When it began, I do not know. If I kept a journal or a diary, as some of you do, perhaps then I would know. But I don’t, and so I don’t. When the cold began to pursue me.
Pursue, I think. Persecute.
First, should establish: The cold has nothing to do with weather.
In fact, it may have begun as early as last summer. Late summer.
Outside, on our redwood deck at the rear of the house, setting down plates of food, taking away dirtied plates, one of our family suppers that’s like a runaway vehicle—just keeps accelerating, hang on tight and get through it with my trademark gritted-teeth grin.
Relatives visiting for the day. And their kids. And our kids. Such pleasure (you wouldn’t guess) in that casual remark—And our kids. Two boys, seven and ten. Husky and healthy, taking after their six-foot-two dad.
Seeing the boys as others see them—not possible. The mother sees—I did that?
Offered help in the kitchen (of course) but having others in my kitchen, even my favorite sister-in-law, even my favorite niece, is distracting to me so no thanks. I am happiest when my thoughts are focused like a swarm of bees aimed in a single direction. No distractions! Best to be alone.
Humid, hot, late-August day. Crazy cicadas shrieking. Rivulets of perspiration running from my (shaved, deodorized) armpits down my sides. Two-dozen ears of sweet corn, boiling on the stove in the giant pan, placing them, steaming, on a platter. Preparing hamburgers, hot dogs, salmon steaks for my husband to grill. Bag of ice melting fast. Yet when I return outside there comes a draft of cold air like an unwanted caress, making me shiver in my low-backed summer dress, hair tied back from my flushed face. Just about, my ravaged body has been restored and (judging from men’s glances at least) I am looking pretty good again—if you don’t look too closely.
No time to wonder amid the busyness of the occasion why I’d be shivering, where a bone-chilling draft might be coming from on such a (windless) day, warm in the midafternoon (when we’d all been at the softball game watching some of the older kids play), and hardly cooling as dusk came on. Harried, happy.
See?—I can do it. What’d you think!
Yet I was feeling (weirdly) cold, suddenly weak. Ran upstairs to get a sweater, draped it over my shoulders. Loosened my hair so that it covered more of my face, and the nape of my neck, for warmth. Not the hair I used to have—that was like a mane. That was warm, couldn’t stand it against my neck on a hot day.
Thinking if the redwood deck was some kind of a boat, and everyone having a good time on the boat, drifting along a river, leaving me behind on shore watching the sparkling lights and hearing the (receding, fading) laughter borne off into the darkness—why would any one of them miss me?
And then the cold returned. Clammy sensation, upper back, shoulders, nape of my neck. If I’d been drinking cold beers maybe that would be why but no, not one beer yet today.
Then I think: back of our suburban acre-and-a-half there’s a wooded area, a no-man’s-zone between property lines forbidden to children (poison sumac, sharp briars, ticks, mosquitoes), marshy land there, presumably cooler air. Maybe the cold is coming from that place?
Forty-one years old on my last birthday. At such times you think: Well, I made it this far.
Rarely is it uttered: Do I need to go further? Why?
Yes: I married late. Had babies late. (Three pregnancies. Two “live births.”) Eleven years working for a local realtor before I quit to get married, figuring I would never be so lucky again—a husband who loves me, at least, as a husband loves his wife.
All that is required for happiness, it’s said, is to find just one person to love you, and to be loved by you. Out of the billions of human beings on Earth, shouldn’t be that hard to find just that one person.
And a child, or two children: shouldn’t be hard.
Certainly not—children adore Mommy. At least, so long as they are young enough to need Mommy.
(Little love-stabs, sheer happiness seeing the boys hungrily eating what I’ve prepared for them, and no complaints; husband signaling with a smile he’s having a great time—Hey. Love you!)
Yet, I am reluctant to provide their names. Our names.
Adult male (husband), adult female (wife), two “live birth” children. (The miscarried sibling was to be given a name if she’d been born but only if she’d been born.) To provide these names seems risky to me, like boasting that you have money.
Because it’s no one’s business who we are. That we are. We exist. That is enough.
No name, but I’d thought of her as Hummingbird.
Because so small. Because what there was of her would fit in the palms of your opened hands.
