In humid, horrid August, Marie-Evelina was out gathering some last sprigs of cilantro when the cramps began in earnest. The pain raced to her back this time, a brand new kind of pain, an attenuated stabbing that made her close her eyes and bare her teeth. She had to ease herself down on to the bark-covered soil and put her hands out to her sides. Her belly swelled like an enormous egg beneath the pinstriped apron, the bulge all the more impressive for the slender gauge of her back and shoulders, the bony-kneed sprawl of her brown legs. She wore her black hair in pigtails, clear glass tik-tik beads attached to the bands. She tried to breathe. It had been her strategy up to this point to pretend that nothing was happening, but now her pelvis felt ready to burst right in the Quirks’ kitchen garden, amidst the mint and the dill and the yellow squash.
A moment passed, peacefully, and it seemed once again that the straining inside might be no more real than any other vanished nightmare. A catbird whined from the sumacs. She sensed the gnats gathering on her damp forehead. She stroked the cool silver of her thirteen bangles, felt her stomach soften from a taut wall to a merely uncomfortable bulge. Thirsty, she wanted to vanish into the moist soil like a bulb. It was more than two hours later when Antoine Kuyhhas found her in the woods beneath a tangle of trumpet vine, her thighs slick with a rose-colored fluid.
“I telling you stay in kitchen,” he said. “What you run back here, crawl through wood like it sick dog–“
“In Mr. Quirk forest.”
She screamed and the old man froze. He pressed his palms together before his waist, catching his breath, his eyes lost in creases below the brim of his grey porkpie hat. There was a primness in his stance, his white short-sleeved shirt buttoned to the throat, sagging shoulders scarcely half as broad as his hips. Marie-Evelina put a handful of knuckles in her mouth and glared at him with furious eyes.
“You stay here,” he said inanely. “How you go walk back up there?” Then he left her, working his way back through the tangle of scrub oak and rhododendron to fetch his son Rosco, cursing him as he struggled in his dress shoes over the vine-covered ground.
He went in through the kitchen door, wincing and breathless, massaging his throat. His wife Imelda had left a pot of cancouillaise to simmer on the stove and Antoine pressed on through the peppery air, coughing his way beneath the hanging copper pans, across the black and white checkerboard of the floor he’d cleaned that morning. He found Rosco in the pantry reading a bachelor’s magazine: naked fat women on huge aquatic tricycles.
“Get out of this,” said Antoine.
Rosco tipped up his chin, his eyes heavy-lidded.
“I telling you stay clear from this drawer. Your little girlie in a big trouble out there, hear. Ready to have it baby right out in wild nature.”
“No, Mrs. Gwynneth Aronoff. Who you think?”
They hurried back into the woods, thorns catching their baggy, black trousers and the wide sleeves of their summer shirts. Marie-Evelina had curled herself up in a patch of ivy and vinca vine, biting the side of her fisted hand, her eyes closed, weeping without sound. It took them almost twenty minutes to lead her through the bushes and then to fold up the back seat of the Quirks’ station wagon so she could lie down. They braced the girl, pausing with her periodically as she let out a high keening sound and bent forward in a convulsion of agony. More than six feet tall, Rosco would have to bend over too, bowing in his service clothes, his porkpie hat riding sideways over his baby dreadlocks.
“Drive straight,” said Antoine, climbing into the outback of the Country Squire beside the girl. “You party over now. Life-or-deaths times now.”
“I telling you,” said Rosco, breathless, leaning his head in through the opened rear window. “I never make no thing with this girl. That be Mr. Quirk. Or maybe yourn.”
The old man scowled, baring his upper teeth. “You be damn sure it ain’t mine.”
Rosco looked down, steadying the crown of his hat and pursing his lips.
“Get up there,” said Antoine. “Move.”
Marie-Evelina let out another shriek, clawing at the carpet, her legs spread wide. She contorted sideways and puffed the air in and out of her nostrils as if trying to hyperventilate. No matter how she tried to breathe, the cut came back worse each time, her insides tearing as she struggled to contain them.
