By Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press Copyright © 2016 Marisa Silver
All rights reserved.
Predstavte si kvetinu!" the midwife yells, her voice reaching the baby as warped and concave sounds. "Pictuuure a flowaahhherrr."
Next, another voice, closer this time, the sound so near that if the baby could stretch its arm it might touch it. "You bitch!" the voice howls. "You monster! Get out of me now!" Agáta Janácek is enraged that this should be happening to her even though she has wished for it and prayed for it, consulted the gypsy witch Zlata, and buried amulets of animal bones wrapped in the hair of a virgin for it. But old as she is — and tough threads of gray streak her hair and sprout from the colorless mole on her chin and thinly veil her pubis where there was once a dark, luxurious thatch — the old stories of childhood hold sway. Her mother warned her about this moment. It was a cautionary bedtime story chanted night after night: little Agáta, the prettiest girl in the village, lives in a magical paradise filled with delicious honey-scented medovnik and talking bunny rabbits. Then one day, a terrible monster comes and whispers in her ear words sweeter than any jam, sweeter even than her favorite candies that hang from the Christmas tree each year and which she is forbidden to pull off until Christmas Day, even though this means surrendering the low-hanging chocolate treasures to the mice and rats who skitter across the floorboards at night and gorge themselves, their nocturnal pleasures mapped by a trail of black pellets. But little Agáta cannot resist the tantalizing whispers of the monster and she allows him to touch her face and stroke her body and climb on top of her and shove his hard sausage between her soft thighs. Unh ... unh, her mother would grunt, her voice a striking imitation of the guttural efforts Agáta heard most nights coming from behind the thin lace curtain that separated her parents' bed from the one she shared with her five brothers and sisters. And then, what next? Her mother would continue: Pretty Agáta grows fat as a pig, fat as a cow. Her little tzitzis, once tender and delicate as meringue, become achy and so swollen they have to be held up by a harness of cloth that winds round her back and halters at the nape of her neck. Months go by, and the beautiful, smooth skin of her belly becomes striped like a zebra's as her flesh stretches and pulls. And then finally, after backache and fat fingers and a burning in her gut so fierce she will think a match has been struck inside her, Agáta's body will split in two.
First the body and then the heart. Good night. Sleep tight. The bedbugs will surely bite.
But her mother is long dead and is not here to sigh and shake her head with false sympathy for her daughter's pain.
"A flowwerrrr openingggg," the midwife calmly insists.
"You bitch, you whore, you fucking fuck!" Agáta rages, her voice becoming clearer to the baby as it begins to swim through the dark tunnel, its head pushing against something hard, then something soft, then something hard again, as if it were a flimsy boat, banging up against rocks then drifting into a calm eddy only to be drawn back helplessly into the propelling current once more. "You ugly whore who no man will fuck even with his eyes closed!"
The midwife laughs. She has heard far worse. "A rose opening," she persists, "the petals pushing out ... out ... Ano. Ano. "
The baby twists down and up a U valve, which is something it will get to know very well when Václav Janácek, the father, (who, by the way, is nowhere to be heard, who is hiding in the chicken coop that smells like hell, having been neglected by his wife these past twenty-seven hours of her hair-raising labor) will set his child to crawling around the crude plumbing of the first sinks and toilets in the village.
And the midwife shouts: "It's blooooming, blooming, I can see the bud ..."
"A whore with so much hair growing on your face a man thinks he is making love to a mirror —"
"It reaches for the sunlight, up and up and up and —"
Agáta lets loose with a wretched sound that is so loud in the baby's narrow ear canal that the dawning light is occluded by the sheer thickness of the roar.
"Yes! Yes! A rose! A beautiful pink ... a beautiful ... a —"
* * *
And now, Václav hears nothing coming from the house, not the curses of his wife, nor the scream of an infant, nor the triumphant exclamations of the midwife who can add one more to her tally of live births, only the infernal squawking of the hens. In his panic he picks up a cackling rooster and stuffs its head under his armpit, an action he will regret when he has to buy a replacement for the suffocated bird.
The silence is so dense that it is just as hard on the baby's eardrums as any sound. It is the silence that will become a refrain, when a stranger falls speechless in the child's presence, or when a villager pushes her children behind her skirts as she passes in the narrow market lanes to protect them from what might be catching. The child will learn to hear the complicated messages that fill these silences just the way, years later, imprisoned, it will stand in an unlit cell and study the darkness until all the hues that make it up have been accounted for and named, a painstaking ritual that proves that out of nothing comes everything.
Just as now, out of that hush comes a sound at first so soft that it could be a whisper traveling from the farthest star, from the outer reaches of the universe where all time goes, where all history, all wars, all arguments between husbands and wives, all the unanswered wishes of mothers for their children to be perfect and to live long and happy lives gather and mingle, making small talk about the deluded humans who thought that the past was something that could be put away and forgotten, who believed that the future was a story they could make their own. The small sound begins to stretch and expand until it finally ruptures:
"Ayeeeee!" Agáta howls in fright. "What is this thing?"
