Serialized Fiction: Monsters, Part 3



Parts 1 and 2 of the story were published on Aug. 3 & 10, if readers need to catch up.

“Hmm. What about the fairy godmother?” said Matt. “What does Theodora think of the love child?”

“Oh, Theodora doesn’t mind at all about the baby, she thinks morality is for the lower classes,” said Joan. “She sounds, like, so cool! I’m going to meet her this weekend! She has a house on the northeast side and she’s flying in from Hawaii to stay until after the baby’s born.”

It all sounded unlikely to Matt but what else was new? From what Joan said, the twin, whose name was Freya, was one of the gaggle of hippies who hung out in the park across the street. Why hadn’t they run into her before? Matt really didn’t think the Prince Among Men had been all that anxious to introduce Joan to the folks.

But now that the plunge had been taken, Joan seemed to be taken into the family bosom with a vengeance. Joan came home that weekend effervescing about the marvels of Theodora – so English, yet so warm! So sophisticated, yet so down to earth! “She does things like peel potatoes while smoking a long white cigarette in a long black holder,” said Joan. It didn’t sound particularly hygienic to Matt.

As for the twin, now that Matt knew who she was he saw her all the time, sometimes in the park with her friends but sometimes climbing ponderously up the stairs to see Joan. The girls had hit it off, it seemed. It was on one of these visits that Matt met her. Joan called him over to share their herbal tea and some whole-wheat scones that tasted like cardboard.

Up close, Freya was even more breathtaking. She was wearing one of the short sheaths she favored that made no bones about her pregnancy but showed off her elegant long legs, and her silvery blond hair and ice-blue eyes made her look like the Nordic goddess her name suggested. Add to that the same drop-dead upper-class English accent as Haakon’s and the result was so dazzling that it took Matt a while to figure out that she was, well, no Rhodes scholar.

“When are you due?” said Matt after they had shaken hands.

“Oh, I expect the baby will come in its own time,” said Freya airily. “More tea? It’s really very nice. I gathered the leaves at precisely the full of the moon.”

Matt took more tea. It smelled like cat pee but it was hot. “The doctor hasn’t given you a due date?”

“Oh, I don’t go to doctors!” said Freya. “They’re all so plastic, don’t you think? I shall have my child at home, holding on to a chest of drawers.”

“Um,” said Matt.

“Matt is plastic,” said Joan, eyes dancing with fun.

“I’d never have guessed,” said Freya. “He looks so lifelike.”

“She means I’m a doctor,” said Matt. “So of course I have old-fashioned idea about childbirth. Like it’s safer with medical supervision.”

“Don’t worry your pretty head,” said Freya. “I have a maternity charm made by the head of my coven that I wear around my neck at all times.”

“Freya’s studying to be a witch,” explained Joan.

“I’ve got pretty good with most practical spells,” said Freya. “Though not love potions, apparently, because the bastard left me.”

As a neighbor, Matt found the encounter highly entertaining. As a doctor, he worried about the girl’s unrealistic concept of childbirth. But when he spoke to Joan about it later she waved his concerns away. “Oh, Theodora will take care of her,” she said. “If Theodora says go to the hospital, Freya will do as told. Anyway, I wouldn’t put it past the old girl to birth babies herself. She’s like that. You’ve really got to meet her, Matt.”

And Matt did.

Headed to the grocery store, he popped in to see if Joan needed anything and found her sitting in her tiny kitchen playing Hearts with Freya and an older woman, who of course turned out to be her – what? Prospective adoptive mother-in-law? Anyway she was immediately identifiable as Theodora because she was smoking a long white cigarette in a long black holder, blowing the smoke out the open window because Freya kept bitching it was bad for the baby.

She wasn’t much to look at. She looked 70-odd, shorter rather than taller, plumper rather than thinner, hair part dark, part gray. She wasn’t wearing what Matt imagined rich women would wear, no mink coat or anything like that, just some grayish pants and a matching tunic – an outfit that Matt thought was coming to be called the “pantsuit” but which in this case reminded him of Chairman Mao.

“Matt! I thought you were at the hospital!” said Joan. “Come in and meet Theodora. Theodora, Matt Cotton. Matt, Theodora Grey.”

Freya threw down her cards. “Shit,” she said. “I was winning.”

“He’s rescued you, actually,” said Theodora. “I was about to assassinate you with the queen of spades.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Grey.” Matt shook her hand. “Don’t let me interrupt your game.”

“Call me Theodora, Matthew,” commanded the matriarch. “Everybody does, and anyway Grey is just a name I took up after the last war. My last husband was called something Polish and quite unpronounceable and I had the children to consider.”

Matt could see why Joan was so taken with her. She had the same aristocratic English way of speaking as “the children” but there was something rough-and-tumble about her, a humor and a toughness that didn’t go with the voice. She had a complicated, ugly face with no makeup and little snapping black eyes.

