Issue 14 – Fall 2020

Cardinals

Helen Park

I suppress another cough because I’m still healing down there. Two inches of stitches, a small squirt bottle and a grocery bag full of hospital-issued sanitary pads. I refuse the painkillers that could help my tailbone (what if they taint the milk?) which I bruised heavily from pushing. Due to the pain I can’t sit down. I walk ad infinitum around the perimeter of our garage- converted apartment while I feed, burp and soothe her. I trudge outside, while the warm bean sleeps in the front carrier, through frozen fields and on the road when the walls of the apartment begin to crawl and wriggle. Very soon my feet go numb; they become heavy, plodding hooves. While the world is still dark and mute, I roam to the window through which I watch the cardinals. Just before dawn, the cardinals begin to take shape out of the blur of night. I stand straight-legged, squinting and spying on them even though my eyes throb from fatigue.

Inevitably, dread starts to rise in tandem with the sun because this grain of time, this tissue-thin slice, will soon be over. Before long I must stumble on my blocks of wood to the bedroom where she is awake, looking up at the ceiling and waiting for me. I must remember to arrange my face before leaning over and looking her in the eye. I must remember to coo, smile, sing and laugh.

She is too young to understand what the flatness of my gaze means. I pick her up and hold her close in order to lock up the screams eking out from my chest. When she latches, I see her tiny jaw click rhythmically as the milk goes down. It might be Tuesday.

I am in the hospital for ten days while she calmly pulses inside. She is in no hurry to leave. Pitocin swims in my veins, the cervical balloon is plunged into me and Cervidil batters my gate. Every twelve hours my body endures a fresh regimen of synthetic agents but nothing phases her—she continues to frolic, hiccup and brush her fingers against the walls. Nothing works until the tenth day, when everything breaks open. I white-knuckle grip the guardrails of the hospital bed while the contractions chew up my hips and abdomen. They finally suction her out after five hours of pushing. What I remember: the painful, strange twiddling of the epidural catheter inside my spinal cord, the dark yellow color of my urine in the bag above me, her tiny bird head stretching out and the carpet of blood splashing onto the white tiled floor.

After playing with her and putting her down for a nap, and after pumping, cleaning and washing all the parts, I wrestle with the eternal dilemma: eat or sleep. Because in an hour it all begins again. Most times I choose to eat because eating grounds the time, turning it tangible, measurable. One bite of a stale brownie: a few seconds. Chewing, savoring and swallowing the chocolate: a couple of minutes. Sipping a carton of Pedialyte or milk: almost ten minutes. I can elongate each morsel in order to gift myself time, whereas an hour of sleep, as everyone knows, never actually feels like an hour. On the couch, I place the suction cups on my chest and stare at

the wall as they chant. My swollen pipes thin out while I try to forget. My increments of sleep top out at an hour since she cluster feeds—she falls so deeply asleep on my breast before she is satiated that nothing I do will wake her. By the time I ease myself into bed, trying not to cry out because of how much each little maneuver ignites my tender tailbone, I must ease out again because she is soon awake with thirst. I pump, bottle feed, breastfeed and freeze extra bags of milk in a semiconscious state; limp, sapped muscles take over any semblance of volition. I pump while we play: I hover over her while topless, a machine whirring away like a second heartbeat. I am afraid to sleep because I am afraid of SIDS—the biggest specter of them all—so I inhabit a hallucinatory twilight while watching her small body through the bars. During frenzied, fretful dozings, I ball up my blanket with sweaty hands. Moments later I wake up startled, my heart hammering, because the wrinkled clump of linen I’m crushing is her, and I can’t find my breath. I force myself to blink rapidly and squint at what I’m holding in the dark. I pull myself out of bed and hobble to the crib to verify. I stand there looking back and forth at what I’m holding and what is lying between the bars, and for a horrifying, nauseating moment, I am unable to distinguish.

