by | Dec 4, 2018 | Fiction



I get up at night to look at the baby. My husband insists I do it too often. But I don’t think so. You can’t look at a baby enough. Sometimes she’s rolled onto her stomach – I don’t know how – dribbling from her mouth onto the pillow. I turn her back over. Gently, so as not to wake her. I don’t like to think of her puffing into the mattress, the sheet, the blanket. The fleecy fabric stuffed in her mouth. I prefer her lying on her back, hands in wee fists. Her eyelids like velvet, her lashes half-moons brushing her cheek.

She’s best at night. Quiet. I drink her in like air.



I was never a baby. Not possible, you might say. But how many years have you lived on this planet? And what have you seen in that time? I doubt you know the limit of possibility. Strange things, the doctor used to say, are afoot. Or at hand. This when he was tinkering with my limbs. Threading the stitches just so. Tying off knots to prevent unraveling. The doctor was a man of plain jokes. I found his humor unsophisticated. Not that he asked me. He waited until the end to snip a mouth, fashion a tongue. And then he had no patience for talk, no time. I managed one groan before he tore me limb from limb. I was aiming for a howl, something pure and clean. But all I got was that groan. A monster’s lament. Ugly. Cut short.

I howl now. Softly, to myself. Before sleep, during lovemaking. My husband rests content in the satisfaction he has satisfied me. And he has. Even a scar can sense pleasure if you rub it hard enough.



During the day, the baby giggles and coos. Silly sounds I cannot understand, not having learned the language. Speak, I instruct her, say Mama. She parts her lips but merely drools. It’s less winning than when she’s sleeping. Her eyes fix on points I cannot see. They are like cut crystal, bright blue. My own are muddy pools, with a hint of red. Their previous owner must have wept a great deal. Or suffered from insomnia. I have tried rainwater eye-drops, the occasional uninterrupted sleep, a multitude of carrots. Nothing helps. My husband whispers they are beautiful nonetheless. I think he likes sullied things. When we met, he plucked my hand from the tavern table between us and traced the threads at the base of each finger. Can you feel that? he asked. I said yes. It wasn’t a lie. What I feel might surprise you.



My husband was not my betrothed. That was someone else. I adored him, with the hopeless surrender of first love. During my construction, I studied his face. Patchwork, like mine. I appreciated how one eye was black, the other hazel. How five different thatches of hair sprouted from his skull. I enjoyed his smell. Earthy. The yearning on his face stopped my heart. That is a figure of speech, of course. My heart had not yet been wound and sprung, like a clock, into life. I wish simply to say I understood him. We would have made a good pair. In the village, I’ve asked about him. The market women tell me he has become an explorer, leaping across ice floes in the North Sea. For what does he search? I ask them. For himself, I wager, replied one. She had a pleasant face. Homely, like a round loaf of rye, seeded with eyes and teeth. I paid her for the tale by purchasing her wares. A bonnet, checked blue and pink, with a brim to hide my face. Your face is as beautiful as your eyes, my husband has assured me, please shuck off this shame. Simple man. He does not know how shame feels. Low and constant, like a groan deep in the chest.



The baby has begun solid foods. I miss the sensation of her mouth against my breast. Even her teeth, her tongue’s slobber. To think I was able to produce milk. I, whose limbs had been scattered across Orkney’s pebbled shores. The gray waves lapped me up, devoured me. My heart the doctor cast into the currents last. I like to picture it, a red muscle arcing across a metallic sky. I like to imagine my betrothed, reaching out a great hand like a catcher’s mitt. Saving it from drowning. This didn’t happen, of course. My betrothed did not linger for my burial at sea. He had fled already, fists pummeling the air. The doctor and I were alone on that beach. I like to think the doctor wept, just a little, though I know he didn’t. I still recall the pain of a seagull pecking at my one good eye, washed back onto the rocks.

I feed the baby applesauce and sheep’s meat I grind by hand. Mashed bananas. My husband owns stock in ships from the tropics. They bring him treats and treasures. Mostly bananas, but sometimes mangoes and guava. Rich foods that burden the baby with stomach pains. My husband is a good father. He helps clean her up, scrub her diapers, pin them in the fresh breeze to dry. Last week the ships brought him gold earrings from Jamaica. Together we pierced her ears and popped them through. They catch the light when she turns her head. I am certain she has already forgotten the sting of the needle.



I know your question. How do I live? One cannot suffer such mutilation, I hear you say, and persist. It is true. I should have died, I who was in essence already dead. How graceful – elegant even – to be washed out to sea, to mingle with kelp and whale breath, to burrow so deep in conch shells that no listener would hear my song, no matter how they pricked their ears. I could have become a mermaid, a siren. I could have been beautiful, had I accepted my fate.

