Firstborn

by Maria Haskins

Ben isn’t in his crib when I wake up. I find his pyjamas and diaper beneath the rumpled blanket. The apartment is cold, the balcony door ajar. It’s a soggy December night out there, and Ben is perched on the banister: talons gripping steel, wings flared. Below, the dark street is slick with rain. When he sees me, he swoops down toward the ground, past the building’s manicured shrubbery and garden; heavy, webbed wings flapping as he soars down the street.

I rush down the fire stairs, through the bowels of the sleeping building, ragged, blood-tasting breaths clawing at my throat. Outside, I see Ben flying low around the traffic lights at the intersection, and I run after him: through the drizzle, through the pools of light below the streetlamps, through the wide spaces of darkness in between. I’m running barefoot in my washed out pyjamas, untied bathrobe flapping behind me like a cloak, like a pair of useless wings.

It’s a nightmare, except that the asphalt really hurts my feet.

Ben lands in a tree. It’s in an empty lot, full of brambles, weed-cracked concrete, moldering fruit trees, and scattered garbage. He sits, small and dark, on the branch above me, out of reach. His body is a new shape, one I’ve never seen before, not this fully realized, its form revealed by the distant yellow glow from the street: shrivelled, scaly skin; clawed feet and forelegs; rippling folds of leathery wings rustling in the shadows. Only the eyes are familiar: large, round, nocturnal. I’ve seen those eyes watching me from the crib at the foot of the bed more nights than I can count. Sometimes he’s come crawling over to me, scuttling up the wall and across the ceiling before dropping down softly next to me. The sharp claws and teeth cut my skin sometimes, but I know he doesn’t mean it, not really.

“Come down!” I yell, but Ben only cocks his head and peers down at me.

I stand there in the wet grass and dirt, looking up at the impenetrable sky. Ben looks too.

They’re coming for him, I think. That’s why he’s out here. He’s waiting for them. The ones who know his name, the ones who took his true shape from me, the ones who left him behind.

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This is me a year ago, stretched out on the exam table at the ultrasound clinic: shirt pulled up, pants pulled down, bladder uncomfortably full, the gel on my stomach cold and sticky to the touch. There’s the smile slipping off the ultrasound technician’s face like soap and water. There’s his hand trembling as he takes notes. Now he turns the screen so that Paul and I can’t see the undulating shapes his wand has conjured from my womb. Beneath my hand there is a ripple, a shudder, the shape of it showing through my skin: the curve of a spine, perhaps, or the coil of an arm. Maybe an errant knee, slithering by as the small body looks for comfort inside me.

And here I am, later that same day at the hospital, listening to the medical team’s hushed voices while I am being wheeled into the operating room, clutching Paul’s hand.

“The baby is fine, Em. I just know it.” He sounds so sure.

A sheet blocks my view when they cut Ben out of me. It is nothing like we trained for all these months: no Mozart, no warm showers, no timed contractions. But there he is: safe, not dead, not yet. Whisked away to be judged and bathed, weighed and measured.

The doctor is talking to Paul somewhere above my head: “no visible abnormalities, faulty ultrasound…” I am not listening. There is a small eye peering up at me, seeing me for the first time, and I feel that look bind me: fear and love and pain tightly intertwined, inseparable strands, rough and strong. A knotted noose tightening around my neck.

For three weeks after that, Ben sleeps in an incubator, alone: an IV in his arm, a feeding tube down his throat, an oxygen monitor pinching his tiny foot. Sometimes I wonder what he remembers. Does he remember unknown voices speaking a name he did not know was his? Does he remember unknown eyes peering down at him from on high to determine what he lacks? Does he remember unknown hands touching and holding him, making his body quiver with secret dreams of scales and fangs and fur?

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Ben sits on the branch above me, so still that he might be sleeping, head tucked beneath a folded, leathery wing. In the dirt and weeds below, I wait and shiver in my washed out pyjamas and threadbare despair. Thinking:

They always take the firstborn.

As if this were a fairy-tale told by the fire, or read at bedtime. As if something unseen and Other had slipped out of long forgotten glades and hollows, slithering in beneath the light, beneath the softness of my own skin, into the tiny red dream fluttering inside my womb, claiming him, whispering his name – his real name, the one bonded to flesh and bone, the name that keeps calling him away from me.

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This is the first time Ben shifts. He’s two months old and it’s the first day I’m alone with him after Paul goes back to work. There it is: the jagged crest popping out of his back when I put him in the plastic tub for his bath, clawed feet splashing, my hands scratched and bleeding when I try to hold him, slippery-soft baby skin turned to rough scales, saw-toothed gums snapping at my fingers. I try to get a grip on him, try to make him stop, try to make the jagged crest along his spine disappear, until I realize I’m holding him under the water.

If it wasn’t for the gash of gills slashed into his neck, I would have drowned him.

Once I get him out of the bath, I wrap him tightly in a towel and sit with him – rocking, holding – until he falls asleep. I think I hear a whisper or an echo, then, far off. A noise rather than a word. Like a name, being called out again and again when someone is lost in the woods. I feel it tug at him, and me. Ben stirs and whimpers but does not wake.

