‘You haven’t lost the pregnancy,’ says the sonographer. ‘But I can’t find a heartbeat.’
The sonographer’s sentences don’t belong together. Amy notices that she has a tan face and a white neck, like parts from different bodies.
‘Can I see?’ she says.
The sonographer points at the screen. In a corner of Amy’s womb, floating with its back to her, in sulky suspended animation, is a shape.
‘There’s the blood flow from the placenta,’ the sonographer says, as a tide of grainy darkness flows in from the edge of the screen. ‘But there’s no fetal heartbeat.’
The sonographer continues to circle the image, shaking her head. It occurs to Amy that maybe it’s all just a problem of technology. A broken mouse. A frozen cursor. But then, when a nurse standing next to the cubicle’s green curtains leaves suddenly, Amy knows it isn’t that. And yet, she is still confused. She hasn’t lost the pregnancy. But there is no heartbeat. The baby is gone but not gone. It is an anomaly Amy can’t get her head around, like seeing the light from a dead star.
‘I’ll get the doctor,’ says the sonographer.
On Saturday evening, Amy bleeds. A pink-gray embryo sac falls into the stained gusset of her knickers. She shouts for Rob.
‘Connie’ll freak out,’ he says, walking into the bathroom. ‘You need to calm down.’
Even though Amy loves her stepdaughter; Connie with the jagged shoulder blades that stick out like wings; Connie who says ‘spaghetti with daleks’, instead of spaghetti with garlic; a sudden hatred for her husband works itself through Amy’s body like a contraction. Through the pink gray skin of the embryo sac, the blurry outline of something is emerging.
‘I’ll get towels,’ says Rob, looking away.
Later, Amy doesn’t know what to do with the embryo sac. Flushing it down the toilet as if it’s a goldfish, or shit, is unthinkable. Interring it in the freezer feels worse. She wraps it in a parcel of quilted toilet paper and stuffs it into her dressing gown pocket.
‘I don’t know what to do with it,’ she says to Rob, as they’re watching a Netflix thriller.
Amy has begun to picture the baby drying inside the toilet paper like snot; toilet paper sticking to the surface of the egg sac.
‘Bury it,’ says Rob, and then, out of the blue, as cops are dragging a dead girl out of a lake, ‘Can’t help thinking you’re enjoying this.’
‘Fuck you,’ she says, storming out to the kitchen.
In the kitchen, Amy studies the spice jars on the rack. Emptying the contents of the fenugreek jar into the compost caddy, she fills it with oil. There is a tremor, a kind of convulsion, as she drops the sac into the oil. The sac spreads and expands in the fluid. Amy sees the beginnings of legs, a spine curling inwards like a comma, a single eye meeting hers.
‘Hi little one,’ she says.
‘Sorry about last night,’ says Rob, the following morning. ‘Guess I freaked out.’
Amy clasps her fingers around the jar inside her dressing gown as if it were a secret.
‘I’m fine,’ she says.
‘I’ll try to be back by lunch,’ says Rob. ‘We could go out?’
Amy pushes the jar deeper into the pocket of her gown, careful not to push it through a tear in the seam, which used to be a slit but is now a spreading hole. She pulls the belt of the dressing gown tighter.
‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘If you’re back.’
After Rob has left, Amy relocates the spice jar to the drawer of her nightstand. Every hour or so, she climbs upstairs for a visit, as if she were visiting somebody in hospital. By eleven, the egg sac is unravelling; silky fibres unwrap themselves from around the baby’s torso, giving the impression of somebody undressing. Amy covers the jar in a tea towel.
At midday, she picks Connie from nursery and takes her to the park around the corner. Connie plays in the bushes behind the perimeter railings, pretending to be a zookeeper looking for a lost lion. A strong wind blows in from the west. Connie runs over to Amy’s bench.
‘Can you eat the wind?’ she says.
Amy normally likes the weird things Connie says. But today Amy is desperate to go back to the other baby to stop it disintegrating. She remembers a friend of her great auntie Lizzie’s, Beattie Francis, who kept a baby in ethyl alcohol in a kilner jar on her dressing table.
‘Let’s go home shall we?’ says Amy. ‘It’s getting cold.’
