God Mothers (excerpt)
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God Mothers (excerpt)
Translator: Austin Wagner
The girls wake to the Sofia’s shrieks. Ivy writhes from between her legs, leaves burst forth from beneath her nightgown. Milena is the first to act; the nurse call button isn’t working, so she sprints barefoot for the on-call room. Dejana remembers the contract. She rushes to Sofia and covers the girl’s eyes; she must not see, must not touch, must not love. But from the chlorophyll scent of broken leaves, Dejana knows it’s too late. The birthing has begun.
“Oh, fuck!” Violeta shouts before clapping a hand to her mouth.
The nurses bring a blindfold for Sofia. They roll her toward the birthing room in a wheelchair, the lengths of ivy sprouting from her womb so long they get tangled in the wheels, leaves catch between the spokes. The spilt water reminds Dejana of the scent of her grandmother’s pickled cabbage.
Bringing a god’s child into the world is hard on the mortal body. In the showers they often meet girls undergoing rehabilitation, soaping the black stitching which crisscrosses their bellies. Some have bandages on stumps that used to be fingers, but still they smile; who would fault a child for nipping off its mother’s vulnerable appendages in its first hunger? It was still worth it, they shrug. One them won every scratch card she ever played after the birthing, another’s father was cured of his pancreatic tumor. What’s one or two fingers?
The girls, sans Sofia, gather round Dejana’s bed. They finger the divine insignias sewn onto their nightgowns, but they offer no prayers; their trembling precludes them from speech. Violeta pulls forth a toffee she’d been hiding under her pillow and offers it to the others. They take turns sucking it until it’s gone, wiping away their sugary spittle. Near dawn Milena begins to rise, her stomach become light as helium as she drifts toward the ceiling, her nightgown draping open. The girls snatch at her arms and pull her back beneath the sheets. They grip her hands to anchor her down.
“Shouldn’t she be done by now?” Violeta asks. An institute girl who wanted to birth a bear child so she can sicc it on her belt-wielding teachers. But instead she is with child of the Alcohol God, it swims in booze instead of amniotic fluid; sometimes it inebriates her, and she giggles and giggles until passing out.
“She left hours ago,” Milena grumbled. She wasn’t one of them: her thighs were tanned, her parents had taken her on a sailing trip that summer. But even she was jealous of Dejana because of her fiancé, how she’d landed the son of a theocratic minister. “What time is it even?”
The clock on the wall had stopped. Dejana wasn’t surprised. She checks all three of her wristwatches, but those aren’t working either. Batteries must have died.
“Sofia’s strong,” she asserts. “And the Plant Gods don’t bite.”
They suddenly hear the grating sound, like the shuffling of feet, the rustle of sandpaper. Perhaps the sound of planes being rent as the child’s father steps into the material world to claim his newborn. It’s not only the mothers who are blindfolded during the birthing, but the doctor and nurses too. The payment for a single glimpse? The light of their own eyes.
In the morning the girls venture forth from the ward: the hospital had become choked with ivy. It coated the walls, twisted round the IV stands, had upended the operating table, ultrasound, and wash basin, clogged up the toilet. They’d expected the fresh scent of spring, but the air was rank and putrid.
Dejana plucks a heart-shaped leaf between two fingers. She searches for Sofia in it, the girl’s doughy face, her curly locks, but it seems just an ordinary leaf. Until she notices the blood on her nails. She recoils as it oozes dark from the stem and drips to the stone floor.
* * *
The professors of the theocracy tried to enumerate the number of the pantheon. Certainly one million, but perhaps as high as ten million, gods of unfathomable power, and gods that barely merit a footnote. The God of Even-Numbered Polka Dots, the God of Open Refrigerator Doors, the God of Just-Barely-Unuttered Swear Words. And who knows how many are undocumented in the annals, how many remain unworshipped at the home altars raised from fruits and candles.
In school, Dejana learned there is one thing common to all the millions of gods: they want a successor. But in order for the heir to have power over the material world, it must be born of a human mother.
“Long ago,” their teacher explained, “they could do as they pleased. They forced themselves on virgins. This is not the case with the surrogate mothers system, which is built on mutual benefit.”
Dejana thought about these mutual benefits as she stripped naked in the fertility center, peeling off her school tights. Her family had been sentenced to seven generations of suffering when her great-great-grandfather had angered the Time God, though all he’d done was miss his train. The locomotive ran off the tracks and seventy-eight passengers lost their lives. Old Marko should have been on that train, but he went on to live another sixty-one years after the accident. And so it was left to his descendants to pay back those sixty-one years he had unjustly gained.
Her father was perpetually late for interviews. Her mother missed the deadlines for the electric bill and their power was regularly cut off. Her grandmother missed her check-ups while the lump in her breast metastasized. For seven generations the family drank expired milk, missed the last bus of the night, the three wristwatches they all wore did no good. Dejana was only allowed to attend school if she had stickers with important dates and times on everything from her pencil pouch to her gym bag. But Dejana knew her generation would be the one in which the Time God’s anger finally subsided.
It could even be the Time God who chooses me, she thought. She lay on her metal-framed bed, the springs protesting beneath her. Maybe she’ll hear the tick-tock of a clock instead of the thump-thump of a heart coming from her belly.
She lay naked, quilt pulled up to her chin, ears strained but hearing nothing; then, from the next room over, a shriek, and later a boom. Dejana’s heart skipped a beat. She thought of the V the flock of doves had formed at the pantheon, verve, vigor, volition, and longed to see that sign again. She scanned the creases of the blanket, the arches in the broken glass of the window, the cracks running rampant over the plaster of the hospital walls, searching for that V. Viciousness, violation, victim. She gripped the bed’s metal frame.
I acknowledge that what will happen will not constitute rape.
The door remained closed as the one she awaited approached it. Dejana noticed light leaking in over the threshold: at first it appeared green, like a lightning bug’s, before a flash as of molten gold began pouring in. She thought of the other girls, the other manifestations behind other doors, that they could bear it, so she would too, and she stared at the V split in the plaster, focusing on the two wings, before the light blinded her, and the blanket was wrenched off her in a blaze of fire. The stranger, boiling and formless, penetrated her, not just between her legs, but in every orifice of her body: her throat seared, her eyes burned, she writhed and crumpled to the ground, trying to put herself out, to free herself from flaming veins, from the smell of burnt-to-a-crisp hair, both head and pubic.
And then it was over. As whatever had happened behind the other doors was over. The nurses cleaned up the traces of the manifestations. V for vindication. Dejana covered herself with the soot-stained blanket.
The next day she vomited molten light into the washroom basin. Her mother spooned it into a mason jar lest a single drop go to waste. She smeared it all round the door, jamb and threshold, to bring luck, then on her own face, from which she glinted as if wearing a mask of gold.
For the first time in her life, her mother told Dejana she was proud of her. She kissed the crown of her daughter’s clean-scorched head, and whispered into her ear:
“You are with child of the Sun God.”