Excerpt from Reinventing the Rose
Click on cover to order the Canadian edition of the novel:
A Doctor Sues to Terminate his Girlfriend's Pregnancy
as 'Return of Property.'
as 'Return of Property.'
Reinventing the Rose (available June, 2011 from Dundurn Press)
Anna: February 16, One Night in a Bed
The surface of the water mattress wavers as Kevin’s weight leaves the bed.
Anna lies there, her heart rate barely elevated. She senses her body afloat, warm water sloshing beneath her, the movement seeming to carry her off when she closes her eyes. Yet as the undulations slow, she finds herself stilled, contemplating the senselessness of the sex act, the feeling of remove so oppressive it threatens to obliterate her.
Opening her eyes, she sees through the bedroom doorway. Light flashes on in the bathroom, then slowly withdraws and is smothered as Kevin shuts the door.
Anna’s eyes shift to the candle flame on the bedside table. A fly circles the flicker, its slow drone wavering in a pattern of spirals, until it settles on the wall. Strange to see a fly this time of year, considering the coldness outside. It should be in hibernation, or whatever it is called: dormancy, Anna thinks the word might be.
Watching the winged black dot, she feels peculiarly isolated.
The fly lives a life nothing like hers. It is designed for other purposes, alien and preposterous.
A sensation between a tingle and a flutter spans out from Anna’s centre. Her eyes explore the ceiling while she wonders on the impression. It is new to her, and especially unusual, for she has been going through a period of unfeeling, of emotional numbness toward people and observations, a pervasive inner blankness that is a by-product of deep indecision.
Kevin’s voice sounds from in the bathroom, the muddle of his words kept purposefully low as though spoken in conspiracy.
Then the murmur stops and Anna hears him gargle for so long that she almost smiles. He spits and rinses out the sink. She imagines him checking to make certain he has not left a mess and everything has been cleaned up to his satisfaction.
The bathroom door opens, spilling light onto the scene.
Kevin returns to the bedroom and searches for his shirt. His actions are clipped. He already has his pants on and is always quick to cover up once out of bed. “I have to go.”
“Yes,” he says shortly, finding his shirt on the back of a wicker chair. “Called in the bathroom.”
“Paging Dr. Prowse,” Anna mutters, as the fly lifts off, buzzing while it drifts near the right side of her face, then toward the door and out into the hallway. “The miracle of cell phones.” She takes notice of the cactus on the night table beside the candle that has been instrumental in setting the tone for supposed romance. When was the last time I watered it? she thinks. Three or four days ago? She watered the other two plants in the living room at the same time. Yet if she guesses three or four days, she knows that a better approximation would be ten or twelve. The days a blur to her. Despite her neglect, the cactus’s bristly red bulbs appear healthy and succulent, about to burst with life.
Where the pot meets the plate beneath it, a tangle of delicate white roots is evident, edging out of the confining space where they once thrived in dirt.
The sight of the roots burdens Anna, a weight pressing on her chest.
Why must I be responsible?
The plants were all gifts from Kevin, and she is not a plant person. Every plant she has ever owned has wound up in the garbage, its leaves, stalks, and soil desert dry. Why not just give them all away to a more responsible care-giver? Drop the drooping plants off on the doorstep of an SPCA for greenery.
She turns her attention to Kevin’s back, the way the muscles and tendons tense and relax in the limited light as he pulls on his shirt. It should be a sentimental sight, a mood her mind might have lingered in months ago, but now it is flatly reduced to physiology.
Anna does not bother asking how long he might be, for she expects the usual reply: No idea. What she feels like saying is: Don’t come back. You’re killing everything I feel. Or is she wrongly blaming him for a condition that is solely hers: a private inner muteness generated by her loss of creativity?
As Anna’s mind drifts and her focus slips, the slopes of Kevin’s back bring to mind paintings of a rose she has been struggling with for the past two weeks. This new project is far removed from her last show: ragged splashes of bodies and distorted faces juxtaposed with the butchered hinds, quarters, and limbs of animals.
The new works are detailed studies of the merging overlay of petals. Pedestrian, she realizes. Done to death, her mind keeps accusing. Nauseatingly eloquent and crowd-pleasing. But there was some way she had been trying to create it in an odd, detached manner.
The hues of Kevin’s skin meld with intention, and she envisions the folds of the petals as flesh-hued.
Anna finds herself halted by these two images forming a distinct idea that clarifies her heart to the point of blunt epiphany, and stops her lungs so that she must force herself to breathe.
“I’ll see you later,” Kevin says, rising from the chair where he has been tying his boots. He bends to kiss her, his eyes aimed elsewhere.
The small movements of her head and body, as though shifting to accept or reject the kiss, have generated another watery sway beneath her body. There is nothing and everything between these two bodies that lean together and briefly meet by the lips.
“Okay,” she manages, watching him step from the bedroom, his wavy black hair blacker in the shadows, his average-sized body shrinking as he strides along the hallway. Grabbing his coat from the couch, he slips his arms in, then pulls on his leather gloves, presses each space between his fingers to secure the fit.
Not another word from Kevin as he heads out the door. Not a look back. No kiss directed her way. Open the door. Shut the door. The reverberation of his boots are felt in Anna’s bed as Kevin travels down the stairs to the front of the old divided Victorian house on Lemarchant Road.
Anna flicks her long brown hair away from her shoulder to scratch her skin. She checks her fingernails to discover they are much longer than she imagined, at a troublesome length that cries out for trimming. Unpolished nails. She recalls painting them as a child: red, white, black… Lip gloss, mascara, and eye shadow stuffed into her pockets on her way to catching the school bus.
