After the Dam

Amy Hassinger

December 8, 2016 
The following is from Amy Hassinger's novel, After the Dam. Hassinger is the author of Nina: Adolescence and The Priest’s Madonna. Her writing has been translated into five languages and has won awards from Creative Nonfiction, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Illinois Arts Council. Her work has appeared in numerous venues, including Creative Nonfiction, The Writers’ Chronicle, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Rachel swallowed. The news had gone to a commercial—a glossy-haired woman with sparkling teeth was holding up a package of squeezable yogurt, her apple-cheeked kids smiling at the kitchen table. Rachel looked down at Deirdre, nose smashed into boob. Flakes of yellow skin still clung to her scalp. The doctors told her it was cradle cap, a normal infant condition that she’d grow out of it eventually. They just needed to keep her head clean and scrub it with a special plastic brush. But Rachel couldn’t bring herself to use the hard bristles on Deirdre’s scalp, so the flaky yellow stuff had stuck around. Every time Rachel looked at it, her insides clenched. She worried she’d screwed everything up already, given her baby a lifelong skin disorder.

“I’ll think about it, Dad. But I’ll warn you, that’s not saying much. My thoughts are not terribly cogent these days. Thinking looks a lot like dozing, or drooling, actually, staring into space like a catatonic—”

“You’ll get through this stage, honey. You’re paying your dues now. Later you’ll reap the rewards.”

“That’s what they tell me.”

“Give Michael my best. And kiss that little girl on both cheeks for me. Tell her not to forget her Grandpa Chris.”

They hung up. Rachel set the phone on the desk beside her and picked up her water glass, beaded with condensation. She sipped, watching Deirdre’s eyes flutter beneath closed lids. The moving images on the television cast a pattern of changing light on Deirdre’s skin like sunlight dappling a lake. The Farm. Rachel hadn’t been to the Farm since the wedding. God, eight years ago. Was it really that long? She smelled again the pine needles drying in the sun, saw the blue lake wink between the trees, heard the eagles chirp their fire-alarm chirp from the nest above the house. She felt the evening wind blow off the lake through the screen porch, where they’d gather for cocktails—or tonic on the rocks when she was young. And Grand, too—her tanned skin and smart, laugh-lined eyes, her silky grey hair. She’d curl on Grand’s lap in that evening wind as the sunlight dropped through the trees. She’d listen to the murmur of the grownups and trace finger lines in the condensation on Grand’s glass. Grand always smelled of the lake.

“Rachel?” Michael stuck his head in the study. “Dinner’s ready.”

Dinner was a piece of broiled salmon, some rice, a couple of spears of broccoli. Deirdre slept in the vibrating chair by Rachel’s feet. They ate in silence, utensils clinking against the ceramic plates. Finally, Rachel spoke. “Dad wants me to drive up to the Farm and spy on Grand.”

Michael looked up, his mouth full of salmon. He swallowed, sipped his water. “Spy?”

“Apparently Grand said something about leaving Diane the Farm, and he wants me to go check it out.”

Michael picked up his fork. “Remind me who Diane is?”

“Diane Bishop. Joe’s Mom.” Rachel studied her plate; it had been thirteen years, and she still had a hard time saying Joe’s name in front of Michael. “She’s been Grand’s live-in nurse since she got sick.”

“Oh. That Diane.” They chewed in silence a moment longer.

“That would be kind of a radical move, wouldn’t it?” he said. “Restoring the land to Native ownership? I mean, even for your ultra-progressive grandmother.” This last comment was tongue-in-cheek; they were all, in Rachel’s family, ultra-progressives, and Michael topped the list.

“It would.”

“Does he think Diane pushed Grand into it or something?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Anyway, it’s insane. I can’t go to the Farm.”

“Of course not. Summer session starts tomorrow. I’ve got to teach.”

“Well, he thinks I could go by myself.”

“That doesn’t seem like a good idea. You’d have to stop every two hours to feed Deirdre. It’s bad for the baby’s development to keep her strapped in an infant seat for more than three hours at a time, particularly when she’s awake. She needs to make eye contact with you, feel you holding her.”

“I know, Michael. I’ve read all the same books as you.”

“If Grand wants to leave the Farm to Diane, let her. I mean, that’s what should be done with that place. Give it back to the rightful owners.”

Rachel grabbed the salt and sprinkled her soggy spear of broccoli. Michael had left it too long in the steamer.

“You know how I feel about it,” he added.

“I do indeed.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He squinted at her from behind his Lennon-style glasses.

“Only what I said. I know how you feel about the Farm. We all—the whole family—know how you feel about the Farm.” She tossed her fork on the table and put her forehead in her hands.

“Whoa, Rachel. What’s going on?”

“I’m just exhausted, as usual. Anyway, I’m not going. So please don’t start haranguing me about the Farm, because I’m just not in the mood.”

He cut another piece from his salmon. “No one’s haranguing anyone.”

