“Oh honey, my love, I’m so sorry I left you here,” she whispered in the darkness, lying forehead to forehead with Her Love. She touched his cheek and it was cold and she warmed it with her own and kissed him lightly on his lips. They were firm and dry. He did not kiss her back and she became afraid that he was angry with her. Inside her chest a panicked bird fluttered, terrified of being left alone. “You know how much they hate us. Honey, I’ve wanted you so badly, I nearly died these two weeks. Please, my love, don’t be mad at me.”
She kissed him again and this time he shifted and she was in his arms and they were together again as one and the cold was gone and the bird in her was quiet and was content and they were together and one, together. In the seclusion of his bed she felt safe and warm, wrapped up in the darkness and quiet as though the very air and Her Love’s arms were blanket enough to defend her from the night’s chill.
Her Love’s eyes were closed and he wore a serene look that was at once passive and docile but also strong and as unfathomable as the face of a statue. Both halves of Her Love present in that look—the peace and the strength—were pleasurable to her in the same way that a large wave seen from the shore is pleasurable, because it represents something greater and more powerful than the self, a great accumulation of unyielding authority. The look on Her Love’s face was like that for her and she was overwhelmed by it and grateful for it and silent tears dripped down her face.
“Oh, honey, you are so good to me,” she whispered and kissed his night-chilled cheeks and rubbed her tears of joy into his skin. “You are better than I deserve. You spoil me, and I’m so thankful for you. I promise I’ll make you a great wife and I’ll be a great mother for our child.”
She caressed her belly, her eyes grew distant and her thin, pale lips tilted downward in an uneasy frown. In that moment she looked very much pregnant and scared and very, very young, little more than a child herself. But then her eyes cleared and they were blue and she looked into the face of Her Love with a fierce determination.
“No matter what happens, swear to me you will never leave. Please? I don’t think I could stand it. I know I couldn’t,” she pleaded. “And I swear I’ll never leave you. I love you more than I ever knew was possible to love. I love you more than I love myself, I love you more than I love our ch…” She stopped short, guiltily looking away.
Over the last eight months she had grown attached to the baby inside of her in a way that had been surprising and sudden and that rivaled even her passion for Her Love. It was fierce and powerful and irrational like a storm of emotion that she could no better control than she could steer the course of the wind. Somehow this child—who she had already begun calling Safi in her
deepest, most private thoughts—filled her with a primal joy more infinitely satisfying than she’d ever thought possible. He connected her to the whole timeless history of mothers and children, he provided her a great purpose, a connection.
Thinking of her young Safi made her ashamed because she knew he was a wedge between them. Already, though the baby had not yet been born, she knew she could choose no other before him; forever and anon Safi would be her first, her last, her only. That’s how it had always been.
But for now she grinned and kissed Her Love and held him close. His eyes were still closed but his face now looked pained as though troubled by some great inner turmoil. She brought the hand which had been caressing her belly up to his cold cheek and wiped her own tears from his pale skin. He was nearly luminescent in the darkness, like an angel or a ghost.
“Honey, don’t be sad. I can’t stand to see you so sad,” she said, trying her best to sound joyful. “Don’t think of the baby; don’t think of anything, just rest. You’re going to need your strength when I come back. Believe me, everything will be alright. Just a few more weeks and then I will come back. After the baby is born and I am strong again, I will come and I will free you from this place and we will be together forever. No one will be able to keep us apart. Not even them.”
She desperately hoped her voice masked the uneasiness she felt. She could protect him; she could save him. There was no need for him to know everything, to know that she was being followed nearly everywhere she went, to know that they suspected her. That was another secret to keep; deep down just like the name she had given their child.
“Don’t worry. I’ve been careful. It’s nearly killed me to be apart from you, but I’ve been careful. I won’t let them take you away from me. I can’t let it happen again.
They’ve taken everything from me and I won’t let them do it again. I promise, I swear to you…oh, but I’m babbling. I’m so sorry, honey. Please sleep…get your rest.” She lowered her voice to a hushed whisper, a lullaby. “Just a few more weeks and we’ll be free. Sleep, sleep. I’ll always be here.”
