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Apr/May 2017 Fiction

The Intakes

by Kami Westhoff

Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer

Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer


Mary wasn't the sort of person who saw one thing and thought it another, so when her gaze was snagged away from feeding the hoof-troughed and chuffing pigs to the fence at the back of their property, she knew what she was looking at was a woman, barely thicker than the fence post she hid behind, her hair a riot of red. Strangers weren't unheard of in their neighborhood, but she'd been warned about those who slinked around instead of parking in the driveway and knocking on the door. She'd heard of spottings like this: gaunt women with skin like beef jerky watching from the edges. Or fat with not-good-enough, leaving messages sloppy with bawl on answering machines. She met these stories with a poor thing, like one might think of a squirrel that didn't look both ways.

She lifted the grain bucket and walked through the mud to the barn. The cows twitched their ears at the bucket's eek and the thin thunk of its rim against the feeding platform. They single filed through the barn's door and swished the grain into their mouths with foot long tongues. She thought she should mention the sighting to Oliver, and probably to Grace, but it could wait. Her pockets were still full of seeds, and the chickens were waiting for the scatter.

As the chickens stabbed at the food and each other, she looked to the property's edge. The woman was still there, though now she was kneeling, hands parting the tall grass like curtains. She wore sunglasses with lenses the size of tea saucers. The sun was positioned so the lenses flared on her face like twin stars. It figures, she thought, such a woman would wear sunglasses instead of a hat. Bellies full, the cows pocked the field, chewing, digesting, surging their tongues brain-toward, tails stilling flies with their snap.

In the kitchen, Oliver cracked eggs into a pan slick with bacon grease. This wasn't an every day—their bodies were taut with the knowledge of moderation. Mary brought her fingertips to Oliver's shoulders, worked them deep into the muscle. The day before he'd rototilled the garden, raked it level, dragged the three-pronged row-maker until there were ninety-nine. His muscles refused to belly up for her fingers, so she sat at the table and drank the coffee he poured.

Oliver clanked a plate with eggs flecked green with spinach and cilantro in front of her. Something in the kitchen hummed with electricity, clicked, hummed a lower octave. Their forks scraped, and mugs clunked while they ate without speaking. An intake was scheduled for that day, and once the infant arrived, the racket would considerable. Oliver seemed less bothered by the disruption than Mary. Sometimes it seemed he even enjoyed what they demanded of him: he washed shit and spit up away without grimace, lay their bodies, limbs frantic with too much room to move, in their crib and closed the door.

Before their first intake, Grace had told Mary she might have a physical reaction to the infant's screams, and to not be surprised if she noticed tiny pinpricks around her nipples or a tightening of muscles in her lower abdomen, even though what would cause such a throb was years gone, but she hadn't noticed anything like that. Instead she felt a pressure at the base of her skull and a throb in the pit of her ears, far out of reach of a cough or Q-tip.

After breakfast, Mary went to the barn for the wheelbarrow. When she slid back the heavy wood door, she heard a gasp, then the tap-tap of tip-toe. The barn smelled like a scrape unbandanged too soon. The pig was only days dead, and even with all the precautions, the butchering of an animal always left a scent that took weeks to dissipate. Mary knew the woman watched her from the loft, even knew which bale of hay she was hiding behind. Grace had once instructed her to do her best to avoid eye contact and conversation if such a meeting were to occur, so she lifted the hoe from the rack of gardening tools, clunked it in the wheelbarrow. When she dragged the door closed, it sounded like thunder.

Oliver kneeled at the garden's edge, scribbled Peas, Corn, Carrots, Broccoli, Kohl Rabbi, Radishes onto pieces of kindling to mark the rows. Even the most dissimilar vegetables were difficult to distinguish from one another when they first pierced the soil. She stepped into the prints his boots had left from the previous day's leveling and scooped up the earth until identical holes spotted the rows. She knew she should tell Oliver about the woman in the barn, but the work of the garden demanded the quiet. She dropped five peas into each hole, replaced the dirt she'd scooped aside. They existed like this for some time: her navigating the garden in tracks he left; him figuring the layout in a notebook and labeling the kindling; the woman locked in the barn, eyes squinting through the loft window.

