A Question of Birth

A Question of Birth
image_print

The foxes are in the garden again. Five cubs and one Mother.

Magda peers out into the gloom; the night is moving within itself, shadows lapping at the edges of the trees, trickling over the grass, and pouring thick into the sky. The cubs are like fish swimming through the murk, ghostly and fluid, weaving through the long grass and disappearing into the forest. It’s the noise that keeps waking her up, that choking staccato cry that clatters out of their throats.

When she was little her Mother told her that noise is called gekkering. She loved that word, kept it well polished and ready to use like a special piece of jewellery. She didn’t understand when her Mother told her she couldn’t apply the word to humans, Magda could make that sound too so why couldn’t she describe herself as gekkering?

“Because you’re not an animal,” her Mother had explained. Magda had failed to see why that was relevant.

The Fox Mother sits patient and unmoving as the cubs play, her paws delicately placed together, her head held haughty and proud. When Magda looks out, she swears the Fox nods at her.

*

Magda has always lived here. Her cottage is old and weathered, nestled into the countryside and half swallowed by its greenery; ivy grows in through open windows, mushrooms sprout along the edge of floorboards, mice make its hollows their home. It is small but it is all she has ever needed – one room to sleep in, one to wash in, and one to work and eat in – she has never understood people who want more.

Outside of these rooms her garden slopes down a hill, falling and sprawling with the abandon of a drunken whore. It is furrowed and wild; weeds tangle like hair and ants crawl within the mess. At one corner she grows small anaemic vegetables and keeps a chicken coop. On the other side she buries all the animals she works on – a cluttered graveyard of local mammals.

She has always lived alone, but that does not mean she doesn’t need company. She has two visitors who satisfy and submerge this need; one man and one woman. They come separately, have never met nor heard of one another. She keeps each one secret, revelling in their delicious ignorance. The visitors come at different times; the man twice a week, Sundays and Wednesdays, sometimes he stays the night. There is no set time for when he arrives or leaves, it all depends on factors he alludes to but does not explain. He is bouncing and childish, takes up all her time and whips the house into a frenzy. When he leaves, he places money on the kitchen table even though she has told him not to. She assumes this money is for her silence; she knows that the man has a wife somewhere out there, past her garden and through the woods, but she does not understand how he thinks she would tell her anything.

The woman is more punctual, set in her ways; she arrives every Friday at five p.m. and lingers until lunchtime on Saturday. Her presence is more serious; they sit in silence for long stretches of time, bodies languid so their brains can move frantic over the subjects she brings with her and which she expects Magda to have opinions on. In bed Magda likes the feel of the woman’s skin on hers, the soft rub of it, the dead flop of sleeping limbs.

*

Magda makes the small amount of money she needs through her taxidermy. She could make a lot of money from it if she wanted to, her main buyer tells her its popularity has expanded to eyewatering levels. He says half the people he sells to now have never heard of these animals, animals that are just a few miles away from them – badgers and voles and mice – people buy them thinking they are exotic creatures from foreign lands. He tells her she could make a fortune off her mounts, but it would mean she would have to work faster, and she likes taking her time over each animal, getting to know them while she poses them.

She catches all the animals herself. Hunts them through the straggle of forest that surrounds her; it used to be bigger, to stretch across land that has now been devoted to cavernous houses with neat flat lawns. People rarely venture into the forest but sometimes Magda comes across a stray dog walker who has veered off the pavement and gotten lost amongst the trees. She can usually hear them and get away before they see her but sometimes one will startle her. They will usually ask for help, clutching their dog lead, eyes snapping around the foliage. The dogs are always similarly scared, quivering pathetic things decked out in little booties and designer outfits. The humans and the dogs provoke nothing but contempt in Magda; she never says anything, just points, and there has never been a time when both human and dog haven’t flinched at the movement of her arm.

She has traps set up across the land. Cages with apple cores and sometimes deep pits covered with foliage. The cages are better, the animals are cleaner when she catches them like that, less liable to break bones or scratch skin.

When she gets the animal home, she skins it, preserves the skin, poses its bloody limbs into the right position and freezes it in place. She uses plaster to make her own form and when it’s set she drapes the skin over and sews it up. Finally, she fits the eyes and the teeth, and then it is done, ready to go out into a world that wasn’t interested in it when it was alive.

