by Rachel Eve Moulton
Sara doesn’t sleep anymore. Not for more than an hour at a time. Her body feels sore, her joints loose, as if a leg could slip free if she isn’t careful. It’s May, her first spring in the house, and the rain has been falling steadily since early April. The Mad River jumped its banks some weeks before, and, in a gesture of solidarity, Sara’s body has ballooned at the ankles, the thighs. She’s 38 weeks pregnant with twin girls, and even her fingers have grown thick, her wedding ring now worn on a chain around her neck.
Sara is beginning to think she’s made a mistake.
Her friends told her that from the start. Who gives up their whole life for a man they barely know? They took bets on how long she’d stay, calling up to see if he’d turned out to be a serial killer. But, when she announced the pregnancy, the jokes stopped. Phone calls stopped too, as if no one knew what to say to her anymore. The only bright spots were the times she allowed herself to dream about her past selves, a hundred different versions—waiting tables in the little black apron at 16, skin smelling of bacon grease; the summer she was so poor that she only ate peanut butter; reading in the gaudy canopy bed she’d had as a child; and the graffitied bathroom of the club where they’d danced to 80s music in college. Although it scares her, if the babies weren’t an actual part of her physical self, she would flee. Leave this sudden husband in search of Louisville or any one of her past selves, because this one. This one. This one would not do.
Sara’s husband is beside her in the dark, snoring softly. She hates him for how well he rests then immediately feels bad. He’s a good man, genuinely excited about her and their babies, but what does she really know? His nickname as a kid was Tiger. His favorite color is blue. He wanted to play professional baseball after high school, but his mom got sick so he stayed home instead. She’s never seen him cry or be truly frightened. She’s never even seen him have the flu. And what does he know about her? She’s been pregnant for nearly half their relationship. This hulk of a woman she doesn’t even recognize as herself.
“Sweetie,” she whispers in the dark. “Are you awake?” She nudges his knee with her toes, thinking, If he wakes up and looks at me, I will know everything is alright. He turns away from her, murmurs something, snores again.
In the kitchen, she gets water and stares out the window above the sink. The moon is out so she can see the lush green of the hill as it stretches down to the road, the individual shadows of the trees on the other side. The park rangers came out yesterday to move the port-a-potty to higher ground. Her husband says when they forget, it floats around, falling on its side, spilling piss and shit.
Since the rains began the park has been flooded with lost and discarded objects. She’s catalogued them on her walks—back when the doctor said walking was still safe. Tires, traffic cones, plastic bottles of every variety. Sometimes the objects seem as if they have risen up from deep inside the earth. Beer cans rusted weak as paper. Bones of long dead animals and tarnished pieces of metal that once decorated someone’s neck or earlobes. The river, more hungry than mad, Sara thinks, laps up objects, bringing them downstream to gather in piles. Little accidental structures that she and her husband call tombstones.
Then there are objects people purposefully dump. Cars roll in and peel out. The next day a new dog or cat shows up at their door, looking scarred up and hungry. Sara took the first few to the vet to be spayed or neutered, but the cost of operations and food became too much. Now she just feeds them. They skulk about, faces scratched, an eye missing, ears slit down the middle. Some of them let her love them—belly rubs and chin scratches—but most are feral and watch her from afar. Her husband has named the most frequent visitors—Vlad the Inhaler, Chester the Molester, Dr. Squirrel Nuts, and Toothless the Never Dragon.
Unlike the cats, the twins haven’t been named yet. She insists that they need to meet them first, and her husband, careful not to agree or disagree, has come up with nicknames: Violet Haze and The Wildebeest—loosely based on his grandmothers’ maiden names.
Sara puts her glass in the sink, listens to it clink against the metal. She is headed back to bed when she sees headlights below. Big and bright, they light up the hill, illuminating fat, steady raindrops.
