What Do You Call an Elephant?

In Long Short Story by Judith Ford

Image
Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

June 7

“Ma’am? Could you tell me one more time how you discovered the box?” The young policeman leaning in the doorway of Ruth’s living room looked up from the small, brown notebook he’d been writing in.

Ruth clenched her hands together in her lap to stop their shaking. After she’d called 911, she’d vomited into the kitchen sink, her teenage daughter, Grace, pacing behind her, saying over and over again, “I don’t know how that got there, Mom! I promise. I don’t know.”

“My daughter says it isn’t hers. Why would anyone bury a baby in my garden?” Ruth shuddered.

“I can imagine the shock.”

“I bet you can’t.” Ruth shook her head more times than were necessary to make her point. “You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.”

“Ma’am? You okay?” The policeman tilted his head in sympathy. He was behaving, Ruth would later think, the way he’d behave at a fatal hit-and-run. “Can I call someone for you?”

In the bedroom Grace sat on her bed opposite a woman in plain clothes who, she’d been told, was a “juvenile officer.”

“Grace, it’s okay to tell me the truth. We have a pretty good idea already. That was your baby, wasn’t it?”

Grace nodded before she could stop herself. After all the months of not-telling—not telling her mother, her best friend, Cleo, or even herself, a lot of the time—she was apparently unable now, when it mattered the most, to hide it any longer, the pregnancy she’d covered with her tunics and boyfriend-sweaters until it was too late to make any choices. She fell onto her pillow, clutching it as if it could keep her afloat, and sobbed.

* * *

Ruth’s friend Anna Fletcher sat beside her now, holding her hand. The policeman had settled himself into an armchair whose upholstery showed the dedicated work of a cat. He twisted a mustard-yellow thread between his fingers.

“Can we start at the beginning again, Mrs. Graham?”

“I’m not sure where the beginning was.” Ruth’s eyes were edged in smudged mascara; her face was sickly pale.

“Honey, just start anywhere,” said Anna. “None of us knew, right? I’ve known this child since she was five, officer, and I see her all the time. My Cleo and her Gracie,” she nodded at Ruth, “they spend a lot of time together. Cleo didn’t know either.”

“I wondered what was wrong with her,” Ruth said. “She’d pretty much stopped talking to me about anything. And she’d gotten kind of fat, but I didn’t want to get on her about that. You know how girls are, the slightest comment on their bodies and they start doing crazy, unhealthy diets. She never did think she was pretty. I didn’t want to make it worse.”

The policeman frowned, wrote in his notebook, and tried again. “Let’s skip forward, Mrs. Graham. You noticed something wrong in your garden, so you dug in that spot, and that’s when you found the box? That right?”

“Yes.” Ruth’s voice was barely audible.

“You realize, ma’am, that this is very serious?”

Ruth exchanged glances with Annie, the equivalent of rolling their eyes. “Of course, I do. That’s why I called. It’s dead, isn’t it?”

“Dead for quite a while, I’d say. From the condition.”

Ruth nodded.

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to call in a detective. Can you and your daughter stay with your friend here maybe, just until our investigation is over?”

Annie patted Ruth’s arm. “Sure, you can, Ruthie. We’d be glad to have you both.”

“Is that really necessary?” Ruth asked.

“Yup. Standard procedure at the scene of a crime.”

* * *

In the other room the policewoman asked, “Was it dead when it was born?”

Grace turned her face up from the pillow. “How should I know?”

The officer sighed. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Grace, but unless we can prove this baby was born dead, we will have to assume you—or someone else—killed it. That’s homicide.”

“I didn’t kill him!” Grace sat up. “I did everything I could to make him breathe! I did!”

“We’ll let the DA make the decision. I have to make an arrest, kiddo, but I expect you’ll be released into your mother’s custody until the hearing.”

“Arrest me?”

“For the murder of... Did your baby have a name?”

“No.” Quiet. Defeated.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney.”

Like a scene from an episode of CSI, Grace thought. No more real than the pregnancy. Or maybe both were more real than she’d ever imagined anything could be.

June 5

“So, how’s Nick these days?” Ruth poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down at the rickety card table across from Grace, her teenage daughter. “You two planning on going to Homecoming together?”

Grace shrugged and focused on her cereal bowl.

Ruth tried again. “How’s math? Were you able to make up for that last test grade?”

Grace looked up at her mother, incredulous. “It was a C, Mom. Not exactly a tragedy. God.”

“Math used to be one of your best subjects. What happened?”

Another shrug, a rolling of the eyes, followed by silence.

Ruth sipped her coffee, careful not to spill a drop on her clean blue scrubs as she watched Grace spoon drops of soymilk on top of each floating Cheerio, trying to sink them, it looked like, one by one, drip by drip. Her long, mascara-ed eyelashes cast faint, striated shadows across her cheekbones. Her brown hair, pulled back in a high ponytail, stood preternaturally still at the back of her head, as if it had grown there, solid, like the trunk of a small, fluffy sapling.

