Mary Toft, First Part
Mary Toft is in the garden on an August morning rich with bees. Five months along, her belly presses against the rough linen of her skirt while one hand curves protectively around it, half support, half caress. She thinks: This time next year, what will she be? And after that? In the corner of her eye she glimpses a child—like a ghost, or a prefigure—running through the morning from the kitchen door to the garden wall.
She makes her way toward a field the mowers cut three days before. On the way she meets Margaret, and together they walk to their day’s labor. The mowers are already at work, crossing another field with the regular sweep of their scythes, the second load of the season. Mary and Margaret row the hay already cut and left flat to dry.
It is Mary who disturbs the rabbit, with no ill intention. An hour earlier the doe had fled the mowers, her heart wild and her eyes rolling white, and hidden among the fallen grass of the field now being rowed. Her breast and her tail are brightly white, and it’s the whiteness that stops Mary, as much as the movement, so she is first to look up and see the creature break for the edge of the field, speeding through the stubble and the brittle grass, her rear legs sliding from side to side in fear.
Mary watches the rabbit leap for the ditch. She cannot see it, but she knows—how does she know?—the rabbit stops, listening for those terrors above who would hunt her to earth, who would tear her to pieces and eat her, dragging her heart and stomach out through a rent in her belly. The other women return to their work, but Mary watches, and finds her mind returned to an earlier afternoon, some autumn when she was a child and her father brought home the bloody carcasses of three rabbits, their eyes blank in their sockets, and their paws limp. Mary watched her mother dismantle their bodies and consign them to the pot, their bones enriching a sauce of thyme and rosemary, their blood and livers added at the end to thicken. She remembered the slender and furless paws, the tiny feet, the delicate ivory bones broken in the dish, the sharp edge where her father’s knife, her mother’s cleaver, had split the powerful thigh bone, or shattered the ribs. How, taking a mouthful of the stew, she had also taken a mouthful of bone, and the points had scratched inside her cheek.
She can taste rabbit on her tongue, the fear and ferrous of its blood, or perhaps that is the taste of her own, where the bones pierced her cheek. She knows the rabbit still hides—white-eyed—in the ditch.
At that moment the child leaps like a rabbit in her womb. She returns to work, one hand often caressing her belly.
That night her labor begins, and what emerges is not a human child, not exactly. It is unsexed, its eyes sealed, its skin dark gray, like a hairless rabbit kitten, with an open pocket that runs from breastbone to privates, and its lungs and liver hanging outside its body.
In the light of a guttering taper it seems to Mary that the child draws one breath, but perhaps it does not. Perhaps his singular moment on earth was—like the morning’s prefigure—only a dream.
The Egg From Whence Hatched the World
In the beginning there was only water, and then the egg. The egg might be, for example, the product of a dove descending on the deep. From the egg might hatch a number of different entities, depending on the context. The universe itself might float from that original albumen. Or it might be a man, creeping from the shell on which a raven knocks to waken him. Or no creature at all might escape the cosmic egg, but rather the substance of reality itself, called by some ylem: the original material, the primeval atom.
In at least one instance it was Gaea who crept out of the world-egg, who conceived—with the aid of the waters—her son-lover Ouranos, with whom she populated the world.
The Monstrous Egg, First Part
New Mexico and the Trinity Test Site. In July, a young man climbs a hundred-foot ladder to where the Gadget, armed, awaits its early-morning detonation. He has been assigned babysitting duties in case of sabotage, though he is not sure what he is meant to do if anyone tries to approach his tower. The summer night seems to have arranged its own defense, anyway, and a storm blows in all thunder-struck, lightning-hatched. He spends the night alone, reading by the light of his TL-122-A, the dull yellow center of its beam illuminating half a page at a time, first one comic book then another, until—long before dawn—its narrow circle dims. After that it is only in sudden lightning strikes that he sees the whole page at once: the Human Torch, Captain America, Superman defeating fascists. All back-issues he’d picked up in the commissary.
Outside in the darkness and storm—so dark he cannot see the ground, only the wild and disordered air—the Gadget broods; it seems to him gravid and still, except when a high wind causes the whole tower to groan and sway and another handful of rain drenches the window, its drops caught in freeze-frame flash by lightning.
He is excruciatingly aware of the Gadget, and what lies within it, what chain reactions, what potential. It might be an entirely new world. Or an end to the old world. Or nothing at all, an empty egg, unviable despite their best intentions.
Mary Toft, Second Part
Mary buried the inside-out child. Once, she looked up from its little grave to see rabbits watching in the first rain of September, a flicker of drops across a bright sunset in a slate-colored sky. Her glance scattered the rabbits, and they peeled away from the gravesite where she had set a little bunch of cottage flowers—clove pinks, richly scented, from the warm corner beside the front door.
