Atrophy



Lauren Erin O’Brien

Winner of the 2018 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction

Read an interview with Lauren Erin O'Brien



I see him on a Sunday, looking like tumbleweed on a dirt patch near the farmer’s market. He’s holding a sign that reads:

 

REAL LIFE CROCODILE EGGS. NOT PAPER MACHE. DO NOT TOUCH, ONLY PET

 

His jeans are large and slip down his waist and he’s too old for that look—or perhaps not. It can be hard to tell his age sometimes since he’s usually covered in dirt, some pale lines running past his cheekbones from sweat or something else—and a name like Yarrow doesn’t say much aside from being strange but that’s less him and more his parents, if he even has those. He doesn’t seem like the type to come from a womb.

Sometimes I take his presence as an omen, can picture pale skin, concave and cracking under pressure. Sometimes his footsteps echo the timbre of wheezing. I approach Yarrow and he doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t usually, just looks instead to the left of my face towards the tip of my ear.

“Hey there, Luca,” he says to me, “it’s been a while. How’s your boy?”

“Sick. So how about these eggs?” I ask him. It isn’t the first time he’s sold something like them, one time claimed to have a komodo dragon egg which he had stashed under a pile of cans. Too rare to show just anybody. I hadn’t been just anybody.

“They’re real pretty,” he says. When I go to reach for one, he stops me with a hum. “Sorry, Lu, can’t have you touching the things. They gotta be pet just so.” He walks over to the two of them nestled on the table and scoops one into his shirt, a makeshift pouch.

“I’ll hold them like a baby, I can promise you that.”

The eggs are covered in newspaper, looks like that, and glue. They’re small things, the size of a human eyeball, but more sloppy. If you look at the shells closely enough you can pick out words: vomit, child, and throat on one and another has what looks like skin, carcass, and birth. They’re pieces of headlines, recent news, all patched up like an elementary art project.

He hands one over and it feels empty, less weight than a rattle even.

“There can’t be a baby in here,” I say.

“There is. Put it in there myself,” he says.

I hold the egg a little bit tighter and run the tips of my fingers over the visible words. Yarrow watches.

“How’s your boy?” he asks.

“I don’t have one,” I say. I don’t like thinking about it.

A couple walks by right then, two women with beads in their hair, and they look at us like we’re storm clouds. After a few seconds of them staring as if trying to define our shape, they set off for a different vendor. Yarrow attracts a lot of attention because he’s always changing what he sells. Some days it’s flutes, other days it’s wooden statues of the US presidents. The last time I talked with him, he was selling marionette dolls modeled after his ex-wives and their daughters.

“How much for the egg?” I ask.

“Both of them?”

“Just the one.”

He stares at me after that. I can see his lips dry up as the seconds pass, his fingers at his sides tapping together like they’re speaking. I don’t think he wants to separate the eggs, but I’ve only got the one extra room, all yellow-sick and empty. It’s meant for something small.

Yarrow sticks his hands in his pockets and pulls out a small plastic bag. It’s filled up with some dead ladybugs and old lint. He looks at me a while, eyes still focused towards my ears and he nods to himself, deciding something.

“Your earrings,” he says.

They’re simple things and the nickel turns my ears green. They’ve got shapes like moons carrying stars, carved out in fake silver. I remove them from my ears and hand them over. I don’t ask him what he plans to use them for. I don’t want any say in the matter.

When I get home. I bring the egg upstairs and place it next to a pile of papers and a cactus. It doesn’t look right, sitting there like that but there’s no place else. I shine the desk lamp on it for heat and read the patches of newsprint on the side to myself. Skin. Carcass. Birth. Some lighter ones less discernible—insect maybe incest maybe nothing at all.


There was a boy. He grew inside of me like a seedling and weighed my body down, a stoneheavy organ in the center of my gut. The pain of him was constant and nagging, as if he were wrapping my insides around his throat, making a cradle of them.

The boy was mine alone. His father lost a battle with his brain, one that left him shaved clean and sutured most days. He said neurological problems ran in his family. He told me this late.

His muscles towards the end were clumsy. He would often reach out towards my stomach, fingers pointed as if bracing to puncture it with a needle, tie a thread from the child to himself. Perhaps this was to prove his connection to life. Or to drag the boy down with him.

I backed away whenever he tried, afraid he would infect the boy, cause him to degenerate and leave my womb corpsefull. I dreamed often that when I gave birth to the boy he would come out covered in staples.

But he didn’t. He grew inside of me and out, a pale boy with a laugh like sunlight.

