Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Nature

by Eric Victor Neagu



Two hours from St. Paul they turned his father's Passat, an old beast Meredith had christened "Last Leg Jane", onto a lakefront road made of gravel and black coal ash. They were driving to their new home, a cabin deep in the woods. The place promised to be an ideal hideout for their adventure. The cedar A-frame had a fireplace and plenty of room for Michael to write. And the lake, the deepest in Minnesota, was remote enough to limit visitors and distractions. "Only the occasional fishing boat would break the sound of birds and breeze," the landlord had told them. This is the type of place young writers dream of. But Michael felt this dream was tainted by Meredith's condition. So instead of anxious joy, he drove with a sullenness that made Meredith's happy fantasy feel morose and heavy as they drove along the wooded shoreline.

"Quit worrying. Thousands of women have done it in places worse than this," she repeated. He downshifted and something deep in the car gritted and fought itself, rocks kicked against the faded blue paint.

He checked her with a quiet glance. Sandy-colored dreadlocks bounced through a scarlet bandana, and hemp shirt exposed growing cleavage above the tiny belly bump. A brief smile accented the slight cleft in her chin. She was more than he felt he deserved.

"We're going to do this?" asked Michael. "I mean we can do it the normal way, doctors and hospitals and I can get a job and just write at home."

Meredith placed her hand on his, "We pinky swore, didn't we? We have a plan. No drugs, doctors, or dollars. The three evil D's."

"The way it was meant to be," he repeated her favorite phrase, trying to believe in her.

"The way it's supposed to be," she echoed. From the corner of his eye, he noted Meredith move a hand to her belly, smile becoming a controlled wince, eyes pulled at the corners, nostrils flared slightly. She turned toward the window and he put a patting hand on her knee. They drove on.

The adventure began in almost constant sunshine. The first month on the lake they were inseparable. He wrote little, but explored much with Meredith, who had a book on edible plants. They spent days identifying the wide variety of berries and mushrooms that grew around the lake. And together they explored every trail in the nearby Chikaming National Forest. And at dinner each night they shared stories about the day and lounged on the porch overlooking the lake, often falling asleep in each other's arms. Within a few weeks, the place had become home.

The fun did not end until the writing began in earnest. It was a gradual transition. Initially Michael spent fewer days outside, but as the writing struggled through fits and starts Michael gave up outdoor activities altogether. Soon there were no nights on the porch. Finally, the hard reality of promised bliss caught them and adventure became routine, and his energy turned entirely toward the book, leaving Meredith to entertain herself and wait patiently for the birth.

By autumn, when she was well into the third trimester, he had written no more than a hundred pages of his book. His private goal to complete the novel before the baby arrived seemed nearly impossible. He marked the days of her pregnancy to add productive pressure to the writing. Each morning when he began, he notched a strong black stain into a piece of bleached oak he found on the shore. But after a few weeks it just reminded him of how poorly the novel was moving and he gave this up.

Meredith was uncomfortable with their new arrangement. She thought they had become more like roommates than lovers. It seemed like a good idea to poke her head into the office periodically to ask questions about the book, something Michael hated to discuss. Head poking soon became walking in and sitting down. His best efforts to dissuade her intrusions failed. Offering only monosyllabic responses and a variety of grunts for conversation, still she came.

After her stylistically slight, almost inaudible, knock one afternoon, Michael lost it. "Can you not leave me alone for one day?"

She poked her head in, "I just wanted to know if you were hungry."

He kept his back to her, squaring his shoulders, "Let's make a rule. I will come get you when I need something. How about that? Can we make that rule?"

She responded quietly, "I like to see you sometimes, to know you're there."

"Where, exactly, the hell else would I be?" His voice was too loud and he knew it. The door closed. There would be sobbing on the couch that he planned to avoid.

That night he watched the autumn sun fade over the lake, the moon rise, and a bottle of cheap bourbon dwindle to almost nothing. He did not leave the office until morning, when the sun was bright and breakfast ready. Eggs, bacon, and orange juice had been laid on the table alongside a solitary place setting. It was the first night they had not slept together at the cabin. Anticipating an argument, he was surprised when Meredith said nothing and sat quietly in her rocker knitting a child's blanket.

Michael wanted to thank her for breakfast, but the sound of the rocker built a wall of resentment that he could not climb. Hard wood to soft carpet went the wooden runners of the chair. She sped the back and forth and he ate quicker. The cabin began to feel like a rustic dollhouse. The rocking was faster now and he was nearly done with breakfast. The food helped sobriety to catch up to him. If only, he thought, I can get through the book. Everything will be normal if I can get through the book.

