Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction Winner, 2015
The woman tells her it will all be alright.
She smiles when she says it, so the infant believes her, because the woman doesn’t smile often. The lines that the sudden curvature of her mouth create are strange, alien to the small blue eyes.
The woman is sitting on her large, billowy bed, covered in white, downy blankets. The blue silk nightgown she wears does not fully cover her pale breasts, tinged lavender under a web of light purple veins. The infant’s mouth waters at the thought of the warm creamy fluid. She emits a howl, because her stomach hurts, and makes a loud gurgling sound. The woman glares at her from her cross-legged perch, and something in her dark eyes tells the infant to stop, to calm herself.
The woman’s pale hand reaches up, twirls a piece of hair, the same golden color as the light flooding the brilliant white room. She sighs heavily before reaching into her nightstand and removing a sheet of paper and a silver pen. She bends over the blank page and begins to fill it with black ink. Her hair tumbles over her shoulder, rests delicately on the bed beside her while her hand flies across the paper.
The infant stares up, her eyes searching for something new to observe. There is a pink monkey revolving around her head, its arms curved until its hands nearly touch its feet, a smile stitched in gray onto its round face. Next comes a giraffe of the same color, with gray spots and a long elegant neck. Then a pink lion with a fuzzy gray mane, and a zebra, its legs positioned in a stance of peaceful rest. They spin slowly over her, revolving in the soft breeze of the ceiling fan. Floating, like the stray fluff of a dandelion caught in the wind. Her eyes follow their motion. How can they fly like that? She reaches out her plump hand to try and catch the lion; she wants to pet its soft hair. But she misses, and the lion drifts, unaffected, onwards in its circular journey. The infant giggles at her fruitless attempt and extends her arm to try again.
The laughter draws the woman’s attention to the bassinet. Her face softens; the creases in her forehead and around her mouth relax. She folds her paper in three sections, sets it on the pillow, and rises from the bed. Her blue nightgown swings as she walks, and suddenly she is pulling it up over her head, exposing her shapely thighs, her once flat stomach now flabby. The small infant hand reaches out to trace the jagged pink lines on her hips and stomach, but she intercepts the tiny fingers, picking up the baby and cradling her in her arms, as though it were a natural thing for her to do. She places her full lips on the baby’s soft forehead and runs her long, thin fingers through her curls. She pulls the child closer to her, inhaling through her nose.
This affection is uncommon for her, and the feeling of her lips on the infant’s skin is foreign and peculiar. She squirms and begins to whine until the woman grabs hold of the small wrist and tightens her grip. Her fingertips gradate from white to pink as she squeezes, and the baby quiets. The woman relaxes, and suddenly her eyes are dripping like the silver spout in the bathroom, emitting sparkling droplets of water and spilling them over onto her ivory cheeks. Her pink lips open and she sighs heavily, pulls the child in tighter to her naked breast.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry, baby girl.” Her voice is oddly warm. The child looks confused as to who is speaking. It is so different from her other voice, the shrill, angry voice that she uses when she speaks to the man. She had used it this morning, before the man grabbed his bag and the glittering dangling keys he sometimes let the child hold. He had slammed the door as he left.
But this newfound friendliness in her voice is comforting, and the baby feels for a moment as though she is back home, back within the womb, nestled snugly in her tight little burrow and curled almost perfectly into a ball. There she was warm always, soothed by the woman’s body heat, her stomach always satisfied by their shared nutrients. She remembers the sound of the man’s gentle, kind voice lulling her into a calm serenity. Sometimes she misses it, that closeness, the tranquility of darkness. But then her curiosity takes hold, and she is in awe of her surroundings, and the slippery yet strained 11-hour journey to get to the pink ruffled bassinet nearly seems worth it.
The woman shifts the infant in her arms, fits the pink toothless mouth on her full right breast, and allows her to suckle for a while until her stomach fills and her eyelids droop heavily. She wants to remember this feeling, this closeness to another human being. She had felt it before, before the baby that was supposed to make her feel whole. Before her body sagged and before her chest ached constantly. She remembers feeling it with her husband, though it was so long ago. She’d felt it when they sat on the couch together, each afraid to move so as not to lose that feeling of their skin pressed against the other’s. Felt it when they talked for hours into the night, laughing at the things their pretentious parents would never have understood and confessing their secrets to one another. Felt it when she would look up from her book to find him staring at her with a soft grin on his face.
His face. Now she imagines his face, pale and thin, clean shaven and asinine. The thought of his muscular form, hard and unaffected by parenthood, makes her chest ache and her eyes fill with hot tears. The woman feels about him now the way her mother had always felt towards her father: jealous, angry, and hateful. She can’t understand it, because she had never felt kinship with her mother, yet she is like her. But some part of the old her still exists, because she detests her revulsion at her husband’s character and searches for some sliver of the affection she’d once held for him.
Maybe it is the man’s fault. Maybe somewhere in the jumble of bills and career advancements and late night business dinners, he’d forgotten how he once loved the woman, forgotten what she needed. Maybe it is the infant’s fault. Maybe it was that she was supposed to feel satisfaction with the child, but when she looked at her she felt imprisoned. Maybe the woman did not have room enough to love two people with such intensity, and so her soul had shut down completely, unable to choose between her husband and her baby and unable to love them with equal force.
