When the child died, we burned the village to the ground and scattered. Some of us went west, to search for truth in the lands of the setting sun. Some went east, to find the great ocean or the grassy plains or what it meant to be alone. Some went south, into the vast emptiness of the desert. And I, who was I now and no longer we, stayed with the ashes, burying myself alive in my grief.
When the child was born, he was the great renewal of our hope. Long, and red, and breathing — so hard he was screaming, such a glorious sound as the air rushed in and out and in and out of his working lungs. We had forgotten that sound many years ago. How beautiful, to recapture a thing forgotten.
This child, our only child, was special. He deserved a name. We called him Matthew, which one of us remembered to be a word for a gift from God. We never believed in any kind of god, no matter what stories we told on long, cold nights, but we knew that our child was a gift.
We fed him until he grew chubby and tall, shielded his soft, delicate skin from the harsh sun, delighted in the sight of his playing. We stopped sending our people on pilgrimages through the wilderness to search for more of us. None had ever returned, and for Matthew we could not afford to get any smaller. For him, we learned to be singular again, to call each other names that we gathered from the air and the land and our spotty memories.
It was difficult to become I. So long it had been we, each pieces of a whole that were never fully separate. The child helped me to do it. We had many wombs among us, but only one in those bleak years kindled true and brought forth a babe lusty and strong enough to survive the ravaged world. I had done this thing. I alone. And so I was called Mama, a name we all knew from long ago when we were each small things. The name came easy to the tongue and for the first time I — not we — felt pride. I — not we — felt a joy that could exist only in my singular heart.
And yet, the child died. Seven years we cultivated and cared for him, and a little cough came to sweep away all of that hope. When our old ones began to die, we worried, but did not fear. Not really. Matthew was our gift. When all of our sacrifices and struggles were added together, didn’t we deserve to keep him?
Of course, the world does not hand out favors based on what we think we deserve.
The day the child, my child, died, I was severed from the others, set adrift with loss. I finally became I, and not we, in truth.
Matthew comes to me in the third night of my dying. I have not had water in so long that I can no longer make tears. There is the river, shimmering and hazy in the distance, but I cannot find the strength to stand and walk. I want nothing but the release of death, not caring that there is no one left to mourn for me.
The boy is brown and bright, and I want to pretend that he is as he always was.
“Where has everyone gone?” he asks. This child, forever asking questions with no easy answers.
“Go away. You are not real.” My dying mind is so cruel, to bring me such a vision.
“Where has everyone gone?” he asks, once more.
I want to shut my eyes, but I cannot look away from his face, afraid I will forget it and then he will be lost, truly. “Away. I care not where.”
“But why has everyone gone?”
“Because you left us, and it hurt too much to stay in one place anymore.”
“You stayed in this place.”
“I hurt too much to leave.”
The boy settles in the dust and draws his knees together. He reaches out a hand to touch the dry skin of my cheek, but I cannot feel anything.
“Mama. You have to get up now.”
Unbidden, I remember all the babes we tried to bring forth over the barren years. The blue ones. The broken ones. I curl my fingers into fists, and ache for my perfect boy.
“I’m no one’s mama anymore.” The words taste bitter on my tongue.
His mouth quirks into a puzzled frown. “You will always be Mama. Get up. You are not finished yet.”
“This world is finished, so I am finished. We were foolish to hope.”
“Hope is never foolish. How will you know a thing is lost, unless you search for it?”
This child, chastising me. It stings, but still I do not want to acknowledge that he is right. That there could be more to live for as long as my heart still beats.
“Who out there could need anything from me?”
He shrugs. “You won’t know until you start looking. Go to the east. Go to the west. Find someone.”
To become a piece of a whole once more, instead of a piece apart. Is that really what I want? Or do I let myself give up on hope, let the dust of my bones mingle with the ashes of our home?
I blink, slowly. When I open my eyes, the child is gone. A jug of water that did not exist before sits in his place.
I reach out my hand to take a drink.
Heather Morris lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She reviews books at http://thebastardtitle.wordpress.com/.
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