This thing, of course, is a baby. Forty centimeters of baby to be precise, although no one bothers to measure. No one thinks to enact the rituals of inspection that normally attend a birth — the delicate washing, the finger and toe counting, the near-scholarly examination of genitalia for signs of future procreative success. No one offers that the child looks like the father (eyes like the downward smile of nail parings) or that it has a mouth shaped like a perfect raspberry-colored bow that Agáta will finally but not now, not yet, claim as her legacy even though she is so old that her lips are no longer supported by a full set of teeth and have nearly collapsed inside her mouth. No one mentions that the baby has hair the color of dead grandmother Ljuba, whose flaxen locks were her pride, for to make these comparisons is to lay claim, to stamp the child as family so that when the cord is cut and the baby is finally free of Agáta's body, everyone will know to whom it belongs. For Václav and Agáta to assert ownership would be to admit that they are cursed, that this child they have prayed for, waited for, that comes to them after neighbors have joked about Václav still being able to stand at attention and about Agáta's womb being filled with cobwebs has turned out to be this thing, this foreshortened object, this disproportionate dollhouse version of an infant. It is as though, coming so late to the feast, the plumber and his wife have been given only leftovers, the hardened heels of bread and the tough ends of beef, that others have passed over.
"A girl," Václav says, still smelling of feathers and dead rooster. He hasn't yet touched the child, only ordered the midwife to unwrap the swaddling to reveal the naked declaration of its worth. He speaks with a little hitch of satisfaction as if the sex somehow proves that the fault is not his. Agáta, who has not yet looked at her daughter since that first, alarming view, lies on the bloodstained bed with her back turned away from the onion basket that serves as a cradle, staring at the varicose cracks in the wall, praying either to sleep herself to death or to wake from what must surely be a nightmare. All the while she murmurs: Is it real? It isn't real. Is it? Even when the baby mews from hunger, Agáta does not reach for her. What use are her false comforts? — her milk has not yet begun to flow. The midwife shows Václav how to settle the baby with sugar water, collects her money, then leaves the house in a hurry, not eager to prolong her association with this blighted birth and damage her reputation.
A day later, Agáta's milk has still not come in, but she is not surprised that it is unwilling to spend itself on such a lost cause. Exhausted by the birth, she sleeps and wakes and then, remembering what she has brought into the world, sleeps again, leaving her husband to administer the sugar water. Perhaps she hopes that if she pays the baby no mind, the child will simply disappear, return to the land of wishes it came from, and that she will wake up with only a memory of a vague but unnameable disappointment that will be forgotten in the daily skirmish of cleaning and cooking and arguing vegetable prices with market cheats. But her crotch will not let her forget. A thing so small ripping her from front to back so that she has to bite down on the handle of a wooden spoon when she pees. Returning to her bed, she glances at the baby girl, who is so tiny, so nearly not there. Her head is too large for her torso, her arms and legs too short. She looks like a rag doll sewn together from cast-off parts. Each time Agáta wakes, it seems possible that the baby's existence is just a magician's trick, and that if Agáta were to look in the basket, she would find only newly pulled scallions.
"My little mouse," Judita, the village wet nurse sings as she rocks the baby against her bosoms that are long and heavy as giant zucchinis. Her brown nipples are so thick that the infant girl gags each time Judita pushes her small face into her curd-smelling skin. "Every one of my little mice grows big and strong and so will you," she commands, shaking the baby in order to get her to suck.
Judita's house, a dirt-floored room with walls blackened from a haphazardly swept chimney, smells sweetly of infant puke. Here, along with three other newborns, the plumber's daughter is rotated from the left breast to the right, then into the hands of Judita's eldest, Vanda, whose job it is to strip and wipe. The sixteen-year-old's expression seesaws between the crinkle of disgust she feels for these shitting machines that are her daily burden and the hard fury of hatred she bears toward her mother, whose body and its uses signal her own utilitarian future. Vanda's task complete, she hands the baby off to her younger sister, Sophia, who diapers the child in sun-starched, wind-smelling cloth that has just been taken down from the line. It is Tomá, Judita's idiot son, who is in charge of washing the dirty diapers in a barrel whose water is not changed often enough, a job he has been given because he performs his mucky task without complaint. After the baby is cleaned and freshly attired in diapers that are much too large for her tiny body, she is placed in a hay-filled crate, where she dozes and wakes and waits for her turn on the line once again. It is as efficient a system as any being implemented in the new factories in the faraway city where, the villagers have heard, men in white smocks hold stopwatches and notebooks and workers are occasionally sucked up into the machines so that who knows what accounts for the brilliant red of a bolt of cloth? Still, after weeks, when it becomes evident that even Judita's rich milk, responsible for so many of the village's pudgy, no-necked boys and girls, will not work miracles on this tiny, misshapen body, she grows frustrated. By the second month, her little mouse becomes her little rat; by the third, her little cockroach, a freakish, thumb-sized enemy determined to bring down shame on the wet nurse and ruin her business.
"Enough!" she declares one day. She carries the baby from her house down the main street, stomping past the corn chandler and the harness maker and the town gossips with her recalcitrant package held out in front of her as if she were returning bad meat to the butcher and making sure that everyone in the village can smell the proof. She crosses the rickety bridge spanning the river that splits the town in two then marches to the plumber's cottage. There, she finds Agáta on her knees in the garden yanking a clutch of knobby, dirt covered beets from the ground. Agáta's eyes grow fearful at the unexpected sight of her child, who she had hoped not to see for at least another month or perhaps ever again. She stands and backs up a few steps, her pickings shielding her useless breasts. But Judita is adamant, and the final payment for services is rendered: root vegetables for baby.
"But what am I supposed to do with her?" Agáta says, cradling the infant awkwardly so that the child's head flops over her forearm like a heavy bulb.
"First," Judita says, "you could try giving her a name."
Bronislava means weapon of glory, Rosta, seizer of glory, Ceslav, honor and glory, and Miroslav, great glory. But these names that Agáta chose for each seed Václav planted inside her over the decades of their attempts were the ones she buried along with the residue of every miscarriage. The couple's imagination is dulled by thwarted hope and, unable to project any glorious future for the stubby child they have managed to bring to life, this dwarf child who mocks their years of effort, they can only conjure the prosaic. They call the baby Pavla, which means exactly what she is, which is little. She is narrow of body and short of limbs. Her eyes are round and watchful, her gaze both passive and disarmingly intrusive. Although it is impossible, her parents cannot help but feel she can see inside their minds and that she knows their private and sometimes horrible thoughts. She is an uncomplaining baby, as if she senses any kindness turned her way is provisional and that she ought not to draw more attention to herself than is necessary. She remains as quiet as any item in the cottage, as still as the portrait of dead Teta Ivana who picked a rose, pricked her finger, and died of infection, as still as the cuckoo clock that is never wound because Agáta and Václav have no need for timepieces. They feel the passage of the day in their bones, know instinctively when it is the hour to rise, to eat, to work, to sleep, when to commence the weekly argument when Agáta tells Václav that he is courting a terrible fate by refusing to go to Mass, and Václav tells Agáta that he will not believe that God intends for Father Matyá, who as a boy did questionable things with the back end of a sheep (As did you! Agáta always reminds him. But I grew up to be a plumber! Václav replies) to be the conveyer of His word.
Left mostly to her own devices, which, at four months, are considerably few, Pavla lies in the wooden crib Václav bartered from one of his neighbors in exchange for a cracked commode. The slats create the frame through which Pavla watches Agáta excavate the dark eyes of potatoes with a bent-knuckled knife, yank stringy, gray tendons from chicken legs, wring out newly washed laundry, throttling wet sheets and Václav's undershirts in her muscular hands, and make the soap that she sells at the market. Agáta heats the rendered cooking fat then mixes it with lye that she makes using ashes from the hearth. The blue glass bottle in which she stores the poison catches the sunlight and Pavla's attention so that the very first object she attempts to grasp is this ephemeral cobalt sparkle. Then Agáta stirs and stirs and stirs, stripping off her sweater, then her apron, then her shirt, then her skirt, until she is down to her underclothes. Her skin drips with sweat, her arms and breasts and stomach shake with her exertions. Of course, Pavla knows nothing of rendered fat or lye or the laborious process of making soap, or that her mother drops chamomile flowers or rose petals into her molds because with this small, inexpensive effort, her soaps can fetch a few more coins at the market. But what she does understand is that her mother is a digger, yanker, wringer, twister, and an aggressive and sometimes angry stirrer, and so is somewhat relieved to be left alone. Pavla also observes her mother in the rare moments when the potatoes are boiling and the laundry is hung and there is no fault in the world of her home that she must immediately attack and remedy. Then Agáta will stand next to the open window without moving, barely breathing, as if the wind that charges her hours and days has unexpectedly died down and she has been left stranded in the incomprehensible sea of her life, suddenly aware that she has no purpose except to avoid the one that is staring at her though the bars of the crib. To counter her creeping terror, Agáta tells stories. She speaks not to her audience but to herself, the sound and memory of the old fairy tales as soothing as the bit of worn, soft chamois cloth she carried in her pocket when she was a girl and that she rubbed between her thumb and forefinger when her mother first told her these same stories, the bit of cloth she kept hidden for so many years in a small wooden box, intending to pass down the comfort to her own child. But now, this sentiment seems foolish. Maybe it is even the cause of her heartbreak, because everyone knows it is bad luck to second-guess fate. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Little Nothing by Marisa Silver. Copyright © 2016 Marisa Silver. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press.
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