The car parks on the side of the road. Sara thinks it looks like the old Jetta she used to drive. The one she sold before the move. The Jeep she has now is much nicer, brand new, but she misses the old gear shift with its wobbly handle, and the smell of the interior after it sat in the sun, faintly sour from something long-ago spilled. The car sits there in the dark for a long time. Sara reaches out to unlock the kitchen window, cracks it a little, listens. The smell of the night gusts in, rushes over her rich with moss.
The car door opens. She hears a distinct click and the cab lights up. A figure that could be anyone, yet somehow looks like what Sara imagined herself to look like before the babies, steps out and moves to the back of the car to lift the trunk. They struggle a bit, cradling whatever it is against their chest. The bundle is moving.
With the car door open, the trunk wide, and the headlights on, the figure moves into the woods that lead to the river. They return quickly, running, empty handed. They hop in the driver’s seat, and peel out, the trunk slamming shut as they accelerate.
Sara shakes her head to clear her thoughts. The babies kick at each other. She lifts her shirt and sees an entire foot pushing outwards near her navel, little toes tiny but clear. She gives it a push back with her hand and feels the babies wiggle with delight. She is awake, and the movement in her belly looks just like the far away shuffle of the bundle—something way down there in the dark, pushing to find a way out.
Sara takes the stairs down to the garage and finds the shelf where they keep all their camping equipment. She is quiet. If her husband wakes up, he will not let her go. In a large plastic bin, she finds her headlamp and tests the batteries. The light shines bright, blindingly so.
The gravel driveway is steep, the climb down slow. A quarter of the way down she realizes she is going so slowly, her knees bent so low that she might as well scoot down on her butt. She does. The rain is lighter now but the dark still complete. Her hair is soaked, her shirt too. She is cold.
The last half of the driveway goes quickly. The woods ahead of her are dense, but the trees themselves thin, an old forest full of new growth. The lake sits off to her right. The river gushes in the dark somewhere ahead of her. She walks forward, moving from one tree to the next. She isn’t in more than a foot before the river water squelches under her shoes. A few more steps and it’s up to her ankles. Just as she begins to feel the disappointment of not finding the bundle an object nuzzles up against her legs. She points her headlamp down and catches a black trash bag with her fingernails. She pulls it to her chest. The bag exudes warmth even as the object or objects inside push stiffly at her belly—inanimate in some basic way.
The bag pulses and wiggles, emanating a small sound as she wades out of the water. Poking out at her belly, as if trying to wake the babies. She climbs anyhow, slowly, resting on her way up and speaking to the bundle or the babies or both:
In the lighted garage she holds the bag, waiting to set it down until the garage door shuts behind her. Gently, she rests it on the concrete and loosens the metal twist.
With the object revealed, Sara stands. They stare at each other, or at least, that’s what it feels like to Sara. The thing in the bag does not have eyes. It’s a jumble. A creature made of fur and metal and Styrofoam and short stubby legs. Too many legs. She can see glints of gold and silver—a poke of something plastic. The exterior of the object keeps shifting. The insides pushing up to the surface before plunging back in. She can see book pages, scrap paper, a geode. She sees the familiar handle of a little plastic shovel.
The thing makes a snuffling noise, rolling in place, back and forth. Sara reaches out to touch a shard of what looks to be the kind ceramic plate they’d had when she was a child. As she is about to touch it with her right hand—her left on her belly—the ball makes a great sneezing sound and rolls away into the dark corner of the garage.
Sara feels suddenly tired. She is soaked and shaking with the cold. She finds she is barely able to remain standing. She holds tightly to the railing to get up the stairs.
In the guest room she strips off her clothes and climbs into the guest bed, thinking, as she sinks into the deep dark of sleep: Morning will be here soon.
Sara wakes late. Her husband is already off to work, having tried, she is sure, not to disturb her. She is naked. Her soggy pile of clothes is on the floor, a big ball of what she was yesterday. Then, remembering, she sits up faster than she should, her head swimming. The thing she found is still in the garage unless her husband let it out when he left for work.
