Fiction
Fiction

Snag

Christie Hinrichs


 

Beth took the baby monitor and a sweater out the back door toward the lean-to behind the cabin. She pulled a pack from a gap in the low-slung rafters and knocked out a cigarette before picking up a tin can and heading toward the tree line. He’d been gone for over a year, but seeing those cans always brought her father’s scent, wet ferns and the earthy shit smell of pulp, right back. 

 

As a precaution, the logging crew her husband had hired would arrive well before dawn and work only until the sun broke over the eastern treeline, when the heat index made fire a threat.  But cigarettes were much more likely to cause a fire than overheated diesel engines. Back when he was bucking Doug Fir and Pondos in the Cascades, hooking giant spruce out of the brittle late summer forests, her father had insisted his brush monkeys smoke into a tin can.  Can’t charge nobody for a cinder, he’d said.  He’d pour a slug of water or JB—whatever was handy—into the bottom of the can and carry it around with him everywhere.

 

She wove herself through the tagged trees, bringing the monitor up to her ear every few yards to make sure she could still hear the baby’s heavy breathing in the still cabin behind her.  She had bought the best model on the market—a range of almost 300 yards. Not that it mattered; the baby slept constantly, waking only to eat ferociously and stare at her for a few moments in bewilderment before sliding back into unconsciousness.  But she knew Perry would panic if he found her out of bed without a thought for the child.

 

She found a spongy stump for a seat while she smoked. As she sat, she tried to transmit the customary message to her father, concentrating very hard to guide her thoughts down the hill, along Highway 20, through town and into his room, cramped by the various equipment that kept him alive. She imagined him in the bed the company still paid for, motionless, his eyes darting around the small room during the long hours between meals and his weekly bath. His fingers and toes curled in on themselves, the nails of his hands and feet gone yellow and ragged.  His hair, now entirely white.  Would he know her? She saw his straining eyes, the muteness of his large, familiar frame. I’m here, she thought.

 

She smashed the butt into the bottom of the can and kept walking. Of the five square miles the crew meant to clear, the south side of the ridge was the most densely forested. She had buried her pets on the highest point as a girl, in the roots of a fir whose trunk had the circumference of a merry-go-round. Beth knew they’d set up the yarder just there, in a clear spot overlooking the steepest slope. They would run the green chain all the way down, shuttling the felled trees up, one at a time to load onto the trucks.

 

In the first few weeks, when the baby wouldn’t settle, she would drive to the nursing home and walk the halls.  The nurse’s aides were used to seeing her and sometimes stopped to coo at the baby, who slept in a curled ball just beneath her breasts in a sling Perry had bought. Standing outside her father’s room, she would pause in her walk and listen, returning the concerned smiles of the staff.  They would try to give her updates on his condition, but she would gently wave them away, not wanting to hear. 

 

When she looked inside, she saw the photos she’d asked the aides to hang above his dresser.  Beth’s fourth-grade class portrait.  Beth in a graduation robe, her hair dyed black.  Beth and Perry outside the courthouse after their wedding, smiling.  The baby, four hours old, writhing in the little rolling hospital basket. She knew her father couldn’t see them from the angle of the bed, but it made her feel better, somehow, to know that they were there.

 

She listened to what was playing on the TV near his bed.  Usually a baseball game or Sports Center.  Aside from the occasional boxing match at the Tavern, he had never watched sports before, and Beth wondered if he asked them to turn it on.  She wondered if it made the aides uncomfortable to think of him lying inside a quiet room, his mind spinning inside the closed fist of his body. Maybe the sound of the TV made them feel better about leaving him when they had finished cleaning his feeding tubes and emptied the catheter bags.  After the accident, she had quit her job.

 

“Don’t look at me,” he said, when Beth asked what, please what, could she do for him.  She had stared at the floor and imagined that if she had been a better daughter, if she had been pretty and smart and someone he was proud of, she could bring him comfort. He asked her to never come back.

 

When the monitor squawked, Beth slid from the stump and into a pile of dead needles. The baby’s plodding exhalation was there, in front of the belching gears of the broken down rig on the other side of the hill. The taggers had already come through, marking the cat-faced snags and unusable culls.  The fallers were working their way around ahead of the yarder. 

 

A man’s voice moved in and then out of the monitor’s register.

 

“Fuck’s sake, it’s a job.”

 

The voice paused. 

 

“One, maybe two days if we can get the dozer running.  Foreman’s buying everyone bus tickets for Friday night.  Plan on it.  And tell that bitch next door I’ll have her money.  Saturday.” 

 

The voice laughed. 

 

“Fuck you too, pal.  See you then.” 