Because hummingbirds’ wings are a rapid blur and blurredness is a symptom of tears.
Because the hummingbird is a miniature bird that, if you blink, you might miss.
He’s saying, “Maybe not just yet.” And I’m saying, “Why the hell not.”
“Well—it hasn’t been that long. You’re still on the medication, right?”
Fuck the medication. Flushed the medication down the toilet. (But I don’t tell my husband that. That would sound belligerent, hostile. Reckless and self-destructive.)
Caution in his eyes like light reflectors. Laughter rises in my throat like bile. Okay to laugh if not angry-sounding. Light laughing, girl laughing, non-accusatory laughing. For men fear women laughing at them, that is true castration.
Make eye contact: lift eyes. Crucial difference between a locked ward and an unlocked ward—normal affect, clarity of speech, no evidence of “suicidal ideation.” Smiles, laughs. Self-aware enough to be embarrassed.
So he says, “Okay, then, but don’t drive far, at first. Just in town. Not the highway, not for a while, okay?”
Duck my head in submission. “Okay.”
“And not take the kids?”
“Not just yet.”
“Sure I can trust you?”
Next morning there is the key to the Honda Civic on the kitchen counter. My car that’s been sitting in the garage for three months. He’d kept the battery alive. For that, I am grateful.
At first, I assumed that the (unpredictable) drafts of cold air were naturally occurring: door left ajar, window left open somewhere in the house, air vent, furnace fan. (A quirk of our furnace seems to be that, when it shuts off, there comes an emission of air through wall vents, neutral in temperature—just air. But this air feels cold.)
At the grocery store where I’ve shopped for years, streams of icy air in unexpected places: not the refrigerated aisles (which are uniformly cold), but aisles of canned goods, paper products, even counters of hot prepared soups, roasted chickens. In the drugstore, hardware store, café—fingers of icy air. At the mall.
Especially the mall: Goddamned stores with their doors flung wide, issuing cold air in waves like an assault on passersby.
Hell, it’s an affluent society, air can’t be natural but must be conditioned. In my husband’s Jeep the AC is always on. We joke about it: him wasting energy when there’s no need. He admits he isn’t even aware of it, his AC always on.
In my car, I have become cautious, jittery. Always check to make sure the windows are shut tight. Front, rear. Except in hot weather, the AC is always off. Fan off. Yet—still—after a few minutes I (often) feel a maddening stream of cold air against the side of my face or the nape of my neck making me shiver. Making me shudder. Double-checking the windows: Yes, all are closed. Fan off. AC off.
There is no draft inside the car. Can’t be a draft inside the car. I have imagined it, clearly.But then—again—after a few minutes the cold returns, like a caress that steals up from behind. All women know that stealthy caress. That moment of utter panic, then the shudder of revulsion. No. Stop. Don’t. Go away!
The car lurches. Jolts to a stop on the shoulder of the highway. In a sharp voice the older boy asks what’s wrong—Mom? What has happened?—and at first I’m too shaken to reply then tell him a squirrel ran in front of the car, that’s why I braked.
Squirrel? Where is the squirrel?
Neither of the boys sees a squirrel. Anywhere.
Can’t see the squirrel, I tell them. It must’ve run across the road and disappeared.
Demanding to know, Did you run over the squirrel, Mom? Is it dead?
I did not run over the Goddamned squirrel and it is not dead.
The shock is: I am not alone in the car. Could’ve sworn I was alone in the car as usually I am when the cold comes over me.
Nights when I can’t sleep. Suddenly, most nights.
The cold has crept up on me. It has a smell, I am beginning to realize—dark, mineral-like, the smell of a deep stone well. But also the smell of black blood.
That dark, thready blood. Splotches on underwear after childbirth.
After miscarriage, smelly dark splotches on the thickest sanitary napkins at the drugstore. Weeks of this. Sneeze, there’s a small hemorrhage.
It is familiar, this smell. Weirdly comforting.
Fall asleep exhausted but can’t sleep for more than a half hour, waking abruptly as if someone has called my name.
A man sprawled beside me. Naked. Giving off heat, to counteract the cold. My fingers yearn to caress. It has been so long. Stroking his upper arm, the swell of muscle. Fingers at his groin. Tangle of wiry hairs. Fat soft sea slug that stirs at my touch as if alarmed.
