Soon after we decided that indeed, we wanted children, I was pregnant. As the child in my belly grew, so did my husband’s joy. How unexpected, to be expecting so soon, and with us both over thirty! I shared in his excitement at first, but after several months I woke from strange dreams to feel the baby not kicking or turning but purring inside me. When it emerged shortly thereafter, a full-grown short-haired tortoiseshell cat, I tearily told my husband I wasn’t sure I could carry a real human child. The doctor wiped the gloss from the baby’s fur, and my husband, ever the good sport, said it might be nice to have a house cat, though we’d have to pay an extra fee on our monthly rent.
They’re very self-sufficient, he noted.
The doctor tried to allay my fears. The cat’s claws had not caused any damage, and its healthy birth proved that I could carry life. He asked if I wanted to take the placenta: Some mothers have it dried, he said. I can’t speak to the medical benefits. I was overcome by a vision of wet fur clumped inside a transparent pill case, and my throat became unpleasantly dry. No thanks, my husband answered. He left to buy a carrier from a nearby pet supply store, and I tried to bond with the child, though she seemed uninterested in being held. When my husband returned, we left without thanking the hospital staff, and we didn’t telephone any family. We simply went home, made tea, and tried to think of a name.
Helga quickly acclimated to our apartment, though I couldn’t bear to let her sleep in the nursery we’d filled with fresh white baby furniture. After an unfortunate incident in which Helga attacked the hanging mobile I’d made out of abstract cardboard shapes, I closed the door to the room, determined not to open it again until we had a proper baby. Helga took up residence next to the cacti on the living room windowsill and proceeded not to interact with us unless she wanted food, or to listlessly watch our half-hearted attempts to conceive.
When I next missed a period, all three of us experienced a lifting of spirits. My husband bought Helga a dangling feathered toy that he affixed to the handle of the back door, and she celebrated my new pregnancy by wriggling against the doorjamb with the springy toy in her teeth. We laughed watching her, the most we’d laughed in months of joyless sex. I opened the door to the nursery again and spent my mornings touching the yellow crocheted baby blankets and the sleek white crib. I bought a new mobile, this one with dancing bears in maroon, mustard, and teal.
Two months later, I experienced intense pains. I thought I was miscarrying, but after a few minimal pushes, I gave birth to a tiny brown mouse. We had my husband’s sperm tested; it was normal. My bloodwork showed no irregularities and the doctor dismissed outright any kind of chronic condition. We bought a wire cage for the shelf above the DVDs and named the baby Boris.
Though he was far from the human baby we longed for, I liked Boris. He was quiet and thoughtful and didn’t make much of a mess. He demonstrated a contentedness with his small world that I envied, and which Helga lacked. While she meowed with rage at anyone who traversed the sidewalk outside the window, Boris, when perturbed, would merely poke his nose through the bars of his habitat, sniff, then return to his cozy midden of cedar shavings.
When we finally let Boris have a little more freedom about the house, tragedy struck quickly. His first day out of the cage, Helga devoured him.
How could you? I shrieked, as she regarded me from under the TV console. Your own brother.
My husband made a wisecrack about sibling rivalry, and I began to cry.
He was my child, I wailed.
If we can’t laugh about this, what’s left?
I didn’t know how to answer him.
We hadn’t discussed what was happening, and his confusion was palpable. I kept waiting for him to press me, as if I knew anything more than he did about my seeming inability to give him the child we both wanted. He didn’t, perhaps out of kindness, or pity. But the silence was its own burden, an eraser that moved with us around the house as we scooped Helga’s litter box or filled tiny bowls with nutrient pellets. Our memories of who we’d been before all this trying and failing and carrying on were disappearing. Little things had sloughed away, like how we’d set the table on the nights when we made dinner for each other. Before, we’d put rests under the chopsticks, cloth napkins under the steak knives, taking pleasure in the well-chosen accoutrements of our home. But now the hashioki hadn’t been taken out of their box in months. Most nights we ate dinner on the couch in silence, straight out of the takeout containers. What was left? I felt an emptiness in my womb unlike anything I’d experienced before the fur-children had come along, a lack that was mine alone.
We stopped trying; I left Boris’s cage on the shelf, too depressed to clean it and list it online, which my husband frequently urged me to do. You do it, I told him. But he didn’t, and I wondered if, after all, he was as saddened by the loss as I, or whether he considered the entire episode my fault, and thus my problem alone. As for Helga, she appeared to express some regret. She began cradling herself in the soft, empty bowl of my belly as I watched TV, shoulder blades erect and ears perked, as though guarding me from imminent harm.
