Click here to download a pdf version for printing: Mother’s Little Helpers, Inc.
Cordelia anxiously paged through the website, the baby inside giving a swift jab as her adrenaline coursed through it. She was indecisive by nature, always fretting over decisions the way one might pick at a thread until it had lost all sense of form. And here it was, eight months into her pregnancy and she had yet to order her maternal aid. If she didn’t order one soon she’d cross over from being a perfectly acceptable naturalist to bordering on perverse.
While more and more women were choosing to be old fashioned and actually carry their young themselves, no respectable woman would nurse the child. It was distasteful as well as inconvenient. If she didn’t make up her mind she’d be forced to breastfeed the infant herself. Formula was out of the question, obscene really. Only low class, poverty stricken women with no other options did something like that.
She sipped at mint lemonade as she swiped through the images and ordering information from Mother’s Little Helpers, Inc. Beautifully sculpted pictures showed stylishly relaxed mothers entertaining their friends while their aids discreetly reared happy, cheerful children in the background.
Cordelia paused at the Big Mother model, lingering over the description:
We’re pleased to introduce our latest advancement in supplemental material aids -Big Mother. Fabricated from primate, hominid, and canine to be especially nurturing and obedient. In addition to producing natural, human breast milk, Big Mother is also programmed to offer your own natural immunity to your child. Upon ordering, a collection kit will arrive at your home the next business day. The sample you provide will allow our expert fabricationists to incorporate your personalized immune system into Big Mother’s milk. Big Mother not only offers all the conveniences you expect but the personal, natural care your child deserves. Rush delivery available.
It was the last three words that convinced her, really. That and the creature’s soft, brown eyes. They were the kind of eyes a fussy infant could look into and feel reassured.
Cordelia hesitated a moment over the price, then shrugged. She and Leonard could afford it. After all, her baby deserved the best. And so did she.
The next day the sample collection kit arrived. Cordelia carefully removed a white patch that she was instructed to place high on her inner arm. The microneedles embedded in the soft silicone painlessly sampled her lymph, drawing it up into a sterile reservoir for later analysis by the fabricationists. They would use the information to carefully program her personal immunities into the breast milk of her aid, thereby achieving the closet approximation of her actually nursing her own child.
Cordelia felt a momentary electric-bright startle of pain as she removed the patch, and rubbed brusquely at the spot, briefly irritated at the inconvenience.
She finished sealing the sample and signed the enclosed release that allowed Mother’s Little Helpers, Inc, to access her personal medical feed and dropped the package into her drop box that automatically informed the package delivery company she had a pick-up.
Cordelia then lumbered into the kitchen to fuss over cookie arrangements as she waited for her mother and her grandmother to arrive. She pensively eyed the cookies feeling as though something wasn’t quite right but she just couldn’t put her finger on it.
A pleasant female voice announced, “Your mother and grandmother are approximately two minutes from arrival.”
Cordelia blinked in surprise then rushed to grab the pitcher of fresh pomegranate lemonade and three slender ice tea glasses. She hurriedly placed everything on a large tray wanting everything to be ready the moment they stepped inside.
“Your mother and grandmother are approaching the front door.”
As Cordelia looked up in response to the news her finger slid along a small but sharp imperfection on the tray. She yelped and stuck her finger in her mouth, the iron tang of blood flirting with her tongue.
“Open door,” she said around her finger.
“I’m sorry, please repeat your command.”
She sighed in frustration, removed her finger abruptly and repeated, “Open door!”
As the door swung open she could hear her mother exclaiming, “Well, it’s about time! I thought I was going to have to ring the bell or some such. Cordy, dear, where are you?”
“I’m here, in the kitchen.”
Her mother bustled in, all practicalities and ostentation.
“Really, Cordy, cookies?” her mother said, grating her eyes up down Cordelia’s swollen body.
“Oh stop, Marion,” her grandmother barked, “she looks lovely. Let her eat a damn cookie in peace.”
“They’re not for me,” Cordelia hurriedly assured her mother. “They’re for you and Mima.”
“Well, you certainly look like you’ve been at the cookies, but I suppose it can’t be helped. Let’s sit outside, shall we?”
Her mother swept away without a backwards glance but Cordelia’s grandmother gently took the large tray before she could protest. Cordelia, feeling awkward and useless, followed behind, watching as her grandmother deftly set the tray down and began pouring the lemonade before she could catch up.
As she approached her grandmother handed her a glass. “Come on, put your feet up and take a break. I remember how much my damned feet hurt when I was pregnant with your mother.”
“Well, it’s her own fault, really,” her mother interjected. “She didn’t have to be pregnant. It’s so uncivilized to carry your child yourself.”
“Nonsense!” barked her grandmother. “If you ask me, those artificial wombs are what’s unnatural. Disgusting really. No heads, no arms, no legs, just a gestational sack. It’s revolting.”
Before the fight could become really serious Cordelia spoke up, “Lots of women are carrying their own babies these days, Mom. It’s not so unusual.”
“Oh, I see. You’re too good for an artificial womb. Well, young lady, let me remind you that you came from one, so don’t get so high handed.”
Cordelia just sighed and took a sip of lemonade. There really was no point in talking to her mother when she was like this.
“And don’t tell me you’re going to nurse the child yourself?” Her mother’s gaze was sharp and precise, bracing for exactly that.
“No, of course not. I’ve already ordered my maternal aid.” Cordelia felt a stab of relief at being able to offer this information. Thank god she hadn’t truly waited until the last second for once.
Her mother perked up. “Oh, I do hope you had the sense to order a Natural Nanny like Ginny Standen. They’re top of the line.”
With a forbidden feeling of pride Cordelia responded, “No, Natural Nannies are last year’s top model. I went with the Big Mother model. It offers your own natural immunity. It’s the latest technology. Expensive as well. Almost twice what the Natural Nanny costs.”
Her mother was ecstatic. Being able to brag to Gerda Johnson, Ginny Standen’s mother, was the highlight of her life. “Really?” she exclaimed breathlessly. “I didn’t know Leonard was doing that well.”
“Oh, he is,” Cordelia assured. “I just gave my lymph sample today, and by the time the baby is born my maternal aid should be here, ready to go.”
“The newer models are quite nice,” her mother added wistfully. “They soothe, change, and offer appropriate developmental stimulation. What I wouldn’t have given for one when you were little. God, you were such a handful.”
