Wednesday, September 06, 2006
The Birth
(I'm living in revision-hell...working on cleaning/cutting/revising various stories, making them shiny and suitable for my thesis that will be due before I'm ready, I'm sure. Here is one of the stories on which most all of my creative efforts are currently being spent. An earlier version of it was posted a few months ago on The Stealing Season.)

Stillborn. It was the week before Christmas and they couldn't bury her because the ground was frozen. Her small body was cremated instead and Mom ordered a silver pendant to hold some of the ashes.

That was how my sister came home from the hospital, encased in a heart shaped pendant strung around Mom's neck and resting on the ivory ridge of her collarbone.

Before the birth, the house had been humming with anticipation. A Christmas baby, like baby Jesus, Mom told us. Her belly button was nubbed out and poking through her turtlenecks and nightshirts. It's the baby's toe, she said while pressing our hands to her swollen stomach. This one, see, she reached down and squeezed our big toes. My brother and I giggled with her, wee wee wee, all nestled together in her bed.

We were allowed to sleep there when Daddy was away. We almost hated for him to return, knowing that we'd be sent to our cold little beds, apart from her soft skin and warm breath.

Daddy made trips to the city for business. All of the money's in Boston, he said, nothing up here but potatoes and craft stores. In the summers, we'd pack up and go with him for the eight-hour stretch down I-95. Mom would take us to museums or the beach while Daddy worked. And on the weekends, we'd drive down to the Cape for a taste of the best clams on Earth before making the trek back north to Presque Isle. Willy would sleep against my shoulder on the ride home. I'd stay awake with my cheek pressed against the cool glass, listening to the soothing cadence of my parent's hushed conversations and the constant hum of the wheels meeting the road beneath us.

We never went with Daddy in the winter. The icy roads and threats of Nor'easters kept us up north, between white skies and thick layers of snow.

Being big, Mom spent the last couple of weeks of her pregnancy sitting beside the window in the living room knitting or cross-stitching. She soaked her feet in plastic tubs and drank mugs of tea swirled with cream and sugar. I helped around the house, fetching whatever she needed and sneaking sugar cubes to Willy. We ate them together in the hallway. He'd stick three or four in his mouth at a time and chew until his tongue was heavy with a shiny pile of dissolving mush. I ate mine slowly, sucking them down to grainy bits that tickled my throat when I swallowed.

Gramma came in the afternoons to help with supper. Here, Sarah Jane, she'd say, putting a bowl in front of me and cracking the eggs inches from my face. They stretched before me in wobbly translucent globs that caught the light just before splattering onto the pile of pink meat.

Mash. She told me, twisting her hands in front of her apron to demonstrate. She stood at the counter beside me, chopping onions with hard deliberate strokes. The juice misted between us as my fingers wriggled through the bowl of meat and eggs. Here, she slid the white bits into the bowl with one scrape of her knife down the cutting board. I pushed them down, burying the crisp pieces in three quick squeezes.

When I was a girl, I knew the name of my dinner, she said without looking at me. Gramma had grown up on a farm. Her hands were hard from it and the skin on her face was weathered. Deep creases framed her eyes and lips, her brows were forever furrowed. She had been witnessing pigs to slaughter and plucking chickens since she was as young as Willy.

I tried to imagine doughy little Willy working on a farm, his milky cheeks flushed pink and dirty. Suspenders slipping down his narrow shoulders and mud caked on the knees of his dungarees. His wispy blond hair, dusty and matted against his head with the exception of a defiant swirly cowlick, pointing sunward.

All set? Gramma asked, looking down at me. I'd stopped mashing. My hands were soft and slimy with cold meat. I pulled them out from the bowl, meat sludge was wedged under my nails. I nodded.

Wash up, then go see if your mother needs anything. She lifted the bowl from under my nose and scooted me from my stool. You'll need to be helping her with things when they bring the baby home. She said as I ran my meat-mucked hands beneath a stream of hot water.

William! She called to my brother in the living room as I dried my hands. Come and help your Gramma in the kitchen!

He bounded past me, a blur of blond energy. His shiny pink tongue wagged from the corner of his mouth. He was no farmboy.

