Fiction · 03/01/2017

Winter Rebirth

The baby is born at home. This isn’t planned. In a blizzard in Wisconsin, she slips out of her mother and is wrapped, a slush of vernix and blood, in a white towel. The mother’s womb begins to pulse, again, trying to get back to its place in her empty belly, like it was before. Before she learned of the news. Before the child took shelter in her womb. A squatter, the mother thought of the life inside her. Even with the child out, the pain lingers. She says where is my husband? Whereismyhusband, she breathes.

The next moment, the baby is held by another and then another. There are three others in the house, cat, sister, neighbor — who is a nurse. The husband, the other other, is gone. Save for the small band of gold and chip of a diamond on the mother’s finger.

The mother nurses the child with drips of colostrum, but it is enough. It will be enough, even though the baby arches her back and demands more. Even though the mother arches her back and demands more too.

The mother is on the towels and the sheets and the faux-wood floor. All of her is spread so far past her normal constraints. The room smells of iron and sour milk. A contorted version of her face looks back from a mirror. Is it the mirror or her face that is all wrong? The mother’s DNA breathes beside her, outside her. The baby is making stuttering yowls, the mother thinks it is shouting is this it? Is this fucking it?

Eight months ago, the husband had gone out for the mail, for groceries, for gas. Gone to the liquor store, to the hospital, to the cemetery in a box. Dirt poured. A flower tossed, petals already brown at the edges.

“I do not want it,” she says of the baby girl. The sister and neighbor take the small body and wash it free of the wet debris of birth.

“I do not want it,” she repeats. It cries again, perhaps calling to her dead father, who was not perfect but was all the mother had.

“I do not think I want her,” the mother whispers.

The mother limp-crawls to the bathroom for relief, of her bowels, of her arms. Sees her husband’s dandruff shampoo in the shower stall. Misses the tiny snowflakes on her black shirts.

She should check on the child every two hours, they say. Nurse the baby, take it to your breasts.

They — she and her husband they — had wanted children in that faraway place called One Day. One day, when he could cut back on his hours and on his drinking. One day, after they were done with midnight dancing to the radio, kneading misshapen bread loaves, and clinking champagne flutes because it was a Wednesday.

One day, when she felt prepared and he could hold her for hours as she wailed the banshee cries of childbirth and motherhood. After he died, the mother had not wanted the child. Not really, and it had been too late to do anything about it when she came out of the tunnel of her grief.

The blizzard keeps her sister and neighbor in the house. Help is close, in the next room and the next room after that. The preponderance of rooms, absurd with such an abridged family — mother, child, cat.

The mother has barely closed her eyes — a blink really, when she hears the baby cry. The mother lays still; her body is so tired. Her hollow abdomen cramps and even her toes feel the sudden emptiness. Can she close her eyes again? Return to the dream that had not yet begun. Yes, she would. The baby will stop crying. Fall back asleep. But the baby doesn’t stop. Bleats like a baby goat. The neighbor comes in. Hair knotted, still wearing her clothes — the stay wasn’t planned. At the bassinet, she shushes and pats. The mother hears the thumps on the back of the baby that sound too hard. Aren’t they too hard?

“Are you hurting her?” the mother asks. The neighbor brings the bundle to the mother, who rolls to her side and takes in the creature. It latches with ease. The neighbor waits on the edge of the bed. The mother and baby fall asleep. The mother wakes a few hours later, the friend is gone. The weight of the bed uneven again. The baby is in the bassinet again. The clock reads two hours later again. The mother rises while the baby sleeps. The child is fine. The mother watches it in the lines of light from outside. The mother lifts the blinds; it is still snowing.

The mother is hot, despite the tremendous winter outside. She presses her cheek to the windowpane, watches her breath as it clouds. Opens the window, snow has collected at an angle in the crook of the pane. With her fingers she digs into the snow. Wet and virgin, she takes a small snowball into her mouth. The baby, would it die if it fell into this snow? The drifts. The many feet of snow that keeps coming. Would the baby die? If so would it be hypothermia or a broken neck or drowning?

The baby wakes. The mother leaves the window open, takes the child to her bed, to her breast. They fall asleep together again, but there is no one to remove the child.

In the morning, the mother wakes with her nipple out, small wet stains on the sheets, her breasts engorged and radiating. The baby is next to her; her mouth still formed as when it was nursing. Pursed tiny lips. Curled fists. The mother wonders about smothering, in the sheets, under her body, the mother imagines the baby falling off the bed. And then it wakes. They begin again.

The snow has stopped. The neighbor trudges home. The sister too, with promises to check back in. In the empty house with expansive rooms and the stain of birth in the living room by the ottoman — the mother will cover it with a rug and return to it frequently — the mother and the baby make their introductions. The snow plows scrape the street outside.

The mother’s legs are still sticky, twelve hours later, with afterbirth. Her body aches and throbs everywhere. Even still, she keeps forgetting about the child. Then her breasts become thick and pulse with need. She takes her child to her. Feels the relief and the pain that comes with providing for a newborn. Looks at the bassinet, the perfect lacy bassinet — picked out by the husband the day before his last. At her breast, the baby falls asleep and the mother puts her not in the bassinet, but beside her, on the husband’s side of the bed. The mother, in that moment feels like a mother but then looks away and doesn’t.

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Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @Writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.