Fiction: “Poppyseed” by Ramona Ausubel

A new story from the acclaimed collection "A Guide to Being Born"

Topics: Books, Fiction, Five Chapters,

Laura and I celebrated my new job for the sake of having something to celebrate. I picked up a mushroom pizza and a six-pack of Diet Cokes, and Laura and I sat on a picnic blanket in the middle of our suburban front yard. Poppy sat there too, only she was in her stroller bed as always. The grass was craning out of the dirt and the birds were going for all our scraps. We lay on our backs like Poppy does, flat down, and looked at the graying blue of the sky. It came at us. Storming us with its color, with its light.

That afternoon, when I accepted the job as the head guide of the ghost tour on the retired ocean liner, the boss told me I could write my own content for the tour. Mr. Peterson said, “We love that you are creative. We think that’s so cool!”

I shook his hand and then I sat in the car and let go of a few tears. I had to. It was the first time anyone was paying me to write something and it was the worst kind of writing. Shameful, jokey, forgettable.

“Thank you for taking this job,” Laura said, without turning to look at me. “I know you don’t want it.”

“I don’t not want it. I want to do whatever I need to do.”

“Do you want to ever try again?” she asked, looking at her middle.

“We can’t afford it.”

“My mother would keep helping with money.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

When the sun dropped behind the trees, their shadows got long and greedy. We went inside and threw away the rest of our dinner, kissed our mute and immobile kin good-night. Our stunted eight-year-old. She didn’t meet our eyes, but she did make some noises; she did hold our fingers in each of her fists, Laura’s in her right and mine in her left.

We stood there in a chain like that until she let go and released us.



Dear Poppy,

I had to tell your father about the pubic hairs. I tried to call him at work, but I didn’t get him—I couldn’t put the news on his voice mail. I waited until he was home and we had eaten our dinner and I asked him, “How was work, honey?”

He said, “I got there on time and I left on time. I found a guy to install something that will make the ladders shake all at once in the boiler room. It’s very loud.”

“That’s good, right?”

“They say that’s good. Noise and light—my job.”

We ate ice cream and held hands over you on the couch.

I said, “She’s really growing up.” He squinted at me.

“Are you joking?” he asked. “She’s the same as always. She might look like a second grader, but really, she is exactly, exactly the same as always.”

“She’s longer,” I said. “But also . . .” I pulled your pants down where, beyond the pink elastic-squeezed line, a few terrible hairs were pressed flat to your skin. He covered you quickly and closed his eyes. He isn’t mad at you, Poppy. You are the size and shape of a regular eight-year-old, with a baby’s brain. How could it be that your body is getting ahead? As we sat there looking over you, covered now, Roger kept saying your age, eight, to himself. Eight, eight.

“Her body doesn’t have a plan,” Dr. Keller told us on the phone. “Next she’s going to get a period, you know.” He sounded as if he was scolding us for eating too much sugar. Your father was on the phone in the kitchen and I was on the other line, sitting on our bed. I could hear him breathing through the wires.

“It sounds to me like her body does have a plan. It’s a bad plan, but it’s a plan,” I said. “I guess you must have a better one?”

“We could do a hysterectomy. This is actually  no-big-deal procedure. Hundreds are done every day. She has no use for a uterus.”

I imagined your organs, each slick and pumping shape tucked inside you, with a hole in the middle. I wondered if the rest would ooze over into the new space, if they would grow bigger or else rattle around.

“And there is the possibility that breasts would cause further discomfort.”

“You seem to have this all figured out,” Roger said. I heard him in the phone and also in the house. I heard the chair squeaking under him.

The doctor told us a story of you later, at a time when you have grown too big to lift and we have hired a large caretaker to help out, and this person happens to be a man and he brushes up against you one day and your nipples harden. And he takes this to mean something.

“Are you suggesting we cut her breasts off, when she gets them?” I asked.

“No, no. Much simpler. We remove the buds.”

“There are buds?”