Stuck in thought, he did not notice the rocking stop until he heard a great gasp and thud from across the room. Meredith fell to the floor, writhing like a dying snake. She grabbed at her neck with one hand and her belly with the other.

"Hey," he said loudly, "You all right?"

When she said nothing, he ran to her and lifted her head to stop it from bouncing against the floor. Her face was gaunt and her limbs were fragile and sinuous. A too small tank top showed off three-dimensional stretch marks and a navel that reminded him of a small fleshy rocket ship leaving the launch pad. He could see movement in her massive belly and he noticed a black and blue Rorschach bruise around her rocket ship. He stroked her hair with helpless violence waiting for it all to stop. The writhing became periodic twitches, and the twitches became deep heavy breaths.

When she could breathe and her eyes found focus, her voice quivered a weak sentence, "I was thinking, and," she paused to breathe, "It choked me."

"What did?" asked Michael.

Her face screwed into a conflicted knot, and she corrected herself, "Nothing, never mind."

"We should go to a hospital. I'll get your coat."

"No, no hospital." She smiled at the visible motions in her belly and said, "It's two hours away, by then I'll be fine."

Michael tried to protest, "It might be a seizure or something..."

She grabbed him tightly by the wrist, "I said no hospitals."

Meredith slept most of the next few days as Michael worked on the book. The episode had increased his urgency, and urgency had surprisingly improved his efficiency. Words flowed from his mind and found form on the page. He felt like he could think faster, type faster, edit faster. "Finish the book," became a silent mantra. Had she slept longer he might have completed the project, but she did not and he grudgingly paused when she called for him to bring a glass of orange juice one morning.

The room was dark except for a reading light. Meredith sat upright, both hands clasped against her belly. Her hair was in a tight bun and a yellowish hue had crept into her skin. Her clothes had not been changed for days and the room smelled foul and stale.

"How long have I been out?" she asked with a smile. Her sweet voice had become gravelly, a smoker's hoarseness like grinding coffee.

"A couple of days," he responded.

He had convinced himself she would want to go to the hospital, and he knew she probably should. But the book was progressing and stopping would be torture. It might destroy his momentum. Before he worked out a strategy to preserve the momentum, Michael's mouth usurped his mind, "You still don't want a hospital, right?"

Meredith laughed, concentrated juice dripped from her lips onto her white top, "We have a plan and we should stick to it."

This conjured confusion and a strange resentment that Michael covered with concern, "But you might be sick? It could have something wrong with it?"

"Don't be silly. It's inside of me. Do you think a doctor can tell me anything I don't know?" She grabbed his wrist, again with surprising strength. "Quit worrying. Everything'll be okay. I know my body."

After the episode Meredith slept for 12 hours at a time, leaving him alone for much of the day. He began to think of the desk and the computer as friends who understood him better than anyone ever had. This was the life of complete absorption he had dreamed of. He sat in the office and wrote and wrote. The book responded well, moving with pace and ease.

As the book progressed he worked hard to limit their contact without being obvious or cold. In the morning, he would wake early and fill the small birthing pool they had purchased, their only real effort at planning for the event, with warm water. Then he would bring her breakfast in bed, setting it on the night stand before she woke. Lastly, he walked into his office, shut the door, and worked diligently.

It was only at night, when she wheezed and coughed, that he knew life was not well. Since the episode her body had collected into one great mass between chest and hips, leaving all else weak and transparent. She had become a taut pod of flesh that he struggled to look at. For days even basic politeness was a challenge, and he gave only limp smiles and an occasional mumbled "I love you" to reassure her.

Meredith did not seem to mind or notice the limited contact. She appeared perfectly content sitting in her rocker, knitting an endless blanket that was much too large for a baby now. Through the knotty wood of the office walls he often thought he heard her talking quietly to herself. Sometimes the conversations were strained, but mostly they were pleasant, a mother consoling her child. And although Michael felt the guilt of his avoidance, late at night, when he could not trust even his clearest thoughts, he thought she might actually be avoiding him, too.

But avoidance was not a sustainable state of things. Asleep at his desk one night, a plaintive note registered on his mind. "Michael, come. Michael," called to him. Subtle at first, the cry soon came in earnest.

A sterile panic overtook him. It was like the sound of emergency room pain to a tired physician's ear. He followed the voice to the bedroom where Meredith desperately tried to roll herself from the bed. The lights were dim, but Michael could see the sinew and tendons of her arms and legs and how tightly swollen her abdomen was beneath a filthy tank top. A noisome and awful something poisoned the air.

