The Dead Garden

“If it rains in the dead garden, will the dead people drown?”

Your five year-old son’s Spiderman umbrella bounces beside you. Ignoring his question, you fumble with the baby you’re carrying. Your fingertips flatten her curls. Your son’s teacher called you the night before to tell you he had disrupted the class because he wants to be a gravedigger when he grows up.  He made a classmate cry with his graphic description of what he thinks happens to a human body after it’s been buried a long time. After watching a Discovery channel program, he told the class that he could turn them into zombie slaves. You promised his teacher you would talk to him about it. But, now you stare down over the baby’s head and watch the water move through the dirt clods, making mud.

“I guess they couldn’t,” your son says, “on account of they’re already dead.” You like the sound of those words. On account of, so not New England. You wonder where he learned them. The baby hiccups and you cup your hand under her chin. Her eyes are closed. Snaking your hand beneath your son’s umbrella, your skin touches his. The humidity seals you together.

“Let’s get you to school.”

“Third day.” For a moment, you believe if you knocked back the umbrella, you’d see a skeleton’s head and then his body would crumble. You rub your eyes with the back of your hand and rain drips on the baby’s uncovered head.

“Kindergarten is where it all begins.” He’s the first of your kids to start school. You thought it would be scary. But, it’s not.

“I know. You’ve said that before.” He carefully maneuvers around a puddle that your two year-old would have jumped in.  “You say a lot of stuff over and over again.”

His skin is cold and slick. Suddenly, you’re aware that you don’t think of your children in terms of their names. Shaking your head, you say their names, “Julian, Rose, and Orlando.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Why are you saying our names out loud?”

“No reason.” When you start walking again, your son moves with you as if he anticipated your move and you’re leading a dance.

“Did you forget?”

“Forget what?”

“Our names.” You’re at the yellow door Julian goes through and you’re opening it. Julian is shaking rain from his umbrella and you catch a glimpse of his face and it’s pale with dark blue eyes and long lashes that everyone comments on. The attention has made him wonder if there is something wrong with his eyes. He hangs his umbrella, knapsack, and coat in his cubby and exchanges his boots for sneakers. He kisses you on the lips and you make a puckering noise and then he’s gone.

That night Orlando is sick. Her temperature is 105 degrees. The skin on her hands and feet is scaly and red.  Your fingers leave white marks on her crimson flesh when you try to console her. Her swollen lips part and her tongue looks pained. You long to give her words so that you can understand what is wrong.

“Kids can have fevers that’d make us feel like we were hit by a Mac truck. It probably doesn’t mean anything,” the doctor says over the phone. “Give her some Motrin. How much does she weigh? Call me in the morning.” Absurdly, you wonder why the doctor doesn’t know how big your baby is. You’d been at his office that day.

Orlando can’t swallow the Motrin. She can’t swallow your milk. It escapes her mouth and runs down her striped pajamas.

Your husband punches a hole in the wall.

“That quack didn’t listen.” Your husband stomps around the room like a SS soldier. His face is red. Julian and Rose scatter, tripping over each other on the way up the stairs. They aren’t fighting. Your hand flutters to your throat.

“Did you tell him she’s been like this since her shots? He gave her shots, remember? This morning.”

You don’t say anything. You look at Orlando trying to nurse. Rose nursed right up until the baby was born.

“I’m sorry.” Your husband touches your shoulder. “I’m just scared.”

He insists you bring her to the Emergency Room, but you don’t own a car. You did once between babies. You remember driving it around thinking how easy it would be to get to prenatal appointments in a car.

You decide to phone a friend to drive you to the hospital. She works there and you catch her just as she’s walking in the door from a fourteen-hour shift. She tells you she’ll be right over. When she arrives at your apartment, she’s eating jalapeno poppers that she bought on her way home. Strapping Orlando and her seat into the car, you wonder if your friend feels stuck because you only see her when one of you needs something. You know you feel stuck when she calls you. Stuck because even if you don’t want to help out (you feel guilty because that’s most of the time) you do it anyway because that’s what friends do.

