In the dark of our cave, I could hear Ryan stirring. I groaned. It was time for his nap to be over, and I didn't want him to sleep too long because I needed him to sleep tonight, but I wasn't done with my own nap yet.
I heaved my swollen belly over and tried to sleep for just a few minutes more.
"Mommy up?" chirped Ryan's little voice.
Even though I really wanted to sleep and rest my sore legs and back just a little longer, I couldn't help but respond to that lovely, little voice.
"Mommy up? Lights peas," the little voice demanded from the dark.
I rolled over again and clicked on the small, fluorescent camping light by the bed. His little blue eyes, almost iridescent in the light, peered at me over the covers.
I laughed at him, my tiny Ian. He would look just like his father. As always, the strange, overwhelming love engulfed me as I took in every detail of his face.
He sighed and rolled his eyes.
"Hungry?" I asked. I was already feeling the trepidation build as I braced myself to face snack time.
"Ready to go see what's cooking?"
"Yup. Les go!" And he was off.
He ran over to the door that separated our small two rooms from the rest of the caverns and began to tug at the knob. I slowly stood and stretched as much as I could and lumbered for the door. He ran back and forth between my knees and the door several times before I opened it.
He ran everywhere. He never walked and had only barely crawled.
"Wait for mommy this time," I warned him. But just as the knob was turned, he was out the door like a jackrabbit. I tried to jog after him, but all I did was run into people and things. At eight months pregnant, I just barely fit through the corridors of our cave city, and could not hope to keep up.
I was out of breath as I entered the main room with the ingenious mirrored ceiling and waved to several others who were gathered to talk or rest or snack. After five years of living here, the place looked the same, but the faces had changed drastically. There were now eighty-three full time adult occupants of the caves, almost two dozen young children, and two other cell groups who often came to visit and trade.
And look for partners.
We had created a ceremony for marriages that mirrored those performed for centuries here. Jed was almost always the official, and he had been quite busy the last four years.
Finally, I climbed up to the dining area and found Ryan perched on a stool busily eating chips and chugging down a Coke. I didn't even try to hide my disappointment.
"Ryan, who gave you those?"
"I gotted dem," he said defiantly. For the past three months he said everything defiantly.
I took a calming breath and braced myself for battle. "No. You know better. You may not have those," I said as strongly as this human body would let me. Sometimes I hated the fact that this body was so petite and harmless looking.
"You not say no!" Ryan yelled.
I could hear the spreading silence as the others watched me fight with my almost three year old son again. The silence echoed the spreading dread that I felt. I hated this. I hated that he only acted this way for me.
"You may not talk to me like that," I said as firmly as I could, but even I could tell my voice was wavering.
"No!" he screamed and then threw the bottle of Coke at me.
The room was utterly silent now.
I wanted to cry in frustration, to run away and leave the questioning stares of the others, but my son needed to behave. He needed me to help him behave, but I had no idea of what to do.
I bent slightly down to his furious face and tried to talk to him, to reason with him. "Ryan, mommy loves you very much, and you shouldn't talk to me like that. You mustn't get chips and Coke because those are for everyone, and you stole it from them. That was bad. Do you understand?"
"Are you going to do that again?"
"Ryan, you can't get Coke and chips."
"Then why do you take them?"
"Wannum. I wannum! I wannum now!" His voice was taking on the shrill tone that told me we were going to have a full blown tantrum. Again.
I tried to pick him up, but he arched himself back and kicked me in the thigh with all his strength. I gasped and backed up in both pain and shock.
My beautiful son, whom I would gladly die for, had kicked me.
As I stood there hurting, he wriggled easily out of my grasp and bounded over to the crate of chip bags and grabbed two. He turned to me with the most evil grin I had ever seen and began smashing the bags to get them to pop open.
I lurched after him, and he laughed hysterically as he dove around the storage containers happily mashing chip bags as he ran.
The incredible miracle of my baby had become evil incarnate.
Worse, I had no idea of how to help him. I was born an adult, I had never had a tantrum. Until I moved to this strange and wonderful planet, I didn't even know such behavior could exist. I felt the hot sting of shame and tears flood my face.