Some mornings I’d look out the windows of the farmhouse, a small ranch my husband and I owned, and see the boy’s blond curls stuck up from his scalp like mothwings, fists clenched and knuckles like spearheads. Strong boy. My husband spent hours each day rocking him on the porch swing and teaching him the land.

“That’s Dolly,” he’d say, pointing at our brown thoroughbred. “She’s getting up there in age but she’s a good horse. Knows all of my secrets. But don’t tell your mother, because she’ll interrogate the thing.”

He wasn’t wrong. I discovered a new brand of jealousy when I watched him with the animals on the farm. The way the chickens barely stirred when he went to collect the eggs. How the neighbor’s dogs wandered over to feel his callouses rub their ears.

On mornings like those it often struck me, a numbness finding my body through ground currents and tree roots, starting at the soles of my feet and escaping through my scalp—he might never have met the boy. If the doctors had been right, the boy would have arrived half-full of blood and loss, knowing only my hands. Those fraying, quivering things.

“We should name him Apollo,” I’d say, cradling the boy and cataloguing his scent. He had a slight hunch to him, like he was born with a quiver on his back, arrows with tips of burning wax, sun and lavender.

“How about Tristan,” he’d counter. My parents had their ideas, of course. Daniel, like my father, or Patrick, like my grandfather. They seemed too simple for the boy. My boy was like the babies in the commercials, all wrapped-up in blankets and dressed like bees. His frame was war-ready, foreskin made of stars.

“We’ll talk about it,” I’d say. We never settled.


My mother moves in with me on a Sunday. She has her two cats, Whoopie and Spirit, in crates too small for their bodies, bits of their fur stick out through the metal doors. When she walks in I notice she’s wearing her high school cheerleading jacket. It says Rhonda on the left side with her designation as captain. When she sees me, she puts the crates down and crosses the room, the windbreaker fabric of her jacket making a scratching sound. She grabs at my shoulders and shakes me twice before pulling me into her arms, the sort of hug that says relief.

I don’t put her in the nursery. Her room is in the attic. We unpack her things silently while the cats circle our ankles. She hasn’t brought much, just a lot of perfume and some clothes.

“Show me around,” she says.

“Not much has changed,” I say.

“That’s the problem. Let me see what I’m dealing with.”

I walk her outside, through the front door facing South Street and its large plots of land. Most of the street’s for sale, all owned by a man named Marty. He had sold my husband and me our plot when we wanted to start raising horses. Dolly’s the only one left and she probably won’t last much longer.

If I ever forgot what my home looked like, I’d be reminded in the feeling of horsefly bites. The pinprick pain of them always centers on my neck or my head, creating a halo of chewed-up red skin. Rhonda bats them away from her hair as we start towards the yard, keeping a hand on my back.

I can tell by the way she’s muttering under her breath that she’s bothered by the leaves, the lack of raking. She’s always had a clean streak in her, the scent of bleach filling whatever room she’s in. When my husband passed away in the house, she spent a long time scrubbing his death from the walls and its stains from the carpet.

“Ah, well, at least you’ve got the wood pile nice and full.”

“I like chopping it,” I say. It’s one of the few things.

We walk towards the stalls where Dolly is, my mother calling her old girl and stroking her mane. “What has your mother done to you?” she asks, and purses her lips. She looks at the way the horse shakes on her legs, and turns to me. “When you have an animal like this, Luca, it’s not just about you anymore.”

It never really was. A part of me wonders if she understands that.

Whenever the doctors told my husband he wasn’t getting better, he would stay outside for a while. I would walk to this same spot in the backyard, feel the patio’s pavement burn my feet, but it was a meaningless scald. My husband would stand at the horse stalls, working to detangle Dolly’s burrs.

“I’m going to burn it down,” he’d say. His hands looked devoid of muscle, like the bones were nothing but cracking pipes. I often wrapped my arms around his waist, stood with my nose at his nape, blowing breath through my teeth, no words. He had plenty, though his state was fragile. I’m going to burn this stable down and in the middle of the night you’ll look at the window and see sparks the size of pebbles—no, boulders—and you’ll remember how strong I was. The threat was so frequent, it was white noise, at best.

“You would never,” I always said. “You told Tristan it was his.”


Rhonda pauses where she stands, fingertips reaching for my right hand.

“Have you gone to see him?” Rhonda asks.

“Yarrow?” I ask.

“Luca, I’m asking about your son.”

“I don’t have one.”