On any other morning Ruth would have given up. But not this time. This morning they had to talk about Gracie’s room. It had gone beyond toleration.

Ruth imagined wrapping her fist around her daughter’s ponytail and yanking. Would that make Grace pay attention? Or maybe, Ruth thought, she’d take hold of the table edge and upend it, sending its rusty, hinged, metal legs flailing the air, milk and coffee spewing everywhere. She imagined slapping Grace’s cheek. She hadn’t raised a hand to this girl since Grace was four and had run into the street without looking both ways.

Ruth took a deep breath, steadied herself, and tried again, with firmness but not loudly. “Grace.”

Grace blinked but didn’t look up. Drip-pause-drip-pause—the soymilk fell into the cereal sea.

“Grace!” Ruth slammed her palms down hard on the table. The formerly sturdy ponytail bounced as Grace lifted her head, startled. Her spoon flipped milk onto the tabletop.

“What the hell!”

“Great! Now you’re listening. I need to talk to you about your room.”

“My room?” Grace’s forehead wrinkled with confusion.

“Your room is a disaster. I could maybe tolerate the mess of papers and clothes all over the floor, but Gracie, what is that horrible smell? It smells like, I don’t know, puke?”

The look on Grace’s face—frozen horror—pleased Ruth. She went on. “Okay, maybe it’s not puke. It’s more like the dental office when Dr. Fine pulls out someone’s rotten tooth.” Ruth sniffed the air audibly. “Can’t you smell it this very minute? I can.”

Grace continued to stare at her mother, wordless.

“If you had some respect for me, for yourself, you’d keep your room clean. It smells like a mouse died in one of your Converse high-tops.”

“God, Mom! Gross! Stop!” Grace wailed.

“Take care of it, Gracie. Before I get home from work tonight.”

* * *

It’s not like she has a clean room, Grace grumbled to herself as she joined a mass of kids walking up the steps and into the school building. Grace knew when her mother was done with being patient. Even if there’d been room to negotiate this morning, Grace wouldn’t have dared. The less she talked to her mother, the less likely she was to say things she’d regret. To imply things neither of them wanted to deal with. Better to just clean her room right after school, figure out how to get rid of the smell.

The school lights poured fluorescence down onto the students’ heads and shoulders, their backpacks, and the highly polished floors. Grace climbed up to the third floor where her locker was. I bet Mom hasn’t washed her sheets in weeks. She throws everything on the floor—blankets, pillows, her clothes, wadded-up Kleenex.

The condition of the house they lived in embarrassed Grace. Grace’s father had walked out three years ago, leaving no cash and no forwarding address. It was hard living on her mother’s dental assistant salary. They had lost the house within six months and had to rent a small but affordable condo. With junk for furniture. The kitchen table had cigarette burns in it from a previous owner. The wine and coffee stains were compliments of Grace’s mother. There was no rug on the worn, wooden living room floor, and the shabby, blue couch had already been shabby when Ruth spotted it on a curb somewhere and dragged it home. They had a wooden crate for a coffee table and mattresses on the floor for beds; there were dust bunnies and puffs of cat fur (the cat had died months ago) that drifted around your feet when you walked anywhere. Grace never brought friends home.

Grace entered her locker combination and pulled out books, paper, and a pencil case. No matter what either of them did, none of that shitty furniture was ever going to be okay. She slammed her locker shut and twirled the combination lock to clear it.

Grace pictured her mother in the wrinkle-free, blue uniform she’d worn that morning. The only things Grace’s mom kept clean were those uniforms and the faded, secondhand T-shirts she wore at home, all of them printed with other people’s sentiments, other people’s experiences. I walked the Grand Canyon. Live Simply So That Others May Simply Live. And the dumbest one, “Just Breathe.” She was thin, her mother, and the short T-shirt sleeves hung loose on her skinny arms. Her face was leathery, as if the wrinkles that weren’t on the uniforms had migrated to her face. She doesn’t take good care of herself, Grace thought. All that wine and coffee.

Her mom did keep the bathroom clean, though. As she walked amid the noise of hundreds of simultaneous conversations, Grace had an unwelcome memory of the toilet and the sink as seen from the clean bathroom floor. The pipes damp and the edge of the toilet seat sitting crooked on the stool.

It’ll be okay, she told herself as she hurried to the locker room to change into her P.E. clothes. It’s going to be all right.

* * *

Grace hated P.E. She hated getting undressed in front of all the skinny bitches in her class. Everybody pretty much avoided staring at anyone else’s body in the locker room, but they saw anyway. How could they not? Big, bright, overhead lights hung from the ceiling. Girls walked naked everywhere, everyone aware of everyone else. Peripheral vision.

