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/ Woman & Children

Woman & Children

by Jena Vallina

          The morning of her abortion, a boy appears on Olive’s doorstep and introduces himself as her future son. It is not strange. Or: the boy is not a stranger. She has seen him before, the time-traveling ghost of him preserved in the photographs left behind by the man she loved. That man was gone, but she occasionally returned to those pictures just to touch the places where his fingerprints once had been. Like an archaeologist who holds the fossil as if he were holding in his hands the breathing animal, she learned to love the man now mostly through his record. (The last collision was holy grief, the man’s milky breath on the back of her neck and her face in the pillow—out of their stuff they made a body, tethered it to the blood-lined cradle inside of her.) Now, on the edge of extinction, her son looks at her with his father’s eyes. Dinosaur, meet asteroid. 
          He asks Olive if they can go to the zoo today. Isn’t it cold outside? But he rubs his eyes in a manner suggesting future tears, and panic rises yeastily in her chest. There is nothing more frightening than the sight of children’s tears, their precarious hair-trigger—especially when Olive is the one to provoke them. It is like becoming the worst kind of sinner, an old hag in some plucky orphan’s backstory. 
          Olive has to crouch to zip his jacket and fasten the earmuffs around his head. An unruly tuft of hair sticks up like a feather in his cap, and she gently flattens it. Everything about the child is scarily small and also potentially explosive, a little boy somehow already containing a man. He must be growing inside of the boy right this moment, as she ties up the laces on his snow boots, swelling against his downy skin and contorting his doll limbs into hard buckling shapes. It strikes her as a cruel mutation. But then Olive always did cry at children’s clothes in the window display. The socks with soles the size of quarters, hats which could fit no larger than a ripe peach. Wasn’t it a miracle that anyone could be that small? 
          The doorman releases them outside. The city at this early hour always seemed at once sterile and ancient, cold prismatic light radiating off the skyscrapers and the sky toasted with a yellow fog. Walking hand in hand down the sidewalk, her son tells Olive how one day he will shrink to a more comfortable egg size, nestle in her womb for a warm while, and then grow up again—but that time, it would be for real. At the moment unfolding, all Olive has at her fingertips is a furtive preview of her own tiny miracle. He cannot say how long he will remain with her. She should be grateful—most women lack solid proof of their future hypotheses and grow mad as Cassandra, who only heard the future from the mouth of snakes. This is divine proof, vindication more than a birth, confirming at last what Olive always knew would come true but kept locked inside her out of the same paranoia that silences the blowers of birthday candles. 

          The penguin exhibit is located inside a saucer-shaped dome resembling a vintage spaceship. It is entirely metallic, except for the tall opaque windows through which the noise and color outside are diluted. Automobile headlights glow lushly through the walls. 
           In the pool is an iceberg, strangely pristine and floating like a full white moon. The penguins patter around. They are involuntarily adorable, with their tuxedo chests and cartoon flippers. One in particular catches Olive’s eye. It is stout and speckled brown, and a little pathetic in the heartrending way of toddlers and the elderly. It crickets at another penguin, this one sleeker with a lick of orange for a beak. The first penguin—a male, it is evident now—raises his slick white wings with aplomb in her direction, and she bows her head in response. They encircle each other hesitantly. The choreography is deliberated on both parts yet with each movement assuming a risk. Like a slow race measured out in minuscule gives and takes towards the finish line, it culminates when he embraces her from behind. His long beak crooks over her neck in homage to the doomed-ship lovers. Although their heads are nested together, their bodies stay apart. The economy of the embrace, establishing neither a victor nor a loser but a symmetry between the two, sends a shiver to Olive’s chest. The animal kingdom, usually so violent, still had the capacity for gentleness. But for the hunger. She forgot how the mating dance ends. The male penguin, nudging the female to lie flat on the iceberg, props his feet on her back. Olive can no longer bear to watch the penguins’ pornographic imitations, the sad friction of her soft floppy body against the ice. His eyes, so dark and pearly and vacuous. 

