Language and sexual situations

Drabblecast Cover for Maternal Instinct by Jon StubbingtonLovecraft and love life mix on this week’s Drabblecast! As our first offering HP Lovecraft month, we present “Maternal Instinct,” by Chris Lester.

They say you can find absolutely anything on the Internet. The authenticity and good condition of said “anything,” however, is by no means guaranteed. This caveat applies to rare movies, import CDs, collectible knickknacks of all kinds … but most especially to men.

Online dating is to romance what bottom trawling is to fishing. A woman in search of a prospective mate can sift through hundreds of messages a week, only to find that her “catch” consists mostly of trash, filth, and a few sickly and hideous specimens that no sane woman would allow within a hundred yards of the dinner table. Oh, occasionally you might find a worthy candidate, but the strong, healthy and good-looking ones are usually the first to wriggle out of the nets.

Maternal Instinct

by Chris Lester

 

They say you can find absolutely anything on the Internet. The authenticity and good condition of said “anything,” however, is by no means guaranteed. This caveat applies to rare movies, import CDs, collectible knickknacks of all kinds … but most especially to men.

Online dating is to romance what bottom trawling is to fishing. A woman in search of a prospective mate can sift through hundreds of messages a week, only to find that her “catch” consists mostly of trash, filth, and a few sickly and hideous specimens that no sane woman would allow within a hundred yards of the dinner table. Oh, occasionally you might find a worthy candidate, but the strong, healthy and good-looking ones are usually the first to wriggle out of the nets.

In fairness, I must admit to a disadvantage on this front. Few men are interested in dating a woman whose belly swells with the late stages of pregnancy, no matter how comely her features. Single motherhood may no longer hold the crippling stigma of my mother’s generation, but the Damoclean threat of paternal responsibility sends most of the finer specimens running for the doors.

Which is why, after two months of frustrated and fruitless searching, I now sit across the table from Jonathan and hardly know what to do with myself.

“Cindy? Yoo hoo, Cindy.” Jon waves his spoon in front of my eyes.

“What? Sorry.” I blink and straighten in my chair.

“That must be a really good sundae,” he says, his dark eyes twinkling. “Which sphere of heaven did I just call you back from?”

I laugh, but I can feel myself blushing at my own foolishness. I cover it by taking another bite of the ice cream, rolling it around in my mouth and making exaggerated moaning noises. He laughs with me, and the moment is salvaged, if not my dignity.

“It is very good,” I admit. “Thank you for bringing me here. I’ve only lived in the city a few months, and somehow I never got around to it.”

Jon shrugs. “Civic duty. You can’t be a San Franciscan and not visit Ghirardelli Square.”

I look around at the crowds of people filling the little plaza, and the twin lines stretching out the door of the chocolate shop. “Apparently you can’t be from anywhere else and not come here, either.”

“It is kind of a tourist trap on days like this,” Jon admits. “But there’s something about it that just makes it feel … I don’t know. Comforting.”

I turn my eyes to the fountain in the center of the plaza. A bronze mermaid holds her suckling infant to her breast, while all around the fountain the human children clamber and play under their parents’ watchful eyes.

“Yes, I see what you mean.”

Jon follows my glance, smiles briefly, then turns back to me with a considering look. “You’ll have one of those soon, yourself,” he says. “How much longer is it?”

I shrug. “About two months. He’s growing so fast now.” As if hearing my words, my son writhes and turns over inside me.

“It must be amazing.” Jon’s expression is a mixture of curiosity and wistful longing. This is an experience he can never know.

“It’s exhausting,” I say. “And frustrating. I’m hungry all the time, I have to go to the bathroom every five minutes, I can’t find a comfortable way to sleep.” I smile. “But then I imagine holding my son for the first time, and I find the strength to keep going.”

His mouth twitches downward. I sense that I have disrupted some inner fantasy of his, the poor, deluded man.

Ah, well. At least he’s healthy and good-looking. Sanity is overrated.

