Bethany Maile's creative nonfiction "Storm Shelters" appears in Issue No. 48: Exposure.
IDAHO STORMS WERE LONG, with warning. The wind was warm and a quiet rain purled leaves. My father would pull the truck into the garage and my mother would whistle for the dogs and we’d wait it out together playing gin rummy.
But first, the horses alighted. All day they’d wade the pasture, lazy and tame. Then, as if a gun had cracked, their heads jerked up and their ears flattened. Tuned to some infrasonic register, they sprinted the fence line. Their coats turned slick and shined in the rain. They were a polyphony of whinnies.
WE DO A LITTLE THING with a machine that’s balanced on her lap. A black box, two dials across the top, then a cord attached to two joysticks. She hands me the wands.
“Close your eyes,” she says. “Think of a happy time with your baby. When the wands vibrate, add more detail. What do you see, hear, feel? Understand?”
I say yes and she tells me to begin and I can’t think of a thing, not because there aren’t plenty of happy times, but because the jiggle-wands feel like grenades with their pins pulled.
“Any moment, just one.”
When I’d walked in, she’d stood up and closed her hand around mine and repeated my name and said, “My, that’s lovely.” So I tell myself to cooperate, to focus. Ignore the wands and the trickling water gadgets and mini Zen garden and her persistent, kind gaze. Any second these little sticks will electro-nudge me. Any second, she’ll ask again. I want to say, Fuck this, we have loads of happy times. But I don’t want to be rude. Instead, I talk about our first day home, how we’d had one of those Alaska spring blizzards, but then, falling in long hot slats, the sun. I held her bare-bellied to the window so she could feel it on her skin.
“I sang her a Beatles song.”
“She was quiet.”
“I was happy.”
She was here and it was warm and we were calm. What else is there?
“I was relieved she was healthy.”
I squeeze the wands.
The fountains bubble.
“What else? Go deeper?”
The room is an oven. My temples throb. I cry and she presses a tissue to my hand.
“Why the tears?”
“I guess I hate the idea that I need all this to feel good about my kid.”
And I really don’t think that I do. Early in my pregnancy, my obstetrician handed me this counselor’s card as general protocol. Postpartum depression isn’t uncommon, she’d explained, especially in Alaska, where the winter is long and sunless and most families are thousands of miles away on the other side of ice and ocean. But I was happy with this pregnancy, my husband, our home. After I’d delivered, I’d never felt the things doctors warn about: not wanting to hold her, or dreaming of chucking her from a window or setting her down and never coming back. So I want to tell her that I love the pants off my baby, that when she sleeps I miss her, that every day I press my face to her chest and breathe deeply because she smells like warm bread, that when she nurses I memorize the contours of her face. But this feels argumentative, so I just say the part about not liking all this production.
“Then why do you think your husband made the appointment?”
I put down the wands and open my eyes. For the past eleven months, more often than not, my husband would return from work to find me rocking our daughter, both of us hours into a hard cry. Our baby slept less and cried more than most. We saw three doctors, read nine books. Maybe I should pick up the wands and visualize. Maybe I should be more willing and tell her that the pediatrician calls our baby a statistical anomaly. There’s a bell curve for typical behavior, and your baby is outside of it. Her nervous system works overtime so she’s hyper-attuned to the world. Most stimuli—a door opening, a friend’s face—prompt screams. “You’d think we’re stubbing out cigarettes on her,” we say, trying to laugh. High needs. Highly reactive. Highly sensitive. They all mean the same thing, the pediatrician had said. Healthy but hard, this one.
Or maybe I should discuss the body. I could tell the counselor that I hadn’t cried at the first miscarriage but I did at the second, and after that I’d waited out my healthy, drug-boosted pregnancy with a learned skepticism and held breath. Or how after a botched delivery, the stench of cauterized flesh smelled like a dead deer I once found on a river shore. Or how sleep deprivation yielded hallucinations, and more than once I’d stumbled out of our bedroom, frustrated she wouldn’t latch, and my husband would put a hand on my shoulder and say, “I’ve got her,” and I’d look down to my bare chest and empty arms. Or how hormones had overtaken everything, even my kidneys, and the first stone was smooth like a pepper kernel and only took two days but the second was barbed like a sand spur and took ten. Or how I’d gone in for that stone but when the blood pressure cuff squeezed, the nurse lifted her eyebrows and the doctor said something about exhaustion and best to keep you for a bit, try to get you rested. Or how one night, while breastfeeding, my thumb rolled over a hard lump and when the doctor said “mass” the surgeon drilled and the incision stayed infected for months, how my milk turned pink with blood. Or that each day I tell myself this baby is sunshine and you willed her here; you’ve given her your body and would do it again; be thankful; be tough. But unloading all this feels argumentative, too, or like I’m saying my story is special, or like I’m complaining.
