I consider my egg; its speckled pattern, its curves, strange weighting and remarkable calcium formation that’s both delicate and robust.
It hurts but I’m determined. The old hag promised. I put my egg inside me.
Hot water soothes my skin. It plasters my hair to my scalp and runs in rivulets down my back. I nurse the heavy feeling in my lower abdomen with my hand. Then comes a different sort of deluge. Blood trickles down my thigh. Water carries it away and down the drain.
It’s expected. I’ve already urinated on a stick this morning and it pronounced me without child. Disappointment has joined agony and blood on the same day of each month.
I drop my towel into the laundry basket and dress.
There’s a sparrow on the balustrade. A blighted bird, one of many breeds decimated by predators, harsh winters and pestilence. The public were outraged by the loss of blue tits and robins but sparrows are too nondescript to feature on calendars and cards.
Another joins it, then a third. The trio perform an aerobatic display, as if they don’t already have my attention. A fourth, now a fifth. More and they’re a flock.
I step onto the terrace but they don’t flee. They stay earthbound and hop around, leading me down the steps to the lower garden. Past the tennis courts to the fresh green avenue of limes. Over the stile and across the fields to the crumbling farm buildings at the edge of my estate.
The barn. The sparrows enter through a broken panel. The rusty hinges whine and creak as I pull the door open.
The old hag lives on a bed of mouldy hay, twigs, moss, newspaper and woollen tufts. She squats rather than sits. Her irises are covered with a milky shroud. She wears layers of white, each stained and torn, like a demented virgin bride.
A sparrow lands on her upturned hand. The hag brings it to her face and peers at it with opaque eyes, listening intently, as if to a song I can’t hear, before it flies up to the beams above.
We have an audience up there. Blackbirds, starlings, jays, sparrows, falcons and a variety of owls jostle together for space, having set aside their differences.
“Who are you?”
“That’s a rude greeting for a guest.” The hag’s voice has a peculiar melody, rising and falling in the wrong places.
“Guest implies an invitation.”
“I’m here at your request. I’m sick of you asking.”
“Request? I’ve never seen you before. I’ll have you thrown off for trespassing.”
“You’ve been hard to ignore. You’re crying out with want.”
“I want for nothing.”
“Liar. The ache’s consuming you.”
“There’s nothing you can give me.”
“Not even motherhood?”
“You can’t give me that.”
“Can’t I?” Then a sly smile crosses her face. “You’ve tried the usual way?”
“It didn’t work.”
“Perhaps you didn’t try hard enough.”
I have, not lacking in partners and willing potential fathers.
“I have fibroids and severe endometriosis.” I sound bitter. My pelvis contains a tangled mess of lumps and adherences that renders my reproductive tract defunct. I’m still outraged by my body’s betrayal. It’s failed in the most basic of female functions.
“Can’t the quacks help?”
“What do you think?”
My specialist had stressed that my conditions were benign but I couldn’t see the benevolence in what’s caused me so much pain and robbed me of a child. My own salvaged eggs, fertilised and implanted, failed to take as if they’d fallen on stony ground.
I shake my head.
The hag must be able to see with those white eyes. She counts something on her fingers and calculation done says, “I’ll help you but there’ll be pain.”
“Childbirth?” I ask hopefully.
“Much worse. Children drag you down and break your heart.”
“No,” I refute her jaundiced view of parenthood, “they lift you up and give you love.”
“A survival trick of the young and vulnerable,” the hag talks over me. “You’ll love them and it’ll kill you when they don’t need you anymore.”
“I’m strong. I’ll take that pain.”
“There’ll be sacrifice. Your dreams will be subject to their needs.”
“I’ve already achieved all I wanted to and more.” Except this.
“Such success for one so young but everyone looks at you as if you’re unnatural. Not having children is the price you’ve paid for having a man’s ambition.”
“I’m every inch a woman.”