Standing in the doorway, hair tousled, glasses on head, wearing baggy shorts and a t-shirt that read "The Write Stuff," Michael looked exactly as he thought a writer should look. Past episodes were forgotten and Michael reacted as an expecting father should.

"Is it coming?" he asked excitedly.

"Help me, please. It hurts," she wept. Breath rapid, body spasming, she sputtered, "I want it out."

"The baby?" Michael asked stupidly.

"It hates me," she said.

The belly moved in unnatural fits and starts and Michael pulled away. She grasped his hand tightly. "No," she demanded. "It hates me," she repeated, and began punching gently and then harder at her womb.

Michael jumped and wrestled her arms, pinning them to the bed. He noticed another huge Rorschach bruise on her belly. The room stank of sweat and piss. He did not want to be there, but masculine instinct to console brought his hand to her forehead, where he brushed her hair slowly to the side. Her body bounced and the baby moved in rapid persistent pulses that expanded and then contracted. The movements amazed him and he found all previous disgust had disappeared in favor of detached fascination with the moment and her body.

Consolation was replaced with a question that conjured the shame of ignorance as soon as he asked it, "How much longer?"

Fading fast, she mumbled in a voice falling out of consciousness, "Due date tomorrow."

His old apprehensions returned and he asked meekly, "Should we see a doctor?"

She slept.

The following morning his usual dance of avoidance was replaced with awe, when he woke to Meredith busily making breakfast. There was no mention of the event, which left Michael to contend with the evening's episode alone. He watched as she smiled and sat to her knitting in the rocker. Michael felt like a hunter, both afraid and amazed by his prey.

He asked a polite question intended to conceal his wariness, "Sleep okay?"

"Oh," giggled Meredith, who quickly set down her knitting and held her belly. Ignoring his question, she spoke with coffee grinder voice and baby tones, "It wants you to feel it. Please give it a rub so it knows you'll love it."

Michael walked to her, knelt down and pretended to talk to it. No words came out, however, as he watched the rotations of an unborn adventure shift and jerk in elliptical motions. He imagined it sharing some elaborate code with the mother, like twins raised in the wild. This was a language he was not privy to and he stood, patted Meredith on the head, and hurried to his work.

Each day that passed became an exercise in controlled anticipation. The adventure was completely gone and Michael alternated between wanting it to be born and wanting the book to be finished. He did not think they could be done together. He could control the book, all else was beyond him and did not deserve attention until absolutely necessary. His only concession to the birth was filling the kiddie pool with lukewarm water each morning. Otherwise, for the next month every breeze that passed and each creak and croak of the house drove him deeper into the book and further away from reality. Doctors, drugs, and dollars faded into a past where responsibility distracted from writing.

And at night his dreams alternated between blissful early summer scenes with Meredith, and gothic horrors that meshed with nothing he knew. Chasing mushrooms and identifying flowers. Her skirts floated over fields and beneath an attractive bump. And then his mind passed over a screaming Meredith holding something down at the bottom of the kiddie pool. A face drawn and bruised, but smiling. "I hate it, but I love you," the dream said loud enough to stir him awake.

Fear of the dreams kept him up during the night and vigilance charged his watch with energy during the day. The book suffered and pages became paragraphs, paragraphs became sentences, and sentences became a handful of words each day. And then it all came down. The extremes broke his will and he slumped, six weeks after the due date, exhausted and alone in the office.

Michael awoke on the couch. Morning light wafted through the cabin like the breath from some shadowy beast. His arms shivered and his teeth chattered. There was no way of knowing how long he'd been asleep, but it seemed long enough to reposition reason in his mind. The book was nowhere in his thoughts. He was not afraid of the belly pod or the pulsing or Meredith's coffee grinder voice. It was as if a boy fell asleep and a man rose in his place. Dancing through thought after thought, a slot machine of ideas looking for sense, he landed repeatedly on the two most sensible words this new adult mind knew, "doctor" and "hospital."

This had to end. They would go for help. He called her name, "Meredith?"

The furnace pilot light had gone out during the night and the fireplace was a collection of dying grey glowbugs. Searching for matches, he walked by the birthing pool. Michael laughed as he bent to touch the thin film of ice that had formed during the night. The thermostat read 19."Try giving birth in th at," he whispered with a chuckle. "Meredith?" he called again.

He caught scent of an icy rot that crept across the room and through frozen nostrils, reminded him of frightening episodes and a woman alone. "Meredith," he yelled, hurrying toward the stench and the bedroom.

At a half run, he slammed his surprised body into a locked door. The knob would not turn. A heavy tossing sound within and Michael pushed harder against the door. She is in labor, he convinced himself. Alone and in labor and it is coming. He banged his shoulder at the door. The large oak panels of the door did not shift. Grabbing his now aching shoulder, he lifted a foot and kicked at the door until it fell in a haphazard half-hinged hole large enough for Michael to push aside.

