BAD ROOTS • by Jaye Viner

Until my sister decided to become a mother, our lives had been mirror images with five-second delays. I was the first to lose a tooth. She was the first to lose her virginity. In elementary school, we both had abdominal surgeries that left pudges of flab on our bellies. The scar that created my pudge was a smile with three little drainage tube scars above it like closed eyes. Hers was a severe straight line. My pudge was like a mound of snow about to slide off a roof. Hers was boxy, like the top of a two-beat rest.

“You can’t have a baby,” I told her.

“I have to try,” said Maria, like the imperative to reproduce was self-evident, whereas I thought our bodies screamed the opposite. I suppressed the cry circulating in my head. What about me? What about us?

***

Maria made her big announcement on Thanksgiving. Mom sat at the head of her kitchen table like a queen, on two pillows strapped to a folding chair with bungee cords. Maria and I flanked Mom on each side of the table with our men beside us. There was no seat opposite my mother because she kept the table pushed up against the wall where the effigy of her childhood cat was enshrined.

“We’re pregnant,” Announced Maria.

Mom looked to me. One eye a questioning gaze while her other lazy eye shot off into the space above my head. A shelf bisecting my torso cracked in half with that look. I felt all the parts of me that I knew as my soul sink through that crack into oblivion.

“I am absolutely not, nor ever will be, pregnant.” I said, glaring at Maria for this betrayal, a fork severing one road of a shared life into two. I felt the eyes of Maria’s man warning me to be agreeable. It occurred to me that Maria had probably not been open with him about our beginnings.

“Mom, I don’t think Sam has ever heard about Kitty,” I said. “We’re coming up on the Anniversary, aren’t we?”

Maria shot daggers at my head.

“My Kitty,” whispered Mom. “Kitty would love a feast of catnip and kibble.” Mom giggled.

“And after that, we’ll plan the baby shower.” Maria’s voice was too bright, like a TV show cheerleader but with all the color drained out of her.

***

This is the story I told Sam. Kitty had been Mom’s cat when she was growing up in a neighborhood built on the site of a battery factory. Mom was eleven when Kitty started to gain weight. Grandma decided she was pregnant. Before the kittens came, Kitty began to lose her fur. When Mom combed Kitty with her fingers splayed like a garden rake, huge clumps of hair came off. Patches of stippled pink and brown skin began to cover Kitty’s body.

“Could be the cancer,” said Grandma. “Or something worse.”

One night, Mom heard what sounded like a bird being strangled. She went outside where she’d set up a shelter of cardboard boxes for Kitty. The light on the back stoop had been smashed, but the moon cast enough light for Mom to see a shiny mass in Kitty’s bed. It looked like wet snakes or beetles, but it was as cold as cement in January when she touched it.

In the morning, when Grandma went to borrow a shovel from the neighbors, Mom sneaked a peek at Kitty’s body. Grandma had wrapped it in newspapers that had become stuck together with dried blood. Mom had to tear the paper to see inside.

Kitty’s body was distended and stiff. Her patched fur matted like she’d rolled in glue. Tucked beside her were three kittens in two bodies. The single had only three legs. The other two were fused at the head with no ears.

***

After I got pregnant, I took Maria to lunch as penance for telling Sam the Kitty story.

“The baby is the size of an endive this week,” said Maria. “You ever eaten an endive?”

I wanted to tell her that my baby was the size of a raspberry, but the timing didn’t seem right.

“I bought one at the store just to see,” said Maria. “It’s like a cabbage, but more green.”

I slid onto her side of the booth, reached over and gave her pudge a pinch. “Just as long as its small enough to come out natural. I don’t want the doctor stitching you up too nice. Abdominal surgery doesn’t come with a pudge anymore. We’ve got to stick together, you and I.”

Maria squished her body up against mine so I couldn’t tell where I ended and she started. When she withdrew back to her food, I noticed a wet smear on the vinyl bench. It was small, like a finger-painted streak, the color of blood with lead in it.


Jaye Viner holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in Rhetoric and Composition. Her work has been published in The Roanoke Review and her first novel is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. When she isn’t writing, she works with students of all ages to expand their knowledge of English writing and communication. She cooks, watches Science Fiction, and she practices Mandarin with her cat Sabrina.


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