Her skin stretched perversely, as though the abomination tried to free itself from her womb. Two tiny hands attempted to breach the mother’s distended stomach. Pallid flesh whitened to a point near translucence. Awareness of the grotesque happenings inside her belly seemed fractional as she went on muttering incomprehensible gibberish. Torrents of sweat rolled off her brow. An occasional groan was my only indication some part of her mind remained lucid. Veins had become rapidly more visible throughout her withered frame. My mind clotted with doubt this woman might survive the birthing. Any virtuous principle I once may have relished fell to its knees praying for some hope this child might escape unscathed by the plague gripping its progenitor.
Resting on a table repurposed for the use of hospital bed, mother and child struggled with mortality. A small fire crackled in the wood stove. Above the flame, a pitted cast iron pot hissed as boiling water rolled over the top. The cottage was small, but it fit our needs. Too much space becomes unmanageable, if preoccupied with anything but defense against the dead. It was a small structure, built for recreation in a time when dead still meant gone. It was far enough away from any town or traveled road that it drew little unwanted attention. However, not so far that scavenging for supplies was a burden. Water was drawn from a nearby well, which surprisingly still supplied a fresh source. Small windows made for easy defense and the solid oak door on iron hinges was more comforting than I imagined castle walls could be. Unfortunately the roof had fallen into disrepair over the years. As a result the floor was unstable in the best of areas and completely rotten in others. In daylight the deterioration and rot were easy enough to maneuver around, but a misstep at night could lead to a broken leg and ultimately prove fatal. Alas, it was the best I could do given the circumstance. I often worried the fire’s smoke might draw prying eyes. Nonetheless sanitation remained the utmost concern.
Looking back I realize it was a fool’s hope, thinking I might save the child. A task of such paramount nature was beyond my frazzled capacity. In the world I grew up a part of, the dangers to a newborn were rampant. Raising a child was a labor that required the support of hundreds, most of which were medically trained. That time had passed, now the deceased hunted us relentlessly with an insatiable hunger for living flesh. Of course I remember watching on the television extra ordinary cases where a single parent might succeed, given the right combination of circumstances. It was perhaps this misguided idea, ingrained at such a young age, which led me to believe I might prosper where thousands had failed. Well, that and unfounded hope. Young ones are the rarest of treasures in these last of days. A mother making it full term without complication is near unheard of. Children born into this world of disease and depravity seldom mature beyond their first year. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew all this, though I had yet to experience it firsthand.
A down filled winter jacket cradled the mothers resting head. She had told me her name was Annie, yet nothing of her story. Even now, time and again my mind plays out its several possibilities. I stumbled upon Annie not a day’s hike from the cottage, though I had not intended taking up there for several weeks to come. Often, I find fate dictates a different path from the one which we set our feet to. She had clung to life, despite all indications life had since deserted her. This was not readily apparent until I was standing over the woman’s malnourished form. My intentions to save a bullet and avoid alerting whomever might be near, had almost resulted in this girl’s demise. Crumpled and crawling, her pallid skin was covered in grime. Adorned in clothes tattered to the point of indecent, she was in all appearances undead. From afar I thought her a bloated cadaver. As I closed the distance, the unmistakable figure of a woman with child revealed itself. Pregnant zeds were uncommon, but not so rare as you might think. Statistically speaking, expectant mothers ranked amongst the ailing and elderly to first fall prey to the walking plague. Well, that’s what I had heard that in a news report before communications fell entirely.
Mouth closed and head cocked to avoid splatter, I raised my axe. Suddenly Annie gasped, abruptly aware of her precarious situation. She looked up at me in clarity those haunting azure eyes have since lost. This pathetic creature’s gaze met mine with helpless pleading, tears rolled down her squalid cheeks. The plague’s infection was evident, yet not so far gone that turning was an immediate danger.
“Please…” Annie whimpered.
Moral conscious demanded I finish it. The mercy she needed was that of a quick end. This dilemma confounded my every ethic. I battle still, with the decisions I then made. From that point forward I convinced myself it was for the child’s sake. Days trickled on, filled with hours beyond counting. Though as memory serves only three had passed. In that moment it felt as if time forgot us. Eons melded into eternity with each rising sun. Finally I decided to wait no longer, Annie’s fever threatened to finish the work I had not the fortitude to accomplish at the outset.
