Originally published in Lammergeier Magazine
She opens her eyes in the dark. Woken by her intuition, she knows the baby will be up soon. Her bedroom, her house, her life is always in darkness now. The duvet is a sea of expensive cotton shadow. She can’t remember what her things looked like in the daylight. The carefully chosen items that used to define her, the art prints in the same tones and colour palettes that she used to love, are all grey in the dark. Her eyes no longer need to adjust to the low light. She lives at night and it has stripped the world from her.
In her shadow world, she lurks, a gremlin hiding within the ruins of a cursed bridge. Freckled moonlight filters down through the rotten boards. No one visits anymore, even accidentally. In the perpetually haunted wood of her home, they are alone every day now.
Under the covers, her breasts ache, sharp needling pains shooting through the soft tissue, obviously causing nerve damage, obviously caused by her out-of-control hormones, obviously untreatable by her male doctor because it’s psychosomatic, obviously her fault. Her breasts ache before he cries out. The boy takes a deep breath. Nestled in bed between herself and her immovable sleeping husband. The boy is too big, over a year old, to be sleeping with them, but the screaming and crying is more than any of the parenting books promised.
All the baby books made life-changing, life-saving, life-renewing promises, their covers illustrated with hugs and quilts. Some said their way was a sure thing, don’t worry he can only cry for forty-five minutes tops, it isn’t humanly possible to cry for any longer, all of the moisture will have left his little body and when the tears dry up it is impossible to cry anymore. But she knew girls, in her previous bright sunny life, who used to cry for days over failed relationships. Tear-stained they would walk to class or buy coffee or fix their eye makeup in the office bathroom. Once their tears ran out, they would rehydrate on anger and start all over. She knew people who could cry forever if they wanted to, and she suspects the boy wants to. Sometimes a book would concede that maybe on an off day, during a full moon, on a solstice, when Venus is bright in the sky, the author had heard a rumour of a baby who had cried for longer, but only an hour at most.
She believes the people who wrote the books had only seen Anne Geddes prints and never met a baby in flesh and blood. Her nightly twilight dance of whispered stories and hummed lullabies only turned the boy’s crank, geared him up for screaming and flailing. No combination of hushing, singing, deep breaths, skin-on-skin contact, or white noise had ever put him to sleep. The only reason he sleeps now is that every night she lies down with him, hours before her own bed time, and holds him against her chest until his cries drain him and he succumbs to sleep. He only drifts off for full subjugation. Once he conks out, her husband crawls in and they all try and sleep.
The boy converts his deep breath into an eardrum-shattering scream. His mouth is next to her face, the hot exhaust of his demand fogging her neck and hair.
There are rules, secret ambiguous rules, that she is supposed to absorb in a miasma of motherhood. If you did not absorb them and if you are especially desperate, another mother will whisper them to you so neither of you is caught guilty of being ungrateful or miserable in your female slavery; wait ten minutes to allow him to self-soothe, formula-fed babies grow up to be hyperactive, pacifiers will ruin their teeth, pacifiers are the only thing that will help them learn to self-soothe, do not give them a crutch or they will grow up to be adults who never learned to sleep and are therefore incapable of recognizing other people empathetically and become toxic lonely harbingers of doom.
She waits. The screams grow in volume, their pitch climbing. The boy rolls towards her, smelling his meal with his predator senses. She isn’t moving fast enough for him. He lashes out with his tiny fingers and claws at her face, his untrimmed fingernails are like x-acto blades, slicing through flesh so precisely that the wounds slide back together making the cuts invisible if not for the trickle of blood that runs from the corner of her eye to the opening of her ear.
There is no waiting, she sits up in bed, the cold night air is refreshing after the oppressive heat of his little body pressed up against her, his furnace fueling itself on her discomfort. She slips into slippers. Scooping his body up in her arms, this is the antithesis of what he wants. It is also wrong. She is supposed to feed him first and then change his diaper so that he doesn’t associate feeding with falling asleep. But she is lazy.
No, not lazy, she is fighting so hard. Every day she rows towards the horizon, working her whole body ceaselessly trying not to lose any more ground. But all the work means she has to make concessions for herself or the fight will overtake her. The boy will probably grow up to be a man who buys breast milk on mommy forums and uses it for his own sexual gratification.
She carries his squirming body into his vacant bedroom. The crib stands empty in the corner, never used, the bars a prison keeping her out, keeping her away from the intangible feeling of being a human person again.
