Note: for readers of this blog, if any, there is no new material in here. I have just put the first 12 parts together so it can be read as a single piece.
It all began the day I performed an amniocentesis in my modest medical clinic in the small town of Herring’s Jaw. The needle had penetrated Claudia’s abdominal wall and the uterus and just as I was about to draw the fluid from the amniotic sac, I was distracted from the ultrasound monitor, just for a moment, by the light squelching sound of an insect authoring its own end on the outside of the office’s window. Immediately looking back at the monitor I noticed, to my horror, that the needle had shifted dangerously close to the bulbous skull of the foetus. Had I accidentally nicked it? Starting to perspire, I searched the screen desperately for injury or blood as I slowly drew the fluid, mercifully clear, into the syringe’s chamber. There was nothing out of the ordinary that I could see but the head of the foetus had turned away, as if abruptly bashful.
“What’s the matter?” asked the young woman’s boyfriend, noticing my sudden anxiety.
“Nothing, Brody,” I snapped, perhaps a little too quickly, as I gently eased the needle from Claudia’s protruding stomach. “It’s done and everything’s fine. We’ll get the results back from the city in a couple of weeks.”
A few minutes later, Brody and Claudia were on their way home, elated over the ultrasound’s grainy, black-and-white images I had printed out for them. The moment they had left, my barely masked irritability over the random distraction during the procedure turned to anger. I had advised the couple that an amniocentesis was totally unnecessary and only recommended for women over 35 years old. Claudia was all of 22 and Brody only a few months older. As far as I was concerned, they were far too young to be starting a family in the first place. They had insisted, however, and I had stupidly indulged them and their stupid, juvenile love. The question was already eating away at me: had I botched the procedure? If I had, would Claudia imminently suffer a miscarriage?
Deep down, I knew the anger was more directed at myself. I was a mediocre doctor, at best. I had muddled my way through medical school 3 decades earlier in the city. Thoroughly disenchanted at the university, and only there due to family pressure, I graduated close to the bottom of my class. My father, a renowned oncologist, despairing in me, pushed me to specialize in obstetrics as “there will be an ever-increasing need for obstetricians wherever you may land and however meagre your abilities are”. Because my lack of ambition was aggravated by my lack of any alternative identifiable talent, I did as my father wished and he was, after all, footing all of the costs of my education.
To some degree, my father had been right about the usefulness of specializing in obstetrics. In my final year at the university hospital, I began a reckless and purely sexual relationship with the daughter of the dean of medicine. At the age of 16, she was exactly 10 years my junior so the relationship took on the quality of a top-secret affair. It was not long after I began sleeping with her that she became pregnant. As her belly became more pronounced and less easy to hide with flowing dresses, a lurid campus scandal imminent, I performed an illegal late-term abortion on my own child. I could not bring myself to look at the bloody mess of bone and tissue until just before I threw it into the hospital’s incinerator. When I did, the coal black eyes of the dead foetus bore into me in cold damnation. Almost as soon as I graduated, I fled the city for Herring’s Jaw where there was an urgent need to replace the town’s general practitioner who had recently been struck by lightning, and killed, during a boating trip. I had gotten the job, in large part due to the added benefit of my being a qualified obstetrician, and never returned.
As I brooded on my past and worried about Claudia, I sighed and walked over to the window, sullenly, where the guts of the insect remained flattened against the pane in a syrupy, yellow soup from which broken black legs and wings jutted awkwardly. Although it was a clear mid-summer’s evening, the sun setting lazily over the thick blanket of pine trees to the west, I could not help but feel, chewing on a fingernail, that a storm was coming.
I spent the next few days, and mostly sleepless nights, tense and jittery. Whenever the phone rang, my heart leapt up in my throat in the breathless expectation of it being Claudia bawling into the receiver that she had begun bleeding profusely. The call never came though and the more time passed, the more I began to relax and cheered up considerably with my patients at the clinic.
My medical practice could not have been more ho-hum; apart from delivering the occasional baby and giving inoculations, I mostly treated the common cold and flu, constipation and haemorrhoids, hay fever and allergies, indigestion and diarrhea, period pain, warts and athlete’s foot. For any serious illness, drug overdose or injury from accident, my patients were ferried off to the city for specialized treatment. The drudgery of my working days was occasionally brightened by a deep laceration to be sewn up or a broken bone to be set. A couple of weeks after Claudia’s amniocentesis, old Bob Darling came into my office, as nonchalant as a man strolling into a tavern, with a hatchet buried almost half an inch deep in the side of his head. I spent a mesmerizing couple of hours suturing up and bandaging the gaping wound, at one end of which I had been able to catch a glimpse of the blue-gray rind of Bob’s veiny cerebral cortex. All the while, Bob prattled away bitterly about how his “good-for-nothing-son”, Joel, could not throw a hatchet accurately enough to hit a barn door. I thought about my relationship with my own father, who had ironically died of pancreatic cancer several years earlier, and wondered if Joel was far more accurate with a hatchet than his father was prepared to give him credit for.
Despite the banality of my practice, I liked my life in Herring’s Jaw. For the most part I enjoyed the company of the townspeople and hosted a big annual summer barbecue at my house, located on the outskirts of town, perched on one of the many crooked fingers of land that jutted out into Ragged Lake. However, just as I was burying away my deep apprehension over Claudia, I became freshly unraveled by the loss of my wife of 25 years.
I had been working later into the evening at the clinic on a backlog of neglected paperwork and came home after sundown. As I drew to a slow stop in the driveway, the gravel crunching lightly under the wheels of my car, I noticed uneasily that all the lights in the house were out. My black lab, Ben, came bounding from the back door and barked agitatedly at me, his fur standing slightly on end.
“What’s the matter, boy?” I asked Ben, cupping the dog’s chin with one hand and patting his head with the other. “Where’s Leah?” Turning away, he whined once and loped back to the house. As I followed him, a slight breeze picked up off the lake and the leaves in the trees rustled as if being gently stroked by a great invisible hand. I shivered, a dark sense of foreboding swelling within me, and quickened my pace.
“Leah?!” I called, throwing open the back door. “Leah!” I shouted as I ran through the kitchen and the dining room, the furniture casting long, fuzzy shadows in the twilight. “Oh, no!” I gasped, coming to an abrupt halt in the living room. She was hanging from the ceiling fan, the long yellow and red silk scarf I had recently given to her on her 50th birthday wound tightly around her neck. Her long, dark hair cascaded down the side towards which her head was bent unnaturally, and contrasted sharply against her white night dress. I could tell immediately by the pallor of her skin that she had been dead for some time. Mercifully, her eyes were closed. Her suicide could hardly be described as a shock surprise. She had been sick for long before I had even met her. I think that is why I did not experience any initial numb disbelief. A wave of black grief immediately rose up and struck me down to my knees. Her bare feet were dangling about two feet above the floor and, taking them in my trembling hands, I began to sob inconsolably. My tears flowed freely down my cheeks and over her feet which I had pressed hard against my face. “Leah… Leah…” I cried as Ben whined and paced back and forth, his nails clicking loudly on the hardwood floor. Outside the large, bay window that opened up over the expanse of dark water, a loon wailed mournfully under the rising moon.
Because Leah had died of unnatural causes, the very next day the city coroner’s office, over my vehement objections, ordered an autopsy and a pathologist was dispatched to Herring’s Jaw to perform it. I knew all too well how the procedure would go. A plastic rubber brick, or “body block,” would be placed under her back causing her arms and neck to fall backward while stretching and pushing the chest upward to make it easier to slice open. The cuts would be made to create a large and deep Y-shape, starting at the top of each shoulder and running down the front of the chest, on the insides of her beautiful small breasts, meeting at the lower point of the sternum before extending all the way down to the pubic bone. This last cut would only make a slight deviation to the side of her navel. Shears would then be used to open the chest cavity and expose her internal organs, in all of their visceral colors, in order for them to be systematically removed, examined and weighed like hunks of meat at a butcher’s shop.
Afterwards, the body block would be moved in order for it to be used to elevate her head. A Stryker saw would then cut through the skull, to create a “cap” that could be pulled off, exposing Leah’s brain with a level of detail far more lurid than Joel Darling’s hatchet could ever accomplish on his father’s skull. Her brain’s connection to the cranial nerves and spinal cord would be severed and her brain lifted out of the skull for further examination and weighing.
