Follow Me Down
By Nicolette Barischoff
Illustration by Patricio Betteo
The night that Kora Gillespie, their Incubus Parvulus, was born, it was Bernadette who received the emergency house call to the walk-up in Washington Heights.
Ramona knew that she should never have come with her. They both knew it. But Ramona had been giddy with courage, full of imaginary clinical detachment, and Bernadette had been in too fierce a hurry to object when she tagged along behind.
There had been no discussion of what she would see when she got there.
At nineteen, a second-year student with hands that still shook, and eyes that still glistened when a mother began to crown, Ramona stood in the choking summer darkness and watched the Cambion emerge.
She would never forget how Ms. Gillespie screamed into the silence, screamed and screamed and screamed. Her screams were thin and high, without grunts, without pauses for breath, coming out wild and alien over Bernadette’s impossibly steady voice: “Calm, now. Breathe for me, now, child. You breathe…”
But there was no making her breathe. The woman’s back formed a perfect arch of terror and pain with every contraction, as she pulled away instead of pushed. And every time a contraction left her, she fell back to trying to wriggle out of the bed — as though she could leave behind the thing emerging from her body — making lakes of inky amniotic fluid on the floor as she collapsed, and was dragged back. “We fight the fear, dear, yes that’s what we do.”
As Ms. Gillespie crowned, Ramona clasped the woman’s hands to stop her tearing at her belly. With terror-clouded eyes, the woman begged them to take it from her, now, please, now. NOW. And then she went into an arch that folded her in half, screaming and beating her head against the headboard until she bled. She seemed unconscious when the baby finally spurted from her in a pool of black blood.
But when Bernadette brought it to her, wrapped in a clean pale cotton blanket, she came awake again. Like the middle of a nightmare, she shrieked a suffocated shriek toward the ceiling, arms flying up as though the baby’s father were there on top of her, suckers fast attached (and still, long years later, whenever Ramona had the nightmares, her brain seemed to insert the creature seamlessly, as though she could never quite believe it hadn’t been there, watching).
Ms. Gillespie sat upright, still screaming, and threw the blood-black sheet over the baby’s face. Before Bernadette could stop her, she leapt free of the bed and tore out of the window, her womb still raw and open. Whether she climbed or fell down the fire escape, Ramona never saw.
Bernadette moved quickly. She never seemed to encounter anything she did not expect. She took up the Cambion, tightened its swaddling, jiggled it a little to stop its soundless crying, and passed it to Ramona like a parcel. “Hold her steady,” she said, business-like, “the girls like steady hands.” Even back then, Bernadette only ever spoke to Ramona in essential facts. In requirements, as though that was all there was.
And then, with a sigh of annoyance, Bernadette gripped her Saint Raymond medal, crossed herself in a quick prayer, and hurried down the fire escape after her patient. And Ramona was left sick and shaking, holding what Ms. Gillespie had birthed.
Later, safely back within the towers of the Morningside Heights campus of the New York College of Theogony and Preternatural Obstetrics, the thing squirming hotly in her arms would feel no different from a baby.
It was a baby, as far as Ramona could tell, eyes shut tight against a new, bright, cold world. So cruelly ordinary a thing. It smelled like a baby. It made a baby’s faces and spit bubbles. It shivered like a baby; Ramona held it closer to her chest, and it rooted, just as if it had a right to find a nipple.
The girl was, she supposed, exactly as parasitic and insensible to others’ pain as most babies tended to be. Only, her screaming was easier to ignore, if you wanted to, for being soundless. Even after Ms. Gillespie was found a full day later, naked and babbling in a storm-drain, Ramona could not find anything particularly un-babylike about the one who drove her there.
But then, Ramona could never really bring herself to look at it straight on.
“Davie, you have to come fast if you want to see the selkie babies get born!” Kora called, and listened for the slap of the seal-boy’s hands and feet behind her.
Kora would have brought Davie along just to see him walk. Usually the little webbed feet carried him upright in delicate, almost sneaking steps. But whenever he tried to move quickly, he threw himself down on all fours and flop-crawled, beating the ground to death with his front flippers. His slaps and barks made the best kind of echoes off the College’s sharp, spire-y towers.
If he wouldn’t cry and tell everybody, Kora would have brought him down into the tunnels, just to see what kind of echoes he could make. But he was only four. It had taken her this long to convince him to cross the wall and the tiny grove of linden trees that separated the Seminary from all the good places. Now that they were through, he stopped his flopping every few feet to look doubtfully around.
He was going to make her miss Ramona’s whole class. And she couldn’t leave him because he couldn’t find his way back, and somebody would find out and be mad. Besides, she wanted Ramona to see that she’d brought him with her. “Come on, Davie, she’s going to be done soon. They’re all going to be born without you. We have to go faster than this!”
