Julie was shucking eggs. How many eggs did it take before one could use the word “shuck” with impunity? One dozen? Two dozen? Julie was shucking three dozen eggs. They had been waiting for her, wrapped up in a blanket-like towel, on the kitchen counter when she arrived home from the hospital.
Normally she didn’t work in the kitchen, but she continued to shuck when she discovered how enjoyable it was — cracking, peeling. Sometimes a liminal layer of overcooked egg would stick to the wall of the shell; it made a noise like scotch tape pulling off drywall when she separated them. She enjoyed the thought that her fingers were touching spherical flesh. She could picture the hidden golden yolk suspended in ether like a miniature sun, halted in deadened animation, now so much latent, useless being. The egg flesh was more similar than dissimilar to the flesh wrapped around her own bones.
The back door slammed and suddenly Julie’s mother appeared in the kitchen. She looked at Julie and screamed, dropping the bags she’d been carrying. They landed on the floor with a muffled crunching sound.
“Julie –” her mother began.
“What was in the bags?” Julie asked.
“More eggs,” said her mother. “I thought I needed more.”
Instead of fetching the tea towel that hung from the stove, Julie pulled out her phone and began to photograph the scrambled mess as it expanded over the tiles. “You always think you need more,” she said. “Why would anybody need so many eggs? One egg is too many eggs.”
“Why did you do it?” her mother asked, a hand trembling over her heart, fluttering like the ruffled pink silk scarf wrapped tightly around her neck. She pushed past Julie and rummaged under the sink, retuning with paper towels and disinfectant spray.
“Do what?” Julie asked, without looking up.
As if trying to escape the savagery, a single intact yolk slid down the sloping floor towards the backdoor, dragging itself through the gory path of its own amniotic food. Julie videoed its progress. She got down on her hands and knees, transfixed. A long, ropy white cord slid after the yolk like a streamer — like it was wearing a raccoon-tail hat. She wondered if it would have been the spinal cord.
Her mother stooped down and started wiping up the mess, wincing at the pain of her chronically inflamed disc. “You can’t go looking like that,” she said. “You just can’t.”
“I’m going,” said Julie. “I said I would.”
“They’ll think you’re making a statement.”
Her mother was still upset about the prosthetic penis Julie was currently sculpting. She’d found it in Julie’s room and had thought it was a sex toy.
“Let them think whatever they want.”
“Why did you do it?” her mother asked her again. “Do you hate me, Jules? Do you want them to stare?”
“I didn’t need it to keep warm,” said Julie, running her hands over her freshly-shaven head. “It didn’t make me any prettier — not that I care, anyway. And it was dirty.”
That afternoon she’d been looking in on the operating theater, sketching a woman who was having a hysterectomy. She was a special case: pear-shaped vagina, one for the books. The woman had been strapped down on the table like a wriggling worm, pinned beneath the clean pure lights. Everything in the theater was rendered so perfectly white and sterile by the lights — even Julie’s own skin. It had been so easy to follow the blue veins in the fluorescent glow; they were not stagnant, like the pictures she drew. They moved and pulsed, were always changing. Then surgeon nicked an artery and the blood shot in a long, thick stream upwards, spattering the plate glass right in front of Julie’s face.
“Dirty?” Julie’s mother asked.
“You know the smell of peoples’ hair? It smells like ‘them.’ But that’s just a nice way of saying it smells like their sweat, their oils and salts, squeezed out through their pores from their glands, produced from the dead plants and animals they consume. It takes seven years to cycle through every cell in the body. Every seven years you are a new person made from the things you eat. Shampooing your hair is like spraying perfume on a pile of compost and calling it clean.”
Julie’s mother stared at Julie, and then went back to wiping up the eggs. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Parker, does it?”
“Who’s Parker?” Julie asked.
“Don’t be like that.”
“Please don’t say anything rude or strange to Mary,” her mother burst out suddenly, her face blotchy and red with distress. Her thyroidal eyes looked enormous in her plump, sagging face — wide and frightened, like the eyes of a child. “Or the other ladies. They’re all so happy, Jules, and sometimes . . . sometimes people don’t need to be reminded of unhappy things.”
Julie knew her mother was thinking of the prosthetic penis when she said “unhappy things.”
