Made by Mary is a black comedy using magic realism to blow up myths about women, mothers, daughters and motherhood. Unable to conceive and, because of her husband Joel’s youthful conviction for marijuana dealing, unable to adopt conventionally, Ann and Joel pinned their hope on Jessica, an unwed pregnant girl who offers them her baby. Ann’s mother, Mary, feels neglected because her lover, America, has been sleeping with other people. They all belong to a Pagan coven, called The Eleusinian Circle, presided over by high priestess, Sage.
This scene depicts a crucial turning point.
One afternoon, a sharp tap at the door jarred Ann from a doze on the sofa. The tenor of the knock indicated someone wearing rings.
Her mother, Mary, let herself in. “Why are you lying in the dark?”
Lights flicked on. Ann pulled the blanket over her face but Mary’s voice penetrated.
“I dreamed you had a bloated middle and wrung-out limbs. You were almost transparent. You reached for me. A hungry ghost, as the Buddhists say.” Mary whisked back curtains and flung open windows. Cold air streamed in. “There’s some clogged feng shui in here.”
Despite herself, Ann was drawn from the stupor of her grief. She shuffled to the kitchen where Mary bustled about in her yellow sari like she owned the place, her long gray hair flowing down her back. Mary was carrying her rain stick. Adorned with yarn and beaded elastic bracelets, when she turned the stick around, seeds clattered through the hollow inside, sounding like rain on a tin roof. “Let me just say, I never thought that lying jezebel would give up her baby! She’s a liar through and through. You know who she reminded me of? The chick in the van who gave us all crabs when I was pregnant with you. Balled every guy there, including the one I was in love with.” Mary peeked out the kitchen window. “Good. Your husband’s home.”
“How are you, Mary?” Joel came in hours earlier than usual. His work boots tracked plaster dust on the carpet. “Anne, feeling any better today?”
She shrank back to avoid his kiss.
“Forgive me.” he whispered. “Please?”
Mary rapped her knuckles on the table. “The situation has revenge karma all over it. Maybe you knew Jessica in a past life, did her some injustice. Past-life therapy could help.”
Jessica. The sibilance made Ann sick. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Why are we talking about her? It’s over.”
“If I thought past-life therapy would work, I’d try,” said Joel.
No knock on the door but Sage’s low voice preceded her. “Sorry I’m late!”
“Late for what?” said Ann. “Is this an intervention? Is that why you’re all here?”
“We’re going to perform a banishing if that’s okay with you.” In her white priestess gown with long flared sleeves, Sage floated past Ann to the living room. She carried her collection of tools in a drawstring velvet bag.
Before Ann could respond, America burst in, all tie-dye and yellow stretch pants. “He-e-e-ey!” The squeeze she put on Ann’s shoulder felt like a violation.
“My sweet, my darling.” Mary kissed America with a greediness that Ann despised. Her mother was too hungry for love, and America was unworthy.
“Can we focus our energy?” said Joel. “I really want this malevolent spirit, or whatever it is, out of here.”
Ann ducked past him to the living room where Sage had placed her chalice, knife and small cauldron on the end table she’d pulled to the center. Sage poured water into the chalice from a frog-shaped pitcher. The webbed muscle between her thumb and finger displayed a black tattoo of a figure 8, symbol of infinity. “Let’s cast the circle, shall we?”
“No circle,” said Ann. “I’m not in the mood.”
“We’re here to provide love and attention so we can repel an unwanted psychic entity,” said Sage. “Ten minutes.”
The others gathered.
Sage lifted the chalice toward the ceiling. “Blessed be, creature of water. Ann, the salt, please?”
“Ten minutes.” Ann picked up the salt dish, reciting by rote the opening convocation to the four elements that preceded every ritual. “Blessed be, creature of earth.”
Mary grabbed the knife and stirred the salted water with the blade. “Blessed be, creature of fire.”
“Blessed be, creature of air.” America lit the sacred smudge stick in the metal cauldron.
“The circle is cast. The quarters are summoned,” said Sage. “Do we have an object containing the energy?”
Joel reached between the sofa cushions to extract a D-cup bra with a safety-pinned strap. A violent spasm suctioned through Ann’s thorax. How had Jessica’s bra burrowed into her sofa? She could smell the girl’s strawberry lip gloss, feel the warmth of Jessica’s belly undulating with her unborn baby. Ann would have endured any price for that baby boy, but she hadn’t contemplated such betrayal, such failure. “How far did you go?” she said. “Did you fuck her?”
