Cast of Wonders 442: Mothers, Watch Over Me (Staff Picks 2020)
Mothers, Watch Over Me
by Maria Haskins
Even in the dream, Maya knows her pup is dying.
She dreams of a lone mother-dog in the time before the packs, before the dens, before the sky cleared, before the flames on the horizon went out. Mother-dog walks through dust of the Forbidding, beneath the same skyfire that glows ever-brighter in Maya’s waking world, walking towards the towers, carrying a pup in her jaws.
In Maya’s dream, mother-dog is starlight and shadow, and the dirt glimmers where her paws touch the ground. Mother-dog does not speak, but Maya’s own voice ripples through the stillness of the Forbidding, stirring dust and silence:
Watch over me, mother. Watch over them.
Nema is braiding bark in her den on the upper river bank when Maya enters, tail wagging low in greeting.
“The sixth is dying,” she says, pacing. It takes an effort to be away from the pups so soon, even though she can see her den from here.
Nema doesn’t look up.
“I know. Knew it soon as I saw it born.”
Maya watches her mother’s golden fur in the sunlight; watches her compact, sleek body that is so unlike Maya’s own tall and shaggy frame; watches Nema’s long and strangely dexterous claws that wrap and twine strips of bark, making a quickly growing length of rope.
She thinks of all the things she wanted to shape when she was younger, envying the way Nema would grip and hold with ease. Nema says that sturdy paws make for an easier life: “Long claws slow you down”, and Maya knows it’s true enough: long-claws rarely hunt for themselves. But what is sometimes curse, is sometimes blessing, too.
“My pup must live.”
“Why?” Nema asks.
Maya hesitates. With twelve litters before this, she has seen pups slip away before, has given birth to stillborn ones, as well.
“It’s a telling.”
Nema looks up.
Maya paces, then sits. She’s never had a telling before, has only heard Nema speak of them: the knowing without doubt, the all-consuming urge to obey. Like the year Nema knew about the forest fire before it happened. Like when she made the pack move from its denning spot downriver, before the old place flooded.
“That the pup must live. That I must go into the Forbidding. That I must bring the pup to the towers, to God.”
Nema puts down her craft. Maya knows her mother wants to argue, but Nema also knows better than anyone that it’s pointless to quarrel with a telling.
“I must carry the pups. Can you craft me a thing like you wove for Arras, the baskets for gathering herbs and plants, could you make one for carrying the pups?”
“Can it be ready tomorrow?”
Nema looks at her supply of bark and reeds; calculating.
“Yes.” Then: “Figure two days solid walking to the towers. Figure three with the pups.”
Maya knows what she’s not saying: that slow pups rarely live more than three days, and none live more than four.
The pups are at Maya’s belly for most of the day, but the lastborn still won’t feed, not even when Maya gently nudges it over to where the milk seeps out. Like the others, it’s speckled black and grey with white marks on its chest and toes, but it came out not breathing, wrapped tight in its amniotic sac. Maya had to prod and lick until the pup drew breath. Now she touches it gently, cleaning its face and rump, feeling its fragile warmth and faltering heartbeat.
Between the sunset clouds outside, the skyfire flames white. It has been burning ever brighter since winter. Most dogs say it’s a star like any other, but Nema says elsewise, and even in her old age, Nema sees true.
Maya shivers. She thinks of mother-dog in her dream, and feels the telling stir inside her bones.
Nema comes by at dusk, carrying straw and bark from the forest, taking time to cradle each pup in her deft paws before she leaves. In the pack, only Nema and ancient Arras are long-claws, and none of Nema’s pups or Maya’s have ever inherited those flexible toes. None, except the sixth.
“Can you feed it?” Maya asks.
She has seen Nema do it before, for other slow pups in other litters, and now Nema does it for the sixth: suckling milk from Maya’s teat, dribbling it into the little one’s mouth, holding its jaws open with one long, careful claw.
“Can’t do more now,” Nema says once the pup has swallowed some. She sniffs it gently before she puts it down. “It won’t make it to the towers. Even if it does, God might not be there anymore.” Nema’s eyes gleam as she turns in the den’s opening. “It isn’t even strong enough for a name. You know it.”
