How well do you know your neighbors?
I told you about that doula who moved into your old apartment after you left?
The one with the Greek name and the crooked pinkies?
You’ll never believe what we found out about her.
Do you have time? We can talk later if you have to go.
Try to keep an open mind about this…it’s a lot to take in.
I must say, she didn’t strike us as odd at first. She just seemed like a friendly old lady. Nosy, maybe…a little. But harmless. It wasn’t until Adele Fishbine’s twins were born that we realized things weren’t quite as they seemed where she was concerned.
You’re lucky you got out when you did.
Although if you’d stayed, she never would have come in the first place…
Remember how we called our little brownstone The Nest? Seven couples in the same walk-up, all at the same stage in our lives, all working on starting our families. So sweet, that building, and so quaint, how the men would gather in the Howards’ den on Friday evenings, and the women would take over Darla Remington’s kitchen to open a Chardonnay and catch upon how the babymaking was coming along. And remember how we all agreed the practice was fun, even if the actual pregnancies weren’t happening as quickly as we wanted it to? Except for Lisbeth Adams, of course. We all knew she was the Fertile Myrtle of the group; that Philip could stir her iced tea with his middle finger and she’d conceive as soon as she drank it. She’d already lost two, though…I don’t know if you recall that. We knew this time, she was going full-term. There was just something grounded about her, something that said she wasn’t letting go of this one no matter what.
That was just before your Bill got his dream job at the agency. I think you two ended up leaving for Boston before Lisbeth was through her first trimester. The doula moved in to your empty unit a week later.
Suddenly, we were all as fertile as Lisbeth.
We didn’t realize until much later that our conception dates coincided with her knocking on our doors to introduce herself as Zera Frangoulis, our new neighbor. She kept mostly to herself after that, with a wave in the hall or a “Hello, ladies,” in the furnace room when we were down there doing laundry, and she happened to be down there doing hers, too. But within six months of her arrival, each of us was pregnant in some capacity – from a few days to a few weeks to a few months. Our Friday night get-togethers became more like a baby lottery. Each week, we drew a new winner, and one more of us switched from wine to sparkling cider.
It was a strange and wonderful sisterhood we shared.
We really missed you during those moments.
Still…it’s for the best that you weren’t there.
It was Roberta Callas, I believe, who invited her one Friday. Said she felt sorry for the old woman, that she never saw another soul come or go from the apartment and assumed she had no visitors because she had no family or friends in the area. As soon as she said it, we all agreed: we’d never seen anyone come or go, either. Maybe it was the incredible concentration of hormones in the room, but one by one, we all began crying for the lonely woman in Unit 8. So Roberta knocked on her door one Wednesday to tell her about our get-togethers. Told her to just show up, that she shouldn’t bring anything, that we had cider (or wine if she preferred) and light snacks, like appetizers. Zera said she’d not have that. If she were to be a guest, she would be a proper one and bring a stuffed olive tray and bruschetta. We just loved her taste in snacks.
We all made a note to expand our horizons where our hors d’oeuvre were concerned.
And when she came, we were so pleased to have her. She commented on all the bellies—and how could she not? She was surrounded by babies-in-progress at every turn! She told us that she’d been a doula for forty-seven years before she retired. Roberta thought “doula” meant “witch” in Turkish, until we told her that it meant something closer to “midwife.” And that it was Greek, not Turkish. We thought it wonderfully fortuitous, that a neighborhood enclave laden with pregnant women suddenly had in their midst someone who’d spent her life bringing children into the world. How she’d immigrated to America and brought her traditions with her, finding work wherever people had minds open enough to accept her alternative ways. About the mothers she’d helped through drug-free deliveries with nothing more than the power of touch and a soothing voice. We ate up her stories as fast as we ate up the stuffed olives.
She’d probably had a bottle and a half when she told us she had a way of knowing how a child would turn out. We couldn’t let that go unquestioned, now could we? So we pressed her until she told us that she just knew things—how well they would sleep at night, or how curly or straight their hair would be, simply by reading the mother’s womb. “Like reading a crystal ball,” she said, in that delicious accent. “But a crystal ball with a baby inside.” We all laughed.
And then, we all asked at once, “How do you read a womb?”
She showed us. She had Lisbeth lift her blouse to reveal the Belly, a grand thing consideringshe was about eight months along by then. She placed her hands open-palmed on either side like she was testing a melon for ripeness. She slid her fingers along the underside and over the top, and Lisbeth giggled. Then she pressed her thumb against the top of the bump and slid it right down to Lisbeth’s belly button, which was stretched out flatfrom the baby, of course.