I know this is the reason she’s here. But that doll, sewn together with some combination of tendon and blood, is not my boy, and when I see him my mouth becomes asphalt-glued, my teeth loose. Rhonda knows.

I leave her there to head inside, watch the caterpillar nests in the trees above her rattle in the wind, wonder if they’re poison, if she’ll be harmed. I call her in.

I show her to the attic and she hugs me again. I walk to my room. I notice the egg for the first time that day, resting on my desk and tipped onto its side. I wonder often when it will hatch, if it’ll have my eyes or Yarrow’s hands. I think of how it will feel to raise something immune to everything.

That night I hear my mother’s car pull out of the driveway, no doubt on her way to the hospital but I can’t find the voice to tell her it’s empty, all orange skin and heavy breaths. The constricting of lungs in someone’s fist. And the wailing. The silence.

The next morning, she walks into my room with something wooden in her arms.

“This was on the front porch,” she says.

“What is it?” I ask.

“It looks like a doll.”

She hands it over to me. It’s less of a doll and more of a wooden carving. An infant boy with my earrings hammered where his eyes would be. I say nothing and carry the gift into the nursery, set it inside the crib along with all the others. My mother follows. She starts picking up the various things Yarrow has given me over the past year. The doll, a few baby toys, pieces of jewelry. She runs her fingers along the smoothness of a glass-blown necklace made to look like a teardrop.

“What are all of these?” she asks.

“Gifts,” I say.

She puts the necklace around my neck, a heavy pressure on my collarbones.


I return to the farmer’s market on Sunday to ask Yarrow about hatching the egg. The thing hasn’t moved one bit, no reaction to heat or coddling. He’s packing up his table when I get there, what appears to have been books.

“Is one of those instructions for hatching crocodile eggs?” I ask him.

“You don’t need me to tell you how to do that,” he says.

“Think it might be defective, the one you gave me. Did the other one hatch?”

“Oh yes, yes. Days ago. I named him Tristan—can’t remember where I’ve heard it, but it’s a nice name.” He smiles, turns and continues boxing up his table. “Funny thing, too. Tristan sort of reminds me of you. Needy, mostly.”

I’m aware of many eyes on us, the same two women every week with the beads, the ones who never know what to make of our relationship. Lisa and Pam, their names. One day they asked if Yarrow and I were lovers. Or if we had been. I didn’t know how to respond.

They were there when I first met him. A few months after my husband passed, I walked to this very spot and Yarrow was there selling herbs. He said they were bitter things, but that they promised health. I set my eyes on one of the plants, the tops of it flowering in a yellow that looked like a weakened sunray. Wormwood. It wasn’t one I had seen before. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Yarrow pulling up his shirt. He had one of the plants tucked into his belt. “Very good for the baby,” Yarrow said, pointing to the boy asleep on my back. “It’s got powers.”

He stared at me for a while, his right hand crushing the flowers of the herb in his belt. The yellow stained the tops of his fingers. They were calloused things, workman’s hands. It seemed to be a nervous habit, but one that made him seem stronger, as if he were declaring himself self-sufficient.

“Let’s make a trade. I give you the herbs, you give me your hairtie,” he said.

“That’s an odd request.”

“I’m going to make you something.”

I pulled my hair from its tie. It was a simple brown elastic, fraying in some places and nearly torn in two from overstretching.

“It’s not in the best shape. I won’t be offended if you can’t use it.”

“I’ll think of something.”

He pocketed my elastic and handed me a few of the herbs on the table.

“Take these. Good for tea, better for the baby.”

Lisa and Pam came over then, cooing over the boy on my back, and asked Yarrow if they could have free things, too. They laughed at their own comments, opening up their tote bags to show him what they’d bought so far. I was worried the noise of the digging would wake the boy.

“Don’t worry, ladies,” Yarrow said. “You don’t need these.” He came up behind me then, looked at the boy. “You know, if I didn’t know any better I’d say he wasn’t real. Hardly stirred since you stopped by. What do we call him? Nothing? We can’t have that. Something tells me you already think he’s a little god.”

I stopped his rambling.

“How do you know so much about it?” I asked.

“It shows on your face,” he said. “Like you’re scared for him—or of him. Maybe both. The herbs will help.

I returned home, opened the front door and brought the herbs into the kitchen. I set up a kettle for tea. Protection. I let the wormwood steep.

A week later a handcrafted doll showed up on my doorstep, a fraying brown hairtie wrapped around its throat like a noose. The first gift of many.


Rhonda is in the yard when I arrive home this time, pulling up weeds from the rock garden. Something I abandoned a long time ago. Her right hand is swollen.

