The first thing the woman got wrong was the birth. She knew as soon as the sharp-fingered nurse pronounced her progress inadequate, her dilation limited. New nurse, new shift, sun feebly rising behind metal blinds: still no baby.
Time was wasting. When they broke her water, a wet warmth soaked out beneath her, all her life’s shame undammed and dripping to the vinyl floor.
(I birthed at home, other women later told her, smug over wine on a rare girls’ night, none of them girls anymore and the nights both longer and shorter. Surrounded by candles, they said, like in that movie. In that movie, the woman said, the candles were for fucking in the middle of, not for pushing a giant-headed baby out of your vagina. The other women laughed. Something’s always wanting in or out of that thing, she said, to hear them laugh again. That they craved vulgarity when drunk was her favorite thing about the other women.)
By the time the doctor cut her open like a bad wolf, she’d almost forgotten that the prize for her endurance would be a baby. And when at last the nurse offered the bloody gift to its father—another thing she’d gotten wrong—the woman wondered if by mistake they’d carved her blue-red heart right out of her. She’d never imagined it would cry like that and was relieved when they took it away.
The woman was poked and dosed and put in a clean bed. When they brought the baby to feed, she got that wrong, too. She had to be taught. When they came with forms and insisted on a name, she couldn’t stop changing her mind. Her indecision, she knew, incensed her husband, though he pretended it didn’t. To appease him, she agreed to name the baby after his mother.
At home with the child, she wondered what she had gotten herself into. She fed and washed, rocked and sang, knowing there must be better foods, better songs. The night, when she was too exhausted to sleep, was when the baby seemed most likely to die. Daily, her terror lost its bright edge, which only made it more worrisome. A dull knife, she knew, is the most dangerous, how it glances off its target to slice the hand instead. Sometimes when the baby cried, she had to walk away.
The baby grew into a girl and was healthy. Happy, too, except when she started school, and when her parents split up, and when she had to go on weekends to her father’s house, where the food was bad, the bedtime early. As the girl got older, she found it harder and harder to stop her tears. She cried when she had to ride a bus or take a test, when she had to eat eggs or wash her hair. Even though the woman suspected she must have done something to make her daughter so unhappy, she took the girl to doctors, hoping they would find another cause. None of them could locate the source of the trouble. At last, the mother felt forced to admit what she already knew—that she’d passed her old terror on to her daughter, who suffered so awfully because for her the terror was new and sharp.
Now the mother’s own terror returned, doubling the terror in the house. Now, thought the terror, it was getting somewhere. Impressed with itself, it swelled into room after room, stockpiling itself in corners like grain or gold in an older, better story. The woman and the girl did not know what to do.
Then one day a letter slipped through the mail slot and slapped the floor.
Far away, the woman read, her mother lay ill.
(The old woman had a telephone but preferred letters for sharing bad news. She hated to hear people crying on the line.)
The woman went to her daughter, who lay under seven blankets in her dark room.
We must make the journey to see Grandmother.
Beneath the blankets, the girl trembled.
Look, the woman said. She too feared the packing of suitcases and making of arrangements. What if she forgot to lock the house? What if she wrecked the car? Mistakes lurked everywhere, waiting for her to make them. But she must visit her sick mother.
The woman said, We will just have to get fiercer.
How will we do that? The girl asked.
The woman thought and thought. She consulted her books. (She had the Internet but preferred books. Books did not have a comments section.) But the books gave her no clear answer.
She decided to chance it. She said, I think we must let in the wind.
The woman opened the windows. The wind rushed in, smelling like allergens and speeding cars and men with madness on their minds.
Close them! the girl begged.
Wait, the woman said, trembling too.
The wind stripped off the girl’s seven blankets. It ripped around the corners of the rooms and scattered the terror like dry leaves. It tangled the mother’s hair and reminded her of a good time long ago.
After a few minutes, they got used to the wind. After an hour, going out into the wind felt possible.
Soon their bags were packed, the house was locked, and the mother eased the car onto the road, where the other drivers’ impatient honking reminded her of the girl’s father. She said so, to make her daughter laugh. But the girl wasn’t ready. She only felt up to smiling a little.
