Co-organiser of the Auckland Creative Writing Meetup, Auckland’s largest creative writing meetup group, Sharni Wilson is a Japanese-to-English literary translator who holds an MA from the University of Auckland. She is currently editing her novel set in Tokyo where she lived for many years. This is her first short story. www.sharniwilson.com
Please note that my mother does not resemble the grandmother portrayed in this story, except for her love of scarves.
On the Seventh Day
There was a spider scuttering about on the sheet, in the middle of the queen-sized bed. It was a tiny, harmless creature that Rachel wouldn’t mind under normal circumstances, but it was dangerously close to her baby’s sleeping head. The terror choked her once more: what if it crawled in her ear, in her eye, what if it bit her, what if it turned out to be a white-tail? She forced her eyes open with a monumental effort, clenched her teeth and started flicking at it with one hand, flicking it away as hard as she could.
It took her a minute to realise that there was no spider. It had been a trick of her half-awake mind in the dim grey light. Even now as she squinted to make absolutely sure, spidery shapes swam in the corners of her vision. Baby was still asleep, thank God, her small breaths rapid and shallow. Was that normal? Rockabye baby, on the treetop…
The curtains were closed; the daylight behind them was dull, muted. Rachel didn’t know what day it was anymore, but that didn’t matter. She longed to close her eyes, but she needed to pee again, so she rolled cautiously away and up off the bed, and staggered into the hallway. The dizziness hit, and she leaned on the wall until it passed. Her head was buzzing, her body ached.
Once on the toilet, Rachel frowned, feeling a heaviness on the bridge of her nose. Why was she wearing sunglasses? She fumbled at her face with numb, clumsy hands. But she wasn’t wearing sunglasses, although she had to check her ears to be sure.
A wave of anxiety drove her back into the bedroom to check baby was still breathing. Yes: sleeping on her back in the approved manner; not in her cot, but in the middle of the bed, no blankets, no pillows. Okay. Next thing. What next? Back to the kitchen to wash and disinfect the bottles by hand. Then pump again. How much time was there?
Rachel checked her phone. Three missed calls, but more importantly there was only half an hour until the three-hour cycle started again, and she’d have to wake baby. But it took half an hour for the bottles to sterilise in the solution. She’d better start right away.
Rachel walked into the kitchen, stood there for a minute staring at the bench, piled high with plates. The bench top lurched, the solid wall behind it subtly advancing and retreating. She closed her eyes, reopened them. What was she doing there? She looked around in a sudden panic at not being able to remember. The sterilising solution was empty: wash the bottles.
As Rachel stood at the sink, scrubbing thoroughly with the bottle brushes, she noticed tears beginning to run down her face, outside of her control. She felt nothing except the now-familiar hum of anxiety and guilt. That was when she remembered: they were almost out of the formula powder. No. No. She’d have to leave the house. How?
She should pump, but there was no time. It was time to wake her and try to feed again. Rachel picked her up from the bed, cradling her tiny body, and took her to the nest of pillows on the couch, but she was deeply, deeply asleep; no matter how Rachel lifted her arms and coaxed and talked to her softly and gently, her body stayed as relaxed and floppy as a doll’s, face pale, eyes firmly shut. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. Rachel’s eyes were falling closed: she pinched herself hard, again and again. The marks of nails on her arm were little pink crescents.
Formula. That was the important thing. She had to focus. Magic formula. A hysterical laugh was bubbling up in her chest. She tucked her baby carefully into the soft sling wrap, and prepared to leave the house. Cell phone. Keys. Card. Nappy bag, just in case. Double- and triple-checking everything.
Rachel hated leaving the house. She’d prefer not to leave the house at all. She didn’t want visitors either, at least until baby was six weeks old and had her first shots, because of the danger of infectious diseases. Since she’d had the baby, all she could see were the dangers on every side. The tree branches were threatening and pointy, the concrete could trip her up, the cars on the road rushed at her like hurtling walls of metal. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. Her legs, her arms were shaky, and as she stood waiting for the green man at the crossing, she worried that she’d fall, that baby would slip out of the sling, that baby would suffocate. Down will come baby, cradle and all.
The supermarket shelves loomed over her, menacing. The fluorescent lights were harsh and unforgiving, and bug shapes scuttled here and there behind the packets, bottles, and cans. She picked up a king-size chocolate bar, put it down again indecisively, picked it up again. Something easy. She needed to keep eating.
Rachel felt like everyone was looking at her. She imagined herself as a stranger would see her: a young mum with a newborn baby in a sling wrap, messy unwashed hair, stained clothes. No ring on her finger, but that was quite normal these days, wasn’t it? She picked up the can of formula, and the smiles of strangers turned to judgemental frowns. Waiting in the queue, she shrank inside with shame. It was all her fault: she had failed. She couldn’t do what she was biologically meant to do. She didn’t deserve to be a mum. Her baby wasn’t getting the best start in life. Formula was poison. Her baby’s IQ would be lower. She was letting everyone down. There was no possible excuse. She paid and left without looking at anyone.
