Content warning: blood and gore, pregnancy and childbirth, explicit violence, themes of child abuse and neglect
I called you Baby. I liked the way it sounded in the dark. I’d whisper it countless times whilst running my hands over my belly, tracking the swelling in the months following that blurry night. As midnight approached, my nocturnal chant would be lost. Inaudible beneath the yowling of the feral cats that roamed the vacant lot outside my bedroom window.
According to the library’s dusty growth chart, you were no bigger than a blueberry when they first came. Tails flicking in warning or promise. The tomcats were scarred and muscular, displaying their strength as they stretched to full height and scraped long claws down my window. The mother cats—kittens themselves—would lick their paws, their backs, their lips; gazes never leaving me. In my dreams, I understood it was you they wanted.
Soon the margins of my school book became overcrowded. I’d never done well academically, but now my scattered notes were illegible beneath overlapping layers of blue ink. A sea of strong B’s, looping A’s, curving Y’s, indifferent to the horizontal lines of my battered 99-cent workbook. I’d link each character in rhythmic swoops, weaving them together in the flowing cursive taught to me by the only teacher who noticed my silence.
On the afternoons I thought my shaking legs would give out from standing by the school gate, Mr Wilk would usher me into a classroom. He would encourage me to read aloud, syllable by syllable. On the last day of year eight, he slipped a piece of paper into my hand. It took a minute but I managed to identify the scrawl as numbers. That’s when I cried, the only time I can ever remember. He wasn’t to know the landline had been cut off the previous month. The note has lived inside an old yoghurt tub for almost a year—alongside a magpie feather, a smooth piece of glass, a cracked Tamagotchi, and a bloodied pair of polka dot underwear.
By the time they noticed the change, I couldn’t stand for longer than a few minutes or my head would begin to spin. My uniform skirt had to be held up by three large safety pins that usually clasped thick curtains together, disrupting the path of any light that dared enter the house. The pins would snap undone during the school day, stabbing me in the hips, lower back, and waist, leaving rusted spots on my clothing. Crimson blood turns dirt brown, no matter how hard you scrub.
Despite my desperate slumping, my shirt grew uncomfortably taut. Some people, like Mr Wilk, averted their gaze. In the hallways and yard, his eyes would glide over me, ears reddening and sweat beading.
He eventually stopped coming. Transferred, the office lady told me.
Others didn’t try to hide their stares and laughter. My ears would prick up, and somehow, no matter the distance, I could hear their cruel words clearly.
This audience unsettled me. I became more fearful than I’d ever been before. I began to imagine the ways in which I would hurt anyone who came near you; the weapons I could fashion out of pencils and protractors. How I would transform before their eyes. The pads of my thumbs pressing into eye sockets until they hollowed, my yellowed incisors sinking into sinewy necks and fatty thighs. I cut my dark curls short and let my nails grow long and sharp. The tips of my fingers grew calloused from the carvings I would leave beneath desks, testing this new strength.
I knew better than to fall asleep where I could be discovered, but on that day, your day, a pressing pain had begun in my stomach. It wasn’t like the pain of not having eaten for a few days, or of being hit. It was pulsating and persistent, spreading to my lower back and leaving a trail of pink goo in my underwear.
During second period, as wood chips piled atop my knees, I became entranced by the large peppercorn tree towering beside the classroom window. It swayed back and forth, back and forth, as small shadows flickered through the foliage. In one disorienting moment, the tree looked at me and a sudden static crackle rang painfully in my ears. When I opened my eyes, the hair on my arm was standing on end and my classmates were watching me. My name had been called over the loudspeaker.
The counsellor was waiting in the hallway. Her smile was as vague as ever. Instead of the wilting paper rainbows and false promises of her office, I was met with the low grey walls and ticking clock of someone higher in the food chain. I remained as still as possible, ready for any sudden movements. My blood felt hot and my stomach squirmed.
I am not sure what would have happened next if a red-faced office assistant hadn’t opened the door, profusely apologising for the intrusion, before catching her breath to inform us that there had been an incident.
Climate change, pesticides, cruel boy gangs—all speculated culprits. Responsible for a grisly discovery at morning tea: a mound of tiny corpses beneath the peppercorn tree. Rats with their guts hanging loose. Pigeons separated from their wings. Possums with their eyes missing. Highly distressing. Parades of cars pulled up well before hometime to collect teary-eyed year sevens. Beneath the blood-matted fur and feathers, the reds and browns and greys, nobody noticed the long crisscrossing gouges in the bark.
