By Brianne Allen
Everything about her body was a contradiction. Laying down on the medical bed, feeling the paper beneath her crinkle and fold, Lou conflated her very skin with a lie. Everyone in the Pregnancy Care Center had been kind to her. In the waiting room, other mothers had sat beside her and fed her snacks from their bags—two cranberries, three almonds, one dry piece of vegan jerky. Lou had eaten with them and listened to their stories of creation, how they conjured up babies through acupuncture and fire and liquid they had not developed a taste for. They had become pregnant from the thrust of a needle or a man, the difference between them sometimes blurred. Lou had listened and known she was not an enchantress, not a mother, but only a vessel.
During the ultrasound, Lou secretly hoped that the scan revealed nothing, that the nurse would reveal the oblivion and face Lou with confusion or concern. Lou might have returned to the women of the waiting room, smiled at them and left, avoided their friend requests on LinkedIn, kept their hastily typed out recipes on her phone to never use. But there, on the monitor, he was. The baby and the umbilical cord that bound him with Lou. The nurse smiled, tender and soft. Look upon him, she said, it was all worth it, all of the pain and bile, for here he is. His head seemed so bloated and round, his nose protruding only slightly.
The nurse told her she was 18 weeks pregnant, to which Lou nodded. The gel that coated her stomach clung to her stretched skin. Her anatomy overfilled, the baby’s heart beating. Everything impossible and everything real.
In seventh grade, Lou was obsessed with ghosts, how they were not buried in bodies but rather could leave themselves. She liked the frightening nature of them, too. Lou would run through stories of itchy-faced ghouls, ladies with three empty eyes, twins who laughed through each other’s mouths. Sweat would tickle the thick black hair at the base of Lou’s back, her reading light would go frosty under the heat of her breath. Death, an exciting and wavering idea. Death was never an end.
Lou’s younger brother Amare was her closest friend that year. Amare and his neat twists that hung kindly around his face. Amare and his eyelashes that influenced local weather patterns. Lou liked him because he was somewhat of a ghost boy. Their father had taken one look at him emerging from the womb and lost his breath, falling to his rotten knees to never rise again. Amare’s face was composed of purples and blacks and apparently death. Of course, Amare’s birth didn’t doom an already cursed man, but that didn’t stop people from keeping away from him.
Lou took part in this childish isolation. She had no value for connection, then. She rid herself of any friends no more than 17 days after meeting them. Lou was not the Death Baby. She would never face ostracization. But she liked the idea of choosing her loneliness, deserting herself. It was painful and romantic. During recess, Lou could be found sat in corners, mumbling to herself. Jamie Matthews said he heard her speaking in Latin when he went to go retrieve a softball that had been flung at her head. Jamie Matthews had no knowledge of Latin, but the thought of it was both frilly and rusted, a lot like Lou. Lou’s dresses were always pressed into the ground no matter the weather. Grass stains were a frequent occurrence, as well as the markings of mud and, naturally, blood.
The night that Lou was impregnated, she went on a date with a man named Hugh. She had met him online. He was 55 years old and drank only water. Lou thought he was attractive, plus dating men that were much older than her made her feel valued in an odd way, as if she were an exception to a mature man’s rule. Hugh took her out for Italian food. He tried to spoon-feed her some of his vegetable broth. It swirled, chunky and oil-filled, against the metal. She politely declined and then remembered to push her shoulders back. Conviction. It was important in this game.
Lou did not go home with him. He had said something offhand about the color of her lipstick and Lou couldn’t stop thinking about it. Additionally, there was the hassle of it all, pretending her wig was her real hair and showering with someone else’s used, milky soap. It was too much.
She went straight to her apartment building. In the lobby, a security guard greeted her. His clothes were the same grey as the walls. Welcome home, dear one, he said. Lou did not recognize the man but nodded at him politely. Though she only looked at him briefly, his face stayed with her as she rode the elevator. He was handsome. A kind face. A face she could’ve remembered.
In her bedroom, Lou twitched under her covers. She thought to masturbate but didn’t. She instead turned to images of cold. Glaciers. Bitter hunks of salt in Antarctica. Timid frozen strawberries and the sting they left on teeth.