“They look like little almonds,” he said, “and without them, she remains flat and safe. Nothing grows without a seed.” Dr. Keller rolled on, his voice raised up in a smile. “We can solve another problem too. If we put her on enough hormones, her bones will fuse. We can freeze her at her current size. She’ll always fit in your arms.”

There were more stories here, of children whose minds are like infants’ but whose bodies grow to two hundred and fifty pounds. Who beat their parents with plates. Whose fists are the size of watermelons. Who have to live in padded rooms and see their mothers only through shatterproof glass.

“So we freeze her, cut out the seeds where breasts come from and take away her womb? Is this all in one day?” Roger asked.

“The hormones are ongoing; the rest takes an hour, plus overnight in the hospital, plus recovery at home.”

When we hung up the phone, I went into your room and shook your hand. I wanted to congratulate you on your optimism. Poppy, your body is going about its business. Blood gets where it needs to. All the pieces are intact, at least for now. Your body seems to see no reason not to go forward. To make ready for new life.

I took the bosses on the tour after the rewrite and the new lights and effects, and they were overcome with joy. They were clinging to each other, at least for fun, when we went down to the old art-deco first-class swimming pool with its light green tile dressed up nicely with fake mildew.

“Staff have reported seeing the footprints of a child around the pool,” I told them. “And no matter how many times we mop the thing dry, it’s always wet in the morning.” I raised my eyebrows and waited for the hologram of a white-dressed girl to float by.

After that we descended to the boiler room, huge and black, still full of machine parts and metal tubing, the walkways sailors used. I told them how those men died when something blew. Steamed to death. Pretty soon the lights started to flash and fake steam shot out of a fake engine. The lights went red and then off. “When thousands of soldiers lived on this ship during the war, there was a terrible wreck. Hundreds of men were crushed or drowned in the icy waters. Others were likely burned to death. They say that the ghosts of all those men live right here in the bow of the Queen waiting for revenge.” After exactly two seconds, the “bolts” suddenly started to loosen and streams of water flooded in.

The bosses talked about the end of the bankruptcy and certainly the end of the historical tour upstairs. They shook my hand. “Whatever we’re paying you isn’t enough,” one suited woman told me.

“Yes,” I answered.

I looked around for the real ghosts, who did not reveal themselves to me. I imagined them watching us from their endlessness, waiting for us to imitate them and their deaths over and over for paying customers who go upstairs afterward and order lunch at the restaurant looking out over the bow, pretending it’s 1930 and they are on their way to England in enormous dresses and smooth black suits. They pour packets of sugar into their glasses and then suck the drink out with a straw. Human things, living things, things no one ever puts on a list of what to be grateful for.

Dear Poppy,

This morning we sat together on the porch. It was warm enough to be without jackets for the first time this spring. You were in your chair, which I want to tell you is made of a stroller meant for twins. We have turned the seats to face each other and they are reclined. There is a full sheepskin for your mattress. It was your father who made it. There are some devices marketed for kids like you. They are covered in buttons and levers and look like they will take you nowhere but white rooms full of more buttons and levers. Your father wanted to make something himself that was just yours, not a bed for severely disabled children of which you are one, but a bed for his daughter, Poppy, who needs one with wheels. Anyway, you like it and you are in it a lot.

We were out there on the porch and I put some seed in the bird feeder and we waited for something to come and eat it. I told you about the birds we have here: mostly sparrows and crows but sometimes goldfinches and robins. I told you how they do not make babies the way we do but that they lay eggs and then those eggs are fertilized and inside the eggs the babies grow until they peck their way out. I felt stupid saying this out loud. I know that you do not store up the knowledge I give you. I know that I am repeating to myself the most basic facts about this world. It is only one of many humiliations. Another is how I write these letters to you when you are right next to me. No sound makes its way between our ears. I write as if the scratched words will crawl into your brain and make their nests there to stay for the long haul, stay until you understand them.

Eventually a squirrel came and hung itself from the porch roof by its back feet to eat from the feeder. I thought about getting up to scare it off, it not being winged. But for a second you seemed to be watching it, so I let it be. It ate up everything in the tray and left the feeder swinging. I did not refill it. You made some of your cooing sounds and the trees answered you with the rustle of their leaves.

