To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. The following short story was first published in Meanjin Volume 44 Issue 3, 1985.
Still pregnant with Max I meet a friend whose first child has just been born. He is very keen to talk, to tell me how he felt about the birth and how he feels about his son, but he keeps breaking off to smile and shake his head.
I smile as well. ‘You never quite get your mind around it, do you?’
And we both laugh, because of course it really doesn’t matter. It’s in the patterns of whole lives that things like that get said and damaged and perhaps fixed up and understood as well as can be.
‘Small babies,’ Anne says, ‘have the same kind of fascination as the sea. You can watch them for ages just to pick up minor fluctuations in their mood and movement.’ Not, of course, that it gets you any closer to the mystery.
There is still a liquid quality to Max’s movement. Curved back along Mike’s lap his body ebbs and swells; his fingers drift and curl, pale anemones still moved by underwaterways. Little being from the mysterious deeps. Slowly he lets his eyelids down. He isn’t giving anything away.
I ring Liz after Max is born.
‘So I’ve switched obsessions. Now the world’s not full of pregnant women and people with congenital deformities. Now I catch all news reports on cot-death.’
‘I don’t really think about things like that.’ Liz is just pregnant.
‘But you know all the studies proving foetuses can be deformed by aspirins and hot baths and herbal teas.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Her voice conveys an instant recognition. ‘Of course. Yes, that’s the one I know.’
And we both laugh.
He probably hasn’t been asleep so very long. But still, you have to check. Just for your peace of mind.
I turn the bed-side lamp towards the wall before I switch it on. I wouldn’t want to startle him or wake him up.
‘You should hold your child,’ the doctor tells us, ‘say good-bye. We’ll leave you here.’
It’s what I thought I wanted, but it doesn’t really work. I’ve heard that grief psychologists will make you talk to empty chairs if there are things you meant to say to someone who has died. Patterns of whole lives.
And his face shocks. Without the nerves and impulses and living circuitry, his head has simply fallen in upon his face. His nose is spread out flat towards one side. His lips have set into a crenellated ring, pink and white, like a pressed flower or an anus. You can see a tiny patch of tongue. The blood has flowed away (as liquid will in any vessel) to one side of his face, leaving it half white, half mauve. A birth-mark or a bruise. Poor little harlequin.
‘It’s death you’re seeing,’ the doctor tells me gently.
But it’s the sense of violence done to him that shocks. And that he simply doesn’t look like Max.
Carefully I wrap his shawl around his head, leaving clear his one pale eyelid. But even that is set in wrinkles like the waxed and wizened skin of apple dolls. I hold him, watch his eye and try to think of him as Max.
At night, while Mike and Stella dream and stir behind us, Max and I watch each other across the pale mound of my breast. It still seems larger than his head. In the subtle, private dimness of the night his irises are intense and clear and dark. As he drinks his eyelids gradually lower till he falls back utterly serene. He’s like a little idol. There’s quiet humour in his smile. The pure curves of his lips and eyes, Mike and Stella’s eyes, large and clearly sculpted. Sometimes we fall asleep together in the night and he’s a curve of warmth against my side.
I watch his eye and try to think of him as Max. But he’s so stiff and cold. I turn to Mike and feel I’m offering him a wooden doll.
I take the pills I’m given to make the milk dry up, but still a little seeps away in soft, white, hopeful tears.
In the first week I have so much milk that I can press my breast and send up fine, white jets of spray, like some tasteless novelty item from ‘Bernard, the Magician’s’. Stella is delighted.
‘Do it again, Mummy.’
She laughs and watches closely and is pleased if some should fall on Max.
Sometimes it must happen when he feeds. He falls back from my breast in coughs and sneezes. Milk fountains and falls. Later I find faint snails trails of shiny speckles across his head. He turns deep red and utters short, sharp yelps of outrage before limpeting back onto the breast.
Impossible to take his coughs and sneezes seriously. He really thinks he’s human. I was impatient that Stella should progress, respond, grow up into a child. This time I’m more relaxed. I can enjoy his comical small-beastliness.
His grunts and noises.
(‘Don’t grunt, Dear,’ said Alice, ‘or you might grow up into a pig.’)
Sometimes I am woken up at night just by the sound of smacking lips. At my breast he snorts and snuffles about, mouth wide, worrying after the nipple as if it were dodging past him at high speed. Little incompetent. Finally he grasps it with the ferocious expression of a Stubbs lion falling on a horse. If Mike or Stella should lean across my shoulder to watch him, he burrows deep into my breast and makes the low growling noises of a predator defending a recent kill.
And he has such comical proportions. To have legs that are so much smaller than your head. Propped backwards in his chair his feet tuck tidily away beneath him like small Rippers. Sam Sawnoff the penguin.
(‘Sam Sawnoff’s feet were sitting down and his body was standing up because his feet were so short and his body so long that he had to do both together.’)
‘Come on, little one. Let’s have a bit of exercise.’
I hold him on my knee and when the little flipper feet press down at all I bounce him high into the air. Max stares into the middle distance going up and down. He yawns. He’s tolerant of adult eccentricity.
Back within the folds and layers of his sleeping-bag his puckered brow and beady eyes peer out at us. Little Moley wrapped up safe against the Wild Wood.
‘My baby isn’t at our home now,’ Stella tells my mother, ‘because my baby’s dead.’
It’s like the way she talks about the time. She uses words and thinks one day they’II make more sense.
