The baby wasn't left on my doorstep, although that's what I plan to tell her when she's old enough to wonder how she came to live with me. From a story like that, my little girl can weave herself a shimmering cloak of mystery and possibilities. What child doesn't like to think him or herself magical and somehow remarkable? And perhaps a girl needs it even more than a boy: a pleasant fairytale to offset the dawning awareness that nature is setting her up for a little joke, one that will leave her superseded before she's halfway through her life.
It was late. A knock at the door. I answered. I wasn't supposed to recognise the woman, but naturally I did.
She rushed past me, a demon of the air on a powdery night breeze. Before her, she bore a plastic sportsbag. Her hands seemed barely to touch it, as if it contained some cursed object, or something diseased. "Where is he? Where's Anton?"
She blasted into the kitchen. I followed her. "He hasn't been back since he went to you," I said. I don't think she heard.
My hands shook a little. For a year, she and I had been enacting a ritual of appearing unaware of one another's existance, while the hypervigilence common to lovers and enemies advised us when to look away and feign nonchalance. Now she was here, in my home. And I felt disappointed. At close range, under the queasily buzzing striplight, she looked plain and faded and blotchy. As did I, more than likely. More troublingly, she had constellations of tiny cuts on her face and neck and hands. I didn't know what they could mean. Anton was never violent. He was a kind man, in his way.
But what could have caused him to leave the mother of his newborn child?
The wind changed direction and tried to run upstairs, but I stepped between her and the staircase and gave her a look. I have this look. It changes people's minds.
A noise, fine-tuned to attract attention and excite pity. It sounded like a lamb bleating. We both looked at the bag.
"What's in there?" I said.
She hesitated, watching me, weaving minutely like a computer-generated being, embarrassingly stuck for a moment in a holding pattern, and then thrust the bag into my arms.
"It's all yours," she said.
I suppose I was part of the first wave of mutants, although we didn't consider ourselves that. My mother died at my birth. Like all babies in the womb, I took my nourishment from my mother's body. Only I wasn't like all babies. I'd drained her beyond what she could spare, depleting her resources slowly, wearing out the less vital organs first to keep her alive until I was ready to be born. I think that's why I'm not as disgusted or as enraptured by the obviously mutant kids as a lot of people still are. I'm a mutant on the inside.
"Perhaps that's what a baby is, when it's growing," Anton had said, when I told him. "A kind of a vampire."
I loved him a little more for that. But I think it was a mistake to tell him, because it made him love me a little less. Or maybe it was simply that he was worried about me, about what it might mean if I fell pregnant. Either way, there was a change. That night he cuddled me, but when I tried to take things further, he said he was tired. There was no more sex after that.
Even if it hadn't been for the bleating, I think I'd known from the first what was in the bag. Sometimes you know more than you think you do.
Carefully, I placed the bag on the kitchen table. Something happens to you when a violent encounter is on the cards and then doesn't take place. Your instincts go a bit haywire. It's a relief, I suppose, but you were all geared up to fight or run away and when you don't get the opportunity to do either, it leaves a hollow, unsteady feeling, something like seasickness. I giggled, a little hysterical as I reached inside the sportsbag.
At first I saw nothing amiss with the infant, wrapped up, as it was, in a lacey white blanket. But no one dumps a normal kid. Not anymore. Possible mutations flickered through my mind and I prepared myself, as I thought, for the worst. But when I pulled the blanket aside, I saw something I couldn't have prepared myself for. In place of hair, the baby's head writhed with hundreds of tiny flesh-coloured serpents. My fingers brushed against them. They were warm. I think I may have screamed, but somehow I managed to keep hold of the baby.
With no warning, the serpents whipped at my face, their pinprick fangs bared. I jerked my head back just in time and held the baby at arm's length. The baby screwed up its face and began to cry. It sounded like a lamb. Even without the serpents it would have been an ugly kid.
I hadn't wanted Anton to leave, but I'd known it was going to happen. Even before he met her. Because everything changes. We all keep trying on new patterns, new ways of being, always looking for new ways to survive and extend our roots and branches in the form of babies, inventions, works of art, new businesses, new philosophies. Some of us choose patterns that doom or destroy us, but we have to try, because--who knows?--our way may be better than anything anyone tried before. And if it turns out not to be, perhaps we get what's coming to us.
It hurts to think that way. I want to believe I'm a good person, that I'd be a good mother--if I could just handle that kind of toll on my body. And that, either way, my life still has a purpose. There are days when I can believe that.
I wish I'd known my mother.
I didn't mind looking after their baby for a while. Even if she had serpents for hair. What troubled me was that I didn't know what she needed. I barely knew how to hold her. The baby squirmed instinctively into feeding position and began making hopeful mouths against my nipple. Poor thing.