They drove for three hours until they reached the forsaken county where the grandmother lived. Here the road climbed, winding and switching back around the sheer rock faces of the mountainsides. Theirs was a new kind of hardness for the daughter, who marveled at how the earth fell away on one side of the road and stretched into the clouds on the other.
The grandmother lived at the end of a quiet path snaking down through pine woods. Her house sat like a surprise in the middle of a meadow. Through the meadow ran the cool, ancient river that had cut the valley and left it green.
Though small and untidy, the house shone. The woman had forgotten how much sunlight could get into a house. The grandmother staggered up from her bed, eager to welcome them, the skin of her kissed cheek translucent as a paper lantern. She begged them eat and drink to refresh themselves after their long journey, but the food in the cupboard had spoiled. The woman left the girl to sit with the grandmother while she went to see what could be bought at the store up the road.
Because she’d been alone for so long, the grandmother wanted to talk. As the girl listened, she noticed that although the sun was going down, a pale yellowish light suffused the room. When the old woman shuffled toward the door to let out her cat, the golden glow both followed her and shone everywhere, and the girl wondered how the same light could be in two places at once.
When the mother returned with groceries, the grandmother said what they needed was soup. Because she was too weak to make it herself, the woman and the girl would have to prepare it according to her instructions.
Just show us the recipe, the girl said.
Oh, no, the grandmother said. She would make up the soup as she went along.
It started, of course, with an onion.
As the woman washed the vegetables and the girl chopped, the grandmother told them about all the soups she knew: soup to calm fever, soup to balm sadness, soup to give courage, soup to make someone fall in love with you.
Where did you learn to make up so many soups? the girl asked.
The grandmother said, From my mother, how else?
At the mention of her mother’s mother, a rusty grief pricked the woman. She scrubbed harder the carrot she was washing and tried to push the grief away. Surely no good could come of remembering her Nana’s warm kitchen or the perfume of her face cream after so many years. Why cry again?
All of a sudden, the girl dropped her knife and cried out.
She held her hand aloft. For a moment all anybody could see was a thin red line. Then the red line began to bubble and widen. The mother took her daughter in her arms and let go of the tears she’d been saving. As the mother’s tears fell, the trickle of blood from the daughter’s hand became a stream, then a gush, and soon tears and blood puddled and swirled across the kitchen floor. Soon they were ankle deep in foaming pink, but the mother found she could not stop crying. Nor did the girl’s blood cease to run.
The flood of bloody tears rose to their knees, then their waists. It pulled Grandmother up out of her chair and she bobbed along, turning slowly like an apple. The grandmother began to laugh.
Why are you laughing, Granny? the girl cried.
Oh, Mother, the woman said, holding on to the drowning cupboard. What should we do?
The grandmother needed no book to tell her the answer.
Open the windows, she said. Swim.
They did what she said. The rosy tide swept the three swimmers over the windowsills, carrying them along on the ferrous, salty swell of a great wave. For a moment or two, being carried was all they knew. Then the great wave crested, fell, and deposited them into the meadow before running off to join the river.
The three gasping women flopped and twitched in the wet grass. When they were sure the ground beneath them wasn’t going anywhere, they calmed and fell still. They lay on their backs and stared up as the last of the bloody water receded.
The sky was black now and the stars had come, white. Back in the wood, a hooey owl couldn’t stop himself explaining.
Not understanding his language, the girl asked her grandmother what had happened.
I never know, was the answer.
The mother asked if they’d been reborn.
No, said the grandmother, that bloody business only happens once.
Together they watched the white stars shine, silent as stones.
After a while the mother asked, How was I born?
On a flood just like that, said the grandmother. Except with a little shit mixed in.
The girl laughed. Shit still made her laugh when somebody said it out loud.
The mother laughed, too, because her daughter’s laughter always made her.
The grandmother laughed, too, because her daughter’s laugh still made her.
I shit a little when you were born, the old woman said. With you, that was my first mistake.
(winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 36)