No Place to Go
Aubrey Hirsch

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 stay pregnant.

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 be unloaded.

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 of garlandcannon.

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