01 Feb Because You Are My Baby
My mother had the most beautiful teeth.
Her teeth are my first memory. I remember them: long and white and bared in a ferocious grin, shining under the full moon as she told me a story. Not a fairy tale or picture book, but my the story. The story of how I’d come to her…or rather, how she’d come to me.
When I was very small – too small to remember anything at all – my mother stole me from a man, and took me to live in the forest. She stole me not as an act of love, but as an act of revenge. Though I was desperate to know, she never told me what needed revenging.
One night, I finally asked, “Why won’t you tell me?”
“Because you are my baby,” she whispered in her low, wet voice. She stroked my face with long fingers. Her teeth glittered under the stars, rich and pale as polished ivory. “My baby will never hear, or see, or know the cruelties that haunt me.”
Cruelty was not the only thing my mother knew that I did not, although it was the only thing she refused to teach me. My mother tried very hard to teach me everything else she knew. Unfortunately, I was a very poor pupil indeed.
My mother was a remarkable huntress. She felled elk and bear effortlessly. Sometimes she slid into the lake without so much as a ripple, and returned hours later with a monstrous fish clamped in her jaws.
Because hunting came so easily to her, Mother expected me to learn quickly. “Men hunt,” she hissed. “They have always hunted. So shall you.”
But I could not hunt. Not like her. My small, soft fingers were no match for her lethal claws. My clumsy little body – somehow so susceptible to both the heat and the cold – trailed after her whiplike predator’s form. Mother caught deer and foxes with her beautiful teeth, striking from the shadows like a snake. By contrast, my dull teeth could not even crush rabbit bones.
I persevered, but did not improve. One night, while Mother snaked through the shadows, communing with trees and evading the dark things prowling the night, I curled up and wept.
She found me that way, weak and weeping. I covered my eyes and held my breath. I knew it was useless – Mother could hear my heartbeat from the other side of the hill, so she surely knew I was crying – but that small scrap of pride was all I had.
Mother stood there for a long while. Then she crept forward and covered me with fresh leaves before lying beside me. “I will feed you, always,” she whispered. “Because you are my baby.”
In addition to hunting, my mother was a phenomenal creator of shelters. Sometimes she lived within the earth, snaking through loam and tree roots like treasure-hoarding dragons of old.
Sometimes she lived in the trees. Many nights I watched in awe as her bones elongated and tore through her rough skin, stretching upward to twist among the branches like an ancient spider god. I would wait patiently, sometimes for hours, as Mother communed with the spirits buried in the roots.
And sometimes she lived in the shadows, creeping through the darkness to flush out food and threat alike.
So, Mother tried to teach me to dig burrows. But I could not dig like her. I was too small and too soft, and far too frightened of the bugs and moles that tunneled through the earth.
So she tried to teach me to live among the tree branches, to rest and listen as the redwoods murmured the long, strange histories of the earth. But my bones could not stretch like Mother’s. I could not twist my arms to match the branches. My skin could not interlock with the treebark, and my blood was too sluggish to melt into the sap.
So Mother tried to teach me to live in the shadows. But the darkness terrified me. Every night, I hid and wept, imagining the legs of centipedes crawling across my skin. All the night creatures reveled in my fear; owls swooped down to taunt me and bats torpedoed toward me, giggling in their shrill, squeaking voices until mother slapped them out of the sky.
Finally Mother realized the futility of these lessons. So she dug a deep burrow just for me. She lined it with leaves and slurped the worms and roaches from the walls. When she finished, I burst into tears.
“Why do you weep?” she rasped.
“Because you do everything for me.” I knew the laws of nature. I knew the laws of forest creatures and their young. Young that were weak were killed in the nest. Young that could not learn to fend for themselves were abandoned to die. I was weak and soft and coated in terrible, ugly scars. “Why do you do everything for me?”
Mother snaked forward, long, large hands sinking into the earth. She curled around me and pulled me close. “Because you are my baby.”