She wrangles her body into new clothes, too tight but covering most of her. She makes her way down the stairs and into the garage.
Sara turns on all the lights and finds the bundle right away. Rolled up in the corner, resting. It does not seem afraid. She gathers it in her arms and takes it up the stairs and into the living room. On the cream carpet, in the daylight, it looks to her like a ball of yarn or rather something that should be untangled and laid long so Sara finds a loose end, a soft paw with tiny pink pads on its feet. She grasps the paw, gently tugging until the whole leg emerges, then the shoulder, the head, the back legs and a long orange tail. It’s a kitten. Her kitten. The one she’d bought from a pet store at the mall when she was 10. Its eyes dazed but its body healthy, as if it never passed away. It blinks and then begins to purr, pushing its small face against her.
“Georgia,” Sara says out loud. She and her best friend had named the kitten. It had only lived 8 days.
The kitten curls up in Sara’s lap, and Sara loosens the thread that is wound around its tail, following the thin line of green back to the ball and then pulling until a hoodie emerges. A green sweatshirt that she’d worn everyday she spent away at summer camp until they made her change. Its front is stained with food, its armpits dark. It was the same summer she started wearing deodorant—Amanda Gallagher throwing a stick of it at her, saying: “Time to cover up the stink.” A toothbrush barely used but distinguishable by the rubber band around the handle comes next. The toothbrush her first love gifted her so she could stay at his house. Next come journal pages, accordions of words that she doesn’t bother to read; they are all her scrawled writing. Hooked into a final page is a garden rake, red with rust and tied closely to her teenage years when she would help Morton Rauh with his garden. The objects keep coming. Things easily discarded throughout her life, and yet seeing them, smelling them, their surfaces resting on her skin brings back people and moments so fully that she begins to cry.
It is afternoon when Sarah finds the center. A conch shell. Polished and shining. The words Florida carved into its lip. She slips her hand into the spiral of it and finds a toy soldier of the kind her little brother once had in the trillions. She pulls the soldier free and holds it in her palm, closing her fingers around so that it will make an impression in her skin. It brings back summer on their newly paved driveway. The sound of Big Wheels on the asphalt, the heat beating on the top of her head and pushing up through the butt of her shorts. Her brother peddling hard enough to spin out. Sara feels the simple happiness of those days.
That’s when the doorbell rings. It peals out loudly, as if afraid it won’t be heard.
Sara looks around the living room, seeing what someone else will see, trash sprawled out on the formerly white carpet. She decides she doesn’t care.
She stands, her legs asleep, her feet tingling as they try to come back to life.She opens the door wide. A park ranger stands close to the screen, trying to shield himself from the rain.
“Morning,” Sara says. The screen door stays shut between them.
“That driveway is quite steep.”
“It is,” she confirms already annoyed and realizing she has to pee.
“I’m out of breath.”
Sara says nothing.
“Anyways. I got a call earlier. Someone driving through the park said they saw a cow.”
“That’s what dispatch thinks. The call wasn’t very clear. It’s absurd, I know.”
Sara shrugs, impatient.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure there isn’t a cow. I really came up to tell you we are expecting the road to flood. You do know the rain is supposed to continue, right? We expect it to be higher than it’s ever been, and now that I see your condition…”
“We’re fine up here,” she says, interrupting. “We aren’t in the flood plain.” Her husband had taught her all about the flood of 1913, bragging about how their house was the only house to survive the catastrophe. Back then there had been a town down by the river—Osborne—and some say pieces of it are still there under the flood zone created by the dam.
“Your husband is home?” he asks, his neck craning. She can tell he knows her husband isn’t home.
“He’s lived here a while. He’ll know what to do.” She hopes that’s the end of the conversation but sees he has more to say.