Quickly my fingers move away.
No one so lonely as a wife in bed beside her (sleeping) husband through the interminable hours of the night.
How many nights: prowling the darkened house. Insomnia like the vast Sahara stretching to the horizon.
Trying to avoid checking on the boys.
Yet: Isn’t it a mother’s right to check her children as they sleep? So long as the children are too young to protest.
Wearing an old wool bathrobe of my husband’s, heavy and cumbersome. Trailing to the floor. Scattering of moth holes in the fabric, smell of stale sweat. Coarse gray wool socks on my feet, also belonging to the husband.
It’s a thrill—at first. Can’t sleep, wandering the house, no one knows, watching TV with the volume turned low, eyes staring. Is this me? What has become of me? Driven out of the basement TV room by the cold.
Restless then, ascending stairs to the boys’ room. Silent as a lioness prowling the veldt. Just needing to see that they are asleep and of course they (always) are. Not anxious (for that would be ridiculous) but needing to see if they are breathing and of course they (always) are.
What would I do, I wonder, if my children didn’t live in this house! When they are older, and have moved away—how will I know if they are sleeping? If they are breathing? If they are happy? If they still love me?
If they remember me?
How will they remember their mother?
We had a little sister. Supposed to have had a little sister. Why’d they tell us she was coming if she never came?
Both the boys are sleeping. They share a room, of course. Though soon, the older will want his own room. The younger will be heartbroken, it’s unavoidable.
I am standing over the younger boy. Not sure how long I have been here, scarcely daring to breathe.
Though I can see my son’s narrow chest rising and falling faintly, I am concerned that he might not be breathing—not really. Might be some sort of optical illusion. Wishful thinking. The brain makes leaps of inference based upon incomplete data, this is well known—filling in gaps, it’s called. So though I can see (clearly) that the boy is alive and breathing, I am anxious that what I am seeing is a deception of some kind and he is not really alive, and not breathing.
As, in the uterus, the fetus is alive yet not-alive. A living organism, so to speak, yet not an (independent) living organism.
Uterus, an ugly word.
Fetus, uterus. Can’t blame men, edging away.
The risk here is obvious: If the younger boy (my favorite, though must not say so) wakes suddenly, he will be astonished—appalled—to see his disheveled mother stooping over his bed like a vulture.
And if he cries out, he will wake his brother. That brother will be astonished, disapproving.
So far, several nights in succession I have not been caught. This makes me feel reckless, giddy.
A relief to back out of the room without waking them. Relief to be free for the remainder of the night of crazy-mom worry her sons have ceased breathing in their sleep.
Well, no need to check the husband’s breathing. He is certainly alive. Sprawled in the queen-sized bed with arms and legs outstretched, big head flung back on a pillow—both pillows—his breath hoarse and loud and assertive. Here is a being perfectly at ease in his skin. Sometimes a kind of sniggering laughter erupts from the torso, a rattling snore. If I wake him gently he will mutter at me, frowning, yet affable enough, turning from me to fall asleep within seconds.
Help me, don’t leave me. I love you—no idea why these pathetic words issue from my numbed lips, but no matter. The husband doesn’t hear.
Not your fault, never anyone’s fault, act of God (you could say)—accident.
So don’t blame yourself.
Fact: A certain percentage of babies fail to thrive in the womb.
Do we know why? We do not (usually) know why. Well—there is a how, but not a why.
A doctor will explain how. As in, How did this happen.
A doctor will not explain why. As in, Why did this happen.
(Usually) it is no one’s fault. The very word fault is not helpful.
It isn’t an anniversary of that death. Indeed, a miscarriage is not considered a death, though it is acknowledged to be a loss. Even a late-term miscarriage, in the eighth month.
Like bringing home plants from the nursery, flowering shrubs, small perfectly proportioned trees, you have faith that once in the soil they will thrive and not instead fade and shrivel to a few brittle leaves and stalks, for if you are a gardener you do not think about this possibility. You may be a fool but you are suffused with hope.
A near-fully developed fetus, embryo—yet not what is designated a baby.