Strapping him down to the changing table, his protests become hysterical. She hands him a rubber toy, a rhino or an octopus, but he bats it away. She knows what he wants. She hands him a half-empty bag of wipes. They are a choking hazard. He takes the crinkly plastic greedily and his screams slow so that she can hear where screams start and end.
His diaper is puffed to its maximum capacity, a damp spongy football. It’s a disposable diaper, a scourge, she is single-handedly making a mountain of garbage that will outlive the boy, outlive everyone she will ever know, and probably still be waiting to decompose when the sky fills with fire and the earth finally succumbs. On garbage days, she hides the bags of diapers in with the kitchen bags, not wanting the neighbours to know how wicked she is, how callous and uncaring and irresponsible. Why do they even sell disposable diapers? Shouldn’t they be jailing anyone who causes such environmental destruction? Such animal cruelty?
She carries all of this guilt upon her back. Her mother used cloth diapers, made homemade organic baby food, taught her the ABCs by the age of one. She tells herself that she has had a harder go of it and is deserving of these little indiscretions.
As she wipes under her son’s penis, she thinks about the last time she slept through the night. Not a year ago, further back then that. The first trimester had been a sluggish haze of round the clock morning sickness. Waves of nausea battered at her. She was so tired but the sleep was thin and roiling.
All of the second trimester she was wracked with nighttime heartburn so powerful that she would sit up at the dining room table and cry until she was so exhausted that sleep forcefully overtook her. The morning sickness never subsided like it was supposed to, and it followed her for nine months. She ate pretzels and nothing else. Unable to even drink water. Ballooning up, bigger than the doctor liked to see, her third trimester was characterized by loose joints, sliding and popping out of place. She couldn’t lie on her back or her front. Lying on her side made her hips radiate pain. Her knees and swollen ankles taunted her. There was no comfortable position.
Even before getting pregnant, she could remember many sleepless nights worried that she would never get pregnant. Dreams of red stains shook her awake at night. Fertility treatments would bankrupt them and then destroy their marriage.
Maybe it had been two years since she slept for more than two hours at a time, maybe longer. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, condemned by the United Nations. The boy slept, but only in her arms or lying on her chest in bed. During the day he would climb into her arms and nod off, holding her hostage sitting cross-legged on the floor, unable to eat, sleep, or pee. Somewhere he had picked up Guerilla warfare. Cult leaders did this too, kept their followers tired and malnourished so they were more pliable, more open to the power of suggestion and unable to think logically and make their escape. She worried the boy would grow up to be a narcissist, unable to see his faults, gaslighting and warping reality to his needs. He would become middle management, wielding his power to break the spirits of those who still loved their lives and saw wonder in the world.
She looks down at the boy strapped to the changing pad, he gnashes his little pearls of teeth at her. His screams devolve into insistent whimpering. He makes injured animal noises. Straining her tense back muscles, she hefts him onto her love handle where her hip is supposed to be. His legs flail and his weight finds no purchase, forcing her to carry his whole twenty-five-pound weight with her twisted spine, back to bed.
Women are supposed to be built to carry babies on their hips, a motherhood superpower. But the pregnancy left her a swollen shapeless being. Her belly is still stretched out of place and masking her hipbones. Lank are her core muscles, stretched out and pushed aside.
Her breasts are giant and heavy and nursing bras came in vague sizes like XL, no measurements or standards could describe what XL meant. Her maternity clothes look like a sad scarecrow costume, the jeans with the elastic belly too big and always sliding down. Her pre-pregnancy clothes are tight in odd places, under the armpits, the waistbands cutting through her, the shirts too short to hide her floppy belly.
The baby stole her body and left this one in its stead. She underwent her magical transformation from maiden to mother, only to discover that motherhood lasted only a moment before you descended directly into crone. Motherhood was encapsulated in a single tear, squeezed from her baby’s eye at the moment he took his first breath. As he was placed into her arms, the tear ran down his face and dripped onto her hospital robe and she was a mother for a beautiful glimmering second.
Their first perfect moments together were rushed along, he needed to be nursed, he needed to be weighed, he needed the heat of her body, he needed to be cleaned, or don’t clean him for the first three weeks to protect his immune system. Then she was a crone, the pain settling in, stitches first and if she was in good enough shape an embarrassing and painful walk to the bathroom on her leaden epidural legs. He had already sucked all of the calcium out of her bones, a plague that would follow her until a fall and a broken hip sounded the starting gun of her death.
