CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Emily bit her baby. It started with the toes and the feet. The little pink baby feet. The baby girl soughed. Emily bit her while no one was watching. She bit softly. The baby didn’t notice. Emily didn’t even leave marks—she was that gentle. Emily knew in this relationship that she was the biter, not the bitee. Then, Emily bit the baby’s little right ear. Jim, her husband, commented on how odd it was the baby hardly cried during birth. The baby was covered in a soft whitish down. Jim and a local midwife, in tank top and bandanna, were the only ones there. Jim left to get a cold drink for Emily. His job made him smell of bushes, and it lingered.
The midwife checked the baby’s feet, hands, nose, mouth. She weighed her, measured her, wiped her off. Then the midwife left. The family was alone. Emily now could smell everything. Herself, afterbirth, sweat, plant life. How new it all was to her.
The baby put its hands in front of its face and moved a tiny amount, adjusting. Emily noticed everything in the room became turned down: color, sound, movement. Everything became unimportant except for the baby. She leaned down to her baby and whispered in her whorled ear. She hooked her teeth into the top curve of the tiny ear and pressed down so slowly she couldn’t even comprehend how her biting could be so delicate. Emily grazed the baby’s skin and cartilage underneath the curve. The baby’s eyes weren’t completely open yet. The baby inhaled, her lungs holding tiny air. Emily teethed. She stopped before Jim returned with a tall chocolate milk. The baby was a sleeping wrinkled lump on her chest by then.
Emily’s jaw hurt from practicing such care.
“She’s so quiet,” Jim said. He asked her what the white downy stuff was on the baby.
“It was a protectant,” she said. “Sort of. Most mammals come with some form of it.”
They called the girl Beane. She came out a small human as if she was planted like a vegetable seed inside of Emily. Beane bloomed, and now she was a living sprout.
Jim left Emily alone with Beane. She rewrapped the baby with a blanket, took the small left foot and brought her teeth upon the pads of each toe. Then she lightly teethed the heels. The child was bruiseless.
They lived in a town called Bann Head. The forest service station where Emily worked was two miles down the road. A large lake swam close by. Jim returned home from his landscaping job each afternoon to fashion a bassinet he wasn’t capable of crafting. He only seemed to talk about destructive gypsy moths, leaky retaining walls, and his daughter. Jim carried the scents of topsoil and grease. He forever had dirt in the whorls of his fingers. He’d leave smudged streaks on the walls. “I worship this girl,” Jim would say, cradling the baby. He left grime-thumbed outlines on the baby, too. “Our Little Girl of Flesh and Chub.” He looked at Emily. “Having a kid is kind of like being in church.” He was satisfied with this conclusion.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.
“The feeling of being able to take part in an act larger than yourself. Something bigger than what we can perceive.”
“I still feel like I have something larger than myself inside me. And it feels like trapped gas.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, so am I.”
Then from Emily: “Are you going to hold her all night?”
A week later, she still didn’t know if the biting was benign or something dark and patient. She began suffering stinging migraines and wavy nausea. They would come on quick as a flash bulb and dissipate. She even dreamt of biting. She feared Jim would catch her, or that she’d pierce the skin of her baby by accident.
The compulsion started in the stomach and moved through her chest to the mouth. She knew that much.
Her body was changing since Beane had left it. It was as if Beane had taken bits and pieces of her organs or protein, maybe. Emily’s hair had been a shiny licorice but now was a light brown. It started to come out in the shower. She felt like a threshed field.
Some mothers dandled, kissed, stroked, or hugged. Emily bit all over, remembering where she had yet to bite.
Beane’s flesh was salty and simple. Her taste was uncomplicated. Emily found it tasted like bread dough, with an occasional slight tang. When she would have Beane’s arm in her mouth, the back-of-the-arm fat would glide gelatinously between her incisors like a swollen water balloon. To her, that was the only human body part that had such texture. But it was important that she never leave teeth marks on Beane. She noticed Jim’s attention to Beane’s body was almost as sharp as hers. In the first week, he spotted the splotchings of a diaper rash much earlier than Emily. She sat at the kitchen table, mute and defeated with cut-out eyes for the whole day.
She went to the drugstore to get diaper rash cream. It was her first trip out into public with Beane. Immediately, she knew it was a mistake. The distraction was too much. Her mouth watered and her teeth ached. It took her a full half-hour to find the tube of cream, meandering up and down the aisles.
If I bite her right now, Emily thought, I would have to make it look like a cutsie type of thing. She knew she couldn’t pull it off. The bite would climb all over. It felt like everyone was staring at her. Everyone knew.
She put the cream on the counter and the pharmacist rang her up.