“What happened there?” I ask her.

“Yellow jacket, it’s not a big deal. I scared the poor thing half to death, I think!”

She continues weeding. There’s dirt on her jacket, her jeans.

“Remember that time you had the chicken coop, the one that raccoons kept getting into?” I do remember. It was a terrible thing, the way the animal would break in and kill them in the middle of the night. My husband took to keeping a gun by the door so he could run out and scare it off. “Well, I was thinking we should get another one,” she says.

“A lot of maintenance,” I say.

“You’ve got so much land here, it’d just be a shame to let it go to waste, is all. Think about it some more. Maybe we can get this place up and running again. Something to show your son when he comes home.”

I sit in the old mulch, watching bees circle the daisies, and help her with the weeds, egg forgotten.

“Did you get anything good at the market?” she asks.

“No, no, it was just the usual things.” She wipes sweat off of her forehead, leaving behind some dirt. She sees my eyes fog over and grabs my arm once to get my attention.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to see that man, Luca. I know he helped you when I couldn’t and I thank him for that but, he’s not some savior. All of these things are just replacements.”

I nod, tired. The sky looks like rain. There are crows and it’s hunting season. They shouldn’t be in the sky. Rhonda pulls me to my feet.


We had tried to make the boy better, Yarrow and me. Different herbs and rituals. The last one was the strongest, he said, and the first step was a shave. He said a full-body shave was best, that mother and child looking one and the same brought them closer together. I started with my chest, already smooth aside from a few black hairs above my right nipple. I shaved around the three scars on the left side near my collarbone, small indents from chickenpox.

My bellybutton was next, a trail down to my pubic hair that made me hesitate. I couldn’t bring myself to run the blade over the scar on my stomach, where they cut the boy out of me, his body in the wrong order. It felt like I’d be cutting parts of him away, that any blood loss meant the cells of his still in my body would vanish.

Yarrow grabbed the cream from my hand and rubbed it on my stomach. It reminded me of the ultrasound, the boy’s first heartbeat and how my husband cried. I wasn’t sure if he was happy for a healthy boy or because he could hear in that beat his own life leaving. I dropped the razor. Yarrow picked it up and shaved my stomach for me. He continued down my legs and feet. My back. The arms were easy but they clogged my razor a few times.

I closed my eyes when he took a buzzer to the hair on my head. Pictures of shaving the hair of my husband pre-operation. Blue eyes. Freckles. Dry lips.

When he moved to my pubic hair I could tell he was aroused. It was the first time I had ever been afraid of Yarrow.

He finished the ritual, dumped my shaven body in a pool of water, what I imagine a water-birth would feel like, and he said things I didn’t understand. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe through my skin.

Rhonda bathes me now and I keep my eyes open. Feel the sting of it. She says it’s okay, I know. I know.

I had one short-lived happy year with the boy and his concave chest. One year before he started squirming around on the bed like larvae and trying to breathe. After I brought him to the hospital, I remember lying next to Yarrow in bed, whispering into the television’s blue glow.

“I just feel like he’s lonely,” I said.

“Then just try not to feel at all,” he said.


I make another trip to see Yarrow. This time he’s at his table, selling flowers. He tries to hand me a tulip when I reach him, but I keep my hands at my sides.

“What can I do for you, Lu?” he asks.

“Why did you make me that doll?” I ask him, thinking of his most recent gift, the earrings for eyes, how it lorded over the other gifts in the cradle like it owned them.

“Well, you told me you didn’t have a boy. So, I got you a boy.” He turns to a couple that is inspecting his flowers. I wait. They’re elderly, one with a purple-gray wig, clearly a mistake in color. The husband doesn’t seem to mind much, as he buys a rose and hands it to her. Yarrow watches some of the other people around the market, keeping his back to me. I wait. He turns.

“Ah, you’re still here,” he says. I look for something to tell him. Keep him looking at me.

“My mom moved in, a couple of weeks ago,” I say. “She’s trying to get the farm going again, is thinking about getting some chickens.”

“That’s good. How is old Rhonda these days?”

“Fine. Still doesn’t like you very much.”

He starts fiddling with his wares. “Ah, still convinced I made you crazy? You never needed me for that, Lu.”

Crazy. “I’m not.”

“Anybody would be. What’s important is that you get better. So, did you like the doll or not? I thought the earrings were a nice touch, you always said he was made of stars—or was it moons? I can never remember.”

I used to call the boy my moon-laurel. The blond hair—once an image of sunlight—became synonymous with nights awake, the light from the window making him ethereal. Yarrow knew this.