She rocked with him in her arms for a few blissful moments, sharing his bed and listening to the sounds of the wind through the bare November trees. Suddenly she heard the sound of a snapping branch and her heart lurched into her throat and she couldn’t breathe.
“No!” she hissed. Outside she heard hushed voices and she could see flashing lights through the bars across the windows. She clutched Her Love close to her and listened, helpless as a trapped animal, as the footsteps moved to the door.
Someone said, “She went in there” and then there was a pause in which she could hear her heart beat once, twice…
…then the door burst and the world was a sea of flashing lights and screaming voices and she clutched to Her Love like a life raft.
He finished putting on the condom, then went to the window and spread the blinds carefully apart with two plastic-gloved fingers. The Old Woman was in the yard, her gray, thinning hair wrapped in a plastic bonnet, pushing her straw broom lazily over the front walk, pushing crackling leaves into the grass. First one side, then the next. She was nosy, the Old Woman, but she was busy now, and she would be for a very long while by the look of it. There was time still, then.
He turned to face the room, which was lit only by lines of dull amber sneaking through the blinds. His Love lay watching him from her bed of plastic bags laid out like a checkerboard. She was pale and her green eyes looked black in the half-light amber of November. The sun was never bright in November, not in Michigan, not in Detroit; it was only ever the dull faded brass of metal buttons. But he didn’t mind. He preferred the dark anyway.
The suitcase was splayed open a few feet away like the maw of a fish, gray upholstery on the outside and pink satin on the in, lined with plastic and every pocket and cranny filled with bags of rocks.
He was prepared.
He went over to His Love and knelt beside her, his gloved hands trembling just over her breasts. He pulled his hands back and sat on them and looked intently in His Love’s green eyes. He’d waited so long for this, months, what felt like years. Now she was here and she was with him, and they were in the same space, separated only by these thin molecules of Oxygen and Nitrogen, by no one else. There were no rows of chairs or friends or sweater-vested Doctoral candidates between them any longer. She was here, and he was here.
A furtive look at the window. Surely the Old Woman would be at it for hours. Surely he had time to enjoy this.
He leaned close to her ear, lightly swept back her blond hair and whispered, “My Love…”
She shifted and her hair fell from his fingers, as evanescent as a stolen kiss through his gloves. He trembled.
She was looking at him and he at her, looking at one another like they’d never done before.
There was something between them now, a powerful bond. They’d shared something special, something only two people can ever share, this moment that had just passed, as precious as he’d known it would be. Just they two. Just them. And yet nothing compared to what was to come.
She was so pale, her lips so pink, her hair blond as sun-kissed wheat. He’d never seen another like her, not in Japan where the girls were too much like dolls and their hair too dark, black as beetles. Their eyes just like his eyes; black and unknowable as deep wells. Not in Japan, there’d never been the like of His Love, but here in the USA…oh when he’d seen her from across the auditorium. Her hair had sparkled and her eyes…oh…her eyes they weren’t like his, they were green and white and so very there.
From the moment he’d seen her he knew that she’d always been inside of him, he could feel her there, suddenly, like the way he could feel his lungs when he breathed in deep. She’d always been there, a poem waiting for God’s very hand to draw into existence. She was for him; She was inside of him and he needed to feel her inside of him. Always. Forever.
“My Love,” he whispered again, and his eyes flitted between hers, searching for some sign.
Drinking in her face. The last time. “My Love, I have waited lifetimes for you. I knew this the moment I first looked at your face. You did not see me then, not as I saw you, but you do now. I can tell. I can feel it.” He leaned back on his feet and breathed deeply. “Just one more thing, My Love, and then you can sleep. Just one more thing I ask of you. Will you do this for me? This one last thing?”
She watched him and he bowed to her, his face low against the plastic bags laid over the carpet to keep the blood from staining. He stayed that way, prostrate, worshipful for several quiet moments. The brass button sunlight flickered as a cloud drifted by but he didn’t see; his eyes were shut tight. Finally, he raised himself and reached with trembling, expectant hands for the thin spread of cotton that covered her breasts. He unbuttoned, let the blouse’s sides float to the plastic. She wore no bra. He stretched across her; she smelled faintly of apples and of the wind, the wind in Japan which bubbled off the ocean and was salt and fish and home; she smelled like home. He grabbed the knife—serrated blade, perfect for cutting meat from the bone—which he’d bought from a butcher two towns away, his eyes never leaving hers. He set the serrated edge to her breast.
