The Silk Mothers by Mackenzie Bethune

I’m thinking of my own mother as I lay my children down in the incubator in the nursery. I can see their tiny bodies writhing beneath the filmy layer of the eggshell. We separated the black shells from yellow a few hours ago. Hal and I got into a fight about what to do with the ones that didn’t make it. He wrinkled his nose at them and said we should sell them. To who? I asked. To science. Or the weavers. I don’t know.

It was like the fight last week about the incubator itself. Hal has seen home videos of himself nestled in an old model. Nothing like the swaddling my mother put my siblings and me in. The fires she kept burning in our room every day until we began to hatch.

The fireplace here is electric, Claudia, Hal said. You have to be practical. 

There are only two black eggs, so I gather them in my arms and take them on a drive out to the forest. Every so often I reach out and touch them. Cold little rocks. I bury them next to my brothers and sisters who never hatched. I wonder if my mother cried when she sprinkled dirt over their blackness. Did she look past the shell at the rotting soup inside? Did she feel the urge to eat them, reabsorb them in her stomach where they’d sat just hours before? I’ve seen programs on tribes who practice this. The women live longer there. I pat the grass back into place and say a prayer. Then I brush off my jeans and head back to the car.

I still have memories of my mother. She had skin that shone a milky purple in the dark of our nursery, like a nightlight. She cleaned the hard clumps we couldn’t reach after we fell out of our eggs and gave us each a bath in her own milk. Then she fed us leaves she’d chewed, mouth touching mouth.

I have jars of pureed leaves in our pantry. They start on the bottom shelf as a fine mush and work their way up to the top rows where they are hardly crushed at all. I showed Hal the different labels, but he’ll probably forget. He bought me one of those machines that helps you chem them up. Every bit of energy saved counts, he says.

I’m napping after the burial. The canopy around Hal and my bed is pulled tight. The light from the windows is blocked out.

Claudia, says Hal.

I’m not really asleep but I want to pretend to be.

Claudia, Hal repeats and he pulls back the curtains. I blink giant black eggs out of my vision and see a woman standing next to Hal. She is small and round and has large breasts that I’m sure are full of milk.

This is Sarah, he says and before he can say another word I am up, grabbing her by the arm and pushing her out our front door. She falls back but her wings sprawl out before she hits concrete.

What the hell? he asks me.

You know, I say, but Hal doesn’t hear me anymore. He just sees what I saw in my own mother at the end. I am reflected in his big black eyes and I turn away. Back to covers still warm with my body wrapped up inside.

Hal works as an architect downtown. Right now they’re working on a bigger sylvatoreum for the pupa ceremonies. A few weeks ago he took me to see how it was progressing. Gentle light from lamps made to look like stars. Sturdy trees made from steel with hooks to hang cocoons from. Plastic grass that was green like the fertilized lawns in our neighborhood.  No dirt, no flowers, no birds. Hal smiled at me as I stood against the backdrop of a realm he had created. Someday out babies will grow their wings here, he said. I nodded and then excused myself to the bathroom where I threw up into the shiny, sterilized toilet in a boxy new stall.

He keeps bringing home big jobs like this. And even bigger paychecks that he uses to buy gifts for me and the eggs. The silver necklaces and homespun dresses made my head dance when we started dating. The wedding dress from a boutique and the pearls woven into my hair. The diamond I wear on my left hand that cost more than my mother’s house.

He ordered something online the other day that I promised I would try out. It comes when he’s at the office. The UPS guy widens his eyes before he floats back down the sidewalk to his car. I run my fingers over the hollows of my under-eyes and cheeks. Through my remaining wisps of hair. Some come out in my hands and I let the white fluff fall to the ground.

I pick the package up and take it to the nursery.

Hello, babies, I say, ripping through the layers of tape and cardboard.

My mother moved us to the city after my pupa ceremony. I was the only one who survived the unveiling. A hawk got into the sacred ground and ate all the others. That was one of the last ceremonies they held outside.

It’s a sign, my mother told me that night as she combed my hair and oiled my new wings. I winced. They were still so new. Then we went out to the forest and buried my siblings who had died in the cocoons to my right and left. Mother and I had extra helpings of leaves that night.

I pull the silver cords and boxes out of the package and press a button. It glows green and I begin to hum. Then I press another button and hear the hum echo back to me. I try again, this time singing. I press play again and a ghost of my mother escapes into the air. I look around at my babies. Did you hear that? I imagine the gurgling noises they’ll make for Hal as he feeds them and cleans them and tucks them into their cradles. The cradles are still at the carpenter’s. He has put the final coat of paint on them. We cancelled the two for the halflings, but it still takes time to make seven cradles.

We could do this with the cocoons, too, Hal told me a few weeks ago. We were standing in the carpenter’s shop, watching him sand down the headboards. I could feel them inside my stomach, bumping around in sacs of fluid.

What if I crack them? I asked my doctor at the last ultrasound. She laughed at me.

