CW: sexual assault
The Pregnant Milessa had been awaiting the birth of her first child for nine years. Sonograms foretold a boy but, though she had vague recollections of being clumsily diddled by some guy reeking of beer, date rape drugs were prevalent and she had no knowledge of the father or the act that led to her predicament. Pregnant and unmarried, she wandered the city market each morning in search of fair-priced eggs and a quart of milk that had yet to sour, searching the eyes of the farmers selling their goods from the flatbeds of their mule-pulled carts and pickup trucks, hoping to come across the man who impregnated her nine years prior. Friends shunned her and relatives cast her aside. Powerful potentates and senatorial candidates declared that rape represented God’s will. As a result, divine births were not unknown in her land, for they occurred regularly, usually to vagrant homely mothers who dared not finger the perpetrator of their misfortune for fear of what might be said of them. With no visible means of support, these mothers filled out birth certificates that registered “The Holy Spirit” as the daddies of their babes, but the Pregnant Milessa, her uterus swollen with child, would not sign the birth certificate paperwork absolving mankind of paternity.
“You misunderestimate the power of the Holy Spirit. With God, all things are possible,” a theologically-correct if splendidly pimpled obstetrician lectured as she scooted onto the examination table and spread her knees apart on the cold stirrups for him. She had come to despise these monthly clinic appointments because, for all the concern voiced about the viability of the baby growing inside her, doctors inquired little about her own health and discomfort. Pregnancy had caused her ankles and fingers and even her eyelids to swell. She was constantly short of breath, and constantly in need of a restroom. Heartburn and abdominal ache were the norm. She reacted violently to certain smells—cigarette smoke and fish being the biggest offenders, but even the scent of drugstore hand lotions sent her into a tizzy. Some nights, she caught herself wishing that her baby would finally come to term and be born if only to alleviate her suffering, but then she’d snap to her senses and remind herself that she needed to find the father of her child, identify him, to prove if only to herself that divine birth theory was bunk.
The obstetrician on duty was new to the clinic and had not examined her before. He scrubbed up at the wash basin with a soapy iodine solution. Judging by his boyish face, his brown bangs shaggy over his equally brown eyes, he had likely still been in secondary school when the baby was conceived.
“So how long you say you’ve been pregnant?”
The obstetrician’s eyes widened. Despite the lengthy pregnancy, her belly was no more swollen than that of a typical end-term mother-to-be.
“Give or take a few weeks, that is.”
He crossed his arms, the fingers of one hand adjusting the cuff of his lab smock. “Don’t joke with me. Everyone knows that a pregnancy only lasts ten or eleven months.”
The months were not what concerned The Pregnant Milessa. She was naked from the midriff down on the examination table. The doctor’s eyes roamed her body.
“So let’s get a feel of what you got going on inside you.” He stretched on a pair of latex gloves over his hands and inserted two fingers inside her. Inside the womb, the baby lunged, flinging itself into the muscular walls of her womb as if to escape the obstetrician’s reach. Arms and legs thrashed inside her. She winced, expecting the doctor to withdraw his hand in response to her discomfort, but he kept pushing rhythmically in and out of her, each thrust seemingly deeper than the one before. That someone could be so blind to her distress astounded her. He grinned. He was not the first doctor to offer such a misguided attempt to pleasure her, only the most inexperienced. “We’re behind closed doors. No one needs to know how good it feels.”
The baby lurched again away from him. Throughout its gestation, her son-to-be had been kind and gentle, well-mannered in a way she could not say of anyone she had known so intimately. Some nights, she’d feel him tickle her. Now though, he seemed to be trying to burrow through the abdominal walls of her uterus, clawing, doing anything it could to avoid being delivered into this obstetrician’s arms. This near-violent response confused her, but then suddenly she guessed the reason for its fear: this doctor was the one who impregnated her.
The morning after her rape nine years ago, she awoke on the dry sun-starved grass beneath a concrete bench in a deserted section of the city’s park, her throat parched and a radiating vaginal soreness. The rapist had scattered her clothes over the shrubbery behind the bench, stuffing her pockets with poorly photocopied pamphlets declaring the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit. Overhead, the sun burned bright on her, like judgment. As she came to understand what happened, she grabbed the back of the bench so she would not fall down. The skeptical police officers who fielded her calls of distress would later tell her that she was the agent of her own doom, berating her that she had no business wandering alone around in a city park. Not that she actually recalled walking in the park, but doom was the word they had used. And now, alert to the obstetrician’s wiggling fingers inside her, she felt that same sense of doom. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?” she said.
The obstetrician, rapt in feeling her up, breathed in short shallow breaths, his cheeks sunken and flushed. He shook his head, irritated at the interruption of his attention, but when he looked at her, a shocked expression came over his face. He reached up and swiveled the overhead examination light so that it shone on her face, which he studied with an intensity that made her cringe. He brought his hand to his face, the fingers that had been inside her now slicking his cheek. He gulped. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”
Something snapped within her, like a balloon that had been pierced. Goose pimples broke out over her thighs and belly as a warm trickle of amniotic fluid seeped out from between her legs. The amniotic fluid smelled sweet and fleshy, like overripe peaches. The birth would be coming soon, she realized, and when the obstetrician also recognized this, he lowered his hand from his face, his breath whistling out of his open mouth. For years, she wondered how it would feel when her water burst, imagining it as something painful, but as the amniotic fluid splashed out of her, it felt like relief.
