This story, originally published in Ligeia and Goat’s Milk, was republished in the latest volume of Caustic Frolic (available in a flipbook format with somewhat problematic formatting, a beautifully designed PDF, and their website). Thank you to the wonderful team at NYU for working with me on edits for the story.
All day I’ve struggled not to remember the day, but my cramp has been building, and I sit clutching my belly. I confront my dinner, seeking the culprit: another thing to eliminate.
My coffee’s decaf. (Decaf is safest after heart surgery, so I’m hoping it’ll help prevent heart surgery.) No dairy. (When I was five, I had diarrhoea after a pint of ice-cream: I might be lactose-intolerant.) White bread-and-vegan-mayo sandwiches. (Grandma has high cholesterol.)
Nothing left to eliminate: everything that could hurt me is already gone.
All day I’ve kept my eyes on my work, but now they steal towards where Aurora’s portrait used to hang. We got an old-fashioned studio portrait on her first birthday. Afterwards, I was desperately relieved to have one more thing to hold on to. But it became one more thorn in my heart: so the portrait’s gone, leaving behind its spot on the wall.
I stare at the telly. I’ve muted it: less scary so. A microwave has exploded in a Munich flat. “This was probably an accident,” says the reporter in subtitle, “Though police are considering arson…” Resident had a vengeful ex-boyfriend, who’s been spotted lurking in the neighbourhood. Fortunately, resident was dispatched on last-minute work trip last night. “The property damage is minimal, though the noise frightened neighbours…”
My throat clamps closed. Forcing it open, with swallows of sugar-free milk-free caffeine-free coffee, I absorb the news. Munich’s just 6,000km away. What if Savazios had blown up my microwave? Aurora’s death wasn’t my fault, but he blamed me: I saw it in his eyes.
Time to lock away my microwave. Why have I deferred this? Grandpa warned us about microwaves. He was prescient: splashed across every newspaper, now, is: Cancer! I confront my Sunday dinner. Yes: I’ll make do with cold sandwiches and cold-stirred decaf every day. Hot food today isn’t worth the risk of being blown up tomorrow. I unplug my microwave-oven. I’ll eBay it later; for now, I haul it out of sight: to the storeroom, formerly Savazios’s office.
It’s a small room; it’s been a long three years. I nudge the door half-open. Photoframes, anniversary-gifts, and rocks and twigs picked off the forest floor on weekend walks half-spill out. (We didn’t call our walks ‘hikes’ or ‘forest bathing’ – that was hipster, and we felt smug together, resisting fads. But our smugness was airy: it left room for laughter and fresh air.) I thrust the microwave-oven into the clutter. I relock the storeroom-door, and slump against it, massaging my belly.
I’m used to grief cramps – what the doctors call psychosomatic symptomology. Now I get them only on significant dates. I’ve locked away the calendars: but my gut masochistically marks time.
Today’s cramp is worse. It’s sapped my self-control: I’ve allowed myself to say their names. I swore not to do this to myself. Someday I’ll confront the past. Meanwhile, it’s only sense to lock away the things that can cripple me. Microwaves and photoframes. From my cardigan-pocket, I dry-swallow another paracetamol. Tomorrow I’ll awake cramp-free and memory-free. I heave myself up and clear away my half-eaten dinner.
I finish my assignment: blueprints for Manchester’s first pagoda. I sign my name. Anna Rossi. I seal the blueprints in an envelope. I can’t face leaving the flat today. I’ll nip down to the lobby early tomorrow, when only the guard’s nodding, under his cap, over his desk.
I was an architect. Good enough that when I became housebound, they let me draft from home. I am an architect. I can still see a few buildings through my windows, and as many buildings as I want in the books I get delivered to my lobby.
