Story: Adonis Winner! “Delivering Adonis”
Michael’s story won the Adonis Contest. I loved the original angle he took on the story, choosing to focus on the strange delivery of the child instead of another aspect of the divinely beautiful and beloved Adonis. Michael took an unlikely magical circumstance and grounded it in strong sensory language, making it real. Thanks Michael! You can read more of Michael’s stories for Mythraeum by clicking here.
I kneel in the dirt at the base of the tree that was once a woman. A woman who committed a terrible sin. And this is her penance, her mercy. A woman who could not settle down with the man she loved, forced to take root in the desert. I pity her.
My name is spoken, like a whimper, in a susurrous of leaves.
“I am here, Myrrha. You are doing well.”
The bark of her swollen trunk flakes beneath my touch. Her limbs groan and creak, and her roots tighten. As a gust whips around us, her screams are taken into the wind. The hollow gapes wide, and I can hear the baby’s muffled cries.
“Breathe, Myrrha. Breathe.”
The leaves bristle. Resin tears trickle down to the soil, her sweet sorrow filling the air with a fragrant scent. All this for the love of a man who could never be hers; now the child she loves will be lost.
It’s not the first time the miracle of birth has been so tarnished. I remember holding the hands of women, delirious with pain, taunted by demons, labelled lunatics unfit to be mothers. I remember smoothing back the sweat-drenched hair of promiscuous girls too young, too fragile to bear children, their bodies breaking with the strain. Some were separated from their offspring by Charon himself, and for those I wept.
But at least those women had swelled with pregnant pride, had glowed with blessed joy. In the twilight hours as they dozed, they had dreamt of the life ahead, caring for their children watching them grow, teaching them to walk and talk and face the world. They had felt the baby kick; what chance exists of feeling a newborn’s foot through a cocoon of heartwood?
The night air sends chills down my spine, and I reach for the blankets. How foolish of me. To think I could wrap a tree in warm blankets. Had she been in human form, she’d have been sweating by now, wracked with pain, screeching into the night like the owls. I laugh at my mistake, brush back my hair and smile at the mother. I hope she sees. Through the grainy eyes of her bark, I hope she will have that, at least.
I would have liked to hold her hand, as I have with countless others. It may have comforted her to talk about the pregnancy, to discuss the method of delivery. Perhaps she would have wanted a water-birth, like the nymphs. I could have taught her breathing exercises, ways to manage the pain. We might have even been friends.
In truth, I feel quite useless here, nestled beneath the boughs of a tree, no hand to hold, no brow to mop. When it is over, I’ll note the absence of her smile and relief, and my heart will break for her. But until then, I must perform my duties.
I straighten my back, push back my shoulders and return to soothing her bulging trunk. In hushed tones, I give her encouragement, and try in vain to drive her suffering from my thoughts.
Instead, my mind goes back to those countless others who have suffered similarly.
As midwife to Mount Olympus, I’ve seen it all. I’ve delivered the half-human child of a sow and a King. Echidna spawned the monstrous guard dogs, Orthrus and Cerberus under my care, their fur already rank with the stench of death. When Hypnos breached, I struggled through the call of slumber to bring him safely to this world, to his mother, Nyx.
I can only imagine what manner of being I will deliver from the bowels of an accursed tree.
The wind howls again, and the baby wails within. Branches flail, sinews snap, and slowly the child appears. I can see it’s head, already crowned with golden locks. Strong and healthy, it struggles to be free. Even in the darkness, covered in soil and sap, I can tell it’s beautiful. I open my arms, ready to receive the newborn into the world.
“Push, Myrrha,” I whisper.
Beneath me, the soil churns as if tilled, and for just a moment I fear for my safety. Leaves drip from the branches like beads of sweat, splashing on the ground in shades of red. The entire tree clenches, folding in on itself as it gathers might for one final push. Again, the wind bellows.
But something is wrong.
Peering into the aperture, I can see all manner of detritus, tumbling like the sands of an hourglass. Spider-filled cobwebs, thorns and brambles, sawdust and sap. And around the baby’s neck, I discern the vine.
Gasping in horror, I set myself to work, clawing through thick blankets of gossamer. It isn’t long before I feel the spiders crawling through my hair, and down my tunic, but I ignore the distraction. The baby is all that matters.
Thorns slice at my hands, and the brambles obstruct my fingers as I try desperately to reach around the child’s head. The eyes are closed, the skin reddened as the vine constricts. Dust and sap covering its features make it that much harder to help. My heart thunders in my chest, and I can almost hear the zing of the Fates’ blade against the string.
