Happy Childhoodthe boy who
the boy who
Happy Childhood the boy who
the boy who
Little Fish by Elana Gomel
by Elana Gomel
I am standing on the bridge, looking down into the murky green-brown water. The water is covered by a thick layer of scum, and dragonflies the size of my palm flit above it, their scythe-shaped jaws snapping at the tiny frogs hiding among the swollen pale roots. The smell coming from the water is stagnant and sharp: as if time itself curdled and was left to ferment at the bottom of a forgotten cupboard. The sky is green and grey, ridged in wavy lines, and long slicks of slime drip down across the smeared landscape.
I woke up screaming.
Fortunately, Rob was not there with his irritating concern and barely hidden fear. Unfortunately, Rob was not there with his soothing voice and gentle hands.
I padded into the kitchen to get a cup of tea. The fetus was doing somersaults, swimming in the warm uterine ocean.
The tiny flat where I had moved after out our separation was practically papered with ultrasound shots. A tiny hand waving above the uncertain blur of shadows. A head resting against the wall of its living prison. The prison that was myself.
I had exhausted my doctors' patience and had to dig into our savings when the NHS refused more screenings. I had had all the possible tests for birth defects – amniocentesis, fetal DNA, MSAFP. They were uniformly negative. The baby – a girl – was developing perfectly. I had no risk factors, no genetic abnormalities, no dubious twigs on my family tree. I had no high blood pressure or diabetes.
All I had was a dream.
The last time I went to see my ob-gyn, he asked me outright if I was ambivalent about becoming a mother. He must have seen my hesitation because he scribbled the name of a psychiatrist on his pad and shoved it toward me. But he was wrong. This had not been an accidental pregnancy. Everything had been planned. I wanted to be a mother.
The real question was: the mother of what?
I sat at the kitchen table, cradling my cup of herbal tea, scrolling through the messages on my phone. There were 17 – all from Rob. I deleted them unread.
He had been willing to move out when our fights became unendurable, fearing the damage to the baby, he said. I had moved out myself. Safe in this tiny flat, away from his pleading eyes. As safe as the thing in my womb.
It was trying to bribe me. I had read enough pregnancy blogs to know that mine was exceptionally easy. I had no morning sickness, no preeclampsia. My skin bloomed; my weight remained normal. But it was wrong if it thought I could be bought off so easily.
5 AM. I swiped on my tablet, revisiting the same sites I had visited hundreds of times, The severe fonts of professional journals. "Evolutionary dynamics in the Anthropocene." "Climate change and speciation." "Punctuated equilibrium." Sensational headlines: "Mother leaves a newborn in a trash can." And wacky misspelled confessions decorated with clusters of exclamation points: "I gave birth to an alien!!!"
I wished it were that simple.
My lids grew heavy, but I was unwilling to go back to bed. I often felt like a battlefield. Two conflicting entities were duking it out inside me: one trying to lull me into the complacency of expectant motherhood, the other screaming Cassandra-like warnings. Which of them was the real me? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither.
A hard kick rattled my insides and, lifting my nightie, I could see the imprint of a tiny foot on my skin slowly fading away. The foot looked human.
I pressed my hands to my ballooning belly, feeling the heavy burden inside. Only three weeks left.
"I know what you are," I whispered. "Give me back my daughter!"
I finally realize why the sky looks so strange. It is not the sky at all but the underside of a water-surface. I am at the bottom of a lake or a pond. The ocean? No; the water is too dirty. The watery ceiling above my head is smeared with streaks of slime and weed, dribbling dull coins of refracted sunlight.
How can there be water underwater? How can I walk on the boggy path among pools of scum when I am surrounded by currents? How can I walk at all instead of floating?
An underwater marsh? No, "marshland" presupposes that there is some dry land interrupting the fluidity of streams, creeks, or pools. In this terrain, there is nothing but water in various states of pollution: mixed with soil into quicksand; threaded with prickly stems; rocking decaying bits of animal and vegetable matter; blanketed by the rank carpet of algae. I am cradled in it just as the thing is cradled in the waters of my womb.
Is it here with me? I try to look down at myself, but the dream would not let me. The viscous water tightens around my face like a gelid mask, keeping my head upright. Only then do I realize that I am not breathing.
