by Kris Schnee
©2004 Kris Schnee -- all rights reserved
The waiting room was perfectly square, with framed photos of children on the walls and old magazines on a table. Maria curled the only Spanish-language one in her hands. Dust and mildew from the pages reached her nose. Most food lately reeked and was hard to keep down.
"Ms. Castille?" said the secretary from her office on the other side of the counter. Maria stood, cradling her stomach for what might be hidden there, and stepped towards the nurse, a question caught in her throat. Only when she reached the examining room did she realize it was not a question but a plea, triggered by the shape of the office.
Bless me, for I have sinned.
Doctor Batsakis had long black curls of hair tied precisely with blue wire. She motioned Maria onto the crinkled paper of the exam seat and took a stool for herself with one hand. "Yes, you're pregnant. Do you want to talk about it?"
Maria had only stared at the clean floor, last visit. This woman looked hardly older than herself, but so rich and important! Batsakis' English was perfect too, and she hadn't even been born here.
Batsakis glanced guiltily at her steel watch. "I can refer you to a counselor. We have some very good people for rape issues..."
"No," said Maria. "It wasn't. It was my fault. A stupid, stupid mistake." A bar and loneliness, and she'd worn the red dress. She saw a closed-off future. "What can I do?""
"You have a choice."
Maria's hand went to the tiny cross of smooth, dark wood at her neck. "It's wrong."
Batsakis said, "I know what the Church says, but in your case it might be the most humane option." She answered Maria's questioning look by taking up a computer pad and saying, "The tests have picked up a problem with the embryo."
"With the baby?"
"We can catch certain problems very early now, and I'm afraid there's a defect." Maria didn't hear Batsakis' explanation except for easy phrases that hammered at her: brain damage, muscle decay, malformed. In the sterile room Maria smelled the tiny apartments that other women in her congregation filled with diapers and spicy food and grime. Hers would become like that and she would be cursed with a broken child, one who would always be helpless. She must deserve it, but even for a sin like hers it was too much.
Batsakis said, "No one will blame you if you choose --"
"I can't," said Maria. What would God to do her then?
Batsakis tapped buttons on the computer and brought up charts. "There might be another option. A procedure."
"What?" Maria sat up straight, surprised that there was any hope.
"There's a study being conducted. It would be subsidized -- free -- and we could apply for you right away." Batsakis' hands moved in the air as if describing the shape of a thing for sale. "The embryo has recessive defects but if we inject healthy stem cells all the proper proteins will be made. And your child will be healthy. If it works."
"Stem cells?" said Maria, picking the phrase out of the stream of words. "But someone took babies apart to make them!" Maria found both her hands on her stomach as though they feared Batsakis would cut up her child too. But her hands were foolish; why should she care? Maria slumped again as the impossibility of accepting sank in.
A scowl flickered across Batsakis' face. "It's not like that. Stem cells come from balls of heartless, brainless cells."
"Like my baby?" There was no challenge in Maria's voice.
Batsakis stood. "No! What do you want to do, then? Have a baby that will live in constant pain?" She seemed ready to go on but stopped herself, running a hand through her hair. "Maria, the right thing is to sign up for the study if you won't abort. No God would want you and your baby to suffer. Let me sign you up."
Someone had left a rosary in the confessional booth. Now Maria could say, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." She choked on the words as she felt acid in her throat. This early on a Sunday morning, and she couldn't sleep!
"Tell me," said the young voice of Father Riley on the other side of the wicker wall between them. Faint light from his side lit the beautiful, dark oak paneling all around Maria.
Maria said, "I... am going to have a child."
"This is no sin."
"I'm not married. I was stupid."
"I see. That's unfortunate."
"The child is malformed. I agreed to an experiment. Stem cells."
Only silence came from the other side of the booth. "Those are made," said the priest at last, "by killing babies."
Maria's fingers played with the rosary beads on their rough loop of twine. "I know. But I can't have a crippled child. Both of us will suffer."
