It’s just an unknown web journal that probably no one reads, but something I wrote has been published. I’m thrilled. You would be, too.
I wasn’t always such a literary success. Every piece I submitted before was soundly rejected. ‘Too macabre, too florid, unlikable characters and unrealistic situations, unbelievable premises’, the editors responded, when they bothered to respond at all. So much rejection. Such harsh words hurled harshly in my direction.
I blame my five miscarriages for those rejections. Those ruined me and during those years I wrote ruined words. Those failures kidnapped all my sunshine and those rejection-happy editors couldn’t handle my inky truth, the havoc wrought by those five losses.
What would you have done with them, those five undone pregnancies?
You could take the romantic route. Light candles. Wrap each one in silk. Ivory-colored. Use a special box. Bury her in the nurturing arms of Mother Earth, lay her to rest with her siblings. You could plant five white roses over those five tiny coffins, your ritual surely a poultice for your swollen, tender torture.
I’m a dirt-poor wanna-be-writer, struggling to survive off what I glean from the State of New York. I’ve no more access to Mother Nature than the slatted shelf of a fourth-floor fire escape. No garden. No soil. No roses. Just me, unrooted. Uprooted, tethers dangling.
I couldn’t flush them. Just too horrid, drowning so scary. Instead, I entombed my loves in plastic grocery bags. Soft yellow, close to ivory. From Gristedes. I tucked them in a leftover husk of red onion. I embalmed them with residue of the honey I steal for my tea, knotted the plastic handles to a bow.
Then I swabbed between my legs and disinfected anything that needed it, this act bringing me back from that other place. ‘Clean floor, clean mind’, the nuns at Memorial Psych had made teenaged me repeat as I disinfected the long, green hallways, Sister Clara looming with a welt-inducing willow switch cocked and ready at the end of her long, long arm.
Then a hot bath and a cup of tea to calm my nerves. To steady my heaving insides for what came next, when I’d put on my robe, slip on my slippers, and shuffle to the trash chute. I hummed a dirge, deposited those bags into that square, black emptiness. They’d reach a landfill, eventually. Burial.
This is how a down-and-out writer entombs her dead. It’s what I could afford, that Social Services stipend insufficient for even the most basic of burials. New York makes a tiny deposit every month. In return, they are allowed to write in their notes that I am delusional. That I hallucinate. That an overriding theme of loss hovers over my entire being, trampling my psyche to mud. That I am unqualified to be a caretaker and should be kept away from children.
They’re wrong, of course. I love children. I’ve never wanted anything as much as I’ve wanted a child. For the sake of the funds, though, I allow their note taking. But I flat out refuse to take their pills. Those, I happily flush.
Scant funds they are. Barely enough to live on, certainly not enough for artificial insemination, required for those five pregnancies because I couldn’t convince anyone to impregnate me voluntarily. Apparently, I am not suitable for sex. This according to every man I’ve ever met. Never really cried about it though, except for the childless part. That was once the regret of my life.
Clinical insemination is so outrageously expensive, barely accessible to anyone, let alone me. Even you might not be able to afford it, unless you found a man in a stained white lab coat who claims in broken English to be a doctor in his native country, but who seems more like a farmer. Someone who does his deed in the bedroom of his fifth-floor walkup in the meat-packing district.
You might take that route.
“You pay first,” he might say, his hand outstretched.
I paid him five-hundred dollars. Five times, five years. For that, he did his thing every day of the six days of the month I was fertile. For as many months as it took, he promised.
“You don’t catch, you come back,” he said. “We’ll go again. Till you catch.”
I nodded my head. I handed over that greasy wad of green bills. Five times.
“Get on the bed, please, and thank you. Slide your bottom to the edge. Yes. Easier. Okay, close your eyes.”
I did as instructed. I kept my eyes clenched and my thoughts pure while he fumbled around down there doing who knows what. Whatever it was, it worked. Five times I conceived, always the first month. No second round needed.
Someone’s deity blessed our unconventional union. Then someone else’s cursed it.
Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. My obstinate womb, one hundred percent uncooperative, refusing, leaving me with nothing but childless despair. Eventually, it made no sense to try that route again.