The candle flame flickers, the air prompted by the movement of her hand, swaying shadows along the walls. She studies the flame, attempting to define and segregate the waver of colours, the merging yellow and orange that makes the delineation of tones a near impossibility.
A hint of gaseous blue toward the charred wick.
She ponders the physical qualities of the flame, how it burns in thin air, its tip flickering higher, alive, eating up oxygen, yet contained, until it touches, and ignites, conveying its destructive blush.
The flame brings to mind a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi that Anna once saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When she first laid eyes on the slim, five-foot high piece of sculpted marble, she thought it was meant to represent a flame because of its gentle bend, pointed tip, and the way the light caught the varied streaks in the rock. However, upon closer examination, she learned that the piece was intended to depict the spirit of a bird in flight.
Kevin’s muffled cough reaches her as he passes beneath her window on the sidewalk. She listens for the mechanical catch of a car engine being engaged, but does not hear one. He must be walking. St. Claire’s is only a few minutes away.
Anna wonders about the call. A woman gone into labour? An emergency of other sorts? Kevin’s gowned body standing between the woman’s legs, masked face tilted forward, gloved hands at ready, soon to probe.
Those unsteady moments following sex glaze Anna’s eyes. She does not know which she feels: muddled joy or sorrow and abandonment.
As the fly re-enters the room, drawn by the candle flame, Anna wonders if this new idea, inspired by the texture of Kevin’s bare upper torso, is enough to elevate the rose concept above the commonplace.
Mustering the strength to rise, she pushes herself from the bed, catching sounds of the fly banging against the window pane, frantic to escape. She pulls on her robe, pressing the material between her legs to sop up the spillage. When she does so, her hair hangs down the front of her face. She reaches for a band on the dresser, gathers her hair, and secures it behind her head.
Anna then opens the window to let the fly out into darkness.
Soundlessly, it glides off in a slow curve.
A mistake, she thinks. Where will it go? How will it survive in the cold?
She leans forward into the frosty night air to search for Kevin.
There is no one on the snowy street. Not a car. Not a person, only the stillness of shrouded objects that inspires restless wonder in her while the flesh-hued rose gains prominence in her mind.
The Embryo: Hour 10, Day 1, Week 1
Over three million of Kevin’s two hundred and fifty million sperm, propelled by contractions, complete the ten-hour journey up the vaginal canal, through the cervix, and into the fallopian tube to track and surround Anna’s egg.
The egg, the largest cell in the human body, is the size of a period in a book.
One of the more aggressive of the sperm begins burrowing through the outer membrane to penetrate the ovum.
From the possible combinations of the couple’s chromosomes merging, seventeen trillion different types of zygotes might be formed.
The head of the sperm secretes an enzyme that slowly eats through the egg’s protective layer. Twelve hours later, the sperm enters the ovum, and releases its contents. A single set of forty-six chromosomes is created, locking in the genetic coding, as a new cell is formed.
Seventeen trillion possible combinations have been narrowed down to one.
The zygote will be a girl with blue eyes and blond hair. Her skin will be fair. She will be of average height. A dimple will dent her left cheek when she smiles. She will have Cupid lips and a widow’s peak hairline. Freckles will dot her nose and shoulders. She will be able to roll her tongue into a tube-like shape. Her earlobes will hang freely and will not be attached. She will be left-handed. The middle segments of her fingers will be hairless, while her pinkies will lean instinctively toward her ring fingers. She will be able to bend her thumbs backward to a ninety degree angle. When her arms are folded, her left arm will rest on top of her right. Her second toes will be longer than her big toes. Her blood type will be O positive.
Anna: February 17, In the Studio
Every fifth day Anna buys a new red rose from Mr. Oliver’s shop beneath her downtown studio on Duckworth Street. Mr. Oliver is patient while Anna takes her time selecting the flower. He offers one rose, then another, smiling and nodding, anxious to point out the distinct characteristics of that specific selection.
“Look,” he says. “The richness of the red. Much superior to the others.”
Anna studies the softly geometric layering of its petals, unable to detect a difference in colour.
“Look,” he insists, guiding his fingers down the length of the rose. “The thin perfection of the stem.”
“You always know exactly what I want.”
“Excellent choice.” He proudly hands the rose to her, knowing that she prefers it unwrapped. “I used to paint a little, too.”
“Really?” Anna acts surprised while cautiously accepting the rose, mindful of the thorns.
“I had no talent for it.” Mr. Oliver eyes her purse when she begins searching for her wallet. “No, no charge,” he says as he does on each of her visits. “My contribution to art.”
The rose in Anna’s studio must be replaced as it achieves fuller bloom, for the likeness no longer matches the image she is determined to duplicate. She has thought of spraying the rose in liquid silicone to freeze it in a state of exactness, yet the idea of suspended animation troubles her.
The sealing in of decomposition.
Before climbing the narrow stairs to the top floor of the old merchant building, Anna bangs the snow from her boots and switches on the light in the stairwell. A single bulb hanging from an overhead cord flickers to life, spilling yellow light in the enclosure.
She takes the creaking stairs to the second storey and, while fitting her key into the lock, notices a puff of grey scurrying along the baseboards to disappear beneath her door. Despite her startle, she is charmed by the idea of the mouse entering her studio and living among her paintings, perhaps even nesting there.
Anna turns the key in the lock. The wide-open space stretching before her offers the impression of limitless possibility and innovation. She takes it all in: the high ceilings, the sound of her steps over the stained wooden floor, the rows of long, multi-paned windows, the smell of paint, canvas, and musty plaster walls coupled with the intermingled scents of flowers drifting up through the floorboards from the shop below.
