I was in my room one night when I heard something in the corridor. It was just the rats moving around as usual. They wouldn’t normally have woken me up but the baby was restless that night and I had been sleeping fitfully.
I got out of bed and went to the window, taking care not to wake Abraham. The sky was lightening to the east. I’d have to get up soon anyway. I went through to the kitchen, cradling one hand protectively under my distended belly. I lit the fires and the oven, and started a batch of dough for the bread.
The chickens stirred fretfully when I went into the henhouse, grumpy at being woken earlier than normal. They had produced only two eggs that morning, just enough for my husband’s breakfast. I would have bread and butter as usual. I offered prayers of thanks to the hens that had given me the eggs and carried them carefully back into the kitchen.
As I went through to the vegetable garden, I saw Abraham making his way across the yard to the cow-shed. It was kind of him to take over the milking chores while I was in my last weeks of pregnancy. There was just enough light spilling over the horizon for me to see that the weeds had had a very good night. They enjoyed the rich, organic soil even more than the vegetables did. The gravel bit into my knees as I crouched to pull them out of the ground, muttering a little chant of apology for disturbing their rest.
The baby shifted irritably at the sudden change of position. I widened my knees and rocked forward on all fours until it settled down, happy with the accommodation again. As I crawled along the ground a wave of something washed over me. Some emotion I couldn’t quite define. Boredom? Despair? Depression? A terrible inability to accept that today would be just like all the other days. That the chores would never go away. That my reward for getting them all done today would be to do them all over again tomorrow.
I closed my eyes and bore down against the tears that threatened to escape between my eyelids. ”It is an honour and a privilege to serve creation,” I chanted in my mind. ”I have been chosen as the handmaiden of nature. I accept my destiny.” And felt my emotions settle down.
A few hours later, I was squirming against the probing hands of the midwife. ”Has the baby turned?” I asked, unable to stay silent any longer. She barely spared me a glance, but continued to prod and probe. When she finally looked up, it was to address Abraham across my body.
“The baby is still breech,” she said briskly. ”The head is up under the rib-cage and the buttocks are lying against the left side of the pelvis.”
“What are the chances of it turning before the birth?” he asked.
“Slim at this stage. It could come any day now. I will try to turn it during the birth, of course.”
“Of course.” He hesitated. ”And if you are unsuccessful?”
She wrinkled her nose. ”These breech births are always messy. We might have to use spoons to try to pull it out. In any case, you should familiarise yourselves with the regulations regarding the disposal of human remains. And remember that only new-growth pine is approved for coffins. Certainly not oak.”
Abraham shifted his body as though to conceal the little side table that had captured the mid-wife’s attention. ”That’s an antique,” he said defensively. ”It belongs to my wife’s grandmother.”
I heard the familiar pok-pok sound of my grandmother, Ayn, shuffling into the room with her stick. ”That table is registered,” she said in a voice that sounded as dry as old leaves. ”I have the papers if you wish to see them.”
The midwife closed her hemp bag with a bad-tempered swish. ”No need. How old are you?”
“I am 91,” Ayn replied.
“That is too old. I presume you are being regularly tested to ensure that you aren’t using any banned substances to prolong your life?”
“Of course,” Ayn said, and rolled up her sleeve immediately. ”You can test me now if you wish.”
The midwife held her eyes for a long moment, as though considering it. Then she seemed to remember that she was in a hurry and shook her head irritably. ”Not now.”
“What about an operation?” Ayn asked abruptly.
The midwife turned back to her. ”What did you just say?”
“I said what about an operation to remove the baby from my granddaughter’s womb?”
“That kind of thing has been against the law for many years. Forty to be precise. Ever since the Control of Medical Procedures Act of 2020. This is well known.”
“Not in Olympus,” my grandmother persisted. ”Rumour has it these procedures are readily available to the Priests and their families.”
Abraham and I exchanged an uneasy glance. ”My grandmother is just joking, aren’t you Ayn?” I said quickly.
Her face crumpled into a smile. ”Yes,” she said, with a senile bob of the head. ”I was just joking.”
While Abraham was showing the midwife out, Ayn threw off the appearance of decrepitude and turned to me. ”You should have let me push harder, Eve. Those procedures are still practised in Olympus. I know they are.”
