She’s only known Eli for a week, known meaning looked upon. The previous months were a different kind of knowing, known meaning felt. In both cases meaning feared.
Eli is sleeping on her breast. With Eli she has approached the boundary of life. He has shown her what her body is, which is: not hers. She looks at Eli’s head, his downy crown, stuck there. Eli has remade her.
She would like to speak to someone. She calls John at work. She stands carefully so as not to wake Eli, slowly because she is sore. She dials.
John cannot speak. John is busy fixing bodies. This is what John does. He fixes bodies so people can return to them. She will never return to hers again. Or she will, but it will not be the one she remembers.
She eats an apple. Some cheese. She bites the shape of her mouth into each. She is hungry. Soon she will have to slice everything small. She will have to dice. Soon everything will be dangerous.
There was a time, before Eli, when danger was what she went for. Danger was a much older man. Danger was dreaming. Danger was substance and height, defying weakness. Danger was leaving home. Danger was coming back and marrying a nice doctor. Danger is why Eli is here. Now, Eli is danger, and danger is no longer fun.
In Eli’s room she sits in the giant rocking chair her mother-in-law gave her as a gift. It was her mother’s and hers before that. A sturdy walnut with turned spindles, a slatted back. She is a link in a chain, but it will end with her. She has already decided that she will not give the chair to Eli.
She rocks. She wishes she could work.
Eli’s room used to be her room. It held her desk and her books. It was where everything happened. It was her life, and now that the room is no longer hers she fears that it may have ended. She told John this, which was a mistake. John said, ridiculous. John said, *this *is your life. But if this is her life then doesn’t that mean that what came before has come to an end?
Of course, she loves Eli. But here is the thing about loving Eli: it’s like dying. She can only go one way.
Her phone rings. She rushes to it. She would like to speak to whomever it is, to say, hi, please tell me about your life. Tell me what you are doing at this very moment. Tell me about your shoes.
The call is automated. ‘Congratulations,’ a voice says. ‘You’ve been selected as the winner of a five-day vacation to Orlando, all expenses paid! To redeem this once-in-a-lifetime trip, please press one.’
She does not press one. She would never willingly go to Orlando.
Perhaps this is an omen. Perhaps she is being warned that she will be the kind of mother who takes her child to Orlando, who buys him plastic novelty cups with brightly colored straws. She can’t bear it. She hangs up. She looks outside. It is green with the absence of people. There is a wide field, replete with pollinators, and a thick wall of pine and cedar surrounding them on all sides. They poured all their savings into this wild plot of land, a place for him to rest and her to write, but she’s begun to resent the solitude. She will take down the NO TRESPASSING signs John has nailed to trees along the property line. She will welcome any forager or hunter that chooses to pass by. She will point them towards the turnip greens John planted for the deer and the places she’s seen armadillos. She will let them hold Eli if they ask to.
Eli, touched by some invisible fire, begins wailing in the same wordless way he did the moment he emerged. The sound seemed to scratch at a tender part of her. She thought maybe it was the same part that was damaged whenever she saw horses die in movies. But with the horses she could close her eyes against the horror, remind herself it wasn’t real. Now she has to deal with it. She has to bounce and pat and sing, and afterwards she is too shaken to feel relief.
She senses a coolness between her legs. Bleeding again. The bleeding with a pretty name. What was it? Lochia, meaning blood and mucus. Lochia, which should mean magic. She puts Eli down in his crib to clean herself up, setting him off again. She wipes and wipes, wasting toilet paper. She changes her underwear.
She returns to Eli but decides to let him wail. She wants to see how long he will go without consolation, hoping he will exhaust himself. She has never heard of death by wailing.
She is surprised when the wailing becomes a kind of silence. After a while she can’t hear it any longer. It has deafened her, defeated its purpose. It is almost as if she is alone.
But this does not last. One break in tone, a coughing cry, and she launches toward Eli, gives her body back. She holds him to her chest. It is enough to kill her, this joy. How she suffers at the hands of it! How wretched, this place beyond love.
Outside Eli’s window an older woman wanders across the front lawn, wearing rain boots and an oilcloth coat, silver hair streaming through the back of a baseball cap. She’s carrying a plastic grocery bag, empty apart from air. The bag bloats and sags, bloats and sags, as she swings it.
The woman is a miracle.