Time for bedtime checks. Windows: now opened a chink (don’t want to suffocate); opened no more. (Last December, in Tours, a pigeon flew through a window into a flat, couldn’t fly out again, shit and flapped all over, terrified, and terrorised the old couple, one of whom then had a heart attack.) Rubbish-bin, lidded and lifted for the night onto the counter. (Yesterday, in the lift, a resident told her great-grandson there’d been rats on her honeymoon ocean-liner in 1923.) Rat-traps: set. Radiators: not leaking. Power-sockets: not afire.
Bedtime. I spend the first half of the night drifting in and out of nightmares. They’re abating: now, when I awaken, I remember them for a half-second – then they’re gone.
Sleepless, I run checks a few more times. There’s not much left, now, to check.
Past midnight, I awake, gasping. My gut feels ready to slip out my backside. Convulsions sit me up, then double me over. Even gasping hurts. Is it my gut? I’ve eaten nothing unusual. Nor does this feel like grief cramps.
Suddenly it’s here and I’m on my feet and I realise what this is. Arms clutching abdomen, I stumble to the bathroom. My head swims. How can it be? Savazios left weeks after Aurora died. I’ve been alone three years.
In the bathroom, I lower my pyjama shorts. With a final convulsion my body ejects something. I feel it in my pants: a puddle, slimy soft. Well, I know what to do. This time, I didn’t know I was pregnant; I can’t possibly be, yet here we are. I perch on the bathtub’s edge and plant my feet, knees apart. I ease my pants down around my knees. In a puddle of mucous and blood – swim two mites of flesh: hairless, obscenely nude, squirming.
What have I given birth to? Another monstrosity. Panic cramps my larynx. Vividly I see myself fleeing the scene. That’s what I should’ve done three years ago: fled this flat, where only guilt lives, bashing its head against the empty walls.
I massage my larynx. Gently I lower my pants to the white tiles. I squat. I peer. The mites of flesh are two creatures, each about an inch long. Their skin is a transparent sac: taut over pink-and-black innards, sealing in the black dots that represent eyes and ears. I know what I’ve had. Rats.
Does their skin seal in their mouths, too? How will they eat? I offer a fingertip. Breath, tiny but warm, scopes me; then two tiny mouths nudge my fingertip, and toothless gums nibble me. So: the sacs don’t seal the mouths. They can eat.
I withdraw my hand. I must make this decision rationally. Undecided, I squat and stare. My cramp disappeared the moment I ejected these things. I could flush them down the toilet, incinerate my pants – and, tomorrow, resume normal life. I didn’t ask for any of this. I am not guilty.
My hand’s found its way over to the mites again. They nose blindly around my fingertip, seeking a teat. They whine.
If I were thinking, I’d be again overcome with revulsion, paralysed. I’m no longer thinking. I scoop them up in a white terry hand-towel, clean them up as best I can – they’re tiny and I’m afraid of squishing them – and carry them in the palm of my hand to the fridge.
Here’s the milk-carton. (I still keep milk: in case a starving streetcat sneaks through the window-chink, and only a milk-offering can save me from her wrath.) In my palm the two morsels wriggle, rearranging themselves, seeking the warmest crannies. They’re cold. I must heat the milk.
I reopen the storeroom. The microwave-oven topples into my arms. I microwave the milk, one second at a time. I remember: it must be warm, not hot. I’m not used to microwaving a thimbleful of milk. But I remember to check the temperature with my elbow.
My babies love to sniff!
I’ve set them down right at the saucer: still they sniff blindly around, wriggling away; it’s sniffing that brings them wriggling back to the saucer. They sniff while they drink. They knead the saucer, as if it were rat-teats they must knead to release milk. Sniffing, snorting, they get milk-soaked. All through this they’re fully-blind, half-asleep. After their meal I swaddle them in a fresh hand-towel, tucking it around them, their noses unobstructed.
Again I confront the storeroom-door. For three years I’ve been half-opening the door, shoving things in. Now I need to step inside. I thrust the door open. Things spill out. I kick them back in. Then, remembering, I kneel, pick them up, fight my way in, and lay down further inside the things that’ve toppled out. Here’s Muncher’s crate.