Months ago, when she’d started putting on pounds, Grace had faked a letter from her mother saying that Grace Graham should be excused from public undressing and showers due to bad eczema which embarrasses her. Could arrangements be made to allow Grace to use the disability shower stall to change and shower in? Signed, Mrs. Ruth Graham. Mrs. Edwards, the gym teacher, had read the letter at least twice while Grace waited in front of her. “Hmmm,” she had said. “Okay then, for the rest of this semester and no longer.” Maybe, thought Grace, Mrs. Edwards pitied her. Because she’d gotten so fat. Because she had no friends. Because she was a total spazz at every sport you could name. Grace had always been what her mother called solidly built. Thicker in the waist, butt, and hips than her classmates. And then she’d gone and gotten downright fat. No nice word for it, just FAT. She’d said the word in her mind, over and over, trying to take the sting out of it, trying to develop an emotional callus. It wasn’t working.

Grace dressed in the private shower stall. Her shorts were still too tight; she had to wiggle her way into them. She’d lost a few pounds recently; the shorts still weren’t fitting right. She had the same problem with her T-shirt, the words Glen Hills High strained across her broad chest. When she stepped out, she was sure some of the girls glanced at her with pity. Yeah, they might pity her, but they wouldn’t choose her to walk to class with, to pass notes to. To talk to on the way out to the athletic field.

Mrs. Edwards had the girls do jumping jacks before sending them onto the track to run a mile, four laps. Grace jumped slowly in order to jump fewer times. She didn’t just walk onto the track: she slouched; she sighed; she hung her head. She began, slowly, to run—a shuffling kind of run. She’d always hated running. And recently her legs felt like they were wrapped in bags of wet sand; her breasts jiggled so much that even a few yards of running made them ache. She’d tried wrapping her arms under them to support them, but the loss of her arms’ momentum had slowed her down.

Grace hated her big boobs. She always carried her books in her arms, covering her chest, but the boys still stared. She wouldn’t have minded Nick staring. He could stare all he wanted. He’d seen her naked plenty of times. It was no big deal anymore.

She was so over Nick, she told herself as, not even halfway through her first lap, she slowed to a walk.

“Grace, no walking!” Mrs. Edwards screamed. “Get going!” Mrs. E. didn’t understand that Grace had no choice. She would, Grace thought, fall down dead right there on the hot, black, spongy whatever-it-was-made-of track if she ran another step. Sweat was dripping into her eyes; sweat was totally wrecking her hair; she had a stitch in her side. She was failing P.E. She didn’t care. How can you care about something you can’t do anything about?

* * *

A few minutes after dropping her daughter at school, Ruth could still feel the kiss Grace had delivered to her cheek, could still hear the cheerful “See ya later!” as Grace walked away. One final wave. Maybe I overreacted about her room, Ruth thought as she pulled to a stop at a red light. The issue wasn’t really Grace’s bedroom or even the bad smell; it was about Grace, or rather, the absence of Grace.

What’s going on in her head these days? Ruth wondered. Is it school? She’s failing everything except World Lit. I wish she cared. Is it the boy, Nick? Ruth couldn’t remember the last time Nick had been over. Is he even in the picture anymore? Why don’t I know this? This is something I should know.

As she idled behind an SUV, Ruth remembered driving Grace to the dentist, Ruth’s employer, sometime last year to get her teeth cleaned. Grace had chattered all the way there. What her friend Cleo had said to Melissa at lunch, and how her science teacher wouldn’t stop talking about the citric acid cycle, did her mother know what that was, and did she know that David, the boy down the block, had gone Goth?

Ruth had assumed, without thinking about it till now, that it would always be like that with her and Grace, best friends. When was the last time they felt like friends? Ruth remembered a night—maybe last June—when a storm had hit. Rain fell in torrents, slid in sheets down the windows, pounded on the roof. The yard outside Ruth’s bedroom window lit up bright as day by lightning flashes, one after another, bang-bang-bang. One loud crack of thunder had gotten Grace out of her bed, sent her scurrying to her mother’s room, clutching her old, flattened, stuffed dog in her arms. She dove beneath Ruth’s blankets with a squeak of fear. Ruth wrapped Grace in her arms, the way she’d done when the girl was a toddler with a bad dream. The spaces between lightning flashes lengthened, and the trees regained control of their limbs as they shared elephant jokes.

Q. How do you hunt for elephants?

A. Hide in a bush and make a noise like a peanut.

Q. What do you call an elephant on the road?

A. A speed bump.

The light turned green. Ruth drove on, thinking about that night, the sweetness, the fun, and the loss of all of it. Now, too many slammed doors. One of these days, Ruth thought, Grace was going to slam her bedroom door, and it was going to flip right off its hinges.