“You hang on till New Cornwall,” said Antoine.
“It coming now,” she said.
“In New Cornwall. Rosco, move it thing.”
“Let me out,” she said. “I go die.”
Her pinstriped apron lay like an absurd bib atop her rounded stomach. From the waist down, she was naked, sticky with blood. She could have ended it all with a leap from the roof, or a few pills stolen from Mrs. Quirk’s bathroom. She could have run away to Beefport like her cousin Vizquel. Now she was trapped with the old man’s bony hands all over her and Rosco’s jujuku music pounding from the rear speakers. In between fits, her eyes were so mortified, so tightly closed, that wrinkles formed around them in stars.
It was at this same time, in a windowed and private room of Lydgate and Women’s Hospital, New Cornwall, that Mrs. Gwynneth Aronoff was on the verge of miscarrying a third consecutive child. She was the sister of Mr. Ferdinand Quirk, tenant of the estate that Antoine and Rosco Kuyhhas and Marie-Evelina Eukanabia were now fleeing with the aid of Mr. Quirk’s imported American station wagon. As they raced down the St. John’s Road, this childless woman’s husband, Nathan Aronoff, was relighting a crumpled cigarette he’d begged off a passing orderly in the hall outside the waiting room. He wore a seersucker suit, a blue silk bow tie dangling unknotted from his neck. From the sockets of his eyes, deltas of complicated wrinkles spread out towards gaunt, faintly-stubbled cheeks. The eyes themselves were bloodshot and tightly focussed on Aronoff’s thoughts; above them, brows sprawled like weeds of every color, length and texture, trammeled for the last five hours beneath the heels of his hands. He was too old, too absurd in his ardors, to have brought this on Gwynneth. At forty-two, the remnants of his youthful crest were already going silver, clipped short to hide an ever-encroaching thinness, the dearth miserably counterbalanced by wiry second growth in nostrils, eyebrows, and ears.
He allowed himself some more cigarette, taking in three deep pulls, then pressing the coal flat against the side of the standing chrome ashtray. The poison packed his lungs with a blunt, nostalgic ache. It was a pain he had craved and denied himself every day for the past seven years.
“I’ll go downstairs,” said Ferdinand Quirk. “I’m sure they have more cigarettes down there. It’s Kools, right?”
He was sitting cross-legged in one of the black vinyl chairs, a folded newspaper resting on his lap. He wore no tie, just a white linen shirt, olive slacks, and a tweed coat from whose pocket bulged a pair of wire-framed aviator glasses and two now inopportune Canadian cigars.
“Dan, why don’t you go back to the Hilton?” said Aronoff.
The other man nodded, wilfully oblivious, running his tongue across his upper lip. He tapped his chin with his forefinger, squinting. “I can’t remember where,” he said. “I remember reading somewhere that Stalin smoked Kools.”
Aronoff frowned, relighting his stub of cigarette and taking from it a tight-lipped pull.
“No, it was T.S. Eliot,” said Quirk.
“T.S. Eliot. For his congested lungs. There was actually a time when they thought menthol was therapeutic, believe it or not.”
Aronoff rubbed his frontal bone. He noticed that his brother-in-law was not wearing any socks. It occurred to him that his brother-in-law was as serenely drunk as if this were a garden party.
“‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?'” Quirk said, sadly examining the bunched tips of his thumb and fingers. He intoned these lines with exaggerated melodrama, then looked up, peering sideways at Aronoff with narrowed eyes. “My sister Gwynney has always been a very strong girl,” he said. “You should try to be a little hopeful.”
