etween contractions, Annabelle watched the shadows flicker across the ceiling. Candles were impractical for an event such as this, but the electricity had gone out yet again, and the Morrison women were used to it. Up here in the Blue Ridge, the thin soil held no sway over the tallest trees, and when the wind sent them sideways it was surely into a power line. The generator salesman, who’d knock on their door every fall asking if this year was the year they wouldn’t let the weather control them, consistently left shaking his head. They couldn’t argue that his product wouldn’t improve their lives. They also couldn’t figure how to pay for it between Daddy’s disability check and Jimmy’s from the county. Extra wasn’t something they knew. As such, an early February storm had trapped the women like ants in a hill.
That morning, she’d woken to find Jimmy at the window, hands in his pockets. The house was as still and silent as a cave. Fat snowflakes collected on the window sill. She imagined them landing on her heated skin, melting into soothing rivers and running down her body.
“Get dressed. I’mma take you to your Daddy’s on the way to work,” he said.
“I might could stay here.”
“Look at those boughs,” he said, indicating the branches sagging dangerously under white loads. “With this heavy snow, the power’s gonna go. I don’t want you here alone.”
“I’m not alone,” she said rubbing her belly.
“All the more reason, I reckon.”
Annabelle was exhausted and huge. Her hips felt like she was being spread on a rack. Her hands and feet looked like they belonged to a Sumo wrestler, and she couldn’t remember the last time she didn’t have fire licking up her esophagus. The idea of being trapped alone in a quiet house was as close to heaven as she could imagine. “I’m tired of my Mama hovering over me, Jimmy.”
“She’s just lonely. Since your Daddy’s been on that long haul with Benji she has no one to fuss over. I kinda like it. You never bake me cookies anymore.”
Annabelle rolled her eyes.
“It won’t be long now,” he said. “A few more weeks, and then she’ll have a baby to spoil, but only if you stay safe in the meantime.”
She packed a bag. With the roads the way they were Jimmy wasn’t likely to be home until tomorrow or later. A change of clothes, some extra socks, and the sweater she’d been knitting for the baby even though if the power went it’d be too dark to count stitches. She turned the kitchen faucet on to trickle and pulled Jimmy’s backup boots over her feet. The snow in the drive was already up to her calves. She wondered if she should go back in the house and get another pair of clean underpants.
Jimmy’s 4×4 crawled down the snow-covered road, his hands at ten and two, eyes forward. He pulled into her parent’s place and walked around the truck to help her out. She pushed the door open with her boot. He stepped close and put his hands on her face, the rough suede of his work gloves abrasive against her cheek..
“It’s for the best, Belle.”
She squirmed under the intensity of his gaze. The clear blue honesty of his eyes was just too much. She didn’t want to see that. She didn’t want to know. She’d avoided his proximity for the last eight months. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d let him touch her.
“We didn’t think this baby was going to happen for us. Now it has, and we’re so close. We’d be fools to not do everything we can.”
She sighed and let him lead her inside.
The snow continued to fall all morning, buttering the yard in a thick layer. Annabelle wondered how it would feel on her aching body, on her burning skin, to lay down and let it cover her. Would the pure white wash her clean? Would she emerge fresh and new or would the cold claim her for its own and pull her into its depths where she belonged? The lights flickered occasionally, reminding them that the power was not a promise, that it could go anytime it pleased. Early afternoon the wind began to blow, rattling the windows and sending the snowflakes sideways, and Annabelle felt a tightening in her belly. She ignored it like she ignored her mother’s incessant questions, the way she kept picking up Annabelle’s feet and putting pillows under them, and placing cups of tea and plates of snacks by her elbow. By the time her Mama was warming some beans and cornbread for dinner, Annabelle could no longer pretend nothing was happening. The spasms were coming closer and harder, stealing her breath and dampening her brow. She felt a wetness under her thighs and stood from the rocker next to the fire thinking that her bladder had failed her, as was happening more and more lately, only to have a flood of fluid run down her leg and puddle at her feet. A trail of black darkened her grey sweatpants from her inner thigh to her ankle.
Mama stood with the pot in her hand, her eyes on the wet on the floor. “I’m gonna call Mrs. Isbey next door. She delivered half the neighborhood. She’ll know what to do.”
Mama had just hung up the phone when the lights blinked twice and were gone. “Lemme help you get out of those pants,” she said. “Then you go get in bed. I’ll be in shortly.”
In the hours since, Mrs. Isbey arrived, but the baby did not. Annabelle’s body did it’s best to wring the child out, but it couldn’t. The contractions were a constant tightening, the tension of her growing insides at odds with her outsides shrinking. Annabelle waited for the zipping sound of her skin splitting. Just as she imagined the edges of her skin beginning to peel back and reveal the raw muscles, stringy tendons and white bones beneath, a sliver of relief would slip in. As the devil’s hold on her torso loosened slightly, Annabelle saw with wet eyes, patterns emerging in the texture of the stucco ceiling. A message perhaps, in a code. She could almost make sense of it before her body would be possessed yet again, spasming and squeezing, the pressure erasing every thought from her mind like a good shake of the etch-a-sketch she and her sister used to fight over as kids.