* * *

Somewhat to my surprise, Jon calls me the next day. Mutual pleasantries are exchanged, and a second date is offered and accepted. Recreational activities are somewhat limited for a woman in my condition, but San Francisco has no shortage of options where entertainment is concerned. We settle on a sunset cruise around the bay, complete with four-course dinner and non-alcoholic champagne substitute. Jon looks delectable in his tailored suit and silk tie; my own maternity wear is a bit more hoi polloi, but it shows off my slender arms and legs and the prominent curve of my belly. As I suspected, Jon approves: he breaks into a grin at the sight of me, white teeth flashing against amaretto skin.

“You look magnificent,” he says, embracing me and giving me a chaste peck on the lips.

“As do you,” I say truthfully. “As does this.” My sweeping hand takes in the spotless deck, the dining tables covered with white linen, china and crystal, the string quartet warming up on the small stage. This boat provides intimate dining for only a dozen couples, which means the per-plate cost is probably twenty times what I had expected when Jon suggested it. “I hope you didn’t have to mortgage anything for this.”

Jon chuckles, takes my arm and guides me to our table. “I wanted to show you a good time,” he says. He is still overtly confident, but there is a slight hesitance in his eyes. He is wondering if I am the sort of woman who is put off by extravagant displays of wealth.

I smile at him to put him at ease. “I suspect you will succeed.”

He grins back, and the tension fades. “I recommend the crabs, if you like seafood. They bring it in fresh off the boats.”

“Hmm, tempting,” I say. “But I’m hungry for something more warm-blooded.” I touch my fingers lightly to my belly. “My son’s appetite for red meat is inexhaustible.”

I order the twelve-ounce ribeye, as rare and red as the chef will allow. I leave the hors d’oeuvres and salad course mostly untouched, but when the smell of the approaching steak hits my nostrils, my son shudders in excitement, and my hunger abruptly turns ravenous. Jon watches with bemused delight as I wolf down my meal.

“I guess this means you like it,” he says.

I moan around a mouthful of warm, delicious flesh. Chew, swallow, water to wash it down. “It’s perfect,” I tell him.

Jon dissects his crabs slowly, and more daintily than I ever would have thought possible. The kitchen has thoughtfully served the crustaceans with their shells already opened, sparing him the task of smashing the beasts open with a hammer. I’m almost disappointed; the idea of this polished, manicured man doing something so brutal and visceral is strangely appealing.

Jon’s slow pace means that I am finished with my entree long before he is, which gives me time to ponder the man and our surroundings at length. “So what exactly do you do, Jonathan?” I gesture at the towers of the Fi-Di, visible now off our starboard bow. “I know you work in the City. Considering the expense of this meal, that suggests a career in either technology or finance. Given your taste in clothing and your exquisite table manners, I suspect the latter.”

Jon chuckles again. He raises his wine in a salute and takes a drink before speaking. “Very astute. Yes, I’m a hedge fund manager.”

I raise my eyebrows. “You have an appetite for risk, then.”

“The greater the risk, the greater the reward,” he says. “What about you?”

“I manage assets for my church,” I say.

He pauses, his glass halfway to his lips. “Church?” he asks, suspicion immediately filling his eyes.

“Not the Scientologists,” I laugh. “Though I imagine they must have come after you more than once.”

“Constantly,” Jon says sourly. “All right, so what’s your church?”

“It has gone by many names over the centuries,” I say. “The original name is practically unpronounceable for English speakers. We call it the Church of the Great Mother.”

“Ahh,” Jon says, knowingly. “So you’re pagan, then.” Elsewhere in America, that might have come off sounding pejorative—but in San Francisco, being pagan is almost as au courant as being an iPhone user.

“The true original pagans,” I agree. “Long before those upstarts Gardner and Valiente came along.”

Jon swirls the wine in his glass thoughtfully. “God as a woman,” he muses. “It makes sense. Women have the power to create life, after all.” His eyes drift to my belly. “I’ve always thought there was something supernatural about that.”

“Perhaps there is a bit of the supernatural about it,” I concede. “Bringing a soul into this world that never existed before. But don’t forget, the male has a crucial role to play, as well.”

“Not necessarily,” Jon said. “There are lizards and fish that give birth without any males. There’s no species where the males can reproduce by themselves.”

I raise my eyebrows, and my glass of fake champagne. “Clearly you’ve given this a lot of thought, Jonathan. Most men are not so fascinated by pregnancy. Is there a story here I should know about?”

