Prey Baby of the Ozarks

Prey Baby of the Ozarks by Nancy Scott Hanway

“Babies were thought by children to be wild in the woods and able to run with the swiftness of a rabbit; but when brought into captivity, they were helpless and had to be cared for tenderly.”

—Charles Hogue, Back Yonder: An Ozark Chronicle (1932)

The baby knows how to hide, and it’s a master at evasion. As you’re moving through the brush, snare in hand, you grab it several times, but it’s slick with blood and slips through your fingers. Then it slides around a tree at a speed you can’t match because you’re so big, your belly swollen with expectation, with knowing.

When you started to swell a few months ago, everyone said, Oh well this is her time then.

And they knew that—at some secret moment—you’d head to the woods to eat the leaf mold and pine needles and rotten persimmons that make up the forest floor.

Later, when you’d had your fill—when you were enormous and ungainly, waddling like an armadillo—they knew you’d escape into the woods to snare the baby.

This is your second time. You caught your first babe easily, with help from the midwife, snatching him from beneath a blooming dogwood after a few short hours. You brought him home and climbed into bed, and the midwife came along to ease your transition as a pair—from hunter/prey to mother/ child. You pushed out the ball of forest muck inside you, screaming, and the baby ate it greedily, wailing as pine needles scraped him clean.

Pairs always will scream during the passage.

The midwife cleaned the boy up and handed him to you and he latched on, now complete, now a human child.

But this new prey-baby isn’t like that.

She gleams with blood, for one, and she wears the caul, that womb-hood that means she’s a soothsayer. You’re afraid. You didn’t bargain for such a child but once you enter the woods to hunt, you’re bound to catch the first babe you see. Even knowing this sacred rule, you try to resist.

You ask the midwife, Do I have to take this one? And the midwife, who sits on a stump near the entrance to the forest smoking her corncob pipe, nods and tells you there’s no turning back. She says your body will tell you what to do. She tells you to push on.

And the knowledge that made you so big, the deep stink of forest inside you, guides you as you race after this prey-baby who slips first behind the redbud tree then behind an inkberry holly until you’ve tired her out and she lies trembling and silent, gazing up at you with her big black eyes.

You stand over her, aware you should kill her because of the life of sorrow that awaits her, with her feral, female gifts, and the sorrows that await you, as her mother. But you can’t.

Killing isn’t the point of the hunt. The point of the hunt is pain.

Nancy Scott Hanway’s work has appeared in The Florida Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Willow Review, Washington Square, Apalachee Review, Southern Humanities
 Review, and elsewhere. “Prey Baby of the Ozarks” is part of a series based on the traditions of the Ozark Mountains, where she lives. Please visit 
nancyscotthanway.com.