“Thank you, My Love,” he whispered. “You don’t know how long I’ve dreamed of this moment. Lifetimes. Lifetimes, I’ve waited.”
He cut through her skin, his eyes never leaving hers, small pieces to start, just a tiny piece. He brought it to his mouth, and then she was inside of him, just as he’d always hoped she’d be, just as he’d always known she would be. He chewed slowly and deliberately, the way he’d been taught when he was young, to truly feel the food enter you and become a part of you. It was spiritual, eating, it was a communion of sorts, a shared experience. She moved down him; she became a part of him. Just as he’d hoped she would, all those months ago when he’d first seen her from across the auditorium, when God had written her into his life, his very own poem, just for him.
He closed his eyes and remembered that first moment, and he smelled apples and the wind off the ocean in Japan. He smelled home. And then he started cutting and placing the parts in the suitcase, his face as placid as a deep well, the condom filling up.
Two packets of sweetener and about a mountain of creamer, that was how he used to take his coffee, before the clogged artery, during those late nights when he felt his brain was literally tangling itself into knots trying to see something in the spray of files and photographs on his desk, trying to find something he’d missed before, some loose thread that tied the whole case together. During nights like that he used to take his coffee so full of additives that it was almost as white as the Styrofoam cup, like sweetened milk with the tiniest hint of coffee flavoring. And he would drink cup after cup until whatever it was he was looking for finally clicked into place. He loved that click, that feeling of hitting every green light on the way home or swinging the bat and knowing, just by the sound, that the ball was on its way out of the park.
He looked morosely at the two files now laying on his desk and, even after five years, he could still taste the sugar and cream on his tongue. He spread the files around so that they took up more space. He tried to not think about the half-full pot of coffee just feet away from him. The sun had set hours ago and the only lights in the precinct were the various lamps, which glowed yellow on the few remaining detectives’ desks. Screensavers twisted and bobbed across monitors. He tried to not think about the coffee just feet away.
He shifted the files again. There was lots of room on his desk, too much room, and often these days he did this, felt the need to spread what little work he had across its every inch so it looked like he had more to do, so that he could function properly. He needed that spray of files, that cluttered desk in order to clarify his thoughts, in order to see all of the possible points of connection. Tonight he had only these two files and no matter how he positioned them they took up very little space.
He had a big desk; after 28 years on the force it was the least the city could do, give him this big desk and less and less files to fill it. They thought they were doing him a favor, letting him cruise through his remaining years to retirement with his dignity intact, with this big desk and this ever-thinning trickle of cases, giving him a reason to get up every morning and put on his tie and immaculate black shoes, and everyone not talking about the blocked artery or his being carried out of the interrogation room on a stretcher with his mouth frothing and gaping and gasping. And no one talking about what a good detective he used to be, before the artery; no one talking in the past tense, at least not around him, not yet.
It was one of the great ironies of his life that the very moment which had ended his career as a coffee drinker had also ended the state of affairs which had necessitated such prodigious coffee drinking in the first place. He had spent nearly six months in the hospital and at home recovering after the artery and the requisite by-pass that had followed, and when he’d come back to the precinct it was to find this new big desk and this supposedly mercifully-reduced work load. And yet, far from making things easier on him, having to give up both coffee and the psychic rush of the click at the same time simply made him feel older, even more impotent, more alone.
Yet worse even than the coffee and the whispering and the empty desk was his solidity of spirit, this feeling that he’d been compressed so tightly that there was nothing left, nothing liquid or wanting or hungry anymore. There was just stone. Tears had leaked from his eyes when the broken artery had left him frothing and writhing on the floor, but that had just been reflex, the response of a dying body. There’d been no emotion in those tears, no rush of remorse or shame or joy at the ending. But then it hadn’t been the end after-all, only the end of tears, happy or sad, and since then there’d been nothing but stone.
