Like a cantaloupe, a perfect sphere that hugged her at the waist, the bulbous belly had clasped onto her mother, gradually expanding and swelling as each month passed. Surely there would soon be no space left for the little girl with swinging braids who clung to her mother’s wrist, begging for kisses. The girl could never understand why they all loved it, cooing and whispering. Even the cat had betrayed her, curling up on the warm rounded hump and kneading into the skin that grew pale as time passed.
She remembered last summer when her mother, with a flat tummy, had handed her five watermelon seeds to plant in the ground outside the dining room window, but instead she had pushed four into her jean pockets and slipped the last one into her mouth just to see what it would taste like. She could feel it sliding and sticking on its way down her throat, and she waited for the watermelon to grow in her stomach as the storybooks had warned her. Now she wondered if perhaps her mother had made the same horrible mistake, and now a massive watermelon was forming under the skin. She would’ve liked to pop it with a sewing needle and free her mother from its stubborn grasp, but how her mother seemed to love it, for she patted the smooth flesh affectionately, protectively, as if it were something of great worth, her most precious treasure.
So then, while her mother was snoozing on the sofa, the little girl found a marker and gave it a friendly face.
When he knew my father wasn’t home, he liked to linger by the fence where the wild roses grew, absentmindedly watering the petals as he watched behind his sunglasses. We were basking in the sun, backs to him, sun hats shielding our faces as we dug into the earth, pulling and pushing roots with our blunt nails. When Mama rose to rinse her hands under the hose he would call out her name, and remove the shades, grinning yellow teeth. She always waved back.
He dropped by for the baby shower, carrying a big heart- shaped box of chocolates.
“It’s the only kind I could find,” he apologized. “All the stores are stocked up for Valentine’s Day.”
Mama didn’t care. She devoured them within a couple hours before Daddy had a chance to notice.
“I guess they taste better when they’re shaped like hearts,” she confessed.
At five months pregnant, she was warned. The child was to be born with what they called a slight obstacle, a minor handicap, a birth defect. The baby’s fingers and toes had developed in an unusual way within the uterus. They had formed into knives, strong and sharp and serious knives. Not the plastic kinds that boys used to pretend they were knights on Halloween. Not the kinds that Daddy used to slab thick coats of butter onto the insanely dry and tasteless rye bread Mama had developed a craving for. No, they were the kinds that Mama used to chop fat zucchinis, the kinds that sent her screaming with every kick slicing into her skin, leaving bloody gashes that dissolved into tattooed scars.
On summer mornings, she would laze in the sun where the warmth seemed to lull her child to sleep. Once he entered through the garden gate that separated his house from hers, and gave the belly an affectionate pat. The child awoke with a start and began kicking, soaking mother’s tank top in a dark red hue. With an apologetic smile, he began to dab her with tissues until the box was empty.
At eight months they sliced her open in the hospital, only to find the child dead. Drowning in a sea of Valentine chocolates melted into the feet where knives had begun to grow, the child lay still, breathless, throat choking in a thick chocolate, the raspberry fillings bleeding onto its skin. The nurses rinsed the dead child under the sink, carefully avoiding the sharp knives. Mother slept as they stitched her up, leaving a long ugly scar to add to the rest of her stomach wounds that served only as a reminder for those painful months of pregnancy. When she awoke, they presented her with a single knife; all that was left of the child. This particular blade was dull, and mother let out a wail, cradling it against her breasts.
You look like a Popsicle, Daddy; too bad you don’t smell like one. How come you’re sweating so much? Please don’t fall asleep. Tell me a story. Tell me a story about a girl who wakes up in a world made of ice cream and then she eats the world and gets really fat. Make the ice cream strawberry ‘cause that’s my favorite. Don’t burn the eggs like Mama did yesterday when she was busy counting snowflakes from the kitchen window. Do you think if I plant my watermelon seeds they’ll grow in time for Christmas? Pick me up, Daddy and let me ride your shoulders like I used to. Why won’t you play dolls with me? You can do the teddy’s voice ‘cause he’s extra hungry and wants his supper. He’s not a picky eater. He always asks for veggies. This is how you make a zucchini out of Play-Doh. This is how you make a pumpkin out of Play-Doh. This is how you make a squash out of Play-Doh. Don’t go to work tomorrow. Stay at home where it’s nice and toasty and play with me ‘cause I’m bored. Play with me ‘cause all Mama ever does is stare out the window, and the kitty just sleeps all day long on the radiator. This is how you pet the kitty’s tummy without getting scratched. We can make a snow kitten and a fort and a snowman. How come you’ve stopped combing your hair? No offense, Daddy but you look pretty ugly with it sticking out all over the place. You should let me style your beard. I can braid it and make it pretty like Mama does my hair every morning. I can give you three curly braids and everyone will tell you that you look really pretty and you can tell them thanks and then you can tell them that I did the braids for you ‘cause I’m a hair specialist. Remember to cut my sandwiches into triangles and skin my apple slices. Look, this is how you make a smiley face with breakfast fruits. Give me some ice cream for lunch. I don’t care if it’s cold outside. Actually, give me ice cream for dinner and breakfast too. I’m not very hungry. Open the blinds like Mama does when she’s not sleeping, which isn’t very often. I’ll help with the blinds ‘cause it’s sunny outside and it helps me forget about the cold and the clouds in this house. Don’t stare at the ceiling, talk to me. There’s nothing but spiders up there. Let me sit on your lap and make your belly button say funny things, I’m not too heavy . . . Sing me a song about a pumpkin who tried to cry but couldn’t ‘cause he wasn’t carved a mouth.