I finally answered Rob's call. Partly it was out of sheer boredom: I had nothing else to do but to surf the Internet, drowning even deeper in the miasmic bog of misinformation. Somewhere there, among all the conspiracy theories and scientific doublespeak, was that one nugget of knowledge that would solve everything, but finding it was as hard as diving for a pearl in the swamp.
"Emma! Thank God! I was about to call the police! How are you, darling? How is the baby?"
"I am perfectly fine, thank you!" I snapped. "And there is no baby!"
From the shocked silence on the other end, I could easily surmise what he was thinking.:
"What? Emma, have you ...?"
"Too late," I replied truthfully.
The a-word had not been in our vocabulary until the dream and by then I was way above the legal limit for termination. And since all the tests showed the fetus was perfectly healthy, I had no grounds for medical exemption.
"So, what do you mean?"
"This is not a baby. A monster. An impostor. A changeling."
His breath caught and I knew he had been hoping I would miraculously snap out of what he considered my delusion.
"Emma," he said, and there was unwonted steel in his voice, "I can't allow you to go on like this. You are going to harm yourself. Or ... our daughter."
"She has already been harmed," I said and ended the call.
Changelings. Children stolen by fairies who leave ugly deformed poppets in their stead, tiny bug-eyed monsters, or living logs of wood. Folklore teems with such stories. But I had never found anything about stolen fetuses.
Standing in front of the mirror, I lifted my maternity dress to contemplate my transformed body. Of course, my belly protruded like the prow of a ship, but my slim legs and narrow waist remained the same. From behind, you wouldn't know I was close to delivery. I saw people on the Tube give a double take when they walked past me. Another bribe.
The perpetual hum of London filtered in through the heavy curtain. This alien city I had embraced as my own when I had come here five years ago with Rob. A Californian girl eager to make it in the ancient land of elves and fairies, miracles and wonders. And I had. When the plus sign had flashed on the home pregnancy test, I knew this country, this city was my home. I just did not know how deep its roots would grow into me. How its hidden rivers and boggy streams would flow through my veins.
I caressed my belly.
"You won't win!" I whispered to the thing inside. "I'll find you. And I'll force you to give me back my daughter."
This bridge. Soft rotten wood, sagging in the viscous currents. It is falling apart, eaten alive by the slimy waters that have flooded ... what? The Earth? The UK? London?
I don't recognize the lay of the land but it's hardly surprising. I am a stranger here. Summoned by whatever creature has stolen the baby from my womb and substituted its own offspring instead.
There is a downpour of sludge pattering on my head. Thick ropes of ooze fall from the water surface above.
"Come out!" I yell into the downpour. "Show yourself!"
Strangely, the sound is doubled, syncopated like jazz. Echo underwater?
Something is stirring in the black circular pool beneath me, crisscrossed by strands of algae and dead branches curved like the horns of a stag-beetle. Something is rising. A pale round thing. It looks like a reflection of the moon ... but wait, how can there be the moon in this dissolving world?
I was pushed out of the watery dream like a cork rising to the surface. It had happened before. Every time I came close to understanding, the dream would buckle and warp. Paradoxically, I found it encouraging. My adversary was afraid of me finding out ... something. I had some power over it. And after all, it was still inside me, imprisoned in my body.
How did I know the dream was true? How did I find the strength to see through the chaff that people call reality – medical records, Breaking News, my husband's officious smile? How did I know I was right and everybody else was wrong?
I did not know. All I knew was that somewhere beyond the bubble of our middle-class existence, the seas were rising, bringing to the surface the jetsam and flotsam of ancient myths and techno-apocalypses. And that somehow that the polluted waters had found their way into my womb and carried away my daughter, leaving behind its own deformed offspring. Something monstrous, waiting to be born.
I fought hard to stay inside the dream and when I realized the creature was keeping me awake, I bought some pills from Boots, not recommended for pregnant women, lined them on the table, and said aloud: "If you don't let me sleep, I'll take all of them at once." An hour after tharthat, I dozed off on the couch in front of the telly.
The darkened flood is gently swaying my body, carrying me toward the dilapidated bridge over the black pool ... Finally I can swim. My arms look strange in the green twilight ... almost like flippers.