A blush colors Jon’s cheeks. “I … was hoping to talk about this another time,” he says, softly. “You know … if things seemed to be going well between us.”

“Oh, now I have to know.”

He looks down at his wine again, nodding absently. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess you do.” He looks back up at me. “I’m sterile, Cindy.”

“Ah,” I say. “A premature vasectomy in your reckless days of youth?”

He nods sadly. “I was just starting out, broke and desperate to make a name for myself. I didn’t want anything holding me back.” He shakes his head. “It was a stupid decision. Short-sighted. Now I’ve reached the level where I’d like to start a family, and I can’t.”

I frown. “But surely they can reverse the procedure?”

“Normally, yes,” Jon says with a grimace. “But the doctor I went to back then apparently did a hack job of it. There’s too much scar tissue now to reverse it.” He shrugs. “Maybe they’ll figure out a way someday, but for now, I’m out of the running.”

I nod, considering this. “And like anything you might have wanted, the desire increased a hundredfold when you were told you couldn’t have it.”

“Perverse, isn’t it?” Jon says.

I smirk. “Some might use that word.” I run a hand over my belly, feeling my son twitch in response to the touch. “But one man’s perversion is another man’s kink.”

Jon’s blush turns even redder. “I-I didn’t mean it like that…”

I can’t help it. I laugh at him. “Oh, it’s all right, Jon. Everyone has sexual proclivities. To tell you the truth, I find it gratifying that someone still finds me desirable like this.”

Jon follows my hand with his eyes, drinking in the sight of my pregnant body. “Cindy, any man who doesn’t find you desirable is an idiot.”

“Mmm.” I reach over the table and pull him toward me for a kiss. This time I make sure it’s much more than a peck on the lips. After releasing him, I smile and lightly push him back to his seat.

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” I tell him. “But you must know my son comes first. Everything I do is for him now. If you want to be part of our lives, you have to accept that.” I reach over and take his hand, squeezing it. “I’m not looking for a fair-weather lover, Jonathan. I’m in the market for a long-term commitment. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what I’m after.”

“I understand,” Jon says. “Obviously, that kind of commitment takes time, but it’s something that I want, too.” His eyes go distant for a moment, weighing his words. “Can I ask you something? What’s the story with the baby’s father?”

“Ah.” I sit back, and for a moment my mind is pleasurably filled with the memories of my son’s conception. “My son was fathered by the Great High Priest of our church. We believe he is the incarnation of the Great Mother in mortal form.”

Jon looks at me quizzically. “A male priest is the incarnation of a goddess?”

I chuckle. “It’s complicated. The Great God is both male and female. Are you familiar with the god the Templars called Baphomet?”

Jon’s brow wrinkles in thought. “Maybe. Is that the goat-headed thing? The one the Christians got confused with the Devil?”

“That’s the one,” I agree. “Baphomet was depicted with the head of a goat, the wings of an eagle, the phallus of a man and the breasts of a woman. That image of god as both masculine and feminine was something they stole from us.”

“Okay, got it,” Jon says. His eyes have gone distant again: careful, calculating. “So this Great High Priest—does he get a lot of women pregnant?”

“It’s not like the FLDS, either,” I assure him. “We are not bound to him in polygamous marriage. We are ordinary members of the church who were offered the chance to bear his children. It was a great blessing—but it is my life, and my choice.”

His eyes center on mine, as if looking for any sign of falsehood or a hidden agenda. “So this priest won’t come along later asking for his son back? If you get married, your husband will be able to adopt him?”

I smile. “I expect my son will one day join the priesthood himself. But in childhood, no, the Great High Priest will not interfere in your relationship with the child.” I study him closely. “I’m sorry if this is too much, too fast. I just need you to know where I’m coming from. I’m completely devoted to my child, and if you can’t be on board with that, then it’s better to know now.”

“I understand.” He smiles at me, his eyes gentle. “Give me some time to think about it?”

“Of course,” I say. I gesture once again at the son inside me. “Just don’t wait too long. I’ll have another mouth to feed very soon.”

* * *

I go home to my own bed that night. The next morning I receive a message from Jonathan, thanking me for a lovely evening and promising to get in touch soon.