Then imagine an ordinary day the next spring, year six. Me seated at my dinette scanning online ads, a habit left over from the days of placing my own ads. For Sale, those ads all started well enough when they appeared in print. Just as I’d written. But beyond that, a mess. Proofreading was required, everyone so sloppy. Five years and not a single word published. But ads? Stellar. Composed in seconds, published one and all, even if they often needed post-printing correction.
You wonder what I had to sell. You know I’m impoverished. Disabled, according to Social Services. I live in a converted attic, you’re told, literally have nothing of value.
There, I’ve said it. A relief.
I am a shoplifter. I lift things, advertise them for sale, collect the receipts. That’s how I came to have those handfuls of cash for that farmer. There’s a voluminous brown maternity dress hanging behind my bathroom door, and that dress is a wonder. Do you know how many costly designer clutches that dress can conceal?
Don’t judge me. The fault is not entirely mine. Who works at hip boutiques? Doltish girls, that’s who. Preoccupied, glued to their expensive phones. Always texting. Always swinging a lasso of body parts at passing boys. Too busy to suspect an ugly woman’s pregnancy bump growing by the clutch.
Nitwits. I’d do it again. I’d pinch twice as much and tell them it’s twins.
That day at my white Formica dinette, though. That ordinary day.
There I was poking half-heartedly at the keyboard of my ancient, big-as-a-mini-fridge computer. My pink plastic radio was turned up and Kim Carnes was serenading me with Betty Davis Eyes. The radio has a digital timepiece. One of the first ever, it flips a tiny flap to advance the time. Audibly. Such a cliché, I know, but for five years I’d listened to that clock flip away all chances of motherhood, flip away the only thing I ever imagined could make me whole.
That day, it flipped me to distraction. There I sat, twisting and untwisting a hank of my mud-colored hair, the clock flipping a clichéd frenzy, me twisting and untwisting, barely cognizant of what I was reading.
“She’s got Bette Davis eyes,” Kim crooned. Kim with her good hair. Wild hair. Blonde, untamable tresses. Imagine me with hair like that. Glowing like that. Imagine me, twirling. A fan blows, my hair dances.
Through all that these words levitated, hovered above the digital blue blur of my computer screen: “For Sale: Russian Baby. Very rare, no joke. $700. You must promise discretion.” There was also a phone number, but, discretion.
That ad cleaved my life to the time before, and the time after, and this is where this story really begins.
I dialed the number, fingers shaking. Clumsy. My cell was in danger of flying to the hardwood floor. Then, ringing on the other end. An aeon passes until finally a woman answers, her voice coarse sandpaper, the accent lemon on a paper cut.
“Yes?” A knife slashing wire.
“I’m calling about the ad. The one for the baby.” Me, forced calm.
“It is not exactly legal to sell these. In this country,” she said. “I need confirmation. You are not undercover? Not investigating?”
“You are not with any police agency?”
“The law requires it. You must divulge if asked.”
So maddening, this silly back and forth. Do I sound like a policewoman?
Satisfied, she laid out the details. I took notes with fingers still shaking, my penmanship an EKG test showing vast, scrawling abnormalities. But my heart was more than fine. It soared. Motherhood, finally possible.
I was to mail cash to a Jackson Heights post office box using a plain envelope addressed to a particular name. Fictitious name, I was certain. Hopefully, this baby wasn’t the same.
“You’re her?” I asked about the name.
She laughed. “These vagaries are necessary. Trust me. I know more than you about moving these.”
“I can bring the cash,” I said. My eyes rolled toward the bathroom. Toward that helpful brown dress.
“No. My plan protects both of us,” she said. “Less exposure. Protects you as well as me.”
“I understand,” I said. I didn’t.
“Once I have the funds in hand, you will receive further instructions. I’ll call.”
“How do I know you’ll deliver? What if you sell mine? Before my cash arrives?”
“I have twelve. They’re not even here yet. Not even. . . how do you say in English?”
“Yes. Born. Eight more days. Your chance of missing is nothing. As long as you act quickly.”
We hung up, and I shook out that maternity dress. I needed seven-hundred dollars, fast.
Eight days later, the payment sent as directed, I received the call.
“It is coming.” Acid dripping on ice.
“Oh! Is it a girl? A boy?”
“I don’t know. Who knows? Does it matter?”
“No. That’s true. Boy or girl, I’ll love it the same. Above all others. Either boy or girl, it will complete me.”
