Suckling by Neeru Nagarajan
Neeru Nagarajan opens her short story “Suckling” with a startling image: “I wake up to a uterus on the pillow next to mine. It looks vaguely like the image I saw on the pamphlet when I was browsing for birth control.” Thus begins a series of complex, dichotomized reactions—loss/yearning, grief/relief, resolution/uncertainty. As she intimately interweaves these conflictingly stark reactions, Nagarajan meditates on the complicated relationship between the unnamed narrator and her uterus. While the evocative metaphorical imagery of the lost uterus itself seemingly serves as a background character, perhaps even a symbolic deuteragonist or tertiary character, Nagarajan propels the story line with a powerfully rendered but subdued voice. For example, Nagarajan deftly examines the aftermath of the narrator’s decision to get an IUD, a choice that emotionally and physically haunts her: “The womb looks burdened with an unexpected weight. The string of the IUD still hangs out of it, drooping like a failed guard.” Nagarajan subsequently chronicles the narrator’s attempts to move forward, to synchronize herself with herself and with others, including her partner, Dan, as she precariously navigates between her job and attending a pig roast as a vegetarian, all the while quietly ruminating on a “detached uterus.” Outwardly, these small moments might appear innocuous on their own, but they parallel the narrator’s intense ongoing interiority. At one point, as the narrator unobtrusively observes the preparations for the pig roast, she thinks, “I didn’t tell [Dan] to stop eating meat. Nor could I be blamed for being brought up a vegetarian. And yet, I feel like I’m at fault for a choice Dan knowingly made.” Nagarajan reveals the true complexity of the narrator’s options in these crafted scenes.
The issue of women’s reproductive rights tightly intertwines the personal and the political. In a country where women’s bodily autonomy is constantly challenged, revoked, or shamed, Nagarajan realistically explores the difficulties of functioning in a society wherein children can become the core of a woman’s identity. In her author’s note, Nagarajan writes: “The ideas of who belongs in motherhood, who’s allowed to have children, and who’s ready for it financially, emotionally, and physically made their way into the narrative. I needed to identify these central themes and what they truly mean to me in order to finish telling this story.” –CRAFT
Content Warning—miscarriage, childbirth
I wake up to a uterus on the pillow next to mine. It looks vaguely like the image I saw on the pamphlet when I was browsing for birth control.
I close my eyes again. The dull, grinding pain in my head reminds me of the cheap vodka Dan and I finished, the bottles now lined up by the trash can, as relentless and unyielding as the line of protestors outside the Planned Parenthood two blocks away. But when I reopen my eyes, the uterus is still there, radiating unexpected warmth. The pillow is unstained by blood.
I touch my lower abdomen, massage it like I have my period, like I have the kind of squeezing, clenching cramps I’ve been getting ever since I got my IUD. Down there, my body feels hollow and echoey, like a newly vacated room.
The womb looks burdened with an unexpected weight. The string of the IUD still hangs out of it, drooping like a failed guard.
I touch the flesh. It’s warm, gently pulsating. I know the uterus convulses, every vein coming to life, and is made entirely of spasmodic muscle, but this feels suspiciously like a heartbeat. My organ bulges with the outline of a curled-up alien life-form inhabiting it.
I thrust my fingers deep inside myself to search for my body parts. Maybe it’s someone else’s—but whose? Maybe it’s not my baby. My fingers enter and exit with a squeaky kissing sound, something I would laugh about if I could feel the string, if I still had my uterus.
And then I ask myself, If I still had my uterus, if I were still pregnant, or if I knew I were pregnant again, would I be laughing?
I go back into my room and gently scoop the uterus into my palms. It seems to throb in tandem with my aching head. I swaddle it in paper towels—“highly absorbent,” the package says—and suddenly I realize I have no idea what I’m trying to save, or whether my detached uterus will wither completely if I don’t keep it hydrated.
I decide to go to work. A sick day is out of the question, and I cannot even imagine going to a specialist without better insurance. I put the warm organ in a large Ziploc and thrust it into my faux leather tote bag.
It’s probably my imagination, but my tote vibrates under my tense, clammy palms during the entire bus ride.
At work, I consider texting Dan about the baby. I consider writing a long, panicky message to a friend. But I want to sit with this heaviness, be the sole bearer of this secret, perhaps try to pretend to have a normal day. Every now and then, I insert a hand into my bag and touch the plastic to make sure it’s still there—warm, waiting—but I succumb to the urge to wash my hands every time. I run to the restroom and rub the foam hard for the entire twenty seconds. I sing “Happy Birthday” twice and leave the name blank, not sure whose birth I’m celebrating.
Dan texts me first to ask if we’re still on for the pig roast in the evening. His friends Harry and Laura have invited us. For dessert, they’ll serve cupcakes with either pink or blue frosting. Laura and Harry have planned this party for so long. Earlier this year, they bought a house with a huge backyard, the venue of this prepartum feast.
