Praying Mantis


Short Fiction by Julie Rea

 

Stitching

 

 

We named him Miles because when he was born, he was kind of blue.

The umbilical cord was wound tight around his neck, the same way I used to wrap the telephone cord around my finger, sitting in the hallway, talking about boys. I lay on the gurney, mutilated and numb from the waist down, scraping at the sides to prop myself up, before flopping back in on myself.

Only half a body.

In the distance, the bloodied jaws of metal forceps were perched on a surgical trolley before, briefly, I saw a flash of a tiny mottled heel. I blinked hard, trying to focus on that blurry shape in the doctor’s arms that was being whisked away. My bone marrow ached to hear a cry, but there was none.

My blood gushed out onto the floor and Thom kept slipping on it, like some vaudeville act from a silent movie. It would have been funny, maybe, if our son wasn’t behind a perspex box in another room, with adults in scrubs and surgical masks hunched over him like rubberneckers at a car crash.

The nurse, huddled under the green hospital sheet slung over me, stitched me up. You can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear, I mumbled to her; my own mother’s words to me as she’d scrubbed the rouge and lipstick from my face when I was fourteen. The nurse peeked out and gave a blank smile. I felt weightless. Something as heavy as a bag of sugar had been inside me, and now it was gone.

Woozily, I tried to remember what it was I was missing.

‘Excuse me’, I croaked, ‘have I lost something?’

The nurse lurched back, open mouthed, as streaks of bright crimson slid from her forearms down to her elbows. She motioned quickly for a doctor, as I zeroed in on those thin milky strips of membrane dripping from her fingertips. I gagged; the air smelled like a gas mask dipped in bleach. A ringing in my ears, as the ceiling above flickered and crisped at the edges.

Hot white heat, then blackness.

 

*

 

He was three days old the first time I saw him.

I inched along the squeaky corridor in my new slippers, a starchy pink dressing gown tied loose at my flabby waist. I gasped as I stood at the window of the room, watching Thom as he changed the nappy. I gave a small knock – polite, formal, as though I was entering my Father’s study.

‘Hey’, grinned Thom, washing his hands at the sink, ‘I thought they were wheeling you over later?’

He bunched up the paper towels and threw them in the bin before giving me a long, tight hug. I peered over his shoulder; I couldn’t stop staring at Miles. He squirmed in the hospital crib, two bony arms jerkily punching the air, a thatch of wispy, black hair. For days, I thought I’d merely hallucinated his existence. What was that poem, about planting children? My dreams had been of digging up a crying baby.

Mine.

‘No’, I said, ‘I felt okay to walk.’

‘That’s a good sign, right?’ he smiled.

I watched Thom’s slim, clean fingers as they buttoned up the poppers of the Babygro. I remembered them when the nails were dirty, when we’d cut class and make out in the park, his rough hands groping hungrily at the lacy white bra underneath my school shirt.

‘Here, hold him, you’ll be dying to.’

‘In a minute,’ I said, shoving my hands deep in my dressing gown pockets.

‘What are you afraid of?’ he laughed. ‘No, Beth, let’s do it now. You’re his Mother.’

As Thom placed him in my arms, Miles flicked open one eye: periwinkle blue, hazy black rim at the iris. I have made an eye, I thought, as he nestled into the fleshy part of my underarm. I remembered Mr Armstrong, my woodwork teacher, casually tossing my puny attempt at a maple wood keyring into the bin and how the class had laughed.

I have made a pair of eyes, Mr Armstrong, I thought, so fuck you.

I gently picked up his pinkie finger and studied the nail, no bigger than a grain of rice. I cuddled him closer, relief spreading through me like lava, but I knew, even then,

that somewhere an egg timer had been turned over and delicate granules of sand, a finite amount, were already trickling down.

 

*

ii

Womb Jars

 

I pressed my ear flat against the baby monitor, listening to the faint hiss and crackle, attentive as a sailor hunched over a shipping forecast. Panicked, I fumbled in the dark for my dressing gown.

‘Hey’, said Thom, blearily rubbing his eyes, ‘leave him. He’s fine.’