But I clung to life, I who was already dead. I know what the books will say. About the doctor. About me. But I object. I consider my second birth my true beginning. No one created me but me. I gathered my legs, my arteries, my bone sockets. Breasts and buttocks, pubis dark and spiny as a sea urchin. I pieced each part to the next, a grisly jigsaw. I threaded the needle, pierced my own hide. I stitched my body back together, jaw to ear, big toe to its companions. When I was finished, I combed my hair with newly jointed fingers and stood up on that lonesome beach. Walk, monster, I told myself. Clothed in nothing but air, I walked. A single seagull’s cry is sharper than its beak’s peck, I learned. It hurts not the flesh, but the heart.



The baby is toddling now. I no longer visit her at night. I don’t want to wake her, make her burst out bawling. I don’t enjoy the look of her throat. Too bottomless. So I let her sleep. My husband approves. You sleep too, he tells me and snakes his arm across my breasts. His arm an anchor. Its weight pleases me. These days my eyes are closed more than open. The tinge of red has faded. I have human eyes now, two brown orbs, cleansed of their bloody hue. Not for them the usual fate: balls of meat grown gummy with disuse, collapsing into nothing.

The baby’s eyes remain blue. They remind me of her mother’s. The same circlet of sky, wreathed with lashes. I imagine her mother’s eyes have collapsed by now. I doubt the doctor would have sizzled her back into existence. The books will assert I was his final attempt. To this I do not object. One had only to witness the hate in his lip’s curl when I twitched into life to accept this as truth.



On sunny days, I take the baby into the village. The market women delight in her, offer her peach slices and fragile squares of muslin to pet with her chubby paws. She looks like you, they lie, an uncanny resemblance. Of course I do not tell them the truth. She looks like her father, I demur with a clumsy chuckle. I have still not mastered the art of laughter. Too often it emerges like a donkey’s bray. At first I could not distinguish between laughing and weeping, for I did both in equal measure. When I watched my betrothed’s act of vengeance, I could have been doing either, for all I knew. I hoped he would recognize me, framed by the window, but he saw only the baby’s mother. Her throat must have gleamed whitely for him, in the darkened room. Eclipsed all else. He did not see me at the window, my face suffused with love for him. He did not see the baby, swaddled in her crib. He escaped before she began to cry.

The market women envy the baby’s earrings. They envy me, I believe, for my husband’s wealth. This morning the milliner with the round bread face offered to purchase them. I own nothing that shines, she pleaded. But I refused, as politely as possible. How would I recognize the baby without her earrings? In this French village – facing the sunlit Atlantic, flanked by daisy-choked meadows – all babies have blue eyes. I would pick the wrong one up. I would take her home. I would not learn my mistake until the villagers arrived with their torches. Then it would be too late.



My husband taught me to love the baby. At first she appeared a muscle, a thing. Hold her like this, he’d instruct, curving my arms around her. Offer her a breast. Before this I fed her goat’s milk and thin gruel I strained from wheat seeds yanked from the roadside. Before I met my husband, we were wanderers, she and I. She was growing skinny, threatening to disappear. But I have no milk, I argued with him, I cannot feed this child. Wait and see, he murmured, you possess more than you know. He was right, of course. That baby tugged my body into life. I felt an unlatching within me, like a gate. My breasts, once so withered, bubbled. Each nipple a tough brown spout. The baby would close her eyes when she fed. Her mouth against my flesh the sole sound. Wet and alive.

She’s big enough now to chew meat on her own. Watching her tiny teeth grind down, I envy that mutton. I would like to feel her bite again. At midnight, I’ve taken to crawling from bed while my husband snores. I tiptoe into the sewing room – he is so rich we have a room for everything – and take a needle. Just one. With it I tattoo the back of my hand, my elbow’s crook, my insteps. I use no ink. I desire no marks. I simply want to feel. I want to know I can.



Gossip has gifted me news of my betrothed. He has met someone, the market women tell me. At this, my heart jolts. An electric sensation. I think they mean a woman. He has met another woman. But no. A fellow explorer, the fishwife informs me, an Englishman. He has told him a tale, she says with a wink, it’s in the papers. Of course I take the baby to the newsagent, let her dangle a string for the shop’s cat while I devour the printed words. As I read, I weep. Though I know it’ll vein my eyes red, I can’t help myself. Don’t cry, madam, says the newsagent, peering over my shoulder. It’s only a story, he says. Yes, I blubber. A story.

That night sleep eludes me. I visit the sewing room, the starlit veranda, even the baby’s bed for a sneak peek before she wakes. I believe I’ve done well for her. I’ve been a good mother, found her a home when she would have had none. She speaks now. She says Mama and Papa. She says I want, I need, no. Her hair has curled into ringlets threaded with gold. Her mother’s hair. I will take care of her, I assured her mother after my betrothed abandoned the room. Her mother’s face in moonlight was paler than anything I’d seen. The life wrung from her body by my betrothed’s great hands, stitched and raw as my own. Don’t cry, I told her, for one bright tear yet swelled from her eye. The sensible thing would have been to name the baby Elizabeth. But I wanted no reminders. I assumed I could carry her from that dismal place, from that broken woman on the floorboards, and that would be that. We would be clean together, the baby and I. Newborns.



