Before our first full moon together, my husband waxes his chest and arms. He insists his polished skin will be a beacon. This will make the difference. He insists lunar reflection will attract a carrier.
“But why’d you wax your chest?” I ask. Blushing, he mumbles about peach fuzz. The existence of peach fuzz seems aspirational, but I don’t want to stifle his imagined machismo.
And his chest does shimmer in the moonlight. Skinny arms akimbo, feet spread, my husband strikes a superhero pose among the chaise lounges in our backyard. He stares up at the moon, chest popped out, penis drooping between gleamy thighs. My hero has waxed everything, apparently.
After a quiet hour, he paces. He peeks up at the clear sky, growing increasingly confused. He is a good man, but he’s always had it easy. His presumption of our immediate success pisses me off. His waxing enthusiasm and now his quiet tantrum leaves little space for me. I, too, am butt naked in our backyard.
“Maybe we should wax our heads?” I joke.
“I’m just trying to do the same thing as you…” I say. His shadowy brows furrow. “Just trying to lighten things up.”
* * *
The next morning, he asks if I really want this. I tell him that I, too, am disappointed. He breathes in deep.
“This is scientific,” he claims. There are physical obstructions and mental obstructions. His chest hair had been physical, my joking had been mental. If we want to be successful it goes a certain way. He stares at the table as he says this. His stare says that he took care of his end of things. His moobs were waxed. His downward stare is his conflict-averting method of attributing blame. He isn’t used to explaining failure, so I let him pontificate as if I haven’t read the same things he had read.
Suddenly, he frowns.
“I’m sorry, I know you know all this. I’m just…”
I lift his tight chin and look straight into his boyish face and big green eyes. He is a sweet, foolish man. I tell him I am in it just as much as he is. Last night was a fluke. A bunch of blind dodos. He cringes at my criticism of the carriers.
“Next moon,” I say.
And I am in it. Truly in it. And I am disappointed, and I do hurt. I also had been convinced we’d be successful last night. He is an abundance of goodness, and I am everything else. We are the perfect candidates to receive a child.
* * *
We buy robes before the next moon. He reads plumy robes might actually help. Recent studies claim lunar reflection is not as important as mimicry. The same studies suggest avian comradery might boost our odds. I put nails in each tree and hang bird feeders. We resolve to do anything that might do anything. On the crescent, we celebrate a nest of hatchlings in the branches of our hawthorn.
After we fail again, I admit I washed the robes with scented detergent.
“I was too stressed,” he responds.
We avoid everyone for the next week. When I cancel my maternity leave for the second time, the HR assistant says I shouldn’t put in for leave unless I am actively planning a family. I actively stop my fist from his dumb little face.
* * *
After every moon, we locate a failure: scented detergents, unseen insects, pollen, and anything else that isn’t us. This assigning of fault allows us a delusion of control. It is science—calculable and impersonal. We follow the trends. We work out less. We let our legs thin. A fish-only diet brings mercury poisoning, but we recover. Every sip and bite are taken in consideration of the full moon. I worry where the blame will fall after we exhaust external factors.
And, after every moon, our optimism dwindles, and our exactitude sharpens. I worry about my fragile husband.
I’m the one who has had to scrap for everything. I’m the mean one. I squeeze clients and torture adversaries. I fake benevolence in front of him because I want him to think I am kind. But whenever he suggests I quit my job and try something new, my blood boils. After three deep breaths, I gesture to our home, his new running sneakers and his sweater and ask where he thinks these things came from. Certainly not his teaching salary. He tells me that he would give those all up if it meant I was happy. He claims all he loves is me. He is insufferable like that. Spouting hallmark bullshit that makes me question his sanity.
Everything has always come naturally to him. He can sway into a complicated waltz he has never learned. He picks up languages watching foreign films. He eats what he wants and never gains weight. His students want to please him. He never needs to discipline. He charms them without being crass. He inspires without preaching and comforts without saccharin. He never has had to ‘work’ on himself. He is kind in the way only someone who has never struggled could be.
At first our struggling is a novelty to him. But when we continue to fail, he sours.
His easygoing nature falters. One morning after a full moon, he even complains about his students. Bunch of underachievers. Lazy parenting. He blames the parents who put the bad grades on him for being a harsh grader. Later he apologizes for his comments.
