by Jo Withers

On the night my mother died, she laid an egg.

My sister and I were with her at home, just as we’d promised. She was terrified of hospitals, the wards upon wards of diseased last breaths clogging the air like chloroform.

Neither of us had been on the front line with death before, but we knew the end was close, she was weak as a bird, less than forty kilos. When she started thrashing on the bed, we thought it was normal, that death throes were violent and passionate. Her skeletal frame, which had barely twitched in weeks, was jerking and panting like a soul possessed, skin red with heat, limbs flailing at her sides, face strained in effort. As her aching body arched for one last time and her final breath escaped in a swollen scream, a bloody shape appeared beneath her on the bed.

While my sister kissed her forehead, closed her eyes and lay her arms across her chest, I fetched a towel. She helped me roll the bloody thing along mother’s thigh into the cloth, watched as I wiped red clots away to reveal the egg, big as an emu’s, speckled purple on grey. Neither of us spoke as I wrapped the fragile package in the towel and hid it in a chest beneath the bed. When the coroner came to collect the body, all we could think about was the foreign object in the chest, we couldn’t wait to be alone with it and it seemed like an eternity before he’d done the paperwork and trundled mother’s unresisting body out of the door.

On the first night, we slept with it between us, one hand on each side. We marveled at its opaque smoothness, and as it grew warmer in our nest of body heat, we kissed it softly and talked to it as though it were a child.

The egg was precious, we must protect it at all costs and so we made a pact, we would never leave the egg alone, one of us would guard it always.

I could work from home, so took the day shifts. The first time I was alone with it, I just kept it on my lap and thought of her. I stroked its surface, trying to recapture those initial feelings of warmth and comfort but it lay there hard and cold against my leg. The more I held it on my lap, the more I thought of death and it was a relief when my sister came home and took the egg away.

That night, I woke around midnight to hear voices from my sister’s room, whispering and laughing. I crept out of bed and silently slid my sister’s door open just enough to see inside. She was kneeling on her bed, holding the egg close to her chest and talking to it softly. With every gentle word, the egg glowed red beneath her hands and she laughed as it grew brighter as she spoke.

I returned to my room but couldn’t sleep. When my sister came next morning to give the egg to me, it was speckled grey again. As she passed it over, I felt a surge of warmth before it sat cold and hard within my hands.

That day, I spent hours on my bed, stroking it and talking to it as I’d seen my sister do, but it was unresponsive and lifeless as a rock.

Every night and day that followed was the same. My sister would take the egg to her room at night and I’d hear them together, singing and giggling, and knew the egg was glowing bright beneath her hands. Every day, I gave everything to coax a little warmth from the callous orb, telling it my deepest secrets, revealing my most fragile hopes, but the egg sat between my fingers stone-heavy with indifference.

I began to hate the thing. Instead of holding it, I stowed it in a drawer, lonely and ignored.

Then one evening, my sister had to go away on business and reluctantly placed the egg in my care overnight. As she left, she made me promise to keep it close. She’d noticed changes in the shell, it felt hotter, its membrane thinner, and once she was sure she’d felt movement.

I lied and said I’d felt the changes too, that I had seen shapes, spiraling below the shell, that every day I felt its power grow. She smiled and said it was our mother’s love. I nodded, clutching the egg to my chest as I waved goodbye, then ran upstairs and threw it back into the drawer.

In the first light of morning, I woke abruptly to a rattling noise and knew it was the egg. As I opened the drawer, it was rocking savagely and cracks were appearing on its surface. As I watched, fragile wings appeared at the openings and a black eye pressed against the shell, dense and penetrating like a crow’s. I scooped the egg into my hands and instantly it glowed green and the brittle wings grew larger. I dropped the egg onto the floor in fear and spite and the dark wings began to beat hard, pulling the creature out into the world.

The thing had no resemblance to a bird. It was hideous, skeletal yet hairy, like some prehistoric moth. It buzzed violently then turned and locked its heavy, blinkered eyes on mine. Suddenly, aggressively, it darted forward aiming straight towards my head and I stumbled backwards and lay screaming on the floor as its wings beat fast around my temples for so long and so loud that I didn’t hear my sister come home and run into the room.

She stood, framed in dawn’s sepia light, gently beckoning it towards her. As it danced gracefully into her arms, she thrust it through the open window into the cloudless sky. We watched as it got smaller and smaller until eventually, only emptiness remained.

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