“Good.” She took a mouthful of rice and chewed it distastefully before dousing the pile with soy sauce. She could feel Michael’s eyes on her, on the amount of soy sauce she was squirting from the bottle, could feel his brain tallying up the milligrams of sodium that would pass into her breast milk and soon salt the tender cells of Deirdre’s esophagus, stomach, intestines. She set the bottle down, hard, on the table.

They chewed.

“Have you spoken with Susan yet?” Michael asked.

“No, for Christ’s sake. I haven’t spoken with Susan.” Susan was the therapist she’d seen when they’d first moved to Illinois and Rachel had been struck with a series of panic attacks.

“I just think it might not be a bad idea, Rach. Just to get a baseline for what’s normal.”

“I know you think that, Michael. You’ve only told me that about five hundred times.”

“Ok. Well . . .”

“Michael, the fact is that people, when they are tired and not sleeping, tend to get cranky. Also, it so happens that when people feel sad, they cry. And when they are sleep-deprived and sad, they cry a lot. Crying and exhaustion are not evidence of postpartum depression, they’re evidence of being a human being. And as I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in close to four months, it’s pretty natural that I might be a little touchier than usual.”

“Rachel, please don’t take it personally.”

“How can I not take it personally? You’re telling me I’m crazy.”

“I have never once said that. I’m just concerned. It’s the tears, yes. And this sudden obsession with the news, with every grisly catastrophe out there.”

“I’m just worried about that poor teenage mom. She’s probably scared to death.”

“Rachel. Honey. All I’m saying is that you’ve been unhappy for a while now, and that it couldn’t hurt to just talk with someone about how you’re feeling. Susan helped you before. You liked her. Maybe she would help you now.”

Rachel glared at him. “What would help me is a good night’s sleep.” She forked another sodium-soaked mound of rice into her mouth, watching for his wince.

“Listen.” He set his fork down on his plate. “Why don’t you go lie down? See if you can rest. When Dee wakes up, I’ll give her a bottle from the freezer.”

She rubbed her eyes. “Actually, that sounds perfect.”

“In fact, I’ll take all the feedings tonight, if you want. You can sleep all the way through.”

“God, that would be so amazing, if it were possible.”

“It’s completely possible. Give it a try.”

She pushed her chair back and went to kiss Michael on the top of the head. His scalp smelled of dried sweat. “Thanks. Sorry for being such a bitch.”

“You’re not a bitch.” He squeezed her hand. “Go on, before she wakes up.”

Rachel dragged herself up the stairs. She brushed her teeth, then stared in the bathroom mirror. Her face looked unfamiliar to her still—fatter than usual, and strangely discolored. Pregnancy had made her freckles flare into patches of brown around her mouth that looked as if she hadn’t bothered to wash in a few days, which was probably true, actually. She washed now, scrubbing at the spots to no avail. The same hormones had also made her normally slight mustache grow thicker and more non-fictional. That, plus the bags under her eyes, and she was a perfect candidate for those “before” shots in the women’s magazines, the ones where they deliberately poured a bottle of grease in the woman’s hair and told her to look as if her best friend had just killed herself. Welcome to motherhood! Baggy eyes, sore tits, and a brand new bitchy attitude to enchant your husband with!

Rachel trailed her fingers along the wall on the way to the bedroom. She couldn’t believe it had actually been eight years since she’d been to the Farm. The Farm had been her favorite place in the world when she was a kid. She’d spent every summer, all summer there, tramping through the woods, swimming in the lake, running barefoot over the open lawn, all with Joe. Even now, every time spring hit and the chance scent of pine needles warmed by the sun graced her nose, she would yearn to go back there, feel that old hunger of the heart.

And now Grand was up there, dying, and Rachel was down here, scorched to her soul by motherhood. And why couldn’t she go, really? It would be a trial, the drive, but it was only one day of her life. She could manage it. And would it really be such a bad, morally corrupt thing, after all, to visit her grandmother on that land? To walk those old woods? Dip her body in that lake?

She tossed her clothes on the floor, pulled on her nursing nightgown, and fell on the bed in a sudden swoon of longing, tears fresh on her cheeks. A moment later, she was asleep.

* * * *

In her dream, Rachel rocked in a cane-backed rocker like the one at the Farm. The carpet at her feet grew damp, then soggy, then submerged. The water rose, inch by inch, up the legs of the pine coffee table and the wicker couch, covering the brass piano pedals. Soon it reached the coffee tabletop; the cork coasters bobbed away like driftwood. Sheet music floated from the upright, big white lily pads. Rachel continued to rock, watching, until it became clear that she held a baby in her lap, a baby who patted the water as it pooled around her thighs and belly. The water rose and Rachel rocked, and when she next looked down at the baby, now submerged up to her neck, she saw that it was not Deirdre but a miniature Grand, with Grand’s soft tanned skin and adult eyes, staring back at Rachel with resignation, as if this were the fate she’d always envisioned for herself.

Rachel woke with a start, her heart racing. Next to her, Michael snored in his steady, unruffled way. The house was silent. Everything was fine.