“I love you,” I whisper, tugging back as hard as I can, fearing even then that it will not be enough.

Later, when I unwrap him, there are no scales or gills or webbed extremities, only my own blood, shed from lacerated fingers.

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“Ben!”

I call the name into the December night, and it leaves my mouth in puff of despair and mist. I call it, as though it belongs to him, but I know it’s not the right name, not the one he is waiting for.

“Ben, you have to come down. We have to go home.”

The beak clacks. The eyes glower.

The flaw is mine as much as his. No. More mine than his. A mother’s love is supposed to be clean and whole. Not tattered and rent like mine. It should be pastels and flannel, hearts and cherubs. Never once was it like that for me. Always the knotted noose. Always the precipice and the abyss.

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This is Ben at eighteen weeks. He still can’t roll over. All the other babies in the parent and infant group can roll from stomach to back, but he won’t even try. He just lays there, flat on his fleece blanket, cheek resting on the soft fabric. When I prod him to move, all he does is chew his fist.

“He’s such a content baby.” The other mom leans over to get a better look, and I keep my eyes on the drool-soaked patch below Ben’s chin, hoping she won’t notice the wing stumps writhing beneath his loose, duck-patterned onesie. “But so small! Do you breastfeed?”

I flush.

“No, he never latched.”

“Tatiana wouldn’t latch either at first, but you just have to be firm and keep at it. Once they’re really hungry they just grab on.”

I think of tiny Ben wailing, red-faced and desperate, mouth wet and ravenous; I think of the lactation consultant poking and prodding my breasts and nipples to get them in the right position. I think of leaking, aching, rock-hard breasts, full of milk and colostrum. I think of football holds and cradle holds. I think of Ben, not latching, not rolling over, soft wings tucked in close next to his spine.

Content. Small. Failing. Just like me.

At home, in the dark hallway, when I’ve locked the door behind us, Ben gazes at me from the stroller, slitted pupils dilating. Curved, serrated claws reach for me. I snuggle him close on the couch, holding him tight – too tight – his whimpering, wet nose snuffling against my skin, sharp claws scratching at my ribcage.

I don’t want to hurt him. Not that. Not ever. But sometimes, somewhere, in the hairline crack between the seen and the unsaid; between what Ben is and what I imagined him to be, opaque dreams quiver and unfurl beneath my skin: my nails the claws, my mouth the maw, my teeth the fangs – ripping, tearing.

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I wait beneath the tree. Minutes pass, hours, eons. Ben does not come down. Instead he spreads his wings and dives into the blackberry brambles. I can hear him rustling around in there, hissing and snapping. He returns with something squirming and dying; beak ripping at skin and tail.

“Stop it, Ben!” I’m screaming now. “What is wrong with you?”

He ignores me, just cleans his beak and claws after feeding.

I know it’s all my fault. I ate processed meat during pregnancy. I slept on my back. I took medicine for heartburn. I used scented body lotion. I didn’t use organic cotton washcloths. And, worst of all, I left him alone in that incubator.

“Please, come down, Ben. Come to mommy.”

I cry, for myself as much as for him, but Ben seems as unconcerned with my tears as with the cold and rain. I can’t even tell if he’s listening. He just shifts his feet, scraping the branch, rustling the wings, head cocked to peer up at the empty sky.

Come, I pray to the sky, to the darkness, to the stillness beneath the trees and brambles. Come, now. Don’t leave him here with me. Come and take him away.

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“Does anything about your baby worry you? If yes, explain.”

“Do you have any concerns about your baby’s behavior? If yes, explain.”

This is me at the kitchen table, pencil hovering above the Ages and Stages questionnaire from the Health Unit.

“Do you think Ben seems alright?” I ask Paul while Ben rubs mashed sweet potato into the table, smile glinting with new baby-teeth.

Before Paul came home, Ben’s mouth kept shifting to red maw and fangs, then back again – jaws clacking tentatively as if he were practicing, long red tongue tasting the air, tasting my skin.

“What do you mean? He’s not getting sick is he?”

I feel my resolve deflating as Ben waves his chubby arms and puts orange mash in his hair.

I can’t do it. I can’t say the words out loud, can’t write them down even in pencil.

“If yes, explain.”

Yes means going back to the hospital. It means tubes taped to Ben’s skin, snaking into every cavity and orifice. It means doctors staring at him like something to be taken apart for repair and cleaning.

“He seems OK, right?”

“He’s great,” Paul laughs and picks him up. “Best monkey around, right, bud?”

And here I am, later that night, waking up to Ben’s soft hands grasping for skin and warmth beneath the covers. It’s September and the bedroom window is open. Somehow I know that Ben squeezed out through that window; that he balanced on the window sill three floors above the ground, thinking of taking flight, waiting for someone, something, to call his name.