In her dreams, Lou was a forest fire. She could not escape herself. Instead, she destroyed everything. She corrupted every pause, every breath. She was her own end, an orchestra of decay. The song of a body split by time. And in all of the murder, she knew that she was not alone in her mind. She woke up not in a sweat but surprisingly cool. She could tell that her apartment was hot, a warmth that gasped and hissed around her, barely touching her skin. The bed had been rid of all of its sheets and pillows. Lou laid in the center of it, pregnant as an ember.
Blood is a fluid that transports and delivers needed substances. It is the language of all of us, it binds and divides. It manipulates. When the first baby was born, a hunk of atoms and glucose and buttery matter, it bled. Through every pore, every freckle, it bled, pushing out all excess. It was a rejection of the past, the creation of something new.
Days after her first ultrasound, Lou had dinner with Amare and his girlfriend since high school, Jadah. Lou fidgeted with the peeling leather seat she rested upon. The restaurant buzzed around them. People spilled soup, toddlers reached for their mother’s foggy spoons, a young couple shifted in their chairs as if they hadn’t been fingers deep in one another 20 minutes prior. Lou could not stop thinking about these people. Each body turned to a chew, a tremble in her jaw. Lou ate five raw oysters and eleven French fries. She tried to listen to Amare and absorb what he had to say. The couple had mostly pleasant affairs. Jadah had bought a guinea pig for her second graders, her kids. They loved it, they named it Ben. Amare had found an amazing table with wooden legs that curved like a woman. Their windowsill tomatoes had grown to the size of pumpkins. I am so happy for you, Lou said, you are both so deserving.
On the television that night, Lou watched bearded white men deny the end of the world. Climate change is a lie, they said, we have seen the world and it is cold and it is Eden. Lou did not feel blessed to be there. Eden? She saw no bursting color that had not been demeaned by man. She laughed at the TV, at the men’s warped and lined faces. She would be the end of them all and no one knew. No one could fathom it. All of these people. Who knows what the antichrist would make of them? Lou prodded her stomach during commercials. Would the little girl with the yellow umbrella grow into a bone witch? Would the sweet Popeyes lady ride skeleton horses? It was hard to know.
Lou had never really danced with emptiness. Even in her most frightening thoughts, there was an after, another self to fall into, another existence to rest her feet on. Nothing did not care about Lou. It did not wrestle with the thoughts of snakes funneled through worn hands, or tulips unfolded, or Lou and her mouth always slightly open, always anticipating something. Nothing was just nothing. Emptiness without the word for it, without a label.
Back in college, Lou had a series of short but meaningful relationships. They were flings that latched themselves to notches of her spine, staying there to pulse and ache. Lou hated all of the loose ends, the messages that she let sleep in her phone, the sharp knowledge she held on to. There was Kenny, junior year, who volunteered in the admissions department. His younger sister played soccer. He got mono when he was 15. He smoked herbal cigarettes that smelt like lavender and mourning.
Lou first thought he was interesting because he was always bringing up the void in conversation. When he texted her, he wrote it out ‘The Void.’ He always seemed to think about nothingness. He hated aftercare and eye contact and he was always making these comments about Lou that led to her crying. Sometimes about her weight, other times about her hair being matted, once about how she talked too much about her feelings. The two never broke up, just one day stopped trying. Lou hadn’t talked to him in years. She didn’t want to. Where would she begin?
Lou’s mind kept returning to homecoming dresses. Dresses that would never fit over the swell of her new body without cleverly added fabric. Pink, sharp, glittery things. Tight in the right places, billowy in others. Foundation stained and kissed by spray tan. So sweet. She was beginning to feel as if she had misplaced something. Surely, she had gone to each one of her homecoming dances, surely she had brought a date and they had left the auditorium wine drunk, but somehow these events escaped her. Parts of her were leaving.
Once, while stewing onions and pork at home for lunch, she suddenly jolted. She knew the recipe because a relative had taught it to her when she was a child. Yes, and the relative had steered her hands and passed her sticky sweet buns to chew on while the meat turned to tender strands falling apart. But who were they? Was it her mother? What did her mother’s face look like? Each time Lou tried to remember it, it was her own.
Lou called Amare as she glared inside of an empty bowl. Who was I in college, Lou asked as soon as the phone dials ceased, Tell me who I was. Amare wanted to know if Lou had been looking at old photographs. They hardly existed anymore, and if they did, Lou couldn’t locate them. I think I’m fading, Lou said. Amare paused before yelling for Jadah somewhere in their apartment. Lou imagined his voice brushing up against each expanse of their walls. It used to do this in their childhood home, only his voice was higher then. They used to live together when they were young. It would never happen again. Lou looked down at the curve of her stomach. How was everyone not terrified?