Will you walk into my parlour? said the Spider to the Fly. Rachel hadn’t known she knew that rhyme, until the words floated up from the depths of memory; a chant with the meaning dulled through much repetition. Scraps of childhood debris sifted in tides of exhaustion.
When she got home, her midwife Ella was waiting at the door.
“Sorry, had to go to the supermarket,” she babbled, trying to paste a smile on her face.
“No worries, I only just got here,” Ella said.
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair, and I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.
As Rachel opened the door, she writhed with embarrassment, seeing the small flat with new eyes. Baby things piled on every surface, smelly bags of used nappies, dirty dishes, dirty laundry, dirty floor. And she couldn’t remember when she’d last had a shower. Ella refused a cup of tea and they sat on the couch.
“So how’s everything going?” Ella asked.
“Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain, for who goes up your winding stair can never come down again.”
Rachel felt the hysterical laugh bubbling up again. Quickly she answered, “Fine, fine. I’m just tired.”
“Doing the three-hourly feeds and pumping?”
“Yes.” Feeding every three hours for an hour, sitting bolt upright on the couch in the approved manner, then formula feeding, then pumping, and then washing and disinfecting bottles, and then if she was lucky she might have half an hour to lie down and close her eyes. She hadn’t slept in days.
“How many wet nappies per day?”
Rachel didn’t know. Was she changing them often enough? It was hard to tell how wet they were. Or how wet they should be.
Now for the moment of truth: baby’s weigh-in. Rachel carefully removed her baby’s onesie and nappy to put her on the scales, and her eyes opened with a weak mewling cry. Her weight was exactly the same, no better. Still not back to her birth weight, still “failing to thrive”. It wasn’t working. Her baby cheeks had lost their plump curves, her limbs were unbearable in their fragility.
Rachel put her to the breast, clenching her teeth and curling her toes with the pain. Everyone said that to keep going was the most important thing. The tears fell down her cheeks again. Helpless, she let them fall. Ella was saying something else.
“I’d like to refer you to Maternal Mental Health.”
Mental health? Baby’s eyes squeezed closed, and a gentle farting noise broke the silence. Good. She’d been worried. She’d never thought she’d be so happy to see a dirty nappy.
“Just leave it,” Ella advised. “She’s probably not done yet.”
Okay. Rachel held her baby on her lap and tried to listen to what Ella was saying. Kind Ella, who hardly ever mentioned SUDI, or SIDS, or those other awful things that could happen. Her neck felt tight and she reached up, pushing her hand through tangles of hair, and froze. Her hand was covered in sticky, runny poo which had silently exploded from the nappy into her lap.
The laugh bubbled up and broke out. “Ah, ah,” Rachel gestured helplessly at the mess.
“It happens,” Ella said. “Here, I’ll hold her. Have a shower.”
A quick nappy change: handing the screaming baby to Ella so she could run to the bathroom for a two-minute shower and change of clothes.
“Call this number,” Ella advised as she left.
The shadows in the flat became a wash of mosaic colours. The colours spawned a jungle of evocative images: vines, rivers, animals, flowers, trees. Rachel blinked, blinked, blinked, but the colours kept coming at her relentlessly. Walls lost their reliable solidity; played tricks, bruised her shoulders. The hum of the microwave had started to sound like voices, mumbling words she couldn’t quite catch.
If she was driving a car, she’d pull over, she thought. But she had to keep going, because there was nothing else to do, and no one else to do it: every feed, every bottle, every cry and every nappy hers alone to deal with. She didn’t have a car. And she couldn’t pull over. It never stopped.
Somehow, it was 2.25pm. Again it was half an hour until the next feeding cycle, and she was still on her feet, but she hadn’t managed to sleep. Her legs were swelling from staying upright constantly, feeding for hours at a time.
Rachel called the number Ella had given her, not knowing what to expect.
The woman on the other end was brisk. “How often have you felt depressed over the last two weeks?”
“Um… a few times. Okay, once or twice.” Rachel couldn’t remember, let alone count, in the haze of exhaustion.
“How often have you had trouble falling asleep over the last two weeks?”
There was that laugh again. She managed to get it under control. “Oh, no trouble, not as such…” She just couldn’t, not while she was on this three-hourly schedule. There was no time, and if she did fall asleep, she’d sleep for far too long.
“How often have you had poor appetite?”
Rachel didn’t know, didn’t care. She ate when she could: chocolate bars, pieces of bread snatched straight from the packet, instant porridge.
“How often have you felt tired?”
Oh, I’m always tired, but I have a new baby, this is normal. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe…
“How often have you felt like a failure?”
Always. She knew she was. But she needed to give a count. Twice? Three times? She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
“How often have you had trouble concentrating?”
Sometimes? Sometimes she forgot things. That’s what they call baby brain, isn’t it? She didn’t want to make out that she was worse than she was.
“How often have you had thoughts you’d be better off dead, or hurting yourself in some way?”