You fill out clipboards full of paperwork once you arrive at the hospital. Orlando is squeezed against your chest even though she doesn’t seem hungry. It is all you can think of to offer. Her skin burns yours, warming your milk. A middle-aged woman sleeps across from you. Her legs are spread and her knees graze yours in the tight space. Her reddish hair (dyed you’re certain) curls over her collar and spreads across her breasts. Her hair makes you touch yours, which was once long, but you cut it off after you found out you were pregnant again.

You had this vision of what kind of mother you were going to be and that was easy the first time around. You brought Julian to Pagan gatherings on the beach, danced in moon circles with him. You kept his hair long, weaving ribbons through braids. Still a pagan, you try to stick to your faith by raising your children in a Goddess tradition, but you no longer attend circles. You haven’t been to a Wiccan retreat since right after you found out you were expecting Orlando.

Shifting, you look down at her. She’s pink, no red, crying, but only half-heartedly. You look at your friend to keep your mind free of all the horrible things that might be happening to the baby’s brain. High fevers are bad, snaking their way through the body’s system. You have broken your baby in the two months you’ve had her.

Orlando makes a sound and spits up, choking. Milk runs down her chin. You wipe it with your sleeve and pull her away, holding your breast cupped in your hand. Milk drips from your nipple.

Your friend holds out the box of poppers. Your throat hurts. There’s a boy on the opposite side of the waiting room. He sits under the television. An older man sits next to him crying, “I’m sorry.” The boy winces and turns away revealing the steel hook and fishing line sticking out of his left shoulder. You wonder why they didn’t remove the line.

The baby hiccups. Turning her, you rub her back. Her arms and legs dangle over your lap. You cried when you found out you were pregnant again. The baby is still. She was never so still when you were pregnant. She wanted out in a bad way, putting you into premature labor. Five months ago, you sat in this same seat, the baby resting on your lap. Only then she was inside.

Your nursing baby, Rose, was at home. She had never been separated from you and your milk. You told the baby to stay put. You hissed in a voice not unlike your own, but different from the one you used with Julian and Rose.

You ended up in the hospital for a few days. IV’s dripped depressants into you, soothing your uterus. This made you cry at the commercial where the kid is sobbing, his mother yelling, and his Dad is passed out on the couch. A number for Alcoholics Anonymous flashed across the screen. You called the nurse in and pointed at the machine monitoring your contractions.

“Whew, that one looks like it lasted five minutes.” She patted your head, smoothed hair from your face. “Now, we know that can’t happen. You probably shifted and the monitor moved.” She tightened the elastic belt around you and hurried out. Moans rippled to you from the labor room across the hall. You sighed. There was an oarfish on the television. It looked like a Chinese dragon, but it was swimming. You closed your eyes and opened them quickly. The fish’s face looked like the luck dragon from The Never-ending Story.

You called your husband. The oarfish was gone when he answered the phone. The apartment sounded loud.

“What’s wrong?”

“Everything.”

“I saw this fish.” You chewed your lip.

“Fish?” He was shouting. Rose was crying.

“On the Discovery Channel. It didn’t look like a fish.”

“What did it look like?” Rose’s cries became louder.

“A dragon. It’s an orb fish.”

“Get some sleep.” He cooed to Rose. You looked down and saw milk spreading across your hospital gown.

The nurses brought in movies for you to watch. Only one was any good. You figured you liked Lord of the Rings because you had been a fan of the books as a child. You felt your adult self separating from your true self while the movie blared to drown out the laboring women around you.

When you were discharged, you ignored your strict bed rest long enough to dig out your leather bound special edition Tolkien reader your mother had given you for your eleventh birthday. Rose climbed over you and stretched out on the couch. You weren’t supposed to nurse her anymore because it could cause contractions. But she cried. When your husband left for work, you read your book out loud, Rose nursing on one side of you and Julian curled up on the other.