“Ma’am, are you all right?” he said. He centered his bow tie and his three pathetic strands of hair. “You’re sweating terribly.”
She was staring down at Beane. Beane was sleeping. Her eyes were small dashes. Emily wanted to bite the eyelids. Could she get that precise?
“Ma’am,” he said, louder. The pharmacist coughed, reached across the counter, and grabbed her shoulder. “Your cream, ma’am, your cream.”
Emily booked home over the speed limit without belting the car seat in. Her neck soaked her collar through and dampened the neck rest.
She put Beane down for a nap in the crib. Before that she tasted the tips of Beane’s fingers and set her teeth on the baby’s earlobes. Beane didn’t seem to notice. Emily’s heart rate was slow as paste now, and she went to her bedroom to change her shirt.
Emily opened the door and saw what was lying on the bed. The wolf rose up. It growled from a scrawny ribcage. From inside a fur-matted, sleek, muscular, gray and brown body. Emily dug out the cell phone in her pocket.
“Real busy right now,” Jim said. There was a distant, tinny sound of a chainsaw and sharp timber-cracking. “Call you back.”
She stepped out of the room into the doorway.
“There’s a wolf in the house, Jim.”
The wolf moved when Emily moved. She stopped.
“Say again. I don’t think I heard that right.” He was probably putting a finger in his other ear to hear better.
“There’s a wolf in the bed. Our bed.”
The wolf bared its teeth, and wolfspit dripped on her clean sheets. Emily could tell Jim finally got what she’d just told him, and he was moving to his truck. There was the sound of a metal-keyed click and the spark of ignition. The call ended.
Her heart still beat slowly in her wrists and neck, a slow, slinking thunk. Her heart chest-kicked inside like a unborn phantom she’d forgotten. She looked around the room to see where the wolf had gotten in. It was the high window that opened out above their bed. Earlier in the week, Jim had stacked empty packing crates from work outside up against the house. Below the window, they formed a perfect staircase for whatever desired to enter.
The phrase a wolf in the bed crouched in the back of her mind. The wolf licked its hind legs. A glint of fang. Its ears were pricked. The door to the nursery was already shut. There was no need to run for it. Apart from being afraid to stir, Emily didn’t want to move. The wolf quit growling and baring its teeth. Emily bared hers to see the wolf’s reaction. The wolf raised its hackles. She backed up and shut the door, holding the handle so it couldn’t claw it open. She heard the scrabbling of the wolfclaws up the door’s inside and against the handle. It jiggled in her grip. She saw the frustrated pacing shadow under the door. She heard the wolf tear its way up the inside of her bedroom wall and jump out the window. The crates outside toppled, colliding.
Emily had in her head a still image of the wolf with the baby firmly clutched in its maw.
She checked on Beane, who was sleeping. She noticed the nursery window was open, and she shut it. Emily picked up Beane’s hand and bit the oval thumb pad while she waited for Jim. When Jim arrived five minutes later, Emily’s hands were shaking. Jim went outside and checked the nearby woods and inside the garage, the basement, everywhere. He looked angry. Emily didn’t know where his anger was coming from.
“I can’t believe I left those crates there,” he said. They were sitting at the kitchen table. Emily’s hands still shook. She saw Jim’s were as well. Jim reached across and held hers until they lay flat over his. When they didn’t stop trembling, he gave her canned vegetables to hold.
Emily couldn’t take the baby out anywhere without the need to imperceptibly gnaw on Beane’s mini-starfish of a hand. She thought maybe strolling in public would stop her from biting. It took only an hour in town before she felt as if helium was in her bloodstream. Her skin itched from inside.
An older woman in a consignment shop craned her saggy face into the stroller and glided a finger up Beane’s cheek, uninvited. “Oh, dear,” the woman said. “Your baby is just too cute. I could just eat her up! So delicious looking.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Emily said. A nervy spark slid up her spine.
The woman pulled inward as if wounded. “Excuse me. I was just admiring your baby.”
Emily’s feet cramped. She had an intense need to get her child away from the woman and bite the top of the baby’s smooth haunches. Could the woman know what I am doing? she thought. Why did this have to happen to me?
She took Beane to the bathroom of the Tinkly Spoon Café on the corner. Her hands trembled. She needed shelter. She walked straight to the bathroom because no one would question a woman with a baby, especially if that woman was walking fast. She set the baby carrier in the sink, unlocked the baby from the harness and unbuttoned the bumblebee jumper.
Beane looked around, squinting at Emily in the light. She tried to swing her arms around her head and tried to grab her feet. Beane’s facial color was like pancake batter.