Over lunch I put on an opera recording that always makes you wave your hands around. I am amazed by how little you cry. It does not seem to occur to you. You make sounds and you were fussy about food until we put you on a tube, but you do not seem to feel sadness or do not express it with tears. While you moved your tight fists to the music, I ate a turkey sandwich. I didn’t talk to you at all. I read the newspaper and found out about more of the continued misery. I did not do the breakfast dishes or the lunch dishes. I feel I should apologize to you about this—I am not keeping your house well. I am your servant and I am not serving the way I should. But you do not scold me. You wear the clothes I dress you in and do not complain.

Part Two

In the morning there was a little girl sitting at my desk. She was watching my small television. I asked, “Are you looking for the ghost tour?”

“I have already been on it. I have done everything on this stupid boat,” she said, flipping channels.

“Where are your parents?”

“My dad works the bar upstairs for weddings. Today it’s a pink and white theme for Mr. and Mrs. Gravelthorn.”

“You have nowhere else to go?”

“It’s summer vacation. Don’t you have any kids for me to play with?”

“Not like that.”

“Can I stay here and draw?”

Before I answered, she set to work. She was surrounded by my life. The pictures of my family. Of Laura standing next to a cactus much taller than she was. Of us together in the car driving east, of Poppy as a baby and one of Poppy as a bigger kid. In this picture she is looking at the camera. I know that it just happened to be where her eyes went, that the flash drew her there, but looking at the picture feels like having her see me. Like she knows everything I want her to.

Dear Poppy,

When you were born they gave you to me and I loved you. You looked exactly like a baby. My mother said you had my eyes, but I didn’t care about that. You had eyes. You had your own face. You opened your mouth and I fed you. Your father’s hands were jealous while you nursed. You did not look at our eyes and you still don’t.

It took several weeks before they could tell us with any certainty that you would not grow up right. I hate remembering us then. We believed all day long that we could save you. We called experts all over the country. We drove you around in the car, me sitting next to you in back, singing, and your father steering us along. My mother flew in and stayed. People had answers for us, things to try, whole visions of how your life might turn out, you walking the stairs at the end of the school day with a heavy bag of books. Us a regular family. I can’t remember if there was a day when I changed the story, knowing you would lie where I placed you and stay there, your arms waving around and nothing I could understand going through your mind.

I mentioned to Dr. Keller that I was writing you letters lately, before the surgery, trying to explain your life to you. He told me that he wrote to both of his sons before their circumcisions. How he wanted to explain his reason for cutting them like that, the lineage of Jewish men they would be joining. He paused afterward, realizing, I think, that my letters were not the same thing. You will never read them. There will not be another ceremonial coming-of-age where I find you old enough to take you behind the dark stage of your life and show you the ropes and pulleys, show you the clanking steel and the costume room, and then the two of us reenter holding hands and the theater is full and we take a long mother–daughter bow and you go on being a woman after that. In this case, the letters remain in the box. I show them to no one. And you go on.

On the first tour, two kids got scared and had to be taken back by Britney, whose job it is to follow us along and remove anyone who is freaking out. There was only one couple left after that. It is much harder to lead a small tour, because you don’t get the group fear going. It’s just me, this dopey guide, acting afraid for the hundredth time. The husband was not interested at all in ghosts or in effects.

When the lights went out and the fake steam started to howl from the “broken” pipeline, the guy says to me, “So, like how many men would be working down here at a time, say?”

I tried to ignore him but he persisted, so I told him hundreds of thousands. The lights flickered on and off and the recorded sounds of screaming men echoed in the metal cavern. His wife seemed slightly frightened but never said anything during the entire tour.

“Now, were they unionized?”

“Are you kidding me? Do you know what my job is?” I asked him. “My job is to scare you.”

“You don’t know how many men it took to build the ship originally, do you?” he called. “You don’t know shit! You just make stuff up!”

