At first I had headed for the bathroom downstairs, walking fast to keep my red eyes to myself, but then I remembered the leather couch in the ladies’ room on the second floor, and I changed course for it. The couch was brown leather, taut and bouncy, but old, and with an arm at only one end like a cartoon psychiatrist’s office would have, so I suppose it was a chaise, though that’s the kind of word for people who say vase with that warm thankful sound in the middle, like the gasp at the end of a long drink of water, like ahh. Not me. I say vase with a sharp ace sound, like what you find in a deck of cards, and that’s how I felt, how I feel still: shuffled.
Of course, this is the Institute’s Visual Arts building, so the second floor ladies’ room door has been redesigned with red and silver sharpie ink so the little white round-headed skirt figure has oblong nipples and glasses and flowing mermaid hair like the Starbucks logo and the word “women” has been scraped off and replaced with “female bodied” in flowing script, which is the kind of thing someone like Cynthia would say, as a way of seeming more overtly tolerant, as a way of assuaging her guilt over being an ahh-sounding vase person.
It was Cynthia, whose actual name is actually, actually, Hyacinth, who had made me cry. Now the red in my cheeks was from anger though, at being made into that kind of girl. The kind who runs into the bathroom to be alone with her tears. I had made it through high school without any moments like this. I’d punched a wall once, got into some fights, but never rushed off down a locker-lined hallway hiding my sobs in sneaker squeaks. I didn’t know what it meant, to suddenly be a sad girl, to feel my body reacting to words, my feelings crunching in on themselves like balled up aluminum foil, that gasping locked-in feeling of despair. But I knew it was ugly and weak to cry.
In the linoleum-lined bathroom I sat down on the couch, and lower to the floor like that I could hear something small and murmuring and musical, a TV on in a classroom somewhere. There were no tears anymore, and through my anger I did catch a hint of the childishness of it – our sniping comments, the passive aggression, the running off to cry. But where did she get off? She was supposed to be assisting me with setup, not telling me how it was all about the bird, the bird, the bird, and why hadn’t I painted a bird on the wall, why just this portrait of Marjory and a bubbling pot of stew? Why couldn’t I see that the child who gets the gift of little red shoes from heaven wasn’t the important one? And where, she demanded, was the resurrected boy?
Frivolous and shallow is what she is, Hyacinth. She’s lost all perspective in those kids of hers. Her last installation was funded by a grant from some Culture the Children foundation and had to be appropriate for the innocently inquisitive eyes of school groups. I was an intern then, on the Institute staff to keep my mouth shut, to bring the coffee and frown at people who called Cynthia a sellout.
The installation was called Imagined Creatures, a series of paintings. We advertised it in coffee shops and bars and tattoo parlors and the talk was that it would be provocative, adult. Horrifying and scaly and wonderful. Made up things that would expose private things and make us feel, as viewers, open and raw. That was talk. It was my job to spread the rumor that all the canvases would be blank or that there wouldn’t be canvases at all, only mirrors. It backfired. The reviews were awful. It was all dragons and monsters and things with fins or gossamer wings. Creatures stolen from fairy tales, rendered like cartoons in acrylic. Acrylic, I remember even that came up as a point of controversy. Why not oils?
A year later and I am exhibiting, building my first installation, my debut. Performance art, that’s what people want. Something provocative, dangerous. Something nobody has seen before, at least not this way. I stole the title, the “Juniper Tree,” and intended to deconstruct the fable, break it up like a recipe, like instructions. On one wall, artifacts set out on shelves. The pretty red shoes, the golden chain, the grindstone, big and heavy and smacked with blood. In the middle of the room, a cooking pot, a modern one, huge, big enough to put a little boy in, balances on four electric burners whose red and blue extension cords snake around the room like life.
“It’s a tripping hazard, and if someone trips they could get scalded,” Hyacinth said.
I didn’t tell her shut up, but instead to add more water to the pot because we had to do a test boil, which amounted to the same thing. What did she know about performance? I didn’t say this either, but I got so tense that painting the mural of Marjory kinked up my shoulders and I had to stop and sit down on the ladder, watching Hyacinth’s miserable body bulging under tight high-waisted, wide-legged pants and what must’ve been a pre-baby bra, emptying buckets of water into the giant cooking pot. She’d kept up like that all the rest of the morning, dragging her feet and talking the thing down, until I felt my lungs and eyes getting tight, until I left for the bathroom.
