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The crash woke Joseph John from his sleep. There was not one but rather several crashes, one primary, jarring thud followed by several tremulous echoes that settled into the emptiness of the blue air just before sun-up.
Presently the chickens, somewhat recovered from the trauma, began to cluck and gulp once again. John ordered his mother to stay in bed as he tested each wall of the house for cracks. After breakfast he deemed it safe to inspect the outside of the house, at which point he and his mother discovered the object itself. It lay by the chicken coop, nestled in a moist indentation of earth: a white column of some hard smooth casing, tapered at one end and flattened at the other to form a spoonlike cavity. The thicker end was an expensive-looking blue.
“A shell,” John’s mother suggested. She glanced fearfully skyward.
“Not a shell,” John frowned.
He lingered by the coop as his mother squinted at the sky with a hand over her eyes. It was clear by now, John’s mother decided, that the white column was not alive. She had seen a tortoise once, at the Duke’s fair. Its shell was hard, but pebbled with growth, not so smooth as this, and the creature had breathed slow breaths inside its pinched-up skin. The white column did not breathe. She went to touch it but John jerked her back. “Careful!”
She crossed herself in gratitude that the new chicken coop — paid for by her dear boy’s latest weaving — had not been crushed. John was still quiet, hand on his neck.
She kicked the white column over with a cautious, rapid cuff of her boot, and the object was still motionless. “It’s not alive, Jack,” she whispered. Its underside was white, too, smooth as an eggshell, but now smeared with mud and grass. The object was utterly tubular, alien. No chicken could have birthed such a thing.
Jack could make out the letter R under a glob of dirt. R. I. T. And a small circular glass window, under which rested a white paper inscribed with a light blue cross.
Marni had picked the curtains for their sunflower print. She had imagined, standing in JoAnn Fabric with the bolt of sunflower-print curtain-cloth in her hands, that the sharp morning sunlight would soften through the yellow fabric and fill her bedroom with butter-light as the sun rose over the mountain of her husband’s back. He slept deeply, but she had always been grateful that he did not snore. His shoulders shuddered with each exhale.
This morning, Marni had been awake for some minutes — 18, in fact. As she lay on her side, facing away from Pete, with her hand wedged in the under-pillow coolness, she rehearsed the past five minutes, as if to ensure that she had followed proper protocol. Open eyes, pull on robe, drape comforter convincingly over Pete’s back, tiptoe to bathroom, open package, urinate in cup, dip stick into cup, wait two minutes — during which, shuffle quickly back to bedside to grab cell phone and set timer for one minute 40 seconds — close bathroom door and use the flashlight function to read the sign in the yellow-tinged window. A plus sign, as it happened.
She tied the belt of her robe and marched over to the window, which was slightly open to let in the summer air. Pete grumbled from the bed. She slid her wrist through the open slot of the window and in a quick motion, before she could doubt, she tossed the pregnancy test to the bare earth outside.
At the sight of the cross Jack’s mother crossed herself reflexively. “God help us,” she muttered.
“Right,” said Jack.
“What is it, John?”
“Riiiiiight … aid.”
He was reading, her brilliant son. She whipped around and pinched his cheeks.
Thus gratified she returned to the Eggshell, as she was determined to call it. The Egg of God, of Christ — for did it not bear a cross? She cried, “Joseph John, run to the friary and call them to come. Speed, Joe! Speed!” He ran along the path and she crossed herself once again as he vanished behind the hickories. “Speed, Joe! Speed!” Blessings, Blessings be upon them, a Gift of God!
“It is out of my hands, literally out of my hands,” Marni muttered to herself in the cafeteria.
“It’s what?” asked Carolyn Bowers from HR.
“Nothing,” said Marni. She moved her tray down the line. Each carton on her tray reminded her of him. He could fit in each, his muscled arms draped over the Styrofoam edges, his legs splayed — relaxed, jovial even — across the sliced melon cubes. Her Jack.
At home she prepared Pete his Scotch and settled him by the television. A quick kiss on the cheek and she had fled to the bedroom, torn open the curtains, pushed up the window. Breathless, she surveyed her sunflowers. Her eyes scanned the green flesh of their roots. As she knew it would be, the white plastic stick was gone.