Such an odd, dispassionate woman.
“We’ll put it in a storage locker,” she continued. “A self-storage facility somewhere in Chelsea.”
It. Not the baby. Just a sale for her, I knew. Still, it wasn’t like the infant didn’t deserve a little human respect, though I shook off her callousness. I would soon be done with her.
“I’ll ring when it’s time. With the details. Address. Locker number. Combination. One hour. Then you should act quickly. The locker is not ideal.”
“We do not guarantee.” A rusty hinge snapping shut.
I put on the brown dress and hurried out, my size ten’s clomping down the four flights. The last time I did this childless. Never again would an unloved me see this outdated fire extinguisher on third floor, fight through the clinging Chow Mein scent on two, through the cramped and dilapidated vestibule. Then exit to the alley, never again a never-mother, never again alone.
I walked north, then east, toward a coffee shop in Chelsea where I could wait. The city percolated over the burner of my excitement. Cleaner, brighter, people smiling. On my way, a quick detour. Babies require things, and the Duane Reade store provides. A few newfangled newborn diapers, just a few, removed from their huge box to fit under my dress. A thermometer, in case of fever. A yellow receiving blanket. A small plastic jar of powdered baby formula because, while my heart had swelled with the notion of motherhood, my breasts remained uninterested, dry. I picked up these essentials, hauled them with me tucked securely beneath the dress.
At the coffee shop, I waited. The seconds ticked by at a pace that made a glacier look reckless. A sort of stupor settled. Finally, my phone rang, echoing throughout the empty storefront. That phone rang in a new day. A new start echoed back.
“It is done. Go to twenty-fifth and seventh. U-Store Lockers. Medium-sized locker number seven. Right twenty, left thirty-two, right nineteen. Take the lock with you when you leave.”
“Thank you,” I said to no one. The line was already dead.
I sneaked into those lockers like a kidnapper creeping after a hospital baby, like that foreign woman had written I AM HERE TO STEAL A BABY on my forehead with her paranoid black pen. Then, locker seven, the motherhood boat. The cruise line to my sunshine.
Who knew my jubilance would come like this, in a chipped and dented blue locker? I paused there, whispered a tiny prayer of thanks to that holy metal savior, and then attacked. The lock’s titanium-steel body clanked against the beaten blue door like an alarm.
Finally, the lock clicked open and so did the door. There, on the trash-strewn floor, a shoebox. Nike. Men’s, size twelve. The lid was secured with garden twine. My maternal heart skipped a beat. My baby cocooned in a shoe box, ensconced like a miniature corpse in a sporty sarcophagus. No good. I moved the box toward me and pulled back, surprised. It was as light as pillow down, just one minuscule weight causing the far corner to droop. So slight.
My maternal heart hardened to rock. A granite heart.
Swindled. Ripped off. Leaving here empty-handed, all hope decimated. Final chance splatted like an egg hurled at one of these brick walls, all hope dribbled to a viscous puddle on the painted concrete floor. Insatiable sadness transported me to that other place, held me there until a warm trickle of blood released me. In my fugue I’d drawn a sharp edge of that lock repeatedly over one forearm until the skin tore, until the blood returned me to myself.
But what of that slight weight? If not a Russian baby, what? What chitters so inconsolably in that Nike box? I untied the prickly jute and lifted the box lid. Peek-a-boo. At first, I saw nothing. Then a tiny eye came to focus. A curious eye peeking back at me. I clapped the box shut and whatever was there commenced a new twittering, so mournful my maternal heart sputtered and sparked, and then reignited.
I lifted the lid again. This time, off. There he was in the far corner of the box, straddling a small nest of shredded paper, his orange feet splayed, his head tilted sideways to take in all of me.
A new gosling.
Recently hatched, apparent from the shards of shell littering his nest. His fuzz was golden-yellow with an overlay of green, like the yolk of a hard-boiled egg when it’s pulled from the white, only soft, velvet. And needy, apparently. He peeped inconsolably and stared directly at me. A scrap of paper lay in the box. Scribbled on it was the date and these words: Lesser White Fronted Goose.
“Peep,” he said. Wobbly, he rolled out of his newspaper nest and scooted closer. “Peep.”