Against my better judgment, I went to view her body in the morgue after the autopsy had been performed and the cause of death had been officially entered into the ledger as “intentionally self-inflicted asphyxiation (non-autoerotic)”. As I stared at her bloodless face, I noticed the ‘invisible’ stitches just below the hairline which had been used to sew the “cap” back on in the event an open casket was opted for. They stood in stark contrast to the large metal staples used to reseal her cotton-lined chest cavity, her organs crassly piled into a thick plastic bag inside to prevent leakage. My stomach turned queasy. The fond memories of my life with her churned within me as if erupting from tectonic action at the bottom of an angry sea. How could it all now be reduced to this on a cold slab in an anonymous mortuary drawer? I touched her rigid hand and softly kissed her lips once. “Goodbye Leah,” I whispered as I resolved to have her remains cremated and delivered to me as soon as the arrangements could be made.
After signing some forms I left the morgue and, with the usual misfortune of someone already in the throes of insufferable pain, promptly bumped into Claudia and Brody. Just like everyone else in town, they smiled weakly and cast their eyes downwards, awkwardly, not knowing what to say.
“How… how are you?” asked Brody, after a few moments of silence, shuffling and plucking at his muscle shirt.
“Well,” I sighed, marveling at the inanity of the question, “I really don’t know.” Struck by the inanity of my response, as true as it was, I glanced nervously at Claudia’s bump and said “how are you, Claudia? Everything okay?”
“Oh, yes!” she said, smiling brightly, clearly relieved I had shifted the topic of wellness away from myself. “He’s kicking right now. Here,” she said, taking my hand, “feel.”
This was the last thing I wanted to do but Brody egged me on with a “go for it, doc!” so I let Claudia place my hand on the lower right of her belly.
“I don’t feel anything,” I said tersely and tried to withdraw my hand.
“Wait,” said Claudia, breathlessly. “There!” she said, laughing. “You must have felt THAT!”
“Oh, my God!” I almost shouted.
“I know! He’s having a ball in there,” chuckled Brody. “Hey, doc, are you okay? You look kind of shaky all of a sudden.”
“I’m fine… fine,” I lied. “But I’ve got to get going. Thanks. See you two later.”
I disengaged myself from Claudia and stalked off down the quiet street. “Having a ball in there,” I muttered to myself. “THAT was anger…”
Leah’s sister, Angeline, and her husband, Malcolm, both devout Catholics, were furious when they discovered that Leah had been cremated. They were even more incensed when I rejected their plan to have the ashes buried in the town’s cemetery and informed them that I planned to scatter them in Ragged Lake. It fell on deaf ears when I reminded them that Leah had renounced the church when she was just a girl and that her happiest times had been spent on the lake. In order to appease them, however, I reluctantly agreed to a church service followed by a wake at my house.
On the day, I deeply regretted the decision. It was early September and Herring’s Jaw was in the grips of an unseasonable heat wave. The church’s air conditioning had malfunctioned and stepping inside felt like passing through the gates of hell rather than the entrance to a place of worship. Making matters worse, it was packed to capacity, the air aflutter with service programs being used as fans. It immediately irritated me that such a large proportion of the townspeople had turned out. As far as I was concerned, Leah’s handful of close friends belonged but the rest were disingenuous imposters. As the service ground on interminably in the sweltering heat, I noticed Maeve Wheeler sitting across the aisle from me weeping noisily into a frilly handkerchief. She was one of the town’s worst gossips and I had overheard her in the past referring to Leah in such jeering terms as “Doc’s madwoman” and “Loco Leah.” As she sat in her cheap suit, snivelling and dabbing at her fat red eyes, I was filled with an almost irresistible urge to grab her by her poorly dyed hair, drag her outside and take her to the curb. It was probably only for Angeline and Malcolm’s sake that I restrained myself from doing just that.
Strangely enough, though, what distressed me far more than Maeve’s two-facedness was listening to some of the heartfelt things Leah’s family and genuine friends said about her over the course of the day. The torrent of anecdotal memories, to me, seemed like distant echoes of who she had actually been in reality. Daphne Armstrong, a good friend of Leah’s from high school, said “I loved the way her nose used to pinch up when she laughed – she had such a musical laugh.” This was true to the extent that Leah’s nose did pinch up – but only when she was being sarcastic and her laughter was actually quite shrill when she was being sarcastic. It seemed like everyone, from their multiple perspectives, was creating an abstract painting of Leah, the resonance of which left me with the extremely unsettling feeling that she was being autopsied all over again; her personality carved into pieces, examined and weighed, and then arbitrarily thrown back together again into something she never quite was. Frankly, I would have rather been back in the morgue; just me and her body.
Later on that night, after everyone had mercifully left, I sat out on my dock. To one side of me was an urn containing Leah’s ashes and to the other sat Ben, gazing intently out over the lake as crickets droned lazily in the heavy air. Ben had not left my side since Leah had died and I was eternally grateful for his company. As the hour got late, I finally hauled myself out of my chair and read aloud the last paragraph of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Leah’s favorite book, her copy of which was dog-eared and crammed with notes in the margins. I then steeled myself and slowly poured the ashes off the end of the dock. They spread out amorphously across the surface of the water which was as still as glass. Tears began escaping from the corners of my eyes and I was about to turn away when the moon came out from behind some wispy clouds and Ben started to whine. Looking down, I saw that the ashes had begun moving into patterns guided by I do not know what. Ben started to whine more loudly and, despite the heat, I felt a chill. Suddenly, the ashes stopped moving and Ben started to growl and bark at the water. Cold horror gripped me as I stared at the image: it was Claudia’s foetus after it had turned away from the monitor during the amniocentesis. Almost as quickly as it had formed, a breeze came up and an eddy carried the ashes away out of view down the shoreline.
If there had been niggling doubts before, as Ben and I trudged back up the dock to the dark, empty house, I was now quite calmly certain that my own inexorable descent into madness had begun.
Over the following days and weeks I did my best to quell the riot of dark emotions roiling within me by working longer than usual hours at the clinic. When I got home in the evenings, after walking Ben, I set about the daunting task of transcribing Leah’s mountains of unpublished writing onto the computer. All of her scattered notes, mournful poems, stream-of-consciousness essays and bleak stories had been scratched out in handwriting so awful anyone would believe they had been written by someone suffering from a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. Making the task even more vexing were the countless edits and annotations (and annotations to the annotations). However, as it turned out, the process reaped an astonishing surprise.
When I had found Leah hanging from the ceiling fan, almost two months prior, there had been a single small sheet of paper left on the floor beneath her feet. On it she had written:
Love, Leah- xoxo.
I had absolutely no idea what “purple” referred to. It was not her favorite color and she had made no allusion to its significance in the past. I finally gave up trying to figure it out and decided that it was probably not a cryptic suicide note, meant to be deciphered, but just the last utterly arbitrary thought of a person so caught in the clutches of mental anguish that life had not only lost all its meaning but the mere act of living another moment was a prospect so intolerable it had become atrocious. That conclusion dramatically changed when, as I got to transcribing Leah’s writings from the last few months of her life, I saw that she had begun highlighting snippets of text in purple with numbers scrawled beside them.
I stayed up late nights searching out the lines and typing them up in numerical order. It was a poem. A long poem entitled ‘My Husband’. When I finally read it through from beginning to end, I felt a strange tingling sensation course up my back, from the base of my spine. It spread out across my scalp and tugged at the roots of my hair. It was the most hauntingly beautiful piece of writing I had ever read. In fact, it was the most hauntingly beautiful thing I had ever experienced. It dripped erotic passion that was struck through with screaming anxiety over the death of all things including, in particular, love. From the chaotic anarchy of her writing, she had seen a pattern and culled these lines which, put together, was nothing short of a masterwork. My high opinion of the piece was bolstered a couple of days later after I emailed it to a professor emeritus I knew in the English Department of the university where I had attended medical school. His reply email stated:
My dear friend, I am at a loss for words. Simply put, you are the object of one of the greatest love poems I have ever read in the canon of English Literature. The way she manages to juxtapose such longing and love with feelings of weariness and a harrowing sense of decay/mortality is quite dizzying. I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but she references everything from Hesiod to Shakespeare to the Bible to Wilde to Marvell to Chaucer – and these are just the ones I picked up on after a first reading. I haven’t been quite as excited about a poem since I read Prufrock as a young man…
Of course, I will abide by your wishes and not share it with anyone. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling after making this discovery. Still, you MUST have it published once you feel ready. It’s too important to keep all to yourself and, just think, you’ll be famous by association! By the way, I don’t know what to make of the strange little postscript: “Do not go out into the woods at night, my dearest. Things weep in the dark; creatures that bite.” It’s disjointed and seems to be hastily tacked on. I would certainly omit it whenever it goes to publication.
