The Doula

Ilena watched the seconds tick down on her phone’s clock. The woman in front of her, forehead shiny with sweat, hands gripping the toilet seat, tensed and let out a moan.

“Don’t hold your breath,” Ilena said. “Breathe. Breathe.”

The woman, Molly, stripped off her shirt in frustration, desperate for comfort, her belly a large brown gumdrop hanging beneath her. The contraction ended and she sighed and sagged into Ilena’s arms. It had been hours but Ilena was strong. She put the cool washcloth from the sink with ice water and lavender oil on the back of Molly’s neck. Molly bent over the toilet, her sweaty head on her forearms and Ilena got behind her. She gripped Molly’s hips with her long arms and pressed her hands together, trying to relieve the woman’s back pain and help the stubborn baby move into position. Molly’s muscles rippled and spasmed. A warm gush and the musky smell of amniotic fluid flooded the tiny bathroom.

“Sorry!” Molly gasped.

“It’s all natural and it’s a good sign. How are you feeling?”

“I want to go to the hospital.”

Molly clutched Ilena’s hand while Molly’s husband hailed a cab. Ilena practically carried her body, sagging in exhaustion and disappointment.

“There’s nothing wrong with going to the hospital,” Ilena soothed. Her cooler pressed into her shins when she put it on the floor of the cab. She hoped the nurses wouldn’t give her any trouble. She too was disappointed they were going to the hospital.

In the cramped birthing room, full of so many people and machines, Ilena watched the doctor like a hawk when the placenta slid out. “We are saving the placenta for encapsulation,” she said again firmly. They often forgot such requests. The doctor looked at it closely. Ilena held her breath hoping there was no reason to send it to pathology. It was beautiful: richly dark, heavily veined, and glistening; the only organ made by an adult human. The nurse looked bemused. Molly’s husband looked horrified, like he was seeing something that should be on the floor of an abattoir. Ilena put it as carefully into the heavy-duty gallon Ziploc bag as the doctor was placing the pink baby into Molly’s arms.

“So big!” Ilena exclaimed proudly. Molly thought she meant the baby and gave a beatific smile.

Ilena took the subway home, picking an empty car so that no one would note her bloody clothes. Not that most people would. She sat, the rocking motion of the subway car putting her into an exhausted trance. An unpleasant smell underneath her own pungent odor made her look around. Her sneaker touched something. Under her seat was a disturbingly large pile of chicken wing bones. Disgusting. Worse than a cat leaving its kill.

Her apartment building was large and anonymous, around the corner from a Trinidadian market where women in head wraps sold fruit. Ilena paused at her mailbox for the usual thick, shiny sheaf of colorful advertisements, subscriptions to midwifery journals, New Age catalogues of paper lanterns, and chakra crystals. Only one was personal, an invitation from Marina to dinner at her new condo. She went back down the steps to put it all into the recycling bin. As the lid banged shut, she felt a prickle at the base of her neck. The wall behind the trash cans was dirty and covered in graffiti and children’s scratchings. A dirty handprint was so faded no one else would have noticed it. Ilena brushed a finger along it and dried reddish mud flaked away.

In her studio apartment, a black shadow darted across the floor and threaded itself between her legs. Nushka jumped onto the window sill, butting his black head into her hand. His tail flicked as they both looked out over the fire escape. Cars rushed through the street below like blood cells through veins.

To fill the quiet room with noise she turned on the old boxy TV. Cat People was playing on the classic movie station. She liked the old movies and besides, she couldn’t see color. The odious therapist with his unctuous mid-Atlantic accent was telling Simone Simon that she was crazy. Or was it an English accent? Language was still not easy, learned so long ago, it was hard for her to tell

“I love loneliness,” Simone Simon purred on-screen.