"So is this a Soul thing, or do you really not know what you are doing?" whispered a voice near me. I turned my burning face to see Lucina standing beside me holding her fourth baby. I cringed with the realization that she would know what to do.
I looked into her round, heavily lidded eyes and saw nothing but curiosity, and quite possibly concern. The concern was new.
Very quietly, I admitted defeat. "I really don't know what to do."
She stood up, and simply said, "I knew it. We were wondering if you didn't know what to do or if you were just too hormonal to stop his behavior. Melody said it was hormones because you were too strong to let that behavior go on, but I figured it was because you just didn't know what to do."
She backed up and motioned for someone behind me to come over. "Rico, go grab him and put him here on this stool. Maggie, Sharon you two get over yourselves and come here. She needs our help." The last sentence swam in smugness.
Rico grabbed Ryan and heaved him up onto the stool, where he immediately began to scream and kick.
"Is she finally gonna do something about him?" Maggie was asking as she approached.
"Yep, I told Mel that we needed to help, but she kept telling me to, 'Let Wanda work it out on her own.' Turns out, Wanda really is a lost Soul." Two people moaned and Sharon broke out in a laugh.
I turned to see a crescent of people facing me. In the middle was Doc carrying he and Sharon's last child, Emily. He smiled at me and simply said, "You can do this, Wanda."
I felt the hot tears again and shook my head in misery. "I can't. I've tried, he just won't listen to reason."
Rico burst into a guffaw and suddenly cut it short when Lucinda's elbow caught him in the ribs.
"You don't reason with toddlers, Wanda," said Maggie, "you endure them."
I looked at her curiously, and then dropped my gaze. I was acutely aware that every eye in the place was on me, like some type of freak show: See the Soul fail at being a mother. Motherhood was the one thing that mattered most to me. Being Ian's wife was paramount, but that came so naturally. This was the hardest battle I had ever waged in my life. Harder than fighting Mel. A thousand times harder than fighting the Claw Beast.
A sob shook me, and suddenly Lucinda was saying, "You all get back now. There isn't anything to see here." Everyone but Doc and Jeb left. I swallowed and looked at my screaming, writhing, rage-filled child.
"OK, Wanda, what do you want him to grow up and be?" asked Maggie.
What an odd question.
"Well, yes, that is always the goal, but besides that."
"Strong, brave and kind. Like Ian." I had to yell to be heard over Ryan's increasingly shrill screams. His tantrum didn't seem to bother the others so much as me. Incredulously, the men were all smiling.
"Good. You want him to be a good man, then?" Maggie asked. I nodded. "Not a little screaming boy?" I shook my head, wondering where this was going.
"Human children, especially boys, want to stay the way they are, and you have to help them grow. The catch is, they won't like you while you're doing it," she continued with a laugh. "Anyway, you need to teach Ryan how to go from being a baby to a little boy, and we will show you how."
"I can't believe I'm so bad at being a mother. It just came so naturally for Sunny," I complained morosely.
Sunny and Kyle were, to everyone's surprise, the first to to "breach the dam," as Doc had put it. Once that dam had been breached, we had experienced a flood. There were nineteen babies born in four years in our group alone.
I was suddenly very glad that neither Sunny nor Mel were anywhere near here. They were both still working in the garden caves, which is where I would have been had I been able to successfully bend over. Or see the ground.
"Oh, she wasn't any better, sweetie," laughed Rico. "She just asked for help right away. We thought you must know what you were doing. After all, you are the Wanderer."
That fact only made this all the more horrid. I was an icon among most of these humans, and I couldn't even raise one of their own.
"OK, now, go behind Rico and grab Ryan like he is. Then do what I tell you," ordered Lucinda.
I obeyed, but Ryan only screamed louder and tried even harder to get off the stool.
"Whatever you do, don't let him off," Lucinda warned. That wasn't easy given my small frame and huge belly.
"Are all three year-olds this loud?" I yelled over Ryan's screams.
"Most are," answered Doc. "Usually, the behavior is stopped at home, though."
I cringed in guilt.
"It gets even worse when they get older," laughed Rico again. He must have thought the whole thing was hilarious. "You should see the knock-down-drag-out fights Isaiah and Lucinda have. You won't believe how awful Ryan will act." He laughed again.
