Sarah Harris Wallman

The Food Source

Enjoy this excerpt from Future Perfect Tense by Sarah Harris Wallman (pictured).

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In the hospital, the nurses wrapped him tightly, and he was quiet. It was a kind of witchcraft; only the parents did not know the spell was temporary. Home at Glimpsing Glory, the blanket unraveled itself and the crying was unleashed. The crying was endless.

She read the books. He was supposed to eat every two hours. Crying was supposed to indicate any number of discomforts: temperature, fear, constipation. But in him, the cries were only for feeding. Silence came when the breast was in his mouth and no other time. Gretchen had been the sort of high school girl who could change for gym class without ever revealing a glimpse of flesh even to a locker room full of disinterested girls. With minimal awkwardness, she could remove a bra down the sleeve of her shirt. Now this baby, this Jack, wanted her bare-chested at all times. Even in his sleep, his tiny lips stayed pursed and pumping. He would not be detached and he would not do his suckling hidden beneath a blanket. She had not seen so much of her own breasts in her whole life as in the first week of his.

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That first week, she was so dizzy and unmoored that it seemed possible to reorient completely. Up was down and south was north and nudity was wholesome. In this mixed-up world she could become the kind of person who breastfed a baby on a couch in a day-lit den with no worry over who passed in and out of the room. She could switch Jack from one side to the other without frantically scrambling to hide the nipple he’d just quit. Trey certainly didn’t mind. He’d smooth the baby’s hair and kiss Gretchen’s head and comment favorably on the boy’s appetite. He let her control the television remote and brought her water in case the baby’s efforts were dehydrating her. And while he seemed to go missing for large chunks of the day, he left orders for Kelty to bring Gretchen egg sandwiches around the clock, for her hunger was immense.

Then one day her father-in-law entered the den in search of some newspaper that had run a less than favorable article about the family business, his gaze roving bookshelves and side tables until it happened upon Gretchen’s breast in the baby’s mouth. Her reflexes were mired in sleeplessness, and so his horror was much more quickly on display than hers. He departed the room red-faced and had a brisk discussion with his son. After that, Gretchen nursed in her bedroom, which is to say she spent most of her time there. The family bought her a small TV.

Nights were the most to be dreaded. Jack slept so little that she could not keep him in the room with Trey. His annoyance, though he tried gamely to hide it, doubled her suffering. And the suffering was already great: the baby’s cries formed hooks digging into the parts of her brain beneath what she thought of as herself. What the hooks attached to could not be moved without disturbing everything on top. And so in the fourth week (she counted weeks desperately, even as they blurred or clumped or receded from her grasp), Trey moved to another bedroom. One of them should get some rest, and it could only be the one who was not the food source. Besides, they reasoned with what little power of reason remained, a rested Trey was a Trey who could help with the baby during the day.

Not that he really could. Trey had good intentions, but when it came to baby-related chores he had to be instructed in such detail that it was usually easier to save her words and do it herself. At least now she could watch her TV at night too.

Probably the constant TV heightened the surreality of her confinement, but she refused to turn it off, instead believing that its voices kept her in the human world. Because of the television, she still knew current events, saw women in clean cashmere turtlenecks, was connected to what made people laugh. But weren’t most of the laughs mechanized now? Close enough, she told herself, as she watched a sitcom father react negatively to the puppy his children had brought home. The man gnashed his teeth and pulled at his hair, which grew only at the sides of his large eggy head. The dog licked his face. The audience howled. Laugh, Gretchen told herself. This is funny.

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Future Perfect Tense by Sarah Harris Wallman
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