The intake was supposed to come after lunch, and when Oliver said It's time to go in, they hadn't finished the planting. This bothered Mary, this prioritizing, this rationality, so when he pulled back the shower curtain to invite her in, she stepped in but made him get out, though his body was still slick with soap. She showered quickly without soap or even wetting her hair. When she entered their bedroom, he was tightening his belt. She undid it, dragged down his pants so quick her fingernails left thin red tracks. We don't have time for this, she figured he was thinking, but he knew better than to complain. She lay on the bed, grasped his head until he lowered his face between her legs.

Mary thought about the woman in the loft, wondered if she had found a way out. Once she'd found a batch of kittens tucked into a cavern between the hay bales, their mews so thin the air broke them. They were pre-sight, ears pinned to their heads. She'd lifted each, held their shrimp-shaped bodies to her neck, the part of her she thought most like the belly of their mother. When she told Oliver what she'd found, he said, You shouldn't have touched them. She'd accused him of being heartless, but knew he was the opposite. He said nothing when she came to him after surprising the mother cat the next day, who'd already eaten three kittens and was halfway through a fourth.

She came quickly, made more of a scene of it than necessary, and he kissed her on the mouth and left the room. She watched the window for any sign of the woman, a flutter of her hair, a blink of her cow-like brown eyes. Only minutes later Grace's car pulled into their driveway and she heard the muffled, even sound of greeting someone you've always known.

When Mary joined them in the living room, Oliver lifted the infant and said, It's a boy. The skin at the corners of his eyes curved from his smile. He walked past her, and the darkened hallway to the infant's room swallowed him.

Grace approached her, lifted the diaper bag from her shoulder and looped it over Mary's.

Same as last time, she said. Just one week here, and we'll place him.

The diaper bag tag read, This Bag Belongs to David, but they weren't supposed to use his name. Mary ruffled through the bag as though there might be something in it she wanted. It was packed with diapers and pajamas. They used to bring blankets to swaddle the infants but found it slowed the process.

Grace patted her shoulder on her way out. Mary said good-bye, but not until Grace was already out the door. From the porch she watched Grace get into her car, rotate her neck to the road to check for cars, and ease out onto it. The porch smelled like dead flies, and she made a note to vacuum the window sills.

She felt Oliver's hands on her shoulders before she heard him.

We can finish now, he said, and she thought he meant the sex until he nodded toward the garden. The infant tantrumed in the bedroom. She followed Oliver outside. The intake had made Oliver chatty, but she didn't bother with the meaning of his words. She had been surprised when Grace had called early that morning. Oliver's face had been smeared with loss when Grace had come to pick up the last infant. He'd even tried to convince her the infant wasn't ready, that he needed a couple more days to make sure, even though they all knew the infant would be dead in less than a day if it stayed.

It was hours later when Mary returned to the barn with the gardening tools. When she pulled back the door, hot air thick with dust sent her into a fit of sneezing. The woman was a foot in front of Mary when she recovered. Up close, she could see she was neither thin nor fat, but somewhere in between that would probably not be of note if you weren't thinking about it. Her scent mixed with that of the butchered pig's and reminded Mary of an ear infection. The woman had whipped her hair into one of those buns that used its own hair to stay put. Her mouth was open, top teeth halved by her upper lip.

Mary stepped back. Grace had warned them about the women who got this far, how their desperation smelled like milk on the edge of curdle, how they were capable of anything. More often than not, they just wept, begged, offered money or themselves, screamed You have no idea, You have no right, How would you feel if, but sometimes they carried knives or guns, stabbed or pointed them into the air, dared people to make them use them. One woman had even set herself and the infant on fire in the intake couple's living room. The couple survived, but the infant died, as did the woman, of course. So often people suffering forget to think things through.