 

Beth looked over her shoulder toward the crest of the hill.  He must be close. She sat back down on the knob, wishing she’d brought another cigarette.  But before she could decide to walk the short distance back to the lean-to, she caught the dull tang of pot, wafting from somewhere nearby. 

 

Curious, she listened for a while longer, hoping for no particular reason that the voice would resume.  Instead, she heard someone loping toward her through the brush and dry sticks. A man in a yellow vest and hardhat appeared not ten feet from where Beth sat.

 

“Jesus,” he said, groping in the ferns at his feet for something he had dropped.  He stood just as abruptly, poking a black film canister into the pocket of his jeans and trying to conceal a purple glass pipe, still smoking, in his cupped hand.  “Didn’t see you there,” he said cordially, even though Beth could tell it was shock that made him polite, not disposition. Beneath his safety vest, he was wearing an Alice in Chains T-shirt over a waffled cotton thermal.  He looked around the tiny clearing for signs of anyone else.

 

“Sorry,” Beth said.  “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

“No,” he said, recovering.  “I just didn’t expect—is that some kind of radio?” He was looking at the baby monitor. Even to Beth, its sleek design seemed sinister.  She held it up for them both to examine and nodded her head. 

 

“You’ll burn yourself,” she said, gesturing toward his smoking fist.  He cocked his head, but repositioned the pipe between his thumb and forefinger.

 

“Out for a stroll?”

 

“Same as you, I guess.”

 

He looked more closely at Beth.  Her bare legs swung from the log where she sat, pale as mushroom stems.  She was in her nightclothes: flannel boxer shorts, a baggy, sleeveless undershirt that belonged to Perry, and a pilled-up sweater hanging from her thin shoulders.  “You sure you’re real?  Maybe this is better shit than I thought,” he said, laughing through his nose.

 

“Don’t I look real?” Beth asked. He wasn’t supposed to be there and she wasn’t either—a fact that gave her a creeping thrill she tried to gather inside her and hold on to. She used to bring boys into her father’s woods, long before Perry. She had let them chase her through a small grove of black laurel and rhodies, tumbling toward her favorite spot, a small depression near the creek. The belt of the sweater fell between her legs and it gaped across her chest. The undershirt was very thin.

 

“Look good enough,” he said, a bit cautiously. “Seriously, where—”

 

Beth swung her head in the direction of the cabin and watched as he squinted into the trees, tilting his head at odd angles without seeing the trail, the gap in the tree line that marked the cabin’s hollow, or the utility pole that swept over the canopy.  Any woodcutter worth spit would have noticed the absent birdsong. He was probably just competent enough to avoid getting lost, but too green to high-climb or buck and limb. 

 

“This is my land, the house is just there,” Beth said.  “So technically, you work for me.” 

 

His eyes widened and he looked again at the monitor. “Whoa, wait a minute.  I didn’t mean anything.”

 

“Don’t worry,” Beth said. “My dad used to catch me smoking out here all the time.  It’s fine.”

 

“Your dad?” he said. 

 

“He’s gone now. So’s the weed,” she said, eyeing his closed fist. “Where’s your chainsaw, lumberjack?” 

 

He laughed and plunked a booted foot on a short stump so that he could empty and repack the pipe on his thigh. When he handed it to her, she saw that his hands were rough and square. They shook.

 

He flicked the lighter for her as she took a long pull, held it for a moment, and exhaled into the space between them. It tasted like the ground, turned loam and half-rotted mulch; rich, brown, pungent. It wormed through her head and pooled deliciously in her ears, until, she thought, she could actually hear the moss under her bare feet.  The trees creaked and the guy flicked and sucked. Flicked and sucked.  

 

“So, you’re some kind of fuckin’ wood nymph or something?” he said, smiling stupidly.

 

“Yeah,” Beth said. “And you’re the hunter who’s lost his way.” She felt sure that someone, somewhere had made a porn flick about this very scenario. Maybe Perry had even seen it and jerked off under the table into one of his enormous tube socks.

 

“Well, I’m not lost,” he said.

 

“You sure?” Beth said, feeling like someone else. She let the sweater fall from her shoulders as she stood up and stepped toward him. She felt mud oozing between her toes and she didn’t care about anything but the warm slick of it. “It’s called a dryad.”

 

“A what?” he said.

 

“A dryad. A wood fairy.”  She stepped through the space between them, making him stumble clumsily back until she stopped him, her hand on his forearm. 

 

“I think— ”

 

She began to tug gently with her other hand at his belt. 

 

“Whoa, lady.  Just a minute.”

 

She ignored him, struggling with the belt.  He tried to push her hands away and for a moment their fingers were fighting, scraping each other’s knuckles, heads knocking. He was saying something but she didn’t listen.

 

And then the baby was crying.

