After Wade’s disappearance, cries came in the night, loud infant cries jolting Ari out of sleep. She stumbled to each room of her condo, trailing the piercing wails; certain each time she had at last discovered where they came from. They would then switch directions and resonate from another room. She became convinced they were trapped behind her walls and would escape to another location as soon as she switched the lights on. Who or what could penetrate her brick walls like that? The mason she had hired toShe took to leaving all the lights on at night and slept in fits and starts under her tangled blankets to escape the electric glare.
The neighbors avoided her feverish eyes and shook their head when asked if they had heard the cries. It’s sorrow, they agreed, the poor woman is grieving her dead child. His broken body was discovered three agonizing months later in a deep watery ravine in the nearby park, the wheels of his new bike caught on a gnarled branch of a wide willow tree growing alongside the water. A huge boulder—it was assumed to have slid down the steep escarpment with him—trapped his frail body under water.
Had he been straddling the top of the large rock —as boys do—before tumbling down? No indication of foul play, no footprint of any kind in the soft earth around where the boulder had been. Other bicycle tire marks following side by side to his along the path had been noted—but hundreds of other cyclists used that same trail on a regular basis. Ari cleaned and polished the bright red bike, had the broken pedals repaired and parked it in his bedroom beside the window.
Her job at the local school was put on hold knowing the sight of other boys would break her apart. He had been her life mission from the moment he was born; nothing was more important than being with him, not even Wade’s father who had left her thirteen months after the child’s birth.
His cold, bloated body at the morgue carved a deep cavern where her heart was. The cries of children would resonate inside this wintry space causing a painful stirring in her chest. Her swollen breasts spurted erratic sprays of bluish milk and left hardened rings on all her shirts and sweaters. She accepted these stains as part of her mourning process and pumped her milk out, storing it in small plastic containers in her freezer.
She started stocking up on jars of baby food and diapers whenever she went out for groceries. To avoid the probing, concerned eyes of her neighbors who shopped at the same local stores, she grabbed whichever size diaper package was within arm’s length of her cart. Coming home after one of her frequent shopping sprees, she was surprised to see she’d brought home a few packages of adult diapers; she shrugged and pitched them on top of the mounting pile in Wade’s closet.
At first many callers dropped by to express their sympathy; and then there was no one, people no longer tried to penetrate that grey aura that clung to her wherever she went. Old friends caught a glimpse of her from afar and remembered, out of the blue, they needed to see something or someone across the street.
Startled one evening by the sound of the doorbell bouncing off her kitchen walls, she slapped her coffee mug down on the table and shuffled to the front door. A tall slim youth clad in black jeans and sweatshirt stood in the doorframe staring at her. The resemblance took her breath away; a duplicate of his father: the way he cocked his head to one side, his thick dark hair hanging to his shoulders, his eyes halfway squinting, piercing his way right to the deepest part of her. Before he even spoke, she knew he was the one who had called months ago, accusing, insisting on answers she wasn’t ready to give. She stepped back, crossing her arms to hide the sudden cold wetness on her chest.
“You have time, now?” he took a wide step in.
“It was all over the news,” he shrugged.
“You never called back,” she said, heading back to the kitchen knowing he would follow, his head still cocked, noting her unwashed grey hair, the gaping hole in the elbow of her sweatshirt, the hard cracked skin around her heels.
“I’m not big on people hanging up on me?”
“Sorry—,” she said. “I—wasn’t ready then. I—thought of calling you back after but you didn’t leave a number.” Her hands trembled as she pulled out a kitchen chair for him. Why now, when she was stripped of all meaning and hope? What could he ask of her?
” Right. Got it all last time,” he said, plunking himself down. “Too busy for a snotty kid you gave up years ago.” His words: razor-edged, aiming straight for the heart.
She stared, entrapped by the throbbing blue vein outlined through the fragile white skin on the back of his neck; and it came to her that she alone was responsible for the pain that had led him here. Only she could make amends for what had been withheld from him eighteen years ago.
“I should’ve let you come over.” She pulled out a chair across from him at the table and slid into it. “You would’ve met your brother. We could’ve been a family. You could’ve been here for him when he came home from school—.”
“I’ll have a peanut butter sandwich with a glass of chocolate milk,” he said, pushing her breakfast dishes aside.
She stared at him, her stomach in a tight knot. “That’s— that’s what Wade always liked to eat when he came home from school.”
“Yep,” he nodded.
“I came over a few times after school, before you got home,” he said.
“If I remember our last conversation,” his voice was high-pitched, accusing. “You had enough of one son in your life.”
She pulled herself up and walked towards the counter. “Why didn’t he say—?”
“Asked him not to. Didn’t want you freaking.” He turned to watch her, “Hey! No crusts! Wade said you always cut them for him.”
Her hands shook as her knife carved wide slabs of uneven crusts from the loaf of whole wheat bread, and taking a deep breath, flattened out several thick blobs of peanut butter. Why would Wade keep these visits secret from her? She mixed three heaping tablespoons of chocolate powder with some milk in Wade’s Shrek glass. Why would he side against her with a stranger? When she turned towards the table she saw he had been staring at her.