“No one works hard. Everyone is just given stuff. It’s bullshit,” I say.
He blushes. “Maybe I am grading harder.”
“Maybe the kids should work harder. Parents absent. Not doing diddley squat. It’s people like that, who don’t deserve children. You can’t make them do their homework. It’s not fair.”
He’s sure the parents mean well. He goes on about the PTA’s improvement plans and school budget, but I’ve already stopped listening to his Pollyanna imitation.
* * *
In late fall, I dig up the mums, while he rakes the back yard. He removes rocks larger than a pebble. This helps, he says. He cuts the grass short. Our neighbors store our lawn furniture. They spare us questions or unsolicited advice. They must recall their own stress and how my husband dismantled their paver firepit before they received their youngest. We chop down the witch hazel with its crinkly yellow blooms. He has always disliked the understory plant. This helps, my husband claims. I joke that what helps is simply what he’s always wanted done. He lets this joke slide.
All physical obstructions are removed—a helicopter could land in our yard.
We move our anniversary up to the day of the full moon. Mentally, we laser-focus on love, harmony, and openheartedness.
On the morning of the full moon, he vacuums while I sweep the cobwebs in the corners of the nursery. Over a year ago, we rolled a neutral eggshell onto the walls. I alone painted the baseboard and trim. Our friends had laughed at this—their husbands were also impatient and sloppy. We had shared news of our prospective news with our friends because we had been confident in us.
That day, after sharing the prospective news, I got down on my knees with their children. I spoke gibberish to babies. I appeared. I disappeared. I served invisible tea and waved at planes. I did this to show my husband I would be a good mother. In turn, he let our friends’ children climb him like a playground. He chased and was chased. That was who he was. The fun one. I watched and imagined his wide smile cracking at our own child. It had been a nice day.
* * *
We wear flannel. Natural fibers, of course. The warm cotton hangs off me like a pelt sags off a starved lioness. My husband pulls the kid’s wagon. I am too weak. This will be our last moon. Physically neither of us can survive another cycle. Mentally we have not survived the last.
Pumpkins and gourds mound on tables; corn stalks festoon the farm.
“Orchard,” he corrects, then blushes. He pulls his collar around his neck. His clavicle is thin like a chicken bone.
My husband has shrunk. His face has become birdlike. The life sucked from his cheeks. Whenever I catch him alone, he is glowering. His gloom lifts when he sees me, but I wonder about his lonesome thoughts. He has never placed the burden on me out loud, but I know he suspects it is my fault. That I don’t want a child badly enough. No doubt he has reached the same realization I have, that the problem isn’t scientific. Something is not right about us.
Other couples wear the same vested flannel, jeans, and boots. They also pretend to be carefree. I pile gourds onto our wagon. We both hate seasonal decorations, but gourds and pumpkins reflect the moonlight. Pilgrims from the city have already picked the apple trees bare. Fallen Macintoshes are deer-bitten and covered with wasps.
A tractor pulls a trailer filled with three or four million children.
How could something so beautiful as a child ever come to such ugly creatures as us?
The sun falls out of the sky. The temperature drops, and my husband points to the horizon. The corn maze purples.
* * *
Driving to dinner, I tell him not to order quickly. “It feels transactional. We need to relax and love one another.” He nods. He’ll send the waiter away at least twice before we order. We agree to try hard to relax.
“It’s our anniversary,” he says, “I want it to be special too. Your big dumb husband won’t be an oaf.”
He smiles. My beautiful husband once more.
We eat a dozen oysters each. The ambience is jazz, candles and exposed brick. I do not comment on other couples, the waitress or anything else. We hold hands between courses. My eyes never leave him. His eyes never leave me. I blink only when he blinks so he never sees me not looking at him.
The bill sits for thirty minutes as we baste each other in compliments. His kindness, his easy-goingness, my sturdiness, and my sense of humor despite everything.
It doesn’t make sense. None of it makes any fucking sense. We have done nothing wrong. We have adjusted our entire lives and yet still. Nothing.
* * *
He insists I rub anchovy paste on his back. My fingers trace every knobby bump. He shudders. Afterwards, he slathers me up.
The air outside is chilly. The gourds cascade down the back steps. Their unbroken rondure glows with moonlight. The rake and shovel from the morning lean against the siding. Our eyes linger on them. Too late to put them away.
