Meg wakes to the patter of what must be squirrels scurrying after walnuts on the roof. She often sees them dart along the telephone lines and the bare branches of the walnut tree like tiny acrobats. The sun isn’t out yet and the finches are still asleep in their covered cage. Last summer the pair bred but only one of the five babies survived. The baby finches had wide red mouths and transparent seed sacs on either side of their beaks. The beginnings of feathers bristled out of their thin amphibian skin like pins.
In the bathroom Meg is startled by the reflection of her naked body in the mirror. She runs her hands over her moon-belly as if to shine it. Once a week Meg stops at the store downtown to read a thick, expensive book that documents weekly changes in your little one’s development. Each week the book compares the baby’s size to a different fruit or vegetable—a tomato, a pomegranate, a cantaloupe—and always leaves Meg feeling a little hungry. It was seeds and lentils in the first weeks. This week it said her little one is the size of an average rutabaga. But what’s a rutabaga? She plans to ask Antonio in produce.
Meg likes the way her body looks. She carefully steps into the shower and lets the spray wake her. It was scary at first when her belly bulged and breasts bloated uncontrollably. Her body felt foreign, independent of her. She was made into spectator and could do nothing but watch it swell.
In high school she had dealt with anorexia, a control thing, a coping mechanism for her parents’ divorce, her friend moving away etc., etc. Her boyfriend, Russ, hadn’t known her then, when she was angular and hollowed out, staring at hipbones and seeing only pouches of invisible fat.
When Meg’s counselor had asked her to close her eyes and visualize the disease in a material form, Meg saw it as a green globular figure. It didn’t have eyes but she knew it was watching her and that it was male. The counselor told her that 75 percent of all anorexics see the same globular image. All say it is male and watching. This still gives her shivers.
When Meg met Russ she had gained back the weight, but secretly struggled with her thoughts. Every swallow was a stone. She had to relearn the pull of hunger and the brim of appetite, natural signs she had numbed.
Russ loved to cook. He made them extravagant meals that took hours to prepare, cannelloni, prime rib, pistachio-encrusted salmon. He insisted on dining as an experience. Russ told her hed rather she not wear makeup, encouraged her to dress comfortably, preferably naked. He was emphatic about natural beauty. He saved her from herself.
When anorexics come through Meg’s till at the grocery store—swollen elbows and knees, bobble heads on sinewy necks—she doesn’t know what to say to them as they flutter through their wallets to pay for non-fat cottage cheese, rice crackers, and celery. A familiar trick: the non-food food, the hollow crunch.
And now this—Meg slides the loofah over her belly—this wiggling little fireball inside her. She closes her eyes and imagines the baby curled up safe, like the diagram of the cross-sectioned pregnant belly in the book at the store. She likes the way people look at her. See her as clean, innocent, wholesome. She smiles at the women who enter the grocery store with their mini-skirts, skinny jeans, and empty stomachs, because deep inside, they starve for what she has, her fullness.
The thought of her baby getting nutrients from what she eats thrills Meg. She feels the tug of that responsibility. Eating has become something sacred.
Once dressed, Meg clips her nametag to the pocket of her uniform. She opens the curtain above the sink in the kitchen; the sun is bright against the hardened snow. She is about to take the sheet off the birdcage to show the finches it’s morning when there is a knock at the door.
The face in the window is vaguely familiar. A man in his forties; he wears a green toque and has a scruffy red beard. He smiles apologetically. When she opens the door a golden retriever braces against its leash and growls at something in the house behind her. Meg steps back.
“Whoa, Sophie.” The man tugs the leash and brings the grumbling dog to his side.
“Can I help you?” Meg asks, hand on her belly. The man looks down and considers her stomach as if it were some kind of clue.
“I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” he says, still looking at her belly.
Meg becomes self-conscious of the mess on the patio table by the door: the rotting poinsettia she keeps forgetting to put in the compost and the tower of empty beer cans. She has the urge to tell this stranger the cans are from the New Year’s party and she didn’t drink a drop. The man leans to one side, tries to see past her and into the house. The dog lunges forward again and the man has to tug it back to his side.
“It sounds silly,” he says. “I was walking past your house and Sophie just went nuts, started growling and barking.”
Meg waits for his point.
“So I tugged her away, thought nothing of it. But then on our way back, she growled and pulled towards your house again. She’s not like that. She’s a friendly dog. Maybe I watched too much Lassie as a kid. But I figure Id rather look like a fool and investigate than find out later on the news there was a child in trouble, or an old man slowly dying on the kitchen floor, you know?”
“Well, everything’s fine here.” Meg smiles. The man tries to see past her again.
“No child in need. No dead guy on the floor. We’re fine.”