Suddenly, my breath was coming far to quickly. My arms felt numb, and I couldn't think. Worse? This would get worse? How did the human race survive?
"Now you've done it," scolded Lucinda. She handed her baby over to his father, and said, "You take your son and go away. Look, she's panicking. Poor thing, you've scared her to death."
Rico took his son and sheepishly turned away saying something about the strange things that break people.
"Now, Ryan," Lucinda began, addressing my toddler in a very stern voice, "stop this! You are being very naughty, and you will not hurt your mommy or steal food again. That is a very bad thing to do. You will stay on this stool for three minutes because you were naughty. Got it?"
"He screamed the whole time, Lucinda," I yelled.
"He heard me. Now, just keep him there. Don't let him down no matter what." She pointed to her watch. "Three minutes, little man."
Ryan heaved in my arms and tried to get down yelling, "No!" the whole time. I held on to him with every once of my rapidly ebbing strength.
"That's it Wanda," encouraged Sharon. "You have it now. Just don't let him win this one."
"How will this help?" I protested between gasps.
"You are making him obey. He needs to know that there are ways to behave and consequences for not behaving. He needs to know you are in charge."
Ryan heaved forward and we both nearly fell.
"This is in charge?"
Doc came forward. "Maybe a corner would be better. She doesn't look very balanced."
Jeb swooped in, grabbed Ryan, and hauled him over to one of the many alcoves carved in the dark walls. "You stay here. This is time out," he ordered. Ryan looked at him, confused and hiccuping from his tantrum. Then he looked at me and shouted "No! You bad!" and tried to force his way out again. I used my girth to keep him in the small space.
"Are you sure this is normal?" I asked, putting words to my deepest fear. What if the beautiful child, the mirror of my beloved Ian, was somehow broken. What if I had done it to him?
Jeb let out a hearty laugh. How could they think this was funny?
"Oh, Wanda, this is nothin'. You should have seen me as a child. I was famous in our neighborhood, and infamous in our church." He laughed again at some memory.
"Dear God, you were awful," agreed Maggie, with a hearty giggle and a nod.
"How did your mother make you behave?" I asked in wonder. Worse? He was worse?
"Well, you see, there was this willow tree --" Jeb began, but Maggie cut him off with a gasp and a, "Oh, yes!"
"I still can't look at one of them trees without feeling the heat," laughed Rico, who had come back up to watch. He began to rub his back side with his free arm and was also laughing at some memory.
"My mother nearly stripped that tree bare with all the switches she needed for me," Jeb announced with pride.
"What are you talking about?" I demanded. This wasn't going the way I wanted. My son was stuck in a hole, screaming and kicking, I was holding him there, and they were enjoying themselves.
"Ryan, stop. You have two minutes left and then you can come out," I instructed with as stern a voice as I could manage. Then I turned to the chuckling adults, "How exactly did a willow tree help your mothers teach you?"
"Not the whole tree," corrected Rico, "just the branches. The thick but still whip- like ones."
"Oh, I hated the thick ones," nodded Maggie.
"Our mothers used an older method of child rearing that has, well, gone out of fashion," Jeb explained as he jutted his chin out a bit. "They beat us into submission using whatever was at hand: wooded spoon, leather belt, and, most commonly, a willow whip."
"I dunno, I think the leather belt was worse," added Rico as he rubbed his rump even faster.
I froze. They were talking about being physically hurt by their mothers, and it was a good memory. I couldn't comprehend the ferocity of this species. Soul mothers died for the young they would never see. Mothering was our act of sainthood, the salvation of the species. These creatures harmed their offspring.
The rising horror at what they were saying was matched by another horror that was even worse. A part of my human mind was actually thinking that the willow tree sounded like a good idea.
I swallowed hard trying not to panic at what they were saying and what I was feeling.
"She's hyperventilating again." Doc's cool and somewhat amused voice seemed to come from far off.
Someone patted me on the back, "Wanda don't listen to them. That was a long time ago. You just need to help Ryan obey, and this method will work eventually." Sharon was touching me. She was trying to comfort me. The shock of that fact brought me back to reality. "Look what you did, Jeb! She's a Soul, for Pete's sake, they couldn't even stand Gilligan's Island, and you are telling her how to beat her child."