Shards of light banged against the floor and Michael was struck by a stench that stopped all concern. Was this it? Had it come during the night? He heard no babies crying. Meredith's shoulders shrugged like a sobbing child. Standing alongside the bed, he reached for her. Barely conscious, Meredith rolled over and pulled a urine soaked notebook from beneath the covers. She handed it to Michael, who asked again, "Is it time?"

He turned on the light and watched green eyes roll into her head, all volition failing listlessly. He grasped the notebook at a dry corner and opened it. Urine bled into the page, where Meredith screamed in red indelible marker, "Doctor, doctor, doctor, doctor, doctor..."

Michael simply said, "Let's go."

She nodded in half-conscious agreement and as her body twitched into another spasm of breathlessness. Michael pulled back the sheets and could see its body writhing furiously in the womb. He could also see Meredith's legs, atrophied to papier-mâché semblances of muscle and bone. Her face had lost all of its youth and was sinking into itself. Her cheeks drawn and lips thin.

"To hell with you," he said to her pulsing belly. Michael quickly wrapped Meredith in a pink quilt made from children's clothing and he carried her to Last Leg Jane. Inside the car her belly shifted and arms and legs twitched with the action of some ungifted marionette.

Forgetting the quirks of the Passat, Michael turned on the heat and was stupidly surprised when only cold blew. Then he shifted the car, released the clutch, and was immediately reminded that the car would not start. It needed to build speed and then shift to make the clutch engage and the engine turn over. Michael stood outside and pushed against the doorframe to build momentum. Normally a slight push would have been enough to move it down the steep drive, but the car would not move. Trying again, Michael could not budge a car he had started a thousand times in the same way.

"Christ!" yelled Michael, as he checked beneath and around the car for obstacles. Frantic, he looked to see if the car was in neutral. He saw Meredith's hand firmly attached to the parking brake. Her eyes cast downward, screaming of some battle between her mind's desire and her arm's action.

"No, stop," Michael pulled her hand away and released the brake. With magnetic power, her hand pulled up the brake again. "Dammit, stop!" said Michael.

After a third unsuccessful attempt, he searched the garage until he found a section of twine long enough to bind Meredith's hands. She struggled and he could see the rope cutting into her wrists, burns forming temporary pink scars. Her eyes were completely sunken now, and they bounced in silent horror as she strained at the twine. Small blood vessels had burst on her nose and cheeks leaving spider webs dotting her wan complexion. Fearful and repulsed, Michael would not look at her again.

He rolled the car down the hill, popped the clutch with ease, and the motor hummed. They followed the snow covered dirt road, tracing the shoreline toward the highway. Along the road, rows of giant oaks clutched at handfuls of remnant brown leaves. What had been beautiful to him months ago, now felt like a closing wall of wilderness. He kept his eyes on the road and on what he could see of the calm grey water between the trees. Although snow fell in light sheets, the sun managed to work a few broad rays through the clouds in the dim east. This is a good sign, he thought. We are driving and the sun wants out. Things will be okay. I will make them okay. Two hours, he thought, hang on for two hours and we'll be there.

Meredith calmed as they neared the end of the shoreline road and approached the bridge that crossed Nameless Creek, the lone tributary to the lake. Once they crossed the bridge, they would be on pavement and could move quickly. Should something happen, another car would be more likely to find them on the highway. Michael released a deep quiet sigh as they approached the guardrail that chased the bridge on either side.

Nearing the bridge, blood suddenly seeped into Michael's right eye. Something sharp had hit him in the forehead. When he turned toward Meredith he was hit again. She had chewed through the twine and was stabbing at him with the plastic ice scraper that was at her feet. The physics of her body limited her movements to flailing, uncontrolled windmills of arms and legs. Frustrated and fearful, Michael slowed the car to a crawl, pressing on the accelerator to prevent stalling. He shouted for it to stop. She did not. Her belly gyrated in protest. Exasperated and furious, Michael finally lunged, pinning Meredith's arms to her sides. He hit the accelerator. They jerked forward.

The road was dusted in snow, beneath that was black ice, and Michael noticed the tires slip into nothing. The steady tick of gravel against the car ended. The engine stopped straining. There was a moment of absolute freedom and then a loud crash. A late passerby could have seen the wheel path in the snow driving through the aging wooden guardrail. Bending over the bridge, the passerby would have seen the Passat's radiator exposed and the exhaust ripped from the chassis. They were upside down in a ditch that directed ice melt and rain into Nameless creek.

