The Mother – Marceline Mayfield
August 11, 2022
Eighteen dead hippopotamuses washed ashore on Stockton Beach. The sand beneath the purple mass sank like the bed of a giant; death-plumped bodies overlapped. Waves stroked swollen hides and moonlit bellies, swaying like restless dreamers.
Footsteps neared with a dull thunder. A bloated figure lead the drunken sway of a forming crowd. His hairy trunks parted shallow waters. In a wild swig he emptied his bottle and brandished it like a baton. Arm outstretched, he approached the lifeless mound with the reckless bravado of a curious child. His paunch swung over his belt like a dead man’s tongue. With the snout of his bottle he prodded one of the lying bulks. No movement. He pressed his ear to its belly, his squinted face the colour and texture of uncooked beef. No sound. Reeling back his fist, he swung at the carcass. It answered with a wet thump and the deadened sigh of escaping gasses.
“Cunt’s deader than disco!”, his bulging frame erupted in a gale of cackled laughter. With the sound of an axe on a coconut his chortles became splutters. He bent and spat something brown and wet. Wiping his mouth, he wheezed, “Righto, who’s got the keys?”
From the crowd’s rear came a nasally voice, “Take mine mate!”
A mocking snort escaped the burly man, “That Euro-fag shit? Couldn’t carry half-a one of those”, he pointed behind him. Swinging his girth back around, he addressed a grey-bearded man, “Still got the ute Lez?”
“Shouldn’t we call someone?”, the nasally voice returned.
“This time of night? Nah mate, the ute’ll handle it.”
Through a rocky peephole the Boy watched his Father drunkenly shepard his flock up grassy dunes. He nestled tight between curved stones like the womb of a golem. The wind tossed his hair and carried fractured conversation; “—Russian freighter—”, “—Siberian zoo—”, “—Aliens? —”, “—God?—”
His Father’s pub-mates became a splotch on the sky then vanished. Closing blue eyes, he breathed with the pulse of the sea. “Shhhh, shhhhh”. It whispered like a mother consoling her child, “Shhhh, shhhhh.”
In heaps across the shoreline, bodies lay in their frozen orgy. A faint patter and shadow’s flicker betrayed the stillness. Under moonbeams a snake curled, carving grooves in the shore. Its skinny length slithered around a creature’s vast length. Silently, the Boy approached. Behind the mass, the snake weaved across sand in winding loops. One end burrowed between rigid hind legs, the other connected to the underside of an infant hippopotamus, sticky with the residue of birth. It suckled blindly at its mother’s barren teat. On his knees the Boy gripped the thread. Careful fingers traced the pink ridges of an umbilical cord til it met the newborn’s belly. He looked into muddy eyes that returned his gaze. “I’m sorry, it will be quick.”
He severed the thread with a bite. Untethered, the young squealed for an instant. A trickle of blackened crimson exited the stump, the Boy rushed to cleanse it in the tide. He cradled the baby; impossibly light, fitting his hands like a mould. “It’s okay, it’s okay”, he reassured himself and the child alike. Drunken hollers drowned an engine’s distant hum. He wiped his eyes dry. Bundling the infant in his shirt, he made towards his house. The ocean called out behind him, “Shhhh, shhhh”.
The tin door swung on rusted hinges, protesting loudly. The Boy entered the weary shed that housed him and his father. Years of internal and external abuse had brought the structure to its knees. Invading sand hid the tiled floor, swept through rusted holes. Buckets sat crooked, heavy with forgotten rain. With his toes the Boy cleared a passage for himself and the young, carefully prodding for glass. The room was furnished alone by a faux crocodile leather recliner and the fatback TV it faced. Cans of cider circled the seat like a moat, discarded and stomped lazily underfoot. A dangling bulb swung in the breeze casting a dizzy halo. The place reeked of dead sea, the kitchen dressed in nautical remains. In it lay broken shells and coral, a squid without legs, dehydrated starfish and bluebottles, crabs missing digits, deflated pufferfish, whale fins, the unformed body of an infant nurse shark, an adolescent octopus; grey and melted. The sink was stained brown with decaying fish. Larger relics hung outside upon the clothesline, slaves to the wind. The Boy heard tires spin on sand and faint curses.
“Floor it Lez!” his Father commanded.
“She’s got no traction. Damn hippo’s too heavy!”
Wheels shrieked from under the grumbling car.
“Fuck me dead…” the Father began to walk off, “S’just do it tomorrow.”
“Mate, me bloody car’s half-sunk in a ditch with a carcass in the back. The fuck am I getting home? …Cunt’s not even—HEY! You even hearing this?”
Though still within earshot, a night’s worth of drinking dulled the noise. Lumbering uphill, the Father wrung the neck of his beer with a clumsy fist. At the sight of the sagging clothesline he swung his bottle and struck the peeling hide of a ray. Connecting tin amplified the disturbance. His loud thuds shook the door. Clenching the infant, the Boy fled to his mattress, adorned with sand and fetid rags. Under squalid sheets, he hid. The door buckled in a screeched surrender as the Father staggered through. His bruised side bore a purple southern cross. Uncertain hands slapped the walls, fumbling to support his weight. He moved with the sluggish momentum of a stumbling mountain. Collapsing on his throne, a cobweb of distress shot across worn fabric. His sweat-dampened singlet clung to his figure like wrapped meat. The Boy turned, burying himself deeper, unsure if he’d been discovered. He heard an unusual fatigue in his Father’s breath who spluttered like a locomotive starved of coal.
“Your mother spat out eighteen today. Don’t know how I’ll move them uphill. It’d be easier in smaller pieces, but I couldn’t stomach that. I take them how they’re given to me.”
His words felt laboured and uncertain.
“Of course, it wasn’t your mother that spat them out. What ate her did.”