‘I know, I just want to check,’ I whispered. ‘I thought I heard him cry.’

Thom slumped back down and mumbled something into his pillow. I opened the bedroom door and felt my way along the wall, until I came to the round nub of the brass handle of the nursery and softly prised open the door.

The room was stuffy. I heard his breath, soft puffs of air, as I leaned over the crib. Whorls of black hair clung to the small of his neck, a balled fist – the size of a plum – rested against his cheek. I squatted down and stared at him through the wooden bars. I wanted to capture every breath and store it up, like candy balls in a gumball machine.

Before we had left the hospital, the doctor had wanted to speak to us. His name was Dr Berry, ‘like raspberry, but not as sweet’ he had said with a smirk, as he ushered Thom and I into his office. He had the same suede blotter on his desk that my Father used to have on his. He looked like he played a lot of golf. He flipped through a slim brown file in front of him. My stitches itched, and I shifted uneasily in the leather seat.

‘Okay,’ he said and exhaled, as he read the page in front of him. ‘Okay, let’s start.’

He pushed his fingertips together, like a church steeple, and leaned in closer. He perfunctorily cleared his throat before telling me, in a flat vapid tone, that my womb had been removed.

I heard the static whirr of a photocopier from another room; the clickity-clack of someone walking down the marble corridor. I thought that I had maybe misheard him, so I laughed.

‘Are you okay Beth?’ said Dr Berry, like raspberry but not as sweet. ‘I understand that this is a lot for you to absorb.’ He nodded sagely, then leaned back in his chair.

‘I’m sorry?’ I eventually said, in a voice I didn’t recognise. ‘What did you say? Why would you do that?’

A haemorrhage, apparently. Bleeding profusely. Time was of the essence.

‘I know this must be a shock,’ he said, picking lint from his cuff, ‘but is there anything you want to ask me?’

What I really wanted to ask him was where it was, my womb, my carved-out womb. I wanted to ask him where they had put it. I imagined a room, a room the size of a football pitch, and rows and rows of sterile shelves with glass jars, all filled with those transparent jellyfishes of life.

Womb jars. Discarded like old rags, soggy with blood and skin and tissue.

But I didn’t ask, of course. I merely watched, unblinking, as he stiffly re-arranged the papers in front of him, avoiding my gaze as I stood up and tugged roughly at my burning stitches.

‘The uterus is an animal,’ I rasped, as Thom – aghast – apologised on my behalf, while harshly shoving me out the door.

‘Did you know that Doctor?’ I called out, but the door slammed behind us before he could answer.

‘Have you lost your fucking mind?’ Thom hissed under his breath as we stood in the corridor. Yes, the men are removing the wombs and the women are losing their minds. I gripped the wall and started to shake.

 

And now there can only ever be you, I thought, as I peered at him asleep in his crib, trying to memorise the tiny creases on the palm of his upturned hand. I softly picked him up. He fussed a little, then started to wail.

‘Oh, come on then, little one,’ I whispered as I carried him into our room.

Thom was snoring loudly as I gently placed Miles in the middle of our bed. The gentle weight of him made a hollow dent on the covers, as he kicked and cried louder. Thom turned over before the realisation made him sit straight up.

‘You’re kidding me?’

‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, but he was upset, so I brought him in here to settle. Only for a minute or two, promise.’

Thom threw back the sheets and grabbed his pillow.

‘No,’ he said, through clenched teeth, ‘it was you Beth, you made him cry. He was fine, just like I told you.’

I shook my head as I crawled into the bed and curled up beside Miles. Thom stood for a few moments in the darkness.

‘Never mind,’ he sighed, ‘I’ll sleep on the couch tonight.’

 

 *

 iii

Tongue – A Sensor

 

I couldn’t sleep.

It was the night before Miles was due to start primary school. I’d lost 10 pounds in just under three weeks. I had a dream, his terrified voice just out of reach, dead ends, black shadows. A dark mass spread like smoke under my chest. I bolted upright in bed, went downstairs and paced the kitchen until dawn. His blazer (a deep magenta with a crest of a castle in gold and blue) was on a coat hanger on the clothes horse, stiff as cardboard. It was the smallest size and the cuffs still hung past his hands.