Red canvases are positioned around the studio, flush against one another or tilted on dissimilar angles meant to catch the altering gradients of light. In addition to the rose canvases, there are other paintings of nests she previously worked on. Nests layered with feathers, carved out of wood, or forged from steel and bolted together.
Anna studies the rose in her hand, holding its vividness in mind while surveying its likeness on her easel.
She guides the rose in front of the canvas for comparison.
The translation flat. Emotionless.
Why is she not capable of the same intensity of emotion that painters like Mark Rothko felt? Rothko would weep while painting his colour-saturated canvases and believed that those who wept while looking at his paintings were sharing the same religious experience.
Sick with herself, she shakes her head, casting a glance at the red roses lying in a row on one of her tables, their colours deepened by age. Lined off at the back of the table, her collection of bird nests ascend from smallest to largest, and at the foot of the rose stems, weighty volumes featuring the works of artists are open as though in instruction.
Her mind flashes on a rose she received from Brandon Crocker before her junior high grad. The petals were slightly redder than his face, which glowed with embarrassment as he thrust the flower toward her. Brandon was such an outgoing boy, a popular, tough fellow who excelled in most situations, yet the presence of that rose in his hand distressed him.
Scanning her paintings, she questions not if she might be insanely masochistic-- she has already admitted this to herself years ago and harbours the inexplicable guilt and shame that personifies her affliction-- but how deeply she must hate herself for having chosen to tackle this subject matter.
How deeply whatever governs the world must hate her.
Shouldn’t she abandon the rose paintings and return to the series of nests?
She watches her palette of dried paints.
There is no winning at this game, for whatever she creates could not possibly match what Fantin-Latour, Dubourg, di Lorenzo, or Rossetti have already done to venerate the rose?
Far from inspiring her, studying works by these masters never fails to diminish her own work and slaughter her spirit, making her feel as though she has absolutely no right to lift a brush to canvas.
A fraud. A pretender. A poseur.
The rose series will be a crashing failure. It will never sell.
In fact, she imagines potential buyers scoffing when her new show opens in July at the Maher Gallery, the faces of patrons casting bemused glances at one another to determine if the show might be some sort of surprise gag.
And why shouldn’t they be cruel about it? If she attended such a show, wouldn’t she be set on mocking the artist, too?
Or, perhaps, the rose paintings might be a phenomenal success. An inoffensive symbol of adoration loved by all. Every single painting snapped up by a gaggle of rich, old ladies in floral heat.
Last week David Maher, the gallery owner, came to her with a corporate commission for a scenic painting of the colourful row houses built near the downtown harbour. Row houses, once considered slummy, are now the height of architectural fashion and are owned by the upwardly mobile. Canvases featuring these yuppie havens are available for viewing on countless office walls, and for sale in every craft shop in every nook and cranny around the island. This new symbol of a historic and playful St. John’s has almost replaced the rugged, toothless fisherman standing in his fishing dory as the quintessential image of Newfoundland.
A gust of wind rattles a loose pane in one of the studio’s multi-paned windows. The sound prompts a memory of the old fisherman’s house in Bareneed that Anna is thinking of buying. She recalls tapping a few of the panes in the hundred-year-old house to find them loose, the putty slack or worn away, the glass warped by age.
Beyond the window panes, there was a breath-taking view of a cove in Conception Bay, a view that reminded her of the one from her childhood bedroom in Torbay. Enclosed by high cliffs, the Atlantic Ocean had stretched out to the dividing line connecting sky to water.
Behind the Bareneed house, there was an old barn almost identical to the one on her land at home. Her plan was to convert the barn into a studio when the funds became available.
Anna loved the house. Kevin appreciated the idea of a country home but balked at the prospect of an hour drive into St. John’s every day. And what about being on call? And what about eating at a decent restaurant?
“My colon can only handle so much fish and chips with gravy,” he said. A summer house, he suggested. A cottage. That would be the reasonable way of looking at it. “And during the off-season, we can even come out on weekends to keep up our good-humored repartee with the colourful, cross-eyed baymen.”
But Anna pictured winter in that house. The boughs of the evergreens laden with snow. The grounds thickly blanketed in white. Animal tracks that she might learn to identify and maybe even follow into the woods where she would chance upon some wild creature stilled by her presence, watching her in fear and wonder, while it hunkered near the secret hole to its burrow.
Each of them with their senses burning bright, dazzled by the presence of the other.
Anna steps nearer the canvas and studies the deep, sumptuous red.
She is trying not to think of Kevin, but he is there now with the memory of the Bareneed house, his sensible words shadowing her path.
When they first met nine months ago, the idea of Kevin being a gynecologist was intriguing, if not a touch exciting, a man who might know the intimate details of a woman’s body, the childhood game of playing doctor turned real, yet in the passing weeks she has come to regard his vocation with skepticism.
Why would a man choose to work in such a field, placing himself in that position with so many women?
The more Anna thinks about it, the more it becomes unfathomably perverse. If a man is adamant about being a gynecologist in this day and age then his training should include him lying naked on a table with his feet up in stirrups. While in that position, a random assortment of female doctors and female medical students should enter through a mystery door connected to God knows where, and, without uttering a word to him, take turns poking around at his testicles. The doctors and students should then pass speculative comments back and forth, and give him a few more solid pokes before leaving.
Anna is distracted by that tingling flutter she experienced last night in bed, and finds herself striding across the studio to the calendar beside the table displaying her dried roses, nests and books.
She studies the dates in February while becoming aware of a drone above her. The sound grows louder, emanating from one of the eaves of the studio’s high ceiling beams.
Gazing up, she watches a wasp zip out from the recess. She remains still while the sentinel circles around her, trying to determine if she might be a menace. It makes a few wide, uneven passes, and, seemingly pacified, returns to the eave.