“Of course you are,” she tries to soothe me. “I just want you to think this through. Children demand everything, even your name. You’ll be mother first and last.”
“And I’ll be glad of it. I’ll pay whatever it takes. I have the means.”
“You will, never fear. There’s also the thorny issue of expectation. You must love her for who she is, not who you want her to be.”
“She?” I’m already enamoured of the notion.
“What will she cost me?”
“We’ll negotiate later.”
“I don’t do business that way.”
“I won’t ask for anything you can’t give.”
A reckless trade. I consider the depth of my desire.
The hag shifts on her nest, reaches under her and pulls something out. She offers it to me in her scrawny, reptilian hand. I take the egg. It’s warm.
She leans over me.
“May I be godmother?”
“Is that part of the payment?”
“No,” she sniffs, sounding hurt, “I just thought it would be nice.”
“No child of mine will be baptised.” I want to laugh. I’m clutching an oversized egg, having accepted help from a mad squatter, and am rejecting religion as a fiction.
“That’s probably wise, all things considered. Now, this is what you must do.”
I consider my egg; its speckled pattern, its curves, strange weighting and remarkable calcium formation that’s both delicate and robust.
More conundrums are hidden within. Viscous birth fluids designed to be consumed. The yolk, rich in unfulfilled life.
It hurts but I’m determined. I put my egg inside me. Its tip nestles into my cervix. Not for nine months. That would be ridiculous. Just long enough for my trembling DNA, fearing extinction, to permeate the shell and scramble the genes within. Once retrieved I hold it up to the light but can’t see the outline of a child inside.
Egg and I embark on a course of antenatal education. I read her Machiavelli and Chomsky. I play her Debussy and Chopin. We watch French films and listen to Cantonese language tapes. Egg will be more equipped for life than I.
Here she comes.
The shell cracks, the tiny life thumping its way out. Fragments come away, tethered by membrane. I pick up my featherless chick, who’s pink from her labours. It is a girl, goose pimpled skin as if plucked. I rub her and swaddle her in a warm towel. Her ribs are exquisite curves. Her nails miniscule and pliable.
Small for her age. Little Chick.
The hag’s right. She said I’d have a mammalian response. My breasts engorge and leak. Chick’s mouth puckers as she tries to plunder nourishment but she can’t latch on. I prepare formula milk in a flap, fearing she’ll starve. It dribbles down her chin as if it would poison her to keep it in.
I sit through the night, exhausted, waiting for the flood of love, the tugs of blood that will sustain me while she cries with hunger but nothing comes.
Chick has dark, bulbous eyes. Her hands are drawn up before her like useless appendages. I cry as I hold her, this culmination of all my wishes, and I know that she’s not right.
I go back to the hag.
“You lied.” I’m not so astute. I’ve been duped.
“You wanted a child. I gave you one.” She peers into the bundle of blankets in my arms as if to see if Chick is a child after all.
“What’s her name?”
The hag makes a noncommittal noise.
“She’s not…” I struggle with the word normal.
“Life’s a lottery,” she shrugs, “you can’t swap her.”
“I can’t bring up a child like this.”
“One that requires sacrifice?”
The clouded corneas don’t conceal the mockery in her eyes. I can’t stand her crowing and I won’t concede defeat to a mad old crone but something makes me swallow my indignation.
“Help me.” I hold Chick up. “She won’t feed.”
The hag beckons me over with a curled talon.
There’s nothing for it. I cradle Chick in one arm and dig with my free hand. My manicured nails break. Earth clogs my diamond rings.
I hate worms. Eyeless, skinless, boneless, they inch along the ground. My excavation brings one up. It writhes in protest, clamped between my thumb and forefinger.
The longer I look at it, the harder it becomes. Chick’s screams have faded to a mewl. She’s fatiguing without food.
I put the worm in my mouth. Then I’m sick. I find another, this time gagging as it flails against my palette. I manage to keep it in despite the spasms of my throat. I chew.