Or maybe Ruth was going to flip right off her hinges.

The traffic was unusually heavy; she was going to be late for work.

Shit. I don’t deserve this! Ruth thought as she parked her car in the lot behind the dental building. I’ve been a good mother to her. I have! She clenched her teeth and fought down the choking sensation in her throat. Damned if she was going to show up at Dr. Fine’s office puffy and red-eyed. Ruth’s reflection in her rearview mirror eventually settled back into its usual shape and colors. She nodded at herself and got out of the car to begin her workday.

She couldn’t, however, camouflage her state of mind well enough to hide from her longtime co-worker, Jill.

“So, what’s wrong with you today?” Jill asked after the last patient and Dr. Fine had left the office. White latex gloves on their hands and paper masks over their noses and mouths as they cleaned Dr. Fine’s operatory.

“Nothing. Why?” Ruth put a handful of used tools, several of them crusted with blood, into the sterilizing machine. Her hand shook as she poured in the ultrasonic solution and turned the machine on. During the course of her workday, Ruth had managed to keep her emotions locked away in an internal safe room. She didn’t feel like inviting them out for Jill’s gratification. Maybe it was Ruth’s imagination, but it seemed like Jill sometimes enjoyed hearing about other people’s troubles.

“Oh, come on.” Jill pulled the paper cover off the headrest of the dental chair, scrunched up the used paper bib, and stepped on the pedal to open the wastebasket, tossing them both in. “You’ve been one ‘b’ short of a bitch all day.”

Ruth sighed under her paper mask. She picked up three emptied lidocaine syringes, several burrs and drill tips. She slid the syringes into the Sharps container, dropped the burrs and drill tips into the autoclave.

Jill pressed on. “It’s about Gracie, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Ruth was grateful for the offered subject. “Teenage girls can be so emotional about boys.” She sprayed a counter with disinfectant and wiped it dry with a paper towel.

“You’re telling me. Now that mine are grown, I gotta say I don’t miss the dramas.”

“I think Gracie hates me.” Ruth blurted. Damn, she thought. She hadn’t meant to say that.

Trying to get control of the subtle whine in her voice, Ruth busied herself with pulling instruments out of the ultrasonic machine and wrapping them in sterile paper packages. When she thought she could speak again, she said, “You know what Grace said once? It was months ago—some jerk at the Piggly Wiggly called me ma’am. Gracie looked at me with that grin that told me she totally got that I was offended. In the car she patted my arm and said, ‘Poor old momsie. Too old to be a miss, too hot to be a ma’am.’ I mean, who else would think of something like that?”

Jill leaned against a counter, listening, a bunch of antiseptic wipes in her gloved hand. “Pretty mature for her age, huh?”

“She was only fourteen. Since she turned fifteen, a bunch of brain cells fell out of her head.” Ruth set the temperature on the autoclave and turned it on. The sound of pressurized steam filled the room. Ruth raised her voice to be heard above it. “Seems like she doesn’t even see me anymore.”

* * *

Grace’s mother wasn’t due home until 5:30. Grace had an hour and a half to find a way to solve this thing, the problem. That’s what she labeled it in her head, the problem. She knew the smell was from the box at the back of her closet. Could she just throw it in the trash? Would her mother find it there? Maybe.

She opened the backyard gate, pulled a metal lawn chair into a sunny spot, shed her backpack into the grass, and sat down, elbows on her knees, chin in her hand.

Her mind skittered away from the problem every time she tried to focus on it. She let herself space out, thinking instead about next week’s final exams and how good she’d feel when she walked out of the last one, the math exam, with a whole summer ahead of her. Maybe she and Nick would hang out at Big Bay Beach again, like they had last summer.

She pictured Nick as he’d looked the day she’d met him. He was with a bunch of guys messing around in the lake, tripping each other into the cold water. She was lying on a beach towel in her two-piece suit, talking to Cleo. She felt eyes on her and looked up to see Nick, bracing himself against a wave, squinting—it was noon and sunny—right at her. She waved. He waved back. He walked out of the water and to the edge of her towel and introduced himself. Unaccustomed to talking to boys when so much of her was visible, she pulled on her sweatshirt. A few weeks later, the first time she and Nick hooked up, he told her she was beautiful. For a little while she’d even believed him.

She remembered how it had ended too, how one day he hadn’t shown up at her locker after school. She’d walked home alone, making excuses for him. Maybe his little brother had texted him that he’d locked himself out of their house, so Nick had to rush right home. Or maybe his biology teacher had kept him after school to make up a test. But really, she’d kind of known it was over. She didn’t know why, unless it was because she’d gotten fat, and Nick had never said why; he’d simply stopped finding her after school, stopped answering her texts.

