Prior warning: this story explores post-natal depression and touches on some dark stuff, including toxic aggression and death, so if you have any concerns about that you should not read it. Bearing that in mind, it is a fascinating, affecting piece.
The Utter Absence of Everything
She sits in a corner of the room, her back up against the sofa, legs curled into the faded suede. It is as though she wants to be as far away from the child on the floor as possible. The infant, not yet one, is sucking on a plastic spoon, its chin filmed with moisture, a spider’s web of drool attaching it firmly to the carpet.
‘You should wipe her.’
The woman sighs. There’s no emotion on her face – nothing, not even irritation. Which is what she actually feels. Irritated. Why should she? she thinks. She’s been up half the night. For one thing or another. For this and that. The child’s impatient suckling drowned out by her husband’s snores.
‘She’ll get a rash.’
The woman eases her legs slowly out from under her. An unpleasant tingling sensation manifests itself in her left calf. She pauses to dig knuckles into her own flesh. Remembers when her legs had been firm, muscled to the touch. Good legs. Legs that had attracted the attention of more than one man over the years. Legs that had been more than just her lower limbs.
The infant begins to fuss, its belly rocking against the carpet, legs and arms twitching as it becomes more agitated. The spoon is floating on the thick, blue pile. Just out of reach. A small plastic boat set adrift. The woman pulls out a tissue and dabs expertly around the child’s mouth. Its movements become more frantic, its attention fixed on the spoon, its body straining to reach what it can’t.
‘For goodness sake. Just give it to her. You can see what she wants.’
I know that, thinks the woman. But still she keeps her mouth shut. Speaking invites a reply. And she doesn’t have the energy. But she also knows the child won’t give up. Not until it gets what it wants, regardless of anything or anyone. The world outside could have been on the verge of extinction, a full-blown nuclear holocaust blossoming against the horizon, and the child would still want its fucking spoon. She gives it the spoon.
There is the briefest of pauses. ‘You look different.’
This is enough to goad her into a reply. ‘How?’
‘I haven’t decided. Something about your eyes.’
Tiredness, she thinks. Amazing how quickly it ages the skin.
‘When did you last feed her?’
The question, delivered in thick mockery, slides the woman to her feet. ‘She’s not hungry.’ How the hell could it be? She had only just finished feeding it for Chrissakes.
‘She sounds hungry. Besides. How would you know when she last ate? You haven’t exactly been keeping track of the time.’
The woman glances at her mobile. She’s stunned. It doesn’t seem possible.
‘I thought so. Later than you thought, isn’t it?’ There’s another pause. ‘I’ve figured it out. What’s different.’
‘And?’ Even though she couldn’t give a shit.
‘You’re putting on weight.’
The woman feels like she’s breathing through layers of her own skin.
There was more. ‘Not everywhere. Thighs mainly, a little around your breasts perhaps.’
‘I’m not feeding her.’ Just the thought of the child’s mouth tightly latched on to her nipple, the warm sickly-sweet smell, the urgent, incessant sucking, the deep pull as milk is drawn through the network of minute ducts. ‘It won’t kill her to wait.’
‘Breastfeeding reduces fat. It’s a fact.’
‘I am not discussing my weight.’ She avoids looking into the mirror as she scoops up the child and makes for the bathroom, twisting the taps as though she were ringing the necks of their chickens. She tests the temperature of the bathwater with the tip of her elbow. The skin beneath her arm is loose. Everything feels loose, inside and out. Everything detached, skin from muscle. Muscle from bone. Her mind most of all.
‘You’d have more energy.’
What for? she wonders. So she can fuck and get pregnant again? ‘Be more attractive, perhaps? Is that what you were thinking?’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘Piss … off.’ She says the words slowly, embracing their strength. ‘I am not going to feed her, and I am not fucking well going on a diet.’ She sits the child upright, its lower torso disappearing beneath a curtain of bubbles. Flinches as it begins to cry.
‘I can’t wait to hear her first few words.’
‘It’s a lot cheaper than therapy.’
‘You never used to swear.’
‘I never used to be fat.’
‘Then do something about it. Go for a walk.’
There’s a black lip, a swallowing of light around the edges of the woman’s consciousness. A slow malignancy of thought. She wobbles to her feet. ‘I do walk.’ Her voice is a threshold. An approaching train. ‘I walk. I bleed milk. And I fucking eat.’ She hears the door open. It’s then she realises that she’s back in the living room.
The man standing at the front door is holding a bunch of slightly damp wildflowers, which means he’s taken the time to walk through the reserve, even though the weather is miserable.
‘You look exhausted,’ he says.
The woman runs to him, her momentum almost toppling them both to the floor, jonquils crushed between them like fragrant white kisses. ‘You came home.’
Untangling himself takes time. ‘What an odd thing to say.’ He laughs and looks around. ‘Who were you talking to?’
The woman is confused. ‘Nobody.’ She twirls around in a girlish pirouette. ‘Only me.’
‘I thought …’ She looks upset so he stops. ‘Never mind.’ He glances around. ‘Where’s Elsie? Is she sleeping?’
It’s then that the woman remembers the child, their daughter, and notices the utter absence of sound.
After 12 years spent wandering across South America, Asia, The Middle East and Europe, Alys arrived in Adelaide with a suitcase full of notes. Her fiction and poetry appear in STORGY Magazine, Right Now, The Wild Word, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her online at alysjackson.com.
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