AVA WALKS her fingers across the mattress to touch the baby’s cotton sleeve. Still there. She slides her whole hand over and rests it on the baby’s tiny mounded belly, the umbilical scab covered by a onesie, not pink or blue, but Kermit green. She imagines an invisible thread piercing the center of her palm, like a fishing line, pulling it towards the ceiling. She doesn’t want the weight of her hand to crush the baby, three weeks premature. The baby’s frog belly goes up and down, up and down, a miniature bellows. With her other hand she grazes her own breast, impossibly tender, aching as if filled with stones and bruises.
The day before, Adam, the baby’s father, grinned as he observed how a single swollen breast dwarfed the baby’s head when he was nursing. Adam took a picture with his phone. “We’ll want to remember this,” he chuckled, and Ava thought, We will? The doctor had come—a senescent gentleman who smelled of rubbing alcohol and old books, who knew babies and still made house calls—to help with breastfeeding. He told Ava to “make a sandwich” of her breast, so the baby could get his toothless mouth around it. “Pinch it with one hand, hold the baby’s head with the other and direct him to the nipple.”
“Some sandwich,” Adam said. The doctor reminded him: “Six to eight weeks, buddy, before you can … you know. When I say that, most husbands respond, ‘Sixty-eight weeks?!?!’ But in reality that’s more like it.” Adam deflated, but Ava’s breast did not, no matter how long the baby sucked. “It will get better,” the doctor said to them simply, and left.
Now it is 3 a.m. and the baby’s legs have begun to jerk up towards its belly. Soon it will begin to cry. An insistent, growling mewl. Ava tugs her loose nightgown down until her breast plops out of it. When Ava, a globe of belly herself, mentioned that she hadn’t bought a crib yet and didn’t think she would, friends warned her against letting the baby sleep with them. Isn’t it dangerous? Won’t it make him needy? Ruin your sex life? What began as a stroke of laziness or resistance to a cliché—painting the spare room the color of cold butter, assembling an IKEA set with Adam—has now become a necessity. During these first tenuous weeks without night or day, only relative dark or light, Ava cannot resist the urge to remain prostrate, to shut her eyes and let gravity take her. The thought of following convention—listening for the baby’s metallic cries over the monitor, climbing out of bed and going into the next room to feed the baby, settle the baby, and return to sleep herself—now seems a distant idea, almost funny.
And so at 3 a.m. she is sliding her hand under the baby’s fragile weight, bringing him close. Adam snores, heavy behind her, solid and warm like the sandy riverbanks of her childhood, where she would press her back after swimming, staring at the sky. On the far edge of the bed, like a cliff into darkness complete but for the digital clock, there is a mesh barrier to keep the baby from rolling off. But he could no more roll off than Ava could fall from Earth, so great is their need of each other.
Baby finds breast and sucks in rhythmic pulls. “Listen for the popping sound; that means he’s swallowing,” the doctor’s voice resonates, though he is long gone. The baby feeds and the minutes expand, they rise to meet her, her exhaustion a physical manifestation of time’s existence. The baby, still there. Contrary to what she imagined, the baby comforts her, his nursing allows her to become drowsy once again, to sleep.
When she was a child, Ava caught frogs that lived in the creek near her home. She kept them in canning jars with air holes punched in the lids. She remembers one specimen in particular, no bigger than her thumb. It appeared to have claws on the ends of its webbed toes, thin as threads. In captivity, the frog hardly moved; it just stared through the glass, its throat and belly inflating and deflating, pumping tiny breaths. Ava watched the frog over several days. It seemed confused, forlorn, and soon she decided to free it. She domed her hands around it and walked back to the creek. All the way, it kicked against the enclosure of her palms, no heavier than an insect.
And when she let it go, the frog disappeared so quickly into the grassy bank, joining its brethren, that Ava almost didn’t see. She looked at her empty hands, not sure what to do next, as if she were the lesser being, waiting for something, someone, to come along and release her.
Heather Jacobs is the editor of Big Fiction Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Lumberyard, Fugue, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming from Fifth Wednesday Journal. She lives with her husband and son in Seattle, where she is currently at work on a novella, a novel, and some essays.