Penelope Coaching and Consulting – fiction from Laura Catherine Brown















Excerpt from the novel Made by Mary 

Made By Mary (excerpt from a novel)

“Our success rate stands at 45%, the highest in the industry,” said Dr. Godwin, the director of the Center for Human Reproduction. “We’ve had sister surrogates, friends, strangers—but you’re our first mother-daughter team, and we’re very excited.”

They sat across from him, three in a row, Mary in the center. With his prominent ears and boyish smile, Dr. Godwin resembled a leprechaun, a trickster, capable of magic, the kind of man who had turned Mary on before she’d declared herself a lesbian.

“A 45% success rate sounds like a 55% failure rate.” Joel perched on his chair as if any second he’d vault to his feet, shouting, Put up your dukes!

“We look at cycle percentages and factor in retrieval rates resulting in live births.” Dr. Godwin rattled off numbers and criteria, things Mary spaced out on. She splayed her fingers to examine her rings, her force-field of strength, with a ready explanation for each, in case anyone should ask: gold with tiger’s eye to guard her spirit, Mother-of-pearl and onyx yin-yang to balance her chi. Jade for healing, lapis lazuli for love and, of course, her mother-ring, identical to Ann and Joel’s wedding rings, an expression of solidarity.

She caught Ann’s gaze, her daughter’s pale blue eyes almost transparent, rimmed by short, blunt lashes as bleached as her straight blond hair. Somehow in the light, enhanced by the mauve upholstery and carpet and walls, Ann was illuminated in a lovely pink aura. I made you! Mary wanted to shout. And I can make another you!

“How long will the process take?” Joel cracked his knuckles. “Or are you going to throw out smokescreen numbers on that, too?”

Typical man. Mary tried to catch Ann’s eye again, to exchange a private communion about men’s need to dominate, but Ann was leaning forward, utterly engrossed. “What about the chances of having a baby like me, without a…?”

Mary broke in. “Without a uterus. Good question.”

“I don’t think the research bears out a genetic component.” When Dr. Godwin smiled, dimples appeared in both cheeks. “As for the timing, let’s say everything goes smoothly. Once cycle synchronization begins, we’re talking about four weeks for egg stimulation. Then we harvest the eggs and fertilize. A few days later we transfer the pre-embryos. Two weeks after that, a positive pregnancy means you’re in the hands of your obstetrician. Which comes to seven weeks. I suggest we work aggressively for the transfer. At your age, we don’t worry so much about multiple births, we just want a take-home baby.” He aimed his boyish smile at Mary. How appealing he was, even when calling her old!

“What about Mary’s weight?” said Joel. “It’s not just the age factor. She’s carrying some extra weight.”

He got her with that one. Count your blessings, Mary’s mother used to tell her, fat women stay youthful-looking longer than slender ones. More flesh, fewer wrinkles, it works in your favor now. Mary grabbed her blubber through her shirt. “Are you calling me fat? More to love is what I say.”

“You shouldn’t grab yourself like that,” said Ann.

The scolding made it worse. One hundred eighty-three pounds at five feet, four inches, Mary was aware of moisture seeping into the folds of her flesh. Her hip creases were damp. She nudged Ann. “I think I’m power-surging!”

“Too much information, Mom.”

“You’re not, as we say, morbidly obese,” said Dr. Godwin with his quick smile. “You’re a healthy woman. And a little extra weight seems to improve the chances of implantation.”

“If only my mother were alive to hear this,” said Mary. “All these years, I’ve been healthy, not fat.”

Ann jiggled her foot, bumping rhythmically into Mary’s chair. “When you said multiple births, did you mean we could have more than one?”

“Twins are not uncommon. I’ve heard them referred to as ‘the jackpot,’” especially if they’re one of each gender,” said Dr. Godwin. He rubbed his palms together so briskly Mary imagined sparks flying out.

“That’s crass,” said Joel. “The jackpot.”