Quirk leaned forward, his glasses and cigars not quite on the verge of spilling from his chest pocket. It was effortful for him, like reading in a noisy room, to understand that his sister Gwynney was about to lose another child. Gwynney, who had spent half her girlhood on horseback, who swam the butterfly and rowed a kayak across Dahl Lake at the age of twelve. He had led her on hunts for Krakatow arrowheads in the woods behind the vegetable garden, Gwynney dressed in beaded moccasins and braids of black yarn.
Aronoff put out the cigarette again, this time stepping on the ashtray’s footpedal and dispatching the butt by means of a trap door in the chrome bowl. Down the hall, his unborn son was being strangled by his own umbilical cord. His wife lay drugged but wide awake, her once familiar waist like that of some slaughtered animal, pierced and rife with human hands. And yet even now he found himself enmeshed in words–etherised upon a table– holding up the loss like some specimen to examine and describe.
He saw her in the coarse, pale blue shift she wore on her work days, running the Ladies’ Auxiliary boutique in Beefport, bringing packaged food to the shut-ins even so late in her pregnancy. He treated her badly, making fun of her charity, all her dogged, earnest endeavor, while he sat in his room day after day lining up words. Last year, she had bobbed her hair and he had cast off the gesture with a joke so unthinking he couldn’t even remember it anymore.
He began to reknot his bow tie, eyes vacant and glazed. He was thinking of Eliot’s somber, deflated words–the handful of dust, the whimper and not the bang–and he wondered for the hundredth time if he knew too much about these somber, deflated things to consider becoming a father.
“I’ll go and get some cigarettes,” he said.
“No.” He stared at Quirk from beneath his brows, hands still at his collar. “Please.”
Then he walked away, trying not to hurry, feeling his dignity fleeing before him like so many dust particles in the air.
He hoped the boy wasn’t high. As soon as they’d parked in the circle outside the emergency room, the Country Squire heaving forwards and then back, Antoine noticed an almost stylized vehemence in Rosco’s rush to the tailgate. The girl by then was alternately screaming or grunting like a beaten man who could no longer catch his breath. There was a sheen of wetness on her forehead, beads of it running down her nose and off her chin, a spray of gleaming droplets in the fine hair at her temples. She had lost all self-consciousness and Antoine could see her full naked belly, a hint of the little mound of fuzz above her sprawled, tensing legs.
“I go get the doctor,” said Rosco.
“She can’t walk.”
“She have to walk in between.”
Marie-Evelina finished howling and started to mutter softly.
“It all okay now,” said Antoine, laying a firm hand on her collar bone. “We go hurry now. We go hurry before it come round again.”
On his ass, he slid out the tailgate, crouching with one splayed hand on the crown of his hat. “What you standing there?” he asked Rosco.
“I waiting on you.”
“Help this girl.”
“Tell me hurry, you straightening you cap.”
They helped her out of the station wagon and up the concrete walkway. In the emergency room, Antoine settled her on a vinyl bench, while Rosco, standing straight but dragging his feet in their baggy cuffs, walked over to the crowded desk. He was trying to take charge now. He’d forgotten to remove his hat, and the admitting nurse, stepping around him with her clipboard, paused just long enough to register her displeasure as she walked towards Antoine and the girl.
“Who the father here?” she asked, looking at the old man. “You?”
“We find her in woods,” said Antoine. “Thirteen years old girl.”
“Find her in woods.”
“Mr. Quirk serving girl. Bringing him in the long French roll. Pouring him the sweet wines. This things.”
Rosco came from behind the nurse, his head tilted slightly to one side. His hat was in his hands and he was trying to concentrate now, higher even than Antoine had feared.
“I pay this,” he said, looking at the nurse’s clipboard. “You don’t worry about this moneys.”
The nurse ignored him, putting on the glasses that hung from her neck on a chain. “Just to know your name and where you stay,” she said, leaning forwards toward the girl. “They bringing you in the little wheelchair now, then we take you back in it nice, cool room. Everything be okay.”
