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She was small for a monster, with the slightly hurt look that monsters have and babies share, the same need to understand. The gravity of that look, pulling everything into her, was enough to make you hum and walk around the room. She saw everything, ate it with her eyes, she made women's breasts ache and men rattle their keys. Naked, she brought tears to your eyes. You felt this baby was all skin, holding the soft little parcel of her insides: her fresh little kidneys, the squiggle of her guts, her quail's bones. You could eat her, that's all, her bladder like a sweet little onion and her softly sprouting brain. You could bend down and kiss her on the tummy: she was all so neatly packed, like the gift she was. So perfect, they said, you could almost take her home with you. And they handed her on from arm to arm, with the dip that people make when they give away a baby - letting her body go and guiding her head, as though it might not be attached. Nothing worse than being left holding the baby, they seemed to say, except being left with the baby's head.
'Wind,' they said, patted her back and laid her on the sofa. Her father sat in a chair by her side. This is what I have to show, he seemed to say, while hishands hung limp. No wonder they moved in a pack: the kitchen soon stuffed with aunts, uncles silent in the hall, looking for a football to tip, or a rug with an uneven pile.
In fact her father was thinking of the ceiling, when he leaned his head back, and of the wallpaper, when he faced the wall. When he looked at the baby, he thought of the baby; and when he looked at the fireplace, he thought about coal.
He thought, once, about how he had made her - the map on the sheet when he was done. She was another country, that was all. She was something else again. She was a bad joke, but you laughed all the same. So he did laugh, and they took it as a sign.
'Goodbye now, Berts.' And, when they were gone, he picked the baby up and walked around the room.
Why do men have nipples? and what would happen if he dropped her on the floor? What would happen if he cracked her on the mantelpiece, or swung her by an arm against the wall? All her little sacs would burst and leak. He could feel the soft snap of her bones.
Berts looked out of the window at the street, the bundle pushing and straining in his arms. He tried to think, but his eyes got stuck in the net curtains like a film of tears in front of the glass. The curtains were white. He loved her by choice. He made the choice to love her. That was important. That was all. She turned her face to his chest and sucked his heart until it bruised.
It was hard to say how Berts' wife had used her day in the new house they had bought; moving from room to room, crossing from carpet to lino, pausing on the wooden saddle across the door. The nights he knew about, but something about daylight made her uncertain. It was winter. It was hard for him to imagine her there.
'What do you do all day?' he said.
'This and that.'
She spent a lot of the time in the bath, she said, and Berts suddenly knew she was pregnant. He remembered the night he looked at his map on the sheet and saw a whole country congealing in the cold, the way she lay there in the dark, thinking. The way, in the days to follow, she had pushed the furniture back so the chairs rubbed their necks against the wall.
So that is what you do, he thought - and we did it. The whole world around him seemed to bulge and push. But when he looked at his wife he thought, perhaps, that she herself did not yet know.
She was quiet. She cooked the wrong things. She lay down and pressed her cheek to the floor, her eye skimming the carpet all the way to the skirting board. At first he thought it was the baby making her mad but, as she bloomed, she shrank and the brightness in her eye became too hard. The real signs were those to do with size. She put the cup into the milk, you could say, and not the other way around, she put the bag into the clothes and not the clothes into the bag, she poured water on the floor and squeezed it back into the bucket.
Most of the time it did not matter. Women have their own rules. Why not turn the world inside out - bake a chicken in stuffing, wrap a sheet around the washing machine? They went to his in-laws for the Christmas and she treated her own mother like a child. He took this as a good sign, a tender sign, but her father would not let her into the milking parlour after she tried to feed their own milk to the cows and, after that, manure. Or she spilt milk on grass, or she wanted to swim in the rain. Back home, she switched on the shower when she was in the bath, lit candles in the daytime, ate steak and bit her hand. She pulled him to her every night, as though to make children where there was already a child, as though to unmake the child and let it swim away.
