Demented Mother’s Day Challenge Honorable Mention
Mateo stood next to his father, fists clenched in his pockets. “All I want is a pet – is that so much? Kids in town have dogs and cats.”
Alvaro raised tired eyes from his datapad. The flat expanse of yellowing soybeans stretched out before father and son, mute testament to the drone’s message.
“Mi hijo, we have talked about this,” he began patiently. “Dogs and cats, they haven’t been introduced to the farms, yet. The biome –”
“So you say,” his son snapped. “You just don’t have the money for one.”
Though it was the truth, Mateo was mature enough to regret his remark immediately.
Alvaro looked away, shaking his head. “You have plenty of friends in your barrio.” He gestured to the projectors set up in the sparse shade beside the farmhouse. “You can play with pets there.”
“In the mix, not in the real,” Mateo objected. “Just images of kids living the life I want, hundreds of kilometers away.”
The boy stared off the porch. Tierra’s huge crimson sun made its slow afternoon descent into the west, the only feature in a flawless, blue-green sky – a cloudless sky.
“We have problems, Mateo,” his father said, not for the first time. His strong, gnarled hands clenched the pad in his lap. “Look at this – look! If we don’t have rain soon, the wells will be drained, and the crops will die.”
“And then we can move to town,” Mateo said defiantly. “With friends in the real, and dogs, and cats –”
“Enough!” Alvaro snapped, rising from the rough-hewn chair so fast it tipped. He caught it, face coloring, and set it right. Mateo’s father didn’t like to lose control.
“Do your chores,” the man said slowly. “Your mother and I will be busy soon – and you need to be ready.”
Ready for the rain is what his father meant. But Mateo didn’t believe their prayers would be answered today, any more than they were last week, or the week before.
For he’d prayed, too.
The screen door swung open behind Mateo, and Araceli stepped through. Tall and slender, she had weathered like the barn and the fences, too many seasons at the mercy of the wind and blood red sun.
Her eyes met her husband’s. “It’s time.”
Araceli’s hair gleamed softly as she stepped into the light, smelling of cloves and lavender. The scent brought to mind the only funeral Mateo had ever attended in the real, an aunt he barely knew, her waxen figure redolent of the burial spices.
Mateo was indignant. “You washed!”
They had been forced to stop showering, and tacitly agreed not to comment on the grime and smell. The dust had infiltrated them as it had the house: every surface, every crack of skin and crevice touched by the topsoil slowly blowing away.
Alvaro ignored the remark. He smiled at his wife. “You’re beautiful.”
Mateo remembered old vids, of a laughing, seductive figure, moving with a cat-like grace. Mother had been an exotic beauty, flowing waves of pale hair and the most unusual eyes, sloe-slanted and the lightest blue-green, some playful experiment of Madre Tierra. Back then, Araceli was elegant and coy, the center of town life, courted by a promising young agriculturalist. Now she withered like the crop beyond the yard.
Araceli’s expression was dull. “Take me into the field.” The dry wind pressed her washed-thin dress around her narrow hips, and Mateo realized she was naked beneath it.
He turned away, loathing himself for the flush of excitement that rose in him like the return of a poisoned meal. His parents would go into the field, to try once again to keep their end of a bargain.
Alvaro saw his son’s expression and confronted him.
“This is the pact we have made. We have robust children, not stillborn or sickly or deformed. Madre sea bendecida!”
“Madre sea bendecida,” the mother and son murmured.
“And with Madre’s rain, we will save the crops. For She gathers us to her bosom and protects us from the storm” — the cyclones ripping Tierra’s oceans.
“Amen,” said Araceli.
Dark and broad-featured, with wiry black hair, Mateo looked nothing like his mother. He had asked his parents why, when he was small. It is Her pleasure, his father had said, to make each child a…surprise. Madre Tierra explored the genome, a million years of evolution at her disposal, recreating every human variation, some even more exotic than Araceli. But there would be no human tribes, no human castes, and no dynasties: Madre Tierra saw to that.
“She plays with us like we were Her toys!”
Alvaro laid the data pad on his chair, the dire projections forgotten.
“Mateo,” he said, “if it comes –”
His son turned away, rolling his eyes. Alvaro raised his voice.
“When it rains, you’ll need to be ready. Make sure the tarps and gutters are draining into the barrels.” He reached out and gripped his son’s shoulder, hard.
“Are you listening? Collect the water, every drop. Get the animals secured in case it’s a storm. We need to rely on you, now.”
Alvaro released the boy and took his wife’s hand.
Mateo didn’t believe their prayers would be answered today, any more than they were answered last week, or the week before that.
Because he could pray, too.
Madre Tierra appeared to him, in his dreams, though he shuddered to remember.
“This is our way,” his father said. “Madre willing, the sky will be broken, the rain will fall, the earth will be fruitful – as long as we are willing to be fruitful.”