*

The woman brings up the history of pregnancy. It is summer and they have just eaten a dinner of rabbit and cabbage and are reclining, full and hot. The woman has taken her top off and her breasts hang plump, jellyfish-like, her stomach a swelled mound. Magda thinks this is what a pregnant woman must look like, although she has never seen one. The woman says human gestation is parasitic; she speaks of something nestled inside you, filling your cavity with its expanding body and sucking the nutrients from you. She says pregnancy is proof that God hates women, that they were made to be used and thrown away afterwards. It was humans who righted this wrong and got rid of this unnecessary quirk of reproduction, transplanting it into labs and frozen rooms so that women could finally be equal to men.

Magda doesn’t agree, she finds the idea of pregnancy beautiful, thinks women are missing out now. When she was younger one of the dogs died when she was pregnant, and Magda cut her belly open to see. The puppies were all there, tiny and pink and glistening, just about fully formed; they looked like burstable sacks of fruit and she thought it was beautiful. What a woman could do, Magda thought, what potential they held within them.

“I want a child,” she says to the woman but is ignored. Later on, in bed, the woman clamps a palm salty with sweat over Magda’s mouth in what she assumes is a punishment.

*

The foxes are digging, and as they dig, they scream. This has been going on for weeks. The initial breathy chattering quickly descending into high-pitched shrieks; they sound like women choking through wordless pain. They emerge with the darkness, start their squawking when Magda is chewing her dinner and linger until she falls asleep.

When the foxes first appeared, she was worried about her chickens and thoroughly inspected the wire mesh surrounding the coop, mending even the tiniest tears. But to her knowledge, the foxes have not gone hear the coop; the hole they dig every night is always concentrated on the one spot. In the mornings she goes out and using a shovel undoes this hole, patting the loose earth down just to be torn asunder again.

The man sleeps over and before they go to bed, she warns him about the foxes.

“I’ve never seen a fox,” he mumbles, pulling the sheets over his pale, smooth body.

He is cold in bed, there is a metallic sheen to his limbs that sends chilled shock waves through her body when she brushes against him. They lie awake, murmuring together until the fox’s squalls start, their nightly song leaking into the bedroom.

“There, that’s them,” she whispers, sitting up to better hear.

He frowns, a single line appearing in his otherwise taut forehead, “I can’t hear anything.”

The cries are loud and clamouring, they fill the room and echo off the thick damp walls.

“Can’t you hear?”

He shakes his head, eyes drooping. Within a few seconds he is sleeping, his body unnaturally still, breath humming through him.

She turns away, lets the wailings of the foxes rock her into unsteady sleep.

*

The dog is small and shaky. At first, she thinks it is an oversized rat tangled in rags, but then she notices the collar stamped with a series of numbers, and realises the rags are a sky-blue baby-grow soiled with mud.

It’s loud and yappy, keeps baring its bleached teeth at her as she tries to fish it out. The fall down the trap has broken one of its legs, it sits in a pained crunched pose and wiggles to move away from her hand. Its tail is a spray of straight black hair, unnervingly human-like and quivering with nervous rage. Magda doesn’t understand why anyone would want this thing as a pet, they may as well invite a badger into their home.

She imagines how strange its skull must look like, how dominated by those eyes it must be. When she pushes the knife under its leg and into its heart it twitches a few times, massive eyes bulging so much she half expects them to pop.

*

Dogs are tricky to sell, so she keeps it for herself. She poses it into a placid sitting position, paws lined neatly up, but the size of the glass eyes make it look wild and off kilter, the cocktail of anger and fear still potent.

She places it on the mantlepiece above the fireplace so it can watch her work and brings its carcass into the garden to bury it.

The soil is dried out with the heat of the summer, she stabs her shovel deep into it and scoops up parched crumbling lumps. When the hole is deep enough, she gets on her knees and plunges her hands in to finish, as she works her hands feel tangled in something fine yet resistant, she breaks through what she assumes is roots until the earth is smooth. It is only after she places the body into the hole that she notices the clumps of black hair dangling from her fingers.