The next morning Ilena woke early. She opened the curtains and let the sunlight stream in through the leaves of her hanging pothos plant. She unrolled her yoga mat and went through a vinyasa though her body ached to stay in bed, stay in the dark. After a scalding hot shower, she opened a can of foul-smelling cat food for Nushka and put it on a plate.

Ilena settled down at her kitchen table to work. She opened her laptop and checked her calendar, looking anxiously at the dates. She put a finger to her pulse and noted the faintness of the color under the delicate skin of her wrist. Shaking herself into readiness Ilena pulled up her to-do lists. She read her emails and questions forwarded from her website.

At ten she took her first video interview with a Manhattan couple expecting their first child. The woman was very put together, her anxiety somewhat allayed by a pastel-patterned calendar with meticulously labeled dates, appointments, and reminders. The man with a fashionable haircut the shape of a shark fin spoke like he was being graded on creativity.

“We just want to do things right,” the woman said. Birth plans, co-sleeping, vaccines. So many decisions she wanted to agonize over. As if there was a right way. Mothers these days were so terrified. Many of her clients were without immediate family in New York which left new mothers alone and adrift. She knew a lot of them liked the idea that she was an immigrant, she said Romanian, as if it connected her to some ancient knowledge. Though Ilena preferred loose linen pants and turtlenecks to kerchiefs and dirndls and kept her hair in an unremarkable bob with bangs that covered a broad forehead, she would sometimes play her accent almost to the point of parody.

She began her soothing patter; it didn’t really matter what she said. Women can give birth in caves, she said. But why not prenatal yoga and acupuncture as well? Traditional knowledge with Brooklyn sensibilities, that’s what most of them wanted and it made the birthing world an idealistic if messy stew. DNA from so many cultures, it had to be, to make up for a remarkable amnesia. Ilena marveled at the ignorance. But she also loved that about America. Everyone was still inventing themselves back to their very bones. Of course, when you made it up as you went along, sometimes nothing held you up but fear.

After the interview, Ilena put an apron over her clothes and pulled out a carton of latex gloves. She turned the radio on to Fresh Air, a low background hum to her work. She got out utensils, herbs, powders, and a gray packet from the freezer, then ground everything in a large granite mortar and pestle and delicately funneled the contents into gelatin-free capsules bought in bulk.

Ilena looked at the bloody thing in its Ziploc bag at the back of her fridge. She closed the door and then put the finished pills into an organic cotton bag hand stamped with om symbols. She put them in her bag and dressed to leave the apartment. It would take her an hour to get to Manhattan at this time of day but she listened to the chapters of “The Purpose Driven Life” on her phone during the commute.

Her client told Ilena that she was feeling anxious and depressed.

“The pills should help. Residual hormones that will help you normalize and heal. Many women experience an increase in milk production after the first few days. I’ll check back in and see how you’re feeling.”

The tired woman looked at her with grateful eyes. Ilena handed her the bag and also gave her a recipe for almond milk latte with fennel seed to help with her milk production. She made the obligatory noises of admiration over the baby, a pink frog, skin wrinkling from dehydration.

“Don’t think too much,” Ilena said. She could say that to every mother. “Feed the baby, your breast or formula.” The most helpless creature in nature.


Ilena avoided her apartment for the rest of the day. She went to see a movie and then, after using the restroom, stayed behind for another film. She took a slow walk in the park and then browsed through the DVDs at the sidewalk markets. Finally home, Ilena changed into her pajamas and paced the tiny kitchen. She did some yoga positions, stretching her spine, pressing her palms together at the heart. She couldn’t get comfortable. If she took it out of the fridge now, she could put it in the sink, let it warm up while she walked to the corner store.

Ilena tried one more lotus pose. She lit another cone of incense in the ceramic turtle and made a bitter, appetite-reducing tea. Nothing helped. She had been trying to give herself three weeks. It had been two weeks and three days. But she couldn’t last.

