It wasn’t until Bella screamed that Maggie realized she’d cut the child’s finger.
“Shhhh…oh, baby, shhhhhh. It’s okay. Mommy’s so sorry.” She took the little hand and ran it under the tap to wash away the dot of blood, then kissed the tiny finger. She cradled Bella’s head to her breast, muffling the girl’s sniffles in the folds of her shirt. Long after the crying had stopped, Maggie cradled the girl’s head in her hand, rocking back and forth.
“Mommy, you’re not done yet,” came the little voice from her cleavage.
“You’re all better?”
“I’m better. Don’t cut me again, okay?”
“Baby, it was a mistake. Mommy’s so sorry. You know I’d never hurt you on purpose, right? I love you. Mommies never hurt their babies.”
“I know. You made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes and you should still love them. I still love you.” The tiny voice had the singsong inflection of someone repeating a lesson learned by rote. Bella’s brown eyes fixed on the shiny metal nail clippers, her arm tensed to pull her hand back before her mother could cut her again.
Maggie applied herself to the task at hand, putting her discussion with Joe out of her mind. I said you could have one, and that it would be yours. I’m not having another one. Period. She looked at the one baby she’d ever have, and made sure not to cut her fingers again.
* * *
“Mommy, can I go and give Daddy a kiss and show him my nightgown?”
“He’s at his office and doesn’t want to be bothered. Do you want to sleep in my bed with me? Daddy can go ahead and sleep in his stinky old office. We can snuggle and have stories, right?”
Bella giggled and ran to her room, returning with four books, her special blanket and two dolls. She kicked a small stuffed raccoon in front of her like a soccer ball.
Maggie folded down the blankets on Joe’s side of the bed. She pushed his pillow onto the floor and when Bella got into the bed next to her, spooned against the child, sharing a single pillow with her. She held Bella’s favorite book out so they could both see the pictures and read the story of what a hamster-looking thing and his earless-rabbit-looking mother do on a day without anyone else in their little world.
“That’s us, isn’t it?” Bella whispered, rubbing her cheek against the inside of Maggie’s upper arm.
“Sometimes it is. Does that make you sad?”
“No. I wish that was us all the time. Just us together and I would never have to leave you and go to kindergarten. I don’t want to go. I don’t know anyone there and they’re all gonna be big kids and I’ll be scared. What if the teacher doesn’t know that I’m just a little kid? What if she asks me to read? I can’t read yet.”
Maggie felt the first warm tear on the skin of her arm.
“Oh, baby, no one’s going to make you do anything you’re not ready to do. Don’t cry. The teacher knows you can’t read, honey. She’ll help you learn. Don’t worry, sweetheart.”
Bella rubbed her fingertips over Maggie’s inner arm, and Maggie could feel a little ragged nail edge scratching her. She took the child’s hand, found the offender, and bit it off. She held the little grain of nail between her teeth and realized that in order to put it into the trash, she would have to dislodge Bella who was almost asleep. There was no way she could twist herself to spit it into the trash from where she was, so she swallowed it.
* * *
Maggie sat at the counter sharing Bella’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“Should we wait and have dinner with Daddy?” Bella said, putting down her triangle of sandwich.
“No, baby, I don’t think so. Daddy’s not going to come home for a long time.” Maggie braced herself for the tears she knew would come. When they did come, the tiny girl put her arms around Maggie’s neck and said “Shhhh, Mommy….it’s okay….it’s okay.” Bella kissed Maggie’s eyes and patted her back. The sight of the girl’s little face, so dark with concern, just made Maggie cry harder. Since Joe walked out two weeks before, she and Bella had fallen asleep in each other’s arms every night. Most of Maggie’s tears fell because she knew that Bella didn’t understand, and there was no way to protect her from the truth forever.
* * *
Maggie woke up and looked at the clock. She had another forty minutes before she needed to be up, but she knew it was no use going back to sleep. She went into her bathroom and found Bella’s little silver-handled hairbrush. Its soft bristles wouldn’t go through the baby’s hair much longer, because Bella wasn’t going to be a baby much longer. Another four days and kindergarten would start.
She brought the brush to her nose and sniffed the spicy, flowery smell of the baby shampoo and under it, the tang of Bella’s scalp. One of the fine hairs stuck to Maggie’s lip and she put out her tongue to push it away, but accidentally drew it into her mouth instead. She trapped the hair between her teeth, feeling it like a little piece of wire, its diameter unyielding. She could feel the end of the hair tickling at her hard palate. She swallowed, fighting a gag. One end of the hair still itched on the back of her tongue, while the other poked at her throat. She swallowed until she couldn’t feel it anymore, then swallowed once or twice again just to make sure.