“If things aren’t OK,” he whispers, “like if you’re afraid someone’s listening, you could give me a signal.” The man taps his index and middle fingers against his chest twice. “Just do that if something is wrong, or if someone—”
“I said everything is fine.”
The man takes one more peek in the house. Meg moves to block his view.
“Now, please,” she puts her hand on her belly again, “if you would let us be.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, Meg.” He gives a little nod before he turns to leave. Meg closes the door and stands with her back against it. She stares at a hole in the wall she didn’t notice before, and hopes it doesn’t mean mice.
“Who was that?” Russ groans from their bed.
She takes her tuna sandwich from the fridge and places it in her lunch bag.
“Jehovah’s witness,” she says without knowing why.
The birds chirp, anxious for light. Meg lifts the sheet off the cage. In a flush of blue two birds fly away from something at the bottom of the cage. Against the grate is the stiff little body of the third bird.
* * *
That morning a woman with straight shiny hair comes through Meg’s checkout at the grocery store. Meg watches the woman’s hands as she puts loose fruits and vegetables onto the counter. She has long manicured fingernails with white tips like in commercials for dish detergent. Meg struggles to keep all the loose apples on the scale at once.
“How far along are you?” the woman asks.
Meg looks up, notices the woman has a baby bump too. “Six months,” Meg says.
“Really, six months?”
“Well, 25 weeks.”
“You look more like 28!” The woman puts a bunch of carrots on the counter. “I’m 32 weeks and you’re almost as big as me.” She places her hand on her stomach.
“Acorn squash,” Meg whispers to herself.
“I can’t imagine having to get up every day and work. Aren’t you tired?” the woman asks. Meg scans organic tofu, chives, olives.
“Well, you know how it is, you gotta do what you gotta do to get your hours in.” The woman looks at her blankly; Meg realizes that no, this woman, does not know how it is. Meg picks up a round, purple vegetable. “Rutabaga?” she asks.
“Turnip,” the woman says.
* * *
Meg walks through the produce section on her way to the lunchroom. She browses the rows of fruits and vegetables, passes avocados (16 weeks), bell peppers (18 weeks), eggplants (28 weeks), pumpkins (40 weeks).
Antonio is sorting through a box of broccoli (19 weeks). He fishes out a mushy green clump and throws it in the garbage bin on his cart. As he greets her, his thick eyebrows rise to pull his eyes awake. Antonio is a senior in high school. His older sister is also pregnant and sometimes he gives Meg tips, like that bananas are a good source of folic acid and eating an orange with her iron supplement will help her absorb it.
“How’s your sister?” Meg asks.
“Good.” He smiles. “The diabetes test came back negative.”
Meg has to look away when Antonio’s fingers sink into a glob of rotten broccoli. “That’s great,” she says. It smells like the garbage cans she has to change at the end of the day. “Hey, do we sell rutabagas?” she asks.
“Rutabagas?” Antonio rubs his hand on his apron leaving a smear of green-brown gunk. “I’ve seen them before.” Meg follows him through a vegetal maze. He stops in front of the turnips (17 weeks) and cauliflower (25 weeks). He picks up a moldy brown vegetable. Part of it sticks to the shelf. “Well, that used to be a rutabaga.”
“I’ve never sold one before,” Meg says.
“As you can see they’re not very popular.” He drops the clump in the garbage.
* * *
Meg takes her lunch bag out of the fridge and sits with Hannah and Laila at the staff table. Hannah is a clerk in her 50s, she doesn’t say much to anyone, but at the beginning of Meg’s pregnancy, when she often came to work green-faced, Hannah slipped Meg ginger candies. Laila is a baker and often entertains Meg and Hannah with scandalous stories about her drunken weekends.
“Oh, god. What has she brought today,” Laila says, plugging her nose.
“Same old.” Meg places the tuna sandwich on the table.
“How long do you think this craving will last? I’ll have to get my lunch break changed.”
“I’m really sorry,” Meg says. “It’s just one of those things. I crave it all morning.” She removes the plastic wrap from the sandwich and takes a bite. Her teeth crunch on something gritty. She fishes it out with her tongue and spits it into her hand: a small, circular bone. Meg is reminded of the finch at the bottom of the cage, the tendons of its neck exposed. She brings a hand to her mouth and runs to the bathroom. She vomits until she is hollow.
When Meg sits back at the table, Hannah passes her a glass of water.
“I thought I was finished with that,” Meg says.
“Maybe you’re just finished with tuna,” Laila says. “Do you want some of my chicken?” She holds up a Shake ’n Bake chicken thigh. Meg runs back to the washroom and dry heaves.
* * *
Before she leaves work that day Antonio comes to her till. “I’ve got something for you.” He pulls it out from behind his back. “Got some fresh stock in. That’s what a rutabaga should look like.”
