By Erin Slaughter
Early that day the weather turned, and something in my lungs was like the snow outside melting into dirty water, like rain pooling in a garden bed.
Peter was calling my name from the other room, but my lungs were all damp earth, all burial. And I very well couldn’t say: my chest is a grave, not to Peter, my sweet, gorgeous Peter who radiated supernova light, so I lay in bed and waited for something to happen or cease. Outside: a final gasp of frozen air swept through Chattanooga.
Peter—his sandy hair mussed, his eyes arctic under furrowed brows—entered and gouged the siren child from its cradle on the other side of the bedroom. Peter wrapped him up in azure wool and whispered, Isaac, my Isaac, it’s alright sweetest, while the baby continued bleating out raw shrieks, my husband’s voice a hopeful prayer to a tiny, belligerent god.
Once the room quieted and darkened to some hue between sleep and wakefulness, I heard Peter say: Kristin, you can’t just let him cry like that. In his voice was fear and love, which I’ve learned are the same things in different clothes.
I meant to nod, but in half-sleep I’m unsure that my body followed.
Babies are helpless. If we don’t care for them, they suffer.
My hair was matted to my forehead and my scalp itched; I hadn’t showered in a little less than a week. My skin burned, and between my legs, blood and more than blood seeped into the sheets, sticking to my thighs. I imagined my limbs as pillars of salt, dissipating in the wind and scattering through the fingers of trees and ghosting across car windshields. I imagined my torso as an apple core being carried away on the backs of ants, piece by precious piece.
This child’s a blessing, he said.
I wasn’t sure who he was talking to.
Meanwhile, church still had to be held every Sunday, and the youth group met every Wednesday night. Sunday service was like the Grammys or Election Day for Peter, but on Wednesdays, he wore jeans. I stayed at home because my smile was not yet convincing enough, just a weak baring of teeth, the muscles in my face as stretched and disassociated as the rest of me. Sometimes I stood up or washed the dishes or changed the child’s diaper, and elsewhere Peter shook people’s hands and they smiled at him and he smiled back. He brought home leftover bagels and news that everyone understood my absence, that everyone was praying for my recovery. I imagined many voices in the night saying my name in rooms I had never been in, people sitting among different furniture and smells, people wishing something for me they did not understand.
Peter slept on the couch for four days after I gave birth and I didn’t blame him. What was once our bed became an open, oozing grave. Peter poured powdery formula into bottles. Peter picked up soiled clothes from the floor—mine and the child’s. He didn’t move the bassinet into the living room, and I suspected that was because it would afford me too much freedom. Peter was kind and good, but he was a preacher and he knew what duty was, what love was. How they are the same things chained to a fence inside our chests.
On the fifth day, he suggested: Why don’t you hold Isaac? I was talking to Sandra Brown after service this past week and she said you need the hormones, the, uh, oxytocin and estrogen. And since you’re not breastfeeding.
I’m tired, I said. I’m going to take a nap.
You could put Isaac down with you. It’s not dangerous like people say.
I have a headache, I said.
He felt my forehead like I was asking to stay home from school. He gently cupped my cheek into his palm and looked at me with such worry, and that very second, there was an overwhelming tangle of dread and affection and hopeless, selfish want coursing through me like a sky unfurled. I wanted nothing more than for us to be alone again, to live together and love each other with bare feet and crumbs of breakfast muffins. Even in the early days, when it was fighting and the water shut off. I wanted desperately to say: oh god, what have we done, let’s run away, back to before this mess, this terrible mistake. But even thinking it poisoned my hopeless love with panic, and if I said it out loud, I knew Peter would never forgive me.
I kissed his wrist. His eyes softened into pools of molten blue.
As I turned to leave the room, he said: God has a plan, He only asks that we trust in Him, and without meaning to, I began to walk away faster.
Erin Slaughter holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas. After working as a publishing intern for a non-profit poetry press in the Pacific Northwest, she is currently a student in the MFA program at Western Kentucky University, where she works as the graduate assistant for Steel Toe Books. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has been published in The North Texas Review, Off the Coast, Boxcar Poetry Review, GRAVEL, and 101 Words, among others.