Rance D. Denton
Every June, Mother told us she was pregnant. We would all rejoice, oldest to youngest, celebrating the news. We would treat ourselves to crushed davish fruit and gather around the fire to tell Mother how much we loved her, how excited we were for the newest baby.
She knew we were lying.
One day, when Father had my younger siblings tilling the fields, I stayed in to help Mother. She was not so fat yet. An unripe pomegranate of a woman. I swept hay out the door over the threshold.
“Martine,” said Mother, “You seem concerned.”
“I’m sweeping,” I said.
“About the baby, I mean.”
“It’s just fine that you’re having a baby,” I said. “That’s just fine.”
“Perhaps it will have the same birthday as you.”
“We all have almost the same birthday,” I said. “All fourteen of us.”
“These are the precautions we must take.”
I said, “I think the baby will be just beautiful.”
“Martine,” Mother said, “the baby isn’t meant to be a replacement.”
“I hope it will live long and healthy.”
Mother said, “Like you.”
I looked out the front door to the rest of the village, to the smoke-spouting chimneys and the thatching down around them. Our neighbor, Madam Portia, was out setting wooden buckets for gathering rainwater. She too had a pregnant belly bulging under her dress. When her hands weren’t busy they caressed the lump under her clothes, sometimes teasing her nipple-like belly-button.
I closed our cottage door.
December was still several months away. I was the oldest, and this year, I knew I’d be the one to die.
* * * *
The Eve of Its coming, my siblings were so excited they could barely contain themselves. They sang and ate sweets. Come morning, they might be surprised with wondrous gifts and presents, all wrapped with glimmering paper. They were too young to understand; me, I feared so greatly that my guts churned and I vomited quietly in my bedroom chamber-pot.
At dinner, Niklaus – eight years old – said, “Mother, who do you think It will take?”
Mother – who was wider now, bubble-bellied – said, “It will take none of us this year, child. This dinner is no place for such nonsense.”
“If it takes none of us, then won’t that mean we’ll get no presents?”
Yearling – nine years old – crushed pea-pods in his chubby hands. “Martine is fat and almost fifteen. She’s lived long enough. I say It should take her as Its yearly meal. We’d all get wonderful gifts for feeding It so well!”
All my siblings had a hearty laugh. They banged the table with their forks. Mother and Father did not smile.
Their eyes did not fib very well.
They knew Yearling’s response was the most logical.
* * * *
I helped tuck in my siblings as the Eve came to a close. I prayed before bed by candlelight, white-knuckled hands crossed. I prayed It would visit another family, devour another child. We had been fortunate; It had not visited us in fourteen years, and our family was overflowing with children.
In the morning I snapped awake. The cottage was wild with excitement and splendor. Around the fire multicolored streamers stretched like vibrant webs from wall to ceiling. My siblings rushed about, picking through brilliantly-colored presents, squealing with delight and merriment.
It had come.
My breath caught in my throat. I started counting children – one, two…five…ten… When I got to fourteen, I held my own heart. Yearling corralled the babes of the family, and yes, they too were there.
I scrambled up the stairs to the bedroom where my parents lay and threw open the door to tell them the news.
“It came!” I shouted. “It came and we’re all here – we’re all—“
Father stood at the foot of the bed. His nightshirt was covered in red slime. Mother lay in bed, white as bone, motionless. Her knees were angled up, bent and jagged. Her belly was deflated, a rotten apple. Her gown had been torn to ribbons. The stomach was a bloody well, cracked open like a chocolate treat, dripping onto the bed. Death clung to her eyes and cheeks. Father just kept screaming without sound.
It had come. It had made Its trade.
I suppose even the replacements tasted good.
Rance D. Denton is a writer of short stories and novel-length fiction from Baltimore, MD. His blog is accessible at http://www.rddenton.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at @RanceDenton.