When my wife began to swell, I wondered what seed infected her womb, my own having long proved fruitless. As she grew, her cravings turned to dirt and water and long spells naked in the yard under the bare trees and what sun pierced the clouds, and I asked her, Who have you loved? Who have you fucked? Why is your belly growing round?
She told me she had only loved me, had only fucked me, and if she was fucking pregnant then I was not the one owed an explanation.
I threw her precious record player out the window, scattered gears and belts across our lawn, and she shed her clothes and went to lie in the yard, walking over the sharp wreckage. After an hour I went outside with a bag and collected all the belts and gears, including one I picked off the sole of her foot, where it had stuck. I bent to the ground over and over, a clucking hen pecking for poor food among the grass, and she lay down on the chill concrete, smiling when sunlight shafted over her body despite her goose bumps, her stiff nipples.
• • • •
My wife expanded with remarkable haste, growing so like a pumpkin that I joked she must have fucked a pumpkin and she asked if I would like to feel the baby kick. I put my hand on her stomach and realized it was the first time we had touched in days. I felt no movement, only her taught skin and my own partial erection.
I asked if she wanted to go to Lamaze class, she told me she damn well knew how to breathe.
Then my wife screamed, she hollered and beat whatever was in reach: tables, chairs, cabinets, doors, me. I said that we should go to the hospital. No, she said, no hospital, dirt. She stumbled into the yard, trying to hold her belly and the walls at the same time, leaving a trail of mucous and blood on the floor.
She squatted down on the lawn, digging with her fingernails while she grimaced and groaned. I told her not to fuck up the grass, it took me months to get that shit green and lush, and she screamed that she was squeezing a fucking pumpkin through her vagina and best she knew it was my fucking pumpkin and could I shut the fuck up.
I don’t know. I got down on my knees and held her hand, and I was sweating all over, maybe even more than she was, and there were sounds and smells I was unprepared for. I said we should have gone to Lamaze and she told me to get some scissors for the umbilical cord.
By the time I came back outside, my wife was limp on the ground, blood and shit streaked down her thighs and a bright orange pumpkin slick with afterbirth between her legs. The pumpkin stem was part and parcel of a woody vine that led into her torn sex. She told me to cut the umbilical, but the scissors were meant for paper, not the tough cellulose of a pumpkin stem. I hacked at it while my wife faded and wilted and paled.
Yes, we had used that word, both said pumpkin, formed the shape with our mouths, but to see the thing come true shook me. Had my wife known all along, or was she just as lost as me?
Finally I cut the pumpkin free and I picked up my wife and carried her, with the stem that hung from her slapping against my knees, to the car. The blood that poured from her had become a rich red, and something was wrong.
• • • •
I returned from the hospital, alone, to find the pumpkin sitting where I had left it on the lawn, the last of my wife’s living blood dried in its ridges and caked in its dents. It was not a well-shaped pumpkin, but flat on one side. I kicked at it, and it rolled a short distance, and what hollow anger I felt turned to shame. This was, after all, the fruit of my wife’s body, a body I had loved and held.
Felix for a son, Anna for a girl. That’s what we’d decided. In happier times. Times when I would pack us a picnic but forget the forks so we’d eat potato salad with our fingers and lick them clean, and a small brown bird decided my wife’s hair would be perfect for nesting and darted at her head again and again no matter how my wife yelped and ducked or how I tried to shield her with a paper plate or how we fell about laughing at the seriousness of our upset in the face of such a foe. The bird finally triumphed and carried off the strand it had plucked to line its nest, and somewhere birds are singing that were hatched into my wife’s hair.
The pumpkin’s weight surprised me. I held it, and the blood flaked from its hard skin, and fell into the grass, into the dirt.
In happier times, before my wife had been my wife, when she was just Emelia, and we only suspected that we might love each other, and found ourselves more and more together on one couch or another, leaning against each other, and she traced a heart in the dust on my television screen, and when we lay in bed spent and naked she told me about her mother and her father and the time she went to Greece and stood before the Parthenon and thought it was a building she had walked by in some earlier life when it was young and painted bright colors and that night a boy in a dance club grabbed her breast and she punched him in the ear, I was jealous of whatever lives she’d had before we’d met, of any person who shared that time with her I could never touch. I still am.
I held the pumpkin to the sharp stubble on my cheek and I cried so that for a last time I would share fluids with my wife, and we would both touch the life she’d made, and I thought that here, with tough skin and woody stem, was a Felix in my arms.
• • • •
My neighbors brought me pots of soup and pans of lasagna burnt black as asphalt around the edges, and when they saw Felix on my kitchen table they said, How good that you are getting into the spirit of the season. How good for you. I screamed at them and chased them from my house and threw their food into the garbage.