“It will be.”
It will be, Maya repeats to herself, touching the sixth with her breath and tongue, her thought and nose.
That night, the skyfire burns so bright it devours the stars around it and Maya cannot sleep. In the dark, the scents tell her of the only world she knows: the forest on the slope above the dens, the shrubs and reeds by the river below, and on the other side of the water, a narrow strip of grass, fading into the shadows and dust and eternal gray of the Forbidding. Far beyond the river, beyond sight or nose or hearing, are the broken towers.
Nema’s stories say the towers once glowed in the night, but that the lights were extinguished long ago, in the time before the packs, before the dens, before the mountains burned. The river draws the line between life and death. That’s the way it’s always been. To cross the water is to leave the world.
“Nema says you’re leaving.” The moon outlines Belg’s high-legged, grey body with silver light. It’s a long time since he was at her teat. All her other pups have moved away or died; life brought them to her and took them away. Only Belg remains. “Why would you risk the pups?”
“It’s a telling.”
“Yours or Nema’s? Like her nightmares of the star? That it will kill us all? Long-claws have strange thoughts. Don’t trust in that.”
“The telling is mine this time.”
Belg sits. He peers at the sleeping pups. Maya thinks of the fathers of her litters. None of them alive. The last one, Fire, died with a deep scratch down his belly, given by a stalker. She thought it then, but knows it now: there will be no more pups. These six are her last.
“There is no God. No life for pups in the Forbidding, either,” Belg growls. “Stay.”
Maya stands up to challenge him, feeling her body sag and creak even as her hackles rise, teats hanging low as the pups whimper beneath her. Belg holds his stance a moment longer, then shakes himself and leaves.
He’s not a bad leader, Maya reminds herself when she lies down with the pups again. Just strong and stubborn. Too much like me.
Before the sun slips free of the horizon, Nema brings the weaving: two baskets held together by straps and loops.
“It will sit around your chest, hold the pups on either side. The flaps are to keep them dry, should it rain.”
Maya waits for Nema to feed the sixth before she slips the baskets on: her legs through the loops, the woven strap braced against her chest, another strap around her ribcage, holding the baskets steady against her sides. It fits snug but comfortable.
Nema helps her put the pups in, three on either side. The sixth is so weak it hangs unmoving in Nema’s jaws.
Most of the pack has gathered in the dawn-light, pups and mothers, fathers and elders. They stand quiet, awkward, in the shifting of the shadows. Maya knows they think her already dead, that this is their reverence and farewell—same as they’d offer any dog wandering off to die from age or sickness.
“Tread careful,” Nema says, their heads touching. Maya tries not to whimper. “The birds in the Forbidding have moved on for the season. The stalkers should have moved on, too.”
Belg watches, tall legs stiff, shaggy tail high. Maya walks over, head down, nose trembling with memories of the pup he was: tumbling his litter-mates in the dirt, always resisting her paw when she cleaned him.
The strongest of my pups. Strong for one, strong for many.
She licks his snout, wags her tail held low. Belg’s tail lowers, too, but he doesn’t speak.
She trots past him, away from the pack, down to the river. Maya has crossed this ford many times, chasing fish and birds and stalkers, never going farther than the strip of green along the other bank. Now, her paws are heavy and reluctant, the river wider than she remembers. The smells ahead are warning her to stay, to go back to the safety of the den.
It’s the whimpering pups that make her move, make her run through the shallow stream, across the grass, into the desolation beyond. Belg howls, and there’s an unexpected tone of longing in his keening voice. Turning, Maya sees Nema on the slope beside the dens. Nema doesn’t howl, but her sadness is an ache in Maya’s flesh. When she moves on, she feels Nema’s mind withdraw from hers until not even the faintest touch of it remains.
In the Forbidding, the ground is cracked and pitted, covered with ever-moving swirls of dust. The air and dirt smell barren and decayed. There’s no scent of dogs except the distant, fading tendrils from the packs that live along the river. But there is sound. The Forbidding thrums with a pulse, a tremor so deep and resonant Maya feels it in her skin and bones, burrowing beneath her thoughts – willing her to turn, to stop, to leave, to lie down and die. Walking forward is like pushing into a storm, like stumbling through heavy snow, a barrier within and without. Maya knows she would’ve faltered a thousand times, if the telling did not force her steps.