Maybe, she thought, the sex hadn’t been what he expected. It for sure hadn’t been what she’d expected, so rough, so brief, so all about the boy.

She didn’t want to think about sex. She shifted her position on the lawn chair, shifted her thoughts too, to the yard, the garden. The Wisconsin sun warmed her bare arms and knees, the top of her head.

* * *

With her eyes she traced the edges of the yard, skimmed the bare patches in the lawn, the dandelions turning to fuzz, the shadows under the overgrown, twisted apple tree, her mother’s garden patch with its pathetic flowers. A few disheveled tulips had dropped their limp, red and yellow petals onto the dirt clods below. Some flat iris leaves, sharp-edged and determined, had pushed their way up out of the hard ground. Grace’s mother mostly ignored the garden. Grace had seen her outside weeding maybe once all last summer. Not at all this spring. Her mother let the garden, like the house, take care of itself.

The garden. Of course! She would dig a hole toward the back of the garden, where the apple tree shaded it. So much shadow under there, no one would notice.

She pulled the box out of its hiding place under her shoes. The bottom of it was soggy, and the smell made her gag. Holding her breath, she put the box in a black Hefty bag and tied it tightly shut. She stuffed the parcel deep down into the garbage bin next to the garage. The smell lingered in the air, but faintly. She hoped her mother wouldn’t notice in the few hours between now and the middle of the night, when Grace planned to get rid of everything for good.

She went inside, picked up her clothes, hung them, folded them, put the dirty ones into a hamper. She straightened the papers on her desk and set a tidy stack of books beside them. She scrubbed her closet floor with Clorox, twice. When her mother got home, Grace invited her to check her room. By then a strong fan had cleansed and circulated the room’s air so many times that the only remaining smells were cut grass and the neighbor’s lilacs.

“Okay, then,” was her mother’s measured response. “Keep it this way.”

June 6

At 2:00 the next morning, Grace stepped out barefoot, in her sleeveless nightgown. There was a nearly full moon low in the night sky. A light breeze. She found a rusted spade in the garage and bending down to fit herself and the spade under the low tree branches, she began to dig. Hard twigs scraped against her bare shoulder each time she drew back to plunge the shovel into the resistant earth. It was hard work, the clay soil compacted and thick. The hole grew slowly; Grace bent and straightened, over and over, her back aching, her nightgown billowing around her bare knees. The moon deepened the shadows cast by the gnarled tree.

Her relief, as she crawled between the sheets of her bed, was immense. There. Done. She expected to sleep well that night. But she didn’t. She woke over and over again, bits of her dreams sticking for a few seconds and then erasing themselves: she was falling; she was running; she was hiding under the basement steps.

Four hours later Ruth had to call Grace five times before she finally heard the girl’s flip-flops against the bathroom floor.

“I have to leave now. You’re going to have to walk to school, Grace. I can’t wait,” Ruth had shouted at the closed bathroom door.

“Mom! I’ll be late!!” The words were muffled in toothpaste.

“Yeah,” said Ruth. “You will be. Deal with it.” She let the back door screen smack shut behind her, cutting off Grace’s wail of outrage. She got into her car, thinking, Ha! Let her be the one shut out this time!

But by the time Ruth had buckled her seatbelt and backed out of the garage, the satisfying glow of her brief revenge had already given way to worry. Grace would have to check in with the school office; she’d have to walk into her class alone, late. Ruth knew Grace hated being conspicuous, especially when it involved something she was in trouble for. She has always been sensitive like that, Ruth thought. Such a sweet, good kid; really, she does mean well. Then she thought, No, the current Grace isn’t sweet, sensitive, or well meaning; that was who she used to be. The thought choked her up. She had to concentrate hard to park her car straight between the two white lines of a parking space.

* * *

Because she didn’t hurry, Grace’s walk to school took half an hour. She didn’t hurry because what difference would it make? She was already very late, couldn’t change that by walking fast. She dreaded having to face Mr. Deets, the guidance counselor, who’d warned her a few weeks ago, after her third late morning this semester, that if it happened again, he’d have to make Grace do after-school detentions, one for every late arrival, retroactive. And, Grace knew, that would also mean a call to her mother. Who wouldn’t really care, probably. Who hadn’t once noticed how hard it was for Grace to do her homework, to walk and talk and be normal this whole semester, and yeah, it was hard to get out of bed and get to school on time.

You don’t have a clue, Mom, Grace thought as she walked. Deal with it? Right. Not one fucking clue.

When she checked in with Mr. Deets, he signed her late slip without comment and waved her off to her second-hour class. No detention. No threat to call Grace’s mother.

No clue.

Her mom hadn’t asked any questions about Grace’s flu the week before either. She’d just told her to drink lots of water and stay in bed.

