As Margaret leaned forward to light the tall white candles, she wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to die. It wasn’t that she wanted to commit suicide—at least, not exactly. But she had given death a great deal of thought in the past few weeks.
Her long blonde hair swung forward and, for a brief second or two, Margaret let the carefully-cut ends hover dangerously close to the flame.
Suppose, just suppose, she stayed that way—her hair close to the lit candles. Soon there would be that peculiar odor so typical of burning hair, growing stronger and sharper as the moments slipped by.
Then the golden strands, fed by the heat, would twist and turn with a life of their own. Fire would race along the shaft, hungrily seeking a pathway to her body until she herself became a flame-tipped candle, burning in death with a fire she had never know when alive.
Margaret stepped back quickly, pulling her hair safely away before shakily lighting the rest of the candles. That had been close—too close. A few more minutes of imagining could have brought that particular fantasy to life.
Although, she considered as she carefully set the spent matches in the crystal ashtray, that method of death stood a greater chance of success than pills or alcohol. With an overdose, there was always the chance that someone would find you before it was all over. You would no longer have the energy to tell them to leave you alone, that it was entirely your own choice to surrender.
Someone would certainly find her, she knew. And, once found, her body would have to suffer the indignity of a stomach pump while her veins were filled with life-giving fluid. And she’d awaken from blessed darkness to see accusing faces, her husband’s among them, staring down at her.
Sometimes, in her all-too-frequent nightmares, she would see the baby staring at her with just the same expression—accusing and unforgiving.
It had been such a small thing she had to do, after all. A pill each morning, and her womb would be kept under control. One of the few tasks Paul had expected of her—one of the few responsibilities they had both considered she was capable of handling.
When had it begun, Margaret wondered, this belief that she was incapable, incompetent, unreliable? She had long given up wondering if there was any truth to it. If she had any inner strength, living with Paul had drained it from her. Paul needed to be in control of everything—his life, her life, their future. There was no forgiveness in him for anyone who disrupted his carefully orchestrated plans.
She hadn’t even considered pregnancy as a possibility when her period failed to appear one hot June morning. It wasn’t until recurrent attacks of nausea kept her from eating even the blandest of foods that Paul ordered her to see the doctor.
“There’s obviously something wrong,” he had stated irritably, folding the newspaper in exact thirds as she came back into the living room, the remains of that night’s dinner flushed down the toilet. It had stayed in her barely long enough to make an impression on her delicate system before being summarily discharged. “This can’t continue.”
It was inconveniencing him, he meant. Already two dinner parties had had to be canceled for fear that Margaret would be unable to handle her role as hostess.
She made an appointment—she always did what Paul told her to do—expecting to hear a vague diagnosis of virus or flu.
Even now, more than two months later, she could recall every moment of the visit—the way the paper gown shifted to let a chill down her back, the cold metal stirrups, uncomfortably hard against her stocking feet.
Blood pressure, white count, palpitation of the lymph nodes lying quiescent under the skin of her neck and in her armpits, a urinalysis—all the usual tasks performed with impersonal efficiency. And then the diagnosis, tearing apart the calm fabric of the visit. It was totally unexpected, and after the first shock, she was filled with unaccustomed exhilaration.
“You’re about four weeks pregnant,” the doctor had said, and Margaret could only look at him in shock, hardly daring to believe. She had long since given up hope of ever having a child. Sex, like everything else in their life, was far too regulated to allow one renegade sperm to find her egg.
She was to come back, he said. Even something as random as this pregnancy must be brought rapidly under control. There would be regular appointments, blood work, routine examinations.
Margaret nodded her head, hardly hearing his words. It was the baby she heard—its heartbeat, its soft murmurings. A child full of life, who would, in turn, bring new life to her.
But the abortion ended her brief resurrection just as it ended the life of her child.
Although, as the psychiatrist later insisted, it really wasn’t a child. No longer able to bear her silences or her tears, Paul had made an appointment with the man, determined to “fix” her mind as he had “fixed” her body.
“You have to understand that at such an early stage it is just an indistinct mass of cells—not recognizable as a baby at all. This was just a medical condition you corrected.”
Margaret had closed her eyes against the stream of lies pouring over her. It was a baby—a tender, delicate thing with her eyes and smile. She would have held it and kissed it and watched it grow.
And loved it—how she had loved it already, poor little fetus. But she had let it die. She had signed the paper giving some strange doctor the right to probe inside her body and steal away the only thing she had of any value.
It didn’t matter that it was Paul who had insisted on the abortion, presenting her with carefully thought-out reasons. She was too old to consider any other course of action, he had said. She would look almost obscene, pregnant and waddling, when so many of their friends were becoming grandparents. (But first, they had children, Margaret thought.)
And he added, think of the disruption to their lives.