I put my mouth to Chick’s and drop the masticated mess in. Her eyes brighten with excitement. She all but sings.
More. More. More please Mummy. Chick gulps it down, her mouth open straight away in readiness the next portion. She won’t be tricked by anything mashed up with a fork. It must be from my lips. I search for the bugs sheltering between the stones of the garden walls, for earthworms hiding in the flower beds. I hunt by torchlight for slugs that brave the paths by night. I retch and vomit. My little gannet’s insatiable.
“Where was your daughter born?”
The new paediatrician seems satisfied with this answer.
“How old is she now?”
“And she doesn’t talk at all?”
Couldn’t you have read her records before you called us in? I want to snap at him for his indelicate questions but I’ve resolved to be less prickly. He’s here to help. Allegedly.
Chick trembles as I undress her. The doctor measures her height, weight and head circumference and then plots her poor development on a chart as if it wasn’t self evident.
“I see that no one’s been able to identify Eloise as having any particular syndrome.” He flicks through her file.
“No but don’t say it too loud. I haven’t told her yet.”
That makes him look at me. Chick, defying diagnosis, has been reduced to a list of problems in her medical records.
Poor growth. Mental retardation. Microcephaly.
“Pop Eloise on your knee.”
Chick doesn’t like to be held, even by me, but faced with a stranger she tries to hide her head under my arm. The doctor runs his hands around her ribcage to the hollow depression at the centre of her chest.
“Eloise is more than pigeon chested. Come and see.”
Chick’s chest x-ray reveals the white lines of her ribs sheltering the shadow of her heart and the dark hollows of her lungs beneath.
“Look at this.”
“Here.” He points with his pen. “Her clavicles are fused together. They should be attached to either of her sternum.”
“In English please.”
“She has a wishbone. Perhaps you should make a wish.”
Then he looks at Chick, who’s hiding under his desk and flushes.
I make up a porridge of oats, seeds and rice milk. Chick still gorges on worms but I’ve coaxed her onto other things, although there’s still an exhausting list of what gives her diarrhoea, tummy pain and hives.
Chick plays around my feet. Play is an exaggeration. She’s not interested in toys. Not alphabet bricks, not the puzzles in bright plastic that are waiting to be solved, or her menagerie of stuffed toy animals. She wanders, unoccupied, then comes to stand beside me when she needs reassurance. Her tongue clicks when she wants my attention. Click, click, click. I hear the sound in my sleep.
Chick doesn’t like cuddles. Once I thought she was trying to kiss me. I leant down, eager to receive it, and got a mouthful of chewed spider instead. Her attempt at affection.
She never looks at me directly. Sometimes I want to shake her and shout, just to make her meet my gaze.
I spoon the porridge into her small mouth, set in its receding jaw. Chick’s face is narrow, her eyes large, ears low and her nose beaked. People find nothing endearing there. They either look away or simply stare.
I used to think, Eloise will never be a business woman, a scientist or pilot. She’ll never paint or write. She’ll never be friend, lover, wife or mother.
Now I think, Eloise will never feed herself, she’ll never take herself to the toilet or dress herself. She’ll always be at the mercy of others. She’ll always need me.
I try and imagine this life stretching out ahead of us. I’ll wring the hag’s neck if I ever see her again.
I wipe Chick’s face and hands, sponge porridge from her hair. She hops around once freed from her chair.
Click, click, click.
The foil strip crackles as I pop out a tablet. I swallow down my daily dose of synthetic happiness with coffee, sweetened with synthetic sugar.
Click, click, click.
Chick’s vocal this morning. She bumps against my legs. Her clicks have risen to a series of chirps. She hunches her shoulders and bobs her head.
I turn away. Chick’s fed, watered, her nappy clean. I’ve met her needs.
I wonder what it would be like if I walked out. Nannies never last longer than an afternoon. Eloise gets too upset without you. She just sits and cries. It’s not fair to her.