Muncher died peacefully at 21, after a short illness: he felt no pain, and I felt no surprise. Still his loss, treading on the heels of the others, overwhelmed me. I vowed: no more pets.
I dust Muncher’s crate, bed down inside it my babies towel-swaddled, and lock the door. I’ve never raised rat-babies: better safe than sorry. Dog-crate by my pillow, feeding-alarms set for every half-hour, I go to bed. Perhaps this is just another nightmare.
I half-hope it isn’t. I’ve been clinging to what my life has become. Now I see what my life had become.
The alarm awakens me. I’d fallen asleep! Fully asleep. I lie, in the darkness, waiting for the nightmares to recede. Looks like this time I wasn’t having any. Through the grill I check my babies. Under my two forefingers, two tiny heartbeats race.
All week, my babies’ bodies stay pink-skinned, their eyes and ears skin-sealed. All day I watch them: sleeping, feeding, whining, squirming. Checking again for abnormalities, I run my finger down their tiny bodies, palpitating with their heartbeats impossibly fast – but normal, Google reassures me. Their bones are spongy as cartilage. Again I count their appendages: four toes, plus one ankle-hoof. Tiny toes, whittled by microscopic elves.
Skilled elves: my babies are perfect and there’s nothing wrong with them.
Under the translucent skin-sacs, their facial features grow. Then they protrude. Into the smooth eye-sockets protrude rubbery black raisins. From either side of the skull protrude tiny rosebuds. Their eyes and ears are coming.
I tried putting my babies in the kitchen, in the sun, while I worked: but I kept nipping around to pore over them. So now I keep them by me. I peep at them every minute – but my work’s getting done, too. Details over which I’d vacillated for hours now fall into place. How I was ever so silly as to agonise over trivia? I carry them around, even on bathroom-breaks: tucked into my cardigan pockets, lined with paper napkins. This phase – I remember – won’t last: this blind, deaf, total dependence.
They mustn’t suffocate. So, at night, instead of closing the windows to a chink, now I leave them half-open.
The eighth morning, my final feeding-alarm awakens me from a sleep still nightmare-free, but awakens me to panic. Across our bed, sunrays fall, aslant, on something sick-shiny. My babies have wriggled, out of towel and crate, up against my calf. But what’s wrong with them? Why do they lie, unmoving, where Aurora lay that morning? My heart is preemptively bursting, preparing me for tragedy. But, this time, my resolve is steeling me to deal with it. Nobody knows about my rat-babies. If they’ve died, again for no fault of my own, I shall flush them down the toilet.
I sit up and fumble at them. My eyes adjust to the sun in them. Now I see. Fur!
It’s just fur, that they’ve begun growing: still thin and colourless, but already lustrous. That’s all the sick-shine was. Laughing, I clutch my babies to my bosom. They wriggle and squirm. Flush my babies down the toilet, indeed! I hear the hysteria in my laugh; only now that the terror has passed do I feel it shaking me. My hysteria ebbs, leaving only soft relief.
At two weeks old, their eyes open: black and sleepy. Their ears pop free of their skulls and nestle, still flat, in their fur. The fur’s gray now, but still just a dusting, just shielding their raw pink nudity. Baby fur, softer than safety.
Three weeks. I run my finger down their backs, neck to tail. They’re as long as my index finger. Springy muscle, and bones no longer spongy, resist my finger, now. Life is growing up, against. But they’re still babies: they whine with pleasure, and squirm into my fingertip massage.
I watch them constantly; still, again, their next metamorphosis happens overnight. I bid my half-nude mites goodnight, and awaken to find them in fur coats big and fancy. They’ve been playing Castle between the crenellations of my toes. Hearing me laugh, they come scurrying, nosing my lips, welcoming me to their new day, unself-conscious of their new beauty.