          (The first time she saw the future was when she saw the man. He let her photograph him once. It was autumn, eerily photogenic leaves like red embers pressed against the gray backdrop. She positioned him on the concrete bench, arranged his shoulders so that the sun would catch on his hair. Don’t stay still, she told him. Move around. He smiled at her, dumbly, and proceeded to make vulgar faces at the passersby. This was before she knew all his tics, the nervous knuckles. Her fingers twitched on the button, again and again. The photos came out all blurred, reds and stone hues and his face eddying like the film was liquid.) 

          The boy places a hand on the fogged glass. Can she pick him up so that he might see over the tops of the walls? Olive is wary, having seen the video circulating of the boy who fell into the gorilla den and having read the dung lobbed at the oblivious mother preoccupied on her cell phone. But the boy grips at the folds of her coat with surprising strength until she reluctantly complies. Propped on her shoulders, he lectures Olive enthusiastically about the history of the igloos which once were built out of whalebones and caribou furs. He pronounces each word, whalebone and caribou, with such implied understanding that Olive wonders as to the role whales and caribou will play in their shared future. She imagines them as nomads, wandering through the ashy tundra with ice crystals raveled in their long, braided hair. 
          Did you learn about igloos in school? 
          But there is no longer school where he will be from. 
          Then where did you learn about the igloos and the Eskimos? 
          In a dark room, with only a flashlight to illuminate the pictures in their book. 
          There are still books?
          In the tunnel deep underground where one day they will live, Olive and he take turns reading aloud the familiar words whenever it feels to be night. The boy doesn’t dream about running water and clear skies. In his dreams he is in the bunker, or else he is in a land he has only visited in the curling pages of the book. He surveys this desolate landscape from above, the bitter water where the whales will be slaughtered and the sailors will disappear into fatal cities miraging the horizon. 
          The penguins bound off the edge of the iceberg with precision military or suicidal. When Olive was a girl, she dangled upside down on the monkey bars as if hanging off the edge of the universe. Righting herself, she waits for the environment to rearrange back into its normal order. Where to go next? But her son is hungry. The responsibility of feeding her child momentarily anchors Olive in place. She is prideful of this newfound sense of purpose. Because if it were not for her, who would ensure that the boy did not stay hungry? 
          Yes, she has something to warm him right up. On the sidewalk they are absorbed into a throng of shoppers and businessmen, their rising voices forming a charmless canopy of barked English and Russian and Japanese. Olive grips onto the boy’s hand so tightly he whimpers and drags him alongside her as they venture down the avenue spiraling into the densest quarter of the city.  

          (There are so many foreigners in the city now, greatly outnumbering the natural-born citizens. She said this to the man once while they were eating breakfast, her sipping tea and him his coffee. Oh, Olive. You shouldn’t say that, he said, like it was some terrible thing to have been born elsewhere. But it’s the truth, she told him. People come here from somewhere else, and nowhere here stays. Except us. We haven’t left. Yet. But the man looked straight through her.  “Why does he do that.” The articles tried to tell her, but she wasn’t going to hear.)

          Olive buys hot chocolate in a Styrofoam cup from a corner stand run by a man with an accent. He smiles and adds a dollop of whipped cream without her asking. His teeth are yellow. Where is she from, he asks her. You look like you are from where I am from. She hands him a crumpled dollar and walks away with her son. People always think she is from where they are from, or else they think she is from nowhere at all. The hot chocolate burns through its cardboard glove. In a quiet alleyway between an Indian restaurant and a health food store, hot air rising from the grate whips together a medley of garam masala and patchouli oil that she can taste like a flake of spice on her tongue. 
          The boy holds the Styrofoam tentatively to his lips before taking a sip. Be careful. But he is already drinking softly instead of gulping. His raspberry mouth is already sticky with the chocolate and sweet cream. She marvels at the single dark curl, plastered in a question mark on his forehead. 
          She will let him drink a drop of sweet sherry to fall asleep those nights when their bunker is seized by the raucous sounds of outside. The barred walls shake with each seismic aboveground shudder. The shelves splinter on loose nails and the book topples to the floor, sending their bucket over in a yellow spill onto the concrete. Only liqueur can be stored under the bed, although they hate to drain it. The smuggled bottle was the last relic from an age when people went to restaurants and drank one wine with their dinner and another with their dessert. Sometimes Olive will fill the plastic cups and pretend they are goblets. Fires aren’t allowed down here, due to the close quarters and the danger of flagging unnecessary attention, but she will position the flashlight on the floor to illuminate their meal. The metal-colored meat, gristles smacking of ash and zinc. 
As they drain their hot drinks her son tells her about the rats who will chatter in their walls, scratching messages of good morning and good night. Above them, the sky trembles with an unseen burden. 

