by Ashley Blooms
Ellie watches her husband from the front porch. He makes a lean shadow against the twilight, his arms outstretched, his heels lifting from the ground and dropping again. The wind rustles the branches of the trees overhead, their limbs picked clean of leaves, their roots bitten with cold. The windows rattleshake inside their panes, a thin vibration that the house carries through the walls and into the boards of the porch. The feeling trembles beneath Ellie’s bare toes as she wraps her arms around her chest, cups her elbows in her palms.
Her husband looks at her from across the yard. He holds up his hands so she can see a bright pearl of light reflected in the center of the spiderweb. The thin strands shudder, curving away from the twigs that bind it together, but the web holds on. Ellie turns and walks back into the house alone.
They tried to conceive a child for years.
They pressed themselves together in every position, every room of the house, every single day for months on end. Ellie lay with her legs flat against the wall, a pillow beneath her back to cant her hips toward the ceiling, begging gravity to work a little harder. She ate raw eggs for a girl and honey for a boy. Pete’s mother and his aunts came from the top of the mountain to pray for her. They lay hands on Ellie like it was the last night of a tent revival and there was something deep inside of her that needed to be saved.
After each visit, Mother Black would stand in the doorway and look at Ellie with deep-set, mossy eyes. She would tell Ellie that it wasn’t her fault. The mountain was hard on women. It took a certain kind of breeding to survive here. Valley folk were soft by nature. She told Ellie not to blame herself and she smiled as she said it.
When she had gone, Pete climbed on top of Ellie and thrust against her as she stared at the ceiling, imagining her womb as two hands joined at the fingers, a cradle she built inside herself. All she’d ever wanted was someone who would love her back for as long and as much as she loved them. Someone who would never leave her, never forget her, never, never.
Ellie thinks of the trying as she kneels on the end of the casket and looks at the little boy inside. He never made it to his second year, and his face is still full of the roundness and softness of youth. But there is no pink left to him, not a single hint of bloom, not even along the bridge of his nose or the smooth plane of his cheeks. A bit of dirt falls from the edge of the grave and scatters across his face. His cheeks are freckled with earth and Ellie reaches out to wipe it away.
“Ready?” Pete says.
She nods without lifting her head. He draws a thin line across his palm with his pocketknife. The blood wells to the surface, dotting his skin with deep red pinpricks. Pete tilts his hand to the side and lets a few drops fall onto the boy’s lips.
“Blood of the father,” he says.
He draws a handkerchief from his pocket, cursing under his breath as he wraps the cloth tight across the wound. He hands Ellie a Mason jar. There is a smear of blood on the side and she reaches around it to undo the lid. She sprinkles a few drops of clear liquid onto the boy’s lips. It mixes with Pete’s blood and runs down the boy’s chin in a faint pink stream.
“Tears of the mother,” she says.
The spiderweb is all that’s left. Taken from a tree grown in family soil, just the way it’s supposed to be. The web is thin. It trembles in the breeze, every filament billowing like a bed sheet hung out to dry and clinging to the line by the faintest bit, just the faintest bit, but it holds on. Pete leans over the boy.
“Wait.” Ellie presses her hand against his arm.
Pete turns to her. He frowns and his face is eaten up with darkness. “You ain’t getting cold feet on me, are you? I already told you the body can’t be no more than three days old and we already —”
“It’s not that,” Ellie says. “I just. I want to do it myself.”
The moonlight glints along the web like fingertips across bare skin.
“You sure? They can be awful mean when they first come up.”
“He’s mine now, Pete. I’ll find a way to handle him.”
Ellie takes the web from his hand and places it against the boy’s mouth. It flutters, stretches, sticks. Pete mumbles something under his breath but Ellie doesn’t hear a word. She is too busy following the curve of the boy’s eyelashes where they rest against the papery skin of his eyelids. Deep blue veins rise from his forehead and disappear beneath his temple. Ellie’s knuckles brush against the boy’s cheek as she leans back and he is so cold and so real beneath her touch. The spiderweb shakes. The boy opens his eyes. He cries.
“You never told me how he died.” Ellie shifts the boy’s head from her right shoulder to her left as she settles onto the pillows. The boy rubs his forehead against her collarbone, the spiderweb sticking to and releasing her skin in a dozen sloppy kisses.
“Drowned,” Pete says.
Pete’s back is turned to her, his body bent over the police scanner that sits on the windowsill. He scratches his temple with the end of a screwdriver.
“He drowned. Have you seen the electrical tape?”
“It’s in the drawer by the stove. How could something this little drown?”
Pete gathers his things and walks to the door. The baby stirs against Ellie’s chest and she presses her lips to the top of his head. The skin gives a little beneath her touch, a melon going soft in the sun. He smells like cold earth and lye, a deeply chemical scent that burns the back of her throat when she breathes so close to him.