Marie-Evelina was kneeling on the floor, almost collapsed, her hands gripping at the dimples in the vinyl bench. She was bellowing, defeated. The bangles around her forearms stood up at haphazard angles. Her clear glass tik-tik beads rose and fell against her quaking shoulders.
“Marie-Evelina Eukanabia,” said Antoine. “She stay at Mr. Quirk house. Fin-de-la-Terre. St. John. Only house there. Just some grape fields elsewise.”
The big nurse was joined by a male counterpart in dark blue scrubs. They put Marie-Evelina into a wheelchair and pushed her to a delivery room, setting her down on a strange mechanical bed betwen two plastic curtains, their harried feet squeaking on the grim lime-colored floor. Antoine had never seen any of this before. With his own sons, he had always stopped at the threshold of the delivery room and gone out for a Baker & Hastings. Now he stood as far away as possible, looking frequently down at the hat in his hands, then glaring up at his foolish son who was holding the girl’s hand, kneeling and leaning forward, whispering words of encouragement as though the child were his after all.
“You push,” Antoine could hear him say. “You go and bite me on the arm when it hurt like that. Go on, now, Mary-Evy.”
The doctor finally came in, looking scarcely older than Rosco. He was a New Cornwall type– rounded Afro and Vandyke beard, fancy bellbottom slacks beneath his white coat. He walked up to the girl at one point and put his hand inside her. Antoine had to swallow hard– he was simultaneously sweating and chilled from the air conditioning. The lime green floor took on a strange, plastic sheen and he had a sudden and persistent image of the girl’s moist, dark thighs hot around his face. She was holding Rosco’s hands to her temple, eyes closed, weeping. Rosco kneeled and looked at her silently, entranced. His adolescent goatee trailed off into small black plugs as it spread up along his cheekbone. Antoine had to undo the top botton of his dress shirt and caress his thickening throat.
The bed turned out to be a kind of chair. The two nurses put the girl’s ankles up in stirrups and between contractions her left leg would start twitching in fierce, rapid spasms. When she pushed, there was sometimes a little blood, sometimes a rush of shit from below. Antoine couldn’t be sure, but the doctor seemed to be in distress. He was speaking into a black telephone on the wall, the cord winding around his back as he turned towards the curtain, his free hand pressed to his free ear. The girl kept screaming that she wanted to stop, that she was going to die. All they could do was tell her to breathe.
In the end, he had to make an escape. They were urging the girl to push again, each nurse holding one of her knees against her chest, Rosco standing there with his hand on her shoulder, biting his lips and wincing. The screaming was like nothing Antoine had ever heard, a curse that shuddered in his bowels and his heart. The cry broke into a high squeaky gasp, and before the old man could turn away he saw a part of the baby emerge from between the girl’s legs. It was small and oddly formed, certainly not a head. At first, it looked like the shank of a tiny dog, monstrous and glistening with fluid. Then he watched it gradually unfold itself, blossoming now into something red and tentacled like a creature from the sea floor. He doubted himself as soon as he reached the hallway, but later he would learn that his eyes had seen truly. What had emerged from the girl’s loins was not a bloody little knob but a tiny fist, and an instant later a slender, outstretched human hand.
This was in Acanthia, an island that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes. There were pine forests and stands of oak, iridescent green herons, ospreys gliding over bays–now a soft drinks industry, a petroleum refinery, two skylines bathed in soot.
Across from the hospital, at the New Cornwall Hilton, a pubescent boy in thick glasses was walking gingerly with his mouth open, eyes focussed downwards and to the right, as if he were balancing an invisible object on his cheekbone. The hotel’s bathroom appeared to him like a great marble hall, dim lights peering down at his body through the mirrored ceiling. His insides felt like they were collapsing, sinking, falling to pieces. He could sense goose pimples rising on his forearms, the chill tightening in his nipples. As soon as he took his pants down, the eruption began in its familiar agony, hot pain pouring forth from him in torrents, barks, sputters. It came in great spasms that made his whole body tremble. The burn brought tears to his eyes. Hugging his knees, eyes closed, he fought back long swoons of nausea, then the sudden tight cramps that felt like a rupture in what he still called his “stomach”. He moaned out loud. His pasty white belly, rounded and child-like, turned in knots beneath his cold hand. He would not cry but he could not help moaning, moaning in rhythm as he rocked ever so slightly back and forth on the cold porcelain seat. It gushed out of him in big painful squalls, burning like pepper. It made him feel like a dying animal, like a beaten squirrel twitching beneath a bush.