Three days to reach the towers where God lives, if the stories told are true. No dog has gone there and returned for many lifetimes. There are stories of pups being carried to the towers, being healed, being changed. More tales of dogs that never returned. Maya wonders whether such things really happened many times, or if they happened only once, and have been retold in many different ways, as seems to be the way with tales.
There is no God.
Maya walks on, clinging to the telling, listening to the shallow breathing of the sixth pup each time she stops, willing it to live, to stay.
Even if there is no God, even if there is nothing else in all the world, there is still me. Stay with me.
In the night, mother-dog returns, the pup still in her jaws. Maya finds no words to say, other than the ones she has already spoken:
Watch over me, mother. Watch over them.
Mother-dog doesn’t slow her steps, but it seems to Maya that her head turns, that the eyes of shadow and starlight rest on her for a little while.
The pups stir when Maya wakes. Even the sixth moves and whimpers. She sniffs its paws, thinking of Nema’s claws, weaving bark and straw.
Maya walks on towards the towers—through the dust, through the thrum of the Forbidding, through her own despair. Mother-dog’s glimmer trail can’t be seen, but Maya feels it, like she used to feel Nema’s mind guiding her when she was hurt or frightened, like she feels the telling in her bones, like she feels the lives of her pups quavering in her veins.
At midday, she chases off some crows and eats what they’ve left of a rodent carcass. There’s a trickle of rainbow-clouded water and a patch of shade beneath a tree nearby, and she rests, feeding the pups. The sixth doesn’t stir. Its life is slipping from her grip.
The five pups tear at her teats. She speaks the names she gave them as they were born:
“Belg and Fire. Deon and Nema. Thunder.”
No name for the sixth. Not strong enough. Not yet.
Why am I here? Why am I risking our lives?
There’s no answer, just the telling, lodged deep in her marrow, driving her on.
After drinking from the stream, she dribbles water into the sixth pup’s mouth, cursing her clumsy paws. She thinks of Nema, thinks of Belg, his howl across the river, but when she looks back, there’s nothing there: the land rises and falls—the river and the life it shelters is out of sight and scent and hearing.
The rain comes as Maya sets off, drops shedding from the woven flaps of Nema’s baskets. Maya is cold and wet. She whispers to the pups:
“Stay with me.”
Sometimes she thinks she sees mother-dog ahead, sometimes behind, sometimes above, running in the skies, chasing the ravenous skyfire far above the clouds and sun.
Watch over me, mother. Watch over them.
The stalker falls on Maya at nightfall, at the outskirts of the Forbidding, the towers looming close. It’s a mangy thing, lean and scarred, strong and desperate in its hunger. Maya doesn’t even smell it until it’s there: a blur of yellow-black striped fur, claws raking her flank, spilling the pups from the baskets as she tumbles in the dust.
Fear and rage turn everything to teeth and blood. They tumble through the rough and thorny undergrowth, claws tearing at soft bellies, teeth ripping at ears and eyes. In the quiet of the Forbidding they are noise and fury, hiss and bark and growl. Maya knows that something, someone, fights with her, in her: sharing her skin, giving her a strength and tenacity she has long since lost. Mother-dog. Belg. Nema. Maya feels them all with her, in her, and together they rip, claw, kill.
The stalker bleeds out in the dust. Maya is bleeding too.
The pups whimper. Maya stands over them, limbs trembling, tongue dripping, the thrum of the Forbidding so loud and deep it almost strips her bare. She has no strength to move the pups very far, but finds shelter beneath a rocky ledge, carrying them there one by one.
Two pups are hurt, scratched by stalker claws, but they’re alive, even the sixth, each stained with dirt and drool and blood. She licks them clean, gathers them against her before she tends her own cuts, exposed flesh quivering.
The sixth sleeps curled up against her chest that night, its shallow breaths mingling with her own laboured breathing, tethering their lives together. A chill night-wind makes Maya shiver, but when the pups sleep she limps over to the carcass, tearing open the belly, ripping out the soft parts, gorging on the stalker’s last bits of strength.