“I don’t want to go faster,” complained Davie, “I don’t want to run away from home.”
“You’re not running away from home,” Kora told him, “Theogony is part of your home.” She didn’t stop walking. It was the middle of May (the spires above them stabbed like fishbones into a clear blue sky), but it was too cold for her to stand still. It was usually too cold for her to stand still.
“But I live at the Seminary…”
“You live in Morningside Heights, don’t you?”
“Well,” she said, reasonably, looking around, “all these big buildings are in Morningside Heights. And all the Columbia buildings, too, and the Teacher’s College, and Barnard College… and Grant’s Tomb. You remember I said how big Grant’s Tomb is?”
Davie nodded, his pretty black eyes wide.
“So you see, you can’t really leave home, because it’s all your home.” She thought quickly, changing tones. “Anyway, I live everywhere. I just go around to all the places, and everyone knows me, and I do whatever I want.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Davie, but his eyes didn’t shrink, and he was following.
“I stay here at night all the time,” she said truthfully, though she didn’t mention where, or how. “I might as well live here, anyway, it’s where I’m going when I grow up. Everyone says. I’m not going to be adopted…”
“I’m just not, everyone says. I’m going to grow up and go to school at the College and learn to help Superum babies like Ramona. That’s how come I get to go around and look in all the windows… there’s the Swan Building. Hurry up, before someone sees us.”
The Swan Building’s sides were full of long pointed windows, which meant that it had nice, deep window-ledges. Kora had to climb quite a few of the trees along the walk (hauling Davie up after her, since he couldn’t climb at all) before she found the one that looked into Ramona’s classroom. But she found her, in one of the small rooms at the end, doing Something Interesting.
Ramona was always doing something interesting. Today she had her arms up to her elbows in a tub full of water, her slim, careful hands swirling and rolling the water against the sides without sloshing. Then, she took her arms from the tub, droplets of water still shining on her arm-hairs, to write something important on the board. The soft brown hair piled on top of her head wobbled a little, and she pressed her lips together, tight and careful and serious.
“What’s she doing?” asked Davie. Kora had let him have the ledge so he would see better.
“Demonstrating,” she guessed authoritatively. She could see almost everything from the right tree branch, anyhow. She leaned a little harder on the branch so Ramona would see her in the window when she looked up, and not just Davie.
“Where’s the babies like me?” asked Davie.
“In there,” Kora answered vaguely.
“Somewhere…” Ramona took a long time writing her important things on the board.
“I don’t believe you.”
Kora leaned hard as she could on the branch so it tapped the window. She did it again. Ramona didn’t look up.
“I don’t believe you,” Davie said again.
Kora leaned out as far as she could, face toward the glass, and rapped her knuckles on the window. Ramona turned from the board and went right back to her tub of water. She did not look up.
“I don’t see them,” asserted Davie with finality.
“Pay attention!” Kora told him sharply, “This is important for you to learn. Put your face up against the glass.”
Davie smooshed his face against the windowpane. It made him look funnier than she thought it would. “Put your tongue out a little,” she said, and Davie did.
“She’s not looking,” said Kora, scowling. “You have to rattle the window. Hit the window. Just a little bit.”
Davie brought his flippers down against the window, surprised by the deep, ringing complaint it made. Davie grinned.
Kora grinned, too, but then pressed her mouth into a careful, serious line, like a teacher’s. “Harder,” she said.
Ramona’s classroom window had bowed and broken with a long, unsudden, shuddering groan, a slow-motion fissure meandering up through the two-hundred-year-old leaded pane.
But she hadn’t thought it would until it did. That was the truth. Ramona wished she could say that without sounding so much like Kora herself, sullen and culpable.
But she and the Cambion girl both slouched under Dean Sophie’s raised eyebrows, her not-quite-frowns. And Bernadette… well, Bernadette’s sterner faces always made explanations feel flimsy and insufficient. And today, the beautifully dark face of the Haitian ex-nun seemed particularly uncompromising.
Across the room, someone had made the mistake of seating Kora in a chair that swiveled, and she now swung around and around as wildly as the pivot would allow. Her victim and partner-in-crime was kept from sobbing only by the absolute puzzle of trying to spear a straw into a juice-box with his flippers. So the Dean’s questions fell on Ramona.
“How long, do you think, were they out there unsupervised?” She asked the question dryly while rifling through her desk, as though it wasn’t an accusation.
Ramona pinched her lips together. “I have no way of knowing… she goes everywhere.”
A small smile hovered on Dean Sophie’s mouth. “Yes. We’re all aware of her little adventures in the underworld. We’ll discuss those in a moment.”
So there was to be a discussion, then. Ramona shifted in her seat. “I can’t really tell you what she does down there. I don’t know anything about it.”
