Mother's Love
by Kelly Rothenberg

God looks after fools and children…

Baby’s hair like puppy’s fur, Dalmatian fur. Spotted, dirty, with few clean spots. The saliva perpetually hanging on the chin, swinging like a miniature clockpiece but never quite breaking away. The skin chubby and cold… the progression of days and nights nothing more than a blur viewed through half-open Venetian blinds… tracing the position of the sun by the striped patterns it creates and moves around the room. They start small and square-like in the morning; by afternoon they reach the far wall, stretching long and thin as they climb the sheetrocked wall. In the evening, they join the other shadows on the ceiling, layering darkness upon darkness until there is nothing left to be seen. The prison-box outline on the balding carpet told the time as morning.

Outside the sky was clear, the smokestacks still. The only smoke feathering into the sky came from a solitary garbage truck as it patrolled the empty street. Lydia stared at her glassy reflection as she sat in the windowsill, noticing the face that would have been attractive in another lifetime, the blonde hair limp like seaweed, the eyes dark and unfocusing. All that was needed to complete the ensemble were lines around the mouth, sacs under the eyes and a cigarette close at hand to overemphasize the wasted look. She could imagine the voice, husky and dead — Get me another pack, would you, darling? I’m almost out.

She lifted Amy to her shoulder and stared out the window a while longer, watching the garbage man stop and load the first body into the back of his truck. She couldn’t tell from this distance, but the body looked like an old man’s. It would have to be for the garbage man to lift it as easily as he did. The body had probably become brittle and light, stiff as a plank. His widow would be peering through the glass, watching for the diesel-driving angel of death to take what was left of her husband to the smoking neatherrealms of the crematoriums. Her bifocals would fog as the cool air near the window collides with the warm air around her eyes. The glass would be cold to her pruned fingers. The last snapping of her frail heart would be heard by no one.

She noticed that the clock radio on top of her television set had gone out some time ago. She barely used any electricity anyway, so she hadn’t noticed before now. It was a little cooler in the apartment than usual, but that was okay since she usually kept it cool for Amy’s sake. Lydia let Amy chew on her finger while she continued to stare out the window. When enough of Amy’s drool collected in the crook of her arm, Lydia absently wiped her hand on her stained white robe and hooked it open. Amy’s blue lips brushed her nipple but refused to suck. Amy gummed the soft flesh, pinching and kneading it like dough balls between the hard gums. The purplish blotches on her breasts reminded her of bruised fruit.

She breathed in the faint aroma of the baby’s smell—meat that had been left in the refrigerator a day too long—but it wasn’t until the soreness became too much that Lydia finally placed Amy back in her crib, her breasts aching both from Amy’s punishment to them and the undrained milk they held. Amy’s jaws never stopped their mechanized chewing motion, constantly begging to be fed even though she wouldn’t eat anything. As Lydia straightened Poohs and Tiggers in the crib, Amy stared at her with eyes like glazed-over glass, staring at her as if all the hunger in the world was contained in those two little black marbles. Lydia felt like so much meat hung at the butcher’s and drooled over by strays.

She sat on the floor and watched Amy watching her, noticing the neck still ropy from the umbilical cord despite the bloating gasses. The skin had gone from a post-birth gray to a purplish black and had the texture of charcoal ashes; what didn’t flake away came off in whole chunks. She thought of her razor sitting unused in the bathroom sink, still caked with soap and stubble. She felt the sudden urge to get it, to shave Amy’s skin smooth, whittle it down until she finally found a fresh pink layer hidden somewhere underneath…

She could hear the garbage truck pull to the building next door. Now it sounded like all three of them were trying to hoist one into the back. They always were a noisy bunch, carrying on like high schoolers before a class. She listened, but didn’t hear Derek with them. Even though the building walls muffled their voices a little, she felt certain she could distinguish Derek’s voice if she heard it. It was a high, reedy voice, like a talking flute in a Disney movie. No talking reed today, though, or yesterday or ever. Probably been spending his time with less-pregnant women, but that was okay. So much the better, probably. She could deal with it.

The empty refrigerator like Nietzsche’s abyss stared back into her. She breathed in the coolness but it didn’t stop the odor from reaching her nostrils. She had stopped going shopping in fear of being evicted by the time she had gotten back, but as long as she was here the manager wouldn’t evict a pregnant woman, or a woman who had just given birth. Just so long as she was there to show him the baby —the evidence please Mr. Counselor—then she would be safe. But she had to do something about the smell or else people would start complaining, and then baby or no she’d be gone. Yesterday it had only made it as far as the linen closet in the hall, so she’d thought she had a little time left before things got too bad. She’d have liked to have been able to ignore it for another day, but she’d already said that for the past several days as it was. No more denying the future. Time to face the dogs come what they may.

The bathroom, Auschwitz oven, interior the size of a VW Bug and with no window… the heat thick like waves. The air had closed in on itself and baked and fumed until it had the consistency of a steam bath mixed with rotting garbage. She hadn’t been able to use the bathroom for days without choking, resorting to her last empty milk jug which was almost full. She walked to the bathtub and fell before it like a Wise Man before Jesus, overpowered and weak before the Presence… She hadn’t showered in so long. She could feel the dead scalp cells digging their way into her skull. She thought of cutting all her hair off, then taking the Brillo pad in the kitchen sink and scouring her scalp with it. She would scrub all the dead scalp away until she bled a fresh one.