I sighed. ”You’re going to bring an Investigation down on our heads.”
* * *
“It is as it ever was,” said Ayn. “One way for the rich and high-born, and another for the poor and lowly.”
“I will not have talk like that in my homestead.” Abraham glared his protest at my grandmother. “It is not now as it was in your day. We do not have the hubris of your generation, woman, we learned from your mistakes. Never again will mankind presume to be the lord of nature. We serve her, now, and look how she rewards us.”
He spread a hand expansively as if gesturing to fertile fields overflowing with fruit and honey. I saw only the few vegetables struggling in the sandy soil, remembered the chickens’ feeble offering, heard the plaintive bleating of the ever-hungry cows. Only the weeds thrived in this place. What was the matter with me this morning? I chided myself for my discontent, for my creeping greed for something different. Something more. Abraham was speaking again.
“We do not need the technological-” he spat the word as he would a curse, though Abraham never cursed, “measures of your age. Look where your worship of science got us. The End Time was caused by such as you. The New Age will deliver us.” He banged the door behind him as he left for the fields, for the interminable ploughing and planting and willing servitude to the Grand Mother.
“Perhaps,” said Ayn, “but it won’t deliver that baby.”
The baby. My unease and restlessness coalesced into a tight knot somewhere in the bulge below my swollen breasts. What had once seemed enough, no longer did. I could submit to my service as a handmaiden of nature, but I wanted this child more than I had ever wanted anything.
Abraham and I had tried for so long, had made the obesience and sacrifices willingly, then desperately, then despairingly. But for years my body had remained as barren as the Taboo Fields poisoned by the chemicals and genetic mutations and fallout. And then, this miracle: the catching of life, the burgeoning of hope, the fecund bulging of my body. For the first time, my thoughts had wandered into the future, into dreams of hope and change and a meaning beyond the daily war against weeds.
“When I was young…” Ayn’s voice drifted off in nostalgia for the times before the End Time. Even such a fond look as she wore on her face felt treasonable.
“Tell me,” The desperate urgency was plain in my voice, but Abraham was safe in the fields.
“There were ways to help women deliver their babies then. Ways to make it safe and free from the after-fever, even to make it almost painless.”
I laughed at the absurdity. It seemed unbelievable.
“Willow bark and raspberry tea,” she spat the words, her voice rich with derision. “Back then we had medicines: anaesthetics and antibiotics.”
I gasped at the word. Anti-life, that’s what it meant. The word was taught to younglings early on; it was a word to fear, a word to scare them into eating their millseed flatcakes. “Eat, youngling, or you may need antibiotics.”
“And for babies in the breech position, there were operations.” At my blank look she explained, “Procedures to cut the baby from the womb, to deliver it safely, and keep the mother alive. They did it often then.” She stared at me, her ancient blue eyes sharp and strangely intense in her creased face. “They do it still, I hear. In Olympus.”
I cradled my belly where a fragile limb arched beneath the skin. I thought of the child moving within – my son or my daughter.
“I want this baby, grandmother.” I whispered it, but the words seemed to come as a plea from my very core.
“How much do you want it?” she asked. “How much are you willing to do?”
* * *
The question shocked me. The thought of what I might do for my unborn child frightened me. I’d never thought that I would go against our laws. I was a good, faithful woman. But wouldn’t any mother sacrifice anything for her child? But what would Abraham say? Would he do anything for our child?
The look on his face told me his feelings on the subject. He was a hard man. A good husband, but he wouldn’t break the law, even for me, even for our unborn child. He would sacrifice us both to his belief that the practices of the past were evil. The thought of the midwife and her spoons made my stomach turn. There had to be a better way. A way that would save both my child and myself. I wanted to live to see my child grow up. I wanted him or her to live to see their own children grow. Oh please, let it be a boy. A son would have choices, more choices than I’d ever had. Once again my thoughts shocked me. I’d never thought things like this before.
My Grandmother’s senile voice interrupted my maudlin thoughts.
“What are you willing to do, child?” She asked again, her old eyes bore into the depths of my soul.
“Anything!” I whispered. “I’ll do what I have to do.” The words sealed my fate.