A week passes, then two. I fear that I have scared him off, like so many before him. My son grows ever larger and more active, and I can feel a dread growing in my heart at the same time. What if I cannot find a suitable mate? What if I am alone when my son comes into the world? I dare not think about it.

My midwife stops in to see me at our church’s business office in Pacific Heights. She is one of the faithful, so she understands both my son’s parentage and the special needs he is sure to have. She urges me to renew my search for a partner.

“Perhaps it’s time to reconsider your non-negotiables, dear,” she says.

I scoff. “Lower my standards, you mean.”

“Well, you are only six weeks from delivery,” she says. “That isn’t much time to start over, if this banker fellow has lost interest.”

“My son will have the best,” I say confidently. “He deserves nothing less.”

“Then if I were you, I’d make sure this man can’t forget about you. Do you know anything he wants, anything you can make use of?”

Clenching my jaw, I nod once. “Yes. Yes I do.”

* * *

It isn’t difficult to find Jonathan’s office: a brief search online reveals his smiling face above the address for his hedge fund’s local office. I catch the cross-town Muni bus to the Fi Di and arrive there shortly before closing time. While in the elevator, I check my makeup and tighten the belt on my long khaki trench coat. When the door opens, I stride out confidently in my three-inch heels, willing myself not to wobble or lose my balance.

“Can I help you?” asks the receptionist. The tension around her eyes says that she had been hoping to clock out early, and I have foiled her plans. I give her my warmest smile.

“Hi, I’m here to see Mr. Wallace,” I say. “Could you let him know Cindy is here?”

The receptionist’s smile stays fixed in place as her eyes scan me skeptically up and down. “One moment, ma’am.” She picks up the phone, speaks into it softly. After a few seconds she returns it to the cradle. “Mr. Wallace will be right out, ma’am,” she says.

“Thank you, I appreciate it.”

I wait. My nerves are telling me to pace the room, but my common sense tells me that a very pregnant woman in heels should keep walking to an absolute minimum. I grip the edge of the receptionist’s desk and try not to drum my fingers.

Jon walks out a minute or two later, looking a little confused but nonetheless delighted. “Cindy, hey! What brings you to my neck of the woods?”

I smile warmly and embrace him. “Hey, Jon. I’m glad I caught you before you left. Do you have some time to talk?”

“Absolutely.” He turns to his receptionist. “Sheila, you can go ahead and call it a night. I’ll lock up on our way out.”

Sheila looks relieved. “Thanks, Mr. Wallace. Have a good night.”

“I plan to.” He flashes her that big, bright smile, then leads me through winding hallways to his office. He holds the door for me, and I step through, taking a look around.

Clearly this office is intended for meetings with clients, and not just Jon’s own private work. The walls are lined with bookshelves and dark wainscoting, the carpets a deep navy blue accented with gold. The room is lit warmly from free-standing lamps, instead of harsh overhead fluorescents. Broad windows framed with heavy curtains give a breathtaking view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge. To my right is Jon’s desk, a massive L of some rich, dark, tropical wood. To my left, a conversation area: two high-backed armchairs facing a sumptuous-looking leather couch, across a coffee table that looks like an old sailor’s map. An assortment of nautical art pieces and artifacts help round out the theme.

Yes, this will do nicely.

“Come on in, take a load off,” Jon says, gesturing to the couch. “So, what’s going on?”

Instead of sitting down, I come close to him and reach up for a kiss. I place my hand behind his head and deepen it, pressing my tongue gently but insistently past his lips. He welcomes me in, and our tongues dance for a sweet, lingering moment before we part.

“I missed you,” I say. I start playing with the collar of his shirt, curling my fingers inside to brush his skin. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.”

I hear his breath catch, just a little, but he quickly steadies himself. “I’ve … been thinking about you a lot, too,” he admits. “I just … I’m trying to be careful. I know you’re looking for a serious commitment, and I don’t want to get your hopes up if I’m not sure—”

I put one finger to his lips, stopping him. “I know what I said. And I am looking for something serious. But I’m also a woman with needs, and I haven’t been touched in a long time.” I unbelt my coat and let it fall to the floor. Underneath I’m wearing my black underwire bra with the lace trim, the one that makes my breasts look magnificent, and a little black skirt that stops a few inches above my knees. My pregnant belly curves out dramatically in between, the skin taut and gleaming in the lamp-light.