“It’s a girl,” Zera said.
“Sorry,” Lisbeth protested. “We’ve had three ultrasounds. It’s a boy.” We all nodded and confirmed that yes, we’d seen the video with the clearly-visible rocket ship between the baby’s legs, and Adele added that she’d been in the room when the technician typed “Mommy’s Little Guy!” on the monitor.
“Science makes a guess,” the doula said firmly, “but Zera makes a promise: your baby is a girl.”
Well, what could we do? It would have been rude of us to insult her by insisting that Adele was having a little Stuart.
When we told our husbands about it, they laughed. They warned us against being too trusting of a crazy old woman who drank seventy dollars in wine in exchange for bringing a plate of olives.
But wouldn’t you know it? Lisbeth went into labor two weeks later, and Suzette was born — not Stuart, like Lisbeth and Philip had expected, and had planned their nursery around, and stocked the closet full of little boys clothes in anticipation of. But Suzette, a little girl.
Of course, things like this happen all the time.
Still…we all remembered what Zera had told us.
So we invited her to the next get-together. She brought baklava this time. We gushed over how accurate she’d been, how knowing. We had her read another womb, and another. We laughed at how far astray her predictions were from what we knew medically, historically— logically —about the children we were carrying. But the months passed, and every time a new baby was born, as soon as we made eye contact with those precious angels, all of Zera Frangoulis’ truths blinked back at us.
The husbands grew tired of hearing us gush over how accurate she was, how eerily correct her sensations were to what we actually delivered. The sex, the size, the shape. Things that she couldn’t possibly have known simply by feeling our stomachs. For instance, there wasn’t a set of green eyes in all of Roberta’s family, and certainly not in Darren’s. Zera saw them, though. And Jasmine was born with eyes as green as clover, from the moment she opened them. Her left ear had a little nibble taken out of it, too – that was a Zera prediction also.
And of course, there was the cleft palate.
Zera saw that as well.
Oh, Jasmine’s fine now. Had the surgery a few weeks after she was born. You can hardly tell anything was ever wrong now. But that one hit a little too close to home. I think it spooked us.
It also made us…conscious, I guess?
About the risks that come with every pregnancy.
Small though the chances were, we all had to know from then on: was there something we should prepare ourselves for; that we should know to expect so that the only surprises would be pleasant ones when Zera’s predictions either didn’t come true, or didn’t foretell some tragic compromise?
It was a mix after that. Zera would see a button nose, piano-player fingers…and a club foot to go along with them. Or she’d see a skinny chin and dimples…and a sixth finger on the left hand. Or she’d see a star-shaped freckle on the right knee, a nest of blond curls…and a stomach formed outside of the abdominal cavity.
Every one of those came true, as Zera predicted.
Of course, we were overwhelmed, but so, so grateful for the warning. And inevitably, these maladies were repaired, of course. Those children are none the worse for them, thank heavens.
And then, her predictions began including behavior…and not the good kind, either. If we hoped for a ballerina, we got instead, “This child will fuss and never sleep,” which was vague and broad; how many children fuss and never sleep? But when she said it about Roberta’s Jimmy, what she meant was he will never sleep. As in, the child takes five-minute naps throughout the day, has never had a full night’s sleep in two years. Or if we’d dreamed of a scientist and waited to hear the good word, Zera would tell us, “This child will make noises non-stop,” which we took to mean the baby would be a babbler. Nothing to worry about, since vocalizing equates to intellect, according to the experts. But when Darla’s Candace arrived, she made what amounted to birdsong continuously. She hasn’t stopped making sounds since she was born.
Darla and Ed took to wearing earplugs after the second week.
If any or all of this should have scared us, well…it didn’t. Somehow we just kept going. Having children. Listening to Zera tell us all about them before we delivered them.
Then, the most amazing thing happened.
In year three, all seven of us found ourselves pregnant simultaneously.
We all knew about women’s cycles syncing up, but this was ridiculous! Zera, of course, read our wombs. But her prediction took a decidedly dark direction this time. It seemed that there was something direly wrong with each of our fetuses. Twisted spines or missing eyes. Cognitive defects or personality shortcomings. Terrible, terrible things. We all hoped for Zera’s winning streak to come to an end, that she’d taken too much to the wine and it had skewed her abilities.
When we delivered twisted spines and missing eyes, our hearts lurched.
Was there something about the building? we wondered. We’d heard tell of asbestos in nearby neighborhoods, of pesticides in the parks and phosphates in smoke from the factories across the river. It seemed the longer we’d stayed where we were, the more we’d delivered children who were compromised in some manner or another. We couldn’t put all the facts together in a way that made sense.