“My daughter is eight years old and she’s growing pubic hair. Does that scare you?”

“You are disgusting. I’m here to see a great ocean liner,” he said. “A historic ocean liner.”

I stopped saying anything. I led them through, room by room, signaled the effects and stood quietly while steam and lights and water did their jobs. At the end of the tour, I opened the doors to a fluorescently lit room with a few exhibits of life during the time the ship sailed. Pictures of the now creepy pool filled with happy swim-capped first-classers; a white lace dress such as a lady might have worn to tea in the afternoon. Normally we enter this room and exit right away. For a few minutes then, I can put my feet over the edge and kick them against the curved wood and breathe some actual air and call my wife, who puts the phone to Poppy’s ear so I can tell her I miss her. But this guy wanted to stay. This was the part he had been waiting for. He wanted the facts, not the story I wrote for him.

“Oh, look, Marjorie, what a pretty little teaspoon!” he said, and they stood there looking, their old noses pressed up against the glass. By the time they were finally done, there were nose-grease patterns, two dots side by side, on every case. I did not go hunt for Windex and I did not wipe down the cases. Their twin prints remained there, thin and foggy, while I invoked the dead for eighteen minutes on the hour and the half hour for the rest of the day.

Dear Poppy,

I wanted to buy something to wear to the surgery tomorrow. I want them to believe me, that I’m doing my best. If I arrive looking how I do most of the time, I think they’ll do less of a job for you. They need to think that we are the kind of family who demands good service. We rolled through the awful mall looking at pantsuits. I held them over you so you could see, but you were no help. When I tried them on, I looked like someone I would not like to be friends with. I bought a boring blue turtleneck sweater, but at least it’s clean. As we left the mall, in the central food court there was a little girl about three years old with gold curls bouncing on her shoulders, running ahead of her parents, who seemed entirely unbothered, yelling, “I’m African! I’m African! I’m African! I’m African!” In her mind, was she riding on the back of a zebra over a stretch of land so vast it would be days before she encountered someone who corrected her story, made her put her seat belt on, bribed her to eat six more bites of potatoes before dessert?

We went to the grocery store in the afternoon. I decided that I wanted to make a nice supper for us all. I chose a cart over a basket and made my way around the store with two sets of wheels, yours and the food’s. I chose lamb chops and the makings for salad. I put four red potatoes into a bag. I still think it’s weird to cook for only two. You do not ever, not ever, eat what I make. I think you are ungrateful sometimes. I think you do not even see what I do. You laugh and smile while I stir and chop. You laugh and smile while I measure your medicines and attach a new bag of food for you. You laugh and smile while I clean you.

An old lady in the cereal aisle stared up at me with my two vehicles. She looked into your bed and waited for me to pull you over so that she could pass.

“You are a saint,” she said to me.

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked back. “Take her outside and shoot her?”

Usually I am practiced at saying, “Thank you for saying so, but it’s no burden. She is always a blessing.” And this is not untrue. I imagine you gone and it seems horribly empty. I imagine the games of healthy children in the living room and they seem like loud and insulting beasts. “I don’t mean that,” I told the old woman. “She is always a blessing.” She seemed to accept this, eager, too, to pave over my indiscretion. She wants this to be a place where God sends down the questions of twisted bodies and damaged brains but always sends with them the answers of wide hearts and abundant love.

In the parking lot, a bird flew over us with a fish in his claws. They were about the same size. The fish faced forward and flapped its tail. It flew. It swam through the air. What a surprise that must have been, to be swimming along and then suddenly to be plucked out and held between the sharp talons of a hawk, swooping out over the hills. Suffocating in all that air.

Part Three

The girl was still in my chair when I got back at the end of the day. She was watching TV.

“So,” I said.

“Hello.”

“You’re still here.”

“My name is Madeleine. I’m eight.” She smiled, sharp. “You?”

“OK. Roger. I’m forty-three. Almost forty-four.” I kept talking. I did not find a stopping place. “My birthday is in May. The fifteenth. The ides of May.” I laughed in hollow, uncomfortable rounds. She nodded politely.