At night, while Mike and Stella breathe and stir behind us, Max and I watch each other across the pale mound of my breast. In the subtle, private dimness of the night his irises are intense and clear and dark. As he drinks his eyelids gradually lower till he falls back utterly relaxed and utterly inebriated. He draws his tongue, curved with precision to enfold the nipple, back into his mouth and sighs. Heavy drinkers often smell of alcohol and Max’s skin retains a faint, warm, comfortable smell of milk. Little tippler.
Sometimes we fall asleep together in the night and he curls like a walnut, warm, between my arm and ribs.
‘Don’t cry,’ says Stella. ‘Max has just gone somewhere else.’
Sometimes I find her quietly looking round the house.
‘Read me the story about naughty Max.’
‘The night that Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another… and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max, and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks…’
‘Don’t cry, don’t cry. Max is somewhere else.’
Stella skips around the indoor swimming pool. Her kick-board flaps against her knees and nearly trips her up.
‘I can swim, all by myself. Max can’t because he’s a little baby, but I can swim, can’t l?’
‘Yes, Love. You can swim, because you’re a Big Kid.’ Am I overdoing this?
Adrenal in racing, she slips into the one foot six of warm, blue chlorine and water. She hops about the pool and climbs her feet up on the rail and kicks and wallows on her yellow kick-board. She is vibrant with excitement. From time to time she scrambles out to say hello.
‘Hello, Max,’ Stella shouts. She’s fairly amiable, but likes to get her head between Max and me. Max has his head sunk down upon neatly folded hands. He dreams his own dreams.
‘Hello, Max,’ Stella shouts, dripping chlorinated water on his face.
‘Hello, Max!’ Stella shrieks and Max finally startles awake, does his W.C. Fields impersonation with his hands and curls back firmly into sleep.
When he wakes up later I hold him out towards the pool.
‘See what your big sister is doing, Max. When you’re a big kid like Stella you’ll be able to do clever things, too.’
Max blinks in bemused tolerance. He looks down into the water where the black grid of tiles billows and gels.
I sit and feed him, a warm loop beneath my breasts, and note, in the light flooding in through the window, that there are fine but delicate lines across his forehead, even when he is quite serene. When Mike first knew me and we were twenty one, he was amused to find lines across my forehead.
‘God, you’re a worrier. You were probably born with those.’
So in however many years some lover may run a finger across Max’s worry lines and laugh.
Back in his seat Max stays awake to watch the rain against the glass. He puckers his brow into a multitude of wrinkles and tries to focus on a raindrop. He gives it very serious thought.
That night he died.
‘My baby isn’t at our home now,’ Stella says, ‘because he’s dead.’ She thinks one day it will make sense.
‘It’s death you’re seeing.’
Death that moved through silent in the night to leave him crushed and bruised, defaced.
‘The Lord is my shepherd, Lou reads out. ‘I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.. ’
I peer into the grave which seems unduly large and deep.
‘Well, yes,’ I think, ‘I guess that’s what he maketh Max to do.’
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. ’
I glare into the empty air. If providence is lurking round I’d like to catch its eye. Sometimes when Stella falls, or hurts herself, she smacks things, shouts and tells them that they’re naughty. She would rather not accept implacable facts like foot-paths.
I think Lou stops before the bit where cups runneth over.
Milk prickles out and weeps away in hopeless, hopeful tears.
Mike and I go back next day.
The grave has been filled in. Marooned between the mounds of mud a bunch of flowers lies, its paper getting sogged. A small black spider swims around a puddle trying not to drown.
Mike hugs me, but my body is strange and stiff. I feel unhappy making love as well. He should have had lovers. He should have grown up, beyond, apart from me, preferably to love me still, but maybe to discuss me crossly with his friends, or just to ignore me altogether. He should have had children.
I should have died before him.
‘Time is a great healer.’ My mother is desperate to console. ‘You’ll get through this in time.’
A thing I know, of course, it’s just that Max won’t do so well.
Oh, Max. If I could just draw my grieving to some firm, pure pressure point mightn’t I force through to where you are. But quickly. Now. Before you slip too far away. Poor, sweet, little one. To leave you so alone. I should at least have left some letter with you (difficult to phrase—patterns of whole lives—some shy but passionate message from someone who never knew you well) and you could read it, when you grow up somewhere else. All those years of living must be happening somewhere, somewhere. Somewhere else.
‘We could plant jonquils.’ Mike puts his arm around me and I tilt towards him like a dress-shop dummy. ‘They flower in July.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘They’re hardy, too. They’ll live for longer than three weeks.’
Through the car window Stella watches dark net patterns trees make out against the sky.
‘It’s winter-time,’ she says. ‘Trees haven’t got their leaves.’
‘Well, that one’s getting buds. They do that in the Spring.’
So time is moving right along there, leaving Max behind.
Mike is revisited by a childhood nightmare. He has to ride a bicycle along a line of hitching posts stretched out across the sky. To stay aloft between each post you aren’t allowed to breathe. Now, of course, he carries Max and though he tries and tries he can never keep his grip, Max slips through his arms and Mike must watch him falling, falling.
I dream of walking through a kind of jumble sale set out on trestle tables by the beach. People sell the reject goods the sea leaves at high tide. I find the red pyjama suit I thought Max died in. So perhaps he has been given back. Even within the dream he is almost surely dead, but now there is some tiny hope. Perhaps he’s somewhere out along the open, curving borderline of land and sea. Perhaps among the cardboard boxes of the jumble sale. Maybe somewhere else. I know I have to hurry, but there is some hope.
It’s a nasty, desperate, painful dream.
At night while Mike and Stella dreamed and breathed behind us Max and I would watch each other across the pale mound of my breast. His irises were intense and clear and dark. And sometimes when we fell asleep together in the night he was a curve of warmth along my side.
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