“Let’s think twins. We’ve got yin on one side…” Mary grabbed Ann’s hand, then clasped Joel’s sweaty one. “…Yang on the other. And I’m the circle to hold them.” They both tried to disengage but Mary had a strong grip. She shut her eyes to call on Demeter as the goddess appeared in the marble likeness on Mary’s altar, with her torch and sheaf of wheat. But, instead of Demeter, a vision of Dr. Godwin with the hind end of a goat materialized, consort and son of the universal mother. She opened her eyes. “I’m going to call you Dr. God.”


Ann remembered her childhood in fragments, each memory an island surrounded by a void. She didn’t recall leaving Peace Ranch but she recollected arriving at the yurt with Mary and Lars. At the end of a dirt road with a mound of grass in the center, bordered by bushes that scraped the sides of the car, the yurt stood in a field, a giant cylindrical tent with a mounded top.

It was beautiful, with its three-layered walls, rafters, and tension cables. The apex of the roof was covered with a clear dome. The space inside was circular, with dividers to separate the kitchen and the bathroom. No doors but a cozy nook with a single bed for Ann.

Boulder, Colorado. Outside of Boulder. West, if you want to get technical, said Lars.

Annapurna likes getting technical, don’t you? Mary’s smile dazzled. Her happiness was contagious. An island.

Ann remembered watching Lars’s long fingers press guitar strings, sliding from fret to fret along the neck as he taught her how to play. He called her a quick study. Another island.

He was an artist. To paint from nature, he would roll up his sleeping bag and mat, hoist his backpack on his shoulders with his paints, easel, and canvas, and trek high into the hills. He stayed away, sometimes overnight, sometimes a couple of days.

In his absence, Mary let Ann sleep with her, spooning her in a soft, warm hug. Play our cards right and he’ll adopt you, she whispered. And we’ll travel all over the country: Oregon, North Carolina, Arizona. That’s the beauty of the yurt, we can set up anywhere. We belong together. Me and Lars are soulmates. And soon, I hope to give you a sister or a brother, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Ann was happiest then, in bed with Mary, listening to their beautiful future.

Lars left one afternoon while Mary was at work. She worked at a self-serve gas station in a little booth, collecting money. When she wasn’t doing that, she was sitting at her drafting table with her silver and her beads and her semiprecious stones. Tell your mother the winds are changing and I have to go.

Ann was trying to learn chords on the guitar, his guitar. Lars stroked her beneath her chin, forcing her to look into his fierce blue eyes, like an icy lake. Tell her I’ll be back when the north winds blow.

He left behind his tubes of oil paints, an unfinished landscape drying on an easel, clove cigarettes and two gallon jugs of chlorophyll. His saucepan and his Coleman stove hung off his backpack, clanking as he walked away.

When are the north winds supposed to blow? Why didn’t you stop him? When Mary came home, she threw a fit, overturned her drafting table so all the beads and stones lodged in the rug. She ran around screaming, then she curled into bed and refused to get up.

For days, as she watched Mary sleep, Ann strummed the guitar and practiced Travis picking until her fingers hurt. It sustained her through those endless, frozen hours. First, they ran out of milk and eggs. Then they ran out of rice cakes. In the morning the school bus stopped, honked, and moved on.

When the truant officers came, they shouted and knocked but Ann wouldn’t let them in. By the time the police arrived, there was no food left at all. When’s the last time you went to school? a policeman asked.

They found half-smoked joints in the ashtray and seeds embedded in the rug. Get up, you’re under arrest. Magic words, they broke the spell. Mary got out of bed, donned her clothes, and laced her boots.

Ann remembered being driven to a big, shabby house in the center of town. An aproned woman led her down a hall to a bedroom crowded with bunkbeds. On the wall hung a picture of cherub-cheeked children in a meadow with the words: Suffer the little children to come unto me.

The woman was wearing rubber gloves. She was always cleaning something. Ann recalled the contoured texture of rubber against her palm when the woman shook her hand, and remembered how the woman peeled off the gloves to kneel on the floor by the bottom bunk. This is your bed now. Shall we pray?