“No. I don’t expect you would,” said the Dean, dismissively, “we’re not even entirely sure which entry-point she’s using.” The girl spun on, showing no signs she knew her secret was being talked about. At least, Ramona thought, with a look over at the poor seal-boy squirting juice down his front, Kora hadn’t dragged this one down into the steam-tunnels.
Dean Sophie continued, eyebrows high. “What I’m asking is, how long were they at the window? How much time had elapsed before you… ‘noticed’ Miss Gillespie outside your classroom, unsupervised, with a very young child?”
Unsupervised! Of course Kora had been unsupervised! She was a campus rat, a hurricane. When was she ever anything but unsupervised? As to the young child, well… she always seemed to find one to follow her into chaos when she wanted one.
Ramona searched to find a tone of voice that was adult and undefensive. “I was lecturing. I was in the middle of a lab.”
“Well, of course. But… you didn’t hear the pounding? People in surrounding classrooms seem to think it was going on for some time.”
“I had no reason to think they were capable of breaking the window.”
“Yes, so you’ve said. You didn’t feel it necessary to go out and see to them at all?”
Bernadette lifted patient eyebrows. Dean Sophie leaned over her desk expectantly. Did Ramona really need to explain? Did she really have to tell them that this was exactly the sort of thing the Cambion girl lived for, to create enough of a disturbance that someone somewhere would fly into an entertaining rage and drag her back to her schoolbooks?
“My students are behind on the selkie birthing material. We’ve only just started the MacRitchie treatise on preparing natal salt-baths…”
(At this, Kora whispered something in the seal-boy’s ear, and began to spin her chair so flamboyantly that its pivot screamed, until Bernadette clamped a firm hand on the back of it.)
“I am aware that you have obligations, Ramona. I’m not asking you to neglect them,” said the Dean, “but this is not the first class of yours our Miss Gillespie has disturbed, is it?”
“It certainly is not,” said Bernadette, before Ramona could answer. “The Seminary finds her lurking at least once a day.”
Ramona gave an unsurprised snort. The Union Theological Seminary next door took in as many of the ancient College’s orphans as it could. The place was full up with halflings, sweet little half-selkies, half-fauns, and half-swan maidens, but it was just too idealistically Christian an institution to effectively keep anything that didn’t really want to be kept.
The Dean ignored the snort. “It would seem she seeks out your classes with a certain amount of regularity. Any idea why that might be?”
“I don’t know!” Ramona threw up her hands before she could catch herself. “Who knows why she does anything she does, or breaks anything she breaks? She’s bored, and malicious, and nobody tells her not to.”
“‘Salus pro totus creatura prognatus,’” Dean Sophie apparently felt the need to remind her. “I think you understand, and I hope you’ll remember, that at Theogony we are not interested only in the welfare of those Superum children presently being born, or the human mothers presently giving birth to them.” She turned to Kora. “There’s a reason for every behavior. Isn’t there, Miss Gillespie? Miss Gillespie?”
Kora, who had been trying enthusiastically to tilt her chair now that she found it unspin-able, went suddenly still when the Dean addressed her.
Kora Gillespie’s face was exactly a seven-year-old girl’s face, and not a striking one; there were no horns pushing up through the pale hair. The pupils of the pale, browless, puddle-gray eyes were almost disappointingly round and human.
But it was always unsettling to Ramona how quickly Kora could pull back from manic bursts of fiercely determined activity, to sit in almost unblinking silence.
And then there was a kind of fluttering smirk that never really left her mouth when she was silent that made her face look not much like a seven-year-old’s at all.
“Can you tell me the reason you told Davie to bang on Ms. Ramona’s window?” the Dean asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t think you meant for him to break it, did you?”
“No… I don’t know.”
These were the same answers she’d given Ramona half an hour earlier, the smirk fluttering even as she stared sullenly at the floor. What more was the Dean hoping to get out of her?
“I think you do know a little bit. He wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t tell him to. What were you trying to do?”
Davie began to weep again, and was removed to the hall.
Kora’s gaze shifted around the room for a long moment, and then she suddenly decided to answer. “I wanted Ramona to show him how he was born,” she said.
Dean Sophie looked sideways at Ramona. “Is that all?”
“He’s too stupid to listen when I read it to him out of the book.”
Ramona blinked. So Kora had been pawing through textbooks already. Whose? Ramona wondered. “But Kora, you know I don’t birth babies in the classroom,” she said, “I’ve discussed that with you before. We allow women to give birth to babies in their houses.”
Kora went silent again.
“I think, Ramona,” said Dean Sophie, “that you were correct in your assessment that Miss Gillespie requires more stimulation than she has at present.”