 

You pick up Julian a week later. You don’t have Orlando because she’s still in the hospital. You have been staying with her on account of her being exclusively breastfed. The doctors don’t know what’s wrong with her. She’s been pumped full of antibiotics. Her blood has been sent to the CDC in Atlanta. The nurses wear paper coats and face guards whenever they enter her room. There’s a yellow biohazard sign on her door. You kind of like it because the room is private. When you walk by the multiple rooms on your way for coffee and crackers, you feel bad for the parents in them. Four cribs line either side, separated only by curtains.

“I missed you.” Julian takes your hand. He smiles up at you, squinting in the sun.

“I missed you, too.”

“Really? Where was I supposed to be?”

Confused, you stare at the ground. You think of asking him if he wants to play in the park instead of heading right back to the apartment. You like bringing him to playgrounds. He’s finally old enough to manage the equipment by himself and you get to stand off to the side or sit on a bench. Sometimes you sip coffee while writing in a notebook. You like to write letters to childhood friends that you never see anymore. You have an entire journal addressed to your best friend from high school. You kept it up for almost seven years and then he ruined it by contacting you. You met him for a drink and listened to his words. He had been traveling all over the world. He said he was writing a book about it. He showed you what he had scribbled on napkins and scraps of paper, his words covering newspaper print in different languages.

“Do you want to watch a movie when we get home?” You only have a little time before Orlando’s next feeding.

“I want to stay here.”

“You want to play in the park?” You think about how you read Lord of the Ringssitting on the park bench and fell in love with Legolas again as you had when you were a child. You think about how you used to play Dungeons & Dragons with your best friend from high school, who is now on a real quest.

“No.”

“Okay. Then do you want to watch a movie?”

“No, I want to stay here at school.”

You focus on the jungle gym across from you, pleading with it to give you the right words. Suddenly, you feel an urge to smoke, a habit you gave up years ago. It seems if you could light up a cigarette and inhale, the words you’d need would fill your lungs.

“Today was the art show.”

“Oh.”

“You were supposed to be here after lunch.”

“I’m sorry.” You pull him close.

“Daddy liked my orb fish.”

“You made an orb fish?” You hug him hard but he doesn’t hug back. “It’s an oarfish, remember?”

“I like orb fish better.”

“I do too.”

Your husband had googled the oarfish. He showed you the pictures and even a video he had downloaded, setting up your favorite as the computer’s background. He brought out Julian’s drawings. You didn’t like the way the fish swam in the water, straight up and down. It was sea serpent like. You hated myths being defined. There seemed nothing left to believe in.

A couple of days later, you googled Legolas and came up with the actor who played him, Orlando Bloom. He didn’t look anything like Legolas and that disturbed you. Grabbing your book, you sat down on the couch. You read for a few minutes and then shifted. You put the book down and rubbed your belly. Eventually, you returned to the computer and pulled up a biography on Orlando Bloom. He was four years younger than you. You wondered if that fact made him a child. You began to feel guilty for finding him unattractive. Clicking over to Amazon.com, you ordered a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. On a second thought, you added the Lord of the Rings box set and the movie, Orlando. After typing in your address and credit card information, you clicked off the Internet and stared at the oarfish on the computer screen.

“Can I see your picture?”

“We could go back inside. My fish isn’t swimming. He’s flying. He has wings.”

“I’d like to see that.” Hugging him tightly, you notice that he smells of earth and sandalwood soap.

“When the dead people are waiting to be born again, where are they?” Julian’s face is so close to yours that it is a blur of color and shape. You think of a bunch of ghosts hanging out in a waiting room.

“Are they in the belly of the Goddess?”

You like that image so you nod.