Twelve children lived at the house. For breakfast, numerous cereals were lined up on the counter. Before every meal, they bowed their heads and prayed: Bless us our Lord for these thy gifts, which we are about to receive through thy bounty and through Christ our Lord, amen.

The man in the house wore thick glasses, magnifying his eyes so they seemed to float away from his face. Before dinner he added a lengthy sermon to the prayer and the meatloaf would be cold by the time they were allowed to dig in.

On Sunday, no one was permitted to eat until they had been to church. A blue cotton dress was presented, ironed and starchy and too small for Ann; it dug into her armpits. Standing, kneeling, singing, she felt her soul rocked in the bosom of Abraham, as the lyrics of the gospel song went, and she remembered feeling that she would survive. Another island.

Evenings were predictable: Chores, homework, prayers, bed. Chores were designated on a chore wheel. Drying dishes: Annapurna. The sight of her name brought a strange thrill, and she took great care in drying, pressing the towel edge between each fork prong until the woman said, We don’t abide laziness here. You must learn to be more efficient.

Ann wasn’t unhappy except at night when she lay awake, not knowing where Mary was, fearful that Mary was afraid, painfully aware that Mary needed her. Then she sobbed into her pillow until she drifted off to sleep, waking again only after she had already wet the bed.

Even now, as an adult, Ann could conjure the cold fear churning in her stomach, the harshness of the blanket and the crinkle of the plastic sheets, the shame of bedwetting. The other kids jeered. They said she smelled like pee. They called her Cooties, broke her crayons, and pinched her arms.

She missed the yurt then, and Lars. And she began to miss Peace Ranch, too, not sleeping in the children’s room, but the brook where everyone swam on hot afternoons, the sweat lodge and full moon rituals when they joined hands and danced in a circle, when Mary was happy, her laugh deep and infectious.

In the morning, Ann felt okay, or, rather, she didn’t feel anything, and that became okay. When a letter arrived from Mary she opened it slowly, easing the flap, so as not to tear it. I love you Annapurna Peace and I miss you. A drawing of a sad-faced sun. We’ll be together soon, I promise. I love you very much, Mom. Intricate swirls and doodles of flowers decorated the border. Ann pressed the paper to her face, smelling Mary’s patchouli with a longing so deep it suctioned her breath right out of her.

Later, she had no idea what might have happened to those letters. They had slipped into the void between islands. Then came a viscerally memorable moment: Annapurna, you have a visitor. And there stood Mary, horribly out of place in her brightly embroidered denim skirt, her hiking boots and Heidi braids interlaced with purple ribbons.

They were ushered into the visiting room, a first for Ann. She had seen the other kids walking in there with adults, closing the door. Now it was her turn. The parlor was wallpapered with faded pink roses. Two sofas faced each other with two armchairs on either side, a rocking chair in the corner. A stack of Bibles sat on the coffee table.

Wow, a rocking chair! Mary went straight for it, while Ann sat stiffly on the edge of the sofa.

Do you like it here? Mary rocked back and forth with peculiar urgency.

The inchoate, incommunicable immensity of an answer lay beyond Ann’s skill. It’s okay, she finally said.

Well, I’ve come to give you a choice. You can stay here for a little bit longer, or you can ride on an airplane to Gran’s house. Mary stuck the end of one of her braids between her teeth. She was sucking on it while she rocked.

I want to stay with you.

I’m sorry. It’s foster care or Gran’s, just for a short time. I promise. Mary burst into tears and Ann jumped up, hugging her head, her soft brown hair, stilling the rocking chair. She clung. I want to stay with you.

Gran met her at the airport, a stern woman with a sharp gaze and blue eyes the same shade as Mary’s. Your mother makes a virtue out of chaos but I hear you’re the levelheaded one.

As soon as Gran said it, Ann was defined.


Excerpt from the novel Made by Mary