She came around to look at me and noticed my shocked face. I think my mouth was hanging open. She smiled slyly.
"I'm not ready to be your friend," she laughed, "but you are much easier to be around when you're not perfect." The smile got wider.
I tried to ignore all the strange discussion around me as focus on my son. He was sitting, cross legged now, and pounding the ground with his little fists. He was black with dirt and his face was striped with tear marks and snot.
"Ninety seconds," said Lucinda.
"I'll let you out in ninety seconds, Ryan, but you must not go back over to the potato chips or cokes again. Do you understand?"
Ryan's crying again became more shrill.
"This isn't going to work," I moaned.
"Well, not the first time," agreed Sharon.
"Wait, do you mean it really won't work? Then why am I doing this?" My voice was as shrill as my son's.
"It will work, but it will take a few times. You've never made him obey, he will want to test this new set up."
"Don't worry, we'll be right here for you," soothed Lucinda. "No matter how many days it takes."
"She's hyperventilating again."
"Time," announced Lucinda. She came beside me and addressed Ryan. "Ryan, you heard your mom. We will let you out, but you cannot go to the food."
She stood and pulled me up beside her. I was stiff, and swooned a little.
I watched my son in fear and trepidation. The rest of the cave watched him in curiosity and amusement.
He stood, growled, and ran over to the food.
Jeb beat him there, scooped him up, and over my son's furious wails, brought him back to the hole.
"Three more minutes," he said as he tossed Ryan back in. Then Jeb stood and smiled at me as he backed up. "You're doing great, Wanda."
I just looked at him blankly. I was sweating profusely, tired, achy, frustrated beyond bearing, and he was smiling. A familiar and shameful heat began to burn in my belly. Anger. I had, of all things, a bit of a temper in these human bodies. It was my most heavily guarded secret, and until now only Ian knew. No I was sure Jeb had it figured out as well.
Anger was not a Soul characteristic. I swallowed and tried not to show my growing irritation. Then, I slowly moved back into position over my crying son.
Ryan was crying now, really sobbing. My heart broke for my little boy. His ragged sobs and pitiful cries of, "Mommy, I wants you," brought fresh tears to my face.
"Don't do it Wanda," warned Lucinda. "It's a trap."
"My son is trying to trap me?" I asked sarcastically.
"He's trying to make you give in," said Doc. "My kids do it all the time. Trust us, it's a trap."
I couldn't do it, though. I couldn't ignore his pleas. I reached in and pulled him to me, waiting for his little arms to wrap around my neck, but Ryan pushed me aside and ran to the food bins again.
Rico caught him around the waist and hefted him over to me.
I was angry now. Not hot. Not frustrated. Plain old angry. Suddenly, I didn't care who knew.
"No, Ryan. That was very bad. You do not push or hurt mommy. You do not disobey. Three more minutes!" My voice finally held the right tone. Anger had given my voice the strength that love could not.
"Well, I never would have believed it," chuckled Maggie. I glared at her, but she only laughed harder.
"Ooo, she does have a temper," chimed in Lucinda. "I never thought I woulda seen it." She was smiling, too.
Today's humiliation would not end.
Ryan was looking at me with wide, shocked eyes. He began to cry again, but I knew now not to believe him. I had never realized how early the human ability to lie starts.
"No more, Ryan," I said, sternly again. "You will stay here no matter what. I will put you back here every time you try to hurt or steal. Got it?"
"He's gonna be a good fighter, just like his daddy," nodded Jeb in approval.
"His father is a brilliant fighter, but he is also kind and loving. Ryan isn't any of those things," I countered.
"He will be! Wanda, you're a good mother," said Doc, "but you just were expecting a Soul child and not a human one, and you weren't prepared for what you got. Trust me, Ian and especially Kyle were horrid children. They've bragged plenty of times about the grief they caused their own mother."
"They were as bad as this?"
"Worse, and there were two of them."
I shuddered at the unbelievable thought of Ian and Kyle as toddlers. Then I shuddered again as I remembered the child I carried in my belly.
"Did you say they bragged about it?" I asked. Ryan whimpered beneath me, but I ignored him.
