There were only three things she didn’t want


Abigail

By Lydia Trethewey

For the HOPE SPRINGS MATERNAL award


In the morning I sit and sort through what is dreams and what is real. I sift out sleepy half-truths as my spoon of cereal hovers forgotten in the air, milk and wheat binding and becoming insubstantial.

Abigail is asleep in the back room. It won’t last long. Soon the sun will creep beneath the curtains and she will wake, her screams cracking into my skull.

I reek of sweat from tossing and turning about the sweltering room, and taste the ghost of vomit as it echoes from those long and lonely months. There is an empty space in the corner where he used to lean his guitar. In my mind I walk over to it, touch it, try to feel his absence at my fingertips. It doesn’t work. My brain blanks out and erases him, forces him down into darkness. I see a stain spreading across the ceiling and hear the stale milk dripping from my spoon back into the bowl.

We were young lovers. Too young. He picked me up in his rusty car and we drove everywhere, never stopping to catch a breath. Then that little cross appeared, summoned from my changing body, followed by a second, the smell of fresh urine and the sounds of him tuning his guitar. The thin piece of plastic felt like nothing between my fingers. He looked up just long enough to ask for the results, and then he packed his things and disappeared.

When he left it felt like I was withering, but I was swelling. My body grew and my mind shrank. Parts of me broke off and floated away.

In my dreams I feel his hot breath against my neck. I push him backwards through a swamp of blankets but he falls on top of me. He pants and presses his skin against mine. I pull away, drowning in the heat, and I shout with no sound. From the nightmares I wake into the tiny room with no sense of up and down and hear Abigail shrieking nearby.

We were young but I was younger. I told him three things: I didn’t want to leave the city, I didn’t want pets, and I didn’t want children. He kissed me and said of course, of course, and beneath his words was the accusation that I was selfish, because I wouldn’t give my life to look after something else. Through his silences a fissure formed in which he determined that if I couldn’t be selfless I’d never truly love him.

I decided that Abigail didn’t exist. I was a strong person, and strong people can’t be corrupted by the weak. To admit that he’d humiliated me was to tear apart the very fabric of that ‘me’ and re-shape it into a different image. So I didn’t tell anyone. I carried on with life. I went horseback riding and once I tripped and fell down some stairs. My breasts grew sore and my bones ached with weariness.

At night his shadow grows in the light of the electric lamp. Sometimes I wish he’d been a stranger in a dark alley. That way I could escape. Knowing that I loved him means I’ll never be safe. His saliva on my skin and his fingers through my hair linger on. I forget whether its morning or evening and know that when he didn’t hear me telling him to stop he made me voiceless.

The chair creaks as I stand up and empty my cereal into the sink.

Abigail is crying. I whisper her name beneath each breath. It’s all there is now. She came screaming into the world and I disappeared, from phonebooks, from memories, from sight. He vanished too, but it was never expected that he’d stick around. It’s the mother that should be selfless. In this house of ghosts I go to my daughter and rock her gently back to sleep.