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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Mere Wife

A Novel

Maria Dahvana Headley




Listen. Long after the end of everything is supposed to have occurred, long after apocalypses have been calculated by cults and calendared by computers, long after the world has ceased believing in miracles, there’s a baby born inside a mountain.

Earth’s a thieved place. Everything living needs somewhere to be.

There’s a howl and then a whistle and then a roar. Wind shrieks around the tops of trees, and sun melts the glacier at the top of the peak. Even stars sing. Boulders avalanche and snow drifts, ice moans.

No one needs to see us for us to exist. No one needs to love us for us to exist. The sky is filled with light.

The world is full of wonders.

We’re the wilderness, the hidden river, and the stone caves. We’re the snakes and songbirds, the storm water, the brightness beneath the darkest pools. We’re an old thing made of everything else, and we’ve been waiting here a long time.

We rose up from an inland sea, and now, half beneath the mountain, half outside it, is the last of that sea, a mere. In our soil there are tree fossils, the remains of a forest, dating from the greening of the world. They used to be a canopy; now they spread their stone fingers underground. Deep inside the mountain, there’s a cave full of old bones. There was once a tremendous skeleton here, rib cage curving the wall, tail twisting across the floor.

Later, the cave was widened and pushed, tiled, tracked, and beamed to house a train station. The bones were pried out and taken to a museum, reassembled into a hanging body.

The station was a showpiece before it wasn’t. The train it housed went back and forth to the city, cocktail cars, leather seats. The cave’s walls are crumbling now, and on top of the stone the tiles are cracking, but the station remains: ticket booth, wooden benches, newspaper racks, a café counter, china teacups, stained-glass windows facing outward into earthworms, and crystal chandeliers draped in cobwebs. There are drinking fountains tapping the spring that feeds the mountain, and there’s a wishing pool covered in dust.

No train’s been through our territory in almost a hundred years. Both sides of the tunnel are covered with metal doors and soil, but the gilded chamber remains, water pouring over the tracks. Fish swim in the rail river and creatures move up and down over the mosaics and destination signs.

We wait, and one day our waiting is over.

A panel in the ceiling moves out of position, and a woman drops through the gap at the end of an arch, falling a couple of feet to the floor, panting.

She’s bone-thin but for her belly. She staggers, leans against our wall, and looks up at our ceiling, breathing carefully.

There’s a blurry streak of light, coming from the old skylight, a portal to the world outside. The world inside consists only of this woman, dressed in stained camo, a tank top, rope-belted fatigues, combat boots, a patch over one eye, hair tied back in a piece of cloth. Her face is scarred with a complicated line. On her back, there are two guns and a pack of provisions.

She eases herself down to the tiles. She calls, to any god, to all of them.

She calls to us.

Tree roots dangle through the ceiling tiles. A wandering bird swoops down from the outside world, makes its way through the arch, and settles into a secret nest glittered with hoop earrings made of brass, candy wrappers, bits of ribbon.

The woman screams, and her scream echoes from corner to corner of the station, and there is no train, and no help. There is no one but us, silent, and this woman, alone underground. She grits her teeth, and pushes.

We watch. We wait.

The labor takes a day and a night. The sun transits the sky, and the moon slips through the skylight.

The baby latches fingers into the woman’s rib cage, toes into her pelvis, and forces itself out breech, unfolding, punching, pressing against something that will not give, and then does.

She screams once more, and then her son is born, wet, small, bloody. He takes his first breath. He gasps, gagging on air, his fingers spread.

His mother’s eyes flicker with fire, and her hands glow, as though a bomb has exploded in the far distance, not outside but in.

She breathes. She clenches her fists and brings a knife out of her pack. She cuts the cord and ties it off with a strip of cotton from her shirt. She looks at her child, holding him up into the thin beam of light.

The baby’s eyes open, golden, and his mouth opens too. He’s born with teeth. His mother looks at him, her face uncertain. She holds him carefully, her hands shaking.

Wonders have been born before. Sometimes they’ve been worshipped. There’ve been new things over and over, and some creatures have fallen groaning to the ground and others have learned to fly.

Never mind the loneliness of being on Earth. That will come later.

She touches the baby’s face. She washes him with our water, and swaddles him in her shirt, tight against her body.

“Gren,” she whispers.

In our history, the history of the mountain, of the land that surged up out of the darkness at the bottom of the sea, this is only an instant, and then it will be dark again.

“Listen,” she whispers to the baby.

All the other things that have been born here rise silently in the water of the mere to listen with him, toothed, clawed, each with its own ridge of spiny gleam.

The mountain’s citizens look at the infant for a moment, listen to his mother for a moment, and then dive back into the depths.

He is born.

Copyright © 2018 by Maria Dahvana Headley