“Take a deep breath when you can. Bear down on the next one,” her mother said in Annabelle’s ear, wiping a hank of sweat soaked hair from her brow.
The baby would not come.
Annabelle had nothing left. She was paper skin and rubber bones stretched around this thing, this baby that wanted out, but couldn’t find its way. Annabelle understood that problem all too well, the pain of wanting something more than anything, of needing it, of having life depend on it, and then not being able to get it. The hours of agony had caused a kind of clarity. She’d come to understand that this pain was her punishment.
“Can I get you anything, Sugar?” her mother asked. “I can grab you anything you’d like, some soup or crackers? Ice water?”
Annabelle shook her head. She couldn’t imagine fitting anything else into her body. She was a heavy water balloon rolling across a gravel drive; a swollen lip being forced into a smile. Mama knew she was in no shape to eat. It was just pleasantries for the sake of creating some kind of normal. Manners were the only thing holding them together. Her mother busied herself fussing with linens and moving things around the room. Annabelle closed her eyes and tried to relax as she waited for the pressure to build again. She would only have moments of peace. She needed to use them to rebuild her strength. Instead her thoughts drifted to sitting on that hard wood pew, passing the tithe basket back to the black haired usher, their eyes meeting and the electric current that passed between them. The quickening she’d felt below her belly, the heat on her skin in a church of all places, and with Jimmy’s shoulder pressed into hers. Annabelle’s heart leap frogged in her chest just at the thought.
She felt the now familiar prickle, the precursor to the gathering storm of pressure and tension that was to come. “Again,” she whispered and her mother and Mrs. Isbey resumed their positions.
The skin across her midriff was drum tight, and contracting further, tenacious in its purpose to expel the baby from Annabelle’s body. Annabelle held her mother’s shaking hands, thought about her breathing, thought about the clear French Broad River rippling past MeeMaw’s cabin. Thought about standing ankle deep in the cool water, or skipping stones. She even allowed herself to think of twirling a black ringlet around her index finger. Of pulling his face, prickly with five o’clock shadow, towards hers: anything but the battering ram that was pushing, insistent, against her most tender parts.
“We gotta turn it,” the neighbor said from between Annabelle’s thighs. “All I can see is it’s back. She could push and push and won’t come out.”
How many lifetimes had passed since Annabelle had first seen her blood on the older woman’s hands? Hands that had delivered Annabelle from her mother’s womb. It didn’t matter how hard Mama squeezed Annabelle’s fingers, or how often she forced ice into her mouth. Her Mama’s prayers and curses to Jesus didn’t matter as the blood flowed and Annabelle’s skin turned to snow. This baby was stronger than Annabelle would ever be.
The contraction passed, and her limbs fell to the bed.
“Push on the baby,” Mrs. Isbey said.
“How?” said her mother.
“I’m going to reach inside and try to turn it clockwise, you do the same from the outside. With muscle, like you’re making bread. But quickly, we only have until the next contraction.”
The women went to work kneading and prodding Annabelle’s flesh while she watched the shadows on the ceiling. She and Jimmy had tried to get pregnant for years. He’d be dreaming of a little towheaded boy to take fishing near since he was a little towheaded boy himself. It’d never worked. They’d had some hope, when her cycle had been late, evenings of laying in each other’s arms thinking up names only to wake up the next morning on a red stain. Years of false hope had built a wall between them. She didn’t tell anyone, of course, about what had happened, about what was happening. Didn’t tell anyone why this baby would have dark hair instead of blonde.
More contractions came. The baby didn’t move. Annabelle’s abdomen was a throbbing rock, immovable and impossible to ignore. Annabelle no longer had strength to fight it. This time her hands remained limp at her sides. The pain wasn’t her punishment, she realized. What she had done would take more than pain to even; the baby was going to take her life. There was something circular about it, she couldn’t ignore the elegance. The punishment fit the crime.
“Cut it out,” she whispered and watched the neighbor and her mother make eye contact.
Her mother shook her head. “Not yet,” she said.
“The baby will die,” Mrs. Isbey said. She held her bloodstained hands in front of her. Annabelle could see her own blood forming crusts in the older woman’s cuticles.
They stared at each other, unmoving, for an eternity.
“Cut it!” Annabelle said.
“I’ll go get…something,” said Mrs. Isbey.
“Get some shine too,” her mother said. “For her… and us.”
The door swooshed shut behind her and Mama sat on the edge of the bed, gripping Annabelle’s limp hand between her own.
“It’ll be alright, Sugar. It’ll be alright,” her mother said, but the promise on her lips didn’t make it to her eyes.
“It will,” said Annabelle.
Her mother looked at her sharply. “You better fight.”
“Ain’t no use, Mama. It’s already done.”
“No,” her mother said, shaking her head. “No.”
“I brought this on myself.” Annabelle closed her eyes.