“Hey, that’s all I know,” he says, his back turned to her as he stands with one foot in the bedroom and one foot in the hall. “They weren’t paying any attention to him and he fell into the pond behind his house. They didn’t find him until the morning. His mama had six others. She probably don’t even miss him that much.”
Ellie looks down at the boy in her arms. His hair sticks to the small space behind his ears, trapped in stiff curls. His eyes move in his sleep, nudging against eyelids stained purple at the edges. His skin is blotchy and red where the spiderweb sticks to his cheeks and to the cupid’s bow of his upper lip. Ellie watches the web float in and out as he breathes. The phone rings in the kitchen and Pete’s voice echoes through the corners of the house. The baby’s fist grips and releases the fabric of Ellie’s shirt in tandem with her heartbeat.
She dresses him in new clothes. She takes them from the room she made for the baby three years ago when it was still only an idea, the walls painted a buttery yellow, the closet filled with clothes and waiting, waiting. She puts him in a soft white t-shirt and cotton pants with a drawstring waist. The pants are a little too long so she rolls up the cuffs, wraps his feet in fleece socks and squeezes his toes with her fingers. He goggles at her. Dark eyes and dark lashes and a cold nose. He sways a little even when she sits him on the couch, propped between two cushions. He is relearning gravity and Ellie holds him while he remembers the weight of his own body.
The skin on her fingertips has turned white where she reaches for him. It’s almost stopped hurting, the unrelenting ice of him. Her skin dries. It flakes when she touches his cheek, little pieces of herself breaking and floating away.
“Daniel,” she says.
He looks at her. She smiles.
Ellie answers the phone on the third ring. Her forearms are slick with water and she wipes them on the hem of her shirt, the phone cradled between her shoulder and ear. Her skin smells like baby shampoo and Daniel’s ammonia skin. She presses her free hand to her mouth to breathe it in.
“We’re doing just fine, thanks,” Ellie says. “How’re y’all?”
Mother Black’s reply is a soft, gauzy sound. You have to look for a long time to see the blood seeping up from underneath it, the dark stains that hide at the end of her sentences. Ellie leans against the kitchen wall. She peers through the narrow crack between the bedroom door and its frame. The baby lies at the foot of the bed, one hand fisted in his blanket. The sunlight strains through the curtains and drops onto Daniel’s forehead.
“No, still trying. Mhmm. No, I just do the eggs in the morning now. Oh? Well, yeah. Yeah, I could try that. No, that’s all right. We have some. I’m sure, yeah. No reason to come all the way down here for a little thing like that.”
Ellie takes a step toward the door. Daniel turns toward the sound. He looks at her with round, dark eyes.
“Yeah, just let me get a pen to write this down.” Ellie holds her hand up, tracing invisible letters into the still morning air. “Two cups of rice? One? But two red peppers, right? Mhmm. I got it. Yeah. I’ll be sure to tell Pete you called. Oh, we do. We both do. We don’t know what we’d do without you.”
Daniel warms slowly. Ellie works her hands against his skin, massaging the hard knots of muscle in his back, smoothing her knuckles over his spine, digging her fingers into the stiff cords of his shoulders. He loosens. His head stops lolling on his neck and he holds it straighter, staring up at Ellie from the corner of the bed, seeking out the sound of her voice from another room. His mouth opens and closes, his tongue caught in a memory of speech.
She speaks to him. She holds his hand to her lips so he can feel the way the words are shaped and she can lend him the heat of her breath. She tells him stories that she remembers and ones that she finds in the books stacked inside the nursery made for the ghost of the other children, the unborn ones who didn’t take to the hard edges of Ellie’s body, the ones that ran down her legs in watery streams of blood, her stomach aching, her eyes shut tight. She keeps the door to the nursery closed.
She drags the cradle into the bedroom she shares with Pete instead. She packs the insides of Daniel’s bed with ice from the freezer so that he can sleep easy. She runs her nose along his cheeks, his chin, tracing the place where the spiderweb sinks into his skin and disappears. The web moves as Daniel breathes, ghosting along Ellie’s forehead, tangling in her eyelashes. When he falls asleep, Ellie presses her ear against his chest and listens for the sound of a heartbeat, a gurgle of movement, of life, but it is silent inside of him.
When Pete comes home, she tells him about the things they’ve done. She says, “I think he almost said something today. He was looking at me so hard, his little hands all knotted up. Won’t be long now,” and “Do you know that there’re places where it snows all the time?” and “Don’t you think that maybe you should hold him for a while?”
