I needed a change of scenery after the miscarriages, so I got a job teaching Anthropology in Grand Junction, Colorado. I came from Cincinnati, so the move was long and laborious, but I needed a drastic change. I’d never been west of Illinois. I left the tall, maple and oak trees behind for red-brown canyons. I wouldn’t miss the allergens. Every day in Cincinnati was a smog alert in the summer. The air just sat stagnant in the river valley.
I had flown out to Grand Junction on my own to see the house we were planning to buy. When the realtor showed it to me, I was not feeling well. Making such a big decision without Matt didn’t feel right, and the realtor didn’t help things. She had an elusiveness about her. At first, I assumed she was just being professional, but finally, I said, “I just keep feeling like there’s something you’re not telling me.”
She sighed, her blonde curls bouncing around her face as she looked down at her hands. “I’ll be blunt with you, Mrs. Keller.”
“Oh, I actually go by Cunningham.”
“You didn’t take your husband’s name?” she said. There was an edge of judgement in her voice.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Hm,” she said.
“Anyway…” I said.
“Anyway, I will be blunt with you, Mrs. Cunningham. Missus? Or Miss? Or is it Mizz?”
I blushed. “I actually don’t know.” Then, I wished I had just made up an answer. I was always doing that. Speaking before thinking things through. I thought of Dobby, the house-elf in Harry Potter, who was always having to iron his hands.
She sniffed as though there were a rat rotting under the floorboards. “Well, I will be blunt with you. Several women have gone missing in this area over the past six months.”
“Several? How many is ‘several’?”
“Well, the last statistic I saw was twenty.”
“Twenty! In six months?” I said. “What do they think has happened to them?”
“Not a clue. Or, if the police do have suspicions, they’re not telling anyone. The media has been all over it. And in every café, there are Missing Persons posters all over the bulletin board. So, I would just use extreme caution if you decide to move here.” She rubbed her eyes.
I stood there a few minutes, gazing absently at the light-yellow walls of the living room. What could have happened to all of those women? How does a person vanish without a trace?
During my PhD, I did a lot of research on diaries from the period when people were settling the prairies. Once, I read a collection of one particular family’s diaries. The last line of the wife’s diary read, “I’m going out.” The diary ended. But her husband’s diary said that he searched and searched for his wife. There was no sign of her.
My goal for the move itself was to be mindful—to notice when the scenery changed. I wasn’t capable of this, however. I failed to see the changes because I’d turned inward. Not even Matt could reach me, and I had not told him about the missing women. It had become my personal, hidden power—a talisman I carried in my stomach. I had always been like that—deriving power from secrets. As a young woman, I had found this same power in eating disorders.
During the move, we stopped at a hotel to stay overnight. Matt wanted to make love. I lay there under him, thinking that my Kroger coupons should work just fine in Colorado. (Were there Krogers in Colorado? I hadn’t researched that.)
“You could participate you know,” he whispered, his breathing heavy as he found a rhythm.
“Uh huh,” I mumbled.
He swore and pulled out, then came on my breasts. I left listened to him fall asleep, his back to me. It was annoying that we were moving to this new place, far away from either of our families, and our marriage was on the rocks. Maybe we could temper it on the granite.
In the morning I showered with him, but it was like showering with a stranger, and I was just as self-conscious.
“What I need is a run,” I said in the hotel lobby as we ate our bagels and cream cheese.
“What you need is a therapist.” He chewed, then added, “And a fertility doctor.”
My throat constricted and I avoided his gaze so that he wouldn’t see my tears behind my dark bangs.
He finished his bagel and looked at my plate, which was almost untouched.
“Don’t expect me to stop in half an hour when you’re hungry,” he said, rising to throw away his garbage.
I nodded and sipped my orange juice. Once we reached our rental house, I’d have to make up for my indifference to his manhood last night. I sighed.
I did get hungry after half an hour on the road, but I hadn’t thought to bring my bagel with me. I didn’t say anything to Matt. I waited and waited.
At noon I had to pee.