Jadah started talking about ‘pregnancy brain.’ Lou thought that she had taken the phone from Amare for a second but realized that Jadah had just put her on speaker phone. It made Lou uncomfortable to think about her voice, projecting through the couple’s apartment, entering their space. Lou hadn’t asked for it.
Jadah told her that pregnancy can bring up all sorts of feelings. Lou shook her head at no one, saying, I am losing things. Lou wanted to call her mother but couldn’t. She knew as much. Her mother was gone, already away. Jadah told her to take up a hobby. You might feel as though you are picking up the world, Jadah reasoned, I once lifted up a knitting needle and it led me to the sun.
Lou started going to the mall more. She bought sweatpants that said ‘MEOW’ across the bottom and watched people go about their own lives. The sales clerks at Princess, a lingerie shop frequented by moms, were always kind to her. They assumed Lou was buying things to impress her husband. Lou didn’t wear a ring so she invented herself a boyfriend. She started saying things like, we are practically married anyways, and, my mother in law says it’s all downhill from here. The sales clerks thought Lou was the prettiest thing in the world, or at least they wanted her to feel as such. They described her skin as having a certain rosiness, which internally Lou rejected. Surely her cheeks looked like some rotting plum through the lens of a brown paper bag. Her lips like some old tree, chapped and probably wilting.
If it had been the devil that had put a baby boy inside of her, Lou wondered if she was now more or less of his type. Maybe he liked his girls a little dead. That probably wasn’t true. Lou hadn’t been dreaming since the fateful night, her mind turned to radio silence. There were no visits. No giant red figures waiting in her kitchen with a smile or a baby book. Amongst the women of the mall, it was easy to pretend there was someone, though. Anyone.
In the middle of Macy’s, next to a rack of men’s blazers, Lou gripped the base of her stomach. She lifted her blouse which had begun to stick to her skin. The fabric had become milky with a combination of old deodorant and sweat. Underneath her body looked like the reckoning of an old god. Her tawny brown skin was no more opaque than a veil. Through it, she could almost make out masses bobbing within her: clenched fists or legs or a soft-boiled head. Her body twitched, silently preparing for the birth. It was almost time.
She left the mall for home, a large pretzel in hand. She swayed as she walked on sidewalk after sidewalk. Her sneakers unapologetically met cracks and the sway of her skirt carried the precision of a speculum. Her figure drifted in and out of the scene. She could feel herself like a warm light flickering. Her legs trembled as they carried her, buckling under the tidal pool within her organs.
If you gave birth to a god, or maybe the antithesis of a god, what would you do? Would you bathe in salt water for seven days straight? Would you braid your hair into intricate shapes, gelled down and gleaming? Lou didn’t know. But she felt ready, sitting there, in her bathtub. She wore nothing, letting warm water lap over her skin like a dog tongue. She was Death Mother, a chosen one. She felt so special, a pearl within her stomach.
In the bathtub, her lower back curved like the length of a tidal pool. She felt bones crack and then her pain fizzed, welling up into throat like a glass of Pepsi. She closed her eyes as contractions reached into her, tugging at the folds of her body, gnawing on the tissue and matter. She imagined a dark forest and within it a moon-shaped clearing. Trees shaped like knives. Creatures to roast over a fire, meat too alive to recognize as edible.
Her memories melted off of her, dripping like fat into coal. It was the prerequisite to a climax but it was not alone. She thought of all the people she could choose for herself. Maybe they would be hooded or tired or yearning. They would choose her, too, tend to her and dab her forehead. She was not alone. She couldn’t be. She wouldn’t allow herself to be. It was hard to tell if she had left her body, if she was becoming a ghost. The pain was beyond herself, something higher. Yet she stitched herself inward and braced for the void. First, there was one woman. Then, one baby. The nameless son of Nothing.
Brianne Allen is a writer from New York City and rising freshman at Emerson College. She was named a 2019 National YoungArts Finalist in Writing and has additionally been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She has been published in places such as Gone Lawn, Rookie Magazine, and Egalitarian Magazine. Find her on Twitter at @brianne_na.
Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor
Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.