In the living room, Mom had her hands on her belly. Her eyes were closed and I stood for a moment, watching her from the doorway. She was beautiful, even while pregnant and swollen. She had chocolate hair that held curls and round green eyes framed in a wreath of dark lashes. I liked to imagine that I'd look like her one day. We shared the same delicate dotting of freckles over our noses and the same ivory skin. But, I had Daddy's hazel eyes and wheat blonde hair that fell limp as wet straw over my shoulders.

When her eyes opened, she smiled and patted the couch beside her. I think the baby's sleepin' she whispered. She lifted her arm and pulled me close to her soft side. We sat quietly, her hand gently smoothing over my hair. I listened to her slow breaths and felt her heart pulsing against my arm.

I tried imagined her as a girl, curling up beside Gramma's small hard waist, wrapped beneath her wiry arms. No soft place to rest her head.


Tucked and bundled in scarves and mittens and puffy snowsuits zippered and pinching the soft skin of our chins, we went outside to wait for Daddy. Willy wobbled down the steps crunching snow under his moon boots and whining that he couldn't bend his knees. Mom and Gramma and I stayed on the porch, waiting. Our noses were ruddy and my toes pinched with cold. Mom shifted her weight from side to side and clicked her tongue. Her breath sent curly wisps of steam into the sky, the next car will be him. Dusk settled in around us, swallowing us in its purple haze. The streetlight clicked on, sending light shimmering across our slick white lawn.

C'mon, Mom finally rubbed her gloved hand on the top of my head. Supper will be cold if we wait much longer. She turned to Gramma, shoulders slumped, then called for Willy to come in.

We ate dinner without him. Mom's soft voice lilted over the scratch of the knife as she cut the meat on Willy's plate. Lavender's blue, dilly, dilly. Lavender's green, dilly, dilly. When you are King, dilly, dilly. I shall be Queen. The lullaby wavered gently across the table as I picked at my supper. Gramma watched Mom from the head of the table, her plate untouched.

It's just the snow, Mom said catching Gramma's eye. He'll be here soon.

And he'll stay for a long time. Willy chimed in as though reciting the next line of a poem, his cheeks round with potato.

That's right, this time he stays for a whole month. She nodded at Willy, who smiled and swung his legs under the table, kicking my knees.

Gramma tightened her jaw and looked down at her plate, her eyebrows arched. She acted like this whenever Daddy was late or when he didn't show at all. She acted like this when he asked us not to come down over the summer. It seemed the bigger Mom got, the more often Gramma pinched her face with disapproval at the mention of my father, the more often he gave her reason to.

She even frowned when he eventually made it home for Thanksgiving. As we hugged him, our faces pressed into his cold jacket, Mom's belly bumped over my shoulders, Willy squirmed and squeezed closer and closer, pushing until we were mashed into one being, eight-legged, huddled tight. Rising above our happy breaths was the scraping of silverware on plates, cold gravy and stuffing and turkey skins, the sound of Gramma clearing the table.


He didn't make it home before we left the table. He didn't call until after we were tucked in for the night, each in our own bed.

The explosive ring of the phone startled the house. I heard Mom gasp and pull herself from the couch. Gramma stopped running the dishwater in the kitchen. The entire house held its breath in between the hollow rings. I sat up, clutching a fistful of blanket to my neck and watching as shadowed footsteps passed beneath the crack of my bedroom door. One step. Two steps. Three.


I slid my feet from the warm sheets and crept across the wide wood planks to the door. There, spread to the floor, flat on my belly, my chin pressed on a grainy board, I strained to listen.

Car. Bangor. Broke-down. Mom spoke to Gramma in hoarse whispers as I heard the reciever settle back into its cradle.

You can't tell me you really believe this. Gramma's voice was not hushed. I listened as she followed my mother's footsteps down the hall, Not this time, Carrie. Not again.

Keys scraped down the length of the table and I heard the muffled sounds of a coat zippering, then boots pacing. There were more whispers, followed by the heaving sound of the front door opening, sucking in the night air. Carrie, please. I heard Gramma plead before the door shuddered shut and the house fell silent.

~ ~ ~

The next morning, we were up before dawn.

Gramma pulled us from our beds and bundled us in coats, scarves and gloves. She pulled boots over Willy's footed pajamas as he whined and asked for Mom. I wore pants beneath my nightgown and boots still cold and soggy from playing in yesterday's snow. Gramma was nearly silent, saying only what needed to be said. Button up. Get in the car.