The woman lay on the barn's cement floor before Mary noticed the shovel in her hands. She'd killed living beings before—shot the pig, hacked off the heads of chickens, twisted the neck of that mother cat—it wasn't as hard as one might think. She put the cutting edge to the woman's throat, brought her foot to the shovel's shoulder. The woman looked younger from here, Mary thought. She noticed an earring in the shape of a hummingbird and a tattoo of a wing just below her earlobe. A sales tag was tucked into the back of her shirt. The buttons were one off.

Mary set aside the shovel, took a rag from the shelf and pressed it to the woman's cut. When Mary lifted her so she and the woman were elbow to armpit, the bun failed and the woman's hair spilled like hay. The woman groaned, but her body refused the resist. Mary pulled her up the stairs to the loft, her head resting in the cave of Mary's chest.

It had never been easy for Mary to feel anything but just fine. She didn't believe things meant something other than what they did. Seeds split with stem and stem split soil because that's what they were meant to do. Animals happily greeted her every morning because they were eager for the meal. Oliver lifted the blankets and drew her close because the body craves warmth. Things didn't cause her sadness nor joy, which was a fact that evoked in her neither pain nor pleasure.

Mary lay the woman near the window. She dragged a bale close, slit the twine, and loosed the hay. She covered the floor with a layer, dragged the woman onto it. She freed more and made a thicker layer for a pillow. More than likely the bleeding had stopped, but she left the rag alone. She looked out the window through the spot the woman had wiped clear earlier. The sky was more moon than sun, but neither put up much of a fight.

 

When Mary entered the kitchen, Oliver's hand was wrist deep in a chicken. He nodded toward two glasses of wine. She rarely drank, but something about its mercury glow made her crave the tangy bite. She took a drink, then held his glass to his lips. It dribbled down his chin, and she touched the tip of her tongue to each drop. One hand was still in the chicken, but he lifted her shirt with the other, brushed his thumb against her nipple. She pulled his head to her breast. This was how they stayed: he didn't slip his fingers into her underwear; she didn't flatten her hand between his belt and skin. Mouth and nipple. Body and body. Giver and given.

The infant's cry burst the night. Oliver lifted his face to her level, kissed her, turned his attention back to the chicken. He told her to sit, relax, drink her wine. He put the chicken in the crockpot and went to the infant to change its diaper. She knew he would do so quickly with mouth closed. Even a hum risked a moment of comfort for the infant, and that would only make things harder in the long run.

As a general rule, it took one day for an infant to feel hunger, seven to die from it. Nobody wanted the infants to die, of course, just to break them of the want of the mother. The point where the mother was no longer a part of the equation of life or death. Grace had told Mary she'd been one of the easiest infants to usher through the process, and that as a young child she'd only come to Grace when an injury was somewhere Mary couldn't herself reach.

Oliver returned to the kitchen, poured himself another glass of wine and sat beside her. He coaxed one of her feet from where she'd wedged it into the couch's cushions. When she first moved in with him, he followed her around constantly, always wanting to touch her, not necessarily in a way that would lead to sex, just to have his body in contact with hers. They found her feet to be the middle ground. He moved his thumbs in a concentric motion on the ball, increasing the pressure until she coughed, then lowered them to the arch. He watched only what he was doing, confident of how her body would respond. Within minutes, her nausea lifted, and he again lowered his thumbs to the part of the foot that, if such still belonged to her body, would've relieved the dull ache of menstrual cramps, coaxed the egg to the south of the body, relaxed the clench of the cervix during labor.

Oliver always took extra time with this part. She'd once asked him what the point was, but she didn't complain when his fingers worked into the deep of the arch. She wondered about the way the body rearranged after what it clearly considered a trauma. Did the other organs stretch out, become less reliant on boundaries to tell them where they belonged? Oliver had never been anything but compliant in her decision to have the surgery, but she knew how he would've felt if she'd chosen differently.

