CONCEIVED • by Rodello Santos

My first child — your brother — was made of cardboard and yarn, with buttons for his eyes and mouth.

The others in the coven scoffed when I told them my plan, but they never understood magic, not truly. For them it was all chants and rituals, dead animals and candlesmoke.

Really, those are just peripherals.

It’s will and desire that matters, of course. If you don’t want it, you’ll never, ever get it. That’s a lesson I’m going to teach you over and over until you learn it — how to wish.

Oh, my love, my darling, you need to know how much I wanted it. Like a deaf woman weeps for songs. My womb was barren, but my mind was a playground for desires, a crèche of dreams.

And one day I dreamed up little Aaron. Oh, he was small, smaller than you.

Simplicity has its own magic, and that’s how I started. I made him from findings in the attic: a storage box and a ball of bright, yellow yarn. The box I cut to smaller pieces, simpler pieces. I punched holes in the cardboard and knitted the bits back together. When I saw how flimsy it turned out, I kept adding layers and folds. The labor lasted three weeks.

Then I breathed life into his mouth, bled sight into his eyes. My little Aaron looked up at me and smiled. His button mouth didn’t move, but I knew, I knew. Because that’s what a babe does when his mother holds him. He smiles.

I was beyond joy. It never crossed my mind to tell the other witches. They never supported me, and they had no cause to know. I slept that night with Aaron in my arms, and I lay his mouth to my breast, sang him lullabies.

In the dead of night, his wails woke me, so loud in my mind that it clawed at my sanity. When I turned on the lights, I cried out. The cardboard was soggy, and there was that smell, that awful smell, like rotting trees after heavy rains. The yarn had grown dull, bleached. I wept, used all my will to keep from losing him.

I didn’t sleep the rest of that night, just prayed with eyes red and crusted from dried tears. The lump in my throat turned every sob into pinpricks of agony.

I think I know why he died.

It was too much love. His little body couldn’t handle it, not the way he was made.

By the time the sun rose, I knew he was gone. He was taken from me too soon. I felt I’d never known him, yet he was a part of me, like my hands and heart. How do you go on, without your hands? Your heart?

But I did. I mourned, and I will never stop mourning, not even now as I hold you, gingerly, my love, my darling. But the need to have a child was stronger than my grief, just like life overshadows death. I never gave up.

Neil was my next. My intuition — my little head-voice — told me what I had done wrong. I was a fool, thinking all about simplicity when I should’ve worried about strength. No yarn this time, but wire, from a hanger in my closet. An empty hanger, but it wasn’t empty for long. I took an axe to my desk and used the cherry wood.

There was a church two blocks from the boneyard — it’s long gone now, the church — and I broke one of those beautiful, mosaic windows. It was of Gabriel announcing Mary’s motherhood… a good choice. I took the pretty glass, colors like the sea at sunset, and I made eyes and ears for Neil.

He was sturdier than Aaron, I knew. That first night I never closed my eyes, out of worry that I’d wake to his crying, or worse, sleep through it.

Nothing happened that night. But in the long hours of the second night, when my hope had grown, I smelt the stink of ashes and soldered metal.

Neil’s wails were even louder, maybe because he’d sipped more of life than his brother. He didn’t want to die, and I swore I wouldn’t lose him. So I bled for him. I bathed him in all the blood I could give. Nothing I did could quiet him. His cries broke my heart, shattered it like that church window. I must have passed out, but when I woke, Neil just lay there, in the red pool of my despair, and he wasn’t crying any more. I screamed and cursed and swore it would never happen again. I would never lose another child.

Stupid, stupid me. Ha, don’t laugh now. Don’t laugh at mother.

You had other brothers, you know, and sisters too. Each I made different because to make a child the same as his sibling — it’s a sin. Every child is special.

But no matter what I used… foam or plastic… rubber or razorblades… nails and needles… the magic would burn my baby, or drown him, or freeze him. Each time I made a new child I had to make him out of something new. Each time one died, I thought I’d die, too, because each death made all the past sorrows fresh again.

But you know how this story ends. A happy ending. Oh, what a cute smile you have.

I know what it is now, the magic recipe. I was right the first time, about simplicity having a magic all its own. It was so easy that I marvel how I could’ve been so blind. You are my flesh and my skin and my bones. And you and I will be always together. Oh, Happy Birthday, my love, my darling.

Happy Birthday.

Rodello Santos was born in Manila, raised in the Bronx, and is currently lost in Yonkers. His work fluctuates between dark and lighthearted fantasy with frequent visits throughout the speculative continuum. His stories have appeared online at The Town Drunk, Flash Fiction Online, and Dragons, Knights and Angels, as well as the anthology, Philippine Speculative Fiction, Vol. 3. Forthcoming tales can be seen in the anthologies Cinema Spec and Paper Blossoms, Sharpened Steel. He is a proud member of the Liberty Hall writing forum.

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