She took it from the fridge, put it in the bathroom sink, and then closed the door so that Nushka couldn’t get into it while she was gone. Then Ilena changed into street clothes and went down the block in order to buy milk and more cans of food for Nushka even though the pantry was full. She bought a different kind of incense and also some Tiger Balm.

Once back in the house, Ilena felt her palms itching and her slow heartbeat rising. But she wanted to savor the moment. She took a hot shower that warmed the aching marrow in her long thigh bones. A very long one that let the steam in the bathroom atomize every delicious smell rising from the sink.

Ilena was naked, every delicate hair on her arms standing on end. Every hard tooth in her head present against the soft inside of her mouth. The bloody thing was so dark against the porcelain sink. She picked up its surprising weightiness and stepped back into the bathtub with it. She caressed its slipperiness between her fingers. She made her tongue flat and wide and she gave it one long, loving lick, getting a hint of the flavor that was about to overpower her. Then she opened her mouth wide. Pieces dropped to the bathtub as her sharp teeth tore at the tough tissue. It slid down her throat and the blood dripped down her neck. She sucked the umbilical cord into her mouth greedily and it disappeared between her lips like a giant noodle and mourned the end. She licked the blood spatter off her fingers like tomato sauce.

There were always little surprises. The vegetarian who she could tell had been eating meat. The health nut whose placenta betrayed a fast food habit in a sour twang like a guilty fart. The ones who were sneaking cigarettes. The ones who were drinking weird teas. She could always taste it in the meat.

Ilena hummed in the purest happiness: satiation. She could hear Nushka purring in sympathetic pleasure through the door and when Ilena came out she put the bloody dish on the floor for the cat to lick clean. The sensory experience lasted for hours. She could also taste their fears, their hopes, the excitement and the dread. These women, especially first-time mothers, were vibrating on a very high frequency. Every cell pumped into overdrive. Love in the meat.

She felt kinship with them then. Loved those strange weak things. Aliens to themselves, their own bodies. They were as cut off from the world and the minds of their own tribe, let alone the planet’s other creatures, as if each was an asteroid alone in black outer space. A pink brain screaming to itself in the void, a brain eating itself from worry. Living in a strange tsunami of drowning language that told so much but lied so much. It had taken Ilena so very long to understand half of what humans communicated.

Ilena was connected to her past in a way that no human would understand. Her blood contained voices of all her mothers before her. But she was alone now. It was getting harder to wait between births and not merely from hunger. If Ilena was honest with herself, something she strived to do, she knew that eating this flesh was the only time she could experience what it must be like to be human.

And she was addicted to it.


Later that day she took the subway to Sunset Park’s Chinatown. The streets were crowded but people naturally parted for her large bony frame. The smells collided like traffic in her nose. She looked things over carefully in a shop and bought a bright plastic fly swatter with flowers printed on it. She loved plastic things.

Ilena bought the same thing every month and the shopkeeper had it ready for her. It was a mix of herbs long used for reproductive health in China and they were given to her in a grocery sack. She took the old man’s word for it. It all smelled like stale kitchen spice blends to her.

Now she needed the iron supplement. She bought it in bulk at Whole Foods, her favorite place in the world. A theme park with its manufactured scents and colors. The whole concrete building vibrating with electricity for air conditioners, freezers, lights. She walked down each aisle, watching the people just as much as she inspected the jewel-like products. Drank in the craving of the girl staring at the cakes locked in clamshell packaging with her hands in her pockets. The woman frowning over the labels of two different children’s yogurts. The man surreptitiously slipping a bottle of testosterone-increasing supplements into his basket.

After all her years in America, she still marveled at places like this. The affluent shoppers had almost no real hunger but incredibly enormous appetites. That was something she understood very well. Her own appetite was growing but she put that thought out of her mind.

