Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Wet Nurse

D

anny remembered the first cry of the child as being as raw and red as it looked. The baby’s face was purple, the blood on it forming into droplets and clouded patterns, as if this newborn’s skin were made of wax, and its mother’s blood must be kept at bay. The child was boastful and hungry all at once, and Danny had stood dumbstruck wondering at how this baby – his son – could arrive in such a squall of wants and desires, curled within those tiny, grasping fingers; how it had all seemed so abstract and easy when the child was but a bump; and now, how he wasn’t even sure which way up to hold it.

Even Raven had been taken by surprise. There had been a lot of crystals, and natural birthing talk, and hand waving hocus-pocus, with her saying, “It’s the most natural thing in the world,” but when it had come down to the birth day, it was an injection in the spine, enough pushing for a large family car, and her first words on being offered that wrinkled, old-man-looking-thing in a blanket, were: “Oh, oh, God, I might drop it.”

“Him”, the nurse had corrected, with a smile, pushing the swaddling down a little from the baby’s thumb. “He’s a beautiful, baby boy.”

Eight pounds two ounces – they say that’s quite big.

Now the dog sits and looks at the bed frame: the white slats gathering dust, as if they’d never seen a mattress, or a wife anxiously holding a baby, peering into the woolly, blue, over-folds of cloth.

On the ground, where a bedside cabinet should be, there’s a scattering of discarded, thorny stems, where the curled heads of roses look in upon themselves, wretched and hard, like dry meat.

The dog’s whiskery snout is relaxed, tongue lolling, tail rubbing the grimy tiles, the brushed arc revealing the glitter of fake mica, like lost magic. The room, the ward, the tall, Victorian windows – trailing straps and sashes – are all empty. Outside, a soft silence falls, as feathers – snowflakes – wander as indistinct points behind frosted glass.

Dogs see clearly. They don’t fall for narcolepsy. They don’t glamour. If only the dog had been allowed into that clean, antiseptic world when it stank like a swimming pool.

“Fuh,” he says, another regret springing forwards. Why they hadn’t decided to have the baby in the town house, within the safety of the derelict dust and boarded up shutters, the septic peeling paint, was a mystery. It was ludicrous. Foolish! But then, of course, it wasn’t. Complications had set in (how could they know the cord was wrapped around the neck?) and there had been that stumbling, falling flight of him carrying and supporting her, as they slipped and slathered through the snow: the virgin white and fresh blood a hypnotic and terrifying vision. And the silence, as if the world were waiting, breath held, to see if they would make it. No cars, no busses were running. The snow had stolen the city.

Well, they did make it to that tall, gothic, place – enfolded in the snow-driven grounds like a carnival-of-horrors ghost house – but if one thing was for sure, the epitaph on his grave would read: ‘Complications set in.’

“Not this hospital”, Raven had whispered. “Danny, not this one.” Her hand crushing his, till her nails cut strips from his fingers; fingers which stung for days after. But it had to be this hospital. It had to be. Otherwise, his entire family would’ve died one inside the other, like Russian dolls.

And now he waits, while the dog smiles, and he’s unsure what he’s waiting for. In the next wing – where windows still twinkle – one, maybe two, women recently gave birth. But not here. Too many fresh-faced mothers fear this old wing and what once happened. Who doesn’t read the papers or trawl the web these days?

But trouble has a way of finding you.

A clump of snow falls past the window.

He exhales a soft, cloudy sigh. Not much trouble there.

Especially when he’s looking for something small, dark as grave-cloth, darting like a dragonfly, droning like a wasp, with a papery note of tattered wings; something carnivorous and vicious, with sharp, little clickity claws like a rat, scratching.

Or, more precisely, a flood of somethings with whispered, incoherent voices rushing down the iron pipes, and marble stairs, tanging the railings, full of mischief and malevolence; sounds he had felt as much as dreamed at the bedside, as those little teeth scythed by, chittering like bone-headed fish. Perhaps all that cold iron maddened them?

And all the time, he in an unnatural sleep, staring into the aquarium, drowning in the wall of water, as the indistinct lens of it distorted the vanishing woman and child, until their reflections faded altogether; and still he was beguiled by the shimmering light, no matter how his mind screamed, look away! Look away!

Glass half full, glass half empty, and now, entirely drained: the aquarium is a blank box in the wall. A few, craterous stones remain, the panes still murky, but the water has long since dwindled to nothing.

