Meredith’s belly rises, swollen and spherical, from the bubbles. She watches the suds slide away from her navel and waits until something moves beneath her skin, a foot or an elbow. And there it is.
She slips under the water, only her stomach and face showing through the bubbles. Her hair spreads out like seaweed and her arms float. I wonder if this looks artsy, she thinks. A black and white print that defiantly highlights her stretch marks. Or maybe an album cover. But only for a band that’s trying too hard. The band wouldn’t like the stretch marks. Or they would love them. She sits up and traces each one with her finger. The skin is different there, like a burn or a scar.
“Nine days,” David says the next morning. He’s referring to the whale holding her dead calf to the surface of the water.
She didn’t know. She had wondered, when she woke, if this was the day the orca would let her baby slip to the ocean floor. She dreamt of the small whale falling, slowly rolling and spinning through the sun-flecked water and disappearing in the black bottom of the sea.
“That’s officially the longest grieving period for any whale.”
“I know. It’s awful.”
She pours a cup of coffee and counts the bubbles on the surface. Six. Unless you count all the tiny ones, then a million.
Why doesn’t she let go? But she only thinks it.
David is stepping into his shoes and checking his teeth in the hall mirror.
“Have a good day,” she says.
On her way home from work, Meredith stops by her mom’s with two cups of coffee. The ocean smells stronger here and she tries to place it. Cold metal, hot rocks, mud, rain.
“It’s a good day!” her mom says, stepping carefully out of the kitchen with her walker. “Look at me.”
“That’s great, Mom. You go out?”
“Nah. I figured you’d be popping by.”
Meredith waits for her to sit, then sets the coffee on the table next to her.
“Let me see that baby,” her mother says. She places one hand on either side of Meredith’s stomach, like she’s reading their futures in a crystal ball.
“That’s the head,” she murmurs.
Meredith imagines the baby feeling her grandmother’s hands, the gentle pushing through murky waters. When she became pregnant they weren’t sure her mother would live long enough, but every day it seems more possible.
“I hated being pregnant,” her mom says. “Oh god, I was sick.”
She pats Meredith’s belly and Meredith places her swollen hand on her mother’s skeletal one.
“All worth it, though, right, Mom?” She grins. She had been a difficult child, strong-willed as they say. Bossy, as they no longer say.
They cook dinner together, like couples do in the movies, except they aren’t drinking wine and they can easily keep their hands off each other. They move with comfortable precision in their small kitchen. Garlic hits the sizzling butter and then cream.
David tells her that humans have destroyed the whale’s food supply, and it’s killing the babies. He says humans like he’s not one himself. He suggests they stop buying salmon.
“Farmed salmon,” he says, then picks up his phone and scrolls with his thumb. “Wait. Wild, too.”
“I like salmon.”
He looks at her over his glasses. He’s good at that—he teaches ninth grade. He waits for her to backtrack, but she only does in her mind. Of course she won’t buy the fucking salmon. She’s not a monster.
David falls asleep instantly. It’s a gift, sleep. Those who are ungifted lose bits of themselves each night, molecules of mindfulness slough off like skin cells, embed in the fibers of sheets and wait to die.
She holds her belly. This child curled and suspended in darkness, only a small tether that carries her breath. What if she forgets? What if she breathes fumes that blacken mango-sized lungs, shriveling the tiny body outward like ash.
Meredith dreams her belly is carrying a whale fetus, rubber-skinned and boldly marked. It calls through her womb in flat notes, its cries rush along her veins and throb in her eardrums like waves in a conch shell. She wakes with a headache and the dry taste of sand in her throat.
She runs into Talia in the parking lot of Hillcrest Place. They look like cult members in their matching scrubs—fuschia tops and red bottoms. Who decided that? Talia says some man that doesn’t have to wear them. Her pits are hairy and Meredith forgets why. Something to do with men being afraid of body hair. Or dictating beauty standards like assholes. Meredith prefers smooth pits.
“You’re beautiful,” Talia says, rubbing Meredith’s belly. “A goddess.”
Talia loves pregnancy and motherhood and everything given to women. She’s called Meredith a goddess before, conjuring images of voluptuous contentment, fat grapes held above ruby mouths. Strength and maternal generosity. Moons and life giving rhythms and hairy pits.
A trickle of sweat runs down the deep curve of Meredith’s spine and she laughs.
“Not a goddess. Trust me, I’m disgusting.”
It’s funny to call yourself disgusting when you’re pregnant, as long as you’re only joking. People prefer that to honesty. If she were honest she would say, don’t ask me to be a goddess. If she were honest she would say, I’m not sure about any of this.
Mr. Kostiuk is trimming his hedge as Meredith pulls into the driveway. She watches him struggle with the ladder, then goes over to help.
“You’re in no condition,” he says, his eyes pale and watery behind thick glasses.
“Nonsense. You should see what I do at work.” She lifts the ladder and pulls the legs further apart, kicking a rock out of the way before plunking it back down.