Reluctantly, she made it to her destination in the vitamin aisle. She could feel the electric tang, like walking through a magnetic field, of the concentrated iron. It was the closest thing she felt to sexual arousal anymore

Many of her moms were vegetarian. She had often wondered why all her vegetarian clients without fail opted for placentophagia, while others needed coaxing. A tiny ferocity, a loving cannibalism, a feast of flesh after the battle. Ilena still, perhaps unnecessarily, purchased vegetarian iron for their capsules.


Ilena put the supplies away when she got home and checked the messages from her website. “Let me guide you through the miracle of life in a caring, supportive, nonjudgmental environment. I take a holistic approach using plant-based medicine, vocalization, massage, and acupressure just to name a few techniques.” A rose bloomed in a continuous loop.

In an hour she had a face-to-face meeting with a new client. They met at a coffee shop near her apartment. The woman put her birth plan onto the small table and they went over it together. Ilena frowned when she came to a box that had been ticked no.

“You do not plan to keep the placenta?”

The woman laughed, a little nervously.

“It’s just a little too odd for me. My husband couldn’t believe that was a thing. I finally got him on board with the idea of a doula,” she said, apologetically. Ilena hid a grimace. She remembered now how argumentative the husband had been. It had convinced her that the woman really did need Ilena to advocate for her during the birth. In the old days, men stayed away.

“I understand. However, there is some very sound science behind the practice. The placenta has hormones that will help you recover more quickly. It has been shown to decrease the likelihood of postpartum depression. It can help with energy and mood. It is like nature’s vitamin made just for you and your baby.”

“I don’t know,” the woman shook her head. “It just seems too…icky.” She wrinkled her nose delicately and smiled politely in a way that, for this gentle woman, was a hard no.

“It’s no different than taking a multivitamin. The pills are no bigger. And in this case, since there is no FDA regulation of supplements, you really don’t know what you are getting. But your custom placenta pill is made by your own body. You’re as free range as it gets,” Ilena made her joke. “I also add a custom blend of herbs that help you recover after the birth.”

The woman had been nodding slowly but shook her head again.

“I don’t know. I’ve read that it could contain bacteria.”

“The placenta is steam cooked, it’s the cleanest, safest method possible while still retaining all the necessary nutrients.”

“I don’t think…” the woman was clearly becoming uncomfortable.

Ilena bit her lip. She had pushed too hard. But…the woman looked so good. She was plump, milk fat. She wasn’t from here; Ilena could tell immediately. Somewhere up north where there was lots of dairy, minimal pollution, and weak sunshine. Nebraska, Ilena thought the woman had said. Lots of blue veins ran under her white skin like rivers. A woman’s blood volume vastly increased while pregnant. She was full to bursting and Ilena wanted her badly.

After the meeting, Ilena emailed her a little desperately with testimonials from past clients.

“I believe in it so much, for your baby, to get these vital nutrients. How about I take off fifty dollars the storage and encapsulation fees. Just don’t tell anyone!”

The woman finally agreed.


Ilena’s phone buzzed. Her client, Ariel, would be giving birth any day and she was calling and texting incessantly. Questions, worries, hopes. Three long texts came through rapidly, describing last night’s dream, an incoherent paragraph that Ilena thumbed past.

Then another text.

Decided to eat placenta n smoothie after the birth. Thinkn wolfberry ashwagandha??

You should really encapsulate. It’s the safest method. Ilena wrote back.

Read there r more nutrients raw

In Ilena’s first interview, Ariel had talked at length about her diet with the fervor of a fanatic. “We try to eat 80% raw every day,” she had said seriously, smiling at her husband. He gave a rather tight smile. Ilena closed her phone with a frown. This one should have been a sure thing. She was becoming ravenous at two weeks now when, strictly speaking, she didn’t need to eat every month. She had lost two to meconium contamination during the births. The doctors wouldn’t have let her have it and, in any case, it spoiled the meal.

Ariel went into labor two weeks later and gave birth in her Brooklyn apartment. As mother and baby rested, Ilena opened her canvas bag of groceries. Organic fruit, honey from a rooftop hive, and spirulina. Underneath the scent of nag champa, damp linen, and perspiration she could smell earthy blood and it made her tongue grow fat in her mouth.