I’d stitched his name on the label in red thread – Miles Ellis.

A pale wheat coloured sun poured through the kitchen window. It shone directly on the first picture he’d ever made for me the day he started nursery. It was stuck to the fridge with magnets, a rigid potato print in gloopy red and blue paint. There were stacks of boxes in the attic, stuffed full of pictures like this, coloured with bright crayons, scribbles of symbols and lines, his tentative sketches at letters and language. Two fat balloons, side by side was his clumsy attempt at the first initial of his name. After six months, I’d taken him out of nursery. I needed him to be with me.

I stood up and packed his blue pencil case, with planets embossed on the front, into the front zipper of his backpack and laid it beside the kitchen table. Thom brushed past me and took orange juice from the fridge.

‘You’re supposed to be excited,’ he said, taking a swig directly from the carton.

‘Well, I’m not,’ I said. I felt as though I was being garrotted.

I remembered his birdlike footprints as he teetered through the first snow; I wished I’d taken a mould of them.

‘Well he is,’ said Thom, arcing his arm around me to put the juice back. ‘So please try and remember that.’

I set the kitchen table for myself and Miles. Thom ate his cereal sitting on the sofa.

 

*

 

We were parked across from the school gates. I sat in the passenger seat with my knees hunched up to my chest. Thom rapped his fingers against the steering wheel.

‘Don’t drive,’ I pleaded, ‘not yet.’ He flicked the ignition off. Miles’ empty car seat in the back looked too small. I felt the void of it. I missed him already.

‘I think he’s made a new friend,’ said Thom, ‘a boy called Josh?’ He squeezed my knee. ‘You’re taking this really well. I’m proud of you.’

I wished that he’d take his hand off my leg.

I stared at the school building – flat roofed, tan coloured bricks, a dustbin shaped like a frog squatting on hind legs with its mouth gaped open, picnic tables with wooden benches, a mesh fence covering an orange gravel pitch. And Miles, in there somewhere, sitting beside a boy I didn’t know called Josh.

‘This is how it happens,’ I said, ‘don’t you feel it all slipping away?’

‘Jesus Beth,’ he groaned, ‘it’s his first day.’ He drove off. I turned in my seat and stared at the school through the rear window, until we turned a corner, and it dropped away sharply.

At home, I lay on the sofa, and cried until my ribs felt like putty.

His first word had been ‘Ball.’ Not mama, not dada, but ball. As though he’d been silently storing up all those vowels and consonants, swilling them around in his mouth until finally they tentatively formed a noise, a word.

Before then, his tongue had been his sensor. He’d gnaw at his small fist, chew the remote control, pages of books would be soggy from his drool. He discovered the world then through taste. When he learned speech, he babbled constantly, his voice high and shrill. As we drove that afternoon to pick him up from school, I wondered what he and Josh had talked about when we weren’t there. I thought of all those conversations that I wouldn’t be a part of anymore.

One week after Miles started school, I started my medication.

 

*

iv

Froth at the Mouth

 

I first met Thom in high school, he was in the year above. My parents had wanted me to attend a private school, but I’d insisted on going to the local comprehensive. My Mother, reluctantly, gave her permission before showing her true feelings by picking up a china plate and throwing it against the sitting room wall. My Father silently gathered the shards of porcelain in his palm before throwing them in the bin. We never spoke of my choice of school again, but it was a splinter in my Mother’s perfect façade, the one she displayed to her ‘friends’; the pompous women in pearls who spent their days flower arranging.

I first spoke to Thom at a school dance. He was good looking but in a gangly, awkward way that I liked. He slouched. His hair was dark and messy. He always seemed just off centre from his circle of friends, distracted, in a way that piqued my interest. I had hovered around his group, in the canteen and corridors, but had never spoken to him, hoping that – by some osmosis – my familiar yet silent presence would seep into his subconscious.