My lawn grew ragged and weeds took hold. Was the last thing I said to my wife truly an admonition concerning the grass? I could no longer remember what I’d muttered and yelled to her in the car as I brought her, running stop signs and red lights and yet still too slowly, to the hospital. Whatever I might have said, whatever she might have still been able to hear, in my memory all of it became don’t hurt the grass, don’t hurt the grass, don’t hurt the grass. So I let her have the lawn, whatever of her remained soaked into the soil, I let her nurture what she chose while I struggled to understand how I should care for this child we had wrought.
• • • •
I walked Felix through our neighborhood, among the clean houses with their leaf-blower clean driveways, the first paper skeletons beginning to appear in windows, plastic tombstones in the hedges, and I said to Felix, We are not always so nonchalant about death, so willing to welcome it to our doors. I said, I miss her, too. I said, I have to figure out the funeral.
I said, But you don’t have to worry about that, leave it to me.
I miss her, too.
A boy from the neighborhood asked what I was doing, and I said that I was talking to my son, Felix. He asked if I was teasing him, and I said no. He asked how my son could hear me, being a pumpkin, without ears, and I said I did not know, but I was sure he did. The boy asked how I could be sure, and he asked where my wife was, and he asked and asked and I looked him over, his skinny legs and tangled hair and dirty fingers, and I interrupted his inquiry. Felix is younger than you, I said, but perhaps you could still be his friend. A boy needs friends, and my son more than most, his mother being gone.
The boy asked if I was crazy, and ran off.
I said to my son, He had so many questions. Have you no questions, Felix? Isn’t there anything you want to know?
• • • •
Felix shone orange amongst all the black, all the grey of the headstones, and compared to him, even the green of the grass seemed drab and dry. My wife’s relatives did not comment on his presence, even when I held him over the open grave so he might see his mother planted.
The hole dug for my wife was lined with concrete, and I almost panicked. If I had not had Felix to clutch to me, to comfort me with his bright calm, I would certainly have thrown myself into the pit to keep my wife from being lowered in. She had always told me to cremate her, to spread her ashes by the ocean. She said, I never want to go in a box.
But the nature of her child, the nature of her death, these were not things of the ocean, not things of dust and wind. Her nature was of the earth, rich as dirt, and it was dirt to which she belonged. When I arranged for her burial, I bought the meanest pine box in the hopes that it would decay all the sooner. I had not been warned about the concrete.
Don’t worry, I whispered to Felix, while some priest of my wife’s family’s choosing lied prettily about a woman he had never met. Don’t worry, it may take longer, but the concrete too will rot, the concrete will crack and split and crumble. No box can keep your mother’s spirit trapped forever.
Did I ever tell you, I whispered, about the time a cabbie tried to cheat us by driving three or four blocks out of the way, thinking we were too lost in each other’s company to notice, or strangers to that city, or some such thing, and your mother refused to pay the man a penny more than she thought he deserved, which was nothing, so he locked the doors and said he would not let us out until we paid, and your mother so cursed at him, so pelted him with words that he opened the doors just to escape from her.
My wife’s relatives shushed me, gave me dark stares and stern brows. I said, loudly, And you all built a box around her of your god and his strange rules, but she broke that, and found meaning elsewhere in the world. And I know you blame me for that, but I could not control her, could never make her change her mind. Once she threatened to leave me, so I locked her in our bedroom. She said if I did not let her out she would truly leave, and I did not want to be a broken box, so I opened the door. Even death is broken through by her, for she left me with a new life that holds some part of her life.
I held Felix up for them all to see and I cried, She left me a son, in defiance of all nature, because nothing could hold the force of her. Then I took my son and left those people to the confines of their ceremony.
• • • •
The month wore on and more and more other pumpkins on the street and on the television were carved with faces, some with the loving intricacy of a Fabergé egg and some clumsy as a toddler’s finger-painting, and lit with flickering candles, their skulls all charred and smoke-stained on the inside in payment for the light that poured from their eyes and mouths and filled darkness with life.
Felix met this change in the world with silence and constancy, and I realized he had not changed since the day of his birth, and I knew this was not the way a child should be. A child must change.
What choice did I have but to sit Felix down at the kitchen table and take a sharp knife to his flesh? The face that waited to be revealed already seemed obvious to me, so I did not mark him, did not draw my intentions as though my own son’s appearance might be a mystery to me. I told him, Tell me if you want me to stop. I pressed the point of the knife into a spot some three inches from Felix’s stem.