The bloody sponge of tissue had dried itself into a crusty scab. Each piece she pried up she dropped into the wastecan with a gasp, one exhalation closer to hyperventilating. Her cheek lay against the cool tub sides as she sweated, her eyes perpendicular and pointed into the corners where she had propped her heels up on the cold porcelain. She could still feel the cold on her back; sweaty goosebumps as she had forced Amy out from inside of her. Lydia finally pried the last piece of afterbirth away only to discover the stringy fibers that were still stuck to the tub.

She’d known it was dead. She could tell by the way it felt inside of her, the way it didn’t move or kick. She had been full of dead matter in her belly, but she couldn’t get rid of it. She just had to hold it inside of her and hope it didn’t rot before she could birth it up. After all, when it’s already dead, what’s the big hurry to get it out of you? She’d kept imagining pieces coming out, bloated from staying in the water too long…

But she wasn’t dead, was she? You almost committed the Unforgivable Act and guess what? You were wrong. That’s what happens when you try to do things on your own, always thinking you have the right answers (but you have to keep telling yourself that or you begin to doubt your own sanity and judgment and then that doesn’t get you anywhere at all does it?) You. Were. Wrong. Lucky for her, isn’t it? Isn’t Amy the lucky one…?

She scrubbed and pulled the fibers from the tub, each string leaving a brownish stain behind. When she finally left the bathroom she was shaking and sweaty, her limbs shaking with an inner vibration that came from exertion, hunger and near heat-exhaustion. She half-tossed the bathroom garbage bag into the kitchen and slid onto the living room floor, burying her face in the carpeting. She soaked up the smell of fibers, of old cigarettes and spilled drinks and the odors of pets. Everything from a life before hers here in this room she smelled. She took it all in deeply, obliterating that other smell from her mind as much as she could and breathing in the fibers, the smell like an old man might smell.

An old man walked into the cemetery and lay down in the first open grave he found, and when the groundskeepers removed him he shouted, "Leave me alone! Dammit, I’m dead!" But he would be dragged away until the next time, when she could watch it all over again, the dress rehearsal for things to come. She would sit in the park and watch the entire scene over and over as her belly grew, back in the days when things were more normal and He was still there to take care of her (but who abandoned Who, hmmm?); back when making decisions wasn’t so complicated and she could hold a consistent thought for longer than five seconds. Sometimes the irony of the old man’s foresight would paralyze her. How had he known? How did he know death wouldn’t be death anymore, just a short nap now until time to wake up again? Why couldn’t she have figured it out herself and avoided—

She heard the garbage truck pulling beside her building. Garbage was collected every couple of days to be taken to the incinerators. The rest of the time it piled up on the curb, rotting flesh and all. What the dead didn’t eat either the dog packs got or it just baked in the sun, enticing the already swarming fly population. The idle of the diesel engine throbbed through the windows and into her as she lay on the floor, pushing her to finally get up, rising like a still half-dead Lazarus and scoop Amy out of her crib and into the bag of bathroom garbage like an empty shampoo bottle. She listened to the sounds of the garbage being thrown into the truck, metal cans clanging on metal. Inside the bag she could hear the sounds of feeding. She took a deep breath, then another and another, but when the garbage truck finally drove away she was still standing in front of the hollow wooden door, the garbage bag rustling and twisting in her hand like snakes.

She carried the bag back to the window ledge before lifting Amy out of it. The streets were deserted again, but now they were a little cleaner. Things were quiet in the city today, considering. For some reason, this part of town had always been pretty much dead of activity, even after the Grand Rapture. She could feel Amy’s lips brush against her neck as she held the baby to her shoulder. They were lover’s nibbles but more insistent, the toothless gums trying to tear into her flesh rather than gently caress it. As she shifted Amy from her shoulder, she brushed away the fibers that were like angel-hair spaghetti from the child’s mouth. Lydia’s skin pulled slightly where one or two of them stuck to her neck.

The sky grew darker as the crematoriums spit out their dead. She suddenly felt a kinship with the dead filling the air. Maybe she was one of them after all, like the old man, going through the motions of living while the world around her passed her by as if she was six years buried. She could feel the weight of it all, the dirt clogging her throat as she gurgled for air like a sheep with slaughtered throat. Nobody seemed to understand: who was going to take care of her if Amy was gone? Amy was all Lydia had to take care of her, to keep her going. Amy was it; she was the only one who cared if Lydia lived or died. If Amy wasn’t there, then Lydia might as well not even bother to breathe. The idea of sending Amy away… Why had she even considered it?

She leaned her head back against the windowbox and opened her robe once again. This time, finally, Amy fed. The new tooth was sharp like a puppy’s tooth, easily nicking the skin open. As her baby cooed and fed, Lydia leaned her head back against the frame, nursing her life away one drop at a time. The shadows grew and shrank and grew again, until she grew too dark to see them anymore.


The End


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