She peeked around the bathroom door at her sleeping baby who would be leaving her for kindergarten in four days. Picking up the hairbrush from the bathroom counter, she scraped the hair from the bristles with her teeth, using her tongue to push them as far back in her mouth as possible. Chewing them wasn’t helpful, so she swallowed and swallowed until her throat began to ache. The tiny, barely-formed hairballs scratched going down and Maggie breathed hard to stop the retching.
Pale and sweating, she got back into the bed and curled around her daughter, who squirmed back against her mother and sighed in her sleep. Maggie put a pale hand around the child’s round, warm belly and closed her eyes.
* * *
“You’re just going to cut us loose?” Maggie said. Her clothes hung on her body and she'd worn too much makeup to hide her yellowing skin.
“This isn’t what I wanted either,” Joe said.
“What did you want?”
“I wanted it to just be us, and then we had a baby and suddenly it’s not even ‘our’ baby – she’s your baby.”
“That’s not true,” Maggie said without force.
“Whatever. I can’t get near the kid, and since she’s always with you, I can’t get near you either. I’m still young, Mags; I have needs and I’ve found someone who understands that.”
There it was. Maggie had known since the night four months ago when he hadn’t come home after work, but she couldn’t bring herself to be sad about it. It meant the same thing then as it meant now: she and Bella had more time together, and no guilt about pushing Daddy out. Still, there were conventions to be observed, rituals to go through. Joe said that he felt unutterably guilty at leaving his wife and daughter, and Maggie found herself capitalizing on that guilt. The upshot was Maggie and Bella in their own in their house, and Maggie taking a part-time job at the school so she could be near Bella all day but have school holidays off.
The day of the Christmas pageant came and Maggie took off from her school office duties to take Bella home, dress her as a snowflake, and bring her back to the school’s auditorium with the other twenty-seven snowflakes. She tugged the brush through Bella’s hair, not noticing as her hand stole to her mouth, pushing a few fine black strands past her teeth. She’d gotten the hang of swirling the hairs around with her tongue into a scratchy lozenge, coating them with the thick mucus at the back of her throat before swallowing them.
Once she’d arranged the girl’s hair, Maggie raised Bella’s hands to her face for inspection, nipping and swallowing the few overlong nails. As they turned to leave the bathroom she caught Bella’s squinched up face and the way the girl frantically wiped her hand to rid it of the taint of spit.
* * *
Summer came, and Maggie was happy for the job hiatus. The attacks of heartburn had been getting worse, culminating in a day at the beach when Maggie had left Bella playing in the sand while she crouched in the bathroom desperately trying to vomit, even though she knew it wouldn’t help. By the time she’d come out, Bella was a crispy lobster crying that she wanted to go home. When Bella started to peel, Maggie removed the skin in palm-sized sheets and ate each of them in turn.
“Mama,” Bella said in her serious-baby voice. “You’re not supposed to eat that.”
“I know, baby. I’m trying not to.” Blood rushed to her face; whenever she thought about it, she felt exhilarated and ashamed in equal measure, like riding a roller coaster nude.
“Try harder. It’s gross. I don’t like when you do that.”
She really did try. When she clipped Bella’s nails, she waited until the girl was safely in bed before digging through the trash for the tiny, plasticky slivers. She saved them in a box by the side of her bed, along with the trimmings from Bella’s hair, carefully swept up and rinsed.
Bella came with her into the doctor’s office. She sat in the hard black chair reading Highlights while the doctor lifted her mother’s paper gown and gently probed the flesh underneath. Maggie winced as the doctor’s fingers dug into the flesh near her belly button.
“Have you been keeping your food journal?” he asked, not taking his eyes off Maggie’s belly.
“Yeah. Bell, would you get it out of my purse?”
He glanced through the last few pages, then closed the book.
“You’ve been eating all the right things,” he said. “I don’t see any physiological reason for the symptoms you’re describing. I’d like you to go in for an ultrasound, though. That’ll give us a better idea of what you’ve got going on.”
“Tell him, Mom,” Bella said from behind her magazine.
Maggie said nothing, and the doctor’s face looked from the magazine to the paper gown and back.
“Tell him, or I will,” Bella said. The threat from a six year old whose feet didn’t even touch the floor should have been funny, but Maggie felt her belly tighten in fear, then tighten further in pain.
“Where do I go for the ultrasound?” Maggie asked, sitting up.
* * *
The technician slid the stylus around the lube smeared on Maggie’s belly. The pressure hurt, but not as much as leaving Bella outside. “You’re a big girl,” Maggie told herself. “You can do this by yourself.”
“I bet you’re used to looking for a baby,” Maggie said.
“You’d be surprised at the number of these I do that have nothing to do with babies. Knees, gallbladders, there’s a lot of stuff I can find.”
