Bourbon Penn 32


by Sarah Starr Murphy

It is the dead hot held breath before a summer storm, and the pit of my stomach clenches in anticipation. Today is the summer solstice, and the world feels bleached from the strength of the sun. At the stove, I have a small pot of water about to boil. I watch as it does, burbling and bubbling. The water flings itself up and out of the pot, splattering onto the stove. I take a step back to protect my bare toes.

Another contraction starts to swell, the feeling a buzzing deepening twisting in my core, and I grab the edge of the counter, bend and moan. As it recedes, I gasp a breath.

There is an egg in the water, bobbling violently. It cracks against the side and releases a thin stream of white, cooking instantly in the water, clouding over. The water is boiling far too hard, but I do not reach to turn it down.

• • •

They said they could fix the way my husband’s face blurred in the center. The doctor checked my eyes, gave me new glasses. When I looked with those new lenses, my husband was crisp, his features and jawline distinct. See, they said. See.

• • •

Every morning lying in bed, before I put my glasses on, Ethan’s face is fuzzy. Nothing else in the room, just his face. I thought the problem was only with him, but then one day I answered the door without my glasses. The mailman’s face was a soft pink smear under his curly red hair. After I closed the door, I turned on the television, flipped through channels. Every man’s face a smudge.

• • •

Ethan tells me, stop misplacing your new glasses. We found the solution; it fixes the problem. Wear the damn glasses.

• • •

It’s logical, so logical, and so I do.

• • •

One night, in bed with my new glasses dutifully in place, I notice that Ethan’s hand on my stomach takes up more space than it did before. With the heel of his palm resting in the curls of my pubic hair, his fingers usually landed a few inches above my belly button. But his palm is there, and his fingers are rolling my nipple between them. His hand covers my entire torso, and the realization makes me catch my breath. Ethan takes this for desire and presses his lips to mine. The frame of my glasses presses into the soft flesh of my face.

• • •

The ophthalmologist promises the newest prescription will fix both the blurry faces and this new large-handed problem. And they do. The doctor’s hands, which moments before had been catcher’s mitts, shrink down to normal when I put on the glasses. Small, delicate hands he has, actually.

• • •

Ethan worries, of course, about my problems with my eyes. He makes pronouncements about cataract surgery, and although he knows nothing about it, he means well. I know he does. He’s a man who came to me in a dream, before I saw him standing at the end of a lonesome dock in Maine, one late August day when the sky refused to warm and the fog was suffocating. I couldn’t see the dock, but I knew he was there, because I’d seen him in my dream. I walked to the end of the dock and there he was, the man who would become my husband. We talked about the fog, the way it distorted the beam of the lighthouse across the water, the way it conjured the warbling of the loons. When I turned to leave, Ethan handed me a tin bucket of mussels he had plucked himself from the rocks, packed in eelgrass and topped with a splash of frigid water. His hand touched mine, and we both smiled.

• • •

Now we live far from the ocean, and maybe that is the problem. Maybe my eyes cannot adjust to the ceaseless still of the prairie. Landsick, perhaps. When I stand on our front porch, I look out over vast plains of prairie, the grasses and flowers waving in the summer heat. People say they resemble the ocean, but those people cannot have an intimate knowledge of the ocean. They have not felt the salt hardening into crystals on their skin, or the rush of saltwater into their ears. The prairie grasses are a vision unto themselves; they are not the ocean. There is so much flat land, so much arid sky. Perhaps the dryness is warping my vision, wrinkling the edges of my eyeballs like a raisin.

• • •

I call my parents and they are worried. My mother says intraocular cancer killed her great-aunt. My father wants to know if I am experiencing migraines to go along with my aura, visual ephemera, hallucinations, visions. I say no, but they do not believe me. They tell me to listen carefully to the ophthalmologist and do exactly as he says. They want me to get contacts I can wear all night long, worried about me waking and seeing such things.

• • •

My older sister, when my parents call her and she calls me, is full of answers. Perhaps I have synesthesia. Perhaps I am experiencing an allergy attack or a mild stroke. Perhaps I am dehydrated. Perhaps I am developing psychic vision. Mara warms to this last possibility, asks if I’ve ever noticed cold pockets of air in the house, if I’ve ever felt like I wasn’t alone.

• • •

I hang up with Mara and go outside so that I can breathe. I sit on the front steps, watch the grass for movement. There are small creatures called thirteen-lined ground squirrels living in my lawn. Halfway between a chipmunk and a squirrel, they have stripes down their backs and build burrows underground like prairie dogs. My neighbor, who asked that I call her Miss Bea, tells me that I should have my husband take a look at them before they become a real nuisance.

“They’ll destroy your whole lawn, then head over here for mine,” she says. I nod, but I won’t bring it up with Ethan. I love to watch the curious faces poking up out of the holes in my otherwise bland lawn. They scurry from hole to hole, fat bellies swaying from side to side, their striped backs shining in the bright prairie sun. They are never out of focus or the wrong size, even early in the morning when I forget my glasses.

• • •

I come home from the store one day to find Ethan cleaning out our bedroom. It’s true, we’ve accumulated a lot of things we don’t need. I look into the black garbage bag sagging on the bed.

“My old glasses!” I reach for them, but Ethan takes two quick steps across the room, puts his hands gently on mine.

“You don’t need them, darling. You can’t see a thing with them. You have the new ones.”

He smiles, and I wonder when his teeth have gone so terrifying, each of them coming to a sharp point, a jagged mouthful of fangs. He sees the fear in my eyes.

“What? What is it?”

“I liked my old glasses,” I mumble.

“That’s not it,” he says, leaning in, pressing my new glasses further up my nose with one finger. “What is it now? What do you see?”

He moves closer and closer and I fear he will bite so I say, “Your teeth, your teeth.”

• • •

My third prescription in as many weeks fixes the fang problem as well as the blurring and the big-hands. Ethan kisses me and I can feel, my tongue in his mouth, that his teeth are flat and perfectly normal. I am afraid of what will happen if I kiss him without my new glasses, so I start to wear them all the time. We often have sex in the middle of the night, hands straying and bodies following before we are fully awake, so I start sleeping with my glasses on. What if he sank his teeth into my shoulder and came away with a mouthful of flesh?

• • •

The next morning, I watch the ground squirrels skitter from hole to hole, a mother followed by babies. Pups, I think. I press a hand to my warm, round stomach. I hope the baby will be well. My obstetrician says it’s possible that my visual artifacts, his term, are a result of elevated hormones.

“Make women a bit crazy,” he says, with a jovial laugh. “Like everything else, it’ll be better once you deliver.”

I do not say anything about the fact that his Adam’s apple has protruded so far that it has become like a marlinspike. I had a marlinspike once, on my sailing knife, a long, pointy piece of metal used for loosening tight knots. Cone-shaped, slightly curved. I loved the feel of it in my fingers, the way it eased into a knot and broke it open. The violation.

• • •

I try not to tell Ethan about the fact that his Adam’s apple has also transformed, but when he presses in to kiss me, eager to hear about the baby’s measurements, his spike presses against my throat until I gasp and choke and then I must tell him. Grimly, he puts me in the car. He slams the door once I am inside, does not speak on the way to the ophthalmologist.

• • •

When we leave with a brand-new pair of glasses, he says, “I can’t do this if you don’t talk to me. We are a team. You need to tell me what’s going on.”

I nod, and agree, because what else.

“The obstetrician said maybe after I deliver.”

Ethan nods but says nothing more. It starts to rain on the way home, and I worry about the ground squirrels, about their tunnels getting wet, their puppies cold. There is nothing I can do.

• • •

Miss Bea knocks on my screen door late in the afternoon, and I am afraid that she will yell at me again about the squirrels, but no, she is holding a cobbler.

“Peach,” she says, “for good luck. My gram always said that peach in pregnancy makes for a round-cheeked baby.” She stares at my stomach, and I look down, worried that it might have changed, but it is still a benign globe pushing out the front of my shirt and working my unbuttoned jeans slowly down off of my hips.

“Thanks,” I say. I cannot imagine eating the cobbler, with the heartburn even now pressing its hot fingers on the back of my throat, but it is not nice to say so.

“I hear you puking, you know,” she says. I don’t know what to say to this, so we both watch as one of the ground squirrels pokes its head up from a hole nearby. It looks first at me, then at her, twitches its whiskers, and disappears.

“It’ll all be over soon. Everything will be better once you’ve delivered.”

“After the baby’s born,” I say.

“Yes. It’s a miracle, how fast you feel better. After.”

I nod, but she is looking at where the ground squirrel has disappeared and I think she will say something else, something about poison or traps or exterminators, but she sneezes.

“Bless you,” I say.

She looks hard at me and says, “You too, my child.” She walks away and I wonder if she, Miss Bea, is secretly holy. When she gets to her door and has forgotten all about me, she reaches a hand back to pluck a wedgie from her voluminous skirt and I think, probably not.

• • •

“Visions,” my sister Mara insists, when she calls me late at night. She calls every night now, worry threading her voice. I take the call down in the kitchen so as not to disturb Ethan.

“You are seeing behind the veil,” Mara says. I take a box of sea salt from the cabinet and pour a small amount in my cupped hand. I stick the tip of my tongue into the pile of flakes as she speaks, try to remember the dark, briny suck of the tide.

“I’m going to send you crystals,” she says, “to keep you safe until I can get there.” I say nothing because I know there is no stopping her.

They come express, dozens of small sparks of color jumbled in a box, and I run my fingers through them: amethyst, quartz, garnet, and jasper. Most of them are the size of a piece of gravel and about as attractive, unpolished. I pull my hand out and see that it’s bleeding; I have cut a finger on a sharp edge of crystal. I pick up the one polished stone, a pretty thing of blue, purple, and green. Labradorite, says Mara’s note, for power and protection. I slip the labradorite into my pocket, but I start to wonder if my big sister has lost her mind.

I bring the box outside and scatter the small crystals like seeds over the green of the lawn. I sit on the stoop until a ground squirrel comes investigating, whiskers twitching. She looks me in the eye, this mama squirrel, and then tucks a chunk of amethyst into her cheek, darting away with it to her burrow. I wait but she does not return. That night, waiting to sleep, I imagine a sparkling cache hidden under the grass, the pups tumbling around in the refracted light. The labradorite is warm in my fist.

• • •

Ethan is out when my labor starts, completing a songbird survey in the wide-open prairie, counting aggressive redwing blackbirds and dainty, razor-billed kestrels. I could call him, but I don’t. First labors always take ages, everyone has assured me. I fill a pot of water and put it on to boil, thinking, a solstice baby. I will make an egg, for strength, for luck. I’ve been told that once I enter the hospital, I won’t be allowed to eat until after the baby comes. I am hungry.

• • •

The egg jumps in the water and I fish it out with a spoon. Slowly, I peel away the jagged shell, press the rubbery flesh into the salt cellar before taking a bite. I eat between contractions, thinking of the ocean. When I am finished, I call my husband. He comes fast, packages me into the car and we drive away. The morning sunshine has vanished, clouds are dark and low; it begins to rain. Every bump in the road is excruciating, my contractions close together, and then there is a hard thud.

“What was that?” I ask, wincing.

“Nothing, pothole,” he mutters, but he looks shiftily in the rearview mirror. I look over at him, and I know that it was the mama ground squirrel.

“Nothing?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says, “concentrate on breathing, baby.”

A wave of pain hits and I double over in the seat, panting. I have forgotten the labradorite on the kitchen counter, but it is much too late now.

• • •

They rush me to a delivery room, I am so obviously in transition when I arrive, and the nurse gets me settled into the bed, hikes my knees up to my ears. I had always imagined birthing as something that happened far away from the me that lives in my brain, far down at the other end of my body, somewhere around my toes. All hunched up like this I find I am uncomfortably close to my own vagina and wish I was further away. The pain is indescribable and everywhere, and I am well past the opportunity for an epidural. My husband is by my side, holding my hand.

“You’re doing great, babe,” he says. I glance over at him and his face is blurred. I press my newest glasses up my nose with a finger, but it doesn’t help.

I’m hit by a fast contraction, then another.

“Time to push, hon,” says the nurse, cheerfully, like she’s announcing good news.

I bear down.

“Yes, that’s it, good! Good girl.”

I look at my husband, panting with effort. He glances down then away.

I feel the nurse cleaning something up.

“Just blood,” says the nurse, smiling blandly. Another contraction and another push. I can hear the nurse calling urgently into the little communication device attached to her scrubs. My doctor walks in.

“Well, here we go! Say goodbye to your modesty, hon, we’re going to have a baby!” His face is so smudged it is almost erased. The glasses are no longer working.

Another contraction tears through me and I scream and push like an animal.

“Gentle, now, little pushes,” he says, sliding down between my legs and putting his hands everywhere. I close my eyes to block him out and do what my body requires. Excruciating, blinding pain, and then the head is out. Another push and I can feel the whole baby born. Everyone is cheering and yelling but I am afraid to look.

“Open your eyes now, mommy, let us know you’re okay,” says the nurse, slipping back up beside me. I focus on her face. I press my glasses so far up my nose they bite into my skin. She has blue eyes, thin lashes globbed with mascara, and a poppy seed stuck in her front teeth, but her smile is genuine. “Here you go, darling,” she says, and puts the baby on my chest.

I look down and she says, “A boy.”

But I know. I know from his pointed teeth, his oversized hands, his blurry face, his sharp little Adam’s apple. He begins clawing his way toward my face. In a panic I look up, and my husband and the doctor are the same. They grin at me with their terrifying teeth and I begin to scream.

• • •

They don’t take the baby right away. The kind nurse picks him up and brings him to the other side of the room. Ethan looks so embarrassed by my outburst that I stop screaming. My stomach contracts as if in response to the silence.

“Placenta!” announces the doctor, hoisting the bloody mass in the air.

“Mara,” I say, “I want my sister.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of time for all that later,” the doctor says. “We don’t want to overwhelm you.”

Ethan nods, strokes my hand. I try so hard to focus on his blurry face.

“Just going to stitch you up,” the doctor says, “We’ve got quite a tear on our hands!”

He is so close, tugging and prodding, that I can smell the onion on his breath.

The room is dry, cold, and sterile. I tip my head to try to get a glimpse of sky out the window. I can see only the brick wall of another hospital wing.

There is a knock on the door.

“Come on in!” the doctor shouts, and I see a dozen young men in white coats dart inside.

“Ah, rounds!” The doctor pats my bare thigh with his bloody, gloved hand. “You, my dear, are fortunate to be in the state’s premiere teaching hospital. Don’t be shy boys, come on over. I’m just stitching – see how she’s torn almost to the anus? Impressive, isn’t it?”

Their teeth are so sharp, their hands are so big. Their Adam’s apples spike below their blurred faces. They lean in, staring.

There is another knock on the door. One of the residents answers and I can hear Mara’s voice.

“I’m her sister. Let me in.”

“I’m sorry,” the resident says, “She’s in no fit state for company at the moment.”

“Mara!” I yell, but Ethan shushes me, frowning, and a resident shuts the door. I know then that Mara is much too late.

“How many fingers?” asks the doctor. He holds up one hand, still gloved and covered in my blood.

I know I should say five, but there are eight, spiraling out from the palm like a starfish. Eight. I take off my glasses, but the number doesn’t change. I let the glasses clatter to the floor, unnoticed.

“How many?” he asks, his voice singsong. He doesn’t need me to answer; maybe he can read it in my eyes.

“Nurse!” he calls, and the woman reappears, the baby in her arms. The baby is wrapped in a thin blue blanket, but he is looking at me. His eyes are deep blue and there is a wisp of dark hair on the crown of his perfectly round head. He opens his mouth in a yawn and I see there are no sharp teeth, no teeth at all in his pink gums. His cheeks are full, his nose a snub of a thing, and his whole face is utterly in focus.

“Wait,” I say, but the doctor speaks over me.

“It appears there are complications,” the doctor says. “Sometimes this happens, after the birth.” I feel Ethan’s hand wrap around my forearm, his eight fingers strong.

The nurse does not look at me as she takes the baby away. I struggle to get up, but I cannot move my legs.

I am alone as the men turn their gazes on me, sharp as crystal.

“Don’t worry,” Ethan says, “We’re going to get you the help you need.”

Sarah Starr Murphy’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Epiphany, Nat. Brut, and elsewhere. She’s managing editor for The Forge Literary Magazine and eternally at work on a novel. She’s a marathoner with dogs, kids, and epilepsy.