“If you ask me,” piped up her grandmother, “it’s beyond bizarre to have these fabricated beasts tend to your children. My memories of nursing my children are some of the best I have, lovely really. You should reconsider, Cordelia.”
“Mother, stop! That’s really not considered polite conversation these days.”
“Stop being such a stuck up prude, Marion. There’s nothing wrong with doing it or talking about it. It’s completely natural.”
“So’s taking a crap,” hissed her mother through clenched teeth, uncharacteristically vulgar, “but you don’t hear people talking about that.”
“Really?” her grandmother responded jovially, “Wait until you’re in your nineties. We do nothing but talk about that.”
Cordelia laughed before she could help herself and quickly reined it in but her mother had already whirled around to face her.
“I think I’ll excuse myself to the restroom. At least there I won’t have to be worried about being mocked by my own mother and daughter.” She rose in a huff of offended feeling and somehow managed to march angrily across the lawn in her heels.
Cordelia’s grandmother waved a hand after her, “Good riddance.” She took another sip of her lemonade. “This lemonade is simply divine, Cordy. Did you make it yourself?”
Cordelia, still watching her mother stalk off, pulled her eyes to her grandmother. “Oh uh, yes, Mima, I did. I made if from the mint and pomegranate lemon trees I planted last spring.”
“Mmmm, well, this is delicious. And so are the cookies. Go ahead and have one, I won’t tell.”
Cordelia blushed. “No, I better not, really. I’ve already gained 20 more pounds them I’m supposed to.”
“Oh nonsense. Pregnant women are supposed to gain weight, honey, it’s good for the baby. And you look lovely, you really do. Pregnancy suits you. Doesn’t Leonard tell you how beautiful you look?”
Cordelia blushed again, a wave of confusion and shame lapping through her. She took a small sip of lemonade and carefully said, “Leonard’s very considerate.” She didn’t know how to explain the feeling of translucency that had come over her lately. The feeling that Leonard just didn’t see her anymore. That she was slowly fading to nothingness. She couldn’t even remember the last time he had held her hand or touched her hair.
“He’d better be a lot more than considerate, if he knows what’s good for him. Pregnancy is hard work. Emotional, too. I remember when I was pregnant I once hurled a full coffee mug at your grandfather’s head, may he rest in peace.” She chuckled fondly. “Poor Asif. I think he must have thought I’d gone crazy and he was going to end up raising your mother alone.” She sighed. “He used to rub my feet every night I was pregnant. What does Leonard do for you, dear?”
Cordelia had the sudden sharp feeling that her grandmother suspected Leonard, and was trying to call him out in some way. Her mind was a chaotic confusion of half-numb terror. Just come up with something, anything. Don’t let her really know.
“Oh, he rubs my back. Not, uh, every night, but you know, often.”
“Hmmm,” her grandmother murmured, not seeming exactly convinced, but deciding to change the topic.
“You really don’t have to have one of those god awful maternal aid thingies, you know,” she cajoled. “You might consider at least giving it a try yourself.”
“Oh, Mima,” Cordelia sighed, shooting a worried glance at the house.
“I won’t press you, dear. All I ask is that you consider it.”
Cordelia gave a small nod, but her mind was already made up.
Leonard breezed into the house an hour and a half past his usual time.
Cordelia jumped up from the couch where she had dozed off waiting for him.
She went up to give him a kiss but he pulled back.
“Uh huh, yes, I know that’s what the third quarter earnings show, but I’m telling you, it’s really going to take off in the fourth quarter. Yes, yes, I’ve considered the revised projections, but I still think it’s a solid investment. Yeah, ok, well, I just walked in the door. Ok, you too. Yeah.” He laughed fakely then blinked rapidly to disconnect the conversation.
“Hey, babe, how was your day?” he asked already walking away to put his things down.
“Oh, the usual. Painted a bit,” she added hopefully.
“That’s nice.” He didn’t ask to see what she had been working on. Cordelia’s face pulled as if stung then smoothed itself quickly into complaisant happiness.
“You were late tonight.”
“Well, I was busy,” he replied a bit snappishly.
“I wasn’t complaining,” she said quickly, “I just didn’t know.”
“You know, someone’s got to pull a decent salary in this house. The perfect life doesn’t pay for itself.”
“I wasn’t trying to-”
“And god knows your latest ‘creative endeavor’ doesn’t pay. What is it now, pottery?”
“Oh, so now it’s painting. What the hell happened to pottery?”
But Cordelia couldn’t reply. She was too busy trying to hold back her tears.
Leonard took her silence as an answer.
“Of course. You got bored of it. Nice. Typical.”
Cordelia felt a stab of desperation as the tears forced their way down her cheeks, despite her whole body quivering with the effort to stop them.
“Oh great! Now I’m the bad guy. Just perfect. The perfect ending to the perfect day.” Leonard angrily hurried off upstairs while Cordelia stood there, still shaking with the effort to control the fierce tide of her emotions.
When they finally subsided she went to the kitchen and with weak hands and unsteady legs cleaned up the dinner that no one had eaten.
Later that night Leonard came down all sighs and remorse.
“Hey, Cord.” He sat down gingerly beside her.
She didn’t turn, but kept gazing at the window, which merely reflected the inside of her own home. If she strained hard enough she could see the ghosts of her lemon trees across the yard, their fruit seeming to hang in the air on invisible strings.
‘I really ought to plant something between those trees,’ she thought distantly. ‘It looks so bare over there.’
Leonard took her hands in his and she was suddenly, tightly in the moment.
“I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to be so . . . harsh. It’s just been a tough day, and, well, you know.”
Cordelia nodded eagerly, ready to put everything behind them. She wanted him to kiss her then, and be tender. Or passionate. Anything really. She wasn’t particular anymore.
Instead he gave her a quick peck on the lips. “I’m starving. Is there anything to eat?”
Cordelia repressed her confusion and nodded, standing awkwardly. “I’ll go heat it up.”
She nodded distractedly at him in response.
Cordelia could hear the soft whosh of Leonard’s breath as they lay in the darkness. He was there, he was right there, but his proximity felt like an illusion. She was mentally willing him to wake up and hold her. Or even just roll over and put his hand on her leg.
‘Please, please, please. Something, anything. I’m here, I’m right here. Please.’
