Athena Dreams of a Hollow Body
May 11, 2018
May 11, 2018
26 Min read time
Once I learned of the existence of mothers, I decided to order one for myself.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in Global Dystopias.
After the recall the apartment felt empty. No mother removing baklava from the oven to the ding of some internal timer. No mother beavering away on her computer. No mother wired into her battery pack at night, whirring and still in the flickering blue light of the charger.
I missed her. I missed her oil-and-plastic smell, the curved dome of her hair that was never out of place. I curled on the living room floor under her Charge-Pak casing, the hum of electricity soothing me to sleep. I missed her reassurances, the cool touch of her fingers to my forehead, her glances and small offerings of food when I’d had a bad day.
My roommate Sue was glad. “Thank God your mother’s not here anymore!” she called from the bathroom as she slapped her avocado egg-yolk mask on her face. “There was something wrong with her!”
‘Feel what it feels like to have a mother,’ the banner ad popped up. ‘Your very own mother in your very own home.’
I wasn’t sure about Sue by that point. Maybe it was the fact that she’d never really given my mother a chance, from the day the box arrived in the mail. “I don’t like the way she looks at me,” Sue had said as she pulled on her blue trench coat and looped her umbrella through the belt so it dangled by her side like a nightstick. She pushed her glasses up her nose and glared in the direction of the kitchen. My mother just stood in the doorway, her feather-duster attachment extended from her hand like a miniature palm tree. She smiled at Sue, a gentle smile that was hard to read. My mother did not talk much. “It’s like living with a mime!” Sue said.
I liked having a mother, though, especially when nobody was around. We’d putter around the apartment, tidying or rearranging things or just working on our computers. My mother made progress on her own little projects, the clack of the keys intermittent and considered. When I took breaks from my online tutoring, it was nice to have a mother to chat with, especially in light of the bionuts who never failed to pop up on my discussion boards at Phalanx University. When I asked my mother what she thought of biomoms, she lifted her shirt and pressed an invisible button. A sliding panel opened to reveal an interior cavity sort of like a toaster oven. “COOK YOU!” she said in her loud, furry voice, the “C” words formed with difficulty, both index fingers pointing into her cavity—“BAKE CAKE!” A terrible joke about gestating me. We both knew the idea of my coming from inside her body was just a metaphor, a myth of connectedness, but that didn’t matter, because her eyes seemed to brighten as she pointed into her torso’s recess, and when I laughed she gave a mix of a bark and a chuckle back. After that I felt better about returning to the dismal posts on my screen.
“The Mystery of Our Origins” covered evolution, evolutionary psychology, the history of science, and modern reproductive technologies, though it was of course “lite” because everything at the behemoth profit-making Phalanx online degree mill was “lite.” I had no expertise in the area other than the fact that I was a product of said technologies. It was through this class, to be fair, that I’d learned of the existence of the mothers and had decided to order one for myself. Feel what it feels like to have a mother, the banner ad popped up, probably in reaction to my Googling “assisted reproduction” and “the death of the nuclear family” as I paged through the week’s reading on my computer. Your very own mother in your very own home.
I could admit to my mother that one student in particular had gotten under my skin. TeenMom insisted on responding to every prompt with her random thoughts about the fact that she had given birth. Describe Darwin’s idea of the origin of species. “I felt my baby kick inside me,” she wrote, “and I felt the miracle of life.” Discuss Watson and Crick’s contribution to modern science. “I became a passage for a force greater than myself. My body opened and made way for a cosmic energy bigger than I was, bigger than the baby I brought into the world. I became a conduit for a universal power that lifted me up as it moved through me, a hollow body floating in ether.”
I could not rid myself of this strange image. It troubled me, intruding into my consciousness when I least expected it. I started to dream that I had become this hollow body, my form suspended in a swath of stardust like the Milky Way, light coursing through me the way water pours through a vase without a bottom.
