Before Paphos

By Loretta Casteen

The baby cries and will not be soothed. It has been three days now. At first we were so hopeful with this one. She seemed perfect, not like the others. By now, I can tell this one will die too. Her deformity is internal.

My master comes to the door of the nursery. I feel him staring at me as I cuddle and rock his crying daughter. He must know this one will not survive either.

It starts again. The baby begins to cough and choke. Swiftly I turn her upside down, holding her by her ankles and firmly striking her back. Sometimes this works, but this time it is not helping. I can think of only one other thing. I turn the child upright again and reach into her mouth. I feel it there, behind her tiny tongue, the round roughness. The baby gags as I hook the object with my pinky. It clatters into the water basin at my feet. It is a stone, gray and mottled with black, no bigger than the tip of my finger.

I turn to meet the aggrieved gaze of my master, who still stands in the doorway. The child begins to cry again, a croaking mewl of pain. My master shakes his head and goes away. He is going back to his studio, to the security and surety of his chisel, mallet, and claw. There are those who say his workmanship has slackened these last years. If it has, I know why. He does not dare create perfection again.

The mother, my mistress, does not come often to the nursery. Of course she is still recovering from the birth, though it was an easy one. She is probably sitting in the loggia, as I have often seen her, silent and perfectly still. I have seen her sit so for hours, staring at nothing, so unmoving that birds can come and perch on her perfect shoulder or flit around her pecking and pulling at her fine garments.

My mistress is lovely. Her eyes are wide and nearly colorless, but their expression is dull and blank. She does not smile, nor frown, nor pout. Her skin is pure white, without blemish, and her figure perfectly formed. She moves with inordinate grace, but her footfalls are loud and heavy, strange in one so slender.

The baby begins to gasp and choke again, so I repeat the process of clearing her throat. She is growing weak. The time grows shorter and shorter between these episodes. She has not been able to suckle nor sleep this day. I wonder if there will be as many as yesterday. Then I counted twenty, a small pile of pebbles; some gray and mottled like the first one today, others black or brown and even brilliant white.

I think of the other two children born into this house, neither living beyond a day. One, a girl-child, born with limbs of granite, her tiny fingers and toes fused together, her elbows and knees stiff and unbendable. The midwife pronounced the baby unfit and called for it to be exposed. Without questioning or even looking at the child, my master agreed. A man from the village was paid to take it away. Where he left it and what happened to it, no one knows.

The other was a boy, whose face was hard and perfectly smooth, save for a small, sealed indent where his mouth should have been. He lived not more than a few moments.

My mistress never revealed the slightest emotion at either the births or deaths of her children. I cannot fault her for it. She is only what nature meant her to be.

Though I should not think it, I am less forgiving of my master. He should have known that we worship the gods to appease them, not curry favor. Mortals should hope only to be ignored by the great ones, for to garner the notice of a god or goddess often brings more sorrow than joy—much more.

So it has been with my master. The goddess heard his prayer and pitied him, but did not favor him when she gave him what he asked. For he is left with a wife, a woman of incredible physical perfection, as cold as the marble he chipped away and a child, born to die, coughing up stones.


Loretta Casteen is a recent graduate of Louisiana State University, Shreveport, where she earned a B.A. degree in English and History. She is looking forward to being referred to as a writer instead of "the old lady on the front row screwing up the curve."