Mother did not always live in the burrow with me. She roamed the mountains. She burrowed with moles, slithered with snakes, grazed with elk, hunted with wolves, stood with trees.
When I was very small, I thought she ate the forest. But it was not that simple; she protected it, and in return it sustained her. “My heart,” she told me one rainy night, “is the forest, so this is how it must be.”
As I grew older, I developed rudimentary survival skills. I shied away from hunting big game – elk and deer, bears and boar – because I did not protect the forest. I gave it nothing; I only took, so I took as little as I could. I trapped rabbits, fished the streams, and ate wild berries. I dared take nothing else.
Once I could reliably feed myself, Mother stayed away for long stretches. Hours, then days, and finally weeks. I missed her terribly, with a deep, panicky ache.
I confronted her about it one balmy spring evening. “You leave me more and more,” I accused. “Soon you’ll leave me forever.”
“Never,” she murmured. A breeze twined around us, raising gooseflesh on my skin and rippling her long white hair. “I will never leave you.”
“But you do!” I screamed. “You already do!”
“Before you came, I lived among the trees, listening to their warnings. I slept in the warm earth as worms and centipedes nibbled my skin. I spent many of your lifetimes within the forest, little one – so many lives at a time that I forgot my own name. I do not leave you. I have left the forest for you.”
“I didn’t come here,” I sobbed. “You took me!”
“I did,” she said. “So I will never leave you. When you think I’ve left, silence yourself and listen. Listen for me the way I listen for the trees, the animals, and the stars. If you are silent and you are sincere, you will hear me.”
And then she left.
Fury and jealousy seared my heart like a wildfire. She insulted me, she humiliated me, and after all that she left me. Left me for the centipedes and the wolves and the stupid, chittering bats.
“I don’t need you!” I screamed. An owl hooted angrily in response. “I don’t need you at all!”
Then I ran for my burrow. As it the earthen door materialized before me, nodding with flowers and wild grasses, anger swelled inside me. It possessed me, this wild ball of misery borne of my own endless fear and inadequacy. And it spoke to me. Why should you return to the burrow? it asked. Why indeed? It wasn’t mine. It was Mother’s. The entire forest belonged to Mother. Without her, the forest would have consumed me long ago.
So I turned away from the burrow and kept running. I will find the end of the forest, I decided. I will leave it once and for all.
I ran for days, in the process treating the forest with contempt. I stripped the trees of their leaves to make nightly beds. I threw rocks at birds and rabbits. I uprooted bushes and stripped entire groves of their berries, eating until I threw up from sheer excess. Then I ate again. Not out of hunger, not out of any need, but out of malice.
And one day – long after spring ceded to summer in a verdant explosion of heat and greenery – I heard voices.
I froze immediately. The only voice I knew was Mother’s – wet and low, an earthy, rib-shaking whisper. These voices were nothing like Mother’s. They were high and somehow infantile, with strange, shrill notes.
These voices…they were like mine.
Trembling, I dropped low and crept through the underbrush. Sun-warmed leaves brushed against my face, smooth but painfully crisp; the sun was taking its toll on them. I snaked over the ground, pretending I was Mother, slipping through the forest like an invisible snake.
I reached a break in the trees and peered through.
In a small clearing were four creatures. They had pink skin and wore heavy clothing that looked suffocating. There hands were small and soft. Their faces were smooth and babylike, somehow half-formed: wide eyed and rounded, with soft noses and plump flesh.
I touched my face – flat and smooth – and looked down at myself: mudstreaked, deeply tanned, and marked with a hideous mass of scars, but still soft. Hairless, small, weak. There was no mistaking it. These things in the woods – these overdressed, half-formed beings with small teeth and no claws and overlarge eyes – were like me.
They were men.
I stood up, propelled by panicky excitement, and strode forward. All at once, they froze.
“What the hell?” one whispered. He lifted something in his arms and pointed it at me. It was long and strange to me. Inorganic, not alive, with a wooden handle and a gleaming tube.