My husband buys two steers from Mark on Craigslist. The steers are neither young nor small— they are almost full grown, about 900 pounds each. One of the steers is a Hereford- Angus mix covered in dark brown hair except for his head which is covered in white. The mixed one still has his horns: two slightly curved, pointed shafts about a foot long each. The other steer is a full- blooded, all-black Angus who is larger than his friend. A rapport builds between the steers and my husband since he is the one to check the level of water in their trough and ring the cowbell when he’s about to throw corn over the fence. Most days they hide in the copse of pine trees at the bottom of the hill. My husband has to point them out to me because they remain motionless for so long; their legs are the leaner tree trunks and their faces are the sunlight-spotted leaves crowded in between the limbs. The steers eat and roam the pasture side by side, fur to fur, as though they were yoked to each other. I must sneak up and peek over the hood of the tractor to observe them sifting through straw. I watch them snort and blow dust up from the ground. Their elliptical ears swivel and twitch amidst aggressive circles of flies; their large cloven hooves sink into Virginia’s signature clay soil. How easily those hooves can crush my skull in. They are enormous up close: taut, expansive mounds of muscle in their shoulders and hindquarters bulge and ripple like burrowing snakes or rapid tectonic shifting. Myriad burrs, pollen, bugs, dust, leaves and twigs decorate their coats. Their moist and papillary noses delicately locate the smallest pieces of grain buried under weeds, straw and mud. Although their eyes are perpetually flat, whether grazing in the afternoon sun, glancing at our panting dog or watching us from behind their shelter of pine, I know the fear they carry. I know that it inhabits the steam rising from their backs at night, collects in the excess saliva dripping from their soft ruminant maws and mixes with the half-digested cud in their gut.

My doctor draws a small donut on her notepad. Then she draws a tiny tongue sticking out from the center hole. “This is your cervix, and this—” pointing to the tongue—“is a polyp.” Pffftt! The donut mocks me. “It’s benign, but it may have something to do with your infertility.” My doctor is a petite, curly-haired white woman with high, sharp cheekbones and green eyes.

For some reason, as my general physician, she cannot remove the polyp for me. I have to find an ob-gyn. At a nearby clinic, I am the only woman in the waiting room without the telltale bulge. I am introduced to someone who also happens to be petite and curly-haired but is contrastingly cherub-cheeked with dark brown eyes and raven-shade skin. The day of the removal, my ob-gyn walks in wearing a fitted white dress, a string of pearls encircling her neck. She sits down on a little leather stool, peering between my legs. “Oh, this will be easy,” she croons. In a few seconds, the polyp is cut out even though I don’t feel a thing. She wraps up something small and dark red in a square of gauze and hands the bundle to the assistant. She snaps off her gloves and smooths back her curls. “All done!” She offers a grin while my husband and I stare at her unmarred white dress.

The cardinals outside the window resemble drops of blood upon the bare branches of privet. I want to creep outside to be closer to them, but the February cold chokes the breath out of you. Every morning, my husband pries the lid off the blue plastic bucket, scoops out black birdseed and pours the seed into the feeder. His mouth issues plumes of smoke as he scoops and pours, scoops and pours. The cardinals and other sundry birds—blue jays, woodpeckers, goldfinches, sparrows, pigeons, warblers—empty the feeder in a few hours. From the window, I can’t hear their chirps and calls. When the cardinals decide to flutter onto the ground to scavenge for fallen seed, the violent contrast between their red feathers and the white snow make me remember…but then my stomach gurgles. Was it before dawn that I was sitting on the couch peeling a hardboiled egg, the albumen tearing off with the shell? Did I inhale that assaulted egg just a few hours ago? Maybe it was yesterday. I forget what I was remembering. I look down at my fuzzy pink bathrobe layered in a Pollock pattern of stains: marinara, breastmilk, chocolate, saliva, mustard, blood.