          On a warmer day, a long time ago, Olive walked down the street hand in hand with her own mother. As a little girl, Olive always blushed with pride when people told her she was cut from the same cloth as her mother. Her mother’s cloth must be weaved from French silk, shimmering and elegant and beloved as she was to her daughter. Of course, Olive knew she and her mother did not resemble each other the way of most mothers and daughters. Her features did not echo her mother’s so much as they deepened each one by an octave: the ochre of her skin to her mother’s braised peach complexion, the pitch of her hair to her mother’s scarlet. The nocturne and the aubade, playing in duet. But despite their differences in coloring, Olive and her mother were both essentially warm. You could bake bread on their hands even in the dead of winter. As it was, the planet and their bodies aligned in temperature when Olive and her mother wandered into the marketplace in a town so clean it sparkled. Olive’s mother selected two sugared madeleines the shape of seashells behind the glass window. Just a secret between us girls, her mother winked, and Olive didn’t get it but laughed anyways. Giggling between bites of the crumbling pastry, she feels consumed with love the way of small children who disappear into the folds of their parent’s too-big coat. 
          A man approaches them at the corner. He will say what they always say. How lovely mother and daughter are together. How one is light and the other is dark and how wonderful that is, how interesting and modern. Like looking at the future. And then they always add as an afterthought, Where is she from. All the while looking at Olive the way one might contemplate the notes of a foreign wine. But this man looks at Olive like he does not know what substance she is made of, only that he dislikes like the taste of it in his mouth, and then at her mother like she is made of sugar. The words he spits at them are dipped in poison, but she catches only flickers of the meaning inside them. Her mother was so beautiful, except it was not a compliment. Why then. Why did she hate herself. Why did she sacrifice her genes. Why did she muddle her bloodstream. The phrase stays with Olive as she digests the madeleine, reminding her of how she used to rub all her crayons together onto a sheet of paper until all the colors disappeared into one indiscernible no-color blob. The pretty colors, the blues and greens and yellows you used to make a rainbow, were always first to vanish under the weight of a heavy black crayon. 
          She didn’t know as a child that she was muddled, or at least didn’t think she was any more muddled than the other children she knew. She didn’t see how she could be so different from her mother, who was apparently normal. She knew she had a father, who was not normal, although she never saw him that way until she heard the normal people speak about those who are not and then shush when he entered the room—not out of shame, but out of a certain smugness in knowing something they did not. It was not long after that when Olive realized she was also being lumped into the allusive they who did not know. 

          Olive looks at her son as if for the first time actually seeing him. He’s muddled like her—brown crayon always wins. She frowns. 
          A while after the incident, but at the same time not long at all, the mother left Olive and her father for a man who was normal and subsequently had two daughters who would use the yellow crayon for everything. Left behind in a shaky house on the corner lane, Olive drew on her skin with markers until her father told her that the ink would bleed through and poison her veins. It was then when she realized. You could not love a child who did not look like you—and muddled children don’t look like anyone. Even their own muddled children don’t look like them, because they get muddled in another way entirely. But now, looking at the chocolate-stained mouth of her own muddled boy, the differences of their cloth no longer matter. She loves him still. It is slightly gratifying, this realization, but also slightly betraying, as if she has been poisoning herself with sugar water instead of arsenic all this while. 

          (In fact, the man never asked Olive where she came from. It didn’t seem to matter to him, he wasn’t the slightest bit curious, and she didn’t mind at all. Some women might have found it irritating, his lack of interest in her heritage, but Olive was grateful. She found comfort in how he looked at her, seeing only what was in front of him and caring not a bit for the shades coloring in the background. The first, sixth, eighteenth time, lying naked against the white sheets. He loved each individual notch of her spine, patiently, as if adding something up or just counting down.)

