I woke up in a puddle of breast milk. I struggled against the bulk of my belly to sit up and shake away the remnants of the nightmare. The baby did a series of flip-flops in response to the pounding of my heart. Despite the lingering terror of the dream, I smiled. I placed my hand against my belly and was rewarded by a sharp kick, then another. Baby Tommy was always so active! I let out a long breath. I was having contractions, but I wouldn’t bother with timing them just yet. The nightmare, which was the same as it had been since the beginning of my pregnancy, still held me in its throes.
I lay in a hospital bed, holding my new son after his delivery. I delighted in watching him squirm in my arms, as I checked him over and over again for all his body parts. Then, Mama walked in the door. Daddy followed close behind her, dressed in the same overalls he’d worn ever since I’d been aware of it. However, the look on his face was different. He didn’t wear the calm and complacent features he usually did. He looked giddy and excited, almost bursting from his skin. I thought he was just excited about the birth of his grandson, but I immediately dismissed that thought. He hadn’t been that excited about the birth of Colleen’s baby, and she was his favorite child after all. The nurse came into the room to check on the baby and me and quickly left. As soon as she left the room, Daddy pounced on me and snatched the baby from my arms. Then he threw back his head and swallowed my baby boy whole, blanket, cap and all. “Daddy, Daddy! Don’t eat my baby!” I would sob. Then I’d wake up at that point, with my heart threatening to pound out of my chest. Just like tonight.
I waddled to the kitchen for a glass of water since I was already awake. I tried to rub the pain from my back as I walked. The balmy swamp air engulfed me as soon as I hit the open kitchen. The curtain at the window barely moved in response to the slight breeze coming through the trees toward our little cabin. Across the swamp I could see the lights still on at Mama and Daddy’s place. They kept late hours, finishing up the quilts and blankets we handcrafted and sold in town. Mosquitoes buzzed around the window, as if they knew I was there, and they wanted to get to my blood. It was all a show, though. We Teaks had swamp water running through our veins. The bugs wouldn’t bite me any more than the alligators swimming around our cabin tried to eat us. We could practically swim alongside them and they’d never even turn our way. At least that’s what Maw Maw always said. She was well over one hundred years old, and knew everything, although I never wanted to try and test out any of her theories. I just took her at her word. Just as I took her at her word that she and Mama would deliver Tommy Jr. with no problems right here at home.
I padded painfully back to the bedroom, still trying to get rid of the ache in my lower back, and rolled into bed. Tommy hadn’t moved an inch from his spot smack in the middle of the bed. I ran my hand over his sinewy arms, and around to his bare chest, over the little birthmark sitting there, that we both shared. I felt only a little warmth for him as my husband, but much as a friend. Tommy was my cousin, twice removed, and I’d grown up playing with him here in our swamp. Our parents had arranged our union, just as their parents before them had arranged theirs, and Mama said that I couldn’t expect to be madly in love with him. She said I wasn’t supposed to be, that marriage wasn’t about love. It was about keeping the bloodline going, and the only way we could do that was by marrying back into our family. Sort of like the royal family.
I didn’t bother to wake Tommy, because he’d just say the same thing he always said when I tried to tell him about the dream, which was the same thing Mama had said. “That’s crazy, Jeannie.” She never once looked up from the quilt she was working on, her brown, heavily veined hands flying with the needle. “The idea of you having that baby in a hospital. You know Maw Maw and me are gonna get that boy out right here at home.” Then she’d snorted. “Harrumph! Them doctors don’t know anything anyway. Got all we need for birthin’ and doctorin’ right here in our swamp.” We rarely went outside the swamp for anything. Daddy and Tommy and a few other men went into town once every couple of months to sell the crafts we’d worked on, and bought supplies while they were out. I never worried too much about missing out on anything, though, because Tommy had always brought me the latest magazines and a few books when he came back, ever since we were children. Even though they were already a few months old by the time they reached town, they were my link to life outside the swamp. And having their little knowledge made me love the swamp even more. In his own way Tommy knew I was a little different from the rest of them, but he didn’t hold it against me. Besides, I never expressed any interest in leaving the swamp. I loved it there.
The swamp spoke to me in its own language. The animals were unique to our waters, and the plants all stood up at attention when I passed by. The mossy curtains hanging from the trees over the water lent themselves to a romantic air, heightened by the humidity that always hung over us. We were completely separated from the rest of the world, and I loved it. I would go out during a rainstorm just to watch the havoc the wind was wreaking on the trees overhead, and how tranquil the swamp below remained because of the density of those trees. And when the bugs joined in, that was a real treat. Their chirping and clacking and buzzing made the most beautiful music in our little world. I was right at home in the isolation of my swamp.
But there was no music tonight. All was quiet in my swamp, except for the buzzing mosquitoes, their restlessness matching mine as I tried to get back to sleep and found that I couldn’t. My back ached, and the baby was especially busy now that I’d awakened him. Just as I thought I could finally drift off, I felt a wetness between my legs. Then I was wracked by a painful contraction that doubled me over. I reached for Tommy to find that he was already pulling on his overalls. “I think it’s time,” I grated needlessly from between clenched teeth.