Now a conundrum. Agree? A conflict. On one hand, my entire being dripped disappointment. A fowl. A lesser fowl at that. On the other? An infant.
“Peep,” the infant cried.
You understand. This wasn’t the baby I came here for, but it was a baby none-the-less. I couldn’t abandon that ship at that moment.
I squatted, dropped the baby supplies from under my dress. No good to me, I left them there. But I took the lock as instructed.
“Peep,” the baby repeated.
“Be calm, my love.” A whisper from me.
“Twit-twit-twit,” he answered.
I replaced the lid and retied the jute. I left that storage facility Nike in hand, baby in Nike.
Duane Reade again. This time for gosling supplies, but who knows what? I wandered there for what seemed too long, finally found a bag of mixed birdseed. Meanwhile, my box grew restless. He no longer twittered peacefully, but now peeped as though the end were near.
“Be calm, love,” I said, tracing my fingernails along the ridges of the matte cardboard box. The gentle scraping calmed the gosling but caused another shopper to gape at us. Older woman, well-heeled. Probably a mother, maybe a grandmother, dramatically rolling her eyes at the ugly thing coddling a Nike box.
“Peep! Peep-peep-peep!” I shouted at her. I gave her my craziest crazy face and old rolling-eyes scurried away.
I paid this time, didn’t want to risk getting caught, perhaps hauled to jail. Mothers lose their babies this way all the time, their children thrown to foster care, horrible in its own right. I should know. Life has been rough for me, but can you imagine what happens to a gosling foster child?
I hurried home, but when I arrived there, Mrs. Ma, my landlord, was sweeping her sidewalk. She owns this building. Mr. Ma’s Dim Sum Temple, her Chinese Restaurant, is the anchor at street level. The kitchen, billowing smoke and smells and foreign voices, occupies floor two. Mrs. Ma and her mother-in-law live on floor three. Mr. Ma is long gone. My home is on the fourth floor, the attic.
Mrs. Ma is another who believes I’m crazy, but she lets me stay because I pay my rent on time and that’s highly important to Mrs. Ma. She lets me stay, but she also ignores me, and I ignore her right back.
That day, though, we came face-to-face on her sidewalk.
“Hello.” She frowned as she looked me up and down. My sagging maternity dress, the Duane Reade bag in one hand, clutching a Nike box in the other. Men’s. Size twelve.
“Hello.” I answered too loudly, kept moving. But not so fast I missed the ducks hanging in the restaurant window. They are Mrs. Ma’s crispy roast ducks. For sale, and quite popular in the neighborhood. But those ducks torment me. Orange and naked, hung by their necks. Even their faces are cooked, permanently affixed in twisted grimaces. Their feet dangle, somehow both limp and crisp. They are grotesque, and they dip their heads in embarrassment.
I raced on, away from Mrs. Ma and away from Mrs. Ma’s ducks. I raced around the corner of her building. To her side door. Her lobby. Up her creaking staircase. Finally, my attic, a long, pitched room with a rudimentary kitchen installed along the far wall. There’s my bathroom to the side, a converted dormer. That’s it. My home. Now ours, the gosling and me.
I latched the deadbolt and untied the box. Freed, he followed me much too closely, zigzagging like a frantic bee between the hives of my feet as I plodded to the kitchen. I’m well aware of my lack of physical grace and I was afraid I’d step on him, but he proved adept, hovering underfoot while I rustled up two shallow dishes. I filled one with water, the other with birdseed, then carried them, one nested in each palm, to the bathroom. Again, the queer little thing stayed close.
No losing this baby.
Later, I checked the internet. ‘G-o-s-l-i-n-g’, I pecked out, with gosling in lap softly twittering. Goslings imprint, Wikipedia informed. The first living thing they see becomes Mom. Break that egg. Look around. Find Mom.
He found me, Mother. But so far, I’d failed at that, too. He’d only paddled through the birdseed, scattered it like ants across the tiles of the bathroom floor. Eaten nothing. What do I really know about this Lesser White Fronted Goose? A new search.
It wasn’t encouraging. He was a most endangered species. Done in by hunting, blasted out of the sky until there were less than two-hundred left. Then? So rare they became exotic, their eggs became poacher’s game. The eggs or new goslings sell for seven- or eight-hundred dollars.