“What’s up with you?” Sue peered at me from the doorway to my room. I turned from my desk and my mother turned from hers, each of us stationed in front of a window so we could sit in the natural light as we worked. The honks and voices of the street floated up from below, cushioned by panes of glass. Both of us stared at Sue in her thin plaid button-down with pearl snaps, her skinny jeans finished with flat boots, so tight and in control of herself, her hair clipped around her beautifully shaped head, her glasses pert and glittering.
Sue worked at a bookstore. The bleached paper smell she brought home lingered in the air after she’d passed through the common spaces. Sometimes she left her shirt hanging over the back of a chair at the kitchen table, and once her boyfriend Todd abandoned his shoes in front of the oven, two gutted canvas trainers with ties as white as his teeth when he forced his lips into a smile—this back when he still came over.
I’d kind of liked Sue when she responded to my ad on Netlist. She’d asked me what I liked to read and showed some interest in the old home decorating magazines I collected from thrift stores around the city, so I rented her the room. In the early days, we had a pretty good time. We’d meet in the kitchen at odd hours and exchange a few pleasantries. It was nice to have another human being just down the hall, a whole other life unfolding in the orbit of mine.
Once I got my mother, though, Sue made me self-conscious. There we’d be, my mother and I, having dinner together at the little table in front of the kitchen window. Sue would blow through the door with Todd, their faces wet from the rain, their raincoats dripping happy wet plops onto the floor under the coat rack as they disappeared into Sue’s room, where they’d laugh in low voices. After a while Sue might appear to pour some of her expensive tequila into two glasses. “Enjoying a nice dinner together?” she’d say, and swoop off back to her bedroom. Her tone made it seem as though my mother and I were a pitiful sight, my mother’s plate empty and gleaming and mine full of half-devoured eggplant parmesan, one of my mother’s specialties, congealing in an underwhelming mass before me.
My mother just stood in the doorway, her feather-duster attachment extended from her hand like a miniature palm tree.
A siren blared from the hospital around the corner. “What’s up with you?” Sue repeated from the doorway. She shot a worried look at my stained shirt. Beside me, my mother returned her attention to her keyboard.
“What?” I said. “Tutoring.” And I turned back to see what TeenMom had posted in response to Compare the evidence for the Big Bang to the evidence for creationism.
“A baby floated inside my body for nine months and it changed me forever,” she wrote. “Becoming a mother has allowed me to connect to the space inside each of us where our design first unfolded. I cannot see another person without witnessing them small and hairless and suspended in the fluid of their mother’s womb. I cannot go outside because I’m overwhelmed by the nascence in the people around me, their once-smallness, the child faces peering out from deep within their grown ones. The fact that we are all in such a radically unfinished state, a state of such fierce becoming, squeezes me so tight I cannot breathe.”
• • •
In my dreams, in the middle of my hollow body, a small life grows. It is the size of a light-prick, so bright it sends rays through the white-translucent layers of my human shape, suspended in space and the fog of stars.
When I told my mother part of me wanted a baby the bio way, inside my body, she closed her computer and pushed my hair back from my forehead, her skin as soft as real dermis. “YOU CAN,” she said. “YOU CAN!” Her volume modulation was way off, and she could only speak in two-chunk segments, subject and verb. The month I placed the order I’d been tight on cash; I wished I hadn’t dialed the speech aptitude down to the bare minimum. When I tried to talk to her about my disorienting cravings, all she could say was “MAKE BABY!” and “HAVE BABY!” These were her sole responses to my confused mutterings about pregnancy and my running commentaries on my Internet searches for “biobirth.” She reached the height of invention with “PINCHY BABY!”—this paired with crab fingers in response to a Google image of a three-month-old with an abnormally large and adorably chubby head. I wondered if she truly believed what she was saying or if this stuff was some kind of preordained script implanted by the manufacturer.
• • •
Characterize the contributions of Rosalind Franklin to DNA sequencing. “I feel myself expanded from the inside,” TeenMom wrote. “Having a baby is like knocking through a wall to a room in your heart you never knew was there.”