She thought of rabbit stew and early morning rabbits startled among the lettuces of her little garden. She thought of their white bellies flickering, as had flickered the belly of that rabbit who fled the mowers and haymakers, who had—in a flash of light—quickened within her. She thought: Perhaps the womb is transparent, like water, and perhaps the flash of light from a rabbit’s white stomach can quicken within, as the word of God quickened in Mary’s own womb.
She felt something move, a creature she could not name, and who knows what shape it took? From a smear of blood to a cluster of bones, from a frog to a hairless rabbit kit, to a monkey to a man, to the shape made by certain underground roots that scream when they are torn from the earth. Something moved in that internal darkness, enclosed by the shell of her belly.
The second pregnancy was easier than the first, and the tiny, flickering creature moved within her wild and skittish, so she wondered if she had not one, but a litter of kits inside.
The Prophetess Hen
In August of 1819, in a village outside of Manchester, a farmer announces the advent of a miraculous hen. She lays eggs of remarkable beauty that bear—in copperplate letters—words of hope and advantage: Love your Savior, says one egg. Fear God, says another. Hellfire Awaits.
The hen dies suddenly. The village doctor preserves the remaining eggs. It was not until 1837 that the Farmer—on his death bed—admits what many suspected: that he had written those messages on newly-lain eggs. When the ink dried he re-inserted them into the hen—well, into multiple hens, but the Prophetess of Manchester was the only one who survived the process more than twice—and waited for the mystery to reveal itself in his chicken coop.
Gaea and Ouranos
Together Gaea and Ouranos conceived Briareos, Kottos, and Gyes, lovely and powerful creatures with fifty heads and fifty arms each. While Gaea loved them for their strength and beauty, Ouranos was troubled by their perfection—their enormous shoulders, their great height, their hundred exquisite eyes. Rather than allowing their power to challenge his own, he pushed them back inside Gaea, who was also the Earth, locking them in the underground of Tartaros, which was also Gaea’s womb.
Gaea, she cried out in pain, as her sons dragged their fifty arms against the interior of her womb, which was also the deep region beneath the earth. She felt them return, also, to an earlier posture, since Ouranos’s violence twisted them into fetal creatures, their fifty arms wrapped around their bodies and their knees drawn up to meet the foreheads of their fifty heads. She felt each kick they made in defiance of her stony womb, each flip and turn as they sought some comfort in the tiny space their father had allowed them. She wept at both the pain and the perversion, and whispered to them: You will live in the air again; you will grow into your final form and you will be free.
Gaea and Ouranos continued to conceive children, and—once born—Ouranos returned them to their mother, until her whole body was occupied, womb and bowels, with creatures waiting to be reborn. With each child her body grew larger, the shell of her belly harder, and she could not move with the weight of them. She would burst, she thought, she would rupture, and all her children would run back out into the world again through her torn navel.
Where Children Thus Are Born With Hairy Coats Heaven’s Wrath Unto the Kingdom It Denotes
Monstrous births are prefigures.
In Towton, Yorkshire, in 1461 a child was born hairy from crown to foot, with a head made entirely of barking dogs. The child rose from the bloody sheets in which his mother lay, said Fear the flames! and expired. The dogs that constituted his head barked and whimpered a moment longer; then they, too, were still.
The obvious question is: What horror filled his mother’s eye or ear or mouth when he—enwombed—was still in flux, a protean creature awaiting his final form? The child’s shape is, of course, uncertain until the moment of birth, vulnerable to any number of outside forces. A vision of rabbits. A moment of insight. An internment camp. A refugee trail. A fat man or a little boy. A cigarette. A miraculous gadget. A sudden fright. A new passion. The presence of a beautiful man. The taste of honey. The uninvited touch of a stranger while one is walking through the grocery store minding one’s own business. The evil eye. The epigenetic triggers of famine and warzone. Fallout and trace mercury.
Elizabeth Johnson observed the First Battle of Bull Run with her sister, unaware that she had just conceived a child with her now-absent husband, a Confederate officer. Captain Johnson died in the battle, and although she did not observe his death by shrapnel, she did watch a man beheaded by a cannonball. Nothing might have come of it, had he not looked up the hillside in the moment of his decapitation, to where Elizabeth and her sister stood watching.
Should we wonder, then, that Elizabeth gave birth to a headless child in 1862? He lived for three years, and though his body grew, he was never physically competent, could neither walk nor crawl, and made only a whistling, mewling noise. Elizabeth remained a devoted mother to the end, dripping spoon after spoon of warm cream into the gaping sphincter of her son’s neck.
