Niehaus story
Type
Short Story Prize

Breeding season | First place, VU Short Story Prize

It’s pre-dawn, all dark. Breeding season. Elise wakes just before her alarm goes off, skin sharp in the cold air. She tugs the blankets back across her body, curls her knees in and lets herself – for a moment – think of Dan asleep at home in Brisbane, long limbs spidered into all the corners of their bed. In her mind, she sits across him and kiss-counts the freckles on his shoulder. On his nose. His beard tickles her chin. He exhales warm air through his damp gap mouth and he will never know it, how she runs her hand across his clavicle, sternum, ribs as he sleeps; how she traces the lines of his wrist and hip where the flesh is thinnest, where she might so easily push in.

But the alarm breaches her dream, or whatever this is, and when she opens her eyes his body, his face is gone. It’s been three weeks already, or four, and he’s losing contrast.

Outside, the quiet of a beach town in winter. The truck growls when she starts it, too loud. But many of the blue-hairs are already awake and shuffling toward the sand with their staffies and malteses, and they watch as she rumbles past. Elise doesn’t wave, though she recognises one or two from the supermarket. The bait and tackle. She knows they talk, and for once she doesn’t care. Her roots are elsewhere and, for now, her mind and her life are her own.

Her field site is rainforest, heavy and looming. The rustle of creatures. High up, the sky lightens, but all around her the brush box and strangler figs strain up like fingers from the ground, clutching night between them. As a child she was afraid of the forest, afraid of the dark and of loneliness, of losing her parents to sudden holes in the earth or to wolves dressed as grandmothers. But now her body has become what she fears most, and she carries the wolf inside her, in the folds of her own red cloth.

There’s nothing to fear in the trees or below them.

 

A bright orange ribbon dangles from a low branch, flaccid in the still air. The first trap below it, glinting silver against a greenbrown log. Her legs are strong, her arms, her core, and she crouches in her strong body, picks up the trap and sniffs it. It smells faintly of peanut butter and oats, the ball of bait she dropped in at dusk yesterday. Now the door is closed, triggered by a creature’s weight, the press of its feet on the metal plate within.

But the trap is too light. She pushes the door of it open a crack, peeks in. Empty.

Every one of the three dozen traps is an opportunity, a possibility, and she loves this time of day, when the heavy hard work materialises into little creatures in metal boxes. Even the bush rats are something, stinking of musk and urine, and she tips them out and watches them bound away into the nearest bolt-hole. There are so many places to hide. She cannot fathom how this forest looks to the small mammals, these prey that shuttle from dark to dark, and know every nook.

As she goes, she folds up the empty traps, sets them along the dirt track.

Sometimes, when she releases a melomys – round and brown – it sits on the ground and does not move, as if in paralysis she would not see it. Or maybe, she thinks, it’s resigned itself to death and is waiting for her to swoop down and take it up in her teeth, swallow it in two big, red gulps, head first and tail sliding behind. She cannot leave it there, so exposed. She tries to break its reverie, kicks out toward it with her boot or, if that doesn’t work, she nudges it with her finger until it shakes itself alert and scampers off.

In the third-last trap, there is a pale cricket the size of her thumb.

And then, ten metres from the end of the transect: a pointed snout, double-lobed ears. Mouse- sized, but it’s not a mouse; it’s marsupial, an antechinus. She knows it instantly, and her pulse jumps like Christmas morning.

Like two pink lines.

Tiny claws scrape the walls of the trap. Blood rushes in Elise’s ears as she stands, and she tips the antechinus into a cotton bag and knots the top closed, tucks the bundle under her fleece. Next to her body, the animal struggles for a moment, then stills.

 

The cottage is dingy with laminate floors that buckle toward the centre and reminds Elise of her Nanna, whose thick polyester dresses always puckered to the left, where she had no breast. In the laundry room, a dozen plastic tubs crowd the floor – four animals in each – and she squats among them, unties the white cotton bag, and slips her hand inside. Her fingertips feel for the small soft body, the notch of the neck.

The antechinus bites hard into her thumb as she pulls it into the open air, its sharp teeth press into her skin, but don’t puncture it. Later there will be a bruise, a light purpling, nothing more.

