The first short story of the year is by Marilyn Hughes, a recent creative writing graduate who was previously been featured in Verandah. Enjoy.
The drama began when Libby’s waters broke, heralding the arrival of her much longed-for baby. She felt elation, rather than panic, as the torrent of fluid drenched her and puddled at her feet. Later she would read that the body releases happy hormones to relax the birthing mother, and this accounted for her calmness. Although she was by no means a courageous earth mother, ready to gird up her loins for the coming struggle of birthing, she had obediently asked the gyno not to drug her up. But Libby knew that getting drugged up was a distinct possibility and one she would not refuse if the pain became too much. Libby excitedly attended the birth classes, and dutifully watched the gruesome birth film on her lonesome, she had no doubt that major pain was in store for her.
Libby was alone. Rod hadn’t wanted children. She had not been sure that she did either. She had always loved babies, but they did turn into children and she had a problem with that. Why would anyone willingly go to all the effort of caring for sub-adults? Caring for herself and her immature boyfriend – wasn’t that enough of a burden? Especially when said immature boyfriend was anti-fatherhood, anti-work, and anti-responsibility?
Nature is unrelenting. It gets what it wants. Well, most of the time anyway. Man’s invention of The Pill had interfered mightily in the western world’s sex equals baby process. But even with the ability to prevent pregnancy, plenty of women kept on wanting to reproduce, to have that damn baby.
Nature had its way in the end. Twisting and turning Libby so that while her brain kept arguing for freedom and a life of self, her body kept arguing for a tiny creature to implant itself in her centre and to invade her state and colonise her country.
There were no heated discussions about getting pregnant. No cool discussions either. No blow-ups. No threats, promises, blackmail or breakdowns. Just an inexorable pressure from nature, pressing from inside out to her womb and her heart. The same pressure from her aura to Rod’s, but this pressing on his love for her, and his inability to deny her something that he understood was bigger than his own fear.
Libby knew that Rod’s own fear was big. He was scared of fathering. Scared of passing on the genes he publicly hated and the ones he privately dreaded. Scared of having a son who would challenge him. Scared of responsibility. Scared of financial pressures. Scared of the totality of it all. The permanency of it all. Once that seed was planted it was there for the rest of his life. How could he cope with the magnitude of that? Rod got depressed if he got a pimple, and that blemish eventually healed and left. How depressing would it be to have a child who expected him to be an adult, and expected him to be the grown-up forever? A blemish on his life. A blemish which would always mark him and which would never go away?
But Libby knew he loved her and he couldn’t deny her a baby when he saw the way the world worked. Rod didn’t want to lose her. Never wanted to lose her, even when he up and left, many years later. The possible condemnation from his family and friends figured in his responses too. He could not appear to be the bastard. The male who failed to impregnate his female when that was her desire. And so though his fear was gargantuan, in the end his love for her overcame his resolve, and he did the ‘manly’ thing. He did it over and over, and while her lust was imbued with the excitement of conception, his was coloured with the dread of a pregnancy. It was a wonder he was able to perform at all, with his anxiety of the coupling possibly resulting in the creation of a third person, a total stranger, arriving in the relationship nine months later.
God help him.
After each frantic, pleasure filled congress Libby would feel replete. Fulfilled, satisfied, contented, smug. Hopeful. She would cuddle and caress and spoon, and eventually drift into a dreamy slumber.
Rod would feel exhausted, drained, depressed. And fall asleep immediately.
After producing seventy to one hundred million sperm that day, and having just expended two hundred to five hundred million in that one session, was it any wonder?
Libby’s ovum were twenty-eight years old, as old as she was. They were formed with her in her mother’s uterus, and thus she had been carrying them around with her for her entire life. From the time of her first period, she had shed one egg each month. One month from the right ovary, the next from the left. Fifteen years of shedding blood which held half a baby. Her head detested the cycle, with its pain and mess and dragging and inconvenience. Nature detested the loss of life, and grieved each time, with pain and mess and aching. With each year her eggs aged and dwindled. Nature waited in the wings.