He’d been thinking about her all day. Her soft hair in its white bone clip. He wanted to be with her, seeing her through. Sometimes she wore her hair loose and it seemed naked, so big, falling into her eyes.
He saw his penis dangling in the rim of the toilet, shrunken, ashamed, recoiling back towards the new fringe of hair that had grown there in the last year.
He returned to the red-brocraded lounge, rejoining there his stepmother and stepbrother, the blond-headed boy they had named Ferdinand Jr. after his father.
“Is everything all right, Eugene?” his stepmother said.
“You look very pale.”
“I think we should go back. I think she’d like to see us now.”
“She’s not able to see us now.”
“Your Aunt Gwynneth is having an operation.”
“My aunt Gwynneth is having an operation.”
“She’s very sick.”
“She’s very sick.”
“Stop it, Eugene.”
“Stop it, Eugene.”
“I think your father will be very interested to hear about this amusing game of yours. It’s very amusing just now in particular.”
“What is a Jew?”
“Ferdie, do you have to go to the bathroom, sweetheart? Would you like your mommy to take you to the bathroom?”
“It said in the paper that Nathan Aronoff is a Jewish Acanthian writer.”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now with you, Eugene.”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now with you, Eugene.”
“I said stop it, Eugene.”
“I said stop it, Eugene.”
They left the hotel, the orange sun hanging just above the telephone lines. As they walked down Brathwaite Avenue, the boy lingered behind, the long end of his necktie blown over his shoulder by the wind. His stomach swelled and sank as he walked, his hands laced behind his back, head lolling. He moaned, but not loud enough for his stepmother to hear. She was leading her four-year-old son by the hand, his calves just a little too wide for his thin frame, his clumsy gait requiring every now and then the aid of her steadying hand. At the revolving glass doors of Lydgate and Women’s Hospital, the woman stopped and looked over her shoulder to see if her stepson was still following. She wore a powder blue suit and a matching pillbox hat, her son a sailor’s blouse and white orthopedic shoes.
Upstairs, in the hall off the obstetrics ward, the woman’s husband was pressing once more the “down” button on the elevator panel. In the ward itself, her sister-in-law lay numb from the ribs down, her child dead of asphyxia. In the privacy of a phone booth, her brother-in-law was crouching on a stool with his head between his knees, his back quivering up and down in spasms. In the main lobby, the caretaker of her estate was laying claim to an abandoned pack of Kools he’d found resting on a chair. And in the emergency room downstairs, her thirteen year-old maid lay hemmorhaging from the uterus, her bangled arm limp in the hands of a boy in a gray porkpie hat, destined to bleed to death within the next quarter of an hour.
The woman had no notion of these things as she helped her awkward young son into the revolving doors. She let him press her white handbag to his cheek and soothed him with encouraging words. Her stepson stood off to the side, hands in his pockets, pursing his lips and looking at the ground as if he were about to start whistling. She could feel him mocking her, thinking his thoughts as she struggled with the door. There would be more of this trouble, she knew, but right now she had other things to worry about. As it was, she did not yet even know of the two deaths inside the hospital, nor of the surviving child, the unwanted orphan who’d come hands-first into the world, grasping blindly as if all Acanthia were his to inherit.
Zachary Lazar is the author of the novel “Aaron, Approximately”. He lives in Eastern Long Island and teaches at Hofstra University. “The Birth” is a chapter from a new novel, “Acanthia”.