The first pang hit while I was cooking dinner. A younger doe might have written it off the signs — a sudden heaviness in the pit of my stomach while humming a snatch of song I couldn’t immediately place — but I’d been on the List long enough to know what was coming. I almost dropped my spoon, but years of experience meant I only spattered tomato sauce on the stove top. A few rays of daylight still shone over the treetops through my kitchen window, but I knew I was going to have to hurry. If the first one hit before sunset, there’d be a lot more coming, and soon.
“Ruth?” I called out, not turning away from the stove. I put my free paw on my stomach, pressing firmly while I stirred. “Ruth, are you there?”
Hindfalls thumped down the hallway, followed by my wife’s voice. “Becky? Are you okay? Did you burn yourself?” She stood in the hallway leading back to the living room, nose twitching rapidly, paws fidgeting with the front of her skirt
I shook my head slowly, but even that much motion made my vision swim. I pushed harder on my stomach; it was definitely tender, and starting to feel swollen. “I’ve been picked. I need to get to the center.” I coughed and a recipe for orange cream-cheese brownies came to mind, followed by redoubled pressure under my paw. “Soon. That’s two in under a minute.”
Ruth whistled, sharp and high-pitched around her prominent front teeth. “I’ll order delivery later; let’s go.” She took the spoon out of my fingers with one paw and wrapped her other arm around my shoulder, then walked me out of the kitchen. “Just keep breathing. Remember the classes. We’ve got time.” She paused in the front hall in front of the long enough to get her sandals, then helped me into a coat and shoes. “I’ve got the keys. Can you get to the car?”
My knees trembled when I stepped outside into the warm spring air, but my legs held despite the pressure. “One second.” On the front porch sat a wide planter, currently full of red tulips and purple crocuses in full bloom. At the back, a maternal rabbit statue stood with arms spread in a gesture of bounty. Her hips were wide, her ears erect, her muzzle slightly open in a beatific smile. I knelt briefly in front of the flowers and bowed my head in silent benediction. “Life and hope,” I murmured to the icon of the First Mother as I rose. I turned back towards the car, but a fresh weight in my chest sent me into one of the posts holding up the awning.
“Becky!” Ruth was at my side in a heartbeat, her brown eyes wide with concern. “I’ve got you. Easy, one step at a time.” She put her paws on my shoulders and gingerly marched me to the passenger side of the car. She let go of me just long enough to get the door open, then slid the seat all the way back for me. “Get in,” she commanded. “Lie back and get comfortable.”
“Two brothers,” I muttered as she dropped into the driver’s seat. “Born under the Lion, one converts to the Peacock’s Tail.” I fought back a groan and wrapped my arms around my waist. “The novel follows their falling-out, their children’s alienation, and their grandchildren’s reconciliation.”
“Hush, Becky,” my wife chided as she started the car. “You’re making yourself worse. I’ll put in something you already know. Relax, deep breaths. It’s not sundown yet.” She snapped her mobile into the console and fiddled with it for a few seconds. “How about Liturgy of First Autumn? You know that one well.”
I nodded, trying to keep all my words inside me while the pressure mounted behind my eyes and in my stomach. The sun was still up, but I was already starting to swell. Every time the First Mother blessed me, I remembered my first time. It was two hours past sunset and my parents — half-hearted followers until then — thought it was a play for attention. You’d have known already, they said. It would be obvious, they said. It wasn’t until I swelled up like a soufflé that my parents agreed to abandon their bridge game to take me to the local nesting center. After that, their tepid faiths slowly deflated, but mine had set firm. Every spring, I still bake the almond cookies I remembered that year, in her honor.
The car shook as the tires left pavement. “Not long now,” Ruth murmured. She brushed one of her paws carefully over my stomach. My shirt had ridden up on the drive, and my whole abdomen was visibly distended at this point. “You’re really touched. Are you in pain?”
I swallowed again, shook my head, then nodded. It wasn’t pain, exactly, but the pressure was starting to transform. It hurt like writer’s block, like staring at a blank canvas with a fully loaded palette and a brush. My muscles trembled with the need to move and my mind was racing in ten thousand directions at once. And through it all there was this full-body ache as all these thoughts and ideas rubbed against each other. My tail was starting to twitch, my thighs damp. A spasm ran through me and I clamped down hard, gritting my teeth. “Chords one, five, six-minor, first inversion of tonic—”
Ruth tsked against her front teeth and sped up slightly, the car starting to bounce and shudder on the dirt road. “Focus on the Liturgy, love. Steady circle patterns. You’ve been down this road before. This isn’t your first time. We’re almost there.”