IV. Orange Juice
The man who kissed my mother poked at the skin of our couch, digging his fingernails deep into its leathery flesh.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked.
The stairs creaked and I knew it was her before she’d even entered the room. He knew too and pressed his palms into her hips, guiding her to the couch. He wore a placid face despite the grief that gripped my mother. My father was at the bar, probably drinking away his own grief. This man ordered me to pour a glass of water, but I poured orange juice instead just to defy him, and just because it was mother’s favorite. He was clutching a small umbrella in his left hand when I served her the juice, and I don’t know why because it wasn’t raining. Maybe he wanted to be prepared in case something spilled, in case something went wrong so he could be the hero, the savior to dig us out of our troubles.
My mother was crying without tears, crying where it was dark and empty, where everything hurt the most, reminding her of what she’d once had. She pulled at fraying threads on her sweater, gradually unraveling the stitches. The man managed to pry her fingers from the string, gently wrapping them around the glass of juice I’d handed him.
“I thought I said water.”
“Last time I checked, water wasn’t orange.”
“Orange juice is her favorite.”
I pointed to the empty glass in her hand. She set the glass on the coffee table and began fiddling with her hair, humming softly. He gave me a smirk and reached for her hand once more, this time grasping it tightly in his fist. Soon his arm stretched around her shoulder as she leaned against him. I watched this secret encounter from the threshold.
“Don’t you have homework to do?”
“I’m in first grade.”
“You might want to clean your room.”
“No I don’t.”
He clenched his teeth. “Well I’m sure your mother’d appreciate it.”
I remained standing. “I don’t think she cares.”
He sprang to his feet, startling my mother and disrupting the kitty’s nap. “Well I do! Please go and give us some privacy. We’ve got things to discuss!”
I grabbed the kitty and dashed up the stairs, slamming the bedroom door. I watched my father’s car from the window. Watched as it pulled into the driveway, watched as he locked the doors and searched his pockets for the house keys. I heard the door fly open, my father’s bag slam to the ground, his shoes stomp into the living room. I could sense his fear, feel the thud of his fist against the wall when he saw them on the couch. I could taste his breath when he hollered and the house shook from the wail. His raw whiskey breath. His sad, lonely breath. I could taste the orange juice knocked to the ground as the man leapt to his feet, gathered his things, and bolted out of the house.
1. I used to lean against her prickly hair in the winter when ice lined the windows and I’d slide under her woolen blankets, stealing the hot water bottle that she kept by her feet. The kitty often managed to sneak onto our tummies, tickling our cheeks with his whiskers. I used to sleep against her, backs pressed together, absorbing her warmth. As her belly began to swell, she continued to let me under the covers, holding my palm against the smooth flesh she proudly bore. She told me stories of someone who was hiding in there, someone who would one day come home in a blanket and become my friend.
2. They would’ve named her Annabelle, would have stitched those nine letters onto patchwork quilts, would have captured her first smile, and filmed her babbling words.
3. The cradle groaned with every push, and from the doorway I stared at her eyes, aging rapidly, disconnected from the rest of her youthful body. The blankets, and booties, and bottles removed, but mother clung tight to the cradle. It was a gift from our neighbor, the carpenter, who’d painted it brown like mother’s hair, now gray from fading dye. I could tell she was slipping away.
4. I don’t think she loved him, she couldn’t have, for the only love she had was for the child she had lost. Even the expensive, elaborate gifts couldn’t sway her in the way they used to. He only served as a reminder for what she wished she could forget.
5. Daddy kissed me when he left, one sad, chapped kiss, mustering all the breath he had left. The house began to feel strange.
6. At seven, I cut my hair, snipping off strands in the middle of art class while everyone else designed paper snowflakes. The blunt scissors produced a sloppy pixie cut. Mother never screamed when she saw my crooked bangs. She just gave me the hand mirror and walked away.
7. My only doll had button eyes, sloppily sewn on with grandma’s shaking fingers. The Sharpie smile had started to wear and I often had to reapply it. On bad days, I’d give her a frown so I wouldn’t be the only grump in the house.
8. Beans for breakfast, beans for lunch.
Beans for dinner, beans for brunch.
Grandma loved beans more than she loved me.
9. The man who married my mother could cook when he tried, stir-frying shiitake mushrooms and Bok Choy, sending glorious smells up to my room. But still I refused when he offered me a plate, taking Grandma’s bean stew instead because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I never did like the man who married my mother.
10. I tried a fried shiitake mushroom while he wasn’t looking. Slipped it into my mouth and sucked on the juice till the dried skin stuck to the roof of my mouth.