 

“What the fuck is that,” the guy said, jerking back.

 

The front of her shirt was suddenly wet and through the thin cotton she could see her nipples, egg-shaped and raw.

 

***

 

The cabin Beth’s father built was squat but snug, constructed with barked logs and a crude mash of clay and river rock to fill in the chinks. Two tiny bedrooms opened up on a large room with an alley kitchen on one wall, its outmoded appliances standing in the shadow of an enormous wood stove. Staying in the cabin had been a condition of their engagement, and Perry said he appreciated its old-fashioned charm. But what had once been rustic and appealing about the place was buried beneath the things that Perry brought with him. 

 

“Good morning,” Perry called out from behind the computer equipment on the table. Beth had to negotiate a path through a complicated knot of wires running between the computer, printer, scanner and a twelve-socket power strip. He claimed to prefer reading the morning’s news online, but Beth knew he was in a chat room by the staccato rhythm of his typing. “Sleep well?”

 

Beth had not slept. She stood at the ancient stove slowly adding flour to a pan of sausage gravy and whisking away the lumps. The bacon spit greasy freckles onto her forearms, but she didn’t jerk away, only shook the frying pan a bit to redistribute the heat.  Perry, making his customary exit sometime around midnight, had failed to close the bedroom door all the way, leaving a sliver of light from the muted glow of the computer screen to dance across the wall near her face. He could masturbate for what seemed like hours.  The wet, sloppy violence of it had drifted through the space in the door and echoed around the bedroom until she wanted to sit up and shush him, like a librarian shushes horny sophomores making out between the stacks.

 

At just the right moment, she spooned the hot food onto a waiting plate, leaving a small portion to eat when Perry left for work.  Beth set the plate down in the clear place in front of the computer as Perry struck a key that called up the screensaver, a spray of shooting stars and kaleidoscopic shapes. Beth sat down beside the screen to drink the coffee that Perry always poured for himself and never drank.  He began shoveling forkfuls of biscuits and gravy into his mouth.  A puddle of Tabasco formed near the plate’s edge and dripped onto the table.

 

“Careful,” Beth said, wiping up the red smear with a dishtowel before it was absorbed by the sleeve of his white oxford.  She stared for a moment into the pharmaceutical logo stretched across the shirt’s breast pocket—a promotional gift from a company selling hair loss remedies—and wasn’t paying attention when Perry mumbled something through a mouthful of egg. 

 

It was Perry’s idea to clear the hill. He had vague ideas for building a house near the top. The trees made him claustrophobic. He had allergies and Seasonal Affective Disorder. There were many other reasons Beth had forgotten. For weeks, she had stalled with talk of yield ratios and federal regulatory measures she knew Perry wouldn’t understand. Mid-sized and scrubby, the dense stands of fir hadn’t been thinned since her father bought the land, nearly forty years ago. But Perry was persistent.  Her father’s settlement from the accident was gone, and his medical expenses would bury them in another six months. They needed the money.

 

Her father used to speak sharply to her when she grieved for the acres of old growth he would occasionally win a contract to clear. They could replant, reinvest in the land, and keep a man in business for years. But she remembered, too, the way her father had walked among their trees, patiently nursing disease out of the nearest stands, nailing slats in a ladder up the west-facing poles so she could climb without the bother of spikes.

 

“We’ll actually have a view in a few days,” Perry said again, laying his hand carefully on her back.  He touched her with light, fleet fingers, as if she were held together with bailing wire.

 

“A view, maybe.  But a clear cut is no picnic area.”

 

Perry nodded.  “I know it will take some time, but eventually… I thought we had agreed on this?”

 

“We have.  We did. I’m just saying.”

 

“If you don’t want to do it we can stop the sale. I told you they’d only consider the whole harvest, but if you’ve got second thoughts,” Perry said, pushing his plate away. He laid his fingers against the back of her hand.  His desperate desire to please her made Beth sick. His gentle fingertips, exerting no pressure, awaiting her response. The softness of his hands had become something loathsome to her in the early months of her pregnancy. She wanted him to be rough with her, to hurt her even, to make her feel what he wanted. But the baby made him even gentler than before, and Beth had refused him so many times, he’d stopped trying. Beth looked at their hands, hers white and thin beneath his ruddy fingers, thick as sausages. His blond hair sprouted around his first knuckles, so fair they were nearly invisible.  She put her other hand on his to cover it, pressing down for a moment before standing to clear the dishes.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

 

They heard the baby begin to fuss through the monitor, which sat on the table next to the cluster of condiments.  Perry jumped from his chair and moved toward the nursery door.  Beth never had to ask him.  She listened as he crooned and sang a good morning song while he changed her. He was born to be a daddy, Aunt Shirley had said, watching Perry hold the girl for the first time in the hospital.  You’re lucky, she’d said.  Beth tried to feel lucky and failed.  She reached toward the monitor to switch it off, but paused when a strange voice broke the signal from the nursery. 

