Nursing Child
Nursing Child
Artist: Diana Ong
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Goddesses

by Eva Langston

Normally, Teri wouldn't have offered the girl a ride, probably wouldn't have even noticed her, except that she had a baby. Teri always noticed babies. She was driving to the daycare center to pick up McKenzie when she first saw her: a girl in her early twenties with a backpack on her back and a baby in her arms, walking down the sidewalk near the bus station. Teri clucked her tongue at the lack of a stroller and muttered something to herself about irresponsible young mothers. She had forgotten all about the young woman with the baby until, on the way home, with McKenzie safely buckled into her car seat, Teri saw them again. The same girl with the long, tangled hair and the long, flowered skirt, cradling a tiny baby and walking in the weeds alongside the busy street.

Teri knew she had to stop because it was the Christian thing to do, but she secretly hoped the girl wouldn't need help; she wanted to have dinner on the table by the time her husband got home at six. Teri pulled over and offered the girl a ride.

Minutes later the girl sat in the passenger seat of Teri's station wagon, smelling both of fresh sweat and stale body odor. She held her baby close and talked in a slow, continuous ramble, rolling the words around in her mouth to make them last as long as possible.

"It's like everything in the universe lined up just right so that you drove by at, like, the precisely right moment and saw me, you know?"

"Uh huh," Teri said, breathing through her mouth. She pushed the button to roll down her window.

"Thank you so much for taking us to my friend's house! It's just so nice to meet nice people, you know? I mean, it's a beautiful day for walking, but I think Aurora was getting a little restless."

"Well, Brookstone Avenue is ten miles away. It would have taken you hours to walk," Teri said quickly. She was from New Jersey, and she thought she'd gotten used to the Southern drawl of Glenville, but this girl's slow speech was almost too much for her to bear.

"Oh, I like to walk," the girl said dreamily. She lifted up the right side of her gauzy blouse, and Teri saw a flash of white flesh out of the corner of her eye. The girl hugged the baby next to her breast and sighed. "I just love breast feeding, don't you?"

Teri felt a jolt go through her stomach. The girl was breast feeding right now? In her car?

"You just feel so connected with your baby. Like the way we were connected when she was in my womb. It's like you're giving, and sharing, and just bonding in so many ways as a mother and child."

Teri pressed her lips against her teeth in an attempted smile. She couldn't really see the girl's breast, but she could hear the tiny sucking sounds, and they embarrassed her.

"How long did you breast feed your daughter for?" The girl looked at Teri.

"I didn't." Teri pushed down harder on the gas pedal.

"Oh my gosh, really? Oh, breast feeding is so healthy for babies! I'm going to breast feed for as long as I can. You know, there are tribes in, like, Africa, and they breast feed their children until they're six or seven."

"Mommy, what's breast feeding?" McKenzie's voice floated up from the back seat. She'd been so quiet, Teri had thought she was asleep.

"It's what I'm doing right now." The girl twisted around in her seat so McKenzie could see the baby sucking at her breast. "It's when the baby drinks milk from the mommy's nipple, see?"

Teri glanced in the rearview mirror and saw McKenzie leaning sideways in her car seat, trying to get a good look at the stranger and her baby. "McKenzie, sit up please," she said automatically.

"Mommy, I'm hungry!" McKenzie whined.

Teri groped with her right hand on the floor of the backseat and produced a plastic baggie of Cheerios. "Here you go, sweetie," she said, tossing the bag to McKenzie.

"I think I'm going to breast feed until Aurora decides she doesn't want to breast feed anymore," the girl said. "I'll just leave it up to her." She turned to Teri. "Promise me if you have another baby you'll breast feed."

Teri cleared her throat and turned the wheel sharply onto Maple. From here it was a straight shot to Brookstone Avenue. "I don't think you ever told me your name," she said, trying to sound friendly.

"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry! I am so out of it today! I'm Rhea, you know, like the Greek goddess? And this is little Aurora, the Goddess of the Dawn." Rhea beamed down at her nursing infant, who was wearing nothing but stained yellow pajamas.

"What's a goddess?" McKenzie wanted to know.

"Nothing, honey."

"Well, not nothing." Rhea put Aurora to her shoulder and began to burp her. "Goddesses are female spirits that some people worship and pray to. Like, the Goddess Rhea, she gave birth to many of the important gods and goddess of ancient Greece. She was like the great mother goddess, and then Aurora—"

"It doesn't matter, honey," Teri said loudly.

Rhea stopped short in surprise.

"I just don't want to confuse her," Teri whispered. She looked at McKenzie through the rearview mirror. "You don't need to worry about all that, Kenzie. Just remember what you learned about in Sunday school."

"Jesus loves me?"

"Exactly."

Teri took a deep breath and then smiled vaguely in Rhea's direction. "So, Rhea, are you from Glenville?"

Rhea took this as an invitation to tell her life story. Yes, she was from Glenville, she said, but she was sort of a nomad. After high school she moved to Florida with friends. Then she met some guys with a van and traveled around in the southwest. After a brief stay at an organic farm in Pennsylvania, she moved into a house in Vermont with some friends from her drumming class.