“What would we do with a baby? How could we entertain, travel? There would be diapers, bottles, toys scattered everywhere. And we would both be unhappy,” he said the night before she was to see the doctor again. “And it would know that—it would know that it wasn’t wanted and be unhappy, too. You wouldn’t want it to be unhappy, would you, Margaret?” he asked persuasively.
Margaret sat, still and silent, in the rocking chair, her hands clasped protectively over her slightly swollen abdomen. She could never withstand Paul when he spoke like that. It was one of his strengths, this ability to appeal to her better nature, to make her feel any other choice would be foolish or selfish.
That was the way he had spoken when he wanted Lady, Margaret’s pet collie, put to sleep, because “you know, Margaret, the city is no place for a dog that size. It would be miserable in the apartment”—the apartment he had chosen, although Margaret had preferred to live outside the city. “We would be doing it a service to put it down.”
“‘She’,” Margaret had said, stroking the soft fur as the dog lay trustingly at her feet. “Lady isn’t an ‘it,’ but a ‘she’.”
It was all Margaret could say in the animal’s defense, not that any more words would have made a difference. The dog was taken first thing in the morning, like the baby, years later.
Paul had called the baby “it,” too, Margaret remembered suddenly. The few times he had spoken about their child, he said “it” as though the genderless term gave it less right to exist in a world of two sexes.
But Margaret always thought of the baby as a girl—a tiny, blue-eyed, golden-haired daughter who would love her mother just the way she was.
She realized with a start that she had been standing there, watching the candles flicker, while the minutes ticked by. Paul would be home soon, and he would expect that dinner would be ready—candles lit, wine chilled.
He always insisted on having a formal dinner in the dining room, instead of the more intimate nook off the kitchen. The first few days after Margaret’s treatment (he never referred to it as an abortion), he had permitted her to have a tray in her room, while he ate at one of the many expensive restaurants in town.
But now he judged her to be fully recovered—although, she wondered, what was the expected recovery time for grief?—and wanted a return to the way their life had been organized.
The baby would have been so inconvenient, so disruptive—and Margaret wasn’t certain if the thoughts were her own or Paul’s.
“Is dinner nearly ready?”
Margaret turned, startled. She hadn’t heard Paul come in. He was frowning. It took so little these days to irritate him.
“Very nearly,” she said hastily, picking up the matches from the ashtray.
“Fine. I’m going upstairs to change my shirt.”
And Margaret nodded her head, not that an answer was required.
“Why don’t you take a glass of wine out to the patio, and I’ll join you there,” he added, the force of command underlying the suggestion.
Margaret nodded again, like a marionette. Nod your head, Margaret, smile and agree when you are told.
She walked into the kitchen, but instead of opening the wine, reached for the vodka. Carefully, she poured some into a tumbler and then added several ice cubes. Then, seeing there was still room in the glass, she gently tipped in a second thin stream of alcohol.
Pulling open the French doors, she stepped onto the brick patio, stopping at the wrought-iron table to light the candle securely placed in a pierced brass holder. Then, still holding the glass, she settled herself on the cushioned glider, watching the stars as they glittered in the night sky.
It was nearly eight. Night had fallen, and the candles and stars were the only source of light in the darkened world. As Margaret sipped her drink, she hoped that dinner would go smoothly, that she would give Paul no excuse for any more irritation.
Her eyes blurred, and she blinked them hard before taking another sip of her drink. The alcohol burned a bit, but the pain inside her was slowly being drowned, and that was all that mattered.
She brushed a hand across her forehead and closed her eyes. When she opened them again—was it a moment or longer? How long had she been out here in the dark?—she heard Paul’s step in the kitchen. She knew he was searching for her, but she was too listless to call to him.
Perhaps she shouldn’t have had that drink after all, she thought. Not when she was still taking those tiny blue-and-white pills the psychiatrist had ordered.
“For your nerves,” he had said, not knowing Margaret had no nerve at all.
As she forced her eyes to clear, she noticed a delicate white moth hovering dangerously close to the patio candle. Translucent wings danced and darted above the point of light, toying with self-destruction.
Margaret sat, still and silent, unable to stop watching. With one breath, one small motion of her lungs and lips, she could save the life of the small insect. Voices echoed in her mind—“It’s only a moth”—no, that wasn’t right—“It’s only a baby, not even a baby” and suddenly she shivered.
Startled by the sudden motion, the moth dipped and swirled over the table. As she watched, still unmoving, it gracefully circled the candle, drawing nearer and nearer the flame until, in one perfect second, the fragile wings burned with light.
Nancy Christie is a writer by trade and a fiction writer by preference, the author of a short story collection, Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories and the inspirational book, The Gifts of Change. Her fiction has been accepted by magazines such as Down in the Dirt, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, St. Anthony Messenger, Talking River, Wild Violet, EWR: Short Stories, Hypertext, Wanderings, The Chaffin Journal, Fiction 365, Full of Crow, Red Fez and Xtreme. She’s also the founder of “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day, an annual celebration of short stories and those who write them. Email: nancy[at]nancychristie.com