A viscous ichor soaked the tattered quilt beneath her hips. While distressing, I found reassurance in its red, healthy coloring. Zeds bled black, their coagulated life force more resembling sludge. The bed I had originally settled Annie into had become impractical. I later moved her to a table I had retrieved and stored here months ago. I was no doctor, having only the most basic understanding of medicine and first aid. While gutting animals had become routine, it offered little consolation to the unsettling deed I found myself about to perform. On the day of my son’s birth I had been, as all men are, fascinated by the process. Regrettably I failed to take notes should the impending doom of the human race bring me round to this present event. I was relatively sure that the birthing canal had not opened enough for the infant to be pushed through, and positive the mother lacked the strength and coherency to perform such a feat. Cutting out the fetus seemed my only option.
Annie stifled a moan, she gripped her belly and for a moment I saw what I thought was the child’s head push towards her hand. Mother’s eyes shot open, unnerved by the ferocity in her scream I fumbled the leather strip we had used for a gag in moments like these. Coming to grips, I found my wits and pushed the bit into her mouth. Finger to my lips, I quieted her. We could not afford to alarm anyone or anything that might be lurking in the vicinity. Annie’s eyes knew my meaning, but I found no comfort in the dilation of her pupils. I could wait no longer.
Medical gloves had come into short supply as the years had drug on; the best I could muster were pigskin. My surgical gown was not but an old long sleeve flannel shirt. I had managed to strap some plastic bags onto my arms, but in hindsight I admit this was more for my protection than that of mother or child. Like a bandit in the old westerns my father had been so fond of, I draped a ragged bandanna over my face. Apprehensive still I procrastinated, stoking the coals in the belly of the stove. From the boiling water I fetched my worn hunting knife. Reality started then to dawn on me. Fortifying my resolve proved a heftier task than I had anticipated. Final checks were performed second and third times. I peeked out the windows taking note of the setting sun bathing the hills in an amber glow. Still I could not find the steel to commit. Carefully I laid the knife amidst some cloth I had boiled in preparation. Caressing Annie’s face in attempt to sooth, I explained the need to bind her arms. I begged forgiveness for the lack of any pain numbing anesthesia. Using a strip of cloth torn from the sterile pile, I had done my best to gently secure the gag without restricting airflow. My conscious was clear as a mud puddle freshly tramped through by a troupe of squealing children on a rainy day. It was the best I could do.
My hands shook hesitantly as I stepped up to the table. Her breath was shallow; I feared she would soon pass. No more sure of myself than before, I felt her bulging stomach. Searching for some indication of where the child might be positioned. Caesar, as I had taken to calling the infant, had fallen quiet. I feared the worst. Persistent thoughts of abandoning this ridiculous crusade badgered my sanity. As if on cue a hearty kick greeted the palm of my hand. The babe’s strength had not gone unnoticed. Hope led me to believe this a boon. With a final deep breath I laid the blade gently against the poor mother’s blotched, clammy gut. As I sliced through her belly the flesh peeled back easily, creating an opening I hoped would accommodate the child. A smell beyond that of any living or dead creature I have ever disemboweled assailed the room with virulent force. My vision blurred and dizzying nausea caused me to grip the table in fear of falling to my knees. In a final desperate act I thrust my hands into the crevasse and pulled forth what I could only hope was a healthy, living baby yearning for its first lungful of air.
Night had fallen, providing for poor light. The stench, now palpable, burned my eyes which blurred with tears. Annie no longer struggled, her body lay lifeless. Placenta, birthing fluids, and all manner of carnage sloughed forth from the wound I had wrought. Caesar wriggled in my grip. Needing a hand to sift through the cruor for my knife, I pulled him to my chest. Unnatural strength gripped my thumb as it rested upon the babe’s sternum. A sharp pinch shot up my arm, startled I glanced down. Exposed jawbone jutting through his gum line tried crushing my finger, now lodged in its mouth. Caesar’s lips, I could see, were malformed and in sections missing altogether. Unrefined terror plundered my every faculty. I dropped the writhing mass to the floor with an icky thump. Umbilical cord, rotten and corroded, burst putridly. Gripping the knife I scrambled away from the monstrosity. Soft flickering light from the wood stove danced across the scene. Overcome with shock I tried to grasp what had just transpired. Sorrowfully gazing upon the child’s shriveled form, something inside me died. Hope was replaced with fear as the small lumped body began to contort and squirm. Caesar’s head turned to me, his eye’s now wide and full of hunger. Dreadful wonder shattered my core.
I did not wait for Annie to wake from her fell slumber, nor did I attempt to put an end to whatever passes for life amongst the dead. Mother and child who so fiercely warred with existence tread far beyond my scope of right and wrong. Pack in hand and door barred behind me, I strode quickly into the night. Not for the first time, neither the last, pondering what atrocities the gods might find amusing before finally closing the book on my kind.