Outside, the pre-dawn world was in a vacuum, so strong it sucked the breath from my lips as the door slapped behind us. The world was dusky blue and frozen still, as silent as death. Even the snow had stopped.

The sky changed from behind the frosted windows as the car slowly crunched over the bumpy roads to the highway. The sun emerged in slow streaks of light seeping through cracks in the charcoal clouds and breathing life back into the world. We began to pass houses with lights on and diners with cars parked in front. We weren't alone afterall.

By the time we reached the interstate, Willy was asleep with his head on my shoulder. I carefully leaned forward and whispered, Gramma? She didn't turn to me, but in the rearview, I saw her lips twitch and her brows lift. Where are we going?


When we arrived at the hospital, Daddy met us at the car. His face was tired, his skin sagging. The whites of his eyes were dull and streaked with red. I hugged him hard, pressing my nose into his chest. His scent was sweeter than I remembered, his arms felt limp on my shoulders.

Let's go. Gramma walked ahead of us, stepping quickly with her sharp elbows bent and swinging, her hand clutching the thick strap of her purse.

Inside, the room was white and empty. No signs of a baby or a birth about to take place, only Mom, sleeping with plastic tubes dangling and feeding into her arm. She looked small in the bed, a sliver of color in the bare bleached room.

Gramma swooped beside her. She spread herself around my mother, a bird protecting her nest. Her angled shoulders curved around Mom's chest, her usually sharp elbows softened as her arms spread wide stretching the length of the my mother.

What happened? I asked quietly, turning to my father, did she have the baby?

Daddy looked helplessly to me then to Gramma. She remained quietly perched over my mother, not meeting my father's gaze.

Mommy was in an accident. My father finally spoke, and the baby was hurt.

Is Mommy ok? Willy asked, pressing his head beneath Gramma's outstretched arms. He rested his chin on Moms legs.

She's going to be fine. Daddy's voice cracked. He stepped toward the bed. Gramma bristled.

I suppose it all depends what you consider fine, she said firmly before her posture collapsed and she poured herself across my mother. Her thin arms draped over my mother's chest. Her head rested on the soft bump of my mother's stomach.

Why couldn't you just come home? Her cries were muffled in the soft folds of blanket, her voice both strong and weak.

I turned to my father. His jaw clenched then softened and his lips fell apart, wordless. In his silence, I slowly placed my hand in his, curling my fingers into the soft heat of his palm. I stood, watching his eyes and waiting for an answer that didn't come.

Instead he squeezed my hand, What do you say we go for a little walk? He took a step back, stretching my arm. But I slid my hand from his and stood for a moment in the space between, feeling the weight of their silence as it smoothed over my shoulders and down the length of my body and to my feet, damp and itching in yesterday's slushy boots.

At Mom's bedside, Gramma moved to pull Willy beneath her arm. Where did they take the baby? He asked her, lifting his hand to the curve of my mother's stomach. Gramma's lips opened then closed and she moved her chin to his forehead without saying a word. Her eyes stayed on Mom.

I turned to my father, leaned against the doorframe. His eyes following the dulled squares of linoleum that stretched beyond Mom's room, his large hands hanging uselessly at his sides.

It's too cold for a walk. I finally spoke, looking down, watching my words as they drew a line to my father's feet. His black boots moved upon their arrival, two steps into the hall and then disappeared. I could hear them, even over the hush of my grandmother murmering into Willy's forehead and over the bustle of the nurse's station. Over gurney wheels scraping down the linoleum and the shuddering of doors opening and closing, above the strains of curtains pulling and televisions chattering. Beyond the walls and the shuffling of the corridor, I heard them, as though he were beside me still. The simple strength of his footfalls, walking away.

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Blogger chuck said...


It takes such courage to revisit the most painful places... Thanks...

Blogger Mella said...

Thank you Chuck for your kindness and encouragement. Thankfully though, this is only a work of fiction.

(Though, it does seem to be taking courage to revisit this particular work repeatedly to try to get it right...)

Blogger LJ said...

Oh that was SO worth revision hell! Really strong, Mella.

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