The car banked to the right, curved left, then stopped sharply. Ruth was out as soon as her door was open. “Mother needing help!”
Moments later, my door opened, and two sets of paws reached across and undid my buckle. “Can you stand?” One of the orderlies, black-furred with a chipped left front tooth — a green shirt with white brocade would look great on him — carefully took my shoulder and paw. I nodded and half-scooted out of my seat, then fell into a pair of powerful arms. “This one needs a nest, stat.” He turned to Ruth and popped his head towards the door. “Get her intake started. Time of arrival is…” He glanced at his watch, then chuckled. “Thirtieth of March, nineteen-thirty-nine. One minute after sunset.”
The next spasm ran through me and I tried to push myself upright, but two pairs of paws held me. “Careful. We’re lifting you onto the gurney now. One hind on the ground, rise in one, two, three—” They lifted and I stood, and together we managed to get my leg under me long enough for them to shift the padded canvas sling under me. My tail got caught under me and I squirmed until I could make it lie flat against my back. Every movement sent ripples along my swollen front, everything heavy and engorged. My head swam with a million thoughts colliding. “She’s starting to drift; we need to move.” The wheels on the gurney were thick rubber, grooved for better traction on the dirt road. A statue of the First Mother stood by the front door as we passed; over her head were the words First Mother Medical Center. She beamed down at me as we entered, and I smiled back.
The gurney’s wheels squeaked against hardwood as the orderlies flew down hallways, disappearing through the building into the depths of the hillside. “Mother coming through!” they cried, and people bowed their head and stood aside as we passed, making room. They slowed only at intersections, or when one of them needed to hip-check a door. “Blessèd Mother! Make way!”
We flew around a corner, then down a short hall to a pair of doors marked Nesting: Mothers, attendants, and emergency staff only. This door the orderly didn’t slam open; instead he slapped the button beside it, and the thick wooden doors began to roll smoothly open on well-oiled hinges, revealing twilight beyond. Another shudder ran through me — fresh-baked apricot-rosemary rolls — and the one at my hinds blanched. “She’s crowning; we’ve got to move!” He grabbed the cart and hauled forward, plunging us into darkness. “Blessèd Mother!” he shouted down the hallway, but the sound dropped off suddenly in the semi-darkness.
“Quiet!” came an answering hiss. A third person — older, cinnamon fur, the pelt on her face almost black, with deep red eyes — joined us, this one in tan and blue scrubs, instead of white. “She’s not the only one.” Her voice was barely above a hiss. “What’s her condition?”
“She’s been mumbling recipes and humming since she got here,” the orderly by my head said as he pushed. We were slower now; the ground wasn’t hardwood any more, but stone, carved out of the hill. How deep are we? My back arched — stained glass wings, a jigger of absinthe, augmented seventh — and something inside me moved. I spread my knees and let out a wail that should’ve echoed off the walls; instead it vanished into the same silence as my orderly’s shout. “Late selection; she got here just after sundown. Her wife’s getting her checked in.”
“She of the Mother, too?” the new rabbit asked.
“She’s a rabbit,” the orderly behind me said. “I didn’t ask her faith.”
“She is,” I gasped.
The cinnamon-furred rabbit turned to me and nodded, her expression softening as she took one of my paws in hers. “I’m Deborah Dubthatch; please call me Debbie. I’ll be your attendant tonight, unless your wife’s qualified?”
“Re—Rebekah,” I managed with some effort. “Wife is Ruth. Soon?”
“Number eighteen, just ahead. It’s been a busy night.” Debbie slipped into place at my head and waved off the orderly. “Go find Rebekah’s wife and get me her bracelet, hot water, and a bead-ring.” When he left, she started pushing in his place. “One last turn… two doors… and we’re there.” The orderly at my hinds nudged open the door carefully, and we slipped inside. The floor of nest eighteen — like both of the others I’d seen — had a body-sized depression in the floor, padded and lined with steam-pasteurized straw, still warm and slightly damp. A pillow sat at one end, along with a bottle of water and a bowl of roasted almonds; at the other was a pair of canvas stirrups hanging from a wooden winch. The scent of petrichor hung in the air, along with a hint of bleach. The only lights came from recessed track lighting at the ceiling, flickering like candles deep in the heart of a warren.
Some rituals never change; they evolve, but they don’t change.
