The Cube - Chapter 6 - Continued

After a few weeks they achieved nearly adjacent strips in the rounder and could, by resting on a slight upslope, sleep together again, much to Ivy’s relief. It was now time to find a normal house. They were able to navigate the Notches without need of weight suits, walking about on a ten degree slope which could be tiring but manageable. The slop-lady, the father’s wife, was a central repository of useful knowledge and directed the couple to a listing of available housing on the bulletin board. Cottage, cottage, apartment, flat, barn loft, converted shed, deluxe tent, sty keeper, and so on they read. But when their eyes came across the words “hut for rent” they knew they had found their home. Mutt had to cash in his entire canteen credit and Ivy had to increase the wholesale price of her cravats but they managed in short order to scrape together a deposit.

They found the ancient hut perched several feet atop a mound having survived the last deepening of the Notches eighty years ago. While they were hoping to fall in love with its rustic charm it was a tad dilapidated, its thatch having significantly thinned and its mud-moss walls discolored from a rusty cistern leaking on the roof and the relentless assaults of edge storms. But the price was right and they had found their home, the Hutman dwelling of their dreams. It was here, they decided, they would have their child. Ivy threw herself full force into the role of homemaker. This was her Hutman, she was his Hutwoman, and this was their hut. The one-room interior with loft was sparsely furnished. She set about the garbage heaps and secondhand lots of the Notches looking for decorations and furnishings on the cheap. The Notches had little manufacturing and most household items were oriented to Arland or Skava, requiring brackets and nails and cords and creative positioning for use on the angled plane. She hit upon a lake theme for the interior, having in mind the huts on the floating islands of Lake Looda outside Leri Deri. Mutt was not consulted on this decision but was expected to help implement it. She found driftwood with the gravity of both great nations and had Mutt construct various shelves and ensconcements for it. She strung powder blue prayer flags across the ceiling interspersed with white netting to simulate sky and clouds and potted dwarf lotus trees in the corners to mimic the forests on the shores of the great lake. She found a captain’s wheel which Mutt mounted along the railing of the loft next to the ladder and placed a couple of bottled boats on counters positioned to hide cracked glass.

One day she showed up with a collection of chipmunk portraits from a garbage heap behind the canteen that Mutt absolutely detested. They had so many real rodents, he pleaded, they could not possibly need fake ones. But she was only beginning for next came the painting phase. She splurged and traded an entire hamper full of knitting for a box of paints and brushes and tape. She removed the portraits from the frames, reprimed them, and painted a collection of boats on Lake Looda, inventing a variety of sloops and schooners that had never actually existed but appeared authentic, along with fanciful depictions of the infamous Looda steamboats, pleasure ships as dissolute as the Stoika that fell into decline after a series of calamitous boiler explosions. Painting was another of the many skills, along with juggling and performance kazoo, Ivy picked up on long boring days in the den on Lane Navachi. One particularly appalling chipmunk portrait, with cheeks so puffy it may have eaten an inflatopod, she primed over to sketch a charcoal portrait of the outlines of a cube with two visible facets side by side and a more tilted third facet on top. She forced Mutt to sit for hours, torture for him, while she rubbed a faded image of his face gazing lovingly into the distance on one side. Mutt did not know what she was up to until she came home with a mirror, their first, and began drawing her visage on the opposing side, smiling vulnerably to the world with glossy lips and a nubility drop dangling from her ear. When she was done Mutt saw himself doting on her while she sought the viewer’s adoration. It seemed to him vain but evocative. To Ivy it was a portrayal of her beckoning of him by the sign for the Notches which, as far as she was concerned, had proven fabulously successful.

