Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Lady Madonna

It’s starting.

It’s starting, and it doesn’t even hurt that much. It hurts much less than I thought it would. Not that I mind. I don’t care how much pain I endure for the sake of my baby.

I can’t cry out. I can’t make a noise. If they hear, they’ll come. And they’ll destroy us. I haven’t forgotten what happened the first time. I will never forget.

Here it comes. The contraction. Oh, oh, shit, it does hurt. How could I have forgotten what it’s like? What did Margaret say? It’s like crapping a watermelon. Yes. An elephant, more like. God, I should call her. I’m not sure I can do this alone after all. But what if she tells them? I’m not sure I can trust her anymore. I don’t think she believed me about Bryan.

I’m freezing. There’s no heat in here and the mattress is soaked. I hope my water’s broken. I hope it’s not blood. It doesn’t smell like blood—and believe me, I know what blood smells like. All I smell is dirt and rust and my own sweat. But I’m so wet! I wish I could check, but I can’t even turn on my flashlight. I have to do this in the dark, like an animal. I’m furious. I’m terrified.

But it will be worth it. I have to remember, it’ll definitely be worth it.

But does it have to hurt so much?

I remember how it was, with Bryan. Clean and antiseptic, with starched sheets and broth afterwards and smiling faces. The nurses wore perfume and makeup and looked so happy for me. There was a picture of the Holy Mother on the wall, and a crucifix. The nuns were there, cloaked in black and white as they should be. Brides of Christ, but so old. Too old for a thirty-three-year-old man. Jesus, you know, is perpetually thirty-three.

Bryan. My lovely boy. I remember wanting him so badly. I tried everything. I remember walking in the snow to the cathedral to pray: Hail Mary, full of grace. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. A son, Holy Mother, give me a son. Give me a baby. Give me a child.

In the olden days, kings chopped off the heads of their wives when they didn’t give them sons. But you know, I didn’t care if my baby was a boy or a girl. I just wanted someone to call my own. I had nothing in this world. I had no one. Surely the Holy Mother understood my plight. She had a family. She was loved. She was a queen who had everything. She stood on top of the world, and she could give me what I wanted. I knew if I did my part, she would do hers.

Christ! This is tearing me apart inside! I can’t do this. I have to get help.

But no one will help me. That’s the terror. I can panic. I can call someone. But once they see, once they know—

Think about other things. Think about the Holy Mother.

Yes. I prayed to her. I screwed like crazy. I knew she’d understand. It wasn’t lust; I wasn’t enjoying it or anything. All I wanted was a baby. I wanted to feel the weight of a child in my belly, to feel it crawl from between my legs into the world. I wanted to carry it in my arms and suckle it at my breast. I wanted to smell that baby smell and see that baby smile. My child. My Sacred Infant.

So I prayed to the Holy Mother while I was having sex with some man—usually not very good-looking, not very intelligent, not even very clean—oomphing and umphing so he’d come and I’d get his good, sweet sperm. I thought about the Holy Mother’s sweet, patient smile and I’d move faster and harder. The guys loved it. Hundreds of them. I don’t have any idea who Bryan’s father was. I mean, his earthly father. Because I firmly believe Bryan was a gift from God.

Then the day came. Oh, God, oh, God, oh God. Hang on. Hang on. I can’t do this.

The day. Came.

Yes. I knew I was pregnant before the doctor told me. I felt a spark of life deep inside me. It was like a spiritual orgasm. I lit a hundred candles to the Holy Mother and gave everything I had to the poor. I was the most radiant pregnant woman in the world. The doctor marveled at my health, my happiness. He said it was nice to see a woman so unabashedly delighted to be pregnant. Unabashedly was the word he used. I wouldn’t forget a thing like that.

Oh, God, God

Why, am I calling to God? That’s over. Over.

I went into the cathedral and thanked the Holy Mother. The depths of the holy place swirled with incense and candlelight. I heard the choirboys practicing. And she stood there with her arms open wide, roses at her feet, and I got to thinking: she wasn’t such a great mother after all. Look what she let them do to her son. Where was she when they flayed his back open? And drove nails through his palms? A real mother would have protected him. Would have done anything to keep him from harm.

Shit, shit, shit. I took Lamaze classes, but that was so long ago. I round my cheeks, I puff, puff, puff. It hurts too much. I can’t.

Lady Mother. The Lady Mother was too much of a lady. A good Catholic, maybe—

Right before Bryan was born, Margaret was mugged. Mugged? Why do they call it mugged? The man beat her. He stole what little she had left. I think she was raped, but she never admitted it. She had a breakdown. She’s never been the same.

I saw what an evil place the world was. The nuclear arms race, the pollution, the crime. I saw what could happen to a wonderful person like Margaret. Was I supposed to stand by like the Holy Mother, smiling that sick, pathetic smile, and let my child grow up in a world like that?

