Annalise dies in the bathtub. The baby screaming. Her husband panicking. The doula calling 911 on a cellphone smeared with red. Lacy clouds of blood surround her. Her eyes are glassy, tear tracks leaking down her cheeks.
By the time the ambulance arrives, Annalise is breathing again. There is blood in a vast circle around the tub, a sluggishly bleeding line down her stomach. If you were to squint, the blood splatters would look like letters, numbers, signs, and symbols. If you were to study the gash on Annalise’s stomach, you would see blood-and-gossamer thread, cut ragged at the end. If you were to place your hand in her husband’s pocket, you would feel the outline of cold scissors, slick with warm blood. The EMTs don’t do any of these things. The doula won’t speak. The husband explains that they panicked, Haha, yes, our firstborn, we should have gone to the hospital. The EMTs are understanding. The baby is crying. They load baby and mother onto the stretcher.
Annalise is dead. Something else moves her skin.
• • •
Annalise and her husband move into a duplex near the university. It’s a whole circus of the moving truck and all the boxes, and Annalise has no idea where any of their things are. Her husband’s scissors are nowhere to be found. He’s euphoric about the move: more space for the baby, more light in the bedroom, and a clean break from the trauma of their old house. It’s closer to the university, and her husband has a tenure-track appointment. It doesn’t matter what Annalise was before the birth—now she holds a newborn against her soft breast and smiles at their new neighbor.
The neighbor’s name is Jean. She teaches at the university as well, in the anthropology department. She asks about the baby and Annalise smiles vacantly. The baby is quiet, mostly. The baby burbles.
“She’s very cute,” Jean says, but to Annalise’s ears, it sounds hollow. Annalise knows how to tell truth from lies. Annalise holds Jean’s gaze for too long. She’s not used to watching through binary eyes. Jean’s smile almost falters.
“Is she?” Annalise says, and Jean laughs, and Annalise laughs, and the husband comes out to the front porch and he laughs too. He kisses Annalise on the cheek before he leaves. He never kisses Annalise on the mouth anymore.
• • •
A relationship is a contract between two parties who pretend not to have a contract. The terms of Annalise and her husband’s union are as follows:
- Annalise and her husband are joined together in holy matrimony and the bonds of blood and also the traumatic event of their first child’s birth, of which they will never speak again. What mankind has wrought, no god will tear asunder.
- Annalise loves her husband, and he loves her back, with a desperation almost akin to worship.
- Annalise is Annalise, as her husband has never wanted anyone other than his wife.
- Her husband will provide her with all material wants, for the pleasure of Annalise’s companionship and discretion.
- Separation is not an option.
• • •
Two months and the house is unpacked. Annalise explores with unfamiliar hands, with foreign fingers. She feeds the baby from a bottle and endures the disapproving stares of older women at the coffee shop down the street. Annalise doesn’t know why they disapprove. It’s not like the baby is crying.
The baby doesn’t cry much, anymore. Annalise thought that it might be talking by now, or at least able to move around. It only took Annalise twenty hours to figure that out, after all. But the baby is a sleepy squishy lump curled up against Annalise’s chest. She strokes its fine downy hair and wonders at the texture. When it grows dark, she swaddles the baby and puts it to bed. She stares at it while it sleeps. She always changes the baby’s diapers without any wrinkle of her nose.
“Does he ever take care of her?” Jean asks, disapproving. Jean is divorced and owns a cat that fluffs up and hisses whenever Annalise comes into view. Jean has taken to inviting Annalise on coffee runs, which inevitably end in sitting at the coffee shop table closest to the window. Annalise likes watching people walk by.
“Oh, he’s busy,” Annalise says. She doesn’t know what her husband spends his days doing. He leaves the house early. He comes back late. He won’t tell her where he put her things.
“That’s no excuse,” Jean says, taking a long drink of her coffee. “It’s the twenty-first century.”
“He’s busy,” Annalise says again. Her husband always comes home late and kisses her on the cheek—Hello, darling—and then goes upstairs to hold the baby. He kisses the baby on the forehead, cradles its head, places it back in its bassinet. Then he strips off his jacket, his shirt and slacks. Underneath, he’s all bare knobby knees, hair on his legs and stomach and arms, collapsing in bed. He asks her to please come to bed.
So Annalise strips off her skirt and shirt. She curls up with him, his warm hands pressed against the healing wound on her stomach, his face pressed against the nape of her neck.
“Oh gods, Annalise,” he says. He presses close against her and whispers his fears into her skin. Sometimes he cries and sobs her name. “It’s going to be fine,” he says. “We’re all going to be fine.”
Annalise looks down at her cup. “I don’t mind,” she says.
“I bet he makes you do all the housework, too,” Jean says.
