A new short story by Ceridwen Dovey, winner of the 2014 Queensland Literary Award for her collection Only the Animals.By Ceridwen Dovey.
Ceridwen Dovey’s Butterfly Gorge
I go to a Russian doctor at the medical centre who is not impressed at all. He says, “Do you want to keep it?” I walk out the back entrance into the sun and call your father from a payphone. “Are you sitting down?” I say, a line I’ve always wanted to wield on him.
Coffee with Mum. Her dramatic joy sets off my own, the secret of it.
I see a movie alone that night. Already I identify with the parents in the film when the daughter gets married. Just a day before I would have identified with the daughter.
I eat two lunches for weeks. My brain goes fuzzy as if it’s wrapped in a winter blanket and somebody is sitting on it. My first public vomit, regurgitated muesli into my handbag, staggering off the bus, abandoning the bag, trying in the rain to find a cab to take me home, and starting the day all over again.
First scan, Mum says not to do it, the technology too experimental, but I have to know there is really something alive in there. Sonographs: a squeaky noise when you hiccup, then the whoosh whoosh of my blood flowing through the placenta, and then, after a nervous while, your rapid heartbeat. Second scan, you are cut into pieces by the machine, a brain, a heart, two little kidneys, and then – a boy. Though I have known that from the beginning.
I decide to get rid of the new dining room table. It smells chemical, toxic, becomes my mortal enemy until it is gone. My core temperature rises like a furnace. I go for a bra-fitting in the ladies’ undergarments section of Myer, where a woman cups my naked breasts in her hands and closes her eyes to concentrate.
Your father and I go camping in the Northern Territory, our last hurrah – last in many ways. I puke by the side of waterholes and creeks, mindful of crocodiles. Awful hot days in shadeless, waterless campsites. The sickly smell of the Esky, its ice melted, the lettuce wilted, the cheese floating in water.
On the way into Butterfly Gorge we pass rusty signs that say not to swim.
But it is too hot to pay attention, and the signs are old. There is nobody else there. We swim across the gorge. On the other side is a rotten smell, something dead and fishy in the water. We climb up to the higher secret waterholes just because the guidebook says to do it. I know we have to get back across that gorge, through that still water. Terror, thinking of what is waiting for us.
Your father jumps back in and sets off across the gorge. He swims crawl all the way to the sandy bank and wades out slowly. He laughs at me when I call out that I can’t move, can’t swim back. Laughs, then – an hour later, me still stuck on the rock ledge, too terrified to move – he gets angry. Says we still have to climb all those hot rocks to get back to the car, that I am wasting time.
Something breaks in my feelings for him then and I know I can never fix it. I have been waiting for him to let me down all along, and it comes as a relief. Nothing as complex as cheating, something more basic, more disappointing, a lack of courage, a lack of real care. He cannot imagine what it feels like to be me.
I don’t remember swimming back across Butterfly Gorge. But I must have done it, for I am here now, and you are here, and we survived. I do remember the silent car journey back to the parched campsite, the way we ate our grilled chops in anger, side by side.
It isn’t until Christmas that the nausea disappears and in its absence comes a strong desire to be alone, to raise you alone. So I put on my make-up one morning and leave.
I’m okay for a while after moving in with Mum and Dad, until my feet won’t fit into any of my shoes, and I realise I may never share my bed with a man again. Dad’s stony face across from me at every meal. He can’t hide his disapproval – but he asks me nothing. Mum understands, though I don’t tell her about Butterfly Gorge. I tell nobody about that.
I look in the mirror in my old room, the room where I grew up, and watch the fat gathering on my chin, my arms, my calves, even on my knees. It is nothing but interesting. By 38 weeks I am impatient. I cross off the last thing on my To Do list, tear the list into four neat pieces, and expect you to come the very same day as if you can tell the coast is clear. You stay inside.
I don’t tell Mum I’m going to try acupuncture. The place is horrible, one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling burning my eyes. The guy – old, white – uses an electric current machine attached to the needle in my hand and ankle. I don’t go back.
At home, I do visualisations as the midwife said to do and each time a different image comes to me: of the sun shining through and warming my cervix, of a marshmallow being squished thin and then pulled outwards, and then, out of nowhere, an image of myself dressed in karate gear doing high kicks inside my own belly, stronger than I ever knew.