          At the park, children play against the descending sun. A light mist of snow begins to fall, transforming all the parkgoers and decorative trees into veiled brides. Crystal flakes spiral kaleidoscopic in Olive’s vision and she tilts her head backwards, sticking out her tongue to catch one. She urges the boy to try it, but he wrinkles his nose in disgust and turns away from her. 
          What’s the matter? 
          They are playing with the ashes. She told him never to play with the ashes. 
          But who plays with the ashes? 
          Them. He points to two girls lounging on the fray behind the iron-wrought fence, where the nascent snowfall temporarily sheathes the cigarette butts and torn condoms from sight. They are about her son’s age, clad in identical pink parkas, and at the moment trying earnestly to build a snowman out of the scant powder.   
          She tells him they are building snowmen not out of ashes but of snow. 
          The same kind of snow that the Eskimos live in? He professes confusion, having imagined snow would be hard and flat as stone the way it appeared in the illustrations in their book—not porous and wet and sticking to his hair in granular lumps. 
          Snow is cold water stored up in the clouds, released by the sky like rain, if rain could mold into the shape of your hand like clay when it falls down. 
          Like clay? He is skeptical. Thinking of no other way to explain than through direct experience, Olive kneels on the ground and kneads a clump of snow into her hand. She backs away until she can scarcely see his face peeking through his hood, like the shadowy imprint left behind of a snow angel. Tosses the snowball gently to him, where it bounces off his chest and disintegrates onto his boots in a puff of dust. He is struck by this gesture, the revelation of snow as unexpected as his mother’s play-violence. For a fearful moment, he appears on the brink of tears and Olive is overcome with a surge of guilt for inflicting her son with even the feather lightness of a snowball. But then the boy studies the white staining his gloves and laughs, beautifully and resplendently, before sprawling onto the snow-dappled earth as if consumed by the memory of it soft beneath him.  
          They assist the two little girls in building a snowman. Her son is charming with them, a skilled gentleman in training, chatting readily and plucking twigs from the frosted bushes. Under the falling snow, the children are preserved in a sepia haze like memory, and nostalgia blooms within her to watch them play. As if watching herself from a point in the future, she reminisces on this moment with the knowledge of the hours lapsed and experiences weathered in between. One of the girls asks her son where he is from, and he turns to Olive with a fiendish grin. 
          The future! The girls are delighted by his announcement, their true faces unfurling bright as dandelion heads. With round eyes they pepper him with questions as Olive struggles to keep their enfeebled snowman upright. Are cars flying? Can you play music in your head? Do robots serve us dinner? No, no, and certainly not. Are we still here? He would doubt that, there aren’t any parks in the future, as the asphalt has scorched every corner of green and most people have gone underground anyways, to where they tunnel deep into earth while fires blazes above and empty buildings cave into amorphous heaps of rubble. If the girls were not underground—and so few lasted underground, the resources were scant, the lack of oxygen meant everyone’s fingers turned white as paste—then they must have fled to the bridge. The only living thing left is the bridge, which branches towards the blackened island as if combing the ruins for a way out. Under the bridge, the water is fishless and tainted from numerous chemical spills. It changes colors the way there used to be seasons, mottled purple to liquid green to honeyed yellow. A bruised skin, healing in reverse. 

          The inhabitants of the bridge, the only ones determined to withstand the burning outside, have raised their own continent in the space where time stalls between decay and disintegration. The perseverance of the citizens has taken an alarming physical toll. Their faces are cracked with dimpled craters and their bodies have been ransacked, possessed by the smoke and radiation which congeals the atmosphere with a consistency like oatmeal. When the water rouges in the winter, Olive and her son will abandon their tunnel and try to cross over the bridge. But the citizens will surround them and gape questions with eyes like oil spills. They do not trust those who live below the surface, their internal violence so often bleeding through and rupturing what little is left to hold their bridge in place. But Olive takes off her mask and pulls her son close. We are not one of them.           And what are you? Nobody, we’re nobody, we live alone. 

          (At the scene of the murder the man said to her, Why then. Why must he be the guilty one. Why does she act like she lost something. He never did anything at all.)

