After Diana took her daughter, Angela, to the gynecologist and confirmed it all, Angela wandered around the house in an oversized plaid shirt and low shorts, her surprising stomach baring itself between the plaid’s buttons and her elastic waistband. She didn’t go to school and Diana didn’t go to work. They orbited each other in the grey farmhouse. Angela only broke her silence when her mother called her to the porch to eat a portabella sandwich for lunch.
It was silent for a bit, the two eating carefully as though a loud bite might ruin their cautious approach to conversation. The sunlight was dappling the glass table where Diana sat, her hair pulled back in a silvery-black ponytail. She asked for the third time, “Baby, who’s the father?” and added, “He should know. He has a right to know about it.”
And Angela finally replied, in her calmest tone, “The oak tree. He knows.”
Diana stared at her. The oak tree. Angela smiled as though the tree could love her right back.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“We can let her grow up right underneath the trunk of it and he’ll shade her. It’s perfect.”
“Why can’t you tell me who he is?”
Angela didn’t respond. She just eyed the brown oil on her plate.
“I am your goddamn mama,” Diana whispered.
Angela just gathered up her silverware onto her plate and then stood with the awkward struggle of someone weighted on the front. Her mother didn’t know—couldn’t understand—how stubborn she had become.
As her daughter walked to the door, Diana spoke up again, this time with a cruelty that surprised even her, “Do you think you can hide it forever from the girls at school?”
Angela paused, her back to her mom, and she moved one hand to her stomach. She thought about explaining to her mother how she could outlive any gossip and ignore any smirk. She wanted to explain how the oak tree had called out to her in the wind on a weekend. He used the breeze to explain how the catkins were heavy with a yellow pollen. She found herself following silent directions as she reclined up on the bough of the tree. She wore her long orange skirt and no underwear. Sat in the tree’s gnarly arms. Closed her eyes. Felt the breeze run up between her knees as the oak leaves pet her forehead. She changed then, grew armor around her heart, became a purpose.
Angela opened her mouth, but Diana kept talking.
“You’re going,” she said, “on Monday. Prepare yourself. It’s not going to be long now—they’ll know with one glance. It’s good to warn you now. Believe me—I know it.”
Angela dropped her plate on the porch floorboards, changed direction and walked out to the field. She didn’t look at Diana, but held on to the expression she would maintain for weeks after this.
After school that Monday, Diana took her daughter to a therapist in town hoping that the first day back would shock Angela into responsiveness. She thought a little teenaged desperation would help, but it didn’t work. Angela was silent through her whole appointment. Because Diana wasn’t allowed in for the first couple of visits, she sat in a hardback chair in the waiting room and read magazine articles about unbalanced children with PTSD and anti-depressant options. As Diana waited this appointment out, so did her daughter.
For two weeks they went after school every day, and Diana barely let Angela do anything on her own. She almost quit her job so that she could be there to drive her daughter around for fourteen days. She almost called Angela’s father for help, but resolved that he could do nothing anyway, as distant as he was with another daughter, another wife.
Angela’s womb expanded and she continued at school. There were a couple meetings between Diana and high school faculty and a counselor session with Angela that went nowhere. She outlasted the therapist until even the therapist gave up. She held her head over top of the whispers in class. She slipped through the hallways and made little noise.
Then there was a day that was different when her body was starting to stretch at the thin elastic of her skin. Angela carried her swollen belly in algebra, then biology, at which point she finally felt the odd tickling sensation in her spine, the tenseness in the arches of her feet.
The halls were overloaded with fresh cursing as the girls from the trailer park were taunted for the mobility of their homes. They stood in a circle in front of the gym doors, hands on hips, and yelled down the hall. Angela walked sideways through the group and the girls laughed when they avoided her belly. A freshman with piercings dotting his facial cartilage called Angela’s baby “a belly full of spawn” as she walked past the front office.
She continued to the back hall with the green and red lockers, freshmen skirting past, football players taking up the floor tile with their wide personalities. She walked past her history classroom, out through the back door and sat on the top step that looked over the woods. Angela cradled her stomach and sat there on the concrete steps as the late bell rang. The wind moved between the leaves.
Angela whispered, “I’ll make her a prom dress of leaves someday. They think it’s a girl-- isn’t that awful?”
There was no response to her question, just a light wind, but Angela lifted her head as though listening. She stared into the sunlight and focused on her baby turning gently in her belly. During her absence, her history class continued through a quiz and a lecture on Charles Lindbergh that included a documentary of old black and white photographs of planes and wrinkly men talking to the camera.