'Like killing a dead thing,' she said once when he was done, and he thought he had murdered it. 'Making a pregnant woman pregnant.' It was the first time she had mentioned the baby and he was very moved.
There was a kind of pleasure to it that he had not seen in her before, never mind the crockery in the hot press, the cutlery in bed. The house filled up with unread books, and she sang to the radio as she cleaned. Something seemed to lift as she moved with the melody and he thought that music might mend her, once and for all. But now - when the world was the right way out again, when she stopped drinking out of the hot tap and could pass a mirror without turning it to the wall - now she was happy, or unhappy, or both, without cause. The sound of distant bells made her tongue swell, she said. The sound of a tap dripping smelt of roses.
All the time he watched her middle, wondering what would come out of her, because one day she would be sane again, though who, in their right minds, would be able to describe the child?
They sat in the kitchen eating their tea and they talked about storage space.
'Jam at the back,' she said. 'Salt on the top shelf. That's what's important.'
The dinner was all wrong. It was the wrong day for fish and the ketchup was in the sugar bowl. He found himself shouting at her while she stroked the pattern of little triangles on the table top and ran her thumb along its metal rim. She tried to tell him what it was that frightened her - it was a word, she said, but she couldn't remember which one.
That night Berts pushed into her blindly, delicately. It was a kind of mental probing, and what he found there frightened him. His wife said nothing, but all sorts of 'words' came into his head.
They sat in the doctor's waiting room and watched a blonde child ripping up the magazines. His wife stared at the ribbons on the little girl's collar, the dog-shaped brooch pinned to her dress, the snot running down to her mouth, and her tiny, fat, violent hands. She leaned forward and Berts wondered should he intervene. It occurred to him that, apart from Mass, he had not seen his wife outside the house since they were married. And here she was, stretching out her hand, searching for a word.
'Dotey,' she said, at last. 'Hello, Dotey.' And he thought how strange women are. How love conquers them.
The doctor nodded to him, as he sent her off alone into the consulting room.
The secret places of your wife, said the nod.
The secret places of my wife, said his. Dr Meagher would make the child inside her feel ashamed of itself, just at the touch of his hand. Still, when Berts got the call from the receptionist, he was afraid to turn the knob on the door.
'Well?' he said.
Whatever was wrong, Meagher didn't seem bothered by it, by the fun fair of his wife, with all her different rides. He prescribed rest - because rest was the thing, he said, and pills are not for the pregnant. Her system, he said, would settle down. It was a question of hormones - a little wild perhaps, in the head, but the healthiest thing for a body, in the long run. A sort of spring clean.
She was upset, Berts could see that. She was worse when she was upset. He lifted his wife's coat and tried to put her into it, but she kept circling it, until they both began to spin around. Then she stopped. She caught the coat and pulled the sleeves inside out so that the lining showed.
'Now,' she said. And slipped her arms through.
Meagher watched as they turned to leave. He watched her pause at the window and then, with an effort, move to the door. She turned to him and said,
Meagher lifted his pen. He set it back down again.
'Just one more thing,' he said.
Berts always told himself he would do the same again, if he had to, because he couldn't bear the thought that they had not been free. And what made you more free than the ability to die, if needs be? The baby would live and that is what babies are for. She would die, because people do. It was the timing that made him feel giddy.
Other people had their secret. He hardly knew what it was - a place with no proper map and no way home. Perhaps he did mention it. He was sure he mentioned it. He was sure he said the word to her and that she looked at him like it was the one word she could not, would not recognise.
'England?' as if he had just said 'Aubergine'.
She was the cleverest woman he had ever kissed. Berts looked at his wife, who could not tell a contradiction any more; everything for her was all confused and all the same. Jam at the back, salt on the top shelf - those were the decisions she made, all the rest was candles in daylight, and swimming in the rain. All the rest was growth.