*

When the man comes for his visit he stares at the dog, his mouth hanging open like a fresh wound.

“Where did you get that?” he asks, and she explains while chopping carrots.

There is a silence only filled with the sharp snap of the blade hitting the chopping board, she senses something and turns around.

“What is wrong with you?” he asks, his face livid red.

“It got into one of my traps,” she explains, laying the knife down and walking towards him.

He takes a step back and away from her, grabbing his coat from the seat and pulling it onto his arms with a shambolic haste.

“That’s like killing someone’s child,” he spits.

She doesn’t reply. She can see already that he is done; he will have to find someone else to distract him from him wife.

He slams the door on his way out. She watches from the window as he climbs into his slick car; the headlights dart frantically over the thick curtain of the forest, briefly illuminating the Mother Fox, sitting, watching.

*

The sounds start as they usually do, indistinct scuffling as she eats her dinner; her molars sinking into scraps of overcooked meat and undercooked carrots. The little dog sits and watches her, and she intermittently peers up at it to nod neighbourly.

When she slips into bed the sounds are changing, there is something different lingering in the gaps between the fox’s screams. It’s wavering and nebulous, sounds like something stretching – skin pulled taught over a drum, begging to be hit.

She gives up on sleep and moves to the window. The foxes have made their hole and instead of continuing to play they are all sat around it patiently, the moonlight turning their fur colourless, intangible.

Magda grabs her coat and pulls it on over her nightdress, shoves bare feet into heavy boots and plunges herself out into the night.

The sky has given itself over to the darkest point of the night, a breeze rustles the trees at the bottom of the garden, and they whisper together like a group of gossips. It’s still warm, the earth holding onto the heat it gathered from the sun. She runs to the other side of the house and over to the foxes; she expects them to run when she nears them, but they just stare at her – five sets of glassy eyes considering her movements like she is a bug caught in a clod of earth.

The sound is more insistent here, a faltering hum pressing into her ears and seeping into her brain, filling it with a primordial ocean-like slosh.

Her boots sink into the mud, its slick and watery even though it hasn’t rained in weeks. In the faint light from the moon it looks uncomfortably red and she imagines herself walking across a massive opened belly; tripping along the glistening intestines, pressing boot prints into the meaty hunks of spleen and stomach.

The fox cubs are covered in the gunk of the wet mud, spots of it flickered over their faces, threads hanging from their mouths. The Mother Fox is clean, resplendent. She catches Magda’s eyes and nods towards the hole as if inviting her to take a closer look.

The sound vibrates when Magda looks down, it pulls her towards the hole with a numinous quality; this is something special she thinks to herself, something that must be honoured. She bends over to get a closer look. At the centremost part of the hole something is moving, squirming under the surface, stretching the bubbled milky skin of the earth with each rhythmic throb of movement – begging to be let free.

Heat prickles over her, she snaps up and takes a step back, but the Mother Fox yaps out a sharp reprimand. Magda looks at her, and her eyes – tawny and flecked – glare back.

Magda knows what she has to do. She moves slowly, easing down to kneel. Her knees squelch into the mud and it seeps into her nightdress; dark stains and cool dampness spreading, making the material transparent over her knees.

The sound is more insistent here, it puts her teeth on edge, sounds like a ghastly whistling gap cracking into the world.

The cubs start scratching at the ground along the edge of the hole, not trying to dig, just showing her what to do. She nods and raises her hands, already aware that what she is about to do is something profound and irreversible.

Fingers plunge into the balloon-stretch of the earth, oozing into throbbing heat; mud caking fingers, pebbles breaking skin. The Mother Fox yaps again – it isn’t working, so Magda forces her nails in, scratching until she feels that layer give way and suddenly the sound stops. She searches in the chasm of the wetness until her hand touches something warm, living. She grasps it and pulls it out – a baby.

It starts to cry when it is completely free. Toothless mouth screaming blindly, tiny lungs sucking in air and pushing out noise. Tears dampen Magda’s face, and sweat glimmers over her body. The baby reaches a tiny curled fist out to her face and she hears herself laugh.

When she looks up the foxes are gone.