This was not how she had pictured things going. Even before the baby things had somehow become awkward and strained between them. She had kept asking what she had done wrong, and he had kept reassuring her that everything was fine. It was always fine. But then why did she feel so miserable and so god damn lonely.
This was all Ginny Standen’s fault, really. She was the first one of their group of friends to decide she wanted to carry her own pregnancy. And God, how Stephen had gushed over her.
‘Look at how beautiful she is,’ he went around telling everyone as if they cared. ‘She’s more beautiful now than she’s ever been.’ And he was right. Ginny was already perfection but pregnancy had brought out an ethereal glow. She looked like a god damned goddess. And the only thing that seemed to get larger on her body was her breasts and her stomach.
Cordelia had looked at Ginny Standen being adored over by her husband and thought ‘I can do that. I could totally do that.’ And then Leonard could bore everyone while gushing over her. Only it hadn’t happened like that.
Cordy has swollen up, putting on at least 50 pounds. She had acne, her hair always looked greasy, and she was gassier than she’d ever been in her life. Instead of glowing and gleaming like a goddess she had cankles and back fat. Back fat! No wonder Leonard never wanted to touch her anymore. God, what a stupid mistake this had all been. She should have used the artificial womb like her mother had said. Now her body was ruined and Leonard barely even looked at her. She was fading away. She could feel it. She was becoming more pale and washed out with each day and it was slowly killing her.
She rolled over abruptly and sat up, brushing away her tears, fumbling with the glass of water on the nightstand. If she didn’t drink some water quickly she felt like she would suffocate.
Slowly the tight grip in her throat eased and she could breath again. Sleep, however, was impossible.
Cordelia stood, jiggling her new daughter on her shoulder absently, paying close attention to the professional looking woman standing in the nursery. She was excitedly and confidently explaining how easy it was to use Big Mother.
“You simply hand her your infant, show her where the diapers, clothes and crib are, and voila.”
“Voila! She’s been fabricated to know how to take care of all your infant’s needs. And of course we test all of our models before they leave the factory to ensure quality and consistency. Your little girl is very lucky.”
Cordelia regarded Big Mother solemnly. The thing stood taller than she by about a foot, yet was able to hunker down unobtrusively in a corner, almost seeming to disappear into the background. Its muzzle protruded, faintly canine, more so primate, baboon-like, with red flanges where the cheeks should be, and was surrounded by shoulder-length, rich, dark hair.
It was slightly hunched and its arms were large and powerful, the fingertips grazing the knees. In the back it had a bright red patch of skin on the buttocks, with some sort of evacuation orifice above a mysterious organ that looked vaguely sexual. Between its legs was an absence, in stark contrast to the rounded full breasts above. Its eyes, human and liquid brown, were turned downward.
“Does it need to be clothed?”
“Oh no,” the saleswoman responded perkily. “Big Mother has been designed to endure a variety of temperatures and environmental conditions without complaint!”
“What, what about feeding it?”
“You can sign up for weekly, specialized food delivery. It contains all of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals perfectly balanced to meet all of your little one’s nutritional needs. The first week is complementary!”
“Sure, ok.” Cordelia continued to jiggle her daughter, her body swaying from side to side.
“Well, if you don’t have any further questions, you can get started!”
“With Big Mother. Simply hand her your baby and she does the rest.”
Cordelia stopped jiggling. She looked at the creature. It raised its eyes in expectation. She swallowed hard and slowly held out her daughter to it. With mirrored slowness the creature reached to take the child.
Cordelia almost pulled away at the last second, but with the irritatingly excited saleswoman watching she felt compelled to continue. For a brief moment their hands touched and the warmth that radiated from the unusually long fingers unnerved her. Then her daughter’s featherweight was gone into the creature’s arms.
Cordelia watched in growing disquiet as the creature gently folded her daughter up to its breast. The infant fussed for a moment, turning her head this way and that before finding the dark, perfectly sized nipple, and sucked it into her mouth. Big Mother’s eyes never left the baby’s face, softening.
“And there you go!” exclaimed the saleswoman. “Big Mother is now bonded to your little one.”
“Bonded?” Cordelia questioned, feeling slightly alarmed.
“Of course. Big Mother is programmed to be intensely protective and loyal to your little one. Responding to her needs makes Big Mother feel satisfied and happy. Your little girl will be totally taken care of with minimal effort on your part.
“So now, everything’s right as rain. If you have any questions you can contact me personally.” The saleswoman descended to the foyer, Cordelia following as she inserted the contact information into her Biosim card.
“What about when I’m done, you know, with it?”
The saleswoman was busy gathering up her things and didn’t pause to look at her. “Oh, you just call your local biological recycling center and they take care of everything.”
“Well, what happens to, to it?”
Now the saleswoman did stop to look over at her, thoughtful. “Well, if the model is still in good shape we reclaim it and sell it used to customers of limited means. If it’s not in good working condition then we break it down for parts, cellular recycling, and such.”
“Oh.” She felt her stomach hitch.
The saleswoman finished packing up and turned to Cordelia. “On behalf of Mother’s Little Helpers, Inc., I would like to congratulate you on the birth of your daughter and your decision to purchase one of our luxury supplemental maternal aids. I’m sure you’ll find this experience rewarding and we hope you’ll consider us for future purchases as your child grows and her needs change!” With a cheerful wave she was off.
Cordelia watched the door close behind her then went back upstairs and peered into the nursery. Big Mother had finished nursing the newborn and was now cuddling her close, still sitting unobtrusively in the corner. Cordelia suddenly felt exhausted and with nothing else to do, went to her bed and lay down.
Cordelia watched her daughter in fascination. The perfectly smooth skin, the soft warm little head. The tiny face that regarded her intently with a mixture of calm and confusion. She laughed at the wonder of it and bent to smell the warm draft of her daughter’s hair again.
She wondered if this intense joy was normal. She felt giddy, like the way she’d felt when she’d first started falling in love with Leonard, except more so. A thousand times more so. She had never known she could ever love anything so much. She reached out to stroke the soft cheeks once again.
As she did she caught a shadow of movement. It was sitting in the hallway, watching. Cordelia gasped and froze momentarily. The thing was trying to peer into the room without being observed.
Cordelia waved her hand at it, her heart beating hard. “Go on, now, shoo. Shoo.”
With a low murmur the thing shuffled off back to the nursery. Cordelia watched or a moment then went back to stroking her daughter’s face. She thought briefly of getting up and shutting the door but decided that was more than the situation deserved.