My hand shook, but I would not have passed that happy duty to any other living man. This was a rite of passage, a becoming, and Felix’s mother would not have wanted anything but this, anything but her husband and her son together, moving on, moving forward. I felt her there, felt her fingers steadying mine, felt her breath on my cheek, smelled her lilac shampoo, as I had any day I cared to take her in my arms, any moment I cared to bury my nose in her neck, let her hair catch in my stubble, and how she was warm, and how we would hold each other, how we would wait for some signal we should part, and no signal ever came, and the end of every embrace was awkward, was an awkward, tiny death, like a spider caught in a tissue by its legs and broken apart, and how unlike a candle, how unlike a flame, how unlike a fire was every moment we consumed each other. I felt her hand on mine, and I plunged the knife into our son.
Felix was tough, Felix was strong, and I sawed into him, and he did not tell me to stop, because what else could he want but to become?
The prodigious, slick fiber, heavy with seeds, heady with stink, that I scooped from my son, filled a metal mixing-bowl first, then a blue coffee mug, a wine-glass, and the tureen my wife and I received for our wedding but never used. I thought it might be endless, that my son might never be emptied. Eventually he was. I took this part of his flesh and I scattered it on the lawn where his mother had bled and birthed him, which made some circle whole and bound tight, and seemed right to do.
Then it was time to reveal his face. With a paring knife I began the tear duct of his left eye, which I would make almond shaped, and though it could not be brown like mine nor green like my wife’s, it would be filled with light, and that was enough.
I cut his right eye too high, and slanted as though in anger, and his mouth smiled too much, because perhaps my hopes guided my hand. Perhaps I wanted him to smile, even, after all the loss and pain we had shared, needed him to smile, to be happy in his life, but that choice was not rightfully mine to make.
So again I took up the paring knife, carving away more meat to make his eyes even, neutral, perhaps inquisitive, as that was a fair influence for a father to have, to lend his son an inquisitive nature. I tried to open his mouth into speech, something intelligent, unforced, but now his eyes were too round, as though surprised, and is mouth gaped as though in hunger. This was not work I could be proud of, not a child I wanted to send into the world, a creature shocked by his own appetite.
I took the knife to my son over and over, but no matter how much I cut from him I could not find the shape I knew he deserved, and finally the moment came when I could cut no more away without risking the complete loss of any face at all. I said, I’m sorry. I said, I’m so, so sorry. Your mother would have done it right, would have known just how to make you what you were meant to be. I’m sorry I failed.
I put a candle in his empty head and lit it with a match, but when I looked into his face, all I saw were three, gaping holes and a candle in a pumpkin.
The next night all the children of the neighborhood donned masks. It was that night when a parent’s sins might be hidden by the visage of some ostensibly greater horror, and that in the name of fun, rewarded with sweets. What a trick we play upon our offspring every autumn.
This might have proved the one night Felix could go unnoticed, be nothing more than a boy, but he had no mask to wear to hide the face I had inflicted upon his unspoiled skin. The doorbell rang, and I answered it, Felix held in my arms. The child at the door wore a grinning, plastic skull, and said, You’re that crazy man. Do you have any candy?
Maybe I did, I told him, but I would want his mask in return. My son needed the mask more than he did. The boy said that it was his mask, and he needed it to get candy, and if I didn’t have any I should just say so, and he would leave.
Don’t, I said, please, look, and I held out Felix for the boy to see. My son needs a mask so he can be like any other boy, like you, if only for tonight.
The boy ran, ran away into the street, into the trickle of witches and princesses and knights and demons carrying pillowcases and buckets. I followed him, holding Felix before me, the other children shying away from me even as I entreated them, Please, please he just needs a mask, and then he might be like any one of you, and you would not know that you were not like him. All that separates you is a few strokes of a knife, and that is no great thing, and so easily hidden, at least on this night, of all nights.
They fled, those children, and left us alone, and I thought Felix might be angry with me, or embarrassed, but he remained still, and silent.
• • • •
Within days of my failure, Felix began to soften. His face, weak where I had taken too much, sank, folding into itself. Spots of purple mold erupted on his skin. I scrubbed at them with a cloth, but his skin sloughed off to reveal the greying meat underneath.
I had turned his body into a box he would not be held by. He had his mother’s spirit in him.
What had I contributed?
Soon there was nothing left of my son but a reeking mush that I gathered into a blanket. I wrapped him tight, my vision clouded with tears and guilt and terrible fear. I had lost what little my wife had left me. I meant to take Felix to the yard and bury him there, bury him in dirt so that he would share dirt with his mother and at least they might be together and she might do better by him than I ever could. I opened the door to the yard and fell to my knees before what I saw, and what I saw was many shoots and sprouts, many young vines growing up among the grass on the lawn.
And I saw what a harvest of futures my wife had provided for, how every time I put a knife to one of our children I would feel her hand on mine, and she would birth me endless opportunities to carve the legacy we were always meant to have.