The Child and The Question Asker, a short story
I didn’t realize the child was eating pieces of my skin. Not at first.
CW: Mention of child loss
Everything is a cult. All flesh is bound to shift. Religion is a cloak, pockmarked with heartache, torture, and selfishness. These are the facts of my world, its edges stacked on top of each other and topped with salty syrup. Life is an ever revolving door of orange desert sand and sameness. It is the opposite of escape.
I didn’t realize the child was eating pieces of my skin. Not at first.
When I found her filthy in a field while clearing my head, she was surrounded by moldy earth and snakes. I had just lost my own baby, milk gathering swift and heavy. She shivered as I brought her into the whole of me, her brown face burrowing into my neck. Whatever was beneath her skin was on fire. I felt it, getting hot instantly. I kept hold of her, even though everything in me craved our release.
I assumed her people would come the next day, being that the child had been no more than seven months. There was a grey truck on the right side of the field. The hood was cold to touch. No signs of living, besides that and this child here.
My place is about two miles away, forty minutes on foot, forty five holding a child. But we got there in ten. At first attempt, we couldn’t get in the house. It knew me, but not the child. I had to place her safely in the swing-set I had made for my own child, and then open the door.
When I went back for her, the threshold resisted. We were both sweating by the time we made it through. I needed food and the child had already fallen asleep. She got the bed. I got the pallet on the floor, trying not to get too close to her. Her folks would be looking for her soon. My child was somewhere in the earth, crawling their way back into my body. This is what I’d told myself these last few months.
On the second night while the child was sleeping, I sat in a rocking chair holding the moon close. It rained for hours and as I stood to go inside, a scorpion kissed poison into my skin. When I came to, a leech clung to the corner of my big toe, I saw it pumping with my blood. The child was at the other end, nursing herself with my body.
The world of my room was spinning. I lay there exhausted, unable to pull myself up. Had it been the whiskey? What do I do with three bodies clinging to me, two alive, one dead? Anger welled in me quick, then left even faster. This was motherhood, afterall.
I asked for one child and now I had two. This one needed milk. I had milk. She needed bread and I had bread. She needed love and I had love. I admired her for knowing and for taking. What was I to do with it?
That first day, I made sure not to hold her unless she was nursing. Attachments are dangerous.
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Six months into the child’s stay, no one came. She, Kyra, started calling me mama. At that point, motherhood became too much. I’d started letting Kyra attend church with Ms. Philo, the neighbor who sat with her when I went to work in the library. Town folk said she was mine but she was theirs too, since her family hadn’t shown up. I let her call me M, but I wouldn’t respond to mama. Needed some distance still.
In Kyra’s third year, visits to our house were plenty, she was a popular girl. I came to cherish these days, moments where I could pretend there was something special about me too. That year, Ms. Philo convinced me to approve (and attend) Kyra’s baptism. The date had already been set, September 14th. Ms. Philo went through my closet and identified appropriate wear, which I didn’t mind seeing as I didn’t attend church.
We found something of my mother’s, an off-white cotton and lace dress that flared out at the ankles. It felt like a wedding dress. I brought my leather bicycle jacket along under the guise that I was cold, but in truth I needed something to protect me. Something that felt like home. That lace dress wasn’t it. I had avoided this place for twenty years, surely it still held some resentment.
When I entered the church hall, Ms. Philo held my hand and it felt as if I were being pulled through thick plastic wrap. Everything in me screamed, but there right ahead of me was Kyra. She wore a swirling white dress with peaches printed on it and her smile, a smile that said “That is my mother” calmed me. After saying my hellos and thanking the preacher, I sat in the front row, hands tucked together, fingers digging into the meat of themselves.
The procession began and because I was not saved, Ms. Philo stood in my place, reassuringly holding Kyra’s right hand in her left as they held her small body down in the water. I swallowed down protest mixed with bile, Levin rubbed my back. It lasted an eternity. I was convinced Kyra was drowning, and counted all the bubbles coming out of her tiny nose, her mouth hung in a permanent “O”. There were nine bubbles and then it was over, my shivering child’s blue face smiling and already changing back to brown.
Everyone in the pews thanked me. One woman I’d never seen before said the greatest gift a heathen can give someone they love, is a blessing of christening. Another said, “The Lord will not forget your sacrifice. Your child will always be protected.” And then finally, Ms. Philo, who up until then had been my dearest friend, “You can rest knowing that your child will be with her heavenly father. Oh, the opportunities you have granted her!”
These and other sentiments fell like bricks in my belly. Kyra was surrounded by them all now, and I knew more than anyone that they’d ask for more every time. Until she was nothing.
These next parts are hard to speak of. So bear with me. I have to get it all out or it will never happen.
