The child smiles and so she smiles and later she will hate herself for it but right now all that matters is that smile, so she lays out the sticker book and puts on the cartoon and returns to her work, which is in itself work for the child. She stuffs the rest of the load into the machine, turns the dial that tells it to wash stains from clothing that is getting all too expensive as it becomes too small all too quickly; ‘I’m a little monster’ says one tiny top, bright and fierce, while others host familiar faces that push the price up, announcing, ‘The force is strong with this one’, ‘To infinity, and beyond’. As the machine gurgles full and begins the first of its hesitant turns, the start of its cycle, to be followed by another cycle, and another, round-and-round, so the child in the next room gurgles its pleasure at the screen as friends it has never met, flat and two dimensional (however much they claim otherwise), lead him into song. She tries not to hear it even as she mouths the words.
She’s tired. She’s so very tired. While the child can run from one activity to the next, bounce to every new demand and call its commands with vital enthusiasm, she can only respond with weary obedience, too exhausted to do much more than offer an occasional feeble reprimand. She feels drained. That’s what it does. It sucks the life out of her, suckling first her milk and then everything else; her energy, her essence, her every single dream of what she could have been. They drain you of you and make you them, an extension of what they need, what they want, and they make you like it with that tyrant smile.
Out here, a room apart, the smell of soured laundry still stuck in her nose, she is able to hate the child. With a little distance she can despise the demands and resent the restraint it puts upon her life. She can seethe with jealousy at the life it leads while hers drains away, bleached and thin and unable to sustain her. She mutters her complaints where nobody else can hear, picking up the detritus of domesticity as she carries the washing basket back to the bathroom, her words a familiar incantation and her actions the repetitive ones of a ritual that does nothing to keep her safe.
She returns the basket, ready to fill again, and goes to her room to get dressed. She ignores what she sees in the mirror, turning away from reflections the child will never have, the saddening sight of stretch-marks and scars, unsightly lines she carries beneath her clothes as battle wounds that tell of victory and defeat together; she expelled the child but now she’s tied to it by umbilical bonds of obligation.
She won’t shower – she’s not going anywhere.
The clothes she hides herself in were new before the child was born but now hang as limp and as dull as she has become. Her face is a plain face that wears no make-up, only wears down, and her clothes are the grey of many washes because the child has bled her of colour, taken it for its own, scattered it around the flat in the form of bright toys and garish cardboard books with enough colour spare to spill from pencils and paints and crayons. And if she risks the room where it rests, where no prison crib could ever hold it, if she dares to enter its lair, where bedding is bunched into a nest of hoarded treasures, then she will see all the colour that her life lacks painted on the walls, contained in the posters and the cuddly toys that are stuffed full in a way she will never be again. Its name is on everything; loud blasts of primary colour on its door, stickers on its toys, labels in its clothes, and it’s written in her flesh as well, a stretch-marked ownership she feels in the extra weight she still carries around her hips, in the new looseness she has below, and in the hanging shapes above that are her empty breasts where it once suckled, bruised, and bit.
She makes the bed. Later she will lie in it, but not yet.
“Turn it down, please,” she calls, bending to retrieve a smiling car, a plastic snake, a green-muscled giant. “Don’t make me angry.”
But it will make her angry without trying, without listening, just by being, and it will feed from that as well, take it away with that tyrant smile or surpass it with anger of its own, shrill and sharp and shinier than hers. She is enthralled to this child in the living room, the only one who can use it for that purpose, the child who doesn’t watch the television but will cry if she turns it off and so she listens, again, to the celebrities pretending to be animals, the animals pretending to be humans, and thinks all the time of how much like an animal she is herself, part of a species that produces parasitic soul-sucking progeny.
She goes to the kitchen and puts milk that’s no longer hers back in the fridge, cereal back in the cupboard, a bowl in the sink. She’ll swill it clean of soggy circles later, so many sodden rings that none could have possibly been eaten, and on the table is the proof in the shape of a clean spoon and the torn plastic wrapping of whatever ‘free’ gift had been inside the box. It needs food, it needs love, it needs attention, but most of all it wants to play, and it can, because she gives it food, gives it love, gives it attention.
