And June is corn and coaldust, and the failure from the month before, quartered, rolled in honey.
Swollen once more, and a day from birth, she lowers herself in stages, down the steps and through the door, and into the dark of the kitchen. All the things on shelves start screaming:
“What have you brought us? What have you brought us?”
A plastic bag is a wrinkled sac hanging heavy from a hand. She upturns it on the sideboard, releasing in slithers a hundred sachets of oxtail soup—today the things on the shelves must be fed.
She cooks a pot of umber soup and hefts it, steaming, on her hip.
“Daughter,” says the closest thing, “feed me first. Let me have it hot—”
“No,” cries the creature beside it, “me, Granddaughter, me— I taught you the privet and paraffin—that was mine—”
Another voice, further in: “I’m there for you every birth, young one, not like my daughter, or her daughter, or hers—”
And even further—“Please… just once—pull me to the edge… a hot sup…so long since…”
And now all the women on the shelves are shouting, are imploring, shelf after shelf, row after row of them, bodies the colour and texture of burned sticks, of cured and desiccated meat, their naked limbs curled stiff and crackling over their chests, only their mouths and eyes are moving—
Unheeding, she carries the pot from shelf to shelf, lifting the ladle and pouring oxtail that has chilled to slurry into opening mouths. The women gag and splutter and swallow and lie there watching her, as the soup dries in the cracks of their faces. They admonish—
And inside her the thing that corn and coaldust made turns and kicks and pushes—
She drops the ladle with a gasp, and crabs her belly with a hand—
A day early; this month’s is coming now—
She collapses and the women on the last shelf scream:
“You forgot us! You forgot to feed us!”
She swarms and twists in the cold brown spill—it’s coming, she doesn’t have to push, the thing is doing all the work, pulling itself through pink and red—
“That was miiiine!” a cracked voice crows, “That was my recipe—I was the first to think of corn and coaldust—the first!”
The mother roars: a bullying shoulder to her cervix and this month’s breaches onto stone—a wave of clear stuff following cracks.
The unshod bulb glints on grease. This new one stinks of honey and meat.
It stands and looks on her with amber eyes and it is a beautiful, perfect thing. It stoops and lifts the blue-grey umbilical from the floor.
The mother lifts her head, her face resting on rolls of chin and neck, and looks out between her bleeding knees.
“This. I cut this?” whispers the child.
She jerks a nod in its direction and gurgles an incoherence.
And there is the crackling sound of dried bones turning, of desiccated necks flexing painful to see, there are the voices of women:
“It’s pink,” gasps one.
“Is it? Is it?”
“Is it the right shape?” another asks.
“How many fingers? Toes?”
“Will it pass unknown amongst them?”
“Will it do our work for us?”
She pulls herself up from the floor, “It’s a girl,” says the mother, “A girl. It’s a birther.”
Her words are taken up by the women, a chorus of rasping frogs:
“Birther, birther, birther!”
The mother looks at the child that corn and coaldust made, that dragged itself out under the stars, painlessly, with fluids clear—
The biggest, strongest yet.
And it’s a girl…
She stands on the stones and holds its cord between her tiny fists, stretching it, stretching it until it snaps.
She smiles. “Done, yes?”
And there are tears in her mother’s eyes.
Finally, after all these months, she’s given birth to a girl.
“Better,” whines one of the women, “but not as good as mine. Strong,” and her face cracks into a smile, remembering, “it nearly tore me apart. It went for a thousand and lasted for weeks…”
But no-one is listening to her.
All eyes are on the newborn.
The women smack the dregs of oxtail soup from their lipless mouths. They are smiling.
“And I can rest now?” The voice of the mother is shrill—“I can rest now, can’t I? I’ve done enough to rest?”
A space is cleared on the shelf for her.
She smiles through rolling tears and strips.