“What are you finding now?”
“It looks like you have some kind of intestinal blockage. Your doctor is probably going to want to go in.”
“Are you sure?”
“I can’t tell you one way or the other because I’m not allowed to do anything that can be taken as a diagnosis. I will tell you, though, that in the past when I’ve seen something that looked like this in the place where I’m seeing this, it was an intestinal blockage and the patient had surgery to have it removed.”
Maggie looked at the thing they’d taken from her intestine. It looked like a slightly melted malted milk ball the size of a lemon. Maggie poked it through the plastic bag she’d brought it home in.
“Mom,” Bella said, throwing her books down on the kitchen table. “Quit playing with that. It’s gross.”
“How can it be gross, honey? It’s you.”
“If it’s not gross, why didn’t you tell the doctor what it was?”
“Because he wouldn’t understand, baby.”
“I don’t understand either.”
“It’s all I have left of my little baby. Every day, a little more of you goes away from me and when there’s nothing left, you’re going to go off and leave me.”
Bella crawled up into her mother’s lap. “Mommy, I never want to leave you. I’m going to live with you forever forever. Don’t be sad. But can we throw that thing away? It’s going to be smelly.”
“Can I take it to school for sharing?”
“What are you going to tell people it is?”
* * *
Maggie and Bella stood at the sink brushing their teeth before climbing into bed. Bella rushed through her brushing, the toothbrush flopping around her mouth and only accidentally touching the teeth themselves.
“Do it right, or I’ll do it for you,” Maggie said around her toothbrush.
Bella applied herself with concentration, looking down at the sink so that all Maggie saw in the mirror was the crown of the girl’s head.
Bella applied the floss, showed the used string to her mother, then turned to leave.
“What’s with you? Let me see!”
The girl opened her mouth wide, putting out her tongue.
“Stop it! I’m serious. Let me see whether you did a good job.”
A line appeared between the little eyebrows as the child opened her mouth wide to reveal a red spot at the front where a tooth should have been.
“Bella! When did that happen? You’ve lost a tooth! That’s great!”
The girl looked down, her finger tracing from one water droplet in the sink to another, saying nothing. Her mouth was a hard line. Maggie bent down in front of her and took the pointed little chin between her fingers.
“Baby? Why don’t you want to tell me about your tooth? How long has it been gone?”
The lips puckered together as tears started spilling down the little flushed cheeks. Maggie put her arm around Bella, who stood, arms at her sides, allowing herself to be hugged but taking no comfort from it.
“Baby? Why can’t you tell me?” Maggie asked, beginning to feel frantic. This was the first milestone that Bella had deliberately hidden from her – the first sign of a schism between the two of them. The foundation of their shared edifice was beginning to crack.
“If I told you, you’d make me give it to you.”
“Is that bad? Don’t you want me to put it under your pillow?”
“Except that you wouldn’t put it under my pillow,” Bella said, looking from under her bangs at her mother with something like disgust. “You’d just eat it, and then the tooth fairy wouldn’t give me anything for it.”
* * *
On the last day before spring break from the third grade, Bella came home practically wagging her tail with excitement.
“Momma! You can put stuff in Lucite!”
“Put what in Lucite, baby?”
Bella crinkled up her nose. At nine, she found her mother’s habit of calling her “baby” irritating. She’d never said anything to her mother, choosing to pick her battles more carefully.
“Anything! You can put my teeth in Lucite, my hair, all those peelies, all that stuff you’ve been saving.”
Bella told Maggie about their art class where they’d suspended beads and bits of colored paper in Lucite. The idea hadn’t even occurred to Maggie. She could finally take that hairball out of the freezer where it had acquired a rime of freezer burn and put it somewhere better. The four shoeboxes of Bella’s detritus that had accumulated since the Truce of the Lost Tooth, where Maggie had agreed that she would pay going tooth fairy rates if she could keep the tooth and promised not to eat it, could have a more suitable home.
The two of them went on a shopping expedition for the materials. Maggie sacrificed a cracking Tupperware bowl, putting down a layer of the clear, viscous liquid, waiting, laying down her treasure and pouring more liquid up to the rim of the bowl. In the end, she had a seven-inch cylinder of clear plastic with a human hairball in it.
Gradually, Maggie refined her method. First, she acquired a set of molds, square with letters and simple pictures embossed on the sides. She added dyes to the Lucite, tinting it bright, primary colors that did nothing to obscure the treasures hidden at the center of each. By the time she had emptied the shoeboxes, their contents jeweled, gilded and arranged in breathtaking rows on a specially-built shelf circling Maggie’s bedroom, the “baby” was in sixth grade and had stopped bothering to hide her disgust for her mother’s obsession. When she was little, it had been comforting to know that she was central in her mother’s life; now it was suffocating. Each little block of Lucite held a piece of her, each a hard plastic sarcophagus containing her smaller self that would never be allowed to dissipate, decay and die a natural death.