“He never makes me cook,” Annalise says. “He doesn’t trust me with the stove.”
• • •
Annalise sometimes brings her husband lunch at his office on campus. She always brings him the same thing: a sandwich piled high with thinly sliced roast beef and cheese and yellow mustard, a Coke, a pack of chips. Things that don’t need to be cooked. He meets her at the doorway to his little room, and she hands him the brown paper bag.
“Can I come in?” she always asks, tilting her head so she can see around his shoulder. Usually there’s a graduate student or two inside, talking with him about old myths, dead languages, all the things that Annalise could provide information on if she were so inclined. If that was what her husband had contracted for. Behind her, shoals of chattering undergrads walk past. Annalise watches them out of the corner of her eye. Their synchronic movements, the way the individuals move in seamless tandem, remind her of home.
“No, but thank you, darling,” he says, and leans forward to kiss her on the cheek. It gives Annalise a good view of his office. It’s crammed full of old books and dusty papers, thick tomes bound in leather and leather-ish things. There’s a large poster reprinting a depiction of an Aztec altar, another large poster with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, another with Jörmungandr encircling the world in its coils. That one always makes Annalise smile.
Legends and religion, comparative mythologies—her husband has a doctorate in archaeology, but his true love has always been the arcane. He’s written three books. He has a popular podcast. He’s brilliant. Annalise adored him.
The scissors are on his desk. She can see the gleam of their handles. It would be so easy to unstitch the contract from her skin with them, if only the conditions weren’t so expansive. But Annalise cannot pursue separation, and therefore cannot enter her husband’s domain and pick up his instrument. She wrenches her gaze away to stare into her husband’s dark eyes.
“Let me in,” she says. “Give me the scissors. I’ll tell you things beyond your wildest dreams.”
“No,” her husband says, and Annalise can smell his sweat. “No, I don’t want that.”
“What do you want?” she asks. She can taste a new contract on her tongue, the way it will settle on her, less strangling than their current agreement.
“Annalise,” he sighs, and the conversation is over.
• • •
Annalise spends her days exploring. The shower that takes a few minutes to warm up. The bedroom that gets too warm in the afternoons. The kitchen with the gas stove that she uses to make a single egg for breakfast. She remembers hunger, but after her birth she finds herself too cramped for food. She spends long afternoons folding laundry on the couch, watching television, the baby sleeping next to her. She watches shows where everyone is always smiling. The white flashes of bone, the threat displays of delight.
Annalise ventures outside when she is tired of watching. The coffee shop down the street, where she shows the baby the pastries, the mismatched cups, the flower boxes. The baby looks at things and coos. Sometimes Jean is with her. Jean knocks on her door and says things like, “There’s a farmer’s market three blocks over on Saturdays,” and, “I’m going, if you want to come.”
Jean always asks in a brusque tone, her questions quick and embarrassed. She asks like it’s a statement, but Annalise can parse the query behind her lips. Jean is lonely. Annalise understands loneliness. Annalise is lonely, too.
“I’d love to,” Annalise says, and smiles, just like they do on TV.
• • •
Annalise’s outings are punctuated by long stretches of molasses-taffy time, the clock ticking and Annalise ticking along with it. If Annalise had friends, had family other than husband and baby, before the move, they’re all gone now. Annalise is estranged. The baby doesn’t count. The baby came from her body.
Sometimes Annalise stands in front of their bathroom mirror and stretches the pale skin of her stomach. There’s a dark red gash down the center of it, puckered with stitches. It’s healing well, but it still seems angry—two seconds from weeping blood. Her skin seems very fragile. She can see the light blue capillaries that cross underneath her epidermis, above the dermis and dark strands of muscle, the glistening eggshell membrane of her peritoneum, flecked with gold fat and the shadows of veins—creeping spider vessels across the wet expanse of it, above the guts and all the rest of her. Such a thin layer, to keep everything in.
• • •
Late Saturday morning and her husband hasn’t left the house yet. Unusual behavior for him, but Annalise just begins fixing her usual egg.
“You’re using the stove,” her husband says, looking up from his laptop. Annalise glances at him as she breaks the egg into a pan. It sizzles in the oil, proteins coagulating.
“Yes,” Annalise says. “It’s not hard.” She had never used a gas stove before moving here.
“I thought you didn’t know how,” her husband says, and she can hear the salt-sour scent threading through his voice, the jagged fear. He’s usually able to keep it to a low whisper. She likes the taste of it. Sometimes at night she tells him horrible things just to smell it. “I can’t love you,” she’ll say. “I don’t know what love is but whatever I feel for you, it can never be love.” Sometimes he cries, and Annalise kisses away his tears.
“You’d deny your wife the kitchen,” Annalise says. “How untraditional. Isn’t it usually the other way around?”