“Happy early birthday. I finished my drawing.” She took the paper out. It was Poppy, from the photograph. She looked upsettingly happy in it, the kind of happy where she can tell you exactly how the good things went down—the soccer goal, the A on the math test, the birthday gifts opened and piled.

“You drew my daughter.”

“I know.”

“What’s it called?”

“I don’t know. How about Still Life with Child.” She gave it to me and I folded it up and put it in my pocket.

“Still Life with My Child,” I repeated. “We can’t be friends, me and you.”

“OK. Why?”

“I already have a kid.”

“I know–I drew her. And I already have a dad. I just wanted to use your desk.”

When I got home, my girls were asleep on the couch. Poppy was covered in a hand-knit blanket and Laura was uncovered, open to the world. Her pants were twisted around her waist and her shirt was falling open, a square of breast visible through the buttonhole. On the floor, Laura’s sketchbook was open to a drawing of Poppy’s face. Her curled fists were absent. The uneasy shape of her body. In the drawing, her face looked like it could be talked into being normal. A few changed strokes and she would be a regular kid. Oprah was on TV without sound. She sat on her white couch and laughed with a famous person. They looked serious for a moment and then they rejoiced. Serious, rejoice, serious, rejoice. I could hear the breathing of my wife and daughter above all else. They were not in sync. I sat in the nearby chair and did not change anything.

Dear Poppy,

My mother was the last to admit your differences. She came to stay here from Boston when you were born and knit about a hundred blankets and hats and booties. She cooked us dinner every night and changed diapers and sang to you and me and everyone else. She was making a loud entrance as a grandmother. I saw that she had been waiting. When we first learned that you might not develop normally, she went on a tirade about the incompetence of doctors. “They always want to give you a prognosis,” she told me. “It’s a baby! How do they know anything about what’s going to happen!”

“They aren’t predicting that she’ll be a pro ice skater or that she’ll fail the seventh grade. They are taking note of her functioning, her body’s functioning.”

“Of course they are. And who stands to gain from that? How many tests do they want to conduct now? And what’s the price of those tests?”

“Should I refuse them, then?”

“You tell me that there is something wrong with your daughter. Say it, then, if you think it’s true. Say, ‘My daughter is a retard.’”

I didn’t say anything to her. I did let them do tests, though, and they kept coming back with bad news. Even still, your grandmother was your big fan all along. She was the one who set up most of our appointments with learning specialists and everyone else. These people told us happily in their offices that everyone has a different way of developing and all we’d have to do was embrace yours.

She visits you every three months. She still looks at you like a healthy girl. Your uncle has two now, so Grandma gets to do the regular things, which is good for her. She plays softball and reads Tintin to them. But when she comes here, she sits right down next to you and rubs your arms while she tells you about the world. “There have been some big trades in baseball already this year,” she says, “and I don’t know if you know, but I think the political tide might finally be turning.” You seem to listen. Your eyes are alert and you squeeze her hand back as if to say, “I hear you.”

We ate outside. It has not been warm enough in months, and we wore our coats and wool socks. Laura put out a nice tablecloth and we forked lamb and potatoes into our mouths with the sound of wind shaking the trees out. There were no buds yet, but the trees seemed ready. They seemed to be putting their fingers up, considering when to unroll this year’s greenery.

“How you doing, Poppy girl?” I said to her, holding her hand. Her eyes were bright but did not meet mine. “You had a good day?” I waved her hand around, I kissed each of her fingers. “Today I scared a lot of people—aren’t you proud?”

“She sang a lot,” Laura told me. “We sat out here all afternoon and she sang back to the birds. A squirrel came and ate the birdseed. I didn’t stop it.”

“A singing lady? That’s you?”

I do not know how to talk to my daughter in any way but as to a baby. She is the size of a large dog now. Her hands are hands, not miniatures, but my voice still jumps an octave when I address her. Laura is better about this. Though she lifts Poppy out of bed to bathe her, though she sits at the side of the tub and washes, she does not baby talk.

