The Good Mother

‘The Good Mother’ was awarded Runner Up Best Fiction in the 2019 Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition run by Writers Victoria.

I was awarded Best Regional Writer in the same competition.

Judge’s comments: … Written with confidence, this perfectly paced story builds tension and challenges our ideas about animal consciousness and emotions.

She barely remembered the coupling, had no reason to associate it with what was happening now as her abdomen lurched and pulsed; paused, lurched again.  There was fear at this lack of control over her healthy muscles, but at the same time something felt good.  Like the instinct to vomit; a cleansing, a lightening.

She raised on her forelegs, shifted again and dragged her hindquarters around into a more comfortable angle.  She could smell blood and her own shit; she dragged a bit further to a clean patch of grass.  One of the lords was calling her but she did not want to respond.  She needed to focus on here and now.

She whimpered again, low and unconscientiously. Moved her legs, fell back on her spine, rolled onto her belly, fell back again, sat, slid and curled round the pain. A great ripple and clenching from her ribs to her loins, and a new smell arose.  A sweet smell of blood and heat.

Instinct took over and she nuzzled down her belly, found the wet sticky bundle that smelled so … right.  Began to nudge and lick until she felt independent movement, a responsive pushing and sniffling.  A second huge clenching of her belly muscles, and the new sweet smell grew stronger; she pushed her muzzle further into the wetness and her curling downwards movement prompted a third and then further waves of clenching, releasing, clenching, releasing.  Small wet things were spilling into the space between her legs, wriggling and feeble; smelling of blood and something so right she was filled with comfort.

As she licked the slime from their sticky faces and nudged them to movement, the five tiny puppies blindly rolled and blundered their way to her belly, latching on to a nipple where they could. This was a good feeling, their warm heads butting her body, their little muzzling jaws sucking and pulling.  Her milk let down and she lay back, allowing this new reality to fill her head.

A young lord found her and raised a shout; she looked at him and slowly wagged her stumpy tail but didn’t move: ‘Look what I’ve got’.

The other lords and the old lady came from the house in great excitement.  She smiled at them all but, for once, didn’t get up; she was so tired and cautiously peaceful. They made much of her, stroked her head and back, spoke good words in gentle happy voices. 

One of the young lords picked up a puppy.

Her head snapped up! No! She showed her teeth, conflicted; against her loyalty to the dominant lords she knew she must defend her babies.  But they repeated the good words, stroked her head with much kindness, put the puppy back with her. Yes.

They took another! What? She again thrust her head up, tried to move but was held down by the tiredness of her loins, the babies feeding on her belly.  Again the lords and the old lady soothed her, put the puppy back; took another and another one at a time and then gave them back… slowly she relaxed her jaw. She licked each puppy from head to tail, cleaned them and then cleaned herself. And then, for the pleasure of it, she repeated the full body cleaning of each little round-bellied wriggling baby. This love was different from the love for the master.

Someone came with a large basket, a blanket – not her blanket from the shed; this smelled of lords and ladies, not her own smells.  She was lifted with her babies into the basket and brought inside; she could hardly remember being inside ever before, but it was lovely. So warm. So bright, so rich with smells of people, smells of food – a lot of food! – and other things she couldn’t identify.  She slept.

Food was left by her, and a dish of water. She ate, slept again. Later she got up to go outside to toilet and the young lords opened the door for her, watching her move in and out the rest of the day.  The puppies mostly slept but she was able to nudge them about, examine them one by one, identify their smells one by one – alike but not identical. Perfect little babies.  She relaxed into a routine of feeding, cleaning and toileting, bemused by the warm kitchen and the kindly voices, the lack of orders.  Sometimes they picked up a puppy, but always gently and always returning it; she resumed her trust of the lords and lowered her guard over her babies. On the second night, the young lords gave her warm food, and she slept.

The third day, she woke from sleep slowly; she had never felt like this before. Her head ached, she couldn’t focus clearly, something was wrong.  There were a lot of lords in the house and the confusion of smells and noise hurt her senses, things were strange. 

The puppies were all gone.  All.  Their smells cold in the blanket and her belly uncomfortable with engorging milk; they’d missed a feed. How long had she slept?

She leaped up, snarled, snapped; whimpered at the nearest lord, barked.  The old lady came and laid soothing hands on her head and neck, then increased the firmness on her throat; dominance. She was ordered back to the basket, but conflict sat like a stone in her brain: yield to the dominant one, find the babies; yield, find. Yield.

She was moved back to the basket by force. She shivered, her teeth slightly bared, then covered, bared then covered as she tried to process what was happening. She could smell her puppies nearby, but something was very wrong. She whined in distress, swallowed her growls

The young lords laughed at her – but she didn’t want to play, what was wrong with these people?

Later, the puppies were brought back.  She sniffed them as they were returned in a lump together, they smelled of the lords and other strange smells, and she was anxious and snarled quietly to the empty room; the puppies were hungry and began to feed. The light went out. The house grew quiet.  She nuzzled her little ones.

She bristled alert in the dark.  This puppy wasn’t right; this puppy was wrong. There was something so wrong with this puppy.  She nudged, pushed, examined with nose and tongue: the puppy was damaged and smelled of blood.  There was just a bloody stump where the tail should be. She knew what she must do to conserve her milk for the healthy puppies but even so she was distressed; with a sad heart, she bit the puppy’s throat and threw the dead wet thing out of the basket.