He shifted his weight to face the mattress.
“But it feels like her. The sea. She’s in there. Split a thousand times and spread across the waters. In hungry mouths and fed bellies. In currents and waves. I’d upturn the Pacific just to bring back a finger. She’s there somewhere. I’ll bring her back.”
The words that left his mouth were a ghost’s. Hearing them, the Boy felt as though his Father had died. Whatever remained was naked, cold and afraid.
“I don’t want to upset the boys. I just miss her. I miss her.”
His father stood upright, abandoned his former slump and walked out the door.
The Boy lay as still as death. He forced his blue eyes shut and held the young to his breast. The broken tin roof divided their slumber from the stars.
The Boy awoke to a pain in his chest. His fingers hunted for its source, returning with a white, watery residue. He pulled back the sheet to see nipples swollen like buds aching to bloom. They trickled with milk and from them the young fed. He frantically searched his body. His tender pores tightened. Fat shifted to his sides, widening his hips. His scrotum was taut and penis recoiled. Conical arcs breached his chest. He arose suddenly, the infant clung to him. He caught himself in a bucket’s unsteady reflection. He saw the malformed features of a woman; a vulgar approximation of femininity, a botched mother with baby at her side, unshaped and asymmetrical. She looked down to her suckling child. As it fed she blossomed. Her breasts swelled with every mouthful. Her body moulded to its needs, ebbing like the tide. When it had drunk its fill she nursed it in her arms as its Mother.
With a creak, sand cascaded from the roof. Her child wailed as it settled upon it. Looking to the roof above, the Mother saw it sunk to half its height. From the lacerated walls beach poured through. She swiped to remove grains from her child, the coarse movement only worsened chafing. The Mother struck against wall with her shoulder, trying to force it upright. Desperate strains against the falling roof only displaced more sand, burying her knees. She struggled in vain to shelter her baby from the downpour. Grinding metal shrieked discordant tongues. The Mother clambered through the door, still ajar. The midday sun wrung sweat from their skin. Tin-fed tides swallowed the beaten house.
Braving a current of sands, the Mother held her child near. She drifted seaward, scouring for materials to save the sinking house. Amongst a shipwreck’s bronze bones, a corroded beam stabbed the sands. In a heave, she unsheathed it from the shore
Across the coastline rang a cry. Hazy shapes, like flies circling dung, dotted the horizon. Oysters scattered, divorced from the pole she drug. Shapes evolved as she neared. Gulls swarmed the putrefied hides littering the shore. Blackened skin melted like wax, unveiling a mosaic of viscera and bone. Waste seeped in viscous clumps from torn bowels. Death-stench clung to the wind.
Far closer, the Mother heard a second cry, spying a ute sunken in dunes. At its rear, an ageing man swatted at birds feeding upon a rotting adolescent hippo. His beard drooped, streaked with bile and purged brandy. Lurching forward, he swiped away tears and adopted a crooked smile. The Mother recoiled, holding her child close as he stole her hand, “M-madame, I… I seem to be rather stranded… Would a bird like you, see fit to help a bloke out…” With his grip, he drew her near, inspecting her closely. His face tightened to a scowl as he muttered under his breath. Retracting his hand, he spat at her feet.
He then fell, tears welling anew, “I-I’m sorry. I am. I am sorry.” On his knees he crawled to her, gripping her legs tight. Mucus hung from him, he stared with desolate, starless eyes, “I just want to go home. It’s too far to walk… I just want to go home.” He threw himself against the car, pushing hopelessly. Wailing, he slumped in defeat. “Why did he do it? He just walked into the ocean. He didn’t come back, why did he do it?” As he spoke, he wept. Gulls ate heartily, now undisturbed.
The Mother retreated home in silence. She gathered what material she passed: rotted wood, styrofoam and rope. Dunes crept high up the doorframe, she squeezed through on her belly. Inside, panicked fingers tore at sand, tossing frantic fistfuls. Shaking hands shoved styrofoam into torn walls. Sweat dribbled from her brow, obscuring vision. She beat at the wall, forming flimsy stints with rope and wood. On the buried mattress, her child bawled. The Mother drove the rusted rod against the roof. Tin screeched in its ascent. She centred the quivering pole like the mast of a circus tent. It arched visibly, stints splintered and walls spat foam. As she watched she could only cry. Her body spent, she collapsed on the bed, wrapped around her child. Her figure morphed, accomodating its form; her sternum receded to a gentle slope, her skin softened and her forearms surged to form pillows for its rested head. Despite this, the young remained forever rigid. Feeling its unmoving shape, she wept.
You found the child on the shore at its dead mother’s side. It may suckle you, but you did not bear it. You are no Mother. You have no womb. No life will ever grow inside you. You are Death. Your loins are a fruitless desert. You alter yourself for a child that will never carry your features. No child ever will.
Why do you cry? You cannot shape what isn’t yours.
She caught herself in the child’s muddy gaze, she was formless as the sea. Her reflected eyes shone like ocean, then closed. She sank into shallow dreams.
Winds tore at peeling walls, they buckled and spewed sand. The Mother awoke calm. Taking her child in her arms, she headed for the sea. Hippos’ white bones stood like picket fences. The moon was full and lit her path. Sea foamed white, like salty emissions conceiving life. She felt her Mother in the waters and her Father in the waves. Her wading feet settled on a platform of rock. She stood steady and sure. Holding her young tightly to her breast, she anointed it with tears. She looked long upon its glistening features, then gave it to the sea.
The tides may carry you to lands faraway or swallow you forever. I do not know, my child. I must now tend to my home. I cannot let the sands devouring it, devour you too.
You belong to the sea. I pray it returns you to a house built anew.
As the waves washed over her child, it looked back a final time, with the blue eyes of its Mother.