I heard her say through the bathroom door this morning, in the same, even voice she uses to speak to me, “You are covered in shit, my love.”

Her room is next to ours and a door has been installed to connect them. There is an actual door, but for us what matters is the hole in the wall. Poppy’s bed has rails on it so that she doesn’t scoot herself out in the night. She sleeps the way she lives—on her back. Her entire world consists of whatever is above her. The nubby ceiling is her vista. Her panorama.

In our bed, Laura and I move close. She used to sleep naked and I remember the feeling of our skins wrapped up. Now she likes to be ready to jump out of bed and take care. To wash and comfort.

“There was a girl in my office today,” I whispered. “Someone else’s kid.” I waited for her to be angry.

“Are you trying to admit something to me?”

“I don’t know. She drew Poppy.”

“So did I.”

“I saw–it’s nice. A nice drawing.”

“Of a nice daughter,” she said. “What about this girl?”

“Poppy will never get to sit in my office chair and draw. It doesn’t seem fair that some other kid can.”

Laura laughed and brushed her hand over my neck. “You don’t have to avoid contact with every other child on earth. Poppy doesn’t care who sits in your chair, Roger. Poppy doesn’t even know your name.”

Around us the room was full of its noises. The streetlight outside went off for a second and then flashed back on.

Dear Poppy,

There was another letter addressed to us today, forwarded from the doctor. Since he gave a presentation about his planned procedure on you at a medical conference, he’s been getting a lot of mail, which he seems to want us to see. I don’t know if he is proving a commitment to his convictions or hoping that we’ll reconsider and save us all. It was postmarked from Lincoln, Nebraska. I opened it before Roger came home but got as far as You have no right to toy with a body that is not your own” before I put it down. We had been warned.

“There is some concern over the rights of the developmentally disabled” was how the good doctor put it to us.

“Yes, I imagine there is,” your father had agreed.

“Of course, we’ll have to convince an ethics committee that this is for Poppy’s comfort less than our own.” I noticed that he was a part of We, part of the fight now, part of the family.

“Are they wrong?” I asked.

“Who?”

“The concerned.”

“No. There is a history of euthanasia and medical experimentation. They are not wrong.”

“But are they right then?”

He clicked his pen and stood. “I think we in this room know what’s good for Poppy,” he said, opening the door of his office and standing at it, his arm extended in a polite request for us to leave.

“I don’t think we know anything,” I said to a fat man stepping on the scale in the hallway.

“We don’t know shit,” he smiled, shaking his head.

I put the letter on Roger’s desk. You and I sat at the kitchen table and I tried to tell you again about what we are saving you from. The horrible cramps. The bleeding. You smiled up at the ceiling. I have stuck a constellation of glow stars above the table because we spend a lot of time here. “And you’d probably inherit my large breasts, which are not even close to what they’re cracked up to be.”

You shrieked and flapped your flightless arms.

Part Four

On surgery day, Laura made pancakes before I went to work for the morning. I bathed Poppy like I do on weekends. I turned on the water and got in bed with her while it was running. “How’s my girl today?” She cooed and kicked her legs. “You’re going to do great, my darling. You are so good, so good, so good.” I nuzzled my face into her belly and she approximated a laugh. I think she has a sense of humor.

When the tub was full, I undressed her on her bed and carried her pale form into the bathroom. She loves the water. She goes completely limp. It is as if she is back in the womb, back to try another time, develop better, be born better. I held her head in one hand and washed her with the other. I saw the short hairs that had started us worrying. They could easily have been plucked out and we could have gone on pretending. I saw the tiniest rise in her nipples, standing up now slightly. “Do you wish you could outgrow us? Well, we won’t let you.” I washed her face with a soapy cloth, moving in careful strokes to avoid her eyes. She blinked and almost looked at me.

Laura had pancakes on the table when we got downstairs. Poppy cannot eat pancakes, as she cannot eat most things. We ate them in her honor though, assuming that an eight-year-old would like them if she could. I poured extra syrup on mine and thought every bite into her mouth.