This so-called “strange little postscript” had been weighing heavily on my mind. The professor was quite right: it did not fit at all with the majesty of the rest of the poem and seemed added almost in a panic. Not only did it have the ring of a prophetic warning, I had a gut feeling that Leah had highlighted these last words just moments before she died.
Much to the chagrin of my professor friend, I decided to keep the poem “all to myself” as reading it in solitude was one of the few means by which I was able to temporarily staunch my grief, which continued to bleed like an open wound. He was only mollified when I assured him that I would amend my will so that the copyright would pass to the university upon my death. Otherwise, after finishing transcribing the rest of Leah’s writing, I spent much of my free time hiking through the thickly wooded hills surrounding Ragged Lake and suppressing all thoughts of Claudia’s now advanced pregnancy.
On one of these excursions, I roamed down towards the end of Widow’s Peak, a narrow, wind battered promontory that stabbed almost a kilometer into the belly of the lake. It was late afternoon in mid-October and, standing in the crisp air, I looked out over the choppy wine-dark water ringed by an almost unbroken shock of trees, their leaves an explosive kaleidoscope of autumn colors as they churned hypnotically under a stiff breeze. A pair of sailboats sawed through the waves in the distance, their determined, directional purpose seeming at odds with the broader, swirling patterns. Ben barked suddenly, snapping me out of my reverie, and I realized we were not alone.
“Hi there, doc!” called out a waving silhouette. It was Doug Black fishing off the tip of the Peak. He was a schoolteacher who, like me, had exiled himself to Herring’s Jaw after a string of allegations of sexual misconduct had dogged him into early retirement. Although he was a regular at my annual barbecue, I cannot in any honesty say I had any liking for the man. Despite being a washed-out nobody, he was as puffed out with arrogant self-importance as a strutting peacock.
“Hi Doug,” I called back unenthusiastically. Sighing deeply, I picked my way over the slippery, lichen-covered rocks towards him. Ben scampered ahead on his young legs like a mountain goat.
“How are you doing?” he asked once I finally reached him. He attempted to contort his face into a mask of compassion which only serves to make people, when they really could not care less, look like they are having difficulty farting.
“I’m fine,” I said in a firm enough voice to indicate that there was no need to discuss my wellbeing. “Anything biting?” I asked, tilting my head towards the water.
“Not yet,” he said, visibly relieved that the topic of conversation was going to be fishing and not dead wives. “But I haven’t been here long and this is a good time of day.” As he rhythmically cast out his line and reeled it back in again, he delivered a mind-numbing lecture on the ‘Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue’, the type of lure he was using. It was a 3-inch wedge of plastic, vaguely fish-shaped, with three evil-looking treble hooks dangling from its belly. “The Rogue offers lots of flash and erratic action, along with the ability to sit motionless – a common strike-triggering tactic. The bait’s nearly neutral buoyancy enables it to hold its position when paused and then dart away with the next twitch…. Liiike, so… and…”
I tuned out his prattle and just observed him as he fished. His face was tanned and wind-blown and would not have been wholly unpleasant to look at had he not ruined it by wearing a thick mustache that moved like a grotesque, hairy caterpillar as he talked. He had lost all of his wispy, brown-gray hair except for a straggly tuft, parted in the middle, like a second mustache at the top of his domed forehead. He wore John Lennon style wire-rimmed glasses that magnified hawkish, predatory eyes. Although slight in stature, he had a pronounced potbelly, as if he were as pregnant as Claudia, which he proudly dubbed his “6-pack” owing to the oceans of beer he claimed to swill back every day. I concluded that, in the eyes of women, he probably had about as much physical appeal as a bloated walrus. He certainly had not, to my knowledge, been linked romantically to anyone since moving out to Herring’s Jaw almost 10 years ago.
“Whoa!” he shouted suddenly, as his fishing rod bent in such an impossible downward arc it looked like it would surely snap in two. He pulled back hard on the rod and started reeling in the line excitedly. “Got a big one here, doc!” I watched, in quite rapt fascination, as Doug struggled to land the catch. After some time, just a few meters out from the shore, the fish broke out from the crest of a frothy wave and into the open air. It was a beautiful rainbow trout, almost 2 feet long, and as the rays of the sun slanted through the trees and bounced off its radiant gills, which looked like gem-studded armor, I could have sworn the expression on the fish’s face, in that fleeting instant, was one of angry defiance. A few minutes later, it was flipping haplessly on the rocks suffocating to death.
“Goddamn it,” muttered Doug.
“What is it?”
“Son of a bitch has swallowed the lure.”
“Oh no,” I gasped. “What are you going to do?”
“There’s nothing else for it,” said Doug, grimly, as held the fish down and yanked on the line viciously. The ugly lure popped out of the mouth with a sickening gurgling noise. Half of the insides were ripped out with it and dangled from the bloody hooks. The body flipped a few more times and then went still.
“Was that absolutely necessary?!” I cried. “Couldn’t you have killed that poor creature first?!”
“It’s dead now, doc,” said Doug matter-of-factly.
“I trust you enjoy your supper tonight,” I said in disgust and turned away to leave. “Come on, Ben. Let’s go.”
“Um…” said Doug, hesitantly.
“What?” I said, irritably, turning back to face him.
“I don’t eat fish. Don’t like the taste. You can have it if you want.”
Incredulous, I searched his twitchy, bottle-green eyes. “Wrap it up and give it to me,” I said quietly. “All of it. The innards too.”
Later on that night, I stood in front of the open deep-freeze freezer in my basement. It cast a long glaring light over all of the cobwebbed bric-a-brac Leah had collected over the years and had adamantly refused to get rid of. I had laid out all of the meal-sized packets of trout on top of the other meats I had stored away in deep freeze. I was holding the last packet, which I had labeled ‘Doug Black’. It contained the fish’s mutilated guts and, as I stared at it, I resolved that I would be making a special something for Doug at next summer’s barbecue. Just as I tossed it in with the rest of the food and snapped close the freezer, my cell phone jangled in my pocket, startling me in the darkness.
“Doc! Doc!” yelled Brody, hysterically, down the line.
“What is it?!”
“You got to come! You got to come! NOW!!! Claudia’s bleeding!”
The panic turned out to be nothing more than Claudia passing her cervical mucus plug (or operculum), a mass that fills and seals the cervical canal during pregnancy and deters the passage of bacteria to the uterus. As is perfectly normal, it came out over several days and was tinged with brown, pink and red blood, unflatteringly referred to in layman’s terms as the “bloody show”. Although the event did not imply that labor was imminent, it still served as an unwelcome reminder that the days before I would be called upon to deliver Claudia’s baby were numbered.
The dreary month of November had arrived and with it a relentless, driving rain that pummeled the last of the leaves from the trees which looked more and more bereft and forlorn, their bare branches etched out across the gray sky like complex arteries of dying men. The cold humidity leached into the bones in a far more insidious and unpleasant way than the dry, frigid air that blew down from the arctic during the winter months. The winter season was, in fact, significantly cheerier due to the thick snow that blanketed the region almost continuously from mid-December through to early-March.
The wretched weather and the short days caused me to be more housebound and increased the sting of loneliness over Leah’s loss. As a result, in the evenings, I found myself going out far more often to my local. It was a fairly non-descript tavern with a pool table, a couple of dart boards and a half decent variety of beers on tap. Although it was luridly named ‘The Harlot’s Bed’, it was frequented almost exclusively by men, of varying ages, who sought refuge from female company for whatever temporary or more protracted reason.
On one of these evenings, not long after the false alarm with Claudia, I was about to put out the lights and make my way over to the tavern with Ben when my doorbell chimed merrily, probably for the first time since Leah’s wake.
“Hi!” said Marylyn Paige, brightly, after I had opened my front door a crack and peered out suspiciously into the gloom.