It’s a female. She hasn’t captured a male in at least two weeks, a sure sign they’ve done what they always do at this time of year: fucked themselves to death. Men seem to marvel at the dying, say things like ‘what a way to go,’ or ‘not bad,’ but they don’t see the male antechinuses as they start to sink into their own skin. The pointless walking in wide circles, in the open, where they’re likely picked off by birds or feral cats, because Elise has seen them dying but has never seen them dead. She does not tell her male friends and colleagues this, though. She lets them imagine the rut as explosive, all-consuming. A pleasure.

Gently, she pulls apart the flap of bare skin on the animal’s belly, where the soft brown hair has been licked clean away to form a simple pouch for the babies. And there they are – more than a dozen of them – pink embryos, live orzo, worming their way up, all mouth and arms and skin-bulge eyes. Elise has never seen them this undeveloped, on the climb from uterus to pouch. They are like maggots, so fleshy. She should close up the pouch, but she can’t stop looking at them, watching them struggle. Because she knows this moment, has lived it, has held her own pink child, born and unborn as these are.

 

His name was William, after her brother, and Robert after Dan’s father, though the naming felt like a jinx on the living because he had not lived. They gave him the name because they’d already decided on it, and when he was born he was still a baby, twenty-four weeks and four days a baby, with proper arms and legs and fingers and closed-up eyes and Dan’s nose, and he was still their child though they would never know him as any more than this. He would not cry or fall asleep against her shoulder or walk or tell her he loved her and though she could wrap his fingers around her forefinger, he could not clutch it.

After the birth, she lay on the bed in her green and white hospital gown, Dan beside her, holding her hand. They brought William over to them, to her, wrapped in a small white cloth, and she held him. She held him like she could keep holding him, as though she could pretend it was all right, everything would be all right, he hadn’t died, wasn’t dead, would gasp awake at any second and wave his spindly arms and grapple for her.

She leaned into the coolness of him, the stillness of him, and part of her wanted to reclaim him. She imagined she might somehow reabsorb him into her body, the only world he ever knew and would ever know. Because she took the rest. His world a snapshot. Her motherhood a roll of credits. In all the pictures they have, will ever have, William is tucked against her chest or positioned on her lap in the white cloth and Dan is there but also is not entirely there and William is hers.

As these embryos belong only to their mother. Every father is dead.

 

Elise examines the animal in her hand, counts and recounts until she is sure. There are too many embryos, too few nipples. Ten will find a teat and fuse to it; drink milk and grow. And the others? She has never considered that extras might be made, to fail and die. But will they dry up and fall off, she wonders, or will their mother lean down and nuzzle them with her fine whiskers; lift them into her mouth with her tongue, swallow them whole?

Elise smears Nutella across a slice of toast, licks her finger. She takes a bite and watches the animal investigate the plastic tub. Its movements are fast, jerky; its whiskers twitch. She cannot see the babies underneath – the ones who survived or the ones who didn’t.

She stuffs her clean and dirty field clothes into her duffel and clears out the fridge and cupboard, though she didn’t bring much. When everything else is packed up, she takes the tubs of antechinuses out to the truck and piles them in the backseat, drapes old towels over them to keep it dark, and straps them in with the seat belts, just in case. Some of them are afraid, and they run and run on their mouse-wheels to expend energy, to escape.

On the way out of town, Elise returns to the rainforest trapline to pull down the flagging tape and pile the traps in black plastic bins. They stink of ants, of formic acid. She leans against the truck and listens, savours this last breath of the breeding season. Could she live here? Could she leave the truck and walk into the forest and not look back?

A catbird answers, its long wail like a child’s cry.

 

Though it’s cool, she cracks the truck window and lets the sharp breeze flick strands of her hair into her cheek as she drives. She thinks of flagellation, and a pale man in a movie she saw once, slapping his own back with leather. How his skin seemed to split from the inside outward.

She’ll have to tell Dan soon, can’t keep it from him much longer. She’s lied to him and everyone else, come out here on her own – not one of her students, no volunteers, just her. Because she needed the time to not-think. Because she’ll grow this one properly or her body will cut it off, force it out like the last time and the time before and the time before that.