“What’s the meaning of this?” He was standing on the windowsill, panting.
“Jack,” she said. He was glaring, though. His stubble had grown out since she’d seen him last; she imagined the tiny roughness of it on her fingertip.
“You threw something. Right Aid.”
”Rite Aid. Yeah.”
“She’s sent me to the friary.”
“The friary? Why?” She scooped him into her palm.
“It’s of God.”
“The pregnancy test? Oh. The cross.”
“You haven’t thrown anything before.”
True, she had not. She had always been gentler, cognizant of her size. A forceful shove would kill him, a squeeze could crush his ribs. She nearly had crushed him, the first time, when he was climbing up her sunflower curtains like an oversized cockroach all those months ago — at her screech he’d fallen: a man, lithe and dark-haired with delicate eyes and a white linen shirt split to the collarbone, sitting — lounging, really — in the palm of her hand. “Hello,” he’d said.
Now she set him on the boudoir and sat in her green-upholstered chair (an engagement gift from Pete’s mother).
“Did you mean to crush the house?” he asked softly. His hand rested on the crescent of her thumbnail, tender. “Did you mean to attack me?”
“I didn’t attack you.”
“My mother, then?”
“No, Jack! Did you even read what it said?”
“The white stick? Right Aid. The right aid.”
“Rite Aid. You sounded it out, then, Jack?” She abandoned her severe expression long enough to communicate, through a tiny crinkle by her eye, that she was proud of him. The hours he’d spent in her breast pocket at work had paid off. (“Manaaaaaaagggg,” he would sound out, in her ear, from his perch in the crook of her neck. “Yes, very good,” she’d whisper back, soft enough that Susan, the next cubicle over, could not hear. “Manaaaaaggggmmehhhh…
managggmen….” a quiet, rumbling drone as he held on, tenderly, to the curve of her ear lobe, balancing on those nimble booted feet. “Management,” she finally revealed. “Management consulting, Jack. Glencorps Management Consulting. See the pear? Our logo.” And he demanded to know what a logo meant, and she told him, in tiny giggles that subsided into stern throat-clearing when Susan glanced over, perplexed).
“I sounded it out, Miss Marni,” he replied. “Rrr rabbit Iiii ice Tttt table Eee egg Aaaa apple —”
“I told you not to call me Miss Marni,” she said. He crossed his arms. It made her feel old, he knew that. She’d be 30 in four days, and he was what? 19? He claimed his mother couldn’t remember but for the rains that accompanied the summer of his birth. It had been months before she could convince him to call her Marnina and even longer — till December, at least — before he called her Marni. She remembered that night, the way he sleepily mumbled “Marni” as he lay in the fold of her nightgown on one of those nights when Pete was far from home.
“I’ll call you what I please,” he said now.
“You dropped a holy cross on my house.”
“It’s not a cross, Jack. It’s — plastic.”
Rehearsing the moment, Marni had never considered the complications. “I’m pregnant, Jack,” she’d say, matter-of-factly, and then demand — what? They had never really taken his assets into account. Chickens, she knew. And the cow, but he’d sold her to get the alchemist’s sunflower seed that he’d dropped in the wood, that pushed up all verdantly muscular into her sunflower patch one day.
And here he was, unable to comprehend plastic. Her lover, whose entire body measured the length of the pregnancy test itself.
“It’s plastic, Jack,” she explained, again. “It’s not eggshell. It’s man-made.”
That confidence that puffed his small chest up — how she adored it, the way he’d plant his feet on her stomach and recite poetry to her, after one of their Reading sessions sequestered in the corner of her room. She was a goddess, he proclaimed. He listened to her soft descriptions of the tea shop she’d like to have one day, the stamps she’d like to collect. They spent afternoons curled in the warm square of sunlight, her body a castle around his, Jack leaning on his arm, his tiny bicep popping. Every so often he would look up, from The Cat in the Hat, to gaze at her with those limpid eyes. At the end, she’d let him pick a stamp from the glass case. They were the size of paintings in his hands, and his fingers would explore the crenellations. He’d never seen such art. When Pete’s car pulled into the driveway, she would lift him to the windowsill and watch him climb down the sunflower stalk, the stamp blowing over his shoulder like a square and colorful cape.