If it were up to me, we would never be friends with them. I’ve said as much to Dan. We have nothing in common. Dan seems to agree with me, but only until Harry calls and asks Dan to join him on a boys’ night out. I’ll pay, Harry would add.
When we last met the couple—for dinner at the Italian restaurant we could barely afford—Harry, the most pleased balding man I’d ever met, said they’d invested in a Big Green Egg (the Island Package, he beamed) just for this party.
His wife looked on, her interlaced fingers proudly cupping her full belly, and said fondly he should’ve hired a professional. It’s so much hard work, she’d said. Especially in this heat.
When do you plan to start a family? Harry asked Dan. He looked sharply at Dan, like I wasn’t included in the question.
Dan and I were already a family, I wanted to say.
Not all women want babies, Harry, Laura said.
It’s not like you want to focus on your career or something? Harry spoke directly to me for the first time.
Dan’s hand tightened on my thigh, exactly the way it does when his parents say something wrong at Thanksgiving dinner. His grip meant, Please don’t create a scene.
Later that night, Dan and I joked that if Laura hadn’t held her belly like that, she would’ve dropped the pillow she’d tucked beneath her silk dress. Dan and I also spoke, for the first time, about owning a house with a yard. About how we’d be engaged, then married, and someday, we’d invite people over to our garden party and serve pastel-colored cupcakes, have our guests perform interest in a creature that wouldn’t be a living, breathing reality for at least four more months.
Dan had said, But babies are so expensive.
I’d said, I don’t know if I even want one.
And Dan had said, I wouldn’t mind being a father, but aren’t you supposed to know—you’re the woman.
And the very next day, I got my IUD. This tiny T-shaped device would exit my body only when I made more money than I did at my temp office job and he was better off than a newly licensed forklift operator.
In spite of the doctor’s warning, I was not prepared. I still remember the prick, the hard press, the near blackout, when she inserted this new thing that was to be a part of my body, all the while trying to lull me with soothing words I no longer remember.
Last night, to amuse Dan, I’d tipsily searched for “uterus transplant.” Maybe I don’t want a uterus, I’d told him, maybe it’s selfish and morally irresponsible to even possess the equipment to bring a child into a world that’s up in flames. I’d typed “how to yank my uterus out of my body” in the search bar.
Now at work, belatedly, I curve my fingers around my stomach, attempt to cradle whatever remnants I carry in there.
When I’m about to leave for the day, my colleague laughs at the audacity of my boyfriend and his friends, inviting a vegetarian to an event where a whole animal is roasted. She asks me if I’m okay, tells me I don’t look okay, as I dip my fingers stealthily into my bag again and check for the reassuring mass. Almost like a person keeping a severed toe safe in a baggie in the hopes they could get it stitched back onto their foot, or like feeling a phantom twinge where my uterus is supposed to be. I wash my hands again before I leave the building.
On the bus home, I try to keep my eyes open, try not to blink too much. All night, I’d had anxious dreams about an opulent orgy, in which I was taken around in chains, naked, publicly humiliated, and roasted until I got brown, browner. Your skin remains leathery, they said to me as I burned like a vertical cone of shawarma meat. I’d felt their eyes on me, hotter than the fire. I’d felt both wanted and unwanted, like an exotic burden. Alone.
Dan calls me to tell me we should go there early. Harry needs help, he says.
The salmon dress I’d got from Goodwill just for this party feels too pink, too close in shade to the plastic-cradled organ in my tote. I finally settle on the black sheath dress that feels old and familiar.
When Dan comes home, he, too, asks me if I’m okay. Do you want some water? he asks.
I shake my head no, even though I’m intensely aware of my dry mouth and squeezing stomach. The sight of food and water makes me feel nauseated. Maybe I should pour some into the baggie instead.
Survive this party, and I’ll get you Chinese takeout, that tofu thing you like so much, he says.
He doesn’t notice I’m wearing the black dress again. He was the one who told me to buy the pink sheath. You can’t always wear that black one, he’d said. What will Harry and Laura think?
I grab the tote and hold it close to my body, as if it feeds off my warmth.
Don’t you have another bag, something a little less frayed? Dan asks.
Back on the bus, he’s quiet like he always gets whenever we go meet Harry and Laura.
When I touch his hand, he comments that my fingers are parched, cracked. I pull my hand from his feeble grasp and keep it to myself. He doesn’t notice and doesn’t reach for it again during the ride.
We arrive at Harry and Laura’s house almost two hours before the party begins. Dan hauls beer kegs with Harry and sets them up in their backyard decorated with strings of lights in careful patterns on the tree branches. For the occasion, the couple has laid out a long table with an immaculate white tablecloth and twenty chairs. A charcoal fire already burns, waiting for the guest of honor, the pig. All I can smell is smoke.
