How art thou fallen from heaven. . .son of the
The baby was in the middle of the road.
At first it sat upright, its chubby, milky arms spinning in small circles to hold its balance. Its head seemed overly large—bald and bulbous like a human shallot. Eventually its arms stopped moving and it seemed to fall in on itself, the occasional upheaval of breathing the only outward sign of life.
Maria stopped staring at the baby and looked around. There were no cars, no other pedestrians, no one else in sight. The night was hot and humid. Mosquitoes and other flying annoyances gathered in large, tight balls under the hooded streetlights, like buzzing topiaries.
The street was narrow, hemmed in by wide sidewalks bordering identical houses with darkened windows. Each yard was perfectly square, perfectly clipped, with grass so green it seemed to glow brightly, even in the shadowed light.
This was a far cry from the urban brownstone neighborhood Maria called home. Her street was wide and busy. The sidewalks were home to dying trees sprouting from broken concrete, and strewn with plastic bags and food litter, broken toys, and feces of unknown origin. The steps leading up or down to each residence were usually lined with young children, seniors, and the unemployed. It was loud and smelly and Maria loved it.
The houses lining this street were more than dark; they were empty, sterile. There was no sense that someone cared for them or that together they formed a real community. Maria remembered a vacation she took, eons ago, when she visited a movie set that looked just like this street. The everyday place that had never existed.
She glanced again in the baby’s direction, confirming that it still sagged motionless in the road. She felt fear, but not for the baby’s safety. She felt fascination, but was also repulsed. She wanted to move away from the baby and from this place, but she needed to know what was happening, try to remember what had already happened, and perhaps figure out what might happen next.
Maria looked down. She was barefoot, in denim cutoff shorts and a white cotton tank top. The clothes were unfamiliar. This morning she left home in a long-sleeved blouse, long skirt, and sandals. She was walking the five blocks to work when she first saw him—it—she couldn’t remember which was right, but something told her it was both. She couldn’t remember what happened after that.
Now Maria was willing herself to touch the strange clothes she wore, to probe pockets or folds for clues. Those arms. The legs below them. So pale that they harbored blue shadows. They were utterly unfamiliar, and Maria realized that this body was not her own.
Her own body was petite, with smooth brown skin across taut muscles. That was the body that had begun the walk to work this morning in flowy peasant clothes. This body, this shape she now wore, was oversized, awkward, and flabby, like the baby sitting in the middle of the road.
The baby sat up again.
As she watched him, Maria felt something. She looked down. A toe moved. Then another. Soon all ten toes wriggled and Maria could feel the warm asphalt under her feet. Against her will, she took tentative steps toward the child. Stones and bits of glass worked their way under the curves of her toes and slid along the soles of her feet, but there was no pain.
The baby rolled to its knees. No longer an alabaster bundle of diapered flesh, it wobbled slowly onto tiny legs and, after a few shaky steps, walked steadily toward the darker end of the street.
There was a park there, with playground equipment caught in halos from the few working streetlights. Maria pictured herself pushing the baby in a swing, higher and higher until the rusted chains wrapped around the upper bar of the swing set and snapped, hurling the baby out onto the grass with a thump.
Or perhaps the two of them would twirl together on the creaky red merry-go-round, spinning faster and faster until Maria had to let go of the baby to hold on for herself. She would watch the baby’s eyes and mouth open wide, but the cry would be cut off as the tiny body shot out into space, beyond the limits of Maria’s dizzied vision.
The thoughts made her of two minds. She was happy at the thought of being free of the baby. Of watching a moment of joy turn to terror in payment for something that had been or would be done to her. She was also sick with shame. How could a woman, a mother, think such horrible thoughts about a defenseless baby?
Some part of Maria wanted to save the baby, to chase down its future tormentors, impale them with their instruments of menace, and protect the child from harm. She would walk through fire for it, nurture and feed its every dark desire, willingly sacrifice everything. It was this part that controlled her limbs and compelled her to struggle forward.
The rest of her, the Maria part of her, wanted to run. The real her didn’t have a baby. Hadn’t wanted a baby the one and only time she’d been pregnant. That part of her somehow knew that to stay was to suffer and die and suffer again.