"I told you, men and boys don't like to grow up," answered Maggie, "and they love bragging about how bad were as children. The worst they were as kids, the bigger the bragging rights. Jeb could fill a book on all the stuff he pulled."
Jeb puffed up his chest and said proudly, "I reckon I out did 'em all."
"You're proud of this?"
"Sure, and so is Ian, Jared, and even old Doc there, though I bet he didn't do too much."
"Not so fast, old man," laughed Doc. "I gave my parents plenty of gray hairs."
"You really are proud of your misbehavior, aren't you," I gasped.
"Sure." Jeb just shrugged it off. "Bad behavior is a sign of either serious mental issues or strong personality traits that will serve a man well. For us here, well, it was the good stuff in us that got us into trouble as tykes."
"Our misbehavior makes us proud because shows the stuff we are made of. It's kind of like showing off a really good scar," added Rico, who had returned to the circle. I gave a loud huff. I never did understand that ritual. Every time a new man was introduced to our group, sooner or later, the men would begin removing clothing to compare scars and battle wounds. It was a strange but powerful bonding right of manhood.
"Time," said Lucinda. "I think this time he will obey."
I looked at Ryan. He was truly crying now, his face and hands muddy with the various fluids on his face. I tried not to think how much of that mixture was not tears. I bent down and pulled his limp body up to mine. I could barely hold him like this. He just hung there like a wet shirt, not holding onto me and not doing anything but breathing in ragged gasps.
"Ryan, baby, mommy loves you too much to let you act like that again," I whispered into his ear. It was true, and I was strong enough not to let my weakness allow his misbehavior.
The crowd in the dining area broke into quiet applause as Ryan put his grubby arms around my neck and pulled himself closer. I felt a wave of pride flow over me, followed by a wave of exhaustion.
"Make him put the two bags away, Wanda," Lucinda ordered quietly.
I cringed. I didn't know if he would, but I was in charge. I had to be. I walked over to the two smashed bags of chips and said, "Ryan, you need to clean up your mess. Go put the chips back."
He looked at me with swollen eyes and thought for a minute. I held my breath and held my ground. Finally, he dropped down and slowly picked up the chips, put them in the bin, and came back to me. I picked him up, barely able to hold him from the physical and emotional exertion of today.
"Hey buddy," said Jeb as he rubbed Ryan's back, "you did really good. Why don't you come with me and get cleaned up? Then we'll go find someone to play ball with, OK?"
Ryan perked up a bit and smiled. "M'Kay," he said and then kissed me and then ran off with Jeb to the shower cave.
I collapsed on the stool. I was still sweating and shaking from head to toe.
"Here honey, you need this," said Sharon as she handed me come packaged cookies and a soda. I grabbed them and wolfed them down. "The mothers like to meet in the infirmary after dinner, just to unwind and get some girl time in. If you need to, feel free to join us."
"Tell me this gets easier with the next one," I begged.
Doc barked out a loud laugh that ended in an, "Oof" as Sharon's foot came down on his.
"Sure Wanda," he said through a wince. "It gets much better with practice."
"I'm going to bed," I said tonelessly. In four weeks I would start all of this again, and it was going to be just as hard. I felt totally numb.
"Don't worry, Wanda," yelled Lucinda from behind me, "we'll be here tomorrow and every day until Ryan learns to obey."
I whirled on them. "Until he learns? What do you mean 'until he learns?' Is he going to do this again?"
"Oh, yeah," laughed Rico. "Again and again and again. But he will learn. Eventually."
I shakily turned and headed for my bed, hating the word "again."
I woke to the most beautiful sounds I knew, Ian's laughing voice and Ryan's infectious giggle. For a minute I was totally disoriented, unsure of where I was or why I was there. I had a distinct feeling that I really didn't want to know what had happened to make me so exhausted, so I focused on the wonderful voices that were just outside the door.
Suddenly, Ian walked in, carrying a happy and clean Ryan. My world was complete, and I was at peace. I could face anything with Ian by my side and my son in our arms.
Ian was holding a lantern in one hand and balancing Ryan and a plate in the other. I let myself become lost in their love for just a moment.
"Hey there, lovely lady," said Ian as he placed the lantern and plate on a table by the bed. He bent over, still holding Ryan, and kissed me gently on the lips. He tasted of salt and spaghetti.