In the morning, nothing stirs in the Forbidding except the shadow of a bird rippling across the ground. Maya’s body aches. Nema’s weaving is torn, but the towers are close now. She puts the pups into the basket that is still whole: it hangs crooked, but stays on.
Maya limps, blood dripping in her tracks. She has lost the glimmer trail, can’t smell it, can’t feel anything but fear. All she feels and hears and smells are the pups, dying as she carries them in between the broken towers, her tired paws stumbling on the rock-strewn, fissured ground.
How will she find God? She sniffs the air, but it gives no clues. Nothing smells like life here. No life. No pack. No dogs. No God.
All day she searches: limping, stumbling, bleeding. At dusk, the pups mewl and whimper at her belly, and she wonders if she has milk enough for all of them. The sixth is fading—its life so sheer and thin there’s barely anything left for death to take.
Mother, she thinks and sees Nema before her, though it is not only Nema but every other mother-dog that has come before. Maya sees them all: all the mothers back to the beginning of days, gathering around her, muzzles grey and black and brown, fur soft and shaggy, scarred ears and crooked tails. They are shadows and starlight. They are the beginning and the end.
Mother. Mothers. Watch over me. Watch over them.
When God comes, God is merciful. God lifts her up in gleaming arms that pulse with light: white and blue, radiating through glossy, cool, grey skin. God is tall and angular and wide, moving smoothly, as if carried by a river or a breeze. There’s a hum and whir to God’s presence: like a song, like a purpose, like a telling. Maya hears it, and feels the meaning of its song:
Rescue. Assist. Observe.
Maya tries to say something, but isn’t sure that God would hear or understand. What language does God speak? she wonders before she slips away.
Maya wakes in another place: light, warm, safe. It is a vast room with walls of stone, angular and smooth, covered in squares and rectangles of shimmering grey and black, adorned with coloured, flashing lights. There’s a deep hum suffusing everything—like God’s voice, but deeper still—a never-ending chant beneath the stillness.
God is there.
God smells of dust and stone and pups, and things Maya cannot name. God’s hands are large and shiny, its dextrous appendages reminding her of Nema’s claws. God cradles the sixth pup, placing it at Maya’s belly where the other five already sleep in a tangle of soft fur and limbs. The sixth crawls, mouth searching, finding, feeding. Maya breathes in its scent. It smells alive and strong.
Strong enough for a name.
In the den, the trees and water whispered names to her, but there are no whispers here, only God’s gentle hum and the chant beneath. Maya listens, thankful that the thrum of the Forbidding has receded.
There is a name.
It’s a good name. Maya’s tail wags, slow and weak.
God speaks to her. God’s voice is strong, echoing between the walls, yet somehow it is more distant and foreign than the song and chant beneath.
“Your pup has been treated for dehydration and bacterial infection. Its condition has improved. Its health will be monitored. Please remain inside the facility. The surrounding area is not safe for biological organisms.”
Maya doesn’t understand the words, but it doesn’t matter. Her telling is fulfilled. She is spent.
When Maya wakes again, her pain is gone, and the cut on her leg is no longer bleeding. She sniffs at the white strip of flexible weave covering the wound and decides to leave it in place. Standing makes her nauseous, and she heaves up a slick of bile.
“You have suffered multiple injuries, including internal and external hemorrhages and contusions. The damage has been repaired, but you have lost a significant amount of blood, and are also suffering from bone cancer. The medications administered will ease your pain, but your life cannot be saved.” God moves away, still speaking. “Please remain inside the facility. The surrounding area is not safe for biological organisms.”
There’s a crack in the roof. Through it, Maya sees the skyfire, bright and hungry and close. Maya sighs. All her life is in that sigh, all her fatigue and anguish, all her longing for den and pack and Nema.
God feeds Maya soft lumps of scentless food from a bowl, and gives her water. Most days she’s strong enough to walk around, to watch the pups, the sky, the broken world outside.
The pups have opened their eyes. They scamper, tugging at tails and ears, yipping at each other, God, and Maya. Laika lingers close. Sometimes, Maya feels Laika’s mind touch her own. The touch reminds her of God’s song, reminds her of Nema.