Grieving for a miscarried fetus, embryo, not-a-baby is not a hallowed custom. It is not any kind of custom. Not a custom enshrined in religious rituals or even observances. The remains of a miscarriage do not constitute “remains” in the usual sense of that word and indeed that word, in its usual sense, is a terrible word I cannot bring myself to utter aloud.
Such remains may be disposed of. Not buried.
A miscarriage isn’t a “death” in the family but a physical event that happens exclusively to the mother, not to the baby. For (as it is explained) there is no baby.
But you are doing so well! We all knew you would.
Unhappiness looks to the past. Happiness, to the future.
My husband urges me to drive to the nursery. Now that I am allowed to drive again. Isn’t it getting late in the season, for planting a garden?
Yes, late. It is getting late.
The husband is the responsible parent. He is unfailingly affable, except when he is impatient, exasperated. As a dad, he can be feverish-funny, but he can also lay down the law. In college, he’d majored in business administration, and that is his career—vaguely, administering some sort of business in a local company called NeutroLink.
For a man of his size he is surprisingly deft, quick on his feet. He has cultivated a habit of clapping his hands to get family attention, laughing as he does so.
Hel-lo! Atten-tion please!
His eyes glide over me like liquid mercury. He has not seen me since the catastrophe or maybe, if I am being honest, he’d avoided looking too closely at me in the late, staggering-bulky stage of the pregnancy, though (as all insisted) I was looking remarkably good, smooth-skinned, with the proverbial “glow” of pregnancy.
Go on, now. You’ve got your credit card, right? Go. It was a long damn winter. You deserve it.
Squeeze of the shoulder. Gentle shove. Hadn’t he kept the battery in the Honda alive these miserable months?
Yet, in the happiness of the garden, in the joy of working in the garden, in the midday heat of the garden rudely there comes the cold.
As if the cold is hiding in the soil. Waiting to be released, freed by the reckless excavations of a shovel.
Oh but why am I having such difficulty digging in my garden! (Though the property is ours, the house is ours, the boys are ours, yet the garden is my garden.) Must be that my muscles are weakened. Stamina weakened. Short of breath. Must be a network of roots, tangled together in the earth. I am eager to clear a way for these young tomato plants, pepper plants. Marigolds, nasturtiums, miniature iris. Quick before they wilt and die.
Stupidly, I’ve forgotten my garden gloves yet continue digging with the shovel until my hands begin to blister. The cold wafts upward from the earth smelling of something dank, rotted. Sinking the shovel into the earth, leaning on it as hard as I can, as deep as I can into the earth encountering something sinewy and resistant like veins?—arteries?—through which the sharp edge of the shovel cuts.
There! A tangle of roots, severed.
By now I am perspiring. Smelling of my body. Hot sun beating between my shoulder blades as there comes an updraft of cold air that penetrates my lungs like a fetid mist.
Because of the cold, it is becoming harder for me to sleep.
Or because I am having trouble sleeping, and am jittery and tired during the day, I am more susceptible to the cold.
A week. Ten days.
Sleep comes in tatters.
Sleep comes in textures.
Thin gruel of sleep—washing over you for a few fleeting seconds, then retreating leaving you bereft.
Sleep like a teasing, tormenting caress—leaving you aching and bereft.
Sleep that is a thick sludge: muck.
Sleep that is oozing, sticky: sleep-porridge.
Sleep that is sharp, hurtful: sleep-acid.
Sleep that is downy, airy, too light to be nourishing: sleep-feather.
Sleep that is the flutter of the hummingbird’s wings, too rapid a blur to be seen though it can be felt.
Come to me, don’t leave me alone in this place. Mommy!
Hummingbird! Shocking to me, that my little daughter, who has never been born, who has never known speech, can address me so clearly.
Then I understand—this has to be a dream. The prologue to a dream that awaits me once the cold allows me to sleep.
Any idea what I look like, now? My face, eyes. Last I’d seen of my body, I had a belly so distended by pregnancy I could hardly stand without supporting the belly from beneath and this pregnancy so drew the eye, so captivated attention, the face of the pregnant woman was a blur even to herself.
Except—swollen ankles, legs. Shortness of breath. Too old? Thirty-nine.