He repositioned the two files a few more times and then finally just set them one on top of the other and moved the stack to the very edge of the desk. The corner of a photograph slid out of the top file and he could see the thinnest edge of a waterlogged gray suitcase. He hastily jabbed the photo back into the file and pushed his chair back.
Screw it! He thought and strode over to the pot, absently rubbing his chest as he did so often these days, as if expecting his heart to pop at any moment, again like it had before. It was right that he should have some joe tonight, it was fitting; he hadn’t had cases like those two on his desk since the surgery and he could already feel that old fish-hooked net of nerves and exhaustion and expectancy digging into his stomach, spreading over his insides.
His thoughts were starting to whir. He could already taste the sugar and cream.
He tore open the little yellow packets, two at a time, and sweetener plunged through the powdered creamer, leaving a white corona on the surface. He offered a cursory stirring and then he lifted the steaming cup to his lips and sniffed the vapor, grimacing blissfully. He tipped the cup.
“Detective?” Johnstone grinned ruefully around the cup; he’d expected something to intervene on his heart’s behalf before he took a sip. He set the cup down and rubbed his dry, wrinkled mouth. It sounded like brown grass under bare feet. “Detective? You told me to let you know when the girl woke up…well, she’s up, sir.”
The young officer stood a few feet away, half-missing in the shadows. He looked uneasy; his posture as though he was engaged in a business he’d much rather see the back of, the sooner the better.
“She say anything?” Johnstone asked without looking at him. The officer shook his head. Johnstone sighed and nodded, “Alright. Thanks for letting me know. I’ll be down in a minute.”
The officer left and Johnstone paused for a moment, looking across the dark room. It was like a planetarium, or an expressionist painting of the nighttime sky, beautiful blue and yellow orbs against a jet landscape. He wondered whether even this familiar scene, with its desks and constellated lights, one he’d seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of times would fade once he was gone.
He went back to his desk, leaving the coffee puffing steam behind him, and grabbed the bottom file, marked “Jane Doe”. He turned toward the basement and Ms. Doe’s holding cell, but after a few steps he stopped, thought a moment, then grabbed the other file as well.
The girl was ready to pop. That was by far the worst part. He’d watched her brought in, waddling stiff and bow-legged with her loosely-cuffed hands laced under her massive belly. The arresting officers had hung their heads, aware how merciless it looked to handcuff a pregnant girl. One of the officers as he’d passed had even offered, “She ain’t as meek as she looks.”
That’s exactly how Johnstone had seen it too. She didn’t look meek at all…she looked ferocious. Her eyes were ice blue and just as cold. She radiated frigidity, as if under her pale, almost translucent, skin she was nothing more than a solid block of ice in young girl’s form.
He shivered as she passed.
And then her file had landed on his desk: Jane Doe, somewhere between 15-19, nine months pregnant with John Doe’s baby, and no idea how she’d gotten there.
He looked at her now through the double-sided mirror, stroking his lightly-stubbled chin, his brow furrowed, and opened at random the first of the two files in his hands. He grimaced, another of the nasty side effects of a smaller caseload and zero coffee; his hard-won stomach for the grisly details of murder investigation had gone woefully soft since the heart attack.
Greeting him at the top of the file was a close-up color photo of the suitcase they’d fished out of Lake Saint Clair. Inside the suitcase were the bleached and bloated remains of Anna Seymour, a Wayne State undergrad who had been chopped into small pieces no longer than six inches, and placed with obvious care in the suitcase, lined up like Lincoln logs. Her head, breasts, and genitals were missing, but they had still been able to identify her because she’d worked as a bank teller her freshman year and her prints were in the system. The photo was nightmarish, but not nearly as horrible as the line written on the autopsy report, which caught his eye every time he opened the file: bite marks found on inner thigh and ribcage, may be animal, most likely human.
He closed the file and shuffled it to the bottom, looking up at the pregnant girl in the interrogation room, her face waxy with half-dried sweat and oil. He knew he was grasping at straws here, forcing connections between the only two cases he had because he was bored and wishing vainly for some grandiose turn in his later years. He wanted so badly to go out with a bang and to feel the click again—to really feel it like he used to—that he was drawing nonexistent parallels between the only two cases he had. He knew there was none. There couldn’t be.
