Emmanuela Consuela Merenghi was born on a Thursday with the most hair her mother had seen on any of her previous five children. After just three days it all fell out, sooting her cradle with its dark strands and making the nursemaid murmur and cross herself. Then it grew back as if nothing had ever happened, and her mother decided it must have been the shock of being born that made her daughter’s new-born scalp unclasp from its locks.
The last of Belladonna Maria’s litter, Consuela was the smallest and slightest, as though she’d borrowed a bird’s skeleton. Her father could often forget that they’d had her, and once ushered the majority of his brood out to church and shut the heavy front door before she had gone past him. Belladonna, who was leading the charge, didn’t notice that Consuela was missing until they had all taken their place in the pews, and by then it would have been far too noticeable to go back and get her.So the parents sat at either end of their five present children, silently fuming at each other, and praying that the congregation wouldn’t notice her absence either. They didn’t.
Consuela spent that afternoon dirtying the hem of her dress, out of sight from the servants, luring a stray cat from the depths of the gardens all the way up to the kitchen. When she finally arrived there, walking backwards and crouching often, the cook was so surprised to see her that she mistook her for a ghost and screamed loudly enough to send the poor cat streaking back to its den, without even a slip of butter on its pink tongue.
Consuela’s two sisters were distant, bickery creatures who shared an unspoken bitterness towards their youngest sibling’s dainty limbs and tiny features. They had instead inherited their fathers’ proud (and heavy) brow and their mothers’ Roman nose. They grew from dumpy children into healthily contoured young women, and no amount of corsets or vegetarianism could pare them down to anything near the silth-like frame of their sister. Consuela was infuriatingly oblivious to her envied angles.
She did, however, both notice and enjoy her own lightness of foot.She could walk down any corridor and into any room without being heard. She had a strange weightless movement, and could sidle into a room without being noticed for five minutes, ten minutes, even an hour. As a child, she startled her older brothers countless times simply by appearing. As a young lady, she realized that this wasn’t appropriate, and instead used her talent to steal sweet pastries from the kitchens, for which she had an endless appetite.
At the age of fourteen, Consuela decided that she was going to be a dancer.
“Papa, you must send me to the Academy.”
She rarely spoke, and her voice struck her father as such a silvery sweet surprise cutting through the family breakfast clatter, that he didn’t think to refuse her.
Belladonna would miss her most silent sewing companion, and the afternoons spent idly admiring the frail beauty of her youngest creation, which gave her a deep sense of satisfaction. But Consuela would be most missed by the cook, and by the cat.
The cat, by now called Conshita, was the same stray that Consuela began taming the afternoon of the church disaster. She’d persevered in the dusty yard with dishes of milk and slithers of cheese, and once the cat finally let Consuela touch its black back and felt her zephyr-like touch, it never wanted to leave her side. A year later it gave birth to a kitten in the pantry, just one lone sickly kitten, as black as its scraggly stray mother. But the kitten was too small to make sense of air and the world, and it died in Consuela’s hands. The child cried so much that her tears turned blue, and dribbled and dripped onto the tiny body. When her brother Juan helped her bury it the next day, he noticed a deep azure sheen over the black of its fur.
And so Consuela left for the academy, catless, and finally found a channel for her furtive light feet. For two years she danced, entrancing her teachers with a sleight of body that would make any magician fumble and drop his hand. Mid-air she found a contentment that she rarely felt on the ground. Mid-pirouette she found a clarity of thought that otherwise eluded her.
Then suddenly, aged sixteen, she found herself sent home.
She was confined to her room and her parents wouldn’t talk to her. Consuela sat on her bed in bafflement, and then she wept a bit, but she stopped quickly because weeping gave her a headache. Conshita came in through the window and purred a tango of delight to see her favorite human again. Finally, the cook came around, with a full supper, not the prisoners’ rations that Consuela had begun to expect.
“Oh cook!” she exclaimed, clutching the good old lady’s arm. “Why am I here? Why won’t Mama and Papa speak to me?”
The cook looked with astonishment at Consuela, but saw in her eyes that she really meant the question, and really was oblivious to her predicament.
“Why, child,” she said, taking the girls’ face in her leathery hands, “because you’re pregnant!”
Then Consuela looked down at her stomach, and finally understood the moon of fullness pushing roundly from her middle. However it got there she would never know, having never so much as held hands with a man.
Consuela gave birth on a Tuesday, and her child had even more hair than she was born with, growing all over its body. The birth was easy, for the baby was only the size of a slipper – but it was healthy and strong, and mewed loudly to greet the world and the air. Consuela slept only fitfully that first night of motherhood, Conshita warming her feet, her left hand stroking the purring baby at her chest, as she half-dreamed pirouettes and gazelle-like leaps above the whole house, the whole town, a full moon.
Rose Segal is a British singer, songwriter, and recent graduate of the MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford, where she specialised in poetry. She lives near an ancient stone ring in the Cotswolds with her husband and menagerie. Find and hear her at www.rosesegal.com or follow her Instagram: @rose_segal_music