“Oh!” I said, surprised. “Hi.” I was quite relieved to see that it was a familiar, friendly face. Marylyn was an attractive thirty-something who I was quite familiar with in two very different contexts. First, she worked at the post office and handled all of my regular correspondence with the labs and hospital facilities in the city. Second, as her physician, I had treated her on a number of occasions after she had sustained sometimes quite brutal beatings at the hands of her then-husband, Paul Fowler, a hard-bitten logger with a cut-diamond body who was as mean as vinegar when sober and a monstrous degenerate when drunk, which was most of the time. The last time I had treated Marylyn, I had cupped her swollen face in my hand and, staring into her stormy blue eyes, said: “This can’t go on any longer. You simply must press charges this time.” She had been too distraught to respond but, with quivering lips, lightly kissed the palm of my hand, nodded, and left my office. Two days later, Paul was at the receiving end of a pointblank shotgun blast that had literally blown his head clean off of his shoulders and re-decorated the inside of his pickup truck with a slosh of brain matter and skull fragments. I had testified at Marylyn’s murder trial, with a passion that had made Leah uneasy, and she was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Marylyn said, shyly, blinking away some strands of black hair that had fallen across her forehead. “There was a bake sale today and I have some blueberry pie left over. I thought… Well, I thought maybe you might like to have some with me. I know you’re all alone here now.”
“Well, okay. Sure,” I said awkwardly. “Come in.”
We ate the pie sitting on the living room couch and chatted in a casual but careful manner. Not a word was exchanged about either Leah or Paul and, after a while, I realized I was quite enjoying the unexpected company. I also could not help but notice that Marylyn was wearing a tastefully revealing, short-cut black dress. A silver, oval-shaped locket hung from her throat and she had a fresh lavender scent about her. Just as it finally dawned on me what was happening, she placed her hand on top of my leg, between my knee and my groin, and whispered in my ear: “a good man like you doesn’t deserve to be alone.”
I gazed down at the elegantly sculpted features of her pale face that had once weathered the blind fury of Paul’s fists. Her eyes moistened slightly and she lifted her full red lips up to mine. Forty-five minutes later, with half of the furniture in my living room knocked over or upended altogether, I lay on my back in the middle of the floor, panting. Marylyn slowly got dressed, I realized guiltily, right underneath the ceiling fan from which Leah had hung herself. Ben watched impassively from an easy chair that he had claimed as his own some time ago.
“I better be going,” she said, kneeling beside me and kissing my cheek.
“Really?” I asked, irritating myself with the cloying tone in my voice. I did not want her to go.
“You’re still mourning,” she said. “You’re anxious and jittery. Everyone can see that. It’s okay.”
“What I’m anxious about is Claudia’s baby,” I blurted out, irritating myself again.
“Why’s that?” she asked, softly, her hand stiffening in mine. “Do you know?”
“Know what?” I asked, sitting up abruptly and shaking the fog from my head.
“A month or so ago, Brody went nuts and accused Claudia of cheating on him. Said the baby isn’t really his and punched her in the stomach. After, she started bleeding. I guess you know about that part though…”
“Jesus Christ,” I swore under my breath.
“Listen,” said Marylyn, firmly. “You didn’t hear anything from me, okay? I’ve got to go. I’ve… I’ve got to go.”
A few minutes later, I was putting my living room back together. My head was swimming. I felt so overwhelmed, I simply could not stand up any longer and collapsed into the easy chair beside Ben, who grunted in protest but then rested his head on my lap and dozed off. I stroked his ears and envied his obliviousness to anything beyond his loyalty to me and his own comfort. I searched my feelings and all I could feel was anger. But what was so confusing and disorienting was my inability to identify to what, or to whom, my anger was directed. I was reminded, not for the first time, of watching the Sex Pistols in a dingy London club in 1977 when I was slothing around one summer, much to my father’s displeasure, in my early twenties. Their volcanic display of visceral rage, which spat savagely upon something indefinable, but palpably there, had left a lasting impression on me.
My thoughts of Johnny Rotten’s contorted mask of hatred were banished by the sound of a door snapping shut upstairs. Ben opened his eyes and looked plaintively upwards. He knew the unmistakable sound as well as I did: although seldom, it had always been Leah’s signal to me when she was angry. I went cold. Pulling Ben closer to me, all I could see through the bay window was the whirling tapestry of intergalactic light blasted out, like the contents of Paul Fowler’s head, from stars extinguished so many hundreds of millions of years ago.
“Push, Claudia! Push!!” urged Helen, the midwife who was assisting me in Claudia and Brody’s cramped, almost claustrophobic, bedroom. The cervix was almost fully dilated and I could see the crown of the turnip-shaped head which, I noted with relief, appeared undamaged and was coated in a thatch of wiry black hair quite clearly passed on through Brody’s bloodline. Claudia’s labor had been mercifully brief and the baby’s vitals had remained strong and steady throughout. I was becoming cautiously optimistic.
“I’m so hot,” Claudia moaned. Glancing up, I noticed that her face was glistening under a thick sheen of sweat in the lamplight.
“She’s burning up. Open the window,” I snapped at Brody. He had been loitering uselessly in the corner of the room, too squeamish to watch, his skin having taken on the light-green hue of avocado flesh. Anyone would think he was in the vertiginous throes of acute seasickness.
“Ah, thank Christ,” he mumbled as he strode over to the window and flung it wide open. It was minus 15 degrees centigrade outside and the icy air rushed in like water through a breached dam.
“Not all the way, you fool!” bellowed Helen. “Just a crack for some air! What’s wrong with you?” Her aversion to Brody was so undiluted; I could only conclude that she had heard the same rumour about him that Marylyn had passed on to me.
“Okay, alright… sorry,” he whined like a scolded grade-schooler. He lowered the window to an inch or so from the sill and skulked back grumpily to the corner with his hands thrust deep in his pockets. Helen rolled her eyes at me and we turned our attention back to Claudia.
“Push, Claudia!” I said in the most encouraging and cheerful tone I could muster. “Almost there! Head’s coming and looking good! Push! Push!” She arched her back and balled the bed sheets, soaked in amniotic fluid, in tight fists. Throwing her head forward, slick hair streaked across her face, she screamed so loudly there was an abrupt rush of wings outside the window as a flock of startled birds hastily took flight from the surrounding trees and disappeared in a dark, panicked cloud across the night sky. She relaxed her hips and her eyeballs rolled back behind fluttering eyelids. The wriggling, bloodied mass came squelching out of the birth canal face down into my arms. The two arteries and one bulging vein in the yellowish, jelly-coated umbilical cord pulsated slowly and deliberately, continuing to nourish the newborn, like heavily sleeping serpents.
“Hooray!” cried Helen, beaming. “Brody, get over here!”
“Really?” he said, suddenly energized, as if jolted from a drug-induced stupor by smelling salts. He craned his neck over Helen’s shoulder with bewildered, incredulous eyes. My heart in my mouth, I gently turned the baby on its side, revealing the left side of its face. It was almost cherubic in its perfection.
“Awwwww…” cooed Helen, dotingly, as the infant continued to squirm in my hands, straining to take the first few excruciating breaths that would expel the last of the amniotic fluid from the lungs. I gently rolled the body to face upwards, cradling the back of the soft, fontanelled skull. There was a collective gasp and my hands began to tremble.
“What is it?” asked Claudia urgently. “What’s wrong?!” The right side of the face was collapsed from the temple to the maxillary arch as if something from within the cranium had sucked the flesh and bone inwards. The right eye was sunk so deep within the face it was almost hidden. The pinched and angry-looking purple skin that surrounded the crater stretched back the upper lip into a ghastly, toothless leer.
“It’s a boy,” I said, weakly, and gently placed the gurgling child on Claudia’s chest. She stared at Brody in horror as the placenta slithered out, as if alive, and settled into a black-red puddle of gore between her spread legs.
Claudia and Brody never questioned their baby’s hideous deformity, presumably because they had concluded it was the direct result of Brody’s punch. I, however, knew that it bore all of the characteristics of a needle injury suffered during a botched amniocentesis. Proving myself, once again in my life, to be a profound moral cripple, I kept quiet and let Brody bear the crushing anguish over something he almost certainly was not responsible for.
I deflected my guilt by allowing myself to indulge too often in ‘The Harlot’s Bed’ and aggravated it by allowing Marylyn to indulge too often in mine. Adding to my misery, it was not long before the holiday season arrived, a time of year I had despised most of my life for its wretched excess and absurd pretense of “peace on Earth and goodwill toward men”. Domestic violence in Herring’s Jaw, like everywhere else in the country, spiked over the holidays and I treated more patients for depression and anxiety over this period than at any other time of the year. It was no small wonder given the psychological toll of attempting to cope with a crushing tidal wave of artificial gaiety, forced family and social obligations and dizzying levels of financial debt as savings evaporated only to pay for unnecessary orgies of food and alcohol and avalanches of expensive gifts, the vast majority of which would be discarded or go unused within a few weeks. For myself, the same tired carols bleated out over the PA systems year after year in the department store, grocery store, drug store and shopping mall were provocation enough to make me want to set fire to the tacky, plastic nativity scenes and other obnoxious decorations – most made by the desperately poor toiling away in Chinese manufacturing plants using heavy metals and toxic compounds – erected in the front yards of the oblivious and careless.