She suspected the wasps had been made insensible by winter slumber, for there appeared to have been no activity over the past few months.
Anna waits, her eyes fixed on the eave.
When she was a child, she had discovered a wasp’s nest attached to the back eave of her home in Torbay. She had wasted no time pointing it out to her mother, a thoughtful and sensitive woman, who had been uncharacteristically alarmed and immediately telephoned someone to remove the threat.
A man in a baseball cap and dirty overalls had arrived in a pickup truck that night. Lingering near, Anna had watched the man crouch and use his stained hands to tie a rag on a long stick trimmed from a tree branch, then splash gasoline onto it from a canister.
“They’re all in at night,” the man had said, staring at the nest while standing up straight. “Sleeping.” Flicking his Zippo lighter, he had lowered it to the rag. It had caught fire with a poof; a contained, feathery explosion. The stick had then been raised, making the man’s face glow a menacing orange. “You think you should be watching this?” he had asked, grinning, yet had given no time for an answer. He had hoisted the torch high, aiming, until it had reached the entry hole of the nest, which had ignited in a burst of flames.
The nest had blazed and wasps’ wings had flashed on fire, creating a magical display of illuminated dots in the darkened air before the bodies dropped to the ground.
The man had then used the garden hose to spatter out the fire.
The next morning, Anna had gone out to stare up at the charred eave. The nest was no longer attached. She had found it in the grass. A once dangerous object with the peril removed. Regardless, she had been careful when she slowly squatted to see that inside the nest there was a multitude of tiny holes. Motionless, glistening larvae were nestled in several of the cave-like recesses.
This childhood memory had prevented her from buying a tin of insect killer with a funnel-like sprayer that shot poisonous foam to smother the nest of any winged, stinging creature. She had discovered the nest months ago, but had left it alone to see if any harm would come of it. The wasps had not bothered her.
The drone gradually dies down to a quiet buzz. Regardless, she continues staring. No storm of wasps bursting out to cloud around her head, to pierce her flesh with a multitude of tiny holes.
She shifts her attention to the calendar, counts backward and then forward, fourteen days since her last period. She checks the rafter. No sign of activity, but the low-level hum persists.
Anna needn’t have consulted the calendar to determine that she was ovulating, having experienced that rigorous desire to have sex no matter what.
She stopped taking her birth control pills, not expecting Kevin to be interested, for he was otherwise preoccupied and rarely visited her in the past two weeks. Regardless, she let him fuck her, because that was all it was.
A meaningless fuck.
Anna lay there in that bed, with Kevin on top of her, and allowed him.
Not a word of protest. Why?
Did she try to get pregnant as a desperate means of regaining Kevin’s affections, or did she want the complete opposite: to rid her life of Kevin by creating another life that would sever their relationship entirely? Run to that house in the country. Run to her burrow and hide with a new baby in her arms.
Two weeks before her period. Fertile as hell.
Did something go off in her mind following her thirtieth birthday last month? Babies suddenly popping up everywhere like round-headed, sweet-smelling gnomes.
She glances around her studio, attuned to the throbbing silence.
The drone of the nest has settled.
She should make an appointment with her doctor to get the morning-after pill. Or ask Kevin. He must have samples.
What would Kevin think of the possible pregnancy? He might want her to have the baby. He might insist. And what would become of her paintings then? Her time consumed by the constant demands of an infant, her career shut down.
She takes an appreciative look around her studio, the desire to create flickering through her. She removes her coat to ready herself for work.
Lifting a brush and testing the soft bristles against her palm, she decides she will not give this up for anything.
She will visit her doctor tomorrow and take the morning-after pill to ensure her life remains entirely her own.
The Embryo: Hour 36, Day 2, Week 1
The rounded edges of Anna’s zygote begin to dip inward toward the centre until they gradually shape two separate spheres and divide fully into two cells contained within a membrane.
Once the single-cell zygote has divided it is renamed a blastocyst.
The exact genetic combination has reproduced itself in both cells, and will continue to do so in each subsequent cell division.
It will take a further twenty-four hours before a second division forms four cells.
With each successive splitting, the cells become smaller as the blastocyst passes slowly along its four-day journey through the fallopian tube, all the while dividing rapidly into a cluster of cells that resemble a microscopic raspberry.
The inner collection of cells will become the embryo. The outer group will form the membranes that help nourish and shield it.
Glands in Anna’s uterus have already begun to enlarge in response to the ovum’s fertilization.
Once reaching Anna’s uterus, the blastocyst will attempt to attach. If successful, it then becomes an embryo.
Anna: February 18, The Doctor
When Anna visits her doctor’s office first thing in the morning, she finds the waiting room crowded. All appointments for the day have been filled. The receptionist draws a finger down her book, and offers the only available slot: 2:30 p.m. the next day.
That’s cutting it close, Anna thinks. The delay makes her feel anxious, even mildly paranoid. As she drives home, she has the sense that something unknown and parasitic is taking shape. Her mind flits over a number of possibilities, other doctors, even a visit to Kevin’s clinic at the Health Sciences Complex.
Shadowy images of back-alley abortions distort her thoughts. Why she pictures these archaic procedures is a mystery to her. But a man’s vengeful face, lit by torch, is what dominates the scene. His hands are filthy and he is bent over a woman who writhes in agony, dying from multiple punctures that drain the life from between her legs.
Nearly missing a red light, she slams on the brakes and glances in the rearview mirror then at the car in the lane opposite her. A baby, strapped into a car seat in the back, laughs wildly while watching her, and shoves its saliva-glistening fingers into its mouth.