Just as the procession ended, I was invited onto the stage. Pastor Selves ushered me up, his reassuring smile warming and warning me even then. My watch said it had only been sixteen minutes and thirty seconds between the moments when the stage wouldn’t have me and when it decided it would. I rubbed my lap, smoothing out the dress, watching the black jacket that had been taken off of me in my fear stare up at me now. I ached for it then, slightly shivering. Pastor Selves came up behind me, rubbing my shoulders and back. I stood erect and fearful, peripherally watching Kyra come from the back room dressed in a white romper, her hair in two puffballs.
Pastor Shelves motioned for the congregation to sit, and just like that, they did. I would not let them baptise me. Not in a million years. I told Pastor Selves this and it echoed through the congregation, stirring angry and simultaneously pitying outbursts. He quieted them with a look.
“Sanu, we are all here to witness you, a great mother. We honor you and the sacrifices you have made for your two children. One you found in a field, a bright star, a shining example of just how far God can carry a person, even when they were taught not to speak His name.”
I can take this gentle badgering, so I let my breath out and relax my shoulders. They won’t force me to do anything. It’s not their way. Ms. Philo has assured me of this.
Pastor Selves continues, “…The other buried deep in the core of the earth, its mother the only witness. The only one brave enough to mourn. And my, how it has transformed you! We sit here with God, and by His grace, we are able to join your children in mind and body so that they will forever seek a home and be comforted in each other. We ask that you join us in prayer, to lift the child from the soil and return to the living. The Lord has willed it.”
I should have said no, that it would be unnatural to put two souls in one body. I should have asked more questions. Rejected the offer, prayed to the ancestors for guidance, consulted with the trees, asked my dead child if this was how they wanted to return. Asked my alive child if she wanted to share herself in such an irrevocable way. Ms. Philo said they had already talked with Kyra, that she’d been ecstatic about finally meeting the child she knew so much about. I should have asked about the process. I should have asked God.
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They gave me the option to talk to families and their children who’d been successful with The Immersion. And so I did and they seemed happy, less haunted. The children seemed whole. But even then, I did not ask about the unsuccessful Immersions, The Breaks because I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to make the decision feel bigger than it was.
Afterall, who could be sure it would happen? When would it happen? How? We hadn’t set a date. I cried a lot. I hadn’t noticed that on the altar of Kyra’s christening were all of Iya, my first child’s, things: a blue and yellow blanket I’d knitted, their first head wrap, two blown glass bottles, the second half of the placenta I couldn’t bring myself to finish, the gown with our blood mixed in now dry, a piece of bark from the tree I buried them behind.
This all came later as if in a dream. A dream that I questioned and then forgot about everyday.
Kyra became a difficult child, in one moment she’d ask for something and in the other she’d refuse it. The clergy suggested she go to church more and they prayed over her. I asked about my other baby, when The Immersion might take place. I always got the same answer: Kyra and I weren’t ready. Eventually I forgot all about it.
Kyra got better. I didn’t think it was due to the church or God, I wasn’t one of those people. I didn’t look to the cause of the improvement, I was just happy I could sleep longer, that my child no longer screamed, shivering, not knowing herself. I went to see Iya at the tree everyday. Sometimes Kyra came with me, but mostly she stayed away, knowing I needed it.
At seven, Kyra was a bubbly child. She still sometimes lost herself but we were both like that, needing an anchor and knowing that it couldn’t always be each other. I started writing, she started singing. These practices kept us.
On the morning of my thirty sixth birthday, I started noticing my skin had developed pock marks. And I thought, this is what growing bodies do. I’ll bathe myself in oil and stay out of the sun for extended periods. In that same moment, one of Kyra’s brown eyes turned green. She woke up asking for roasted pig skin, her favorite. We got used to the eye. Bodies change.
The gulf between me and God, between me and this community, between me and my children, happened all at once. I don’t know how, but these are the facts: Kyra asked for a piece of my skin. I gave it freely, there was no pain. She always went for my fingers, the only thing on my body that was most like my mothers. As her little teeth scrapped in zigzags and then finally sinking, the puncture deepening, another version of me was at the Hudson River braiding my mother’s hair and admonishing oil tyrants I would never meet for spilling their poison in our water.
It takes a full year for me to notice that both of my children have eaten three pounds of my skin—my entire right arm, except for the knuckles, too tough. It was gone, no sense of mourning, and what replaced it was plastic wrap, like the market meat we cover and then freeze before it spoils. They spoke to me at the same time while I dreamed, the church folk avoided me, claiming I had an infectious disease. Kyra’s family never came back for her and they never let her go back to church.
We know now what The Breaks do. But at least now I am still a mother of two.