She recovered two tubestalk and flax dressing walls shredded by a ferret and used them, after a day of reupholstering by Mutt, to divide the lower space into a bedroom and living area. She then positioned a sofa and lounge chairs on the den side of the dividers to suggest a floating island and painted lakeside murals on the walls with various creatures, real and imaginary, gulping at the water’s edge to create the effect of floating on the lake. While this enormous project was in progress Mutt ordered thatch from Arland and Skava to replace the leaking roof, running up a new tab at the canteen, and added a new layer of moss-mud to clean up and reinforce the exterior. True moss was lacking in the Notches so he was forced to use spider vine drapings from the older trape trees in the split garden. His final task was to clean out the sewer pipe leading from a hole in the floor behind a curtain, their vacation spot as they called it, so they could dispense with the bucket and use the Notches pipe system which dumped raw sewage fifty feet above the surface of Skava where hopefully it fell heavenward. Arland had long ago banned such dumping over its surface and, as with many international zero-sum disputes, Skava was forced to accept what its neighbor rejected. When they were done the hut was transformed much to Ivy’s liking. She wanted her stamp on their new home and she got it. She even cross-stitched a “Hut Sweet Hut” embroidery which Mutt found tacky but did not have the heart to tell her. He was ambivalent about the overabundance of lake imagery – occasionally he felt seasick and would step outside to appreciate the wonders of dirt – but agreed it was a dramatic improvement.

Ivy was beginning to show by the time the hut met her standards. This life growing inside of her was a source of constant wonder to Mutt. He so loved that he had impregnated this beautiful woman, so fully claimed her as his own, and occasionally even thought about the child that would soon enter their lives. They were back in debt from the rush of home improvement and Mutt decided he needed a more reliable source of income than playing mandolin for mead money. He walked into the publishing authority which turned out to be a one-man operation like Dox’s shop, a conduit for official notices from Arland and Skava with occasional items of local interest and commentary, and announced that he had arrived. The manager, a pleasant fellow named Volp, asked if he should have been expecting him, and Mutt wrangled a new position of chief runner for himself. Granted it was unpaid but he now had a foot in the door. All he did was meander about the Notches posting new notices and removing old ones from the various bulletin boards. But since he already compulsively walked around the Notches like a wild horse on the rail of a corral, having an excuse for his ambulations made good sense. He finally had a reason to ride the tram which was the one item he could expense. So every day he walked to the bulletin board on the south end of the Notches then took the tram to the north end and worked his way back to the authority on the main green, hitting all the boards along the way. Occasionally he would scream to get Ivy’s attention as the tram wobbled by a few dozen feet from the hut, slung low enough that in the dips he could kick the hat off a tall man. Ivy thought this was cute the first time but asked him to quit after the fourth time. Ivy found an abandoned butcher block on the side of the goat pens and insisted Mutt lug it to the hut on his back. He sanded it down thinking it would be a table when Ivy announced it was to be her birthing board. Right here, on this board, in this hut, with her husband by her side, she was going to have a baby. This was too much for Mutt as there was a gap in his imagination between pregnancy and holding a newborn which he had yet to fill in.

Ivy still had the task of preparing a nursery. The child would sleep on their side of the dividers, which made sense to Mutt but for the first time alerted him to the looming reduction in marital relations. True Hutmen did not care about the presence of small children, he rationalized, but figured if he could not handle the occasional cat that wandered in he would have trouble with a baby. Ivy found a standing curtain that she placed between their mattress – they had recently upgraded from haysacks – and the baby spot. She then set Mutt to constructing a chickadee nest as she called it, a concave crib mounted on squat legs just high enough to keep out the less adventurous rodents but not so high the child could not survive a spill. She painted images of woven twigs on the exterior and lined the interior with pastel green swaddling. Green was everywhere in the baby spot, in bunting and cushions and toys, a source of consternation to Mutt who could not understand how she was ruling out the possibility of a boy. Mother’s intuition, Ivy said. Eventually she promised a radical revamp in the unlikely event they brought a little boy into the world. She began swelling up like the chipmunk she had charcoaled over, her belly tight and distended and bustling with this restless new life. Mutt would press his ear against her stomach to listen for gurgling and pulsing, signs of construction in the baby factory, and he would rest his hand tenderly catching the frequent kicks. As her day approached Ivy became more sedentary, reading various books she borrowed from the canteen’s shelves, and took great delight in directing Mutt on errands. As far as he could tell, she spent most of the time he was away running errands concocting new errands for him to run. But it made him feel useful and he liked the authority with which she was establishing their new home. He would stop outside the hut at the bottom of the mound and look upward imagining the scene that awaited within. As with having a pregnant wife, it made him feel like a grown-up to have a house, situated in a more mature and stable life. The cross-stitching was beginning to grow on him.