When the rubbing became more obligatory than appreciated, she stuffed her foot back between the cushions. He left the room, and she heard the soft clink of the lid of the crock pot and the hiss hiss hiss of spices being added. When he returned, he had a blanket and pillow. The infant would need to be changed in the middle of the night, he told her, and he didn't want to disturb her sleep. Mary finished her wine and went to bed.

Mary woke from a dream about planting the garden. They planted according to Oliver's notes, marked carrots with the stick marked Carrots and so on, positioned the sprinkler so it watered the plants, not the grass or the field. Her wrist ached, probably from gardening, she thought, and at that moment she remembered dragging the woman up the stairs into the loft.

For the first time it occurred to her the woman might be hungry. Who knew how long it had taken for her to get to their property, or how well she'd taken care of herself up until that point. In the kitchen, the air was thick with the scent of rosemary and garlic and chicken. It had been eight hours, and the meat released the bone without hesitation. Mary put some on a plate, then sliced in apple in strips thin as paper. She wasn't sure whether or not the woman's jaw had been injured from the shovel.

It was rare she was outside in the middle of the night, so she took a minute to look up. The sky was flecked with stars. There was a brief time when constellations had interested her, but she eventually had given up on them. No matter how much she studied them, perusing sketches of how their coordinates translated into the chariot, the warrior and his shield, the beauty and her rock, she only saw points of light in a dark sky. Coyotes yipped in the field, some drawing the sound out until it was more haunt than howl.

The air in the barn had cooled into tolerable. Now that the sun wasn't forcing itself through the windows and onto the cement floor, she saw the stain from the pig slaughter. She balanced the plate of food on one palm and held the handrail of the stairs and climbed.

The woman was where she had left her. Mary positioned the woman upright against the wall and the window. She watched her chest for the rise and fall of breath. When she woke, Mary would tell her, even though it was against the rules, that they were only following the wishes of the infants. Couldn't she see they have a right to choose what they will love? What they can and cannot live without? She might not resist smacking her across the face to be taken seriously, then ask, How selfish can you be, she'd ask, to want to cause your child the suffering of someday losing you?

The woman's head slumped so that she appeared neckless. The light of the moon made the blood on her face look like chocolate. Her mouth hung open, so Mary slipped in a piece of shaved apple. She took the woman's hands, flipped them so the palms were skyward, and set the plate on them.

Eat if you're hungry. I'm not going to feed you, she said.

After she'd broken the mother cat's neck, the fourth kitten fell from its mouth. At that point, it was only belly, hind legs, tail. She'd brought the two living kittens into the house, lay them lined in a box with a fleece blanket when she wasn't holding them or feeding them with a dropper. Oliver had retrieved the mother cat and the half-eaten kitten and buried them in the same deep hole so nothing would dig them up. The other two kittens didn't live long enough to open their eyes. Though they never spoke it, they both knew it was Mary's scent on the kittens that forced the mother to do the one thing she could to protect them.

The plate of food slid to the floor. Mary put the chicken and apple back onto the plate—the last thing they needed was a loft full of rats. She pulled the woman's legs so her torso no longer rested against the wall. Without the moon to illuminate her face, she looked more like a shadow than a woman.

Mary heard Oliver calling to her from the house. She waited until it stopped, then descended the stairs and left the barn. She heard the infant's tantrum from its tucked away room, saw the light flood its window. She walked past the coop, where the chickens had stilled their throaty chuckling. Past the pen, where the pigs dreamt snout to snout, legs jerking with want of the trough. Past the cows that spotted the field like huge black boulders. She reached the barbed-wire fence that had been bent to fit a woman. A swatch of fabric dangled from one of the barbs. She worked it free and stuffed it into her pocket. The grass still was crushed into a woman-shape, so she got on her knees and looked back toward the house and into the lighted window, where Oliver stood, infant in his arms, their bodies like a dark constellation in a lit sky.

 

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