In the house, I find Laura stretching a little, her hands massaging her back. I miss being able to see my feet, she admits and laughs.
She gives me a perfunctory hug and hands over a large tray with a dome lid but offers no instructions. She sits on a chair and closes her eyes with a sigh.
I stand there for a few seconds, feeling stupid. I don’t know what to do with the tray, but I don’t want to ask. I assume it goes where the party is, so I take it out back. Perhaps the cupcakes are on the platter. I briefly consider taking a peek, to find out the sex of the baby. But the very thought of food makes my stomach churn. I try to imagine there’s something horrifying under the cloche. Maybe pigs’ feet or pork oysters. Or the eyes. Or the still-pulsing heart of a baby animal. My fingers go numb, and I’m afraid I’ll drop the platter.
I walk toward where Harry and Dan discuss something, thoughtful expressions on their faces and beer mugs in their hands. I fill a mug for myself, take a long pull, then refill.
I’m a lifelong vegetarian, but Dan stopped eating meat only a few months ago, even though I told him not to sacrifice anything for me. For you, yes, but also for the environment, he said. When he has a sudden craving for bacon or cheesesteak or a fish taco, he just goes to the nearest drive-thru.
Now, seeing the excitement in Dan’s eyes, I feel something twisting, sinking in my stomach. I didn’t tell him to stop eating meat. Nor could I be blamed for being brought up a vegetarian. And yet, I feel like I’m at fault for a choice Dan knowingly made.
The men’s entire conversation is pig this, barbeque that. They talk about preparing the twenty-pound pig, debate the use of soy sauce versus oil, vegetables Harry plans to stuff the pig with, coals.
I reach into my bag, which I’d politely declined to store in the coat closet, and let my fingers settle on the Ziploc for a moment. It doesn’t feel as warm or alive as it did this morning. My fingers spring away from the inert coolness.
I realize then I’m actually relieved I don’t know anything about the baby entrapped in the muscle cage—not its sex, not its shape, not how its fingers curl. I don’t have a name for it. I don’t even have to mourn it.
Still, I don’t know what I was hoping for. I fret. I blame the beer, my empty, roiling stomach. I want to pluck the freezer bag out of my tote and spill its contents onto the white tablecloth and ask Laura, the expert of all things maternal, for her thoughts.
On the lawn, as the men chat, I brace myself for my first sight of the dead animal. I want to touch it. I want to run my fingers over its rib cage, where its heart was once resting, beating. I want to stroke the pig’s head, maybe hug it and cry for everything that’s now dead.
But when I finally see the animal, I know that no amount of beer could have prepared me. I expected a large beast, but before me lies a small, gently pink body, curled and vulnerable.
A suckling pig, Harry announces with a flourish, is one that still feeds on its mother’s milk. Or was one that still fed, he swiftly corrects himself. Baby pigs are so tender. Juicy.
It had been difficult to source, but his butcher had succeeded. The carcass had arrived frozen, resting in his refrigerator for two whole days to thaw. Now it is laid out on a large wooden board on its side. A long slit runs from its chest to its underbelly. There’s another slit on its throat. Harry has stuck a spit rod into it, large forks buried deep into the flesh of its front and back. Its legs are folded close to its body and tied, as if to stop it from running away mid-roast.
How expensive was it? Dan asks.
Harry names a figure. Dan makes a small surprised sound.
I’ve cut out the silver skin, Harry says, laying open the pig like a dissected frog. The kidneys, the liver, all gone. It is a vacant shell.
I knew you’d like to watch, Harry says to Dan. That’s why I had you come early. I know you must miss some things, because, you know. Harry looks at me before turning back to the animal.
A well-presented piggy is a good piggy, Harry tells us. You feast with the eyes first.
Like a trained mortician, he scrapes the last of the pig’s minute hairs. Wipes the skin clean. Liberally salts the insides. I can’t look away.
He tosses some aromatics into the pig’s belly. Peeled onions, fennel, leeks, carrots, whole sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Then, his movements precise, he grabs the oversized spear-shaped trussing needle and twine.
It’s like watching a wound get sealed. Looped sutures pull the piglet’s skin closed. Yet the hollowness of the body still shows in its wrinkles, in its limp curve. He covers the pig’s ears with foil. He thrusts a ball of foil into the pig’s mouth. A placeholder for the apple, he says.
He rubs the body with oil until it glistens.
Is it practice for rubbing baby oil on your child? I ask, the first time I’ve spoken since I got here.
Laura gasps, but Harry chuckles.
Dan makes that face he makes when he knows I’m halfway to irredeemably drunk. You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to, he tells me.
Harry’s attention is back on the task at hand. She’s ready to go, he says about the pig.
But how do you know the pig’s a she? I ask. Are the cupcakes pink?