“It’s mine, isn’t it?” the doctor said.
More than anything, she felt the baby’s fear. It was palpable, like bile gurgling up her throat.
“I’ll give you five hundred dollars to pretend we never met until today,” the doctor said, flinging a hand-tooled leather wallet from his back pocket, and though his intention was to bedazzle her with his wherewithal, her eyes were drawn to the wallet itself, caramel in color and stitched together with strips of rawhide, a scene of a bucking bronco embossed on its side. It was a wallet such as an aspiring cowboy would want, the kind that she imagined her own son might ask for on his tenth birthday. The money amounted to a pittance. If she pressed for a paternity test, the results would be known within days, and he would be legally required to financially support the child for the next eighteen years, but the child support payments would come at a cost: the baby would learn of its father, and the rape that led to its conception.
He plucked out a stack of cash from the wallet and ran his fingers over it, riffling it. “Or a thousand dollars! Wouldn’t you like that? I may not have it all here, but I’ll go right away to the ATM. You can count on me!”
The baby quaked inside her. Sonogram pictures, taken years ago, showed her son to possess intelligent eyes and a strong chin, the kind of child who would learn quickly to enjoy a strong game of Scrabble and possess a superior, if overly-righteous, sense of justice. She could not blame him for mistrusting his father, who likely regarded the rape he had perpetrated on her as little more than a prank, something akin to scotch-taping a “Kick Me” sign on the derriere of an unsuspecting classmate. Though the baby’s prenatal knowledge about his father would fade after birth, as the boy grew older, he would ask questions about him. Was he a hero? A good man? Was he nice, and did he like cats?
“You’re not the father,” The Pregnant Milessa said. “The Holy Spirit is the father.”
She expected these words to bring relief to the boy doctor, but the doctor stared at her open-mouthed in disbelief, like something had been taken from him. He ran his hand over his cheek, thumbing the scraggly brown peach fuzz that she doubted he had the heart to shave off. “That’s not true. You know it’s not true,” he said.
“You said it yourself: with God, all things are possible.” She let go of the sides of the examination table, which she had been clutching almost from the start of the appointment. Already, she sensed the baby’s calmness returning, like a wave. All this time, she had longed for the kind of truth that theologically-correct obstetricians could not whitewash, and now she felt it roiling through her: she was going to be the mother of a baby boy.
“Take my money for our baby,” the doctor pleaded, waving the wad of cash. For a moment, she was tempted to do just that, imagining the diapers and baby booties and fleece pajama sleepers she’d be able to afford, but then she saw the nervy longing in his stricken cheeks. Moments ago he had sought to buy her silence, but now he was attempting to buy something else: proof that he could be a good father. She could foresee him checking up on the child every few weeks or every few months as the impulse struck, a sometimes father exercising his divine prerogative to shove cash into her hands or launch into an inarticulate outburst should some facet of her parental judgment not meet his fancy. At best, he’d be a peripheral shadow over her and her son, his irregular visits thrilling the boy but inevitably dithering into disappointment in the hours after he left, her son unable to comprehend why his father didn’t want to stay longer, and she unable to tell her son that his father didn’t really love him. The doctor’s voice cracked. “Use the money for our baby.”
“I don’t need your money,” the Pregnant Milessa said. She lifted herself up from the table and, against his protests, pushed past the stunned doctor. For years, she had tried to track down the father of her child, but now that she found him, she needed to run away from him. Halfway out the door, she realized her clothes were still on the steel stool beside the examination table, where she had neatly folded them prior to the examination. She was naked with the exception of a stretched-out brassiere and an oversized but lightweight pale blue cardigan she had refused to unbutton because the room was so cold, yet she continued walking until she stepped outside, a modern Godiva walking triumphantly on the hot sidewalk.
People sipping coffee at the neighboring sidewalk cafes shied their eyes from her swollen nakedness. At intersections, drivers deferred to her when crossing the street. The contractions intensified yet, because her son would be a good well-mannered baby courteous of the needs of others, she figured herself able to walk the eighteen blocks to her third-story apartment before the hard labor set in. She had been waiting for this moment for nine years. Long ago, she salvaged a varnished cane wood bassinet from a dumpster and set it up next to her bed, filling it with hand-sewn stuffed animals—teddy bears, fuzzy bunnies, and a pink creature that was half-elephant, half-octopus. Tonight, the bassinet would have a new occupant, and she would no longer be the Pregnant Milessa.
Nick Kocz is the winner of the 2016 Washington Square Fiction Award. His short stories and essays have appeared in a number of magazines, including Black Warrior Review, Five Chapters, Mid-American Review, The Nervous Breakdown, The Pinch, and Web Conjunctions. He earned his MFA from Virginia Tech and is deeply indebted to the many fine professors and fellow MFA candidates he met there. Although he was born in Buffalo, New York, and spent the majority of his adult life in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, he now lives with his wife and three wonderful children in Blacksburg, Virginia. He is represented by Rick Pascocello at Glass Literary Management.
Image: rmontiel85, morguefile.com