 

The doctors are beginning to look the same to you. The residents come and go in a flurry of white coats and tired eyes. You are watching too much television, Orlando propped on your lap. She eats all the time due to the steroids being pumped into her amongst the antibiotics. You are waiting for her primary care physician who visits between appointments. To your relief, he doesn’t bother with the biohazard gear. Your husband and Rose are with you because the doctor says he has something to discuss. They are wearing the paper coats and face masks. You don’t have to because it would hinder the ability to nurse. It is the first time Rose has been to the hospital. Your husband has visited only once, when your mother took the kids overnight. Julian is at school.

When the doctor arrives, he tells you he is convinced that Orlando has Kawasaki’s Syndrome.

“Does that mean she’s allergic to motor bike fumes?” Your husband’s smile looks painful because of his chapped lips.

“He’s from Ireland. That’s why he says motor bike,” you say.  You start to explain how you met when you did your senior year abroad and that when you discovered you were pregnant with Julian, your husband proposed and accompanied you back to the States. The doctor’s laugh is nervous.

“No, no, no one is one hundred percent certain how to define Kawasaki’s.” He makes eye contact with you and then with your husband.

Rose jumps from the couch to the reclining chair and back again. The doctor stares at her until all of you are watching her blond curls bobbing from beneath the white hat and the gown billowing around her.

“I think the best way to explain it would be to say that Orlando caught a virus and after her body fought it off, her body kept fighting, unable to stop.”

“So, it’s an autoimmune response gone haywire,” your husband says.

The doctor studies him the way the scientists on the Discovery Channel have been studying the first oarfish caught alive. You have been watching that all day.

“Well,” the doctor clears his throat and watches your husband suspiciously, “we only have an eleven day window to treat Kawasaki’s, and though I don’t have the Cardiology Department completely convinced given Orlando’s young age, I’d like to begin the treatment.” Today is the eighth day you’ve been in the hospital. You feel like you are shrinking so you sit in the rocking chair. Orlando stirs in your arms. You can’t put her in the crib. She won’t stay there. Your husband thinks it is because they use the crib when they want to jab her heels with needles to steal her blood. The nurses say it doesn’t hurt, but Orlando turns red and sometimes cries. You study her crimson palms and peeling feet.

Your husband rescues Rose from the couch and stands near you with her on his hip. The room is very quiet except for the crinkling sound of paper against paper. You watch your husband and he is staring at the doctor who watches the television.

“What’s that?” He points to the screen. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“An oarfish,” Rose tells him. “They’ve got one in Orlando’s Sea World.”

“Sea World doesn’t belong to Orlando,” your husband tells your daughter.

“But, it’d be neat if it did,” the doctor says to Rose. “Then the two of you could play with that oarfish all day long.”

All of you watch the television. The oarfish swims straight up and down, a handler beside it, stroking its blue body, running her hand through the fish’s red whiskers.

“Do you always mute the TV?” The doctor asks.

“I like to read.” The body of the oarfish undulates in the water. You imagine what it must have been like the first time the fish was seen. Human beings are hardwired to exaggerate. Sea serpents.

“Did you name her after the book?” The doctor picks up Virginia Woolf’s novel.

“Sort of.”

“Orlando’s a boy’s name.”

“Orlando isn’t only a man.”

“No, no he isn’t.” The doctor lays the book back on the table.

You begin rocking. Orlando is rooting so you lift your shirt for her. The doctor stares at the two of you longer than necessary. You notice he isn’t watching you inappropriately because his eyes are lost as if he has drifted away from himself. You see the doctor sleeping while he makes his rounds like Legolas, who is able to sleep while his body continues the quest.

“So, are you going to begin treating her?” your husband asks.

“Yes, I think we should. Dr. Bloominthal, the cardiologist, would like to do an echocardiogram, but we can still begin the treatment. It’s a simple intravenous technique,” the doctor says without looking at your husband.

 

It’s March 21st. Julian is telling you about the vernal equinox, showing you the pictures he’s made with pastel tissue glued to construction paper. You try to focus on what he shows you, but Orlando’s been in the hospital for fourteen days now. You’ve been at the school every day to pick Julian up, but somehow you missed the snow melting. Sunlight reflects from the turquoise playground equipment creating a holographic image of ancient ruins. You raise your thin hand to shield your eyes. Julian’s jacket is unzipped, sliding from his shoulders.