Sometime later, when a deeper veil of darkness had crossed the lawn and begun settling on the bedroom windows another shadow of movement made her jump. Her face contorted in anger, ready to bark harshly at it, but instead she saw Leonard leaning inside the doorway, arms crossed, face unreadable in the partial light.
“Oh, Leonard,” she laughed breathlessly, “I thought you were, it, the thing, the maternal aid thing.”
“Huh.” A pause. “Where is it?”
“The nursery, I think. I’m . . . I’m not sure.”
“Oh. There’s no dinner. I thought with the maternal aid . . .” He shrugged, not bothering to finish.
“Oh, well, we can just heat something up. Or order out. We haven’t done that in ages.” She turned her attention back to her daughter, and when she looked up again Leonard was gone.
The days and weeks passed in longer silences between them. Silences that seemed to bleed into every corner of the house, into her. Cordelia would sit before her canvases, at the blank arch of stiff fabric and see nothing, feel nothing. The translucency of her existence was suffocating her mind, every idea was a sheer lacuna. Her hand would flutter like a small, wounded creature, the brush hovering in desperate anticipation, only to be set down with hard failure.
After yet another fruitless day Cordelia pushed her supplies aside with what felt like finality. The uselessness of it, of herself, pitted her stomach. She stood in angry acceptance and decided to go see her daughter. Everything else may defeat her but her daughter at least could lift her, ease her.
As she approached the nursery she heard the most amazing sound: her daughter’s laughter. She gasped in joy and flung herself inside only to abruptly stop.
Her daughter was looking up at Big Mother with pure joy and exhilaration, her mouth widening into a small O and then stretching sideways in chortling delight as the creature waved its long fingers above her face. The deep belly giggle hung in the air, filling the small space as Cordelia felt her heart crushing inwards.
Jinya was laughing for it, not her. It.
“Give her here.” The command was harsh and burst the mood solidly.
The creature jumped, surprised, its own smile instantly gone. In hurried subservience the creature shuffled over and offered Cordelia her tiny daughter.
Cordelia forced her hands steady and brought Jinya close to her.
“Hey, pretty girl. Hey there.” She made several silly faces but her daughter only regarded her solemnly.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please. I’m right here. I’m right here, and I love you. Please, laugh for Mommy.” But her daughter’s expression didn’t change.
Cordelia narrowed her eyes and hissed at the creature, “I suppose you’re happy now. She loves you more than me. Well then, here, take her.”
The creature gingerly accepted the infant and protectively enclosed her.
In an utter agony of spite Cordelia spat out, “Enjoy her while you can. When she’s weaned I’m going to sell you for spare parts, and she won’t even remember you. When she grows up she won’t even know you ever existed.”
The creature’s face momentarily lit with shock and hurt before dropping down into its mute acceptance. Cordelia was stunned. Surely it couldn’t understand her? Surely it didn’t have proper feelings. It must have just been responding to her tone. Surely.
She backed out of the room quickly but paused at the end of the hall. Sure enough, after a few minutes she could hear her daughter’s laughter once again. Her face crumpled in on itself and she raced to her studio.
She stopped in front of the blank canvas, felt its mocking emptiness and her own sense of barrenness and she picked up her cup of brushes and hurled it all over the yawning vacancy. She hastily uncapped tubes of color, squeezed them on her hands and beat them against the canvas. Over and over, screaming in frustration.
Eventually, she sat heavily on the floor, wiping an exhausted arm over her face and laughed. She had done it, finally. She’d finally completed a piece.
As she lay splayed on the floor of her studio she suddenly had an inspiration. She jumped up, grabbed a grubby towel and quickly rubbed most of the paint from her hands. She pulled open the door to a small closet and began rummaging; a few minutes later she yanked out a worn, black bag.
She hunkered down and opened it, extracting an old digital camera, one with a manual zoom adjust. She had purchased the vintage piece back when she was going through her photography phase. She clicked it on and checked the battery life. Still good.
She quietly walked up the stairs and eased into the nursery. Big Mother was now feeding the infant, who was making loud, smacking noises, her small hands clenching and unclenching on the side of the breast. The creature was looking down on the child and tenderly stroking the soft tuft of dark hair on the top of her head.
Cordelia slowly positioned the camera, adjusted the focus, and pressed the old-fashioned button. The clicking whir of the camera caused Big Mother to look up. Cordelia took another picture of the bewildered face. Big Mother’s eyebrows shot up and her lips pulled back, exposing her teeth.
Cordelia brought the camera away from her face. “It’s ok, I’m just taking your picture.”
The creature remained frozen, unsure.
Cordelia sighed, walked over to her, and turned the camera around so that it could see the small screen. She clicked a few more buttons and Big Mother’s image appeared.
“See, that’s you. And Jinya.”
The creature reached the finger that had been stroking Jinya’s head and tentatively touched the screen, halting a moment on the profile of the baby.
“Yes, that’s Jinya.” Cordelia used her own finger to point out Big Mother, careful to avoid touching it. “And that’s you. That’s you and the baby. Together.”
The creature withdrew its finger and went back to slowly stroking the infant’s head. Cordelia couldn’t be sure but she thought she saw a faint upturn of the thing’s lips.
“I’m just going to take a few pictures. You keep feeding Jinya. That’s right. Very good.”
When she was done, Cordelia headed back to her studio, carefully setting the camera down on top of a small bookcase. Then she went over to the ruined canvas and tossed the cacophony of color aside. She found a new, clean one and propped it up on the easel, then fiddled around with her projector and the camera until she was hovering an image of Big Mother and Jinya on the white surface. She collected the brushes and other accouterments from the floor and created her palette. Without a second of hesitation she began to paint in broad, sure strokes.
When Leonard came home some hours later and asked her what she was doing she didn’t even look over at him. He’d have to figure out things for himself. She was busy.
Cordelia’s grandmother was fanning herself with her hand. “What I wouldn’t give for a magazine,” she expelled in a gust of hot breath.
“What?” Cordelia was only half paying attention. Jinya’s small shoe had slipped off and her random leg movements were preventing its replacement.
“Oh, these paper publications they had when I was a girl. Most of them contained absolute nonsense, but they were wonderful for fanning yourself on a hot day.”