From the other room, bubbling laughter like a series of hiccups sends a thrill coursing through her blood, carrying with it a forced desire to do whatever it wants if only she can hear it again, or see that smile, and be around for the next adorable antic.
She has to get away. The bathroom, where there’s relief to be had in a shut door and the chance to sit down.
She gathers a handful of loo roll and gives the toilet seat the necessary wipe, tosses the tissue, pulls down her clothes, and sits. She inspects her underwear for blood, although she’s already done so in dressing, because she longs for her next period, yearns for the relief it will offer in what it tells her she’s not. And then there will be the opportunity for emotional indulgence, a selfishness like the child’s, permission to cry, to weep her fucking eyes out, while allowing rage-red thoughts of ending everything that makes her existence so exhausting. She can imagine stabbing it with coloured pencils, bright sharpened stakes through the heart, or she can entomb it alive behind a wall of Lego, deliver it poisoned letters that spell doom and destruction in coagulating shapes of spaghetti, maybe take it out for an evening walk and leave it at a crossroads, fantasies of abandonment that have the child disappear like morning mist with the coming of the dawn. And it wouldn’t be murder because it would be self-preservation, thoughts she can forgive herself for because it’s the moon’s fault, it’s her monthly cycle. She can cry and be angry and her husband will accept it because he has to and her child will recognise it, her kin of tantrum, and let her bleed a while.
But her period does not come. This is the nightmare she can’t wake from.
There is a box in the cupboard that is hers, tucked behind the toilet roll that no one else changes, and she takes it and opens it and dreads what the plastic prophet will tell her.
The vowel sound longer than it needs to be, the word drawing strength from how it makes her cringe. Her withdrawal from it powers its growth.
“In a minute, sweetheart.”
She knows that no blood is coming because something else needs it now, and she damns her husband for how he has damned her, curses his nocturnal penetrations, the rare seductions that are desperate attempts to stoke a dead fire, nothing but a tired prodding to keep the embers smouldering because a fire too bright would be dangerous, might burn the child. And she curses herself, too, for wanting the penetrations, yielding to them if not initiating them, seeking the oblivion that comes when she does, the brief reprieve an orgasm offers however stifled it must be.
At the door, as she pees: “Muuuuum…ieeee…”
“In a minute.”
And in a minute she might be, might be mummy, might be mummy yet again, so she shakes the stick and waits and hopes she isn’t but knows she will be.
There it is. There’s the cross that does nothing to keep them at bay, only announces their arrival. Another lives inside her, then, feeding from her as the first one did, taking its sustenance from hers, using her blood, growing, pushing, reshaping her to accommodate its needs. She has not invited it, has in fact taken steps to prevent it, yet here it is, all the stronger for defeating her in its early stages of life, in existing. A girl to supplant her, or a boy to exert its dominance in forcing her to carry a penis.
That banging at the door again, that bastard banging, and she wishes for a miscarriage, a letting of blood and bond, wondering how many mothers have died in childbirth, killed by what they carried, wondering how many others missed out on such mercy to die slow gradual deaths each and every day, revived enough in tiny smiled instalments to do what’s wanted. She could scrape or poke her way out of this, drink or smoke or exercise to exorcise herself of the thing that hides inside her, but she knows she won’t, knows she can’t, because its power has already begun, and here’s its blood-brother banging at the door so that the latch loosens and the door swings inward. She gets a foot to it, stops it opening all the way, but she’s sitting on the toilet with her shirt clutched in her armpits and a cross she can’t bear clutched in her trembling hands. Its face is at the gap between the door and frame, startled by the entry, startled by the abrupt abortion of it, eager to push through regardless, and it gives her a smile, a different smile, one that sees her as she shouldn’t be seen, private and vulnerable, but it doesn’t care except to mock her for it with a sickle of sharp milk teeth, a smile that’s gone before she can decide if it was ever really there.
“Mummy,” it says, “I’m hungry.”
And she cries, because she knows it always will be.
ILLUSTRATED BY ROBERT ELROD