I imagine myself walking down the street. The luxury of going into a café to drink coffee and read a book.
Click click click click.
Even though I’ve folded back the kitchen’s huge glass doors there’s no breeze to ease the stifling heat.
I could be picking out a dress and deciding where to go for dinner and with whom.
Chick’s clicks become a sudden high-pitched squeal. I turn to see her cowering in the corner, a cat crouched before her. Scratch marks cross Chick’s face. Blood wells up where the claws scored her skin.
The cat bats at her again with its paw. This hunter must have crept in while my back was turned. I shout and it looks over its shoulder, annoyed at being interrupted. It’s a big, sleek tom, all black with white whiskers.
I shout again. It turns and stands its ground, back arched, spitting and hissing, unwilling to relinquish Chick. Her eyes bulge with fear, her mouth hangs open, bloodstained drool drips from her chin.
Chick’s hurt cuts through my shock. I pick up a pan and fly at the cat, hissing back. I’m almost on it, screeching and stamping, when the cat decides I’m too much to take on. Its paws scramble on the tiled floor for purchase as flees between the legs of the kitchen table and chairs.
I pick up quivering Chick. Blood stains my dress. The worst thing’s the sound. Her shapeless keening.
How could you let this happen to me?
The hag was right. It hurts.
At twelve Chick still has a young child’s body. There are no signs of puberty and, in truth, I’m glad that I don’t have to deal with her having periods as well as everything else.
She is changing though.
Chick’s acting strangely. Social Services would have a field day if they could see her. I’ve delayed her hospital appointment for fear that someone might examine her and see.
She’s taken to climbing onto worktops, bookcases and tables. She leaps and lands with a heavy thud, lying on the floor looking stunned. Her bruises are a spectacular range of colours, which never fail to make me wince. I’m exhausted from the constant vigilance supervising her requires.
That’s not all. She’s stopped eating, just like she did as a baby, as though sickening for something. I’ve tried bugs and worms again but she won’t take them from me. She’s listless. She won’t splash about in her shallow bath. She doesn’t click her tongue or follow me.
I undress her for bed. She’s lost more weight. I remember holding her in my hands when she was born. I resolve to take her to the doctor in the morning, regardless of her bruises.
But that’s not all.
There’s her skin. I slip her nightdress on, over the thick, ugly hairs on her back that are so tough that they take pruning shears to cut through them. The cotton slips down to cover the fine down on her belly.
I lock the door and lie beside her on the mattress that I’ve put on the floor. It’s the safest way, in case she gets up at night. There’s nothing left in here for her to climb.
I’m woken intermittently by Chick who spends her sleep in motion. Her arms twitch and she wakes with a jerk as if falling, followed by a dialogue of clicks as if she’s telling me her dreams.
The grey light of morning comes in. There’s a sound at the window, like a pebble being thrown by some lothario below. I once had a lover who did such things, imagining himself romantic. Oh, the memory of sex. Chick used to get too upset if someone spent the night, or even an hour, while she slept. Afterwards she’d shy away from me as if I was tainted by a scent that ablutions couldn’t remove.
The noise comes again, a series of short, sharp raps. A pecking on the glass that chills my skin. Something wanting to be let in.
I part the curtains. A shadow flutters against the pane, its wings a blur. Not a ghost but a sparrow.
The hag’s back.
I listen to Chick’s ragged breathing and I want to have it out with the old bitch.
I put a coat over my pyjamas and pull on boots. I put a sweater on Chick and swaddle her in a quilt. She’s a featherweight when I pick her up. Her eyelids flutter, then open and she looks through me with dead eyes before she closes them.
The barn’s cold. I can see the shape my breath. The hag’s nest has been reduced by time to a rotting pile that reeks. She doesn’t seem concerned. It’s her throne.
“I want a word with you. You cheated me.”