“We can go inside, Mima.” Cordelia’s fingers futilely chased the bare foot with the hovering shoe, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
“No, no. Jinya should be out in the sunshine. It’s good for her.”
Finally the shoe was back on and Cordelia lifted her daughter to the warm curve of her neck. The infant briefly rested her head there then started making sucking noises followed by a bopping of her head.
Instantly, Big Mother was there. Her patient hands deftly removing Jinya as Cordelia seamlessly relinquished control.
Cordelia’s grandmother watched as Big Mother settled herself into the background, Jinya making satisfied grunting and smacking noises. Her hand fluttered to her throat. “I’ll never get over that thing being around. I was hoping you’d reconsider. It’s too late now, I suppose.”
“Big Mother’s been really helpful. I’ve been able to paint. I haven’t been this creative in years.” Cordelia’s hands fidgeted in her lap.
“That’s lovely, dear, really. It’s just, you know, I was amazed at how much I could tell about my babies when I nursed them. Your mother, she was a strong nurser, sucked hard and fast, and when she was done she’d fling herself away as if she couldn’t stand to be near me any longer than she had to.” Cordelia’s grandmother barked a laugh before her voice softened. “Your uncle, on the other hand, was sweet and gentle, took his time. Never fussed.”
Her grandmother looked away, her eyes misting. Cordelia’s uncle had disappeared while on a climbing expedition over ten years ago, along with the others in his party. The authorities thought a freak weather pattern had caused them to become disoriented and lost. No one from the group had ever been found.
Cordelia reached over and took her grandmother’s hand, which her grandmother patted absently.
“No, I’m alright. It’s just every now and then, oh. It looks like Jinya is done eating.”
Cordelia turned to see Big Mother standing expectantly behind her, swaying the baby on her shoulder. As Cordelia reached for her she began to fuss, screwing up her small face redly and pulling in her legs, then thrusting them out. Cordelia withdrew her hands.
Big Mother gathered the infant back to her and drifted away, crooning in a low murmur.
“It sings?” her grandmother asked sharply.
“Yes. Jinya finds it so soothing.”
“Cordelia, you should be over there, doing that. It’s your job, not its.”
“But I’m no good at it, Mima. Every time I try Jinya just keeps on crying. Big Mother knows exactly what Jinya likes.”
“Because you won’t trouble yourself to. Inconsolable babies are a part of motherhood. You’ll never become good at soothing Jinya if you don’t see it through. And what will you do when Jinya’s older? Are you going to keep this thing around for the rest of Jinya’s life? When she’s upset will she always run to that thing first? Where will you fit in Jinya’s life if it’s always there?”
In the background Jinya’s cries quieted to whimpers. Cordelia looked over to see Big Mother gently stroking her head, smiling softly, and when she turned back she could see the disgust on her grandmother’s face.
“Oh, Cordelia,” she whispered with disquiet and revulsion, “get rid of it.”
“But Mima,” Cordelia pleaded, “Jinya loves her so much.”
Her grandmother’s dark eyes bored into her. “That’s exactly my point.”
Leonard cast a doubting glance at the various works that were piling up in Cordelia’s studio.
“What are you going to do with all of these?”
Cordelia glanced up from her latest piece. Jinya’s small hands were twisted about a hank of Big Mother’s hair, in mid-motion of pulling it up to her open mouth. “What do you mean?”
“What I said. What are you going to do with all of these?”
“I’m going to exhibit them.”
“Cord, honey, really. Who’s going to be interested in a bunch of paintings of our daughter and her maternal aid?”
Cordelia turned from her work and regarded Leonard thoughtfully for a moment, then began painting again. “Didn’t I mention two galleries are interested?”
“Really?” he replied, skeptically. “They’re going to exhibit them? To sell?”
She sighed hard. “You don’t have to understand it dear, you just have to cash the checks.”
“No problem there,” he lashed out, “as soon as you have any.”
Cordelia didn’t bother to look up as he left.
In the lingering absence of his presence she suddenly realized that it had been almost six months since they were last intimate. Now she did glance at the door, in wonder and quiet unease.
She sighed again and angrily rinsed her brush in the water beside her and continued painting.
Cordelia sat on the living room floor shaking a rattle at Jinya, watching as her eyes followed it in delight. Jinya was on her belly, propped up on her hands, not quite able to crawl yet, but occasionally she would push up on her knees and rock back and forth. She did so now, shrieking with glee.
Cordelia looked over to the crouching form of Big Mother in the corner of the room, her face tinged with a fretful anxiousness. What was she thinking about? Was she wondering how much longer she had here? Would it pain her to be separated from Jinya? Cordelia felt a stab of remorse. What must her life be like?
Cordelia thought of the gallery owner who was exhibiting her work next month, an older woman with a sharp face, penetrating gaze, and quiet sophistication. She had thought Cordelia’s work quite extraordinary.
“You’ve really captured the softness of her expression,” she had observed. “Her internal life. Your works ask others to view themselves as her. It’s a completely different view of something we see everyday.”
Her words tugged at Cordelia. Especially when the deep stillness of night would writhe briefly with Jinya’s pleading cries that Big Mother hushed so quickly and tenderly.
Her internal life.
What was she feeling?
“I didn’t mean it,” Cordelia found herself blurting out.
Big Mother’s eyes shifted from Jinya to her.
“About selling you for spare parts. I was upset, emotional. I didn’t mean it.”
Big Mother’s expression didn’t change. She merely shifted her eyes back to Jinya, waiting patiently until she was needed.
Cordelia pushed her lips together and swallowed hard, feeling dismissed.
Perhaps Mima was right, after all. Maybe it would be better for everyone if Big Mother were gone.
Cordelia was standing in the backyard, her works fanned before her on the grass, and her critical eyes raking over them with keen precision, measuring their worth. She was deciding their fate today. Which would be displayed and which would be left back to wither in the obscurity of her workroom? Which of her darlings would she favor and which would she condemn? The choice was agonizing.
Leonard came up behind her and stood quietly. She registered his presence but didn’t respond to it, absorbed and at a loss of what to say.
Finally he spoke up. “You deciding which go and which stay?”
Cordelia glanced at him and nodded.
He hesitated a moment then pointed at one where Jinya was holding Big Mother’s muzzle between her chubby hands and smiling adoringly while Big Mother looked back with that faint upturn of her lips. “I think that one’s really good.”
Cordelia turned to him in surprise. “Really?”