“When’s the baby born?” he asked softly. His rage had subsided. He sat, arms crossed, on her powder box.
“November, I imagine,” she replied. She’d counted the months on her fingers.
Pete had been very regretful to be in St. Louis for Valentine’s Day. He tried not to show it to his wife, as he didn’t want to aggravate her anxiety — the therapist had recommended “taking things slowly” after their intake session, during which Marni confessed that she had been talking to herself. Generalized anxiety disorder, the therapist nodded understandingly. He spoke with Pete a few times, separately, and urged him to “be gentle. It seems Marni’s going through a hard time.” Why, Pete could not say. So he’d left her a note on February 13, on his way to the airport, and a box of chocolates on the kitchen counter. She’d been very supportive of his trip, actually. Very affirming. It was a good sign.
Jack told his mother he was going to the market that day, to sell his latest masterpiece. The Duke had initially thought the spiked white edges of Jack’s tapestries a bit odd, but the Duchess adored them. No one else in the country made such art! The Duke conceded that the “37” in the corner of each had a certain charm. He ordered the tapestries hung along the Great Hall, the better to impress his royal guests. Even when the Duchess pressed him, Jack wouldn’t reveal how he produced such smooth fabric, which increased the allure of his mysterious work. Even the castle weavers could not distinguish one thread from the other. Once he had brought a tapestry of a green lady, an ancient sculpture, who held a burning torch aloft and wore a crown of daggers. The friar blessed it. “Forever,” Jack had woven into the corner. And on another, “USA First Class.” The friar declared him touched by Christ.
On the fourteenth of the month, his mother waved goodbye and Jack sprinted to the woods, through the February cold. He wrestled up the great green stem. One mitten fell to the earth, spinning downwards in the freezing wind. In her giant bedroom, Marni had lit candles. She lay on the bed, her breasts draped in red lace. From where he stood on the windowsill, across the room from her warm dusky-shadowed skin, she could be his size.
By the time the evening news concluded, Pete was quite anxious. Marni’s voice had crescendoed to a point, and he now heard the distinct hiccups that signaled dry sobs. He clicked off the television — CNN spiraled into a white dot — and sighed. Her Xanax was in the bathroom cabinet. Maybe he should encourage her to take some time off work, get ready for the wedding in July. Glencorps could do without her for a time, yes?
He stood outside the bedroom door.
“You don’t understand!” she said, her voice trembling. “I can’t do this. I meant it. I meant what I said, that you should go. You should go.”
Oh, God. He gingerly fingered the doorknob.
He heard the sound of a pillow being thrown. She gasped. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to throw that.”
“I can’t have a baby.”
Pete’s fingers clenched. Marni—?
A soft noise. Was the radio on? Her sniffles. That sniffle she made after a long day at work, when her wrists were sore. Marni, Marni.
“No, I don’t think God would—”
“He can’t know.”
“You must go, you must go. You mustn’t come back. No, I won’t throw anything. I won’t do anything. Take them—take them. Take the one with the Canada goose, you’ve always liked that one—” she was babbling now— “and this one, take this one for me, take it, yes, take this 42 cent, this 42 cent, this Forever. Take this Forever for me and go, go, go.”
The sound of the lock on the glass case—and a long, soft wail from Marni—and then the window shut.
Pete’s mother took some time to come around to the smaller wedding, which she regarded as rushed. Pete ignored her disapproving glances when the baby arrived a mere seven months later. He paraded the newborn around the maternity wing, admiring his son’s delicate features, the way he was so rounded and smooth-skinned and perfectly proportioned even if he weighed only three and a half pounds. Marni lay in bed and dutifully swallowed her antipsychotic medication. How lucky she had been treated, how lucky. How lucky they all were. A new chapter, a new life. Pete resolved not to hold her episodes against her, or to ask why, when he had been weeding the garden, he had found the sunflower patch outside the bedroom window littered with stamps.