by Ben Gottlieb
After two weeks of labor they decided it would be best to leave the child inside of her. A radiator in the throes of its short-cycle turned silent, and the room’s attendants receded through the sliding door.
With her neighbor’s whinnies, the mother understood that success was now happening elsewhere: an infant’s first cry, a new space in its new parents for a new love. Her doctor was in there high-fiving; “I needed this!” he was shouting, drying his tears on the shoulder of an assistant.
Beneath her window the radiator roused again in percussive syncopations. A nurse came in. She explained that it would be like being hooked to a hormonal drip, a perpetual dole of endorphins and oxytocin and prolactin and whatever else. She should consider herself lucky! The naturalest kind of high, an autoimmune reward for all she was surely going through.
She was released after another week’s monitoring. The child’s cries echoed up her throat. In public she tried to keep her mouth closed, but when she slept her mouth would drop open and the baby’s screams would pour out, like the birth pangs of a noisy universe.
Her child, she realized, would make its way out through voice alone.
Soon the child was palmar grasping her celiac and superior mesenteric arteries. The mother would giggle when its toe tapped her liver. The child’s arms, the doctors projected, were likely to grow into her arms; the legs, her legs; the head, eventually, her head. So the mother fattened herself up, to make enough room for the both of them.
What could it see in there? Not her face, coming hazily into view; not the stark contrasts of the black-and-white mobile she had set up above its crib. Her heart? Her lungs? Or was her body just a boundless black chasm to the child, all its work some cacophonous hustle?
She felt its tongue daub an upper rib with faint inquisitive saliva, and grieved for her lonely child. Would anyone ever see it as normal?
By its ninth birthday, the child wanted to escape. It would thrust its fingertips against the tips of hers, but then she would cry out, and the child’s temper would dampen into guilt. How could it hurt its mother?
In its sixteenth year a toenail broke through the calloused tip of the mother’s big toe. The mother yelped. Guiding its mother’s arms from within, the child helped apply gauze to the bloody wound. But beneath the wound, too persistent to be a vision, it saw the keratin shield of an uncut toenail. It saw, for the first time, itself, emerging.
The doctors wanted to graft skin from her leg onto the tip of her toe, concealing the child again—otherwise the broken skin would never heal, the blood never clot; its toenail had caused a leak between their bodies.
But the mother refused: The nail was so beautiful. She had never seen anything so beautiful. Her child! It was real. Now, she thought, she knew what it felt like to be a mother.
Then one day a penis slid out of her vagina. She’d had a boy!
He wiggled and writhed, straightened his posture, and discovered that he was taller than she. She would moan, stifling her wails. He was shedding her, she knew. Did he really want to leave her? He must, she knew. So what, then, would happen to her?
People now saw his body, sheathed under the thinning veneer of her flesh, instead of hers. Her organs looked like subcutaneous fashion accessories—her heart a large locket in the center of his chest, her bladder a hidden fanny pack. “I’m sorry,” he would say to her with each adjustment and extension, his teeth clenching hers, his tongue smacking against her worn palate. But she couldn’t respond anymore, and emitted only involuntary groans, distant reflexes from another world.
By the time he realized she’d stopped breathing, hours must have passed. Where had he been? Why hadn’t he noticed? Had he been saying anything to her—anything that could have given her comfort before she left him forever?
He shedded more of her each day, awakening under sheets covered in a delicate epidermal mesh.
She had always wanted him to fall in love, but surely he would have to wait until he’d shaken her off. And what kind of person did he want? He knew only one, and he did not want anyone like that.
And anyway who could love someone like him, a man who woke each morning in his dead mother’s flesh? Who but she?