Birthduty

by Steve Gergley

  

When the blood stopped flowing from between my legs, the women of the plains burned down our hut and cast me naked into the woods. Since I had failed my birthduty by not producing a child in any of my forty seasons, I was no longer needed.

The next day my husband came to find me. Despite what the women had done to me, he still had permission to stay. Men can father forever. By his word this was what they had told him as their eyes glided over the sharp chevrons of his ribbed stomach, the ropy cords of his muscular builder’s arms. To make him stay they offered him his choice of the younger women: women with full hips and taut breasts, women I had pulled from the womb seasons ago, women who as girls had helped me shuck corn while asking about nothing but my lack of children. Over all this he chose me. Scared, angry, and relieved, I believed him. But as he held me close and guided me into the last of my scratchy clothes, I watched his eyes making measurements: he was scanning my saggy skin, cataloging every fold, calculating the costs and benefits of the decision he’d just made. Still, as we lay down together in the cool dirt later that night, he promised me he’d never leave.

#

At daybreak I awoke. With heat on my skin I opened my eyes and watched the pink sun burn the charcoal-black from the sky. Pin oaks and sugar maples stood beside dogwoods and hackberries and sliced up the sheetlight flooding the woods. Dew-damp ferns dumped sparkling rainwater as I rolled onto my side and grasped for my husband beside me. Cold from the long night, my fingers craved the warmth of his work-rough palms, the springs of his curly hair; but feeling there the ground was empty, my hand clutching not his wrist but the warm dirt where he had lay. For some reason a part of me was surprised that he would do this, that he would go off and leave me alone, that the last words he spoke could have been anything but the truth. Thinking this, I heard his response in my head: but it was true when I said it.

Following the scent of his musk, I tracked my husband through the woods. As I walked, the sharp shells of acorns and hickory nuts cut into my bare feet. Wintergreen, wild sarsaparilla, may-apple, and corn mint lined the winding trail, but still I tasted him on my lips, smelled him in the crisp air. Soon I came to a clearing and the ground underfoot turned gray and flat and rock-like. Before me, standing in the center of this strange field, was a giant, abandoned hut of wood and stone, a structure with a sloping triangular roof almost as tall as the trees. Wide square holes had been carved in rows of two and three into the front of this massive hut, and beneath these holes lay shards of dagger-sharp crystal. Being mindful of the sharp crystals, I crept up to one of the holes and peered through it. Inside was my husband, doing what he knew best: taking stock, clearing rubbish, making order out of disorderly things. But he was not alone. With him was one of the young women from the plains, a headstrong girl named Sara, her hair thick and shining, as black as chipped obsidian, her body sleek and smooth, full with the vigor of young womanhood. Seeing her there I felt betrayed, enraged, but this time I was not surprised.

For hours I watched them clear the rubble from inside the massive hut. Together they heaved angled timbers, reams of insect-chewed cloth, shafts of wood bent into the shape of a squatting man. They didn’t speak a word to each other the entire time, but they didn’t need to. Everything was said through the shimmer in their eyes, the frequent brush of fingers against skin.

As they worked, the air grew cold. Hard bulbs of gooseflesh sprouted on my skin, and thick snowflakes began to fall from the white sky.

Once they finished clearing the main area of the hut, they laid their clothes on the floor and made love. Watching them there I hoped I would finally discover what I had done wrong to fail in my birthduty of bringing a child into the world, but I learned nothing except how to hate the young for their youth. Minutes later they finished. Now my husband sat up and looked right at me, but he made no acknowledgement of my presence. His eyes were blank, unseeing, as white as the falling snow.

Their child was born just before the pink sun vanished from the soap-white sky. It was a boy, his hair as black and thick as Sara’s, curly like my husband’s, his cry piercing and shrill and helpless, a sound urgent with want and hunger.

Outside, a foot of wet snow smothered the darkening world. With my feet and hands gone numb, I seemed to float just above the ground, a ghost not yet resigned to hell.

Back inside the hut, huddled with Sara near the far wall, my husband cradled his newborn son and slowly drifted to sleep. Seeing my chance, I moved. Minutes later my husband woke and peered around blindly for Sara. But he could not see that she was sprawled and unmoving on the floor, her slender body blacked with drying blood, her youthful skin gray and cold with death. From here I dragged her body into the snow, threw the bloodslick crystal into the woods, and took her place at my husband’s side. Slowly, his heat laced life back into my limbs. Feeling my touch, he sighed in relief and contentment. Now I closed my eyes and rested. It would not be long until he discovered just how useful I could be.

  

  

  

Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, Five on the Fifth, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. 

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