The infant can feel herself drifting, and she fights to maintain consciousness. She doesn’t want to sleep; there is too much to see. The woman swaddles her into a new soft outfit. It’s pink, like the animals that tease the baby by floating above her bed. Then she carries her down the stairs.
In the living room, there is a long table, an assortment of glittering bottles filled with clear and gold-colored liquids. Balancing the drowsy infant in one arm, the woman selects one from the array, then places the opening to her lips and drinks. The baby whimpers, struggling to keep awake. She cannot see her mother’s face from this position, only the hygienic cleanliness of the room: the perfectly spotless white carpet, the gleaming, dustless surfaces, the white and gold couch with the throw pillows that the woman doesn’t allow anyone to sit on. The infant remembers the strange encounter a few days prior. “Stop, you’re gonna ruin it,” the woman had exclaimed to the man when he tried to prop his feet up. He had tried to kiss her then, playfully squeezing her side, but she pulled away from him coldly, a look of utter disgust fixed on her face. He threw up his hands, his gold ring glinting in the artificial light of the lamp overhead.
“What the hell?”
The woman ignored him and stood, moving around him skillfully to adjust the pillows and straighten the books on the coffee table. Her face remained stony as he spoke. The man closed his eyes as he shook his head, exhaled loudly through his nose. “I don’t even know how to touch you anymore…” The woman paused at this, biting her lip. Then she returned to her cleaning as he stood and left the room.
Now she sits on the couch, observing the ornate embroidery of the fabric. And then she begins laughing as she pours the amber liquid from her bottle onto the cushions, shaking her head and muttering “6,000 dollars for a fucking couch…” The baby watches as the fluid pools in the grooves.
The woman stands, moving quickly to the large mirror hanging on the wall. She watches herself. Plays with her hair, dabs at the puffiness under her eyes with her forefinger. She pinches her pale cheeks until they glow and flush with color, and then she forces a smile, her straight white teeth revealed from under the curtain of her pink upper lip. She runs her free hand along her hips, grimacing at the small mounds of excess fat that now invade her shape. She cups a breast in her palm, testing its newfound weight. Has she always looked like this? Has she always looked so old? She couldn’t have. The man used to tell her she was lovely, used to ask her to wear the red dress with the slit in the side, used to kiss every inch of her body before they made love. She misses the way he used to look at her. She misses the way everyone used to look at her. There are more tears, and she smiles through them, though some roll down her cheeks and into her mouth.
In the kitchen, she straps the infant into the car seat before setting it on the floor. The baby kicks her feet in excitement at the prospect of riding in the car. It’s always warm inside, and music fills the empty space within the vehicle in a way that cannot be replicated within the house.
But instead, the woman exits through the door that joins the kitchen to the garage, and returns with a length of something thick and bright yellow in her hands. She pulls a kitchen chair to the center of the room and stands on her toes to latch this over the white ceiling fan, tying knots and pulling on the length. When she attempts to get down from the chair, she holds the length in one hand, testing the strength of her attachment. The baby can hear the faint clanging of the light pull against the bulb, and it reminds her of the sounds the man’s keys make in her hand.
The woman nods at her work, satisfied. There is a loop at the end of her contraption, swinging back and forth in mid-air. The baby’s blue eyes follow it as it moves. The woman turns and sees her, and her damp face contorts into a pathetic smile.
“It’s better this way,” she whispers slowly, and though she stares in the infant’s direction, it is unclear if she’s talking to her child or to herself. The woman moves toward her then, the flesh of her naked body rippling with each step.
“I love you,” she states, although it sounds like a question. She bends over the carrier and kisses the infant on her cheeks, her lips, her eyelids, her nose, before turning the carrier to face the opposing wall.
The wall before the baby is a pale green, light and delicate. There is nothing to be seen on it except for a picture, directly in the center of the space. The infant recognizes the faces of the man and the woman. Her mother’s eyes are closed, her nose wrinkled, and her mouth twisted in that foreign curve that is her smile. The man’s arms are around her, his face pressed close to hers, his lips resting on her cheek. Her graceful hands rest on the arm that surrounds her chest. Here, they are frozen in a moment that the child has never witnessed: both equally offering embrace, and both accepting their mutual affection. She giggles at the picture; she likes seeing this woman, so distant from the one she knows who is always crying, always angry. So different from the woman who stared blankly from the doorway at the sobbing infant in her crib one evening, refusing to change the soggy diaper. So opposite to the woman who tried to avoid kissing the baby’s small soft face. This woman in the picture seems like she would have changed the diaper; she seems like she would enjoy kissing the baby’s velvet skin.
Behind the carrier, there is the sound of wood scraping against tile, the same sound the chair made when the woman dragged it across the floor. And then there is an earsplitting clatter as something slams onto the ground, and low guttural sounds, throaty and raspy. The baby’s tiny heart begins to race and she lets out a cry, pathetic and shrill. But then she notices something new on the wall.
There is a dark moving image next to the silver framed portrait. The image is hollow and featureless, but still filled with motion, painted somehow on the green wall against the illumination of the sunlight through the kitchen windows. It is a large shape, long and slender, swinging in mid-air, leisurely revolving at the end of a thick line. The infant’s blue eyes grab hold of it; it’s floating, flying through the air like the monkey and the lion. She giggles as she tries to grasp at it, catch it in her hands. But again, she misses, and her hand comes back filled with nothing but the emptiness of air.
This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.