***

One fine day Ivy’s water broke.

“Get the sloplady!” she cried in panic.

Mutt ran from the hut to the canteen, stopping impulsively to read a notice on a bulletin board about invasive poppies before realizing now was not the time. The sloplady was not in the canteen and Mutt had to track her down in the church belfry over the chapel where she and the father made house, growing hard of hearing over the years. By the time they got back to the hut Ivy had positioned herself on the birthing board on the old haysack with contractions three minutes apart. She was not at all happy with the hour it took Mutt to return and demanded to smell his breath for mead. He was offended by the request because she knew he only drank when playing mandolin or when someone else was buying. The sloplady immediately set him to work wrapping ice cubes from the cooling chamber in rags to keep him out of her hair. She draped a birthing robe over the expectant mother and felt her cervix for dilation, an intrusion Ivy had not been anticipating. She would soon dispense with all niceties, birth being the most immodest act conceivable. Mutt meandered about the hut performing odd chores to keep himself busy, nailing into a wall a green-matted painting of a beachball Ivy had deliberately left unattached in case they had a boy. It made no sense to fix things in place now when they would have the answer in short order but he desperately needed to keep his hands occupied. Ivy was annoyed by the loud raps and barked at him to put the stupid hammer down and come join her. He dutifully obliged and resigned himself to attending his wife’s side at this precious moment despite his visceral fear.

Mutt would now bear witness to the goriest of nature’s miracles. This was not how it was done in Shivaree, where husbands retired to their parents’ home anxiously awaiting news of the blessed event. He was here for the labor, tethered to her hand, providing the comfort that was more important to her than his discomfort was to him. His job was simple, nonetheless utilizing the full extent of his capacities, to hold her hand and keep his eyes on hers, to let her know she was not alone in this ordeal and would never be alone in the aftermath, that what he had wrought he would care for, that they were an inseparable whole, this couple and the life they were delivering. Fortunately for him the actual work was performed by the sloplady who cared little for sentiment, so focused she was on the biological imperative, the coaching, the timing of contractions, the necessity of seeing it through, of reuniting a healthy mother and child as soon as their bodies parted. Mutt could not comprehend the suffering of a woman in childbirth. It had been analogized to him as an adolescent as the passing of a berel gourd through his pee hole, an image he found uproarious at that age but now painfully descriptive. That tiny slot, the source of so much animal joy in his marriage, was not meant to accommodate something the size of her belly. Perhaps it would emerge in parts that could then be reassembled, a leg here, an arm there, scattered digits about the birthing board. He smiled at the absurdity of this thought which Ivy mistook as a smile of compassion to aid her through labor. Eventually the sloplady muttered something about crowning, a term he had never heard before yet immediately understood, and she began a series of rhythmic exhortations to push so commanding in tone that Mutt himself thought he might give birth. Ivy was delirious from pain, the bark she was chewing offering no relief, the body’s natural doping system content to let her suffer. She vaguely appreciated the momentousness of the event and took comfort looking into her husband’s eyes and silently cursing him for doing this to her.