May 30

So that’s where Grace had been, in bed, when it had hit: an attack of killer cramps. Diarrhea. Or maybe it wasn’t flu; maybe it was the worst period ever. Whatever it was, it made her throw up. After a few hours, she called the dental clinic but was told her mother was with a patient and couldn’t come to the phone. Could it wait?

Yeah. Sure. Have her call me.

Ruth didn’t call right away. Grace took a couple of  Motrins and stayed in bed with a heating pad on her belly. She threw up again, this time in the wastebasket she’d set beside her bed. The cramps went on and on. If this was her period, it had never been this bad before. If the flu, then she could only hope it would run its course quickly and be done. Grace was too caught up in the moment-to-moment management of her quaking body to think what else might be happening.

The phone rang once around noon and at least once in the afternoon, but Grace didn’t leave her bed to answer.

She got up sometime around three and walked slowly, painfully, to the bathroom. There she was hit by an especially bad series of cramps and had to sit down on the bathroom rug. Where, in rolling waves of hot, tight pain, the problem emerged. The problem. The nature of which she’d been keeping even from herself.

Or at least had mostly kept from herself. Sometimes at night she’d wondered if her weight gain wasn’t ordinary weight gain. What if... Was the timing even right? What if it was? The possibility had struck such fear into her that she couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow herself to think it through. Again and again, she’d talked herself out of the what-if. She’d worn looser clothes and avoided mirrors. That wasn’t new; she hadn’t liked looking at her body ever since the age of twelve, ever since her hips had widened and she’d sprouted hair under her arms and down there. Once she’d gained so much weight, she’d been particularly careful not to look down at herself in the shower.

But a few times, when, as she walked from one class to another, her books pressed against her front, feeling fat and ugly and alone, there had been a flutter in her belly. And while she hadn’t named the flutter, the small “foot” or “hand,” she had—just for a few seconds—been suffused with a pleasant sense of self-importance, a wish to let this thing be exactly that, a thing with hands, with feet. Thinking she carried what no one else around her carried, what no one else could ever guess was there. Her own. Her very own. A moment’s glimpse into that possibility, and then the fear would rise up, and she’d have to turn away again. As she got bigger, the turning away, paradoxically, had gotten easier. The more she blanked out the fear, the less often she felt it. Until, in time, she felt nothing at all. Not a flutter, nor a turning. Nothing at all.

Until the baby lay in the bloody, wet mess that had come with him. No sound, no movement. Its eyes shut and its lips blue.

“Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmyfucking god,” Grace repeated as she leaned over the baby, flapping her hands, unable to think, unable to fully understand what she’d done or what she had to do next. She stood up and realized the baby was still attached to her through the stringy, purple cord. She couldn’t risk taking a step, dragging the baby. The medicine cabinet door was nearly within reach; she held her lower body still and leaned as far as she could, from the waist, until she touched the cabinet handle, put just enough pressure on it to turn it. The door swung open. There was a pair of manicure scissors on a lower shelf. She couldn’t quite grasp the handle, so instead she tapped the pointed end until the scissors wobbled, tipped, and fell into the sink below. She sat down then and went about the work of cutting the cord, close to the baby but leaving some cord to tie in a knot. She knew that much. Cut the cord and tie it tight. Had she seen that in a movie or on TV? There’d been something about hot water too. For her? The baby?

The cord was surprisingly tough, fibrous, like a thick, wet clothesline. It had to be cut in successive slices. She tied a knot in the short, ragged end. It was ugly. Bloody and weird, like nothing she’d ever seen before.

She sat back on the soaked bathroom rug, staring at the stump she’d created on the baby’s belly. She could see now that he was a boy; between his puckered legs a soft pouch with a small bump of a penis. She thought some more about the water. The baby still had not moved or cried. His blue lips were edged now with purple. Or had that been there all along? His tiny fingers were blue now too. She hadn’t put it together—she’d been so startled by his arrival—that the persistent blue meant the baby wasn’t breathing. Before she could lean over and check for his breath, she was gripped by more cramps. She gasped and closed her eyes. So wrung out by the pain and her body’s exertion that for a few minutes she couldn’t focus on anyone’s breathing but her own. The cord moved and a mass of red and purple tissue slid out of her. Way more gross than the fluid that had soaked the floor. A thing like a liver. A raw and veiny liver.

Grace reached across the toilet to the roll of paper, tugged a long stream of it, yanked it free, and covered the liver thing so she wouldn’t have to look at it.

Now. The baby. Grace’s cramps were milder, and less blood was coming. She got on her knees and leaned her cheek across the child’s mouth. No air moved on her skin. She looked at the baby’s narrow chest. It didn’t rise and fall.