Soon after, the belly collapsed. Deflated like a balloon. Disappeared by magic. No telling where it had gone, just—gone.
Flaccid and bruised, ravaged skin remains, in yellowish folds. And the taut fat breasts leaking milk—don’t even think of what these look like now.
Hadn’t known that I was a vain woman, before. That seeing men’s eyes glide over me, I’d felt a thrill of excitement, pride.
My son saying to me, You’re the prettiest mommy!
Okay, I knew I looked okay. That was enough.
Now, I wouldn’t know. Have no interest. The mirror’s a blur even if I glance at it unthinking.
Yes: You can apply lipstick if/when you want to impersonate a normal woman without really engaging with the mirror-face. You can brush your teeth, hair. Dress yourself. Like dressing a body that cooperates with you, mostly.
Not so hard. Try it.
I am proud of myself, for I have become a brilliant impersonator of myself.
So awake, my “self” is detached from my body and floats at a little distance from it.
Watching TV news. Seated beside my husband, who wields the remote control like a wand, switching from channel to channel, impatient to discover what it is he might be missing when he watches a channel for more than a few minutes, or seconds.
A kaleidoscope of “breaking news.” Fires, flames, famine, flamethrowers, drought, earthquake, sodden bodies of refugee children washed up on littered shores. I would cry, but the cold blunts my feelings. “Disgusting!” my husband mutters.
“Disgusting,” I hear myself echo.
“How can such things be? How can such things be shown on television?”
My husband stretches, yawns, declares it’s time for bed. As if nothing were wrong in the world.
And soon, I will have forgotten, too. The cold numbs memory.
In the corners of (certain) rooms, the cold is drifting like fine white sand. Try not to notice, not to hear the soft hissing.
Yes, I have taken sleeping pills. I have tried. And yes, I have “slept”—a strange, unnatural dreamless sleep that leaves my mouth and eyes parched, my brain hurting when I wake up abruptly in the morning like something thrown from a shovel.
My husband has urged sleeping pills, of course. (When in doubt, medicate the wife.) But medicated sleep is not true sleep. This is not the sleep I require, that nourishes me. Not the sleep we require, that forgives us.
Each night begins with (naïve) hope. Theory is, the next hour, hours, constitute the future, the future is new. Absolutely no reason that the future will replicate the past. Husband sleeps, oblivious. For this, the (insomniac) wife is grateful.
To be sleepless is to wish to be alone. To be sleepless is to be supremely and irremediably alone.
At midnight still the night is new. Still there is the hope, the expectation, that sleep is approaching. A big stealthy lanky-limbed cat. Black panther. Elastic spine, rippling as she moves. On padded feet, making no sound.
But minutes pass. Hours. Still awake.
About to drift into sleep, the cold shimmers in a corner of the room. At once fully awake again. Alert, on guard.
Will I give up, and slip downstairs to the TV room?
Will I give up, and prowl the house?
You have noticed: Time moves slowly, even languidly, in the hours just past midnight. Two o’clock, two-thirty, three o’clock. But then at four o’clock, time begins to quicken. Between four and four-thirty—a rapid glide. Between four-thirty and five—quick descent.
As soon as the first bird chirps—(a cardinal, usually: tentative, faint cry in the foliage outside the window)—the cold has burrowed beneath the blankets.
Shivering, trembling in your burrow. For now the night is coming to an end—inescapably. The night that had seemed so hopeful, so promising, now coming to an end. No way to stop it. Like a landslide that begins with a few dislodged pebbles then gathers momentum, plunges down the mountainside taking the stunned observer with it.
Superhuman strength is required to get up. Dazed, deathly tired. Yet, I will make the effort. Determined not to give in to (my) weakness.
First task is to prepare breakfast for the family. Crucial to behave as if all is normal. Husband, sons. Hungry in the morning. A fretful time of day.
Examining each egg with care, held to the light to see if there is a miniature gnarly growth inside and not a (mere) yolk. Examining toast for (scorched) weevils. Perusing tiny, near-indecipherable text on the back of a cereal box where the side-effects of cracked wheat are indicated with a miniature skull and crossbones.
