Julia Shi

The ground is nothing but ruptured skin. Marley’s feet slice into open sores in the concrete. Grandma’s voice floats across the field, where Marley hunches over wheat, her face cutting against their splintered ends. Today, Grandma wears a blue-flowered hat tipped down toward her nose. It’s Sunday and Marley wishes she were in bed, eyes closed and head dreaming of planets far away. Her reality is mundane — a wheat-filled world and glass walls between herself and who she might be.

“Look at all this wheat! It’s some harvest, eh?” Grandma says, leaning her head so close into Marley’s that Marley smells her tea breath and sees dark chunks of tobacco coating the wall of her bottom lip and her teeth. She leans in even closer now, “Marley, start pickin’ the weeds! So many weeds in this god damn place.”

In her dreams, Marley walks tobacco-lined streets like Grandma’s teeth, smoky eyeliner tracing her eyes. In her dreams, Marley does not walk alone but with her husband, whose eyes are honey-brown and warm like the sun and glint ever so slightly when he smiles. In her dreams, there are forests, but not forests of wheat — forests of flowers, bursting with color and vivacity. And every flower is a wriggling body; every flower is a life. And they grow and grow and never die.

She starts plucking the weeds like Grandma told her to — to make room for new birth. In the afternoon, she goes to the corner store to buy some cigarettes and on a shelf in the back she spots some pregnancy tests. In her mind, Grandma’s eyes rise behind the glass walls of her big, rimmed glasses; in them, she sees an immense fear and Grandma’s lost child — Marley’s would-be aunt. It was a miscarriage, Grandma once told Marley.

Marley stares at the pregnancy test and remembers. She remembers how she pressed her forehead into his and listened to the song of his breath heaving in and out. The stubble on his chin pricked her skin, but she liked the feeling. She remembers how they hugged at the end, how he rubbed her back gently and curved his head downward, how she kissed his neck and felt a small flame in the center of her chest. She would not let it burn through the architecture of her body. She would smother the flame until it faded away, and her chest was wooden again.

It meant nothing. But the fire was turning into a body — a wriggling body made of wheat — and it scraped the lining of her chest. She could see the tiny hands — it meant nothing — and her child’s soft eyelashes now disappearing in her father’s cigarette breath. He was good for nothing, this boy, and he did not love her, and she did not want to love him but she did. She loved him for his eyes and the way insecurity bled from them, and for the strange stammer in his voice. She loved him for the way his breath smelled like cigarettes but also like peppermint tea, for she knew how he liked to drink tea and read old fairy tales on his grey porch.

Marley stands in front of Grandma now, her elbows on the table in front of her. Grandma sits at the table, knitting a pink and blue hat — it looks like a baby’s bonnet.

“What’s it feel like to lose a child, grandma?” A pause.

“It feels … like you were full and then suddenly, suddenly you’re empty.” She pauses and opens her mouth. Three pieces of tobacco fall out.

“Grandma …”

“What, Marley?”

“What if I have a body growing inside me?”

In the night, the fields of wheat look bleak and white, like knobby knuckles on a worn-out hand. In the sink, Marley’s guts lie like sparkling veins, a map of her unborn daughter disappearing down the drain. Marley can see her face: She’s beautiful, just like her father, hope spilling from her auburn eyes. A sharp pang in her chest. In the sky, stars dance, together and alone. The smell of plastic and the touch of cold metal. A pinch. A scream. Her daughter would have been beautiful, her hair messy and wild like wheat in a violent wind. Maybe, when she was older, she would’ve fallen in love with a good for nothing boy like Bob. But now Marley can’t see her daughter’s face. She can’t see her future family — it’s a faceless picture now; she can’t see the color of her husband’s eyes. Her knuckles, too, lose color.

In the morning, the streets are dusty and smell of smoke. Marley goes to the corner store, dragging her feet along but all the while feeling strangely disembodied. At the store, Marley eyes a mother resting her palm on her baby’s stroller. The baby looks up and locks her soft blue eyes with Marley’s and blinks. She feels a pang of hunger and hurt in her chest. Walking past fields of wheat on the way home, Marley sees Grandma’s face again in the distance, hands knitting in and out of a slowly decomposing fabric. In the afternoon, she would scrape beneath soil and uproot old weeds to make room for new growth — and she, too, would ache to be planted again.

Meghana Mysore meghana.mysore@yale.edu