Just then, I realized something: the forest was silent. A few birds chirped and sang, and a few bugs emitted their persistent drone. But the vast majority – birds, insects, trees – were silent. No rabbits, no deer, certainly no bears. These things – these creatures like me, these men – had silenced the earth.
They’d stolen the forest from itself.
We stared at each other for a long time as ever-growing summer heat filled the clearing like an invisible pool.
“Mother,” I whispered. “Mother, please help me.”
She did not. So I turned and ran.
The men immediately pursued. I could hear them: yelling, crushing the undergrowth, stamping on blossoms and bugs, snapping branches as they ran. The forest’s deathly silence was worse than any cry.
“There it is!” one of them screamed. A second later, the forest exploded: a deafening boom shook the trees and ate through the air as pain erupted on my shoulder. I didn’t dare stop or look. I pressed on, running and crying as the men came after me.
The forest seemed to punish me for my earlier cruelty. Brambles scratched my legs. Stones cut my feet. Branches swiped at my face, leaving deep, stinging runnels. I thanked the forest for its kindness. I thanked it for punishing me, rather than stopping me.
The men gasped and wailed amongst themselves. “What the hell is it?” “I don’t know. I don’t know!” “Is it a…a kid?” “Look at its face. Look at its fucking face! That isn’t a kid!”
Something suddenly filled my ears, drowning the sounds of the men and the forest. A deep, musical rushing, like birdsong transformed into a turbulent river.
And then Mother came, erupting from the trees like a great beast of old. But that’s what she was, after all. A great beast, surely a daemon of the ancient world.
She pounced upon the men, batting them the way a housecat bats its toys. She clamped one between her claws, squeezing until his head separated and went rolling across the ground.
One by one Mother caught and tore them, shredding them the way she shredded leaves for my bedding. Blood streaked the forest, turning the dirt to mud and dripping from the trees like sluggish rain.
Mother dug her claws into the skull of the last survivor and cracked it open like a fruit. Blood and grey brain glistened in the sunlight. The man screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
Mother leaned down and extended her tongue. It curled outward, pale and orange-gold like sunrise on a cold, clear morning, and delicately slurped his brains. Curl by curl, like so many worms from my burrow walls.
By the time he stopped screaming, the forest had returned to its loud, familiar glory: murmuring trees, singing birds, skittering insects, grazing deer.
I smiled and ran to Mother. She reared up and screamed, “See what you’ve done!”
Terror paralyzed me. I looked helplessly at her – blazing eyes, contorted face runneled with earth and wildflowers, sunbleached bone and pale, spongy rot. My mother, my beautiful daemon mother who claimed me out of revenge and raised me out of obligation, staring at me like I was a man.
“When you stone a bird, my heart stops! When you break a branch, my bones snap! When you selfishly strip the shrubs of their fruit, of their very birthright, my skin blisters! When you hurt the forest,” she roared, “my heart bleeds!”
I fell to my knees and hid my face. Mother rushed forward on her many limbs and wrapped long fingers around my throat. She lifted me up, dangling me over the forest floor. “I killed men for you! Now more will come! They will trample! They will cut! They will burn! They will kill! They will kill the bears and the cougars and the wolves, for they will blame the predators for what I have done for you! Do you see?” She shook me. The carnage below seemed to swing beneath me, a tapestry of blood-soaked earth and ruined corpses. “Do you see?”
“Yes, Mother,” I whispered. “I see.”
She dropped me. I hit the ground with such force it knocked the wind out of me. Mother pulled back and busied herself with one of the corpses. I looked up, shaking. Birds watched from the trees, quick and curious and full of condemnation. I averted my eyes as tears spilled.
Mother returned to me. She extended an arm and opened her hand. Upon her large palm were four eyes and a large, glistening heart. I stared at them blankly, then looked up at her.
“Four eyes,” she said. “One from each man. And the heart of the one that shot you. Eat.”