“There ain’t nothin’ you coulda done to deserve this, child.”
“I did. And I’m okay with it. I have peace.”
“You’re going to fight,” her mother said, eyes wide and rimmed with red. “I raised you to fight.”
Annabelle shook her head. “What I done, it’s unforgivable.”
“No it hain’t.”
“You don’t get it Mama. The baby, it’s-“
“I know it hain’t Jimmy’s.”
Mama took a deep breath. “You don’t know how happy I was when we found out that you was gonna have a baby. And not just cause I get to get a grandbaby to so spoil, but because, well, because I thought all your pain, was my fault.”
“How could it be your fault?”
“Well, your Daddy and me.” A bright red flush crept up her neck and covered her cheeks. “Well, we weren’t always as close to Jesus as we are now.”
Mrs. Isbey walked in with more towels, a mason jar full of clear liquid, and a kitchen knife. At the sight of the knife her mother released Annabelle’s hand and pressed her own palms to her abdomen.
“Oh lord,” Mama whispered.
She kissed Annabelle on the head and moved to help Mrs. Isbey prepare. She approached the bed with the jar of moonshine.
“Let’s sit you up a bit, you’re gonna want to take as much of this as you can stomach,” she said.
Annabelle sipped and watched the women, strong women, women she’d known her whole life. They prepared to save her baby, and to try to save her. But Annabelle knew the truth. She deserved this. This was owed. She was relieved that it was these women who would raise her baby, love her baby, even if it had dark hair.
The women stood at the foot of the bed looking at her. “This won’t be easy,” Mrs. Isbey said.
Annabelle nodded. She suspected this was it. She’d never been afraid of dying. Never really thought about her own mortality. It wasn’t that she was especially strong or stoic, but more that a girl couldn’t survive in the mountains being afraid. She’d never thought about what, if anything, might be waiting for her on the other side. Even now, it wasn’t the idea of her own life ending that stole her breath and chilled her skin. She more than earned this with her betrayal. But the idea that her child would grow up without her started an ache in her throat that travelled up into her face, scrunching her nose, and welling her eyes. Her baby would grow up not knowing that the moment of its conception was the most beautiful in Annabelle’s life, and that was a pain she couldn’t bear.
“You fight, you hear?” her mother said.
And then the sear of the knife across her abdomen brought black emptiness.
Annabelle woke to the whispers of women on the other side of the room.
“Had she been craving jam?”
“Not that she told me.”
“What about strawberries?”
Tension vibrated through the room. Annabelle could feel it in her jaw like fingernails raking a chalkboard. The pitch of their voices was high, and their breathing fast.
“No! It’s that spaceship, I’m sure.”
“The Challenger? The one that blew up? What does that have to do with these marks?”
“I’m sure. I told her not to watch the news. I told her not to go outside. They say that the trauma…” Her Mama’s voice dropped into a murmur. “What else could explain it?”
The air in the room refused to enter Annabelle’s lungs. She’d survived, but the baby had not. She hadn’t considered that possibility. The women continued their interrogation of each other while Annabelle let her head sink back into the pillow. Tears slipped out the sides of her eyes and slid into the hair at her temples. She closed her lids, willing the tears to stop. She wanted to feel the righteous anger, the hollow pain of losing a child, and not the sweet relief that was rolling over her. The release of nine months of anxiety that had wound her tight, escaping now left her joints rubbery and her spine loose. It was unnatural. There was something wrong with her to feel this way.
Then the kitten mewl of newborn silenced the room. Her mother reached down and picked up the baby and rocked it in her arms.
Annabelle’s brow furrowed. If they weren’t huddled over a dead baby, what was the problem?
“Can I see the baby?” Annabelle asked, struggling to sit up.
“You’re awake!” Mrs. Isbey said.
“Praise Jesus!” said her mother.
The women looked at each other and then at Annabelle, but no one moved.
“Please?” said Annabelle, her breathing fast and shallow.
“There’s two,” Mama said, holding the baby tighter to her chest.
Annabelle’s head fell back to the pillow. She hadn’t thought of two. “Well lemme see both of ‘em then.”
“There’s somethin’ else,” her mother said.
“It’s not uncommon,” Mrs. Isbey said. “I’ve seen some babies grow out of it. It’s doesn’t mean it’s going to be like that forever. There are treatments.”
Annabelle’s skin felt clammy, she was weak and tired and terrified. She held out her arms, and her mother and Mrs. Isbey each picked up a baby and brought them to her side. Annabelle looked down at the mops of dark curls and the marks on their faces and knew.
The mark of her love was those inky locks; she’d spend the rest of her life able to tangle her fingers in them. But the stain of her shame was plum purple and raised: the texture of meat. Both girls looked like they had cow liver smeared on their cheeks, on their tiny chins and foreheads. Port wine stains. Fate hadn’t let her off the hook. Annabelle was going to pay for those moments of happiness with his soft ringlets against her skin, his chuckle in her ear, her fingers in his mouth.
It wasn’t dying that was her punishment, she knew, it was living.