And yet something nagged at him, which worried his thoughts like a fish kissing for flies, hinting at darker things below the surface. He couldn’t place it. Hell, he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t just getting old and sentimental, maybe even a bit paranoid. Everywhere he turned in this city things were dying, growing loose and disjointed. The wooden bones of the buildings were rotting, and whole residential blocks had so much empty land that the remaining houses looked like scrub brush on a vast prairie. Crimes were no longer crimes of passion or anger or drunken violence—things he understood and had learned to accept even as he struggled against them—they were now crimes of desperation, and fear, and unknowable psychoses.
Like cannibalism, or sleeping with…
He traced a finger absently over the name, Jane Doe, as if trying to commit it to memory, then opened the door and joined the pregnant girl.
She didn’t look up from her hands as he entered. She didn’t flinch. She didn’t register his presence at all. He sat down in the lone, brushed steel chair across from her and let the files fall with a satisfying pop on the table. She was unmoved.
Her hair hung lank around her face, dark brown with an almost imperceptible thread of copper. Dark hollows pooled under her eyes. She looked sick and badly taken care of, frightened even as she was frightening. She was a little bird of a girl, with the fullness of her stomach entirely incongruous with the stalks of her arms and the sharp lines of her face, the willow wand of her collarbone. She inspired pity and revulsion in equal measures.
“Let’s start with the obvious,” said Johnstone, softening the tone of his voice even if he couldn’t soften the stone of his face. “What’s your name?”
Her upper lip twitched faintly, but she didn’t speak. Johnstone waited for a moment and then pressed on.
“I’m not here to hurt you, or threaten you. I know you may not believe this but I want to help you.” He paused and tried to meet her downcast eyes. “But I can’t do that if you won’t at least tell me your name.”
“Gaia,” she said, her lips barely moving.
“Gaia?” said Johnstone, mulling the word. “’S a pretty name…” The girl’s eyes went black and he could feel the distance between them growing. She was disappearing. He scrambled, “…it’s Greek, right? Mother of the Earth?”
She nodded and Johnstone leaned forward, gesturing as friendly as his 6 foot 4, old man’s frame was capable at Gaia’s very pregnant belly, “Well, it’s appropriate, at least.” He offered a smile but the joke curdled under the girl’s suddenly upturned eyes. He tried to hold her gaze but after a few seconds he pulled out her file and a pencil and pretended to write down her name. “Gaia…Gaia. Well, I have a name now. That’s a start. Could you tell me who the father is? Do you know?”
“Yes,” she said, not blinking
“Yes to which question?”
“I know who the father is.”
Johnstone waited, pencil poised above an empty sheet, finger tips white against the wood. Her file was nearly empty, just a mug shot, notes from her physical, and a few photos of yet another corpse, this one so decomposed it was little more than a mummy. But these items meant nothing, really, were meaningless points on a scatter graph with no logic to connect them. This girl was an unknown, a blank space, an empty sheet of paper. All he had was a name—which he suspected was made up—and her pregnant belly, mysteries. After a moment Johnstone actually did write down her name just to fill up some space.
He looked at her physical notes: no sign of penetration, hymen fully intact. He puzzled over the words. Hymen fully intact. When he’d first read that hours before he'd assumed that was a typo—how the hell could this girl be pregnant if she hadn't had sex?—and had immediately called the attending physician to clear it up.
“No typo, man. I know, I was as blown away as you,” the physician had said in a breezy tone that no one raised under the constant gray-sky cloudiness of Michigan could ever have conjured. “That baby's fully intact. And not like half there cuz her period washed it away. I mean, it's all there. Don’t know how she got pregnant but it sure wasn’t by the traditional way, if you catch my meaning.”
Johnstone knew exactly what he’d meant, but it’d made him uncomfortable in a way he didn't like dwelling on. It was like something fundamental had rearranged, like a small brick in the foundation of him had shifted, calling into question the integrity of the whole edifice, fifty-nine years of him. Teenage girls got “mysteriously” pregnant every day in a city like this, a city falling apart at the seams, but there was never any real mystery to it, other than angry parents and a desire to intentionally obscure the truth, to blame promiscuity on miracles. But now before him in this interrogation room—at the very site, incidentally, of his past heart troubles—was Gaia, Mother of the Earth, who held within her womb a child. A miracle, apparently.
