I Am Born
Mom related often the story of my birth.
With blistering curses against the Algerians did she interweave the telling, dark fetid curses that ate at my heart, so often did that storm rise in her eyes.
Upon the sands of the bay was I born, the same spot where I awaited the divine beings. Every time she told it, Mom mentioned that the day I was born was balmy and sunny. But I heard, in the bitterness of her telling, a thick cloudcover, winds that narrowed her eyes to slits, battering swats of rain upon her face and body.
She wasn’t angry at me, but at the Algerians. She never picked them out by name. They were a mere mass of demonic soma, a monster with many arms, many heads, many clefters.
Among them had Mom lived, on a wicked island called Algiers. When she was young, they let her be. She married a rich merchant. No children. He died. She chose to live alone. They started to stare at her, to withhold all communion from her.
When she grew wrinkled and began to worship Setebos, an imported god from far-off Patagonia, they said and did mean things to her.
Once, she began to relate these things and I heard them all, aghast and angered. But my lips parted and I somewhat drooled and my clefter grew blood-thick. When she saw that, the telling stopped.
I wept bitter tears. My nose went all snotty and dripped. Mom didn’t need to say a thing. I slinked away and sat beside the bay and peered way down into my dark depths, but I couldn’t see deep enough. All I could hear was some awful beast grunting and shuffling down there.
When the Algerian monster bound her limbs with ropes, stopped her mouth, and tossed her on the island, Mom was a hundred years old. She told me that with a slow satisfied smile. But I had no one to compare her to, not until the devils came and then, twelve years later, the second wave of devils, what time I tricked my way to Naples with its teeming masses of the doomed. In all my days among the Neapolitans, I never saw anyone as old as Mom.
So, because she was exceedingly old and worshiped gods strange to them and who knows why else, they said, “Hey, Mom, there’s something wrong with you.” But they were the wrong ‘uns, not Mom. They dumped all this bad stuff on Mom, not to mention their deep, unwashable-away, Algerian stench.
“You’re not only old, and ugly, and wrinkled,” they said. “You’ve got a big belly full of devil spawn and we don’t want you or your brood on the wicked isle of Algiers no more. Nor do we want the spirits you summon, who blast our crops and steal the hardness from our teeny-weeny clefters so that we can’t spawn our own devil babies.”
Many times Mom repeated those words to me. I guessed they weren’t exactly what was said. Mom was storytelling me, and telling the righteous lie, she said, is a virtuous thing in storytelling. But the heart of what she told me was true. I saw that truth shining in her eyes.
So the Algerian monster, it bound her and gagged her and tossed her on a ship. In a heartbeat, that ship blew across the ocean. And into that heartbeat, they crammed heaps of suffering. Heaps. I knew that was so, because one time, you see, Mom peeled aside the righteous lie and started to let me in on the really really bad things they did to her in secret—sometimes under the open eye of the sun—on that ship. She never ventured far down into that vicious beast’s lair. But what she said painted the ship clear in my mind.
It wasn’t made of wood, that mind-ship. It was black and greasy, lashed about with dry rot and bolted together with misery. Wherever your skin touched it, it blistered. Its groaning boards shut in hunger and torment. No matter though you bloated your belly as big as a boar’s bladder at a feast, when they tossed you on board this ship, you were at once famished. If you rose up from a soft bed of cleft and caress, when they tossed you onto its vile deck, needles thrust up into every pore and pierced you wherever you walked or looked.
Let it all go.
In a heartbeat, the Algerians came to the southmost lagoon and tossed Mom on our island with no more than two days’ provisions, leaving her bound with a loose rope so that they would be long gone and safe in Algiers before she could free herself. They feared, as fear they might, that she would wave her hands, spit venom, and summon up spirits from the deep to suck down that ship and drown its devil crew, that needed drowning something fierce.
One day went by, and another. Mom ate their rancid food and drank their bilgy water, neither of which, rank with their stench, could she keep down. Even so, with a strength born of anger, she summoned a spirit to acquaint her with the island, to bring food and fresh water. Thus did Mom revive, first with the help of her magic, then without.
“It serves you ill,” she told me, “to rely too much on magic. You forget who you are. Your natural powers atrophy, and magic takes over.
“Be wise. Stay in your center. Do not stray from there. Sling out spells, yes, but know always the slinger from that which is slung.”
So she advised, years before she intended to teach me magic, which teaching she never had a chance to do. I was a snotty-nosed pain in the glute and saw no need to learn a thing. Mom’s magic provided all. Food, shelter, a good clefting, everything I needed.
When I cusped between child and boy-man, she promised that as soon as I reached thirteen, she would sit me down and teach me magic. If need be, she would smack me into learning mode. But she died when I was twelve, when the devils arrived, when Prospero strode into our hut, pitched his magic against hers, and came out to tell me, a veil of feigned sorrow over his face, that she was dead.
When the Algerian monster tossed Mom on the island, she waddled about with her brood in her womb, exploring the best parts. She picked out the spot where soon she would build the mud hut. And she picked out the bay as the place to set free her belly-burden.
“I had my reasons,” she said. Sometimes she added, “The bay was the most beautiful spot on the island.” I knew that wasn’t true, even taking personal taste into consideration. But I didn’t press her. I knew Mom’s boundaries and the consequences of violating them.
On her twelfth day on the island, feeling a great quickening in her womb, she made for the bay. When it became clear she wouldn’t reach it, she summoned a spirit to waft her thence and tend to her needs.
It was calm and sunny on the day she birthed her brood. As she pushed, the spirit would wriggle one out, hold it up so Mom could see it was blue-faced dead, and set it aside.
“Here comes another,” said the spirit, new-filled each time with joy.
“Catch,” commanded Mom, bearing down again in spite of her pain and grief. Her sons were her hope. She did not want to be alone on the island, and she craved above all avengers. So she told me.
Twelve dead infants blurted into the spirit’s bloody palms, their faces crusted and slick and silent. Chests that moved not at all. Tiny arms and legs and blunt thumb clefters with gray fist-sized ball-sacks. Boys all, like me. My brothers.
“That’s it?” asked Mom.
The spirit said nothing.
Then out I tumbled. That’s how Mom put it. “Out you tumbled.” On the beach of my birth, she caught her breath and sobbed. Then out I tumbled, blistering with rage at being trapped behind the others. My tight fists pulsed. My wailing tore ribbons in the sky and made it bleed. It was all the spirit could do to lift me up and show Mom my angry red wart of a face, so raring was I to go, so high-pitched my bellowing rage.
“Thirteen’s the charm,” said the spirit.
Mom yelped with joy, forgetting for the nonce her twelve dead boys. I didn’t quite see what there was to be joyful about, no matter how many times she told the tale. But it made me feel good and it often led to clefting, so I didn’t mind hearing it again and again.
Mingled with a certain joy in the telling was Mom’s rage at the Algerians. Rage bonded us. Her face lit up then. She wished my brothers had made it out alive. But she also cursed them for causing her such pain, for being carried so long, for making her condition known earlier than it would otherwise have been, so that the Algerian monster got it early into his head to banish her from the land of her birth.
“You were right, son,” she would say at the height of her rage, “to strangle them in the womb. They deserved to have their cords wrapped around their necks, one fast yank putting paid to their lives. To hell with them. You had your birthright and you claimed it. The last born became first. Good for you. Now come to Momma. Show her what you’re made of.”
Together we would curse and cleft, building our tower of rage, shaking and shivering with it until we exploded. The venom and sweat of resentment and anticipated revenge sweetly perfumed our exertions.
Mom had no good words, most times, for my brothers. But once she showed me their gravesite behind a dune in an out-of-the-way stretch of that same beach. She told me their names. It was all right to name the dead, she said. They had no freedom that could be thieved from them by being named. And in the land of their exile, all names were left behind. Like us, I said. Mom nodded. That’s right, she said, like us.
So she named and blessed and cursed them, and cursed our father whom she did not name. Then she stared out to sea for an eternity, after which she rose to her feet and left without one word more. I gave her a good lead before trailing behind.
The next morning, I decided to get better acquainted with my brothers. So I dug up their bones and constructed crude huts as big as a hare might inhabit, mooshing their tiny skulls down in the sand, overarching their ribcages and legbones at the sides. I didn’t mean any harm by it. It made me feel close to Mom. I guessed I hadn’t really strangled them in the womb. But it was fun to pretend I had.
While I was lost in play, Mom raged in and beat me blind. When I fought back, it enraged her further. She was a fury of fists and claws. She bit me and rent my flesh, shredding it wherever her hand fell. And when her energies flagged, she called up three savage spirits to pinch and poke me. I was bruised for weeks after. For three days, I could not lift my head from that beach. I heard Mom come and go, unable to turn my head to follow what she was doing.
One thing she did was to rebury my brothers and to weep and wail and bellow over them, then rush over and kick me hard, low down in the spine where my back fanned out into buttocks.
“Don’t, Mom,” I wept.
She went away.
Once I could move again, I kept to myself. I hung around outside the hut, doing my chores, hunkering down dejected for days.
I could not bring myself to look at her. I have no idea if she looked at me.
One day, as I emptied out my head and squatted by a fresh-cut woodpile, she sat before me. Her face was as wise as earth. “They were shit,” she said. “They chose not to live.
I cried and told her I was sorry. She sat there, not touching me, saying nothing.
“Are you done?” she asked.
I sniffed and nodded.
“Good. Come inside.”
I did, and that was that. She never mentioned my brothers again. She never told me the story of my birth again.
But the story of the Algerian monster and how they tossed her on the island, that she told over and over. Then she skipped over the birth story, swept into her rage, and caught me up in clefting.
So it went, as the moon many times waxed and waned and waxed again.
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