“Weird, huh.” The husband hovered over her. Their toddler was wild from the confusion of energy from the birth. He ran in circles, screaming with unexpended energy. Ilena pitied the child, an animal pent up in a zoo when he should have been outside, following the tracks of his tribe. Instead, he would go mad, a brilliant animal clawing at an invisible cage.

“Can you check on her?” she asked the husband.

“Just did,” he said. He continued to lean on the counter with his chin in his palm. Butting in. Ilena could smell another woman on him. Not that she cared but Ariel would if she knew. When you lost your tribe you could become strangely fixated on the individual

The toddler pulled at his shirt.

“Why is the dog lady here? I hate her,” the toddler whispered loudly. The husband didn’t rebuke him.

“Go watch your tablet, bud,” he said. Children didn’t like Ilena. They were good at sniffing out differences and could always sense an interloper.

“Can you ask her again if she wants honey?” The husband looked like he was thinking. “I can’t remember if she said she’d had a bad reaction to it before,” Ilena lied.

He went to the bedroom and Ilena quickly took the placenta from the fridge and a small sandwich bag from her purse. Inside were two organic chicken livers she had purchased on the way over. She had barely dumped them into the blender and put the placenta in the sandwich bag back in her purse before the husband returned. She smiled peacefully at him, tossed in some herbs and they watched the bloody mixture whir together.

“No honey,” he said.

The husband took the smoothie in to his wife and Ilena rushed to clean. Maybe she would only do home births now, set up another website with a different name to make up the difference. The longer she waited the more vitality was leached out. She could eat it fast while it was still hot. And she had really needed this one. She felt cold and empty.

She went into their bathroom and leaned against the countertop with its Daniel Tiger soap bottles and smears of baking soda toothpaste. Ilena’s jaws ached as she unwrapped Ariel’s pulpy placenta. It was a big one and she put it in her mouth as far as it would go. In the ecstatic rush of blood, she didn’t notice the little boy open the door.

Ilena choked and the placenta splatted onto the floor. It, the floor, the boy, and his tablet with covered in a fine spray of crimson droplets. He began to scream.


“Be quiet,” his father said sharply. “Your mom is resting.”

“A monster!”

Ilena thought about pushing the boy out and locking the door. Wiping up the blood quickly and finishing her meal. But the husband was already there, unable to understand what he was seeing.

“What is going on?”

“Please control your child,” Ilena said and pushed past.

“What? What did you do?”

But there was no mistaking the sobs of a scared child. Ariel called out and the husband made to block her from leaving. Ilena was strong and she left the apartment.


She did not go home but walked and thought about what to do. She should close her accounts, stuff money in every pocket of her jacket and her backpack. Send out mass emails to clients saying there was a family emergency. Then disable the websites. But she didn’t want to leave everything she had built here.

Hours later Ilena was exhausted. She thought about the letter from Marina.

Marina owned a medical spa on the Upper East Side. A private practice where she could feed on a continuous, high-quality supply of biological products. Rich women came, among many other expensive tightening and smoothing procedures, to have their own plasma extracted and spread on their faces and drilled in with tiny needles.

There was a faint red handprint on the bricks near the handle of the double glass doors. Ilena was enveloped in the soft perfumed air and classical music of the reception area. The woman at the desk recognized her and offered her chocolate, wine and water, all of which Ilena declined, before taking a seat on a plush couch.

A large pink glass chandelier hung over the waiting room. Ilena waited, looking over the women’s magazines and vaginal tightening brochures splayed on the coffee table. Marina liked to keep her waiting. Ilena’s nose burned from the smell of cheap wine and sharp anesthetic. She tried to focus her mind, a will to send out love and positivity, to every creature of the Earth.