When the bell rang, Angela walked into the parking lot in the crowd. She wasn’t cold toward any of the students moving around her—instead, Angela was warm and full. She got into her station wagon with the bent fender. As she drove away from the heap of brick and hormones, her lips parted.
Diana drove up the long gravel driveway along the sloping yard and got out of her car right where the barn sat slumped to one side. She had her bags from the day—some extra paperwork from the law office and some envelopes that needed to be stuffed.
She closed the driver’s door and looked over her shoulder for a moment, sensing someone was there. And there was Angela.
She lay in the old, overgrown horse pasture, her skirt rolled up above her waist to reveal her underwear and swollen stomach to the sun. She stretched in the rising clover, listening to the cicadas and the cat birds. Her stomach reflected the sun and turned to it looking almost umbrella-like. Diana set her bags down and walked to the fence, forcing herself to not seem concerned. Angela turned her head to look at her mother leaning on the fence.
“Angie, baby, what are you doing?”
Her daughter smiled back at her.
“Hey, Ma,” she said calmly, and then her eyes glassed over again.
“Aren’t you ready to come in and get a snack with me? Your skin must be itching from that grass.”
Angela didn’t respond.
“I’m going inside. I’ll call you when it’s ready,” Diana said.
Diana was getting that feeling again like something might be happening inside her daughter that no one could understand. She thought she might cry and she was not a woman who cried. But there was that inkling, as there always was for women like Diana, that she should have known.
Until this point, Angela had been a secretive mother. She had hidden her morning sickness even when waffles made her vomit. She took tampons, dipped them in tomato soup and dropped them in the toilet as unflushed evidence. It wasn’t until Angela finally couldn’t wear her jeans that Diana realized what was happening.
Diana told the therapist before she went into the final meeting with Angela that, of course, it was rape: “It has to be because it is so, just so goddamn obvious, isn’t it?—that the upstairs light has just gone out.”
The therapist was a woman with plaid chairs and a plaid skirt and brown hair that took on the blandness of her office. She nodded and turned to where Angela sat on the other end of the couch with her legs tucked under her. The therapist said, “I can recommend a rape victim advocacy group if Angela wants it.”
“No,” Angela said and the therapist looked at her, then Diana.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but therapy tends to not work well for someone who doesn’t want it. I would recommend that you let Angela give birth to her child, then you can bring her back in and we can start her through more consistent long term therapy. Until she can tell us more about her experience though, it just won’t happen. Or we can send her out to someone else—I have a good friend who is very capable and works at a ward.”
Diana looked to Angela, then down at her hands, then said, “No, no, we don’t need to commit anyone today.”
The therapist nodded.
During that appointment, Diana asked if Angela would consider an abortion. She sat next to her daughter on the couch and rubbed Angela’s hand. The therapist said that, technically, by law, it was too late anyway. Too many trimesters had passed, even before they had started coming for therapy. Angela looked at her mother from her seat on the therapist’s couch as though this misstep alone was a success. The baby would come out screaming.
After their final appointment, during which the therapist could only shrug and Angela could only smile, Diana let her daughter go back to her life without a chaperone. It seemed hopeless to follow her around when the damage, the worst, could not be undone. That is, until Angie lay out in the pasture. This is when Diana took her daughter back.
Angie lay in the sunlight when she felt a gentle cramp in her abdomen and a rush of liquid that sunk into the grass. She turned her head up to look at the oak tree branches that jutted into her vision. There was another pain, this one in the shape of a bowl around her stomach. And then again it echoed in a similar shape in her back, then up her spine and she looked to the oak tree and said, “I think it’s happening.”
The oak leaves turned gently with the wind.
“It’s too early,” she said, and then she screamed, “It’s too early.”
The pain began to roll as though waking up.
Diana looked out the kitchen window and saw the pale white of her daughter’s knees. She dropped a bowl and went running shoeless out of the house, but by the time she got there, blood was across the grass, leaving maps across the skin on her daughter’s legs. Angela was screaming, sitting up on her elbows. Her mother hopped the fence awkwardly in her work skirt, then ran through the field calling out, “Angela, Baby—Angie.”
It was happening too fast to be healthy—that’s all that Angela could understand. She looked between her knees at her mother, who landed hard on the ground and grasped Angela’s legs with her hands.
“Breathe through it,” she said, “breathe, Baby.”
Angela could feel a coil releasing inside of her, as though the muscles were finally opening. Then there was more pain behind it, worse, with the sensation gathering. The crowning followed and Angela’s body ripped. Diana grimaced as she guided the baby. Most births take so long. This one took fifteen minutes.
