By Alison Richards
One day the baby will hate me. I know it. One day he’ll find out who I was. What I did at the very beginning. He’ll find out a mother’s love wasn’t a given. Not back then.
It should’ve been easy. That’s what they said. But at the start it wasn’t. Love wasn’t the thing they’d promised. Not a feeling at all. Instead, it was a shadowy figure lurking over me, dark wings blocking the light. Love was a black thing. A hulking presence in the cramped space of the nursery. The pale blue walls I’d lovingly painted inched ever inwards. The cloying scent of the fresh paint caught in my throat and pushed in on me by restless wings from above. It painted us into corners, the baby and I.
It was nothing like they said. Not at all. Love was ink-black and bird like, clawed and feathered and it perched out of reach. And it didn’t just watch, it hovered and judged. It taunted and heckled. Snarled. Its squawk rained down on the scarred and still bleeding carcass of my body, screamed loud the countless ways I was getting it wrong. All the reasons why I was slowly killing that baby. It saw through me like my outsides were glass. One peck and I’d shatter into pieces, my deepest sins laid bare, spilt milk seeping into crumbling ground. And the shards would slice the baby to its core.
It studied us, that ink-black bird. Its pin prick eyes followed us always, til its own noise mimicked exactly the cries of the baby. The ones I was helpless to quiet. As the baby’s hunger rose from a deep emptiness its mouth gaped open, night after endless night it howled, pleading and confused. The noise, from the winged shape above and the baby below enveloped me from all angles. The pressure and the crush of it ached my eardrums. It sat on my chest and pressed, adding more weight to the baby’s cry. The one that never stopped.
Its talons clawed at my flesh each and every time I failed to nurse from useless breasts. I damn near tried to slice them off, once. Those shrivelled things, incapable of producing what other mothers could. Another punch to the guts. And on and on the baby cried.
And one wintry night the bird finally spoke. It opened that sharp beak and like black magic its animal noise translated into skittish words. It told me how to make it all stop. The crying. The pounding crush of the baby’s sound. It whispered down how to make it quiet again. And I strained to hear. And I took notes. And, oh, how I dreamed. It was easy, the bird said. So very simple. What little effort it would take to smash the baby’s tiny body into pieces. How his precious bones would dissolve into dust against the might of the brick wall hidden beyond that pale blue paint. One swing, to quiet the never-ending howl, two to collapse the butter soft skull, to have it fall in on itself. Three to make the blood run, crimson and sticky down the cot legs. It would pool on the floorboards that creaked and groaned. The ones that threatened to wake the baby each time I fled, weak and empty from hours of rocking. The bird hovered at my shoulder and went on speaking, started showing me the door. And night after night, I leant him my ear.
But that was then, and this is now.
Still, one day the baby will hate me. I know it. One day he’ll find out how close I came to listening to the bird. He’ll hate me as much as I did, before I banished it. Before I did to it what it was asking of me. And it was right, it was quiet. And only then did I learn the cries had not been the baby at all, but the bird all along. I hope after the hate has cooled and the raw wounds heal, he may know deep in his heart I was always more mother than monster.
I still miss the beginning. Way back when the baby was inside me. Back when he was safe. I remember his warm flutters, his gentlest of kicks. Back before it all began, when daydreams were brush strokes on nursery walls. That palest of blues. Back when love was just a feeling, and not yet an ink-black bird.