My lip quivered. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the gore in my mother’s hand. A heart and eyes. Raw and plump, alive just minutes ago.
“Mother,” I said. “Please.”
“Are you of me?” she asked. “Or are you of man?”
The forest became painfully silent. The animals, the trees, and the insects, all waiting with bated breath.
“I am of you, Mother.” I plucked the first eye from her palm. It was round and curiously firm, with a sort of firm, watery texture I associated with half-rotten fruits. The pink, wormy optic nerve dangled. For a terrible moment I thought I would vomit.
Then I raised it to my lips and bit in.
The eyes were awful, the heart even worse: thick and almost impossible to chew. Mother had to tear it for me, slicing it into manageable pieces with her beautiful teeth.
When I finished, Mother picked me up and, holding me tightly, streaked back to the burrow as night fell.
That night, I became ill. I shook and shivered and hallucinated for days. My mind bled with images of dangling eyes and glistening hearts and skulls cracked apart like pomegranates. Mother lay with my all the while, soothing me with ancient songs like birdsong turned to rivers, and cooling me with her damp, earthy breath.
Finally the fever broke. I sat up, gasping as the last vestiges of my nightmare drifted away.
Mother sat across the burrow, hunched over tiredly. “You are well,” she said. “I am glad, for I must leave.”
I blinked tiredly. “Why?”
“Men,” she said.
“But you killed them.”
“There are more,” she said. “They creep into the forest, searching for their dead brethren. They are cutting the trees and crushing the flowers and killing the bears, my little one. If I don’t stop them, they will even come for you. I have to stop them. My heart is the forest, and so are you. I must protect both.”
A lump rose in my throat. Shame like I’d never known enveloped me. “I’m so sorry.”
“You are my baby. Babies must learn. By learning, they grow.”
“Mother,” I said. “Am I truly of man?”
Mother closed her eyes. For a long time, she did not speak. Then she drew a deep breath. “I took you from a cruel man. Listen. I will tell you now of the cruelties I endured.”
I listened, enraptured and horrified, as she spun her sorry tale.
Mother was once a young, beautiful human woman.
“Surely not more beautiful than you are now,” I objected.
“Listen!” she said.
Mother was alone in the world. She had no family or friends. She once had a family, but they harmed her greatly so she ran away. She lived in the forest, in a small, ragged tent. She ate wild berries, fished the lake, and boiled water to drink.
Laws are strange things. Though Mother hurt nothing and no one, she was breaking the law by living in the forest. She was found, and caught, and imprisoned. Separated from the trees and the birds, Mother faded quickly. Though she was only jailed for a short while, it nearly killed her. The day she was released was the best day of her life…
Or so she thought.
No sooner had Mother gathered her meager belongings and exited the jail than a guard came up beside her. “Where are you headed to?” he asked. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
Mother was ecstatic. “Take me back to the forest,” she said. The guard obliged, driving her toward the woods. Except he stopped too soon. He stopped at a house. His house, it turned out.
The guard was a terrible man. He trapped Mother. He hurt her, tortured her, abused her in every way. He cut her open, he burned her, he snapped her bones.
And he put a baby in her. Mother was so broken that he missed all signs of impending childbirth. When I came, Mother died.
“He dumped me in a vat of acid,” Mother told me, “and scattered my liquid remains among the trees. But then I heard you.” Mother smiled faintly. Crumbles of dirt and root fell from her face. “I heard your cry. Your need for me.”
I do not understand what Mother said next; it is difficult to translate. But the closest I can come is this. Everyone sings a song to those they love. Most aren’t able to hear these songs. If you can’t hear, it can’t help you. But if you can hear it, a song is the most powerful thing in the world. It kills. It calls. It consumes. It destroys. It strengthens.
And sometimes, it resurrects.
“When I reformed and breathed again, I stole you from your father,” Mother said. “Then I brought you here, because you are my baby.”
I wept silently, because I didn’t know what to say.