Arriving home, Anna hurries into the spare bedroom she has converted into an office. She puts her cellphone on the desk, and sits at her computer to research information on the morning-after pill. Reading through the sites, she is relieved to confirm what she believed to be the truth, that the pill is effective in the prevention of pregnancy as long as it is taken within seventy-two hours of unprotected sex.
While clicking through sites about contraception, she comes across information detailing a baby’s development. She merely glances at the chart, not wanting to be lured toward deeper feeling. Regardless, she catches herself wondering how the baby might look, if it is a boy or a girl, but all she sees in her mind is a sexless creature, alien in feature, like the technical drawings or photographs displayed in high school biology classes.
She shuts down the browser windows and checks her email. A few notes from acquaintances or admirers in other parts of the country. A request for an interview for an online arts magazine.
Her cellphone rings.
Kevin’s number illuminated on the screen. She watches it ring, deciding that it would be wise to avoid him for a few days. In Kevin’s presence, Anna would find it difficult not to mention the possible pregnancy. She is not good at hiding things from people. To get Kevin involved now would only further complicate the issue. The decision must be entirely hers.
That night she forgoes the burger and fries she has been craving, and decides to prepare a small, healthy meal. A spinach salad with strips of chicken and honey mustard dressing.
After arranging the leaves on her plate, she slices away at the remains of a roasted chicken, until the carcass shows bone everywhere. She lays the unused meat on a plate covered with wax paper and stores it in the refrigerator.
The carcass sits on the counter, not entirely clean, bits of ragged red meat left clinging near the bones.
She studies the carcass, turns the plate to analyze the figure at an assortment of angles, before picking it up in both hands, carrying it to the garbage bin, and dumping it in.
The sight of the decimated rib cage down in the hollow spurs ideas.
Roses growing up through an indistinguishable carcass in a field.
It reminds her of finding the skeletons of kittens in the family barn when she was a child. How tiny and fragile they were. Stilled like that. Set side by side. Bits of fur fluff gently blowing around when she moved.
Anna checks her fingernails. Shreds of chicken lodged under them. She brings her hands to her nostrils and sniffs. Disgusted by the odour, she heads to the bathroom for the clippers in the cabinet. She cuts each nail, collecting the trimmings in a small pile on the rim of the sink. When she is done, she brushes the clippings into her palm and sweeps them into the toilet, flushes it.
She looks at herself in the bathroom mirror, toying with the idea of having her hair cut boyishly short. Her eyes trace over her features, the slight movement beneath her throat, her chest rising and settling in breath.
Her stomach grumbles, bringing to mind her chicken salad.
On her way out of the bathroom, her cell starts ringing again. She ducks into the spare room to check it. Kevin’s number. She has guessed at his reaction to the news, playing out both scenarios: heartfelt joy or cloaked disappointment. For some reason, watching his illuminated number, she feels vaguely afraid of him and is relieved when the phone falls silent.
The next day, in the doctor’s waiting room, Anna surveys the coffee table stacked with reading material. On top of the pile nearest her, there is a pregnancy magazine. In fact, there are several copies of the same issue, as though some dim-witted or inebriated stork has dropped an entire bundle in the office by mistake.
Anna refuses to pick up the magazine, even though she has involuntarily leaned to reach for it. Merely touching it might admit to her predisposition for motherhood. Despite her aversion, her eyes keep returning to the photograph of the smiling mother on the cover. The woman is pretty in a natural way, with a mild disposition and long, flowing blond hair. She is dressed in a pastel-blue and yellow smock and is posed in a field of tall grass flecked with purple wildflowers. It is a sunny day, with a clear blue sky overhead.
Envisioning the woman’s body with her own face on it, Anna scans down to the belly, a monstrous mosquito bite, a mommy tumour, and the spell is broken. She wonders why these covers never feature a tattooed, chip-toothed pregnant woman in leather with one fist raised in the air while she shouts a rebel call from the seat of her zooming Harley.
A woman with a fussing baby in her arms takes the seat across from Anna. The woman is agitated while she shifts to unzip her jacket and move the baby from one knee to the other. The woman does not look anything like the female on the cover of the mommy magazine.
Anna smiles cordially. The woman makes a sound of exasperation as though a smile in return is an impossibility.
Anna can’t tell if the baby is a boy or girl because it is dressed in yellow, the non-specific-sex colour of choice given by friends and relatives at chatty, life-affirming celebrations before the baby’s birth.
She notices the soft blond hair on the baby’s head and stares at the chubby face. The wholesomeness of the sight endows her lips with a smile.
Anna wonders about being a baby. Not a single memory of ever being so small.
The mother sighs and gives Anna a fretting smile. “They’re a handful,” the woman professes.
The baby bunches its tiny fingers into fists and laughs at Anna, prompting a flash of bright emotion that compels her to lean forward in her seat and make tender, goo-goo baby sounds.
She decides that the baby must be a girl.
For convenience sake the pharmacy is located in the same building as the doctor’s office.
Standing in line, waiting to have her prescription filled, Anna considers the variety of cases that her doctor must see throughout the day. Every sort of pain, sore, and misfortune. How does she deal with it? Why isn’t she constantly in tears?
Anna has heard all sorts of stories from Kevin about women who have lost babies. Some women manage to cope with the loss, while others are afflicted by the tragedy for the remainder of their lives.
She wonders what sort of woman she might be.
Glancing at the small white paper in her hand, she sees the name of the drug is indecipherable. She hands the script over to the pharmacist and provides her pertinent information. While doing so, she feels something drop from her back pocket to slap the floor. Turning, she sees an elderly man squatting beside a rack of headache pills to retrieve the pregnancy magazine.
“Here you go,” he says, groaning while rising and inclining the publication toward her.