“I’m in the mood for a big steak,” Matt said. He drove until we found a steakhouse. I spoke long enough to order, but I felt mute. It was an overwhelming, stuffy feeling. Like being smothered. Matt kept glancing at me across the booth.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he said.
“Well, you’re stuck with me,” I managed. “I’m not going to turn into someone I’m not.”
He scowled. “I should’ve stayed home.”
I lost my appetite. “Too late now.”
“Look,” he said, “let’s try to make a fresh start, okay? Everything’s going to be brand new—the air, the clouds. There’ll be rattlesnakes and shit.”
He smiled and took my hand. “I love you, Frankie.”
“I love you too.”
We held hands until the food came—his steak, my salad. For a little while things felt like they used to.
I sang in the car.
“Do you mind?” Matt said. “You’re tone deaf.”
It hurt my feelings, but I laughed anyway. He rubbed his eyes.
“Want me to take over for a little while?”
“You? You’ll just get us killed.”
“Oh.” I bristled.
Some time passed. I said, “You know it’s not my fault.”
“The miscarriages.” I swallowed. This was dicey territory and I knew myself to be unsure. Never the lion; always the lamb.
“But what if they were?” he said.
“The miscarriages. What if they were your fault?”
I swiped at my running nose. “What do you mean?”
“Frankie, you barely eat anything. You spend all your time running. What if you’re too thin to stay pregnant? Why can’t you just try to put on some weight?”
“Easy for you to say, you stupid man,” I said, loaded with all the injustices in the world.
He stayed silent. After a few miles, he said, “’You stupid man.’ That’s all you could come up with?” He laughed.
I was still angry. “It’s the best I can do to your face.”
He laughed again. “What? You say worse things behind my back?”
“Every chance I get.”
He laughed as we passed the sign welcoming us to Colorado.
It took two days to get everything unpacked. As soon as there were sheets on the bed, he was all over me. I tried to be inspired, but he smelled horrible from carrying heavy furniture all day. I wanted no part of it. I held my breath and faked it, thinking of women all over the world also faking it at this very moment. Women in Africa. Women in China. Women in England. We all deserved academy awards.
Finally, he finished.
“Oh, Francesca,” he said. “That was sooooo good.”
“Yes,” I said, pretending to be satisfied. I never could have an orgasm through intercourse alone. Matt used to go down on me, but he stopped doing that almost as soon as we tied the knot…but in all fairness, I stopped giving blowjobs too.
He fell asleep, but I couldn’t. I got up and went out on the porch.
I felt disoriented by the new landscape. There were tiny patches of brush; the trees seemed short compared to the trees at home. The land sloped except for the exaggeration of mountain that I couldn’t see now, in the dark. The phrase “scrub brush” came to mind. Did I read that on the internet? I didn’t know what it meant. The sunset had been breathtaking. Pinks, purples, oranges, blues and dark clouds filled the Colorado sky.
I went back inside and choked down some cereal. Maybe Matt was right. Maybe it was my fault.
Matt began his new job at a pilot plant the next day. I was overwhelmed by the number of boxes stacked everywhere, so I looked up the nearest café and walked to it. Sure enough, the bulletin board caught my attention. It was covered with photographs of women’s faces. I scanned them, looking for a pattern—physical characteristics or something about their ages or names. I couldn’t find any, so, feeling self-conscious that I had stood there so long, staring, I went to the counter and ordered my iced tea and sat down at a table for two. Had they been strangled? Were they dead? Or, did a terrible man have them stored somewhere? What did the kidnapper/murderer want?
I was running at a good clip on the Holy Bucket trail when the sight of a mountain lion stopped me cold. I’d read that runners were more likely to be struck by lightening or eaten by their own dog than to get attacked by a mountain lion.
I froze. She was about 20 feet away, standing on a rock. I say “she” because it was obvious by the size of her stomach that she was pregnant. I stared into her gold eyes, transfixed. She looked like she was weeping oil. There were black stripes coming down from the inner corners of her eyes to her nose. She stared back. I felt a physical shift within, like the pericardium around my heart thickened. Like I now had the ability to call out the world on its bullshit.
I knew I was supposed to make my body as large as possible, yell, and throw stones. But I couldn’t have thrown stones at her any more than I could’ve thrown stones at a kitten.