 

“—Goddamn dozer is down again. Send Tack up here with the truck. Over.”

 

She heard the rough chug of chainsaws cutting out before static covered the voice and Perry’s singing returned.  She looked up when Perry came back in the room carrying the baby. 

 

“What was that?” Perry said.  The baby was wide-eyed and limp. Perry’s same whey-faced contentment.  Perry’s same blond indifference. Betty, one of the nurses at the clinic, had told her not to worry if she didn’t immediately bond with the baby.  For some women it takes time.

 

“Just the monitor acting up.”

 

“There’s your mama,” Perry said, cradling the baby in Beth’s direction.  Beth sat with what she hoped was a pleasant expression as Perry kissed and praised the baby. “Someone’s ready for their breakfast,” he said, bouncing on the balls of his feet. 

 

“Just put her in the swing while I do up these dishes,” Beth said, standing up.

“Can’t they wait?” Perry said.  “She’s hungry.”

 

“Jesus Christ, Perry, I can’t do two things at once.”  The edge in Beth’s voice surprised her, but felt good, too. “I thought you were leaving?” The baby began to cry.

 

“I’m sorry, I just—” Perry looked puzzled, but did as Beth asked.  The sound of the baby screaming filled the cabin while he fumbled around for his catalogs and the bagged lunch Beth had made him. “Listen, if you need a few hours off, Mother would love to come up and—”

 

Beth slammed the butter dish on the kitchen counter and felt a wave of adrenaline quicken her movements.  She threw the refrigerator door open and began returning the eggs, milk and bacon to the wire racks. Perry tried to say something else, but the sound of his voice was covered by the clatter, the baby’s cries and the pounding in Beth’s ears. She felt him standing by the front door, watching.  His fear sent something wild shooting up her throat. 

 

When Perry was gone, Beth closed the refrigerator and looked out the window at the tagged trees.  After a few moments, she forced herself to walk over and stand near the baby.  She watched the tiny chest move up and down with the long, rodent shrieks.  The front of Beth’s shirt was sopping, but she didn’t trust herself to touch the baby yet.  She stood there until the baby was cried out and fell, gasping, back to sleep.  Beth heard a diesel engine whine as it tried to start, and then jutter to a stop, half a mile away.

 

***

 

The tavern’s neon signs were off, but Beth knew the back door would be open.  Shirley, who was not really her aunt but had loved Beth’s father before the accident, was behind the bar counting out the till for the coming shift. She looked at Beth over the glasses perched on the end of her nose and winked hello, the numbers mouthed silently as she shuffled a stack of tens in her hands. Beth put the car seat in a dark corner, away from the burning cigarette in an ashtray near Shirley’s elbow.

 

“Little early, don’t you think,” Shirley said when Beth pulled a beer from the cooler.   She arranged the separate stacks into the register’s tray and locked it with a key attached to an elastic band around her wrist.

 

“Is it?” Beth said, lifting the bottle. When she was a little girl, Beth had been sure that Shirley was a witch.  She used to stand on a crate to look in through the tavern’s only window when her father’s crew was late coming home. Shirley had been a small, withered woman even then, with bronzed skin and a tight helmet of bottle-black curls. Beth remembered the way Shirley would laugh with her whole body, her mouth open a mile, her long pink fingernails clawing at some logger’s beefy forearm.  But her face was pulled into a grimace now, assessing Beth from across the bar.

 

“How’s my angel?” Shirley said, meaning the baby.

 

“Fine,” Beth said. “Good,” she added, sensing Shirley’s murky eyes on her face. Beth picked up the lit cigarette in the ashtray and tried to avoid the ring of lipstick as she took a drag. Shirley snatched it out of her hands.

 

“You look like shit.”

 

Beth looked down at herself. She hadn’t showered and her sweatpants wanted washing. She ran her hands through her hair and met snarls. Shirley pulled a brush from the shelf under the bar and pushed it toward her. Beth took another drink of the beer before picking up the brush and running it through her tangled hair. “How’s business?”

 

“Don’t change the subject,” Shirley said, glaring at her through a cloud of cigarette smoke.

 

“I’m just tired.”

 

“Try again,” Shirley said, grabbing the brush back from Beth’s limp hand.  She walked around the bar, her black pumps echoing through the tavern.  She placed a hand on the crown of Beth’s head and began to pull the brush through her hair in short, forceful strokes. “It’s been six weeks, little girl, it’s time to pull yourself together. I was waiting tables three days after Roger, Jr. was born, double shifts.  You want Perry seeing you like this?”