We realized there might be influences beyond biology at play.
Then Adele Fishbine, who was crazed with worry in her seven month over what lay ahead, insisted that Zera read her womb in private. She wanted to know, but she didn’t want to know, if that makes sense.
I suppose none of this makes sense, does it?
It will, very shortly. Just you wait.
So Zera took Adele into the den while we all milled about anxiously in the kitchen. We joked that we knew how the men felt, helplessly waiting for the children to be born, doing nothing more than holding our hands and cheering for us to push. Then Adele emerged from the bedroom silently, and Zera drank up the last of her wine, said her goodbyes, and left.
“What’d she say?” I asked, being the least patient of the whole group.
“She said it’s…” Adele couldn’t finish.
“It’s what, sweetheart?” Roberta asked softly, in that way she has. “We’ve all been through something similar. You can tell us, whatever it is, and we’ll be right there to help you through, one hundred percent.” The other ladies cried out their agreement, like some sort of cult making a pact made over half-eaten appetizers.
“She said it’s…twins,” Adele said emptily.
It wasn’t possible. Sure, some of us had multiples – and of course, Zera had seen those coming. But Adele had seen the ultrasound screen, and the technician, too. And the doctors. There was no mistaking one fetus, and one alone—especially this late in the pregnancy. Surely the doctors would have found the second one by now…surely they couldn’t have missed something like this.
When Adele’s twins were born, we all felt the heartbreak.
It was as if one child had been ripped down the middle. Each one had a single arm, a single leg, a single eye. Two halves of a whole that had somehow malformed in utero and disguised itself as a single child. Their half-hearts had continued beating through the pregnancy, but they couldn’t sustain.
They died hours after being born, of course.
There was no way for them to survive.
We were all stunned. It could have easily been one of us whose child was born in halves. Poor Adele opted in the delivery room to have her tubes tied, to never have another child. The doctors urged her to wait until she was in a clearer state of mind, but she insisted. The two she’d had before this were healthy and happy, even with the strange otherness that Zera had predicted about them, even with all the surgeries and medical corrections. Better not to tempt fate with another go, she said.
Poor Adele. Hurts to remember the pain in her eyes, the surrender.
And the husbands? Well, you couldn’t have stopped them from consulting lawyers then. They were convinced – convinced – that the drywall used in the brownstone renovations years before had been the cheap stuff brought in from China, that it had leached formaldehyde over time and had brought about all of the trouble. None of the lawyers would take the case with so little proof of such strange and abnormal evidence. We were blessed in some strange way that we had Zera to tell us that heartbreak was indeed on the horizon. It gave us a chance to prepare, at least.
The husbands swore she was in on it somehow. They called her a kook and forbade us from interacting with her.
As if those men could tell any of us what to do.
We all helped Adele find her way back to a sense of normalcy, though we all knew she’d never be the same. None of us would. We had built our little families on faulty foundations, and our children had known pain because of it.
None of us could afford to sell, and none of us could bear to leave.
Isn’t that crazy?
It felt as if Adele’s misfortune had sealed all of our fates. None of us became pregnant after her child – or children – were born. If the building was intent on torturing our innocent intentions of bearing our children in a loving environment with walls that leaked poison, then they’d finished their work. Like Adele, we all attended to our children. We were complete regardless of all we’d been through.
We decided it was best that the rest of us not know what might be coming for us.
Without our womb reading parties, Zera practically secluded herself from us. When we invited her to play with the children, she told us that a doula’s job was to deliver them, not to wipe their (pardon my French) asses. We wouldn’t have asked her to do that, anyway. But we were so crestfallen. The woman had helped prepare us for the challenges our children faced, and now she wanted nothing to do with them. It was yet another blow. The Nest just wasn’t the same after that.
But you know it doesn’t end there, don’t you?
Of course you do.
It was Martha who planted the seed about other possibilities for what had happened to the children. It was just after Veronica’s third turned two and stopped responding to social cues. “He’ll be brilliant but removed from the world,” was how Zera had described him when she put her hands on Veronica’s belly all those months ago and swept small circles in both directions. Martha thought there was no way Zera could have known about a quality like that from a child still in utero. There must have been more to what she was predicting for us…maybe she knew about the formaldehyde in the Chinese drywall like the husbands suspected. Or maybe she’d studied the area for troubling power lines or chemicals in the waterworks. Whatever the information, she knew more than she was letting on. She had to! She was too spot-on with her predictions not to have special knowledge. Martha was certain it wasn’t just soothsaying happening here.
She was so very right.