She takes Eli and walks out to the porch. The woman waves, walks towards her. She removes her cap, wipes her brow, then replaces it. She introduces herself as Jean from down the way. She is looking for lion’s mane mushrooms. She intends to poach them in saffron and butter.
‘Lion’s mane,’ Jean explains, ‘tastes like lobster.’
She gives Jean access to wherever she would like to go. She tells her to ignore the signs. She invites her inside.
‘I was thrilled when you guys bought this place,’ Jean says. ‘It just sat here for so long.’
‘I imagine that’s why it was so cheap,’ she says. She offers Jean the couch in the living room and takes a chair across from her. Jean hasn’t acknowledged Eli at all.
‘I feel bad for anything that can’t serve its purpose,’ Jean says.
‘Well there were squirrels,’ she says. ‘We had to bring in professionals.’
Jean removes her hat and coat and places them beside her. ‘You should have called me.’
It grows quiet. She fears she has forgotten how to socialise. And she used to have such skill! She could put anyone at ease. She was the person other people looked for at parties.
‘So do you have any children?’ she says, immediately regretting it. What has become of her? Why couldn’t she ask, ‘What do you do?’
‘No,’ Jean says. ‘I’m not married either, if that’s where you’re going next.’
‘Oh,’ she says.
‘No divorces,’ Jean says. ‘Just disdainful towards the institution.’
They grow quiet again. She’ll let Jean speak first. Jean is beautiful, she decides. Jean’s eyes are violet. She wishes she could look like Jean.
‘Do you have any children?’ Jean asks.
She doesn’t understand the question, places her hand on Eli’s back. ‘Just this one.’
‘Oh dear god,’ Jean says. ‘I’m sorry. My vision. I don’t know what I thought that was.’
Eli makes a brief, wet noise with his mouth as if he knows he’s being acknowledged.
‘Can I see its face?’ Jean asks.
She turns Eli around, holds him out for Jean to see.
Jean leans forward, narrowing her eyes. ‘Fascinating.’
She looks at Eli’s face too. She wonders what is fascinating.
‘I can’t see you,’ Jean says.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t see you in its face.’
‘Oh,’ she says, drawing him against her shoulder, her hands cupping the gentle curvature of his bottom and head. ‘Well, he’s mine.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ Jean says.
‘Can I get you anything?’ she says. ‘Something to eat or drink?’ She would like to have a cocktail with Jean, something to resuscitate her charm, but there is nothing in the house.
‘Water, please,’ Jean says. ‘And something green?’
She brings Jean a glass of ice water and an apple. Jean polishes the apple with her blouse, then bites from it in a loud and satisfying way.
She watches Jean eat, her strong jaw chomping on the flesh. Eli grows vocal, a little restless. He needs to eat too. ‘Do you mind if I nurse?’ she says.
‘Go ahead,’ Jean says.
She slips one arm out of a sleeve and pulls the T-shirt up over her shoulder. She helps Eli find her breast. She wonders how much she can tell this woman.
‘It’s a boy?’ Jean says.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Eli,’ Jean says. ‘Is that religious?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘We just liked the name.’
Jean eats the entire core, seeds and all, then picks the flesh from her teeth with her pinky nail. ‘So why did you want children?’
‘It was unplanned,’ she says, covering Eli’s head with her hand. ‘Not that we regret it. We don’t regret it at all. Why didn’t you want children?’
‘I’m no expert in gentleness,’ Jean says.
‘I’m not either,’ she says. From as far back as she can remember she was better at ruining things; she popped the heads off dolls, broke bones, scuffed up her shoes. She couldn’t fry an egg without the yolk rupturing. ‘I think my nature is inclined towards violence.’
‘Well, of course,’ Jean says. ‘That’s why they expect us to be gentle.’
Jean rises, says she better get going. She puts on her hat and coat.
‘Come back tomorrow?’
‘I’ll bring you some lion’s mane,’ Jeans says. ‘It lifts the mood.’
She wakes up to John wiping her hair from her face, her mouth hanging open, moist at the corners, Eli tucked between her arm and her side. John is standing over the couch, over her and Eli, holding his phone. ‘Pretend you’re sleeping again,’ he says. ‘I was about to take a picture.’
‘Please don’t,’ she says. She pushes the device away.
‘Jeez,’ he says. ‘Fine. How was today?’