11. At twelve, I stopped joining them at the dining table, locking myself in the basement where the kitty and I read all of the books Dad left behind. The pages still smelled like his cologne. I wondered where he’d gone.
VI. One Stale Slice of Bread and a List of the Random Things Hiding Under Her Bed
1. One stale slice of bread. She hated her mother’s bland cravings.
2. One cracked clay pot filled with dirt. The garden meant home and the seeds were her children.
3. One broken piece of chalk. She used to scrape flower sketches onto the wooden floorboards till her knees and hands and feet became green dust and her paintings disappeared in smudges.
4. One deflated red balloon. The only birthday party she ever had and her father’s carrot cake.
5. One sock. What is one sock without the other? A very lonely sock.
6. One frightened kitty. He never did like it when they screamed, and they’d made a hobby out of that.
7. A Series of Unfortunate Events. She used to read with her father before he left for good.
8. One spare sewing needle. She never liked to sew after stabbing her finger while struggling to send the thread through the miniscule hole.
9. One pair of broken glasses. She claimed they made her ugly and although they showed her what she could never see, she loathed her reflection when she wore them.
10. One unhelpful alarm clock sleeping in an empty fish bowl. She never woke up when it called her and when she decided she’d had enough, she drowned it in the old fish tank.
11. One tube of fuchsia lipstick. The only time she tried on makeup she felt like a painted Barbie.
12. One white queen. The only time she agreed to play chess with her stepdad and she knew he’d helped her win.
13. One rusty fork. At age twelve, she stopped eating with them, morphing into a stranger who took pleasure in isolation.
14. One T-shirt missing sleeves. She decided that sleeves were unnecessary.
15. One frowning teddy bear. After the moth infestation, she ripped him open and filled her ratty pillow with his stuffing.
16. One yellow rubber ducky. Unlike Ernie, she never found bath time so much fun after deciding she wanted dreadlocks.
17. One shredded American Flag. At age fifteen, when she started reading the newspapers, she decided she hated her mother country.
18. One wrinkled candy wrapper. All the times he tried to woo her, only for her to refuse. She still ate his offerings.
19. One role of measuring tape. She’d started wrapping it around her waist.
20. One guitar with broken strings. She played on the streets till her case was filled with snow.
1. Our last meal: quinoa + tomatoes + basil + two swollen, stinging tongues. We scrambled to the sink, lips to the faucet, the stepdad and me. Our plates sat untouched for kitty to sniff and scoff.
The flesh on our tongues screamed fire, gasping for breath, drowning in stabs of chili. Mother fed us milk, yogurt, scraping the lonely quinoa remains into the trash, frowning at her wasted time in the kitchen. Only grandma remained at the table, dentures chewing slowly from the fading wheelchair. Mother was rewarded with one empty plate. Grandma smelled like quinoa that night. She never woke up. I stopped coming when they called for dinner.
2. I still remember when Mama told me, first time she’d spoken in a voice that showed hints of who she used to be, first time she’d ripped through her taciturn phase.
“We’re gonna have a baby!”
She actually hugged me afterwards, but my arms just hung limp at their sides.
“Who says it’s your first?” I asked tersely.
Mama just looked at me, the excitement drained from her face. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard those words. In a year and a half I’d be out of the house, gone for good if I was lucky, and they’d have their replacement, a child whom I had no interest in knowing.
3. In my junior year of high school when I should’ve been studying for the SATs and mailing off those college applications, I started painting. Painting across the white walls in my room, painting away the worries I’d come to know.
4. My kitty died in June, the month of flowers and trees, when school let out and I started the long hibernation in the garden where I disappeared between the leaves.
5. Seventeen and I still didn’t have my license. Seventeen and Daddy gave me a call on the phone. He’d come back home and bought a tiny apartment. Seventeen and I moved out for good.
6. His apartment was smaller than our living room, with wooden stools for chairs. The floor wore cold cement tiles as a carpet and for the time being, I curled into a sleeping bag at night. But even with the stained walls and empty refrigerator, I’d never felt more at home.
7. Her name was Annabelle for Edgar Allan Poe. Her cheeks, red and swollen with every shriek, bloated her face into a sour tomato. It’s a lie to say that babies are cute.
8. We spent the summer riding highways, camping out over dried leaves. Daddy started crafting salads from the little garden we’d mustered on the balcony. I started slopping paint onto the walls, recreating the vegetables I’d grown to miss.
9. I went back for the garden, not for the baby, but the two quickly intersected. Maybe she wasn’t so ugly; the cheeks had lost their rouge hue and her plump lips curled into a smile. She waddled through the grass with her teddy, pulling him gently by the arm so he appeared to be walking beside her. While I tended to the plants, she snuck beneath the leaves and slipped her fingers into my hand, reaching for the seeds. Maybe she was what kept me coming back.
Two shadows fall onto the street: one lean with hair disheveled like her father’s; the other, stout with pudgy legs, clinging to her hand. The garden is their home and the plants are their children.
They crouch with their backs to the sun, waiting for the seeds to grow.
Maya Best is a senior creative writing major at Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts School, CAPA 6-12. In the fall she will be continuing her study of writing at the University of Pittsburgh.