Stealing Souls; Chapter One, The Spider Baby

This is part of the book I have been working on. It will be posted chapter by chapter every other week. I will post ten chapters that together will comprise the first third of the book, then take a break before posting the next ten or so chapters. Please tell me what you think, and thank you very much for reading!

She might have been a twin. Her earliest cells seriously considered being two people. Considerable effort was put into the matter. Whole organs were sculpted, skin and bone, muscle and delicate fingers. Then it was noted that things weren’t coming together quite right. There wasn’t as much room in this womb as they had thought. Two bodies were twice the work of one, with no added reward. They were bored. So they settled for wrapping up the one girl, and called it a day.

As a result, a girl and a half was born, the unused arms and legs of one stuck to the back of the other. The birth was difficult. The cord tangled. The baby lingered, caught between nourishing fluids and light air, in the dark place where nothing was meant to live for long. The midwife panicked, grabbed a pair of silver prongs to reach in and pinch the child’s head, and pulled. Under the soft bones, a bit behind the temple, a bruise formed. Not a large one, just a few little tissues squished like a bug, before the baby popped out.

The midwife saw the unexpected arms, did not know how to break the news, and thought she would buy herself some time. She reassured the mother all was well as she washed the baby and tightly swaddled her. Upon receiving the child, the mother was first delighted. The face was perfect; chubby and brown, ringlet curls and the biggest eyes that would fit. The mother nursed and contemplated names, all the while wondering why this baby felt a little more lumpy than her previous six.

When nursing was done, the mother untucked the wrappings to get a better look. An earthquake ran through her, splitting her heart in two. She loved this child. She hated this monster.

The midwife looked on, terrified and ashamed. She was inexperienced. The mother had nearly double the midwife’s twenty years, and could have delivered the midwife’s baby far better had the situation been reversed. For that reason, the mother pulled herself together, matter-of-factly rewrapped the baby, and said nothing. It was a very pointed nothing.

The midwife fled the room. Word of her mishandling spread quickly; the mother and midwife lived in an old mall, abandoned after the Ordo Virus epidemic then crammed with shivering survivors, and there was no space between people for secrets to hide. She left permanently soon after.

The mother soon forgot the way her soul had shuddered. She got to work forgetting it almost immediately, firmly denying to herself that she had felt anything but a proper and natural motherly love. She denied her shock to everyone who inquired, and soon began to elaborate upon it, upon the power of a mother’s love that could transcend anything. The more she told people of the wonderful universality of a mother’s love, the more she felt she was a special example of it. She particularly liked to proclaim her love with the prop; that baby, pressed to her chest, nursing, wrapped but not so tightly that her audience could not see just one extra hand poking out of the blanket.

Did she love her child? The first moment of delight she felt upon seeing the baby was real. The subsequent moments that came as she tended the baby were all real as well. Warmth and acceptance quickly, utterly eclipsed even the slightest twinges of discomfort. If love is only a feeling, she loved her very deeply.

If love is only choices and actions, the mother didn’t love much of anything for long. Her head was full of chemicals. They were the ones that the brain pumps every mother with, reminding itself to treasure this half-copy of its genes. It is similar to the chemical cocktail that drives true loves together… and false loves, destructive lovers, teen crushes. It is essentially identical to the rush that causes a person to covet a beautiful painting, or new rug. The only difference, chemically speaking, is the dosage. The little girl’s mother loved her in the same way she loved the men who passed through, fathering her various children. She loved her in the same way she loved every kitten, puppy, bird, even pig or goat who passed by, feeding and naming and cooing over them, and claiming them as hers, then forgetting them the moment another animal came along, remembering them only in her count when telling somebody she owned thirty-one, no, thirty-two pets.

Because of this love, the girl was fed and weaned and given love until she could move around fairly well on her own. By that time though, her womb was stitching together another baby from another man. When the child was three, she became last year’s baby, not because of any medical matter, but simply because this was what always happened.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the mother’s neglect was that she did not notice her baby was not speaking. It was easy for her to regard this beloved creature as more object than person, so why should it be any bother if she was mute?

Whether or not the baby’s siblings loved her was a question less ambiguously settled. They knew what their mother was, and knew that each new pregnancy brought a new competitor. They did not resent her for this. As one, they adored her, and the way she barely noticed them only drove the adoration deeper into their bones, into an almost religious hunger and devotion. Each child, once they lost the protection of mother’s passion, entered a hazing period of sorts, in which he or she would have to become their own mother, raiding pantries and wearing whatever could be found. By surviving this tribulation until the next usurper came along, they were admitted into the grudging camaraderie of the larger group. That is, if nothing else happened to prejudice the group against them. Eight limbs was more than enough for a prejudice, and without words to speak her defense she was done for.

Where her older brothers and sisters had only been forced to gather crumbs for themselves, the new baby was driven away from the blankets that served as tables. Her siblings risked the waiting animals to chase her into the next room or farther. Initially, this was driven by a genuine fear of her appearance, but as with anything else that was a constant presence, the children became acclimated to her. The reason for the chase was no longer fear, but sport. As for the little girl, the weight of the added, useless limbs dragged her down, and the extra right leg was placed so as to get in the way of her good one.

In response, she learned to be a trickster. Whatever protected her, she remembered and reused. She learned to climb, to back herself into a corner and defend her back with teeth, nails and rocks. Fear, to her, was less an inhibitor, more a spring to push against so she could be repelled with still more force against her enemies. There was no malevolence in her, but there was no meekness either. She liked being alive, to feel and breathe and discover strange things, like the taste of flour and the way asphalt made the air above it hot. Nobody was going to take that from her easily.

The animals of the house were far more compassionate. Forced to cohabit, dog and cat, goat and chicken altogether, they had no particular preconceptions of what the little girl should look like, and so believed that looking as she did was exactly how she should look. Some might claim that cooperation is a human ability, but those people would be the ones who have made a very shabby observance of animal behavior. It was almost every day that one dog would knock over a trash can to share with a herd of cats, or some similar occurrence, and the girl learned to follow them, and do her share as well, opening cabinet doors when nobody was around and letting all her friends in. When the handle of a door was out of reach, she learned to lurk nearby, often from an overhead perch, until someone else opened it. Then she would lower a stick or drop a thick rope over the open door, wedging open enough for her fingers or an animal’s nose to pry it the rest of the way open. She found the safest places were dark corners, under couches and behind closet doors, and that to curl up with a dog and perhaps a few cats or rabbits was the best sort of bed.

Although she had been given a name, it was quickly lost. Her mother called her precious, honey and baby, as she did all her children. For everyone else, the spider girl was enough. And so it was that family, neighbors, pets and the girl herself all forgot she was human.

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