Teri knew she had to stop because it was the Christian thing to do, but she secretly hoped the girl wouldn't need help; she wanted to have dinner on the table by the time her husband got home. Teri pulled over and offered the girl a ride.
Minutes later the girl sat in the passenger seat of Teri's station wagon, smelling both of fresh sweat and stale body odor. She held her baby close and talked in a slow, endless way, rolling the words around in her mouth to make them last as long as possible. "Thank you so much for taking us to my friend's house! It's just so nice to meet people in this universe who like to help other people, you know?"
"Uh-huh," Teri said, breathing through her mouth. She pushed the button to roll down her window.
"I mean, it's a nice day to walk, but I think Aurora was getting a little restless."
"Well, Brookstone Avenue is ten miles away, it would've taken you forever to walk there," Teri said quickly. She was from New Jersey, and she thought she'd gotten used to the Southern drawl of Glenville, but this girl's slow speech was almost too much for her to stand.
"Oh, I like to walk," the girl said dreamily. She lifted up the right side of her shirt, and Teri saw a flash of white flesh out of the corner of her eye. The girl hugged the baby next to her breast and sighed. "I just love breast-feeding, don't you?"
Teri felt a jolt go through her stomach. This girl was breast-feeding right now? In the car? She couldn't have waited 10 minutes?
"You just feel so connected with your baby. Like the way we were connected when she was in my womb. It's like you're giving, and sharing, and just bonding in so many ways as a mother and child."
Teri pressed her lips against her teeth in an attempted smile. She couldn't really see the girl's breast, but she could hear the tiny sucking sounds, and they embarrassed her.
"How long did you breast-feed your daughter for?" The girl looked at Teri.
"I didn't." Teri pushed down harder on the gas pedal.
"Oh my gosh, really?! Oh, breast-feeding is so healthy for babies! I'm going to breast-feed for as long as I can. You know, there are tribes in, like, Africa and places, and they breast-feed their children till they're like six or seven."
"Mommy, what's breast-feeding?" McKenzie's voice floated up from the back seat. She'd been so quiet, Teri had thought she was asleep.
"It's what I'm doing right now." The girl twisted around in her seat so McKenzie could see the baby sucking at her breast. "It's when the baby drinks milk from the mommy's nipple, see?"
Teri glanced in the rearview mirror and saw McKenzie leaning sideways in her car seat, trying to get a good look at the stranger and her baby. "McKenzie, sit up please," Teri said automatically.
"I think I'm going to breast-feed until Aurora decides she doesn't want to breast-feed anymore. I'll just leave it up to her." The girl turned to Teri. "Promise me if you have another baby you'll breast-feed."
Teri cleared her throat and turned the wheel sharply onto Maple. From here it was a straight shot to Brookstone Avenue. "I don't think you ever told me your name," she said, hoping to get off the topic of breast-feeding.
"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry! I am so out of it today! My name's Rhea, like the Greek goddess? And this is little Aurora, the Goddess of the Dawn." Rhea beamed down at her nursing infant, who was wearing nothing but stained yellow pajamas.
"What's a goddess?" McKenzie wanted to know.
"Nothing, honey," Teri called back to her.
"Well, not nothing." Rhea put Aurora to her shoulder and began to burp her. "Goddesses are female spirits that some people worship and pray to. Like, the Goddess Rhea, she gave birth to many of the important gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. She was like the great mother goddess, and then Aurora "
"It doesn't matter, honey," Teri said suddenly, loudly.
Rhea stopped short in surprise.
"I just don't want to confuse her," Teri told Rhea quietly. Teri looked at McKenzie through the rearview mirror. "You don't need to worry about all that, Kenzie. Just remember what you learned about in Sunday school."
"Jesus loves me?"
"Uh-huh, that's right."
Teri took a deep breath and then smiled vaguely in Rhea's direction. "So, Rhea, are you from Glenville?"
Rhea took this as an invitation to tell her life story. Yes, she was from Glenville, but she was sort of a wanderer. After high school she moved to Florida with friends. Then she met some guys with a van and traveled around and lived in Utah. Then she was going to live on an organic farm in Pennsylvania, but some of her friends got a house in Vermont, so she moved up there instead.
As she meandered through her story, Teri glanced down at the infant, who had finished burping and was now sleeping on her stomach in Rhea's lap. Rhea was sitting Indian style in the seat, and the folds of her skirt were bunched up in the middle of her lap, exposing her white legs, covered thickly from the knees down in long, dark hair. Normally Teri would be disgusted by the sight of unshaved women's legs, but all she noticed was the baby.
Teri thought about when McKenzie was a baby. She used to just watch her sleep, sometimes from the time she put her down for a nap until she woke up again. It wasn't so much because she was afraid that something might happen to her, although she did worry about that occasionally. She just liked to look at her daughter. She'd wanted a baby for so long. She would look at McKenzie's tiny, delicate fingers, and her big, soft head, covered in the palest, finest brown hair. Sometimes she would cry because as much as she wanted to, she didn't quite feel like a real mother.