          The boy is still speaking of his past, their future, even though the girls have long since run away to their own mother. Snow subsumes the footprints they leave behind, erasing any memory of an absence. Olive and her son sit alone, black-and-white still lifes etched in the embittered cold. She wants to hold him with such a hunger that it almost frightens her, surgical in her desire to discover what is inside of him that was once also inside of her. In its restoration, relief. Olive and her son will play games in the bunker, hiding under the bed from the giant’s lumbering feet and then climbing up onto the bunks when sharks swim through concrete below. Olive and her son will play invisible people, hiding from aimless trigger fingers who scavenge the underneath for infestations, and then aboveground, will cloak their faces from the noxious smells and deformities of the world decaying around them. 
          Her son’s face bears no fear. There is still chocolate on his lips. She spits on her napkin and dabs the cotton to his mouth, and he sits still and does not squirm away from her touch. His teeth are strong. He is not all that skinny for his age, and she knows innately that he will one day grow taller and stronger than them both. It is good to be with him, because in spite of what he is saying, Olive feels the permanence of the written-down future as an assurance. She will love him, and they will be alone in the end, but they will be alone and together, which is to say they will not be alone at all. 
          The tears do not come up from within her but down like rain, like snowflakes, final as any resting place. Her son’s eyes are exactly her own. She pulls him closer as if to fuse their two skins together. She will not relinquish him, even as he struggles, because she just might die from the lack of him. Men are lucky to so often experience the love of someone lighter and infinitely smaller than them, to in one hand protect and in the other prevent any escape. It is no good to love what leaves you; you will always be haunted by their absence, the kidnapping of a vital organ by the outside, which taunts you and denies that anything has been taken at all. Like you aren’t still bleeding from the loss. 
          I am so lonely so much of the time. I feel the special kind of empty that comes with having once been full. Until you came along, I never made a single friend in this body, and now that you are here, I will never belong to myself alone. Tell me more. Tell me about what I teach you and what I read to you and all the things we do together when we are alone at the end of the world. 

          Once Olive came across a bird’s nest resting upon the rickety sewer drain of their house. It was a decrepit monster, a chimera of twigs and plastic bottles and aluminum, holding in its mouth a litter of fragile whitish eggs. Every day she sits below it and watches as the eggs become engulfed by golden light. The mama bird comes and goes as she pleases, often leaving the eggs unattended for long stretches of time in which Olive worries incessantly beneath the thistly throat of the sewer. It is an unsafe neighborhood for unwatched children. Raucous boys throw sticks and stones and hang cats by the tail. Cars speed by, throwing glass which shatters onto the asphalt, splintering rubber bike wheels. The eggs are pure and vulnerable. Inside, the birds slumber within the tenuous walls, oblivious to how their unbegun lives shudder from the elements. She would watch them if their mother could not. She would keep them safe from outside.  
          One day she stacks a phone book on top of a stool and climbs to reach into the nest, the eggs refracting gold like miniature disco balls just out of reach. She wants to clasp an egg in her hand, hold it against her ear like a seashell and hear the baby bird’s gentle breath echo within. But before she can touch one, her father comes into sight like a dark premonition and yanks her down by the waist. He flops her onto the ground, and she can see written in the furrowed lines of his face that she is about to be yelled at. Did she not know that she must never touch the bird’s eggs? Her human scent would cover the scent of the nest and the mother would never find her way back home. They are not yours to touch. To interfere would be to kill them. Olive is seized by a stomachache of guilt, imagining the birds cracking open in the springtime to find no mother to greet them. Alone, stewing in a spoiled sewer, they would be damned by a girl who did not know better than to love them. Can birds fly without being taught or do their wings become useless appendixes, calcified reminders of selves and evolutions past?  

          (The hardbound copy. The timepiece on the nightstand. A carton of milk, expiring tomorrow. Not the photographs—those will stay in their frames. Where does it all go. The first evening herself, Olive laughed too loudly at the nightly news. Nothing to her, he did nothing at all.)

