The Birth Cave by Susan Friedland

BOMB 8 Winter 1983
008 Winter Spring 1985
Judith Linhares

Judith Linhares, Lovers Cave, 1982, gouache on paper, 31 × 37¾ inches. Courtesy of Concord Contemporary Art.

Even now blindness does not seem to me an impediment to motherhood. In the past, the children arrived quiet and tired, grateful to sleep with me on the bloodied earth. As my baby-wound heals, I feel no desire to move from the birth spot. And with the coordination of instinct that makes family life in this birth cave such deep joy, my children seem to partake of the wariness that flow from the mud-caked wound. Though their bodies are globes of unmarred flesh, and once cleaned, are never in danger of seeping blood from their expertly severed cords, they nevertheless seem to understand perfectly the danger I run of a slow blood-death, and have to be encouraged to stop fidgeting half-halfheartedly in the dirt and drink from my underbelly.

I have raised so many of these round considerate babes that had I not given birth to an exception myself, I would not have believed such a creature possible. Even now I am tempted to compile evidence against this exception. But no, though his body was smooth and round as a mouse’s liver, and his eyes properly sealed, I had no sooner bit his cord down to the prescribed length of stub than, not even waiting for the loving nudge that would have turned him over, the monster righted himself and began ascertaining the dimensions of the birth cave. Perhaps if I had knocked him over instantly, or better yet, piled the five or six who had come before upon him, all would yet have been well. But I had barely swallowed his cord when I was seized again by the agony, and as every mother knows, I had no choice but to lie back in the earth, addressing all my growls to the babe demanding release into the airy blackness. But I am certain no other mother has ever known, not should I wish upon anyone, a birth in which one hears at the furthest extent of one’s growls, which seem of course to fill the whole earth, the scratching of some prodigy of ingratitude against the walls of the birth cave in search of the tunnel out. I seem even to have a memory of him stepping upon my eyes as he must have scaled my head, thrown against the wall for birth leverage.

What can one say? There was one more babe that followed, and though I worried for weeks that the child whose birth was marred by that excruciating scratching of the walls would show some ill-effect, I was, thank God, never able to distinguish one from another. During the final birth there was silence, or rather, only the usual charming plants of the babes scratching harmlessly against each other. But I knew I could take no more comfort from their delicate squeals than if the scent of a predator filled the cave. And after the final infant had been tended to, I did what no other mother in all history has been called upon to do and dragged myself out of the cave into the tunnel, breaking all commandments. As I knew I would, I found the boy at the end of the tunnel, hanging from the day-plug with a muscular strength that would have been grotesque in a child two weeks old. It is a terrible thing when law beats against law like vultures over scarce carrion. The birth-fast is sacred but so is the family, and being now no doubt the only mother who has broken the fast and survived, I can only assume I was granted a dispensation for dedication to my precious babes.

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Originally published in

BOMB 8, Winter 1983

Edouard Roditi by Bradford Morrow, Taylor Meade, art by Elizabeth Murray, Ellen Phelan, Keith Sonnier, Mary Heilmann, Pat Steir, Malcolm Morley, and more.

Read the issue
008 Winter Spring 1985