February 25, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Immaculate Conception

By |2018-03-21T18:56:22+01:00July 21st, 2013|"Short Fiction"|
Have there been any significant changes in your life recently, Rebecca?

ebecca was more than a little bewildered. The doctor had just informed her that she was pregnant. “That’s impossible, I’m seventy-two years old. I haven’t had sex in years.”

The doctor raised a hand and made a whuffing noise through pursed lips, as if dismissing such trifles. “No one understands the body’s mysteries. You haven’t had a hysterectomy, have you?”

“Well… no… but, you know, menopause and all.”

Doctor Schiff was scribbling notes. “How long since your last period?”

“Years and years. I really can’t remember.”

He spread his hands suppliantly as if to say, You see!

Recently, in the paper, she had read about a woman who carried a mummified embryo in her womb for forty years without knowing it was there. Possibly hers was that sort of stone pregnancy. Although Doctor Schiff assured her that, from all indications, her baby was healthy, likely a boy. “Quite a kicker!” He placed her hand on her exposed belly, and she felt the sudden violent jolting — not in her fingers but her spine, as if her hand had reflected pulsing kinesthetic vibrations back through the abdomen. Staring at the taut white dune of her belly, she was overcome with disgust; her bellybutton had popped out and looked like a foolish little pig’s tail.

“I’m surprised you haven’t noticed the kicking,” he said.

“I thought it was gas. Why, it’s not natural, Doctor, at my age.”

“Altogether natural. Somewhat unusual. It will make for a good write up in The New England Journal of Medicine.” He winked and gave a sly, proprietary pat to her distended belly. “Have there been any significant changes in your life recently, Rebecca?”

“Changes? My daughter Peggy was diagnosed with cancer if that’s what you mean. And poor Freddy, my son, you know, lost his job with the state.”

“Recent deaths? Anyone particularly reluctant to leave, for example?”

She stared at him in alarm. “Why, no. Whatever are you getting at, Doctor?”

“There are some who believe… well, reincarnation —” he trailed off. “We can’t pretend to understand everything. Have you had any particularly vivid dreams of old lovers or passionate days at the beach, for example?”

“Nonsense! How am I expected to raise a child at my age? All the noise and getting up in the night, I couldn’t bear it.”

“Just think of the fine tax advantages it could provide.”

“And childbirth… my goodness!” She shivered at the prospect.

“Any change in diet or reading habits?”

“I really don’t see — “

“Seen any disturbing movies lately? Folks your age shouldn’t become agitated. Any juicy nightmares? Devils dressed in pantyhose or incubi disguising themselves as female impersonators to gain your confidence?”

Then it struck her. “I’ve taken the Lord into my heart! That’s it, of course. Knew it right along.” She couldn’t help but smile at the idea — grandiose and providential though it was (some would say “blasphemous”), altogether unlikely. Still….

“Don’t you think you are being just a tidbit ambitious, Rebecca? Immaculate conception, for Pete’s sake!” Doctor Schiff frowned, then grinned wickedly. “Haven’t we already done that act?”

“Well, I’m not suggesting… a temptation, don’t you see? The Lord is testing my faith. More likely it’s the other. Lucifer, don’t you see?”

“It’s a child, not a church. No need to rush into numen and miracles and evil precepts. Everything has a scientific explanation in the end, even if we don’t see it at first. Where are you going, Rebecca?”

She had gotten up from the examining table and had begun dressing, surprisingly nimble for a woman her age, at her stage of pregnancy, ignoring his insistence that they discuss a prenatal care program. Men always insisted on controlling things, even when it came to other people’s lives and bodies. It was their way, she supposed.

She drove straight to her church on Kenny Road, walked into Reverend Jacob’s office, past Sister Gloria, who stood up from her desk, alarmed, scattering church bulletins on the floor, crying, “You can’t go in there, the pastor is in a confidential meeting.”

“Nonsense.” Rebecca interrupted Rev. Jacob counseling a group of church elders — graying, long-faced fellows who’d recently admitted en masse to cheating on their wives (whether as a group or individually wasn’t yet clear). Possibly they sought the Reverend’s counsel before delivering a group testimonial to the congregation. Rebecca had heard portions of their individual confessions at Wednesday night fellowships. All looked up at her now as she barged in unannounced, startled, walleyed, mouths wide open, like bass hooked and pulled dripping from the water. Rebecca bumped an accusatory finger around the room from one to the next.

