Starfish by Gillian O’Shaughnessy


At 19, you’re single, with a newborn daughter and you live with your mother. It’s not what you expected. If you’d thought it through, which you didn’t, maybe you’d have taken that pill or insisted on the condom, or maybe you wouldn’t have said yes only because you couldn’t be bothered saying no and besides, it was something to do and you were bored. If you’d thought it through, which you hadn’t, you might be somewhere else now, maybe pouring beers in a bar overseas or tripping through a grassy field at a music festival down south, staying up late, wearing wellington boots and denim shorts. Dizzy from wine and boys with impossible smiles.

She doesn’t have a name yet, this girl who is yours, nothing you can think of seems to fit. You’d like to be more decisive, you worry it’s a sign you don’t love her enough, that you’re not a natural mother. You’ve heard that happens to some women. They can’t attach. She’s longer and thinner than you expected, she has bow legs, a small pot belly, her skin covered in fur. Her umbilical cord is pinned shut by a pink plastic peg. Her eyes are watchful and as blue as mystery. You’ve been told they’ll change colour soon.

At dusk on one of the nights that are always the same now, your mother answers a knock at the door while you hover in the hall with your baby in a pram that doubles as a bassinet. They were cheaper as a two-in-one. A woman appears, holding a bottle of wine like an offering. Your neighbour has come to introduce herself. Make some new friends, she says. She has large, loose breasts and tattoos, wears a thin strappy singlet and no bra. You try not to stare. It feels like an adventure.

Your mother invites your neighbour in, pours the wine and offers to read her tarot cards. It’s what your mother does when she thinks someone’s lonely. She thinks everyone is lonely underneath. The neighbour accepts.

She’s invited to shuffle the deck, split the cards into three even piles. As close as you can manage, your mum says, it doesn’t matter. Your mum picks up the middle pile and lays the cards out in the classic Celtic cross. The Death card comes up in the centre; a skeleton riding a horse, people falling senseless in its path, a man wearing gold and a hat like a pope begs to be spared.

It doesn’t mean death-death, your mum says quickly. Only change. Spiritual transformation. It’s a good thing.

She points to another card, it shows a woman in a white dress on a throne holding a sceptre, wearing a crown adorned with twelve stars. The Empress. The embodiment of love and abundance. Perhaps a baby will come into your life soon, your mum says. Maybe for you. Maybe someone close to you.

The woman says she works at a brothel up the road, she takes calls and greets the customers as they come in. It’s excellent money and she can choose her own shifts. The girls are great, she adds. Some of them call me aunty.

You admire her tattoos, to show you’re cool about it all, you’re cool about everything, you’re a cool person. She offers to show you the one on her breast and lifts her singlet before you can stop her. A blue and yellow butterfly is inked on her skin, its edges frayed, its wings outstretched as if in flight. It’s in honour of her baby daughter, your neighbour explains, she died before she was old enough to live. There’s a rose bush planted for her in the garden of lost angels at the hospital.

She tells you she can’t have children anymore. Not since she lost her little girl. She’s tried everything. Her husband works Fly-In-Fly-Out at the mines up north. She says it’s worth being apart so often for the extra cash he brings home. IVF is expensive. But the babies won’t stick.

If you want to sell your baby, she says, we would buy her. If you want to. We can give you good money.

You say, no, that’s ok. She’s mine. She’s so wanted. I want her, you say again and you feel like crying. Thank you, anyway. You look down at your lap. Your mother says I’m sorry, I’m so sorry you’ve had this painful time. She continues the tarot reading after a pause, her voice a little louder and faster, like she wants to get this over with. Like she wants this woman and her loss out of her house, away from her daughter and her daughter’s baby. As though the agony in the room now is contagious.

You put out your hand, clutching the side of the pram and see your daughter staring up at you. Always when she is looking, she arches her spine and tilts her head back. She watches intently, like a cyborg, processing information. You grasp her hand too tightly. You think, for no reason, maybe her eyes are changing colour. Maybe today they’re more green than blue.

Later when the woman has gone, and your mother has locked the door, checked it twice, and talked again about pity, you feed your baby daughter and lay down, just the two of you. You tuck a yellow blanket around her, it has daisies and a satin edge. You smell her head and stroke the soft indent on her skull. She flings her arms out wide, a starfish.

Then she tells you her name is Emily.

Gillian O’Shaughnessy is a short fiction writer from Fremantle who grew up where the river meets the sea in Western Australia. She has work published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Fractured Lit and Cordite Poetry Review, among others. She tweets at @GillOshaughness


Art: Rider-Waite-Smith tarot card Public Domain


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