She thought that seeing herself fat was going to be the hardest part of her new post-pregnancy body, at least this is what was told to her in a frenzied panic everywhere she looked but seeing herself in a reflection or a mirror was an indifferent act. The indifference was so engulfing, so final, that she didn’t see herself at all anymore. She was just the crone now.
Her emotional suffering had been so great that the doctors, after stitching her up after childbirth, had elected to perform brain surgery, transplanting her brain into a different body. There were no good fresh happy bodies available, and why would there be, those desirable bodies would never be abandoned, left to be inhabited by waisting broken people. The only bodies to pick from were the lumpy bodies, knots up top and long slack rows of bubbly fat below. This new body was numb in the good spots and pained everywhere else.
Laying beside the boy she brings out her sore breast and lifts the nipple to his mouth. Fussy and hesitant at first, he finally relents and began to drink. He holds her hostage to suck the life out of her.
She pulls out her phone to log the feeding, check the time, switch breasts at the appropriate juncture, and log another feeding. Normally, this is how she falls asleep. They would drift off together, him with a full belly and her so famished and empty she could not manage anything other than collapsing into restless nothingness.
Tonight, in the unending darkness of the bedroom, she can’t sleep. His little breaths fall into a soft rhythm. But she lays awake, wrapped around him, stealing what little room remains in the bed. Awkwardly, her arm raised above his head, her neck tensed to support her skull, she stares into the inescapable blue light of her phone.
Scrolling through the endless nothingness of vacation shots with everyone dressed uncharacteristically sporty, and galleries of nostalgic fashion from the MTV Music Video Awards from 1997, she switches instead to a forum where people post videos of hands with sharp little tools extracting pimples and squeezing cysts until they erupt in volcanos of pus and gore. The ingrown hairs, like a trip by airboat through the Everglades where beleaguered trees, who grow spindly out of three feet of stagnant water are pulled out by their roots, surprisingly long and invasive. Hard white tonsilloliths are squeezed out and fall onto people’s soft pink tongues. Every super close-up of a giant blackhead being dug out of the roughed crevasse of an elderly man’s ear sent a shiver of satisfaction down her spine.
It is her secret joy. The utilitarianism of the tools, stainless steel with sharp points, comforted her. Simple procedures, done the same way a million times. The straightforward need to be clean and vacant is so gratifying.
The emptying is what she wanted. The empty pores made her happy. She imagines applying a thick layer of goo, like the silicone they used to make moulds of people’s heads, over her entire body. The goo would be heavy and cold, making her limbs first heavy, then immobile, like she is encased in concrete. Then the goo would be peeled back taking with it every bit of debris in every pore on her body, the fine hairs on her arms, the whiteheads around her nose, the dark coarse pubic hairs, the grit deep in the corners of her toenails, the shard of stone embedded in her knee, her eyebrows and eyelashes, the secret bumps and lumps on her scalp and every flake of dandruff. Uncovered, she would be a blank. Then she could make herself new, regrow everything from scratch. She wants to be fresh and pale and clean.
Thinking about being empty makes her stomach rumble. Slipping her hand out of the rumple of her husband’s hair and her arm from the boy’s surround, she extricates herself from the hot sweaty bed. In a housecoat and slippers, she pads into the kitchen.
Pulling up the step stool, she sits in the threshold of the open refrigerator door, its colourless light illuminating a slice of kitchen. The dog, an equally tormented friend, woken by her shuffle past the living room couch, saddles up beside her. She opens a container of leftovers, ripping off a piece of porkchop and tossing it to the dog; this is their secret, though she is sure that her husband has similar covert dealings with the pooch. Pulling open the drawer where the cheese and cold cuts are kept; she peels off slices of black forest ham, unwraps slices of American cheese, and lays them upon her tongue.
This was enough sodium for a week. If other mothers knew she fed her son these things, just piling them on the tray of his highchair to distract him from pulling the dog’s ears, they would cluck among themselves, eyeing their own organic Carib chip children as superior. He used to eat bananas and peaches, the boy used to eat hummus smeared on chunks of peeled cucumber, but now it’s only ham and cheese.
He’s going to grow up with high blood pressure and clogged arteries, the doctor will warn him, tell him to give up beer and fried foods, and take up jogging, but he won’t do those things. He will say he doesn’t want to live without his creature comforts, that it’s not living at all. The week of her sixty-fifth birthday, he will have emergency triple bypass surgery and be unable to attend her party. His liver will fail and due to his weight and unhealthy lifestyle, a donor will never become available.