Am I a bad mother? I asked her once, as we watched a film about Vikings. The question floated constantly in my mind, but never before had I asked it aloud; not to myself, and certainly not to my husband. He was out. He’d started taking long walks in the evenings and returning long past dinnertime. Helga pawed at the bump of flesh above my pelvis and purred. I wiped my eyes—I was prone to crying a lot that year, likely because of the hormones that coursed in waves through my strange shipwreck of a body. When my husband came home, I smelled cigarettes on him. He’d quit smoking years before. But I kissed him all the same, and after a long, awful pause, he kissed me back. Helga rubbed her dark face against his calf and then sprinted off to dismember her feathered toy. I muted the Viking battle. Let’s try again, I said. Please. As I waited for his answer, my breath caught in my chest like a trapped animal, an animal shaped like me, scratching to be let out.
Single mother, then? I know all about that! said the realtor, not unkindly. She’d asked if I had children, and instinctively I’d answered yes, though I immediately wished I hadn’t. Having to explain Helga and her new younger brother, a sprightly brown hare I’d named William, would surely be awkward enough to affect how ruthlessly she’d negotiate on my behalf.
No, I said. My husband wasn’t able to come today.
My husband, once so ready to crack jokes and make the best of bad situations, had hardly spoken to me since William’s birth. While I recovered from a difficult labor, he skulked around our apartment like some kind of scavenger, hiding from me in other rooms and only emerging to eat and lounge freely after I’d gone to bed. I started listening to confidence-building meditations, preparing myself for the great, painful change I sensed coming. You are stronger than you know. Your strength of spirit is a gift.
William was, like Helga, a restless creature, and large, too. I’d needed stitches after delivery; his healthy feet had kicked in panic as he’d entered the world, and ever since he’d worn a wide, black-eyed stare that spoke to me of my own confusion. He hunkered close to the walls and did not let me hold him, as Helga now did. Assuming that his needs simply weren’t being met by our cramped apartment, I hired the crisp, bubbly realtor who was now showing me a two-bedroom, all-season cabin less than a quarter mile from the local lake. My husband had pointedly forgotten to jot the appointment in his calendar.
The realtor excused herself to take a call, leaving me to walk alone through the little house. I swept my fingers along the beige tile countertop in the kitchen, which would need replacing. The bedrooms were small and lined in wood veneer, but the windows facing the forest gleamed with green possibility.
I don’t understand what’s happening, said my husband when I told him how much I liked the cabin.
The children need space, I explained. Haven’t you noticed?
That’s not what I meant, he said. What happened to our family, the one we planned?
For years you didn’t even want kids.
That was then.
They can be just as good as regular children, I said. You’ll see. Once we have the room, we can train them! They’re so clever. I imagined Helga and William sitting properly at a rustic dinner table with my husband and I, all smiles as I lifted a merrily steaming lid off a vegetable pot pie. Maybe together, we could teach them to walk on two legs.
He was silent.
We can make this work, I said.
I made an offer on the cabin just above asking price and signed the papers within two weeks. Helga and William couldn’t share a carrier without some kind of squabble, so I made two trips. That was all I needed, really, to bring my half of the life I’d made with my husband from our apartment to our new den in the forest. But by the time I released Helga, bounding on all scrambly fours, into the house, I knew in my gut that the other half would never follow. And when another set of papers arrived instead, I signed these, too.
The children hated clothes, even the ones I customized to fit their awkward legs and let fly their tails. While they enjoyed human food, they would not sit for meals, in highchairs or out, preferring to scamper across the table in games of their own devising while I did my best to keep them from upending my own plate. Any fantasy I might once have had of proving to my husband that our life, within certain parameters, could resemble that of a typical family, scattered like the soft-edged baby spoons I used to force pureed carrots into William the hare’s unwilling mouth. It hardly mattered after the divorce was finalized. But still I resolved to tame the children, if only for my own sense of self-worth. I can be a good mother, I told myself, as I forced William each morning into cloth newborn-sized diapers covered with prints of pink cartoon bunnies that looked nothing at all like him. I am a good mother, I insisted, as every night I tucked Helga and William into matching twin beds in the new nursery. I’d painted over the wood-paneled walls in cheery yellow. Their sheets were white with blue flowers, but the children were stubborn in their nocturnalism, and William left sprinklings of waste in the bed. I am a good mother.
Soldiering on, I learned to garden and began an ambitious vegetable patch, which I regretted as soon as the first wave of weeds became unruly. I’d lived alone only once before, a brief stint of independence in graduate school before a string of live-in boyfriends that had ended with my husband. Now in my thirties and with no humans to talk to for miles, I taught myself to value the silence of my own domesticity. Bathe in the stillness of your own mind, advised my meditation app. Aside from necessary errand-running, I found myself never leaving the green and brown oasis that my children and I called home.
Which is why, when I began to feel the symptoms of pregnancy again, it seemed impossible.