Once they are gone and the house is quiet I can try to sleep again. Crawl into rumpled sheets of the closest bed. Shut eyes. Try.
That day, or the next. Next night. (How many nights?)
Here is a remedy for insomnia: Count down from 1,111. Slow, methodical. Self-hypnosis, like descending a ladder into the Grand Canyon. Except at 1,004 my eyes open wide and dry.
Give up. Get up. Why do you need to sleep—you don’t.
The trick is to remain calm, I am sure. Try counting animals, different species of animals, how many do you know? Cats, dogs, cows, pigs. Sheep, goats. Beautiful high-stepping horses. Wild horses, mustangs. Elephants. Leopards. Tigers, lions, cheetahs…
No, the animals are too vivid. They are in the room with me. I am more awake than ever.
Counting friends in grade school, middle school, high school. Counting girls I’d liked more than they’d liked me. Girls I’d liked less than they’d liked me. Boys I’d loved who did not love me in return. Boys and men I’d actually spoken with, touched, kissed. Men I’ve slept with. But there have been so few, no more than three, maybe four, the counting ends quickly.
Suddenly remembering: Kamachenko. The tall, skinny, slope-shouldered boy with a man’s ravaged face in our homeroom, senior year of high school. Also in geometry class. Unpronounceable name that Mr. Langley printed on the blackboard: kamachenko.
Vasyl Kamachenko was from Eastern Europe, we were told. A “refugee”—the word was new to us. Most of his family had been massacred.
Carefully enunciating his name—Ka-ma-chen-ko—Mr. Langley was unintentionally comical, provoking laughter in some (of us). Almost immediately, the boys who liked to tease called him “the Camel.”
Kamachenko was a head taller than the tallest of them. Someone said he was nineteen, older than we were. Bony face, deep-socketed eyes, long narrow face bearing the shadow of a dark beard. His stiff dark hair was oddly thin for a boy his age, patches of roughened red scalp were exposed. Not even the brightest of us seemed to understand that malnutrition caused such hair loss—stress, trauma. In our comfortable American houses, we had no clue.
His English was halting and abashed. When he spoke (which was infrequently), he ducked his head, glaring downward. He stuttered, fell silent. There was a sound he made, a rush of sibilants, like a sound you might make slurping cornflakes. We jammed our hands over our mouths to muffle our laughter.
(Did I really laugh at the Camel as others did? Covertly I watched him with soft, admiring eyes, though never speaking to him.)
He was a freak—too tall, too thin! His shoulder blades weirdly bent forward like the wings of a crane. And that ravaged young-old face. You’d think that, close up, he might’ve smelled of something like wet socks, creosote.
In the senior corridor, his locker was just three away from mine—very easy to observe, covertly. Boys shoved pictures of naked women torn from magazines into his locker, but Kamachenko seemed to take no notice. Also dried leaves, mud, hardened bird droppings.
In geometry class, Kamachenko could solve difficult problems but could not explain why. He had no patience for the classroom protocol of problem-solving. One day he began shivering at his desk, as tears ran down his narrow cheeks, which he tried to ignore. Awkward and embarrassing, even the teasing boys seemed not to know how to react. Mr. Langley came to Kamachenko’s desk to offer him a tissue but Kamachenko shook his head, No thanks. Yet his ravaged face glistened, his nose ran. At last Mr. Langley wiped Kamachenko’s face as you’d wipe the face of a child.
We were stunned, abashed. We did not laugh or even smile. We feared that Kamachenko would strike our teacher with his fists, but he did not and somehow the class continued. We never saw him again after that day.
The sight of his empty desks—homeroom, geometry class—tore at my heart.
Thinking to outwit the cold. I have gotten into the habit of wearing extra layers of clothing in the house even in the daytime. Thick coarse wool socks. Gloves. On my head, a cap with earflaps.
In exasperation my husband asks: What is wrong with me? The temperature in the house is above seventy.
This is not true. Certainly not. No matter how I set the thermostat, it reverts within minutes to sixty-eight degrees, for my husband has programmed it that way.
Insisting upon taking me to see a doctor. But I have already seen a doctor. Too many doctors. Flushing medications down the toilet before I am poisoned by them.
Think of a miscarriage as a correction by nature. Something very wrong with the fetus which then self-aborts.
