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Prologue to The Dark Aspect
A Novel of Dark Fantasy
Wendy Washburn


Part 1

When women wanted to be discrete about giving birth, they called on Myra Roberts, a midwife who ran her practice out of her home, which was situated on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a remote stretch of the Washington coast. Her birthing room, an ordinary bedroom, was kept hot, especially on this windy and damp March day, for the arrival of a new life.
        Ocypete, the new mother, had arrived only an hour before, without notice, but obviously on the verge of giving birth. She had gone through most of the labor by herself, and now her water had broken. The thought of telling her that she was too sick to work today flitted through Myra's mind. For one thing, she had no assistance that day (not having expected any births), and for another she was terrified of Ocypete, no matter how many times she had overseen her confinement. But, as always, she reminded herself that the innocent baby, not just the mother, depended on her. And, of course, she needed the business: times were rough for midwives. In this medically "advanced" era of the 1950s, why go through the torture of labor when you could go to the hospital, get an injection of scopolamine and morphine and wake up with a baby without any memory of how it got there?
        Ocypete now sat upright on the bed, a little dazed but otherwise unaffected by the hours of labor she had just endured. Cradled in the midwife's arms was a tiny girl-baby, covered with bloody amniotic fluid, arms and legs flailing in a weird, twitchy way as she cried with all her little might. Myra had noticed some irregularities, but ignored them for the moment as she quickly suctioned the infant's nose and mouth, then clamped and cut the cord.
        Before Myra could so much as wrap a towel around the newborn, Ocypete grabbed her daughter and lightly ran her taloned fingers over the little body, down to the feet, where she took special care clearing away the cheesy vernix to reveal oddly webbed toes. She growled in disgust and handed the baby back.
        "Deformed," she stated in a disappointed if not surprised tone. She threw herself back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, waiting for Myra to help deliver the placenta and to clean her up.
        But the midwife took the baby into an adjoining bathroom, a large room she had modified for the purpose of caring for newborns. Against one wall there stood a wooden lab table which held towels, a scale, and other birthing equipment. Next to it was a large sink filled with warm water.
        "I want to leave, Myra," called the new mother.
        "You'll have to wait a few minutes, Ocypete, till I finish with your baby."
        "Don't bother. I'll finish her up myself later."
        This was said in such a sneering, mocking way that Myra had to force herself to ignore the significance of Ocypete's cruel words and concentrate on the necessary tasks following the birth of a child: checking heart and lungs, weighing and measuring, taking footprints, bathing, drying, and diapering. Finally, Myra swaddled the still crying baby in a receiving blanket and laid her in a rocking bassinet.
        When Ocypete had delivered the afterbirth and was cleaned up, she dropped a couple of hundred-dollar bills on the bed and moved to the bassinet. "That's the worst one I've ever produced. Those ridiculous feet, and look at that awful color!"
        Rocking the bassinet on the opposite side, Myra cringed and hovered protectively over the baby, stroking her head and letting her suck on her little finger. The poor thing really did have severely webbed toes, almost like a duck's, but that was not all. Fine, unusually colorful and downy lanugo still covered her body. But she looked perfectly healthy and was breathing fine. "Aren't you going to feed her?"
        The sound coming out of Ocypete's throat could only be described as a cackle. "Then let me," begged Myra. Ocypete shrugged assent, and Myra quickly opened a can of formula, poured the contents into a nursing bottle, and picked up the child to feed her.
        After a few minutes the rhythmic sucking gave way to contented sleep. The baby's face, now relaxed, had some interesting information to reveal. Myra gasped quietly and whispered, "Rip."
        Ocypete looked down at the midwife sharply. She snatched the baby out of Myra's arms and left the house.