It has a rat-tail like a beet and its purple skin is rough like an unpeeled carrot. The rutabaga fits snug in both of Meg’s hands.
* * *
When Meg gets home, the house is dark and quiet. There is a sticky note from Russ on the fridge.
Tiffany’s in town. At Jimmy’s for a photo shoot.
Be home late, don’t wait up. Lasagna’s in the fridge.
Something twists inside her. She likes Tiffany. They worked together at a restaurant last summer. Tiffany was a hippy-type then, hairy armpits, unwashed hair, lumpy body, and a beautiful, photogenic face. Russ did a photo series of her and Tiffany swimming nude at Island Lake. Now Tiffany lives in Vancouver and works part-time as a nude model at the fine arts school. She has a knack for it. It’s her face, her dark eyes, her ability to stay completely still in front of a gaping audience.
Meg opens the fridge. It smells like rotten eggs and swamp. She scans the shelves for the source. She pulls everything out of the fridge, one by one, checks the dates and wipes the shelves down. It isn’t until she pulls the produce bins out that she finds a rotten carrot (21 weeks), grizzled and blue-black. But even once she removes it and puts everything else back, the smell doesn’t diminish.
The fetus squirms, kicks her gut, hungry. Meg chokes down a few crackers. She walks past the cage and looks in on the birds. The dead one is still at the bottom, the skin beneath its feathers is pink and raw. She throws the sheet over the cage and retches.
There are footsteps on the gravel by the house. Meg goes to the window and flings wide the curtain, expecting to see Russ. But it’s the man with the green toque, snooping around. He waves meekly. The dog barks at her. Meg pulls the curtain closed and stands next to the window; her heart throbs in her throat. The man’s footsteps stop. She backs away. What if he comes to the house now, while Russ is gone? She’ll call the police. She’s about to run for the phone but the footsteps continue past the house and when she peers through the window again, he is gone.
Meg collapses on the couch, suddenly so tired. She wonders if it’s anemia. She needs more iron in her diet, more red meat. But the thought of beef disgusts her. At least the crackers helped; the fetus is still again.
Later Meg wakes to the purr of Tiffany’s old diesel and pulls the Mexican blanket up over her head. Russ’s key clatters in the door. He quietly sets down all his camera equipment and walks past the living room to their bedroom.
“Meg?” he asks the house. She doesn’t respond. He enters the living room but doesn’t see her in the dark beneath the blanket. “Meg?” His movements become frantic. He opens the front door and walks around the yard calling her name. After a while he comes back in, closes the door, calls for her again. Meg sits up. The blanket falls off her. This feeling of invisibility excites her, like getting to witness her own death, her own disappearance. He’s running through the house now. Scrambling. He comes back into the living room and flicks on the light.
“What the fuck, Meg?” She stares back at him, defiant. “Didn’t you hear me?” he asks.
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
“I come home. You’re not here. It’s past midnight. I nearly lost my mind.” He sits on the couch.
“What did you think happened?”
“Who knows? You’re pregnant. You could have fallen on your way home. You could have been kidnapped.”
“Why didn’t you answer me?”
“Don’t do that again. Ever.”
Meg hates when he speaks to her like a child.
“How was the shoot?” she asks. There is an edge to her voice he doesn’t seem to notice.
“Great. We went up to this cabin. You should see it. Straight out of a horror film: old paintings and antlers on the walls, this blackened fireplace.”
Meg doesn’t say anything.
“What’s the matter?”
“Doesn’t seem like nothing.”
“How was your day?” he asks.
“Did you eat the lasagna?”
“What’d you have for dinner?”
“You didn’t clean up the bird like I asked,” she says.
“Ah, shit. I’m sorry. I was half asleep when you told me and then Tiff picked me up early. I totally forgot.”
“They’ve been pecking at it all day. I almost puked when I saw it.”
“I’ll do it right now.” Russ goes to the cage and uses a plastic bag to take the bird out. The other birds squawk at him.
“Who was it?” Meg asks.
“The bird, which one was it?”
“The lady finch.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Russ goes outside with the plastic bag.
“Did you bury her?” she asks when he comes back inside.
“I just put it in the trash.”
“In the trash?” Tears form at the corners of her eyes.
“What did you want me to do, Meg, give it a funeral?”
“I don’t know. In the trash?” Meg gets up from the couch and goes into the bedroom. She rips off her uniform piece by piece. Once she is completely naked she walks back into the living room and stands in front of Russ, mascara dripping. She rubs her snotty nose on her shoulder. Russ looks at her, takes her body in.
“What’s up?” he whispers.
