When it first began, there was no sense of panic. No rise of bile in our throats with each drum beat. We didn't flinch at each word that left her lips. Each syllable that condensed between her teeth was met with fresh wonder. To begin with.
...Eighty four, eighty three, eighty two...
She was six when her mother died. A violent death, the details of which we could not ascertain. The records had been burned. An accident, they said. Though no one could be certain, even now. Her father took to drink soon after. Cirrhosis claimed him within a year.
A bachelor uncle was forced to mind her. Most put out, he was, having been so suddenly burdened with such a child as she. Such scarlet eyes and furrowed brows and the smoulder of coals about her face. Such hollowed eyes, dark and haunted, like the space where eyes should be. Like the collapse of two identical stars. Like the sockets of a skull. But still, he made use of her. And she learnt how to be silent.
...Sixty one, sixty, fifty nine...
She came to us in April. Her uncle was gone. A short, sudden illness had claimed his heart. The ventricles blackened beyond repair, shrivelled and dead. Quite strange, really, that such damage could occur in so short a space of time. The cause was unknown. So the child was left alone once more. Like an amputated limb.
We spent most of our time out of doors that Spring. Although it was warm, the tulips opened late. Their petals were still coyly folded when she came to us. Curled at their soft edges, concealing their quivering stamens, with the false modesty of courtesans. The blossom from the trees in the street blew in through the window and settled on the piano in our study. The pink looked pleasing against the black and white. We wanted it to be a new start for her. We wanted to see her smile.
Despite all our encouragement, she wouldn't speak. An elective mute. The first time the house had seen a child in ten years, yet things had never been so quiet. Marie was barely twelve years old then, but her face was lined, like ancient cartography paper. And grey as if covered in dust.
There was nothing then. All Spring and through into Summer we felt her cold eyes on the backs of our necks. It was grief, we told each other: she is bereft. We must try to understand. Adoption is almost like having one's own child, except, that it isn't. Not really. A flesh-born infant is always more desirable than a foundling. We tried our best to love her just the same as we had loved our own child, all those years before. Just the same. If not more so. But she was not a perfect fit. The years and the damp of our eyes had warped the wood. Moonlight seeped in through the cracks.
She had been with us for six months when she began to chant. As I have said, we did not fear her. Not at the start. It is normal, the doctors stated, for victims of trauma like hers. They warned of cyphers, riddles, nonsense. Speaking in tongues. The words would come soon enough, the doctors said. We must be patient.
...Forty nine, forty eight, forty seven...
When the count down did not cease, we were afraid. Slowly, rhythmically, she issued the prophesy all her waking hours. The counting was unbroken by sleep. She dreamed of the numbers. A slow metronome. Time winding down. We consulted forgotten bibles; not yet completely cured of religion. We were still slaves to our upbringings. I suppose we all are.
We tried to silence her.
...thirty one, thirty, twenty nine...
I wanted to love her as my own. She was not born of my flesh, how could she be? I wanted to love her just the same. But she is so cold. She wants to punish me for what I did.
We could not grow accustomed to her, as people suggested we might. We hated her with each word that escaped, unbidden, from her lips. Like a leak. A heartbeat. The timer on a bomb.
...seventeen, sixteen, fifteen...
We do not know what will happen when she reaches the end of her puzzle. Maybe she will begin the count afresh? We do not discuss it. We don't talk much, these days. The air is thick with words, oppressive, like the heady scent of chlorine gas. We argue in hushed tones, locked behind bathroom doors, the panelling muffling her voice. We barely touch one another now. We used to be so strong. Now every utterance is forced and false. We are desperate for the end. We pray to God that it will never come.
...Three, two, one...