He wants to get through this together, share the wedge of loss between them. But he can’t fathom that Elise’s body is no longer his, or even hers; that every child she has ever carried was part of her, will always be part of her. He has not known them as she has, built new spaces inside his body for them, and absorbed their DNA into his brain, into his hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, medulla – the centres of memory, emotion, breathing. He has not begun
them and grown them and ended them as she has.

 

It’s dark when she arrives at the lab, parks the truck in the loading zone behind biology, loads the tubs onto a rusty yellow trolley. One of the wheels wobbles as she pushes it up the ramp to the lift, and she thinks of an eye loose in its socket, spinning, a toy clown eye. The halls are empty. It’s rumoured there are cameras hidden around them, anti-theft measures, and she imagines panning lenses or little red lights inside the faces of the taxidermied koalas, wallabies, cockatoos. Seeing everything she is and was and has done and may do.

In a small temperature-controlled room off the back of her lab, Elise slides mouse cages from a special rack, one by one. They have easy-clean plastic bottoms and steel wire tops, a running wheel, a plastic nesting box. She transfers each female to her own cage and the braver ones scurry around, whisker through the shredded paper, push their noses through the bars. The rest disappear into their dens.

Elise feeds the animals herself, presses calcium powder into raw red mince and rolls it between latexed palms. Beef blood stains the white lab bench. She sets a ball in the wire top of each cage, where the occupant can sniff it out and pull it through and nibble it away to nothing. The fleshy smell of the meat and the dusty, papery squirm of the mealworms in their oats and the tiny crickets in clusters on carrot slices and the tang of the faeces is almost too much for her. But she persists.

In a week, every baby is born and every teat is occupied and she selects which females go into which treatment – those that keep all their babies, or some, or none. The choosing is random, a coin toss.

She does the work at night, alone, lab door locked behind her. A blood sample from the mother’s thick neck-vein, a tally of the babies, their sizes.

The ones who keep are returned to their cages.

The rest – well, her belly flutters as she does it, the spin of her foetus, or sadness or guilt, though they are all the same now. She wraps a female in a white and green kitchen towel, face covered and pouch exposed. With forceps, she plucks some or all of the jellybean babies off the teats, drops the tiny pink bodies into small tubes, freezes them for analysis.

For the next three months, she will watch the mothers. Measure, sample, record. She will observe the empty females and the full ones, take blood and milk and measurements, and she will understand how their bodies transform into machines; how they keep from holding back; how they give so much it kills them.

 

Elise’s office is clean and white, too much like the doctor’s office, that first office so long ago, still too clear. She should change things, fill the space with living things – plants or fish – because every time she comes to work she remembers. The doctor, a woman, probably the same age as she is now; little bed, baby blue; shelves and walls showing the insides of people like her – a uterus on a metal rod, a map of foetal development.

She was informed, then, orally and in writing: there was risk of haemorrhage, danger of infertility. Potential danger to subsequent pregnancy.

She was given the probable gestational age of the foetus, shown a picture of a foetus, its dimensions, given relevant information on its potential survival.

At that stage of development. There was little chance.

 

As the antechinuses grow in the lab, and her child grows inside her, Elise’s mind compresses. Apprehensive, she reads the papers again and again, until she knows every syllable, printed and implied. The Clinical Problem the papers say, and the Strategies and Evidence and the Areas of Uncertainty and the Guidelines and the Conclusions and Recommendations. The pages glow in the dim light and the words crowd together: miscarriage spontaneous loss of the conceptus transient elevation of the human underlying disposition elusive uterine malformation vascular insufficiency live birth rejection approach not supported embryonic death common practice balanced skewed confined small deletions or additions your fault your fault your fault.

 

 

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Amanda Niehaus is an American-Australian biologist and writer living in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, AGNI and Noon Annual, and been selected for Best Australian Essays 2017. Amanda is an ARC DECRA Fellow in the sciences and she won a 2017 Varuna residency to work on her novel. Amanda also reads fiction for Overland.

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