Michael was half-conscious and locked into his seat by seatbelt and an early model airbag that had only partially inflated. Had he not banged his head against the window, he might have pulled himself from the Passat in time to watch Meredith drop the three feet onto the ground. He would have seen her belly, willful, seeking independence from the woman, writhe and slither, a worm moving through a jungle of cattails and faded brown goldenrod toward Nameless Creek. He would have seen her body, almost every ounce of fat and muscle absorbed into her massive midriff, roll into a creek that roiled its icy waters toward the lake.

But Michael's motions were limited and cautious. It took him several minutes to climb past the airbag and out of the passenger's side door that dangled over cattails that stood like fortress pikes beneath him. As he stood his head pounded and he was aware that he could only see from one eye, the other weakly bound by congealed blood.

Meredith can't be far, he thought. Michael moved up the side slope, slipping several times before reaching the top. His hands cut from grasping at the twigs and branches of small brush in the ditch, when he crested the slope he glanced about and laughed fearfully. His false mind told him they had careened off the road into a chasm at 60 miles an hour. Now, standing on an autumn-browned manicured lawn, he saw that they were going no more than ten miles an hour and the ditch no more than nine feet from top to bottom.

"Meredith," he called her name. The word brought images of a too young woman driving to a lonely cabin, dreadlocks bouncing through scarlet bandana. He remembered her and wanted her there with him. "Meredith," he called again.

He walked along the ditch in both directions, and then followed the Creek the hundred yards to the lake. Brush consumed the shoreline between the creek and the edge of the lawn and Michael had to look carefully through the dense dehydrated vegetation to see if a body had come up. He saw nothing but collected slush in pockets of slow moving water. He heard the light steady lap of the water and it reassured him. She couldn't get out of the ditch without help. Maybe someone came and was attending to her. Maybe she's safe. Yes, someone had found her and she was fine. It will all be fine.

At the mouth of the creek the contours flattened into a wide expanse of shoreline that was broken by a small wooden dock extending into the lake. The lapping grew louder as he paced the dock and scanned the water. His steps landed in flat thuds on the wooden planks. The snow came in soft relentless swoops now and Michael's eyes mistook patches of white and gusts of wind for Meredith. Surely, he was right about the mysterious helper lifting her into safety. Everything would be fine.

He stood at the end of the deck and listened. The lapping water grew louder. It sounded playful, like a child in water for the first time. This was not ripples drifting toward shore. Michael chased the sound through the fading vegetation. The noise rolled out of the creek and was crisp and obvious in the wide water of the lake. Clearing the blood from his bad eye, Michael saw something emerge where the wilderness opened to the lake. It was there; a large fleshy pod floating casually through the thick brownish soup. As it drifted toward him, he saw that the sound was two white twigs fixed to the pod, casually kicking at the still water.

Kneeling on the dock, Michael could see where the muddy creek water sank, capitulating to the bottomless clarity of the lake. The twigs kicked and Michael noticed the knobs of knees at the twig joints, and the black-green paddles that were once feet at the ends of the twigs. He noticed the pod, slow and steady, pulse through the water. Less than six feet from him now, Michael could have jumped in and grasped it.

When Michael thought it was near enough to touch, he reached out as it emerged into view through the snow and murk. He saw the long dreadlocks shifting in pulsating tufts through the water, and he saw a neck that connected the pod to the face, once beautiful and clean, now a rotten fruit, useless and dead. Meredith.

Briefly, the pod lolled and treaded water, shifting through its fleshy protection. Michael thought to save it, to pull it into shore and do something, revive it to life or confirm he had nothing to do with this and Meredith was still off with the warm people, drinking coffee or hot chocolate and waiting for him to come. He leaned further into the water, but the twigs paddled again, pushing the pod away, pushing everything he had into the deepest water.

Michael stood and stared in silence as the pod went further and further into the snowy lake, briefly stopping, and then calmly submerging out of space.

THE END


© 2011 Eric Victor Neagu

Bio: Eric Victor Neagu currently lives in Chicago, where he works as a consultant. Eric has degrees from Purdue University and The University of Chicago, where he studied fiction writing in the prestigious Master of Arts Program in Humanities. In addition to fiction writing, Eric spends considerable time working on environmental issues in post-industrial communities. He is also working on his first novel and a documentary about the Great Lakes. Eric is recently married and has one and a half dogs. My published fiction can be found in several magazines, including: The Pedestal Magazine, BartlebySnopes, Bewildering Stories, Write Place at the Write Time, Everyday Fiction, The Camroc Press Review, and others.

E-mail: Eric Victor Neagu

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