“You’ve got me pregnant,” she cried. “You might just as well admit it!”

The men clapped hands to chests and grumbled denial, but their faces burned with shame.

“Pregnant?… You?… All of them?” Rev. Jacob stuttered.

“I’m an old woman, post-menopausal to boot. How could I possibly get pregnant unless it was the lot of them? No single pathetic man noodle could accomplish such a wonder. The doctor as much as said it is spiritually inspired.”

Spiritually inspired?” Reverend Taylor chuckled uneasily at the notion.

“I believe it may have been your sermon last week on the sheaves and the tares, Pastor. I hadn’t a sign of it before Monday. Look now!” She pulled her shift up over her swollen abdomen, bellybutton sprung out like a toadstool. The men exclaimed in collective outrage and averted their eyes.

“But I don’t see —” began Mr. Bierbauer, a florid man whose wife had stopped sleeping with him because she said that, nude, he looked like a plump red sausage about to burst. He’d confessed at fellowship that he sought comfort elsewhere out of desperation. The Reverend ran a finger down items in the concordance of a huge leather-bound Bible, no doubt looking for sheaf and tare references, muttering, “The Lord works in mysterious ways, we can’t understand everything.”

“That’s just what Doctor Schiff said about science. It has reached the point anymore you don’t know which is less sure of itself, science or religion. These days you can’t even trust old age.”

“It’s the schools,” Gloria Swanson said, coming in behind Rebecca. “They used to teach right from wrong. Now it’s all gay marriage and what not.”

The men growled approval and exchanged nods, taking comfort in a common enemy.

But Brother Taylor held up a hand. “Let’s not be leaping to conclusions. God’s mysteries are altogether mysterious.”

At that, Rebecca’s baby kicked violently, rolling side-to-side like a log in heavy surf and slamming against walls of her uterus. She formed an arc of linked fingers under her abdomen and hobbled across room toward the desk. None of the men stood to offer a chair. However, Sister Gloria gripped her elbow and guided her to a corner of the desk.

“Why does all the mystery always have to come at our expense?” Rebecca demanded, indicating Sister Gloria beside her, vaguely her baby. “That’s what I want to know.”

Sister Gloria nodded — either in agreement or to be polite. But the elders muttered protest. Brother Benson, a short, timid man with a dark mole dead center of his forehead like a Hindu caste mark, raised his hand like a schoolboy for permission to speak.

“What’s the trouble, John?” demanded Bierbauer.

“Perhaps the Lord impregnated Sister Rebecca as a sign and a lesson to transgressors,” Benson said in a piping, high-pitched voice. Others leaned forward over their knees to regard him, asking what lesson exactly. “Against fornication, adultery, and the rest. No one present remembers the deed. I don’t myself. But that don’t make the slightest difference in God’s eyes. We are guilty, every one of us, all the same. Scripture is clear on that. Yessir! Born guilty. Me, I haven’t filled my Viagra prescription in six months. No matter! If Sister Rebecca can get pregnant without making eggs, then I sure can get her pregnant without the means to fertilize ’em, by golly! Sister Rebecca is blessed with anonymous conception. Praise the Lord!”

“Praise the Lord,” other men chorused, strangely moved by his confession and eloquence — Brother Benson who generally was such a quiet man.

Even Rebecca was moved.

“Why, I believe he’s right,” she cried. “It’s intended as a lesson. That’s just what it is.”

“So you’re saying we done this to her?” asked Osborne Shelf. “I believe you are inspired, Brother Benson,” whispered Reverend Jacob. “I believe you have solved the mystery of the sheep and the hares… is it?”

At that moment, Rebecca’s baby kicked her remorselessly in the spine and caused her to leap to her feet from the desk; she realized what she was admitting and spit it out of her mouth. She saw that Brother Benson, for all his meekness, was proud of his part in the affair-like a passive-aggressive type in the grocery line who keeps bumping a cart into you and smiling when you give him the stink eye. “Not so fast,” she cried. “You might just as well say I’ve been gang raped.” She clasped hands over her belly.

“Oh no, dear! Well, possibly… in a spiritual way.” Sister Gloria simpered. “Godly fornication.”

“Praise the Lord!” Brother Benson hissed.