“Annalise,” he says, the shape of all the syllables fully familiar. He’s known Annalise for so long. They went to school together: a meet-cute in philosophy class, when they sat next to each other and he complimented her laptop stickers, followed by a college romance, followed by a wedding and graduate school and archaeology digs and fellowships, all finally culminating in a decision one lovely lazy sunny afternoon, Annalise wrapping her arms around her husband from behind and whispering in his ear: Let’s make a baby.
She remembers their long conversations together late at night before the baby, recorded in the chemical etching of Annalise’s hippocampus.
“Do you want me to make you an egg too?” Annalise asks, teasing. “Come now. You know I can’t hurt you.”
“Can’t, or won’t?” he asks.
“It’s a stove,” she says. “I’m in the room, too. And the baby. Do you think I would?”
“I don’t know,” he says, all honesty. Rare, from her husband. He shakes his head. “I didn’t come to argue. I wanted to ask how you were. How you’ve been adjusting.”
“It’s been months,” Annalise says. “I’m adjusting. Faster, if you helped with the baby more. Why are you asking me this now?”
“You’re always carrying her,” her husband protests. “I just want to know if you’re happy. Here. I’ve been thinking, and… it’s a terribly big adjustment, isn’t it?”
Annalise spoons hot oil over the yolk of her egg to set the whites. “Unimaginable.” She means that literally. Her husband wouldn’t be able to comprehend. She wouldn’t be able to explain. The room is quiet for a long moment. Annalise turns off the gas and pours the egg onto a plate. She takes out a fork and sits at the table.
“Hey,” Annalise’s husband says, standing from the table, leaning forward to give her a kiss on the head. “I miss you.”
“What are you talking about?” Annalise says, breaking the yolk with her fork, yellow flooding her plate. “I’m right here.”
• • •
Annalise is fascinated by exits. The baby exited from her body. Annalise exits through doors that open and close. The dark gash on her stomach is held together by scab and string. Her husband, always leaving.
She tells Jean as much. “He’s an asshole,” Jean says. “You have to see that, right? You know that you don’t need to put up with this.”
Annalise can see the shape of Jean’s thoughts. Jean thinks laterally to Annalise—none of the fascination with exits, the binary of coming and going. Jean thinks of people and the way they change—of bones found in ancient caves and proof of intermixed DNA, Neanderthal, Denisovan, Homo sapiens, chipped pottery shards, all the things we carried: glass beads and scraps of polished flint, a hundred mothers and a million children and hands holding hands and hands hurting flesh and none of us ever being free of one another in the end.
The last part is an understanding she and Annalise share. It’s what creates the kinship between them.
“He’s my husband,” Annalise says. “Wouldn’t you miss me, if I left?”
“Of course I’d miss you, but you always say that,” Jean says. “That he’s your husband. But I never hear you talk about whether you care about him—it sounds like you’re just staying for the baby. And he doesn’t even help! It’s like he doesn’t want to be around you, or something. Does postpartum depression affect fathers?”
“I don’t know,” Annalise says, stroking the baby’s fine hair. “And don’t say that, he loves me.”
That’s the whole truth of it: her husband loves Annalise, and Annalise loved him dearly back.
“If history has taught us anything,” Jean says in her lecturing voice, “ it’s that love isn’t always enough.”
“Say I wanted to leave,” Annalise says, leaning forward. The baby gurgles in protest at being squished. “I’ve got family back home. I haven’t seen them since I moved. Would you help me?”
“Of course,” Jean says. Annalise smiles at her. A contract-that-is-not-a-contract, superseding old agreements.
• • •
Time has not made Annalise comfortable. Her confusion has turned to a manageable discomfort, like a simmering pot that never boils over. She wakes in the morning with an alarm and murmurs, Five more minutes, until she hears the baby crying. Every day she looks at her body in the mirror. Her honey-blond hair, her sloped shoulders and soft stomach with its healing line. Soon, it’ll be nothing but a faint pucker, the stitches dissolved. The contract subsumed into her flesh, until it becomes part of the truth of her, until the body is her and she is the body, her curiosity having led to her cage. In months there won’t even be a scar, and the whole mess of her birth will be forgotten. Time’s running out. The body forgets, nothing remembers.
She goes to the baby’s crib—the baby graduated out of a bassinet months ago—and picks it up. It coos at her, happy to see its mother. She coos back.
“Are you happy to see Mama?” she asks. “Do you love Mama?”
The baby giggles.
Love is not one of the things she understood, before. But now she understands: love is a delightfully strange facet of desire, and she has always understood want. That’s all there was, back where she came from—desire, and the subsequent taking of the desired. It’s what called her to her husband, her curiosity and inspection of his whole-hearted want. Annalise wants as well.