“I know. I’ll go get your folks.” But just as he had been alerted, they had too. The three of them, Mama, Maw Maw and Daddy came walking through the door of our cabin just as Tommy made it to the door of our room. They all threw their supplies in the chair by the bed, and I chanced a look at Daddy as he began to lead Tommy out of the room. He looked just as calm as he’d always been. Chiding myself for being foolish, I got ready to weather another contraction while Maw Maw readied me for the delivery.
“Is this supposed to happen so fast?” I panted. Mama patted my back.
“Yes, child. You’ve got a body for birthin’ babies. You’ll have a short but hard delivery. Don’t you want that boy out of there?” I nodded, and began the hard work of getting Tommy Jr. born. It wasn’t easy, but it was very fast. Within a couple of hours, Maw Maw was announcing his arrival, and held him up for me to see. He didn’t look as big as I would have expected, with the large size of my stomach. But I was still having contractions and couldn’t concentrate on him just yet. Mama reached over for the baby and went to clean him up. Then Maw Maw was telling me to push more, and I was ready for the afterbirth to be out, too. But she grinned her toothless grin and held up a second baby.
“Isn’t she a beauty?” she crooned, as she handed her to Mama. Twins! I never would have expected that. That’s why it always felt like the baby was doing extra somersaults in there. I smiled weakly, and pushed the remainder of the tissue out into the basin Maw Maw held beneath me.
“Mama, can I hold them now?” I was anxious to get my babies in my arms. Mama ignored me and busied herself with the babies and then went out the door toward the front room.
“Hush now, child. You need to let me get you all done here.” Maw Maw hurriedly decided I didn’t need any stitches and began to clean me up. Mama came back into the room, followed by Tommy and Daddy. Daddy was his usual calm self, trying to calm a now excited Tommy. Mama brought the babies over to them and handed one to Tommy and one to Daddy. “Here Tommy, meet your son. And Daddy, meet your bloodline.” Daddy took my daughter by one foot and tore off his shirt and overalls with his free hand. A large gaping mouth with razor sharp teeth opened from the middle of his chest and he bent over backward so that it could open wider. He lifted my daughter over the opening, and began to slowly feed her in. There was no crying, no blood. Afterward, he danced around in restless excitement.
I was too stunned to speak. “Thomasine, you never told me it was that good! I really missed out when you insisted on going first with Colleen’s.” I weakly tried to get out of the bed to get to my son, whom Tommy was holding tightly in his arms. He’d begun to squirm, and Mama went over to where he stood.
“Be quiet, Herschel. You’re exciting the boy. Both of them. Tommy, I know it’s hard right now, but you’ll get your turn when little Tommy Jr. has his children. That’s the way it is, the way it’s always been. One’s for keeping, and the other’s for eating.” She bent over the basin that held the placenta and tore off a bit. She unbuttoned Tommy’s shirt around the baby, and then fed in the bit of tissue. He was instantly gratified. “That ought to last you, boy, until it’s your turn to feed.” Then they all whirled toward me. I’d begun to cry softly.
“Jeannie, don’t be upset. This is our way.” Mama had retained a bit of the tissue she’d fed Tommy Sr., and worked my gown up until my birthmark was exposed. She pressed the tissue to the spot, and I watched as it opened, and small teeth protruded from around the mark. The teeth grated until the tissue was gone.
I felt soothed, then, and settled back into my pillows as Mama rearranged my gown. After all, I’d only expected one baby anyway.
* * * *
The most riveting horror short story I have ever encountered was “The Unremembered” by Chesya Burke. I first read the story in Ms. Burke’s anthology, Let’s Play White, published by Apex Publications. As the African American mother of a special needs child, the story of Nosipha and her special angel, Jeli, brought tears to my eyes. I understand what it is to be in Nosipha’s shoes, as the world around views your child to be just a brown body, not capable of many feelings, accomplishments or worth. The thought of watching your baby die, no matter how much relief you know it will bring to her tormented flesh, is truly horrifying. Ms. Burke turned a heart wrenching situation into a blessed one, by giving Jeli and her uncooperative body a larger purpose in life, her race and the entire universe.
More about this story and R.J. Joseph
Bloodline first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Nocturnal Ooze Web Magazine. It now lives inside my story collection Monstrous Domesticities.
I earned my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and currently work as an associate professor of English. I’ve had several stories published in various venues, including two anthologies of horror written by black female writers, Sycorax’s Daughters and Black Magic Women as well as in Road Kill: Texas Horror from Texas Writers, Vol. 2, a volume of horror by Texas horror writers. My academic essays have also appeared in applauded collections, such as the Stoker award finalist Uncovering Stranger Things: Essays on Eighties Nostalgia, Cynicism and Innocence in the Series. My most recent essay appears in the collection The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Series.