She put two fingers of her right hand on his small chest, the fingers of her left hand on top of those. And gently, very gently, pushed and released. Pushed and released. She’d seen something like this in a first aid film in Health class. Was she doing it right? She worried she wasn’t. She worried she was hurting the baby. The cold, blue baby. She stopped pushing and leaned over his mouth. Feeling no breath there still, she sealed his small mouth with her own and puffed, again oh so gently, into his chest, which rose, thank God, and fell as expected, and rose with the next breath and the next. Her back ached from leaning over and from the residual cramps when finally, she stopped. Surely the baby could do this for himself now. She stopped She watched. His chest flattened. And didn’t move again. The blue that had drained out of his fingers and lips returned, even darker, she thought.

What now? Hot water? Maybe he needs the hot water now? She was sitting right beside the bathtub. She filled it with water as hot as her own skin could tolerate and stepped in, the baby in her arms. The cold, sticky baby. She lay back in the hot water, held him on her chest, watched him rise and fall with her breaths. He remained stubbornly cool. The water turned pink from her bleeding and slowly cooled.

Grace couldn’t remember later how long she lay in the cooling water with the baby dead on her chest. She wept for a while, for herself mainly, but for him too. Born to the wrong person, she thought. Poor baby. The very most wrong person.

She dried off and got dressed. The baby lay in the empty tub, his knees curled up against his belly, his hands in fists, his eyes closed.

She couldn’t leave him there. She couldn’t bear to keep looking at him. She couldn’t let her mother see him.

So, she got a plastic grocery bag from a kitchen drawer, found a shoebox in her closet, emptied out its black, high-heel pumps, took a shirt out of her hamper, and returned to the bathroom. She rolled up the bloody rug—she would wash it later—lined the box with the shirt and placed the baby on it. She closed her eyes then. Just the thought of that red-purple, liver-like thing made her gag. She’d throw up if she had to look at it again. She felt for it with her hands, found it, and, still blind, slid it into the plastic bag and tied a knot to seal it. Put the bagged liver thing beside the baby and covered it with the edge of the shirt. She opened her eyes and began to pull the shirt edges over the baby. She couldn’t help but notice, then, how perfectly shaped his blue lips were; there was something sweet about his damp scalp, his small ears. His even smaller, puffy toes. She didn’t let herself linger. Later she would think about all of it, would be afraid of what she had done, how she had succeeded in such an elaborate lie to herself, how she had risked her life. And his. But not that day. That day her focus was on removing the evidence.

When he was totally covered, she put the lid on and found a spot in the back of her closet, buried the box under a pile of shoes, and closed the door.

June 6

Grace wasn’t thinking about the buried box when she first got home from school the following day. Nor was she thinking about how tired and shaky she’d felt all day or about how everything all day had looked flat, one-dimensional. The marker boards. A paper on her desk. Even the rise and fall of heads in the hallways as students walked between classes.

What she was thinking about was Nick. She’d stayed late for an Amnesty International meeting because Nick was a member, and she knew he’d be there.

“Hi, Grace, what’s goin’ on?” he’d said when he saw her.

“Not much,” she’d answered. Because now that the problem was taken care of, there wasn’t much. No need to tell him how off-balance she felt.

Mr. Edwards, the sponsoring teacher for Amnesty, talked about children and human rights. He told them about child soldiers, twelve-year-old boys made to take drugs and kill their families. Girls sold into sexual slavery by their own parents. Grace hardly heard him.

She stared at Nick, on the other side of the room, sitting next to Chelsea. Nick whispered something in Chelsea’s ear and, right in the midst of sexual slavery, the girl laughed. Mr. Edwards shot her a disapproving look.

Grace thought if she stayed for the whole meeting, Nick might ask her, on his way out, if she wanted to hang out again. She’d say yes. Wouldn’t she? Why not? There wasn’t any other guy interested in her.

Mr. Edwards distributed pamphlets. “Talk to people about what you learned today. Next week we’ll circulate the petitions.” Grace lingered near the door, but Nick didn’t stop to talk to her. He didn’t even look at her. He walked out with Chelsea. Grace walked out after them and saw Nick take Chelsea’s hand.

So that was that.

* * *

Grace was in the living room watching the Oprah channel when she heard her mother’s car drive into the garage. For the first time in a long time, she actually felt happy about seeing her mother.

June 7

The next morning, a Saturday, Ruth was carrying a bag of bottles and cans to the recycling bin beside the garage when she saw it, the mound of earth under the apple tree. Had that been there before? she asked herself. She emptied her bag into the bin, a loud, metallic pouring, like hard rain, and then went to explore the disturbance under the tree. The earth was piled six inches high in the one spot. Someone had tried to tramp it down; there were footprints, or rather, barefoot prints, toe marks, pressed along the edges of the mound and clods of dirt nearby, dirt that had been dug up, she surmised, and hadn’t fit back in. She kicked the top of the dirt hill with the toe of her sandal. It came apart; bits of dirt rolled down its sides like pebbles. She kicked until the mound was reduced to ground level, revealing a bit of black plastic. For a second Ruth considered piling the dirt back on and leaving the thing alone. A sense of violating a secret, of pulling aside a curtain that no one wanted pulled aside.