She smelled the same wrong smell on another puppy; again there was no tail, just a bloodied stump remained.  This puppy was damaged and had to be removed for the sake of the whole group.  She threw the wet dead thing from the basket.

And again. And again. Again.

With an emptiness she couldn’t remember ever knowing before, she lay her head on the edge of the basket; the sad metallic taste of her tribe’s blood cooling on her jaws, the swelling of undrunk milk around her nipples made hard lumps under her skin. She whimpered in her sleep.

At the morning light she woke, felt the hardness behind her nipples, felt empty. She paced the kitchen, looking for release from this stuffy hot place of too many smells; she returned to the basket and wanted her own bed in the fresh air outside.  A young lord burst into the room, came to her with a smile.  Which dissolved into a shout, another longer shout, calling for the old lady and running backwards away from her in fear and distress.  So much noise that she ached.

They all came running, and then suddenly, silence. She looked up, waiting for a clue, what response they wanted she had no idea. She was both surprised and not surprised when the first blow fell across her back, nearly knocking her down.

She jumped back, took up the posture of yielding: head down, throat vulnerable. She backed away, stumbled on the edge of the basket while holding the gaze of the strongest lord, covered her teeth. The second blow caught her across the head, knocked her sideways.  A kick to her belly winded her and sent stabs of pain shooting though her whole body. The blows came from all of them at once, from all sides; the noise and shouting clouded her head, as if blinding her; their smells of rage and fear were strong in her nostrils. She barked, snarled; could they not see she had yielded?

She rushed in self-defence at the smallest lord, leapt through the gap of his falling and away across the room, looking for escape, cover, understanding.  Nothing. She was cornered. Someone came towards her holding a wooden thing out. She shook her head in confusion: was this a game, did they want her to catch and fetch?  No, they wanted to hit her again.

They wouldn’t respond to her yielding. There were too many of them. She had to run now.

She braced against the wall, pushed into the air, leapt across the flat things in the room and out the high clear space in the other wall.  The air cracked in front of her eyes. Sharpness hit her head-on and raked her sides and legs. But she was free and running, blood and pain in her feet and muzzle, tears in her eyes. Emptiness filled her.  She ran on.

When the dark came again she stopped running.  She had chewed the painful places in her feet, and they were a bloody mess but not as sore as before. She had run through the river to clear her scent, and had grabbed a few quick gulps of water, but this was the longest she had been without food that she could remember. The night air was damp; sounds and smells were complex and unfamiliar, and she missed the comforting smells in the pile of her bedding, back with the family. The light was low and shifting, shapes were unclear. At first she was unable to tell the direction or distance of the noises she could distinguish, but the need for food sharpened her focus.

She smelled rabbits. Running with her nose to the ground, she found the earthy place and started to dig, furious with hunger as the dirt got into her torn legs and feet.  A movement and her jaws snapped at air, missing the rabbit as it bolted away.  A second ran under her legs and she missed it too. A third ran off ahead of her, its white tail signalling the alarm into the dusk.  She kept digging, and found some small rabbit kittens, damp and wriggling blindly in the fallen dirt. She snapped at one, caught it by the head.

The fresh hot blood and scent of damp fur in her throat, the size and the wriggling fight against her mouth was too recent, too familiar. She gagged and threw the body to her side. Then hunger rushed back, and she snapped at another, thrashed it against the ground with a manic pitch of her aching head. Gulping the small body down in almost one bite, pausing only to pull the soft skin partially away, she reached for another. And another. The hot warm blood and meat sickened her as much as she craved it, and she killed and ate without pleasure. 

Then she vomited again, and ran on, away from the river and the rabbit bodies.  Unknown, as she ran, a microscopic piece of filth entered her bloodstream through the cut in her left forepaw.

She woke with a confusion of sounds in her head; she was hot and thirsty, weak with hunger, surrounded by unfamiliar shapes and smells. Always the hunger, that’s what life is: a chase for food, a chase for warmth, a chase for food.  She panted fast and feebly.  When she found the bandage on her foreleg she started to gnaw at it.

An old lord – not family, a stranger – came into her view and she tagged several of the smells to him: old food, old tobacco, old blood, old dirt.  He spoke the nice words, put his hand out towards her. She tried to jump away in self-defence, but her body failed and she fell back again onto the soft thing beneath her. He brought her food and water, placed them where she could reach, stepped back into a no-threat position. She gulped the oily food and drank deeply. Then she slept again, fitfully whining and twitching. Days passed. Her belly filled, her leg stopped hurting and she was cool again. Her milk dried up.

Months went by. She had no ability to count time, but had filled her unmarked days learning the old lord’s voice and words, learning his times: when he hunted in silence at night, when he slept in daytime sunshine, when he lit the fire and when he gave her a share of his food. They slept by the fire together. The fire was good, the small draughty house was good, the old lord was good and she was content.

One day he brought another dog into the house. A male, a smell and a presence new and alarming.  Her recent smouldering restlessness suddenly burst into flame, later forgotten; the other dog was taken away.  In due course she found herself nursing four small wet bundles by the fire. She couldn’t remember why this seemed familiar, nor why she was so anxious. But there was nothing to be alarmed about; the old lord left her alone with the babies in her familiar space with the familiar smells and the fire for warmth.

She licked each puppy from head to tail, cleaned them and then cleaned herself. And then, for the pleasure of it, she repeated the full body cleaning of each little round-bellied wriggling baby. This love was different from the love for the master.

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