When Julie and her mother arrived at the baby shower, the other women were already organized in a ring, sipping steaming mugs of coffee, their plates sprinkled with pastry crumbs. Julie’s mother flitted off and became absorbed in a conversation with one of the Aunts, and Julie was left — as usual — to fend for herself.
Her mother was right. There had been a pause in the conversational flow of the circle when they entered. Mary, who sat at the “head” of the ring, surrounded by stacks of frilly-wrapped presents, had gaped and then looked away quickly, smiling. But after a few stares and stifled giggles the ladies turned inwards upon themselves, folding the circle tightly closed, as if wishing to exclude the sight of Julie altogether. The Aunts, slumping heavily, looked like a panorama of the Appalachians, softly rolling but impassable. They oooed and cooed when Mary described her back pains with a vividness that would make contemporary poets jealous.
Mary’s hair was curled up in ringlets. She wore a maternity dress that was nearly a hoop skirt, looked both virginal and utterly knocked-up, like the bride in The Arnolfini Wedding.
“Julie, your hair,” said one of the cousins, sniggering behind her palm. “Time for a change? Or was it politically motivated?”
Instead of explaining about the dirt, Julie shrugged. She could feel Mary’s eyes on her.
“Oh!” Mary gasped suddenly. “He’s kicking!”
The Aunts crowded inwards and Julie was trapped.
“Don’t you want to feel?” one asked, her pink face stretched wide into a smile. She grabbed Julie’s arm at the wrist before Julie could jerk away, and Julie’s hand was buried beneath a pile of plump, round fingers. She felt a subcutaneous rippling beneath her palm. Like how the surface of the water stirs before the shark’s dorsal fin emerges.
“We’re having the birth right here in the house.” Mary’s voice emitted from the nexus of the crisscrossed web of hands. “We purchased a birthing pool. Of course you’re all invited. The atmosphere is very important in natural births. The energy has to be sublime.”
Julie jerked her hand out from the bottom of the pile. “Aren’t you worried about hygiene?” she asked.
But before Mary could say anything, one of the Aunts cried: “I’d just love to see the baby’s room!”
The baby’s room had recently been renovated. It was painted blue with large decals of sailboats and pirate ships. The mobile hanging over the crib was pirate gold and pistols. There was a small, plush rapier tucked in among the teddies.
“The sonogram said it was a boy,” said Mary. “I want to be able to acclimatize him to his room as soon as he’s born, so he doesn’t suffer any sudden shocks that might cripple his development. Every moment is crucial at the stage between in utero and the transition to the external environment.”
“Aren’t you worried about forcing the child into a normative gender role?”
“What do you mean?” Mary asked, her smile stiff.
“Julie’s just joking,” said Julie’s mother, appearing suddenly from amidst the aunts.
“Isn’t it a bit . . . much?” Julie asked.
“You mean the toys?” Mary asked, with a little laugh.
“I mean inherently violent toys. You might say that you’re encouraging violent tendencies with all this pirate stuff. They’re rapists and murderers, after all.”
“I don’t ever remember hearing about anybody being killed by a baby,” said Mary.
“Women die in childbirth all the time,” said Julie.
Silence fell over the group. Julie took a step backwards. She’d forgotten that she’d been holding her phone, filming the room. Now she looked at the women through the tiny, glowing screen; their eyes glinted in the fluorescent lights — the way animal eyes refract in photos. She’d read before that pregnant women had been banned from the theater in ancient Athens because when the drums and claxons sounded, heralding the appearance of the Bacchae, sometimes the women got so scared that they spontaneously aborted.
“Oh, shut up, Jules,” said one of the Aunts. “Nobody wants to hear your nonsense. Mary, try to think what it must be like for her. You’ve got Paul and she hasn’t got anybody. You’ve got a new house and the baby coming and she’s holed up in her parents’ basement . . . You’re the prettiest girl in town and Julie doesn’t even have hair.”
At this there was a smattering of laughter.
“Obviously,” said Mary, “it’s just a desperate cry for attention. Pathetic.”
Julie could still hear them talking while she fled down the hall, threw on her coat and boots. “Her mother says she’s got the depression. You know they had to bring her back from the city –”
“That’s right,” Julie yelled, as she opened the door. “They found me in the bathtub, nearly bled out! Doesn’t that make you feel sorry for me, Mary?”