I see his eyes dilate with desire, drinking in the sight of me. I smile seductively.

“We can figure out the rest later,” I say. “Right now, I want you to fuck me.”

He doesn’t need any more coaxing than that. He takes my face in his hands and kisses me passionately, as I methodically strip him of his clothes. I lead him over to the couch, where we spend the next two hours enjoying each other’s bodies in all the ways my cumbersome form permits. Jon is creative, I’ll give him that, and as enthusiastic as a bridegroom on his wedding night. I may have engaged in some acting to bring us to this moment, but there is no artifice in the orgasms that crash over my sweat-soaked body.

As we lay side-by-side on the couch, basking in the afterglow, I take Jon’s hand and guide it to my belly.

“Feel that,” I say, softly.

My son is churning inside me. I can’t imagine what the flood of hormones coursing through my body must have felt like for him, but he is awake now and making his presence known. He reaches out, pressing his limbs against the pliant walls of his cage. Jon’s eyes are wide in wonder.

“Oh my God,” he whispers. “That’s amazing. What’s it feel like for you?”

My son strikes out hard at Jon’s hand, and I can’t help wincing. “Like someone’s doing martial arts inside me, sometimes,” I say. “But yes. He is amazing.”

Jon shifts around, scoots down the couch, and presses his ear against my flesh. “I can hear his heartbeat,” he says. “It’s so strong.”

“He’s going to be big,” I say. “If you’re around in a few more weeks, you’ll get to meet him.”

I can feel Jon relax against me, and his hand reaches down to caress my leg. “I’d like that,” he says.

And with those words, I feel a tremendous weight lift from me. I will not be alone when my son comes into this world. I lay my hand on Jon’s head, caressing him as he listens to my son’s heart, and for the first time in months, I can relax.

* * *

The remaining weeks pass swiftly, and it is a mercy that they do. My son is growing so rapidly now that my belly itches constantly, the skin stretched nearly to the breaking point. With three weeks remaining, he has grown so large that I look like a woman carrying triplets. Just getting from my bed to the bathroom and back has become exhausting. I am constantly, insatiably hungry. Jon, being the sweet creature that he is, takes time off work and cares for me, serving me five meals a day and helping me bathe, since I can no longer reach below my own waist. At times I wonder if my pregnancy has gotten too extreme even for his taste, but he never gives a moment’s indication that he is anything but thrilled to be a witness to my transformation.

A week before my due date, I have him drive me out to my church’s retreat center. It is located on a secluded plot in the winding back-roads of northwest Sonoma County: far from prying eyes, hidden away amidst a grove of ancient trees. Jon looks up and around nervously at the towering redwoods, then back to the rutted, rock-strewn path that takes us through them.

“Are you sure we’re on the right road?” he asks. He taps the GPS unit, which has been frozen on the message Searching for Satellites… for the last half-hour. It doesn’t do any good.

“This is the place,” I assure him. We should see it very soon.”

And indeed we do: broad, low, roughly dome-shaped buildings, camouflaged to blend into their surroundings. The sign at the entrance isn’t in English; the script isn’t even Roman, or anything else a modern European would recognize. I close my eyes for a moment and smile; I can feel the Great Mother’s welcome in this place.

I can’t walk anymore, so I send Jon inside to speak to whoever is on duty. He comes out a few minutes later with two attendants and a wheelchair, and together they lift me out of the car and into the seat. My son writhes and strikes at my internal organs, displeased at all the commotion. I grit my teeth and bear it in silence. Not long now. Not long.

My midwife greets us inside, shaking Jon’s hand before gripping mine warmly.

“I’m very glad to see you here,” she tells him. “As you can see, Cindy’s pregnancy has been difficult. We feel it’s very important for her partner to be there for her when her son is born.”

Jon pats my shoulder fondly. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he says. “I can’t wait to meet this little person inside her.”

“I am sure he feels the same about you,” the midwife says.

“If you will bring her this way…?”

She leads us through the main entrance into the lobby—a quiet, unremarkable space, with dim lighting, blank walls, and that office flooring made of little movable carpet squares. There are no logos or symbols, nothing to indicate the deep spiritual significance of this place. As I told Jon, our religion is very old; hiding in plain sight has become second nature to us.