Ramona tried to remember when she had made such an assessment. Some terrible punishment for the broken window was forthcoming.
The Dean came out from behind her desk to swing the axe. “How would it be, I wonder, if she were to sit in on some of your classes?”
Ramona’s mouth fell open.
“It would be the natural place for her. We’ve known for years that she would most likely enroll in the College when she grew older.”
“When she’s older,” said Ramona hoarsely. “I can’t imagine that she’d be anything but a distraction at this… age. I don’t think it would be fair to the students.”
“The students will need to experience what it’s like to be in close contact with Superum children someday. They can’t go into birthing a demi-god completely blind.”
“Kora Gillespie is not a demi-god.”
The Dean nodded, though not relentingly. “I know she’s a challenging presence, Ramona. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t think it would be beneficial to all concerned. Do you know how valuable a little time spent with you would be to her? You could completely re-direct her energies. You’ve been with us longer than any other student, Ramona. Is it any wonder she wants to learn from you?”
Now Ramona understood. As the resident hanger-on, she was to keep the Cambion out of the bowels of the campus, and out of the way of anyone who actually meant to do anything useful.
“What about my dissertation, my program design? How am I going to get my fieldwork done?” She looked at Bernadette. Surely her own advisor would remember that she was a grad student.
“Well, as to fieldwork,” said Dean Sophie, also directing herself to Bernadette, “I wouldn’t be surprised if this experience proved immensely valuable wherever you chose to set up your practice.”
Bernadette nodded. “You must not refuse any opportunity of learning, my dear. It is all fieldwork.”
“Good,” said the Dean, as though the thing were settled, which Ramona supposed it was. “I’m glad we’re in agreement. Let’s see what we can do about getting a child’s desk.”
The Dean addressed Kora, who was now grinning ear to ear. “Alright, Miss Gillespie, you may go out into the hall now, and wait to be taken back to class.”
Kora removed herself to a few feet outside the door without making a sound.
Dean Sophie lowered her voice. “Thank you, Ramona, I know that an instructor’s time is valuable.”
“Fortunately, I’m only a TA.”
“There is something else I’d like you to get to the bottom of, if you can,” said Dean Sophie in a now-that-you-mention-it tone. “The Seminary’s apparently having trouble with books. If it were only textbooks that were missing… but there seem to be pages torn from some fairly irreplaceable reference materials. From Burke Library and some other places. Nobody seems to know how she manages to keep doing it.”
The Dean went over to her desk and retrieved a list, a very long list, of titles and missing page numbers. First on the list were three random pages pulled from Malleus Maleficarum. “If you could just find out where she’s keeping them… I don’t think anybody wants anything but to have the pages restored as quickly as possible.”
“She could have just decided she wanted to make a bonfire of them,” said Ramona, “or that she wanted to see what old paper tastes like.”
“I think not,” said Dean Sophie. “Have a look at the list.”
“What makes you think she’ll tell me if I ask her?”
“Oh, she probably won’t. I wouldn’t ask her if I were you. But… she does seem to be looking for an excuse to talk to you. Use that.”
Out in the hall, Bernadette’s manner took on an extra briskness. “Where has the child gone?” Kora had apparently disappeared, leaving Davie Darby to suck forlornly at the dregs of his juice box.
“She’s probably just ducked around the corner.”
Bernadette took Davie’s flipper. “You go and get her before she thinks to take apart the fire alarm,” she said, leading the seal-boy away at a marching pace. Ramona hurried alongside her.
“I was wondering,” she said, trying out the Dean’s now-that-you-mention-it voice, “if you’ve had the chance to look at my new abstract?”
“What new abstract?”
“I left it in your box. The proposal regarding the increase of Leda/Europa births in Sant Ramon?”
“That sounds very interesting,” said Bernadette tonelessly. “I will certainly look at it.”
“There’s an incredible amount of work to be done over there,” Ramona continued. “Abduction pregnancies are always complicated, and when you’re dealing with animal forms… I just think that if somebody were to set up a practice there, it would do a lot of good.”
“No doubt,” said Bernadette, and sped up her gait. “I will certainly look at it. Hurry on, now. Miss Gillespie should return to her lessons, and you to yours.” Then, off Ramona’s look, she said, “Don’t worry about the child’s desk. I’ll find something and have it ready.”
It had been hard to look like she wasn’t listening while they talked about her this time.
Kora learned most things by acting like she wasn’t listening. People talked more, and about more interesting stuff when they forgot she was there. Whenever people decided they wanted to speak to her — in that slow, patient, stern, uninteresting way — that was when she usually stopped listening.
But this conversation had had too many important things floating around in it.
They’d found out about her pictures, and that was bad… but maybe she didn’t really need the pictures, now that she was going to be in Ramona’s classes. Maybe she should just go now, and throw them away, or slip them under one of the library doors. The pages didn’t really tell her anything. Not really.