“He hasn’t lived here that long. Six years ago, we had so much rain that the park became a swamp and all those footbridges were swept off. We had to rebuild everything, and the road had to be repaved. Your husband hadn’t renovated this place yet. Maybe you could get a hotel for a few days?”
“We’ll talk it over tonight,” she says and starts to shut the door. She catches the sincere worry on his face before the door is completely shut and opens it back up. “Thank you for checking on me. We appreciate it.”
On the toilet, she is bothered by the fact that she’s said we. Did she mean her and the babies? No, she meant her and her husband. As if they are one entity. But isn’t that what marriage and baby making are supposed to be, taking two things and making it into one? Maybe it’s because it has been less of a joining than a giving up. She’d left everything behind. He hadn’t asked her too, but she did it anyway.
“He doesn’t love me,” she says out loud to test it, but it doesn’t sound quite right.
Back in the living room, Sara sucks in her breath. The carpet is clean of objects. Everything is gone. The dirt of it is still there but her things are gone. The carpet is fuzzy under her bare feet. Then she knows suddenly and with certainty that it has simply curled up into itself again and is hiding in the room somewhere. Out of sight but not gone. Smart little thing. She whistles, clicks her tongue, snaps her fingers. Nothing.
So, she sings. Happy birthday. Mary Mary. Twinkle Little Star. The songs she’s been singing to the babies. It works. The object peeks out from behind the couch. She keeps going, rubbing her belly as she sings, and it gusts towards her, back and forth, forward and sideways like a tumbleweed, until it brushes up against her naked calves, purring.
Slowly she lowers herself to the floor and takes it into her lap. It wriggles, delighted, and pushes up against her belly, and then it begins to hum, a low sound she cannot quite understand. It is talking to the girls in her belly. Telling them its stories. The tales that will introduce them the twins to their mother. When it is done, Sara lays down on her side and the ball rolls up towards her head, rolling its softest, warmest layers to the surface so she can put her head against it, her skull pushing into its softness. It sings its stories to her this time. Her past life full and lush and ever present.
At some point, she falls asleep, and although the time that passes is not extraordinary in length, the depth of sleep that swallows her is blissful.
When she wakes the sky is dark, lit only on occasion by lightning, and she can hear her cell phone buzzing. Her head rests softly on the bundle. She sits up slowly, noting that her belly feels different. Tense. The babies in a different space. Lower down perhaps. She ignores this feeling and runs her hand over the object, scratching it with her nails along a ridged section that resembles a spine.
The phone buzzes somewhere, urgent. Sara stands slowly, the ball of things brushing up against her ankles and then rolling in circles around her with a joy that makes Sara giggle. She can’t remember where she’s left her phone. She tries the light switch on the wall but nothing changes. She moves to the kitchen. Tries another switch. Nothing. The phone stops buzzing. She heads to the sink for water, her throat suddenly parched. Water comes out normally, filling her glass quickly, but then she hears a deep gurgle from inside the pipes and the steady stream weakens. She remembers now that they are on a well and any loss of power means the pump fails too. No water.
Out the kitchen window, a lightning bolt, thick and determined, stretches down and lights up the world. In the flash, Sara sees a face staring back at her from the other side of the window and screams, dropping her glass into the sink. Another bolt and she sees the big brown eyes again, the whites showing around the edges. Its ears point straight up with fear. It’s a cow. Sara can’t help but laugh but then her belly tightens again down low. It hurts this time and lasts longer. The pain in her lower back as well.
Her phone begins to buzz again, and she knows she needs to answer. She remembers she had it in the guest room. She has forgotten to plug it in, and there isn’t much charge left. 15 missed calls. Her husband.
“Sara? Is that you? Thank god.”
“What’s going on?”
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“There’s a cow in the yard.”
“What? Did it hurt you?”
“No. Don’t be crazy. I was sleeping.”
There is silence between them then. They’ve never been through anything urgent together. Neither of them knows how the other will behave.
“I’m okay,” she says. “We’re okay.”