Poor things. But I was also relieved. “At least I wasn’t overcharged,” I said to my gosling. He stirred, chittered at me, fell back to sleep. I read on. In summer, when they nest in Siberia, the diet is ninety percent plant matter. In winter, when they visit Turkey and Greece, it is ninety percent rice-like grains.
Wrong season for birdseed, I surmised, interrupting his nap. After he’d eaten his fill of shredded Romaine, we went back to the Formica table. Me, eager to learn of my charge’s lineage. Him, miniature chin rested on velvet back, twittering beak tucked under one folded winglet.
I read on. He’d be compact, small for a migrating goose. At best, six pounds. Mallard duck-sized, with orange legs and a conspicuous white face. Yellow-ringed eyes. As adults, broad black bars crossing the belly.
I inspected the gosling, his belly full of lettuce, his nest full of lap. Not yet conspicuous, his face did show signs of white. His tiny legs, orange. Unaware of the coming black bars and yellow eyeliner, he slept on. I wrote, surprising myself with the first bright words in five years.
Your back lifts, falls. Victual, your life, your breath, sustains me.
We cloistered then, invited no one in. My rare outings were for necessities, to grab lettuce for him and foodstuffs for me. When I did go out, I left hurriedly and returned in good speed. A goose left alone was a goose loud, I learned. I slipped away only when I knew Mrs. Ma was working in her kitchen, where the clanging and shouting overpowered the screeching.
Spring swirled by like a turquoise silk scarf caught up in a breeze, then summer blazed in, rank. A routine developed. He slept next to my twin bed in a battered laundry basket I’d picked up curbside on a lettuce run. Broken blue plastic lined with pink towels cut to strips by me, then further shredded by him always picking at it with the scissor of his beak.
Waking before me, he puttered about the attic, pecked here or there at something of interest. Or rested on his side in the window-shaped square of sun on the hardwood, his top leg and wing outstretched in what looked like yoga. A sort of sideways dog pose, that outstretched wing now long, fully feathered.
“Good morning, Love.”
“Awnk,” he yelled back. Those charming gosling twitters were a thing of the past. Now, an adult goose’s nasal baritone echoed rafter-to-rafter.
I made coffee for myself and gave him his breakfast. Greens, vegetables raw or cooked, rice, pasta. Anything, really. Older now, while I showered he ate whatever I’d provided. After, I filled the tub with water, room temp, then helped him in. A morning bath, hours long, a boy splashing, a noisy mess. Meanwhile, I wrote, my typing frantic but my thoughts clear, a murmuration of ideas swirling to land precisely on my page. Images pulled from my day. Light images, loving images, images laden with motherhood.
Then I cleaned the tub and mopped the floor. No human baby, this. A real mess. And no potty training possible. Through trial-and-error, though, we adapted. Diapers? I tried. Disaster. Wouldn’t stay put. Finally, I stitched a set of suspendered coveralls with a built-in pocket for a diaper pad. I used burlap rice bags gleaned from Mrs. Ma’s dumpster. This worked, and the mess became tolerable.
The noise? More difficult. Occasionally, bedlam. And getting worse by the week. Toward August he began calling for someone, something, spending a few minutes in dedicated yelling several times a day. I was forced to crank the pink radio louder and louder in an attempt to camouflage until there was no more volume to be had.
One Sunday afternoon, already humid with gloom, Mrs. Ma further blackened my doorway. A rare occurrence, but there she was, rattling the door to my attic like a small Grim Reaper. I shuffled the goose to the bathroom and answered that agitated knock.
“Why so loud? Your music, it sounds like animals.”
“Working. Writing. A commission. It’s based on music and the sounds of animals. Birds. Waterfowl, precisely. I have to listen repeatedly. On loud. I have to hear the phonetics. When I get paid, I’ll give you extra rent.” Her accusatory eyes widened. One crooked finger pointed at my mouth.
“You don’t forget to pay.” Then she retreated. She didn’t come back.
September came, bright and clear. He’d morphed into a fine Lesser White Fronted Goose with a beautifully barred belly. I wrote daily, freed of despair, buoyed by the swells that broke upon my page. My words took on a blush of love, and even I could see a higher level of purpose in my writing. One editor even critiqued a short story he’d rejected, encouraged me to keep crafting it and resubmit. A first.
