A Mother's Burden
by Jayne Thickett
The clouds still linger, sketching the land in grey, when his screams wrench her from her dreams. The floor is freezing and her breath hangs in ragged, white folds in front of her face.
He has kicked free of his swaddling. His legs jerk back and forth as though he pedals a rusted bicycle. His fists punch the air, out of time with the rhythmic squall of his lungs. The tiny- man face is scrunched, purple.
“So much rage.”
She lets him feel the cold air a while longer. Between screams, his eyes open. She cannot bear him looking at her. She scoops him up, but not to her, and carries him to her bed. On the cool sheets he kicks and punches again, hoarse but not beaten. She unbuttons her night-dress, bares an engorged breast; the nipple hard, coarsened by cold. It pleases her. Why should her body always yield to him so easily?
She picks him up and his cries die away. His mouth already searches for the nipple. He latches on and his tiny hand presses against her breast, staking ownership.
She does not watch. She made that mistake yesterday. His blue eyes gazed up at her and she felt herself flowing into him. She tore him from her breast and dumped him in his crib until he was emptied of love and filled with rage once more.
When he has taken his fill of her, she moves through the actions the old woman showed her. Rub his back, wipe away the dribble of puke, change the rag between his legs. She leaves him in the middle of her bed while she washes and dresses. She foregoes breakfast; perhaps her milk will dry up and she won’t be able to feed him anymore.
She wraps him in a triangular piece of turquoise fabric, patterned with yellow flowers. She swings him across her back and ties the knot at her shoulder. But not so tight it won’t slip apart one day, perhaps.
In the fields, the clouds have returned to the sky. As she walks, the other women join her on the dirt path. She keeps her eyes to the ground. The old woman told them she fought the man and he tore her insides so badly, the child on her back is a miracle; no matter he will grow into a man. This miracle weighs heavily with the stares and whispers of the entire commune loaded upon it.
She finds her row and takes up where she left off yesterday. Picks and hoes wait for them, stacked in wheelbarrows. No one knows where they are stored or who collects them at the end of each day. They are here, just as she and the other women are. There have been no new arrivals for many years, no girl babies left in a barrow for the old woman to tend.
When her stomach grew big, the old woman gathered them together and told them how babies came to be. The old crone stood her before the group and exposed her rounded belly. Some of the women cried. None spoke to her again.
As she swings the pick against the packed dirt, the child bumps against her back. He is quiet and were it not for the weight of him, she could pretend he never was. She wishes she could pretend none of it happened, but the red dirt beneath her feet reminds her. There is no way to forget how it ground into her skin as he slammed her into it. The weight of him…unable to breathe and the pain filling her up.
She retches uselessly, spits into the dust. The small of her back burns and she arches but the baby is in the way. Always in the way, now.
She unties the sling. He sleeps throughout and she lays him in a patch of sunlight, toward the row of trees which marks the edge of the commune. She kneads her back. Between the trees, night still lurks. She might take him there.
She swings the pick some more, but now a faceless weight leans on her. His wickedness must be her burden. The baby is his bequest, so she can remember how her life was altered by someone she never knew; the baby’s face, his echo.
A scream rips across the field. She drops the pick-axe. Is he here? No, he moves by night. She shields her eyes from the sun’s glare and turns in the direction of the first scream, because now there are more, clambering over each other, trying to be the one that is heard. The women are pointing; some cover their faces or tear at their hair. She follows their pointing fingers but doesn’t see anything at first. A woman breaks from her row, running toward her, arms waving above her head.
“The child! The child!”
And then she sees. Turquoise and yellow bouncing over the ground, almost at the trees. A baboon shrieks and holds the bundle aloft in triumph. She stands, clamped on the red earth. Sound drains from the air and the baboon is suspended in time, the baby held above its head.
“Take him,” she whispers.
And then, faintly at first, an outraged scream permeates her brain. Her fingers trace her breast and she remembers his indigo eyes. Something inside, shatters. His screams reverberate inside her head. She runs. Her legs pump and her feet pound the brutal earth. Blood rages in her ears.
The word tears from her throat and fills the world. The baboon glances from side to side and its jaws open. Long, yellow teeth extend and it screeches in jealous fury, dragging the baby between its feet.
She doesn’t pause. The creature recoils as she snatches the child, her eyes burning into the root of its being. She presses him against her heart.
“Mine,” she whispers to the retreating baboon.
Jayne Thickett is a thirty-eight year old home schooling mum and learning disability support worker. She has had several pieces published in the small presses and is finally making headway with the novel that started with a very strange dream almost ten years ago. Reading is her first love, writing comes next and there isn't a lot of time for much else.
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