Just like I laughed at Hal. I watched his pupils scan over me. I had more hair then, more fat in my middle. He pulled me into a hug right there in the middle of the carpenter’s shop. I stepped back and put a hand on my stomach. Careful.

I sometimes wonder what my own father was like. My mother had no stories about him. Did he hum while he read the newspaper, like Hal? Did he notice small things like the soaked tissues that piled up on a girl’s desk in the days following her mother’s death?

In the city I met a group of girls my age. We went to a school where biology and calculus replaced the weaving and cooking courses from my old town. When we graduated they went off to colleges in coastal towns where the girls were like them. Like boys, you mean, my mother said. She was fading, her head shiny and bald at the dinner table. I crushed morphine tablets into the leaves I chewed with my own mouth. I stayed close to home, caring for her in between classes.

Claudia, she said on her last night with me, never forget the silk that spun you. Her eyes were milky with cataracts and she asked me to come closer. I took her veiny hand in mine and said that I wouldn’t. The goddess took her with a smile on her face.

I leave the recorder playing in the nursery whenever my own voice gets too tired to sing. Then I sit in a rocking chair and spin blankets.

Hal comes in one day before I can wipe the silk spittle from my lips.

Are you kidding me, he asks. There are tears in his eyes.

I can’t forget the silk that spun me, I say.

He picks me up from my seat with one arm and carries me to our bed. I’ve never liked sharing it, but he insists. He likes to run his hands over my wings while we drift off to sleep. Most nights lately I will get up after he sleeps and stand in the middle of the nursery. Today he tucks me under the covers and brings me tea. He sets a napkin beside it with my supplements. They don’t work, I want to say. Instead, I swallow them and let him pull me close to his chest.

I get cards form my old friends often. They are wedding announcements, baby showers, pupa ceremonies for their already grown larvae. It seems I have just taken the picture off the fridge of the chubby toddler with green fluff all over and there he is, stepping into a cocoon with a nervous smile on his face. Like their mothers and fathers and fathers before them, these caterpillars would never dream of spinning their own cocoon. Their mothers gave them baths with milk bought from another woman online.

We could too, Claudia, Hal has told me a hundred times.

When we first met, I wanted all the silver polished things he had to offer. I was like the magpies that stole fairies in the tales my mother told to scare me as a caterpillar.

I go for a walk that night to a shrine not far from our house. There are giant oaks here from the days that pupa ceremonies were all done outdoors. I look for the cracked statue in the middle of them all. The goddess emerging from her own cocoon. Please, take care of them. All of them.

After Hal and I got married, I want to the doctor to talk about children.

You spun your own cocoon as a girl? she asked me, taking a vial of blood from my arm.

When I said yes she clucked her tongue and said she highly recommended adoption. Then she gave me two pill bottles. Take these for energy and these to keep the caterpillars away. I thew the later away immediately.

A few months later there were nine egg sacs in my stomach.

I’ve seen pictures of Hal as a larva. I hope our children have his dimples. I hope their fluff is a lighter shade of green, like mine was.

Nine? Hal screamed at the ultrasound tech. That’s impossible.

I laid back on the cot and sipped water from a glass cup. I felt my mother’s cool hands on my forehead, telling me all would be well.

The reporters wanted to do an interview with me. No one in the civilized world had had a litter of more than five in generations.

The goddess has blessed me, I told them. Hal ran his hands through his hair and groaned. He never comes to the forest with me.

My friends have been sending baby gifts. Stuffed animals and blankets, onesies and dresses. All made with hands and mouths they will never see with their own eyes. I take them to Goodwill and replace them with what I have made on my own.

They start to hatch one night. I hear the cracking of shells in my sleep and fly out of bed. My wings hit the doorframe as I shoot into the room and look at my babies crawling into the world. Hal rushes in after me and we work together in the moonlight to pull any limb that are stuck from the depths of their old worlds. They cry as we dip them in the basin of milk I have filled with my own breasts. Then we dry them with towels and set them in the cradles that arrived yesterday morning. We name them quickly, the ideas springing to our heads like instinct.

Out of the larvae, there is one girl. I give her an extra kiss. I pull a necklace from my pocket. I have worn it since my own mother kissed me goodbye. I put it in her chubby hands and watch her chew at it with her gums. Protect her, I pray. The last of my hair falls onto the nursery floor and I walk not back to the bedroom where Hal has just settled in, but to the car. My voice is trailing out of the nursery from the silver box. My mother’s songs put a spell on the entire house. I drive until the sun is just peaking over the top of the forest. I park the car and stumble over foot trails I knew so well as a child. My wings curl downwards and I fall to the ground before the ancient stone statue.

I pull my legs to my chest and let the memories of them wrap around me until I am closed up from the earth for good. I have no milk left, nothing to spin into blankets or clothes. I hear a woman call to me from outside the final shell I have made for myself. I don’t know if hers is a voice I’ve heard before or not. She pulls me gently into her arms.


Mackenzie Bethune is an undergraduate student at Saginaw Valley State University, where she serves as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal, Cardinal Sins. This is her first publication.