Emily had begun to sweat on her lower back whenever she bit. She started crying a lot as well. The tears felt thick as castor oil. Her toes curled in her shoes, and she pulled back her hair. Took off all her jewelry. She needed zero distractions. Before she bit, the image of hoary Saturn eating his children appeared in her head. Yes, but he wasn’t real, Emily thought. Still, she countered with another voice. Still, doesn’t that image count for something? Horrifying and unfathomable. Yet true to her, she knew. True in the base of her skull and spine and in the small nodules of her vertebrae.
What if she was causing irreparable damage to Beane? She knew such damage probably still couldn’t stop her. She thought how hard it would be to bite the whole head. Her only option would be to try and put the baby’s head between her teeth like one would an apple.
Emily held her baby’s arm up in the air and Beane sighed. The baby wasn’t a crier. Emily imagined Beane regarding all of her mother’s actions as natural from the beginning. The cell phone rang in the diaper bag and someone pounded the door at the same time.
“Someone’s in here,” Emily said. She picked up Beane’s soft naked body. Left hand under the chest and the right hand holding the legs. She was eyeing the top arc of the left buttock. As a little girl, she’d seen butchers hold certain cuts of beef like this.
“You’ve been in there for over fifteen minutes, miss. People out here need to use the john, too.”
Her phone kept chirping. It had to be Jim. She forgot to tell him where she was going. She stood still for a minute. In that minute, Emily could feel with her tongue the coursing of Beane’s new blood through tiny veins and arteries, through miniature limbs and minuscule toes, fingers. Then she wiped her saliva off the baby and packed the diaper bag.
Emily put Beane back together and snapped her in. She took this failed attempt as a sign.
No biting today, she thought. I’ll just have to go one day without. You can do it, Em.
She drove home. Beane played in her car seat. Emily’s jaw cramped. She was grinding her teeth. Her jaw appeared wider in the rearview mirror. She compared her reflection to her driver’s license. Her teeth were trying to escape her face through her cheek.
Emily pulled off the side of the road and gripped the steering wheel.
The next day was her birthday and Jim was with Beane outside in the woods. He left a message on the kitchen table saying that there was a small present for her in the bedroom. On the bed was a large lace handkerchief, with something underneath. A triangular shape with two pointy tips. It was all pre-packaged air in the room. The air smelled of polyurethane. She reached down and pulled off the lace, and she screamed. She peed a little as well. She’d always heard of people doing that when scared, but she’d never done it herself. She was embarrassed.
It was a wolf head. The wolf from her bed. There with its head—cut off. Its face had been caught in a snarl and its jaw prised open, exposing a long pink tongue, bulging cartoon eyes. She couldn’t breathe and she backed up against the closet, unable to look away. When she dropped the lace over the snout, it tipped over, revealing it was hollow. It was a wolf mask. A rubber toy thing.
Emily heard the porch door slam and Jim come in. She was hyperventilating. I’ve been found out, she thought. He knows and he will leave me, divorce me, take Beane away forever. And what a horrible way to face me with it.
“Emily?” Jim leaned down and saw her and the mask and put her fear and breathing together. He saw the sodden crotch spot on her jeans and the wet threading down the leg. She crossed her legs and covered the spot, crying. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize you’d take it so hard. I wasn’t trying to scare you.”
She looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“I thought it would be a good poke. You know, to get us to laugh at it. To not worry so much. I promise no more animals in the house, okay? We’re safe.” He leaned down to soothe her, repeating this last line to her in whispers. His hand felt wrong on her, like an eager stranger’s.
Emily felt her jaw with a hand. It was moving. “What are you doing?” Jim asked.
“I don’t know.” Her jaw: open, close. “My muscles are tensing.” Her back was beading up.
“You’re in shock,” Jim said.
He poured her into bed. He damped her forehead with a cold washrag. She stared at the ceiling, counting the tiles to relax. Her jaw flexed on its own. She imagined herself as a soothing straight line until the jaw was under control.
The baby bit Emily. Once.
Beane was just starting to lift up on her elbows. Emily was breast-feeding in the wicker rocker in the nursery. Emily’s shoulders had started to smell like yeasty vomit no matter how many times she showered. The diaper pail was the sewer of the house. Emily resented these small details, then resented herself for feeling that way.
When Beane bit her, her lungs collapsed like wet paper bags. She pulled her away from her chest to look at her breast. It bled in droplets. She cleaned it off and applied lanolin, then she set Beane on the changing table.
She’d already taken the baby’s jumper off as if ready to change her diaper. Beane stared at Emily, and for a second Emily felt that they both sensed what was happening or about to happen. But that couldn’t be, she knew. Emily’s biting had no origin, apparently had no end in sight, and apologized for nothing. So Emily was resigned to the biting inhabiting her blood, and let her impulses go from there.