At dinner Dad asks me how I’m going to support myself and a baby and he says the words as if they taste bad. But I do have a plan for you and me. We’ll move up the coast, where Mum and Dad and I used to go camping. A place that has always made me feel luxuriant, nourished like a leafy plant. A good place to grow a human being.
Your father disappears overseas. He doesn’t send postcards but I hear from a friend that he is in Argentina, learning the tango.
I go for long walks around the neighbourhood of my childhood. Each time I steal lavender from the same bush. And one day, at the end of the summer, I notice there are hardly any stems left. They’ve all been picked.
Some of the women in Eucalyptus Group go into labour early, because of the full moon and the sudden drop in temperature. But not me.
I wake from a dream about my waters breaking to find they have broken. I sit on a pillow in the kitchen with Mum. She and I have breakfast and I call the hospital and the midwife says to labour at home as long as I can. The cramps become contractions and come into themselves. I pace outside in the sun, imagining that the warmth on my back is helping.
I go very silent with Mum from midafternoon, eyes closed, until suddenly I decide we need to go to the hospital. Dad is home by this stage, has taken himself off into the shed in the back to tinker away at something. He wants nothing to do with any of it. I lose my focus because I start to wish I had his blessing.
It feels good to get out of the house, a shocked neighbour saying over the fence, “The baby’s coming.” Ya think? Mum drives. At the hospital, she leaves me with the midwife in a birthing room – very quiet, the rooms around it empty.
The midwife runs a bath. I get in and have the first pushy feeling, which is like an exorcism, my whole body thrown back into an arch. The midwife sitting on the toilet seat is very calm and not that helpful.
When she says I can touch your head, I don’t feel anything except: out damn baby, out, out. A shoulder, and she says, “Catch”, and up you come underwater, surfacing, white, fatter than I expected, grumpy old man’s face, and up onto my chest. You look directly at me, frowning.
The midwife snips the grey cord and takes you, and I lie back in the bath and start to shake. The water is getting cold. She cleans you in the basin and eventually I make it out of the bath. I am freezing.
Later, warm in bed, the midwife asks if I want tea and I say, “English breakfast, please,” and she laughs and says, “Where do you think you are, in a hotel?” Mum comes in and sits on the bed, bursts into tears looking at you on my chest.
For days I dread Mum leaving me alone, and then one day I realise I have to let her go, and distance myself from her so that I can grow strong again. She knows it or feels it, and it makes us both sad.
Late one afternoon, I drive to the pharmacy for nappies, the first time I can get up the courage to drive you anywhere. Sore, aching, my whole life in a flimsy car parked at the petrol station. You’re asleep and I decide it’s safer to leave you in the car with the window cracked and cross over three busy roads to get to the pharmacy. It’s getting dark, everyone’s driving like maniacs, and the woman in the pharmacy asks me, “When are you due?” She tries to sell me cheap lanolin ointment, a man shouts at his daughter in the shop for knocking over some cartons and I think, meanly, desperately: If something should ever happen to my child instead of yours …
I see a tragic-looking man waiting for the traffic light to change and I think, he too was once a tiny baby with a mother who cared enough for him that he survived. Each person I see makes me think: you were a tiny baby, and you too, and you too, we all were. How did we all survive? How did our mothers survive this? Even the unloved among us were kept alive. This alone is extraordinary. Mum says it’s the hormones, dismisses it all when I come home in tears.
She plants and waters the jacaranda sapling that I brought home from the hospital. An old maternity ward tradition, to give one to each new mother, which is why so much of Sydney blooms purple in the spring.
I’m gathering my energy – slowly, very slowly – for the journey to our tropical nest. One day. Soon. I sniff you (toasted coconut) and groom you like a cat. Your skin peels off at growth lines at your wrists and ankles. Your startle reflex is strong – a sudden starfish, a maestro conducting an imaginary orchestra, a priest throwing out his arms in blessing.
Another surprise. Dad feasts his eyes on you from across the room. Once, just once, he asks to hold you.
You are asleep in your crib, and I sit on the bed and cut and core a pear on a plate.
A simple moment of pleasure, of respite, cutting a ripe pear into fours. I don’t have time to eat a single piece.
Next week: an exclusive short story by Tim Winton continues our summer reading.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Butterfly Gorge". Subscribe here.