"Long day?" I asked as I pushed myself into a sitting position.
"Not as long as yours, sleepyhead," he laughed. "You slept past dinner."
"Argh," I moaned. "I'm so sorry, Ian. I really didn't have a good excuse, I just got worn out with Ryan today." I could feel the blush on my cheeks rise as I remembered the full extent of why I was so tired.
"That's what Jeb and Doc said," he smiled at me. "They said you worked hard to get the little guy in line. Good for you!"
I felt my heart warm with the praise. I had worked hard, and, with a lot of help, I had won. Sort of. For now.
I grimaced as I thought of just how much the others had helped me. "I didn't do it alone, you know. I had a crowd of supporters. Even Sharon and Maggie came over to help. Can you believe it?"
"No. Not really. He must have been really bad," Ian laughed again and tussled Ryan's hair. Ian looked rather proud. Maggie had been right about the boys in the men. "But you won, right?"
"Yes. At least, until tomorrow." My face fell as I wondered what Ryan would pull tomorrow. It truly irked me that Ryan behaved so well for Ian but disobeyed me constantly. I took a deep breath, and reminded myself that I was in charge, and I would not let Ryan do that again.
Ian was smiling at something.
He laughed. "It's just that he is so much like me. The little man has his own mind and a very strong will. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you got him to behave, because he was becoming a little demon, but you have to be impressed with how strong willed he is."
Ian's smile dropped the second he looked at my face.
"He kicked me," I said coldly.
"And I bit my mother," Ian shrugged. "He's not going to be a nice little boy, Wanda, the O'Sheas don't make nice boys. We make fighters and ruffians; survivors."
"Well, he can be a ruffian for you, but he will be nice to me." My tone, the same stern one I finally found in the cave, brought Ian up short.
I looked over at my wonderful son, and froze mid thought. There, in his little hands, was an open bottle of Coke, and an empty bag of chips. I felt my breath coming much too fast, and my skin began to crawl with a cold sweat. I tore my eyes away from the offensive items to sit up and glare at Ian.
"Why does Ryan have a Coke and chips?" I asked in a voice pitched much too high.
Ian looked at me strangely and backed up a bit. Then he just shrugged and said simply, "He likes them, and it makes him happy."
I looked hard at Ian while he began to look worriedly at me.
Part of my mind was telling me that it wasn't Ian's fault, that I was being hormonal. Part of my mind wanted to grab the bottle and bag, and throw them across the room.
"Wanda, honey, are you OK?" Ian's voice was full of concern.
"Yes, or, um, no. I need to go find Sharon."
"What? Sharon? Seriously?" He was truly looking worried now.
"Yes," I said rapidly, to hide my shallow breathing. "The fight I had with Ryan was over those two things." I pointed quickly at them, unable to look at Ryan's smug smile for long. "I just need to go talk to some other moms." It's not Ian's fault, it's not Ian's fault.
I struggled to get off the sofa, and Ian gently helped me up. He put his hands on my shoulders and shook me just a bit. "Wanda, why don't you lay back down and I'll go get Doc. I think you are tired, and pregnant, and have had a hard day. You are really overreacting about this. It isn't a big deal that Ryan had some pop and chips. You need to relax. It isn't a big deal."
I turned around out of his grasp and grabbed the plate and lurched for the makeshift door. It's not Ian's fault. It's not Ian's fault.
"I'll see Doc in the infirmary when I talk to Sharon and the others, OK?" I turned to look at him. He was, as always, beautiful to me, but I couldn't stay here. My gaze dropped to Ryan as he dumped the last of the greasy chips onto the bed and began licking them off. "Love you, be back soon," I called as I shut the door behind me.
It's not Ian's fault. It's not Ian's fault. It's not Ian's fault.
Motherhood had changed me completely from the time I found out that I was carrying a precious baby. Every cell in my body and mind had been altered to love my child when he was born. Motherhood had made me love deeper, fight harder, sacrifice more, and give more of myself than anything else in my long lives. I had found my true Calling in my husband and son, and I would at any other time have traded the galaxy for them.
But not now. Now motherhood made me want to take those two precious beings, and shove them off a cliff.