Kora listened, squinted down across the quad. Dodgeball was over. The too-big kids, the eleven-and-over kids, were all playing at some game of chase: Annabelle, a very freckled girl with great big brown and white speckled wings, was circling and trying to kiss everybody. None of them was looking for Kora. At least, none of them had a ball to bounce on her head. They’d probably all forgotten about her for the day. She could do it, quick, and come back out again before the bells rang for dinner.
Kora shivered out of the tree she was in, and walked as inconspicuously as she could along the big clump of lindens, weaving in and out of them, searching for a good stick.
The game of chase was confused, full of false-sounding shrieks. Kora couldn’t tell if the boys were trying to duck Annabelle’s kisses, or catch them, or just pull handfuls of speckled feathers out of her wingtips. Kora knew which one she would want to do. She had always thought Annabelle’s wings were beautiful, even while Annabelle was calling her The Phantom, and screaming at her to stop staring, stop creeping!
The older kids’ games were like their dreams: confusing, anxious, stupid, fluttery, angry, hard to get out of once you’d fallen in. Annabelle only dreamed about getting fat and failing tests, and flying into jet engines, and boys laughing at her. That was one reason Kora liked the littler ones like Davie. Littler kids dreamed all sorts of dreams — mushroomy, monster-y, candy-coated, airplane princess dreams — and they didn’t seem to mind when she ended up in them.
But the too-big kids knew she wasn’t supposed to be there. They all stayed far, far away from her, unless they were playing dodgeball.
But now. But now! If they were really going to let her be a student in Ramona’s classes, she would finally be learning the stuff that real midwives and doulas learned. And Ramona would see her learning it all, see how clever and how careful Kora could be. She wouldn’t still be mad about the window. Nobody gets mad at you for things like windows when you have grownup work to do. You aren’t bad, if that stuff happens to you when you’re doing your grownup work. You’re just busy.
And if Kora read fast, and learned fast, and paid attention to every single thing… well, they would have to give her her certification soon, wouldn’t they? Once she knew everything? Once she had her certification, nobody could make her stay behind at the Seminary. She could go to Sant Ramon, too, and be Ramona’s assistant, rocking all the little half-bulls and half-swans to sleep. She would be such a good assistant, if it was just Ramona and her and no one else!
Kora found her stick, a long, thick, smooth one, still a little green so it wouldn’t break. She used it as a walking-stick, strolling along, smiling through chattering teeth. She was just wondering if Sant Ramon was a warm place to live, when someone thundered up behind her.
“What are you grinning at, Creeper?”
“Nothing…” Kora turned to face Aiden Averback, biggest of all the too-big kids. Almost fourteen. He was pretty and curly-headed, with bright black horns and bright yellow eyes, but he’d never be adopted, and that just made him angry at everything. Just now, though, he seemed especially to want to be angry.
“Don’t give me ‘nothing’! Fucking night-crawler!” He threw the dodgeball at her head, but she batted it away with her stick, “You think you can just go creepy-crawling around wherever you want?”
Kora remembered, now, he’d had a dream, last night or the night before. It had been a stupid, nothing dream, him doing stuff to a girl with no clothes on; Kora wasn’t even sure how she’d ended up in the middle of it. But his eyes were like yellow sparks when he saw her standing there, watching. He’d wanted to hurt her then. He was going to try to hurt her now.
She turned away, into the trees, toward the wall. He caught her in a quick, hard grip. “You do, don’t you? You think can go spying on whoever, and nobody’s gonna stop you.”
“No…” she said, wriggling loose, “and I don’t have to talk to you.” Because you don’t matter, because I’m going to Sant Ramon to be Ramona’s assistant.
“Don’t move, maggot.”
She got ready to make a run for the wall, but Aiden’s grip found her throat and squeezed. “You’re gonna die, you know that?” His voice was close and dangerous. “You’re gonna die, and nobody’s going to care. Nobody. And you know why?”
“Why?” Kora choked out, before she swung the stick at Aiden’s head, hard enough to make him let go. He wrenched it away from her with an angry howl, but she was off and running through the trees.
Aiden was fast, thundering after her, swinging the stick all the way. Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack.
But she was faster, and she reached the wall before him. She wouldn’t lead Aiden Averback to her secret entrance. So she disappeared up another tree as he came crashing through. He looked around, too stupid and angry to look straight up. He snorted, threw down the stick, and went away.
She’d find something of his to burn, later.
Kora climbed down from the tree, shivering fiercely, dropping to her knees to find the top of the manhole. Right at the wall, under dirt and leaves, the cracked concrete slab was just as she’d left it. It was heavy, but so was she, and strong. She uncovered the manhole, wedged the stick in place, and slipped down into her own special, silent darkness.
