Melted: A Short Story
It is cold in hell.
It is nothingness and white iciness. It is cold the way that winds whipping off the water are bitter against the skin. It’s cold the way that laughter feels when it surrounds you but eludes your participation; that laughter echoes in your hollow chest, and you stand apart in silence.
The first time I got pregnant, I was twenty-four years old. I lost that pregnancy in two months. Not that miscarriages are uncommon, but the way people treated me when I told them made it feel like I should have whispered.
It is very cold in hell.
In hell, there is many a devil: the ones who lied and cheated, the ones who killed, the ones who sold their souls, the ones whose souls were already too dirty to sell. Hell comes to you; it consumes you. I went to visit it once, or should I say, hell visited me. It crept up in the sidelines of my vision like a snowstorm that became a blizzard, too quick for me to escape. I should have noticed it coming, though, when snowflakes started falling in spring.
I got pregnant again a year into my marriage, just twenty-seven years old. I used three tests to be sure it was real. My husband was twenty-nine. He was so excited when I told him. He held the plastic wands up in the air like they were solid gold, glittering in our fluorescent lights, and he kissed me like I was the sun. I was hoping that we would have a son, but he had his heart set on a daughter. We ordered Chinese food that night and ate on our couch, cuddled into a blanket, daydreaming about what it would be like to be parents, and giggling away at the possibility of our child—she would be smart; he would be kind; she would play soccer and paint; he would be a boy scout and play the violin. That’s the way we kept it for a while: as a daydream and as a secret that was just for us two.
I liked having a secret, a happy secret. I felt like the world somehow knew I was pregnant even though the people around me didn’t—the sunshine warmed my back and belly, the breeze seemed fresh and gentle, ladybugs landed on my windowsill to share in the warmth of our growing household. My husband brought me flowers on his way home from work at least once a week and always spun me around when he greeted me. With every passing day of my pregnancy we were only growing closer; we hugged each other a little tighter; we slept a little closer together, warm-whispered thoughts beneath flannel sheets. I didn’t mind the morning sickness or missing out on happy hours. I was happy to be home with the glow of our little secret.
The week I finished the first trimester, we invited his parents over for dinner. It was brisk outside, but we didn’t mind. A roaring fire kept the chill away, and we were warm from the excitement. I made cupcakes and decorated them with little purple candies—I had read in a book that at 12 weeks, our baby would be the size of a plum. After dinner, I brought the purple treats to the table, and we told them together. They couldn’t have been happier. My mother-in-law cried and squeezed my hand.
“A baby, oh my babies, that’s wonderful, congratulations love bugs.”
After they left, we called my out-of-state parents on the phone to tell them the good news, and they screamed and yelled their joy into the receiver.
“Oh honey, you are? Are you sure? Oh, this is wonderful. I’m going to be a grandpa! Oh my god, I’m going to be a grandma! When did you find out? How exciting, that is so wonderful! Should we plan to take a trip to help out? When are you due?”
As I heard my mother and father competing for the phone to ask frantic questions, I couldn’t help but laugh and my husband beamed at me over my parents’ chatter. Everyone kept telling me how exciting this was, and I couldn’t have agreed more. I bounced as I held the phone, flushed pink in my cheeks, which were sore from the smiling.
My first trimester seemed like a breeze; despite morning sickness, every doctor’s visit ended in the assurance that everything was normal and healthy. By the start of my second trimester, I was wishing to go back to the first. My husband was away from home more; he had started working more hours to financially prepare for the baby. While he was away, a swell in my lower stomach had started to take shape. It was strange to cup my hand against the curve of my belly and know that somewhere inside was a very tiny human being. Standing in front of the mirror became a daily habit, looking at my changing body: swollen belly and swollen breasts and dark purplish lines that crept up my stomach and ran along my thighs like vines that had gone uncut. I tried not to think about them too much, which was a challenge as the more I was visibly pregnant, the more people wanted to comment on and ask about my body. They assured me I was glowing, always glowing, and I thanked them. I smiled and nodded and answered politely, but I felt less like I was glowing, more like I was a candle that was running out of wick to burn.
