He thrums the bubble of his lip with a hammer-flattened thumb and suspends a soft uncertain sound. He squats to get a closer look.
“I dunno,” he says, “It’s not… bad…” The heel of his hand paws his wet nose and he looks up at her. “But will it do what I need?”
She stares at him through the ragged curtain of her fringe. Her voice is rough and dull. “I ate mushrooms. I ate burned cork,” and she coughs but does not mask her mouth.
His eyes take her in: black hair hanging in unbrushed streams, slickened with grease, they stick in coils to shoulders, cling like ivy down her back. A shapeless dress, once cream and covered in floral print, is dragged over her swollen torso, tight and tearing over hips, stretchmarks peeking through holes in cloth. It leaves her extremities exposed, she shows her swollen knees, more fluid than bone, and the pallid meat of her upper arms, both marbled white with seams of fat.
She wears no shoes; her toughened toes are somewhere between pink and blue. Her face is a square of uncooked meat, a butchered slab, features melted together in the centre.
She picks at her mouth. “It came out under heatlamps.”
He stands again, risks a glance down the length of the street. There are men there, lining the pavement both sides of the road, the same discrete distance between them. They watch the traffic and pretend they are not watching each other.
A procession of work clothes: butchers aprons, builders hard hats, mechanic’s overalls. It seems like every trade has sent someone out.
Turning back, he finds her eyes drilling into his, her teeth sliding over each other. His stare slips away to rest upon the offered thing. “Look,” he says, “I’m not sure. I mean, how big will it get? I need it to stay small…”
Her glower knocks the words from his mouth and with sweat nestling in the small of his back he tries again, “Will it be good in the dark? It’ll need to be down in the earth for days…”
He clears his throat.
“Drainage, you know. Pipes. New septic tanks. That sort of thing.”
“Of course,” she says, her words blunt, defensive. “I know my business. April is cork and mushrooms. I know what cork and mushrooms make.”
She pushes it towards him. “Do you want it?”
He looks down at the thing.
“I think… I think I’ll pass this time.”
Her teeth pass over each other and he can hear them—stone on stone.
“Thank you, though.” His smile is an uncertain slant, there and gone again.
She moves away in a chemical gust, pushing the pram before her and she glares at the thing that cork and mushrooms made. It returns her stare with bright little eyes, mouth open to show a curve of gum. It gurgles contented, playing with its stockinged feet
“There are others,” she mutters to herself and it, “More men. We’ll get a good price.”
A sock comes away in its grasping hand and it laughs, wiggling little blue toes. She looks and does not smile.
No bargain is made with the next man; he needs one that will work as told—there’s too much life in April’s child. There is no deal with the next man, nor the one after that.
They move on— eventually, a sale is made.
Homewards she wheels the empty pram.
Banknotes coil in a dirty fist.
May is glass and garlic oil, eaten in delicate fistfuls, the sharp edges guided between the lips and crunched between her bleeding teeth.
Three weeks of that—that pungent sharp— and she feels it growing, the stretch marks fresh striations like livid scald-wounds, a cage across her. It moves inside and aims a listless kick.
She sits in the dark and feels it.
This is an old house.
Thorn bushes swallow windows, arching like backs to block the light. The stone floor is a shallow bowl, sunk lower than the ground so entry is by stepping down, ducking under the lintel. What light there is comes from a naked bulb, hung on a twist of grimy wire. It bleeds a weak and honey light.
Inner walls have been stripped away, replaced with banks of shadowed shelves, deeply recessed and close together. There are things upon the shelves, stretched and thin. They watch with pale, impassive eyes.
On a dusty range the kettle screams and froths and is ignored: May is glass and garlic oil and this one is torment coming through. She opens on the flagstone floor and pushes this month’s bundle out.
Her screams are savoured by the things on the shelves.
They lie, tethered together, the mother and the thing that glass and garlic has made, and she plunges breath after breath and waits for it to cry.
Slowly she lifts herself on elbows, reaching with pained expulsions to break the cord between her hands and still the thing has not uttered a sound.
She wipes her body with a rough brown towel and clothes herself in her formless dress then turns the towel upon the thing. Her movements are violent: she pulls clothes over its lolling head— it doesn’t resist or scream— she threads limp limbs through holes.
It looks past her, eyelids sliding uneven and something drips from its mouth.
She slaps it and it rocks from the blow. She hisses “Don’t mess up your clothes. These will have to do the next one.”
It stares with dead white eyes and slowly parts its lips.
No sound comes.
And she knows she will not get her money’s worth, not this month
A soft green something leaks and falls to stain.
She stumps her way up the street, the wind taking her hem in its hands and tugging the clothes to show. A hand jerks down to push the child back in the pram. “Stay still,” she growls.
The builders shake their heads and pass, and the gravedigger, last, lifts an arm and lets it drop. This month’s offer bends awkward and boneless in the pram.
“Where did you get this?” the gravedigger titters, “I’d return it if I were you. Get my money back!”
He lets out a sniggering breath. “Jeee-zis… look at it… Tell you what. Try me next month, love. Bring me one strong and fast with a couple of months in it and we’ll see what’s what.”
He gives her a cheery wink and turns away.
She returns home, pushing the pram.
The wind mocks and teases.
Slowly, slowly the child turns to gaze at her.
She glares at it.
A wasted month.
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.
July is lost to growing and the counsel of the mother shelves, preparing her, making her ready to produce.
And soon she’s big enough: “Don’t ruin those clothes,” says the withered thing that was her mother, “They’ll have to do the next one.”
(Men are gathering on the street, waiting for the woman to come, to wheel before her this month’s child.
And when there’s no sign of her, furtive and silent looks are exchanged.
It’s a birthing month. Nothing new will come for weeks. Silently and furtively, they leave.)
And July ends in mint and marigolds.
The women watch as it has its first.
A beautiful child.
It sells for thousands.