It’s a cold morning. Maya knows it’s her last day, that she is almost gone already. Laika is walking, wobble-legged. She’s still the smallest, and her long-claws make it hard for her to keep up with the others. There’s a sudden waft of heat and dust from outside, a whirr and hum. The pattern of lights in the walls and in God’s arms shifts for the first time, green and yellow mixing with the white and blue, flashing faster than before. God’s hum shifts, too: becoming deeper, more intricate in its rhythm. It still says:
Rescue. Assist. Observe.
Communicate. Move. Depart.
Maya understands. Someone’s coming. Someone’s coming for God, and the pups.
She lays her head down, watching Laika’s long claws clutching at the bowl’s edges when she eats: holding, grasping. God’s hum flows beneath Maya’s thoughts: steady, calming, knowing. They wait, together.
“Life is being and becoming,” Nema told Maya once, when they dozed beside each other by the river. But there’s so little time left for being, and no time left at all for becoming anymore.
Where is Nema now? Maya thinks of her mother, and wishes she was resting in her warmth. Maya’s breath slips, her heartbeat slows, but she holds on. A little longer.
The mothers have gathered around her. She wonders if they will follow. Will they go where the pups go?
Will I? Will I turn to starlight and shadow?
Make our pups strong, the mothers whisper, and so she whispers too.
Images flow through Maya’s mind like memories, like dreams: her pups grown, running between grass and sky, past strange dens. Laika crafting new shapes, new words, between her paws. Maya isn’t sure if she sees true, but it doesn’t matter: it’s a good story.
Steps come closer. Maya tries to rise, but can’t. There’s a bark:
“Baljit! Make sure we get the data we need off that core. Fast as you can, please. Then scavenge the place for parts and cryo-preserved supplies. Chop chop. I don’t like these restricted areas any more than you do.”
Heavy paws and long legs approach, a welter of smells that Maya cannot decipher.
“Uplink’s fine, boss. This antique’s been off-grid since the evacuation, but the old mobile AI-units are resilient as hell.”
“Since the evacuation? How many centuries is that again? Never mind. Don’t tell me. There must be reams of data lodged in here. Something to remember this old place by once that asteroid has ripped it up.”
Steps come closer. Stop.
“Reeva, look at this.”
A paw. How strange a paw. It is like Nema’s, yet even more slender and deft; claws too short to rip and tear. The paw touches Maya, touches Laika’s long, flexible claws. A voice, too: soft and cooing. Other voices join in, gathering around. Good voices. Friendly snouts. The pups dash and scuttle: wagging tails, wobbly legs, whimpers and barks.
Maya feels God’s song touching her, and she wonders if the strangers and the pups can feel it too. Do they feel its deepening hum, its gentle but insistent force like a bright new telling in their bones?
Rescue. Assist. Observe. Nurture. Protect. Thrive. Love.
“Get the bio-carry unit, Baljit. Make sure you get them all. Haniya and the biology department will want to see this.”
Maya’s breaths are shallow. She feels herself lighten and dissolve, no longer tethered to the heartbeat and breathing of Laika or the other pups.
Be, she thinks, mingling her thoughts with God’s voice. Become.
Is it God’s voice, or someone else’s? Maya isn’t sure, doesn’t care. She thinks of Belg, wondering what he would think of such a gentle touch behind his ears.
Maya closes her eyes. God and the pups are leaving. Laika, too. Their minds withdraw from hers until even the faintest touch is gone. Starlight and shadow embrace her.
Mothers, watch over me. Watch over them.
About the Author
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and currently lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Maria also reviews speculative short fiction for B&N’s Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, and on her own blog mariahaskins.com. Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Podcastle, PseudoPod, Escape Pod, and elsewhere.
About the Narrator
Amy H. Sturgis
Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Vanderbilt University and specializes in Science Fiction/Fantasy and Indigenous American Studies. She serves as faculty at Lenoir-Rhyne University, staff at the StarShipSofa podcast, and Editor-in-Chief of Hocus Pocus Comics. You can follow her on Twitter, or check our her website for more details.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.