“Don’t talk like that. You never talk like that.” The bra dangled off Joel’s fingers for a moment before he tossed it in the cauldron. His face was tense, his cheeks splotched bright red, as he shouted, “The harm you’ve done my wife and me goes back to you, multiplied by three!”
The smoke darkened. “I don’t even know you anymore,” said Ann.
“Cut the cord, unlock the chains, begone from this house, this land, this space, unwanted guest, begone!” cried Sage. She stepped counterclockwise, pressing Ann into movement. But Ann held her ground.
“Leave this place, evil presence!” America brandished a rattling gourd-like instrument.
Mary shook her rain stick “We banish you, Jezebel!”
“Stop it!” Ann shouted. “Ten minutes is over!”
“I’m sorry.” Joel hung his head. “I thought this was a good idea. I guess I was wrong.”
“If you’d rather wallow on your sofa, we’ll go,” said Sage. “Is that what you want, Ann?”
“Wait,” said Mary. “I have an announcement. Talking staff, please! We don’t have to break the circle. Sit down, everyone. This is important.” She plopped down on the carpet with her rainstick upright between her palms. “I’d like to offer Ann and Joel my uterus.”
Ann glanced at Joel.
He drew his black hair off his face and tucked it behind his ears with an unconscious daintiness that brought a clutch to her throat. “I don’t follow,” he said. “Did we discuss this?”
“What I’m saying is: I can be your surrogate mother. Your egg, Ann. Your sperm, Joel. In vitro fertilization. My uterus, bang! Your baby!” Mary’s cheeks pinked up, her smile widened until her eyes were bright slices in her face, and she looked insane.
“No offense,” said Joel. “But if we want a surrogate, we might be better off with someone younger.”
“Seems you’ve had enough problems with young women,” snapped Mary. She gazed up at Ann, who was still standing. With her gray hair flowing and her face as full as the moon, Mary seemed a child who’d accidentally aged. “It’s not about how old I am, sweetie. I’ve done some research. Age matters for the eggs, not for the uterus. Let’s banish Jessica once and for all. You don’t have to deal with a stranger. You call the shots. I’m just a vessel. All I want to do is help.”
The vision of a baby with soft folds of skin brought on a hunger that gnawed through Ann’s nervous system. It was larger than she was and swallowing her.
“You’re so fucking beautiful, Mary,” America moaned. “I’m hip to this fertile, green aura all around you. Does anyone else see it?”
Joel thrust out his lower lip. “If you really want a baby, why not use someone else’s egg and sperm, not ours?”
“Joel, may I?” Sage grabbed Mary’s stick. Seeds and pods clattered like rainfall. “This is the most powerful banishing gesture I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve read about this kind of arrangement. A Christian woman in Minnesota gave birth to her daughter’s son. I think we can take Mary’s proposal as heartfelt and generous.”
“If the Christians can do it, the Pagans can too,” said Mary.
“Goddammit,” said Joel. “No way.”
Ann had never seen him so annoyed, almost writhing. She imagined the nursery in their unfinished house, pale yellow walls stenciled with butterflies. Little hands reaching from a crib. Energetic little legs kicking. The vision arrived as if the future had sent a reflection backwards in time. If she had a baby, she could let Jessica go. “Is it possible?” she asked.
“Is that a yes?” Mary rose to her knees. “Can I be your vessel?”
“The way we define the world creates the world,” said Sage. “We begin with the dream. You’re still young, Ann. And Mary’s, what, fifty-two, fifty-three?”
“Excuse me! Forty-nine!” said Mary.
“Don’t fall for this, Ann,” said Joel.
But he couldn’t command her loyalty anymore, quite the opposite.
“We can take it one step at a time. Maybe it won’t happen.” Mary gave Ann a conspiratorial smile. “We don’t know if Joel’s sperm is viable.”
“My sperm is the least of it,” said Joel. But he kept his eyes downcast, Mary having managed to draw off a portion of his manhood.
“Our success rate stands at 45%, the highest in the industry,” said Dr. Godwin, the director of the Center for Human Reproduction. “We’ve had sister surrogates, friends, strangers—but you’re our first mother-daughter team, and we’re very excited.”
