Turning left on Driftwood, he saw the sea and then he saw the trail. It wasn’t quite a bloody trail of violence, the kind you see after a bar brawl when a battered nose spots a shameful line to the victim’s car in the lot; nor was it the trail of a bludgeoned kill, of a carcass shot and dragged. This had life to it.
He caught the silhouette of a dripping gunslinger headed north on Pacific: a woman striding, legs apart, carrying a bassinet. Her path was unsteady but one hand was raised almost in praise; in celebration; in acknowledgment of a task completed. She staggered and collapsed under an ornate mural of a vampiress framed by soft-sprayed roses and snakes. The bassinet landed right way up by some abandoned, sweaty sneakers.
Jeff ran to the slumped woman and held her. He heard a newly-formed mewl from the bundle by the shoes. She was soaked and pale, her loose-fitting dress had gathered gravel, sand and dirt, but her expression was serene and relieved; through painful breaths her smile slid to form a word to encourage Jeff, to reassure him that this wasn’t what it looked like, or worse:
‘Seabirth…’ she stuttered and smiled as her eyes rolled back in her head and Jeff clocked the sunset tinting the wall peach above their heads.
‘S’beautiful…’ she hissed.
Jeff knew what this was.
Davina Marbour’s book had become an unruly phenomenon. She had already founded ZenDate, a wildly popular dating site for the ‘wellness industry’, where a girl could pick up a nice yoga instructor with no more than a click, instead of having to wait in line at the end of a sweaty class. Now Marbour had three children: Fortitude, Ecstasa and Worth. They had all been delivered by seabirth: the title of her best-selling work.
‘After all,’ the introduction quipped, ‘It’s where we’re all from!’
The thinking behind the technique, if you could call it that, was that in delivering an infant into the shallows of the sea you were both attuning them, and yourself, to the most potent natural forces on the planet, while exposing them to about as much toxicity as was possible at the earliest opportunity, thereby cementing an immunity that would last a lifetime, however short. It was, the blurb gushed, ‘the ultimate water birth’.
‘Whales do it!’ Marbour pointed out, with a perfect mammalian dust-jacket grin, ‘Why shouldn’t we???’
The book was illustrated with images of its fecund author at various stages of pregnancy, wading in tropical blue waters; laughing with the sun; tenderly stroking a strand of seaweed or tickling the sands with a feather. Despite a lack of any real scientific endorsement and an almost total lack of sense, the book had sold in its millions. It made seabirth look as if you could convert all the anxiety and discomfort of childbirth into the luxury of a package holiday; as though somebody might actually bring the new mother a piña colada after all the effort. Mothers-to-be across the globe had tried to emulate Marbour’s miracle births in whichever waters were local to them: there had been accounts of Scots women squatting in the freezing North Sea, or expectant mothers on the Australian coast battling predatory fish as their labour chummed the waters.
No matter how many casualties the book seemed to cause, it would not stop selling. For a time it was banned in France where floating placentae were seen to be spoiling the shorelines of the Riviera. Special due-date pilgrimages were made to places of outstanding natural beauty, and certain canny midwives set up shacks along popular beachheads offering ‘Mermaid Maternity’ and ‘Dolphin Delivery’, rebranding rubber tyres as ‘Babywavers’ and modifying nets to become ‘SureShore’ scoops. There was a proliferation of babies named Poseidon and Neptune, while Undine also made a resurgence.
Davina Marbour herself became a ubiquitous and divisive figure, adorning magazine covers the world over: ‘Meet The Woman Drowning Our Children’; or pictured semi-nude, surfing a clam shell: ‘Queen of the Waves!’ For every horrific tale of misdelivery there seemed to be a growing, frenzied pack of mothers coming forward to champion Marbour as some sort of messiah of maternity, claiming that their briny babies were healthy and strong — healthier and stronger, even — for it. She had distanced herself from the debate, keeping public appearances at a minimum, quietly cashing her royalties, and retreating to her Colorado mountain lodge, very far from any sea.
Venice Beach in California was not an ideal location for a seabirth. The toxicity of the water wasn’t dangerously high, and the number of creatures liable to eat your offspring was relatively low, though not low enough. The regular, low swoop of an LAPD helicopter, or ‘ghetto bird’, was intended as a sign of civilised order. But the juice bars of Abbot Kinney were just a little too far to walk at nine months pregnant and parking was tricky, especially on weekends.
Surfing beaches were proving less popular among the expecting: the clash of cultures, and of mothers and boards proved too much. The ocean front walk attracted a particular flotsam of drifter: sun-soaked and filthy, ruddy with residual rage at Vietnam or the death of Jim Morrison. That said, the famous ‘drumming circle’ was said to have a powerful effect on the womb, and there were tales of how on occasion it had shifted its thrum to the shoreline to embrace a woman in the full throes of labour. A campaign to erect prohibitive signs, or to allocate ‘birthing beaches’, had been shouted down, and a determined seabirther could still wade through the art stalls, henna stations and clouds of medical marijuana and give her nativity to the waves.
The ebb and flow of tourists had grown blind to the tide of women traipsing back from the swell, newborn in arm. A few locals, like Jeff, took it upon themselves to care for them: if any were seen drifting they could be taken in and tended to. Usually the women headed for the canals; the picturesque haven at the heart of the district; surely the only reason to reference the pearl of the Italian Renaissance, Queen of the Adriatic. Here, amid the relaxed splendour of the stars’ homes, new Venetian mothers went to nurse their amphibious young.
Jeff could see that’s where this girl was headed. She had the same crazed look of hope as any of them had: bring another one in, better take them somewhere pretty.