“The whole county’s flooded. They’ve evacuated, but I couldn’t get to you in time. I was so scared. This is all my fault.”
When they were first talking, messaging back and forth and then the phone calls, they’d had so much to say to each other. He’d told her how he’d always dreamed of owning land and how he’d stumbled upon the abandoned house and bought it, fixing it up piece by piece. He talked about the wildlife, how deer came right to the windows and the flowers that bloomed in late May. Blankets and blankets of violets. She’d loved his voice, and the way he spoke so urgently as if in a rush to invite her into his everything.
“I have everything I need,” she says even as her belly fists up again.
“This is all my fault,” he says again.
“The flood is your fault?” she asks and then laughs, a great full laugh, and it feels good, as if she’s letting in a little joy. “You made all this water?”
“You know what I mean,” he says but she hears he has caught a little of her laugh. “I love you,” he says. “You and the girls. I would never have moved you here if I’d known this could happen.”
“I know and I’m fine. You can stop worrying.”
“Has the water reached the yard?”
“Of course not.”
“You have to go look. You have to open the front door and look.”
She does not protest. She swings the door wide and the wind whips in around her as if it has been waiting all this time to fill a new space. The rain is steady. Sheets of it and her feet are quickly soaked even as she stands still solidly in the house. A small herd of cats rushes in past her, their fur wet on her ankles. Vlad and Toothless and Chester. A few others she’s never seen before. The cow catches sight of her next and begins to move towards the doorframe, clearly planning to come in as well. Sara stands her ground and the cow stops, tapping its hooves up and down at the porch as if it has to pee.
Poor thing, she thinks and then looks across their saturated yard and to the tree line where the hill begins to curve downward and sees water. Not puddles. Not wet patches of dirt but the river. Climbed high up to meet her.
“What do you see?” he says into her ear, urgent.
“The water. It’s here. At the top. The trees are in it.”
“Is it still rising?”
“How would I know that? This is crazy,” she says. The world outside is gorgeous. The dark fullness of the water, smothering everything that was there before.
Terror washes over her next, takes her by complete surprise. She is all alone. The tightness she’s been feeling are contractions. She is in labor. “What the hell were you thinking?” She asks this, unsure who she is talking to. The cow looks straight at her, expectant.
“I’ll get there as soon as I can get a boat.”
Sara’s phone beeps in her ear and then dies. Her husband is gone, the cow really wants to come in, and suddenly Sara can’t think of any reason why not. She steps aside, and it lumbers in, shakes itself like a dog so that rain and dirt spray everywhere.
She shuts the door and stands for a minute to think. Perhaps sensing her terror, her bundle rolls in and loosens itself around her feet, turning its softness towards her ankles so that she feels for a moment like she’s stepping into a warm bath.
The house is one story. Her husband hasn’t gotten around to installing the pull down stairs to the attic. There is no higher ground. They’ve been wanting to buy a canoe or kayak, but they haven’t yet. The twins seemed like project enough. She will not be able to leave on her own. There is nothing for her to do but wait.
She goes to her bedroom. Two of the cats are already there, grooming themselves on her once clean sheets. She puts her body between them. Props herself up on pillows. Her ball of stuff jumps up on the bed and curls up with the cats. She pictures the rain continuing, picking the house up like a boat, buoying her, and she calms herself this way. She thinks of what items she’d bundle up to keep if this house, this life, were to float away. A footbridge from the park, the blossoms from the apple tree in the yard, the animals, the tombstones, a t-shirt of her husband’s and the hammock they take naps in together. She will be fine. Her stomach tightening has stopped, and she shuts her eyes.
The sun is up when her bladder wakes her. The cow is standing next to the bed. It’s chewing something, Sara cannot tell what, but it does it steadily, with patience. Five cats are with her on the bed, six if the bundle stretching awake at her feet counts. The rain has stopped. The cell phone is dead in her hand.