“Did you know if you place an egg on its end today, it’ll stand up? It won’t fall over.”

You almost ask if they tried that in class because you’ve never seen it work, but your tongue feels thick and strange in contrast to Julian’s energy. Lately you’ve been analyzing the way your mind works. This has made your brain hurry to get through one thought to the next and it seems there is a constant chatter going on in your head. You wake up gasping for reality in your baby’s hospital room.  Your mind screams, “Are you really going to think about this?” But the other half of your brain wants to and so the debate begins before the sun has slipped its rays through the blinds on the window. You crush Orlando against you. You shiver, but you’re covered with sweat. You mentioned what was going on to your doctor who believes you are suffering from postpartum depression combined with posttraumatic stress disorder. She told you if you’d quit nursing, she’d prescribe Zoloft. When you didn’t want to do that, she suggested a smaller dosage and a sunlamp.

“The world is in balance.” Julian’s pale face reminds you of what you saw in the mirror that morning. You wonder if your whole family has become the walking dead.

“Have you been sleeping?” You remember you bought a candy bar for him and root in your pocket for it.

“Kind of. Rose has been in my bed every night.” His eyes are your hand.

“She must miss me.” You hand over the Milky Way and lead Julian to a bench.

“When are you coming home?” His mouth is already full of chocolate and you study the streaks it’s made across his lips.

“Hopefully tomorrow.” You think about how you screamed at your husband the day before. You told him it was never going to end, that Orlando was going to just keep getting sick. Later you tried to make it a joke. “We got ourselves a lemon.”

“Our fence is falling over.” Julian licks his fingers.

“Our fence?”

“Yeah, they dug it up to put in a new walkway.”

You’re bothered that you can’t even recall having a fence.

“And they left the fence lying there.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I wish you’d take it away. It looks like a graveyard.”

You sigh. “Julian, I thought Daddy talked to you about your obsession with death.”

“I’m not obsessed with death.” He has trouble with the word, it comes out like a hiss.

“Well, you do talk about it a lot.”

“I just wonder where people go. Where Orlando was before she was here.” He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“She’s here now.”

“But she doesn’t want to be.”

“That’s not true.” But the idea is already chewing up your brain.

“She must have liked where she was a lot better than here.”

“No.” You look away from his white face. His eyes are too bright.

“Then why is she trying to get back?”

Staring over the tar ball court at the jungle gym, you realize you are failing this test. You’re not a good parent. You’ll be up with these thoughts tonight, offering your breast to Orlando over and over again as if that would ever make it right.

 

When you get back to the hospital, Orlando is screaming. She’s alone in her metal crib, lying on her side, her eyes wide. The nurses assure you that she is all right. She’s just hungry. She’s always hungry. You lift her to you and rub her back. Walking in circles, you whisper.  On your third trip around the room, you realize you’re not saying any words. It occurs to you that you walked to the hospital talking to yourself. You ask yourself when you began doing that? Flipping on the television, you find the Discovery Channel. Pacing the room, you watch footage of the last Tasmanian tiger. Orlando begins to relax. The nurse comes in with the supper tray. You take it in one hand and thank her. When she leaves the room, you realize that you hadn’t spoken words to her either, just mumbled something that resembled what you thought you should be saying. Sliding the tray onto the table next to the rocking chair, you begin swaying. You’re holding Orlando in one arm, your palm cradling her head. Looking down, you catch her eyes. She’s not just pale like Julian and Rose, she’s almost translucent. The Kawasaki’s made her anemic. She’s taking iron mixed with juice that’s forced into her with a syringe once a day. She’s on aspirin therapy because the syndrome caused her arteries to dilate. The aspirin is crushed into applesauce and slipped over her tongue, which she instinctively tries to thrust out.