One Saturday morning, the day before Christmas Eve, I stood out on the end of my dock in snow shoes after a long hike in the woods with Ben, his happy face a shaggy mess of ice crystals glinting in the sun. The lake was still freezing over and a fog of condensing water snaked up from the middle of its surface like a giant witch’s cauldron slowly coming to a boil. As I realized that I desperately needed coffee, a deep rumbling sound reverberated across the lake as if some kind of colossus was angrily stamping its way across the opposite shore, almost 2 kilometers away. Ben cocked his head, listening intently, as I reached for my binoculars. Before I could lift them to my face, there was a series of thudding explosions and fireballs leapt skyward from the tree-line with such violence it was reminiscent of napalm strikes depicted in Hollywood Vietnam movies. Two long tongues of chunky, orange fluid rapidly flowed out onto the surface of the lake as if oozing from the depths of a sleeping dragon’s nostrils. Moments later, a shock wave of hot air knocked Ben and I back, almost off our feet. Panic-stricken, we turned and fled for cover in the house.
Several hours later, I was sitting in ‘The Harlot’s Bed’ with a gang of grim-faced men glued to the TV screen. It had not been a meteor as I had suspected. Rather, an unattended 74-car freight train had broken free from its moorings, run away and derailed at high speed on a curve close to the lakeshore. Of the 74 cars, 72 had been fully loaded with 113,000 liters of petroleum crude oil, most of which had exploded upon impact with the equivalent destructive force of 1,000 tons of TNT. A blanket of oil had generated a wall of fire, 30 meters high, over a 1 square kilometer blast radius. Two large rivers of oil continued burning into the lake and the fires were not expected to be extinguished for days to come. “A tragic environmental catastrophe for the region,” intoned the TV commentator as helicopters circled the devastated area and camera crews zoomed in on oil-coated birds and other wildlife slithering around wide-eyed and helpless. My friend, John Gallagher, who had spent his entire life in Herring’s Jaw, drained his glass of Jameson, wiped his gray beard with nicotine-stained fingers and muttered “paradise lost, gentlemen.” I thought of Leah and how traumatized she would be by this and it was all I could do not to burst into tears.
The next night, Christmas Eve, Marylyn came by unannounced, as was her custom. When I flung open the front door irritably, I was dismayed to see her clad in a naughty elf costume.
“Oh, God,” I sighed.
“Now don’t be like that, Mister Scrooge,” she said, pushing me aside and strutting through the vestibule. “It’s Christmas Eve and you’re going to have fun with me, like it or not. We’re going to string popcorn! Here, now put this on,” she said, getting up on her tip-toes and jamming an ill-fitting Santa’s hat on my head.
“I brought some antlers for Ben too.”
“Yes!” she pipped as she began attaching the ridiculous head gear to Ben who was innocently minding his own business in his easy chair. He looked askance at me as if to say please get her out of here.
An hour later, we were stringing popcorn in front of the fire. Ben wandered around, aimlessly, crashing into things with his antlers and shaking his head. “You know,” I said, “torturing me is one thing but have you ever heard of cruelty to animals? Can I please liberate my dog from your whims?”
“No,” she said firmly. “He looks cute. You do too!”
“What’s up with the popcorn, anyway?” I asked resignedly.
“When I was a little girl, after my mother died, Daddy and I strung popcorn together when we needed to feel better.”
“I’m not your Daddy,” I said darkly.
“No, but you’re old enough you almost could be!” she said, laughing with a mischievous wink.
“Leah’s haunting me,” I blurted out, surprising myself.
“Every time you leave, I hear her door close upstairs. Ben hears it too. She’s still here and she’s mad at me. I’m mad at me. So many things… I wonder how Claudia and Brody are doing tonight…”
“Baby,” she said, as she put down her string of popcorn and plunked herself into my lap. “You’re grieving. You’re hurting. It’s just your imagination.”
“Ben hears it too!” I protested.
“You’re imagining that too,” she said, softly. A moment later the power went out and a clicking sound rapped at the windows. We both jumped to our feet.
We crept over to the bay window, hand-in-hand, and peered out. Ben followed, knocking over a coffee table with his antlers.
“Ice storm,” I said. The bombardment of half-frozen pellets slashed down through the gusting winds that billowed off the lake. Fork lightning crisscrossed the sky in fluorescent white veins, cracking it like the shell of a hardboiled egg. Thunder rumbled in, sonorously, from a distance in advance warning. The oil fires continued to rage through the murky, wet chaos across the waste of icy water.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Marylyn, happily, putting her arm around my waist, the bells on her elf’s hat tinkling.
“It’s retribution,” I said hoarsely as I felt my knees beginning to buckle.
Power from my backup generator kicked in not long after the outage. The town’s regulations stipulated that all buildings be equipped with one. It was a very good thing too as, for the next 4 days straight, steady freezing rain and drizzle fell over a relatively narrow swath of land in and around Herring’s Jaw. The radio declared that an ice storm of this sustained length and intensity only occurs every 500 years or so.
The roads became completely impassable so Marilyn was stuck inside with me for the duration. It was spooky lying in bed with her at night and listening to the regular, menacing sound of branches and entire trees crashing to the ground under the ever-increasing weight of the ice. One night she joked, weakly as she had become frightened, that it sounded like Godzilla was on the loose outside. For my part, the natural destruction, following so closely on the heels of the catastrophic train wreck, combined with my harrowing personal guilt and shame and filled me with a melancholy sorrow so profound I felt as though it was the apocalypse.
On the morning of the fifth day after the storm had begun, we woke to see the sun, a distorted yellow blob, shining through the ice encrusted window. “Oh, thank God,” sighed Marilyn. I too felt relief surge through me as I sprang out of bed. A few minutes later, after getting dressed, we flung open the front door and simultaneously gasped. The woods were a tangled mess of shattered branches and tree trunks split down the middle as if they had been hewn by a gigantic meat cleaver. Literally everything, from the smallest twigs to the thickest branches, was uniformly coated in a good 5 centimeters of ice.
“Oh my,” I whispered as, despite the epic devastation, it was just about the most beautiful spectacle I had ever seen in my life. The whole world had been transformed into a dazzling crystal palace of refracted light. The woods groaned as they labored under the added strain of a breeze coming up off the lake. Our cars looked like two solid ice sculptures, including the tires. It did not matter as a large maple tree had fallen behind them completely blocking off the exit from the driveway. Although the storm was over, Marilyn would not be going back home any time soon. “I’ll call the relief hotline today and see when they’re planning on clearing it out,” I said, turning to her. “Luckily, the deep freeze is well stocked and we won’t go hungry.”
A few hours later I was hiking deep into the woods, my spiked crampons crunching on the bed of ice-entombed snow. I had left Ben back at the house with Marilyn as I was worried about him getting clobbered by a falling branch. “What about you getting clobbered by a falling branch?!” Marilyn had protested. I assured her I would be careful and set out, binoculars around my neck and my father’s old hunting rifle slung across my shoulder. I never used the gun to hunt but, on rare occasions, it came in handy to scare off bears that came too close.
It was slow going, picking through all the debris and constantly looking skyward, ever watchful for falling branches as they creaked painfully like old doors on rusty hinges. I had the surreal, but not wholly unpleasant, feeling that I was walking through a ghostly, eerily-lit forest of shattered glass. Stopping for some water, I heard the whimpering of an animal not far in front of me. Following the sound, I stumbled across one of Doug Black’s foothold traps. In between the metal teeth of its two vicious jaws dangled the gnawed-off leg of a red fox. “Son of a bitch!” I swore bitterly as I followed the heavy red droplets to where the animal had collapsed, bleeding out gruesomely onto the ice. It was a young adult male and, as he looked up at me startled with piercing green-brown eyes, he tried to drag himself further away. Unslinging my rifle, I put it out of its misery. The shot reverberated loudly through the trees and, as I watched the fox’s tail twitch a few times and his eyes slowly close, I was consumed with revulsion and anger. I smashed the trap against a tree, chunks of ice showering in all directions, until it was nothing more than a twisted jumble of steel. I then carried the fox a good distance from the trap and hid the body so it would not get skinned by Doug Black, a man who I was now actively fantasizing about murdering.