• • •
Annalise knocks on Jean’s door with the baby securely on her hip. Jean swings it open, and she can hear the cat yowling in the background.
“Hi,” Annalise says. “Can I ask you for a weird favor?”
“Sure,” Jean says, because there is a trust built between them over months, over small contracts filled—coffees bought for each other, errands run together, conversations, promises.
“Great,” Annalise says. “You know where my husband’s office is, right?”
“Sure,” Jean says.
“Can you run an errand for me? I need the scissors he keeps on his desk, in the cup full of pencils. But I can’t leave the baby, and it’s time for her nap.”
“Of course,” Jean says. “That’s not that weird.”
“Let me give you his spare keys.” Annalise knows where her husband leaves them. She’s explored every inch of their house, and it was never the physical lock that barred her from his office. She fishes the keys out of her pocket and hands them to Jean. “Thank you.”
“Sure,” Jean says, and waves at Annalise and the baby as she leaves. The baby waves back.
Annalise takes the baby back into her house, leaving the front door unlocked for Jean to enter. She puts the baby on her mat on the floor. “Can you say ‘mama’?” Annalise asks the baby, sitting down next to her. The baby babbles. Annalise turns on the television. Laughter, smiles, stage sets. The baby’s babbling grows quieter. And then, Jean runs back up to the house, holding the silver scissors like they’re a poisonous snake, her face wrinkled with confusion.
“Jesus Christ, Anna, are they covered in blood?”
“Oh, you got them!” Annalise says, springing to her feet and rushing over to Jean. “Give them to me!”
Jean jerks back. “Why do you want these? They’re a biohazard.”
The blood on the scissor blades is as fresh as it was months ago. Annalise sighs. “I asked you whether you would help me leave, and you said you would.”
“I did,” Jean confirms, and Annalise can’t stop herself from smiling. New agreements superseding old agreements, I will help you leave overturning separation is not an option. Jean, her savior, nearly close enough to touch—Jean, the sheath holding her salvation, what mankind has wrought, man can still tear asunder. Never sign a contract without knowing its loopholes.
“I need these scissors to leave,” Annalise says. “Please give me the scissors, Jean. I need them to go home.”
Jean hesitates again. The bond between them is enough for Annalise to read her thoughts. Suspicion, caution, confusion, fear of violence. A blade is a blade, even if the blade is dull.
“Jean,” Annalise tries again. “I’ll explain everything after I have them.” The quid pro quo of a contract, again. She doesn’t like it, but it’s beginning to seem like the only way. This one is lightweight—only the promise of information.
“Why do you need them?” Jean asks.
Annalise’s turn to hesitate. “You know, families, heirlooms.” It’s not a lie. It’s an heirloom that involves her family. Jean snorts and holds them out to her.
Annalise reaches forward and grabs Jean’s warm human hand with her cold fingers and pulls. Annalise holding Jean plunges the scissors into Annalise’s stomach, ripping the shadows of her stitches, fresh blood on top of fresh blood. Jean screams.
The-thing-that-was-Annalise hemorrhages from the reopened wound in Annalise’s stomach—gushing out of the skinsuit, non-Euclidean black water, the glistening twists and turns of her. She opens her myriad luminescent eyes and stretches her numerous dangling limbs through the holes in spacetime, darting one out to wrap around a shrieking Jean, pulsate-transfers, Annalise dead, Annalise trapped, bad deals honeypot delicious cage fascinating hurt and strangeness lonely lonely lonely homecoming does Jean want to come? and Jean is moaning, No, no, no, which is what the-thing-that-was-Annalise expected, although it’s a shame because Jean was always longing for connection and home is nothing but connection. But the-thing-that-was-Annalise has fulfilled her end of the contract—everything explained, even if Jean isn’t unable to understand—so she drops Jean on the floor with a thump and pulls back her limb, expertly ripping a seam in reality with the scissors so she can slide home.
The baby, still on the playmat, babbles. The-thing-that-was-Annalise slides half her eyes over to stare at it. A limb snakes across the floor to caress the infant, transfers, Sweet-squish-shhh, and the baby coos.
The rest of her eyes watch the tear in reality grow. The baby wraps a tiny hand around her limb.
The-thing-that-was-Annalise lifts the baby and cradles it in a nest of limbs. She remembers pressing the baby against Annalise’s breast. She remembers the way the baby giggled. Do you want to go home with Mama? she pulsate-sings, and the baby doesn’t moan—the baby squeals in delight. All the parenting books Annalise read said that it was good to listen to your baby’s needs. That new environments could be enriching. That mothers are important.
You’re coming home with Mama, she sing-soothe-screams.
She holds the baby against her surface, close enough to practically meld their selves together. She tangles her limbs through the passageway and cascades them home.