In the very beginning, I spent time hoping that the baby would be human and not squirrel or—as I legitimately feared—possum. Why wouldn’t or couldn’t my uterus, an organ lined in risk and chance, twist the signal, cradle the curled body of something else? The embryo of a possum really could have been the one seizing from inside me what little food I swallowed, extracting enough force from soda crackers and grapefruit to thicken its spine and strengthen the battering of its own heart, growing, in other words, big and biological, astounding but scientifically certain. Was there any shape—of body or thought—that my nausea could not accommodate, could not twist and fold? No, I insisted, steadying myself on spinning earth, there was not.
I kept coming upon turned or twisting thoughts, finding them in every tucked-away place, in the smells that sprang from the mouth of the fetus’s father, in the putrid depths of the wool balaclava that gripped my face as I gagged my way to work in the cold. Everything blurred and/or everything sharpened. Either I was growing an animal inside of me, or I was immersed in the prolonged haze of very slowly realizing I’d always been one myself. I had trouble figuring out which. In making eye contact with neighborhood dogs, I could see that I smelled all that they smelled—between us passed blasé looks of species recognition—and so I wondered if, all along, I hadn’t been one of the greatest and most elaborate of fools: an animal who washed and wore clean underwear, who kept a closet full of stylish scarves, scented soaps, lint rollers and razors, who owned and displayed a collection of complicated books. When I gave up on making a final determination, I became overrun with a new and anxious impatience. I just wanted to see it was all. But even this felt physical, like a panicked need for some drug, a craving for blood-red meat.
In brief, I wanted the creature to be something that would belong in a long winter coat and boots. I wanted him to quickly take the form of someone I would take for granted out of some age-old pattern of recognition: this highly unremarkable human, I would announce to whoever would listen, is my dear son. I’d imagine coming upon him on the street in what was then his current state—an eyeless head fused to his chest, the suggestion of a tail still curling behind—and grew uneasy. No, better that he be a balding, middle-aged smoker of unfiltered cigarettes, his newness long ago dried all the way out. Better that he drank, was disappointed often, had a foul mouth. Better that I’d already fashioned for him the least remarkable of destinies than to be growing something I did not recognize at all. And better, too, that I be an old woman contented by the approach of her most ordinary creation than what I really was then—a fearful person full of unexamined thoughts about what is human and what is not, a non-praying person pleading to no one in particular for her boy to be “right.”
When spring came I left the house to be outside, to marvel, at long last, at the beginning of a new season. In a new and much expanded form, I took to the sidewalks. Grass was greening up as daffodils suffused the air with halcyon calm, and strangers, I noticed, began smiling at me in passing, appearing to have gained a glimpse of the tiny new creature they’d already begun imagining in my arms. I had become something like a sign of spring, a spot of good news, a symbol of a not-so-terrible future to come. Stranger after stranger smiled, and it was as if somewhere along the way, I’d picked up a basket full of kittens, the sheer gratuitousness of which was filling even the most cynical of souls with a rambling, exploratory hope. Don’t forget to have your pets spayed or neutered, I said as I gave out the kittens one by one, abandoning myself to smiling into the smiling all around, one part of me pure, glittering Earth goddess, the other part a skeptic turning with bewilderment toward the public arrival of so much impulse, toward the bare broad side of everybody’s instinct for hope.
To fill the days, I also began chronicling the milestones not mentioned in the pregnancy books piled atop my nightstand. No one had yet written, Congratulations! At twenty-five weeks of gestation, your tiny baby’s capacity for outsized resentment is already beginning to form! But I drew it in myself, realizing that I’d already given rise to the exact moment when I’d be driving the car and he, the son, would be next to me, wearing his teenaged self like the world had nothing but room for it. I’d be driving, turning, braking, and otherwise thinning myself out on the logistics of taking good care; and he’d be quietly filling with disgust, thinking of my outdated hairstyle first, then my stained and pilled sweater, then the way I listened to public radio in the car like it was an act of virtue absolving me from the sin of living a life without any discernible impact at all—not on American foreign policy, not on election outcomes, not on genocides, inequality, or torture. But mostly he is annoyed with me for loving him even now, in this ungenerous moment, when he deserves it, he half-suspects, the least. Thanks for the ride, he will say without meaning it, before getting out, growing up, not coming to realize (until a damp day in November of 2034) that I too had always been capable of quietly wishing him gone. Was there any moment this body had not already begun? Any possibility left, as of yet, unborn? There is not, I called up with conviction from the airless burrow of my bed.
In the last to final days I took to groaning in private, at home. I summoned food from where I lay. I wondered if the entire project would ever be done, if any of this would ever be named and normal, if our bodies would ever be made tidier by separation. And then one night in early summer, I completed the transformation, morphing momentarily into animal so that he could be born human and tiny and quivering, his mouth bleating out the disgruntled sound of a brand new apprehension. He was stacked on top of me, chest to chest, where he kept low and held on tight. And when the nurse—who looked to me so clean and comfortable in her many cotton layers—told me it’d be easier next time, I could not decide if the words were for me, or what the meaning was of this casual next time.
So then the baby and I had become two bodies. Separate, we grew addicted to looking, to recognizing and being recognized, to keeping this loop going all day and all night. And then, being very busy with the looking and the diapering and the swaddling, it seemed only natural that I should also cease feeling nauseated with something like a sudden and unexplained lack of interest. I closed the front door on the varmint squirrels, the itinerant dogs, the ancient old women who continued to flank my house on all sides—they who so delighted in turning my mind in their farts and their complex underarm smells, in the whiskers they held aloft on the same rotting breeze. In the end, I was weary. Enough, I said, enough, and then looked hard at my brutal little baby until it no longer seemed possible that he or any of the others had ever been inside. And so just like that, I lost track of the mammoth we once made—but saved for posterity; the memory of my body’s great confusion; how, for one lucid moment, almost anything could have come of this.
Krista Eastman‘s essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, New Letters, Witness, and many other journals. Her work has earned a Notable Essay citation from Best American Essays, among other honors. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Animals” by Krista Eastman was first published in the Fall 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review Online.