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “It’s my favorite. You captured Jinya really well.”
Cordelia bent over and pulled it aside. “Ok. One down. Eleven more to go.”
They spent the next 30 minutes suggesting and haggling, arguing for or against certain works. Six more paintings had been pulled aside when Leonard cocked his head as his BioSim card sent him a reminder, inaudible to Cordelia.
“Hey, I have to go. I’m meeting Stephen for tennis.”
“Oh, ok. Thanks, for, you know, your help.”
“Yeah. Of course. It’s exciting.”
“Yeah. You’ve accomplished a lot. It’s impressive. Ok, I’ve gotta run or I’m gonna be late. I’ll be home in a few hours.” His hand briefly squeezed her shoulder then he turned away.
“Ok.” Cordelia called after him. “Have fun.”
His hand flickered a wave before he disappeared back inside. Cordelia watched the absence of where he had been for several more minutes and felt a small pang of guilt at deciding to show her works under her maiden name instead of her married one. But really, Cordelia Choi made her think of mothers and daughters in matchy-matchy outfits who finished each other’s sentences. Still, it had been nice, this interlude with Leonard and now that he was gone the thrill of culling her art dimmed. She decided to take a quick break and go check on Jinya.
She paused in the kitchen and poured herself a glass of mint lemonade and let the tangy sweetness try to quell the dilating uneasiness abruptly ruffling around her. She set the empty glass down a bit too loudly and went upstairs to the nursery.
She lingered at the doorway then cautiously peered in.
Jinya was holding one of Big Mother’s large fingers in each fist, balancing precariously on her feet, wobbling to and fro before stabilizing. Cordelia gingerly eased into the room not wanting to startle them.
“Hey there. Well, look who’s such a big girl! Hey there, Jin-yaya!”
Jinya looked up at her with her dark, shining eyes and smiled. Cordelia laughed, bent down and swept her up. “Come here to Mommy! Why don’t we go downstairs and try some more fruit?”
As she stood Jinya squirmed in her grasp and turned towards Big Mother, her arms outstretched. “Mama!”
Big Mother’s hands, which had started reaching towards Jinya, suspended their momentum as if suddenly turned to wax and plaster. Cordelia’s heart began oscillating recklessly, pressing pain like stones into the softest part of her.
Her hand struck out like a spat of lightening, thundering Big Mother’s face with a precisely executed slap. That large muzzle spun around in menial obeisance, the sleek hair obscuring her features. Even Jinya now froze, no one knowing what to do next, least of all Cordelia, who fled from the room half in fear for herself and half in fear of herself.
With quavering hands she placed the silent infant in her highchair, took out a brightly colored bowl and squirted some organic, pureed mango into it. She rushed into a chair next to Jinya and with an equally garishly hued spoon shoveled some up and presented it.
“Mmmmm, yummy-yum. Tasty mangos!”
Jinya tentatively opened her small lips and mouthed at the sweet pate, and, after a moment’s indecision, decided to accept and swallow it. Cordelia kept up a purposeful and decisive pace of spooning it to her while determinedly and resolutely putting the entire incident from her mind.
Cordelia glanced around at the profusion of bodies mingling and weaving around each other in the white expanse of the gallery room. The crush and confusion was both validating and humiliating, as was a large placard that spelled out Cordelia Banerjee in simple, elegant letters. Standing there, looking out over the chaos, she felt something of a fraud; should anyone really care to look closely enough they would see she didn’t actually deserve to be here, that her work was sophomoric and trite. But the discordant notes of multiple conversations was proof against her insecurities.
She was surrounded by several eager individuals prying at her for the spark of ingenuity that inspired her to document such an ordinary comfort of upper middle class life as an artistic vision. She was trying to explain it in a way that was interesting while also keeping her gaze fixed to Leonard who was chatting up some mutual friends. He glanced backwards, saw her staring and offered a half-smile and raised his wine glass as if to toast her. She returned his smile with a more full one and raised her glass likewise. It almost felt real, this small intimacy between them.
Cordelia felt her elbow grasped with a sudden eagerness and she whirled to come face to face with Priscilla Wright whose eyes and face were lit with an avid hunger. Cordelia took a step back at the abrupt encounter.
“Cordelia,” Priscilla almost whispered in a breathless gush, “your work is fantastic, just great.”
“Did you hear about Ginny and Stephen?”
“No, I’ve been . . . preoccupied, with my work.”
“Oh yes, of course, well they’re getting a divorce and you’ll never guess why!”
“Really? What happened?” Cordelia was appropriately open-mouth shocked and interested to fan and satiate Priscilla’s giddy excitement.
“Ginny walked in on Stephen . . .” Here Priscilla paused to build the requisite anticipation in her audience and Cordelia accommodated her with an impatient shake of her head in encouragement.
Priscilla grabbed her arm and hauled her close so that she could smear a grotesque whisper in Cordelia’s ear. “Stephen and the maternal aid.”
Cordelia pulled sharply away and stumbled a little. Her mind instantly conjured the vaguely sexual organ on Big Mother’s back and she felt a hitch of bile slosh into her mouth.
She covered her lips with her hand and muttered, “Jesus. That’s, that’s—”
“Disgusting and perverted, I know!” Priscilla was practically trembling with glee. “Ginny told me in the strictest confidence, but I just had to tell somebody and I knew I could trust you. You’ll keep this just between us, won’t you?” Before Cordelia could even acknowledge the statement Ginny had sighted her next prey.
“Oh, there’s Shelia Blain. I haven’t seen her in ages. If you’ll excuse me.”
She left a grimy miasma of other people’s troubles hanging in her form and Cordelia found she was just as nauseated by the gleam in Priscilla’s eyes as she was by the bright venom she had spewed.
Her eyes tracked to Leonard who was tossing a laugh into the air and she felt a sudden keen of emotion, of longing. How had they become such strangers? She couldn’t help but wonder if he and Big Mother, but no, that was impossible. Wasn’t it? She hated that her mind would even go there. Surely such a thing was rare, that unnatural perversion of Stephen’s. She smoothed a hand over the black silk of her dress and determined to find out if she and Leonard were completely lost to each other.
Later, in the car, the stilted conversation exchanged between and around yawns almost convinced her against it, but the reality of Ginny and Stephen pressed her into a resolute state.
When they entered their home she told Leonard, “I’m just going to check on Jinya quickly. I won’t be more than a moment.”