“Thank you.” Hooking a length of hair behind her ear, she offers a pleasant nod.
The man’s eyes are on her belly. “Good luck,” he says, giving her a smile of support.
Anna thinks, the natural order of the world, and smiles in return, feeling that she might actually be cheating the man out of some sort of old-fashioned conviction.
While leaving the doctor’s waiting area, she pocketed the magazine for her work. The faces and poses of pregnant women printed on the glossy pages might be of use in a collage.
Artwork featuring pregnant women, while only a notch or two above the artistic gag level of a red rose, could make a comment of sorts if intermingled with the presence of void. But what might characterize the void? The potential energy of the life erased.
Where would that energy then go?
Those with motherly leanings might find the pregnancy paintings attractive, while the more hardened childless might view them with unadulterated cynicism.
When Anna faces the pharmacist, she notices his eyes on the magazine in her hands. “From the doctor’s office,” she confesses, hoping he does not think she tried to shoplift the magazine from their rack.
The pharmacist nods with mannered friendliness. “About ten minutes,” he says. “We’ll have it ready for you.”
The Embryo: Day 6, Week 1
Entering Anna’s uterus, the blastocyst secretes an enzyme that erodes the mucous membrane lining of her womb, preparing it for implantation.
In anticipation her uterus is swollen with new blood capillaries that will allow the circulation between Anna and her embryo to begin the moment it attaches.
Anna: February 21, A House by the Sea
The drive to Bareneed takes a little over an hour, heading west from St. John’s along the Trans-Canada Highway.
The landscape glides by, small patches of barrens exposed here and there in the smoothly textured blanket of snow that extends for miles in all directions. Huge, ragged boulders dot the landscape, while groves of black spruce run in uneven lines far back from the highway.
Driving through this terrain reminds Anna of some sort of desolate moonscape.
It has snowed without wind the previous night, and the snow is gleaming beneath a sun so radiant that Anna must wear sunglasses to avoid constant squinting. A beautiful day, perfect for driving, for the mildness of the temperature has left the asphalt entirely dry and bone-white from the accumulation of road salt. As her car dips into a long, shallow valley, sunlight glints off the cars heading east in the opposite two lanes.
Two days ago, Anna decided that Kevin should be informed. Even though there was no tangible proof that she was pregnant, she felt compelled to introduce the idea if only to gauge his reaction. That night, over dinner at Zapata’s, she sipped her glass of red wine in awkward silence until Kevin asked what was on her mind.
“I think I might be pregnant,” she said matter-of-factly.
Kevin’s expression remained evenly regulated. He gave a taut little nod and ate another forkful of beef chimichanga, his jaw-line tightening while he chewed. He looked away at a couple entering the restaurant and settling at their table, then returned his attention to neatly slicing off another bite-sized portion of food.
The numbness of his reaction almost brought Anna to tears. She gulped a healthy mouthful of wine. “I mean, there’s no real reason to believe it’s definite, but it is a possibility.”
“I don’t see how it could be a possibility, Anna.”
“The birth control pill is effective in ninety-nine out of one hundred instances.” He paused to give her eyes brief consideration, unable to linger there for more than a moment. “Unless, of course, you’re the lucky one percent.”
“Right.” Anna licked her lips and moved the chicken avocado salad around on her plate. “The lucky one percent.” With the edge of her fork, she broke up pieces of the taco shell base, wondering about nourishment. The shell was starting to turn soggy. “I’ve often felt like the one percent.”
When she first started taking the pill, she always swallowed it in Kevin’s presence. He was so adamant about her not getting pregnant that he reminded her every day.
Anna could not bring her eyes to meet his, as though she had been caught, had deceived him in some way. “I could take the morning-after pill.”
“Yes, of course. If you forgot to take your birth control pill, then that would be the prudent thing to do.”
The briskness of his agreement disheartened Anna, for it appeared to betray some lack of faith in her or in them as a unified idea.
Kevin cast his eyes at the table, thinking through the problem. “Why are you telling me this now? At supper?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re talking about the other night?”
“When was that?”
“I don’t know.”
Kevin sniffed and wiped his nose with the cloth napkin, a sign he was growing troubled. “Wednesday?”
“That’s three days ago. How could you possibly suspect being pregnant?”
She could not come up with an answer, except for the one she told herself: I just know.
“And if it was three days ago, it’s almost too late for the morning-after pill, unless you take it tonight.”
Anna shrugged, feeling like a defiant school girl.
Kevin shook his head in disapproval while sipping his water. “What about our trip to Italy?”
Anna had no idea what the two had to do with each other.
After a stretch of well-mannered silence, as the plates were collected and dessert politely ordered, Kevin said with a sigh, “We’re only in our early thirties. Mid-thirties is the time to have children. I’ve seen every side of it. You should be more careful.”
Anna bristled at his comment about the perfect time to have children. She searched his tactless, male face and wondered what exactly he had to do with it. Who was he to tell her anything? Did he feel absolutely nothing for the possibility of new life within her that she was beginning to grow strangely protective towards?
Tossing down her fork before she was done with her deep fried ice cream, she stood, collected her coat from the rack by the door, and went outside to wait for him with her arms folded against the cold. She imagined him inside calmly paying the bill and then visiting the bathroom to scrub his hands.
Arriving home, she left his car without giving him the slightest speck of attention, and went into her bedroom to lie down with her thoughts.
Her mind considered Kevin’s reaction, sifted through each of his sentences and words trying to discern hidden meaning, a veiled softness on his part, the vaguest glimpse of approval, but there was absolutely nothing.
Occasionally, her head gave a little shake, her eyes going to the box containing the morning-after pill on the bed beside her.
Emotion welled up in her, and she felt the hotness in her nostrils before tears wet her eyes. She swiped them away, almost furiously.