Then he was born, and laid into my arms. I can’t tell you how much I loved him. So sweet, so gentle, so helpless. I took him home and locked all the doors and windows. I didn’t let anyone except the priest see him, not even Margaret. At night, I tied a rope around his little hand and hooked it into a belt I wore. I kept a knife and a gun under my pillow in case someone tried to attack him.

Blessed Mother, oh, help me. But I can’t pray to the Holy Mother anymore. No matter; what use could she be?

We were watching TV one day; or rather, I was watching. Bryan was nursing. I think it was Leave It to Beaver. But it occurred to me that Bryan wouldn’t stay a baby forever. And I wouldn’t be able to protect him from the world because he would want to go out into it like the boy on TV.

No. No, no, no. He couldn’t. He couldn’t.

I think that’s when I realized the Holy Mother’s mistake. Now that I’m more sophisticated, I can’t believe how dumb she was. Because if Jesus couldn’t have gone out into the world . . .

I thought for a long time about if I was doing the right thing. I considered all kinds of methods. Cut off his pudgy, smooth legs? But there were wheelchairs. Sever his spine? I might kill him, and of course I didn’t want to do that. I just couldn’t decide what to do, so I prayed again to the Holy Mother.

And three words came to me: the soft spot. He was still a tiny baby, and very tender there, you see—

And it worked! He lived through it, and he would never care about going outside.

Things would have been perfect, but then I realized I’d made a terrible mistake: I had sinned. I was a sinner. Bryan had been baptized—foolish of me, I know, but I hadn’t thought things out too well. He would never be held accountable—he would never be able to do anything construed as sin, nothing intentional, you see. So I would go to hell and he would go to heaven.

The anguish! I’ve seen pictures of the Pieta. Where Jesus is lying across the Holy Mother’s lap and she’s still got that same, vacant smile on her face. She’s supposed to be sorrowful, but you can see the smile. Because she expects to see him in heaven. She let him suffer—she thinks because she was born pure, she stayed pure, but God, in a way, well, God raped her. She is actually quite filthy.

She should be screaming, raging! What have you done to me? To my son? You bastard! She should be running after those Romans with an axe. She should have called down the wrath of God on them.

Passive. Unbelievably passive.

I, on the other hand, took action. I could congratulate myself on at least making an attempt. But the more I thought about what I’d done, the more obvious it became that I’d insured Bryan and I would be separated for all eternity.

I realized I would have to start over.

Oh, no! I’m going to scream. I am screaming! I am! I am!

Now I whimper. I listen. No one’s coming, thank God. I’ve lived in this hovel for seven months—they were supposed to tear it down two months ago, but I know how bureaucracy works; I used to be a secretary for the planning commission—and I guess they’re used to squatters and drug users making a stir now and then. Yes, there are drug dealers and other scum living in this building—hence the knife, and did I mention the gun? Did I mention the other day when one of them tried to get in here?

Perhaps I would’ve been safer back at Margaret’s house. But I can’t trust her, you see. And all those people she lives with—the man, the little children, her old granny. And I’m scared to death someone will find little Bryan underneath the dog house. The police are still looking for him, but if God is merciful, he will rest in peace.

Still, it would be wonderful to be somewhere clean and warm. I could be in the bed with the pink and green blankets, a pot of chocolate on the bed stand.

The Holy Mother delivered in a pig sty. I can do no less.

Giving birth is infuriating. It’s one of the most passive activities there is—you lie there, screaming and panting while the doctors handle everything. That’s how it was the first time, calling me “dear” and “honey” and telling me when to breathe, when to push. If I hadn’t listened, if I’d just sat up and said, “No! I will not!”

Calm. I must stay calm.

I gave up on the Holy Mother, who wasn’t smart enough or brave enough. She certainly didn’t know how to love enough, with her foolish smiles and her roses and her hopes. So I prayed to the Devil instead. And he came to me.

He was beautiful, glowing red with a huge penis and round, firm testicles that I knew were loaded with sperm. No mortal man comes close to the devil. He’s muscular and brawny and very tall. The color of his hair changes with his mood—blond when he’s playful, black when he’s angry or stern or amorous. The Devil can be very amorous. I never enjoyed sex until I slept with the Devil.

The only time he hurt my feelings was when he called me Margaret. I can remember rolling away from him and saying, “Are you sleeping with her, too?”

“Of course not, love. Of course not, my darling. Come back to bed.” Then he grabbed my wrist and practically dragged me onto the mattress. Actually, he did drag me. He takes what he wants. He’s a real man. Not like Margaret’s husband, who stood by and let those terrible things happen to her. I wouldn’t be able to let a man like that touch me.

I got pregnant by the blessed Father of Hell, and he promised me he would take me and the baby down to dwell with him, world without end, amen. “Just don’t baptize the baby,” he said.

I wasn’t going to. I was blissfully happy. I did whatever he told me. I don’t remember those weeks at all, but I do know we were happy.

But then I passed a church and the Holy Mother lured me in. I know now that she was jealous. I mean, having the child of God is like a life sentence in a harem. Into the purdah of the faceless nuns who tell you how to be good and sweet. To keep clean and tidy and think clean and tidy; and pick up after everyone, just pick up after them and if they make you bleed, just clean it up, stay clean—

My God! My God! It didn’t hurt this much with Bryan.

Well, of course it didn’t. Of course, of course.

The Holy Mother made me ask the priest if a baby wasn’t baptized, would it go to hell. And the father asked me if I was a Catholic, because that was basic catechism. All the unbaptized babies used to go to limbo, and now they go to purgatory, and when the Lord returns, they will be gathered up into His arms and carried to heaven.

I got confused. No limbo? Since when is there no limbo? I tried to persist. I asked, what if the baby were . . . tainted? He looked at me strangely, asked me to explain.

I left. I was shaken. I thought about my past mistakes—about Bryan, especially—and I wondered if the Devil could be mistaken about things. What if I went to hell without our child? Can the son of the Devil go to limbo? I mean, purgatory?

Then it occurred to me that what I could have done with Bryan was repented. What I could still do. If I repented and was forgiven, than I could join little Bryan in heaven someday—

—ah, but only if I was forgiven. They say God forgives everything. But I have slept with His rival and I think His mother is a spineless idiot. And quite possibly, I bear the Anti-Christ.

Oh, no, I’ve been screaming again. Surely someone heard that time. It’s echoing. My thighs are covered with blood, I think. It’s pitch-black in here.

No, no, no, no

Then she came to me. The beautiful woman who said she was a social worker. She said she wanted to talk to me about the baby. Had I considered adoption? It was obvious the priest had sent her. They were on to me, then. That’s when I moved in here.

And I dreamed about her. I saw her with the Devil, my Devil, and she was kissing him and loving him, and I knew her for who she was: Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who was a witch. Eons ago, she became the Devil’s consort and she reigns with him in hell—and she steals children. She is known the world over for snatching children’s souls as they enter the world.

Deceiver! Lord of lies! The Devil had gotten me pregnant so he could give my baby to her. How he broke my heart, I who loved him so. I gave him myself, and all along he had another. He wanted to take my baby. He still wants it!

Well, I am not giving this baby to anyone. God took my first one. This one is mine. This one is for me to love. No one else has ever loved me, and I deserve someone, don’t I?

I realized then I’d been passive with the Devil, just as the Blessed Mother had been passive with God. I’d become his instrument. I remembered the blank days and nights when I did his bidding and felt nothing but sweet, unquestioning joy that he was pleased with me. Like some parent with a child, or frankly, like the Holy Mother and God. Who did he think he was?

“Try to get this baby from me!” I screamed at him. “Just try!”

“You misunderstand me,” he said, but I had ceased to believe him. He can be very cunning, you know.

I was in despair. I didn’t know what to do. And then, the miracle. The blessed miracle. For my Holy Child spoke to me, from my womb. She—for she is a girl—she said: Hail, mother, full of grace. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed be the fruit of thy womb.

We communed. It was as if she lay in my arms already talking to me. There is a closeness between mother and child, between beings who are joined, as we are joined.

With Bryan, they told me to push. If they hadn’t done that, if they’d helped me like this, I would have him now, my beautiful boy. I was too trusting, too hoping, too innocent. But his half-sister, my eternal baby, has told me what to do.

The pain is killing me, and I am glad of it. I’m going. Finally. The rope I tied around my thighs has cut into my skin. It’s so tight my knees are mashes of bruises. My wrists bleed from the handcuffs. But it is blood gladly shed, for her, for the Lamb.

I am screaming. I am biting at my bonds. I am struggling to separate my legs. The contraction, oh, God!

But I can stand it. For love of my child, I can stand it. I can do it!

Through my tears I am smiling. I’m a real woman, not some faded Rose of Sharon. Thanks to me, we’re eternally joined, body and soul. We are one. We will always be one. We will never, ever be separated. What greater love is there?

I am smiling.

We’re almost there, little darling.

We

I’m—

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Nancy Holder

Nancy Holder

Nancy Holder is a New York Times bestselling author (the Wicked Saga, co-written with Debbie Viguie). She has written over eighty novels ranging from books for early readers to adult horror and science fiction. Her work has appeared on the recommendation lists of the New York Public Library, the American Library Association, and the American Reading Association. She has received five Bram Stoker awards, a Scribe Award, and a Young Adult Pioneer Award. She is known for writing material based on properties such as Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Teen Wolf, Beauty and the Beast, Saving Grace, Hellboy, Hulk, The X-Files, and others. She has written over one hundred short stories, many appearing in Best of anthologies, and she teaches in the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Program offered through the University of Southern Maine. She lives in San Diego. Learn more @nancyholder and at nancyholder.com.