We wait in our robes. The paste congeals on my fingertips.
I will stay. I do not know the same for him. He would give away the house and everything we own for my happiness. But will he give up the one thing he’s always wanted?
A shade appears in the moon. A plane or a helicopter, despite the laws against night flying on full moons. It must be.
It grows larger. Its flaps break the silence. My husband squeezes my hand. Its wings spread. It will change direction at any moment. Fly off in a thousand different directions.
It descends, gliding above our neighbors’ roofs, towards us.
The stork sprints on its landing, coming to a halt not ten feet from us. Its talons slice valleys in the turf. A foot taller than our 6-foot fence, the bird is long and thin, more prehistoric monster than bird. Pitch black except for its red and orange beak that measures the length of a baseball bat.
A white swaddle hangs from the beak.
My husband nudges me. He steps to the right; I step to the left. We both flap our robed arms.
“This was the best anniversary ever,” he says, avoiding direct eye contact with the bird. “Didn’t you enjoy our trip to the orchard and our romantic dinner?”
“Yes, it was great,” I say.
The bird’s long neck straightens up. A gruesome eye tracks our dance. I hate it. This overgrown swamp bird. I fucking hate it.
My husband prowls towards me with raised arms in overture. Robes hang off his arm like wings. My husband and I crisscross. His hand grazes mine. We round back to face one another. I turn and faint into his arms. I rub my neck up against his neck.
My robe drops.
The bird’s head rises as I lower myself to the ground. My palms brace the patio pavers. My knees scrape against the stone. My breasts shine with anchovy paste. A bit of fish dot my forearm. I flick it. Behind me, my husband raises his arms. He flaps them into wings once more.
“Should I squawk?” he whispers.
“I’m the one who squawks,” I respond.
As he enters me, I squawk.
The beast’s narrow head tilts sideways. It considers us.
I squawk again. My husband flaps his arms.
The stork turns towards the fence and rustles its wings. The swaddle sways.
I squawk louder.
The bird steps towards the fence. One step. Two steps. The swaddled baby dangles from its beak. The stork picks up speed.
“But this is how…” he says.
The rake is already in my hands. I sprint. I match stride for stride with the bird’s long gait. My atrophied legs burn. Its talons leave earth. No. No you don’t, fucker. I swing with all my strength. Metal clicks beak. My arms vibrate.
The swaddle drops safely in a pile of leaves.
From a quick glance back, I see my husband recoils. His pale face, somehow, whitens in the moon. But I have no time to coddle him—the stork is looping back.
The bird flies to perch on our fence. The wood slats buckle. Glowing red eyes fix on the swaddled baby. Its long shadow covers me and the leaf pile behind me.
I swing the rake, but it doesn’t flee.
“Get out of here.”
The creature swats me aside with its wing. Stone tears my flesh, my knee bends in an unfamiliar angle as I crash onto the patio pavers. The bird sweeps past, head bobbing with each step.
My husband has retreated towards the house with the baby.
The stork hisses. Its wings spread, engulfing my husband.
He cowers. His face yellowed with fish guts and moonlight. His arms are stringy nothings. His ribcage shadows his hollowed stomach. The beast has already taken everything from him as well.
He lowers the baby and scoots away. What else could I have expected from him?
I try to rise, but my leg gives out.
As the bird’s head dips to the baby, I see the spade. The blade glints in the moonlight. Connected to it, ratcheting it over his head, my emaciated husband.
The bird’s beak opens as the blade falls on the bird’s long neck. A loud crack and blood sprays the swaddle. My husband staggers back. He shuffles forward and swings once more. An unnecessary blow. Shadows hide his face, but I feel his glare. I blush.
He hurries the swaddle inside, leaving me with a partially decapitated but fully dead bird.
I limp inside, following his bloody footprints to the nursery, where our daughter lies in her crib, small curious fingers grasping for the silver rattle her father shakes just beyond her reach. His blood-splattered face splits into a smile. And for the first time, I know what I had only hoped, he will make a good father. He will be vicious.
Casey Gentry Quinn has received scholarships and fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Monson Arts, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and elsewhere. His work has appeared in Narrative, Post Road, Hippocampus Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly and elsewhere. He lives in Saratoga Springs with his wife and can be found online at http://www.caseygquinn.com.