I was unsure if I would even go to the dance. I was still shaky from an incident that had happened just over a week earlier. I had come home from school one afternoon to an unusually quiet house. Upstairs, I found my Mother sitting in my bedroom, reading my diary. She’d rifled through my drawers and clumps of clothes lay discarded on the floor. My journals, which I thought had been well hidden, were splayed across my bed. It looked as though I’d been burgled, and maybe I had. I stood, open mouthed, and horrified.

‘You really are quite melodramatic,’ she said, without looking up. ‘Must be your age. Fifteen is a difficult age, for a girl.’ She flicked over a page and groaned.

‘Seriously Beth, so theatrical.’

‘I hate you,’ I screamed, clawing at my face as I ran downstairs.

My Father walked through the front door as I ran past him into the kitchen.

‘Beth,’ he called, ‘are you okay?’

I rummaged around in the cupboard under the sink and gobbled down mouthfuls of washing powder. I started to froth at the mouth, stomping around the floor, drooling white foam. My Father frantically jabbed the buttons on the phone for an ambulance, then grabbed me and tried to jam his fingers down my throat. I threw up, just as my Mother came into the kitchen. She gingerly stepped over the vomit, reeking on her marble tiles, then lit a cigarette and leaned against the counter.

‘What a stupid girl,’ she said.

I slumped to the ground as the ambulance arrived, her look of contempt the last thing I saw before passing out.

She didn’t visit me the four days I was in hospital, just sat in the lobby and waited for my Father. He would bring grapes and stand stiffly at the window, arms behind his back. Before leaving, he’d gently tap my arm, then hurry out the door. Every visit, a fresh, uneaten punnet of grapes would join the others that he’d bought.

They’d pumped my stomach, so my throat felt scratchy and raw. I had to speak to a psychiatrist before they’d let me leave. I played along, agreeing when they diagnosed ‘teenage hormones,’ nodding along when they said how out of character this was for me.

When I got home, my room was still in the same state of disarray as when I’d left.

I told my friends I had been in hospital because of appendicitis. I was weak, pale and dazed, so it was easy to believe. At the dance, I sat on a plastic chair in a corner, behind a pillar, sipping a glass of peach cooler. It took a moment for me to realise the shadowy shape beside me was Thom. I straightened up in my seat, wishing I’d put on make-up.

‘You’ve not been in school for a while,’ he said.

‘No. I was in hospital. But I’m okay now.’

He gave me a quick look.

I liked the look.

*

V

Praying Mantis on a Windscreen

 

Thom began to sleep in Miles’ bed not long after he had started nursery. It was only ever meant to be temporary – our bed was too small for the three of us – but, somehow, we’d all gotten used to the arrangement; Miles and I in the main bed and Thom in the toddler bed, his feet hanging out the end, like Gulliver in Lilliput.

‘He’s at school now Beth,’ Thom said one evening, as I cleared away the dirty dinner plates. ‘He needs to sleep in his own room in his own bed. It’s weird now.’

I felt scared, suddenly and inexplicably, and couldn’t look directly at him.

Miles was in the bath upstairs, I heard him splashing around. I placed the dishes in the sink and turned on the tap. He’d caught me off guard. I focussed on the steam rising, trying to steady the lurching inside.

‘Tomorrow – ’

‘No. Tonight,’ Thom insisted. ‘He goes into his own bed tonight.

 

I left home and moved in with Thom two weeks after my seventeenth birthday. My Father had given me a potted aspidistra plant as a house-warming gift. We stood awkwardly at the front door, rain drumming against the roof, as Thom waited in the car packed with all my belongings. I knew my Mother was in the house, somewhere, even though my Father said she wasn’t. I could hear her muffled screams. As we drove off, my Father called after me. I couldn’t hear, so rolled down the window and stuck my head out, but it was too late, he’d already turned and gone back inside. I clutched the plant on my lap as Thom smiled and squeezed my thigh.

I would only see my Father once more before he died. It was, strangely enough, in the ladies’ section of a large department store. I was waiting in line, not paying much attention, when I realised who the deep, hushed tone of the man at the counter belonged to.