It was the middle of the night again, the city clamped down into lone wanderers and ambulance songs in the distance. My mother had plugged herself into her Charge-Pak and was humming with sleep in the corner of the living room. I’d fought my insomnia in the dark and then hiked to the kitchen table where I leafed through my magazines, scissors in hand. Nothing caught my eye, so I opened my laptop.
TeenMom had added a reply to her own post: “It is a huge room. It is a room where love busts through the walls like a flood of light.”
I scrolled through the next day’s readings on sociobiology. I was typing my prompt when Sue swanned in and opened the fridge to pour herself a glass of hibiscus tea she’d made in my fake crystal pitcher. Sue was spending more time at Todd’s place, and when she was home her light stayed on until two or three in the morning as she worked her way through the piles of books she brought home from the store. She could read until her eyes fell out; she was curious that way. She drifted over to the table and rifled through my collection of cutouts, which I kept in an old cake tin. I didn’t appreciate her fingers spidering through the tin, upsetting my clippings. She pulled out two pictures. In the first, a woman in a pink shirt cupped her hand over her belly, her face left out of the photograph except for a smiling mouth and chin in soft focus. In the second, a man and a woman stood inside their kitchen, his arms around her, leaning together over the roundness at her middle.
“You must be ovulating or something,” Sue said. “Are you taking your protentials?”
I nodded, though I couldn’t quite remember the last time I had. Protentials suppress ovulation and all the feelings that go with it, the biggest thing since the pill. I didn’t like the taste of the drops, or the way their brown color spread through water and settled in a molasses residue at the bottom of the glass. They made me uncomfortable, a scratchy discomfort deep in my middle, as though the growth of some essential impulse had been arrested there.
Once I learned of the existence of mothers, I decided to order one for myself.
Sue bent down to squint at another picture, a small blond child holding his hands up in a gesture of victory. “Propaganda,” she said. She ran her finger over the boy’s face. “Up your dose.”
Of course Sue would say that. Like many women our age, she’d sworn off descendants. “What’s the point,” she’d said one morning as she poured her organic almond milk into a bowl, “in squandering the life of the mind? Reproduction,” she shivered. “It’s like a nightmare from the Dark Ages.” She’d sipped the cream of the almond milk straight from the bowl, no cereal or anything, her body unsullied and compact.
Now she opened the freezer and dropped three ice cubes into her tea. “You may as well move to the hinterlands,” she said, “where women still devote themselves to wiping noses, changing diapers. I couldn’t even imagine it.” She swept off back to her room, cubes clinking in the glass.
I wondered if I was having the urge to reproduce, if ordering a mother had been some kind of nesting instinct. I stared at the small child in the magazine picture and considered what it might be like to have a childhood. They had photographed his victory stance on a green lawn with a blurry house in the background. Someone had put flowers on the porch, smears of color; beyond one of the upstairs windows lay the boy’s own bedroom. Somewhere inside that house lurked parents who did his laundry and read him books and tucked him in at night.
Like Zeus’s daughter, I had stepped out of my maker fully grown. I remembered looking back at his face the instant after I emerged to see the empty windows of his eyes and the metal of his mouth—the door through which I had stumbled in my rush outward hanging open, twisted on its hinges. The air felt cold on my skin and the light of the world stung my eyes. My feet pressed down with a special kind of pain. I would soon learn the words for it: flesh and floor and gravity.
I’d come to this apartment fully grown, suitcase in hand; I’d gone to college and begun my work as an online pseudo-professor. At least one of my donors must have been advanced in the IQ category; unlike most, I could remember the cool green of the pod water, the tickle of the respirator bubbles tracing their way up my spine. I sometimes envisioned meeting them, an awkward roundtable where I blathered on to a circle of blank faces as I scoured their bodies for my features: a pear-shaped trunk here, an aquiline nose there, eyes the color of scorched earth staring back at me. But none of them ever surfaced, a common enough occurrence in assisted reproduction. Somewhere between donating and watching my naked body grow and grow in the pod, they’d changed their minds about wanting a connection.