She felt inside the most painful contractions she could ever have imagined. Her body was now convulsing involuntarily to expel this baby, a process her motor control could only minimally assist. The seizures were intense, the respites between contractions marred by the memory of agony and expectation of more, the only relief being a barely perceptible thought of the joy that awaited her. She squeezed Mutt’s hand so tightly she heard knuckles crack. For a second she wanted to laugh so pained was the expression on his face, so hard he had to control himself not to withdraw his hand from her clench. But that was the last light moment as birth had arrived. Surely her body was not meant to handle an expulsion of this size, but nor was it meant to carry it in the first place, and birth was the only solution. In a fog of excruciating pain she felt the same walls Mutt had so tenderly parted in their first coupling pried open so widely her hips dislocated. Surely the torture chambers of Muglair had nothing on this anguish. The sloplady took hold of the baby’s head screaming at Ivy to push one final push and with all her might she did so, feeling an incredible vacating of matter from her birth canal, the delivery of a child. She lay there with eyes rolled back in her head, her legs suddenly lifting her pudenda upwards as though a tether had been snapped, before collapsing back onto the table in total exhaustion. Mutt was content to look upon her face because he absolutely could not bear to witness the scene taking place below. The sloplady, a woman who no doubt would recoil at the horrors of war, was immersed in a scene of incredible injury, pulling and yanking and snipping and discarding and cleaning and wiping all with one hand, but amidst this bustle Mutt heard the cry of a baby. He and Ivy both directed their eyes at the lady and saw her holding a not very pretty squirmy creature busily announcing to the world as its first act the indignity of what just happened. The sloplady presented her forward to Ivy and rested the child upon her mother’s chest. It was a girl, just as Ivy had known. Mutt had suffered many traumas at the hands of his wife but this surpassed all. And Ivy had just suffered biological hell as the price of coupling with Mutt and building her new life. But they both knew their lives would be changed forever, and for the better, and took joy in the oddly deformed head and wet hair of this creature that had just emerged from Ivy’s womb to make them parents. Mutt looked at the child and looked at Ivy and said the baby was beautiful just like her mother. Ivy took offense at this comparison, her daughter not having one of her better days, before realizing she herself was not having a good day. She was spent, defeated, and victorious, she now had a child to complement her husband, and all was right with the world. She fell asleep with her daughter still on her bare skin, Mutt attentive by their side to prevent the baby from tumbling off, covering them with a blanket Ivy had knitted for the occasion.

Mutt stared upon this wondrous scene and pondered the mysteries of biology. That such a painful bloody spectacle was required to produce a child seemed to him a design flaw. But the love of the product was equal to the effort of her creation, and he gazed in wonder at this tiny being he and Ivy had produced, lifting up the blanket repeatedly to glimpse her perfection. She was helpless and exquisite, as spent as her mother, with ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes, and a potential to grow into a toddler, a schoolgirl, a teenager, a young woman, a wife, and a mother of her own children, all under their loving protection, the foundation of their new family. He could not believe they were now parents, and that the singleminded focus with which they had looked forward to this day must give way to the intense demands of caring for a newborn, with not a moment to rest in between. Were it not for Ivy’s resolve, he might have felt ambivalent about this new and enduring commitment. But he accepted that he had chosen this path and took pleasure in the scenery. Ivy awoke and gazed in amazement upon their daughter. As much as her pregnancy had validated Mutt’s manliness, this baby validated her womanliness. Her fertility had been invoked by an act of love and she could now pour out her heart into the nurture of this creature, their beautiful child. She was perfect in all respects, a testament to the miracle of Ivy’s union with the father, the love she stumbled into when all hope was lost.

“Her name is Hope,” Ivy said softly.

“Shouldn’t I have a say in this decision?” Mutt asked.

“Her name must be Hope,” she said earnestly, stressing the “must.” “It is meant to be.”

It was a beautiful name, and Mutt was content. Ivy had done the hard work of carrying this child to term. He was there mainly for the fun parts. Her name would be Hope.

***

The arrival of a child completely reoriented their lives, more so than moving to the Notches in the first place. If the physical conversion of their bodies’ gravity had tied them to a strange new land, the physical presence of a new baby tied them to a life of nurture they had not fully anticipated. Ivy resolved to meet the challenges of motherhood with all her vigor, having concluded from her first coupling with Mutt that conceiving and raising a child with him would be an act of defying fate, a triumph of human love over the evil in the Oopsah. Mutt had no inkling of her deeper motivations and considered himself lucky simply to have a devoted wife. In his exhausted moments he resented the baby as an endless source of stimulus-response to which his prior freedom was subordinated. He could understand having a child as a byproduct of sexual abandon, that seemed to be nature’s plan, but he was not yet sold on the wisdom of intending one. On his brighter days he remembered the happiness of his childhood home and the joy of Hope’s birth and swore to create a loving atmosphere for his new family.