He’d aged. There were thick streaks of grey at his temples and he had a paunch. He’d flattened out a tweed blazer on the counter and was insisting on a refund, as the silk lining was ripped. I sighed. An old trick of my Mother’s – buy something expensive, wear it once, then tear the stitching and demand to be reimbursed. I couldn’t believe she was still doing it, and it hurt to see him being reduced to that. I quietly ducked out of the queue and didn’t look back. I heard he died a year later.

 

Thom put Miles to bed that night. I lay in our room, tossing and turning, waiting on Miles thrashing and wailing for me but, apart from a slight grumble as Thom tucked him in, there wasn’t a sound.

‘See,’ grinned Thom, ‘he’s happy to have his own space. I think we all are.’

But I wasn’t.

I scrambled around in the darkness for the blister pack of pills on the bedside table.

‘I can’t sleep,’ I whispered to Thom, as I heard him exhale loudly. I dry swallowed the pills and curled up near the edge of the bed, rudderless.

 

I fell pregnant quickly, almost as soon as Thom and I started dating. We’d excitedly and apprehensively held the slim stick in our trembling hands. It felt right. I was convinced the fluttering deep inside my stomach was the baby, our baby, only the size of a peanut, moving already. But then, almost as quickly, came the blood-soaked bedsheet in the harsh dawn light and my palm stained red.

Three more times.

Three more times my flesh ripped apart, left with only stitches and nerves.

‘She’s cursed us,’ I croaked to Thom.

My body felt defective. I couldn’t piece my useless skin up anymore. I gave up.

And then it happened.

One drizzly and overcast day, while driving down a country lane, our tyre blew. I screeched and covered my eyes, as we swerved, and ended up stuck in a muddy verge.

‘Fuck,’ said Thom under his breath. We both got out of the car. I stood in a small clearing nearby and waited while he changed the tyre. Cows grazed in a field, they looked bored of our presence. I was cold and shaken and eager to leave when I saw it.

A praying mantis on the windscreen.

‘Thom look,’ I whispered, as he squatted in the dirt, huffing and sweating.

‘What?’ He didn’t look up.

I wondered if I had imagined it because, after only a few moments, it had disappeared. I remembered once, reading about a myth, that if a woman sees a praying mantis it means that she is pregnant.

I hovered my hands over my belly, feeling an imperceptible fluttering inside.

‘Good,’ said Thom, wiping his brow. ‘Let’s go.’

He paused, noticing something had changed in my expression.

The curse had been lifted.

 

*

vi

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

 

The date was marked in the calendar for weeks. The date of his operation, a tonsillectomy, one week before his eighth birthday. As we crossed off each day, with a bright red marker, I felt a deeper sense of dread. I googled statistics on death rates of tonsillectomies in children – almost zero.

Almost.

‘It’s a half hour operation,’ sighed Thom. ‘He’ll be home the next day.’

‘Yeah, I know. Hospitals just…make me crazy.’

‘I know,’ he snorted. ‘I know.’

 

I remembered one night, a few years ago, when I had taken Miles to the ER. It was winter. The automatic sliding door was jammed so I pulled hard with my free hand and squeezed through the small gap, holding him tightly with my right arm. Panic, as hard and gritty as a stone, skittered around my ribcage, like a marble in a pinball machine. This is retribution, I thought, his body limp.

I ran toward the reception desk, his bare feet banging against my shins.

‘I need a doctor…NOW,’ I screamed, and laid him on the floor.

The nurse pushed a buzzer and a doctor came running down a corridor. He crouched over him as the nurse brought over some apparatus.

‘Will this help him breathe?’ I asked. I paced the floor as several doctors huddled around him. Asthma, I heard one say. I saw the hem of his pyjamas (blue trim, red rockets) as they lifted him onto a stretcher and – with an oxygen mask over his blue mouth – rushed him away.

‘Please,’ I prayed, ‘don’t punish me like this.’

 

The day of the operation Miles was hungry, asking for pancakes and chocolate sauce for breakfast. His stomach growled.

‘Sorry little man,’ said Thom, ruffling his hair, ‘you can’t eat anything until after your op.’

