Mother’s Milk

by Paul de Denus

The boy upstairs should be asleep, but I know he isn’t. I listen for the sounds of the old house, tilt my head into the general silence, the drawn curtains in every room muffling any outside activity. I float near the bottom of the stairs, lean my head forward, ear to the sky. Nothing. Not a peep.

I know he’s awake.

I see him in the small room, in the dark, standing, legs wobbly, like a drunk sailor, flexing in and out, his tiny fists gripping the edge of the battered crib while his small mouth plays a silent harmonica along the railing, back and forth, back and forth. He has teeth, little ones, like a hacksaw. I felt them the last time I picked him up, his small fleshy mouth searching my neck, eager for a vein.

I imagine his thin face staring patiently at the door. Like the last time. I’d slipped in, silent as the dead, hoping he was asleep. He was not. The hallway light split the room into a diagonal, the half-light cutting the crib in two, black and grays, the light slicing across his left eye, the one that stared directly into my own, the lower right side of his mouth, a soft curl. He didn’t move, sat like a little Buddha surrounded by minions of tattered plush animals strewn around the crib. The guts had been removed from all of them. He tracked my movements as I entered, his head tilting slightly when I whispered his name. Did he notice the unsteadiness of my voice? The dim nightlight cast my shadow against the wall. I could feel his eyes on me, their red rims, soft and soupy. I imagined my hulking shadow, his.

He was born in a filthy hallway in a dark tenement building in a darker city, a long day of endless rain. My world floated in fade-ins and fade-outs, clarity in sharp focus the times I traveled down that rabbit hole that pulled so easily — the needle insert — its vague solution tagging along for the ride to feed the need with the added hunger. What kind of mother was I? A selfish one. A lost one, the kind with gauzy eyes asleep against pillowed clouds, those white giants holding me firmly in hand. I was snug and comforted in my own childlike way, nothing coming close to the thrill of the train I was riding. Not much else mattered, not even a child. I do not remember much of his father, a hulking monster if I’m to believe it. How can the dead create life? It is something I will never know, only live. He was there — real or not — then gone, like a dream, ripped away by an insatiable hunger, chasing his demons down through the cities and centuries. Is he aware of the abomination of his own spawn? The thought frightens me more than anything else.

In the beginning I believed the boy would die early, quickly. He didn’t eat. I foolishly believed he would be different, that he would be spared. But he was never interested in my breast, not that I ever would have fed him that. In my heart I knew the truth. I found the baby bottle in the corner of the crib, untouched. Entangled in his blanket, the drained carcass of the cat. I saw no sign of a struggle, a sudden snap perhaps. How can an infant be so quick? The cat’s body was intact, only residue along the back of the neck. Poor cat. His nine lives will now go on forever.

Upstairs, the boy waits. The dead never die. It is clear what he wants. He only seems to thrive, driven by a want that grows more powerful by the day. I know too well what he will quickly become. I will go up soon, gather him and carry him down past the kitchen into the basement where I will quell the need. What kind of mother am I? One who has a choice to make. It’s a matter of survival. My teeth are sore and my need is great. I’m hungry too.

Paul de Denus writes excerpts from novels he’s never written. That was one of them. He resides in Richmond, Virginia.
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