Raven!

“Hey!” A rough voice shouts from down the corridor. “Hey, you!” There is a burst of radio static that echoes off the empty spaces and the easy-clean curves at the foot of the walls. The guard has seen the torchlight throwing spectral shadows from the room.

Danny is running, the dog’s claws skittering along with him – sliding out the doorway, tickering over tile edges.

Can you arrest a dog?

“Hey!” The accelerating clump of soft-soled Doc Martin shoes.

It was a mistake to come down from the rafters while the guards were prowling, while the headlines – as well as old feelings – found resurrection on this, their most unhappy anniversary.

Mothers, Babies Stolen!

But no mention of the homeless couple.

No mention of the fugitive partner haunting the closed-down ward: still looking for the maddening things; a fugitive who brought a dog – all-eyes-and-ears for fey and foul.

After the fairies stole his wife and child.

9 comments

1 Harry B. Sanderford { 07.28.11 at 12:38 pm }

I don’t know how you do it every week Stephen. Another completely gripping story told with your astounding ability to paint such vivid, and in the case horrifying, pictures with words. Awesome!

2 Icy Sedgwick { 07.28.11 at 2:01 pm }

As sumptuous and vivid as ever, my dear. I absolutely love your writing. It puts us all to shame!

3 Stephen { 07.29.11 at 4:38 am }

I am in awe of the writing in this piece, Stephen. The imagery is both intense and satisfying at the same time. It’s the type of writing that one expects to curl up with for hours on end. Thank you for sharing your gift.

4 Steve Green { 07.30.11 at 2:01 pm }

Chock full of brilliant lines, and wonderful imagery, fantastic writing as always.

5 John Xero { 07.30.11 at 11:05 pm }

Dark, disturbing and beautifully heartbreaking.

The Russian dolls simile is spot on and all the more painful for its simplicity.

Great structure too, with the life and light draining slowly from the piece like the water from the fish tank, leaving the end hollow, echoing like empty corridors after dark.

6 Chuck Allen { 07.31.11 at 1:00 am }

Excellent writing. And the imagery and similes are great.

7 Helen { 07.31.11 at 10:48 am }

Wow that was remarkable! The story held one by every word you wrote, and by the vivid pictures you painted so skilfully with those words.It was disturbing and yet heartbreaking all at the same time.

If only I could write so well! Kudos to you for handling the written word so magnificently!

8 Joan { 08.02.11 at 12:36 pm }

Ah! You’ve written before about vicious fairies – such a relief from over-sentimentalised ones. Not for this couple though, and the dog. I loved the character of the dog, innately wise. I found I needed to read this story carefully to get all its nuances. You kept the suspense going in it very well. As Harry said, very visual style of writing here. Loved this.

9 Stephen Hewitt { 08.04.11 at 4:06 pm }

@Harry — I hang out in abandoned, Victorian maternity wards…. ah, well… let’s hope not. :) Really glad you liked it, Harry.

@Icy — Thanks Icy. I have special ‘sumptuous’ and ‘vivid’ sprinkles I keep in the cupboard, for just such a story. Love all those glittery things :)

@Stephen — thanks Stephen. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes I’m curled up with my stories for hours on end trying to get them written, edited and reading well. This one, not too bad. The next one, aye carumba… let’s just say that Ma James was as in-editable as she is formidable.

@Steve — thanks Steve. Now that I’ve run out, or the next story will be entirely in the medium of interpretive mime… :)

@John — your commenting style always poetic. That Doll line came from the back of me head somewhere, and I was glad for it. First version of this comment missed out ‘line’ (so no, there isn’t a small hatch back there).

@Chuck — thanks Chuck. A good simile is like… is like… (Is this possible or will I get stuck in a loop?)

@Helen — Just off for a quick blush… [Blush]… Back now, and very much happy. Thank you very much :)

@Joan — thanks Joan. Yes, I enjoy writing about vicious fairies, for some reason. Probably because I wrote a story a few years ago which covers where I imagine they come from… and while that story was pre-blog and probably pre-stringing-words-together-proper-like, it still had an effect on me. I’ll brush that one off, at some point. Reading carefully may, unfortunately, be necessary, with all those commas and clauses straining at the gunnels — always a constant battle for me against over-egging. Mmmmm… egg.

St.

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