At four weeks old, the dull gray of their infant fur differentiates into their adult colours. One baby is mostly cocoa, the other wheat. I give Cocoa and Wheatie the run of the flat. Hither and thither they scurry and scamper: whiskers quivering, pink noses glistening.
Always their globe-trotting expeditions terminate at the Bermuda Triangle: the storeroom-door. They rear up: forepaws hanging, fore-wrists lax. They turn on me black eyes glistening, begging. I open the storeroom-door – but don’t let them in. If they got in amongst my life’s rubbish, I’d never find them again.
I go in alone to retrieve toys for my babies. The books I bought after my losses. Books on trauma, grief, and healing. Cocoa shreds them into ribbons.
I retrieve Muncher’s toys. To a rubber chew-ball textured, tennis-ball-sized, Wheatie clings two-handed, like a drunken pilot, whiskers wriggling like Medusa’s snake hair. Heart in mouth I watch her. What if she topples backwards and gets steamrolled by the tennis-ball? But, dancing awkwardly, she stays aloft.
They fish out a fountain-pen from the calligraphy set I gave Savazios on our first anniversary. Savazios never filled the pens: he’d always wanted to try calligraphy, but even with a set he never got around to it. And he took nothing with him when he left: not even his clothes. He had the right idea: walk away from everything. When did I appoint myself museum-curator of our lives?
“I’m the world’s worst museum-curator,” I confess to Cocoa, scratching her neck with the pristine gold always-empty nib. “Exhibits all tossed away in the backroom, unlabelled.” Cocoa’s got an idiosyncratic pleasure-point right of centre from where her skull meets her torso; a brief scratch here has saved me many reward-pellets during training. As I scratch, Cocoa’s eyes close, hoarding the privacy of her pleasure. Her right hindleg windmills: she thinks she’s scratching herself.
I laugh. When will she outgrow her silliness? Muncher never did. Affection surging, I squeeze Cocoa. Her jaws close on my forefinger. Playfully, pressureless – but lightning-fast. My babies’ nonhumanness astonishes me.
Also astonishing: I’ve remembered what to do.
I thought I’d forgotten. I thought forgetting was my only hope.
On hindlegs, Wheatie spends hours peering out the balcony-door, which I’ve kept locked since the prank.
A harmless prank: but, coming when it did, it did me in. First, we lost Aurora, weeks before her second birthday. She’d been born with a unique heart defect: the doctors had given her two years. Savazios and I blamed one another when she was born. Not in words: but, for us, there were no more walks-not-hikes. I awoke one morning to find Aurora, as usual, in our bed – she was always crawling out of her special crib into our bed – but that morning she hadn’t made it past my calf. After the first shock of grief, Savazios and I again blamed one another, again not in words.
Then Savazios left. Then Muncher died. Then, one morning, alone in the flat, I awoke, shivering in the draught, to find the balcony-door ajar, and a sticky note on the glass: I took a plastic spork from your takeaway in the trash sorry I was dared to climb up here and take something and your door won’t close from the outside sorry.
I opened the balcony-door, leaned over – we’re on the third storey – and retreated, shut the balcony-door, had a lock installed that evening – and it’s been locked since. For it was after the prank – which shouldn’t’ve mattered at all, which I should’ve laughed at – that I finally heard the universe shouting at me: ‘Enough. Life is not for you.’
Now I watch Wheatie watching the world through the glass. I prostrate myself behind her, wondering what she can see. She promptly abandons her studies and climbs into my hair. I give her a hand to battle. She’s as big as an adult, with the energy of a teenager. She roughs up my hand; I sit up and cease play. Acknowledging my that’s-too-much signal, she sits back at once: but her whole body quivers, pleading. She darts back to the balcony-door, standing again, peering out, now scratching the glass. Cocoa, distracted from her mid-afternoon treasure-hunt under the bed, joins her.
They’re nine weeks old. For six weeks, I’ve wondered: Should I open the balcony-door? I’ve made a series of concessions. I’ve let them root in the rubbish-bin: there’s never anything spoiled or sharp in there. I’ve let them in the bathtub: they seem immune to drowning. But, about the balcony-door, I’ve vacillated.