“That sandwich is for him, right?”
His brown penetrating eyes were more intense than Wade’s; a faint, yellowish glimmer emanated from them, scanning her face and body, persistent, searching.
She had always done her best to protect Wade from all pain or sadness, detecting, soothing it away as soon as it appeared. The pain she saw in the older boy’s eyes was different, more like a festering sore that had been left unattended.
She placed the snack on the table and sat down across from him.
“Were they—good to you?” she said. “Did they treat you right?”
“Who wants to know,” he said, reaching for the sandwich.
“You’re hurting— I see that— I was too young—I couldn’t—”
“Save it.” He gulped his milk back and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Bottom line is—you dumped me when I was two days old, and now that your favorite child is dead, you’re ready to make up for lost time.”
“I never stopped thinking about—”
“Right. You were so happy to hear from me that you hung up. Good job showing me how much you cared.” He pushed the sandwich aside. “The bread smells moldy. Anyway, I hate peanut butter.”
She straightened up and grabbed his plate, “Let me make you something else. There’s fresh bread in the fridge.”
He stood up, blocking her way to the counter. “I’m out of here,” he said. “Let you get on with your life.”
“Stay,” she grabbed his hand, “we’ll talk this out.” She glanced up then and saw his eyes were watery. After all that tough talk, he still needed a mother.
He turned his eyes away and stopped at her shirt. “You’re all wet.” he said.
Her milk had started leaking again and the circles were getting wider and darker. “It’s a mother thing,” she said, stepping back and pulling her shirt out to stop it from clinging to her breasts. “When her infant cries, the milk starts to flow. I don’t know why it’s—”
“Did you feed Wade that way?” he said.
“Till he was ready for kindergarten,” she said, remembering the feel of Wade’s long soft curls against her chest.
“Guess some people are born right, and others shouldn’t be born at all,” he said, staring down at his feet.
She nudged him back down on his chair. “Don’t be silly. Mummy will make you
another sandwich. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
She placed a cheese sandwich on the table in front of him, and noticing the long bluish vein on the back of his neck again, traced it with her fingertip while he ate. For the first time since Wade’s disappearance, she felt the knot in her heart give way a little, making room for a new awareness, a renewed feeling of purpose.
He looked up and smiled, “I can smell your milk,” he said. “It smells fresh and salty.”
“I need to pump it out before my breasts get too full and painful,” she said, surprised by the intensity of his voice. She walked to the kitchen drawer and pulled out her breast pump. “I’ll be back before you finish your sandwich.”
He pushed his chair back and stepped towards her. “Can I watch? Can I help you pump?” His voice reminded her of Wade when he was excited about something. She could never say no to him.
“A bit too old for that, don’t you think?” she said.
“I bet Wade did,” he said. “I bet it was OK for him.”
“No, I didn’t need the pump with him,” she said, walking out of the kitchen.
She came back to find him hunched over clutching his stomach; his sandwich left untouched.
“What’s the matter? Does your tummy hurt?”
“It just came on sudden. I feel like throwing up,” he said, laying his head down on the table.
“Come lay down a bit before you go,” she said, guiding him to Wade’s bedroom. “It’s all those emotions you’re feeling. You’ll feel much better after you rest.”
She went to check on him later and stood a long time by the bed listening to his breathing. He was curled up in a fetal position, his hands tucked between his legs much like the way Wade used to sleep. She pulled the blanket over him and tiptoed out, her breasts wet with milk.
The cries woke her up later in the night and she stumbled to Wade’s room. She saw the fear and confusion in his eyes as she approached the bed. “It’s OK,” she reached out to soothe his brow. “Mummy’s here. Go back to sleep.”
He reached for her hand. “Don’t go yet,” he said. “Wait till I fall back asleep.”
She hesitated a moment before sitting down on the bed beside him. A strong smell of urine made her spring up again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I dreamt I was lost behind a big waterfall—couldn’t get out—”
“It’s alright,” she said, smoothing his hair. “Mummy’s here, now.” She walked to the closet and pulled out the package of adult diapers. He sat cross-legged on the floor on Wade’s quilt while she tore the soiled sheets off the bed and threw them in the corner along with his clothes.
He pushed over to make room for her, and she lay down beside him, cradling his head to her breast. At long last, her son was home.
The neighbors soon complained about the pungent smell of curdled milk and urine that seemed to linger around the condo complex long after they slammed their windows shut and turned on their air conditioners. The smell clung to the laundry they brought in from the clothesline, and others claimed their barbecued hamburgers had to be tossed out. The caretaker traced the odour to Ari’s condo, and after repeated failed attempts to contact her, asked the police to enter her premises.
It was on the child’s bed that they found her, curled in a ball and clad only in a soaked, disposable diaper. They had to dodge the scattered piles of soiled diapers on the floor around the bed, and when they turned her body over, were amazed to see how girlish flat and smooth her chest was, for a grown woman who had always seemed so buxom.
McRites Press ©Murielle Cyr 2012