One afternoon, Martha and I were gathering the mail, chatting about how quickly all the little ones were growing up. We walked past Zera’s apartment and found her door ajar and a stocking left in the hallway. It had been so long since anyone had seen her. We knew it wasn’t right to just go in without Zera’s permission. But we assumed she was doing laundry, probably loading the washer and measuring detergent. With the old woman’s hip as bad as it was, we knew it would be a slow climb back upstairs for her. We figured we had a solid ten minutes to “investigate,” as Martha considered it. I thought of it as prying, really. Invading the old woman’s privacy. And besides, we reasoned together, what if she’d been returning from doing the laundry and had fallen in her apartment? There’d be no one to help her, to call an ambulance or make sure she hadn’t broken anything.
We just had to go in.
I suppose the ends justified the means, considering what we found.
It was the strangest set-up, something like you’d see on those forensics crime shows, where they enter a serial killer’s home and find a wall-sized collage of all the killer’s victims. Only Zera wasn’t killing anything. She was creating something. There were faces among the tattered, late-19th century furniture and the clutter of magazines strewn all about. Faces tacked to the wall of her breakfast nook, like cut-outs from fashion journals, all of children, their stray pieces snipped and torn and glued into place. She’d added the green eyes cut out from one face onto the cherub-round face of another, and scalped yet another’s ginger mane and taped it atop the whole thing. She’d attached limbs to bodies they didn’t belong to, crafted strange, chimeric combinations of features. Paper dolls that bore sinister similarities to children we’d seen, children we knew.
Children we’d carried and delivered ourselves.
And there were names, too – can you imagine? She wrote the names of our children on tags beneath each, with scrawled notes about them. Pictures of hands or fingers and curved arrows next to each one, like a sign language diagram. And next to those, their likes and dislikes, their allergies and maladies. Their personalities and temperaments and abilities. She’d written dates beside each comment, all of them before the children were born. They all ended with our delivery dates, and a star or an X.
Adele’s twins were there, with red lines slashed through their little figures.
I get goosebumps just telling you about it now.
Martha noticed before I did that it all seemed to add up to formulas, that maybe what the doula had been predicting about our children wasn’t really prediction at all. Maybe it was programming. Maybe Zera was somehow manipulating our fetuses to create our children to her specifications.
Who’d have ever thought such a thing?
I didn’t figure we had much time left before Zera returned, but Martha was determined to prove her theory. So she snatched one of the collages from the wall…the one with Darla’s beloved Michael’s name written on it. Michael, with his bent leg and his peanut allergy and his flaming copper hair that wasn’t a match for either Darla or Perry, and wasn’t part of either family line. Oh, had that ever caused a controversy for a while amongTthe Nest! Everyone gossiped about who the father might really be. Darla is as Christian as they come and would never in a million years entertain such a notion as infidelity. But we remembered what Zera had said when Darla was in her sixth month: “This one will be born wearing a crown of fire – coils of hair red as flame.” Darla had protested, but when Michael came, it was just as the doula had predicted.
Or as she’d pre-determined.
We called a special Wednesday night gathering at Martha’s so she could present her facts and show off her new sectional all at the same time. Naturally, Zera was not invited. There was such a chaos in that living room! We were there well past midnight, with all of our baby monitors attached to our hips so we could hear from her apartment if any of our beloveds made a peep. They cooperated.
They seemed to know.
We analyzed Darla’s Michael, lined up Zera’s diagram with all of his features. A fascinating pattern emerged in the drawings of hands in the margins, and Adele was the one to realize it. “These are the gestures she usedon me,” she said.
Martha’s hand flew right to her mouth. “That old woman had some sort of choreographed set of hand motions that can rearrange our children into whatever she wants.”.
Our minds were blown, of course.
We laid out two years of memories like tarot cards, each offering our own pieces until we’d learned her system, how we all felt sparks beneath their skin when she touched us, yet no one had ever said anything about it until we opened the discussion. We determined that a single finger from Zera Frangoulis would change a baby’s physical attribute; two fingers would change a personality. A full hand turned clockwise would alter intellect; counterclockwise would impact temperament. A thumb dragged down the center could change the baby from a boy to girl; dragged up could split a single into twins, triplets, or more.
Can you believe that?
We figured it out ourselves, right there on Martha Howard’s new sofa.
It all made sense then, how stunned we were at how uncanny her predictions were.
They weren’t predictions at all.
They were instructions.
Adele called it the work of a demon, and none of us could really disagree.
We decided then and there we had to confront her. We had to know one way or another what she knew about our children…or what she’d done to them. So we waited, watched her door daily until we saw her headed for the laundry room again. Then we signaled one another, and we all descended the stairs into that steaming hell we called the basement.