The bathroom-light peels away every trace of who I am and who I have been, leaving only the dark circles under my eyes and the blood on Ben’s limbs. He screams while I wash him. The blood isn’t his, but he keeps screaming no matter what I offer him: formula, dry diaper, a long-discarded soother, blanket, rattle. The light peels away my face, too, leaving only a blank space: I can’t even remember what I look like anymore.

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I think of leaving Ben in the tree. Of never letting him into the apartment, even if he pecks at the window and scratches at the door. I think of running away and never coming back: somewhere no one can find me, somewhere so far away that I won’t be able to remember any of this. But I’m bound. I have been bound, hand and foot, word and deed, from the moment Ben peered up at me, swaddled in that pale green hospital towel.

“Please come down. Come to mommy. Mommy just wants you to come down.”

I say it, but I’m not sure I mean it anymore. He knows it, too. The beak clacks, the wings rustle.

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This is Ben, turning one just before Christmas. My cousin brings her child to Christmas dinner: a girl, same age as Ben, but twice as tall, running down the hallway, talking, singing. Ben sits. He hasn’t taken a single step yet, not even when I hold his hands. At the table, the girl grabs the food and eats with skilled, dextrous fingers. My family stares at Ben’s messy bib and clumsy spoon as though they’re watching a documentary on TV.

“He’s so small.”

“How old is he?”

“But such a content baby.”

Ben holds on tightly to the spoon, focused on his bowl, and for just a moment somewhere between the turkey and the trifle, I wish that he would brandish his serrated claws and gaping maw at everyone around that table. Just once, to shut them up.

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Ben and I are alone in the dark. The night is rippling with furtive sounds: fluttering whispers beneath the leaves, the quiet scratch of claws beneath the roots, hissing breaths slithering through the brambles.

Ben.

I hold his name in my mouth, unspoken: I know no name or word will call him back to me now. His fierce gaze touches me only briefly – impatient, glowering. Then he turns away.

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This is me and Ben at the pediatrician yesterday. Scale and measuring tape and growth chart. Ben stripped down to nothing but his diaper. His graph: weight, length, head circumference, all plotted in way down at the bottom of the paper, far below any known percentile. I keep my eyes on Ben’s face: round and smooth and flawless.

There is an aching tightness in my chest and throat: like drowning, like suffocating, like holding my breath. Like not screaming. Like not shouting for help.

“He’s having some problems with his developmental milestones.”

The doctor is riffling through his papers and doesn’t even look up when I speak.

“Preemies usually catch up after a while,” he says, “and he seems very content.”

“He screamed all night. I couldn’t get him to calm down.”

The doctor looks at Ben. Ben is calm: all zen and bliss and halo. No sign of scales, no claws, no snout, no wings.

“Could be gas, or maybe colic or teething pain. These things can come and go.” I nod. Pretending to be a normal mother, but not sure if I can manage it any longer. “How much preemie was he again?”

“Six weeks.”

“Oh well, not so bad, then.”

Ben looks at me. Trusting. Knowing.

“No, not so bad.”

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I look up at the sky, waiting for it to open, but it remains closed. No one is coming for him. There is no one else left in the world except Ben and me. There is no one who can help me. There is no one who can see what is happening, no one who can stop it.

Ben looks down at me, expectantly.

I’m so tired: tired of crying, tired of screaming and begging. The night is cold and silent. It holds no answers, no prayers, no lullabies, no dreams. I am empty, hollowed out, scraped clean. I am nothing: not Em, not mother, not woman, not even human, anymore. I am a smudge of cold and shadow beneath a tree in a forgotten place in an abandoned world.

And then I feel it. Like a burning tingle along my spine as leathery wings sprout and grow, ripping through my pyjamas. I feel the bathrobe fall away as I shed its useless, pale blue husk. I feel claws and beak push out of cartilage and bone, and I gaze into the darkness, penetrating it with my new, protruding eyes.

Flapping heavily off the ground up into the tree, I roost next to Ben on the branch. There is a scrap of meat stuck in his talons and I peck at it, ripping it loose, swallowing it. The world looks different from up here: clear and sharp, even in the dark. Beyond the tree, beyond the empty lot, the city is an alien planet, a pit of despair lit by distant lights: stars or windows, burning houses or campfires, out of reach.

So much I never knew. So much I’ve forgotten.

I stretch my wings, feel the fierce heat of this new heart burn away my grief and fear and sins, honing me into something sharper, harder. Something strong. Something true. I look at Ben and know he feels it, too. He sits silently beside me and I coo his name – his real name, the one bonded to flesh and bones – his green eyes glowing as I take flight.

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Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and certified translator. She writes speculative fiction and poetry, and debuted as a writer in Sweden in the 1980s. Since 1992 she lives in Canada, and is currently located just outside Vancouver, with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her short stories have appeared in the anthology ‘Tales From Alternate Earths’ (Inklings Press), R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast, and elsewhere. Find out more on her website: mariahaskins.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter: @MariaHaskins.

“Firsborn” (© Maria Haskins) was published in Issue 7 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.