“All right,” he said. “And it’s not Matthew. Matt is short for Mather, a family name.”

Theodora raised her eyebrows. “Mather Cotton, as in Cotton Mather? Don’t tell me you’re related to that dreary lot of preachers up in New England.”

Matt did not point out that the “dreary lot” had included the leading intellectuals and theologians of early America, including a president of Harvard. Instead, he said, “The story is, we’re descended from John Cotton, a famous preacher in early Massachusetts. Richard Mather married his widow and Richard’s son Increase married his daughter. Those were the parents of Cotton Mather. On my side, the Cotton side, it became a tradition to name sons Mather, and in my generation I’m the one who got stuck with it.”

“Wow, Matt, I never knew that,” said Joan. “Cotton Mather – we had to learn about him in school.” Her forehead creased. “Only I can’t remember why. What did he do?”

“He was widely regarded,” explained Theodora, “as the moving force behind the Salem witch trials.”

“Which means, Matt, that we’re ancestral enemies,” said Freya grandly. “In our family we’re all witches, you see.”

“Don’t be absurd, my love,” said Theodora.

“Of course the old girl’s a witch,” said Freya. “How do you suppose she got so rich?”

“Oh, that’s just a matter of marrying right and outliving everybody,” said Theodora. “Nothing to it.” She turned to Matt. “She always called me a witch because I could predict the weather, and made her do her homework. That wasn’t exactly black magic, though I will say there were curses involved on both sides.”

“Anyway, weren’t the Salem witches all innocent?” said Joan.

“What they were mostly guilty of was midwifery, a useful skill back then,” said Theodora. “It’s not as if the woods were stiff with doctors.”

“Ours are,” Joan piped in. "Matt's right across the hall."

“And Theodora’s a midwife,” said Freya. “One way or the other I should be quite all right going into labor here and now, shouldn’t I?”

“Please don’t,” said Theodora and Matt at the same time.

“I told you Theodora could birth babies!” said Joan.

“My dear, my skills may be a bit rusty. I’m older than I look and I learned the art back when there was a market for it. That was so long ago it’s surprising your Great-Uncle Cotton didn’t get around to burning me, Matt. Anyway, if pinch comes to shove I shall sit about smoking cigarettes and leave things to you.”

But that’s not the way it turned out.

It happened in the park. Matt met the three women there one beautiful spring day on his way back from the hospital. To tell the truth, it wasn’t entirely an accident; he was always happy to see them. He had never had warmed to Haakon, but as the wedding approached Haakon seemed less and less in evidence while the Grey women took up more and more of Joan’s leisure time, and Matt never minded that.

Freya was always a feast for the eyes and she provided entertaining light conversation. As for Theodora, despite her wealth and her aristocratic voice she was a comfortable, no-crap sort of woman to be around, and she told fascinating stories when she was in the right mood.

She’d had gypsy friends in Europe, she said, before World War II began, and had been appalled when, in the ‘30s, the Germans began killing them. It had radicalized her. “Hitler was a horrid little man,” she said. “I met him once at a beer hall and found him quite common.”

Matt never knew when Theodora was joking or telling the truth, but a lot of what she said sounded like something from a novel. She’d spent much of the latter ‘30s in central Europe, using her money to help her friends out of harm’s way. “No one knew then what kind of a bloodbath it was going to turn into,” she said. “I was caught up with my worry about the gypsies and didn’t realize until much later what was happening to the Jews, the Poles, the Jehovah’s Witnesses – so many people were being killed, one couldn’t save them all. People are so good at slaughtering each other, aren’t they? All you can hope is to save the ones you love.”

After Poland fell, Theodora had treated herself to a relaxing holiday in Paris on the way home, just in time to see the Nazis march in.

“Of course I stayed, darling,” she told Matt. “I was there first. There was lots to do in the Resistance and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Matt envisioned a younger Theodora with a beret and a revolver, but Theodora waved her cigarette holder dismissively. “Nothing like that,” she said. “Mostly I coughed up money and fed the young men soup.” She had known Churchill socially and had found him flatulent, she said.

Matt she teased about his witch-burning relations so of course he teased her back about being a witch.

Anyway, Matt was always glad of the company of the Grey women, and today he was not disappointed. He found them walking in the center of the park, close to the pond, the two young women on either side, both beautiful in their almost opposite ways, but the ugly older woman in the middle somehow the focus of interest.

One of Theodora’s arms was held by Freya and the other by Joan, not as if they were helping her but rather as if to assert possession. Freya of course had prior claim but Joan had the ardor of the acolyte. Eyes shining, she’d told Matt she was painting Theodora’s portrait for a Mother’s Day gift.

“I’ve tried to paint my own mother from memory, but I was so little when she died, I don’t know if it looks much like her.” She’d showed the painting to Matt and he’d had, privately, to agree there wasn’t much resemblance, unless Mama had looked like a hot dog and Coke, incompletely digested. “Oh, I’m so lucky to have a second chance with Theodora!”