“I must go,” she said. “The trees and the animals need me now. So remember, little one. When you are silent and you are sincere, you will hear me.”
Then she whipped around – like a wolf, a snake, and hawk combined – and left.
She did not return.
At first, I thought nothing of it. I had made a terrible mess; I had summoned men. I had caused the forest to bleed. Mother had a great deal of work ahead of her.
But summer slowly bled into fall, and still Mother did not return. When the first snow came – dry and cold, skittering across the landscape like powder – I knew something was wrong.
The snows deepened. The forest drifted into its winter sleep, cloaked in ice and fog. Every night, I made myself silent. I mustered all the sincerity I could. And I listened for my mother’s voice.
It didn’t come.
I grew thin and sick. My skin burned even as I shivered. My chest grew congested, my throat so sore I couldn’t sleep. My breath came in sharp, pained wheezes. Soon I became too weak to leave the burrow. I crawled to the doorway and ate snow. For sustenance, I slurped worms from the earthen walls.
It was not enough, and I knew it.
Only then – in the quiet and peace and fear of approaching death – did I become truly silent. Only then did I hear the voice of my mother.
I heard her in my dreams: the low, rushing voice like music made into water. I am coming, she said. I am coming, because you are my baby.
I smiled, and slept.
Next thing I knew, I was cold. Cold and wet and shivering, but *awake.*I shot up and screamed as my skin brushed the thick, flower-matted hide of my mother. I spun around, smiling, and froze.
Mother lay beside me, panting. Blood seeped from a hundred wounds, crusting her hair. The exposed bones in her face were crushed and concave, leaking gore and blood. Without opening her eyes, she smiled. “I heard you. I heard your song.”
Tears blurred my vision. My chest began to hitch. I couldn’t draw breath; it was like I was sick again, drowning in pus and trapped fluid. Only I wasn’t dying this time.
My mother was.
“Then stay,” I said. “You have to stay, because you can hear my song.”
“No,” she said. “You needed to see me again. But you do not need me.”
“I need you. Mama, I need you.”
“No,” she said. “I killed all who would harm you.”
“But what about the forest? The forest will kill me without you!”
She chuckled. Her breath came, terribly fast and increasingly weak. “You are of me. Remember. You are of me. You are my baby.”
My mother – my beautiful, ancient mother – drew a shallow breath, and lay still.
I lay beside her for many days. Then, when she began to stink, I left. A hiker eventually found me. A stupid, solitary hiker with a soft heart, a great deal of patience, and no fear.
When I learned to speak the words of men, the authorities lost no time in telling me that Mother was not really my mother.
They discovered my identity (at least in a manner of speaking) through DNA. My real mother, they say, was a vagrant. A Jane Doe who lived in a tent in the national park. She was alone and defenseless, two things that attract human monsters. After a brief stint in jail for loitering, my mother ended up kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured by an as-yet unidentified assailant who eventually tried unsuccessfully to dissolve her in acid. They think he attempted to dissolve my body, too. That’s why I am covered in scars. It is why I frightened those hunters so long ago: the acid burns make me look like a monster to men.
Since my real mother apparently died long ago, they decided that Mother – whoever she was – was nothing but a crazy, homeless child abuser.
But I know better.
Even so, I adapted. I had no choice. I am of my mother, but I live among men. That’s what animals must do; their young learn, grow, and adapt. If they don’t, they die.
But I am not adapting anymore. At least, I am not adapting to live among men. My mouth is changing. Changing in ways that are terrible to people, but wonderful to me. It’s my teeth, you see.
I am growing my mother’s beautiful teeth.
Looking at my teeth in the mirror was frightening and electrifying. Joy and terror ran through my veins in equal measure. It had to mean something. So I fell silent. I became sincere. I listened.
And I heard.
I heard the voice of my mother: low and rushing, like birdsong turned to a wild river. She tells me I do not belong with men, because I am her heart, and her heart is the forest. She tells me I must return.
And she tells me she is waiting for me, because I am her baby.