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It’s Time to Push by Lori Sambol Brody


As we conclude the fiction portion of CRAFT’s all-flash November, we are pleased to feature Lori Sambol Brody’s “It’s Time to Push,” a surrealistic flash from her “monstrous babies” series. Inspired by the life of Mary Toft, a seventeenth century woman who claimed to birth seventeen rabbits, the piece opens in medias res with the protagonist, Nora, in the throes of labor. The urgency depicted within this moment not only demands the reader’s attention, but also serves to create the necessary disorientation where anything, even a human birthing rabbits, is permissible. It’s as William Boast says in his craft essay, “The Heimlich and Unheimlich in Short-Short Fiction”: “It [the uncanny or unheimlich] dislocates the reader, forces him out of the realm of the familiar, and replaces the ability to predict with uncertainty.” Brody handles this balance (or imbalance) with deft skill by challenging variations on the familiar rabbit trope throughout the narrative at a pace that matches Nora’s own rapid breathlessness. The culmination engages the reader to reach beyond boundaries toward a greater understanding of what it means to bring another life into this world, fractured pieces and all. Please don’t miss Brody’s author’s note to read more about the inspiration behind “It’s Time to Push,” including more about the fascinating Mary Toft.  —CRAFT


 

It’s Time to Push

and the next contraction bears down on her. Nora tries to breathe like she was taught during birthing classes, but the pain separates her into jagged pieces. She’s only her tight swollen stomach. The nurse in the Lion King scrubs says, Maybe we’ll get out of here by midnight; the last mama had only a two-hour labor. What a pretty little piglet she birthed. And then the relief as the invisible vice around her abdomen loosens in the lull between contractions. Her husband wipes her forehead with a washcloth and asks, Shall I turn the music on? Nothing could be worse than her playlist; she picked calming songs but this is not the time to be calm. Nora doesn’t answer, just turns her face away. She cannot tell him: at a not-drunk-enough work dinner, her coworker spooned paella into her mouth, al dente rice and unidentified gamey meat. She opened her mouth to him, grease glistening on her lips. He grinned. You like rabbit, do you? She’d never had it before. She sucked the meat off the bone (a leg, she thought), and held it out to him. Hold my hand, she said. That night she came home and unbuttoned her husband’s jeans. Rabbit was Velveteen, was White, was the rabbit died. Another contraction tightens and the nurse says, She’s x centimeters dilated as if that means anything to Nora, although this is child number 2. Child number 1 is tucked into her grandmother’s bed, tufts of hair curling from the pink of her ears; when she awakes, she’ll have a sibling. All those sleepless nights with child number 1, all that shit and vomit and tears, both hers and the baby’s, sitting on the couch at 2 a.m. watching Stranger Things. In the car, driving to daycare or to the grocery store, child number 1 asks: Can there be another asteroid like the one that killed the dinosaurs can I think with a hat on why is snow why do the rabbits in the yard run from me why why why. Nora answers, Yes; yes; when the rain freezes; they are scared. A zombie mom, arms falling off. Now her husband asks, What should I do, his tone the same as when he can’t find a piece of his latest puzzle, an image of Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare, and she’s so hungry but can’t have anything but ice. She doesn’t ask him to slip chips into her mouth. Once, during a grad school research trip, Nora sat in a canoe with a man she coveted and watched a blue-veined iceberg calve into an ice-blue bay. The wave took them by surprise: for a week, she bore a purple and green bruise in the shape of a rabbit’s head, earned when he pulled her out of the bay and wrapped her in his down coat. She still hasn’t stopped shivering. It’s almost time, the nurse says. Nora can’t feel her feet. Her ob-gyn has perfect eyeliner above her mask. You’re doing great, the ob-gyn says. But she isn’t. Now is the time to push. Now is the time to fall back, to scream, to feel the pain like a wave pulling deep, to tell her daughter good night, to say, Yes yes yes dear, to suck on rabbit bones. Is it true that rabbits eat their babies or absorb the fetuses when threatened? She read that in Watership Down as a teen. The nurse says, I see the head! Pain consumes her. Just one more, the ob-gyn says, and a baby keens. The nurse presents Nora with a rabbit’s head slick with blood swaddled in a blanket, ears upright, and the ob-gyn says, Another push, and the torso of a rabbit joins the head on the pink and blue blanket, and then, another push, muscular hind legs, and, another push, two front legs and a tail, and her husband says, You did it, you hero. The nurse pulls out a sewing kit. I’ll get the baby ready for you. The nurse wipes the blood off the white fur, sews the parts together, gleaming needle pulling surgical thread. The stitching is tight; there will be no scars. The nurse then swaddles the rabbit in soft foamy pink, lays it in Nora’s arms. When Nora nuzzles its cheeks, the baby bares sharp teeth. She unwraps the blanket, sucks its paw into her mouth. The fur sticks in her throat.

 


LORI SAMBOL BRODY lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Wigleaf 50 and the Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019 anthologies. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.

 

Author’s Note

In the early 1700s, a woman named Mary Toft—who is always described as illiterate and impoverished—gave birth, after a miscarriage, to seventeen rabbits, plus some rabbit and other animal parts. At first, leading physicians took the births as a manifestation of “maternal impression” (an explanation for birth defects based on what the mother experienced when pregnant, i.e., Mary Toft saw a rabbit and craved rabbit meat during her pregnancy), but Mary Toft confessed that it was a hoax after being threatened with painful experimental surgery. The episode has been explained as Mary Toft creating a hoax to obtain attention and notoriety, being manipulated by her husband, the organ grinder’s wife, and/or her mother-in-law, or being a pawn as venerated aristocratic doctors tried to take advantage of her at a time when male physicians sought to replace female midwives. She was imprisoned for a few months, exhibited as a curiosity, and, at her death, her parish described her as “Widow, the Impostress Rabbitt.”

I find this story enthralling, whether I see Mary Toft as a pawn or a master manipulator—or something in between. (A male writer who recently published a novel about the incident said that Mary Toft would not make a good narrator of his book because she was not narratively interesting. I leave that without comment.)

I’d read about Mary Toft before and when I decided to do a series of “monstrous baby” stories, I did more research. While Mary Toft’s story raises issues of class, misogyny, sensationalism, and self-aggrandizement, all issues valid today, I wanted to concentrate on motherhood: fertility, difficulties, compartmentalization, and ambivalence. In other words, while Mary Toft sparked the idea for this story, it is certainly not a retelling of the story.

(What else do I know about rabbits? Watership Down, the White Rabbit who leads Alice to Wonderland, the Velveteen rabbit, the old version of pregnancy tests sacrificing a rabbit, the paella I ate one night on a patio of a San Francisco restaurant. I really don’t know that much about rabbits, but that didn’t stop me from writing about them.)

In this story, I aimed to create a world where it’s quite normal to birth a rabbit. I wanted to throw the reader right into a disorienting situation—and what can be more disorienting than starting in the middle of a sentence, as if the reader has landed in the middle of a scene that’s already started without them? Childbirth, too, is disorienting, entering into a liminal state where your body is not yours, but in the hands of hormones that you don’t have control over, the pain, the small mewing being that’s pushed out of you like something both foreign and familiar. How can anyone not feel like their past and future have been rendered into pieces, never to be repaired? Maybe that was how Mary Toft felt, when she first decided—or was forced—to birth a rabbit.

 


LORI SAMBOL BRODY lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Wigleaf 50 and the Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019 anthologies. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.