When she doesn’t respond he gets up from the couch and stands in front of her, runs his hands over her shoulders and kisses her on the neck. Beer on his breath.
“Have you been drinking?”
“We went out after the shoot.”
“And I’ve just been here all alone …”
“I didn’t think you’d want to come watch us drink.”
He’s right. She’d hate that.
“It doesn’t seem fair you get to sleep in, take photos of naked girls, go out for drinks, while I have to work at the fucking grocery store till I’m bursting at the seams.”
“I told you, if it’s too much, you should quit.”
“I need the hours for mat leave.”
“We could figure something out.”
“You think you’re gonna pay for rent and insurance and groceries snapping your photos?” she says.
“Hey.” He steps back, hands still on her shoulders. “Where’d that come from?”
“I have dreams too,” Meg says. “Why should I be the one slaving away to pay the bills?”
“I thought you liked working at the grocery store.”
“Who likes working at a grocery store?”
“You’ve never complained before.”
Meg shrinks off his hands.
“I told you, I’m waiting to hear back from that developer. He liked my portfolio. It’d be a steady wage, tons of work. This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
“This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
Russ crosses his arms.
“I’ve been catering to your dreams while mine rot,” she says, and puts her hand on her stomach; tiny limbs poke at her through the taut skin.
“What’s your dream then?”
Meg has to think about it. She looks away and sees her reflection in the television screen—heavy, sagging breasts. She wraps her arms around her chest.
“I always wanted to be an actress.”
Russ is taken aback; he lets out a laugh.
“Fuck you.” Meg walks into the bedroom and crawls beneath the covers. Russ follows her. She can feel him looking down at her.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea you even acted before,” he says.
“Well, I did. I played Ophelia, and I was good. I was damn good.”
Russ sits on the bed. “Look, Meg, everything’s gonna be OK. I promise.” He runs his hand through her hair. Meg knows a smile or nod from her would end this fight. But she isn’t ready for it to end. She doesn’t feel any better. The fetus churns her insides, prods her ribs.
“I’m starving. You?” Russ asks.
Meg rolls, just out of his reach. “I’m not feeling good.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“I just want to sleep.”
“OK.” He stands and looks down at her. “I’m gonna cook something up.”
“You do that.”
* * *
Meg wakes to skittering on the roof. She imagines rats with thick long tails in the loft above their bed. She sees their patchy fur and sharp yellow teeth like the rats she saw the day before, nibbling a package of maggot-infested ground beef behind the grocery store dumpster.
Meg rolls onto her back, something the book says not to do this late in pregnancy. She imagines herself being crushed by the weight of it, cutting off circulation to her legs and her heart, and after an extended amount of time, interfering with the flow of nutrients to the placenta. How long until her feet go numb? She wiggles her toes. She’s already beginning to feel dizzy. Something jabs her uterus. She pulls down the blanket and watches it poke out from beneath her skin.
Once, at the hairdresser’s, Meg overheard a woman tell the story of a friend whose belly grew to the size of a cabbage (30 weeks). She had purchased a car seat, a stroller, a crib. It wasn’t until she had an ultrasound that she discovered it wasn’t a fetus at all, but a tapeworm.
Meg is lightheaded now. Still on her back she turns her head to consider Russ’s sleeping face. His lips are huge and puckered like a child’s. Drool slips over his lower lip and drips onto his pillow. Then Meg passes out.
* * *
That day at work Meg feels self-conscious, sees herself from the outside. She wears an apron over her uniform to hide her swollen belly. But she hasn’t fooled anyone. She keeps her eyes down as she rings through groceries. She can feel everyone’s eyes on her stomach. They judge her, look for a wedding ring, pity her for her lousy job, her lack of planning, her poor judgment.
In the staff room Meg opens up the lunch Russ packed for her. Hannah and Laila watch silently. She takes the lid off the Tupperware: potatoes, hamburger, green beans. She goes to the waste bin and scoops out the hamburger, then scoops out the mushy beans that remind her of the broccoli from the day before.
“I thought you were trying to eat more red meat,” Hannah says.
“I can’t stomach it today.”
She takes a bite of the potatoes. They taste different, almost sweet. She slides a glob around in her mouth and tries to distinguish the flavour. She pulls a fleck of purple skin from the mash. Rutabaga.
“Not again,” Laila says, as Meg rushes to the washroom.
* * *
On her way back to her register Meg sees the man with the green toque. She is about to duck away to avoid him, but stops instead, and stands at the end of the aisle he is in. He holds up a can of soup and, perhaps sensing her eyes on him, turns to her. He gives her an awkward smile before he looks down to place the can in his shopping cart. Meg doesn’t leave. She doesn’t take her eyes off him. When he looks up again she is tapping her index and middle fingers to her chest.
Return to Archive