A Mother Makes a Death

 
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Elizabeth Brus

Art by Tidawhitney Lek

 

Kayleigh opens her eyes. Her bedroom wall has moved in the night to a few inches from her bed. Her nightmare edges back up into her skull, receding, twisting as she forgets. The displaced wall does not immediately alarm her. In the monotony that followed the grief of the children leaving, the city grid responded in kind: corner bodegas absorbed themselves into brownstone, certain left turns disappeared, and bridges changed directions.

She tucks the notion of the displaced wall loosely in her brain, in a soft, semiconscious place, and flips over to check on the baby in her crib at the foot of the bed.

The baby is a blue starfish in his puffy sleeping suit, breathing evenly from a tiny open mouth. His eyes are closed, and the translucent skin on the lids pulse, the red veins dancing. He stirs, sensing Kayleigh’s presence. Kayleigh reaches out her finger and traces the edges of her baby’s fingertips, the beds of his nails like fish roe scattered on an open beach, delicate and bulbous. Kayleigh pushes her own nail experimentally behind a ragged edge in her baby’s left thumb, trapping the thin line of dirt further down.

The baby’s hand curls around her fingertip like a flower closing for the night, and with it, Kayleigh feels a wetness race up her arm, warm, blooming, crashing in her chest, behind her ribs, knocking against her tired and overwrought organs. She listens to the flood in her heart, amazed, as always, at its depth and boundlessness.

She rubs her thumb on her baby’s enclosed hand and covets his tiny features, the yellow crust in his eyes, the red birthmark on his nose, the long eyelashes. She tries to hold the lapping flood in the cavity of her chest, but it strains against the levees. Kayleigh gasps, the sound a cartoon bubble in the dim light of the bedroom, as the flood roars with tired predictability through her body. She breathes, dragging debris.

The baby startles, and Kayleigh’s hand flies to her chest to settle him, a brackish taste rising in her throat. Her husband coughs, and her other arm flies to the right to grab his foot, signaling to him that he must remain still so as not to wake the baby. After a few feeble kicks, he complies.

Kayleigh tries to focus her thoughts, pushing back the flood, the brack water, and now, the wires of pain branching and sparking in her body.

The bedroom walls sigh with her, blowing raspberries.

But there!—the wall. Her exhale sharpens in annoyance. It was real then, this shift—the wall was closer. She could now reach out her fingers, touch the white paint, and tap the cold pane of the locked window behind the shade. To get to the kitchen, she would have to climb over her husband’s legs.

 

She closes the bedroom door behind her, unzips the starfish sleeper, and sits her baby on the rug to make his bottle. Her baby hates drinking milk from her breast. Kayleigh does not regret this. In the aftermath of the children’s departure, these concerns feel mundane: that crimping of her hunched back, the bloody nipple, the dusty blackness behind her eyes, the gummy bites on bits of her flesh, shoved into a tiny mouth. Afterwards, she scrolled the internet for articles written by other unhappy women. Breast is best. Fed is best. Safe is best. Keeping the baby alive is best. That phone, long broken with a stain of electric gasoline on its screen, pings for long-gone internet in a nightstand drawer that escaped in the night, annexed by the bedroom wall. These are problems Kayleigh is grateful to forget.

The baby sits patiently on the rug, naked, waiting for his bottle, cooing and casting hot pink strings of affection around her body like little lassos. His gums curl into a smile, and he drools dutifully. She wraps a dirty cloth around her chest, disturbing the strings; the baby flops to the rug. She centers two stained holes around her nipples, which protrude like traffic cones, bruised and maroon as an apocalypse sky. She threads them carefully into two plastic cone-shaped cups, pointing her nipples precisely down the middle. Thin plastic tubes, tinged with mold, connect to the pink pumping machine.

She turns it on, and the airflow threads her nipples into the cone, bruising her further, crushing and dragging her left nipple on the side of the plastic. She re-centers and her nipples march back and forth in compliance, saluting with streams of milk.

Carefully, she pulls her baby into her lap, under the pump tubes, rearranging the strings, and feeds him his bottle.

 

“She scrolled the internet for articles written by other unhappy women. Breast is best. Fed is best. Safe is best. Keeping the baby alive is best.”

 

Her husband shuffles into the kitchen and takes a mug that says “MOM HAIR DON’T CARE” out of the cabinet. His chest, concave with an asthmatic tightness, balances the little belly that sticks out from the top of his underwear. His hair appears matted, with a curl at the base of his neck.

He gazes at her two nipples, now marching into the pump cones like a pair of purple spitting soldiers. “How’s the starfish boy?” he asks, sipping his coffee. A silence flashes over the moment with a new thought balloon rising over the room: Will he hug them? He doesn’t. Kayleigh feels the strings heat in response.

“Great,” she says. The baby beams at her, sucking.

“The wall moved,” he says.

“I know.” Another silence, this one more communal.

“We didn’t get our flour delivery yesterday.”

“I know.”

“Have you seen a letter-runner recently?”

“No, not in a few weeks.”

“We will have to go to the base and submit a petition for more,” he says.

“Maybe it will come today,” she offers.

He considers her, belly expanding with his breaths.

“I’ll go out and ask around,” Kayleigh says.

“OK,” he says, uncertain.

“It’s important I get out every day for my mental health, remember.”

“OK,” he says again, rubbing his belly. “I fixed your helmet so it’s more secure. Remember to keep the shield closed.” He studies her, but avoids her eyes.

“I will. I’m just going to the shop. I can try and see if other people got their flour.”

He sips his coffee and retreats to the bedroom. The walls ripple, like a wave, with the parting.

 

Kayleigh lowers the baby into her carrier on her chest. He sucks with abandon on his pacifier, their last one. Last week, the strap that keeps the pacifier clipped to his chest went missing. She angles his head carefully so if the pacifier falls, it will tip into her cleavage. She pauses, as always, in front of the door, the fear and thrill of going outside alone like a brick wall.

The baby’s eyes fixate on her face—wide, trusting blood moons that make her nauseated, and she rolls the taste of his life on her tongue, all trusted to her, all made by her, in her ignorant womb—sperm cell fetal pole heart cavity feet hair meconium eyelashes pushing her other organs aside, cramping her hands and brain and colon, making her body swell, compressing her carpal tunnels as she slept. Her husband pried her fingers loose every morning from the shape of a witch’s claw. Then, the baby left, leaving shit and blood and ripped flesh in his wake, all red and vulnerable limbs; he curls against her chest now, heart beating through the soft spot in his head. She made his life and makes his death, whistling in her mind, always. Her thoughts drive a pencil through the hole in his skull, easily, and she wraps her hands over his head to protect him from herself, and crouches to the floor, the flood foaming, dragging cars and metal junk through her tendons, sweeping tiny people off of the roofs of her organs.

His dirty hand reaches up to clutch her braid, and this serves as a valve, blurring and flushing her out.

She puts on her coat and gloves, her mask, and her blue and white motorcycle helmet. She flips the shield shut over her eyes, checking the seal. She picks up the dirty mug from the hall shelf and clips it to the outer edge of her baby carrier. There are now twelve locks on the door, some of them sticky and hard to work, and Kayleigh has to lean her weight, rocking the baby back and forth, to open them. The baby smiles, the pacifier falling.

 
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Outside, Kayleigh sits on the top step of her building, surveying her street. To the left and right, oak trees stand in line down the sidewalk, their leaves waving in gentle uniformity over the empty sidewalks. Birds, unshushed by pedestrian traffic, ride the breeze on their branches, singing, even-toned. The cloudless sky buzzes blue-white. Directly across from her, in the exact center of the block, a Japanese cherry tree stands as a crossing guard, proud in its pregnant pink beauty, its blossoms delicate and gratuitous.

Every window shade is drawn, a few with lights behind them. Some houses are boarded with white flood bags piled by the doors.

Kayleigh is alone, which is usual. She does not regret this. The possibility of the walk spreads in tiny pinpricks over her skin, bloody and airless. She walks down the sidewalk with purpose, the baby starting to drift off but opening his eyes now and again to search her face, his fist fumbling for her braid, tucked in her helmet. The mug bounces. She walks three blocks to the café, carried by birdsong, passing the butcher, the dry cleaner, the real estate agent: empty meat shelves, racks of metal clothes hangers, faded advertisements for expensive apartments. All empty and dark. She feels, as always, the pulsing potential of other people in the apartments above, watching her walk, and, rich with watery connection to the world, she opens her eyeshield, looks up, casting ribbons of greeting up to the windows; her baby looks up too, sucking, blinking, sleeping again. One shade shivers, and a hand slips out of view.

The café has one hospitable metal table and chair on the sidewalk, chained to the building grate. The shopkeeper sits inside, an elderly lady perched on a stool behind the counter, reading a book with the silhouette of a giant bug on the cover. Kayleigh can see the bald patches on her head. She raps on the window and the woman turns around, startled, but smiles when she sees Kayleigh, who waves, then flips her eyeshield closed.

“Hello!” the woman beams, the look in her eyes, as always, a bit too bright, a bit too direct. “So nice to see you! Small coffee and a blueberry scone, yes?” She smiles, unblinking, and the room inflates like a balloon. The scones are the only pastry, little rocks of suffocated dough.

“Yes, thank you,” Kayleigh replies, unclipping the mug to place on the counter. She turns to inspect the news clippings of the store’s opening on the south wall, which deflates under her gaze. The baby snores, and the shop gargles with the sound of the generator.

The woman busies herself at the counter, washing the mug at the sink. She scoops the instant coffee, all the while glancing back at Kayleigh and the baby.

“Hello, sweet baby,” she says, staring at the baby’s dangling legs, her face bright and bland. Kayleigh rubs the baby’s back and smiles appropriately. She reads the descriptions of the long-gone products in the unplugged fridge. Apple juice. Yogurt. Set of 12 macarons.

“No milk,” the shopkeeper apologizes, and places the mug on the counter. Kayleigh reaches for it, but the woman holds on to it absentmindedly. Her thin gray hair is tied back, and she holds Kayleigh’s gaze, unflustered and unflooded.

“It’s so nice to see you,” she repeats. Kayleigh has come to this shop for years. As they look at each other across the counter, Kayleigh knows they are both running this truth through their minds: the poisoned air, the children’s departure, the unexplained shifts of buildings, the exodus and isolation. These shared memories race between them like children playing a game. The woman’s left eye fills with water, and with it, Kayleigh realizes, too late, that a thought is forming in this woman’s mind, here to change the narrative of the day.

“I miss seeing your daughter,” she blurts, her eyebrows furrowing, slicing their connection. Kayleigh steps back from the counter and feels a wave lap the back of her throat.

This transgression overwhelms Kayleigh, and the shopkeeper understands this, self-criticism contorting her face now, her hands still holding on to Kayleigh’s mug. The two women pause, each waiting for the other to speak.

The baby sweats.

For a moment, Kayleigh longs to stay in this shop. In this room, her daughter still exists. See the impression of her tiny nose on the glass, hear the nonsense questions singsonging around the room, feel the private glances of women in communion with the sweetness of a child. She holds the possibility of this common memory between them like a trapped moth.

The baby snores, breaking the stillness between the women. The walls shake as if bracing themselves, and so Kayleigh follows suit, closing her throat to the flood. She touches the woman’s hand and allows herself the pleasure of a quick smile of forgiveness, and leaves the shop, her mug still on the counter.

 
 

Outside, the day remains. The noon sunshine, pungent, bleaches the empty sidewalk. The birds are blither in their tone. Kayleigh tries to ground herself in her baby’s biology—his breathing, his mouth loose around the last pacifier, his body captive in the baby carrier, slack. He is hers; his unknowable thoughts still mist and mingle with hers; his love still drums. But now—a summons! A possibility? Her daughter’s memory escapes, gallops—a stuffed pony with purple and silver hair, weaving between her feet in figure eights, excited at its liberation.

The pony leads Kayleigh away from her apartment, towards the playground at the end of the block, its soft velvet hooves prancing in a rhythmic canter. Drenched, Kayleigh churns through happy memories of her daughter as she follows the pony: nightmares hairclips broken toe counting wrong singing and picking scabs pigtails and astronaut boots. The empty storefronts smile in approval at their progression, and Kayleigh steals hopeful glances into the alleyways despite herself, looking for children.

Just after, years ago, groups of mothers would search for their runaways. They communicated on their phones, and when those stopped working, posted signs in the neighborhood. They walked with masks and helmets, combing the streets and searching abandoned houses. They drew with markers and highlighters over maps and gesticulated in sweatpants and dingy leggings. There were sightings, of course, little grimy gangs of children running together, holed up in a house, or searching for food. The primary-school children flanked groups of toddlers, like a buffalo herd, with a teenager in front and behind. At first, the women would try to match the children to their mothers, flipping through binders of photos, but later, they were only discussed in low tones through open windows as they passed on the street. Finally, the memories of the children burned and expired in their mother’s brains, smoke mixing with the atmosphere as the doors were bolted, the locks rotted.

The pony jumps, her pink and purple tail jaunty, leading Kayleigh to the plastic table next to the swings, wet with recent rain. She’s been here before. She sat at this table with her daughter, first as a baby, wrapped in the same carrier. Later, she would attend to her phone, her daughter in the periphery, shrieking with joy as she ran with other sticky monsters.

These thoughts are dangerous. The swings squeak in alarm, and the slide sticks its tongue out at her, red and rusted. Kayleigh feels the ancient brownstones judging her, arm in arm like search and rescue teams in three rows on the edge of the park. The aghast glances of their sequestered inhabitants drift across the street, little feminine frowns suspended around the woman who dares to sit on the damp table by the swings.

The pony prances. Kayleigh closes her eyes and thinks of her daughter, the love and the flood swelling her chest. Her thoughts, shredded and thin, blow across the spongy ground. She buries her head in her daughter’s braids, smells her mosquito spray, and holds her tight.

 
 

When Kayleigh opens her eyes in bed the next morning, the wall has moved again, jutting clear across the bedroom, pushing the bed adjacent to the kitchen door. The baby sleeps in the bed, starfished and stained. She edges him away from her husband’s sleeping body and runs her finger down his tiny jaw. He rubs his chapped lips together, uncertain.

She picks up the baby and climbs over her husband’s legs. The bedroom is now so small that she can step into the kitchen directly from the foot of the bed. She pumps breastmilk without making coffee, her nipples thumping in their tubes like impatient rabbits. The pump’s motor whines and clicks—a new and worrisome sound.

She wants to return to the park.

“I’m going to the café again,” she calls into the bedroom after a minute. The bed creaks. “Remember, the doctor said it would help with my catastrophic thinking. It’s my hour of self-care.” She waits.

“Okay,” he calls after another pause, and it laps into the room on a tide: okay okay okay.

For a moment, she can’t remember her husband’s face, although she just left him. She fishes for the slide in her mind, fumbling through the carousel, but every slide looks overexposed, his grin dark. The baby smiles at her from his mat, slapping his hands down in excitement, his head circling and unsteady in its neck socket. She tries to copy his features onto her husband’s face to remember.

 

The twelve locks, now rusty, take twenty minutes today. A black crust flakes to the floor as she rocks back and forth, working the locks open. The pony waits on the stoop, its battery-powered neck arching and bending on a choppy rhythm. Its eyes, bright LED bulbs, sweep over Kayleigh’s face like little searchlights. The sky buzzes gray-white. The cherry tree has lost its flowers and has turned its back on her, its hunched branches dripped low. Kayleigh feels a surge of hope and pulls the pony into her lap, pressing her close to the baby, her own happiness lapping like a hidden mountain lake tucked around the corner of a hike. She sets off in a jog, search ribbons flying. The pony senses her excitement, cantering and bucking, and her baby smiles, dropping the pacifier down her shirt. She keeps the eyeshield open on her helmet.

She stops at the café. She can see the shopkeeper, her thin hair ombed tight in a high bun, with her back to the window, reading a leather-bound text with thin pages. She runs her fingers across the lines as she reads. Kayleigh’s mug still sits where she left it, and she raps on the window and tries the door, which is locked. The shopkeeper remains still, reading, so Kayleigh raps again, waving her arms now, feeling self-conscious for the ridiculous picture she must make on the empty street for the watchers above. The café lock, she realizes, has that same rust as her own front door: a black infection, flaky crust on the sidewalk.

The pony pulls at Kayleigh’s pant leg with its plastic teeth, and after another moment of tapping, Kayleigh follows it to the park.

 
 

Kayleigh sits again on the park table. Despite the whistling breeze, the swings sit stiffly, the chains angry ramrods, frozen to the bars above. After a few exploratory laps around the jungle gym, the pony rests at her feet and rotates its ears flat, the motor straining. The baby squirms a bit in his carrier, and Kayleigh realizes the pacifier has dropped in the dirt. She licks it clean, spitting on the ground. She feels the heat wave of the watchers, locked in their houses, and cracks her neck in defiance.

She takes her helmet off, places it on the table beside her.

She misses her daughter.

A tinny, far-off pop sounds behind the brownstones. Strings extend from her feet into the ground, groping for connection, grinding her feet to the floor. With a sideways squint she sees a ripple creep down the length of the playground asphalt, as if there were something swimming just below the surface, grazing the underside with an electric fin. The pony raises its head in alarm, its synthetic hairs vibrating.

Kayleigh closes her eyes, and with a lick of disgust, plucks her daughter into her vision, a slideshow: Ava mewing with her blue and pink cap in the hospital, Ava shrieking in her bouncer, Ava tipping off the slide like a falling star, Ava screaming after her father cut the top of her pinkie with the nail clippers, Ava sleeping with her bottom to the air in her crib, Ava sitting in the garden and giving orders to flowers, Ava writhing and refusing to breastfeed, Ava running to her with mute panic. Ava silent at the window and watching the gangs of children on the street.

Kayleigh’s cheeks burn. The baby whines, uncomfortable, and the breeze winds around them in a slow circle.

Red welts hiss and erupt on her legs.

Kayleigh fumbles for the pacifier and itches her legs with a rising panic, but it’s too late, and Ava skips, laughing, through her body; her organs rebel, a fist grips her throat, her red and white blood cells flank and retreat, and a gray flood roars over the foaming cataract of her brain.

She opens her eyes.

Hiding behind the swing watching her is a boy about five years old. His blond hair is dirty with a choppy cut. His feet are bare, and he wears a blue and white striped sweater and underwear with a picture of a cartoon tiger. Rows of red yarn, tight and knotted, loop over his ankles, crosshatched with columns of blue.

Kayleigh and the boy stare at each other, and she feels the dull prick of memory behind her eyes, before the thought bubbles: she knows him.

Peter. He was Ava’s friend before. New slides: Peter and Ava on the swings together, laughing. Peter playing with dinosaurs. Peter’s mother sitting in her kitchen with a glass of wine, leaning back in the chair, closing her eyes in exhaustion. What was Peter’s mother’s name? How did they meet?

Kayleigh senses that Peter recognizes her too, and he rubs one foot on top of the other, considering her. Of course Kayleigh has seen other children on her walks, in the distance, but this is the closest she’s been to one. She drinks in his details with greed, collecting and taping them in boxes in the back of her mind.

He looks at the baby, and the pony at her feet, who is now sitting at attention, plastic eyelids shuddering open and closed with a mechanical click.

“You have an ouchie,” he declares. Kayleigh looks down at the welts on her legs, now oozing a fluorescent yellow.

“I’m okay,” she says. “I’ll be okay.” He reaches down and rubs his own legs, as if to reassure himself.

The gray-white hope of the morning comes back to her, and Kayleigh feels a pinhole of possibility open, somewhere deep in her stomach. Peter turns and sends a searching glance at something behind him in the distance. Kayleigh strains but sees nothing. Did he nod? Signal someone? The air sits, silent. He turns to look at her again and Kayleigh knows she only has a moment before he leaves, so she asks, fumbling, her words flat and tentative in the air, does he still see Ava? Can she see her? Can he bring Ava to the playground, at this same time, tomorrow? She only wants to tell him to tell her that she wants to tell her that she feels— … but he’s walking away now in that purposeful straight-legged walk of preschoolers as they study the ground, and after a few steps he breaks into an awkward skip, his mind moving on, the smiling tiger face on his bottom receding from view. He leaves the playground through the gate by the basketball court, turns left.

 
 

The baby whines again, tears dripping from the corners of his still-closed eyes. His mouth moves uncertainly, searching for his pacifier. Kayleigh looks at his face pressed to her chest and feels a new swell, this one gentle and uncertain, and she kisses her baby’s forehead.

She needs to go home.

She rubs the welts on her legs, stands, and walks quickly out of the playground, not looking at the pony, who at first nips at her heels and then follows, distracted and trailing behind.

The welts continue to ooze and mix with her sweat, and her socks become soggy, making her sneakers squeak on the sidewalk. The baby’s cries become more insistent, so Kayleigh breaks into a jog, her shoes little pigs of embarrassment that shoot their squeaks into every house, disturbing mothers and fathers from their beds, silencing the birds, shadowing the sky to a violet-blue. Outside her house, the cherry tree has cracked and split from a lightning bolt, and its trunk yawns open, a giant blackened V that casts a shadow over her door.

She scrapes the black mold on the twenty-seven locks, caking the underside of her fingernails with black, wiggling each key in one by one. The pony prances and bucks on the top step, LED eyes trained on the now violet-black sky, the motor whirring with an ebb and flow, one ear stuck in a wrong position, straining to click back into place.

As she claws at the locks, working the door back and forth, she thinks of Ava and Peter and the shopkeeper and the rows of shuttered parents, somewhere in the frowning landscape behind her, and for a moment, she wonders what will happen if the locks won’t open, as her husband can no longer remember the way to the door.

She stops, considering her choice. The pony threads figure eights, slow, loving, nuzzling, his mechanical eyelids programmed sideways for empathy. He looks up, lashes extended, and so she bends down to pet him, his plastic hair soft on her fingers.

But the baby arches his back, straining against her, his eyes flung open in fear at the violet sky, his mouth a quivering O of a silent pre-scream, his cheeks streaked with tears, his heart beating through the soft spot in his head, his body and organs so small and crushable. She controls his life and death and happiness and keeps him safe from pencil death.

A crack of lightning strikes the house next door and she can’t feed him without the pump anyway, so she tries the locks again as the baby screams, and this time they open, so she goes inside, leaving the pony looking up at the sky, its electric heart hissing with the falling rain.

 

When Kayleigh opens her eyes in bed the next morning, the wall has moved again, cutting off access to the kitchen. Her baby is a blue starfish in his sleep sack next to her, a new red nail-scrape on his face, a slight flush to his cheeks. Her nightmare sits on the bed with her, flipping through the script of its conclusion, marking scenes to cut. The walls breathe the even breath of contentment.

Her husband and coffee and breast pump are in the living room, or the memory of the living room.

She is alone in a doorless and windowless room.

The baby begins to stir, his forehead creasing slightly, his top and bottom lips rolling over each other like a storm, and the strings in her breasts heat in response. Kayleigh considers. She picks him up and places him on her nipple for the first time in months. His hand reaches for her braid, his nailbeds little squishable fish roe, his mouth uncertain on her areolas, violet black like an apocalypse sky. As he breastfeeds at last, the rivers of her brain and body merge into tidy tributaries of oxytocin. Her tears drip, obedient and minor stalactites in the underwater lake of her thoughts.

Outside of this narrative, Ava and Peter laugh on the swings, stomachs down, butts to the sky.

* This short story title takes its inspiration from Claudia Dey’s 2018 Paris Review article about motherhood and mortality.

 
 

Fall / Winter 2023



Elizabeth Brus

Elizabeth Brus is a writer and recovering teacher. You can find her work in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Fiction International, The Normal School, The Belladonna Comedy, and elsewhere. Returning to writing after a long hiatus, Elizabeth worked as a teacher for almost fifteen years and still side-hustles as a tutor and curriculum writer. She served with the United States Peace Corps in Lesotho from 2005–07 and lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY.



Tidawhitney Lek

Tidawhitney Lek (b. 1992) is a Cambodian-American painter from Long Beach, California. Her work plays with the experiences of first-generation Asian Americans born to immigrant parents. Her bright and somber paintings present nuances of domesticity, figures and hands interacting with Southeast-Asian elements that echo through mundane objects. Lek graduated with her BFA from Cal State University, Long Beach. Her work has been exhibited at Sow & Tailor, Long Beach Museum of Art, Jeffrey Deitch Gallery, The Armory, K11 MUSEA, and most recently in the Hammer Museum biennial, Made in L.A. 2023: Acts of Living. Lek lives and works in Los Angeles. @tidawhitney



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