An hour or so later, I reached ‘The Chattering Teeth’, a bubbling stream so named because the water spilled at such speed over the rocks, down from the hills to Ragged Lake, that it rarely froze over completely in winter. I stooped to wash the fox’s dried blood off my hands when I heard voices coming from downstream that unmistakably belonged to Claudia and Brody. What were they doing all the way out here? Abandoning my hand washing, I crept down the bank of the stream until they came into view around a bend. I took cover behind a fallen tree and listened.
“I don’t think I can do this,” said Brody, his voice thick with anxiety.
“You have to,” said Claudia curtly. “We agreed. This is your responsibility and you have to take care of it. I can’t live with this. I want to start over.”
“What about that shot we heard?”
“What about it? A hunter off in the distance. Can’t you see we’re completely alone? Now, here,” she said, pulling a moving bundle from inside her coat and shoving it into Brody’s hands. Crying sounds immediately escaped from it and I felt my throat begin to constrict, suppressing a scream. “Do it!” she demanded.
“Okay!” Brody cried, his face a mask of desperation, as he plunged the bundle up to his elbows in the frigid, roiling water of ‘The Chattering Teeth’, holding it down as Claudia turned her back. “It’s done,” he croaked moments later, dropping the bundle on the ice. “Now what?”
“Take the blankets off and leave it there. By this time tomorrow, the animals will have finished it.”
I gazed at Claudia and Brody slowly walking away, arm-in-arm. The dead infant, naked but for a diaper, lay face-down on the ice, its blue limbs splayed awkwardly. A large branch fell and shattered the ice right beside me. I did not hear it. It did not even make me jump. The sun was getting lower in the sky and the postscript to Leah’s poem floated through my numb mind: Do not go out into the woods at night, my dearest. Things weep in the dark; creatures that bite.
“Where the hell have you been?!” shouted Marilyn as I stalked into the house.
“What?” I muttered grumpily, patting Ben’s head as I shook off my boots. “Hiking, like I told you.”
“Hiking?! You’ve been gone all day! It’s been dark for two hours now!” she shouted even louder, balled fists on her hips. “I was worried sick! Do you know how many times I tried to call you?!”
“I don’t think so,” I said, pulling my cell phone from my pocket. Sure enough, there were almost 10 missed calls from the house. I had not heard it ring even though it was not set to silent mode. “Oh!” I exclaimed contritely. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t hear it. Honest.”
“I was just about to call Sherriff Jacobs and report you missing!” she said, lowering her voice slightly as she could see that I was confused and genuinely apologetic. “What were you doing out there? It’s dangerous out there!”
“I got a little bit lost,” I lied. “But then I found ‘The Chattering Teeth’ and made my way home. It took so much longer because it had gotten dark.”
“And you didn’t call me?!” she asked, slapping her thighs with the palms of her hands in exasperation. “You know what? Just forget it. I’m going to bed. Come on, Ben.”
Ben followed her up the stairs obediently, clearly also displeased with my disappearance. Left alone, dripping with sweat on the couch, I contemplated the madness that was taking an ever firmer grip upon my mind. I had impotently watched, incapable of intervening even though I was armed, as an innocent baby, horribly disfigured by my own incompetence, was ruthlessly murdered by its own parents. Afterwards, I had lacked the moral compass to call 911 and report witnessing the crime and confessing my own role in Claudia and Brody’s motivation in committing it. Far worse than this though, I had the dead child, frozen solid with an appalling expression of shock and horror on its mutilated face, stuffed in my back pack. With a heavy sigh, I lifted my exhausted body from the couch and, trance-like, headed down to the basement where I vacuum packed the little copse and buried it at the bottom of the deep freeze, for what reason I did not know.
Over the following days, the national spotlight on Herring’s Jaw intensified as news of the baby’s disappearance intertwined with the reporting on the ice storm and train wreck. I watched in rapt fascination as Claudia pleaded into the television cameras for the safe return of her “beautiful boy”. Brody squirmed beside her, grim-faced and silent. Their story was that they had run out of food and, after having stepping out briefly to get some groceries, returned to find the child missing. Day after day, the townspeople fanned out through the woods searching with the police authorities, many of whom had been dispatched from the city. I joined them on a couple of occasions to keep up appearances, once walking right beside the spot where the drowning had occurred, the ice on the mangled trees melting slowly under the sun as if weeping.
In time, the search was called off and everyone just quietly went back to their own business and recovering from the storm. I did receive, one morning towards the end of January, a most unwelcome visit at the clinic from a federal agent. Without knocking, he marched into my office, flashed his badge, sat down in front of me and stared at me searchingly over the frames of his glasses as if I was the one who had just barged in on him. He crossed his legs and stroked out the creases lining the front of his expensive suit. He had the face of an ill-tempered bulldog and smelt like he had spent the night in a brothel.
“Um, can I help you, detective?” I asked.
“I’ve been having a little chat with your girlfriend,” he said in a gruff, baritone voice.
“Excuse me? Girlfriend?”
“Yeah, Marilyn Johansson from the post office.”
“She isn’t exactly my girlfriend.”
“Whatever,” he said, examining his nails nonchalantly. “Maeve Wheeler tells me you’ve had a thing for her ever since she greased her husband and that you’ve been tapping her pretty much ever since your wife killed herself.”
“What does my relationship with Marilyn have to do with anything, anyway?” I asked furiously.
“Absolutely nothing,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “You’re the one who took exception to me referring to her as your girlfriend. The nature of your relationship with her is of absolutely no interest to me whatsoever.”
“May I ask what is of interest to you then?”
“Well, I find it somewhat interesting that you disappeared on the same day the baby went missing.”
“I hardly disappeared,” I snapped. “I was hiking in the woods.”
“Your ‘friend’,” he said, making sarcastic parentheses in the air with his fingers, “Ms. Johansson, says you were gone all day. Didn’t get back until after dark. Said you seemed kind of dazed when you got back too. Kind of out of it…. She also mentioned you had a gun on you.”
“Detective”, I said through gritted teeth. “If I am a suspect in your investigation, would you be so kind as to just come out and say so?”
He stared at me stonily for a few seconds and then laughed mirthlessly. “Don’t worry doctor,” he said rubbing his thick mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “I don’t think you had anything to do with it.”
“Well then, what do you think? I certainly hope you aren’t relying on Maeve Wheeler as a reliable source of information.”
He laughed again and said: “I don’t have a shred of evidence but it’s clear to me that these kids, Claudia and Brody, are as guilty as sin. Baby freakishly deformed and unwanted. Got rid of it somewhere in the forest knowing that everyone else in town would be digging out and clearing up after the storm. And that’s pretty much what everyone else in town was doing. Except for you, doctor,” he said lowering his voice conspiratorially and winking at me malevolently. “Except for you. So, my question to you is this: did you see anything unusual out in the woods that day. Something that kept you out so long? Freaked you out and made you all jittery?”
I met his steady gaze with my eyes and held it. “No, detective,” I said in as neutral a tone as I could muster. “I didn’t see anything unusual.” He looked at me with a bemused expression on his face and, when I wiped a droplet of perspiration from my forehead, his eyebrow raised ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly. He knew I was lying and he knew I knew he knew.
“Okay”, he said getting to his feet, a large firearm dangling from his shoulder holster as he shrugged back into his blazer. He plucked a business card from his pocket and dropped it in the middle of my desk. “If anything happens to come to mind, give me a shout.”
“Sure,” I grumbled as he swaggered from my office arrogantly, leaving the door open.
A few minutes later, Marilyn startled me by showing up at the office. “Hi,” she said sitting down and folding her hands in her lap.
“Hi,” I said glumly.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing,” I said, shaking my head and clearing my thoughts. I would tell her about the agent’s visit some other time. “What are you doing here?”
“Well,” she said, fluttering her eyelids prettily. “I need to see you as your patient… I need you to examine me.”
“What’s the problem?” I said, suddenly worried.
“No problem,” she laughed nervously and averted her eyes to the window. “It’s just that I’m more than 3 weeks late on my period and, as I’m sure you’ve probably noticed, my breasts have become the size of oranges… Wow, you look like I just hit you across the back of the head with a frying pan!”
I am certain that was quite accurate as I felt like I had just been hit across the back of the head with a frying pan.
I had been so darkly preoccupied with the drowning at the Chattering Teeth, I actually had not noticed any increase in the size of Marylyn’s breasts. So I just sat there inertly, except for rapidly blinking eyelids, and speechless with my mouth hanging open as if I was a recent victim of a frontal lobotomy. I felt blood rushing to my head but it seemed like it was getting blocked in the web of veins around my temples and unable to reach my brain.