Harry laughs again. That’s clever, he says. I never understood your girlfriend, he tells Dan, as if I’m not there. Then, he lifts the spit up like a balanced dumbbell and carries it over to the grill.
Harry and Dan take turns rotating the pig over the burning coals. I pull up a chair close to Dan and watch him patiently turn the pig round and round like some kind of bizarre jack-in-the-box. The fire crackles, and the red coals fill my senses.
When can we leave? I whisper to Dan. Is this going to take forever?
He clicks his tongue. Pig roasting takes time and care, he says.
So do I, I say.
Don’t start now, please, he says. It’s unclear what I shouldn’t be starting.
Every so often, Harry wipes the pig with a rag. Says it has to be dry so the skin can get crispy.
An hour or so into it, Laura brings out the other platters of food, salads and sides. She also leaves disposable aluminum trays of roasted apples and potatoes under the roasting animal.
The drippings are the best part, she says.
Is there anything I can eat? I ask.
Laura looks like she doesn’t understand my question.
I don’t eat meat.
Not even drippings?
I shake my head.
Well, you can have salad. She goes back into the house.
I have my hand in my tote. Everything I touch is still. I frantically search for some warmth, calming only when I find it.
The guests arrive as the sun sets. We’ve already bought a bunch of toys, Laura says. We’ve been so busy preparing the room and everything for the baby. We’ve hardly had time to breathe.
I wrap my fingers around the uterus, hoping it understands my message. Sorry we don’t have a room for you in our one-bedroom apartment. Sorry it was never the right time for you. Sorry we didn’t have much time to breathe even before you.
Laura introduces me to her yoga group. She’s Indian, Laura tells the group. A woman says to me, Oh, you should come do yoga with us.
How many kids do you have? another woman asks me.
Before I can answer, a baby cries.
One of the women cradles her cozily wrapped child and, with a small laugh, says, Oops, I guess it’s time again.
Immediately, all the other women form a close circle around her, as if they’re ritualistically protecting her with their bodies.
With ease, she unzips her decorative satin top and pulls out a breast, and the baby’s mouth instantly latches onto it. A collective awww goes up from the women.
I don’t want to watch, but my eyes are on the small pink face eagerly feeding from his mother, who looks content and pleased. The baby’s suckling punctures the silence, a silence of mostly wonderment, which the women briefly interrupt with a compliment on how plump and beautiful the baby looks.
Why are we standing around her? I ask.
For the sake of her dignity, of course, Laura says with a huff.
My fingers dig deeper into my bag, squeeze the uterus harder. I want to shake it back to life. I don’t want it for myself. But its death feels like a failure.
Harry brings the star of the evening, now free of the binds and laid on its clean board, and rests it on the table with reverence. The aluminum trays of food surround it, like adoring fans. Everyone’s holding a glass of beer or lemonade. Harry and Dan seem proud of their hard work.
That’s a beautiful baby, a man congratulates Harry on the piglet.
The roasted pig is now only a silhouette in the evening light, but I can still make out its shape. I can make out the shiny apple in its mouth. Harry has swapped the placeholder for the fresh fruit now that the pig is cooked.
Well, there’s something else I can eat, I tell Laura.
And I grab the apple out of the pig’s mouth and take a crunchy bite before anyone can stop me.
I hear Harry and Laura say something to Dan.
I’m right here, I scream.
I put my hands around the pig, pick it up. It’s hot, but only as heavy as a sack of rice, and still smells like fire. The pig burns me, and I clutch it closer.
I know it’s dead, I tell them. I won’t let you all eat a baby, I tell them.
Dan looks stricken. What the fuck, he shouts, stop embarrassing me.
Harry says, I always knew you were crazy, I wish Dan would’ve listened. He pulls the pig from my arms and pushes me away.
I scream wordlessly, a cry wrenched deep from within me. I’ve never been this loud in front of Harry and Laura.
I turn around and run out of their gates, my tote hitting my hip with every step. I’m aware no one is following me, but I keep going. I take small bites from the apple I still hold in my palm, my keepsake.
When I get to my apartment building, I walk up to the tree nearest to the entrance. I crouch down and start digging the at the dry soil with my bare hands. Dirt embeds itself into my nails, into the crevices of the promise ring Dan gave me.
I pull the freezer bag from my tote and hug it close to my heart. I whisper and hum.
Then I lay it to rest in the small ditch I’ve dug. I cover it up, pat it gently, and sit next to it for who knows how long.
In the dark, I let myself into my apartment. I scrub my hands in scalding water one last time for the day, until the dirt goes away.
NEERU NAGARAJAN is an Indian Tamil writer. Her fiction has appeared in The Maine Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, Stonecoast Review, GASHER, and elsewhere. She’s @poonaikaari on Twitter.
Featured image by Jon Tyson courtesy of Unsplash