The hag hasn’t aged where I feel the weight of the last twelve years. She still wears a riot of once-white rags.
“She’s unique, isn’t she?” The hag clucks and coos like a proud parent. “You can’t remake her in your own image. She’s herself entirely. That’s children for you.”
Chick’s awake now. Alert. She wriggles, wanting to be put down.
“Eloise,” the hag calls.
“She only answers to Chick.”
The hag smiles at that.
“Chick, come here.”
I hate that Chick goes to her without hesitation.
“She’ll do nicely.”
“Our bargain. You don’t want her. I’ll take her back as payment.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never thought of smothering her with a pillow or drowning her in the bath.”
I can’t deny it.
The hag’s fingers roam over Chick.
“She’s a fair payment. She has what my other fledglings don’t. A wishbone.”
“I’ve been wishing on it for years,” I laugh. “It’s useless.”
The hag’s quick as a whip. Chick’s across her knee, squirming and crying to be set free. “Wishbone’s must be broken if the wishes are to work.”
Chick’s cry rises as the hag presses on her collarbone.
“Really? I suppose you’re right. Wishing shouldn’t be an impulsive thing. And it’s strongest when the bone’s clean. I’ll boil her in a barrel. Don’t look put out. I’ll be a sport. You can pull one end. That’s a fifty-fifty chance on the greatest wish ever made. And Chick’s hands and feet will make the finest divining bones.”
“No?” The hag cocks her head on one side. “You could wish for a child. One that runs to you, arms out, when you call.”
“Let her go.”
“Ah, I see. You want it for yourself. Snap it and you could have a whole brood to comfort you in your dotage. Who’ll hold your hand on your deathbed and bear your genes into the future. Children to praise your name and make you proud.”
“I said let her go. Nothing of hers will be broken.”
“You’re hurting my daughter.” I climb onto the nest.
“But you don’t want her.” She holds Chick out of reach.
“I do. Every inch of her is mine. I’ve paid in pain and sacrifice.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because you made her pay too. She’s suffering and you can stop it.”
“I can’t make Chick different.”
“That doesn’t matter.” I wouldn’t tamper with a single cell of her. “I don’t know what she’s sickening for. You do.”
“I can’t tell you what she needs.” The hag’s stroking Chick now. Quieting her. “Do you know?”
The hag’s white eyes stare through me. She’s waiting.
I look at Chick. Here it is, mother’s intuition, twelve years too late.
“Yes, I know.”
When the hag stands she’s eight feet tall, most of her length is spindly legs. She looks less haggard now. She leans down and passes Chick to me, then shakes herself out. The white tatters look like ruffled feathers. There’s a sudden soft gloss about her.
I follow the hag up the rickety steps to the hayloft. She stoops to fit. A hole in the roof reveals clouds racing overhead. The birds have gathered up here, a panoply of breeds to bear witness to the glory of this morning. I can feel every thudding heartbeat.
Here it is. The biggest sacrifice.
There’s no end of hurt.
I pull off Chick’s jumper and nightdress. Her nappy. Her feathers have come in overnight. I’d be restless too if I had pinions pushing through my skin. Soft plumes cover her abdomen.
Her shoulder blades peel away from her back and unfold. Her wingspan is mighty considering she’s so slight. No wonder Chick’s clumsy on the ground. She’s designed for flight.
Click, click, click.
Chick leaps up, her feet curling like claws around my forearm. I hold her up. She’s heavy, held like this.
Click, click, click.
I’m fixed by my daughter’s gaze. She’s ferocious. Dignified. I bow my head. She doesn’t need my limited definitions. She has her own possibilities and perfections.
I launch my precious girl. She takes flight through the hole in the roof, going where I can’t follow. She tilts and tips until she catches the wind and spirals upwards, a shadow on the sky.
How high she soars.
Originally published in Once Upon a Time edited by Paula Guran (2013). Reprinted with permission.