THE FESTERING WOUND • by Cathryn Grant

Maggie gazes at the round spot on the back of Ben’s head. The few dark, coarse hairs are sharp against his pale skin. He can’t see the spot, although he surely knows it’s there. She sees him running his fingers over it, gently pushing the thicker hair at the sides to cover it. As if he could.

He never asks whether the bald spot makes him look old, or foolish, and she never mentions it. She knows that words can wound. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, her mother warned when she was a child. Those ricochet in her head, tugging at the roots of her long, blonde hair.

Such beautiful hair. Even at thirty-five, she knows she’s ‘hot’, as they say. Ben is lucky to have her. As she is lucky to have him. Ten years is a long time to keep a marriage going strong. It’s possible to keep a marriage going, but to keep it close-knit, companionable, free from permanent damage is much more difficult. There were the rough years when they tried to conceive a child. She thought they wouldn’t survive that humiliation and grief, but finally they eased past it. Maggie dove hands first into her pottery. Ben climbed the corporate ladder. They adopted a dog – a silky golden retriever. They acquired a cat. She’s Siamese, with creamy fur and shockingly black-tipped ears, tail and feet, like she tiptoed through a bucket of tar. The pets are his, really. He does all the nurturing. She keeps her distance and molds those instincts into bowls and vases.

It was harder for Ben than it was for her. She can see that when the cat settles into his lap and he strokes her fur, whispering baby talk into the pointed ears that twitch as his breath presses too close. She sees it when he takes the dog into the yard, teaching him to leap for the red spinning disk hurled through the air.

Especially today, she sees it. Ben’s younger brother holds his newborn daughter. Ben turns away, suddenly busy easing the cork out of a bottle of dark red wine.

It wasn’t easy for her either. There are no words to describe the yawning ache in her womb, the thousands of bits and pieces of life she would share with a child. She accepts reality, she accepts her fate. She’s grateful to have love, not everyone does.

Over the years, she’s learned her mother’s words are true. That phrase became a cliché for a reason. If you tell a man he’s less attractive than he was, those words can’t be erased. If you tell a woman she’s cold, the hurtful word forms the cartilage of a scar. She wrestles to find the balance of perfect intimacy. It requires sharing everything, but watching each word. She manages to find that equilibrium, sharing most, if not all of her thoughts, while not destroying their marriage with a lash of the tongue that would leave bloody tissue like a whip with burrs tears flesh into ribbons.

A relationship is a delicate creation, finer than an empty eggshell, the yolk and albumen blown free, nearly transparent. A single word can shatter a marriage. Maggie knows this, and just as she never mentions the bald spot, she’ll never tell Ben what she knows. He was the cause of their infertility. She knows, because now, after all these years, she’s pregnant. She loves Ben. She can’t imagine loving any other man. She never speaks the words that would cut to the center of his heart — It’s your fault we couldn’t have a child. That guy, the father of the life growing inside, was a mistake. Touching him was as unimportant as buying the wrong shade of lip gloss. He’s far too young, he’s uninteresting. He means nothing. He was just a guy in one of her pottery classes.

Ben hands her a glass of wine and she sips, watching the newborn screw her face into a grimace. The same pained expression spreads across Ben’s face. Maggie and Ben turn and walk outside to the patio, alone. She puts her hand on his arm, I love you.

It was for the best, he says. You don’t have what it takes to be a good mother.

The words slice deep and her knees buckle as if he’s stabbed her with a boning knife.

Cathryn Grant lives in California. Her short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine. She received an honorable mention in the 2007 Zoetrope All-Story short fiction contest.

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