This story is by F T Jackson and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I watch David cycle away in the first grey light of dawn, down the overgrown track, dust rising behind the wheels of his bicycle trailer. The fragile smile drops from my face as he rounds the corner. Now it is just the three of us.
I turn, supporting the baby with one arm, who, having deprived me of sleep, is now sleeping soundly. I lock the door and move to the lounge. Here I watch the dawn returning light and colour to the garden, listening to the birds’ daily excitement at the sun’s return. The baby is warm, nestled against my chest, lashes splayed over rounded cheeks, exuding peace, as if the last night of intermittent screaming had never happened. I love her fiercely, but even after three months, I still can’t see “Hannah” when I look at her. The Hannahs I’ve known were warm, solid, sociable, reliable, kind. The baby is just awake, asleep, hungry, tired, cross, has a dirty nappy or, sometimes it seems, all of the above. So, in my head she remains “the baby”.
I scan the sky remembering the smoke we saw last week, rising thick and dark, beyond the hills to the south. With clear skies since, it was probably nothing, just a wildfire, or a farmer burning stubble. And when David asked if he should still go, not wanting to appear weak, I said yes, despite my heart saying no. Moving to this isolated farmhouse six months ago seemed like the right choice, especially in these strange times; a sanctuary where we could bring up our child. I should feel safe; we haven’t seen anyone for months. But without my husband, even for just one night, and no phone or internet, I feel exposed, vulnerable, alone.
My lingering disquiet disturbs that other presence, the third in our trio, the restless creature coiling snake-like in my core. There are so many things no-one ever tells you about motherhood, not just the process, but the aftermath. There are innumerable books on pregnancy, birth, breast feeding, weaning, child behaviour and parenting, but in none of these will you ever see more than the briefest mention of the darker side. I don’t mean the myriad discomforts of pregnancy, or the frankly horrific trauma childbirth inflicts on the body, all of which are definitely under-represented in the literature, I mean the real darker side of motherhood, the one that even mothers don’t talk about, because to talk about it means admitting that it exists, to talk about it risks people thinking you are crazy.
At first it was terrifying for me, the thoughts that would spring into my head.
“What if I smack the baby’s head on the door handle?”
“What if I trip and throw her down the stairs?”
“What if I roll on her in my sleep?”
“What if I drop her in a scalding bath?”
On and on the terrible scenarios would appear, with suitably graphic images to go with them and I became desperately anxious about everything. Just carrying Hannah through the house became a test of courage. Was this post-natal psychosis? Was I a sociopath to even have these thoughts? Did I subconsciously want to harm my baby? Would I act on any of them?
And then there were the other thoughts:
“What if somebody attacks me when I’m with Hannah?”
Even recalling the vivid mental images makes me pull Hannah closer. I concentrate, putting up an impregnable screen in my mind, pushing the creature and its horrific ideas away. I look down at Hannah, worried she can sense my thoughts, but she’s fine of course, sleeping like a baby.
It was such a relief when I finally told David about the intrusive thoughts to find he had been experiencing them too. That’s when I realised this wasn’t an illness, just a dark mother-instinct I needed to acknowledge. The creature stirring within me has been recognised for years in our animal cousins, she’s the reason you don’t get between a cow and her calves and definitely steer clear of a bear and her cubs. In ancient times she helped my ancestors avoid the many dangers of the prehistoric world, but in this modern landscape, devoid of savage animals and major physical hazards, she thrashes around giving useless warnings about mundane actions and driving me crazy with endless anxiety.
I miss David already with his calm, reassuring strength; even twenty-four hours’ separation seems too long.
I realise I am brooding again and give myself a mental shake. I also realise I am hungry and carefully lay the baby on the sofa, hemming her in with cushions, before walking to the kitchen. Wanting something fresh, I step into the back garden weaving between raised beds full of overgrown herbs, vegetables and summer-ripe fruit bushes to the orchard, where I pick firm red apples. Beyond the orchard, down a steep hill, lies the estuary; a strange tidal mudflat containing the remnants of the town which used to neighbour this farm. It is high tide and only the tallest of the old town’s structures are visible, piercing the water’s surface, sculptural and mysterious in the early morning light. Taking bites of crisp apple, I meander back, focusing on how lucky we are to live in this farmhouse, with its vegetable patches, fruit trees and stored crops.
The day passes peacefully. I keep myself busy, absorbed in routine, the hours filled with chores and childcare. In the evening calm, lit by the sun resting in orange satisfaction over the sea, I tie up some straggling beans, ears tuned for Hannah’s cries. But I hear another sound instead, the hum of an engine, making my hands freeze and my heart accelerate with fear.
With a surge the real worries cascade back, ones based on solid, scary facts. These don’t need exaggeration by my primitive mother-instinct to be terrifying. How simple it was when I was a child and COVID-19 seemed like a big deal. Before the real catastrophe that followed; the effects of climate change combined with the devastation of the last pandemic. Now I am here, alone with the baby and someone is coming.
I grasp at possibilities as I run into the house, barring the door behind me. It could be a chance traveller; with luck they won’t notice the lane. I try to convince myself that it could be David. He has wanted to get hold of a working vehicle for months and with one, he could be returning today. But vehicles are expensive and hard to come by, let alone the fuel. And then there’s the smoke we saw. I try to calm myself, as the sound of the engine draws closer, but I am forced to face the possibility that scares me the most. Marauders. People who would rather take than earn; destroy than build; and away from the martial law of the cities, we are left to defend ourselves.
With the onset of fear, I feel the creature inside shake off the fragile skin of overlying humanity and bare her teeth. She rears up, old warnings filling my brain:
“What will I do if someone attacks me, what will I do…?”
Endless scenarios fill my head, but for once I welcome them, as I lift Hannah’s Moses basket and carry her gently to a hiding place, already prepared. I haven’t wasted these endless weeks of worrying, the hours kept awake by horrific thoughts even when the baby slept. I have a hundred plans now: to hide, to fight, to escape; every detail, every contingency.
The sheath of the hunting knife digs into my side, as I inch open a window in an upstairs room overlooking the front yard. Adjusting it, I listen to the vehicle bumping down the farm track and reach for the rifle, already loaded. I’m still hoping it’s David, but when the truck rounds the corner, my worst fears are confirmed. Three men sit in the cab, none of them David and none of them friendly. “Three of us versus three of them” I think, as they pull up in front of the house. Any doubts about their intentions vanish as they jump purposefully from the truck, visibly armed, spreading out across the yard, eyes scanning, movements predatory.
Kneeling, I steady the gun barrel on the window’s edge and line up the sights, the rifle’s butt firm against my shoulder, finger touching the cool metal of the trigger. Before Hannah was born, I never thought I could kill. But now? Now is time to find out if my crazy mother-instinct is a useless relic of the past, or the difference that means survival.
With conscious deliberation, I let the creature loose…
That night I lie in bed, watching Hannah sleep. The smell of freshly turned earth lingers on my fingertips. I think of the new mound in the orchard and the truck, wondering what David will say when he returns, before closing my eyes. The three of us, at peace.