I went through the tour route turning on the lights and the fog machines and the strobes. When I got to the pool room, I saw Madeleine sitting next to a lying-down man. I moved closer. A rough beard stuck up.

“What the fuck,” I whispered.

“His eyes were open but I closed them.”

I kneeled down next to them and looked at the man. His skin was blue and his beard was red. His hair poked out in greasy strips.

“Is this a dead person?” I asked, dumb.

“You think?” Madeleine said, mocking. She put his head in her lap. She touched his forehead with her fingertips.

“Don’t do that,” I said, reaching out to stop her. She pushed my hands away.

“I think his name is Steven. He doesn’t like it though and always wished his name was Rupert. His mother was a seamstress and his father died when he was very young.” She kept smoothing her hands over his face.

“Do you know him?” I asked.

“Of course not. You can be a real jerk. I am telling a story to this guy.” Just then, my boss came into the room, laughing.

“You like him?” He smiled. “I had him made. We can rig it so the body floats up in the pool or something. My first idea was to get real bodies in here and try to haunt the place, but the lawyers are assholes.”

“You made him?”

“I had him made. He’s good, right?” I felt stupid for thinking he was real, stupid for being caught at it.

“This is a ghost tour, not a morgue tour.”

“Can I do my job?” Peterson told me. “Can I do that? Your job is to make up a good story about the things I put in front of you. I’d like to introduce you to George, the new fake dead guy. Go find him a nice suit and a pocket watch and give him a life story. Maybe he ended it himself? Maybe his wife held him under so she could run off with some gentleman with not one, but two, yachts?”

I stood there quiet.

“You were really scared! Ha! This is going to be a real moneymaker.” He walked back out again, clicking his pen and humming the theme to an old TV show.

“This doesn’t scare you?” I asked Madeleine.

“He’s not real. He’s a doll.”

I watched her talk. I watched her move her fully functioning hands and adjust her legs and push the hair out of her face.

“What the hell is it like to be a little girl?” I asked her.

“I don’t have a lot to compare it to.”

“I will give you ten dollars to describe being an eight-year-old.”

“Don’t you have to go to work?”

“Tell me every single thing,” I said, holding a bill out to her.

Dear Poppy,

At the hospital you lay across our laps. You were longer than the bed we made together. Your feet hung. You looked up at my face, reached to it, scratched the bottom of my chin like I was a cat. I purred for you. Roger was reading a magazine with a picture of an actress I’ve never heard of on the cover. I doubt he had heard of her either. Roger was hunched over to be closer to her, his coat falling off his shoulder and his scarf on the floor. You and I were neighboring planets.

I had my hand on your belly where your womb will not be. You wriggled like a snake. I had this thought: You and I leave, your whole body in my arms. Your father does not notice us go and your stroller stays there too, its various straps hanging toward the floor. We get into the car and drive away. We get pregnant together. Not by men but by sperm. We grow matching stomachs, globes, entire earths of our own. We measure them against each other. We eat the whole aisle of candy and watch movies in bed. Everyone leaves us alone.

When the babies are born, they join us in our bed. We nurse them together. We hold hands under the covers. The babies learn words. They put the fleshy bundles of their feet on the ground and move over it. They go between us: you on the bed to me on the chair; you on the bed to me standing in the lit doorway; you on the bed to me at the top of the stairs. I feed all three of you with blended foods carried to your mouths on rubber-coated spoons. It is the talking I look forward to most. If you had a child and she could speak to me, then I would be almost speaking to you. If she came from your body, I could ask her, at least, what it was like in there. The slip and bubble, the churning.

We took you into the surgery room and kissed you and kissed you and kissed you before going back to our waiting chairs. In the doorway I turned back and said, “Could we see the breast buds? When you take them out?”

“They look like almonds,” the surgeon answered.

“But they aren’t almonds. You don’t have to show me the uterus. I would please like to see them. Please.” He looked at me and shook his head in disbelief.

“Margie will bring them out.”