The steam-tunnels were the only place where she was ever really warm.
She wouldn’t throw away her pictures just yet, she decided. She might need them after all. She’d move them to some deeper, darker spot until everyone forgot about them.
For now, she took out a pencil and wrote out as best she could, in the corner of one picture whose tentacles didn’t coil quite to the edge of the page, all the things she learned that day:
Kora Gillespie is not a demi-god.
She is malicious.
She is a night-crawler.
Kora put a star, so she’d remember to look up what malicious meant.
Then she sat down, and breathed in the thick, blanketing air, until she was sure the bells had already rung for dinner.
There was no trial period, no transition, not even a full day’s grace. By the next afternoon, the Cambion girl sat smack in the front row of Ramona’s Immaculate Conception and Gestation class, grinning like she’d won. And from that minute on, there was no avoiding her.
With the rapidity of a wasp, Kora found her way to the center of every single classroom’s attention and nested there.
She never did anything openly anarchic, but the atmosphere was the same as if she started a trash can fire at the beginning of every lecture. She sat with such scarily unblinking attention, and scribbled with such composer-like intensity, that she could dissolve a class into nervous, murmuring giggles without saying anything at all.
Once she grew bold enough to ask questions, all was lost.
Sometimes she semi-automaticked them, not even bothering to put her hand all the way down between rounds. “Ramona, is that a picture of a real faun fetus or half-faun, like Aiden Averback? Can I hold it? Can you make it bigger? Can I make it bigger? Ramona, do the horns hurt when they come out? No, not out of his head, out of the mama’s vagina? What if it’s a girl, and she has curly ones?”
The dull roar that built up behind these solid walls of questions could never be kept back until the class was over. And the class was instantly over once it started.
“Kora,” Ramona managed one day after a particularly unsuccessful lab. “I think it would be best if you reserved your questions for after class.”
“But I raise my hand.”
“Adult students with too many questions have to keep quiet during class time, and ask their questions later, during office hours.”
“Oh,” she said, eyes shining with the dangerous knowledge. “Okay.”
From that day forward, Kora Gillespie was as silent as she could be in the classroom. But in the halls and cloisters between classes, she was an unrelenting storm of chatter, as close on Ramona’s heels as an overexcited duckling. Office hours were now entirely taken up by the seven-year-old’s undauntedly one-sided conversation. Twice, the Cambion followed her straight back to graduate housing and up into her living room without even a pause.
But Ramona had already determined that she would make herself too busy to annoy, burrowing deep into the work of constructing her Sant Ramon program design. Even Kora could be ignored, if you typed feverishly enough.
It was a plan that worked wonderfully well, until the dreams started.
Kora Gillespie was seeping into her dreams. She wasn’t having dreams about Kora Gillespie. Kora Gillespie was walking around in her dreams.
She’d emerge from the very back of the closet in a kissing dream decades old. Or she’d be looking over Ramona’s shoulder while Ramona answered the essay portion of a dream-exam in gibberish. Or she’d be hovering above Ramona as Ramona fell backward into dream-blackness, a pale, thin, inscrutable, smirking face, just before she started awake in bed.
It was almost certainly some kind of inheritance from the thing that was her father, this casual strolling in and out of dreams. If it hadn’t been happening to her, Ramona might have called it interesting, and taken notes. But almost every night, she woke feeling that the ghost-white girl was standing just in her blind spot, or that she was just in the other room getting ready to make something burn.
Ramona never confronted her invader. She had a vague, belligerent idea that if she didn’t acknowledge the game, the fun of tromping all over her brain would more quickly dissipate. But she now was hyper-aware of the girl. Her every breath, and greasy fingerprint, and shuffling step, and stupid question.
“Why don’t I look like anything?” Kora asked inanely one day.
“Look like anything?”
“The other Superum kids all have tails and scales and horns and things like their dads.”
“You’re fortunate not to look like your father, Kora,” said Ramona irritably.
“But maybe if I did, it would be a nice surprise when I talked,” she said, though Ramona had stopped listening.
Ramona had the nightmare one night after a bottle of wine. It was the usual nightmare, certainly nothing more than usual. She was back in that darkened walk-up in Washington Heights, listening to Ms. Gillespie scream.
She stood by herself — no Bernadette in sight — staring down into the dark passage from which she knew the thing was coming. And Ms. Gillespie arched and screamed, raking her nails across her skin, begging with those now-familiar fear-clouded eyes. Stop It! Please stop It! Please take It from me!
We fight the fear, dear, that’s what we do. Ramona would always have Bernadette’s words in her head, but never in her mouth. I can’t! she’d say instead, her voice thin and high and horrible, It’s coming already, I can’t!