Mary Toft, Third Part
Dr. Graves, the man-midwife who attended the birth and death of Mary’s inside-out rabbit-child, wrote an account of the new sort of creature that scratched its way from her womb, part man, part Leporidae.
Dr. Graves did not subscribe to the old discourse of marvels and prefigures. He was a rational man, interested in the science of birth, particularly maternal impression, and not the mythology. He was pleased that a mystery had fallen in his lap, and he observed Mary’s symptoms with care, nodding sagely when he felt the fever on her brow and ignoring her rambling talk about the flash of a rabbit’s belly in the August morning, and the shadow of a little girl running to the bottom of the garden.
“Yes, yes, my dear, now you must rest,” he said. Her urgency did not trouble him.
The next day Daniel Toft sent word by way of his sister, Margaret, that Mary was again in labor. Dr. Graves arrived in time to see the aftereffects: the blood-soaked sheets, the fragments of pearly bone and tooth. The creature expelled was like the others, but more clearly a rabbit now, as though some progress had been made since she birthed its litter-mates. Dr. Graves took it away and sketched it: its delicate legs, the short ears, the tiny padless paws. If it were not for the blood, its belly would have been white. Not hairless like the earlier kits, this creature was small, but its eyes were open, its claws splayed and bloody in death.
Such well-developed claws must have scratched, he thought, on leaving the maternal seat. He could not determine how it died, but was not surprised at the death of a creature so unsuited to either human or natural worlds.
Dr. Graves combined his account of the birth, his sketches of the rabbit-child of Mary and Daniel Toft, his conjecture on the nature of maternal impressions, and sent them to an acquaintance at the Royal Society. He was gratified to receive a response within the week, an invitation to bring the Tofts to London for observation. Mary’s belly was swollen with her seemingly unending pregnancy, and she often talked of her desire for rabbit stew, of rabbits she often saw now, in dreams, fleeing from her, their white bellies flashing. When Dr. Graves examined her, a thick stench emerged from her womb, and there seemed, under the skin, some angry red distemper that spread down her thighs and up toward her navel. Her skin was hot to the touch, and she never seemed to sleep, only to lapse into unconsciousness.
The trip to London was painful for everyone. Mary gave birth to two rabbits on the road, attended by her husband. They sent these children back home with Margaret Toft, Daniel’s sister, to be buried with their siblings.
Mary did not know where she was, even when they told her “London.” She stayed in dark, closed rooms, refusing light as though it might pierce her, and when the blade of the sun did penetrate her darkness, she shrieked so that Dr. Graves relented, and examined her by the near-darkness of a candle. He touched her belly, and saw the torn skin of her secret parts, scratched as by claws, or broken bones, as though the creatures had not been born in a gush of blood, but had been dragged by rear foot from the womb, leaving the route of their egress written on her purpled flesh.
Mary was not often conscious. Her fever was high, and her eyes fluttered wildly in her sockets, as though she were troubled by constant, terrible dreams. When, in a temporary state of wakefulness, two gentlemen of the Royal Society interviewed her, she told them about a hay field, about the flash of a doe’s belly through the newly-turned rows, how the doe had gone to ground in a ditch, and Mary had watched her and—for a moment—felt herself akin to that creature, driven in fear from her home burrow when the mowers passed with their scythes. She described a terrible wildness of spirit, though the two gentleman were not clear if this was her own, or the doe’s. Mary asked them: Where was she now? Had she found her way back? She held onto their hands, as the tremors shook her belly. No one could answer her.
“Maternal Impression, a very definite case of it,” one gentleman said. “We’ll present it at the next meeting. Can you arrange for an inspection? Perhaps several—a number of our members will want to see it.”
“Yes,” said Daniel. “You tell us when, and we’ll have Mary ready. She’ll like to hear so many people are interested.”
Dr. Graves nodded sagely, and offered to let them read his recent treatise on the subject, as they withdrew, leaving Mary to her darkness, where—wriggling within her—the rabbits formed and died, formed and died, and she endured their birth and their return. In her half-waking state she saw not her husband, but a hulking and ancient devil who could not bear to see children born into the world, and so returned them to her after each bloody labor.
It was the landlady who found them out, when Margaret Toft visited the kitchen and asked her for a very small rabbit—dead or alive—the smallest she could find. When examined, Margaret wept and refused to speak. It was Daniel who admitted the deception, and Mary Toft began her long, slow recovery.
The Monstrous Egg, Second Part
This is an ancient recipe, not so much invented, as rediscovered in eras of dread: the Terror, the Year of Five Emperors. It flickered in popularity after the Trinity Tests.