Part Five

Laura and I crossed half the street to the grass-fuzzy median in front of the hospital. We lay next to each other, the lanes on either side of us quiet, trickling riverbeds.

“Being a kid is OK,” I said. “She avoids a lot.”

“You don’t know what it’s like to be her mother.”

“Is this a new sweater? It looks nice on you.”

“I sort of wish the hormones could shrink her, not just stop her here. I wish she could get so she could fit in my hand. Or smaller.”

“Like a doll.”

“No chairs, no tubes. Just the two of us.”

“The three of us?”

“OK.”

She sat up and her spine was a mountain range in her shirt.

“That’s what happens when someone dies,” I said. “That’s when you get to have them everywhere.” She nodded, tipped her head to rest on one shoulder.

“There’s a lot to look forward to,” she said, and began to lie down.

“Wait,” I told her, “your hair is full of leaves.”

I sat up and started to pull the dry brown pieces out one at a time. They fell apart in my fingers.

Dear Poppy,

We held hands and turned the pages of magazines. We said little. She’s going to do great and She’s so brave and I love you. I drank more coffee than I should have. It felt like something was about to change, but it wasn’t. That was the whole point. We were sending you in there so that nothing would ever change. Your brain has elected to stop where it is, and now your body will be eight years old until one day when you die. Will you get old? Will your hair turn lighter? Will your skin fall wrinkled over your little-girl body?

There was an old man in the waiting room with a cane and a pair of thick-rimmed glasses that he’d probably had since 1950. He was reading the newspaper and I could see, even from across the room, the sprigs of hair growing out of his ears. I liked him for this. He seemed to be turning into earth, growing grass. I wondered who he was there for. No one joined him all morning and he did not fidget. At around 11:30 a nurse came out and told him, “Your wife did perfectly.” He carefully folded the paper up, smoothing it out, and said, “Of course she did.”

Another nurse came out holding a small dish with two bloody little beans on it. “These are the breast buds,” she told us, sounding bored. “As promised.” Before she could stop me, I picked one up and put it in my mouth. “Holy shit,” the nurse said, “what the fuck are you doing?” Roger was completely silent. He looked at me, huge eyed and flat faced. “Lady!” the nurse said. “You have to spit that out! That’s biohazard! That’s not something you can eat!”

I felt the thing in my mouth. It was perfectly smooth. It slipped over the skin of my cheek and my tongue. I could feel the threads of veins.

“Ma’am. Lady. You have to spit that out immediately.” She turned and looked around for someone who could help her. The desk was nurseless. No blue-scrubbed person in sight.

Roger put his hand on my back. “Maybe you should spit it out, Laura.”

“Too late. I swallowed it.”

“Holy shit!” the nurse says, “Jesus. Lady.”

But, Poppy, as the nurse was turning, spinning on her heels, looking for a kind of help she had never needed before, your father plucked the other bud out of the dish and held it in his hand. He looked at me and his lips spread out in a smile. The nurse looked into the glass dish smeared with a little pink blood. She shook her head and then suddenly she went quiet. She stopped her search and whispered to us, “You all are fucking nuts. Please don’t tell anyone this happened.” And off she went with her empty dish.

We ran outside holding hands. I spit the breast bud out into my palm.

“I thought you swallowed it,” he said.

I shook my head. “I had to lie so she’d let me go. Come on.” In the median I knelt down and began to dig a hole. Your father understood right away and helped, his left hand a protective fist, his right a shovel. In a few minutes, we had come to darker soil and we both put the seeds of you inside, covered them in earth. “To growing,” I said. “Whatever that might mean.” We sat down and held hands. We did not look at each other, but we squeezed our fingers tight together. Both of our cheeks were streaked from crying.

Inside, the doctors sewed the openings up with thread, your chest safely sealed in immaturity. The two of us held on to each other while, in the darkness of the earth, your unbloomed seeds were at rest.

More FiveChapters

Ramona Ausubel is the author of the story collection "A Guide to Being Born" and the novel "No One Is Here Except All Of Us"

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