No one, she thought, in their right mind would do this. She wondered if she would bite Beane as a teenager. She’d read that one mother breast-fed her children until they were six.
Emily’s breathing was wide in her chest while thinking all of this and holding Beane’s feet together like a small captured pheasant. Emily was holding back a sob and the baby resisted the constriction. Beane began twisting to break her mother’s hold, clapping her hands, and a wail came out of her, a pitch Emily had never heard her baby reach before. Emily squeezed her daughter’s ankles tighter until the baby winced and cried louder.
Then she leaned her head forward onto the baby’s chest. The chest was warm and soft. Beane clamped her hands around Emily’s head and tore at her hair the best she could.
Emily bit Beane’s nipple, but this time with some pressure. To her tongue, the nipple was thin as Japanese paper and smooth as a flower petal.
Within months, Beane was a rolling pin, turning over on her own. Her hair became dark and thick like Emily’s had been before the birth. Emily began to feel the baby’s tight skin texture between her teeth even when she wasn’t biting. The sugary smell of Beane’s baby powder would fill her nose when she was away from her. She would shower and still feel dried crusted saliva on her chin. Emily would play patty-cake or peek-a-boo with Beane, trying to be a good, educational mother, happy with the normal development of her daughter. And, to her relief, Beane was normal. The baby grew without trauma and developed as any baby was expected to. She even seemed a bit keener than most babies in their first year, picking up on spatial relations and babbling earlier.
But Emily would sob unexpectedly in grocery stores lines or at a family reunion. During naps with her daughter, Emily would always wake up with a limp limb of the baby’s in her mouth, gently viced. The belly, the neck, the shoulder joint. The skill with which she bit Beane was close to the precision which certain machines grind out wristwatch gears.
Then there was always the waiting for Jim to find out what she was keeping secret. Her need and her fear compressed her into quieter, darker rooms. Emily’s life began to consist of multiple habitual over-the-shoulder-looks. He caught her off-guard in the pantry or sitting on the toilet.
“Do you want more babies?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe ask me when I’m done peeing?”
“Please, for me, go see a doctor. I think you’ve got an infected tooth.”
“What? This? It looks bad, swollen, I know. But it’s my period. It makes my face bloat. It’ll pass.”
“It’s been like that for a few months, though.”
“When you start having children, then we can negotiate how my body operates.”
She began sleeping on the couch. One night, staring at the red glow of the baby monitor, she tried to bite herself. The bite marks left welts and bruises and blood. Her flesh might as well’ve been styrofoam.
The kitchen was warm with cooking. Emily had tried everything over the months to stop, but now, holding a tomato, her mouth was wet and her face flushed. She hyperextended her jaw muscles while trying to stretch them as far as they would go. She was going to try and fit the baby’s whole head in her mouth. Emily had been gradually practicing small, unnoticeable exercises to prepare for the bite. She’d done them in the shower or while chopping scallions. She had to act quickly because the baby was growing faster than she could condition her jaw to fit the head.
The plan was to do it only once, then quit biting. For all time. From there her plans encountered nothing solid.
Her jaw became rigid when it dropped. The pain was so immense and expanding and thorough. Emily couldn’t understand how the pain in her jaw hurt her feet as well. Her body was dumb, she thought. The self didn’t even know any better than where to hurt itself.
Her face slack, the muscle finally gave up, exhausted. A meaty snap shot off inside her face. Jim turned to her. She was at the sink where she was staring at the floor. Jim saw her. He dropped the pan of boiling water and pasta. Beane was in her high chair at the table and began to cry, whether at the dropped pan’s noise or seeing her mother’s obscene disfigurement was hard to tell. Beane continued to cry then mutter, until it turned into low moaning with occasional uproars. Emily hid herself from the baby. Jim’s own jaw was open, and he stood upon the steaming floor amid the pasta. There was some penne and some mafaldine.
Emily’s face was sunken into the dark hole of her mouth. She stood like some prehistoric creature pieced together carefully from the wrong parts. Her mouth was corrupted, the back of her tongue fully visible. Spit was trailing out her mouth at a smooth, slow pace. Gathering, it pooled on the floor.
Jim moved forward to help, but she raised a hand to halt him. She was bent over and her jaw set to swinging in a horrifically nonchalant way.
It was okay. This was fine.
She started putting the pasta back in the pan. Time turned glacial. Jim stared and the baby cooed.
The linoleum floor didn’t stop steaming.
Kyle Winkler lives in northern Indiana. His stories have been published in Web Conjunctions and the Collagist. He has finished a novel titled Samizdat.