by Jonathan Gensler
“The bairn’s head is crowning now, dear.”
Mother Nox spoke and her words brought Matilda back to the reality of bloody pain and waves of tidal gravity.
Matilda wanted nothing but the process to be over.
She had been at this through the night, and now the sun was beginning to stream through the trees surrounding the midwife’s hovel. A year prior, her first child came much quicker than Mother Nox expected, and she said this one—“’Tis’ a girl, Matty, I can feel ‘er sitting high up in your womb”—should go like lightning once labor had begun. But Mother was wrong. Matty had taken the moon’s entire path across the sky and the rising sun to bring her child into the world.
“Stay with me. Keep bearing down, moan down through your whole body. One more I think’ll do.”
Then—release—a momentary sense of emptiness—and she was holding a squirming infant, her little miracle.
“We aren’t done yet, Matty, but you hold that little girl. I’d correct, yeah? A little maiden for you to raise up.” The midwife began to rub Matilda’s flabby belly, still large and full despite being emptied.
Matilda held the newborn against her naked chest, the baby’s waxy, bloody covering smearing into the mother’s skin. As the purple face faded into red and finally pink, Matilda whispered, “What shall we call you, dear angel. What shall we call you?” Tears welled up as her thoughts chased backwards to her husband, three months dead of the Red Sick.
“S’bad luck to give ‘er a name now, Matty. She may live, she mayn’t. Best to see how she fares ‘afore dropping a name into her life. How about we jes’ call her Wee One for now, right? She is a healthy thing though. Wriggly pink, with bright eyes looking up at you.”
Matilda watched those dark blue eyes open wide then shut tight as the baby’s mouth exploded with a life-fueled cry.
Mother Nox nattered on, as much to herself as to Matilda,
“Hol‘er tight Matty, the rest is about to come. I’ll take the afters and prepare ‘em for you and the babe. Yer going to want it for her birth tree or we can make the powder for you. O’course, I’ll let the choice be up to you, but I think you will need all the ‘elp you can get, so I’d take the powder rather than give ‘em to the soil. But it’s your choice.”
Matty stiffened as the contractions came on again, passing the placenta into the midwife’s hands.
“There she is, safe and sou…. Oh my. Oh dear, that isn’t…”
The midwife cut herself off as she glanced up to Matty’s face and the babe, her eyes flickering between the two.
“How? I don’t see…”
Mother Nox stared at the mass of flesh she held in her hands, scanning the remains of a malformed twin caught in the afterbirth: a tiny arm and hand, no more than the size of a finger, yet perfectly built; a minuscule, half-formed mouth, with lips and toothless gums; and a single, lidless eye looking up at her. At first, she thought the eye moved to follow her with a deep reddish-purple iris. She peeked up to Matilda and then to the nightmarish thing in her hands. She had never seen the like in her twenty years of midwifery, had only heard of such things from the previous Mother Nox who had taught her when she herself was a girl. The abomination was covered in mottled streaks, an unborn victim of the Red Sick.
“Nothing to worry about, Matty. Let me take this and Cassie will keep massaging your womb. We’ll fix you right up—you jes keep holding that bairn and love it. She is more dear in these dark times than any of us realize.”
Matilda remained focused on the cries of her newborn as Mother Nox called “Cass, we need those birthing shears, righ’ now!” Mother Nox wrapped the remains of the ruined twin in the birth cloths, pulsing even though it was disconnected from Matty’s womb. The pulsing would stop soon, she thought, but that little face, and that hand.
Well, we aren’t going to be able to use that to feed Matty, now are we, she told herself. Shame, but this second wee’un will need to be dealt with by the priests. She’d have to take it to them to decide what needed done. Was the other’s soul now also a part of the new babe? So many questions.
“Cassandra, run me those shears!”
Mother Nox looked up at Matilda’s blood-stained thighs. She spotted red mottled streaks, climbing out of the womb and spreading like vines, grasping for the placenta in the midwife’s hands.
She couldn’t let The Sick spread to the bairn.
“Cass, take the wee’un. I need to talk to Matty.”
Cassie handed over shears with dark ivory handles, runes carved deep into the ancient blood-soaked bone. Mother Nox held the tool and adjusted her headdress, lowering a blackened patch to cover her eyes, readying herself for a different ritual.
Cassie took the babe perhaps a bit too forcefully from Matilda, who was holding tightly as she had been instructed. Matty’s eyes went wide and she screamed, “Oh gods, what is that burning?”
“Quiet, dear. ‘Tis the Red, jes’ like your dear Timoté.”
Mother Nox tried to soothe the doomed woman. “You knew… this was a risk.”
“No… no…. Oh, no, please.”
Mother Nox slid the open shears into Matilda’s womb and up through her belly, the blades encountering no resistance. The body was already a dry husk, red and desiccated, falling to paper, a wasp’s nest.
She managed a coughing whisper, “But we saved the baby.”
“Hand the little one here. Burn the mother right away.” Holding the newborn as Matty’s blood drifted away like ash, Mother Nox sang a song of darkness to herself.
Jonathan Gensler grew up in a haunted house in West Virginia, and now writes dark slipstream and speculative fiction. He has been a soldier in combat, a day laborer in Aotearoa New Zealand, and a cleantech entrepreneur. He now resides in Nashville with his wife and three
minions children. You can connect with him on Twitter @jgensler.