“I just want to know about the egg,” I say. “You said yours hatched. I watch it, I use heat, Rhonda cleans around it, she hasn’t bleached it, I’m sure—I haven’t harmed it. It has its own spot in the nursery.” The more I ramble the more he smiles. “I just want it to breathe.”

Yarrow closes his eyes, breathes deep.

“Like that?” he asks. I wait for him to finish.

“It’s not going to hatch. Hell, if I knew you’d be stopping by the market that day I wouldn’t have had them out at all. But it had been a long time.”

“I was busy,” I say.

“That’s good, Lu. You need something.”

“You give me things.”

“Objects. And that’s all they are.” He looks at me like he’s worried now, eyes scrunched tight. I swear I can see him in reverse stages, this man, shedding bits of skin. I turn my back to him, think about the times I’ve been told that he’s not real. But that breath he took, those breaths, those things, they have heartbeats. Loud, and pulsing.


The path I walk home this time is different than my usual. Oxford Street. The houses are pushed close together here, no room to take a breath. There’s one house at the end of a long driveway that changes the color of its siding once every couple of years. The old lady is always sitting on the porch swing, yelling at passerby with such force she continuously breaks the blood vessels in her right eye. I know the people who live there are unemployed, but that they’ve picked up photography. People in town talk about them and how they’re a bunch of loonies. That talk all started when they held a funeral potluck for the owner’s husband in the front yard. The grandchildren read poetry, using a tree stump as a platform.

Yarrow is the other person the town talks about that way. I’ve never been to his home, he always came to mine, but I think he lives on a dead-end road off this one. The people that have say it looks like a junkyard, a bunch of cut-up soda bottle art hanging from a clothesline in the front lawn.

None of that is important. Yarrow. He’s not important. But the boy.

My house comes into focus and the horseflies start their halo. Rhonda isn’t home. Dolly is silent and the door creaks when I open it. The whole place smells like perfume. I walk up to the nursery, inhaling dust when I enter it. The blinds are closed, only one streak of light reaches through and reflects off the objects in the crib. The necklace, perhaps. I grab a box and shove each item inside of it, carry them to the backyard. Grab a few logs while I’m at it. Begin to chop.

The wooden figures are first, a hack right at the throat. The glass objects break upon impact. And the egg. The paper egg. I cut it right along its words, separate skin from birth. I remember him. I remember my boy, his skin fever-hot and pale, a fiery chariot, the empty mattress I left on the floor for months and months hoping, somehow, it would dip under his weight.

I chop until I hear my mother’s car pull into the driveway. She walks to the backyard and stops, waits for me to throw the axe to the ground and then moves on to Dolly’s stable. She grabs a few pieces of hay from the bale, feeds them to Dolly and strokes her tangled mane. Old girl. “Are you done?” she asks. There isn’t much surprise on her face, not that there should be. When the boy was diagnosed, I started to strip off my clothes in the hospital parking lot, ripping and tearing at the skin on my arms while she soothed me, or tried to, covering me up. She walks over to the objects now, the pieces, hesitates to touch them.

“Go take a shower,” she says. “I’ll clean up here.” In this light it almost looks like she’s smiling.

Rhonda cleans for hours, only stopping when the sun sets. I walk up to the attic when she’s finished and take stock of what I know. There is a boy. He’s mine alone, but isn’t, half-human and hooked up to electricity like its conducting his body to a symphony. He’s alive, growing and decaying all at once—all at once without a mother.

But not me, my mother is lying on her bed reading an Avon catalogue and circling clothing she wants to buy. Whoopie is resting her head on my mother’s foot and Spirit is on the floor near the bottom of the bed, swiping at Whoopie’s tail as it moves.

I walk into the room silently and lie down next to her, place my head on her shoulder and look through the catalogue with her. Neither of us speaks. After a few minutes she takes one hand off of her reading and brushes my hair back from my forehead. I haven’t worn it up in a while.

“Come with me to the hospital tomorrow,” she says. I nod.

My mother pets my head. Starts talking about the chickens, perhaps we’ll get some cows. Remember that time the cows got stuck crossing the railroad tracks down the road? Poor things. We’ll have to find a new pasture for them. We could clear out some space in the back.

I let her drone on and on, a buzzing.

Spirit jumps up on the bed, kneading her way along my legs before she comes to a stop on my stomach. She lies down there and purrs, her body a comforting weight. Tomorrow I will hold him here and feel his skin, his head, not waning. Tomorrow I will feel the boy grow.