Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Last Born


If I wake before dawn, and I feel that the air is colder than usual, I know it is because the lighter half o’ the year is coming to an end. And if I wake before dawn, and smell a crispness that was not there before, I know it is because that which was alive is slowly dying, and that at least one soul I know will not see as many more moons as I. Who shall it be? My husband? One of our twelve children? I can hear the baby begin to wail, and an aching feeling in my heart pleads with me to stay in bed; to bury my head beneath the pelts. But I will rise. I will give the infant my breast. I will go out into the cold morning and make my water and wash my torso in the icy river stream that flows by the tallest pine. And I will whisper to the shadows that crawl across the forest floor as the dull sun climbs: If I should never feel you again, let my blood turn to putrid, stagnant water--and let my bones turn to dirt. If I wake before dawn, and I hear your sweet, sad singing in my ear, I know it is because the darker half o’ the year is upon us. I invite you into my skin. I beckon you into my breath. I lust for your carrion-flavored flesh. I strip off my layers and lay down in the tall grass. I feel tiny insects against my bare, freckled body. I take your shadow into my mouth, and oh, my cup runneth over. Never let me wake from this. Never release me.

Never let me know what it is to be pure.


Mr. Leeds died during the second week of October. The night before his end, there was a
frost covering everything, and several of the children were sobbing about how they could feel ice in their bones.

Mrs. Leeds had soothed them with a song she could not remember the origins of. She stroked their hair, and touched their cold cheeks, and told them to be still.

Mr. Leeds was complaining of an ache in his left arm--likely brought on from cutting wood for the fire, he mumbled.

Mrs. Leeds was quiet. She sat on the small stool by the fire, and listened to the flames flicker and pop. She sat there for hours, until Mr. Leeds bade her come to bed. She complied, and lay on the hard bed, listening to the heavy breathing of her twelve sleeping children.

Mr. Leeds had made a weak attempt to put himself inside her, but she had offered him no help in the matter, and he had fallen asleep--unsatisfied.

And in the morning, his body was ice cold.

His brother, a tall oak of a man, had arrived soon after he heard the news. He dug the grave himself, which was no easy feat; the ground was frozen solid. Mrs. Leeds had watched him from the porch of the house--his broad shoulders hunching, and his muscles rippling, his breath escaping from his gaping mouth in puffs of white. Inside, the children wept. The baby screamed. Mrs. Leeds did not leave the porch.


I am told that the night I was born, the sky caught fire. Mamaí was sick with fever, and Dadaí was laid up on account of the drink. The doctor told Mamaí that I was being good and stubborn and refusing to turn. He might need to use his blade on her belly, he said.

And then the sky caught fire.

A neighbor came running in, screaming. His face was red, and his eyes were wet, and he
wouldn’t stop babbling about the lights he saw in the sky. Dadaí had come round and threatened to wallop him, but he followed the man outside, and he saw with his own two eyes that there were brilliant, fiery lights racing across the night. Prettiest and scariest thing he ever saw, he said.

He was a cruel man. He had heavy hands, with coarse red hairs across the knuckles. When I was in my tenth year, he bade me sit on his lap. He whispered a melody in my ear and slid those heavy hands up the hem of my dress. All this while Mamaí was watching. She never said nothing. She was a good woman, but she had a dead heart.

Dadaí died on the night of my thirteenth year. He choked on his dinner, those heavy hands of his grasping at his throat as if he were strangling himself. His face turned the color of the summer sky at sunset, and his eyes got as big as saucers. He was making this awful, gurgling sound.

And I couldn’t stop laughing.


Two days after Mr. Leeds had been planted in the earth, rumors began circulating through town that Mrs. Leeds was pregnant.

It seemed impossible, especially since she had just given birth to her twelfth child no more than a month ago. And yet, children playing near the river by the Leeds’ home had sworn they saw Mrs. Leeds, with her belly big and swollen, out on the porch, beating dust from a rug. Her belly was so big and swollen, in fact, that the waist of her dress could not cover it, and her pale round flesh was exposed.

