Tracing a creased finger along the lower bulb of the hourglass, she watches sparkling sand trickle in an unbroken line, counting the time. It would not be long now, perhaps only a few hours remained, but she had no regrets at her decision. Hourglass in hand, she sits in the rocking chair by the crib, watching the gentle rise and fall of the baby's chest, measuring the progress of the sand through her fingers.
Barbara went to University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, to receive her degree in Studio Art. She was seldom found without a paint brush in her hand growing up and that love had only deepened as she matured. While most of her artwork was what many would consider abstract, her inspiration came from the community she found herself in. Often she would sit at a table outside the coffee shop on University Avenue and watch life unfold around her.
Inspired by a dog leading its master down the sidewalk she began sketching on a pad she carried with her and never noticed the man slide into the adjacent seat at her table until he placed a package on the table. Her pencil jinked at the slight movement of the table, and she looked up, gasping when she found herself no longer alone.
"Can I help you?" she inquired, giving her eyes time to take in the man she had never seen before.
He had a thin face, with pencil thin lips, salt and pepper hair that hung to the points of his jawbone, but it was his auburn eyes that took her. He was middle aged, probably in his thirties, but there was something ancient in his eyes. Crossing on leg over another, he tapped a long finger on the brown, non-descript box.
"I know we have never met, but I have something for you," he replied, in a refined voice.
Before she could respond, he continued, "You can not open it, but you will want to keep it safe for when the time comes that you need it. You will marry a man the year after you graduate and try unsuccessfully to have children for many years. Finally you will become pregnant, but you will lose the child during birth. You can avoid this by opening this box, the night you go to the hospital."
The sudden burst of information that the man could have no way of knowing sent Barbara's head spinning. Raw emotions she had never felt over the loss of a child twisted in her stomach and she blinked to ease the pain. Opening her eyes, she found herself alone at the table. Looking around frantically, she saw many people walking but, slipping into shops, talking, but the peculiar man was no where in sight.
Rubbing her face with her hands, she thought she must have been concentrating too hard on the picture and nodded off to sleep and a weird dream. Then her eyes settled on the box that sat just beyond the head of her sketch pad on the table.
For weeks, Barbara was skittish around others, always looking around corners and in shadows, looking to see if the man was still following her. She kept the box at her apartment, under her bed, too afraid to open it and even more so to discard it. If the man's words held truth, she had a way to avoid the death of an innocent, of her baby, when the time came. Doubt crept in though, as her social life was dismal, as her focus was on her studies.
She met James at an exhibition of the student's artwork. He was just another in a long line of those that came to appreciate the show, but she found herself drawn into conversation with him during a lull in the crowd. Before the night was over, they exchanged phone numbers and made plans to have lunch the following day.
It did not take long for Barbara to fall in love with James and the remaining two years of their education, they were inseparable. Their senior year, James had got down on his knee outside the same building where they had met and asked her hand in marriage. She said yes, having forgotten by this time, the predictions the man had made.
Their marriage was like many others, the first couple years, struggling to get off the ground as they found jobs and entered a life of their own. In many ways it was sustained by youthful vigor. They tried for years to have children, even trying infertility treatments and when they were just about to accept that they would not be blessed with children, Barbara became pregnant.
Tears streamed down her face, relief flooding her body as she looked a the two line on the pregnancy test. Her heart jumped as she raced to find the phone to call James. Unable to locate it in the kitchen, she returned to their room, thinking she might have left her cell phone in the jeans she wore the day before. Opening the closet, she spied a brown box she had not seen in years. The pregnancy test slipped through her fingers, clattering on the floor.
James found her draped across the bed when he came from work. Thinking she was taking a nap, he was slipping out the door of their bedroom when he saw test stick by the closet. Retrieving it he could not help but let out an excited yell. Barbara stirred on the bed and he took her in his arms, elation spilling out of his mouth, but she heard none of it, only stared over his shoulder at the box peeking from within the closet.
For as much difficulty as they had in conceiving, Barbara's pregnancy was fairly routine. They were busy, preparing the house, converting a spare bedroom into a nursery. She kept the secrets of the box to herself, trying to put it out of her mind. Every time she had forgotten about it though, the box would turn up, on the kitchen counter, the passenger seat of her car, on her pillow. She thought to ask James if he was the one that was moving it about but was afraid then she would have to explain it to him. Everything was going so well, the doctors had confirmed the baby was healthy, so she kept returning the box in the back of her closet.
The baby's due date came and went, which the doctor's said was not necessarily unexpected with a first child, so they set a date for inducing labor if the baby did not come on it's own. That morning, as James went to take his shower, Barbara slipped into their room to retrieve the box. She thought reaching it in the back of the closet would be difficult with her swollen belly, but she found the box sitting neatly on their bed.
Making sure the water was running, she ran a fingernail underneath the end flap and let the contents spill on the bed cover; and envelope and an hourglass. Tearing open the envelope, she retrieved a small card that read:
Congratulations on the new life you carry within you. If you would like for him to live, take the hourglass out of the tube in which it is sealed. When you do the sand will begin to move and it run out, our transaction will be complete. A life for a life.
She sat staring at the note, trembling at what was being offered. Was it her life that would be taken? James? Was she willing to trade one for the other? She felt a soft kick at the side of her belly, her baby, and when she heard the the water of James' shower stop she quickly unstopped the tube, sliding the hourglass into her hand, watching the sand fall for the first time. She placed it on her bedside table and disposed of the card and the box.
Jacob was born that evening and was instantly adored by his parents. He nuzzled against Barbara's chest settling into sleep as she counted the ten pink fingers. Childbirth was relatively easy on Barbara, no complications, and they came home from the hospital a few days later and life settled into an uncomfortable rhythm of feeding and changing him.
One morning, after James had returned to work from his two week paternity leave, Barbara noticed, while putting on her make up, the first grey hair. She plucked it quickly, so as not to encourage others and tossed it in the garbage. When others started to appear by the afternoon, her first thought was of the hourglass. Running to their room, heart stammering, she found it laying on her pillow, nearly half the sand gone.
Angry, she threw the hourglass across the room, expecting it to shatter against the wall. As she watched it fly through the air, fear gripped her inner most parts, that it just might. It thunked hollow against the wall and fell. She rushed to retrieve it, stopping just short, to watch as sand continued to pour, defying gravity, in the upside down hourglass. Only now it was pouring faster.
Grabbing it she turned it over in her hands, but the pace was not abated. Tingling tightness filled her face and she ran once more to the mirror in the bathroom. She stared in disbelief as crevices crawled from the corners of her mouth and eyes, her cheeks sagged, then hollowed like flat balloons. Her lips curled back and her hair stood shock white. She aged forty years in a matter of minutes.
From his crib, Jacob began to cry, in piercing wails. Everything was moving too fast. Barbara's bones ached as she limped to his room, each step a labor of pain. Her body was betraying her. Placing her hand on his back, he squirmed then stilled. Her hand was little more than bone draped in skin. In her other hand she held the hourglass and sat in the rocking chair to look at it and see how much time she had left.
It is almost over, her body feels like a husk. James will be home soon, she thinks, wishing she had the energy to find the phone and speak to him one last time. She wonders what he will think, finding her here, a leaf whithered in the fall, watching over their child. Jacob, their beautiful auburn eyed child. She has no regrets, as she watches the last grains of sand slip through the hole.
This is a Magpie Tale.