We go down a few hallways and come to an ordinary-looking medical ward, with several rooms arranged around a nurse’s station. They roll me inside one of the rooms and lift me onto the hospital bed. It takes a few minutes of fiddling with the controls to find a position that feels comfortable for me. Once I’m settled, Jon covers me with the blankets and kisses my brow.

“It won’t be long now,” he assures me.

All I want to do now is sleep; the act of getting here took the last drop of strength I had left. The nurse and her aide hook me up to half a dozen pieces of monitoring equipment. The church’s obstetrician examines me and prescribes a saline drip and a feeding tube, since my son is now demanding more calories than I have the strength to eat. That seems to finally quiet him down, and I quickly fall asleep. The last thing I remember is Jon holding my hand.

When I wake up, Great Mother only knows how long later, Jon is slumped in a chair at my bedside, asleep. I find myself staring at him, watching his chest rise and fall. Suddenly I feel guilty; this is a good man, with many good years ahead of him. What am I doing, tying him to my son’s destiny? I am the one who chose to bring my son into this world. I should be willing to bear the responsibility of that decision, not lay it at this man’s feet simply because he is convenient. Is my faith in the Great Mother so weak? Do I imagine that somehow I will not be enough for my son?

I do not know how long I wrestle with these thoughts. Part of me wants to wake Jon up, to tell him to forget me, to leave me here. I have asked too much of him. I do not deserve such selflessness.

But then my son stirs inside me, and for once his touch is tender, gently caressing my insides. I can hear his voice in my mind: Be strong, mother. I need you, and I need him. Do this for me.

And what can I say to that? Is there anything a mother would not do for her child?

I touch my belly and smile, silently directing my thoughts inward. You will have the best that I can give you. You deserve nothing less.

After that, I fall asleep again, resting peacefully.

* * *

Jon offers to rent a room at a nearby hotel, but the closest one is almost an hour away. Instead the midwife arranges quarters for him, in one of the small outlying cabins used for meditation and spiritual retreat. The next time I see him, he’s showered and dressed in fresh clothes, but his eyes still look puffy and tired.

I take his hand and squeeze it when he sits at my bedside. “How are you holding up?” I ask him.

“All right,” he says, then adds, “I didn’t sleep well. I had strange dreams.”

“Oh? Strange how?”

He shakes his head. “I dreamt I was walking through those woods outside. I saw this big, black cloud hanging overhead … only it wasn’t really a cloud. It was moving on its own, reaching out for things. I could see something like eyes in the cloud … and then it seemed to see me. The cloud reached for me. I-I ran, but it surrounded me, covered me…”

I am listening very intently now. “Then what happened?”

Jon looks down at his hands, and I could swear he’s blushing. “I was stumbling in the darkness—trying to run, but I couldn’t see anything—when this woman appeared right in front of me. Or at least I thought it was a woman. She had dark, dark skin, and big breasts, and wide hips, and she was pregnant … but her head wasn’t a human head. It reminded me of that god Baphomet that we were talking about a few weeks ago … like a ram, or a goat … but it had six eyes, or maybe eight … and they were glowing…”

I am in awe. Few of the faithful ever receive such a vision, and even fewer non-believers. “Did she say anything to you?”

“Yes,” Jon says, frowning. “She pointed to me and said, ‘You will bear my young.’” He looks up at me, seemingly overwhelmed. “And then I woke up. Cindy, I’ve never had a dream like that before. It was so real.”

“It is a sign,” I tell him. “You have seen the Black Goat of the Woods. It is one of the forms the Great Mother takes in order to speak to us.”

“But what does that mean?” Jon asks. “‘You will bear my young?’ You’re the one who’s pregnant! I’m just here for moral support. So if this was a … a vision, why did it come to me, and not you?”

“The gods don’t think the same way we do,” I say. “Human language is difficult for them. It’s the reason their messages are so often misunderstood. Perhaps she meant ‘bear’ in the sense to carry, to lift up or support.” I smile. “This is a great blessing, Jon. The Great Mother wants you to be deeply involved in my son’s life.”

Jon still looks doubtful, but he pats my hand and tries to smile. “Well, I’m here. That’s the first step, right?”

“Indeed it is,” I agree, and say no more about it.