          In the Book of Judges, Jephthah prayed to the Lord for victory over the Ammonites. In exchange, he vowed that whoever first came out of the door of his house to greet him upon his return would be offered unto Him as a burnt sacrifice. Let it be known that it was his beloved daughter who came out to greet Jephthah after emerging from battle high on the praises of the Israelites. Her name was Adah, the one-man Messiah. She kindled on the altar for an hour and made the very first snow angel in Gilead. What can be done with the desert snow? In the future, parents will set their children on fire as penance. They weep as they build the pyres, the sky boiling angry and green. This is before they will retreat underground, during a time when people still clung to their homes with the stubbornness of urban squatters. The eviction notices and the unpaid bills feed the pyre until it burns red, a heart bleeding slow. It does not extinguish until long after the prayers have been stifled by their staggered gasps and keels. Afterwards, they wait and see if this will be the sacrifice that finally saves them. Now is when most die, while waiting, either by their own hand or by the hand of another; otherwise they succumb the way all will eventually, guilty or not, the air no longer breathable and burning their lungs the color of plastic. 

          What is it then, to keep love inside of you if it cannot leave you, if it will only ever be hurt by what is outside of you? The little girl walks down their path. Curls like Scarlett O’Hara, porcelain face, an equally golden mother at her side. Outlined against the darkening sky, they look remarkably alight, two identical stars purposeful in their contrast to the surrounding bleakness. 
          Look there! She spots the bird’s nest, the eggs nestling unattended. The little girl should be named Mirabelle or Marigold, one of those names that don’t seem to exist outside of storybooks. For the mother, classically tall and refined, a brisk monosyllable would befit, Ruth or maybe Rose. The minute Olive has named them and etched out in her mind the plotline which led them to her sidewalk, she is filled with a sudden hostility towards the two characters. Which is the object of her resentment, the chirping little girl or her stately mother?  It is both of them—or more specifically, the obvious love between them. The love between mother and daughter feels like a specific attack on Olive. There they are, gorging themselves to excess on what had once been hers, while she is forced to make do with only meager scraps. The desire to be loved manifests within her now as a vomitous hatred, and it takes all her energy to keep from banging her fists on the window in a show of rage. 
          The mother swoops the daughter into her arms until she is at eye-level with the nest. The hands, stubby fingers pink as ground beef, stretch to where the lonesome eggs slumber. The girl picks up the nest. It is bigger than she imagined, the size of a dinner plate. She licks her lips, reaches in. 
          The horror! The girl’s scent, that toxic mix of buttercups and strawberry jam, suffocates the eggs until what was once theirs alone now becomes only an extension of their intruder. Where is the mother bird? She is somewhere else, maybe cities over. She will never find them now. When the birds awake, they will be alone, with nobody to love them who they could love back. 
          Olive lunges outside and is ramming into the mother’s bony hip before the screen door swings shut. In a flurry of floral fabric, the two crumble to the pavement with a howl and a crunch. Untethered from her mother’s grasp, the child hovers in the air with her hands still locked on the shivering eggs. For a moment, it appears she might be light enough to hold onto the rafters. But then: an implosion. The girl releases her hold with a defeated squeak, her body folding in a question mark to the left of them.  
          Olive’s head feels like a bashed-in pumpkin. The sidewalk is smeared with red. She touches her head but feels no wetness, no jab of pain invoked from the fall. The little girl is yelling, or her mother is yelling. Someone is yelling, but all Olive sees are moving pink lips because on the sidewalk, where the grass grows through the cracks, are the birds. Unhatched, somehow still intact. Olive reaches for them, forgetting her father’s command. She cups an egg in her hand, polishes it with the tips of her fingers as if she could see her reflection glimmering inside. 
          Let me see it! The little girl has risen from her decrepit position on the floor, and the hideous sight of her knees skinned as a martyr’s back revolts Olive so much she nearly moves aside. But her instincts overtake her, and she furls her body around the eggs as if to form a second encasing around them. 
          Go away! Go back to your home, she is pleading to herself as much as to the child, but the little girl has balled her fists together and begins wailing even harder than after her fall. The mother fixes Olive with a seething glare. She is going to yell. Olive sees the gash of her mouth and guesses at the words coming out. You little monster. You did this to my little girl. You made her fall; you made her bleed. You need to learn how to share. 
          You. You don’t share anything ever. 

          This was what happened. Olive was cruel to her mother before she left. Because Olive knew her mother was leaving? Because it was easy, shattering the porcelain angels on the mantel, scribbling permanent marker on the lacy underthings. The reliable prodding guilt had not yet settled in, cruelty a new muscle she carelessly flexed. I hate you? I wish you were dead? You aren’t my mother. Standing in the doorway in her flower print blouse, the spill of peonies like tomato soup down her front. Bending down to kiss her head. Olive pulled away. One hug, Olive. I love you, Olive. Olive stayed silent. How long did she last without? Fifteen birthday cards, neat in their envelopes. The punishing request. Love me. Need me. No, it never left her. She would spend her adult years with her mouth open, begging to be fed. 