I was yanked out of the dream like a hooked fish out of the water. Somebody was hammering on the front door.
I staggered to the hallway and peered through the peephole. Rob's face looked carp-like, distorted by the lens.
I cracked the door open, keeping the chain on.
"Go away!" I said flatly. "It's your fault!"
It was: for bringing me here, into that ancient land soaked in dark legends; for being so paternalistically overjoyed by my pregnancy; by settling into the role of a suburban dad with no premonitions or apprehensions; and most of all – for not believing me.
He tried to push into the crack.
"Emma," he said. "I won't let you kill our baby."
He sounded calm and off his head. Rob did not do drugs or alcohol, but this lucid rage was more frightening than slurred-speech intoxication.
"I'll call the police," I said. "I'll tell them you threatened me. They won't let you anywhere near the baby."
It worked. I heard his heavy breathing and then he turned around and stomped down the stairs. I locked the door and sat on the couch, thinking.
Time was running out. I had to see my adversary. In the stories I had read, you could bargain with the fairies. I would offer anything to get my baby back. Or failing this ...
I suddenly realized what was niggling at my mind. I pulled the thought to the surface, examined it, and nodded my acceptance.
If I could not get my real child back, I would kill the inhuman thing that was gestating in my uterus.
The wrinkled surface over my head twitches and splits apart as something splashes into the water and cuts through the murky liquid in a mantle of froth – a splayed torso, arms and legs churning, the helmet ... No, it's the head. Flat and neckless, attached to the froglike shape that hovers above me for a moment and then disappears into a tenuous range of mud-hills. Plumes of delicate silt hover above their rounded summits. Nothing is stable here; everything is dissolving and coming together; fading and growing; dying and being born. A welter of becoming.
Here is the pool again, its surface choked with rot. A dragonfly the size of a raven strafes me and veers away in the last moment, its compound eye milky as if veiled with cataracts. Nothing is bright and clear here. I cannot see my reflection.
I stand above the pool. A rhyme is buzzing in my head:
Big fish, little fish ...
The rest melts away.
Where are all the fish? Shouldn't there be fish underwater?
But it's not really the bottom of the sea or a lake, is it? It is something else: the drowned world. The world that is coming.
Something passes above me again. The giant frog has returned. I try to look up and wince – my neck is stiff. But I do manage to see the dead-white belly and the fragile shoulders topped by the featureless head. No, not featureless. It is slashed by a lipless mouth frozen in a perpetual amphibian smile. But where are the eyes?
Big fish, little fish
Swimming in the water
Big fish, little fish ...
"You!" I shout. "Give me back my daughter!"
I had not given in to the dream without a fight. I had read all about pregnancy fears, pre- and post-partum depression, psychological changes that accompany the physiological upheaval of gestation. I had confided in Rob. It was his immediate insistence on "getting help,", as he put it, that made me recoil and reconsider. I was not going to let myself be drugged out of my own truth.
And after all, was it not rational to believe that in the a world beset by a climate catastrophe, something new was trying to be born? Perhaps it was just bad luck that made me the channel for its emergence.
It was hard to give up hope. So many stories of fearless mothers bargaining with fairies and getting their true baby back. But when I woke up that time, furious that the froglike creature had not answered my challenge, a seed of doubt was planted. What if the answer had been there all along?
I looked at my sleeping pills. "Not to take if you are pregnant." Damaging to the fetus.
What was more damaging than not knowing the truth?
I swallowed the pill.
I am back facing the froglike creature. No time has passed in the water-world, it seems. We are still locked in the same standoff.
The creature glides gently toward me. I am fascinated by its graceful movements – like an astronaut in zero-g. Perhaps it won't be so bad when the world is inundated. Was it a mistake for the first amphibians to flop onto the dry land?
It lands onto the soft silt and faces me. No, a wrong word. It has no face. Its helmet-like pointed head is blank, with no eyes or nostrils. The mouth is where the neck should be. I can see the serrated bone-teeth inside and the coiled ribbon of the tongue.
Something makes me walk around it. The back and the front of it are exactly the same: splayed limbs; warty amphibian skin; and the pale and featureless head, split by the lipless mouth.