* * *

That night the Black Goat visits me in my dreams, as well. I dream that I am awakened by a crash of thunder—something nearly unheard of in this part of the country. I look around at my hospital room, and between one flash of lightning and the next, she appears. She stands over my bed, her eyes glowing in the darkness, her expression unreadable. I would bow to her, but my son has now grown so large that I cannot even sit up on my own. Weakly, I raise my hand and touch it to my brow in a gesture of obeisance.

“Great Mother,” I whisper. “You honor me.”

My goddess remains silent, but a flood of abstract impressions washes over my mind: pleasure, anticipation, hunger. My son thrashes and writhes, more strongly than ever before. The Black Goat reaches out a hand, slender and clawed, and places it atop my belly.

At last, she speaks. “It … is .. time.”

A searing pain shoots through me, and I wake up screaming. My entire body convulses, and my son strikes again at the walls of his prison. I am dimly aware of a spreading wetness on the bed between my legs. The monitoring equipment I am connected to begins competing with my screams.

The midwife comes rushing in barely two minutes later, followed by the nurse and her aide. The midwife lifts the covers for only a moment before dropping them.

“It’s begun,” she says. “We’re taking her to the birthing chamber, now.” She turns to the aide. “Go wake the consort and bring him downstairs immediately.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the aide says, and runs off.

They unhook me from everything but the IV line and wheel me out to the elevator, moving as fast as they probably dare. I can see my stomach distending first one way, then another, as a crushing pain seizes my insides. It feels like my son is trying to tear his way out of me.

In the elevator now, and I can’t even feel it moving downward. The pain is all-encompassing. I can feel my son’s emotions, his desperation to be free, his hunger for his first meal. He is so very strong now…

The elevator doors slide open, and cool, wet air washes over me. The birthing pool sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by a broad expanse of cement. Intricate geometric figures are permanently carved in the floor around the pool, but I only know that because I have been here before. They wheel me to the edge of the pool, lift me up, and ease me down into the water.

The pool is warm, more like a comfortable bath than a swimming pool, and only about two feet deep. As soon as my body hits the water, my son seems to relax. The pain subsides. I lay back against the side of the pool, which is contoured for this purpose. The midwife helps me get my feet into the stirrups, which are mounted to the floor of the pool.

“All right, Cindy,” she says. “I want you to breathe, just like we practiced.”

“Jon? Where’s Jon?” I demand, feeling the panic rising up again.

“He’ll be here,” the midwife assures me. “Now breathe.”

I try to focus on my breathing, willing my body to relax. Around the edges of the pool, other members of the retreat center staff are taking their places, kneeling at precise intervals around those geometric carvings. They have begun to pray to the Great Mother, their voices low and sonorous.

I hear the elevator doors open, and then the sound of running footsteps.

“Cindy?!”

Jon comes to the edge of the pool, stops, looks around in bewilderment at the birthing chamber and its occupants. “What the hell…?”

“Jon!” I cry. “Quickly, step into the water!”

He hesitates. “I’m not … is that safe? I mean, I haven’t been scrubbed or anything … you could get an infection…”

The midwife turns to look at him, fury in her eyes. “Do you want her to live? Then I need your help. Come here now!”

Jon apparently decides that his questions can wait until later. He was clearly roused from sleep, and is wearing only a t-shirt and gym shorts, so he steps into the water without having to worry about shoes. He casts one more dubious eye at the circle of the faithful before turning his attention to the midwife. “What do I do?”

She gestures to a spot between my legs. “Kneel here. The child will emerge into the water. You must reach out and guide it to the surface.”

“Okay.” Jon kneels, looks up at me. “Um, what will you be doing?”

“Calling the child into the world.” The midwife steps out of the pool and takes up position just behind my head.

“Close the circle,” she commands the others.

As one, the faithful draw knives and slash them across their open palms. Blood drips down into the channels on the floor, and there is a snap of air, like an electric shock running around the circle.

The prayers of the faithful become a chant, in the ancient tongue of our religion. The midwife raises her head and stretches her hands wide.

Ia! Great Mother of Thousands, I call on you! By your many names, I summon you: Tiamat! Echidna! Astarte! Shub-Niggurath! Your servant is here before you! The gate is open! Let your child come forth!”

