of corn-beer. To their surprise, he took a deep drink and everyone laughed. However, the merriment that surrounded their home—roasted fish, freshly caught and cleaned of any poisonous glands; music to cover the growing sounds of the coming night; and what little dancing a long day’s labor allowed people to do—was hampered by a soft yet steady ashfall. Abram stared through the light layer of sooty clouds to see the glowing, bleeding heart of the mountains behind them. 

They had erupted that morning. 

“First the forest, and now this,” Hark said nearby. He was far deeper in his cups than most. “The crops’ll die and us with them. Ain’t nothing going to work.” 

Abram put his beer down. “Have faith, brother. Matron Ophelia has never led us wrong. It’s worked before, and it’ll work again. In time, the Mother will forgive us.” Hark swallowed his beer and spit on the ground. 

“Go inside, Abram,” a friend said, putting a hand on his back. “No need to watch what can’t be helped. You’ve got work to do. For all of us.” 

Abram sighed and nodded, then returned inside to find a son waiting for him. Ophelia held the child in her tattooed arms, a satisfied smile on her face, as the newborn – wreathed in a glow of mucus and blood – wiggled and cried. Kala looked exhausted as she lay on their bed, her face flushed and covered in sweat. But she was fine. She had borne children before, and the Mother willing, would bear them again. He grabbed her hand and wiped her forehead, then placed his head on her chest. 

“Stay with him,” Kala said, her voice weak and dry. 

“I want to stay with you,” Abram whispered into her chest. 

Tears bubbled at the corners of her eyes. “Please.” 

Abram kissed her hand, then nodded. 

Ophelia wrapped the newborn in a towel and walked outside the room. Abram followed, but not before Sarah broke loose from her grandparents’ arms and raced after. “I wanna see! I wanna see!” 

Ophelia smiled at Sarah, but continued past her outside. A loud cheer was met as the door closed shut behind her. 

Sarah’s lowered lip quivered. “I wanna see.” 

Abram grabbed his daughter. “You can see him later, dear.” 

“Him? But I want a little sister!” 

Sarah ripped free and sprinted outside. 

Abram swore, then glanced at Kala’s parents. He didn’t even need to ask them to watch Mathew, who was in the same spot pushing his toy around. He had not looked up once, his little green eyes focused on nothing but the toy and the frayed carpet it ran across. They would talk about this later, but right now he needed to focus on Sarah. 

Abram walked outside to see Sarah bouncing at the tail end of the crowd moving through the single paved street of Jasper Bay. A woman named Fern grabbed Sarah’s hand and pulled her along, as everyone followed Ophelia beyond the community walls.


Somehow, the falling ash was worse outside the walls, turning the sun a faded blood orange as it sank to a horizon of unblemished pink and purple clouds beyond the bay. Sarah was on Fern’s shoulders when Abram saw them again, so he did not run. Everyone in Jasper Bay knew and trusted one another, but she was his daughter and needed to know better than to run off without permission. Besides, it had been a long day for everyone, especially Kala. She would want to be with her children after everything she had had to endure. The ash settled on the stalks of corn as Abram made his way into the fields. It was delicate and soft, each mote of ash settling down without so much as a bend or break, as if time itself had stopped and all that moved was Abram and the ash. 

The oak tree loomed as Abram approached the gathering people at its base. Ophelia stood near its center with Abram’s newborn baby still in her arms. 

Abram prodded Fern, who put Sarah down. 

“It’s good for them to see when they are young,” Fern said. 

Abram grabbed Sarah’s hand. “It’s not for you to tell me what is and isn’t good for my child.” 

Fern blushed. 

Although irritated, Abram agreed with Fern and led Sarah closer to where Ophelia stood. People parted for him, smiling and offering thanks. He nodded and shook a few hands, until he was just below where Ophelia stood. She gently placed Abram’s son on a massive root, then turned to the crowd. 

“Bless this gift the Mother has given,” the congregation chanted, Abram among them. Sarah squirmed between his legs, but he ignored her protests and focused on his newborn son.

“A Third Child has been freely given,” Ophelia said. “Born in blood and struggle, he has found his way into this world like any other. But this child has no name, nor will he ever have a name, for The Third Child is what the Mother demands of us all.” She pulled back her robe to reveal a scar along her belly. “Taken from me, as it has been taken from you, we give back what was given.” 

“Blood for blood.” 

“We seek to amend for the world we have broken, and to do so we gladly give a mouth we would feed, a body we would clothe, a life we would cherish. For with one life given, many lives may eat, and be warm, and be happy.” 

Abram looked at his newborn son’s green eyes as flakes of ash settled on his tiny face and felt nothing but relief. Kala and her parents still did not understand, but this was not the first Third Child they had given. Ophelia said it may not be their last, either. The Mother’s forgiveness demanded it, so Abram would give what was needed until things were right. Soon, the ash would stop falling and the forest would grow quiet. 

“Life for life,” the congregation said. 

Ophelia pulled the knife from its sheath. 

“To give back what was given.”



 


Daniel Rova is a debut author who currently lives in Bellingham, WA with his wife, newborn daughter, and two cats. He has been writing for most of his life, and is particularly interested in the intersection between sci-fiction and fantasy. He has attended a variety of workshops in the Northwest including Cascade Writers as well as a number of classes for Clarion West.

Comments


bottom of page