 

“Perry understands.”

“Like hell. 

 

He’s a man, isn’t he?”

 

Beth didn’t answer. She tried to imagine Shirley in bed with her father, when his body had been whole and firm. He never talked about his relationship with Shirley, and never spent a whole night away from the cabin. But Beth knew he had regularly visited her trailer, which was parked in a wooded lot behind the tavern.  Beth’s hair snapped with static electricity and floated in dark waves around her shoulders and down to her waist. 

 

A year ago, she’d been sitting in the same spot at the bar, staring sideways at Perry’s navy microfleece and sweet smile. He was nothing like anyone she had been with before, a fact that Shirley claimed was a step in the right direction.  She hadn’t approved of the men Beth usually took home, who Shirley said reminded her of all her ex-husbands. Piney whelps, she’d say, shaking her head at the crowd of foul-mouthed addicts and migrant laborers who had replaced her regular crowd when the mill closed. But Beth found herself drawn to them, the delusional and pissed off bass players, the aspiring motorcycle mechanics and mouthy dropouts who liked her long legs and dark humor. Shirley knew about men like Perry.  Work the bar long enough, she said, you can spot the soft ones a mile away. 

 

Shirley put down the brush and took Beth’s chin between her gnarled fingers. “Don’t drown that pup for want of a dog,” she said.  “You got a good one there. He treats you like you deserve, can’t you see that?” Shirley smoothed Beth’s hair away from her face and behind her ears.

 

Beth knew that Shirley was both right and wrong, but didn’t know how to tell her.  She cradled her beer against her neck and closed her eyes.  The tavern smelled like a hundred thousand cigarette butts in the bottom of a tin can.  As Shirley walked away to go look at the baby, Beth pulled the hair at the nape of her neck until it came out in her hand.  She let it fall onto the stained wood floor, brushing it under the lip of the bar with her toe.

 

***

 

The baby monitor glowed on the nightstand. Beth was waiting for the logging crew’s morning banter, still hours away, to break into the signal. Sometimes she could pick up cell phone conversations drifting up from the highway down the hill; once, two elk hunters on walkie-talkies. But for the last week, it was the five-man crew that would precede the big rigs brought in for the clear cut. Their voices would flit across the open channel, marking the active falling area for the day, clearing the jill pokes and guiding the lowboys toward stable ground. She kept the volume down, watching the dance of light as the frequency pulsed with static, then silence. The baby let out at a nasal sigh through the speaker and Beth felt Perry stir.  He didn’t seem to notice the interference riddling the inexorable transmission, but was alert to even the slightest sound of the baby’s discomfort.

 

Her bladder was full so she moved to her side to stare out the window. Beth could see the line of trees on the edge of the yard, barely distinct against the darkness. Cool air poured in through the screen and she could smell wood smoke and resin. An owl called to his mate.  Her limbs felt swollen, tight, still retaining the fluids that had nourished the baby, her breast heavy with milk. She should have pumped, but the press of her body into the mattress overwhelmed even the most basic of needs. She had grown comfortable with discomfort.

 

The next time Beth looked at the clock, hours had passed.

 

Perry rubbed his stocking feet together under the covers and leaned toward Beth. Her eyes were closed and she lay still, knowing he was listening for the even release of her breath.  He scissored his legs, waited a moment, and then rolled from the mattress to pick his way slowly through the piles of laundry on the bedroom floor. When he was gone, Beth moved to the center of the mattress to pillow her head against her bare arm. She listened, hoping for the squeal of heavy equipment behind the nose whistle of the baby, still asleep, and heard only the staccato chirp of Perry’s clicking mouse being picked up by the monitor’s sensitive microphone. At first, the baby and all of the attendant trappings still new and unfamiliar, she had fought for sleep between feedings, burying her head under pillows to block out the tiny green indicator light, the sound of the nursery curtains rustling in a silent breeze. After a few weeks, she gave up and let the nights stretch out around her, began to explore the black corners of the room from where she lay like a corpse on the bed. When she did sleep, she’d wake, or dream of waking, and feel paralyzed, knowing that if she didn’t blink or toss her head on the pillow, she would die. She spent hours like this, trapped in the cocoon of her body, behind her own eyelids.  

 

The distant groaning of cats and yarders finally broke through the deadening mist as the logging crew rolled slowly up a rough skid trail some distance from the cabin.  She knew it was a small operation; there would be no selective harvest. They would take every viable tree—the peewees, the widowmakers, the school marms and windthrows—and leave the brush and slash in huge, rotting piles.  Beth knew that the severed trunks died immediately.  But the roots, the unseen tangle of them, were much harder to kill.  Even snags that stand dead for years don’t fall until the roots die.

 

A wet, snuffling noise through the monitor, and Beth couldn’t be sure if it was the baby or Perry.  She listened, and heard soft footsteps moving from the dining room into the nursery.  She heard the doorknob whine as it opened, and then Perry was shushing to the baby in a sing-song voice, anticipating her cry before it began.

 

“Why me?” she had asked him once. It was before they were married and they were parked in his Honda at the top of her dirt road.  They had spent the evening standing over a bonfire in the woods with his friends, all of whom sported crew cuts and talkative, cheerful girlfriends.  Beth had tried to be friendly, in spite of questions like, weren’t you that girl who wore steel-toed boots to prom? She had not known these girls, specifically, which is to say that she knew everything about them but their names. It was impossible to avoid reading her image on their faces: a tall, sullen-looking girl with wide shoulders and pale skin. She rarely smiled because of her teeth, which were crowded on one side, and knew it made her seem distracted and bored. Thin dark hair, thin fingers, long, thin feet—the thickest thing about her was a dark smear of charcoal on the lid of each thin-slatted brown eye.

 

“Why what?” Perry said.

 

“You know what I mean,” Beth said.

 

“Why do I like you?”

 

Beth nodded. 

 

Perry sighed and even though there wasn’t a star in the sky, Beth could see he was flushing.  She thought of Perry as a Western Larch.  Soft, yellow needles that grew in ordered bunches, tiny cones the size of knuckle joints, a slender trunk with pale, scaly bark.

 

He shrugged. “Because you let me.”

 

“Set up on the south side… cut back on the ridge and I’ll send the boys down, over.” The monitor blinked through the static, and Beth’s head rose off the pillow. She stared into the tiny speaker. More static and directions, dirty jokes and clipped syllables. And then only the baby breathing.

 

When Perry crept back into the bedroom, Beth kept her face toward the wall, still.  He eased himself down onto the bed, inch by inch.  Beth tried to tell herself that this cunning of his meant he didn’t want to disturb her.  That he wanted her to rest easy and didn’t deserve the malice she couldn’t help but direct at him.  But when she rolled onto her back to look at the ceiling, he began to breathe a bit too deeply. He didn’t want her to know what he’d been doing. 

 

When Beth closed her eyes, she saw trees. Colorless. Still. She saw herself among them, the branches reaching down, stretching out like an open hand across the mountain. She thought of her father, strapped into a giant Sequoia or Doug Fir, his chainsaw sweeping away the uppermost limbs, sending the spiny steeples expertly away from his body and down toward the fecund carpet of cones and needles.  She could see the trees, dismembered, falling through the darkness of her memory.

 

***

 

“Tell me, Mrs. Weich, do you feel happy?”  Beth’s regular doctor was out of town, replaced by a young East Indian man that Beth had never seen before. He stared into her chart making small, sharp movements on the thin paper with a chewed-up pencil. His foot wagged rhythmically against his rolling stool. 

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

“Happy. Do you feel happiness, now that you are delivered?” He smiled without looking at her.

 

Beth furrowed her brow and looked down at the sleeping baby, belted into the car seat at her feet.  Even though she knew the question was being read from a standard form, she couldn’t help but resent the doctor’s false cheer. Everything about the room was false, disposable, hermetically sealed.  Beautiful women stared down at her from the magazine rack. A poster filled with tropical fish had been taped onto the ceiling tile above the examination table.  For the first time in weeks she had paid attention to her appearance that morning, and even the collared shirt and jeans she wore felt false, as if she were there in disguise as another person.

Beth thought about the word, happy, and saw a mossy stump. She could read the rings of a stump and know how many winters it had weathered, could work out the individual years hidden in the knitted ditches of the tree’s open wound. The center ring, the small spot of heartwood, was almost always black. Her father had called it the gut string. “Yes. Of course I am.”

 

“How could you not be?” he said, waving the stub of pencil toward the unconscious baby.  He stood up and motioned for Beth to lie back on the table and open the thin gown she’d been given when she checked in. The doctor pushed with a deft finger, which brushed gently against her tight skin, probing the round swell of her uterus. His eyes were fixed on something in the middle distance of the close room and avoided her naked torso. The gown fell open as his hands worked. “And have you been able to laugh and see the funny side of things? Have you been able to look forward with enjoyment to things in the last week, let’s say?”

 

“I guess so,” Beth said, watching his hands glide across her ribs, upward toward her breasts.  Her consciousness had been winnowed down to the hours between feedings, to the minutes spent during Perry’s breaks when he would call to check on her, to the half-seconds between the baby’s sour breaths. Sometimes, when she was distracted by the TV or walking in the woods, she would forget that it had happened—Perry, the baby, all of it—and remembering, felt that she had stepped into someone else’s life.  She hadn’t thought much past that initial decision: the softness of Perry’s hands and his freshly laundered khakis, the austere decency of his haircut, his Lutheran mother, the sensible credit limit on his Mastercard.  Shirley told Beth it was everything her father had ever wanted for her.  And what else did she have planned?  The doctor’s gloved thumbs were warm against the pale skin of her neck and armpit as he kneaded.  When his palm came down on her nipple, Beth gasped.

 

“Pain?” he asked, still staring at the wall.

 

“A little,” Beth said. She stared into the florescent lights hanging over the table until her eyes ached and all she could see was the doctor’s dim profile wherever she looked. She remembered doing this as a child, staring at the sun until it burned, blocking out everything else but the jagged teeth of the trees marking the horizon.

 

“Just so. You can expect a bit of tenderness for a few weeks yet. Scoot down please.” 

 

Beth fit her heels into the groove of the stirrups and closed her eyes. He was saying something about her pelvic muscle tone and Beth heard the speculum before she felt it, cold and greasy against her inner thigh. There was pressure and the slick plop of lube. Beth fought separate urges: to kick him in the chest; to wrap her ankles around his back. She felt her milk coming. 

 

The doctor continued with the questions as if he had memorized the exact wording.  “And have you been anxious or scared for no good reason, Mrs. Weich? Have you felt panicky or sad?”

 

“What do you mean, good reason?”

 

“Perhaps you find yourself upset, but don’t know why?” he said from between her legs. “No need to worry, it’s perfectly normal.”

 

The nurses had told Beth to be on the lookout for strong negative feelings toward herself or her baby. Instead, she had risen from bed their first night out of the hospital feeling nothing but disgust for her husband. She knew that Shirley would tell her to ignore such feelings, that if a woman didn’t, at one time or other, hate her husband, she wasn’t paying attention. And Beth did hate Perry. She hated him at the computer, hated him in the kitchen, hated him in her grandmother’s rocking chair when he sang to the baby at bedtime.  There were moments when they passed each other in the cramped space of the cabin, or when he leaned against her to spit toothpaste into the sink, that she could love the wholesome blandness, the soft bulk of him.  She loved the inoffensive slope in his shoulders and the clean, flat nail beds of his fingers, wide and deft.  She loved the cleft in his chin and his fat, boyish lips.  But only when he was looking away. Whenever he met her eyes, Beth hated herself.

 

Beth rose up on her elbows. “And if I said I was unhappy?” The truth was that Beth didn’t know what she felt. Yes, there were the cloying duties of motherhood, but she had expected that. She had even expected a certain distance from Perry, a shift in his syrupy affections  But the numbness, the way she saw herself in parts that would never fit together, how fragmented the world had become, as if she’d been through a wood chipper—that had been going on long before the baby, long before Perry had gathered her together and piled her up. She watched the doctor closely for an answer. “You’d give me a pill or something?” 

 

“It’s not quite that simple, but we do take these things very seriously.  We would ask if you find yourself in tears, if your sadness is keeping you from sleeping.” One gloved hand rested on her knee while the other focused something that looked like a telescope pressed up against the hole the speculum had made. “If you ever feel moved to injure yourself,” he said.  He pushed back from the telescope and reached for a long cotton swab.  “Or others,” he added, looking down at the baby.  “You’ll feel a bit of cramping for a moment,” he said, guiding the swab into the hole.

 

“What if I don’t feel anything,” Beth said, letting her knees drop wider to the sides. 

 

The doctor looked up at her. His eyes were a dark, loamy brown with black flecks around the iris. His face was inches away from her cunt and she wondered if he could smell it. She wondered if days spent looking into the gaping red gashes of women like her, like who she had suddenly become, had dulled his senses. If he slept at night without seeing their insides. If he sometimes wished he were someone else. The baby hiccupped. He looked away and snapped the gloves into the trash. 

 

“I’m happy to say that you are recovering nicely.” He scanned her chart again, and Beth thought she saw him checking off several unanswered questions. He placed the file under his arm before moving past the curtain and toward the door.  “You are free to dress now, unless you have any other questions.” He wasn’t asking, but Beth didn’t care.

 

“I’m sorry.  I just wondered, when… I mean, I’m sure my husband will be interested to know—” 

 

“You may resume intercourse at any time, as long as you are comfortable.  Your incision is healing as expected and your womb has finished shrinking. All is well, I assure you.”

 

“The test,” Beth gestured toward the file that held the questionnaire.  She noticed that her gown was still open and she pulled the sides over her chest. “Did I pass?” 

 

“There are no right answers, Mrs. Weich.” 