My bathroom countertop is littered with basal thermometers, ovulation test kits, pregnancy test kits and fertility lube. Every month when I see those spots of blood, those hateful spots of blood, I once again sink into the well; I dive to the very bottom and curl up like a pill bug. From way up above goes about the world in a tiny spot of light and echoing noise. Although previously innocuous, my newsfeed now rains sewing pins over my brow with every baby photo I scroll past, and my heart flops around like a hooked fish. I want God, with his tomb-heavy hand, to remove my eyes. I finally decide to get tested at a fertility center. One of the tests is to shoot dye up through your cervix and track the dye’s journey into the uterus and fallopian tubes to see if there are any structural concerns. Online forums assure me the procedure will be excruciating.

As I lie there with my legs up, I grip the large columns on either side with slick palms.

One of the nurses asks me what’s wrong. Our eyes lock in that bone white and sterile room. Large x-ray pillars loom over my splayed, bare body and a thin cotton gown covers just my torso. The florescent lights illuminate the angles of the stainless steel instruments and the dryness of my lips. My voice comes out in tight threads: nothing, nothing. After several tests, the doctor tells us that our infertility is due to “unknown factors.” I barely suppress the maniacal giggles that bubble and pop inside my throat.

My husband tells me that both steers jumped the fence from one penned pasture to another when the slaughterhouse guys tried to shepherd them up the ramp and into the trailer. The slaughterhouse guys will come by and make one last attempt in the morning. That night, my husband tries again and again to guide the skittish pair to the smallest pen behind our shed, where it will be easiest for them to be herded. Both steers continue to jump over the fence when they see my husband slowly advancing. Night falls early in November and that night the moon and stars conceal themselves. Our land turns into a black strip of cloth. My husband sits on a tree stump nearby while the steers stand right outside the gate to the smallest pen. He knows the steers can gore him before he can call for help. If they do not make it to the slaughterhouse, we don’t know what we will do. We don’t have the means to feed and shelter them adequately over the winter. Online forums suggest a straightforward execution—bullet to the head—so they do not suffer unduly. We wait hour after hour, the darkness seeping into our psyches; we replay in our minds the worst case scenario and the roles we would have to play. Just before midnight, the steers finally shuffle in of their own accord. We don’t know what compelled them at that moment to act. The slaughterhouse calls my husband the next day to confirm successful transport. My husband later asks me to pick up the horns from the slaughterhouse. As I rush up to the counter, the smell of old blood envelops me. I ask the rubber-aproned man while she squirms in my arms. The man nods and points around the corner. When I look down the hallway, I see not a pair of cleaned horns but the entire head on an upside-down barrel. The steer’s hair, once a creamy white, is now ash gray. His mouth is slightly ajar, from which his stiff, bloated tongue sticks out like an eel. His eyes are muddy rocks. The head is so much bigger in death. I keep a straight face because the aproned man is looking at me closely. I tell him with a smile that there isn’t enough room in my car so my husband will have to pick it up. During the drive home, every time I glance in the rear-view mirror, I see not her but the head, the bloated, gray head.

Green grass appears outside the window. The soil is soft, wet. The cardinals begin to disappear inside the budding privet. I take her outside and we both notice the different smell rising from the earth. Her eyes remain slits in the bright sun. The privet’s small white flowers
blanket us with a heady, jasmine-like scent. We remain motionless in the fragrance while listening to the cardinals twitch and clean themselves behind the leaves. My eyes tether to her because I am now no longer. I am of her. Only the taut, stinging stitches remind me of a time before this. When we are outside smelling the privet and hearing the rustle of the invisible cardinals, I taste very, very faintly, a note of light, foreseeing a place where I may no longer be in this pain, the roar and puncture of this moment, this story.


Helen Park’s creative nonfiction and poetry appear in The Flexible Persona, Sleet Magazine, Inertia Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Cactus Heart Press, Eclectica Magazine, Visitant Lit, the Asian American Female Anthology, Yellow as Turmeric; Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press, 2008) and others. She is working on her first novel.