Flesh and Blood

Flesh and Blood

Flesh and Blood 1280 804 Tess W. Gionet

Just a flash, red against snow– a cardinal, maybe, or a burning bush. The floorboards squeak as I turn back towards the window, bouncing a little when I get mid-room. This house is too old—an 1820’s farmhouse we paid eighty grand for earlier this year and are attempting to save. Every few minutes a semi speeds fifty past our front door making the beams and boards shake. But I’ve learned to tune it out by now. I don’t hear it, don’t even feel it. I live in another world, an inner world, listening closely for a sign that it’s time.

There. Just past the chicken coop where we planted garlic last fall, a liquid blanket, cherry red, spread over the snow. The animal must have been hit and staggered from the road, but the body looks displaced. There are no prints—no trails of blood behind it, no trucks flashing on the shoulder, no people. Just a dead deer, me, and my daughter somewhere deep. Waiting.

I spend the rest of the morning sweeping, sifting through drawers, scrubbing dishes, wiping counters. Even after I’m done, the house feels dirty. No matter how many coats of white paint I’ve washed them with, the kitchen cabinets are freckled with yellow-brown stains. There are deep black gaps in the floorboards where centuries of dust and hair and animal feces have collected, too deep to vacuum out. There is a doorway with no door leading to our bedroom. It’s so narrow that I feel slightly squeezed whenever I pass through.

And now I can’t stop thinking about the deer.

When our first chicken died earlier this winter, I was the one who found her. A quick Google search told me that our other chickens might begin eating it if the body wasn’t immediately removed, so I wore my thickest gloves and made myself do it. I swung the heavy hen back and forth by the feet before launching it into the woods. I should have buried it, but the ground had already frozen. The deer, though–even if I wasn’t nine months pregnant, I’m not sure I’d be able to drag it away.

These things I can’t make beautiful nag me. These things I don’t know how to fix.

Around noon I bake a one-pan chocolate cake. I ice it in thick swishes of chocolate and throw a rainbow of sprinkles across the top, then cut a clean slice from the pan. I point my phone down at my protruding belly, hold the cake in front, and post the photo to Instagram. I imagine my former colleagues jealous of all the time I have to myself. All the cake. All the joy forthcoming.

I eat a slice and have another before going upstairs to sleep.

It’s late when I wake, dry-mouthed from the sugar. I move slowly out of bed, through the narrow doorway, back downstairs. The light outside has started to turn, and even through the shadows I can tell the scene is different. Past the chicken coop, the field is clear; the deer, the blood, gone. No tracks where someone or something might have dragged the body away. I stand by the window as it grows darker, watching headlights hit the field. Feeling something coming. Something I cannot yet name.

***

Two weeks later, my water breaks close to midnight. I order my husband, T, back to bed and labor alone through the wee hours in our unfinished bathroom, electrical wires still hanging from the ceiling. I look for patterns in the spaces between pain– eight minutes, eleven minutes, seven, four, four, six. At dawn I wake T, and we go downstairs to greet the midwives.

It snows throughout the morning, large flakes that fall so slowly it looks as if they’re suspended in the air. Minutes stitch together as the world grows red behind my eyes. I no longer remember the baby, no longer remember anything outside of this moment. I beg my body to stop, but no sounds come out. The house is silent. The midwives pace gently throughout rooms, offering hushed, kind words. Outside, the storm builds. Snowflakes blur. I watch it all from a half-world, somewhere in between.

In the birth tub, twenty minutes after I start pushing, my baby slips out of me. I reach down between my legs to catch her and bring her up in jerky, unsure motions. She wriggles in my hands like some slippery, purple-grey animal. As she fills the house with cries, her skin begins to change, patches of red bloom throughout her cheeks, her back, her legs. I hold her with shaky arms as she nurses. Every few minutes my arms drop a little and she slides back towards the water. The midwives carefully rearrange her on my chest over and over until finally, I hand her to T. My body feels suddenly empty; scooped and swollen, legs splayed open in the bloody water.

***

The sap begins to flow in early March. We tap three maples on our property, glass milk jugs hung precariously to catch the amber liquid. My daughter strapped to my body in a sling, I collect them daily, boil the sap in large vats. It fills the kitchen with sweet, thick air that clings to the walls, making everything a little sticky.

We walk routine circles round the house, my daughter and I, as we wait for the sap to boil down, for T to return home from work. From the kitchen to the dining room where I add a log to the fire, to the living room to take long naps on the couch, upstairs to change clothes and diapers. Downstairs again, it is suddenly late afternoon, time to check the stove and prep dinner. The days loop backward on top of themselves like spirals instead of unspooling neatly forward in the straight line I am used to. I am exhausted, but can’t recall what I did today, or any day, except produce a quarter cup of maple syrup and keep my daughter alive. Most nights I fall asleep next to the baby by eight only to wake hours later covered in a rush of her half-digested milk. It streaks through my hair, runs between my breasts, soaks the waistband of my pajamas. I try to clean us both up. I spend dark hours bouncing her on my hip. When I hand her off to T, I freeze, unsure what is expected of me when I am no longer holding our daughter.

***

The rhubarb comes with the flip of the calendar to April, pale blush stalks that go limp in my hand as soon as I tug them from the earth. They need more time in the ground, but I wish they were ready now. Another month of waiting might kill me. All I seem to do is wait– for someone to talk to, for the baby to fall back asleep, for T to come home from work, for my arms to be emptied. I wait, and I hold our baby, and I tongue my back molars.

With every hot sip of coffee or cold bite of ice cream, I wince. Weeks later I finally make the appointment to see a dentist. He takes x-rays and tells me I have three new cavities. That I need to floss more, to brush longer. That I should have come in sooner. I nod, yes, I’ll do better. Yes, it makes sense that my teeth ache. Everything aches now. My back aches, and my arms ache, and the backside of my eyeballs ache, and the small hollow in my chest aches as I watch the driveway with greedy eyes. Everything in me a depression of what it used to be.

***

In May, when the snow has melted and the ground is soft, we go out into our field and dig a small hole. I carry our daughter on my hip, and T carries a small Juniper tree and the old glass honey jug we’ve retrieved from our freezer. I hand the baby to my husband and try to empty the jar into the hole, but the mouth is too narrow. The placenta inside is still half-frozen. I thwack the bottom of the jar with my palm. Thwack. And again– THWACK. Blood-water splatters out, but the placenta won’t budge. I go back into the house to get a bucket of hot water, pour it inside the jar, slosh it around. Upend it again. Nothing. Finally, I dig my hand into the small opening and claw the organ out. We look down at it, purple-red and mottled grey like some distorted valentine. We squat down, cover the placenta with roots, pack hard grass and dirt around it.

I never told T about the deer. All that blood, then nothing. Headlights shining on an empty field. Never said the words out loud in case whatever took that deer might overhear and snatch our unborn baby too. With my free hand I bounce our daughter on my knee. She is earthbound now. Nothing is coming for her.

T stretches out his phone to take our family photo and says, “Say, ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’”

I stitch a smile and hide my blood-stained hand behind my back, bits of grey tissue beneath my fingernails.

Header photograph © Tara K. Shepersky.

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