You'll not have much luck there, I told her. I combed my fingers through the little serpents. They were drowsy and tractable now. Still, I let her get on with sucking at my blouse, travelling hopefully, while I wandered around the kitchen looking for something I could feed to a baby.
The next day, I took her to the doctor to ask how I should feed her properly. I wondered whether there would be a drug to make me express milk, but the doctor wrote down the name of a formula I had to buy.
She examined the baby's mass of serpents. "At least they're not venomous," she said.
"Is she yours?"
"No," I said. "I found her." Then: "I'm keeping her." I wondered what made me say that. I got no argument. The care homes are full of unwanted mutant kids.
Not all these kids are unwanted, mind you. Some of them are luckier. If you can call it luck. For example, there are kids that look like cartoon characters--stick-figure bodies and huge, limpid eyes that peep at you from under touseled hair. Those kids never end up in the homes. I've heard they change hands for serious money. Even more than you'd pay to adopt a normal kid. You see them paraded round in rich areas, their hair tinted like poodles, in peach or pink or blue.
That evening I had to go into work. I thought it would be OK as Pizza Zone has a creche. My shift was on Celeste's watch. She looked at me doubtfully as I showed her the baby. I'm on borrowed time with her anyway, because I've called in sick a few times lately. She knows I'm not really sick. Not the kind of sick that earns you a day off.
"This isn't your baby," Celeste said.
"I'm keeping her."
"Those serpents will bite the other children," Celeste said. "You have to take her home. I'll get someone else to take your shift tonight."
I looked at Celeste. I knew I could make her change her mind.
"On second thoughts, I can't have you keep messing me about like this," Celeste said. "If you're not back here in an hour, don't bother coming back at all."
One Hallowe'en I dressed as a vampire for a school party. I'd made the costume myself and ran through the sunbeams and splinters to the top of the house, to show it off to my father. He began crying. I couldn't understand why. I was afraid and began to cry too. I couldn't comfort him or apologise. He wouldn't look at me. Perhaps he was afraid I would give him the look--that I would change his mind, and he wouldn't love me anymore.
It's a problem. I can change people's minds, but I never know exactly how they're going to change. It doesn't always work in my favour. Sometimes I wonder whether I gave Anton the look by mistake. That could have cooled his feelings towards me. Perhaps I've just not figured out how it works yet.
Maybe I didn't know how to look after a baby. My mutation had left me without a model from which to learn how to be a mother; perhaps it had also deprived me of the proper instincts. Perhaps that was what Anton saw that turned his heart to stone--not the risks of pregnancy but the likelihood of failure afterwards. That I was unfit for purpose.
I went home on the bus, jiggling my little Medusa on my knee. I wrapped the lacey blanket around her head so that her serpents couldn't strike at the other passengers. I talked to her. About nothing. About the trees and the pigeons and the senselessly milling people. About all the pointless, amazing everyday stuff you see when you ride the bus. That hollow, dizzy feeling hurled itself at the wall of my stomach, but I told myself I wasn't going back to my job at Pizza Zone and it began to ebb.
Once indoors, I offered her the formula, but she turned her head away and rooted at my breast. I put the teat of the bottle near to my nipple, hoping it would prompt her to take it, but succeeded only in dribbling the formula over myself. Eventually she fell asleep.
I drowsed and worried. The baby seemed as fragile as a paper doll. If she died it would be my fault. I didn't want it to be my fault, but, more than that, I didn't want her to die. I stroked her forehead. My fingers ran over the gently shifting mass of serpents. They were used to me now. After a while the serpents rippled and tickled over my arm. They pierced my arm with their pinprick fangs and began to draw blood.
I flinched, but not enough to wake her. The baby had to feed and it didn't hurt so very much. After all, we all start out as vampires. And perhaps I was well adapted to that.
They say, they say. If you listen to "them", the voices of our fears and desires, they say we're looking for a way to survive. Not just individuals, not just on a day to day basis, but as a species. They say that's why there are so many mutant kids being born. Something at some deep, mythic level knows that we're in deep shit and is casting around for a way out. We're trying to save ourselves even as we do our damnedest to sink back into the pit.
The baby snuggled against my breast and her serpents suckled blood from my arm, until she blushed pink and sated. I thought perhaps we were bonding, this ugly, beautiful, unhappy baby and I. And even though I told myself I was deceiving myself, that bonding was just a pleasant fairytale that our ancestors whisper like the wind blowing through our bones to persuade mothers to take care of their children, I thought she and I both needed to wrap ourselves in that fairytale. I thought perhaps we could love one another.