I exhaled for the first time in years. Her nose twitched.
I don’t know how long we stood there like that, breathing.
Then, she turned and ran away.
The test was positive. I hadn’t had a period since we moved here, but I hadn’t thought much about it because I often didn’t get my period due to what Matt called my “over-exercising”.
But something made me buy the test, and I sat on the toilet looking at it. I’d been too paralyzed to move after peeing on the strip. My legs were numb from sitting there, waiting for the test to come to its conclusion.
“Positive,” I whispered.
I cleaned up and came out, stick in hand, grinning maniacally and crying, too. It was possible that if I lost this baby I would have to be institutionalized.
“Look,” I told Matt. He sat in his easy chair, flipping through old issues of Hustler.
“What?” he frowned.
It took him a good, full minute to comprehend what was in front of him.
“You’re pregnant,” he said.
“Yeah. Honey, we did it! We did it!” I said. I bent to hug him, but he dodged me, standing.
“What makes you think this time will be different?” he said. His face flushed with an anger that had ached him a long time.
I trembled. “What?”
“Oh, you think it will be different. But it won’t,” he spat. “You won’t be able to help yourself. You’ll go running. You’ll eat nothing but rabbit food. You’ll refuse to put on weight.”
“No, I won’t!” I was hysterical.
“Yes, Frankie! Just watch! Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? You’ll never carry this baby to term. And our hearts will be shattered into millions—“ He paused, fighting tears. “Millions of pieces.” He wiped sweat from his upper lip.
“No, Matt, I swear—“
“You know what,” he said, pushing my hand from his arm, “I need a walk.”
“No, you don’t. We just need to—“
“Shut up, Frankie. Just let me go.”
I begged, but he took his keys and left the house. I watched the Jeep leave the driveway.
He wasn’t taking a walk.
I sat on the couch, feeling ill.
I ran into the bathroom, hurled up the toilet seat, and puked until I dry heaved. I realized I had terrible menstrual cramps. I crawled into the bedroom and hoisted myself into bed.
How much time passed? How much time passed while I lay there feeling like my lower guts were being wrung out like a dishrag? I could feel that the sheets were soaked with sweat, my pillow soaked with tears. I prayed for Matt to come home. I bargained with God. My cell phone was all the way in the living room in my jacket pocket. I couldn’t get to it.
Then, I felt something slide from me. It took all my courage to look under the quilt and I was shocked to find that it wasn’t sweat that soaked the sheets, but blood.
I heard whimpering.
I lifted my skirt and dug around with shaking hands.
I took the fuzzy, wet thing to my face to get a close look. It was a cat cub with black spots. It made little noises.
I felt calm. Solid. I knew what to do.
I licked it clean, careful to be thorough in its nose and eyes.
Something else slid from me, but it was just the placenta. I felt good—strong.
I took the cub by the scruff of its neck in my mouth and slid out of bed. I took the placenta and carried it downstairs to the kitchen. I set the cub on the carpet.
I cooked the placenta in a pan with garlic and onions. I let it cool a little and wrote a note that said Let’s make up and put the placenta and the note in the fridge. Matt would think it was a steak. He’d be thrilled.
I opened the back door. I turned into my genuine form. It wasn’t painful—the relocation of bones, nails growing, the senses suddenly deep and complex, the retina replacing cones with rods, the fear of darkness I’d always carried sliding away because now I was the darkness.
I was the darkness.
My jaw was nothing but power. I could crush a deer’s neck. I let out a low, rumbling growl and a scream. The vibration filled my throat in a way that my human voice never could. As I went to pick up the cub in my mouth, I caught my reflection in the full-length mirror in the hall.
I took the cub gently and carried him outside. The night air swept through my fur. I whipped my tail back and forth, then sprinted into the darkness that I could now see through.
All those missing women…
How could we have ever been anything but wild?
Megan D. Henson received her MFA in Creative Writing from University of Kentucky. She is the author of two books by Dos Madres Press: What Pain Does (2018) and Little Girl Gray: Sestinas (forthcoming this winter). She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.