Alvaro led Araceli away, across the yard and into the fields. Mother gave a backward glance at her home, her son. They headed towards the rise where they would give themselves to each other – and Madre Tierra.
“Fruitful!” Mateo called after them. “If we had a pair of dogs, we could breed them – sell the puppies. Why can’t She give us something useful? Instead of another mouth—”
They ignored him. His parents never listened.
The boy watched them until they topped the hillock and disappeared beyond. He didn’t need to see them to know what they would do, for he had crept along to spy on a past occasion, years ago. Their coupling had been fruitful enough, once, to produce Mateo; but since they had begun trying again, last year … nothing.
Mateo stepped off the porch, walking past the edge of the yard, and paused to consider the farm. The boy dropped to his knees amongst the yellowing, dust-coated plants.
“Madre.” He had found his own voice, praying to Madre Tierra. Every time they had gone into the field like this, he had prayed – for drought, for failure, for his father’s seed to fall on barren ground – and his prayers had been answered.
Mateo realized he could pray for more than failure; he could pray for anything he wanted. He closed his eyes.
She waited in his dreams, voluptuous; in his prayers, he begged Her to free him from the farm life, the brutal boredom of constant struggle, trying to eke a life out of the soil.
She came to mind immediately, lounging on a living couch of verdant green, clothed in a diaphanous gray as elusive as billowing clouds. Her auburn hair curled across Her shoulders, burning with the colors of Tierra’s sunsets.
“Madre…” He felt his excitement rising, and Her eyes opened, the merciless blue of the unbroken sky. She gazed up him, pleased with his youthful ardor, and the eyes grew to fill his mind. It was a relief, to no longer see the temptation of Her body, stirring up his thoughts and disrupting his prayer.
The ground was hard beneath his knees. His hands were clasped before him as he had been taught, as a small child, when praying to Jesu, and the Pater, and the Spirit … and Madre Tierra.
“Madre, give them the rain, please,” Mateo said aloud. “Give them what they need.”
He thought of his desire for animals, for a pair of dogs, male and female and was ashamed of his pettiness. His shame transported him to nights in which he imagined Madre not as Mother but as Lover, seducing him as She had the rest of humanity with Her promise of fertility.
“No, please…” Even now, as he tried to pray, She beckoned to him, with such images and murmured words that he sobbed in frustration.
The wind shifted, changing from cool to cold, pressing at his back. Mateo stumbled to his feet, shivering.
From the field, a woman’s cry: inarticulate, joy or pain.
The human sound was drowned out by the mechanical grinding of gears. The heads of the sun-flowers arrayed behind the house were turning out of the wind, folding their vast petals against the coming storm.
Far off the brilliant blue deepened as it met a band of darkness on the horizon, moving to circle the farm.
“The rain!” Mateo ran back into the yard. Dust was rising, swirling in little whirlwinds. The screen door was banging in a slow rhythm as the wind rose.
The chickens scuttered about in the fenced yard. Mateo shooed them into their coop, latched the henhouse, and then led the cow and goats into the small barn. He looked around to see his parents appear over the rise. They were running across the field, hand in hand, laughing as the rain chased them.
Ponderous drops made craters in the dusty ground as the shower arrived, a scattering, then more, and more.
“Querida!” Araceli raised her arms to her son in invitation. Her wind-whipped hair clung to her face, eyes gleaming as the sky grew darker.
His parents burst through the flapping gate. His mother rushed up to him, colliding in an embrace.
“Mama,” he exclaimed. Her thin body was hot and damp, her dress shedding bits of plant and dirt. He smelt the earth and rain in her hair, her sweat, an animal smell from her body.
“Madre bendice, santo nombre …” Araceli said it in a rush, pausing to catch her breath.
Her pale eyes were alight. “The Mother granted us a great gift.” She kissed her son’s cheeks.
Mateo nodded, watching the storm arrive over her shoulder.
Alvaro joined them, his strong arms encircling them both. Mateo was taken back to his childhood.
His father laughed, upturned face streaming with rain. “She told us our prayers will be answered – ours and yours.”
Mateo stiffened, staring at the worn hand his mother spread possessively over her belly.
The Madre knew all things, all living things, not just humans…
Mother smiled as she rarely did.
“I’m to bear a pair – niño y niña!”
J. L. Royce is a published author of science fiction, the macabre, and whatever else strikes him. He lives in the northern reaches of the American Midwest. His work appears in Allegory, Ghostlight, Little Demon, Love Letters to Poe, Mysterion, parABnormal, Sci Phi, Utopia, Wyldblood, etc. He is a member of HWA and GLAHW and was a Finalist in the Q3 2020 Writers of the Future competition. Some of his anthologized stories may be found at: amazon.com/author/jlroyce.