by MELISSA JEAN
On the drive to the park, they hit a bird. Ethan was driving and he muttered oh shit as the bird swooped low and thumped against the front right bumper. Mandy’s hand flew to her mouth and she gasped, then looked in her side mirror and saw the bird dead on the road, white wing fluttering—in the wind, Mandy thought.
(But she was wrong; it was a warm and windless day. The bird was a black-capped chickadee and she wasn’t dead, just injured. One wing was pasted to the street and the other was twitching and fluttering as the chickadee attempted to lift herself up. In nine seconds, a red pick-up truck would crush her and then she would be dead.)
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” asked Clementine from her car seat. Mandy looked back and saw Clementine’s big brown eyes gazing at her, concerned, over the top of her board book. Ethan and Mandy glanced briefly at each other.
“Nothing, honey,” said Mandy, reaching back to pat Clementine’s chubby knee. “What are you looking at in your book, sweetie?”
“Kitties,” said Clementine, smiling. “Cute babies.”
“What does a kitty say?” asked Mandy, overeager to distract everyone from the bird. She realized she was being condescending when Clementine, who was three years old and had been accurately mimicking kitties for literally years, scowled in her seat.
Ethan filled in when Clementine didn’t say anything. “Meow,” he said. “Meow, meow.” He mewled, his eyes straight ahead.
(At that moment, they were passing west of where the Cumberland River meets the Stones, though they didn’t know this; from the banks, the river confluence looks like a gentle merging, but beneath the surface eddies compete and rage.) It was the last Saturday in September and they were taking Clementine to walk in the woods. The weather was getting September-finicky: chilly in the mornings and sticky-summery by noon, though at least the quality of light was softer than in July heat. Mandy had spent the morning cleaning the bathrooms and folding laundry while Ethan sat in his study and Clementine watched episode after episode of Dora the Explorer. When the chill was out of the air, Mandy put shorts and tennis shoes onto Clementine and they piled into the car.
“Meow,” said Mandy half-heartedly. She was still thinking about the bird, but Ethan seemed to have already forgotten.
In the woods, Clementine toddled down the trail ahead of them. Her fuzzy curls caught the sunshine and glowed in the early-afternoon light. The sky was laden with gray clouds and the air was heavy with humidity.
“She’s so cute,” said Mandy, admiring Clementine, then with even more enthusiasm: “She’s so cute!”
“There’s no other way to say it,” said Ethan. He hesitated for a moment, then added, breezily, “I just keep picturing her with a little sibling following around. Can’t you see it?” He said this as though it were a light thing, a half-joke, but they both knew there was poison down inside it.
Mandy went cold. This old thing, this old fight.
(Behind her, a blue jay darted down from a maple tree, grasped a shiny-backed beetle in his mouth, and returned to the branch, gulping; of course, the beetle would tell this story differently.)
“Let’s just be in the woods,” said Mandy. “Let’s talk later.”
“But that’s what you always say,” said Ethan, pushing his glasses up with a ring finger, with more force than was necessary. “We never talk.”
Mandy knew she was supposed to be grateful for a conversational husband. All those magazines and websites full of tricks to get men to talk! But she wasn’t grateful. She wanted him to shut up, back off, walk quietly, leave her alone.
“We talk,” she said softly.
“Not about this,” said Ethan, “or about anything that matters. We’re here in the woods. Clementine’s looking at the flowers. It’s the perfect time. Let’s talk.”
He grabbed Mandy’s shoulders and turned her to face him. The short hair above his ears glistened with sweat. She fought the urge to punch him in the face.
(Just off the trail to their left, crab spiders scaled the frostweed, sheathed in colored disguises and awaiting flying insects. In November, the crab spiders would be gone and tiny ice crystals would begin to form around the base of the frostweed, cracking the stems and arranging themselves in delicate papery ice sculptures near the ground. Mandy and Ethan wouldn’t come back in November, so they wouldn’t be able to help Clementine run her fingers over the spidery ice or watch her crack it delicately with her chubby palm.)
“Later,” said Mandy. “Later. I want to be with Clementine.” She sneezed. (The ragweed was fruiting.)
“You’re always with Clementine,” said Ethan. His voice rose, thorned. “Literally every day.”
Clementine was bent at the waist, poking a stick into a cluster of ants. (They were carpenter ants, heading home to milk the aphids that they herded; earlier they’d torn off their wings so they couldn’t fly away. They drank the aphids’ sticky honeydew. Soon they’d tunnel underground to wait out the winter. People would walk above them on the hardened winter ground, imagining it to be solid, but beneath their feet the ground would be shredded by countless tunnels of all sizes, filled with overwintering creatures, ants, snakes, snails, squirrels. The deeper earth beneath the ponds would be pocked with the resting-spots of frogs and turtles.)
Mandy shook off Ethan’s hand and walked toward Clementine. When Ethan got angry his face grew hard and red; he looked so hateful in those moments that Mandy wondered how she had ever believed he loved her. A person whose face could drain so quickly and so thoroughly of all intimacy, she now felt, couldn’t possibly be capable of real love.