Teri thought about when McKenzie was a baby. She used to watch her sleep, sometimes from the time she put her down for a nap until she woke up again. It wasn't so much because she was afraid that something might happen to her, although she did worry about that occasionally, it was just that she liked to look at her daughter. She'd wanted a baby for so long. She studied McKenzie's delicate fingers, the folds of the knuckles, the nails like tiny pearls. She gently touched McKenzie's head, soft with the palest, finest brown hair. Sometimes Teri used to cry, thinking about how one day she would have to tell McKenzie the truth.

"So, it was really cold in Vermont," Rhea continued with her narrative in a breathy voice, "and plus a lot of people in the house started doing crystal meth, which is really bad for your body. I mean if you're going to do drugs you should do shrooms or weed, you know? Something that comes from the earth. Anyway, I just didn't think it was a very healthy environment for Aurora, so I decided to get on the Greyhound and come down here to stay with my high school friend Rilan."

"So Aurora is your first child, I guess?" Teri asked.

"Well, no …" The girl twisted a strand of hair in her long fingers. "I actually got pregnant when I was sixteen, but I gave the baby up for adoption."

Teri's hands gripped the steering wheel tighter as her whole body stiffened.

She had never been able to understand mothers who gave up their children. How could they do it? It didn't seem fair that there were women who wanted children so badly and couldn't have them, and then there were brainless hippies like Rhea who went around having babies they didn't even want.

"I think about her a lot – the baby I gave up. One of these days I'm going to try to find her, just to see her and make sure she's okay. I mean, as long as her mother will let me see her. Do you think the mother will?"

"I wouldn't count on it," Teri snapped.

"You don't think the woman who adopted her is curious about me?"

Teri came to a sudden stop at a traffic light and turned to look at Rhea. "Maybe she likes to pretend you don't exist."

Oh." Rhea uncrossed her legs and put the sleeping baby in her lap. She quietly ran her index finger up and down the bare pink soles of Aurora's feet.

The light turned green. Teri would have happily driven the rest of the way in silence, but all of a sudden Rhea started talking again. "So, I'm thinking of taking classes to become a doula!" she said cheerfully.

Teri was silent.

"A doula is a woman who helps a mother during pregnancy, birth, and the first few months after the baby is born. They, like, give emotional and spiritual support to the mother. It's really an amazing thing to do. You get to be a part of the miracle of motherhood." Rhea looked at Teri. "Did you have a doula?"

"No, I didn't." Teri winced at the tone of her own voice. She couldn't mask the hatred she was feeling towards the girl. Rhea with her long hair and her milky breasts. Rhea traveling around in a van, having babies she couldn't take care of. Rhea, the Mother Goddess. She didn't deserve it.

"Yeah, I'm really excited about taking the classes. It's a lot about female empowerment, and like, we do vaginal exams on each other, which I think will be really cool, you know?"

"Uh huh." Teri flicked on her left blinker and waited impatiently for an oncoming car to pass.

"When you were pregnant, didn't you feel so scared? And sometimes the fathers and the doctors, they just can't provide the right support for a mother, especially if she decides to have a natural childbirth. Did you have a natural childbirth?"

Teri turned quickly onto Brookstone Avenue. "Where did you want me to drop you off?" She wanted to stop the car and throw Rhea and her baby out into the street. She took a deep breath and Rhea's earthy odor filled her lungs. She felt sick.

Rhea pointed to a small yellow house at the end of the block. "Well, let me write down my name and Rilan's number for you, and if you're ever pregnant again, and you want a doula, give me a call, okay?"

"That's okay," Teri said quickly.

"You're not planning on having anymore children?"

"No, I'm not."

"You're not? Why not?"

"I can't! I can't have children!" Teri burst out. "We adopted McKenzie." She felt tears pricking behind her eyes.

"Oh my gosh! I never would have guessed that!" Rhea breathed, opening the passenger door slowly. "You have a very motherly aura."

"I do?" Teri heard herself whisper.

"I mean, motherhood isn't just about giving birth. That's the easy part, really." Rhea swung her backpack onto her back with one arm and bounced Aurora onto her shoulder with the other. She climbed out of the station wagon, but then bent her head down to look at Teri. "I'm kind of scared that I'm not going to know how to be a good mom," she said, "but you seem like such a natural." She shut the door and walked towards the house, her long skirt floating behind her.

Teri drove away, stunned. She glanced in rearview mirror at McKenzie, who was eating Cheerios one by one out of the plastic baggie. Had she heard? Did it matter? "Mommy, are we going home now?" she asked.

"Yes, sweetie." Teri smiled at her daughter. "We're going home."

Eva Langston is a Virginia native living in New Orleans and working on her MFA at the University of New Orleans. During the Katrina evacuation, she won the Richmond Style Magazine's annual short story contest, which encouraged her to quit her job teaching middle school math and concentrate on writing. Now she works part-time as an orthodontic assistant and SAT tutor.


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