She nodded. It was a simple gesture, but there was no going back now. The decision had been made.
“But how?” I asked. “Where do we go?”
“I know someone in the village.” The determined look on her face reminded me of days gone by, when she was younger and vital. She’d been my strength throughout my life. “I’ll go. Abraham won’t miss the horse for a few hours. She’s an old friend, a doctor from the old days. She’s been hiding in the village from the authorities, but she’ll risk the fire to save a life. She took an oath.”
“An oath?” I couldn’t help the scoffing sound in my voice. The prejudice I’d been raised on reared it’s head. I had a hard time believing that a practitioner of the old ways would have taken an oath to save lives. Weren’t they partly responsible for the way things were now? Weren’t they responsible for the end times?
The sudden pain of a contraction thrust its way through my belly. I tried not to shout out. It would disturb Abraham.
“I’ll hurry,” Grandmother said as she shuffled around the room collecting what she would need for her journey. The contraction ended as quickly as it had hit me.
“Thank you,” I whispered through clenched teeth. Abraham stirred in the room next door as Grandmother snuck out to the barn. His reaction to our plans would not be good. He would kill us both for this betrayal.
By nightfall, the contractions coming thicker and more urgent, she had not returned. Abraham had joined me now, sat at my side. He placed small chips of holy water ice to my lips, a warm towel to my forehead.
“Thank you, thank you for understanding,” I murmured.
“Not now, be quiet you.”
I slept fitfully then woke. Alone. Where was Abraham. The strange purr of an electric machine, followed by the sound of two doors being slammed. I was lying on my back. Inside my belly, the child’s face rippled across my skin like a grotesque joke, facing forward, its legs crossed below.
The door opened, but it was not Ayn. A tiny woman, dressed in a cream suit. She had black skin, deep as the soil. Her eyes slanted like the Orientals I had seen pictures of. I tried not to stare.
“Where is my grandmother? Where is Abraham.”
“Quiet. Quiet. We are here now. That is what matters.” From behind her, a man with a briefcase. He walked over to the oak kist and bent down to open up the case. Carefully, his back still to me, he stood. Took out the bottles and instruments and placed them, one by one, on the surface. A vial of purple liquid, a vial of white liquid and a series of scissors and knives: some curved like empty grape stems, others with pointed beaks.
She placed her hands onto the baby’s head and pushed down. It reacted by kicking its legs onto my bladder. The pain was blinding, violent starbursts. Far away I heard them talking.
“It won’t move. We will cut her open,” the lady said.”What drugs do we have?”
I clutched my eyes tighter, squashed my teeth down, carried on listening to her as she placed her hand onto my shoulder. “We’re going to give you an opiate. It’s similar to the poppy flower that you have in the garden, but it’s better. It’s called morphine.” The syrup bloomed into my veins. I felt dizzy, then a vast highness and clouds on summer mornings.
I opened my eyes. Still night. There was the man. His face was right over mine; his breath like a hot wave over my skin as he drew in air and pushed out. As he pushed air out I felt a weird sensation.
I looked down. The lady held my left thigh open, my useless flap open to the world. She held a pair of scissors in her hand, while the man cut across my skin. The cut below my belly button flopped open. It looked back at me, a goofy scythe smile lined in teeth of white and red.
I let out a low wail. Inside the mouth a waxy bulb protruded. Now their hands inside my womb as they tugged, hard, on the thing. They pulled it out. A mass of waters, then the cut turned to frown. I was empty.
They smacked it and it did nothing. A little hand that flicked out with the force of the hit. The lady took the hand and held it close. The thing was shrivelled and bright yellow. It was ugly. She tugged its arm for leverage, then hit it again. The yellow baby started to scream.
“Give it to me. Give it to me.” But the lady had turned her back. The man and her conferred over the screaming thing. “Give it to me.” I called to them as they walked out the door.
I woke again in the back of a moving machine. There was the smell of leather. Next to me sat the man. “Lawrence,” he told me. My baby was swathed in the lady’s jacket. She was on the front pew. The cut on my belly was sewn with neat black stitches, but the skin oozed on each side.
