You can’t know for sure—who can tell what goes on in the mind of an infant? —but you imagine you were suspicious of the sort of place you landed in, even before you had words. The dream is your earliest memory, a movie playing an extended run throughout your childhood: A sherbet hued sunset smears the sky above a child’s rendering of a hill—a steep humped line. Grass shimmers in technicolor like cellophane in an Easter basket. For scale, the sky takes up twenty-five percent of the screen, the hill, seventy-five. Pinched between the two is a small, perfect cottage. A happily-ever-after. Cut to dark rock, dank earth, and a massive machine boring and grinding up, up, up. Flip between these two scenes with unpredictable frequency. When you enter kindergarten, you tell your mother the little house is in danger. But she says shush, it’s just a dream. Later, she will say: it’s not like anyone’s bones were ever broken, it’s not like you didn’t have enough to eat.
Toward the end of sixth grade, your grandmother comes to stay with you and your little sister because your mother must have an operation.
“Do you want to pray?” Your grandmother can see that you are upset, even though it’s your little sister who cries.
You nod, but you are a block of terrified ice. Your grandmother thaws you with an embrace, your head pressed into her squishy middle. She once rocked you on her lap in her paneled living room when you were hardly more than a toddler, a cool cloth on your tantrum-ravaged forehead. The big kids—your aunts and uncle—wouldn’t include you in their games, but your grandmother has always been your friend.
And so, you whisper: “It’s my fault. I was mad at her and I said, ‘Drop dead.’”
Your grandmother’s breath catches before she says, “To her face?” and her relaxed chuckle vibrates through your entire body when you say no, only in your head, but you know God heard.
God doesn’t take his orders from little girls,” your grandmother says. “Wouldn’t be a mother left on Earth…”
The Marriage Plot
Before you get married, your dress is stunning. You are the brunette Barbie Princess you’d always imagined. Your best friend—already married—oohs and aahs. But she also tuts. There are things you didn’t know you needed. She sets to work, needle and thread, making alterations—which are actually additions. At first, you like what you see—the extra layers of tulle, the lace appliques. But some of the ornamentation is heavy. Your bodice begins to sag, and you try to pull it up, but your friend just laughs and says get used to it. You laugh too. But now you must go to the bathroom, and you need help to fit into the stall with a dress so wide. Your friend comes with you. You both giggle as she lifts a layer of tulle, a layer of satin, another of tulle. But then… more tulle, more tulle, more tulle… You need to hurry. But my god, where are your legs?
You call your mother because the candy you are making has not set up.
Did you follow the recipe?”
“Yes, of course!”
You read from the smudged card, the family recipe a tradition your mother started, but that’s as far back as you can remember anyway and so it is everything. You list the ingredients, the measurements. When you get to the mixing, the boiling, she stops you.
“Did you boil it for a good minute?”
“Yes! Set a timer. Sixty seconds, exactly.”
“No!” she says, having discovered your mistake. “A good minute is closer to a minute and a half.”
Twelve Angry Women
Your grandmother says you’re not getting any younger. Your mother says it’s your choice, but she is buying baby things when she thinks you won’t notice. You feel too young and too old, ready, and not ready. And there is the little girl in your dreams, lately, that you still haven’t appeased. She lives in a village that was flooded when they built the dam. She is five years old. She swims through the broken windows, sleeps in the old church bell tower, happy as an otter. She is you, and you put her there to keep her safe, many years ago when you were eleven. But suddenly a jury of twelve adults—all also you—thinks it’s time to pull her out. Eleven-year-old you tells them (you), no. She is happy. She is safe. Leave her be. But the adult yous know better. One juror (you) kneels at the edge of the dock, extends her (your) arms into the water. Five-year-old-you swims up, smiling, always one for a quick cuddle, but the juror reels back, holding that version of you’s arms up for all to see—the forearms stripped to the bone. The five-year-old with the barracuda teeth swims away.
The Good Mother
She isn’t even born yet, and you are already screwing this up. Your water breaks three weeks early, but the contractions don’t start. You will need Pitocin. To Hell with your birth plan. But no other drugs! If your mother could do it—one of the first Lamaze deliveries in the whole damn country, driving forty minutes while in labor with your younger sister to a doctor (who wore a cowboy hat) who’d let her call the shots—you can do it too.
Your baby is born in two and half hours from the first contraction.
See, you think to yourself. See.
But the baby—your daughter—won’t nurse.
“She’s sleepy,” the nurses tell you. “You have to wake her up.”
The rural hospital keeps you both longer than your insurance allows, saying, “Don’t you worry about it, hon.” But eventually they release you and your diminishing daughter with a referral to a lactation consultant and an appointment for a visit from home health. Your mother was a La Leche League leader, one of the first in the country. The home health people arrive at your door with a scale and photocopied forms and instructions. Your daughter has lost five more ounces. You sink to the floor and sob.
“What is she saying,” one of the nurses asks the other
“What are you saying?” The second nurse asks you.
“Please. Please. Please,” you manage to say between gulps of air. You’re afraid to imagine the dreams your daughter will have. “Don’t take my baby.”
“Oh honey…” the nurses say and pull you to your feet.
Alicia Dekker’s work has been published in The Quotable and Barely South Review and will appear in Fractured Lit’s 2021 anthology. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a finalist in Mikrokosmos Journal’s 2019 fiction contest. She earned an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives with her husband and small fluffy dog in Virginia, where she teaches at The Muse Writers Center and is working on her first novel.