After she had assured herself that yes, Jinya was in her crib and still breathing (she studiously ignored it huddled in the darkest corner of the nursery slowly rocking back and forth) she hurried off to their bedroom. To her disappointment she saw that Leonard was already in the shower. The thought of sitting on the bed waiting for him to finish was agonizing. Cordelia’s fingers played with her lip and her right foot bobbed up and down, her anxiety tossing her between the resignation to just go to bed or try to persist and seduce him once he came out. Then the image of Leonard liaisoning with that thing pulsed through her mind, jolting her to action.
She entered the bathroom quietly and hesitated only one more brief second before easing open the shower door and stepping inside, black silk dress and all. Leonard turned in surprise and there was an eternity of doubt as though he didn’t quite know what to do. And then, much to her relief, he accepted and welcomed her presence as if their had never been any strained silences between them at all.
Cordelia finished toweling off and slipped on a fitted, cotton shift. Leonard was lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She softly sat beside him not speaking for a moment before gentling a hand on his arm. It fluttered back to her almost instantly as if his skin were made of fire and she swallowed.
“Leonard, can we talk?”
Leonard looked over to her, his expression hidden in the half-light of their room, and sat up in a refrained manner. Cordelia’s heart began to throb in her temples, her breath painfully unsure. She felt her throat sticking to itself and she cleared it before speaking.
“What happened to us? I feel like there’s been more silences between us than words this past year. I don’t know what went wrong. You keep telling me that everything is fine, but I know it’s not. I know it’s not. Please, please tell me what’s been going on. Is it . . . someone else?”
Leonard cast his eyes down and sighed, deliberating his response in a handful of breaths. “I guess, it had to do with you getting pregnant, really.” He looked sheepish and ran his hand over the back of his head. “I know this sounds selfish, but when you decided to carry the baby yourself instead of use an artificial womb it felt like you were purposely cutting me out, making it all about yourself. Suddenly, it wasn’t our pregnancy, it was your pregnancy, and I had no say in the matter. Like what I wanted or felt didn’t matter.”
Cordelia sat there with her mouth open. “Are you kidding me? Are you serious? I thought that if I carried the pregnancy myself that, that . . .” But she couldn’t finish the sentence, say what she really meant to: that you would love me again, the way you once did, and we could be happy together. The words wouldn’t come, though they tried desperately to claw their way out of her throat, her pride’s viscid hands held them fast.
Leonard took her tone differently than what she had meant. “So what you’re saying is that what I want really doesn’t matter to you, at all?”
“No! Jesus, Leonard, is this why you kept pulling away from me all this time? And lying to me!”
“Lying to you? What the hell are you talking about?”
“I kept asking you and asking you, you bastard, what the matter was. Over and over, and over and over you kept telling me everything was fine. Fine! When it wasn’t. Not even a little. Why the hell didn’t you just tell me what was going on, goddamn it?”
“Because, goddamn it, it was too fucking late! You never even told me you were taking out your IUD! You just went behind my back and did it. And once you were already pregnant what was the point of saying anything? Make you feel bad for something it was too late for you to fix? Then I would have been the asshole!”
“YOU WERE THE ASSHOLE! You shut me out and you pushed me away and you made me feel like shit, for months! MONTHS! I was crying myself to sleep almost every night. You know what you were doing, you asshole, you were punishing me! Punishing me for something I didn’t even know I had done wrong!”
“You know what, you’re right! I am an asshole! A big, fucking asshole who decided, in my master plan, to get you to fall in love with me, marry me, then convince you to decide to have a natural pregnancy without you realizing it wasn’t actually your idea, so that I could spend months tormenting you by shutting you out and making you cry every night. Wow! I can’t believe you actually figured it out.”
Cordelia made a deprecating noise. “Really, stop being stupid, Leonard.”
“Oh, so now I’m stupid. I’m an asshole, I’m inconsiderate, I’m mean, and now I’m stupid. Fine. You’re right. I’m all of those things.”
He thrust up from his seated position, bounding into their walk-in closet, grabbed for a small overnight bag and began furiously tossing things in.
“What in the world are you doing?” Cordelia demanded.
Not stopping to look at her he replied, “I’m staying at a hotel tonight.”
Now he did turn with a storm-gaze. “No, Cordelia, I’m not. I don’t know if we can fix this. Right now, I know we can’t fix this. I need some time.”
“Time? Time? Are you really going to march out of here like you did nothing wrong?”
“I don’t want to argue anymore. I need time to think.”
He began to brush past her and she bit out, “You’re not the only one. Don’t think this is entirely up to you, Leonard. I get a say, too.”
He shot her an oblique look. “Of course, dear.”
“Oh, you know what, fuck you,” Cordelia breathed in weary disgust. “Go on, then. Run away, you coward.”
He didn’t respond and when the front door clicked close she collapsed on the bed, sobbing and screaming her frustration and pain.
Suddenly she leapt up as though shocked, grabbing her own bag, and started wildly shoving items into it without even looking to see what she was packing. She began muttering to herself between gritted teeth.
“Thinks he can just up and leave, well, how’s he going to feel when he gets back and Jinya and I are gone, just gone. How’s he going to like it, I’ll tell you how’s he’s going to like it, he’s going to like it like fuck, god damned asshole thinks he can just walk out on me when I didn’t even do anything, anything really, I mean, ok, maybe I should have discussed it more fully with him, but so what, so what, I had a natural pregnancy and didn’t discuss it with him first, I mean, it’s my body, my body, how does that have anything to do with him? Pants, damn it, I need pants. Why can’t I find any fucking pants?!?”
She began screaming and grunting strange, animalistic noises while ripping clothing off of hangers and flinging them about.
“Pants, damn it! Pants!”
She finally came across a pair of yoga pants and shoved into them, the thin fabric almost tearing under her savagery. She then thundered out of the room towards the nursery, the bag clutched to her chest like a weapon.
She slammed the door open, startling Jinya, who began to cry, half in fright, half in anger, but Cordelia didn’t even hear her. She was too busy thrusting open dresser drawers and battering clothes and other baby supplies into her bag.
Big Mother’s large form gently eased Jinya out of her crib and began soothing her. Jinya soon quieted and began sucking her thumb, watching her mother with wary curiosity.