“Look at the colored leaves, baby,” she said to Clementine. She pointed at a gash of red high in the treetops, brilliant though the rest of the trees were still green. “Do you know what season it is, when the leaves change?” Mandy asked.
“Fall,” said Clementine, and she toddled over to pick through a pile of acorns. A fat brownish-green grasshopper leapt onto the trail in front of her, and Mandy stifled a squawk. She liked nature in the abstract but was unnerved by the buzzing, bodied specificities of it—the sideways hopping, the teeming branches, the sticky, the flesh. She was especially squeamish about grasshoppers and dragonflies and June bugs because of their unpredictability, the erraticism of their movements. As the grasshopper bounded away, she felt the urge to leave and go home to her vacuumed carpets and air-conditioning. She became suddenly aware of her own damp body under her layers of clothing, how her entire body was as humid and heavy as the air around her.
(At that moment she stepped on a fat silvery June bug larvae; she didn’t notice, but her sneaker squashed the clumsy grub into iridescent jelly on the trail, and soon beetles would come to slurp it up.)
“See,” said Ethan behind her, “She wants to play by herself. You always stifle her.”
“You need to stop saying ‘always,’” said Mandy.
“What?” snapped Ethan.
“I read it in a book,” said Mandy, “about communication. You should never say that the other person always does something or never does something, because that’s rarely if ever true and it makes people feel defensive.”
“You should never say that a person never does something?”
“You know what I mean.” Mandy kicked a rock into the bushes. “Also, you should use I-language instead of the accusatory you.”
Ethan glanced at Clementine, who seemed to be examining some little purple flowers on the side of the trail. (It was actually two kinds of plant side by side—elephant’s foot and the Desmodium that would later become a cluster of stick-tights and cause the owner of a Labrador retriever an hour of labor to remove them.)
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll try again. I feel that sometimes you stifle Clementine because you aren’t busy enough, and I feel that if we had another baby, then you would be happier because you would have more to do, and Clementine would have someone to play with. And also I want another baby.”
Mandy felt something move down her spine: a shudder, cold then hot. The memory of pregnancy—those solid weeks of vomiting every day, the mind-numbing pain of the birth, the year of darkness that came afterward—she could barely remember those months. She had fought through a haze of sleep deprivation and depression and the most abject loneliness she had ever felt, drenched all the time in her own milk, Clementine’s sweet soft face floating at the edge of her consciousness. Ethan had slept through the night every night and gone to work in the morning. Three years later, Mandy was still barely coming back to herself—it was like finally her mammalian body was realigning with her brain—and Ethan couldn’t see any of it, he didn’t know how to pay attention to her, he would never try to know the toll of those years. He didn’t care if he thrust her back onto that dim path. He didn’t care if she lost herself entirely. He didn’t care about her at all.
What she wanted to call him—though she didn’t know it—was jimsonweed, horsenettle, black nightshade. The spiniest horsenettle, she wanted to say, the most innocuous poison. A man who wants a baby: does anything seem more innocent than that?
Mandy noticed her hands were trembling.
“Say something,” Ethan said, and for the first time Mandy noticed he seemed to be pleading, though even if he had begged he could not have truly softened her. “Please.”
What she said was: “It was really hard to have a baby.”
What she would have said, if she’d known how, was: You are my dodder; your long orange stems choke me and steal my nutrients, your white flowers grasp and cling. Now we must grow together, for I am the plant you’ve parasitized. If I die, you will cross to another plant, for your survival lies in your dependence. And even if I survive, here I am, rooted, stuck; there is nowhere for me to go.
Ethan opened his mouth to speak, but then there was a boom of distant thunder and, on cue, rain drops. They hadn’t noticed the darkening sky. They hadn’t noticed anything. Ethan scooped Clementine up and trotted back down the trail, Mandy behind him. The rain came and came, and they tried to run but they were out of practice; they shuffle-jogged the half-mile back to the car, huffing, soaked. Mandy’s jeans expanded at the waist and she had to keep pulling them up; Ethan’s glasses would not stay put; Clementine, jostled, whined. Beneath their feet, small plants pushed up through cracks in the asphalt path—purslane, lamb’s ear—as plants always do, as they always will, long past the time when there are humans around to name them.
(The next day a rash would appear on Clementine’s hands and wrists. Mandy and Ethan would never know that as they had argued on the trail, Clementine had been gathering poison ivy leaves. Those slashes of early red leaves they had seen high up in the trees were the climbing ivy; the leaves fell and twisted through the air, landing on the ground like clusters of dark pink petals, and Clementine had grasped them in her hands and carried them about like treasures, had curled them around her wrists like colorful bracelets. She’d itch for days.)
Melissa Jean teaches in the mindfulness studies program at Lesley University. She received an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and a PhD in human dimensions of ecosystem science and management from Utah State University. Her fiction and poetry have been published in print and online journals, including The Colorado Review, Junoesq, and Causeway Lit. She currently lives in Nashville.