The Notches was not designed for child-rearing, as the sloplady frequently reminded Ivy, and as young parents they had to improvise. Mutt built a mobile of sidewood blocks, some veering forty-five degrees toward Arland and others toward Skava, and suspended it over the nest, of little use for a newborn but hopefully a source of stimulation for later development. Ivy expressed into thaban jugs storing the milk in their cooling chamber, and used a dye dropper for feeding when she herself was too dry or sore. Mutt fashioned earplugs from rubber snipped off the wheels of a discarded scooter and built a parent’s nest in the loft from cushions and the old haysack, reasonably cleaned after the birth, where they retired when fatigue reached a peak, leaving care of Hope to the other. He liked to sneak peeks at breastfeeding, believing he could not openly observe without shame, and felt wonder that these angelic glands had a purpose other than his nibbling. She knew he was watching and invited him for a taste, a proposition he recoiled from before succumbing to the kinkiness of the idea and suckling the sweet watery milk. For Ivy, nursing her child was an erotic experience, a form of physical consummation as intimate as sex. She liked the feeling of her body being suckled, of the physical flow of her juices to her child, of her enormous importance in the world of this tiny creature. Ivy recovered quickly from childbirth, aided she felt by Mutt’s willingness to tend to the new family, to run errands for food and accessories and new reading from the canteen, to wash the endlessly soiled cloth with minimal grousing, to hold her tenderly in sleep even if she was still too torn to make love. Mutt found an outlet for his restless energy in parenting although he did not care for the discipline, the necessity that certain things be done at certain times. He would have much preferred a child that could be stashed on a shelf and retrieved as the mood hit.

Ivy stitched together a baby sling that she wore over a shoulder, her ever-present satchel on the other shoulder, for family strolls through the parks and gardens. A baby was a source of constant wonder in the Notches, a reminder to all of where they came from, the fragility of the earliest phases of life, in a place often lacking such reminders. She loved to pass Hope to strangers to hold and ogle, taking pride as she developed from shriveled conehead, to curious eyes absorbing the world, to head holder without supporting hand. Mutt had misgivings about the collection of lost souls who called the Notches home. The men who had witnessed their wedding in the chapel were hardly unusual, this strip of land being a last refuge for the banished. Unconventional displays of affection were commonplace, their novelty wearing off on Mutt once he realized banishees could hold a baby without eating it. Hermits and misfits lolled about the alleyways and occupied the mounds and towers from bygone eras, loners whose main company was the delusion of grand ideas. Men of cultish persuasion commonly accosted them on the ways and overpasses seeking to enlighten them as to sins to avoid, or the true path to salvation, or whatever eschatologies had seized their minds. The political refugees tested the tolerance of the great nations, preaching revolution or genocide or utopia or austerity at gatherings and busily printing underground tracts for distribution to the populous sides. Ivy found the variety of personalities far more fascinating than the intense analytics of Harmour. Mutt missed the warmth and conformity of Shivaree but adjusted with time. Ivy felt he would fit in fine in heaven or hell so affable was his personality.