Her cell started ringing from out in the living room. Kevin, no doubt, dutifully there to remind her the seventy-two hours were just about up.
Thinking of that evening now only renews Anna’s annoyance and blinds her to the luminous majesty of the landscape. The scene shaped by light.
Picturing Kevin indifferently seated before her in the restaurant, she almost misses the exit and has to swerve to make the ramp, rising to a higher road and starting the twenty-minute run down the rolling pastures of Shearstown Line that will deliver her to the house in Bareneed.
The front door is locked.
Mr. King, the real estate agent, is not scheduled to arrive for another fifteen minutes.
Anna makes her way through the ankle-deep snow at the side of the house, glancing at the kitchen window on her way to the barn. She cannot wait to get in there and have another look around. The lace curtains shield her view, yet she senses movement and pauses to peer in, cupping her hands against the glass to scan the unoccupied room. It must have been her shadow shifting against the pane.
Words from her mother in Anna’s head: “Always such an active imagination.” This place reminds her so much of her mother. She takes a few steps back, admiring the navy blue clapboard and the cream-coloured corner boards and window highlights. Her mother would have loved this place.
She continues on, checking the line of trees to the left of the red barn, the branches of a huge dogberry tree widely splayed in the foreground. She hasn’t explored the woods yet and looks forward to the pleasure of familiarizing herself with the land. Her land, she hopes.
Reaching the slatted barn door with a white heart painted eye level at its centre, she sees that the door hangs unevenly and must be forced open. She checks the hinges to discover the top one is rusty and broken.
As she enters the barn, her breath collects in the air, momentarily clouding her vision. The space is deserted and feels hollow, yet peaceful and calming.
A low bank of snow has blown in under the two large doors to her left. The wide wooden floorboards are nicked and darkened from wear.
Anna checks the back row of stalls where horses or cows were once kept. At the thought of animals she catches the scent of manure and hide, her ears detecting a faint rustle, a snort through nostrils as a heavy head turns to see who she might be.
She looks overhead to the loft, aware of the lump in her coat pocket, the package containing the morning-after pill she neglected to take. Why is she still carrying it with her? As a memento of a decision made more out of defiance than practicality?
If she is to end the suspected pregnancy, she no longer has the convenience of simply taking a pill. A glass of water and the inherently effortless act of swallowing must be replaced by an invasive surgical procedure in a clinic. An indecency that will be witnessed.
Trying to distance herself from these unwelcome thoughts, she heads for the 2” by 4” ladder and reaches up to grip a rung. She raises one foot to apply weight on the first slat, testing its construction. It seems solid and so she climbs to the loft.
Nearing the top, as her eyes draw level with the floor, she expects to face some remnants of life laid out before her, perhaps the kitten skeletons from her childhood. But the floor is clear, save for patches of rotten hay.
She leans to climb off the top slat, cautiously positions one foot, then the other, onto the floor. Straightening up, she watches her boots take their time turning until she is facing the lip of the loft and the drop. She stares down over the edge and wipes her cold hands in her coat.
The magnetic sensation of an elevated perspective tugs at her core. The space around her throbs with the energy of vacated lives, creating the inexplicable feeling, somehow linked to heightened clarity, that she is definitely pregnant.
The floorboards, worn dark from the presence of animals, are an absorbing study. She notes the warm gradations of browns and blacks.
The barn brings back childhood memories of exploring new spaces, of being excited, of being frightened, of becoming aware. The awakened sensations are so fundamentally sweet and endearing that tears brim in her eyes. She takes a deep breath, holds the air in her lungs, then exhales. The simultaneous trickle of tears down her cheeks feels ennobling.
The Embryo, Day 6, Week 1:
Anna’s blastocyst implants in her womb, its tiny feeler-like tendrils growing into her uterus lining, allowing nutrients to be fed from her body into the embryo.
A voice calls from beyond the barn.
Anna wipes at her eyes and remains still until Mr. King enters in a long dark grey coat. His hands are bare and pink. He is not wearing a hat, although he gives the impression of being that sort of man. Above a high forehead his peppered hair is clipped short.
At once he looks directly at her, as though knowing where she would be.
“Children love it up there,” he says.
“I guess I’m just a kid, after all.” She brings her arms out by her sides and lets them drop.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“I still have my teddy bear from when I was a boy, so join the club. It’s nice up there, hey?”
“Yes.” Overwhelmed, she almost starts crying again.
“You ever coming down?”
“I don’t think so. I love it in here.”
Mr. King glances around. “What’s not to love? It’s the way things used to be.”
Anna takes the ladder slowly, gauging the placement of her boots, the wary grip and release of her hands on the rungs.
“Careful, Anna,” Mr. King warns, standing at the base with one hand raised.
She smiles confidently at him when her feet safely reach the bottom.
“You’re early or I’m late,” he offers.
“I’m early, I think.”
“Better than being late,” he says, amused, while checking her eyes with a gentle expression.
Inside the house, Anna stands in the chilly kitchen, admiring the lace curtains she stared in through fifteen minutes ago. Next to the window, two wooden chairs painted red, a peculiar choice of colour for an outport house, are positioned around a narrow table with a thick top and tapered legs. The oven is ancient, yet in perfect repair. Iron covered in yellow enamel with a bun warmer compartment above the stove. A metal bin filled with splits of wood beside it. A new white refrigerator jutting out like a sore thumb in the corner.
Anna wanders across the hallway into the living room. She crosses the planked flooring, skimming her hand over the carved wooden back of a chaise longue, while her eyes browse the matching wingback armchairs and the oak wainscoting around the walls.
The air in the room is chilly, the house unheated.