I took my laptop into the living room where my mother’s face had closed down, her eyes shut and her mouth curled in on itself as if she were dreaming of something nice to eat. I went to my room and sprawled on the softness of my bed to check the discussion board again. TeenMom had logged on and seen the new prompt but she hadn’t posted. For some reason I started to worry. I wondered what she was doing, if her baby needed her, if he was wawling for her through the cold dark halls of her house. I felt a weird twinge of jealousy at his cries.
I clicked on the button to write a new message. The empty dialogue box stared at me, white and clean. I didn’t know what to say, but I wanted to say something. I tried some variations. I deleted them. Finally I settled on two sentences: I did not have a mother. But now I do.
I clicked send.
After a while of waiting for a reply, I went to bed.
You become empty; you let your love for others course through you and clean you out completely until nothing is left.
In the morning, a bright red flag indicated that I had an unread message.
“This is inappropriate sharing on the part of instructional staff,” TeenMom said. “Please do not private message me with personal information again.”
How did TeenMom get to be such a good writer, I wondered. It wasn’t usual for Phalanx students. I posed my question in a message and pressed send.
“Most people think biomoms are sick in the head or something,” TeenMom posted. Here she inserted a frowny face with angry wrinkles across the forehead. “Most people do not know that having a baby fills you with the joy and grief of an exponentially increased clarity of mind. All of a sudden you can see every fucking thing in the world for what it is like a stark and vivid slap in the face. You cannot fool yourself any longer; you do not lie to yourself as you did before. You become empty; you let your love for others course through you and clean you out completely until nothing is left.”
A while later she added: “emptiness = beauty.” After these words she inserted another emoticon, a surprise face with pink cheeks, round eyes, and a mouth in the wide shape of an O.
• • •
As the course went into its final week there was less for me to do and I settled back into a domestic rhythm. I expected my mother to join me in all the little tasks we loved—simmering ginger, cleaning the baseboards with toothbrushes—but she was always off doing something else, keeping her own routine. It was around this point when I realized that as much as Sue did not like my mother, my mother also did not like Sue. I’d come upon my mother in the bathroom, her stiff bust silhouetted by the window, staring at Sue’s toiletries. Once I even found her in Sue’s room; there was something strange about the way she stood there gazing at Sue’s neat, clean-smelling rows of clothes—something vacant and hostile.
“She has to go,” Sue hissed one day, conscious of my mother nearby, and when the notice arrived I shoved it in the trash, but the phrases kept echoing in my head. Model defective. Hazard to the public. Mandatory return to manufacturer subject to enforcement. So when the box came I read the instructions. I went to where my mother sat at her desk, a miniature vase with a metal flower perched by her elbow. She worked away merrily, hitting one key and then another with her index fingers, pausing to hunch toward the screen with her face a few inches away, so wrapped up in her train of thought she didn’t notice me come in. I put my hand on her shoulder and she looked up, grinned, and closed her laptop. I knelt and put my arms around her waist. She leaned her head against mine, the hum of her internal mechanism slow with calm.
I smelled the sweetness of silicon and magnets, a hint of the powder she dusted on her feet. And then my fingers found the switch, concealed under the plate that protected her spine. When I pressed it she turned to metal and parts, nothing more than an empty shape. When I picked her up she felt extremely light, her arm dangling like a loose sock, her chin tipped back and rolling on its joints. I laid her inside the box and closed the lid. Then I propped the box outside the apartment door for the postman. It depressed me to see it there in the hallway, so normal-looking it might have held anything.
Back in my room, my laptop screen glared at me, the discussion board frozen on TeenMom’s last post. Next to me, my mother’s chair sat unoccupied in the light. I wondered what she had been working on with so much concentration. I moved across to sit at her desk and opened her laptop.
No mother wired into her battery pack at night, whirring and still in the flickering blue light of the charger.
The screen blinked into life, split by two panels. On the left, an Internet search for “LOVE DAUGHTER” displayed 283 million results. On the right, an icon hovered, a Word doc titled “ILOVEYOUATHENA.” In all our conversations, my mother had never used a complete sentence. I wondered if her writing protocols had outstripped her speech programming. When I opened the doc, it filled the right-hand side of the screen in a perfect upright rectangle so I could still see the search results, just as my mother must have arranged the windows in order to go back and forth between the two.