Hyacinth was different once, back when I was finishing my degree and she was a big deal in the art scene, bringing back painting, doing things people were excited about. But having kids had turned her into one of those awful know-it-all people, the kind who thought they could say a little bit about anything because they’d experienced motherhood, and fuck you, that was the trump card. Our real falling out came just after I’d started interning at the Institute, back when I was doing my thesis in mural and she was painting real things. There was another girl, a year behind me at a different school, who had had eight abortions for a performance art project. It made the regular papers. She did it at home in her bathroom, took some kind of herbal drug, and had miscarriages on purpose into a bucket. Eight times, eight different end points within the first trimester. No word on who the fathers were, or if they knew, and that was the thing Hyacinth brought up first, randomly when we were in an elevator together, like she had an opinion on the whole thing and wanted me to know about it.
“It’s sick,” she said, “and to think there are all these men out there who didn’t have a say in it at all.”
“That’s what woman’s right to choose means,” I’d said, and I didn’t even know why I wanted to argue with her, but that’s what my voice meant: you’re wrong.
She gave me this look, like my face had peeled off and she’d seen I was hideous beneath, or made of stone. “That’s not what it means. At all.”
I went and saw the installation that weekend. The leftovers of each miscarriage were on display, preserved, mixed with some kind of liquid, and there were eight videos of the artist in her bathtub, cramping and moaning over a white bucket, completely naked, looking clammy and sharp and cold under what must’ve been a fluorescent light.
There were pictures of the fetuses. I recognized them from the protest posters Christian groups put up around the Institute to scare girls into having babies they didn’t want. Dark little eyes, weird webby alien bodies. Mine didn’t look like that. Maybe it was just too early.
Hyacinth’s two babies hadn’t elevated her art, but seemed to bring her down to some inert cooing bubbling place. And she always said how happy she was, how her little green garden was growing, and how she’d finally perfected that from-scratch macaroni recipe her grandmother handed down. But when I look at her I see pants and sweaters she clearly buys because they have many roomy pockets, and tennis shoes she wears every single day because you never know where there might be a baby who needs to be lifted or moved or rescued from itself. And her husband is some kind of international airline pilot, gone half of every week, and she talks about him with rabid longing, like she’s waiting for one of his kidneys.
When I ask her how she is in the morning it’s always, “Marcia has the flu, thanks for asking,” or, “I was up all night with Ezra.” I think if I asked her to write her own name she’d scribble down Marcia and Ezra Marcia and Ezra MarciaEzra over and over and running together, the words becoming letters and then meaning nothing at all. I told her that once, that she’d started to answer for her kids when I asked about her herself, and she smiled at me like she’d found a buck in her pocket and said, “When you get pregnant, everything changes, motherhood changes everything.”
But it doesn’t, and I hate that smug look, like she thinks she knows. I was pregnant once, for a little while. I’ve faced the prospect of motherhood in a real way, and it didn’t change me. It was some guy at a bar with bad skin who’d been buying me drinks. He kept his hands off until I got close and told him he could kiss me, and something felt right about that, giving permission, then his hand moving up and down my back. It almost could’ve been the classical sort of beginning to something, man and woman on equal footing, agreeing to meet again for a date in a restaurant. But we kept drinking and I went home with him. It turned out he was sleeping on a couch, like a futon thing, at his friend’s house. It was over quickly, I remember that, and how his belly was sweaty and full from the beer he’d bought, which he’d said was the best I’d ever have, and how he kept bracing himself up on his hands and accidentally pinning my hair down so it hurt, so my head snapped back on the futon. During, I realized I didn’t remember his name. I was too embarrassed to ask again, and when he was asleep I left and took the late bus home.
I don’t remember much about his face except for his shiny forehead and bushy eyebrows. By the time I missed my period I’d even forgotten exactly where he lived, and couldn’t remember which bus I had taken home. The miscarriage was two weeks later, and it was so early it took me a minute to realize what was happening. It was just up and over with, before I’d even decided what to do.
I think I would have had an abortion. I mean, my career.
When I returned from the bathroom I tried to walk into the studio with authority, composure. Classes had let out and there were students roaming the halls. They were all out of high school but they seemed so young. They wore their clothes tight on long arms and legs. Hyacinth was still adding water to the pot. She must’ve taken a break while I was gone.