A sigh came from Riley's silhouette. "That's a selfish reason."
"But the baby --"
"It will be fine without the treatment. Or there might be other cures, or the diagnosis could be wrong. Children who are born with medical problems are special, brave souls. They're blessed in a way. Closer to God, and free from some of the evils of this world."
"Free," Maria echoed. But as a mother, she wouldn't be. She had had no choice but to make the child healthy; didn't Riley see that? She couldn't live burdened with a sick child!
"Be brave," said the silhouette from its own wooden box. "Don't take the easy way out with this immoral medicine."
"Thank you," said Maria, already standing with bile in her throat. He couldn't help her. She had to, even if it was wrong.
"Go with God."
Maria left the confessional, left the church, and went outside to walk in the cold wind before services began.
On the way out a girl Maria knew passed her for her own turn at confessing. Maria could not meet her eyes.
One week later, Maria's path was laid out for her. She was farther into March with the wind now strong and warm. She walked to church from her apartment through the artificial valley of city streets.
She had gone to the hospital at Dr. Batsakis' direction. There she met other doctors and a host of nurses who fawned over her as through being a single young mother were a happy thing. There was a gurney, and a needle in her arm, and forms she had no hope of understanding before she signed them. Everyone assured her the procedure was a success. She'd gone home that evening.
And then she'd decided to put her child up for adoption. There was no way she could care for it at her young age, no one who could support her while she tried. It was the right thing for the child. Maria strolled up to the white church on its tiny lawn and saw Father Riley sitting beneath his favorite tree, Bible on his lap.
Riley looked up suddenly. "Oh. Maria. Good morning."
Maria admired the great oak with its budding leaves. Riley knew her confession; the privacy of the booth was a lie. But that was all right as long as you believed in it. "Good morning," she said, and smiled.
Riley's brow furrowed and he hopped to his feet on the grass. "I'll be starting services soon." He glanced down in a way that made Maria look away from him again -- he was looking at her still-flat stomach. But he wouldn't ask. She wouldn't have to tell him she'd gotten the stem cells.
By winter the baby would be gone, and she would have her life back.
Maria stepped towards the door and saw eyes staring out at her from the darkness. People knew her; had rumors spread? They would ask and she would lie, or they would go on staring until she had to confess to everyone. The acid feeling in her throat returned and she covered her mouth. She had to leave. She couldn't risk fouling the church floor. She hurried away to care for herself, alone.
Soon Maria returned to Dr. Batsakis. Every day she was sick and listless, and she was not even a third of the way along. She kept thinking of the one night at the bar and how little it was worth to her.
Batsakis had Maria lie down, and applied the cold metal of an ultrasound. "Have you been all right?" she asked.
"I can't eat or sleep, sometimes."
"That's normal. But otherwise -- I mean, with that church of yours?"
Maria looked away at the flickering shapes of the ultrasound screen.
Batsakis sighed. "It's none of their business anyway. You're doing the right --" The hand holding the metal probe slid off Maria's belly.
"Seeing things," said Batsakis. On went the probe again, and the screen revived with a faint shape on it, for only a moment before Batsakis slapped the screen's power button and murmured, "No."
Maria squirmed on the table. "What's wrong? Tell me!"
Batsakis buried both hands in her hair as if in surrender, and spoke quickly. "The stem cells are heavily restricted. We couldn't get perfect cell lines. We used what we had to combine with the malformed embryo, to fill in the gaps on the cellular and chemical level. It shouldn't have gone chimeric. Not like that."
Maria sat up. "In English." It was easy to let people manipulate you when you couldn't even understand them, when everyone but you knew what was best.
Batsakis slowly turned the screen back on and showed Maria the child. The tiny creature's skull seemed odd, stretched, and the spine curled around its legs like a tail.
Maria jumped up from the table, one hand on her stomach. "What did you do!"
Batsakis said, "The cells were from old experiments, mixed harmlessly with mouse DNA. They were all we were allowed to use. The cells did fill in the holes in the embryo, but..." She looked away, to the frozen image on the screen.