She opens Tupperware at random, looking for something to fill her. Stained orange from ancient tomato sauce, they all contain a different congealed rice dish. She hates reheated rice. All the good leftovers don’t get pushed to the back of the fridge. Anything comforting is already gone. Anything good doesn’t even make it to leftovers.
Raw asparagus and cabbage cannot be eaten without preparation. A jar of chartreuse pesto is filled with potential, but cold in the middle of the night it is nothing. Everything in her life feels worthless if she doesn’t slave over it.
Continuing her inventory, ketchup and mayonnaise she puts in the maybe if nothing else better comes up column, a spoonful of ancient and forgotten grape jelly could work, and a swig of coffee creamer sounds comforting in theory. There are individual yogurt cups, but she can’t bring herself to eat them. Those little plastic cups are strangling the planet and as long as they are uneaten in her fridge she is holding back the tide of world-destroying pollution. The boy will grow up in a world where humanity lives under the weight of the garbage of previous generations. He will be a scavenger, carrying the shards of fibreglass shower enclosures on his back to trade them in for tokens redeemable for freshwater. At the end of the week, if he has been frugal he will have enough tokens leftover for admission to watch as the old and infirm compete in a pub trivia-style test of pop culture history factoids, where the losers get left out on the ice.
She pulls a carrot out of the produce drawer, unwashed, she dips it into a bottle of caesar dressing. The thick garlicky dressing overwhelms her dull senses. Crunching through the carrot, she considers this a healthy snack, but it doesn’t fill her empty stomach. She gives the knobby head of the carrot to the dog and he takes it begrudgingly.
There are a dozen eggs neatly lined up, undisturbed in their carton, waiting for a magical breakfast where she wakes well rested and eager to make fluffy scrambled eggs, silver dollar pancakes, soft gummy bacon, and buttered toast. Her husband would pad down the stairs, and she would hand him a cup of coffee, they would eat in lazy silence. This is never going to happen, like a million other things she misses from her previous life.
A single egg is cool and perfect in her hand. Its smooth surface glows in the sharp refrigerator light. She makes eye contact with the dog, who raises his eyebrows incredulously. The dog’s face was always unbelieving, yearning and hungry for news. He could eat a whole egg with no problem and it would make his coat full and shiny. She rubs the eggshell against her teeth, bone against bone. If she bit into the egg, the crispy crunch of shell between her teeth would be so satisfying, but swallowing the little shards would be agony.
In Burkina Faso, they believe that Amma was an egg encompassing the entirety of the universe within herself, being all things. She planted a seed inside of herself splitting her egg into female and male. In utero, her son, grew restless of waiting while his mother meticulously created the world, ripping his way out of his mother’s body, he collected the blood and placenta and cast it upon her world, determined to make something of his own. But only one day old, he could not fathom how much he did not know and the damage his actions inflicted upon the world. Even the great and powerful mothers are slaves to their kin.
Bathed in the rolling cool of the refrigerator, she cracks the eggs on the edge of the self in front of her and delicately peels back the cap. Bringing the shot glass of egg up to her lips, she makes eye contact with the dog who furrows his brow in a longing way. The egg slowly slides from its shell, sitting idly in her mouth until the airlock of the eggshell releases and the final strings of white goo leave their confines. She swallows the egg, which is a bigger slimier mouth full than any briny oyster. The empty shell goes back into its waiting spot in the carton.
The slick of the egg slithers down her throat and she tracks its progress like a pill swallowed hard without water. It sits for a moment at the bottom of her ribcage, where the valve separates her esophagus from her digestive tract, hovering in the final position while her body decides whether it’s going to be an automatic regurgitation or not. The valve opens and it proceeds. She still may puke, but now she will get a warning.
The further into her body the egg travels the stronger she feels. Her body craves protein. She dreams of platters of sashimi, beef carpaccio and beef tartar. The refrigerator’s tiny motor ticked up, buzzing harder and stronger, blowing cold air onto her naked legs. She imagines she is in the grocery store, sitting among the plastic-wrapped trays of ground beef, red and dripping.
Behind the egg carton is a tri-tip beef roast wrapped in butcher paper. Sitting it in her lap, the roast is heavy and dense the same way a newborn is, swaddled compactly and completely passive. She peels back the paper and examined the flesh, blood drips onto her housecoat.