My mother and mother-in-law were anxious to throw me a baby shower and called often to see if I could be convinced to have a gender reveal party as well. I wouldn’t, much to their dismay. Their excitement felt less warm and more feverish (as I said no again and again). I was tired enough at the thought of one party, and two seemed like an impossible challenge. I tried to complain to my husband about our mothers, but he thought it was sweet how involved they were, so I stopped.
“They just want you to feel special,” he’d say.
“I already feel special,” I’d say.
In-between their calls, I started decorating the nursery. The walls were cream, and I had put wallpaper with golden clementines and green leaves on just one of them—an “accent wall” my husband had called it. The rest of the room followed suit with green and clementine, and I moved a rocking chair into the room so I could sit while preparing. I was tired from preparing. I packed bins with diapers and folded blankets, baby-proofed the room, and read enough baby and parenting books to get a plethora of papercuts. Sometimes I wouldn’t prepare. Sometimes I would sit in the rocking chair and not know where to begin, so I just wouldn’t begin at all.
On the day of my baby shower, there was gentle but cold rain. My mother and mother-in-law had helped me get our house ready throughout the morning, cleaning and decorating and putting together little plates of cheese for snacking.
Occasionally they would remind me that,
“You should really get off your feet, but also could you help me with this one favor first?”
The party began in the afternoon, with pink and blue candies and the chattering teeth of conversation between friends and family. There were so many of them. The faces of these women I knew were a blur of baby-themed games and pastel-wrapped presents and laughter and “aren’t you so happy” and “look how big you’ve gotten” and “when I was pregnant” stories and so, I stepped outside. I didn’t mind standing in the rain. It was quieter and colder than my party. The baby’s party. I didn’t stay out long; the baby was needed back inside for another game, and I had started choking on the chilled, crystallizing air.
My third trimester was one of high winds. I had stopped going out so much; I stayed mostly in our bedroom or the nursery. My baby had grown so big that when it stretched itself inside of me, it tended to cut off my circulation, and down I’d go. Fainting isn’t exactly fun, but as a pregnant woman, it is suddenly much more serious. I could fall onto my belly and hurt the baby. I was clumsy, heavy with each step, slow to make it up the stairs. So I was home, and often, often, often in bed. I slept more, so the bed was convenient, but I woke up in a cold sweat and in tears. It was warming outside, spring creeping in slowly, but when I opened my windows, the air turned cold.
I swore I saw it snowing.
My husband was around in the evenings and on weekends, but even so, he was somehow gone even more. I was homebound, while he was working more, running errands, doing chores—his body staying the same while mine was somehow still growing. As time marched on, he was somehow getting farther away from me, but I said nothing to him about it. He was working hard; he was tired too; he was preparing for our baby. I cried on my own, sitting almost daily at the edge of our bath, soaking my swollen feet in ice water and wailing anxieties to bloated thighs. I worried if we were ready, if I was ready, for the baby.
My toes were turning blue.
Then it came: the day my baby was due. My water broke, streaming down my legs in ice-cold trails that I thought would freeze in place. We rushed to the hospital, my husband and me, and he called all of our family on the way. They would meet us, they said, and everything would be okay. I shivered in the passenger seat, biting my lip and trembling under growing contractions. I was shaking, the circulation in my fingers failing as they turned from red to the grayish hue of frostbite. I cried out for my husband who held onto me with one hand, a painful grip, but whose eyes never left the road, who couldn’t do enough to reassure me.
“I’m here; I’m here,” He said.
The hospital room was so, so white. The doctors’ gloves were white, the sheets were white, the nurses white. The needle in my arm was silver, and it leaked icicles into my blood. I kept trying to cover myself; my legs were bare, my stomach bare, my arms bare, and my flesh was raised with goosebumps. I needed a blanket; I grabbed for one like I was in a game of tug-o-war, but they needed the blankets out of the way—for the baby. “Push for the baby, push for the baby, push for the baby.” I sobbed, my face wet, the bed wet, the pain blinding – and then it was over.
She came out like a block of ice.