Julie’s basement room was filled with flowering plants. Her mother had an arboretum in the summer and liked to get a head start before the spring planting. The plants were strewn with Mary’s prosthetics, making it appear as though the stalks were sprouting ears or noses instead of carrot greens or onion shoots.
Julie was watching a children’s television show while she put the finishing touches on the prosthetic penis. She carefully shaved another centimeter from the glans. She’d created a three-dimensional mold from the exact specifications of the transsexual man who was to receive the prosthetic. A button could be pressed just beneath the scrotum and the hydraulic rods would stiffen; an internal mechanism was connected to the testes, so that the prosthetic could offer the complete range of sexual experience.
Once upon a time, she’d wanted to be a real artist. But during her stint in the city it became clear that she was too technically minded for abstraction; her drawings were too close to life. She could draft effortlessly, having a natural grasp of proportions. And she could measure millimeters with her eyes. But the nonconcrete escaped her.
The television program was repeating a familiar musical motif associated with the rising action of the plot. The trilling, over-excited sounds built up in Julie’s ears like underwater pressure, like the force that pushed a bullet from a gun. Just when the music was rushing with her boiling blood the program paused for commercials.
An advertisement for a popular brand of vitamins flashed onto the screen. First it showed pictures of wheat fields and sunflowers and salmons leaping vigorously up a fast-flowing river. Then it showed a man’s back. He was running from the camera, the perfect symbol of vitality and health. His shoulders slumped forward suddenly and the image became layered upon the brand’s logo. A palimpsest of superimposed color tricked the eye, but Julie could see that the man was now leaning over the figure of a woman; they reclined into the horizontal, hips thrusting to the beat of the jingle. They humped away until they were reduced to a single streak of sunshine emanating from the cartoon sun that was the brand’s logo.
Julie rose from the couch and approached her canvas; it was blank, though dozens of sketches littered the floor around it. Her hand dropped to her stomach. She thought she could feel a tiny, hardening lump in her core like a pearl accumulating layers of sand. The vitamin from the commercial had beamed directly into her core. She was suddenly very aware of the plants. It was as if she could hear them respiring. She looked at the beaded fog upon the window and could picture the molecules of water at the subatomic level; she could see the carbon monoxide floating in the room — she could feel the oxygen. She could feel herself, little by little, exchanging her precious molecules with the gasping, strangling vegetation as she breathed in and out.
Julie fled the basement, knocking the prosthetic penis to the floor on her way out. Upstairs, the house was empty.
She wanted desperately to speak with her mother. She walked down the street blindly, looking into the houses through the windows, all of which were clouded with condensation. Finally, she arrived — as if on purpose — at a house she recognized. Her mother’s car was parked outside. It was Mary’s house.
Inside, all was silent save for the hint of murmuring voices. They rippled down the hall. Julie followed the sound until she reached the door of the downstairs bathroom. The eerie noise raised the hair on her arms and neck. She pulled out her phone.
“Hello?” Julie called. “Hello? Mom? Are you here? I need to talk to you . . . ”
She pushed the door open.
A ring of women was standing around what appeared to be a portable wading pool. The pool and the women only just fit into the cramped bathroom. Mary was squatting in the water. Her breasts were covered by a black bikini top; her enormous belly seemed to bob upon the surface. Her hair was unbound, hanging around her face in sweaty sheaves. She was making mewling noises, and so were the other women. It took Julie a moment to realize that they were all chanting in time to some sort of a Lamaze meditation recording that was playing from a stereo on the sink. They breathed in with Mary, and then expelled the breath in a low, sustained moan . . .
Julie began to laugh.
She pressed her knuckles to her face, but she could not stop the sound from escaping into the room. Soon it was echoing off the walls.
The ladies peered round at her.
Mary’s eyes focused on Julie. “GET OUT!” she screamed. “GET OUT!”
“Mary, calm down –”
“Oh GOD!” wailed the Aunts.