“Okay, let’s get you comfortable,” Debbie cooed as the orderly lowered my hinds. Half-leaning against the slanted bed, Debbie’s quick paws made short work of my skirt and panties, then my jacket and vest. Once I was nude and ready for the nest, she urged me forward, away from the gurney. I took one step, and then my legs gave way again, sending me slumping into her and the other orderly’s arms. “Ah, ah, no collapsing on my watch,” she murmured with a wry chuckle. “In you go.” Together, they walked me the two steps to the edge of the nest, then lowered me to all fours, knees spread wide.
It was time again, my body stretched wide and taut. Debbie’s fingers brushed the base of my tail, and I relaxed as I’d been taught. In response, the first egg slid out of me, blue with glittery silver stripes. The grit of the glitter rubbed against the walls of my sex as it passed, sending ripples of fire up along my spine. “There we go,” Debbie breathed as she caught it, setting it carefully in the hay. “Talk to me, Rebekah. What do you see?”
I swallowed hard, fighting dry muzzle, and fought to stabilize my thoughts. “Cursive, elaborate brush strokes, ninety-nine feath—ah!” I grabbed the bottle and drained half of it, then gulped down air. “Music, c-chords again, a motet devoted to the Mo—” My voice cut out in a fresh wail as a second egg crowned, deep burgundy and jewelescent.
“You’re doing fine,” Debbie said softly, coaxing me to drop the second. A third. A fourth. Wave after wave of intense pressure, a snippet of song or a taste or a scent or a look and then a rush of heat and light and joy rising along my spine, over and over in steady succession. At some point, Ruth was there, brushing my forehead with a damp cloth, feeding me almonds and water. Debbie continued her efforts, and over and over my body shook as I became the vehicle for the First Mother’s mysteries. Neon-green with orange stripes, smelling faintly of rubber and talcum powder. Solid violet, slick to the touch. Black with a single white dot, heavier than it looked.
Again, and again. Time lost its meaning, lost in the moment to moment of overwhelming sensation, in the agony and ecstasy of bearing these dreams into the world. Each new egg was a vision, a creation gifted into the world from the Mother of Mysteries. I shook, arms and legs trembling, body heaving. I felt stretched, drained, open to the world. My thoughts were a widening gyre, turning and turning as new dreams fell from tremulous lips. Debbie and Ruth traded places at least once, wiping my brow and catching my offerings. There was only this moment, the eternal fugue-now of creation.
Eventually, the torrent slowed to a trickle, my fevered mumblings to half-finished comments. My belly drained and my thoughts wound down. I dropped my sweat-damp forehead onto the pillow and arched my back, moaning in near-delirium. “A… a mixed-species commune… redesigning religious ideology….” I groaned, squeezing one egg — dark grey and covered in shimmering silver lines — into my wife’s paws, afterwards I slumped and weakly curled my knees under me, trying to curl up into an exhausted ball. A thick woolen blanket fell over me, and I dozed.
I was still in the nest when I awoke, stumbling towards coherence. “Ruth?”
“I’m here, love,” my wife said, seated just outside the rim. “It’s been about four hours. You need water?” I nodded and she passed me the bottle. “They want you to get another six hours if you can, before you start trying to deliver them.”
Deliver. I giggled; I’d just spent unknown hours “delivering” them, but it was now my job to get them to their destinations. Inspirations from She Who Bore the Egg of the World all had recipients; it was my job to find them, while the ideas were still fresh, and to make sure they received their blessings.
That, however, could wait for sunrise. I was exhausted, every nerve singing. I felt spent and worn and completely and utterly alive. I knew as soon as I closed my eyes again, I’d be asleep, but in that moment, I felt the touch of the First Mother deep within me, the joy of creation, and the joy of creation shared. “How many?”
Ruth held up the bead ring with its tally-beads. “Seventeen. She said it might be a hospital record.”
“There was one that…” Ruth reached under the blanket and took my paw. “Doctor Dubthatch says that happens sometimes with large blessings. It’s still amazing.”
I closed my eyes. Somewhere nearby, someone was going to wake up with a splitting headache, a sense of loss and confusion and disorientation for no reason. Maybe it would pass. “I’m sorry,” I murmured into the semi-darkness. “I’ll pray for you… maybe she’ll send it again.”
“You’re babbling, Becky,” Ruth said, stroking my forehead. “You need to sleep. You still have work come Sunday morning.”
I nodded, then closed my eyes again. I started to whisper a benediction for the lost dream, but before I could finish, I fell back into a deep and dreamless sleep.