          The little girl’s eyes are blue flecked with green. Olive looks directly at them when she plucks the first egg and stomps it to nothing with her foot. The sound the egg makes when it shatters under her is not the loud squelch she imagined, but a soft, almost merciful puff akin to an exhale. The little girl gasps, and the mother clings to her child like a life raft. Olive doesn’t look at the carnage but picks up the next egg. Her foot falls again, and it keeps falling, her hands robbing the nest and her feet making a mess so fluidly it seems to be a barbaric dance that she has already mastered to perfection. With each rapid movement:
           How dare you. How dare you love what I love, you who could have loved anything and have been loved in return. How dare you take what had been mine and mine alone. Now none of us can have it. Fair and square. It did feel easy, stepping on the eggs. Or, it didn’t feel like anything at all. 
          The girl and her mother don’t move, don’t even make one single sound so that all Olive hears is the eggs breaking like breathing, again and again until she places her hand into the nest and cuts her finger on a scrap of metal. Nothing is left inside. Down below the eggs lay in a thick yellow and pink slop. They don’t look like birds anymore. They look like soup, dripping into the sidewalk cracks. She can’t even mourn them—how could she? They didn’t even have faces yet. Reduced to a puddle, she sees her love for what it was. An intrusion, unwanted and unneeded. Her love, that thorny tangle that tore at her insides with hungry teeth, burbles out of her at last like bile only to make ruin of the earth below. That was when she knew. Love festered with nobody to take it from you. It perverted itself, becoming a creature closer to violence. The mother and daughter had run away, both of them blubbering like babies who were left alone too long. As for Olive, she watched what remained of the eggs seep into the grass and still could not find it within her to repent.  

          (It was a week before Christmas and the man was gone. In his place, Olive felt the opposite of wanderlust, a lust that was stationary, inverted, encompassing the small hurt he had made into something like kindness inside of her. It only multiplied in his absence. The morning of, she drank alone. There was a knock at the door.)

          Days go by with Olive never thinking about the birds, about the mother and her daughter and the rust-stained patch on the sidewalk which her father will scrub and scrub with his weather-beaten hands to no relief—but none of them have left her. In dreams the mama bird, the ligaments of her neck wrought with tension, flies aimlessly with nowhere to land. She flies still, black eyes fixed somewhere beyond the horizon, searching for a place she cannot remember but longs to find again. Her son holds her hand as they walk home. The snow has quickened since they played in the park, and the air tremors with a white noise which silences even the midafternoon traffic. 
          Are you ready to go? 
          Yes, she is finally ready. If only she could have held on to him forever, so that he would never outgrow her like he would eventually outgrow the skin inside her, the inside which was no home but the ruins of a small utopia, museum to unkept words and foregone conclusions. The body was far too much an island. You reach a certain age and your body becomes a solitary unit where nothing ever escapes. Your bowels tighten like vises and your stomach constantly makes itself drunk-sick with painful gases. The same mess of fluids cycles through your systems like old bathwater. The body is burdened to carry the bodily sewage, the blood and food and child. To expunge it all, to become clean and concave as brand-new children who do not live inside their bodies but in defiance of their bodies, would be nothing short of rebirth.  
          Are you still there? Her son does not answer, and she realizes that the thoughts growing inside of him grow inside of her now, as if he has become completely her own, surrendering even the private hum inside his head into her hands. She feels his breath, the warm drumbeat of his words, outlining her, defining her and making her, at last, so complete. And then she can see: 