Next up, October. The sun bore through our drafty window with a new, slanted clarity. He’d reached five-and-a-half pounds and developed a new habit. He’d run the length of our room, coveralls and surprising wingspan aflap. Everything from every surface was swept to the floor, where it all drifted to an untidy mess in the corner. Such is the plight of a mother.
One afternoon my side-eye caught a dull grey fluttering on the fire escape. A young pigeon had landed in a kind of tumbling pass, then stood and shook himself. His worried mother landed nearby, strutted back and forth, cooing. Teen pigeon hobbled to the edge, spread his wings, and leapt. I lumbered across that room as fast as my heft would allow and climbed out that window. I peered over the edge, expected a feathered spatter on the alley below, but his mad flapping caught lift and in a jerking flight he notched back to his roofline home.
I understood then. Mine was a flyer. A migrator. Not one of the fat waddles living year-round in Central Park, flapping no further than the few feet from a rock to the water, splashing down in a flat-footed belly flop. No. Flight was required and I was obliged to teach him.
I pilfered a hundred feet of nylon cordage, neon yellow, sturdy yet flexible. Later that night, after the long-gone Mr. Ma’s Dim Sum Temple went dark and both Mrs. Ma’s were snoring in their beds, I unhooked his suspenders and slipped the coveralls off his robust body. I tied one end of that cord to his right leg. Did this despite his protests. The other end I tied to the fire escape bannister.
I shoved him out that window, with tough love birthed him into an unfamiliar world with slats beneath his feet and the vibrations of the city lifting toward him. Voices. Music. Roast duck. Lightning over New Jersey. He refused to budge, but kept his eye to the sky. The second night he flapped tentatively, like a sailor testing new canvas, his wings curved into the steady breeze shoved at us by the canyon walls of the alley. Night three, a new performance. He burst through the window with no help from me, his flapping a cyclonic whir. He stayed at the edge of the platform for hours. On the fourth night he stood tall, wings outstretched. He spooned them just-so and lifted, floated effortlessly forward until he was suspended over the alley below.
We both froze, of course. Wouldn’t you? He began to fall, a quick downward flickering like Gristedes bags down a trash chute. Before I could yank him back to the platform, though, he flew. He flapped above the fragrant alley, rose high over the ridge of our block. Then he reached the end of the cord and struggled against its restriction, calling into the night as though rallying his clan. The only way to get him back was to reel him in like a feathered and flying smallmouth bass. A lesser bass.
Later that restless night, I dreamt I was in a plush meadow stitched through by a small, rocky stream. A splendid pale grey and white kite danced above me. I realized that I held the lead in my clenched right fingers, so I released, and the kite oscillated upward like an unruly leaf choosing to fall a contrary way. It pinpointed out of sight.
I woke and wrote. The grip is loved, is love, but absence of the grip is everything. The purpose of parenting is to sweep the nest clear. Fledging, the goal.
Night five. I steadied myself by downing a handful of the State’s pills while he clamored for his flight, the back wind from his wings blowing pages everywhere. I opened the window, him untethered, and he quickly flew out of sight. I waited that long night in vain until early the next morning when he finally reappeared, clamoring to be let in. Demanding lettuce and a bath. This even though I could tell he had bathed elsewhere, in different water.
Night six was our final night. He didn’t return come morning.
I spent that winter with my eyes half-cocked to the sky, half-cocked to the news, half-cocked to the fire escape. But, no. No mention of an exotic Lesser White Fronted Goose. No miraculous taking up of residence in Central Park. Or along the Hudson. Or East River. Or out in the wetlands near The Meadows. Nothing.
Spring now, year seven. I’ve been published, but I can think of nothing but migration. Overhead, birds wing steadily north, drawing my conclusion in their wake. He has flown to Siberia, I’m sure. I mourn but I also celebrate, splurge on champagne even though it contradicts my medications.
Him, fledged, my mothering, successful. He is likely rearing his own brood now, them peeping from a nest of mouse-brown feathers at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Him, king of the Siberian Lesser White Fronted Geese. The Lesser King. I turn on the pink radio to a prophecy, a new miracle. Bette Davis Eyes is playing. Dare I? Would you? To hell with it. I park myself at the Formica table and open a new window on my old computer. A search. I type the words carefully. For Sale: Russian Baby.
Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 from Pexels