And then Ms. Gillespie would roll her eyes up to the ceiling, screaming blindly, almost unconscious. And so Ramona was left by herself to catch the baby when It came bursting out.
But all that came bursting out was black blood, pouring out and pouring out over everything; her hands and arms, the bedsheets, the floor, an amniotic flood that showed no signs of stopping. Had she lost It? Was there any real baby at all? Was it all just a trick of pain and terror and this poisoned blood?
No, she knew by now there had to be a real one somewhere, she’d had this dream so many times. She knelt to find it, sloshing in the blackness.
But she was not alone.
Sitting curled in a dry corner, Kora Gillespie was not staring at the black amniotic lake creeping toward her knees. She was staring at Ms. Gillespie, following Ms. Gillespie’s frozen wide eyes up to the ceiling. “Is it me?” she asked, her voice small and shuddering, barely there. “Is that one mine?”
Her puddle-gray eyes were locked on It, the creature whose presence Ramona had superimposed so long ago she’d almost forgotten It. The Inseminator, tentacles a tight cage around the body of Its victim, suckers affixed while It thrusted and thrusted its knife-like phallus, perhaps seeking to make an opening where it failed to find one. Finishing, It blinked several guiltless eyes.
The Cambion looked away, crumpling, shuddering. And Ramona remembered something that she often forgot: Kora Gillespie was a child.
Don’t pay any attention to that, she heard herself say. That part’s done, that part’s over. There’s only you left.
Baby Kora suddenly came alive in Ramona’s arms, this time not soundlessly. Ms. Gillespie wakened screaming, as in life, recoiling from the small thing that came out of her, and took her leap from the fire escape.
Kora stared a moment at the screaming, squirming blood-covered byproduct, paralyzed against the wall. Then she twisted away and fled, leaving the way of her birth-mother.
When Ramona woke, she needed no one to tell her that Kora Gillespie was missing.
Down, and down, there was always more down. No place to sleep. She’d keep walking until the rail tracks ended… Kora wished more than anything she could stop carrying the stupid pictures.
Nobody doubted she’d gone for the tunnels, but that was less helpful than it sounded. The New York College of Theogony and Preternatural Obstetrics was criss-crossed by countless crumbling tunnel systems, with dozens of entry points for a seven-year-old girl to wander into. All about 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ramona guessed a human child could live down there for a little over a day without water. But who knew with Cambions? Who knew anything?
The search parties were a confused swarm, re-visiting tunnels that had already been visited, getting lost and circling back on themselves, shouting her name as they tromped around above-ground, as though that would do any damn good. At night, they were worse than useless.
When Ramona wasn’t searching the tunnels, she fell into exhausted dreams about tunnels. Kora was in these, too, on an endless walk to nowhere, in some imaginary part of some tunnel left unsearched. Or more often, she was just crouched in the dark, waiting. Stop this! She’d scream. If you’re alive, get out of my dreams! Get out of the ground!
Kora was too far down to find her way back now… or else she was just lost and walking around and around in the same tunnels. She couldn’t see to tell. This was as good a place as anywhere to close her eyes. She was too dizzy not to close her eyes.
The truth of it hit Ramona while she slept slumped over her desk, on the third day. This isn’t my dream, is it? she said to the fevered child crouched in the dark, It’s yours. Where are you?
When she woke, she knew the answer.
Shivering, she went out in the late afternoon light, making her way across the campus, ducking and weaving in the tight spots between buildings. Kora’s way. When she reached the uneven border wall, she climbed it.
In the first flush of discovering the College’s true purpose, the fledgling Union Theological Seminary had had dreams of a shared meeting-house, where the philosophical and theological ramifications of such obviously miraculous births might be debated and discussed. The meeting-house had been gone nearly a hundred years, but the steam-tunnels that connected to it…
Ramona came down hard on her knees on the other side, surrounded by a mess of linden trees. She felt around in the mulch. There it was. The concrete slab. Someone had shut the manhole despite the stick in the way. Kora might have stayed down there for weeks. It took two janitors to lift the slab and carry it off, and by then Ramona’s head was screaming.
But she climbed down into Kora’s own private cave, and let the hot air stifle the screams. Okay, Kora. Where are you?
She walked and walked, not particularly looking ahead of her, or around her, just walking along the rail tracks in this sacred, narrow and desolate place. And when the rail tracks ended, she shut her eyes between every step. Where are you now? Where are you?
She was there. Kora saw her coming even through closed eyes. Aiden Averback had said no one would care when it happened. At least he lied about that.
A small crowd around the manhole erupted in cheers when Ramona brought the girl up, unconscious and glistening with sweat.