When Cordelia’s frantic brain decided she had crammed enough things into the bag she whirled to Big Mother and made to grab the baby. Big Mother reflexively winced back.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake! Really? Really? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me with this shit! Give me my goddamn baby!”
Big Mother’s response was to pull Jinya closer, its lips half-stretching into a fear grimace.
Cordelia’s hands trembled and her teeth clenched as she spat out, “Give me my baby.”
It only pulled farther away and timidly shook its head, just the tiniest amount.
Cordelia began to hammer slaps into Big Mother’s face with a measured pace, increasing in tempo and ferocity. “Give . . . me . . . my . . . god . . . damn . . . baby!”
When Jinya was still held back Cordelia then went to wrench her from Big Mother’s arms. A hard shift came over the creature and it abruptly stood up to its full height, its lips now pulled down into a snarl and a threat.
Cordelia stumbled back, stunned, and almost fell over. For a moment it was only shock that she felt, then the icicle spurs of alarm jutted through her awareness and she fully comprehended the enormity of her, and its, transgressions.
For a moment neither moved. After a few minutes, with a shaky exhalation she murmured, “Perhaps I should go calm down.” She slowly backed out of the room, the creature’s eyes guarded and watchful.
Cordelia made her way to the sunroom to the unsteady tempo of her breath and staggered into an armchair. As she waited for the vertigo shift of the confrontation to ebb she stared hard out the dark windows. Ever so slightly she could see the thin twin ghosts of her lemon trees and their suspended fruit hanging like gold-tinged stars of red and green.
Her breathing finally eased up from the clutch of her throat and she felt a new determination straighten her from her hunched position. Mima was right. Mima was always right. Why had she ever doubted her?
The thing upstairs was bound by its biological programming. She had to remember that. As long as she didn’t appear to be threatening Jinya it had to obey her, whatever the cost to itself.
Cordelia looked out into the darkness, across to the shed, staring at it for a stilled moment of time before finally getting up.
Several hours later, her body trying to scream a protest that her mind refused to acknowledge, she ascended heavy-footed up the stairs and down the hall to the nursery. She toed open the door and found the thing hunkered back down in the corner, rocking anxiously.
“Stop,” she quietly commanded. It did, peering at her from under its smooth hair.
Cordelia glanced to the side and saw Jinya was sleeping in her crib. This reassured and resolved her.
“I understand why you did what you did earlier. You were right to. I was being unreasonable.”
The thing merely watching, waiting.
“However, I can’t be treated that way. Not in my own home. You understand don’t you, why it has to be this way?”
The thing continued to watch her, not moving.
“Really, in the end, it’s what’s best for Jinya. And you love her, don’t you? You love the baby?”
Big Mother slowly nodded.
Cordelia smiled softly at it. “I know. I know you do. So now, come with me.” And she turned not even bothering to check to see if it was following her. She didn’t need to.
The thing trailed her out into the night, the velvety grass whispering comfort along their bare feet. They stopped between the lemon trees at the edge of a long but shallow depression. Against one trunk leaned the shovel; against the other a large bag of horticultural lime.
Cordelia cocked her head and gestured with one hand whose palm was a mass of blisters. “Well, go on. Get in.”
With no hesitation Big Mother stepped down then turned to face Cordelia, its face almost expressionless except for a slight, quizzical lilt.
Big Mother fluidly obeyed with a kind of beaten grace. Its large eyes shone with a reflection of Cordelia as she picked up the shovel with precise deliberation.
“I’m sorry, really I am,” Cordelia said in a nonchalant tone, “but there’s nothing else I can do. And this really is what’s best for Jinya. She’ll be happier this way. We’ll be happier this way. You understand don’t you?” And without waiting for any sign of agreement or denial Cordelia swept her arms high over her head and just for a moment, the sheerest breath of a moment, she hesitated, looking into that face, so human and so not-human. Then she remembered the thing towering over her, terrifying her, keeping her from her baby, always, always between her and her baby, and the thing’s humanness melted away until nothing but the animal remained, and Cordelia’s arms rushed down and landed jarringly right between those eyes that never begged for mercy or had ever even thought to.
She raised and slashed the shovel down several more times, than collapsed, breathing hard, surprised to find her legs shaking. She took the cool air sharp into her lungs and looked to the sky where the dawn was beginning to split the night from the day. She couldn’t rest yet, not just yet, when there was still so much to do. But the hardest part was done. Digging a hole always takes more effort than filling it back in.
Cordelia was happily spooning yogurt into Jinya’s mouth and making funny faces at her when Leonard walked back in early the next afternoon.
“What the hell happened?”
Cordelia looked over her shoulder, frowning at his loud exclamation, and saw his face working with disbelief.
“I was gardening,” she replied, irritated that she had to state the obvious.
Cordelia rolled her eyes and shifted towards him. “I couldn’t sleep last night so I ordered a new rose bush.”
Leonard’s eyes quested over their yard until they settled on the new bush sitting between the lemon trees. It was already full of blooms that were delicate yellow at their centers, blushing to either hot pink or coral on the edges. They fluttered beautifully in the light breeze and Cordelia’s face softened as she watched them wave their faces in the afternoon light. They made her think of sunrises and new beginnings.
“And you just tracked in an ungodly amount of mud and dirt and just, you just left it all over everything?” Leonard’s voice was as much incredulous as it was angry.
Cordelia’s face drifted back to him and the softness flowed off it like water from a tilted surface.
“The cleaners will be arriving shortly to take care of everything. Is there anything else you’d like to interrogate me about?”
He eyed her hands, paused in the act of feeding their daughter, then he glanced around the room. “Where’s the maternal aid?”
Cordelia stiffened. “I gave it the afternoon off.”
Cordelia rolled her eyes again at his obtuseness. “It’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s gone and I’m the only mother that Jinya will have from now on.”
Leonard’s gaze drifted back to the rose bush, which was still delicate in its beauty, then gravitated back to her as though drawn against his will.
“Cordelia, what did you do?”
Her face shuttered itself in firm resolution and self-serving justifications.
“What I had to.”
He swallowed under her stare, which was both impenetrable and stridently clear.
Then she turned back to her baby with a happy grin and ladled another dollop of yogurt into the small, expectant mouth. She blew a raspberry at Jinya and crossed her eyes and they both laughed while the wind blew the barest breath harder and plucked at the rose blooms so that their petals fell like a snow made of sunlight over the freshly turned earth.