Did you say—mismarriage?
Staring at my husband as (patiently) he explains to me. Not for the first time. Watching his mouth move.
Unable to recall his name. A comforting name—William? Matthew? Richard? Robert? Phillip?
World record for staying awake is eleven days. I have stayed awake somewhere beyond twenty days in succession. Over weeks, months I have slept on the average of a few fleeting minutes or seconds over twenty-four-hour cycles, though I have not kept a record for I am confident that gradually I will overcome my need for sleep which (I see now) is just a predilection, a weekness. I mean—wreakness.
Night times are most treacherous. The air is aswirl with the cold buffeting my face in little gusts if I don’t cover it with a blanket.
(But then I can’t breathe.) (But then I certainly can’t sleep, panicked by the possibility of smothering.)
Like a pretzel curled to sleep on a downstairs sofa. Hidden from the cold beneath blankets. In the morning discovered—Mom! Hey …
Pulling the blanket from my face. Of course I am not asleep. Hesitantly the younger boy touches my face. Mommy—why is your face so cold?
Cold, cold! It is the boy who utters this word, not me. True, my face has become very pale. Icy. Frostbite?
Still, managing to assure the boys with a quick Mommy-smile that I am just playing with them, don’t be silly.
You’re the silly one, Mom!
The older boy is abashed, ashamed. The younger is confused, asking what kind of game is Mommy playing, but the older brother interrupts sneering, It isn’t Hallowe’en, Mom. News for you.
Yanks the blankets off the mother to discover that she isn’t wearing a nightgown or a bathrobe but the same rumpled slacks, soiled pullover sweater, wool socks she has been wearing for days and this is very wrong. This is bad to see. Upsetting to both boys, they back away from her.
My brain has detached itself from my body and observes me through a scrim, as in a laboratory experiment. It occurs to me that my husband is a research scientist at NeutroLink. Is this one of his experiments? Of course: I am a laboratory animal.
The cold renders my skin an odd, eerie, incandescent white-like frost—frostbite. My lips are very thin, pale, with a bluish tinge so that, if I want to be seen, if I want to be acknowledged, I must darken my lips with lipstick. The redder, the better. I understand that red lipstick—a red mouth—is intended to send a sexual signal, but I have no choice about lipstick, for otherwise my face will begin to dissolve. The boys, who already distrust their mother, won’t know where to look to find me.
Still, my husband doesn’t seem to notice. If I don’t wear a cap with earflaps, and a fleece-lined jacket in the house, he doesn’t seem to be as annoyed with me as he has been. I keep meaning to ask him about his “executive” position at NeutroLink, but each time I see him I forget, as if there is some sort of static interference from his direction.
The other day on his way out of the house he brushed his lips against my cheek and recoiled from the cold that has penetrated my skin.
As time has slowed to a stop, so, too, the weather seems to have become a single, singular weather. The cold permeates everything. Rarely is there a burst of sun. Outside the house a stationary mineral-mist seems to have settled in.
I have been hearing the husband speaking on the phone in a lowered voice, behind a shut door. I am not eavesdropping, for I can hear perfectly well, my senses are sharply alert as knives in a drawer that has been yanked open. And so, I understand that the husband is expressing his concern for me, his fear that it is happening again but worse this time.
A plan has been made. A trap has been set. Our sons shrink from their mother—she is not Mommy now, nor even Mom, but her.
And so, it is time for Mommy to go away.
(To go away is not difficult. The difficulty is where to go.)
Packed a suitcase. Clumsily, hurriedly, not sure what I have stuffed inside.
Baby clothes, I’d hidden away. In case there’d been a misunderstanding, Hummingbird waiting at the hospital.
In a Dumpster months ago, behind the Rite-Aid where I’d parked, I’d found a doll in the trash, missing an arm. Missing most of her hair. Had not meant to bring her home, in fact had not brought her home, but there she was in the back of the Honda Civic, the husband discovered her with a look of horror—What the hell is this? Where’d you find this?
Driving in the direction of Metuchen, New Jersey. Why? Pulled like a magnet. No why.