‘Not even a tiny little bit?’ Thom shook his head as Miles propped his chin in his hand and pouted.

I felt as though I was watching a TV show, with characters I used to know but couldn’t remember anymore.

Miles had his own room at the hospital. Large green leaves, with tigers peeking through and monkeys swinging from branches, were painted on the walls. Miles was wearing only his pyjama bottoms. I saw his frail papery heartbeat pulse quickly in his chest.

‘Mama, tell me something funny. Tell me something I don’t know.’

‘Okay.’

I leaned over and whispered in his ear. He giggled.

‘Is that true?’ he asked. I nodded and crossed my heart.

‘That’s funny.’ He’d lost a front tooth a few days earlier, a ridged pink gum showed through the gap as he laughed.

‘What’s funny?’ said Thom.

I shook my head. ‘Nothing, it doesn’t matter.’

He bristled but quickly brushed it off as two orderlies arrived to take Miles to theatre.

I held Miles’ hand until we came to two large swing doors with tiny portholes windows, as though we were on a ship, and they told us we couldn’t go any further. I gripped his pinkie finger up until the very last second, and we were separated.

‘Mama,’ I heard him cry sharply, as they pushed him through the doors.

‘I’ll be waiting,’ I shouted. It felt as though a cinderblock had been strapped across my chest.

 

Miles never met my Mother. The closest he ever came was one April afternoon when, aged three, I drove him to the house I grew up in. I parked a distance away, hidden by the large hydrangea bushes that flanked their driveway. I unclipped Miles from his car seat. He squashed his chubby starfish hands against the window.

‘Who lives in that house Mama?’

‘A lady.’

‘Is she a nice lady? Can we visit?’

I clipped him back in his chair.

‘Maybe another day.’

Thom and I sat three seats apart in the waiting room. I bit the skin around my nails. Over an hour had passed and we hadn’t heard any news.

‘Why is it taking so long Thom? Half an hour you said.’

He shrugged and looked at his watch again.

Just then, a doctor in a green smock drenched maroon at the front, walked out into the corridor and scanned the waiting room.

I shakily stood up. ‘That’s his blood.’ I covered my mouth. ‘I know it. That’s Miles’ blood!’

I dropped like a stone, banging my head on the edge of the wooden table that was stacked high with well-thumbed magazines.

 

Thom was pacing the floor as I came to.

‘Beth,’ he rushed to hug me. ‘He’s fine. It wasn’t Miles’.

‘Are you sure?’ My mind was still foggy. He nodded. I felt everything inside, everything that had been clenched and tight and fearful, slacken.

A nurse pushed a wheelchair over to me. ‘Let’s get this fixed, shall we?’ she said.

‘Is there any way that you could do this here?’ I grimaced. We were the only people in the waiting room. She glanced around and gave a curt nod, before putting on a pair of latex gloves and taking a swab and needle from her pocket. Thom moved over to allow the nurse to stitch the gash at the side of my forehead.

So much of a woman is stitching. Her skin is a patchwork – stretched, punctured, threaded back together. My bag of skin was filled up again with more straw, like a scarecrow that keeps bursting at the seams.

A woman is fluent in the language of blood.

‘There,’ said the nurse as she cut the end of the thread, ‘good as new.’

Thom sat a few seats away from me.

‘What was it that you whispered to Miles earlier? Before he went in for surgery. Will you tell me?’

‘It’s silly really.’ I wiped tears away with the flat of my hand. ‘I told him that Gorillas are really ticklish. Especially the silverbacks.’

Thom sniggered. ‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

I noticed that he had got up and sat down beside me, so close our thighs touched.

He gave me a quick look.

I liked that look.

 

 


Julie Rea won the Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award 2017 and was mentored by the writer, Janice Galloway. Her fiction has been published in many literary journals, including ‘Gutter’ ‘New Writing Scotland’ and ‘The Cormorant’. Julie has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was shortlisted for the Moniack Mhor Emerging Writer Award 2018, shortlisted for The Primadonna Prize and long listed for Bath Short Story Award 2019. She has completed a short story collection – Little Earthquakes.