There in Diana’s hands was a baby girl with skin crinkled and rough and the cry that started wasn’t from a voice. Diana dropped the baby when she saw the look of her. The child screamed from the grass, the note a combination of a baby’s scream and several out of tune violins. Then the cries slowed, their notes crumpled and the noise stopped as the baby’s flesh turned into oak bark and wood. The child’s open mouth went from the soft pink of a premature child to the hard flesh of a knot in a log. When the baby was still, it was no longer a child, but a crude oak root with the faintest face in its trunk.
“Angela,” Diana said, “Angela, the baby,” and Diana dropped to her knees.
Diana stared at the child lying sideways in the grass.
Angela gasped, let her screams calm, and then she cried. She cried because of the pain, her empty stomach, because of the child’s bark-lined body, the look of the oak tree over the scene. The girl opened her arms and lay back, waiting for her lungs to drown her.
Her mother stood up, hiccupping.
Diana was covered in almost as much blood as her daughter. She had a moment of standing over the field, breathing in and out, and noting the dye color of her arms. The oak tree creaked gently. There was silence then Diana turned and ran back to the fence, climbed it, and ran up to the shed, ripping her hose at the toes. There was a fox shovel leaning just inside. She climbed the fence again. The shovel swung with her hurried steps. Diana stood over her daughter and used the shovel’s blade to cut the umbilical cord, which had begun to shrivel into something of a vine. The sound of the cut was sharp and dirty. Angela wailed at the sound of it, and Diana said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get to the hospital.”
Diana walked eight paces where an autumn olive had started to grow its rough, gray arms upward. She dug down at the base. When the hole was one foot deep, wide and square, she walked back to Angela and picked up the newborn root. She cradled the baby, despite its monstrous, still form, walked it to the hole, and laid it gently along the dirt bottom. This is when Angela seemed to wake up. She reached her hand out to her mother. Diana shook her head and began to bury the root child.
“No,” she said, “Angie, this isn’t a child anyway. And it’s easier—isn’t it easier?”
Her daughter moaned low.
“We’ll say that the child must have died—just died inside you and disintegrated. I’m sure it happens. It must,” Diana said, and finally her tone balanced out to the calm processing a secretary takes on.
Angela called, “Mama,” so long and loud that the word broke her voice on the end.
“No, baby,” Diana continued calmly, filling the shallow hole as she spoke, “We’ll say that you birthed loose flesh, that there was no hint of the baby. Anything is better than taking this thing to the hospital and claiming that it breathed, ever. You’d claim to be a human acorn and what happens then? You would be committed. I would be.
She tamped down the hole evenly, smoothed her skirt and held her forehead with one dirt-covered, blood-doused hand. She kept talking, justifying it.
“We’ll say that it was just a shadow of a child that came out. We’ll say that it wasn’t a real one at all, and it won’t even be a lie. It’s natural. It’ll seem natural.”
Diana walked over and picked up Angela’s body in her arms and carried her daughter to the fence. She struggled a bit, tripped on a buried rock along the way, but regained her balance. It was instinctive for one to hold the other, for Angela to lean into her mother’s breasts and cry. Diana lifted Angela to look at her face as she straddled the top of the fence then took a wide step over it.
“Mama,” Angela said, very clearly as though in conversation.
When they got over to the driveway’s grass, Diana closed the back door of the car with Angela laid out across the seat, then looked in through the window for a moment. Diana’s bloody handprint stained her daughter’s t-shirt. Angela’s legs were drying red. Diana then looked back to the fresh dirt in the field and the oak’s shadow pressed over it.
“Yes,” she said, “you couldn’t have done that on your own,” and she felt a sudden, horrible relief fold over her mind. Her child was back again and the other was gone. As Diana moved to the driver’s side door, the cicadas started singing gently again. The breeze followed the back tires. The blood trail ended in the back seat.
As they drove, Angela bounced awake, her head knocking on the door’s handle. She managed one reddened eye over the door’s edge in time to catch a last glimpse of the yellowing field grass and the leaning tree, but she could not see that her buried root baby was letting out small twines to grip and grasp the surrounding soil. The car drove off. The root-baby steadied herself.
Jessi Lewis grew up on a blueberry farm in rural Virginia and now teaches writing and writes commentary on book culture. She was one of the founding editors of Cheat River Review. Her essays, short stories and poems have been published or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream, The Pinch, Yemassee, Appalachian Heritage and Flyway, among others. Jessi's novel manuscript, She Spoke Wire, was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her work has been supported by the Tin House Summer Workshop.
Cover Image:Veiled ThoughtsBeverly Mayeri199618" X 10" X 12"ceramic