Of Possible Vacancies
Last night the snowstorm ventured to Alaska’s interior, plunking itself down, sit bones colliding with earth. The January nights when Rose’s husband runs the snow plow along the roads are when she dreams. The nights he is here, she cannot. Now that she is pregnant, and the snow never ceases, the dreams grow more disconcerting. He departs their cabin without word so as not to wake her, leaving his side of the bed smooth and vacant. In that half-dreaming half-waking state, she reaches her arm to the space where his shoulder might rest, but its swoop is defeated mid stride.
In pregnancy dreams she is an absentminded panther who perpetually misplaces her cubs, sometimes in the forked branches of an oak, or among hunchbacked boulders at the water’s edge. Other nights, she dreams of breastfeeding her husband. The hollows of his cheeks flex to the rhythm of his consumption. Breast milk bubbles at the corner of his mouth and trickles into the wiry stalks of his beard. Some nights she births litters of poodles, whole organs—livers, kidneys, a pair of lungs—or Technicolor parrots, flocks of nesting dolls.
Most recently she’s started to dream that the baby is within a zippered pouch at her middle. Beneath a smooth band of skin she runs her index finger along the strip of metal teeth embedded into her flesh. There’s a vibration at her spine as her fingernail drags along each nub before reaching the metal tab at the crest of the hip.
While she’s dreamt of this lumpy pouch before, tonight is the first time she tugs at the zipper. Once undone, the sack inside bursts and the water dribbles between the zippered teeth at the mouth of her belly. The warm pink sheets off Rose. She screams, but there’s no air for her lungs. She cannot produce this agony. As the baby dissolves, clots of blood and clumps of tissue catch at the opening.
When the news came of this pregnancy, her husband was ecstatic and cooed in conversation with her stomach every morning. She said nothing. She wasn’t happy, but if happiness were even a possibility for Rose, this was as close as she’d likely ever get. She’d never wanted to be a mother. When she met him she told him about the car accident in the Arizona dessert, that she shouldn’t have survived, about the hairline cracks in her pelvis, and had assumed that had snuffed out the possibility of any hypothetical child. To Rose, he never seemed to mind.
Though the blankets are not pink when she wakes in bed, she feel the cramps pleating across her abdomen and knows that the baby is gone. Perhaps it’s waterlogged and drowned along with a litter of panther cubs, or maybe it was smothered inside a laundry hamper or forgotten in a dresser drawer, but she is certain its little life has been cut short. She cups the underside of her belly attempting to detect a knot, a stone lodged just above the pubic bone. She imagines she can feel it. She heaves and emits dry sobs which catch behind the laddered wall of her ribs. Bile rises, a sour warmth that scales the throat. She runs to the bathroom and vomits in the toilet.
She wants it gone.
This isn't the first time Rose has lost a child. There was the time she had one siphoned from her, but she was too young to mother anyone then. When they got pregnant this time she worried that her body would attack whatever was growing within her, a mutinous hostility circling round previous misdeeds. She imagined her womb as acidic, a keeper of memories, the kind of place to reject each tenant. The walls possibly pockmarked, mapped with gristle, sinewy fibers from the life that once latched there. Perhaps a strand of hair stuck in a crevice, a band of nubby tissue, or the impression of a child left in the folds of her insides. No amount of cramping or blood could wash away former lives. This is likely impossible, but so was feeling the baby so early, and she is certain she detected its sensation during her first pregnancy. It fluttered like a squid, tickling her insides just before she ended it. Then everything went still.
Rose remembers the clinic, the pinch of the needle on her cervix. A flap of flesh she wasn't aware of until precisely that moment; the first time it was ever directly sought out and touched it was by the jab of a needle. That’s when the squid’s shiver stopped altogether. Then there was the suction until she was irrigated, raw.
She wipes the sick from the front her pajamas and gradually attempts to stand. As her knees wobble to attention she inhales, counting each breath. One . . . two . . . three . . . She veers toward the cabin’s door having decided what she needs is to move, to try to find her husband’s plow and flag him down. Though he is likely miles away, possibly to Chena Hot Springs Road by now, she cannot be alone. If he doesn’t find her, someone else will. She bundles for the arctic air with qiviut, calfskin, and her goose-feathered coat.
Once outside she pulls her scarf taut, and all that is left exposed is a rectangle of skin from temple to temple. The air is sharp and pulls at the wet of her eyeballs until it crystallizes on her lashes. Rose thrusts her hands into her pockets and hunches, dropping her face from the churning flakes. The still baby feels weighty, parasitic in the gut. It careens within the basin of her hips.
The snow has deadened all sound, accumulated, softening the rough corners of this world so that sound has been very nearly snuffed out. She’s too far from any major roads to hear traffic. All she has is the spliced crunch of her boots walking down the driveway; their rhythm bouncing off the lanky spruce that eye her.
Last week it was a kumquat, this week a fig. Rose doesn’t even like figs. Tooth buds are forming under its gums and as the diaphragm takes shape it experiences its first hiccups. It’s too early for Rose to feel those. She doesn’t wish to know this, but her husband reads the weekly developments aloud over his morning coffee and she can’t bring herself to stop him.
It is Maybe Henry? Or Maybe Ida? For her husband’s deceased grandparents. People she will never know.
How will she tell him? Perhaps he will be able to smell the death on her, detect the carrion buried within her folds. Perhaps her pores now release more than salt, smelling of ash or tin cans, or there is kerosene on her breath. She exhales. In lieu of kerosene, her scarf cups the sour bile of her vomit, and the tinge of wood smoke.
When Rose cries he will assume it’s about the loss of the baby, and while it is that, it is also the fact that she will be overwhelmed by his loss, not her own. Because she knows that she has failed a good man. He was the one to line rotting pumpkins in the snow by the kitchen window so she could watch the moose. He asks for so little, and this one thing she can give him she does so begrudgingly, laced with resentments, swallowing each pre-natal vitamin like she’s the punished child.
She cannot tell him that this interloper is not a person she ever longed to meet. It’s not about her fractured pelvis or deficient maternal instincts; it’s about an alleged gift she never wanted. He will hold her until she sleeps and when he thinks she’s finally dozed off he will allow himself to weep. Rose will sense his hot tears forging paths between the hairs at her cowlick, but will feign sleep. Because the truth of it is that maybe an unwanted child senses it’s a walking miracle, and that its value is no greater than that of a paperweight. It knows its existence is attributed to filament and circumstance. Even the wanting of one parent won’t prove to be enough, because there isn’t enough of Rose to go around. She cannot feign a flood of hormones that will never come no matter how dearly she loves her husband. She will have to feign sadness, pretending she too is suffering a loss rather than a reprieve.
Flakes accumulate on the shoulders of her parka. Rose stops walking and closes her eyes, listening to the staccato thump thump thump thump of her heart.
The thump murmurs you are still here.
Rooted in the snow, the pain arrives and she is gutted like a fish. Gasping, she folds at the waist. It’s an agony she’s never experienced before, the kind of hurt she believes she deserves. She knows herself to be an aberrant thing, and never deserving of her husband to begin with.
It must hurt. Hers is a Eucharist wherein she seeks no body of bread, flesh or otherwise. She welcomes it, welcomes the bile’s slosh raising at her throat, the dissolving fig as the tonic for her impotent heart. A cramp stitches above her pubic bone and leaves her dizzy. She cries, not because the pain hurts her—which it does—she cries because this pain is her penance. Because when a man loves you as Rose’s husband does, when he, in the 4AM of your kitchen, licks the eyelash from your cheekbone and whispers his wishes into your ear, and never complains though he has great reason to—he has earned a love of complicity.
Rose cannot offer him this.
And so she rights herself, standing at attention. She breathes, inhaling the air first at the diaphragm, then the lungs. It’s then that the loss arrives. A sticky wet dribbles at her thighs.
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