She held her breath as he latched on to her nipple. There was always a sharp pain as the milk came down and it was matched each time by a sensation of shrinking in her womb. Six weeks now after the birth, she was still bleeding. Every time she fed him, she bled more.
‘It’s natural,’ said Narisja. ‘Whenever He sucks at your breast, your womb will shrink. He will make you slimmer’
It felt as if he were biting her. She imagined that there were huge teeth inside that tiny mouth. They only came out when he wanted milk. The rest of the time they lay hidden behind the innocent gums.
The pain lasted a few seconds. Then the other pain would start. The dull ache in her womb, which minutes later would be relieved as a fresh spurt of blood trickled into the pad she wore between her legs.
Then she could relax. It made her feel sleepy as the small child sucked slowly at her breasts. Sometimes, she thought of when Gabrizan had touched her there. She had loved that too. Now, though, that seemed wrong.
These are for the baby, she thought. These were never meant for you.
The child patted her breasts as he fed. It felt right. Every now and then, he stopped. Then he would start again. The Mother knew instinctively exactly when to move him from one side to the next.
‘You are doing well,’ Narisja said. ‘The Child is gaining weight rapidly. And look how his cheeks are filling out.’
But the Mother could see the worry in the old woman’s eyes.
The Mother looked at her child. She couldn’t love him. She enjoyed feeding him, but that was all. It was Saratina who patted him afterwards, and cooed at him and made the funny grunting noise, which were her only words and which he seemed to love.
All the Mother could see was blackness. He was a parasite, feeding off her, taking away her life. He had forced her to live here, to abandon the life where everything was right, where everything should have been wonderful.
She was glad, though, that she was still the Mother, the Queen Bee, the most important member of the hive. She allowed Narisja and Saratina to serve her every need. They brought her food and drink. The old woman made her drink gallons of the cave water.
‘You must take in so much fluid,’ she said. ‘The baby is taking most of yours.’
The regime of the nightly porterbeer continued.
‘He needs the iron as much as you,’ said Narisja. ‘You need it still. You must be strong for the sake of the Peace Child.’
The baby always slept well after she had drunk the porterbeer, and that allowed her to sleep for five or six hours at night.
The two other women dressed him and changed his nappies. The Mother watched, glad that she did not have to handle the stinking mess. The baby squirmed and yelled as the women pulled his clothes on to him.
How can anyone love that? the Mother asked herself. It’s not a child. It’s just a demanding lump of flesh, a food processor.
She stopped caring about her own appearance. She would never have washed if Narisja had not made her. The older woman also made her clean her teeth, often having to force her mouth open and brush them herself.
‘You’ll lose your teeth if you don’t take care of them,’ she said to the Mother. ‘The child has taken a lot of your calcium.’
It was Saratina who stroked the Mother’s hair and brushed it a hundred times morning and night.
The Mother just turned her face to the black wall of the cave, and that was all she saw: blackness going on forever. She could not see a future for herself and her child. She could not even recognise that she had a child.
She did see, though, that Narisja and Saratina were becoming more and more concerned about her and the Child.
‘She won’t touch Him unless we make her,’ said the old woman. ‘She almost seems afraid of Him.’
Saratina grunted sympathetically. She bent over the Child’s crib and stroked his cheek.
‘Even the Peace Child needs mother love,’ said Narisja. ‘What can we do?’
Saratina just shook her head and looked sadly at the sleeping baby.
The Mother listened. They were right. The baby did need mother love. But I just can’t move towards him, she thought. I am frozen.
The baby carried on gaining weight and he looked healthy enough. The Mother also seemed to be thriving. Her figure was trim again and she was less pale than she had been straight after the birth. Yet there was something not quite right. She seemed to be in a dream.
Ben-Menriah continued to come every week. He loved to play with the Child.
‘You will be a fine story-teller,’ he said. ‘You carry the stories of the world in your soul.’
He was happy to throw the Child over his shoulder and pat his back after he had been fed. The baby would give a loud burp, often puking the last of his milk over the Wiseman’s shoulder.
Narisja would fetch him a cloth and wipe his tunic.
‘Your clothes will be ruined,’ she said.
But Ben-Mariah would only laugh. ‘What do a few soiled garments matter when I’m holding the fulfilment of a prophecy in my arms? Besides, baby spittle smells sweet and soon washes out.’
Then, when the babe was settled and asleep again, Ben-Mariah would continue with his tales. The Mother listened. There was a little comfort in them, but they lacked the excitement they had brought her earlier. Then always, before he went away, there was the whispered conversation in the entrance to the cave.
‘So there’s no improvement?’ he asked.
‘No, she still does not seem interested in the Boy,’ said Narisja.
Ben-Mariah would shake his head sadly. ‘Her soul is sick,’ he said. ‘We must find the story which will cure it, if the Boy is to grow strongly.’
She heard every word that they said about her, but she did not give anything away. She continued to stare blankly at the cave wall.
The Mother finished the feed, and handed the baby over to Saratina, who burped him, changed his nappy, rubbed noses with him and giggled at him and then laid him in his cot. She bent over and made her cooing, grunting little noises at him, just as she did every time she laid him down. Suddenly she cried out. Even the Mother was alarmed, and wondered whether the Child was hurt.
Saratina rushed over to her and grabbed her arm. She had to follow her to the crib. Saratina was pointing excitedly at the baby, squeaking and clapping her fists together.
‘What is it Saratina?’ asked the Mother. ‘What’s the matter? What’s happened?’
‘Mmm!’ insisted Saratina.
The Mother looked into the cot. Kaleem was lying on his back, his feet and arms kicking in the air. His deep blue eyes were looking into hers. For a second she saw his father and then she saw something of her own father. The baby smiled and giggled.
Something changed in her.
‘Does the Peace Child have a name now?’ asked Narisja.
‘Yes,’ replied the Mother. ‘He is my Kaleem,’ she said, stroking his cheek. ‘My precious child’
She took him out of his cot and held him close.