Part 2

Nine months before, Ocypete had taken Ripley Vaughn against his will to her lair somewhere along a stretch of Pacific beach near Aviston. She had hypnotized him somehow, perhaps drugged him with hallucinogens, so that she had seemed so beautiful, exotic, incredibly desirable. At dawn the next day he found himself lying on the damp, pebbly beach a hundred yards from her roost. His clothes were scattered around and he was naked and shivering uncontrollably from shock and cold. He could only recall vaguely what she had done to him, but the shame of relations with that creature made him vomit on the spot.
        He had spent every moment since then attempting to deny to himself it had even happened. It must have been a dream. In a drunken stupor, he must have stripped off his clothes, fallen, hit his head on a rock, and had a violent, disgusting dream.
        But Myra's phone call brought the bile back into his throat. Why should he care what happened to the child of such a union? Deformed, resembling her mother in certain key ways. He had spent five minutes considering letting Ocypete do what she wanted with the baby. It was none of his concern. But Myra's suspicion that Ocypete meant to kill the infant yanked at his gut, and for some reason the certainty that this was his child, sight unseen, released a heretofore suppressed paternal passion in him. Other people's children were just annoyances to be avoided, but the birth of a baby of his own seed (now that he was 40 and apparently unlikely to ever marry and have legitimate offspring) provoked a strange longing inside him, powerful enough to make him go in search of the child despite his dread of Ocypete.
        Ocypete's cave was built into the cliff and almost perfectly disguised--he'd run past it three times before finally recognizing the slightly unnatural roundness of the opening and the subtle but telltale odor of rotting carcass emanating from it, clues that wouldn't be noticeable to anybody else. He was twenty feet away when the shrill voice of his nightmares called out.
        "You won't find the infant here."
        "Then where is she?"
        Ocypete did not answer, so Rip yelled out, "Tell me! You owe me that much."
        "I owe you nothing. The child is deformed. You were not a good choice of father."
        "At least tell me if she is still alive."
        "Probably, for the moment."
        A fluttering movement caught Rip's eye. Ocypete stood at the mouth of the cave, the shadows of the waning day obscuring her body. The pallor of her face, though, shone like the moon. Rip felt himself begin to tremble like his Dalmatian did during a thunderstorm, and despised himself for it, though nobody beheld her without feeling the same way. A fetid wind blew past him and out across the gray, choppy ocean behind him.
        "Why do you care?" she asked. "She is not your kind."
        "She's my daughter. Of course I care. If you don't want her, I'll raise her myself."
        "Even if you could, we wouldn't allow it. She is not a true daughter of the Harpuaia and must be disposed of in the traditional way."
        "You mean by killing her?"
        "She awaits Okeanos at the Gate of the Sun. When he arrives to take her through, she will become his bride."
        Ocypete said nothing, so Rip repeated her words slowly, trying to make out their meaning. "Okeanos" he had heard before. Ocypete and her sisters used it to personify the ocean. But nothing local bore the name "Gate of the Sun".
        "Where is this Gate of the Sun?"
        "At the borderline between light and dark, waking and sleeping, life and death."
        She was being deliberately oblique and had fallen into that symbolic speech she and the others loved so much. Panic began to disrupt his self-control. His child was going to die any minute, if she weren't already gone, and all he could do was stand there and ask polite questions.
        "Think, think, think!" he ordered himself, though there was nothing more he could say. Ocypete had faded back into her cave and would not answer Rip's shouts to show herself again. He turned and surveyed the coast south to north. Miles upon miles of ocean. Where could the baby be? Bride of Okeanos meant bride of the ocean. A sacrifice to the sea. But if she was still alive, then Ocypete couldn't have just dumped her into the water.
        Rip started running southward on the beach toward Myra's house, hoping that since she had much more contact with Ocypete than most people, she might be able to help him figure out where the baby might be.
        A mile down the coast he slowed to a walk to catch his breath and spotted the steep wooden stairway leading up to Myra's house. In the mauve sky to the west, the sun was small and weak, about to sink out of sight; already the chill of the evening air was making him shiver. The incoming tide would soon completely flood the beach; it was foaming around the thirty-foot-tall chunk of craggy rock known as a "seastack," a stalwart remnant of the eroding coastline. It had a large hole in its middle that reminded him of the eye of a needle. When the tide was high enough in a few minutes, seawater would splash through the eye in a dramatic torrent that earned a mention in some travel books.
        It was the only one between Myra's house, where the baby had been delivered, and Ocypete's cave. A sudden realization grabbed and shook him: "The Gate of the Sun is that rock!" he shouted to himself. Not only was it the most convenient altar to Okeanos, but it also marked the boundary between life on dry land and death in the ocean. When the ocean swamped the seastack, the infant would become a very dead bride. In his excitement he stumbled toward the seastack and into the ocean. But all thought fled his brain as he experienced the searing cold of the water. He waded the ten yards to the rock, wondering if he could stay in this water even five more seconds. His feet were already going numb as the surf swooshed around his thighs. In desperation he ignored his body's warnings and began wading around the seastack. He suffered a moment of frustration as he found that there was nothing in the eye. Of course not, he thought; nothing could have been set there without sliding off. He circled the colossal rock, searching for any nooks or recesses large enough to hold a baby, but without success. It was now difficult to move. He should get out and warm up before trying again, he told himself, but it might be too late. Somehow he pulled himself up into the eye of the rock, willing his numb legs to support him as he stretched his arm up and felt inside a fissure above him. He felt something soft, a flannel blanket. A little farther in he found the baby. He dragged her out without much care and stuffed her into his shirt without looking at her. All he cared about now was getting back to shore.
        Once there, he sat down in exhaustion and carefully unbuttoned his shirt, exposing only the baby's wonderfully crying face. He was astonished that she was still alive after all these hours and still had the strength to cry. Despite the lanugo, she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. In fact, he thought, it was because of the downy coat that she hadn't succumbed from exposure.
        But he couldn't stay here. He looked up and down the beach for Ocypete. If she became suspicious and came out here to check up on the sacrifice, there would be no chance of escaping her. In fact, he would have to take the child far away from Aviston, perhaps to California, where his sister lived. He gazed at his daughter and vowed, "Don't you worry. I'll take care of you. Ocypete will never find you. Never."

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