* * *
“Mama, I’ve been talking to Daddy,” Bella said, not looking up because she already knew what her mother’s reaction would be. Bella never talked about where she went or what she did on her weekends with Daddy, and it was only after a year of gathering her courage that she dared talk to her mother at all.
“Daddy and I were thinking that, now that I’m in high school, it would be good if he and I got to spend more time together.”
“How much more time?” Each word had to claw its way between Maggie’s clenched teeth and emerged sounding bruised and tired.
“Like…a lot more time,” Bella said. Now she ventured a peek at her mother who had gone white. The damage was done. “Like I’m going to live there.”
“Just like that? Were you going to ask me how I felt about it?”
“I wasn’t just going to run away,” Bella said. “I’m talking to you now. I was going to wait until the end of the school year. Daddy is buying a house and he said that he’d find one near here so I won’t have to change schools.”
“And what happens to me? What am I supposed to do? I gave up my life for you, and you’re just going to go running off to your father?”
Bella knew what to do. She went into her room and shut the door. Once her mother got herself together, she would come in and apologize and the two of them could have a civilized conversation. Two days later, when Maggie finally calmed down enough to speak, she acted as if it had never happened, although Bella noticed that her mother wasn’t even bothering to wait until Bella was away at school before raiding her bathroom for nail clippings and loose hairs.
* * *
School would be out in a week. Bella had been packing as quickly as she could, although twice she’d come home from school to find that the box she had packed the night before had been unpacked and its contents put away. She didn’t bother confronting Maggie; the two were barely speaking as it was, and Bella was too sad about the devolution of their relationship to want their last words to be angry.
Maggie’s car was in the driveway when Bella got home. Bella had been planning to go out with her best friend, but at the last minute decided that if she could get two more boxes packed, she’d be able to leave for her dad’s house the day school was out. He’d promised to throw her a big “welcome to the neighborhood” party the day she moved in.
Maggie’s state of nerves had decayed in the past few months so that any little startle would lead her to a fit of vapors that could go on for hours, so Bella tiptoed up the stairs and peeked into her mother’s room. She stopped, gripping the door frame. Her mother was sitting hunched over on the bed with a pair of scissors, bringing them to bear on something the size and shape of a deck of cards but white with a large, black smear on it. Maggie carefully cut out just the black smear and snipped it into fragments in a pile. The white parts lay scattered on the floor at Maggie’s feet. It took Bella a few seconds to recognize the objects for what they were, and when she did, she ran down the stairs to call her father.
“Daddy, come and get me NOW!” she yelled, not caring that her mother would hear. “She’s finally lost it, Daddy. She’s cutting up my used pads! I’m not staying here anymore!”
* * *
Bella's dad asked her each day whether she wanted to hear the messages her mother had left him. She didn’t. She didn’t listen to the phone calls or open the letters. She didn’t go outside if she saw her mother’s car, but by late October ,she felt calm enough to talk to Maggie again.
She took a bag of caramels, four apples and some popsicle sticks, planning to make caramel apples with her mother the way they had when she was tiny. Her mother’s car sat parked in the driveway as she went up the walk, and tears came to her eyes as she rang the doorbell of the house she grew up in.
The peephole darkened “It’s me. I’ve brought caramel apple stuff!” she yelled, holding up the bag in front of the peephole.
The door opened a crack and Bella pushed it further to let herself in. A gust of stale, foetid air rushed past her like an imprisoned ghost making a break for it.
“Momma?” The light streaming in the windows showed a cloud of dust particles and what looked like cat hair dancing and shimmering in air that smelled like stale food, rotten garbage and unwashed mother.
“Momma, what happened?” The place looked tidy enough, but every horizontal surface held glittering, square Lucite gems arranged in the same rows over and over. Letter blocks on the tables, chairs, floor, counters and windowsills spelled out BELLA IS MY BABY in sapphire, ruby, emerald and topaz. BELLA IS MY BABY stacked in little pyramids on the coffee table, on the back of the couch in thousands of squares of Lucite, each of which contained a little bit of that baby that now belonged solely to Maggie.
“You’re back, baby? My sweet girl, you’ve gotten so big. Sit down, my darling. Momma’s here. Oh, baby, it looks like you need a little haircut.”
Previously published in Willow Review
Lise Quintana is the EIC of Zoetic Press. Her work can be found at Drunk Monkeys, Red Fez, Role Reboot, Extract(s), and other fine journals. In addition to writing, Lise is the developer of the Lithomobilus ereader, which can be found at www.lithomobilus.com.