‘Better than yesterday.’ She wonders whether or not she should tell John about Jean, if it would anger or worry him that she had invited a stranger inside.
‘That’s good,’ John says. ‘I told you you’d feel better eventually. It’s normal for the first few days to be tough.’
‘I wasn’t aware you’d given birth,’ she says.
He puts his face close to Eli’s, speaks to him as if he were a puppy. ‘I went to medical school,’ he says.
She used to love everything about him. His plain charm and careful grooming. His belief that he’d rescued her from something. Even his rehearsed, sober bedside manner, which she got a glimpse of whenever she was sick.
‘I wish I could stay home,’ he says.
She curls onto her side. ‘No, you don’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If you knew what it was like, you wouldn’t wish for it.’
‘Well, what’s it like?’
He lifts Eli into his arms, ogles him with the ridiculous smile reserved for the small and helpless. ‘I don’t know what your mother is talking about.’
‘I didn’t expect you to,’ she says, rising. ‘I’m going to take a shower.’
‘Take your time,’ he says.
He is always granting her permission.
Jean returns around noon the next day with her hair in braids and a small dish of lion’s mane. It does taste like lobster.
‘I’m glad you like it,’ Jean says. They’re seated across from one another at the kitchen table, Eli between them, lying on a little round pallet, his blanket patterned with woodland creatures. ‘I don’t have patience for people who can’t appreciate delicate flavours.’
‘Well I appreciate them,’ she says. ‘There really isn’t a food I don’t like. John, on the other hand, won’t eat cilantro or shallots or olives. And he’ll only eat tomatoes when cooked.’
‘How childlike,’ Jean says.
She wonders whether or not to defend John. There are things about him she still finds redeeming—his love for her, for example—but she also doesn’t care whether Jean likes him or not. He is not a part of this.
‘Then again,’ Jean adds, ‘most men bore me. Even their lovemaking bores me.’
Lately, she’s felt the same way. Ever since she became pregnant John has treated her very delicately. At first she found it sweet. Then it began to bother her, how conscious he was of her changing physiognomy, his careful, lustless handling. He made her feel like a girl.
‘What about women?’ she asks.
‘We’re only boring when we’re too young,’ Jean says. ‘Before we realise what we have.’
‘I remember being that way,’ she says. She looks at Eli, wonders how fluidly he will inhabit his desire.
‘Young men can be that way too, you know. I’m training one now.’
Jean removes the rubber band from the end of one pigtail and begins unwinding it, then braiding it again. ‘I started seeing a younger man, and I’m teaching him how to please me. He’s become quite good.’
She secures the braid with the rubber band, places her hand on Eli. ‘I hope you’re listening, little bean.’
She wants to show Jean his nails, which move her deeply, a reminder of how exquisite he is, this life she made. But she resists. ‘Can we do something?’ she says.
‘Would you like to go mushroom hunting?’ Jean says.
‘Sure,’ she says, thrilled to be invited somewhere. ‘But I need to change.’
‘Go on,’ Jean says. ‘We won’t move an inch.’
In the bedroom she puts on maternity jeans and John’s painting shirt, a torn flannel streaked with the same eggshell white as their walls. When she returns to the kitchen, Jean has emptied the fruit bowl and arranged the fruit around Eli, a banana neatly aligned with the arc of his head. ‘It’s a still life,’ she says. ‘The Fruits of Labour.’
Eli seems unfazed, appropriately inanimate, but eventually begins to wail.
‘It’s ruined,’ Jean says. ‘He only needs you because you’re here.’
She knows, can feel Eli’s yearning like a cramp. She wraps him in a sarong.
Jean leads them into the woods, into a part of her property she’s never seen before, a dense stand of pine, the ground blanketed in copper needles and cones. It smells like rosemary. She is happy to be out of the house. Away from its bleached walls and folded linens, from its scent: a sour intermingling of human hygiene and love.
She follows Jean, who pauses occasionally to sniff the air, braids hanging evenly over her breasts.
‘Ah!’ Jean says, stopping suddenly. ‘Come here.’
She walks over, stands beside Jean.
‘This,’ Jean says, pointing to a white mushroom with a wide cap, ‘is a false parasol. It’s highly poisonous, but people are always mistaking it for its edible cousin.’
‘Okay,’ she says, staring down at the little demon. It’s pale and fleshy as Eli’s fist, but flecked with a few brownish scales. She kicks it, revealing its gilled underside.