Settling Connie in front of the television, Amy checks in on the baby again. Apart from a few shreds of egg sac, stuck like transfers to the baby’s forehead and abdomen, the baby is naked. Strips of something have floated to the surface of the oil. Amy googles ‘how to preserve a foetus’. Her search returns a Daily Mail story about a mother who kept a foetus in an ice cube tray in the freezer, and You Tube videos about preserving chicken specimens in acrylic.
At two, Rob rings to say that he’s stuck at work.
‘Wasn’t expecting you anyway,’ says Amy.
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘How’s the bleeding?’
Amy knows she should be grateful. It’s the first time Rob has asked about the bleeding. And yet, Amy doesn’t give a fuck about the bleeding. She only gives a fuck about the baby. If anything, she likes the way the bleeding leaves her feeling light-headed, insubstantial. The fact that Rob knows so little about her; that he hasn’t even asked about her feelings; dredges up the bitterness she so often feels.
‘I got blood on the Ercol,’ she says. ‘It won’t come off.’
The Ercol chair is Rob’s prize possession. Amy is pleased that she bled on it.
‘Fucksakes,’ he says.
When Rob comes home, Amy makes her excuses and retires early to bed. Having repositioned the jar under her pillow for safekeeping, she tries to sleep. The edge of the jar presses through the pillow into her cheek, carving out nightmares. When she wakes, it is to the idea that someone has stolen the baby. She yanks the jar from under the pillow.
Inside, the egg sac has completely disintegrated; remains hang down from the surface in an assortment of gray and white tatters, like bunting. Amy resists the urge to shake the jar into life, as you might a snow globe. At the same time, the baby is more beautiful than ever. She follows the contours of its body; the head bent over onto the chest; tiny mounds where there would have been ears; the suggestion of toes.
‘Rob!’ she calls.
Rob is asleep in the guest bedroom, one leg poking out of the duvet.
‘Rob!’ she says again.
‘You’re gonna wake Connie,’ he says, rousing.
‘I need to show you,’ she says.
Putting the jar on the nightstand beside him, Amy turns on the lamp. The baby glows orange in the space that’s between them. Rob doesn’t say anything. Amy counts the stitches under his left nipple as she waits for him to respond. There are meant to be nine stitches; she can only count seven.
‘You need to see a therapist,’ he says, finally. ‘It’s not normal.’
A wave of loneliness comes at Amy with a force that makes her almost lose her balance. She grabs the jar from the nightstand.
‘We lost another baby,’ she says. ‘And you couldn’t give a fuck.’
Afterwards, she sits on the toilet lid. She wants things to be the way they used to be, when she and Rob met. It troubles her that she doesn’t know the number of stitches on her husband’s body, the exact colour of his eyes. And yet, compared with the love she feels for this baby, this special, precious thing of hers, her feelings for Rob are insignificant.
Taking the jar from the pocket of her dressing gown, as morning twilight filters through the etched pattern on the bathroom window, Amy presses her face hard into the glass of the spice jar to kiss the baby.
‘Love you sweetie,’ she says.
But it is not enough. Not nearly enough. She wants the baby to be alive again, or at least as alive as it was in the sonographer’s office. She wants it to exist in space, if not in time, like stone babies fossilized inside their mother’s abdomens. She wants it back inside her. Safe. Where it belongs. Tipping it out of the jar into her palm, Amy strokes the tiny body, from crown to rump, taking in the dark damp sweetness of it, before swallowing her baby whole.
Sian Hughes is a copywriter, screenwriter and writer currently working as a creative practitioner for the Arts Council of Wales’s Lead Creative Schools Scheme.
Her short stories have appeared in Scribble, Storgy and Fiction Pool. She is also working on a collection entitled ‘Pain Sluts’, part funded by an Arts Council Writers Bursary. Screenwriting credentials include ‘Natural Cures for Common Ailments’, selected for HTV Wales’s ‘Screengems’, scripts co-written with young people for the Lead Creative Schools Scheme, including ‘Wenglish, which won a Media 4 Schools Animation Award, and ‘Marw Stripio’, a Welsh language short broadcast on S4C.
Sian is also studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the Open University.
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The Fiction Pool, July 27 2018
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