“Will you tell me?” he asked. It was a soft question, and he made sure his voice conveyed that. He didn’t want to come in too rough. This girl had some very dark places she could escape to if he got too carried away. He could feel the chasm of her from across the table.
She was a hole; how deep, he had no idea, but he still needed to get to the bottom regardless. There were no miracles, only answers unfound, answers buried.
She gestured her bony chin at the open file on the table and said, “You know already. He’s in your file, ain’t he?”
Johnstone grimaced. With one eye on the photos in her file he brought his hands together, made an ‘x’ with them and asked, “So when did you meet?”
She blew air out of her mouth, a thoroughly teenaged gesture that looked strange on her despite her youth.
“When d’you meet your parents?” she asked.
Johnstone knit his eyebrows quizzically but answered, “I dunno. I met them the day I was born, I guess.”
She laughed, a shrill, mirthless thing, and said, “I doubt that. You knew them looong before then. Everyone does. We choose the people who call us into this world.”
“And who did you choose? Do your parents know where you are?” he asked but she ignored the question.
“I’ve known my Safi ever since he was called into being, years, centuries, ages…”
She looked suddenly like she’d uttered a deep secret and her face went ashen and her lips thinned. She rubbed her belly unconsciously, “My son.”
“You’re having a son? How do you know? Have you been to a doctor?”
“No, only yours.” Johnstone waited for more from her and after a few silent moments she offered, “I’ve known my son forever, just as I’ve known My Love. Both of them, forever. We three.”
“Your love, your love…” mumbled Johnstone as he flipped through the photos in her file, searching for one specifically. He found it and studied it as he asked, “How old are you?”
She didn’t answer and he laid the photo in front of her. She looked greedily at the mausoleum door. “You see. That grave there, where we found you, it’s been sealed since at least the seventies. You couldn’t’ve been more than five at the time. There’s no way…”
“No! You’ve no idea what you’re talking about! I’ve known him forever, My Love. My husband. We’re gonna have a baby! A son. You have no idea…”
Johnstone watched her face, her lips, her teeth, her creaseless forehead as she spoke. Her eyes, that manic, glacial heat discomforted him, made him feel small somehow. He tried to pull the photograph back but she snatched it from his hands and clutched it hard in hers, her breath suddenly shallow and her mouth pursed in an ‘o’. Her fingers gripped and loosened rhythmically on the photo. One of them went to her belly, rubbed the roundness there.
“NO! You have no idea what’s happened…what’s happening. You think you can stop this?” She sprang forward, one hand clutching at her dangling belly, and smacked at the files, spraying photos and loose sheets of paper across the table. Johnstone tried to protect his precious files, the only two he had, but disembodied feet and mummified corpses, water-logged suitcases scattered through his fingers, a color chart of death spotting the brushed gray. She saw the photo, Her Love, and pulled it toward her, slinking back into her chair.
“Gaia?” he asked. She eyed the picture in her hand, her lips pulled back in a painful smile. She held her belly. She breathed harder and harder. “Gaia?”
She sighed, her eyes hungry, feeding on the photograph of the mummified corpse. Johnstone could feel something moving inside of her, inside those depths into which she’d hidden. Her face was flexing and convulsing, her breath was sharp.
“Gaia, please. You need to relax…you’re preg…”
“I know what I am!” She shouted, looking up, silencing him. Her face was like a mask pulled away, revealing the emptiness beneath. Johnstone too was laid bare. Looking at her, her fear and desperation, he realized just how profound this girl’s hurt was, just how far down she’d retreated. He saw in her all the degradations he’d witnessed through the years: murder, rape, violence and recklessness so senseless that they were unimaginable during the daylight hours, but which haunted him when the lights went low. He’d seen what men could do when backed into a corner, what happened when the twilit corners of the soul grew and grew until the whole self was filled with blackness.