The document was slow to load. It was huge—214 pages to be exact, as I could see when the count in the bottom bar stopped climbing. It was written in a variety of thick italic scripts, all in different fonts, as if they’d been copied and pasted and rearranged:
I love my daughter more than . . . i remember the first time she . . . I laughed so hard I . . . ! I will never forget the smell of . . . , the way she . . . Watch this video. That was our trip to . . . THAT WAS WHEN SHE FIRST . . . She finally fell asleep on . . . ! My daughter makes me feel . . . I love her more than . . . Remember the first time she . . . ? CHECK THIS VIDEO! This was when she first started . . . ! isn’t she . . . ?!? I want her to KNOW she is MORE . . . ! I NEVER KNEW having a daughter would be so . . . !! How could I have known this would be such . . . !?!?!
And so on.
I scrolled through the text. It made me feel wobbly, the marshmallow glop of my soul jiggling in unbearable motions. I sprang to my feet and ran down the hall to fling open the door. The box was still there. I wrestled it back to my room and shoved it into the corner of the closet, my mother making weird knocking sounds inside as her weight shifted. The box loomed in the shadows so I draped my coat over it.
But Sue did not come home that night. When the small hours hit and I hadn’t slept, I decided to close out the grades for my class. TeenMom hadn’t submitted her final post—Sum up your understanding of the importance of DNA-editing technology, hormone suppression, and Zeus-pod growth to the new reproductive possibilities of our age—but I gave her an A anyway. She deserved it after all she had been through: the cling of a baby to her breast, the haze of those insomniac nights, the fight to get her thoughts out into the world. I wondered if she might enjoy my cake tin of pictures. Something to make her feel less alone, to offer a little guidance. I clicked on the address field.
She lived right outside the city, just where the hinterlands began, but still accessible by rail. From the train the high buildings of the city gave way to stretches of box stores and brick-and-mortar groceries. I disembarked in a wilderness of traffic lights and warehouses. As I walked, families came into focus around me, mothers and fathers and the children they were rearing, so different from the singles and groups of friends that roamed the city. Parents sat at picnic tables in small, concrete parks as their toddlers played with plastic toys in the dirt. They’d arranged food on the tables—sandwiches and juice boxes and bags of chips to share. They watched me pass and turned back to their business, neither friendly nor hostile, their attention held by the invisible lines of force that draw families together.
TeenMom’s house was part of a line of well-appointed row houses, a gentrified area tucked between the industrial buildings on the adjoining blocks. The gate creaked as it closed behind me; a dog barked from down the road. A tiny bicycle stood chained to the fence, its handlebars shiny and new, awaiting its rider. I tightened my discount jacket at my neck. I’d thought it made me look professorial, its soft camel color studded with shiny brown buttons. But now I worried I looked kind of crazy, dressed up as something I was not and clutching my faded cake tin.
I mounted the steps and placed the tin on the doormat, its brown fibers emblazoned with the words “Home Sweet Home.” Some instinct compelled me to lean over the rail and peer in the window. The interior was open plan, very modern; a living room led back to a kitchen bathed in track lights. And there she was, next to the island. She wore a turquoise robe and bunny slippers. She’d grown her hair out and she looked round and burnished, as though some particularly virulent strain of well-being had made her its vehicle. Before her sat a high chair, its back to me in a rectangle of white. She leaned down with a spoon. Someone appeared behind her, an older woman, thick and gentle-faced, and she too leaned down toward the high chair. She wiggled her fingers until the two women laughed at the baby’s expression. I couldn’t see what they were laughing at, but I smiled anyway, standing there looking in from the stoop.