 

***

 

        1. She made country eggs and potatoes for breakfast. Perry ate three helpings in front of the computer, where he was browsing through various home designs offered by a local contracting company. The baby kicked at the air from a bouncy seat on the table.

 

The air in the cabin was moist and too warm. She’d stoked the woodstove to a roar, not able to shake the chill in her feet and legs, which were still bare and streaked with the dried mud she hadn’t bothered to wash off. She methodically scrapped the remnants of eggs and oil from the cast iron pan.  She used her fingernails for the stubborn bits, and wiped the pan out with a towel before hanging it in its place on the wall behind the stove.  The fine hair behind her ears and along her collar were slick with sweat, making her think of the times she’d run through the woods on a cold day, the bite of the wind in her throat and lungs. Perspiration trickled down her sides and stained the loose shirt she wore.

 

“This one’s got something called a great room,” Perry whispered at the baby. “Doesn’t that sound great?” He giggled when the baby flailed her arms in tiny circles, pursing her lips as if in complete agreement. Beth scooped up the dirty dishes and took them to the sink, flipping the tap to fill the basin. She went back to the table and picked up the baby’s seat, moving it to the kitchen countertop where she could keep an eye on her as she did the dishes. She felt Perry frowning from where he sat at the table.

 

Beth kept her eyes closed and her breathing even. The steam from the hot water bathed her face. She imagined herself lying on her back, her head angled toward the open air, blue in the cracks and fissures of the canopy. Black treetops against the periwinkle sky, so dark and deliberate they looked like fingers, grasping for the moon.  It was full.  He was there, and he didn’t pull away.  Instead, she felt his hand on her arm. When she didn’t move, he gently, slowly, pulled back the strap of her nightshirt down her shoulder until her left breast lay exposed in the air between them.  She hadn’t pumped before bed, and it was round and hard. Cupping his head in her hand, she pulled his mouth down on the nipple. He moaned and she slipped his hand past the elastic of her underwear.

 

“I know this is hard for you,” Perry said, his voice slipping through a small opening between the half-wall and a bank of cupboards that separated the kitchen from the dining room. Beth heard the clatter of keys as he typed in a new search topic. “Despite what you might think, it’s hard for me too.”

 

Beth leaned heavily onto her left hand braced against the counter, her chin dropping down onto her chest. Sweat rolled off her nose and fell in fat drops onto her bare feet. She felt dizzy, the muscles in her legs quivering, a wave of something terrifying and necessary flooding from her ankles and rising quickly. She wanted to sit down, to lay down right there on the braided rag rug she’d made in high school, where the air was cool and fresh six inches above the floor. But her knees were locked and rigid.

 

“It will take some getting used to, sure,” Perry said. “But eventually you’ll see how much better you feel out of all this shadow.” Perry was gathering his things, shrugging on his jacket and locating his keys on a small peg near the door. “You haven’t changed your mind, have you?”

 

Beth knew that if she wanted to, she could end it, right then.  She could send the crew away, pack a suitcase, ruin Perry and his smile with one look, buy a bus ticket, leave the baby in the bathtub, burn the cabin down, shovel all the sleeping pills she could find down her father’s throat. She could do anything.

 

“Look at you,” Perry said tenderly, entering the kitchen. Beth stood still, facing away from him. She felt momentarily unnerved, even eager, thinking he meant to touch her. But he brushed past Beth’s shoulder and bent down to kiss the baby. Beth plunged her hands into the dishwater.

 

They both stood silent for what seemed like a long time. Beth scrubbed a butter knife with slow, hard strokes while Perry ran his fingers along the underside of the baby’s foot. Beth could hear the grandfather clock down the hall ticking softly. A crow shrieked.  The baby snuffled for a moment before the wet slop of thumb and mouth broke the stillness. Beth could feel Perry shift his weight slowly away from her until he was standing across the room. 

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“Where else?” he said, sounding distant and cheerful.

 

“You could stay, if you wanted,” Beth said, finally raising her head, leaving the question out of her voice.

 

Perry’s eyes hardened, searched her face, and softened again. “You know I can’t, but you’re sweet for asking.” He walked toward her and lowered his face to hers slowly, smiling blandly into her eyes, pressing his lips to her temple. He turned back toward the baby, who had fallen asleep. Then he tread quietly out of the room. She heard him twisting the front door’s handle to muffle the sound as he closed it.

 


 

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Originally from rural Oregon, Christie Hinrichs studied with the St. Andrews MLITT program in creative writing in Scotland and received her MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2013. Her short stories have appeared in Prism, Pushing Out the Boat, and Northwind Magazine, where her short story, “The Empty,” was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. “Snag,” was selected as an honorable mention for the 2013 AWP Intro Award.

 

This story was originally published in Issue 13 of The Literarian