Kora Gillespie was severely dehydrated. She was feverish, weak from over two days without food. But she was also apparently a little invincible. Three days of Jell-O and rest found her sitting up in bed staring inscrutably out her window.
“It’s good to see you awake,” Ramona said. “How are you feeling?”
Kora turned, unsmiling. “I don’t know,” she said, though not sullenly.
“I’ve brought you something.” Ramona produced two fistfuls of yellowed, now sweat-wilted pages, spreading them out on the bed. There they were, every one of Kora’s hard-won treasures, staring up at her through masses of eyes and masses of tentacles. Pages of everything from Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, to an illustrated biography on the early life of the historical Merlin. “I thought you might want them back.”
Kora looked at the heap of illustrations but didn’t stir. “What I saw…” she said slowly, “was that really how it was?”
“I don’t know. What did you see?”
“The dream you had, of when I was born,” Kora said, unrelenting, “is that how it was?”
“That was a nightmare, Kora, you should know that.”
“But it’s how it was in your head.”
Ramona paused, searching for words that would mean something to Kora. “There’s a difference between how something makes you feel, and how it is. Incubi are known to cause people to feel fear, even if they’re not being hurt by them.”
Kora nodded, as though making a mental note, and turned again to look out the window. “And so they can be afraid, even if you don’t look like one?”
Oh. Ramona blinked her eyes clear. Oh. “Kora…”
“Do they like hurting people? They have to like it, don’t they? That’s how they live and make babies.”
“Kora,” Ramona waited a few moments to speak, but her voice was still hoarse. “Did you ever read what Malleus Maleficarum — that’s the book you took those two pictures out of — did you ever read what it had to say about incubi? Do you know where an incubus gets the sperm to fertilize a human mother’s egg?”
Kora shook her head.
“Well you know that a female of the species is called a succubus. An incubus must retrieve sperm from the pouch of a succubus. Many Parazoologists even theorize it’s one androgynous organism doing both jobs. Do you have any guess as to where the succubus gets the sperm she stores in her pouch?”
Kora turned to look straight at Ramona as the new thought struck her. “But that’s just a baby, isn’t it?”
“It’s a human baby, made from the same stuff as other human babies.”
The Cambion girl’s puddle-gray eyes blinked, and she managed to slap away the one sudden tear, though not the furrow it left on her cheek.
“Kora, very little is known about how incubi or succubi reproduce, how they make more of themselves. But that wasn’t what was happening when they made you. You’re something nobody quite understands. But there are plenty of humans that nobody will ever quite understand…”
Kora tried a smile.
“Let’s hang your pictures,” Ramona decided.
They did hang the pictures, all in a row, with clothespins, so Kora could take them down and look at them whenever she needed. When they were finished, Kora was too afraid to ask her about Sant Ramon.
Ramona would be here a little while, anyway. And then… Kora supposed she’d really have to be a grownup.
“You wanted to see me?” Ramona poked her head in the open door of Bernadette’s tiny closet office.
“Oh, yes. Come in.”
Ramona took two steps inside. “Have you had the chance to look over my program design for Sant Ramon?”
So this would be a short discussion, then. Unless she made it an argument. “I’d love to know what your thoughts are.”
“I suspect you know what my thoughts are, Ramona.”
“I don’t, actually! I never do, about anything! Please enlighten me!”
Bernadette sighed a decidedly frustrated sigh. “It is a very good proposal, as was your commune hospital for the Trauco’s victims in Chiloe, as was your day care center in Vatican City for the mothers of Nephilim children. I have no doubt you could do it. But it would be a shameful waste.”
Ramona opened her mouth to speak, then shut it.
“These people in these faraway places you propose to help… there are people for them. The books in the libraries already know them as victims and beautiful wonders. I would have hoped that someone such as you would be able to see victims where others do not.”
Ramona stepped back, and stood in the doorway.
“‘Salus pro totus creatura prognatus.’ Health, safety, salvation for all creatures born, is that not what we have learned to say in this place?” Bernadette handled her Saint Raymond medal; there was a plain silver cross there, too, that Ramona had never noticed. “The ones we hate and fear, Ramona, the ones we do not even want to try to understand, these are truly the least of our brothers. The Cambion must have someone to study her, someone who wants to help her understand herself.”
“Is this coming from the Dean?”
“If it must.”
“You can’t keep me here,” said Ramona. “I’m a certified, experienced midwife. I could go get a job at any maternity ward in New York handling their Superum babies for them. I don’t need your contacts for that.”
“I believe that you could,” said Bernadette, “but we are all three praying that you won’t.”
When Ramona reached her own office, she sighed into her chair, head in her hands.
After a moment, she stood up and rifled through the bookshelf for something Kora might like to read. Finding a nicely illustrated compendium of infernal creatures, she sat back down, smiling, and waited for her office hours to start.