Back at work across the drawing-room, I watch my babies still scratching at the balcony-door. Fully grown, but noses still pink, quivering with the moist curiosity of babes fearing no tomorrow. Have I the right to fear, for them, what they don’t fear for themselves?
Scratching the glass, they look like they’re running. Running nowhere, trapped here with me.
If I were thinking, I’d be again vacillating, paralysed. I’m no longer thinking. I cross the drawing-room. Hands clasping balcony-door-handle, I brace myself. Do Cocoa and Wheatie know what door-handles are for, or is it my stance that cues them in? They jump onto my socked and slippered feet: meerkat-standing, sniffing the door-crack. Craning their necks up at ridiculous angles, they beseech me with galaxy-bright black eyes.
Air rushes from the world across the balcony into me. I stumble out and steady myself, hands on banister. With slow forceful breaths I massage my gut out of its clench. The breeze stirs on my face: sun-warmed, autumn-sharp, bursting with smells red blue and yellow. My senses overwhelmed, I close my eyes and slow my breath.
Cautious, quivering, my nose sniffs the world’s scrambled smell-rainbow, picking out memories. Honey-roasted peanuts. Wine. Leaf-fire, smouldering.
I used to be able to identify leaves by their smell. After the flames envelop them, they all smell the same: but when they’re just smoking they smell different. Hickory. Chestnut. Oak. Had I known I’d be hibernating for three years, I would’ve hoarded these smells for my long winter.
I open my eyes. The sky’s too blue: I can’t face it yet. I peer below. The vendor across the street is hawking honey-roasted peanuts in paper cups, and mulled wine in styrofoam cups.
‘Mulled.’ ‘Styrofoam.’ Out here is the world, still. In my head are the names for things, still. The tide surges up my throat. Joy, that it’s all still here. Sorrow, that I’ve wasted three years of it. Joy and sorrow compete in my throat, threatening to choke me.
Squeals at my feet half-awaken me. Stunned by memories and the world, unthinking, I shut the balcony-door behind my babies, who’ve scurried away.
Motionless above my head, now in my face, a wingspan wavers, blotting, briefly, the afternoon sun’s indolent gold. A falcon lands on my banister, a foot away from me. Fully awake now, I look him in his golden eyes. His wings fold away and under. He regards my babies, safe behind glass, and turns on me eyes fire-bright, ice-cold.
I stand paralysed, waiting for panic to rush me into action. A microwave-oven exploded 6,000km away? Quick, lock away my own. I lost a foetus, then lost a baby, then lost my husband? Quick, lock myself away. I wait for my panic; but instead, up my throat rises something else. I recognise it when I hear it.
Laughter. Not hysterical, this time. Raucous.
The falcon starts, flaps a bit, then steadies himself and glares. I laugh harder, clutching my stomach: but my stomach is all loose now, loose with laugher. There’s nothing to hold onto: and that’s alright, for there’s nothing to hold in anymore.
I wipe my eyes and clap my hands. “Boo!” The falcon flies away.
I reopen the balcony-door. My babies scamper back into the wine-drunk sunshine, and huddle against my ankles. “So, my explorers, is that the end of your intrepidity? You’ll stay near me, now, eh?” They will, but perhaps not forever. And that’s alright.
It wasn’t my fault. Birthing a sick child. Losing her. Losing my husband. Losing Muncher. Getting pranked. None of it was my fault. But neither was it the world’s. So why, to punish the world, did I lock myself away?
The instructions the universe shouted at me three years ago were right: for three years ago. As the tears stand in my eyes, refusing to fall, I laugh at my own folly. The tide that was surging up my throat, threatening to choke me – ebbs, dissipated by my laughter. Leaving only soft froth. Leaving, in grief’s wake, rebirth. My first life was terrifying. So would this second life be, if I were alone. Thank god my babies are with me.