At the end of the fifth month they took her in and Berts found that he missed her around the house. The carpets seemed emptied of pattern, the cushions made no sense. It was a week before he could bring himself to wash a dish and when he did, it was with surgical precision, putting on the rubber gloves, lifting each plate out of the water like a newborn thing. There was a smell in the house and he started to clean from one corner to the next, leaving nothing out. When he reached the bedroom he stopped, looked over the threshold, and closed the door. From that day, he went for his dinner from one sister to another and slept on the sofa downstairs, dreaming of upholstered breasts, waking with his head hanging over the edge and his face to the floor.
On the day they said she died he went into the bedroom again. He stripped off the sheets and smelt along the mattress. He lay down on the floor and, with the length of his arm, swept her shoes from under the bed. He tested the heater and sniffed the sockets. Then he opened the wardrobe door. There was a paper bag on the shelf where she kept her vests and her vests were gone. He wondered where they were, as he looked at the mess of turnips inside the bag, slimy and stinking - did people take vests, when you were giving away clothes? He lifted the bag off the shelf and slid the door shut. That wardrobe had meant so much in the early days of their marriage, fitted and white. She had probably cooked the vests. In any case the smell was gone now, as he carried the bag downstairs and out the back door.
The baby didn't seem to mind. The baby was the thing. She fed earnestly and slept like the dead. She filled her nappy with a look of bereaved surprise, but otherwise she cried or was delighted - by him, by the tassels on the lampshade, by the flex of the kettle, by the way water poured and then was gone. But mostly, it has to be said, she was delighted with herself.
The first words she spoke were 'Ma Ma'. It was enough to break your heart, said the aunts, but Berts understood.
'Maria,' he said. 'Maria.' What could be more monstrous than her birth? Only this: that the first word to bubble in her throat was her own name - twice.
The sisters were terrific, but it wore Berts down to hear the hidden banging of brothers-in-law when he knocked at their doors. Still, she had a gaggle of mothers and it seemed to suit her; each day a different house to be carried through, a different floor to crawl on: Teresa's blue Tintawn, Lucy's lozenges of red on a grey ground, with little black curves, Joan's brown lino in Inchicore, with a hole sprouting hessian by the cooker. Thursday was all russet leaves that you could never pick up, scattered across Mrs Hanratty's floor, but Friday was the best day of all. His sister Bernie had no children. She had Axminster flowers spreading pink and green and grey and the baby moved from one to the next, sitting on their open petals like a careful frog.
They were all fine women in their way but they were worn out, that was the thing of it, and Lucy was foolish and Mrs Hanratty was being too kind. Besides, he spent all his time in the old car he had to buy to ferry her around. A vindictive Lancia, as bad as his wife. The electrics were not the best. Press the indicator switch and the wipers came on, the whole lot fused in the rain.
He knew, as he stood at the side of the road with his head under the bonnet, that he would have to marry again. The thought overwhelmed him. He still did not understand. There wasn't a part of his wife that had wanted to die. There wasn't a single cell of her that had wanted to die. You would think, they said, that she would let go, turn her face to the wall. But she did not. She looked at them and looked at them and looked and looked.
Berts kept to his own side of the bed at night with the baby in a cot across the room. I need to go away, he thought, imagining a journey where he travelled the coast all the way round and back to the house again. It would be important, he thought, to keep to the very rim of the land, his journey shorter when the tide came in, the sea hungering for him, then slipping away, over and over, from Wicklow Head to Valencia to Malin Head. The trip was so fresh and real in his mind it exhausted him. Night after night he scrambled over rocks and took paths along cliffs and down to the sand, seaweed cracking and slipping under the sole of his shoe. He took an imaginary piece of red wool and wove it around an imaginary map, curling into coves and wriggling around headlands, then stretching it out along a ruler for miles per inch. It was amazingly long. He worried about piers. Should he travel the length of them, going up the near side and coming back by the far?
He would start from his house and walk to Dublin Bay, then set his face north or south. The choice was important. There was a difference between walking with the sea on your right-hand side and the sea on your left.
Excerpted from What Are You Like? by Anne Enright Copyright © 2000 by Anne Enright. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 6, 2009
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