Yesterday morning, the boy had been tottering along when he toppled landing squarely on his bum, a regular fall from a child who tripped and tumbled constantly. But this time he screamed. He cried so hard that each scream was delineated by gasping silences where he struggled to regain his breath to scream again. She scooped him up in her arms, running her hands over his fingers and toes, his forehead, the back of his neck. Something had to be the matter. Then with a gurgling cough, he spat blood onto her face and neck, and down the front of her housecoat. With his seven teeth, he had bitten the tip of his tongue. Nothing dangled and no stitches were needed, but the blood poured out of his mouth in a never-ending saliva slicked stream. The sight of his blood, once her blood, triggered an animal instinct she had never felt before. More urgent than fight or flight, integrated deep in her reflexive senses, adrenaline coursed directly through her brain, pooling in the gyri and sulci. The need to stop the bleeding narrowed her pupils to pinpoints. She breathed fast.
When his cries finally subsided, the blood pooled and dribbled out of the side of his mouth as he played on the floor. The nurse on the phone said it would stop on its own. She said everything would be fine, except if he couldn’t lift his arms, or if he didn’t stop screaming, or if he was too quiet, or if he couldn’t take deep breaths, or if he developed a fever, in that case, it was an emergency. The nurse’s words were terrifying in their nonchalance.
Once the boy’s initial shock had worn off, he began to revel in the curious phenomenon of the endless blood; licking his arm and doodling in the blood with his finger. For her the shock never wore off, the sight of his blood shook something so deep within her that the aftershocks would be felt for years.
The boy ran around the house, as if this was any other day, leaving a slippery red snail trail behind him. She did four loads of laundry in cold water, to try and save all of their clothes from the rusty stains, but after twenty-four hours of scouring the house, drips and drops still evaded notice. The wheel of a tricycle would leave a sticky repeating pattern on the floor when ridden. A tiny thumbprint was hidden among the folds of the cream curtains. A fat red drop soaked in on the back of the dog’s white head.
She worried her horrified reaction, the faces she made, her high-pitched voice, her tears, and her heavy breathing, would make the boy fear the sight of blood. Never would he become a phlebotomist. Girls on his dorm floor would brandish bloody tampons to watch him swoon. He would carry their laughter with him forever.
Red saliva burrowed into the folds in his neck and twisted the ends of his hair into bloody dreads. Confining him to the bathtub, the boy stuck suction cups to the tiled wall and the water turned rosy.
She imagined his little body tied up with butchers twine, rolled in a crust of peppercorns, garlic, and rosemary. The boy would fit perfectly in her roasting pan, the reservoirs in the bottom of the pan waiting to catch his buttery drippings. She called his arms chicken wings and his legs drum sticks and nibbled them to make him laugh, their flesh soft and untanned like raw chicken.
She looks down at the roast in her lap. Yesterday’s blood is still on her robe, the stains set. Through the dark house, she hears a shuddering cry, followed by her husband calling her name. He’s awake and he needs you. The time on the microwave lets her know two hours have passed and he wants to be fed again. All her time was gone again.
Rewrapping the roast and depositing it in the fridge, she shoos the dog out of the way. Padding back into the bedroom, the boy cries with his whole body, his arms and legs convulsing with his effort. Her husband is already asleep.
She looks down at the boy. Fat tears pour out under his clenched eyelids. Everything feels so foreign to him. Nothing has led him to believe that this world would be anything but just and forgiving, he cannot possibly know the unfathomable depths of the ocean of pain he will be cast adrift in, he is still on the beach, his toes in the sand and his face in the sun.
Watching him, tense with uncalibrated panic, her hardened heart softens. She wanted him to live on the beach his whole life, always be the heartbreaker, never be the odd man out. Her whole life had been filled with unacceptable injustices and a chorus of people who echoed that there was nothing you could do, what was done was done, life isn’t fair, just relax. She makes a promise to herself that she will never regurgitate an empty idiom to her son. When the bad things inevitably start to roll in on the tide, she will press him against her deformed body and agree it isn’t fair, everything is broken and the people who say otherwise are the most afraid.
She will teach him bravery first, before tying his shoes and reciting the alphabet. Bravery will be the earth his foundation is built upon. More than anything she cannot let her son grow up to be afraid. He can’t be afraid like his mother.
Laying beside him, she cradles his head in her hand, bringing his mouth to her breast. As he suckles, she whispers to him in the dark; don’t worry buddy, you’re not alone. I’m scared too.