“Hey,” said Marylyn, laughing nervously, “snap out of it! Are you going to examine me?”
“Um… what? Yes… I… yes, of course,” I stammered, trying to shake my head clear. “Let’s go.” She stood up, came behind the desk, took my limp hand in hers and led me to the examination room adjacent to the office. I lifted the back of the examination bed to a 45 degree angle and gestured at it. She lay back, lifted her dress up around her waist, pulled off her stockings and panties and handed them to me with a wink and a smile. As I pulled the stirrups out from the foot of the bed and placed her feet in them, I tried to give her a stern, disapproving look which only succeeded in making her laugh. Sighing, I went to the sink and washed my hands with antibacterial soap. I snapped a rubber glove over my right hand and applied some lubricating gel to my index and middle fingers.
“Are you serious?” asked Marylyn, incredulous and rolling her eyes.
“Listen,” I said irritably, “you asked to see me as your patient so I am going to examine you as your doctor. Okay?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” she said.
“Good,” I said, taking a deep breath and slowly easing my fingers into her vagina. She arched her back and bit down on her lower lip, suppressing a moan. There had certainly been no need for the gel as she was clearly aroused. I pushed in deeper until I found the cervix. It was not where it normally would be. It had risen higher and was significantly softer than normal. How could I have not noticed this before? I thought, as wave after wave of panic crashed through me, jarring the very marrow of my bones. I felt as though it was 30 years ago all over again; it was the exact same feeling of abject terror I had experienced after I had examined the dean’s daughter and discovered her pregnant. My fingers slid out and I pulled off the glove with a shaking left hand and threw it in the waste container. Marylyn stared at me intently, the skin stretched tightly across her fine features in anticipation, as I slumped into a chair beside the examination bed and rubbed my temples.
“Well?” she demanded. “You look like you’re watching a horror movie for Christ’s sake!”
“We’ll do the blood work, of course, but I can assure you, Marylyn, that you are quite pregnant. You can get up and put your clothes back on now.”
“Oh, oh, oh!” she cried excitedly, clapping her fingertips.
“I gather by that reaction you intend to keep it?” I asked anxiously.
“What?” she asked darkly, all the gaiety evaporating from her face in an instant.
“What I mean,” I said tentatively, “is that I guess this is what you really want?”
“Well, I didn’t plan it,” she said peevishly, “but now that it’s happened, of course I want it. Why would I ever want to… want to… you know – THAT?! This baby is ours. WE made it together. Damn it, how could you even think it?!”
“Yes, you know – about that,” I said as I felt my anger rising to hers. “I had assumed that a sexually active woman in her thirties would be using some kind of protection.”
“Have you completely lost your mind?!” she shouted. “How could a man your age – a doctor – an obstetrician – possibly make such an assumption?! Did you never once think to just ask me?! And ‘sexually active woman in her thirties’?! Really?! The only person I’ve been with since Paul is YOU!!!”
I sighed, stood up and walked over to the window. It was so cold outside and humid enough inside that almost the entire window was painted with elaborate patterns of ice crystals that looked like long, slender fern leaves being blown around in a swirling wind. “Ice flowers,” I muttered as my distorted reflection stared back at me ghoulishly. I noticed there was still a smudge where the insect had crashed into the glass last summer and caused me to botch Claudia’s amniocentesis. I wondered if it had died because it was not paying attention to where it was going or because it had been deceived by the window. In either case, the ambit of the consequences of its flight had been remarkably wide and catastrophic. I thought about my life and all of the careless mistakes I had made. I realized that I never look out for where I am going and I too, whenever I crash, don’t get killed like the insect; I survive intact, cover my tracks and run, leaving behind the damage I have caused for other people to clean up.
I turned away from the window and walked over to Marylyn. She stood by the doorway, head bowed, sniffling and angrily wiping her eyes with the back of her sleeve. I stroked her black hair back behind her ears and lifted her chin with the heel of my palm so that she faced me. Her rainy eyes were red and puffy and brimming with tears. Her lower lip trembled slightly. “I’m sorry”, I said in all sincerity. “Really. I am just so shocked and… well, scared.”
“Why are you scared?” she said, taking my hand and searching my face.
“You know, despite all the babies I have delivered in my life, even when I was young I could never really grasp the idea of being a father myself. When Leah discovered she couldn’t have children, it was almost a relief. Through my life, I feel I haven’t done such a great job of taking care of myself or my patients – never mind taking care of a child. It sometimes feels like everything I touch goes bad or goes away… in the end. I feel like… like… I cause damage.”
“I don’t know why you are saying these things. Everyone in Herring’s Jaw admires and respects you. Don’t you know that? You took such good care of me when I was with Paul. You saved my life when I was on trial. You have been so kind and decent to me. And I’m still here. Why can’t you see that you ARE a good man and a good doctor? Can’t you see how much I love you?” she asked, blinking up at me earnestly.
I took her in my arms and held her tight. Little did she know I had Claudia and Brody’s murdered baby in the deep freeze. Little did she know that I often went down to the basement to look at it, and sometimes even held it, late at night when she was obliviously sleeping in our bed upstairs. “I will do my very best to be a good father,” I whispered in her ear. “But remember I am old. In a couple of years I will be sixty. I could very well be dead before the kid finishes high school.”
“Don’t be silly,” she whispered breathlessly back in my ear. “You are so fit and strong.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said impulsively. “I don’t have any more appointments today – just paperwork that can always wait.”
“Okay!” she said, smiling happily. “Let me buy you a drink at ‘Tiff’s’. You sure look like you could use one.”
She was not wrong. We shrugged into our heavy winter coats and picked our way down the ice-glazed street to ‘Tiff’s’, a significantly more upscale bar than ‘The Harlot’s Bed’, located less than a block from my office. I gripped Marylyn’s hand with added protectiveness, already fearful for the safety of the blob of cells growing inside her. It was so cold that, in the few minutes it took to walk to the bar, the mucus in my nose had begun to freeze and beads of ice were settling on my eyelashes.
“Hello! Hello, you two!” cried Tiff, the portly good-natured owner who I had always liked, through the warmth, soft light, laughter and cheerful music that greeted us as we flung open the door and trudged inside, stamping our feet. “Come and warm up by the fire – this one’s just opened up,” she said, gesturing towards an empty table-for-two close to an enormous hearth where a mountain of logs popped and belched orange sparks through long tongues of flame. “What can I get for you?”
I drank beer thirstily while Marylyn stuck to tea despite my telling her that moderate drinking during pregnancy poses no threat to the health of an unborn child. For the next hour or so, she chattered merrily about motherhood and did not seem to notice that I was mostly unresponsive as I stared at the fire and brooded. “We should probably think about heading home,” she said, having concluded something about pacifiers that I had not been listening to. “You have to drive.”
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s go. I’ll fix something for us to eat from the deep freeze.”
Soon afterwards, we were driving along the snaking road that skirts Ragged Lake towards my house. The bouncing high beams cast their glare over the ice storm’s devastation of broken trees and fallen branches that littered either side of the road. Not for the first time, I was reminded of the haunting, grainy images of World War I battlefields which, for reasons I cannot explain, I find fascinatingly beautiful. Less than a kilometer from my driveway, a strange movement distracted my attention out of the driver’s side window. Turning to look, I gasped as I saw Leah swinging by the neck from a snapped off tree branch, weeping and holding out an aborted foetus – it’s coal black eyes boring into me in cold damnation. I slammed on the brakes, just as the car hit a patch of black ice and went into a spin that I could not control. Marylyn’s screams were cut short when the side of the car collided violently, the passenger door collapsing inwards with a sickening crunch, with the shattered base of a thick tree trunk. Twisted metal and glass sailed through the frost-pricked air; through the mists of losing consciousness just before everything went black on final impact.
It was mid-May, almost 4 months after the crash, and I sat out at the end of the dock on the first truly warm day of spring. Watery, musical tones lapped at the shore through the reeds under a gentle breeze. Swirling the chipped ice at the bottom of my drained martini glass, I looked out across Ragged Lake to the opposite shore. The ice-fractured tree branches, tinged a mossy green with struggling leaf shoots, stabbed up starkly into the yawning blue sky. They seemed to tear the bellies of the low-lying, cotton ball clouds into thin, twisted, white ribbons that blew out over the scrubby hills behind the tree line. The blackened, angry scars from the train disaster carved what looked like bite marks; two giant fangs dragged across the landscape until ending abruptly where the molten wreckage plunged through the ice and drowned in cold water.