*

Magda loves her son. She has never felt love like this before, like something sharp implanted within her chest – new but irrevocable. Sometimes when she looks at him – at the tiny slivers of his fingernails or the pink buds of his toes – the thing in her chest shifts and sends tears to shimmer in her eyes.

He grows quickly, is crawling within a week and tearing his way through the cottage. His hair is thick and dark, tangled as weeds and rough like stone; when she nuzzles her nose into the mop of it, she smells moss and the promise of rain. He belongs here, in this house filled with the sounds and the colours of the forest, he belongs with her.

But she was unprepared, spends the first few days scrambling to get things right. When the woman comes to visit, Magda sticks only her head out of the door and tells her she is too busy.

It takes her a while to figure out what to feed him. He is fussy. She starts with cow’s milk, waves it under his nose and raises it to his mouth but he isn’t interested; she rubs it on his gums but that just makes him gag and cry.

She tries vegetables – boiled to oblivion and mashed into a paste, this he throws against the walls and squeals in delight at the long colourful swatch. He sticks his tongue out at the little tender bits of cooked meat she offers him, smashes his fists into the glob of scrambled eggs.

When he starts to crawl, she finds him tugging at the front door, scratching at the wood with his shell-thin nails, so she lets him out and follows his delighted gigglings into the garden. She studies the line of trees, searching for the foxes and when she looks back at her son, he is stuffing fistfuls of soil into his mouth. His teeth have started to grow, and he munches them into the soft give of the earth before swallowing happily and smiling dark-toothed at her.

She gasps and pulls him up and away from the ground, but he screams ravenous, kicking and squirming with a strength she didn’t think possible. Eventually she gives in, places him back down and he resumes his meal. Magda sits down, weight pressing into the damp of the soil and watches him; the purple hole of his smacking mouth, the look of satiated pleasure in his dark eyes. He picks the worms and the beetles out and sucks contentedly around them, his cheeks hollowed as he chomps into their brittle shells.

When he is done, he crawls over to her, lays his head onto her lap and falls asleep.

*

The woman comes back looking concerned. Magda invites her in, ushering her into the nest she has created. He is walking now, the size of a toddler, he can say “mama” and “worm” and still mixes up which one is which sometimes.

Magda leads the woman into the bedroom where her son is napping, eyes closed and twitching through a dream. The woman stares at him, blank and uncomprehending. She walks back into the kitchen and Magda gently closes the bedroom door and follows her.

“Where did you get it?” the woman asks, her voice shrill.

“He’s mine,” Magda replies calmly.

The woman’s chest heaves, her face is empty but her mouth twitches strangely, like a malfunctioning screen stuttering through images.

“That’s not possible,” she spits.

For a second Magda thinks the woman is going to hit her. Her body quivers with a perceptible anger that wavers in the air like heat waves off tarmac, she imagines it filling the cottage like a poison; peeling paint off the walls, rotting the food, killing the plants.

But the woman just storms out, slams the front door behind her so loud it wakes her son, his cries mingling with the sounds of tyres screeching away.

*

She brings him hunting; teaches him how to set traps, how to track animals, how to be so quiet the forest accepts you as a part of it.

He moves silent and inquisitive, chubby hands grasping at bark and pulling heads off flowers. Every now and then they stop for a snack, Magda crunching carrots, her son spooning globs of soil into his mouth.

When they find a rabbit in one of her traps, she tells him to stand back while she kills it, but he can’t seem to help himself. He wants to be close to it, presses his eye next to the rabbits and strokes its fur gently.

When she shows him how to skin it, he is particularly interested in the carcass left behind, pawing at its bare sticky muscles, the stringy tendons. She tells him to stop but before she can do anything, he’s licking it and then ripping strips off with his nails and dropping them down his throat.

In a way she is glad, raw meat is more nutritious than soil.

*

The scream is short and piercing, it slices into Magda’s sleep and drags her awake. Her heart pounds in her chest, the threads of sleep still glimmering over her eyes. Another scream answers the first, hoarse and frantic, a panicked thing profound with pre-emptive sorrow. She listens and a third scream shatters into her, it is only then that she realises the other side of the bed is empty – her son is gone.