‘Take a good look at it, so you remember,’ Jean says. ‘Everyone should know these things.’
They walk so long that Eli grows hungry. She unbuttons her shirt beneath the sarong, guides Eli to her nipple. She likes following Jean. She would like to follow Jean forever.
They pass a swampy area, where shallow pools stand laden with mosquito larva, then encounter a sprawling live oak whose branches bend lazily toward the ground. Near its base Jean locates a patch of chanterelles, absurd in colour, shocking in a terrain of brown and green. ‘My,’ Jean says. ‘Look at those beautiful babies. What a wonderful orange!’
Jean demonstrates how to cut the mushrooms at their base with a buck knife and then hands the blade to her. ‘Go easy,’ Jean says. ‘They won’t resist.’
She severs the entire patch. ‘How are we going to carry them?’ she says.
‘I’ll take that,’ Jean says, gesturing at Eli, ‘and you can fill the sarong.’
Eli, full of milk, has fallen asleep. She unlashes him from her body, places him in Jean’s arms. She fills the sarong with mushrooms. They walk. Her load is weightless. Her limbs are reeds. Jean’s knife is cool in her pocket.
Jean is holding Eli like a forklift, her forearms rigid and parallel to the ground. She careens through thickets, kicking up leaf and muck along the way. Eli wakes up without crying, stunned into silence by the ride. She is in awe of Jean, of Eli, orphaned in her arms.
But then she hears Eli coo, and she wants him back. ‘I can carry him now,’ she says. ‘If you would take the mushrooms.’ But Jeans insists. She will carry Eli all the way home.
At the house, Jean asks to hold Eli a little longer. She requests the rocking chair from Eli’s room. ‘I’m testing a theory,’ Jean says. ‘It’s been widely discredited, but you never know.’
She wipes the mushrooms down with a moist paper towel while Jean rocks with Eli in her arms. She is surprised by how carefully she can handle the mushrooms, patting at their naked flesh, softly blowing them dry in the bed of her palms. She places all the mushrooms in a wooden salad bowl and sits next to Jean. Eli is grasping the end of one of Jean’s pigtails. It has been an hour since he has cried.
‘You won’t believe what I heard on the news yesterday,’ Jean says. She is holding Eli against her breast. She gazes down at him, offering him the full expression of her face. ‘In Nigeria, female suicide bombers have begun carrying their infants to avoid detection and then sacrificing them along with themselves.’
‘That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,’ she says. She does not understand why Jean is telling her this, what she could mean by it.
‘Yes,’ Jean says. ‘But don’t you think there’s something pragmatic about it? Rather than abandon their babies, they just take them along.’
Jean is rocking wildly, gathering momentum. She is sure the chair will break.
‘What would you do?’ Jean says.
She looks at Eli’s fist again, Jean’s hair between his fingers, and wishes he would let go. She doesn’t know what she would do. She needs time to consider what’s best for Eli. ‘I’m a good mother,’ she says.
‘You don’t think those women were good mothers?’
‘That’s not what I’m saying,’ she says. ‘Can I have my baby back?’
‘You wouldn’t want to wake him up would you?’ Jean says. ‘Why don’t you take a nap?’
‘I’m not tired,’ she says.
‘Don’t lie to me,’ Jean says. ‘You look exhausted.’
‘But he needs me.’
‘Not at this very moment.’
This is true. Eli is sleeping sweetly in the cradle of Jean’s arms, his fist still tight around her pigtail.
‘Just relax,’ Jean says. ‘We’ll be right here.’
She tries to remain vigilant, but Jean was right. She is exhausted. And the couch is so soft, and if she just lies down, she could close her eyes gently for a moment and breathe.
She wakes to John sitting on the edge of the couch, removing his shoes. It’s dark. The moon is hidden. She sits up. ‘Where’s Eli?’ she shouts.
He hushes her. ‘Asleep,’ he says. ‘Right here. Everything’s okay.’ He kisses her cheek. ‘I’m glad you two are getting plenty of rest.’
Eli is on his pallet on the floor beside her. He is on his back, his fists unfurled in sleep. She moves to the floor, lies down, rests her hand on Eli’s chest. The bowl of his ribs fills and empties, fills again. She curls herself around him, a creature and its shell. ‘It’s not safe here,’ she says.