Police officers circled and from within them, the unmistakable perfumed stench of social workers. The counsellor, all colour drained from her face, did not notice when I slipped away; saliva dribbling out of the corners of my mouth.
By the time I made my way down the hill and onto the bus, my uniform was drenched and my hair was plastered to my skull. An elderly woman had to help me sit down. I sighed, letting the cool blow of the air conditioning wash over me. I gradually became aware of a shaky voice repeating words like ‘hospital’ and ‘young’. It sounded faint as if I was hearing it from the bottom of the ocean. The afternoon sun against my eyelids gave everything a fiery glow. I opened my eyes a crack. Only a few stops to go. A discordant beep drew my attention downwards. Forcing my eyes to widen, I took in the wrinkled finger hovering over ‘0’ on a bricklike phone. The old lady let out a cry when I gripped her wrist, my claws tearing at her tissue paper skin. She knew we were stronger than her. The bus halted. I stumbled towards the heat rippling through the opening doors and through the vacant fields. I didn’t stop until the front door slammed behind me, momentum seeing me to the couch as I felt my legs collapse. My last thought was how strange it was that I could no longer feel any pain.
The screaming infiltrated my dreams. In it, the strays’ summons were insistent and urgent. For a moment that stretched on for a while, I couldn’t remember what was real. The sharp crack of a slap knocked me from the stained cushions to the hard floor. I had become accustomed to trusting my body; it knew what to do when I couldn’t.
Upper arms cover ears (how else could I hear your voice)
Tough elbows go directly in front of eyes (I know you will be beautiful)
Scarred forearms crisscross over fragile skull as hands sink into hair (do not let go).
The blows kept coming—but they were landing where they shouldn’t. From somewhere else, I registered pain on the exposed skin of my cheeks, my shoulders, my chest. I felt it all because my arms were wrapped below me, around where you curled in the hollow of my belly. Head bowed and knees bent. My mirror image. I knew my mother’s voice, as you know mine.
Claws reached up, up, up through muscle and fat and skin, toward the air, toward the light. The scratching was everywhere, inside me, splitting me open, insistent and urgent. Humming, convulsing, bones bent and snapped. Alien sensation, past the point of pain, of essential mitosis; a long-awaited meeting. A scream ripped through me as one became two and you became you.
Then everything was warm. There were no dreams to escape. Someone was licking my face.
I pried my swelling eyes open. The darkening sky was vast above me, devoid of clouds. I carefully rotated my head to the side. I was lying on the concrete porch steps. Dark silhouettes slunk across my vision. Blinking rapidly to dispel them, shapes and colours came into focus. All of my belongings were strewn across the lawn.
Willing my muscles into action, I attempted to sit up. Head spinning, I fell back onto my elbows and looked down. Two identical pools surrounded me. They glistened, reflecting the dusk light and shaking slightly before coming together. The fluid was a garishly opaque red, viscous and littered with chunks of stringy matter. The low hum of an engine grew louder.
As my field of vision expanded, I realized the sound was not mechanical, but the collective purr of a dozen or so cats encircling me. Some lapped greedily, mouths wet and discoloured. Others prowled—keeping watch.
My head tickled and I reached up to feel the fine whisker of a calico nosing at my encrusted hair. My shoulder stung as a tabby dragged her sandpaper tongue over a cut, green eyes focused. I sat up fully. Two dark spots stained my school shirt. Below it, my skirt was bunched up around my hips. Between my thighs, a sleek black cat fervently licked at a small dark mass. As I reached down, she flashed her pearly fangs, severing the umbilical cord.
Then I was holding you as tears flowed down my cheeks. Your nose was small and pink, as were your velvety ears. A soft fluff covered your tiny body, warm against my cupped hands which you fit in perfectly. You let out a cry. My Baby.
Fantine (she/her) is a writer, bookseller, reviewer, and the current editor of swine magazine. She is studying a Bachelor of Arts with a major in creative writing. When not reading, watching, or writing (or working or studying), she can be found hanging out with her cat Zuko or having a drink with friends. She appreciates stories that allow space for the audience to imbue their own meaning.