She wanted a social life and found easy marks in the numerous young people lifting Hope sunward to bask in her cuteness. Mutt had misgivings attending their first gathering. Were not these women sodomites? Had not he seen them holding hands? Ivy told him she would go alone if he was too squeamish so he dutifully tagged along. To Mutt’s relief the hosts were both the partners of men, women commonly holding hands in friendship in the Notches, but the assorted guests came in all stripes. To Ivy this was the closest to heaven one could find on the planet. All of these people were driven here by personal tragedies, forced to flee for expressing their love or their ideas and seeking redemption in a community of fellow outcasts. She was so starved for affection as a child she swore never to question the love of others in whatever form it took. Mutt sensed in her a higher morality, a revulsion to the hatred driving so much of convention, but could not shake himself of the belief that some love was unnatural for lacking a procreative purpose. What he could not deny was that they became friends with a circle of coevals, and they were none of them conventional. In Shivaree it was a major faux pas to bring an infant to a gathering not expressly intended as a children’s party. In Harmour it was a faux pas to have a party at all. Ivy brought Hope to all the gatherings without shame, figuring if she could accept their love they could accept hers. And they did. The young family would arrive at a cottage and Ivy would pass Hope off to the first enamored partygoer and often not see her again until she needed a feeding. Watching Ivy in action, her ability to captivate others and make conversation, Mutt realized what a catch he had made. He would have felt threatened by her rising social stock were it not for the mandolin he frequently borrowed from the canteen, invariably being called upon to entertain and enmeshing himself in this new social web as deeply as Ivy.

One day the subject came up of hosting their own gathering. Ivy launched into a spirited description of the happy home they had constructed in the hut, the Lake Looda murals and chickadee nest, the captain’s wheel and new toaster oven, when she realized the room had fallen silent.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

No one spoke. It occurred to her that the hut had a history. The canteen had a checklist for prospective tenants which included the question what happened to the last tenant, but she did not learn of it until later.

“Is there something I should know?”

“Ivy,” her host said. “Our dear friend Oolan last lived in that hut. I am sorry to tell you that he took his life there.”

Ivy was distraught. Mutt was spooked. The host explained that Oolan had been banished from Arland for unnatural acts and that his lover repented and stayed behind in Rixjrig. Oolan was the liveliest of partygoers but no one realized until it was too late that he was compensating for his extraordinary loss. One day when he did not show for a gathering they went to the hut and found his lifeless body hung from a spindle of the loft railing. Ivy broke down in tears. Mutt did not think he could sleep again in their home with the specter of Oolan’s death haunting the air. When they returned to the hut Ivy sat silently on the sofa staring at the loft. At the next gathering she announced she would hold a conclave at the hut in honor of Oolan. She never knew this person but identified to a degree Mutt could never understand with his suffering, with his terrible loss at the hands of an uncaring world. The party was a somber event, no one feeling comfortable with levity at the site of such tragedy. Ivy announced that they would honor the memory of the deceased by building a shrine against the pole behind the loft ladder. She lit a peony candle and said a prayer for lost love to the assembly, then declared henceforth he would be a guiding spirit for Hope and a welcome presence in their home. Mutt was unnerved by her eulogy yet brought to tears. Whatever he thought of Oolan’s unnatural love he could not endorse a world that drove him to such a tragic act.

They learned from their friends a new name for their home, the old forester’s hut, its common description in the Notches. According to local lore a forester fleeing war in Skava, well beyond the memory of the living, built the hut for his family who were to join him. But they never arrived and he lived out his days in the hut wondering what happened to them, expiring in old age never knowing. Ivy despaired of heaven when she learned of such tragedies. She had seen such evil in Harmour, she had learned of the malignancy that drove the universe, that she no longer believed in a caring God. If there were a God, He did not care for people any more than people cared for insects. She wanted to believe that heaven would compensate for the evils of this earth, but the evil was so direct and profound it could only be caused by a hateful God, or the indifference of natural force in a godless world. Their friends for her were an antidote to this hatred, a collection of people who had suffered at its hands and were willing to embrace a mutual ceasefire. But for those who fell prey to the evils of the living, there was no remedy, no heaven, only the permanence of the wrongs they suffered and the memories of the survivors until, like the old forester, there was no one left to mourn them. Only in children could one find renewal in the face of ineluctable tragedy, and Ivy was thankful to God, the God she still wanted to believe in, that she had Hope. She could never explain to Mutt why she so desperately wanted a baby with him. It was love, love for this man who had sacrificed all for her well-being, desire for his body, hunger for the fulfillment of her natural role, but it was more. Hope for her was a reason to resist the evil that governed the world. Hope was hope, and that was the reason for her name.

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