There was a sudden burst of motion. Mary looked as if she were trying to rise from the water, perhaps to expel Julie from the room herself. But she only succeeded in upsetting the balance of one of the Aunts, who had been leaning against the wading pool. With a shriek the Aunt tumbled into the water; the pool buckled and then water began to gush forth. Losing her balance, Mary tipped over backwards, her legs sticking up into the air like a squashed cockroach.
A dark shadow emerged from between Mary’s legs; the water clouded with blood and then the shadow rushed forth, sliding along with the water, a ropy cord streaming out behind it. It came to a sudden halt when it bounced against Julie’s toes.
Julie had been following its progress with her camera. She zoomed.
Julie’s mother hadn’t been able to stop attrition baking since the birth of Mary’s son. Cartons of eggs were sitting on the counter, waiting to be cracked and baked into pies, cakes, flakey pastries or quiches. She had decided to make Mary a month’s worth of suppers as an apology. “I know how hard it is to cook when you’ve got a new baby to look after. And it’s so important to get the proper nutrition. You don’t eat the right food, Jules,” her mother concluded, with a nervous titter. “I tell you that all the time.”
“How’s Mary, anyway?” Julie asked.
“Apparently Mary’s been a bit batty since it happened. Hasn’t been able to stop crying — she’s blaming the whole thing on you.”
“Of course,” said Julie.
“She says you ruined her baby/mother bonding, because you were the first person the baby saw. She says all anyone will be able to remember about the beautiful event is the baby bouncing off your shoes. She says she’s humiliated. I told Mary that she has a beautiful baby, and nothing to complain about. And that footage you took of the birth is lovely stuff. You can see him open his eyes for the very first time. Such a little angel. He didn’t make a peep. I think Mary needs to go on a post-natal vitamin regimen or something. Poor dear.”
When Julie descended into the basement to start working on her prosthetics again, she noticed that the door to her studio had been left ajar.
When she pushed inside the room she saw a woman standing in front of the easel that sat in the corner. A plethora of papers were tacked up onto the wall behind the easel; the floor below it was littered with sketches and paint-smeared canvases, torn or with broken frames. Upon the easel there sat a canvas covered in dark smudges that looked like glossy red tar, weaving in and out of themselves in crisscrossing patterns, circling inwards towards two points of light. You could only tell that the smudges congealed to form the shape of a face if you looked very closely, and then all became clear. It was the inside of a face, as it would have appeared if someone had peeled back the skin in a hanging flap and painted the mess of nerves and veins and muscle that lay beneath. It was impossible to tell to whom the face belonged by looking at the painting alone. But the sketches on the floor showed a photographic replica of the same face over and over.
The woman standing in front of the easel turned around. It was Mary. She was holding a bag of groceries, her winter boots and coat still on, as if she had just come from the grocery store.
Julie could feel her head swimming; the overhead fluorescents were beginning to flash ominously in the corners of her eyes. “Mary,” she said. “Where’s your baby?”
“My baby?” said Mary. “This is a drawing of my baby! These are all drawings of him! You psychopathic bitch!”
Mary reached into the plastic bag and started hurling things at Julie: a box of crackers, a head of lettuce. One egg. Two eggs. Three eggs.
An egg smashed into Julie’s forehead and trickled down her face. Before she could move away Mary cornered her against the wall and smashed more eggs into her hair and cheeks. Taking the only egg that was left in the carton, Mary mashed it against Julie’s lips. The shell fractured and then broke. It dug into Julie’s flesh and she gasped in pain — and then Mary forced both egg and shell into Julie’s mouth.
Julie tried to spit it out, but Mary rammed her palm against Julie’s jaw, holding her mouth closed. Julie’s eyes were wide with fear as she struggled to swallow. Mary’s eyes followed the progress of the egg as it bulged down Julie’s throat.
Then, Mary leapt backwards with a gasp.
Julie looked down to see that the front of her shirt and pants were stained with blood. The stain was expanding frighteningly, dying the cloth red. She could feel the blood drain from her head, from her face.
“Thank you,” said Julie, a bit of shell falling from her lip. “Thank you, Mary . . . it’s all right. Everything’s all right. I’ll just hop in the car and drive myself to the hospital. Really,” she said, looking up into Mary’s eyes, “Thanks.”
CHARLIE FISET is currently completing her MA thesis in Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick. She looks forward to starting her PhD in English at UNB next year.