The baby was moving too fast. Maria’s legs were still asleep, stumping along on feet that had barely tingled into awareness, while her arms uselessly tried to pump her numb body forward. She was only halfway down the block when the baby disappeared completely into the shadows.
Maria stopped. The effort to move had caused her to sweat. Her hair was damp, sending streams of saline down her neck and along her cheeks. A stinging drop fell into one eye and she slowly shook her head to clear her sight.
She no longer saw the park or the suburban ghost town surrounding her. She was back at home, in her own body, performing on stage. As always, she turned herself inward, reaching for the joy or the fear or the sadness she needed to convey to the audience through her movements.
A commotion in the front row drew Maria out, bringing her into eye contact with a woman in the first row who had gone into labor. The performance halted, the rhythm of the auditorium now dictated by the woman’s cries, alternating with her desperate panting. Then the woman’s eyes rolled up into her head and she flopped to one side as the baby slipped out between her legs and silently took its place in the world.
That was the body Maria now inhabited, she realized. The body of the baby’s mother, pasty and stiff because it was no longer living. How had she come to be here, trapped in this corpse, an unwilling and unfeeling guardian of a day-old baby that, mere moments ago, had stood up and walked away?
There was another noise in the night. A rustling of leaves from the park at the end of the street. The insects stopped buzzing and moved away. Maria felt warm, cold, frightened, excited, all at the same time. She wondered if this was the kind of mixed-up anticipation you felt before you died.
A figure emerged from the shadows at the end of the street. As it moved into the sphere of the first streetlight, Maria could see it was a man. He was tall, fair-skinned, and naked. He had long, blond hair that danced away from his head in messy dreadlocks. His eyes were focused on Maria as he marched toward her.
Maria knew him. Not as the trickster who had somehow swapped her body and brought her to this place, or as the creature who had just transformed from newborn baby to man in a matter of minutes (though he was both of these, she somehow knew), but as the lover she’d had years before when she was in college.
It was a brief, passionate affair that ended Maria’s virginity as well as her safe, staid existence. She had always been the good girl, the obedient daughter/sister/girlfriend. Now she was used and pregnant and desparate. Unwilling to face the dismay of friends and family or her former lover’s recrimination, she had an abortion and moved away to rebuild a quiet life for herself.
The man smiled as he approached and suddenly the puzzle that was Maria’s memory completed itself and expanded, until she understood things she should have never known. But that’s how it worked, she thought with a waning wryness. The villain always revealed the full picture before dispatching his victim.
She had seen him that morning of her last day, but didn’t register it at the time. She went to rehearsal and performed that evening, where she encountered the poor woman who had died giving birth. To him.
Each time he was reborn he drew more energy and insight into how he might regain his place in the sun. He drained his hosts just as he eventually drained the bodies they gave birth to, forcing him to start the cycle again. Maria’s abortion interrupted what he felt would be his greatest rise yet.
“You disappointed me once,” he said, stroking her hair, “but your defiance proves your power. Your strength will make me Legion.”
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want--”
He was upon her. Maria fell backwards into the grass by the curb. It was soft, cool, damp. His breath was hot and dry on her stomach as he loosened and removed her shorts.
She could feel.
She looked down, and realized she was back in her own body. She felt a moment of joy in finding something safely familiar, then let out a cry of horror.
She could feel. She was no longer in the cold, numb body of a dead woman. She was back where he could do her the most harm.
He lifted his head briefly to look at her, and there was no lust or desire on his face, only rage. This body was a vessel for a purpose—to be torn apart and discarded while she suffered within it.
Maria knew at the moment he spread her legs and dropped his head between them that the pain would be endless. And she knew he would take pleasure in that. And she knew that logically, physically, he was not able to do what he was doing, but she could already feel his fingers probing and pulling himself farther into her womb.
With each second of his unbirth, Maria let go of a bit of her sanity. Sometime after he was safely inside, sometime after he made her carry the burden of his diabolical being, she would bring him into the world and his cycle would begin again. And he would live on, longer, stronger this time until his mortal shroud began to wear and he sought a new lover-mother.
And Maria realized, with his last few tugs and the end of her fully conscious thought, there was nothing she could do about it this time.