An unwelcome pricking sensation alerted me to a mosquito, the first I had seen since the spring thaw, thirstily sucking on one of the many thick veins that crisscross the back of my hands and forearms like chaotic train lines. Leah had been so fascinated by my veiny body, she had photographed me naked and pasted some prints into her journal to accompany a morbid piece on vampirism. I watched absently as the mosquito’s belly swelled and, just before it extracted its javelin-like proboscis, I swatted it loudly, the symmetry of the blood splatter slowly spreading out over my skin around its crushed body like a Rorschach inkblot. “What do you see in the pattern?” I imagined a psychiatrist asking me.
“A foetus,” I murmured.
“What?” asked Marylyn, making me jump as I had not heard her and Ben approaching down the dock.
“Ah, nothing,” I said, with a twitchy shake of my head, flicking away the sticky mess from my hand. “Damn mosquitoes.”
“Wow, that was a big one,” she said as I got up, bent over the edge of the dock, and washed my hands in the freezing lake water which Ben leapt into with carefree delight. She sat down in the deck chair beside mine and smiled. Wearing a light, colorful tank top, she clutched her bowling-ball belly with her left arm while the right, amputated just above the elbow, dangled uselessly at her side, the scarring at the end twisting the purple skin grotesquely like a balloon knot. It was quite miraculous that this was the only injury sustained in the crash. Despite us being knocked out and the car almost completely destroyed, the airbags had deployed perfectly and protected everything, including the foetus, with the exception of Marylyn’s arm. It had been crushed and almost torn off when it got pinched in the shearing metal of the passenger door.
I took the piece of arm in my hands and massaged it gently from the shoulder down. “How are you feeling?” I asked earnestly, excruciating guilt coursing through me for the millionth time. I had been arrested at the scene of the crash after I failed a breathalyzer test. A further test at the police station revealed that my blood-alcohol content was .083, a hair above the legal limit. Sheriff Jacobs interviewed me at the station, cheerfully informed me that in his view I was not intoxicated and that he would “bury” the test result. I was free to drive to the hospital and be with Marilyn and no charges would be filed. Yet again, I had dodged a bullet and would not have to take any responsibility for my negligence.
Or so I thought at the time. A couple of weeks later, I was revisited at my office by the federal agent. He had dug up the “buried” test result and bluntly told me that he too would let me off the hook if I leveled with him about what I had seen out in the woods. When I reiterated that I had not seen anything, his entire head slowly went tomato-red as if it were about to violently explode like the mosquitoes’ engorged body I had just swatted. Without a word, he stomped from my office and slammed the door so hard, the wood cracked around its hinges. He immediately saw to it that Sheriff Jacobs was placed on administrative leave and, after a brief preliminary hearing before a clearly cowed judge in the city, a trial date was set for me for later in the year to answer DUI charges.
“I’m fine, baby. Please don’t look so tormented. I keep telling you everything is okay.” She meant it too, her spirit as ebullient as the snow trilliums defiantly popping out from the ice storm’s detritus strewn around the house. She held me blameless for the crash, insisting that, despite the failed breathalyzer, I was not intoxicated. It was simply an accident just like Sheriff Jacobs’ falsified report had concluded. Clueless that he was actually on to something, she contemptuously spat upon the federal agent’s harassment, declaring him a bullying thug who had only fallen on the right side of the law by happenstance.
“I know,” I said, smiling weakly. I marveled, as I scrutinized her contented face, that she was just as clueless that Leah had tried to kill her and the child growing inside her on that bleak, icy night in the dead of winter. Although Leah had not haunted me since, I felt a persistent, aching terror in the pit of my stomach that it was only a matter of time before she appeared again.
“You know”, she said, as I watched Ben splashing around and lunging at imaginary creatures conjured by the shadows of the waves he was creating, “I was wondering if we should have your barbecue a little earlier this year.”
“Um, sure. Why?”
“I don’t know. People still seem so down after all that’s happened – ”
“Ever since Leah died,” I interrupted, absently.
“Never mind Leah,” she snapped testily. “People are demoralized and they love your summer party. You know, Maeve Wheeler is putting ideas in peoples’ heads that Herring’s Jaw has fallen under a curse.”
“Oh, God. If only the next misfortune, conjured by this curse, could single out that old bat for something particularly unpleasant.”
“See? Even YOU are doing it!”
“I’m just kidding. When are you thinking to have the party?”
“How about a month or so from now? It will be warm enough. I can take care of it. Put the lanterns out and everything. All you have to do is prepare your world-famous sausages.”
“Sure,” I said, thinking blankly.
“And besides,” she said, pointing to her belly, “there is no curse because this is coming! Oh, and I forgot to tell you after I got back from the Market this morning – Claudia is pregnant again! More good news!”
I tried to stifle the bizarre sound, something between a snort and a burp colliding in my trachea, which reflexively escaped me. “Sorry. Excuse me,” I muttered, avoiding Marylyn’s quizzical look. My head lolled back and I stared up at the long, thin clouds which had now stopped moving. They seemed as if they had been scratched out of the deep blueness by the sharp talons of some gigantic bird of prey from outer space. “That… is… amazing…” I said slowly, struggling to mask my voice choking down the revulsion.
Marylyn stood up abruptly and squatted in front of me. “What are you doing?” I asked, alarmed, as she pushed my legs apart.
“You are so damn anxious these days,” she said reproachfully, deftly opening my belt and unzipping my fly with her one hand. “And I am going to relax you.”
“You can’t do that out here!” I cried.
“Oh yes I can!” she laughed, taking me in her mouth. As her head bobbed up and down rhythmically, I could feel the endorphins racing from my pituitary gland, like horses out of the gate, invading and relieving every aching cell in my body. My mind drained itself of all its tormented thoughts and I no longer cared who might be watching us through a pair of binoculars.
“Oh, my God…” I groaned loudly as I released. I stared at the top of her head, my pelvis shuddering. Not for the first time I was struck by the perverse idea that my semen was now going to nourish my unborn child.
“You know what?” I said, my spirits suddenly buoyed.
“What, baby?” she asked, looking up with a wet, sugary smile.
“I think it’s a great idea to have the party earlier this year. You’re right. We could all do with some cheering up around here.”
Much later on that night, I stood in the basement in front of a long counter adjacent to the deep freeze. On top of it, on an old, worn butcher’s block lay the well-preserved body of Claudia and Brody’s deformed baby. It had been defrosting since earlier in the evening (after I had drugged Marylyn at dinner and put her to bed). It was now fully thawed. The beam from my surgical headlamp threw a ghastly, enlarged shadow of the open-mouthed corpse across the wall. Its outstretched hands, locked in rigor mortis, seemed to grasp desperately for some invisible lifeline dangling from the well of darkness on the ceiling.
Clenching a long-handled scalpel, I cut open the torso from the sternum to the navel and gently removed the slippery pink liver and florid heart, careful to leave the other organs in tact and in place. I put them on a scale and was pleased to see that, together, they weighed almost exactly 250 grams. “Perfect,” I whispered. With a carving knife I cubed them, along with an additional 250 grams of skinless, boneless pork shoulder. I ground the mixture in a high-speed grinder, 3-4 pieces at a time into a chilled bowl. I added my “world-famous” concoction of spices and some Italian red wine and, not long after, I was setting out the newly made sausages, which I had labeled ‘C & B’ alongside the others I had made earlier, a mixture of fish guts and pork, labeled ‘DB’.
Turning back to the corpse, after carefully stapling the flaps of the long incision, I wrapped it up in plastic sheeting and placed it in a duffel bag along with a can of propane. I glanced at my watch. It was 2:30 AM. Plenty of time. Marylyn was out cold and would not begin to wake up until later on in the morning. Snapping off the headlamp, I grabbed a flashlight, slung the duffel bag over my shoulder and trudged out of the house. I did not have to worry about alarming Ben because I had drugged him too.
I marched with stony-faced determination deep into the woods, far away from any known paths, the shadows of the excoriated trees dancing like ungodly wraiths in front of the bobbing glare of the flashlight. I could hear the sounds of night creatures scuttling away from me as I approached. The light occasionally caught startled orange eyes, momentarily glowing like a jackals’, before disappearing into the chilly blackness. Along the way I collected some kindling and firewood and, after finding a small clearing, built a tiny pyre, placed the baby’s corpse on top of it, doused it in propane and set it ablaze. I watched grimly as the skin blackened and popped, the flesh underneath melting away like meat fat from the burning embers of twig-like bones.
Mesmerized, I whispered into the flames: “You shall have your vengeance…”
To be continued…