Through the fields, then into the village. All quiet now. Left into Pig’s Alley. Lawrence opened the door and got out of the machine. He disappeared into the darkness with the baby, the thing glowing a stream after him. The lady came to my side and opened the door and then she picked me under her arm and then she opened a wooden door from the dark road into a dark room. She pressed a button. A mass of bees hummed but I could not see them. Then a flick, flick sound. Purple light filled a giant warehouse.
At first my eyes squeezed shut against the hard light, but slowly sight returned. The woman’s grip loosened on my arm and she left my side. I swayed, off balance, nearly fell but managed to stay upright, the ache in my belly almost matched by the ache in my head. The back of my hand rapped against something hard – the back of a chair – and I lowered myself into it. I saw in my lap that a small patch of blood had soaked through the rough cloth of my shift.
The light streamed from flaming bluish bars in the ceiling, as if slits in the roof were letting in strange sunlight – but how could that be? Surely it was still night, unless I had lost time again. What was this place, some kind of barn? Bigger than any barn; the biggest room I’d ever been in. And no animals here, no straw on the floor, no smell of any living thing. Just something acrid that forced itself into the back of my sinuses, a smell like vinegar or catpiss but worse. And it was freezing. I wanted then, fiercely, some sign from the Mother, some small living thing: a leaf on the floor, a crumb of soil.
Although my mind jumbled the words, I tried to speak to the Grand Mother, to find a prayer. But I couldn’t think what kind of prayer I needed, here in this cold place – one for protection or one for thanks. Or one for forgiveness.
Now the man was back. “Where is she?” I said, but I couldn’t tell if my voice made any sound at all in the vast space. “My baby?”
The man pulled a chair into place opposite mine and sat. I looked at him properly for the first time, and what I saw made me feel afraid. He was tall and fleshy, the flesh smooth and pink on him like the flesh of a pig ripe for slaughter, and the coat he wore was very fine, spun from some smooth yarn I’d never seen before: the threads glinted in the light. His eyes were clear and his teeth – his teeth made me the most afraid of all. He bared them at me in a smile, a big smile like people do not smile once they are out of childhood. They were straight and strong and white, like no human being’s teeth. I wondered if it was drugs that made him like this. These antibiotics. These – what was it? - morphines. I started to tremble.
The woman had appeared again too, and stood some distance behind him. She looked like a sentry, I thought. Not like a midwife. Like nothing kind.
”Who are you people and what have you done with my baby?” I said again, and this time my voice echoed clearly off the walls of the warehouse.
“Your husband called us,” said the man, not ungently.
“He said he needed our assistance. That he was experiencing a problem with you. Something beyond his ability to handle.”
Abraham? Abraham needed their assistance? A problem with me?
“Abraham doesn’t know you.” Abraham doesn’t know anyone, I thought, except the people I know too. Our people.
“Abraham has assisted us in the past.” The man leaned forward, smiling again. “We are not unreasonable. We would not want there to be unnecessary suffering or … waste.”
“I want to see my baby. I want to go home. I want my grandmother.”
He frowned at that, turned and looked quickly at the woman behind him.
“I’ll look into it,” said the woman.
“We’ll have to bring her in too, I suppose.”
“I want to go home,” I said again. “I want my baby and my grandmother and I want to go home.”
He turned back to me. “Now how could we allow that, after what you have done? Think of your husband. Think of his position. Don’t worry, the baby is in safe hands. And we will find a situation for you, too. We are not unreasonable. Come – it is time to go.”
“Where are we going?” I asked. “Who are you?” I could no longer control the shake in my voice. “Are you … scientists?”
At this, the man threw back his head and laughed. The woman smiled slightly too. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you guessed?” He smiled, with those white, white teeth of his. “We are from Olympus.”
Olympus? Then are they angels? Or Gods? Clearly they must be, for I have never seen clothing so fine or people so healthy and clean. I laugh. The man smiles at me, but I can see he smiles like a mother does at a foolish child. There is no humour in his eyes. The woman has left. To ‘look into’ my grandmother I assume.
“If you’re from Olympus,” I say, “Surely you can help me? Surely you want my baby to live?”