One of them addresses me. I can hear its bubbling voice perfectly well.
"Not long now."
"You stole my child! Give her back!"
"I am your child."
I have to believe it is lying! I have to keep the hope alive! But I cannot.
Not a changeling. Not a substitute. My baby. A froglike thing trying to be born into the world that is getting ready for her. A hopeful monster.
"They will take you away to a lab when you are born. They will keep you locked up. They will dissect you."
The curving mouth stretches so far to the sides that it almost meets its counterpart.
"You'll protect me. Everybody will congratulate you on your perfect baby girl just as they are congratulating you on your perfect pregnancy. They will see what they need to see."
"But I know what you are! I'll tell them!"
"Then you'll be locked up. If you try to harm me, you'll be the monster – the bad mother, the baby-killer. The tabloids will tear you to shreds. And I'll be adopted by a loving family who will be proud to save me from your madness."
The two-mouthed thing is right. The dirty water around me is as warm as blood, but I can feel the chills running down my spine. There is no way out of it.
"Who are you?" I cry. "Why do you want to be born? Why me?"
The twin mouths are gaping as the froglike thing is hesitating. But it does not glide away ...
The water exploded around me as if a fist smashed into it. I could not breathe. Was it silt in my mouth?
It was not. It was a hand pressed against my face.
"Don't fight," a voice whispered into my ear. "I'm sorry to do it, Emma, but you left me no choice."
I tried to push back but my belly was in the way and I only managed a feeble twitch.
"Careful! You'll hurt the baby!"
The hand relaxed.
The fact that it was the only thing that mattered to him drove me mad. I pushed him away and sat up.
"What the fuck are you doing, Rob? How did you get in?"
He just stared at me. One look at his sweat-slicked face made me realize there was no reasoning with him. He would kill me to protect his offspring. My only defense was the thing inside me. He could not harm me without harming it.
Or could he? I remembered the media story about a pregnant woman killed by another woman who wanted a baby. The killer had literally sliced her victim open to get the fetus out.
There was something in Rob's other hand, something long and gleaming. A knife from what used to be our kitchen.
I swung my legs over the edge of the couch – and a warm flood rolled down my thighs. My water had broken. Rob pushed me back.
"Keep quiet!" he hissed. "Breathe deeply. Like they taught us in the birthing classes."
I almost burst into laughter, so grotesque the situation was.
"Lamaze method? With a knife to my throat? Call the ambulance, Rob. Now!"
He shook his head.
"No need. I can deliver the baby. I have been reading up on how to do it. And then ..."
He did not need to finish the sentence: I understood.
He would deliver the baby and take her away, leaving behind the corpse of her crazy mother. And as if to emphasize how helpless I was, a sickening wrench in my lower belly yanked a handful of my guts and released them after a pain-filled interval. The contractions began.
"Rob, please ..."
"Breathe, Emma. Breathe! The baby is on her way!"
Indeed, she was.
I closed my eyes and, disregarding the pain washing over me in rhythmic waves, I dove deep down, into the murky green waters of life, the great amniotic ocean of evolution, the polluted sea of extinction and rebirth. And it was there, waiting for me: the two-mouthed blind frog.
The next stage. The new kind.
"Help me!" I cried. "Help me and I'll take care of you!"
"So will he," the creature syncopated with her mouths.
"But I'll be better! I am your mother! What's greater than a mother's love?"
"She is right," one mouth said.
"She is wrong," the other one retorted.
"She is the mother," one said.
"He is the father," the other responded.
"He'll see you for what you are," I pleaded. "And he'll kill you. He lives in this sentimental dream of perfect parenthood, and when it is broken, he will become ruthless. But I know that motherhood is about blood and pain and survival. I will protect you until the floods come."
"And then we won't need your protection anymore," the mouths said in unison.
Another contraction, stronger than before, tore through me and I surfaced, lying in the tangle of soaked sheets. I hauled myself to my feet. I had to step over Rob's body to get to my cell phone. He was lying in a puddle of evil-smelling water, a rivulet of slime dribbling from his mouth, his eyes rolled up in his head.
I called the ambulance and rested my aching back against the sofa.
"Big fish, little fish," I crooned to the creature that pushed its way through my body like the spawning salmon on its way to life.