She didn’t want to talk about that. No, she was fine. She was a mum now. She had to stay alive, no matter what.
“Hold on a minute.” Then the woman was back, brisker than ever. “Well, this service is for people with serious mental health problems. Judging by what you’ve just told me, you’re well above the level at which you would need our services. Thank you for calling. Goodbye.”
Thank God! At least she didn’t have a mental health problem.
But her anxiety was impossible to control. Her baby could die at any moment, for no reason at all. She stared at the book open beside her, her eyes unseeingly tracing the same sentence over and over: “We have a tendency to accept what society says as true, but the fact is that not everything our culture believes is accurate.”
Her baby breathed in, breathed out; breathed in, breathed out. Each breath was a miracle.
Rachel opened her eyes. She was standing in the kitchen again, didn’t know how long she’d been there or what day it was. Baby was in the sling, a warm sleeping weight on her body. There was a loud banging noise. Neighbours? No, someone was banging on the door. She opened it to see her mum standing there, a bag of shopping in her hand.
“Hello. I couldn’t reach you on the phone, so I thought I’d pop round and see how you were doing. I’ve been trying to get hold of you since I got back – it’s been a week already.”
“Oh. Hi.” Rachel’s tongue felt wooden. Oh, that’s right: her mum had been in Melbourne visiting her sister Wendy and her newest baby. She had known that. Old Mother Hubbard, went to the cupboard… As they gave each other an awkward half-hug she was painfully aware of how she smelled: a rancid mix of stale milk, urine and vomit. “Come in. Cup of tea?”
“How’s my grandbaby?” her mum asked as the jug boiled.
“She’s fine,” Rachel replied defensively. “Asleep.” As if to contradict her, the grandbaby woke up with a hungry screech, and she went straight to the couch to feed her.
“My babies never cried like that when I was feeding them,” her mum said in a conversational tone, making the cup of tea herself. “I never used any formula. Breastfed until you were two years old. Oh, you don’t have any milk? Never mind, black is fine: I quite like it that way.”
I have within my pantry, good store of all that’s nice… The bag of shopping probably wasn’t for her, Rachel thought. She moved the corners of her mouth up. She was in agony. Her mum craned her neck to peer around the cover she’d draped over her shoulder.
“Wendy is well, very well, she sends her love. She’s had no trouble breastfeeding: heaps of supply.”
From the corner of Rachel’s eye, she saw a small spider moving, crawling out from among the folds of her mother’s black-and-white patterned scarf. Another followed it.
“Little Paul’s putting on so much weight, he’s in the 90th percentile now. He’s such a charmer. And he’s already sitting up, that’s very advanced for his age.”
Along came a spider, who sat down beside her… Spiders were emerging from in between the cushions of the couch on which they sat, scuttling frantically along the carpet, descending from the ceiling on innumerable threads. It was quite distracting.
Her mum paused, sipping her tea, looking at Rachel more closely. “You look quite tired, dear. Why don’t I take the little one for a walk while you have a nap?”
Rachel gasped: hysterical laughter always a breath away. Her mum frowned.
“Oh no, no,” said Rachel, “for I’ve often heard it said, they never, never wake again, who sleep upon your bed!”
Her mum looked at her oddly. “Well, it was just a thought. I’m just trying to be helpful. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” She cradled the cup of tea in her hands.
There was a young woman who swallowed a spider, it wiggled and jiggled and wriggled inside her… The room darkened: they were coming for her. The sounds of the neighbourhood – her mother sipping tea, kids playing, cars passing – narrowed to a thin line far away, a strip of grey, and along that thin line the scuttling dominated, an arthropod stridulation growing louder as their numbers increased; a clutter, a cluster, a heaving mass of spiders.
“Don’t you ever put her down? You shouldn’t hold her all the time, or she’ll get spoiled.” Her mother’s voice sounded very far away but still mildly offended.
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly… They tickled, scritched, skittered over her arms and legs. Her heart raced, fluttered, slowed to perilous thuds of cold involuntary muscle. If she could save her daughter from them, if she could only save her daughter – but there were too many. She saw scouts investigating the grubby pink onesie already.
“She needs to learn to self-soothe. It’ll be much more difficult to do when she gets older. Just wait. If you think it’s hard work now…”
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly… She shielded the child with her own body, but they kept coming, and kept coming, crawling over each other in their eagerness to wrap them both in silk, chelicerae working, and she knew then that there would be no reprieve, and all that remained would be a shrouded husk of exoskeleton dangling in the breeze, a dry forgotten remnant suspended by the window.
“What are you doing? Rachel?”
The first spiders had reached the infant’s tiny face, and in a last-ditch desperate panic she flicked, flicked, flicked and brushed them off as best she could, but they kept coming.
“Stop it! For God’s sake!”
The baby was screaming now, blood droplets springing out on its downy-soft cheeks – spider bites? How to treat spider bites? She had failed again. As the surge of adrenaline hit her with a sudden awful clarity, she felt her mother’s hands gripping her wrists, holding her hands away.