The portrait of Marjory was done, so I focused on the rest, the atmosphere. I wrote on the walls and floor of the installation with red grease pencils. “Mother killed me, father ate me,” over and over and changing the order of the words. I could feel Hyacinth’s eyes scrutinizing my work, even as she bent to turn on the electric burners, as she clicked her tongue around at the water and wires and tripping hazards and imagined the burning, electrifying mischief her kids would get into when she let them loose in the studio like rabid dogs.
I didn’t tell her I knew what she was thinking because she’d fixate on the image, on dogs. She knows I want a dog and she uses it against me, asks what kind of childless single woman can’t even commit to a dog? But it’s a hard thing. I want something ferocious looking, with rough, ruffled fur and mean folds of skin around its mouth. I’ve been to the animal shelter a few times, but I can’t seem to stay long enough to really meet the dogs. There’s something depressing about the place, the cages and locks and ugly brown lumps of cold food. I’m oppressed too, by the devotion in their eyes. How clear it is that they want to give love, even the little scrawny ones, even the ones with mismatched eyes and rat tails. And I think of my apartment, where I would have to keep the thing trapped all the time, with the thermostat that breaks and the one concrete wall that I’m not allowed to paint, and the refrigerator that clicks and gurgles like a lonely older woman adjusting her teeth.
I heard the water in the pot starting to boil, and when Hyacinth asked if she should add the red food coloring I told her no, I’d do it, that she should go home and print out labels for the table of artifacts, that I’d see her tomorrow, because I’d had a moment of thinking about her in that pot, of chopping her head off and scraping the meat off her bones and boiling her down, secretly, so when the patrons came through they wouldn’t know how real the thing was, how faithful I’d been. And when they’d ask why it smelled so much like cooking maybe I would feed them little bites of Hyacinth, ladle her onto their empty appetizer plates after the canapés were gone.
The cannibalism, that was the part Hyacinth, with her fixation on the songbird and her babies and the curtains in her house she’d ombre dyed to look like sunset in the west windows and sunrise in the east, couldn’t ever see. “The Juniper Tree” was about a little girl knowingly eating a stew made from her own brother, and watching her father do the same unwittingly, watching him declare it the best soup he’d ever had.
That was why she wept, why she weeps in the mural, where she’s seated in a classical portrait pose, surrounded by a frame made of gold leaf I’ve affixed directly to the wall. Because she saw his little body made into stew.
When it was over I didn’t see anything like a body. What came out of me just looked like blood, but I knew somehow. I knew I had been pregnant and then wasn’t any more. But I never saw a doctor, like I was afraid, somehow, to be proven wrong.
But because I didn’t see I’ve always wondered if maybe it came back into me. Dogs and horses, they can absorb their babies when conditions aren’t ideal. They can take a baby back. I’m told that’s impossible for humans, but I believe it anyway, and it comforts me. Like the baby became a part of me, and didn’t really die. If there is such a thing as a spirit, the baby’s is still intact, waiting to be conceived again when the time is right.
There was so much work to do. I had to go to the butcher shop for pig parts for the pot and I wanted to drag them around on the floor first, making trails of blood to the pot. There needed to be a murder scene, over in front of Marjory’s portrait, in the place on the floor where her pale eyes were fixed, horrified, staring. My part was to stand by the pot while people filtered in to view it all. I would play the role of the mother. I didn’t know why I’d planned it that way. I really should have been Marjory, staring down in horror, but I wasn’t innocent enough like she was, not anymore. My place was beside the pot with a big wooden spoon, almost as tall as me, the handle like a broomstick, just stirring and staring and muttering to myself, probably, that would probably be the only sound, the muttering. And from time to time I’d look up at Marjory’s portrait and stare over her shoulder to the place behind her, where I’d painted the juniper tree in shades of blue and green, its bushy arms stretching beyond the frame, crawling up the wall. My eyes would lock on the shadows beneath the tree where I’d rendered, obscurely, an overgrown grave and a handkerchief, tied neatly into a package, concealing something. I hoped when I looked that the patrons would follow my gaze, and wonder, and then, finally, see.
R. D. Kuensting is from Oregon and is currently working toward her MFA in fiction at Pennsylvania State University.