Matt wondered how much better Theodora would fare with Joan’s vivid palette.

“Freya says walking is good for pregnant women,” Joan greeted him now. “But I worry she’ll go into labor by the pond.”

“What do you think, Dr. Cotton?” said Theodora. Wearing another of her Chairman Mao outfits, she seemed absurdly short next to Freya but by no means frail. Her little back eyes were glittering and she looked vigorous and hearty. “When shall we welcome our little stranger?”

“By my calculations, two weeks ago last Tuesday,” said Matt. He couldn’t look at Freya these days without a fit of nerves.

“It can’t be a moment too soon for me,” said Freya. “I feel like a bloody elephant. Hell. Didn’t I have my bag with me, Joanie?”

“You sure did,” said Joan. “You must have left it on the bench back there. I’ll get it.” She scampered away.

“I’m not a bleeding invalid, I'm just going to have a baby.” Freya lumbered awkwardly after her.

Joan was wearing tight white jeans and Matt’s gaze must have lingered a moment too long on her retreating butt, because when he looked back Theodora’s little black eyes were laughing at him. He found himself blushing.

“You know, Matt, darling,” said Theodora, “it won’t be long before that M.D. after your name will fetch you more pussy than you know what to do with.”

It was so far from what Matt expected that at first he thought he couldn’t possibly have heard it. But Theodora pulled her cigarette holder from one pocket of the Mao suit and her cigarettes from another, lit up and went smoothly on. “Well, one can’t help noticing how you pop by to see if she needs groceries. She’s lucky to have a knight like you. My point is, cheer up, there will be others.”

Matt met her eyes and in that moment thought the old lady really was a witch. He imagined that she knew every detail of the Joan and Matt story, up to and including the champagne incident. But he was saved from the need to reply by a cry from Freya.

“Let it go, mate,” she was saying sharply. “It’s mine.”

He and Theodora glanced out across the grass to where Freya and a taller, shabbier figure both clutched the same elegant brocade bag. Then he heard Joan scream.

In that split second, as realization set in, Matt had again that weird sensation of being an audience. He saw the tall figure jerk and then the pregnant figure jerk in reaction, saw the glint of the blade, saw Freya crumple to the grass like a balloon deflating.

Then he was a doctor again, in action, running across the grass to Freya as the tall figure ran away from her.

Joan was kneeling by Freya, cradling her in her arms. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “He stabbed her. He looked so ordinary, like he’d picked up the bag out of curiosity, but when she tried to get it back he pulled out a knife and he stabbed her!”

“Here, let me,” said Matt, gently pushing her aside. Joan relinquished her hold and as she moved away Matt saw that her yellow blouse was drenched with blood. Joan saw it too and gasped.

“Is she very bad?” she said.

Freya was very bad. She was unconscious and her face was bloodless, the only part of her body that wasn’t drenched in red. She was bleeding in terrible thick spurts from her swollen belly, and she also, Matt noticed with horror, seemed to be giving birth.

“Joan,” said Matt, beginning to work, “run back to the apartment and call an ambulance. Then bring me my bag. It’s in the kitchen. Here’s the key.”

This was before cell phones. Joan nodded and ran off.

Theodora had materialized next to him at some point. He didn’t know she was there until he looked for something to staunch the bleeding and she handed him a handkerchief.

Matt never knew how long the whole operation took. He was familiar with the unreality of emergency medicine, the unaccountable way time behaves when a patient is bleeding to death. That was the situation he had here – combined with impromptu childbirth.

The attack had happened so quickly, it seemed unreasonable that silly, beautiful, Freya was so badly hurt but she was, she was emptying her life’s blood onto the green spring grass even as her womb voided. Matt had his finger on an artery to close it off, drenched in blood to his elbow, conscious of his unscrubbed hands and his helplessness in the face of this double disaster.

But Theodora was beside him, handing him bandages which in the latter stages came from his bag, fetched by Joan, but which in the earlier phases she seemed to pull from the air. She was two extra hands and a comforting voice in his ears as he worked. “You’re doing fine, lad,” she said. “You’ll save her yet.”

When the baby came it was a girl, and dead. “I’m sorry,” he told Freya, who couldn’t hear him, but Theodora did and she took the bloody little parcel from him. “No, my love,” she said. “You help my girl, I’ll look after this lot.” He went back to work.

Freya was still breathing when the ambulance crew arrived. Matt exchanged a few words with them and then rested a moment as they lifted his patient onto a stretcher. He turned to see Joan in the arms of Haakon, who had arrived somehow to hold her as she wept.

Theodora stood nearby holding something wrapped in a blanket which had arrived just as cryptically. While Matt took in Theodora’s ugly, tender face, the blanket started crying lustily. Theodora looked up and gave Matt a smile of such radiance that for a minute she seemed almost beautiful.

To be continued next week ...


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