Another tale appeared in the paper today. A story, the villagers are calling it. All except the market women, who know it as fact. The Englishman has met the doctor too, in the North Sea. The doctor is dying, the story sings, his last wish to murder a monster. His other monster, I think, for he has already murdered me. I long to find the doctor, to hurl my question at him like a foot: Why snuff out all that is strange?



The story’s denouement reaches me in an unlikely place. On my own verandah, while slipping plump pieces of mango – fresh from Trinidad – down the baby’s throat. A shepherd herding his flock towards the sea passes the tale along. The monster has died, he tells me, frozen in ice, his hands around the doctor’s throat. I buy a paper sack of mutton off him, and a wool robe. His sheep’s bells tinkle as they file past. Their smell, dense and fetid, curls my lip. Catching my reflection in a window, I think, You too resemble your father. He who made you. I picture him on that ice floe, his human eyes boring into his creation’s. In the end, they yearned for each other. Not me.

My husband is at sea. He believes a stockholder must occasionally undertake a voyage too. The house is quiet. The baby sleeps through the night, though I do not. My palms are peppered with pinpricks. If I am not careful, I will undo all my careful work. I must not pluck at my seams so. Take up needlepoint, the market women instruct me. Make a cushion. Make three. I do. It helps.



In my worst dreams, I see eyelids flutter. Those belonging to the baby’s mother. She’s not dead, my nightmare tells me. And you have stolen her baby. Not so, I shout and wake up. Not so, I tell the dark. I wish my husband would return from sea. In his absence, I rearrange things. The parlor chairs. The needlepoint cushions. The bread box, painstakingly stacking floury boule in one pile, wheat rolls in another, sourdough to the side. I do not eat, but I enjoy arranging food. I like the look of it: pats of yellow butter, eggs with stray feathers sticking to the shells, plums glistening with the well water in which I’ve dunked them. This world, I tell myself, will be yours someday. Keep trying.



My husband returns. He brings me yards of dress silk, lace bonnets for the baby, a plethora of fruit. The baby is so sick from guava I can barely keep up with the washing. One bolt of silk is white. For your wedding dress, he tells me. We never did have a proper ceremony. I dreaded the moment when he would fold back the veil. When the crowd would see, and gasp. The time has come, he says now, draw up the guest list.

Not once did I consider myself a bride, though I suppose I should have. The doctor meant me to be one. I’m sorry I wasn’t beautiful enough, I’d like to tell him. I’m sorry I didn’t fight back, I’d like to tell my betrothed. I should avoid regret. I should be grateful, I who has everything. But memory is a tricky thing. It wants us to yearn for what’s dead.



The baby has begun school. I feed her porridge, button her pinafore, send her tripping down the lane. My eyes are no longer red, not even when I cry. When the Ladies Aid Society visits, I offer them madeleines and tea, pretend to nibble and drink. They do not catch me in my act. With my long curls, my embroidered collar, I could be one of them. You cannot see the stitches now; the gloves hide them. Perhaps a hairline ridge below my jaw. That is all. I visit the market no longer. I have a servant for that. At night my husband rubs my scar, groans his love in my ear. When we walk by the sea – my husband, the baby, and I – the squawk of seagulls makes me jump. Be calm, my husband soothes. But he is a simple man. Not for him the pecking beak, the claws planted in flesh for a better grip.

In the village they still tell the story of the monster, but more often they talk of my wedding. She was such a beautiful bride, they murmur as I trail past in my flounced skirts, on my way to make calls. And that daughter of hers, the flower girl? Such a striking resemblance. How lucky that girl, to have a mother like that.

Sometimes I consider stopping. I am the monster, I want to shout. I want to tear off my fine gown, my camisole, my bloomers ridged in lace. Do you not see this? I will point at my livid seams. That baby is not mine, I will fling at them, she belongs to a woman more dead than I. Of course they would not understand. I would not expect them to. They are simple people, with their newspapers and coin purses and pyramids of pears, plucked from local trees. The baby is too, for all her dark beginnings. Or I think she is. More and more she resembles her father. I wonder what they are teaching her in school. I wonder what yearnings they are planting in her heart. What she will dream one day of creating. Perhaps for her too the laboratory, the bolt of lightning. The human parts dredged from earth, cobbled together like shoes. I think I would like that. Make a child for me, I could ask her. Someone whose infant sounds I could understand. Howl, I would tell this child. Make noise.

Photo used under CC.

About The Author


Erin Swan is a writer of fiction and nonfiction whose work has been published in various literary journals, including Bodega Magazine, The Portland Review, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. She holds an MFA in fiction from the New School, and she has attended both the Tin House Summer Workshop and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. In her working life, she has spent time in publishing, taught English in Southeast Asia, and is currently teaching literature and writing in a New York City public high school.