• • •
And there I was, months later, walking my baby home from the hospital. There was no father, of course: I’d had my procedure in the hinterlands, where bearing babies was considered an end in itself. There wasn’t exactly a mother, either; it turned out something was wrong with my eggs, so all the contributions to my baby came from a bank. I must admit the whole enterprise caused me to see myself as a mutant creature, a cross between super technology and crass biology. I’d been created to escape the body’s growth, the drag of personal history. But here I was, scratching at the pristine tablet of my life by choice, opening wounds that would never go away.
I’d shown up at the hospital near my apartment in full-blown labor, sending them scrambling to find anyone who’d delivered before. They stuck me with an ancient lady doctor whose crow face beamed from between my legs as I fought the agonies of contractions. I would’ve found the long labor unimaginable without all the natural childbirth books I’d ordered from antiquarian sites during my pregnancy. Still, the pain split the veil of perception to shreds, and as I wobbled along the sidewalk with my baby wrapped at my chest, the buildings around me blasted my eyes with their brightness. The people going by felt firm as peach stones, as though I’d never before sensed the presence of others, the world prior to giving birth a ghostlike echo of my new reality.
These passersby looked at me with pity, and what a sight I must have been, a smear of blood on my face and my baby pink with the raspy fluid of the womb against the bare skin of my throat. My legs rolled under me like numb stilts, shocked at what had passed between them. I let myself into the cold antechamber of my building and took the elevator to the fourth floor. Sue had moved out during my pregnancy, and no one would move in, given my circumstances. “You’re certifiable,” Sue had said, and she’d gone off to spend endless nights with Todd sipping vintage cocktails chilled by ice blocks he carved himself.
I’d been created to escape the body’s growth, the drag of personal history. But here I was, scratching at the pristine tablet of my life by choice, opening wounds that would never go away.
As I entered my apartment I sensed my mother in the living room, revived from her closet tomb during a weak moment in my third trimester. The baby had been kicking, and I wanted to put my mother’s hand on my belly, to let her feel the hailstorm of tiny feet. Such an unimaginable thing, to have the space inside you give way to another life form, the bond between you unassailable. Now that she’d arrived, my mother and I could marvel together at the bones of her skull, separated into two small wings that had pressed together as she squeezed into the light.
My mother reclined before the single bright window in the living room. She sat unusually still, as though the passing of time couldn’t touch her. I fell to my knees on the floor before her and slid my baby out of the wrap on my chest. “She’s here,” I said. “She’s here.” I cradled her spindly neck in my hand, her limbs splaying in surprise at the space opening around her as I placed her in my mother’s lap.
“YES,” my mother said, “A BABY! A BABY!”
My heart leaped, but then I noticed my mother was looking at me, not the baby at all, her eyes aglow with crystal zeal, my newborn child starting to slide off her legs. I smelled a strange smell, like wires burning, and my mother’s hands opened and closed with a snap. I snatched the baby back; she sent up a lusty wail as my mother stared at me and bobbed her head, then bobbed it again, stuck in a loop of her programming.
Something drained out of me then, my sense of self driveling away, the emptiness left behind filled with the smell of the creature I clasped against me, the proteins of vernix and amniotic fluid baked into the warmth of her. I gazed down at her goblin face, still compressed from being inside me, her ears stuck to the sides of her head in diaphanous membranes. I could see it all before me: the way she’d grow as I would dwindle, the way we’d depend on one another with utter commitment until we wouldn’t. I shivered as the feeling swept through me, a cold wind rushing through the cavernous space of my body.
I wished I had my cake tin. I had no idea what to do next. But I knew in all those clippings I would never see myself hunched over this ruddy, affronted baby with my mother slumped in her tacky, diamond-checked chair. I would have to start from scratch, a childhood made from nothing.
The baby quieted as she fell asleep on my chest, her cheek pressed in a sticky roll on my bare skin. I breathed the wax-spangled smell of her head, the broody atmosphere where her skin met the world. I wondered if Zeus had missed the weight of a baby in his arms. But daughters will dream what they will dream, and make their lives from it.
I gazed up at my mother, whose face had frozen in a wild grin. “Isn’t she beautiful,” I said.
And my mother nodded, and nodded again.
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May 11, 2018
26 Min read time