She turned on her side and felt the ropy rigidity of her breast as it pressed into the mattress. Her breasts were engorged. Michael must have fed Deirdre a bottle before he went to bed, which meant that Deirdre wouldn’t need to eat for a while yet. Mastitis could set in if you let the milk build up. She should probably get up and pump, replace that used bottle of freezer milk. But then, what if Deirdre woke up just after she’d pumped? Rachel would be empty. They’d have to use another bottle of freezer milk, and their supply would start running low . . .

She slipped out of bed and padded to Deirdre’s room. The fancy nightlight—a gift from Rachel’s parents—cast a slowly-rotating simulacrum of the starry sky across the ceiling. Deirdre was slumbering in Zen-baby mode, arms and legs splayed, face slack. Rachel marveled at the delicate precision of Deirdre’s features: the tiny perfection of her upper lip, as if its heart-shaped rise had been painted on with a fine-hair brush, the moon-like fullness of her cheeks, the single black curl at her forehead. (The dark room hid the flaking yellow skin.) She was beautiful, her baby, this madly growing thing Rachel had nourished for nine months, and was still nourishing now, day by day, feeding by feeding. She was absurdly proud of this achievement—of feeding her child—prouder than she was of almost any other accomplishment in her life thus far. It was ridiculous, really, because it was only biology. All she had to do was eat and drink and stick her boob in the kid’s face every couple of hours. Still, breastfeeding made her feel magical, like Wonder Woman. It certainly beat the pants off slaving over a master’s thesis on the environmental impact of small-scale embankment dams, her most recent so-called accomplishment.

Deirdre’s face flickered like a flame, from total slackness to a fleeting smile, a fluttering of the eyelids, and then her tongue began working, making that involuntary sucking motion. And Rachel knew, all of a sudden, that she had to go. She had to go north to the Farm. She had to see Grand, to introduce Grand to this child—her child!—before it was too late.

She watched the play of expressions across Deirdre’s face as she might watch a fire and thought it through. She could leave in the morning. It wouldn’t take long to pack—the diaper bag, the Pack ‘n Play, an extra bag of diapers. The baby front pack. Throw some clothes in a bag for herself. Well, and she’d want the vibrating chair, too, since Deirdre slept in that so well. And the nursing pillow. Oh, Christ, it was already getting ridiculous, all the gear she depended on. Women had been doing this for millennia, before Target’s infant department ever existed. How did mothers in Mongolia do it? They fucking strapped their babies to their backs while they forked in the hay. What did she need a vibrating chair for?

She turned back to her own bedroom, where she stood in the doorframe. Michael, as always, was sleeping the sleep of the dead, his body as erect lying down as it was standing up. Michael always kept himself utterly straight. It was partly his years of yoga practice and partly his skinniness that made him look so stick-like, but it was also just him—his total rectitude. Michael was as straight as they came. It was funny and sweet, sometimes, and at other times maddening, but right now, it made her panic. He would not allow her to go. He wouldn’t forbid her—he would never presume to do that—but he would insist, in his calm, reasonable way, that it simply wasn’t a good idea. If she was so set on going, then why not wait until summer session finished, three weeks out, and then he’d go with her, just this once, just so Grand could meet Deirdre, and Rachel could say goodbye. And this would make so much sense that she would feel like an unreasonable whiny bitch if she complained. But the fact was that Rachel wanted—needed, all of a sudden—to go, and to go now. Three weeks might be too late. Grand was losing ground every day. A week ago, Grand had barely recognized Rachel’s mother. She wondered if she would even recognize her. She couldn’t wait three weeks. It had to be now.

Flushing with adrenalin, Rachel tiptoed to the closet, where she found their big duffle, and began stuffing clothes into it—handfuls of underwear, balls of socks, a grab of shirts and pants. The baby front pack. No time to dress—she’d change later. Quietly, she stepped into Deirdre’s room, where she crammed a full bag of diapers, some onesies and little infant pants and hats into the duffle. She lugged the bag downstairs, filled a water bottle, grabbed a package of sunflower seeds, her purse and her cell phone, then shushed out the back door to the car. Michael would be fine without the car; he biked everywhere anyway. She stowed everything in the trunk, then unlatched the car seat from its base.

Back inside, she tiptoed up the stairs, giggling silently. She couldn’t believe she was doing this, she was actually doing it. She set the seat on the floor of Deirdre’s room, and then, as noiselessly as possible, lowered the side of the crib. Clasping Deirdre to her chest, she knelt before the car seat, and gently, ever-so-gently, laid Deirdre in its curve. Deirdre’s tongue fluttered, but she slept on. One at a time, Rachel slid Deirdre’s arms beneath the straps, then held her breath and snapped the latch closed. The click resounded in the silent room. She froze, listening for Michael. All was quiet.

Once again, she padded down the stairs, hefting the car seat with two hands. At the back door she slid on her clogs, gave one last look around the dark kitchen, and then escaped into the night.



From AFTER THE DAM.  Used with permission of Red Hen Press. Copyright © 2016 by Amy Hassinger.

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