The moment they placed her in my arms, the blizzard set in. Tiny body and tiny face, translucent and pale with spidery cracks running blue beneath the surface. She was slippery and cold against my chest, fragile and brittle like I might break her. I shook my head.
“This isn’t mine,” I said.
I looked up to where my husband was supposed to be. There, I saw a pale version of what he used to look like. I remembered his eyes, but they were pained now. He just looked at me.
“What,” I asked him, “what’s wrong with you?”
He said nothing but leaned down to remove the piece of ice that was squirming and crying on my chest. He held her as if she didn’t leave freezer burn against his skin. I reached for a blanket and rolled away from him. I tucked the blanket into my chin and slept. Even through sleep, I could hear people coming and going, a doctor and nurse, my mother, his mother, the baby. Even through the sounds of ripping wind and the muffling of falling flakes, I heard them whispering about me.
Somehow we made it home. I asked my husband how we got there, and he told me we had driven.
“Through the snow?” I asked.
He just shook his head.
“It’s not snowing, Isa.”
The ice block whimpered in the backseat. He got out of the car and took her inside. I followed slowly and sorely, my body aching as though I had been in a fight. Our house was dark and quiet like we had been gone for years. He went upstairs with her, but I didn’t make it past the kitchen table. My parents and his parents appeared and disappeared, all going upstairs to the nursery. I rested my hands on my belly. It was different now—softer, squishy, wrinkled, empty. Without my baby my belly was cold. Where was my baby?
I slept a lot the first few weeks when we got home. Family and friends filtered through; our parents never left, but the rest of them went in and out of the house, but always away from me. We were separate, separated by a wall of ice, their images blurred and their words muffled. Some of their words got through, asking me questions and encouraging me to hold the baby, to feed the baby, and that I needed to get better for the baby.
“Isa, you’re better than this.”
“Did you pump today or did you want to try breastfeeding?”
“Don’t you want to see how big she’s gotten already? She looks just like you.”
“Can you just try?”
My ears were numb.
About a month in, I broke. I couldn’t take the silence anymore. I cried; I whimpered and clawed at the ice, pounded my fists against the walls that held me captive. I needed to see my husband, my baby. Wasn’t I a mother?
When he finally noticed me, my voice was raw. His eyes were back to looking pained like I had cursed at him, but he pulled me out from under the ice water. His hands were warm.
I didn’t know what to do, and once I finally had his attention, he was just as lost. He didn’t understand why I was so cold, or how to help. So we went to see a doctor.
The doctor we went to see was different from the ones at the hospital. The first time we met her my husband did most of the talking, but he stopped coming to our sessions after that. It was slow at first, with many tears and very few words, but I liked her. I liked the way she talked to me, and not at me. We decided we would keep talking, once a week for an hour. My husband insisted on driving me there, and he would talk quietly to me on the way—about things that happened this morning at work, about the article he read last night, and about the errands he would run tomorrow. He didn’t push me to talk, but he always held my hand. His hands stayed warm.
It took a long time for the ice to melt. There was a lot of talking to the doctor, which lead to talking to another doctor, to try a sprinkle of medication that was like salt over a sidewalk to help with all the ice. There was a lot of talking to my family. I didn’t need them to understand, but I needed their support and their patience. They gave it to me, unconditionally, with good intentions and love.
It was stubborn ice, thick ice, and sometimes it would refreeze overnight. Slowly, slowly, I was trying, we were all trying, and that was enough. I was enough. Soon I would find the strength to hold her, with other people around to make sure we would be okay. She was still cold, coated in ice, but I could feel a flame inside her. Then it came; the day my baby was mine again.
I heard her cooing in the nursery, but my husband was asleep and our family wasn’t there. I stood in the doorway, waiting for a frigid breeze to blow me back. Even though I was alone, it didn’t come. I stepped inside slowly, easing my way to her crib. I peered over the side, to see the last drops of condensation evaporate from fresh new skin. She squirmed; she was golden in the light. I smiled and made faces, and felt a flicker of heat in my chest when she laughed. I lowered my hand into her crib and let her tiny hand grasp around my finger.
Her hands were warm.