She eases herself into the bathroom and then back to the kitchen. The inside of the fridge is dark, but she finds juice and drinks it greedily. The babies sit heavy in her pelvis. She puts her head down low, under her belly and shuts her eyes. The pain comes. Fierce this time. She knows it is a contraction. She can’t call it anything else. It pulls her inward, deep into her body and just when she thinks it won’t stop it does. She relaxes.
The sun shines bright through the kitchen window so she opens the door wide. She steps aside to let the cow wander out onto the porch and then the lawn. Outside dogs begin to bark at the cow. Nearly a dozen dogs are huddled around the foundation of the house, fur still wet and matted. Some of them healthy, a few of them collared, more showing their ribs and looking scared as if they haven’t yet noticed the sunshine. Her bundle speeds out of the house and past her, leaping onto the lawn and making sharp noises that might be barks. The dogs stand and stretch and meander over to give it a sniff, unthreatened. She leaves the door open as she goes back inside and digs around in the fridge. She takes them a pile of cat food and scatters it in the grass. Next, she brings out carrots, leftover chicken and rice, anything she can find and lays it out so the dogs can eat. When she is done, she walks out to the cow, the grass squishing under her bare feet.
“What would my husband name you?” she asks the cow. “Carcass,” she says aloud but then winces. “Too grim.” She thinks a while and then offers “Moodonna the Milkshaker.” She misses him with a sudden pang. With the pang comes another contraction, deep and rooted in her lower half as if someone has reached in and grabbed hold, twisting, twisting, twisting. Gone.
She breathes through it. When it is done, she looks at the woods that surround her property, the trees wading in water. The dogs finish eating and turn their bellies to the sun. The cats meander in and out of the house, brushing up against her fingernails, purrs high in their throats. The cow stands near the water line, eating steadily. Her contractions are five minutes apart.
She moves and the pain comes, tight and breathtaking, sooner than it should. She squinches her eyes shut, closes her palms to meet the pain.
She’d left her job, her friends, her apartment in Louisville without much prompting. The leap had felt right to her. It was time to fall in love. Time to be someone new. Time to make a family. It looked so good from afar. A successful spouse. A house on five acres surrounded by a park. A break from working to become a mother and to discover what else she might be after that. But then the world had become so small. She’d imagined herself a dumped item, an old armchair or flea-riddled dog. Plopped down in this new place because the old place was done with her, but that isn’t how it happened at all. She feels that now. The choice in all of it. The babies she is about to hold.
Warm water gushes to a trickle down the insides of her thighs. The pain lets up. She is able to breathe. She heads back into the house and the dogs rise to follow as if she is a queen. She should be scared. She is not.
She is in the bedroom when she hears her name called, hollered in from outside. Then steps on the porch. Her husband. She hears how his voice changes as it gets closer.
Outside: “Sara!” He says it over and over in a panic.
Entering the house: “Sara?” Just as loud but with a question mark.
In the hallway: “What is all this? Sara?” She hears him trip but not fall. Her name interrupted by the catch.
And then: “Sara.” Relieved. Grateful. Layered with love and patience and time. They are connected. She hears it in his voice and sees it in the way his shoulders release as he sees her.
He will want to get her to the hospital, but it is too late. The babies are already finding their way out of her body. They will be born into the flood in this sturdy, steady house belonging to Sara and Aaron above the mad, Mad River with a cow, a pack of dogs, a clutter of cats, and all the stories of their individual pasts and presents converging on this moment.
There will be four now. Four bodies. Four selves. Each of them working to be fully realized, bundles of things yet to come.
Rachel Eve Moulton earned her BA at Antioch College and her MFA in fiction from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in The Beacon Street Review, Bellowing Ark, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Bryant Literary Review, among others. Rachel is a recipient of an Individual Artist Grant from the Ohio Arts Council and was a Summer Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. Her debut novel–Tinfoil Butterfly–was recently published with FSGxMCD.