“It’s been a hard year.”
“Do you want to continue?”
I shake my head.
“Just think about the moment you chose, how far back you had to go.”
I put on my coat and she says, “I’ll write down post-traumatic stress, adjustment disorder, some depression, just for insurance.” I nod and tell her thanks and I’m out the door.
WE’RE WEEKS from her first birthday, and maybe something will click. At night, instead of waking seized by hours-long screaming fits, she will sleep. She’ll take a bottle or pacifier. Neighbors will wave and she’ll blink back easefully. I’ll sneeze and she’ll hardly turn a head. The faucet can run; the shower curtain can slide; the toilet can flush; the car seat can click; we can read books with animals in them; we can sing songs; the grandparents, when they visit, can touch her hand. And I’ll go whole days without giving my body a thought. Everything will settle.
AT 2 A.M. we nurse beside her window, where I sometimes hold her and point to the world: that’s a magpie, pretty but pesky; that cloud is a nimbostratus and full of rain; that moon is a waxing gibbous; the sun is shining hot today; the Beatles sang “Here Comes the Sun.” She eats and I rock and we occupy some crepuscular space between sleeping and waking.
A bright, clashing sound ruptures the night. A snow shovel, I think, scraping asphalt. But there is no snow and the whole block is sleeping. I hear it again, now lower and louder, like a growl. We’ve never had bears, but you hear stories. I part the curtains. A moose lopes and its call is deeper than a horse’s whinny, more oscillating and stressed. It bucks its hind legs gracelessly, it rolls its knobby head and lets another pained cry fly. It is mangy in the moonlight. Then the wind slams the screen door against the house. Rain falls fast and the window pings with it. The pine trees shake and the wind screams on, dissonant and metallic. My heart quickens at those big pines bending just beyond us. I lift her to my shoulder, my hand cupping the soft down of her head, and I am braced to absorb her cry. Her body tightens and she twists to the window where the water runs in shining streaks. She presses her hand to the pane, curious and quiet. Then the moose jumps the fence and bolts out of sight.
THE NEXT MORNING I’ll tell my husband that a moose, possessed by the change in pressure and the cold front gusting in, possessed by something that must be, to a moose, innate but inexplicable, tore up our yard. I’ll remember how quickly the storm kicked up, and I’ll think of my father’s ponies, portentous and rain-sleeked in the silver light of a gentle storm. I’ll think of my parents, removed by time and space, and how they called me in from the field, how my father shuffled the cards into a bridge and my mother kept score. I’ll think that just as quickly as the horses startled, they settled. I’ll think that last night, I’d propped my daughter on my shoulder and told her that outside the wind was really something, outside was quite the show. And she watched it all wide-eyed until she eventually found sleep.
When she wakes this morning, she will cry for me, and maybe I can soothe her or maybe I can’t, but the air will be warm and still and somewhere even that wild animal will have gentled to the world. Somewhere it will have made a bed in the grass where it could wake to a calm sky.
Bethany Maile’s essays have appeared in The Normal School, River Teeth, Prairie Schooner, Essay Daily, and High Desert Journal, among others. Twice, her essays have been included as notable selections in the Best American Essays series and once in the Best American Nonrequired Reading series. She teaches writing and hangs out with her husband and two daughters. This is a happy arrangement. She also watches a lot of premium cable.
Read the other poems, stories, and art from Ruminate's Issue 48: Exposure.
So lovely—thank you!
Lovely and powerful at once, and just what I needed to read on a hard night of despair. Thank-you…..
I love this, Bethany. And, that MOOSE!
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October 06, 2020
Bethany, this was powerful. Full of tension and emotion. Loved the parallel storms. Thank you for sharing it.