She turns to face the window nearest the chaise longue, struck by a framed black and white photograph of an old baby’s carriage on the wall. The word ‘pram’ comes to mind. The black carriage is elaborately made, with ornate metal frame, large spoked wheels, and satiny white frills along the bonnet. It is photographed in profile, as an object. No person stands near it.
After giving the print some consideration, she settles on a view of the front yard through the window. The narrow main road borders the property, sloping on a slow incline as it winds around a tree-lined bend toward the ocean. Across the road there is a brook and a thick grove of spruce and pine trees.
She focuses on the trees, discerning flickers of movement obscured by limbs: a small child, its red coat flashing through the gaps in the spruce. She watches and waits, spots another child in a blue snowsuit trailing behind. Perhaps, the neighbour’s children at play, exploring the woods.
Anna glances at the sideboard with its deep drawers. Atop it porcelain figurines and a glass dish with what appears to be a clump of hard candy inside have been arranged by a hand unknown to her.
All of the rooms are filled with antiques, the owners seeming to have no idea of the worth of things. Anna touches the top of the sideboard, recalling Mr. King’s words: “Contents included.” The antiques must be worth more than the asking price of the house. She will not mention another word about the furniture, the deal she believes she is getting, the steal.
“I thought of taking some of the furniture myself.”
Startled, Anna turns to see Mr. King enter the living room. Guilt flushes through her as though she has been caught in the act of masterminding a heist.
“But I’m too honest for my own good.” Mr. King has an agreeable nature and a pleasant face that smiles easily. The way he speaks to her is the way she imagines a father might share wisdom with a daughter.
“That’s not a bad thing,” she says.
“The previous owner was an elderly woman. Her children live in Toronto. I probably told you that already, Anna. They just want to get rid of the place. That’s all.”
“It’s not their life here.” He notices the window, his attention snagged by something outside.
“Where’s the woman now?”
“She’s passed on,” Mr. King plainly states without regarding her, his breath barely misting in the cold air. He remains in profile, his eyes moving fluidly as though following an object here and there. “Finches,” he says in consideration, “having a feast of the dogberries in your tree. It’s their last winter resource.”
Anna watches the birds, hopping from one limb to another, pecking at the red berries. She counts seven, then three more hiding behind the others.
“There are raspberries and wild rose bushes behind the barn in the summer. The septic must drain down there.”
Anna wonders about the septic. Pipes under the earth. What drains down there?
“Everything else is just white now,” says Mr. King. “Dead or asleep. The leaves all gone. But those berries hang on for a purpose, to keep the birds alive, I guess.”
“I never knew that before.”
“Why don’t the dogberries just fall off, like the blueberries or raspberries?”
Anna shakes her head contemplatively.
“Look at all those birds eating.”
On Anna’s way back to St. John’s, the sky turns grey and ponderous. Fat flakes of snow dot her windshield before being swept away by the wipers. She glances at the speedometer, slowing her speed to eighty kilometres.
The offer she has submitted on the Bareneed property has filled her with excitement. She tries not to worry that she might have acted rashly.
What will Kevin have to say?
Was it a mistake? she wonders, not fully trusting her judgment lately. Yet her doubts are not so great as to waylay her enthusiasm.
A house in the country, near the sea.
Mr. King indicated he would call the owners with her offer and get back to her in a few hours. The mainlanders were anxious to sell, so he was hopeful.
The snow falling on the highway melts at once, darkening the asphalt.
The sky looms overhead, churning from grey to dark grey with bands of black.
Anna senses the car growing colder. She flicks up the heat and turns down the radio to better concentrate on her driving.
The ringing of her cell phone draws her eyes to the passenger seat where she laid the phone for easy access. Reaching for it, she checks the screen: Mr. King, unknown number. She flips it open, concerned she should not be driving and talking. Does that apply to the highway, or only the city?
“I’m happy to say they have.”
“Really?” She laughs joyfully, triumphantly.
“Thank you. That’s great. Wow!” She checks the rearview mirror, then the speedometer, realizing that her burst of excitement has given her a lead foot. She eases off the accelerator and returns her eyes to the highway to see a blob of white hopping into her path.
“The house is yours.”
The rabbit continues bounding around in her lane, patterning an awkward zigzag that is dangerously confusing.
Anna swerves the car to avoid it, losing hold of her cellphone.
The asphalt is slipperier than expected, glazed in a layer of black ice.
The car slides for the gravel shoulder, drifting out of control, taking her body with it.
Dread clutches Anna’s heart and stomach, forcing an involuntary whelp of fear. Terrified, she grips the wheel, pulling it as though to hold back the car. Her knee jerks and stiffens, jamming her foot on the brakes.
Snatching a look at the rearview mirror, she makes out a vehicle through the misted back window. Its front end is directly behind her, almost on top of her bumper, sliding, too, on an angle. The voice of her driving instructor in her head, Pump the brakes.
She releases her foot.
Her car quickly sways and quivers, her front tires returning to the asphalt, while the back tires kick up a spray of gravel.
She rechecks the mirror.
The vehicle almost touching hers.
She tests the accelerator, her tires spinning.
Sliding sideways, the rear of her car swings toward the bank.
She slams on the brakes as the vehicle behind her slips by in the passing lane, almost grazing her fender.
Her car spins in slow circles before the ground disappears beneath her rear tires, the undercarriage banging the bank and grinding noisily as it drags along.
The car tilts backward.
Anna makes a sharp sound as she reclines.
The hood rising up, grey clouds billowing before her.
The chassis flips sideways, smacks the earth, and rolls twice through a blast of disorienting, metal-buckling noise before snapping a splay of limbs from a tree and soundly pounding its trunk.