“I’m guilty! I confess.” Brother Bierbauer stood up and stared avariciously at Sister Rebecca’s swollen breasts and belly. She thought he did indeed look like a sausage, boiled to near bursting, lusting after a seventy-year-old woman’s body, for gracious sake. Osborne Shelf leapt up beside him thrusting an arm in the air, the grinning imbecile. The lot of them — white-haired, balding, Buddha-bellied — stood up, their rheumy, proprietary eyes making claim on her body. Their assertion of communal fatherhood sickened her, absurd as it was. Before the heat of their mutual gaze, her clothes melted off and trickled down into a multi-colored puddle on the floor, Jacob’s coat liquefied. She stood naked before them, slight as a pubescent girl, though alarmingly pregnant. Some of them turned aside in embarrassment. Osborne Shelf thrust a finger at her corkscrew bellybutton and snuffled. There was a principle operating here, she understood, something the lot of them tried to deny but couldn’t.

Reverend Jacob beamed, beatific. “We’re in agreement then? We admit joint fatherhood?”

Brother Benson and another man nodded, but others looked distractedly off and appeared to have lost conviction now that she stood naked before them. Though she knew they projected their secret fantasies on her body — neither old now nor young, neither fertile nor infertile — they dare not step into the light and declare themselves. They could not look her in the eye. But hunkered down in a fever of sweating and hard breathing, staring at their feet.

Until Brother Taylor leapt up from his chair and, looking straight at heaven, exclaimed in a lusty baritone, “Lord! I have sinned in thought and deed… Hallelujah! You’ve brought us witness of a miracle this day.”

Brother Benson raised a hand. “Hold on now. Shouldn’t we tell our wives before we go public on this deal?”

Reverend Jacob nodded. “Sister Rebecca, would you be so good as to speak first? Give it that woman’s touch! Spare us nothing, Sister, leave out no grubby details, for we have sinned – though none of us can recall it. I myself will speak on the fathers’ behalf,” he said solemnly, making the sign of the benediction. “Right, boys?”

“Ohhh no! No you don’t!” Rebecca shrugged off Sister Gloria who was trying to drape a jacket over her shoulders to hide her nakedness. “Not so fast. Look at me!” she shouted. “Why, Doctor Schiff wants my baby for The New England Journal of Medicine You want him as a second baby Jesus to wash away your sins. And you — ” turning on Sister Gloria with a hostility that alarmed her “— you want him for yourself. Shame on you.”

They all grumbled denial.

“Whoever he is, wherever he come from, it doesn’t matter,” she continued. “The good Lord put him in my care.” Fondly stroking her belly. “Mine alone! I’ll build a small hut for him in my womb and will raise him up peaceful. No church and no choice. No war and no hate. I will fasten an iPod on my belt so he can listen to baseball games and classic rock. He can have my body if he likes when I’m finished with it — used up as it may be, like a wrinkled up old tent.”

The others protested in alarm and disgust.

“Perhaps he won’t see any reason to leave. Oops!” She giggled at a solid thump against her belly that echoed through the room like a resonant thrum on a drum skin. “I think he likes the idea.”

They found her disgusting now, she saw, alarmed at her nakedness — such an old woman/so young. They thought her unnatural and were ashamed they had sinned with her. Some denied it. Sister Gloria showed her out, her face still pinched with fury at Rebecca’s accusation, snapping at her as she squeezed in behind the wheel of her tiny car, for the baby had grown over the past hours and had begun to crowd her organs: “Why, you shouldn’t be driving in your condition. You should have more sense. You need to start thinking about your child.”

Rebecca leapt away from the curb, dodging out into oncoming traffic amidst family mini-vans advertising the children’s elementary school exploits in bumper stickers on the rear windows, her hand firmed on the horn. Although it was only shortly after noon, someone had painted a huge swirling sunset on the western sky in mauve and orange.

But she did not see it, for she was headed east. From now on, she would only look toward the sunrise and never glance back over her shoulder. She had a child to raise, shelter, and protect. Whoever/whatever they were, The Powers That Be had despaired of the elders and scientists, the preachers and true believers, the politicians and statesmen, likely even the young, and had placed mankind’s future solely in her hands.

William Luvaas is the author of the novels The Seductions of Natalie Bach and Going Under, and two story collections, A Working Man’s Apocrypha and Ashes Rain Down: a story cycle. His work has appeared in The American Fiction Anthology, Antioch Review, Epiphany, Glimmer Train, Grain Mag., North American Review, Pretext, Short Story, The Sun, and The Village Voice. Luvaas is online fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts.

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