Ellie sits at the kitchen table peeling potatoes. She cuts the skin off in slow, even strokes until it slides away in a single piece and falls into the bucket by her side. Her feet are soaking in a pan of warm water and Epsom salt. She rubs them together until the old skin floats to the top. It’s been two weeks since Daniel joined their family and she’s shed almost every inch of skin she had before, and what’s left of her is pink and soft and new.
Pete walks through the back door and says, “Can’t you turn some heat on in here? I’m freezing my ass off.”
“The baby doesn’t like the heat,” Ellie says. “It makes him fussy.”
Pete appears in the doorway. He’s wearing his winter coat and a hat pulled low over his eyes. Daniel crawls toward Ellie, his hands making a soft, wet sound as they smack against the wooden floor. His body moves in lurches, jerking to the right, careening to the left, like he’s never entirely convinced that the ground will still be there when his hand comes down again. He looks at the water, and Ellie wiggles her toes so it bubbles and shifts. Daniel coos.
“— to Mama lately?” Pete says.
“What?” Ellie turns toward him.
“I said, have you talked to Mama lately?”
“It’s been a few days.”
Ellie dries her feet on an old kitchen towel and takes the potatoes to the sink. She rinses them in cold water, puts them to boil. Daniel follows, chasing her shadow. Ellie drapes her cloth over his eyes and pulls it away. The spiderweb puffs out with Daniel’s exhale, the threads bulging in the center, catching the dim kitchen light and holding it close.
“Why’s the phone off the hook?” Pete asks.
Ellie scratches her wrist. A few pieces of skin flake away and spiral through the air.
“Ellie, listen. What if Mama’s been tryin’ to call?” Pete places the phone back on the hook, takes it off again. He holds it to his ear and presses a few buttons. “Do you want her to come down here? You want her to see what we’ve done?”
“You know better,” Ellie says. “But Daniel was trying to sleep. It wouldn’t quit ringing so I took it off the hook for a while.”
“Daniel.” Pete rubs his hand across his face. “Daniel ain’t the only person you got to be worrying about.”
He stares at her with one hand on the phone, the other hanging in the air, the fingers twitching as though they were asleep and dreaming of something they held once, something warm and firm. He slips the phone back onto the wall, grabs his keys from the table, and walks out of the house.
Ellie wraps Daniel in a blanket and carries him onto the front porch. When he feels the cold air against his skin he leans forward as if he means to float away. Ellie waits for wings to sprout from between the thin blades of his shoulder, dark coal feathers blooming out of his skin, the tips dusted with marrow to match the snow.
When he doesn’t fly, she carries him. They sit in the front yard with the blanket spooled around Daniel’s feet. Ellie is cold even with three layers of denim and flannel, her fingertips pink and raw beneath a pair of heavy welding gloves she took from the back of Pete’s truck. She picks up a handful of snow and blows a mist across Daniel’s face, his arms held out, blue fingers reaching for a gray sky. The snow catches on the threads of the spiderweb and hangs in opalescent eggs that disappear as Daniel exhales a sound between a gurgle and a laugh.
They go back inside long before Pete comes home. They sit in a rocking chair by the window. Ellie feeds Daniel crushed ice flavored with cherry drinking powder. She’s tried other foods, but they don’t take. Biscuits and honey in the morning, peaches in the afternoon. No matter what it was, the food lurched out of Daniel’s mouth in thin white streams mixed with something darker and grayer. So she finds another way. Daniel sucks on the cold shards of ice until his tongue is stained deep red and the water slips down his chin in faint pink streams.
Ellie shows Daniel the map hanging on the wall above them, the one Pete’s great-grandfather drew. The map is faded and wrinkled and torn in three places, but Black Mountain is there. Ellie traces the road from their home to the graveyard where they took Daniel. From there, the road winds down the mountain, past hollers and houses, until it reaches the end and breaks off in a dozen different directions. Ellie’s family’s home in the valley isn’t shown on the map, but there are other places. Ones she’s never been to before.
She whispers these things into Daniel’s ear. She asks him what he’d like to see of the world, what wonders like him might be hiding in some long-forgotten corner. What great things there are still left to be found.
Daniel sleeps in a pile of blankets while Ellie folds clothes. She looks down at him, nesting in a laundry basket filled with quilts, his skin the color of a robin’s egg. The spiderweb trembles against his mouth. Outside the snow is beginning to melt. The pale Sunday morning light eats away at the last of it, leaving the ground muddy and dark. The first whispers of green are beginning to appear on the mountain, the grass knitting itself together again, the leaves returning to their trees.
“In here,” she calls.
Daniel stirs, his fingers stretching and clasping. Ellie bends down and runs the backs of her knuckles against his cheek. Pete walks into the room, sheds his clothes in the corner, toes off his boots. Bits of dried mud flake away from his work pants and drift toward the floor.