Children lie, of course. Everyone knows that. But the rumors persisted and grew. Who knew just what the Leeds family had been up to, hidden away out there in the Pines?

Mr. Leeds’ brother had left town to go back to the house to see just what was going on. He never returned home. The last anyone saw of him, he was sitting on a tree stump, holding a large black stone in his hands. He fingered the stone with a blank expression on his face. And then he began to weep. After that, no one had any sight of him again.

Dr. Lanchester ventured by horse to the Leeds home and found Mrs. Leeds standing knee-deep in the river. She was completely nude, and as the doctor rode into her line of sight, he found she was staring right at him--as if she had been waiting for him to come all this time.

In Mrs. Leeds’ exposed state, the doctor could see she did indeed appear to be pregnant—very pregnant. In fact, if the doctor had been pressed about the matter in an inquest, he would have to state that Mrs. Leeds appeared to be ready to go into labor at any moment.

Mrs. Leeds cradled her bulbous belly and looked up at the doctor, making no attempt to shield her nakedness.

“Doctor,” she whispered.

“Mrs. Leeds, are you...with child?” Dr. Lanchester asked. The words felt foolish in his mouth--a blind man could tell this woman was pregnant. Yet he could think of nothing else to say. He climbed down off his horse and waited by the edge of the water

Mrs. Leeds stepped from the river, water dripping off her legs. She came mere inches from the doctor. “You are the physician,” she said. “You must tell me...” And with that, she took his hand in hers and placed it on her belly.

She was ice cold to the touch, and Dr. Lanchester had to stifle himself from uttering a shocked cry. And then he felt the movement in Mrs. Leeds’ belly. He had examined dozens upon dozens of pregnant women in his fifteen years of practicing medicine, but he had never felt movement like this within a pregnant woman’s stomach. It was a slithering, unnatural movement. It made him sick to his stomach, and he was quite sure he could feel vomit rising in the back of his throat.

Dr. Lanchester pulled his hand away with a jolt. A coy smile came on Mrs. Leeds’ face, and, for the first time, the doctor noticed how utterly black her eyes were.

“I’ll...I’ll send for a midwife...” the doctor muttered, awkwardly climbing back onto his horse. He rode back to town at lightning speed. That night, the hand that had touched

Mrs. Leeds’ belly began to wither. It clenched itself into a claw-like shape that the doctor could not break out of. He would be dead before Christmas.


I was 16 years old when I first felt you. I was playing with my sister in the Barrens, and it was as crisp and clean a morning as anyone could pray for. My sister and I were hiding from each other behind trees, and giving our positions away by giggling like bandits. And then, for no reason at all, I ran from her. She was younger than I--much younger--and our mother had told me to watch over her. But I was running now. My feet were bare and the sandy earth was soft and cool to my skin. I was not trying to be cruel. I was laughing and signing, beckoning my sister to follow me. My red hair was flying out behind my head like ribbon, and I felt such a strong feeling in my chest that I was sure my heart was about to break out of my skin. And my sister did not follow.

I ran until I came to a clearing, and fell down onto my back, exploding with laughter. And just as suddenly, I began to sob. Hot tears streaming down my cheeks, and my chest heaving, and awful sounds escaping from my lips. I could not stop, and a part of me did not want to stop. A part of me wanted to cry all the fluid from my body.

You came to me then. You smelled of fresh cut apples and burning leaves. You whispered to me--at least I think you did. You did not have a real voice; indeed, you did not even have a mouth--or a face. But I saw you as I see you now, and I heard you as I hear you still.

“Why do you cry, child?” came your honeysuckle voice. It was the time of dying, and I knew that insects were not abundant at this time of year, and yet bees began to buzz around me. A few at first, and then a dozen, and then hundreds. And they were joined by flies alighting from rock to rock, and spiders crawling across my skin. I was terrified of spiders before that day, but as I felt their hairy legs tenderly touch my legs, I did not shudder. “Why do you cry? Are you sad?”

“No,” I sobbed. “I cry because I am happy...”

“And why are you happy?”

The words came to my mouth before I had even thought of them. “Because I was lost...and you have found me.”


The midwife arrived in the late hours of October 30th. An icy wind was blowing through the pines, and the children huddled against each other by the fire. The midwife saw fear in their eyes, and though she was affable with them, they would not speak a word. She asked the oldest boy to fetch her water, and he did so silently. He returned with the bucket shaking in his hands.

Mrs. Leeds lay on the bed, lit by several flickering lanterns. Her red hair framed her thin, pale face. She did not look in pain. Indeed, she did not look as if she were feeling anything at all. Her oval stomach was exposed, and the midwife thought--just briefly, mind you--that she saw the flesh on the stomach ripple and expand; but she chalked this up to the flickering lantern light.

As Mrs. Leeds went deeper into labor, the wind picked up, howling like a pack of wolves, pounding against the house and rattled the wood. The children began to whimper. The flames in the lanterns began to go out, one by one.

Mrs. Leeds began to scream now. Loud, ear-splitting screams. Sweat poured down her brow in sheets.

“Almost there...” the midwife called over the screams. “Almost through...breathe hard, ma’am. Breathe hard and push...”

Mrs. Leeds screamed louder now, and the last lantern blew out. The only light in the house came from the full moon through the windows and the dying fire in the fireplace.

From between Mrs. Leeds’ wide, exposed legs, the baby began to emerge.

And now Mrs. Leeds was not the only voice screaming within the four walls of the house. The midwife began to cry out, holding the back of her hand up to her mouth. The children, huddled and watching from a corner, began to wail.

The midwife made no attempt to cradle the baby, and it dropped to the floor, slick with blood and shrieking. Even in the dull light, the midwife could make out its hideous features--the eyes the shape of knife wounds, the nose nonexistent, the mouth an impossible shape lined with jagged, black-colored bits of what could either be bone or teeth. And the hands--oh, our Lord have mercy, the midwife thought--the hands.

Gnarled, malformed and lacking in any semblance of real fingers.

“I want to see him...,” Mrs. Leeds moaned. “Let me see my baby...”

The midwife wrapped the flailing, bloody thing in rags and began to move towards the door.

“No!” Mrs. Leeds screamed. “Bring him to me!” She tore open her shirt and exposed her left breast. “Bring him here so that he may feed!”

The midwife did not stop. She ran from the house. The thing squirmed in her hands; the very movement of it caused her to stop and heave up vomit onto her own shoes. Then she was moving again. The river lay ahead, the moonlight rippling off the wind-blown surface. Never pausing for a moment, she tossed the wailing creature into the black water. It sank into the darkness.

On shaking legs, the midwife returned to the house. She saw as she pushed open the door the twelve children. They lay strewn about floor, split open from groin to neck, their innards scattered and steaming.

The midwife’s brain had trouble processing this information. She had only been gone for seconds--how had this happened? More than that--what had happened?

“Mrs. Leeds!” the midwife called out.

Mrs. Leeds appeared in the doorway to her bedroom. She was completely nude, sticky with sweat and blood. She held a sickle in her hand, and a secret in her eyes.

The midwife became aware then: something else was in the house; something that made the very air thick. Something that made the small hairs on the back of her neck prick up. She knew it was behind her--she could feel its mass. Then, she felt it touch her shoulder. And she tasted her own blood in her mouth.


If I wake before dawn, and it is the 31st of October, and I feel the blood of my twelve children on my lips, I know it is because the lighter half o’ the year is coming to an end. I will go down to the river, and let the cold water come up to my distorted belly. I will wait for our son to come back to me. And if I wake before dawn, and smell the fires burning in the North, and hear the ravens singing your praises in the trees, and feel our son crawling from the muddy river bottom, up into my flesh, I know it is because the darker half o’ the year is upon us.

No comments:

Post a Comment