Finally, Marina came out, her high heels clicking ostentatiously on the floor like claws. She always wore high heels even though they made her nearly seven feet tall. Marina had black hair blown out in carefully symmetrical waves on either side of her striking, high-cheekboned face. It was a perfect disguise, using her unusual looks to seem purposefully unnatural.

“Ilena!” she cried. “You were supposed to come to dinner!”

“Hello, Marina.” They both bristled, two predators in the same habitat, but Marina turned that uncomfortable energy into loud excited gestures. The human women in the clinic, the receptionist, two aestheticians in scrubs and a cat-faced client, did not notice anything unusual. After all, they did it themselves.

“How are you, darling?”

They didn’t sit in her office but in one of the procedure rooms. Ilena sat, uncomfortably, on the table, its paper crinkling, her legs dangling like she was a little girl, while Marina leaned against an ornate lacquered cabinet. They sat and smelled each other. But they talked also, being surrounded by humans.

“Can’t complain. And you?”

“Business is good. Almost too good. I’m having a hard time keeping good help. They can’t keep up with the hours. I’m losing my mind, Ilena. Honestly, I’m afraid I’m losing my mind.”

Marina smiled brightly. Her teeth were blindingly white. Unnaturally blue white. And so sharp. It would be impossible to describe their relationship to a human. The word alpha was a poor substitute to describe Marina. She chatted about work, about the renovation on her condo which was, of course, a nightmare and an inconvenience. It went on and on.

“And you?” she finally asked. “You do look a little pale. Have you been getting enough to eat?” Marina tried to look concerned and Ilena, despite all her nature and best efforts, felt the human desire to wish evil on her. “I don’t know why you resisted working for me.” Marina viewed her as a relic. Marina was the uber-human: the technologist. She had even begun to use the injections she gave her clients on her own strong brow to soften it. She was becoming something new with the humans. Trans-human. While Ilena became more human in the wrong ways. In her need and carelessness.

“I enjoy what I do,” Ilena said defensively. Marina stood and towered over her.

“Listen. Have you been in contact with anyone from…home?”

“No,” Ilena said flatly.

“Ah,” Marina just stood there.

“Look, I better be going.”

Damn Marina. As far as Ilena knew they were the only ones passing in the city. Maybe the whole world and that alone was what kept her in sporadic contact with Marina. But damn her for making her want to stay just to feed. Ilena didn’t want to talk about home and she didn’t want to beg for blood even though she was starving.

“Come to dinner tonight, I insist.”

“No, I really have to go.” Ilena jumped down. Her sensible Crocs sank into the plush Persian carpet.

“Wait! Listen to me rambling on and you must be thirsty.” Ilena was startled by the sudden change in Marina. She realized her distaste had blinded her. There was a whiff of distress, not human, in the air. Was Marina nervous?

Ilena was left to puzzle alone. She picked up one of the pamphlets on neck skin tightening on the bureau. She tossed it back and found herself listening in on a conversation going on in the room next door.

“You’re going to LOVE these results,” Marina told the client next door. “The plasma facial is absolutely what I recommend. Katarina will do the dermablading before and then the facial. Perfection.” Marina sent the nurse out and drew the blood herself. The woman in the chair didn’t see how much.

“Dermablading is the most instant gratification process that we do. No downtime. Just lay back and relax. Seriously. You’ll get addicted, we all are. Your makeup will go on so much better. You won’t believe how smooth your skin will be.”

“It doesn’t hurt?”

“No no no.”

Marina came back in. She held two blood packs close to her chest. Ilena’s jaw clicked. Marina smiled. Ilena could hear the sound of the blade scraping skin in the next room. Goosebumps pricked her flesh and Ilena’s teeth tingled. She could feel the woman’s discomfort shading into fear.

“I knew you were hungry.” But Marina made no move to open them. “But I have to ask because it is important. Are you sure you haven’t seen anything…anyone? Anyone….” Marina faltered and whispered a word. It was an old word no one used anymore. Something like those in the far northern caves. Ilena’s mouth went dry and her heart felt like a stone.

