No Place to Go
Neba was seven months pregnant when her husband died, the result of
simple math: man plus truck. The baby had had a father, and now,
suddenly, he didn't. And, she realized in a moment that nearly broke
her, there would be no more babies after this one. Pressed up against
the difficulty of raising her baby alone, Neba decided instead to just
Beating back labor was the hardest part. It came slow, then fast, then
hard as a thrashing sea, a riptide she had to fight. And fight she did.
After three days, her body quieted, her stretched skin shining with
sweat, her face an explosion of broken vessels. Her baby boy stilled
his fearsome tumbling and went back to lazily drumming his fists on the
walls of her abdomen.
When she walked, he rolled to his right side. When she slept, he
stroked his head, his knuckles rippling under her skin like budding
teeth. When she ate peanut brittle, he hiccupped so hard her glasses
bounced on the bridge of her nose. She bought a stethoscope, listened
to his heartbeat galloping inside her.
One day she was surprised to find that he had learned to speak. After
all, it had been two years now—or was it three? "Mama." The
sound coming through the stethoscope was only slightly garbled from the
fluid. "Where are you?"
"I'm here!" she cried. "I'm out here!"
The baby replied, "What is out?"
It was always a habit of Neba's to talk to him, but now her idle chatting
took on an informational tenor; the baby was so full of questions.
"Where are we going?" he would ask.
"To the market."
"What is the market?"
"A place filled with food to buy and bring home to our kitchen."
"Is it like a womb?" he would always ask.
"No." She tried to say it gently. "Not much like a womb…"
But the womb was all he knew.
Neba tried to eat sparingly, but still the baby grew. She slaked her
thirst with sips of water, tempered the bile roiling in her stomach
with corn-silk, bits of bread, the tissue-thin skin of a ripe plum. She
wrapped her belly in compression bandages, flexed her abdominal muscles
until they were sinewy ropes. She thought of those watermelons the
Japanese grew in crates, forcing them square so they could stack them
sturdily, each upon the other.
The battle raged, boy vs. womb. His gnarled joints were everywhere: his
chain-link spine against her liver; a knobby elbow kinking her
intestine; cushioned in the wet slug of her bladder, a knee. "You're
hurting me," she would sometimes say, and the baby would pull his head
in, anchor his feet along the thick cloud of her diaphragm, twist his
limbs to better match the shapes of her hollow. "I love you," she said,
"even though you're hurting me."
When he got so big she couldn't walk, Neba decided it was for the best
anyway. Already she had stopped going out in public, refusing to endure
the gasps from frightened strangers taking in her distorted physique,
the rigid, knotty bulk of the baby. Her skin was stretched nearly
transparent. She could see bulging veins circumnavigating her uterus,
wriggling in perfect unison like throbbing blue worms.
"Is that light?" the baby asked. She didn't even need the stethoscope
to hear him anymore. "I think I see something." His profile surfaced
from her gut like a Mardi Gras mask.
If she wept it wasn't for very long. Her heaving sobs made an ocean
inside her. The baby fell asleep amid the rolling waves.
Of course, despite all her effort, she could not keep him in forever.
It had been so long since Neba had upset her obstetrician's tidy
timeline. His office was adorned with illustrations of female
silhouettes, their bodies sawed in half to show the sleeping fetuses
secreted inside. There were nine of them, standing in order of
roundness, the final girl's belly distended like a half moon, her face
awash in peace and promise.
None of them resembled Neba, with her withering legs, her pancaked ass,
her belly both hard and drooping, like a sack of oranges straining to
When the doctor cut him out, the baby's eyes were pale like a fish. His
skin was wrinkled and wet. His hair matted with cheesy vernix. His
fingernails were soft and long. The doctor dislodged four baby teeth
from the craggy walls of Neba's uterus. He had swallowed the rest, the
baby explained when he'd gotten the hang of breathing air.
In July he learned to walk. By September he could run. Aside from a
habit of curling his fists and an aversion to loud sounds, he was
indistinguishable from the other boys. Neba took him to a hockey game
on his first birthday. He ate a hot pretzel as big as his head. Neba
wondered why everyone didn't do what she had done.
The only persistent problem was the extra skin that hung around her
waist like an inflatable duck. Most of the time, she could tuck it into
the waistband of her jeans. But at night it pooled around her like
spilled milk that could not be un-spilled. She stroked it with her
fingers, making pools and valleys in its rippled surface.
Some mornings it was turgid enough to pull into peaks. She molded them
into figures, touching their bald heads and featureless faces. They
were the children she would never have. Here a girl, here another boy,
here a tall one, a short one, a fat one. This one would be smart. This
one lazy. This one would play trombone like her late husband. This one
would punish her dolls for eating their sweets before their supper.
If she placed them very close together, she could make nearly thirty.
Her babies, all. No place to go but the rubbery landscape of her body.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of WHY WE NEVER TALK ABOUT SUGAR, a collection of stories.
Read her postcard.
Detail of art on main page courtesy
W i g l e a f