She hesitated, then went down on her knees and dug with her hands, knocking against the box top inside the black plastic bag. She dug until she could free it. She smelled it before she opened the bag, pulled out the box, and set it on the ground. Again, she wanted to turn away. But what good would that do? The thing would still be in her yard, emitting that terrible smell, hiding some terrible thing. She pulled off the box top. She opened the bundle inside. The cloth stuck here and there on the baby’s gray skin. His cheeks and eyes were sunken, his whole torso deflated. In spite of his appearance, Ruth’s impulse was to pick him up, to hold him, to rock him. She didn’t, she couldn’t. She knelt in the dirt, shaking so hard she couldn’t stand up, when Grace, in her sleeveless nightgown, opened the back door and cried, “Oh no, Mom, don’t.”

For a moment the two of them froze, Ruth beneath the tree, the open box beside her, Grace still holding onto the doorknob. It was early morning, and the shadows were long, the air still chilly from the night. Grace let the door close behind her.

“Go inside, Grace,” Ruth whispered.

“Mom, let me explain.”

“No. Go inside.”

Grace went. Ruth put the lid back on the box. I could just rebury it, she thought. I could protect Grace. Later Ruth thought it might have been some fragment of a grandmotherly instinct that made her want justice for this baby. But in fact, at that moment, all she could think was that a person, a stranger to her, was dead in her backyard, and what one does when someone has died is call 911.

She set the reeking box on her kitchen table, gave her stomach contents to the sink, and called 911.

June 9

Facebook the Monday after: “OMG. Grace G had a baby and it died! Does Nick know???” A lengthy thread of comments followed. Grace read them all and stayed home from school for the next two weeks, till the online chatter lifted away, like a net of starlings, and landed on a freshman who’d been arrested for driving drunk and without a license.

Going back to school was weird. Kids stared at her. Teachers were overly nice or acted like nothing had happened. Nick cornered her at lunch, claiming the baby couldn’t have been his. The timing wasn’t right. Grace knew there had been no one but Nick, but she waited until the DNA tests proclaimed him the father. After that they were able to talk. They planned the funeral together. They named their baby, their dead baby, Ian. Unable to determine the time or cause of Ian’s death, the DA dropped the homicide charges against Grace. Therapy was mandated.

* * *

Ruth told Annie she felt like the worst mother in the world, the most oblivious and neglectful mother, not to have seen that Grace was pregnant. Annie found numerous stories online about girls and grown women not knowing they were pregnant. Or knowing but successfully hiding it. She printed them out and gave them to Ruth.

Slowly, after many failed tries, Ruth and Grace were able to talk to each other again about the important things, like school and friendships. And birth control.

Sometime in December the following year, there was a blizzard. School was cancelled as the snow, driven by strong winds, collected against every solid object, creating mountain ranges against buildings, ski slopes beside cars and fences. That night, when thunder rumbled out from under the clouds, Grace fled to her mother’s bedroom, where the two of them told each other jokes until the winds calmed and the snow fell without rancor. Soft strokes against the windowpanes. The streets filling with white down.

Q. What is the same size as an elephant, but weighs nothing?

A. An elephant’s shadow

Q. What do you get when an elephant skydives?

A. A big hole.

About the Author

Judith Ford

Website

Judith Ford’s writing has been published in Better Than Starbucks Poetry & Fiction Journal, Caveat Lector, Clackamas Literary Review, Confluence, Connecticut Review, Evening Street Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Jumbelbook, The Laurel Review, The Meadow, New English Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Paragon Journal, The Penmen Review, Pennsylvania English, Pine Hills Review, Quarter After Eight, Rubbertop Review, Southern Humanities Review, Voices de la Luna, Waxing & Waning, Willow Review, Young Ravens Literary Review, and many other journals. She coauthored a poetry collection with Martin Jack Rosenblum, Burning Oak, published by Lionhead Press (1986). Her memoir, Fever of Unknown Origin, (published by Resource Publications) is now available on Amazon and will soon appear in bookstores. Judith received Pushcart Prize nominations for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, won first place in the Willow Review Prose Award (2005), and was awarded “most highly commended” in the Margaret Reid Poetry Contest (2008). She has an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a BS in education and an MSW from the University of Wisconsin. Judith is a retired psychotherapist and in the past has led workshops in the use of the arts in psychotherapy. She’s also taught creative writing to middle, high school, and adult students. When she’s not writing Judith enjoys reading, hiking, dancing, strength training, yoga, and Words With Friends. She is the mother of three grown children, and grandmother to four wonderful grandchildren.