The exam room suddenly felt very small. Maria threw open the door, ran with one hand pressed to the groove-textured wallpaper, and stood in the waiting room. Another little box.
Batsakis called, "Maria, wait!" The receptionist stared out from the cube-within-a-cube of her office.
Maria whirled and found Batsakis right there in the doorway. Maria said, "You did this to me! You --" She couldn't continue, and instead flopped onto the couch by the magazines and held her head in her hands. "I did this." She had wanted an easy way out.
Batsakis stood above the couch, glancing nervously at the receptionist, who shut the frosted glass pane between them. It was not really soundproof. "It's all right, Maria. We'll take care of this."
A reflex: "No abortion!"
Maria's baby did not deserve to be cut into pieces and die with its soul unsaved. If anyone should suffer Hell it was herself. She would do what she'd already planned and put the child quietly up for adoption...
Which was as good as chopping it up! No one would want it, they'd kill it, it'd have no family. And she would know she'd killed it, would always have that following her.
"I can't do anything!" she said. "I have to keep it!"
Batsakis was pale. "You can't -- I mean -- it'd be wrong, there could be terrible birth defects, we know there are defects. I might be arrested for helping make this thing."
"It's not a 'thing.'!" Maria stood uneasily, afraid of the little room around her. She had nothing to go back to but the apartment.
"Let's think about this. The embryo is malformed. Even if it survives it's not going to have a good life."
"It's not going to have any life at all if I'm not there." Maria fumbled for the doorknob behind her and threw open the door, letting cold wind wash in. "Understand? I have to raise this child."
Batsakis stood watching her. "I want to see you every week, then. I need to document it."
That winter, there were others. Maria had learned she was not alone, that others had had the treatment, and that a few other women had chosen to bear strange children like the one now cradled with her in the hospital bed. None had meant to do it; the cells that had given her baby his swaddled tail and innocent mouselike face had been locked away as soon as the effect was known. But she and her baby would have a future.
The nurse Estella opened the door just enough to let herself in, carrying a book. "I wanted to drop this off. You'll have to study hard, you know. Nursing school will take up a lot of time."
"It's all right," said Maria, reaching to tickle the twitching ears of little Martin. Her new friends had helped name him, along with helping her apply to school. Around her the little room was stuffed with balloons and flowers they'd given her, somehow making the space seem larger. "I won't be able to sleep for a while anyway."
Maria heard many voices outside. The reporters again? But then a familiar man called out over the din, "Maria!" It was Father Riley. Maria sat up straighter, though every muscle ached.
"Estella, can you let him in?"
The instant Estella opened the door the noise poured in -- questions, wasted flashbulb sounds. The nurse tugged a black-suited arm and then she and Riley were slamming the door behind them.
Riley turned and gawked. "It's true! You're one of the women with the, the creatures."
Estella said, "Don't talk that way about her baby! It's not her fault."
Riley glared at Estella, who returned the look. "Lord," he said, turning to look at Martin's sloping forehead, his tiny whiskers. "Why, Maria?"
"There was no other way. He would have died." The one night of foolishness had put her here with no escape. "All I can do is try to survive with him."
Riley shook his head. "I admire your courage, Maria, but this will be trouble. This wasn't meant to be. You shouldn't have used the treatment. An evil tree --"
Maria held Martin close and propped herself up with one arm. "-- Can bring forth good fruit! Did you want me to give up, to let my child die and go back to being alone and stupid? I have to think of him now." She fell silent, wondering how long her friends could fend off the reporters. "Bless him, Father."
"Bless my Martin. He has a soul, I know it, and he needs God's help."
Riley was shaken. "Both of you do. All of the women with these... creations do."
Estella stepped towards the priest. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave, sir, if you're not here for religious reasons."
"I... I don't know what I can say."
Maria said, "Say what you have to."
Riley stood over the mother and her mouse-child for a while, and in a halting voice began to pray.