The resin cascades down the inside of the tree, coating my arms in thick brown ichor. The sawdust and soil cover my front, as I delicately lower the child’s head, lifting the chin to free the vine.
Above me, the vultures swirl, circling the arid wasteland. A hot dry wind lifts the sands into frenzied action, but the skies threaten storms of a different kind. Black clouds bear down on us, as Myrrha screams in agony and thunder rips across the heavens.
“Not yet, Myrrha,” I warn her. “You can’t push yet.”
As if alive, the vine slithers, snakelike, out of my grasp and once more affixes itself to the unborn child’s throat. The baby’s soft flesh has been torn in several places, and spiders clamber over its eyelids, as its face turns blue.
My jaw clenches tight, and a fire burns within me. I won’t lose it. I refuse to.
Neglecting hesitant care, I swipe the brambles and thorns aside, and grab at the vines in fury. With a sharp twist, the serpentine menaces snaps and recedes into the darkness. A faint blue bruise is already rising on the baby’s tender throat, but the colour is returning to its face.
“Okay, Myrrha. Now.”
Hurriedly, I strip away my despoiled robes, shake the swarm from my hair, and prepare to deliver the child. There is no cord to cut, and so he slips easily from the trunk and slides into my open arms. The wind bellows again, and a child is born.
As the clouds disperse above, the dust settles, and a new sun edges above the horizon. My heart flutters with pride, and a smile spreads across my face as I pull the hungry child close to my breast. The struggling has stopped, the tiny arms and legs at rest as he takes his first look at the world. Golden locks frame the baby’s features; cheeks as soft as clouds, eyes as bright as stars.
Through the ages, I have delivered countless children. The greatest works of poets, the rightful heirs of Kings, the children of the Gods themselves. But none have ever possessed such beauty. Not even Aphrodite herself. This child, I know in my heart, is special.
“It’s a boy, Myrrha,” I tell her softly.
The tree sags in relief, the crown wilting from the effort. Yellow leaves perspire morning dew, as the swollen trunk subsides. The hollow is frozen in a mournful cry, but the limbs no longer crack and groan. Underneath us, the roots have calmed, no longer clawing at the soil.
I press my palm to the bark, trying to soothe her. Her tears continue to flow, pungent with bittersweet emotion, and my heart breaks for her. To birth a child and lack arms to hold him is a torment worthy of Tantalus. My own eyes brim with tears. Turning, I lift the child so he is cradled against my shoulder, and show him to his mother. This once. This final time.
A branch droops, with a twig outstretched, and brushes the baby’s cheek lovingly. The baby smiles briefly, then yawns, snuggling into my shoulder. As the child’s eyelids close, a warm breeze stirs the treetop and the leaves rustle and whisper.
The baby smiles in his sleep, and I know that it is perfect. Even now, I can tell it will be a name murmured throughout history, the name on the lips of every day-dreaming girl for centuries to come. Men will idolize him, envy him, and resent him. But they will love him. How could anyone not?
Warmth blooms in my cheeks as I realise I have neglected my duties, transfixed as I am by the child’s beauty. Working quickly, I wipe the resin from his skin, and wrap him in swaddling clothes. He looks so peaceful, so perfect. Silently, his mouth opens and closes, and I wonder what he dreams of, this young Adonis, so new to the world. A bubble forms between his rouge lips and I see the faint reflection of a loving gaze. My own.
I gasp, and turn my head away, blinking furiously, as if my adoration of the boy was merely a lash caught in my eye, something that could be wiped away. Flustered, I hurry to be on my way. I can barely bring myself to look at his mother, and suddenly I’m thankful for her featureless form.
Cradling the babe to my chest, I rise from the dirt, brushing the soil from my knees the best I can. The time has come. In all my years, I’ve never before deprived a mother of her son. It tears at my heart, and worse, there is a part of me that is glad. There is a part of me that wants to call Adonis my own.
“He will be loved,” I promise her.
The leaves wither more with each step I take, crumbling to the ground like dust, caught in a dervish on the desert floor. With the crown left bare, the trunk turns a pale white. The wind picks up again, and howls in anguish. I hold the baby closer, tighter, steeling myself. I have to take him. The Gods have willed it so. With a final glance over my shoulder, I say farewell to the tree-mother and her aromatic tears.
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