Well, it doesn’t “just happen,” said my doctor, the same one who had delivered Helga. You must be misremembering something. See there—the heartbeat.
I’m serious, I told him. I haven’t had sex in over a year. Isn’t there a word for a pregnancy that isn’t really a pregnancy?
Can you at least tell me what the baby is?
He looked at me quizzically. It’s far too early to determine the sex.
The paper underneath me rustled, as I lay back and let him continue his inspection of my mysterious self, uninterrupted by questions.
I named the ermine Elaine, the name of a very dear great-aunt which I’d been secretly saving in my heart. I’d always assumed my husband would disdain its floweriness. Elaine was glossy white with a bit of black on her tail like the nib of a calligrapher’s pen. She was fastidiously clean and keenly curious; she liked to open the lower kitchen cabinets and hide behind the larger pots. Helga became a tattletale, meowing at drawers and cabinets and hampers where she knew her little sister was lurking. I’d given up on the nursery—William now slept in a luxurious outdoor warren, and Elaine enjoyed playing there with her brother. The two would cautiously chase each other and William would allow her to chew gently on his tall, wiry ears.
I’d never had such a big family before.
A year after Elaine’s birth, I was round once more. I no longer wondered how it could be so without anyone in my bed. My miraculous children were mine, and mine alone.
I drove into town each week to buy groceries at the farmer’s market. I didn’t need vegetables—after three summers of trial and error, my backyard garden had begun to offer surprise after pleasant surprise—but I frequented the van of a local cattle and poultry farmer from whom I could buy scraps for my menagerie of offspring, and I had had dismal luck that year with herbs. On one such trip, I waddled from stall to stall with a basket on my arm, looking like a beatific Madonna carrying her holy cargo aloft under a swaying jersey maxi dress. Small children and their mothers smiled at me, and while I returned their warm gazes of kinship and knowing, I wondered what their abhorrent gasps would sound like if they could see one of my children as it burst upon this world.
I stopped at an herb stand and leaned up to grab a handful of fresh thyme, my belly straining against my dress. Just then, I saw my husband—my ex-husband, I had to remind myself—and he saw me.
I’d imagined running into him, though I never visited the places—the grocery stores, the bars, the Thai take-out counter—in which we’d woven our life together. In my mind, I’d pictured embracing him; fantasized, even, about a reconciliation. But now that he stood in front of me, staring at my strange and wondrous form, I felt a coldness emanating from him. All fantasies of myself as some kind of maternal goddess shattered as I saw him trying to guess what, exactly, stirred inside my belly. He backed away, out from under the shade of the tent and into the sun, where he turned and walked quickly across the market and out of sight. I held the thyme limply at my side, hearing my blood pound its rushing course through me, and I wondered just what species of monster I really was.
The coyote was born on the cabin floor in the middle of a moonless night; I’d been caught unprepared. She emerged snout-first, the size of an adolescent of her species, and after an agonizing ordeal we lay there together, both panting, still linked. The floor was a glistening maroon lake.
Helga sat next to my head, purring and swishing her mottled tail, as I called 911.
This isn’t how I thought it would be, I confessed. None of it.
I lost consciousness then; the next thing I knew, the paramedics had arrived. They cut the umbilical cord and loaded me into an ambulance. I’d lost too much blood. The coyote lay whimpering. As they wheeled me out of the cabin, I called out to Helga: Look after her. I’ll be back.
At the hospital, stitched and sore, I knew better than to ask any of the pitying nurses if someone could please check on my children. They cast glances at the convertible chair in the corner of my room which, for the two nights that I spent there recovering, stayed compact and empty. My doctor was my only visitor.
You gave birth at home, he said, a hint of accusation in his voice. And how is the baby?
It’s a coyote, I said.
He jotted a note on his clipboard.
Another one of these could kill you, he said. You need proper supervision. You need to plan. Easier said than done, I thought, since the children came at whatever time they pleased. Who was I to argue with such savage nature?
I drove myself home, wincing as each bump on the forest road set off an explosion of pain in my groin and abdomen. When I opened the cabin door, all four of my children skittered across the floor to nudge and whine at me, and I realized with terror that the coyote could easily have attacked any of its siblings, as I’d made no precautions otherwise. But then I noticed how Helga inserted herself confidently between the coyote and the others, and my eyes followed a speckled trail of fur to the corner nearest her cat-door, where a matted squirrel tail lay amongst other less definable parts. I scratched her ears, feeling such pride. She was growing up, my little daughter. How brave you are, to take care of the others by yourself, I commended her, before bestowing kisses on her brother and sisters. I did notice, however, that the blood I had left behind on the floor was patterned in a dried paisley, surely made by greedy, lapping tongues. With pain I knelt and scrubbed it away, trying to banish the thoughts of what might have happened if the paramedics had not arrived when they did.