They watched each other, complements, her and him: she a wriggling, emotional mess with an empty core; he a stonework edifice filled to overflowing with anguished, inexpressible emotions. And despite his revulsion, despite his horror at this girl's crime, he pitied her, beyond anything he'd ever pitied before. She was a broken bird beating frantically at her cage bars and all he needed to do was lift the latch. He didn’t need to know what had led to this, he already knew, had seen it over and over again.
He leaned across the table, slowly reaching for her hand, which convulsed next to the photo of her mummified love like a wounded and blinded crab searching for a lost ocean. He reached across and into whatever depths lay between them, something he’d longed to do so many times before as he’d stood stonily asking questions to countless weeping widows, desperate heartbroken mothers, as he'd stood stoically next to the impotent rage of fathers whose children’s blackened bodies still lay smoldering in their once safe and secure beds, he searching for the facts, blank like a cement wall yet all the while wanting to reach out, to touch someone else and tell them what he himself wanted so desperately to hear, to believe:
“Everything’s gonna be alright.”
He reached across the table but their hands didn't touch, Johnstone and Gaia, because just then she doubled over and started to scream, and the cement floor below her chair became suddenly wet. Johnstone did the only things he could do; he called an ambulance and then he went to her.
Safi was born three hours later. He was white as snow with thick black hair and the same icy eyes of his mother. He cried when he left her womb and when he was naked and bloody on the table below her, but only for a few minutes. Then he was silent and calm and he stared into his mother’s face, seeing her again as if seeing an old friend.
Johnstone was there. He’d lied and said he was Gaia’s uncle, and then he’d stood over her and held her hand, whispered supportive things to her and done his best to stay out of the doctor and nurses’ ways. Safi was the first child he’d ever seen born and he was surprised at how messy it was. There was shit and blood, tears and white creamy stuff, all things he’d seen at any number of crime scenes, yet here in this context it was a beginning and not an ending. He cried, finally, and for once didn’t pretend not to.
Hours later, Johnstone sat in a chair next to Gaia as she and her son slept deeply from the exhaustion of birth. Johnstone was tired as well, he was old and his chest hurt, but he didn’t sleep. He watched the rise and fall of Gaia’s hands crossed upon the cage of her chest. He didn’t think, he just watched.
In the morning he drove home, east into the rising sun, forgetting his sun visor and blinking exhausted into the orange and gold. On all sides were empty streets. No one stirred at this hour; there were no jobs to go to, no stores to open, no liquor that could be bought before 10 AM. The sidewalks, where there were any, were chopped and weed-choked. Empty crates and cardboard boxes and trash sat like loitering bums at the feet of the cracked whitewashed walls of the vacant and iron-barred storefronts. Graffitied street signs on rusting poles leaned over like trees endlessly frozen mid-fall, the names of the streets obscured by paint, impotent reminders of a different time.
Johnstone didn’t see the streets, though; in his mind he saw only Safi on the delivery table, bloodied and naked, crying for the pain of the world he’d been brought into. He felt the specter of the tears he’d cried, felt again the spasmodic twinge of pain and joy and sorrow that had clenched in his belly and forced, like poison from a wound, tears from eyes that had remained dry since time out of mind.
He didn’t smile then, but he felt like he did and to a face of stone that made all the difference in the world. The sun rose higher, the forgotten visor became no longer necessary, and he drove deeper into the decaying arms of his beloved, his face as unknowable as a statue in a long forgotten garden.
When Gaia woke she rolled onto her side, tubes and monitor cords jiggling from her like the strings of a marionette. Her entire body ached more than she'd ever known. She was alone, and the horizontal slats of the blinds allowed only pale lines of light on the linoleum floor. She looked across the room at her son, swaddled in hospital blues, in a bassinet of plastic and wood, breathing softly, ghostly in the gray morning’s half-light. She clutched her softening belly, felt deeply that emptiness where her Safi used to be and the already growing distance between the two of them. For now, he was only across the room, but eventually he would be across the city, or the country, or the world. She knew that this was only the first of an endless parade of separations, and she turned her face into her pillow and wept, realizing there was no going back. What was done could never be undone. After a few minutes Safi woke too, and his cry rose into the morning like the last blooming of the last flower on earth.