“How’d you do?” Ellie asks.
“Fine. I brought down the last of the firewood,” he says. “Should me more’n enough to last until summer.”
He walks up behind Ellie and rests his chin on her shoulder. He smells like pine needles and motor oil and cold air. He wraps his arms around her waist and presses his body flat against hers until there’s no inch of space between them.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says. “Don’t you reckon it’s time we get back to trying?”
“Trying for what?”
“A baby.” The word is a huff of hot air against the back of her neck. “You know, one of our own.”
Ellie’s hands stutter against the fabric of Daniel’s t-shirt. “What about Daniel?”
“Well, he’s fine for now,” Pete says, his hands running back and forth across her stomach, kneading her clothes, pushing against the skin beneath. “But we still need a real baby. One for Mama to spoil.”
Pete presses a kiss to the back of Ellie’s jaw, the shadowy place where her mouth hinges together. His hands slide up her ribs, his thumb tracing the curve of her breast.
“Not now,” she says, edging away from him.
Pete takes a step back. His hand lingers against her side, a faint pressure that Ellie can feel all through her. She turns to face him still holding Daniel’s shirt against her chest.
“Something wrong?” he asks.
“I just have so much to do is all. I haven’t even given the baby his bath yet.”
Pete nods. He leans forward for a kiss and Ellie presses her lips against his. The touch is warm and dry. When he walks into the hallway, Ellie follows him. “Hey, Pete?”
“Is it all right if I take the truck this evening?” she asks.
“Just a drive. Thought I might show Daniel the rest of the mountain.”
Pete takes a step toward her. “Just don’t let nobody see him. And be back before dark.”
Ellie glances back at Daniel. His eyes are open and he looks at her, unblinking. The spiderweb rises and falls. He makes a quiet sound, something deep and wet, and he reaches out a hand toward her.
Ellie drives with one hand on the wheel and the other hand on Daniel. It’s late evening, but the sun is still burning dull orange behind the trees. She cracks her window so the air comes whistling through. It carries the scent of rain and creek water. Daniel doesn’t make a sound as he stares out the passenger window at the world unfolding beside him. The thick press of trees gives way to fields and barns and to houses clustered in knots. The truck jars beneath them, the suspension creaking as the tires catch in ruts dug out by the rain.
“What do you think about having a little brother or sister?” Ellie asks. “Would you like that?”
She runs her fingers back and forth along Daniel’s t-shirt as she talks. The fabric rides up across his stomach and his skin is cold against hers. There’s a scar stretching from his belly button to the little hollow between his ribs. Ellie runs her knuckles across the scar. She can feel the stitches, the way the skin is puckered from the hands that unzipped Daniel before they sewed him back together again. It must have been cold, that table beneath him, and dark when they shut him inside the morgue. Darker in the casket where they buried him. Darker still behind his closed eyes when he was alone with all that earth pressing down on him.
“It’s not dark anymore though,” Ellie says, blinking hard. “And it might be nice, having another little one. Somebody to play with.”
Its hair would be dark, like hers and Pete’s and Daniel’s. The eyes, too. Ellie could get a second crib and put them alongside each other so she could watch them both while they slept. They would grow up together, the two of them. They would be a family.
For a while.
Until Mother Black came to visit and Ellie would have to hide Daniel under the loose boards in the bedroom floor. Until the new baby outgrew Daniel, who would never be much bigger than he was now, would never learn to run or to talk. He would be stuck here, Pete said, in the shape where life left him. And the new child would begin to wonder, eventually, why Daniel was always so cold and so pale. Until one day their new daughter or son tangled their fingers in Daniel’s spiderweb, pressing and pulling until the web broke.
Ellie pulls the truck over to the side of the road. The engine stalls and the quiet rushes in to meet them. Ellie catches Daniel as he sways forward on the seat. She settles him back into place with one hand pressed flat against his belly. Daniel stares at her with those wide, dark eyes.
She pulls her hand away and Daniel reaches out. He catches her fingers in his fist and squeezes. The spiderweb expands and contracts. Daniel smiles at her, white teeth against gray skin, and Ellie smiles back at him. She looks at the empty road over her shoulder.
“Daniel, do you know that there are places where it snows all the time?” she says.
Ellie sits back. She puts the truck into gear. The tires bump as the gravel beneath them becomes pavement with smooth yellow lines marking the road ahead. She drives with one hand on the wheel and the other hand on Daniel.
About the Author
Ashley Blooms was born and raised in Cutshin, Kentucky. She’s a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop and received her MFA as a John and Renee Grisham Fellow from the University of Mississippi. Her fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Shimmer, among others, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Oxford American. She’s currently at work on a novel. You can find more about her at www.ashleyblooms.com.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.