Jon looks around, his eyes wide. “What’s going on? What are they doing?!”

“Jon. Jon!” He turns his eyes back to me. I smile at him, bittersweet. “You are a good man, Jon. You’ve been so kind to us. To me and my son. Only one thing remains.”

I can feel myself opening wider, making way for my son to enter the world. My son begins to move again, responding to the contractions in my uterus. He has longed to be free, and now my body is ready to release him.

The midwife lets out an ululating cry. “Ia! Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat with a Thousand Young!”

“The Black Goat with a Thousand Young!” the others shout.

My uterus contracts again, and I push with all my might. I can feel my son making his way out of me, sliding, writhing, crawling to be free. Close … so close…

Jon looks down between my legs, and his face goes pale with fright. He turns and bolts for the edge of the circle, but the empty air stops him like a brick wall. He tries again, pushing, pounding with his fists on the unseen wall of force, but the circle has been set perfectly.

With my son coming into the world, there was no other choice.

I give one last great push, and I feel my son slip free of me, sinking into the water with a quiet splash. The sudden emptiness within me comes as a shock and a relief. I am not worried about my son; he is the Great Mother’s child, and as she formed the primordial seas from which nameless things first filled the ancient world, so my son takes to the water as his natural demesne.

The birthing has exhausted me, but I have just enough strength to sit up a little and watch what happens next. My son moves through the pool, a black shadow within the waters. Amorphous tendrils stretch out in all directions, searching, sensing, propelling him forward as sinuously as an eel. He is beautiful chaos, the primordial life of this world born anew—and he is hungry.

Jon, having heard the splash as my son entered the water, looks over his shoulder. He sees the shadow swimming toward him. He screams again, climbs up onto the edge of the pool, trying to balance on the narrow strip of cement between the pool and the circle. My son reaches up, embraces him in glistening black arms, and begins pulling downward. He is very strong despite his comparatively small size, and Jon is off-balance. Jon turns to lock eyes with me, uncomprehending horror on his face.

“Cindy…” His voice is little more than a whimper. Then he falls into the water.

My son envelops Jon in seconds, cutting off his screams. The water churns and roils. The faithful continue their chants. I pant for breath and watch, eyes wide. I have never seen this before, and while I have been told what to expect, I am still filled with anticipation.

The thrashing ceases, and the water goes still. All I see is a shapeless black form, my son surrounding the body like a cocoon.

Then, gradually, the black shape contracts. Arms, legs and head appear, blurry and indistinct at first, then sharper. The cocoon becomes a thin skin of glistening black around an obviously human form.

The figure moves, drawing its legs beneath it and then, slowly, rising to its feet. It is unspeakably beautiful—a basalt statue brought to life. The water drips from the body as the head turns to face me. The face is strong, masculine, and familiar.

The figure’s eyes are as black as the rest of him, but they seem to focus on me. I stare back, transfixed. Slowly, the black recedes from the body, seeping in through the skin, until only the eyes remain that perfect, glossy, midnight black. The body that is revealed is Jon’s, as handsome as when I first saw it, but the expression on his face is full of wonder and love, not fear.

He stands over me, gazing at my nearly-naked form. Then, slowly, he offers me his hand, and lifts me gently to my feet.

He smiles, then opens his mouth. The words come haltingly, uncertainly, but they come.

“H-… h-… hello, m-mother.”

My heart floods with joy. “Hello, my son.” Then I take him in my arms and hold him close.

I am filled with a tremendous sense of peace. Jon’s sacrifice has given my son much: a strong and masculine body, an adult brain with a keen intellect, and a financial position that ensures security for us both. No one will question it when Jon decides to retire from his high-pressure career to spend more time with his new, beloved wife. We will find a home far from here, and settle down in our new life together. Perhaps British Columbia; Vancouver is a lovely city, and the Mother’s church is strong there.

Much remains to be done, of course. For all the advantages Jon has given us, my son still has much to learn about the world. I do not know what he will become; Shub-Niggurath has not revealed this to me. But I like to imagine that he will become a mighty priest of the faith, that he will fill many more wombs with the Black Goat’s progeny.

Perhaps that is arrogant of me, but I will hope for it nonetheless. After all, what mother does not dream great things for her children?