The man steps closer and towers over me, making me suddenly nervous. He really is big. “I am from Olympus and what we want is for people to keep the natural order of things, not revert back to strange and unnatural practices. What we want is for people to live in harmony with nature, not trying to second guess it, to overcome it at every turn.” He bends down so that his eyes bore into mine, “What you have done is break that chain.” He punctuates each syllable with a stiff fingered poke into my belly. I can tell the drugs the strange woman gave me are wearing off because I can steadily feel each poke getting more and more painful. I look down and a red stain is spreading across the fabric of my clothing from the point of impact…
The stain looks like a poppy in bloom, vibrant and red. But soon a yellow tinge starts to mix from the centre and an alarm starts going off deep in the recesses of my head. The pain hits me then, like a sledge hammer. Not seeming to originate in my gut, but in my head. Screaming I clamp my hands over my ears, double up in agony and fall to the floor. As the pain gradually ebbs I look up at the Olympian and he is still wearing that fixed smile. Suddenly I am angry and I crawl towards him, grabbing at his trouser leg, shouting… His expression changes as soon as my bloodied hands reach him. The smile turns quicksilver into the snarl of a fox and he kicks out at me. “Do NOT defile me with your touch woman.” he snaps, “get your hands off me and be QUIET.”
But I cannot. A deep pain from the depths of my heart has set in and joined with the pain in my gut and I wail with the despair of all bereaved mothers, “My baby! What have you down with my baby!” Desperately, I pull myself to a kneeling position using his trouser leg. His face goes white, his nose pinching shut. The man steps his free leg away from me, and before I realise what he is thinking he swing it in to smash his knee into my head. Stars explode I my vision and I topple over backwards.
When I next open my eyes, I don’t know how much later. The man is now sitting in my chair. The woman has returned and they are talking in low tones to each other. I try to catch her eye and communicate my distress. My mouth is so dry my tongue will not obey me and I feel week. It must be from loss of blood. My garments are wet and sticky with my own fluids. I realise that there will be no “situation’ for me, that this situation will be the last one I experience. I realise that they are rewarding Abraham as we speak, with a new, younger, more fertile wife. By now they will have caught Ayr and are no doubt giving Grandmother a lethal injection and killing the man and woman who helped me give birth. In a flash I realise that I do not care about Olympus, the earth or any of the rules. I just want my baby.
The intensity of the thought weakens me and I collapse back onto the strange odourless floor. From here I watch as the woman leaves. The man stands, straightens his garments and stares at the ceiling for a while. The, as if he has reached a decision, he starts abruptly toward me. I watch as each footfall brings him closer. He avoids the puddles and smears of my blood. I watch and breathe, the last of my blood pounding in my veins. He crouches in front of my face and considers me.
“I don’t know why you did it,” he muses, “It appears you have always been so good, kept the word so faithfully, despite never being able to conceive. What madness brought this on?” He shakes his head. “Sometimes I think the rules are too accommodating, we should have taken that Grandmother long ago. No doubt she poisoned your mind.”
From the position he is crouching I can see his genitals, coiled in the fabric he wear, standing out clearly so tight does the strange fabric hold him. Unbidden the image of the weeds among my vegetables springs to mind and I see his root, springing from the soil of his loins, pointing at me through his garments. A weed, that must be removed, a cancer that must be pulled from the Mother. While he is talking I shoot an arm from beneath my chest, fingers crooked just so, perfect for grabbing and pulling unwilling weed roots from my precious soil. Soon it is he who is screaming, but my aim is true and I have got a good grip on the unholy root.
He leap/falls backwards, trying to escape my grasp. But I amused to working in the fields all day every day, and troublesome roots are my stock in trade, I pull back the other way and soon I feel my fingers go through that strange fabric and sink into the warmth of his flesh, his soil. His screaming turns the space around us into white noise and I only stop yanking and pulling when I feel a fountain of hot fluid gush over my hands.
It lays in my hand the evil root. Unmoving, curled. Dead. The man looks at me, but his eyes are cold and dead. His terrified face locked into a grimace that is a mockery of his previous smile. A noise erupts and I see a group of black clad men coming towards me. They are shouting and small star burst of light are leaping from their bodies. My chest jerks and twitches. I feel nothing, but I see more bright poppies of blood appearing at each impact. How strange I think. I plucked his weed and they give me flowers
Flowers for the grave of my baby. Flowers for the fruit of my loins.