Avoiding the turnpike. Two-lane state highway through darkened fields. Ribbon of pavement seems to float. Faint sickle-moon overhead. This interminable day I’d been preparing. Eyes wide, all senses alert. Not clear where I am going, but confident that I will get there.
A powdery snow has fallen. That hissing sound. The heat in the car is on full blast yet the cold coils about me like a king cobra. Wisest strategy, I have learned, is to neither resist nor give in to the cobra-cold.
Entering Metuchen, 3:20 a.m. Desolate town. Street lights, deserted streets. Snow falling so slowly, each individual snowflake is visible in the headlights of my car as I stare through the windshield.
A red dashboard light has come on—gas tank is near empty. In my lifetime I have never run out of gas. But thinking now that I had better find a gas station. More immediately, I need to use a restroom.
Looking for a lighted strip of highway. All-night diner. But there is no diner, and there is no gas station. Boarded-up stores, vacant lots filled with rubble. Signs lead to the train depot. What a melancholy neighborhood! Shuttered warehouses, abandoned vehicles along the streets like decaying beasts. Traffic meters decapitated so only posts remain but the (deserted) depot parking lot is lighted, so I will park here and look for a restroom.
Down a flight of filthy brick steps, a mound of litter. Dressmakers’ dummies amid trash that startle the eye for they resemble human figures tossed aside.
Following a sign—public restrooms. But the restrooms, doors defaced with graffiti, seem to be padlocked. A door marked exit emergency only. The electricity has been turned off. There are no emergencies here. No one is here. Brashly, I push open the door and step inside.
Here, a pungent odor of mineral-cold. Here is the cold. In a vault-like corridor, dimly lit, but I am grateful for any light at all. The mineral smell is very strong, like raw meat. Creosote.
And then I see, in the corridor ahead as if he has been awaiting me—a tall, thin figure with a bald head, ravaged face, and deep-socketed eyes. Can it be Vasyl Kamachenko?
We stare at each other dry-mouthed. So stricken with emotion, neither of us can speak.
Kamachenko must be an adult now, as I am. Last seen (by me) when he was no more than nineteen years old, yet he does not seem to have aged much in the interim. Not as I have.
But Kamachenko recognizes me! He calls me by name, he remembers my name.
I have a surprise for you, dear. Despite his heavily accented English, I have no difficulty understanding him. We have been waiting for you. Good you are here, now.
In his arms, in his big hands—it is Hummingbird!
Kamachenko presents my lost daughter to me in his opened hands, carefully. She is beautiful—yes? She is yours.
Too moved to speak, I take Hummingbird into my arms. She is swaddled in a white wool shawl. She weighs only a few ounces—less than one pound.
Whatever Hummingbird’s afflictions were, she seems to have healed now. At the hospital they refused to allow me to view her, let alone hold her, but now I see that she is a very small baby, the smallest baby I have ever seen—not perfect as a doll is perfect but as a human infant may be perfect. Her eyes are clear, cobalt blue. Her hair is gossamer thin, very pale, against the curve of her head fragile as an eggshell.
So suffused with love, for both Hummingbird and Kamachenko who has brought her to me, I am finding it difficult to breathe.
We are both shy, awkward at greeting, hugging. But so happy, laughing, this is such a wonder. And Hummingbird with her miniature glowing face, in the crook of my arm.
Not until this minute have Kamachenko and I actually spoken to each other, let alone dared to touch.
Let me hold your hand. Let me warm you. You are so cold …
You are so cold.
It is true, Kamachenko is very cold. His hands grasping mine, his face looks frostbitten, like mine. But he stares at me with a look of love.
The cold washes over us. We will be frozen together, with Hummingbird in our arms, between us.
For now I recall that Vasyl Kamachenko was my first love. We’d hidden away together where no one could see us. I’d dared to drink the whiskey he had provided. He’d laughed, sung songs in his native language. He’d called me moya lyuba and taught me to call him moya lyuba in return. Tenderly, he’d kissed me, the first kisses of my life—my mouth, my eyes, my forehead, and again my mouth he’d kissed with his soft, damp, hungry lips. Embracing each other so tight that I felt I would faint, and we’d made love awkwardly and excitedly each for the first time and afterward slept in each other’s arms exactly as I am sleeping now.