“Women are like men nowadays.” He chuckles, then his eyebrows pop up and stay there. “And men are like women!”
She smiles. “Maybe.”
Mr. Kostiuk says what he wants and grows spectacular roses. This is most of what Meredith knows about him, though they’ve been neighbours for two years.
“You hear about that whale?” he asks.
“I did. How many days now?”
“Nearly two weeks. Just went crazy, I guess. It happened to my wife, you know.”
“Her baby died. She had to carry it around for two weeks. In her belly.”
“My god. That’s awful.”
“I would wake up at night, and there she’d be. Walking in the hall or in the yard or someplace. Trying to go into labor, you know.”
He stops and pinches a sprig of cedar hedge.
“One time I wake up and I look out the window and there she is, standing in the yard. Just crying. Just crying for that little baby.” He rubs his hand down his face, jamming his thumb and finger under his glasses to wipe his eyes. “Aw, jeez, what could I do about it? Nothing.”
Meredith imagines Mrs. Kostiuk, under the moon in her nightgown, young and filled with death.
“How long did she cry for?”
He looks at her like he doesn’t understand the question.
“How long was she sad?”
She can’t sleep. She lifts the blankets and pushes herself out of bed and takes her laptop to the living room. She types out whale baby. The row of pictures along the top of the screen show a small black and pink orca on its side, limp over the nose of its mother. One close up shows its mouth open, tiny teeth exposed. She touches the image and it takes her to an article. 13 Days.
David wakes her, holding out a coffee and looking sympathetic. “Bad night?”
She stands and places her head against his chest, listens to his heart pulse, subterranean and strange through his scratchy sweater.
“Your heartbeat’s weird,” she says, counting.
“Like, weird bad?”
“No. Weird like underwater.”
“Huh.” He rests his chin on her head. “Well, I guess humans are mostly water.”
Meredith wonders if these asides about humans will become comfortable one day, like the warm smell of toast or the laugh track on bad TV.
“Take care of the little one,” he says, kissing her forehead.
David comes from a large family. He likes being part of a tribe, a small nation of siblings and cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Every death is balanced with birth, a near constant recycling of Castillos.
When the door shuts she texts her mom.
How are you feeling today?
“Not one calf has survived in the last twenty years,” Talia says as they sponge bath Mrs. Laghari. Her skin is a delicate membrane and her memory gone. She smiles at them like a delighted child. “The whale is telling us something. Her baby is her protest sign.”
“God,” Meredith says. “Whales aren’t political.”
“She’s grieving. She’s showing us what we’ve done.”
Meredith wakes in sea water, warm and drenching her sheets. David turns on the lamp.
“What?” he says. “Are you in labor?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
The pain is not stabbing, like she had imagined. It is not in any one place, but radiating everywhere in unrelenting waves. She thinks of her mother, but doesn’t want to wake her.
“Breathe,” David says and she grits her teeth. The pain of crowning is like sitting on red hot coals. No, razor blades. White hot razor blades.
She closes her eyes when she hears the cry. That first breath, and all that comes with it.
David wheels her mother into the room and Meredith places the baby in her arms.
“She’s perfect, Mer,” her mother says, smoothing her hand over the baby’s small velvet head. “I knew she’d be big. I didn’t want to say anything.”
Meredith laughs, teary eyed. “I was warned. Turns out they have ways of figuring that out.” She wipes her cheeks with the scratchy bedsheet. “I can’t stop crying. What’s wrong with me.” She sips from the plastic cup of water on the side table, but her hand is shaking.
“Aw, don’t worry. That’ll go away. ” Her mom smiles then leans down and kisses the baby’s forehead.
And this is what she was waiting for, Meredith thinks. How long before she lets go?
The shower in her hospital room is unusually roomy. Her legs are weak and shivering, her belly still extended, but smaller. Empty. She imagines her organs falling back into position with relief, blood flowing freely to places that had previously been cut off.
They’re sending her home, but she thinks they’re mistaken. I’m not trained, you know, she wants to tell them.
You don’t understand, she wants to say.
“You see this?” David is on his laptop, the white screen reflected in his glasses. “The whale. She finally let go.”
Meredith slides the sharp knife through a tomato. Jellied seeds and pink water spill out onto the cutting board. Her eyes continually move to baby Anna in her swing, always curled tight like she’s waiting to be placed back inside. Moving her hands through the air, instead of water, which must feel especially empty and cold.
“That’s good, right?” she says.
“I think so. I mean, yeah.”
She pictures the infant orca, decaying by now, endlessly falling to the ocean floor, losing pieces of itself, cell by flickering cell.
“Aw, that’s nice,” David says, his voice pitched lighter as he reads. “The mother is eating now.”
“Frolicking with the rest of the pod,” he reads. “That’s a good sign.”
But Meredith knows better—mothers are great pretenders. How long will she be sad?
David shuts his laptop and picks up the baby.
“I’m glad that’s over,” Meredith says, and the knife slides easy and swift through the last piece of tomato.
© Angie Ellis
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Angie’s interview]