“No,” Ilena said.

“No?” Marine stared into her eyes intently. She shook her head brightly. “That is good.” She handed one of the packs to Ilena. She could feel the fading warmth of it and cursed Marina silently for letting it chill while she asked her stupid questions. Ilena used one of her eye teeth to tear into the bag and she sucked the contents down.

The warm blood filled her senses. It was a poor substitute. Within the blood came just perceptible currents of insecurity and sadness. Mortal fear. Not the fear of death as in old times, or, if it was, it was sublimated in the more immediate fear of looking old. Ilena’s distaste for Marina waxed with it. Americans loved those ridiculous vampire stories. White, pure, invincible. Like these women with their violent needles chasing beauty. They would be vampires if they could, surviving aesthetically on liquid-like juice fasters. Blood was weak, insipid, nothing compared to the sweet, thick exultation in womb tissue. Dark when the other was bright. Love and life when the other was sad and stale. Addictive.

She was lost in these thoughts when once again she was distracted by the women in the next room.

“Has the anesthetic been on her chest for an hour?” someone asked.


“How is Jake?”

“Good, considering. I’m going to Barney’s right after I finish this. I think I have time.”

“I thought you had, like, twenty black dresses.”

“No. Not appropriate ones. Sleeveless ones, yes. Not for a funeral though.”

“Maybe throw a cardigan on one?” the voice suggested. The sound of the scalpel going over the soft skin was incredibly loud to Ilena, humming with blood as she was.

“Well…. I just feel like, it’s his grandmother. You know? I mean, I think it’s respectful to get something new.”

Ilena had eaten her grandmother. And her mother too, when her time came, like all her people did. How long had she been here? She had been in a trance, filled with blood and the human chatter. The human world she had slipped into and didn’t want to ever leave. Marina was staring at her.

“You have been making too many mistakes.”

Ilena growled, unable to control herself. All noise stopped.

“What was that?” Someone said.

“You’ve been watching me,” Ilena accused.

“Be quiet,” Marina hissed. “It affects us all,” This was a confession. Marina had not wanted to admit that she was touchable.

Ilena’s back arched. She turned quickly to reach the door and Marina used all her strength. Her steps were so heavy the chandelier in the reception room tinkled. They didn’t kill or lie. That was what humans did. You always resisted working for me. Maybe Marina was more cunning than she had thought. Ilena had been right to avoid seeing Marina in her home, privately. Ilena’s guts wrenched at the sad blood and all the old feelings of helplessness. The feelings of betrayal. Her betrayal. Everything she had left behind.

Ilena growled again, her only shield the sad women paying Marina to open their veins and inject them with needles. Ilena opened the door and the receptionist was frowning at her desk. Something was bothering the women but they didn’t know what. The technician with the scalpel in her hand trembled, looked sharply behind her as if expecting a predator.

A quick intake of breath.

The scalpel slid across the woman’s cheek opening the tissue cleanly before piercing her eyeball, spearing it like a cocktail olive. The seconds seemed agonizingly long before the woman began to scream.

This is your survivor’s guilt, Ilena told herself. Do not get involved. You’ve come so far in America. She cursed her nostalgia that kept her near Marina. They were safer alone, always had been. The women screamed and Marina had to turn her back to her. In the chaos, Ilena slipped out.

Leaving the cat is hard.

Don’t let your past define you, Ilena said to herself like a prayer.


She had eight missed calls from an expectant mother, the one from Nebraska. She was going into labor early.

“Shit,” Ilena said. She bit her lip. “Nevermind,” she told the cabbie. She would go to the hospital first. Was she making up for misdeeds by not abandoning her? Or was she looking to satisfy her hunger?

Ilena arrived, afraid and unsure, but that all melted away when she saw the woman on the bed. For the next few hours, they would work through this together.

