Mother bathed and dried the others and laid them on the bed beside me. Even the one who tried to get away. Pale flesh scrubbed for glory. Clean, clean, clean, clean, clean. Satan would never get us now.
I’d said at the start the assignment didn’t feel right. Knife-flash dreams. All elements dark and negative. The odor of blood. My superiors agreed. They thought a girl might make a difference.
That night, the father talked to her in bed. “A girl might make a difference,” he said, stripping off her clothes.
“A girl might make a difference,” she said, lying very still.
“Oh, all right,” I said.
The boys were loud. They hated each other, the oldest said. “Quiet, honey,” she told him. “Satan hears you. Love one another as I have loved you.” Inside her, I went cold. She was alone with all four of them most days. A good woman’s price is far above rubies.
The boys had black-and-blue screaming fights. They hit hard and bit. “A girl might make a difference,” he came home and said. He kissed her. She didn’t kiss him back. She said nothing. He didn’t notice. He spanked one or two of them before dinner for fighting.
Visitors were few and bad. Sometimes that preacher came around to put his hand on her leg and pray. Sometimes the mother-in-law dropped by to disapprove. On the worst days, they both came, bringing the same bad tidings: loud boys, messy house, proof she was ungodly and unclean.
Afternoons, especially after the preacher or mother-in-law, Satan made her sleepy. She showed the boys videos and dozed. The father and the preacher wanted them raised up in virtue from youth, wanted them read God’s Holy Word, but Satan made her sleepy. Satan made her bad.
She slept sitting up. Unless the second and third one tussled and yowled. The fourth one cried an hour or two a day, never the same hours. He drooled and fussed until dinner.
Her life was not so different from the life of any mother with small children. They don’t care about mothers and children here. She was different, though.
The clean knives liked her. She admired their solutions. She didn’t talk to them, but sometimes she inspected them. So beautiful. She didn’t see her face in the shining blades. She didn’t look. That would have been vanity. Satan sees vanity and smiles.
I never smiled on this job.
At night while he snored, she roamed the dark house, stopping at their beds, kissing their hot foreheads, tangled in love and Satan and filth and unworthiness and knives.
Near dawn, when she thought in straight lines, her only few minutes of peace and light (except for the old days in the hospital), she thought a girl might make a difference. Then it was time to slip back into bed before he knew.
The last weeks, she kept silence, not eating enough to nourish me, not washing herself, not thinking. But she cleaned; she cleaned everything clean, clean, clean.
Cleanliness is next to godliness. Satan sprouts from dirt and disorder.
Then it was time. She didn’t have clothes for me. “She can’t. She’s broken,” I told the higher-ups. “I’m afraid.”
“You should be,” they answered. “Things look grim. But it’s too late. You have to be born. Stopping now would make her worse. A girl might make a difference.”
I didn’t want to come out. I don’t like pain of any kind. All those weeks I waited, my stomach hurt. At night when she wandered, my head hurt. When she talked about wrath and judgment and guilt, my ears hurt. I remembered the knives.
When I emerged it was worse. Three times louder and five times scarier. I couldn’t worry about knives; there was too much else. I started seeing ghosts when I was two months old; first my own, and then those boys’. I couldn’t keep their names straight; I barely knew them. And they hated me. A girl made a difference, all right: a girl made it worse.
The last was first. I was first. The Angel of Death came upon her bathing me. I was the experiment, what could I do? I told them this assignment was bad, but at least it didn’t last. By water, not blood: surprise. She pulled me out, dried me off, and laid me on the bed. I would have been cold without all that bathwater in my lungs. But I was really clean.
She didn’t talk at all, just called their names and put them in the water, last to first. The biggest came and saw. She had to chase him through the house. Even then, she didn’t speak. Just named him and pounced. It wasn’t hard. By then, the yoke was easy, the burden light. Children are small. She wasn’t even winded.
They lost their names. Their names are dead like mine. We wanted to breathe, we struggled like birds. Light and air against water and will. She could feel our narrow bones, the slowing beats of our smothered hearts.
She bathed and dried the others and laid them on the bed beside me. Pale flesh scrubbed for glory. Clean, clean, clean, clean, clean. Even the one who tried to get away.
She talked to us then, when she thought we couldn’t hear, but the ears of our souls were open wide. She sang us bits of hymns, she said she loved us. She told us we were saved, she believed she was a saint. “Now you’ll never suffer,” she said. She was weary. Her face was a mask. Her hair was greasy; she hadn’t showered in days.
“But I wanted to suffer,” the second one said. “I wanted to live.” Lucky she didn’t hear him or she would have killed him again. She took our pulses, as she’d learned to do in nursing school. None.
Then it was time to call him. “All of them,” she said.