We surrounded her, her back turned to us as she worked. Martha was as bold as coffee. She didn’t mince words. She held out the picture of Michael, with its strange hieroglyphics, and said, “Why would you do this to our children…to us?”
Zera didn’t even know we were in the room. She spun from the dryer where she was taking out a fresh load, smiling at first, but only for a second. When she saw it was the entire Nest hovering over her, she knew she’d been found out. We could see it in her eyes. They never flinched, never betrayed a hint of regret.
So cold, this woman.
She didn’t bother to deny it, either. She just told us—and I’ll never forget this; it chilled me to the bone—“They never would have been good enough for you bitches anyway.” The nerve, right? Someone telling us that our children wouldn’t have been perfect if she’d left them alone…not that they aren’t anyway, all things considered. But you know what I mean. It was as if her tinkering around with their little bodies and their tiny brains wasn’t morally corrupt. It sounds strange even saying that, considering the impossibility of what she did.
It didn’t sound strange then, though.
Adele said she was going to call the police, but Zera scoffed and told her there was no law on the books about what she’d done. And she was right. Martha told her that Jack had a cousin who reports for network news, and that she was sure it would make an excellent exposé, but Zera laughed and said no one would believe such a thing could happen, especially coming from a bunch of hysterical new mothers who were exhibiting signs of post-partum depression. And delirium.
All of us fell silent right there, knowing there was nothing we could do to reveal her, and certainly nothing we could do to make her repent for what she’d done to us. The doula just clucked her tongue and kept rolling her stockings and folding her towels, and laughing.
Laughing at us, at our children.
At the misery she’d delivered to our doorstep.
It made pushing her into the furnace all the more satisfying.
We had a moment of…what do they call it – hive mind? Yes - we had a moment of hive mind, all of us reaching for her at the same time, grabbing at her arms and dragging her back, back, opening the door and throwing her inside. We tried to feel bad as we waited for her to burn, listening to her screams until the heat suffocated away the last of her breath, hearing to her skin crackle and pop, smelling her – first her sweater, then her hair, then her flesh, like sour barbecue. Roberta, quick thinker that she is, grabbed her laundry and shoved it into the furnace on top of her. “No one will come look for her,” we all said. “No one ever comes to look for her.” And we knew – we just knew— that she wouldn’t have stopped. Which of us would have moved out first, to be replaced in The Nest by another innocent family who had no idea what they were in for? We couldn’t take the chance that she would play havoc with other people’s children, could we?
No. We couldn’t.
What she did to ours was plenty.
And you know, the oddest thing happened as we all went back to Martha’s and dove into the Chardonnay (except for Veronica, who’s expecting number three in about two months…you knew that, right? Fertility returns to The Nest!) Sure, we breathed our collective sigh of relief, and as the shock of our discovery settled in, and the realization occurred that we would now bear the challenges Zera had bestowed upon our children as much as the children would, and the grim reality of what we’d done washed over us, we began laughing. Laughing! Gallows humor, I suppose, but it was our coping mechanism. Then Lisbeth said, “Just think, we’ll never have to see her ugly hooked nose around here anymore.”
Well, Martha nearly choked on her wine. “What are you talking about? Her nose was perfect. The best thing about her, in fact. It offset her double-chin.”
Adele blinked three times, like an actress in a play. “Are you serious? She was thin as a rail, that woman. Undernourished, if anything. Hardly had one chin, let alone two. Made her seem even shorter than she actually was.”
Now Roberta’s eyes burst open wide like grapes coming out of their skins. “Zera Frangoulis was almost six feet tall, ladies. I should know; I’m five-eleven, and I had to look up to make eye contact with her.”
You can imagine how our laughter died down as we all stared into our glasses and tried to make sense of how we’d each seen a different woman when we looked at the doula. We guessed maybe Roberta had picked up on something right from the beginning.
Maybe the doula had been a witch after all.
Isn’t that incredible?
Anyway, it was great catching up with you, and I’m SO HAPPY to hear the exciting news! You and Bill will make such wonderful parents…really, the best. I’d better let you go so I can get back to my own kids, speaking of. They’ll be three years old next week — can you imagine? Three already, and the scar from my C-section is still tender—haha! I’m sure they’ve scaled a bookshelf by now, and they’re throwing down vases and photo frames. Last week, I left the front door open for two seconds – two! – and when I turned around, I found them across the street, up the Miller’s tree, terrorizing Cupcake, their Abyssinian.
Who would have thought conjoined quadruplets could run so fast or climb so high?
That’s for sure.