You’re panicking when the phone rings. Lifting it to your ear, you clear your throat over and over again, but your voice won’t arrive.

“Hello?” Your husband sounds merry even when he’s not. You wonder what it would be like to have an accent that perpetually put others at ease and retrieve your voice at the same time.

“Hi.” In contrast, your voice is deep. Your best friend from high school told you it was a sexy voice, one that turned men on. Looking down at your brown cords and yellow shirt, you try to imagine turning a man on now. You haven’t had sex since you told your husband you were pregnant again. You think about the fight you had. Your husband insisted one more kid wasn’t a big deal. He budgeted that it would cost another twenty dollars a week after Orlando was born. You refused to hear the humor in his voice. But sometimes, you still do blame him for losing yourself. Briefly, you humor an image of yourself searching for yourself in drawers and cupboards, closets, pushing aside cobwebs.

“How’s Orlando?”

“Fine, she’s hungry.”

“Okay.” You hear Julian’s voice behind your husband’s explaining the egg thing and springtime.

“She seems much better now,” you say.

“Good. Did Julian tell you that we googled Kawasaki’s?” Julian’s voice rises over your husband’s. He’s singing a song about the vernal equinox. The words have something to do with bunnies and woodland fairies. You imagine Julian and Rose with wings chasing rabbits through the forest. Suddenly, you see your husband, Julian, and Rose as a family separate from you and Orlando.

“No.” Admitting this makes you feel left out. “Did you learn anything interesting?”

“Not really. It’s also called Kawasaki’s Disease.”

“So, it’s not merely a syndrome?” This sounds stupid, but you can’t think clearly enough to participate in a conversation.

“It’s named for the doctor who discovered it.”

You hear Rose’s voice joining in with Julian’s now that she has somewhat grasped the words.

“It usually strikes Asian males between the ages of two and four.”

“That’s certainly comforting.” Kissing Orlando, you let your lips rest against her thin hair.

“Most kids don’t get treated in time because of the lack of symptoms and they end up with permanent damage to their hearts.”

The cardiologist had been there that morning and confirmed that Orlando was getting better. Her arteries were returning to normal. The fact that she will be followed by cardiologists for the rest of her life scares you. There’s an image that runs through your mind constantly of an adult Orlando not caring to make her appointments. How will you explain that she needs to if for no other reason than to help the doctors learn as much as they can about the long-term effects?

“It was only discovered about twenty years ago.”

“I already know that,” you say. “Dr. Bloominthal presented Orlando as a case study a couple of days ago. Did you know she is the youngest patient ever treated for Kawasaki’s?” You close your eyes and listen to Julian telling Rose that they’re going to paint eggs in a little while, as soon as Daddy gets off the phone.

“I guessed as much. Wasn’t today the last treatment?” Rose’s laughter rings through the wires. Julian’s giggle is deeper.

“Yeah. They’ve already removed the IV.”

“Does that mean she can come home soon?”

“I haven’t seen the doctor yet.” You balance the phone between your head and shoulder and lift the cover from your plate and stare at the dried out chicken, pale green beans, and instant potatoes. You like to cook. You miss cooking. Looking over your clothing pouring from the bag on the floor, you think about your toothpaste and toothbrush, facial cleanser, and skin cream in the bathroom.

“He should be here soon. He usually stops by after his office hours.” Julian is telling the story of Persephone’s return from the Underworld. It bothers you that he is telling his teacher’s version, which is different from yours. His voice sounds serious as he explains how the goddess spends half the year as the Queen of the dead and the other half with her mother fertilizing the earth.

“Okay. Call me when you find out.” Rose is retelling the story now and Julian is making funny voices. You hear your husband’s chuckle fade as he hangs up on you. You cover the food and walk to the one window. You see the green grass and purple flowers trying to bloom in the hospital gardens. Your eyes grow wet. Attempting to swallow tears, you fail. They come anyway. Orlando has fallen asleep, her little mouth forming words without sound.

 

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