They sat across from him, three in a row, Mary in the center. With his prominent ears and boyish smile, Dr. Godwin resembled a leprechaun, a trickster, capable of magic, the kind of man who had turned Mary on before she’d declared herself a lesbian. Oh, patchouli, shrubby mint scent of hairy hippie women: America was in love with her again, and love energized Mary like nothing else could.
“A 45% success rate sounds like a 55% failure rate.” Joel perched on his chair as if any second he’d vault to his feet, shouting, Put up your dukes!
“We look at cycle percentages and factor in retrieval rates resulting in live births.” Dr. Godwin rattled off numbers and criteria for comparative data, things Mary spaced out on. She splayed her fingers to examine her rings, her force-field of strength, with a ready explanation for each, in case anyone should ask: gold with tiger’s eye to guard her spirit, Mother-of-pearl and onyx yin-yang to balance her chi. Jade for healing, lapis lazuli for love and, of course, her mother-ring, identical to Ann and Joel’s wedding rings, an expression of solidarity.
She caught Ann’s gaze, her daughter’s pale blue eyes almost transparent, rimmed by short, blunt lashes as bleached as her straight blond hair. Somehow, in the light, enhanced by the mauve upholstery and carpet and walls, Ann was illuminated in a lovely pink aura. I made you! Mary wanted to shout. And I can make another you!
“How long will the process take?” Joel cracked his knuckles. “Or are you going to throw out smokescreen numbers on that, too?”
Typical man. Mary tried to catch Ann’s eye again, to exchange a private communion about men’s need to dominate, but Ann was leaning forward, utterly engrossed. “What about the chances of having a baby like me, without a…?”
Mary broke in. “Uterus. Good question, honey.”
“I don’t think the research bears out a genetic component.” When Dr. Godwin smiled, dimples appeared in both cheeks. “As for the timing, let’s say everything goes smoothly. Once cycle synchronization begins, we’re talking about four weeks for egg stimulation. Then we harvest the eggs and fertilize, that’s a day. Less than a week later we transfer the pre-embryos. Two weeks after that we take a blood test. A positive pregnancy means we’re done. And you’re in the hands of your obstetrician. Which comes to seven weeks. I suggest we work aggressively for the transfer. At your age, we don’t worry so much about multiple births, we just want a take-home baby.” He aimed his boyish smile at Mary. How appealing he was, even when calling her old!
“What about Mary’s weight?” said Joel. “It’s not just the age factor. She’s carrying some extra weight.”
One hundred eighty-three pounds at five feet, four inches, Mary grabbed her blubber through her shirt. “Are you calling me fat? More to love is what I say.”
“You shouldn’t grab yourself like that,” said Ann.
Heat prickled through Mary’s chest. She was aware of moisture seeping into the crevices of her flesh. “I think I’m power-surging!”
“Too much information, Mom.”
“You’re not, as we say, morbidly obese,” said Dr. Godwin with his quick smile. “You’re a healthy woman. A little extra weight seems to improve the chances of implantation.”
“If only my mother were alive to hear this,” said Mary. “All these years, I’ve been healthy, not fat.”
Ann jiggled her foot, bumping rhythmically into Mary’s chair. “When you said multiple births, did you mean we could have more than one?”
“Twins are not uncommon. I’ve heard them referred to as ‘the jackpot,’ especially if they’re one of each gender.” Dr. Godwin rubbed his palms together so briskly Mary imagined sparks flying out.
“Let’s think twins. We’ve got yin on one side…” Mary grabbed Ann’s hand, then clasped Joel’s sweaty one. “…Yang on the other. And I’m the circle to hold them.” They both tried to disengage but Mary had a strong grip. She shut her eyes to call on Demeter as the goddess appeared in the marble likeness on Mary’s altar, with her torch and sheath of wheat. But, instead of Demeter, a vision of Dr. Godwin with the hind end of a goat materialized, consort and son of the universal mother. “I’ve just had a vision,” she said. “I’m going to call you Dr. God.”
Excerpt from Made by Mary
Laura Catherine Brown’s second novel, Made By Mary, is forthcoming with C&R Press in spring 2018. Her first novel, Quickening, published by Random House, was featured in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals including Monkeybicycle, Paragraphiti, and Tin House. Her books have come about, in part, because of the great luck she has had in attending residencies at Byrdcliffe, Djerassi, Millay Colony, Ragdale, Ucross, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in New York City where she’s currently writing a third novel.
Excerpt provided by Rhizomatic