The night Fran went into pre-term labor, numerous guests arrived at her desert dwelling, after having travelled from near and far in their annual north-to-south migration. Her house, usually bereft of outside influences aside from what her husband brought home from work, suddenly filled to capacity with the swaying laughter of friends. If she had more closely resembled her friends, she might herself be a migratory bird. Instead, she had clipped her own wings along with the wings of the cooped-up chickens in the backyard.
She was only a few months along. How many, she couldn’t say. She didn’t have a proper sense of cycles; even her friends’ arrivals were a mystery to her. They walked in her door when they did, and that was all she knew. Her husband’s comings and goings often held this same air of randomness and, although he disconcerted her, the surprise of his tall, blue-uniformed presence walking through the door excited her empty mind. She wasn’t, after all, alone in the universe.
The pain hit her with its own random pattern. One moment, she was standing at the open door, and the next, she was doubled over in pain. She unfolded herself and gamely greeted the others; she was about to shut the door again against the onslought of uncharacteristicly rainy weather, when her tall husband swept through it with his best friend James, a male member of the migratory birds. How the randomness struck a river of peace in her soul! She beamed at the men, and then her waters broke. The fluid slid down her legs and ran in a winding fashion across the yellow, hexagonal kitchen tiles.
She stared down at the water spotted with white mucosae, then allowed her eyes to peer down at the small bump on her belly. From this perspective, without the water to distend her abdomen into a balloon, she could see the shape of the baby inside her. One of its elbows jutted out in the form of a chicken wing. She touched the elbow, felt it nudging her, and then jerked her hand away. Panicking a little, she held her hands away and watched the various baby bones mold her skin as though she were made of plasticine.
“What should I do?” she asked to no one in particular, considering her husband had ushered the group upstairs, where the space was warm and dry against the cool shadows of rainclouds. “Will I have to go through labor now?”
She wandered up the stairs. “Will I have to go through labor now?” she repeated.
Her husband kept his usual calm demeanor as he gently, with the tips of his fingers, caressed the baby under her skin. “Would you like me to check at the hospital for you? James and I just came from there, but we’ll go again if you’re frightened.”
While she waited for the men’s return, she served her guests glasses of iced tea and chatted to them about this or that. Her mind was generally so empty that the mere act of speaking to these people created a world for her to live in. Their words, however, meant little to her emptiness. It didn’t change her landscape at all, not even when the woman with the short black page-boy hair related her experiences in dentistry school. The woman had met her husband while drilling his teeth. Fran envied this woman, but she couldn’t remember why.
When the conversation waned, Fran peered out the small window at the peak created by the sloped roof. Outdoors, the desert grasses were wild and wet and patchy. Under the large cottonwood sat the chicken coop with the red birds. In the front cage, where the chicks usually scratched around, the rain had filled the space and turned a haven into a sludge hole from which the yellow birds couldn’t escape. In fact, now that she focused on the sight of the yard, she heard the distinct squawking of the hens, who were in terror for their young.
What would she–or could she do? Why had her husband and James not returned? She tapped on the rain-spattered glass. “They’re drowning,” she moaned, and lifted the baby in her belly with her cradling arms. The way the baby clutched at her skin told her it didn’t want to be lifted. It was an alien inside her, an alien that might consume her if she didn’t soon give birth to it.
“We’ll go with you,” the black-haired dentist assured her, and Fran believed her because she could see, out of the corners of her eyes, their female shadows on the stairwell wall.
Outside, the women grabbed at the mud-soaked chicks whose wings were set like plaster, and flung them into the larger coop. The chicks probably wouldn’t last the deluge, but they’d have a fighting chance in the larger cage with their mothers, which was not likely to be the case for Fran’s baby. Her friends gently guided her back inside, where they streaked mud on the hexagons. Fran’s mind swam dizzily around the muddy shapes until the six edges met her waters, which were still heaped in a puddle on the floor.
When the men returned hours later, the others’ children had been tucked up on bunk beds in the upstairs region, in that attic space hung from the eaves. They said nothing to Fran about what they had learned from the hospital, and she dared not ask. If it was important enough, her husband would inform her of what she was to do. And so she side-stepped the waters downstairs while fetching food, and then walked up and down the stairs in agitation–for spoons, for forks, for cups. Around midnight, she pointed to the lines of rain dripping near the bunk beds where the children slept.
“The rain will drown the children,” she said.
The women looked at her–the flock of migratory birds perched in her upstairs space–and tried to move on with their ordinary conversation, which slipped through Fran’s head like water. Much to her relief, she realized the outside lamp had merely cast the shadow of falling rain on the wall behind the bunks, but it seemed so real to her, so very real. She hugged her abdomen and the little alien creature within her. She could no longer feel the baby at all. Its wings no longer molded her skin, and dismay filled the empty space. Or was that completeness she felt? Perhaps she was the alien who had consumed her own little bird.