Take two dozen eggs. Take a pig’s bladder, or similarly round, watertight mold. From here, execution will vary by era and taste: Do you prefer chicken or duck or ostrich? Do you prefer a wild boar’s bladder or the more delicate skin-sack of a loveable piglet or a huge egg-shaped mold from a Tupperware party? Some recipes call for yolks and whites to be separated, the yolks set first in a spherical mold, then removed to the bladder, after which the whites are poured over the top and set in simmering water. These differences are cosmetic. What matters is the idea: the monstrous egg that, once cracked, spills its contents across the dining table.
(Monstrous Eggs can occur naturally, as was the case in 1862, in Antietam, when a languishing hen refused to lay. When butchered, she was revealed to be hoarding one of these creatures in her oviduct, so large it killed the hen.)
In the 1950s the Monstrous Egg appeared in the guise of a celebratory centerpiece for a summer buffet, recommended in a least one issue of Woman’s Life Weekly where it was sponsored by Jell-O and called the Delicious Gadget. The recipe required four packages of lime Jell-O cast in an egg-shaped mold, swirled with layers of sour cream and grated carrot, and, floating in its green depths, boiled eggs—the yolks like pupils—staring as they waited to spill like a secret onto an unsuspecting diner’s plate. This was recommended as a centerpiece dish for buffets and barbecues, with a garnish of marshmallows.
In all cases, the appearance of such recipes prefigures a monstrous birth of another kind. That thing your hostess has placed at the center of the buffet, garlanded with marshmallows and water chestnuts? It is, in fact, the alchemical egg from which cracks the new and terrible world. No one knows if these eggs were ever eaten, or if they watched over the table like a prefigure of doom, l’oeuf monstrueux. The Delicious Gadget sits in the center of the suburban barbecue, awaiting detonation.
Mary Toft Had a Daughter
I have heard that there is, somewhere, a complex wherein these marvels, monsters, and prefigures are stored, or recorded, if their bodies have been destroyed. There are rooms full of jars in which float the pickled bodies of dog-headed children, and moon-calves, and mouse-eared cats. Beyond these nameable creatures, there are stranger bodies, which seem to our eyes incompletely imagined, interrupted at some mid-stage of development, neither man nor beast nor angel. There are diagrams on the walls, and books of two-headed flowers and insects with thirteen wings, and other early attempts to record the marvel of conception as it intersects with history. There are bodies stretched on pins in beds of wax, the remains of vivisected creatures, labeled by origins—mother and supposed father(s)—location, and date. The dates are significant: The children of plagues as well as comets find their resting places here; the children of Bikini Atoll, and the children of Trinity, the children of the Dutch famine of 1945, and children of the Gulag.
It was to this secret archive—the Museum Clausum—that Mary Toft’s surviving child was consigned by Dr. Graves’s machinations. Graves was present at this, her last birth—before Daniel Toft confessed—and had whisked the little rabbit-daughter away when he found her among the refuse of half-rabbits that Daniel and Margaret Toft had pushed into the birth canal.
Mary Toft’s daughter was a weak creature and smaller than the rest of her litter. The plan was for vivisection, so they might compare her anatomy to both rabbit and human models while still in action. At least two gentlemen of the Royal Society were eager to begin work, to slice open her belly and see, for a moment, her heart beat in the living air.
But rabbits are clever, and their hearts are wild. Dr. Graves left the child on the hearth in the Museum’s ante-chamber, and held an impromptu meeting about who would author the resulting paper, and where they would seek publications, and what the book might be called when it was done.
While they spoke, the new thing—part Mary, part rabbit, product of a flash of light, conceived in the intersecting glances of woman and doe—escaped from her basket and onto the warm hearth. She smelled formaldehyde and vivisectionists, and though her eyes were newly opened, some knowledge must have been inherited by her infant mind, as though the circumstances of her birth had written into the code of her being a profound fear of men like Dr. Graves and his company.
She crept from hearth to door, a creature so tiny she might be missed, this palm-sized daughter, this rabbit-homunculus. Her skin was liver-colored, dark enough to fade into the carpet. When a late-comer opened the door, she hid rabbit-still in the shadows and saw her chance. She darted with all the speed of her wild mother. This was a happy ending: a second birth for Mary Toft’s unnamed daughter.
A new creature quickens. A prefigure cracks the shell of the world: monstrous, miraculous, dog-headed, rabbit-bodied, conceived by the flash of a white belly in the dawn, the methylated DNA of a woman in duress, carrying her child through a famine or along a refugee trail from the flooded coast to higher land—from this crack will emerge something entirely new.
You might try to return it to its shell, but this time I do not think it will comply.
Rebecca Campbell is a Canadian writer and academic. Her work has appeared in publications that include The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. NeWest Press published her novel, The Paradise Engine, in 2013. You can find her online at whereishere.ca.
published January 2018, Issue #41, 3900 words
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