Waited as it had, for thousands of years. Waiting for that female and that male to hook up. Sex up. Nature wasn’t interested in love and romance. Animals court, but not with flowers and gifts. The male animal looks to spread his seed far and wide by copulating with as many fertile hens or cows or mares or bitches as will have him. Only the human male realises that this drive can lead to a baby, and thus his innate and compelling need for sex can lead him into dangerous waters. As it were. And the female of every species is generally receptive to any strong, survival-of-the-fittest type of suitor. But it is only the human female who expects him to stick around after the deed is done. And not only to stick around, but to love and support her, and the wet and dribbling offspring which results from his few moments of pleasure. And stick around for life. What’s with that? That any males do stick around is a testament to the power of women.
Rod was twenty-eight too, but his one ultimately triumphant sperm was maybe two days old. One exceedingly small, motile boy sperm, weaker than his sisters, but faster. Using his little flagella to outpace his brothers and sisters. Racing through the host’s phallus, lashing upwards through the woman’s cervix, ploughing on through the uterus and wiggling determinedly as he swam on up the uterine tube. Arriving at Destination Ovary. Taking his little haploid self, made of twenty-three chromosomes, and using his dear little enzyme jacket to penetrate his target little haploid ova, with her matching twenty-six chromos, to become a diploid zygote.
‘I’m pregnant!’ Libby happily announced.
‘Oh God, I hope it doesn’t have asthma.’ Rod gloomily responded.
The zygote flourished and graduated to embryo class. The embryo kept on keeping on, listening with his just formed ears as his host sang along to ‘Who Can It Be Now’, and who he was, was a lovely little foetus.
Libby relished her pregnancy, delighting in the life she was nurturing. She felt more powerful and more accomplished than she ever had. Her boyfriend felt scared. He didn’t sing, but the words of ‘What About Me?’ were the ones that resonated with him.
In spite of himself, Rod found Libby’s fecund body fascinating. Perhaps it made him feel justified in his own virile, fertile manhood. She blossomed and ballooned and he just looked thin and worried. Libby felt as though she carried the secret of life within her and was joyous to be having the child of the man she loved like a child. Her maternal instinct had been aroused even before she’d met him, when she heard he had wanted to kill himself by means of inhaling the gas from a Bic lighter. A depressed man with a sense of humour – what could be more appealing? She was now his support person in every way, and determined that she would take care of all three of them.
And then the day of the broken waters arrived, but where was he? Miles away. Unreachable in a burnt out Cockatoo. Helping a mate. So Libby kept her hormone induced cool and set about gathering up her goods and chattels for the trip to hospital. Listening all the while for the phone or the murmuring of the Datsun.
Her contractions were still non-threatening when the phone call finally came.
‘My waters have broken.’ Libby told him with a serene but serious intonation.
There was a pause and she could hear Rod breathing, hear his mind working, before he responded.
‘Do you want me to cook tea?’
Now it was her turn to pause. And her calmness evaporated.
‘No, I want you to take me to the hospital!’
The hours in the hospital were full of violence. Pain, pain and more pain. All the bodily fluids that abound when you birth a babe. Foetal heart monitors, flickering screens, forceps. A mask she thought was delivering pain relief and grabbed so desperately it shattered into multiple pieces, which then rocketed off to various parts of the room. Nice nurses and her goofy gyno. He would stitch Libby up later, his tongue poked out through the whole process. So many memories of an earth-shattering event in her life.
And then the arrival of the baby. The body wrenching, gut wrenching, heart wrenching and soul wrenching moment in a woman’s life that can forever weld her body, heart and soul to herself, her child, her fellow women, and men, and the universe – just to mention a few.
A week later, Libby was still in the grip of post-natal euphoria. She was still a little shocked at the enormity of childbirth. She was still swollen, sore, stitched. She was lactating and thus keeping her baby nourished. Her baby totally reliant on her for his life, just as it has been since humankind began.
Libby and her baby son were packed and ready, waiting for the father, the male, the traditional ruler of the world, to arrive and take them to hearth and home.
He arrived looking like a hunted man. He was depressed and defeated and she quickly extended her mothering to him.
‘The house will be a mess! There’ll be toys all over the floor.’ He wailed.