"So, it was really cold in Vermont," Rhea continued with her narrative in a breathy voice, "and plus a lot of people in the house started doing crystal meth, which is really bad for your body. I mean if you're going to do drugs you should do shrooms or weed, you know? Something that comes from the earth. Anyway, I just didn't think it was a very healthy environment for Aurora, so we decided to get on a Greyhound and come down here and stay with my friend Rilan."
"So Aurora is your first child, I guess?" Teri asked.
"Well, no. ..." the girl twisted a strand of hair in her long fingers. "I actually got pregnant when I was sixteen, but I gave the baby up for adoption."
Teri's hands gripped the steering wheel tighter as her whole body stiffened. She had never been able to understand mothers who gave up their children. How could they do it? It didn't seem fair that there were women who wanted children so badly and couldn't have them, and then there were brainless hippies like Rhea who went around having babies they didn't even want and couldn't take care of.
"I think about her a lot the baby I gave up. One of these days I'm going to try to find her, just to see her and make sure she's OK. I mean, as long as her mother will let me see her. Do you think she will?"
"I wouldn't count on it," Teri snapped.
"You don't think the woman who adopted her is curious about me?" Rhea picked up Aurora from her lap and uncrossed her legs.
Teri came to a sudden stop at a traffic light and turned to look at Rhea. "Maybe she likes to pretend you don't exist."
"Oh." Rhea turned away from Teri and looked out the window for a moment. The light turned green. Teri would have happily driven the rest of the way in silence, but Rhea started talking again. "So, I'm thinking of taking classes to become a doula."
"Oh?" Teri said.
"A doula is a woman who helps a mother during pregnancy, birth, and the first few months after the baby is born." Rhea gently traced her daughter's face with her finger as she talked. "They, like, give emotional and spiritual support to the mother. It's really an amazing thing to do."
Rhea looked at Teri. "Did you have a doula?"
"No, I didn't." Teri winced at the tone of her own voice. She couldn't mask the hatred she was feeling toward this girl. Rhea with her long hair and her milky breasts. Rhea traveling around in a van, having babies she couldn't take care of. Rhea, the Mother Goddess. She didn't deserve it.
"Yeah, I'm really excited about taking the classes. Like, it's a lot about female empowerment, and like, we do vaginal exams on each other, which I think will be really cool, you know?"
"Uh-huh." Teri flicked on her left blinker and waited impatiently for an oncoming car to pass.
"Like, when you were pregnant, didn't you feel so scared? And sometimes the fathers and the doctors, they just can't provide the right support for a mother, especially if she decides to have a natural childbirth. Did you have a natural childbirth?"
Teri turned quickly onto Brookstone Avenue. "Where did you want me to drop you off?" She wanted to just stop the car and throw Rhea and her baby out into the street. She took a deep breath and Rhea's earthy odor filled her lungs. She felt sick.
Rhea pointed to a small yellow house at the end of the block. "Well, let me write down my name and Rilan's number for you, and if you're ever pregnant again, and you want a doula, give me a call, OK?"
"That's OK," Teri said quickly.
"You're not planning on having any more children?"
"No, I'm not."
"You're not? Why not?" Rhea frowned.
"I can't! I can't have children!" Teri burst out. "We adopted McKenzie." She felt tears pricking behind her eyes.
"Oh my gosh! I never would have guessed that!" Rhea breathed, opening the passenger side door slowly. "Well, you have a very motherly aura."
Teri opened her mouth, but she didn't know what to say.
"I mean, motherhood isn't just about giving birth. The hard part is all the other stuff." Rhea swung her backpack onto her back and climbed out of the station wagon, holding Aurora. She bent her head down and looked back at Teri. "I'm really scared of being a mother, actually. But you seem like you know what you're doing." Rhea shut the door and walked toward the house.
Teri drove away, feeling stunned. She glanced in the rearview mirror at her daughter, who was sleeping with her head resting against the car seat. Teri drove toward home, her lips curling into a truly happy smile. S
About the Writer
Eva Langston should be teaching high-school math for Teach For America in New Orleans. But because of Hurricane Katrina, this 24-year-old Roanoke native was at her mother's home in Richmond just in time to enter Style Weekly's Third Annual Fiction Contest. A graduate of William and Mary with a degree in psychology, Langston loves to write, but loves to revise even more. "I actually like revision," she says. Having heard that you should read what you hope to write, she reads primarily juvenile fiction.
Langston got the idea for "Goddesses" when she tried to imagine an encounter between her best friend, Degra, and one of the women who frequented the upscale clothing store where she worked in Williamsburg.
"Keep a notebook and jot down little things that catch your attention," she advises. "Like one day I was walking by the river and I saw a pumpkin bobbing up and down in the Mississippi. A little nugget that could be used for a story one day."
Now tutoring and substitute teaching, Langston says she has a lot of time on her hands, but might like to help troubled teens. "I'm trying to decide what to do next," she says. "I'm figuring out my next plan of action." Valley Haggard
More 2005 Fiction Contest winners ...