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More than Instinct

Maggie Slater's speculative fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, The Bronzeville Bee, and Zombies: More Recent Dead from Prime Books, among other venues. She lives in an 1800s farmhouse in New England with two half-tamed boys, her husband, her parents, and at least one benign ghost. When she has an almost quiet moment, she enjoys Haruki Murakami novels, sampling craft beer, and hoarding cheap notebooks. For more information about her and her current projects, visit her blog at maggieslater.com.

Except for the utter darkness within its mouth and its pupils, it looked like an ordinary baby: even the cutest baby in the world, like her mother-in-law crowed. Amanda crouched before the bouncy seat on the kitchen floor and studied its nibbling lips. Its tongue dipped in and out of the dark. When your baby's mouth opens and closes, and it sticks out its tongue, it wants to eat, the postpartum nurse had said.
But its lip smacking never ceased, and no one had mentioned the lurching vertigo whenever she met its gaze. She'd seen something like that look before, in Ash's eyes, when she'd come home from school and the yellow lab met her at the door, tail beating so hard she worried he might dislodge his spine. But Ash's look had been worshipful; the baby's look was divine, peering with a celestial love Amanda couldn't fully comprehend. This love was gravitational, and it dragged at her heart.
She'd done everything the lactation consultant suggested three times over. She pumped after every feeding, she bit her cheek and nursed until her nipples bled, she chugged lactation tea by the liter, but she still couldn't wring out more than a couple ounces of breastmilk and the baby kept losing weight. The nurse practitioner's voice echoed from the last appointment: We just don't want your baby to get too weak to eat. She hadn't even known that could happen. Now it was all she thought about.
With a trembling hand, Amanda slipped the bottle nipple between its lips. But the baby's tongue flickered out, walling off its mouth, blocking even the tiniest drip of formula. This wasn't what it wanted.
Amanda's nose stung and her eyes watered. "Please. Just give it a try. You'll like it. Please, please eat."
Just one ounce. If it could take just one ounce of formula, maybe she'd be able to stop obsessing about its weight, about how her baby was starving and it was her fault, because she couldn't make enough milk to feed it.
"Please," she begged, offering the bottle again, but the baby's haphazard arms flung themselves up and knocked the bottle away.
Amanda fought the urge to burst into tears. She shuddered at the thought of nursing again while her cracked nipples still stung, and the reluctance made her burn with shame. She should do anything for her baby, needed to do anything for it. Having this little one had taught she could handle more pain than she'd ever imagined, but it shocked her how much suffering it could still inflict by not gaining weight, by wrinkling the pediatrician's brow with concern, by yanking its head away from her breast and howling with frustration.
The baby squawked and watched her, black pupils dilating. Its gaze tugged her closer to its soft, chubby cheeks and pursing lips. In its eyes was the space between nebulas; in its mouth was the darkness of pre-existence, brought over from the other side and into her kitchen by this tiny, ravenous, helpless thing. She leaned forward. Her fingers brushed its lips and the baby lunged, weak neck lolling on its chest. It fell forward in the chair and Amanda caught it, nestling it back into a secure position. It screwed up its face, frustrated. It didn't want the bottle or the breast.
Heartbeat racing, she offered her hand. It latched onto her pointer finger. They have a sucking instinct, the lactation consultant had said, but this was more than instinct. The baby sucked the finger down to the knuckle. Amanda's teeth clicked and she gasped as its kneading gums, like rubber-padded iron bars, dislocated bones and shifted flesh. Pain surged up her arm to the shoulder. Her wrist bones creaked, straining against the pull as the baby swallowed and swallowed. Its gaze grew distant, and its eyelids drooped in satisfaction.
Amanda bit her inner cheek and held her hand steady, brushing away the tears of pain. Her heart ached with relief as she watched the baby eat. She knew she would lose herself if she wasn't careful, but a finger? She could spare a finger or two.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021

Author Comments

I wrote this story a little over a month after the birth of my youngest, for a writing class I was taking to help me through the sleep-deprived haze of new-again motherhood. Prior to his arrival, a part of me had been absolutely terrified that we were going to relive the horrors of his brother's feeding problems, but thankfully, #2 was a very easy baby (as babies go). Still, it gave me a chance to look back from a safe distance at those first weeks of new parenthood with #1, which were supposed to be magical and fulfilling, but instead were filled with fear and guilt. My entire life revolved around the baby scale, and a half-ounce down in his weight could bring me to hysterics. Everything worked out in the end for #1, and he's a fine and healthy boy today, but at the time it was devastating and all-consuming, (as I hope this story is). It's also been fascinating how many of my beta readers for this story had similar tales of feeding woes, which makes me think this experience is far more common than the myriad "Caring for Your Baby" pamphlets at the doctor's office lead us to believe.

- Maggie Slater
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