She searches the house, ripping piles of clothes apart hoping he is hiding underneath them. The foxes continue screaming, tearing up the night with their strangled cries. They pass the screams between them, taking turns and sharing out the grief, like a group of keening women. Magda knows what they are telling her. She stops looking.

She pulls boots on and walks out; the Mother Fox is already there waiting. When she sees Magda she stands, starts trotting down the road. Her cubs, almost fully grown gather around Magda’s ankles and urge her to follow. Before she moves, she runs back into the house and comes back with a bag bulging with something light and pointed.

They walk for hours, until the countryside slips away and they’re in wide sanitized streets hemmed in with gigantic glass buildings. Magda feels vulnerable, and she can tell the foxes do too, their fur stands on end, their eyes are wary. From here she can’t see the stars or smell the earth; the streetlights are so bright it may as well be day, and everything smells like burning sugar.

Eventually they come to an estate of houses like the one at the edge of the forest, all big, identical, and white. The houses are all dark, apart from one. The Mother Fox trots over to it and sits in the lawn, Magda follows; when she steps on the grass it feels bouncy yet hard, she looks down and realises it is plastic.

This close to the house she can hear the faint strain of a woman crying, the babble of it waving gently in the wind like silk.

Magda doesn’t knock, just opens the door and follows the crying up marble stairs. Something is crawling its way through her veins, cold as steel and bright as the sun at noon. The bedroom door is ajar, she pushes it open with her fingertips and there they are – her two visitors. The man stands glowering over the bed, his face shattered; a collection of shards glinting nothing but blind pain. The woman is hunched on the bed; her head hanging limp and the bubbles of her crying slipping out from behind the curtain of her hair. Her legs are splayed, something small and blanketed nestled between them.

Neither of them says anything when she walks over to the bed, the man looks at her and down at his feet. There is an absence about him; it feels as if he is sleepwalking – a shell driven by something subconscious and distant.

The woman keeps sobbing, still hasn’t looked up. Magda knows what to expect but her breath still catches in her throat when she looks down. Instead of her son with his round flushed cheeks and his ears like mushrooms there is just a pile of soil collected in the blanket, dry and crumbling as if it has never known rain, strands of hair embedded like roots.

She gathers it in her arms, careful to not let any spill. The woman doesn’t acknowledge her. Magda considers telling them they should have known this would happen, she considers showing them the gawping wound of her grief, but she knows there is no point. They would not listen to her and she would only drag herself further under the current of her sorrow, instead she digs one arm into her bag. When she pulls it out, she hears the man gasp. She lays it gently into the woman’s lap and watches as her long spindly fingers instantly curl around it, sink into the fur with a maternal grasp.

The woman raises her head, her eyes two bloodshot balls of steel. She cradles the taxidermized dog to her breast and the man sits down next to her, gazes down at it like something long fought for, finally achieved.

“Thank you,” the woman’s voice grinds out and the man nods. They both look glossy and far away, preserved in the moment and ready to gather dust.

Magda carries the pile out, The Mother Fox and her cubs are waiting in the neon green of the fake grass. She drops to her knees in front of The Mother Fox and lays the ashy pile of dirt at her paws.

The Mother Fox nods once, amber eyes soaking in the light from the house and bouncing it back into Magda. She lowers her head, ears pulled back and hair bristling in the wind, her pink tongue unfurls, laps at the small pile of soil hesitantly at first and then, consumes it.

Shannon Benson

About Shannon Benson

Shannon Benson was born in Northern Ireland but now lives and works in Liverpool. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Queen Mary University of London and recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester. She writes short stories which often experiment with horror and the surreal. Shannon aims to unease her readers, and through a macabre lens she examines themes such as deteriorating relationships, intimacy, and the changing body. She is currently working on a novel which explores a woman’s fractured identity in the wake of her sister’s death.

Shannon Benson was born in Northern Ireland but now lives and works in Liverpool. She has a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Queen Mary University of London and recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester. She writes short stories which often experiment with horror and the surreal. Shannon aims to unease her readers, and through a macabre lens she examines themes such as deteriorating relationships, intimacy, and the changing body. She is currently working on a novel which explores a woman’s fractured identity in the wake of her sister’s death.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *