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Fiction / Rachel Neithercut


Issue 2. June 21, 2021

What else am I supposed to believe when I find myself so different?
            My daughter was born with a membrane over her face.  I didn’t see, but Tom smiled as he described how the midwives wiped it away, and how our daughter turned red and stretched her mouth and scraped her vocal cords into a wail. 
            Her eyes were very dark blue.  When I looked into them, I saw myself standing on a ladder that stretched into the sky.  I was so far up that my face was only a pale smudge. 
            After I was stitched up a midwife brought me milky tea and soggy, white bread toast.  It tasted incredible, despite the pallor and mush of it.  I devoured it.  Perhaps I should have been more cautious.  Fairy food is dangerous. 
            We spent the night in a hospital room.  I had the only bed.  Tom dozed propped in a chair.  The baby slept in a transparent box, tucked in with blankets and a little hat, whispering to herself.  Every so often she would cry, and Tom would get up and talk to her, or bring her to be fed.
            Was it then, as I willed thick, pus-yellow gobbets of colostrum to seep from my nipples, that I was changed?  Did I nod off briefly and wake not myself?  Or was it earlier, in the delivery room, when all the attention was on her safe passage into the world?  How easy to spirit one body away and substitute another.
            When we arrived home, there was a party. My parents came and cooked a feast in our tiny kitchen, beaming like conjurors. They made boiled eggs, potatoes, salmon.  Scones with cream and crimson jam.  I couldn't eat.  Everyone jostled to hold the baby until it was time for her nap.  Their faces seemed strange, rubbery and false, and I was glad to take the baby upstairs where it was quiet. 
            The next day a midwife came, and we went upstairs to see the baby asleep in the Moses basket.  Her face was folded in on itself like a crease.  I had slept in that same Moses basket when I was like her, tiny and dark and real.  I tried to explain that I was afraid to wake her up and afraid to let her sleep. The midwife was kind, but I don’t remember what she said.  I only remember her hand on my shoulder and her eyes, very close and clear, as she looked at me. 
            At night it is just me and the baby together in the dark. She lies close to me and I feed her. We drift in and out of sleep joined like this for hours. I ache from lying curled around her. I keep the blankets tucked at my feet and my body slowly grows colder. She is always warm, her cheek pressed snugly against me, cosy in her little suit.
            There are dreams. The baby is lost in the bed.  She is lost somewhere in the room and I can’t find her.  She is lost in a river.  She is lost in a forest.  She is lost in a busy street, a shop, an attic. In some dark place. I am walking down a desolate road and realise she is gone. I have left her behind. All night long I lose her over and over again, until I wake and check her breathing. She snuffles like the tiny animal that she is. 
            Each day is a boulder than must be rolled up, up to the summit of a dark mountain.  I have tasks to complete.  I spin nourishment from my body.  I sit for hours, very still.  I think about the baby and try to imagine what she wants or needs. 
            There is a spell on the words that come out of my mouth.  When I speak to Tom he does not understand, he only smiles sweetly at me or says he is busy with work.  He tells me to rest.  The midwife who visits is so cheerful, she mustn’t know I’ve been changed either.  I have tried to break the spell.  Last week I took all our plates out to the garden and smashed them on the stones.  Nothing happened.  I am just the same. 
            During the day I hear the crows talking.  I’d never noticed before.  Perhaps this is a power I have gained in exchange for being reduced to such a miserable creature.  The crows talk about me, or about the baby, or about other things, and I listen carefully in case they know where I have been hidden.  I don’t think they know I can hear them. 

Rachel was born in Glasgow, grew up on Merseyside, and currently lives in the Peak District.  She was part of the ACE funded MumWrite 2020 Programme. Her work has been published in Lucky Pierre Zine, Selcouth Station, Streetcake, Eye Flash Poetry, and Babel Tower Notice Board.  She is on twitter as @stars_crickets

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