“It’s too early,” the woman said. Tears were streaming down her face. Her husband sat in the corner looking a little shell-shocked.

“It’s ok. Everything’s going to be fine.”

It was a long, hard birth but a healthy boy finally came crying into the world. The woman’s placenta was stubborn and the doctor struggled to get it loose. It finally came and an alarming flood of bright red blood followed. Ilena, hand clutching the mother’s, was overcome by her closeness to the heat of the wound. She could sense exactly where it was, ragged and red, gushing with each heartbeat. In the old days, this would have killed the woman. In fact, still could kill her as these pitiful doctors couldn’t or wouldn’t save some women even now with all their technology.

Ilena put her finger on the belly of the woman where she knew it was. The doctor looked at her in surprise but followed it. The woman was saved.

When she asked for the placenta, the husband looked at her.

“What for?”

Ilena froze.

“For the encapsulation.”

“No, we’re not doing that,” he said.

The doctor looked at both of them. Ilena turned to the woman but she was in no condition to have this argument.

“We’ll make sure tomorrow, let her sleep now.” Ilena tried to put any power she had remaining into her voice. The woman asked her husband to get her suitcase and nurses came in and out. Ilena needed to go but this was also the reason to eat now, her teeth told her. You need it. You deserve it.

It was sitting in the pan by the bed. Ilena jumped to her feet and took the giant exercise ball in her arms. She swooped to her other hand, rudely in front of a nurse, and caused commotion in the tiny room while the nurse and doctor gave her baleful looks.

“Oops, sorry! Let me get this out of your way!” Ilena said.

She grabbed the placenta behind her and stuffed it into her hoodie pocket while the enormous purple ball was in front of her.

“Nurse, where is it?” the doctor asked.

“What?” Confusion erupted behind her as everyone in the room looked in disbelief at the blood-smeared but empty tray. Ilena quickly moved out of the room and down the hall. She could hear questions behind her and opened a room door and slipped inside. She put the ball down and gripped the warm bloody meat in her pocket

Ilena couldn’t wait. She needed to feed, too. She took out the placenta. Fresh blood oozed from the end of the umbilical cord. The surface shone dully in the dim light of the hospital machinery. It smelled so good. She tried to eat quietly, loosening and opening her jaw wide to consume the thing whole. She squeezed it all into her mouth and closed her eyes in pleasure as it slid down her throat. It was a rush to consume it so quickly. It was so good when the woman was kind.

She opened her eyes. The room had not been empty. Two wide, terrified eyes glistened in the half-dark. Her arms tightened around her baby but neither seemed to breathe; they were that still. Ilena got up slowly, quietly, like a cat. She felt the blood dripping down her chin as she wiped at her face with her jacket lining. She didn’t want to kill the woman.

Ilena could picture embracing her, draining every last milky, red, delicious drop of her, eating the soft baby whole like just fallen fruit. Full of the necessary energy to do what she had to do for the next few hours. But that wasn’t the life she had decided on. She wasn’t a predator. Humans had made her a scavenger. She was something that humans could never understand. They shared a distant grandmother. A very old female from the same caves but they were not the same. Ilena stored all her past in the rNA, every memory of her species and she knew more about humans than they would ever remember about themselves. From before, when there had been so many different talking tribes. Cities they had built and lost and who they had killed along the way. She was very, very old. Almost the last of her kind, who remembered the world the fairy tales half-remembered.

But Ilena could feel that tiny piece, that tiny dark, inscrutable patch of her own human DNA, the product of some cave tryst millennia ago, that made her like them. Made her want to be like them. To use her brain to excavate that dark, impenetrable place in herself that she was blind to. It helped her dream, it had helped her to survive, she thought. Or it could be what was going to cause her to eat herself to death.

Ilena put her finger to her lips.

“You’re dreaming,” she whispered to the mother as she backed out of the room. “It’s a bad dream.”