          The future is white, and then it is red, and then it is nothing at all. She will run down the bridge, her son in her hands and in her head a thousand burning sparks. The people on the bridge chase them. Olive sees their crumbling faces, their ruined bodies, a violent anatomy as incompatible with human life as a child’s hasty drawing of a stick figure. She recognizes them in a moment of awe. They are the burned children, a generation sacrificed, born entitled to a bowl of pottage and yet still continuing to crave—what more? 
          Her son’s hand was in hers, and now it has gone. Where has he gone, her only son? Where have all the men she has loved gone? The men who sought asylum inside her body, and when they left took with them only what they had already given her.  Somewhere above a bird calls her name, and that is how she knows she is dying. There are no more birds where she will be from. 
          Her son will grow without her, but she sees it anyways, him alive in her absence. He is tall and handsome as she might have dreamed. The children on the bridge surround him and chant his name, the new name he has given himself, as he has fathered himself now and adopted all who remain as his offspring. They are devoted to him in the way of children, and dote on him in the way of mothers, helplessly and greedily and mainly to survive. They love him even as he lights the final pyre to spite them all. 
          The bridge doesn’t die right away, and in solidarity the rest of the world survives long enough to see it go. There won’t be any funerals in the end of days, only one light snuffed out after the other, and then there will be not darkness but its unseen twin: emptiness. Her son won’t be buried with her, but she feels him anyways, his body and all the other bodies on the bridge which covered the water which covered the once lively organism at the center of everything. She covers them all, feels them shake within her, cower. She holds them, will not abandon them, still speaking mouthless one word again and again to try and fill the yawning chasm. Repent.  

          Olive has always envied the people in cars, the way they always seem to know where they are going. She watches them drive by like tiny uninhabitable planets, all so individually wrapped and separate from her own. What they must be talking about in there, to each other, in that clever grammar composed of space and time. In front of the building, the snow silences and she reels in the nakedness of the elements clattering together with nothing to soften each blow. How terrible it is to be a pedestrian. Always such a lonely commute. The people outside the building hold their banners like flags of a primitive nation, bearing images of sonograms distorted as television static and small intact bodies served on metal trays. A holocaust, one sign reads. A holocaust of children. Their voices pulsate with animosity and rage; yet, when Olive walks down the aisle, the nuclear words slip latently inside of her. Let them go ahead. Let them reap whatever silent damages they wish inside her body. She has already paid her dues—what more? 

          Did you know they have faces now. Do you know they have eyes and mouth and nose and ears just like you. Do you know they hear you when you talk and listen to your dreams while you sleep. Did you know they have scent now. Think of it as a chamber—would you break your own heart? Look at what you have done. The amniotic fluid has not yet been drained. Do not let the heat escape. Don’t open that door. Don’t do it. 

          Now you’ve done it. Look at what you have done. 

          The woman grabs Olive’s hand before she walks inside. In limbo, one can hear the bell peeling inside the future. “Imagine who your child will become,” she pleads. When she speaks to Olive she gazes only at her covered belly, as if seeing through the flesh of her wool coat to the unborn eyes inside, the beaming teratomas. 
     Olive imagined.  

          Messiah of burned children. Only crime is walking out that door. There is no deprivation in early departure, only acts of grace. Don’t go outside, little ones. You die out there. 

          (He was his and hers, they shared him, made him together, yet only she can feel the stain growing inside of her; only she can sense it when he leaves. Was he ever inside either of them? She is so lonely; she is alone and cold and misses who she used to be when she held someone else.) 

          “How far along are you?” the man with the clipboard asks.  
           “Not far,” she replies. Or: “Not yet.”
          Not yet, or not again.  Either way, it is gone, has left her at once, if ever it had been with her; vanishing to where the street enters the red sun, light penetrates through the concrete surface of the city, all the way down to where the silent womb at the center aches in prayer or apology. At present, falling snow shells the earth and from inside Olive can hear the voice speaking through the walls. The hand which cups the egg, the temporary body they live in once and not for long, releases her, and wind scatters her words into whiteness the moment before the fall. How far along is she? She is almost there. She can nearly hear the future.

About Jena Vallina

Jena Vallina is a college student and writer from Illinois. Her work has previously been published in Gordon Square Review and is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue and Otherworldly Women Press. She is the recipient of several Hopwood Awards, and received a commendation for the 2020 Adroit Prize in Fiction.

Cold Mountain Review is published once a year in the Department of English at Appalachian State University. Support from Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs and College of Arts and Sciences enables CMR’s learning and publications program. The views and opinions expressed in CMR do not necessarily reflect those of university trustees, administration, faculty, students, or staff.