Suddenly our life was louder and larger, as the new child, Delphine, insisted on running and playing and filling silences with her barks. Her energy would not be contained in the cabin, much less the nursery. At first I tethered her to a rope in the yard for her own safety, but she made short work of chewing through it and returned to the house after an hour, dragging the rope behind her, covered in the entrails of something that had certainly been dead long before she found it. After that she lived outdoors permanently, sleeping on a bed of leaves and old blankets under the back door awning. I tossed the wretched animal parts she’d bring home with her into a makeshift boneyard behind a patch of wild raspberry bushes at the far edge of the yard, once she finished chewing them down to clean white. She demanded attention and praise, but she also contained so much joy that it was difficult not to acquiesce, and soon we spent our evenings in the yard, all of us, watching her bounce from the tree line to William’s warren and back again, running circles around the tomato plants, sending her frenzied yips up to fly amongst the branches. I crafted a fire pit out of some stones I found in the woods, and after dinner we’d sit and enjoy the fire’s glow. I let go of any inhibitions that had kept me neighborly in my old apartment, and entertained my children with loudly sung, off-key songs from the Free to Be tapes I remembered from my childhood, while Delphie barked along.
The next one, an eight-pound male fox, did not kill me. Nor did his little sisters, a pair of twin gray squirrels. With each birth came relief that I had not grown so large as I had with Delphie; though I experienced nightmares of gestating bears, fauns, and full-taloned hawks. When I spoke to my doctor about a possible hysterectomy, he was, for once, sympathetic.
It’s a very good option for a woman in your situation, he said. You’ll save yourself a great deal of risk.
No risk, no reward! I quipped.
People do say that, he said. But I urge you to consider the complications that might arise if you continue as you have been.
I do. I mean, I have. Considered. Again I thought of talons, of teeth, of the patterns licked into the blood on the floor.
We discussed possible dates, and I left with a pamphlet outlining the procedure and subsequent healing time. Helga waited for me in the car, purring in the tinted patch of sun on the passenger seat. According to an online chart showing the mental age of domestic pets, my eldest daughter was psychologically in her late twenties, which made me feel so much older than I truly was. One thing I had not considered, up to that moment, was that I would surely outlive my children; I would watch them grow feeble and gray around their muzzles, watch them fade and pass away in shaded corners of the yard or, worse, on the cold metal of a veterinarian’s table, not even human enough for a real doctor’s interventions. When my husband and I had discussed starting a family, our conversations were always set in a future which would not include us, but in which our children would learn to thrive on their own. Was I selfish, to continue building a family that would never know what it was to exist without me? But if I were selfish, I thought, I would not feel so bereft.
Instead of driving out to the cabin, I left the parking lot of the medical center and took an all-too-familiar route. I pulled up to the curb across from the old apartment and cut the engine. The living room window that Helga had once commandeered sported gauzy new curtains, but they weren’t so opaque that I could not see inside. The furniture was rearranged, but I recognized the paintings on the walls; he still lived there. A woman was setting the table, placing each fork and knife carefully onto woven placemats. I counted three places at the table, one of them facing a highchair.
I racked my fingernails along the leather seamwork of the steering wheel. Helga meowed in the passenger seat. Was I a good wife? I asked her. As soon as I asked the question, I knew that the answer didn’t matter, not to any of us. Once home, I poured myself an unseemly amount of red wine and sat on the back steps. My cabin felt more like home than that picture window and its perfect scene ever had. But I couldn’t help but mourn; I’d been asked to create something, and I had failed—or rather, I had created something wholly different than what was asked or desired. But I’m still a mother, I said out loud. I think I’m still a human.
I lay down on the grass and called out for Helga, who began rubbing herself against my head and shoulders; her whiskers tickled my ear. The stars overhead were circulating in their patch of sky between the trees, egged on by too much wine. The air smelled of woodsmoke from the stove inside. I became dizzy and closed my eyes. Around me I heard the soft whisper of paws in the grass, and the loving swish of wind through the leaves of my tomato and zucchini plants. Delphie careened back and forth at the tree line, yipping with glee into the blackness as, across the lake, the sounds of a dog barking echoed to us with singularity, assuredness, and triumph: I am here, I am here.
You and me, I sang aloud, and began to weep. We’re free to be a family. Helga, Delphie, Elaine, and their little fox brother licked my open palms until I finally rolled over, stumbled up to standing, and somehow put myself to bed. The next day, I dialed the number of my doctor’s practice and ran my tongue against the sharp, ratty edges of my teeth. I wasn’t nervous to tell him that I would cancel the procedure. By now I was used to being a disappointment.
Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson.