“I Will Return” by Samantha Kolesnik

27 September 2019 on Fiction   Tags: , ,

I tell myself the trail is an amenity. It’s not something to be feared; it’s a blessing. A privilege. When my single friends from apartments downtown come over, they first comment on my pregnant belly and then on the trail.

Look at that, you can walk every day.

Is that a hiking trail? That’s so cool.

You are so lucky.

The adulation extends from my growing child within to the expanse of stream and wildlife just outside my suburban shell. While Mirabelle grows inside of me, the trail grows, too. It becomes more than a trail. It becomes a separate world.

Mysteries spring from its refuse. Three broken bottles in the bush become a cult ritual sacrifice. A lonely shoe at the stream’s bank, evidence of kidnapping. And the graffiti on the hawk-nosed tree by the Millers’ house? Gang activity.

And so the legend takes root in our paved network of white mini-mansion mundanity. Crime travels through the darkness by cover of tree branch and is drowned out by the noise of the stream’s burbles and splashes. Who can say who walks the trail at night, while all of us tuck under our bulbous comforters, read our books, and turn out the light?

There’s a neighborhood barbecue at Susan Lina’s house. Her children are all grown, star athletes and accomplished academics. She lives in one of the bigger houses on the cul de sac and her husband likes to flirt with other men. Susan whispers at brunch sometimes that she doesn’t mind, so long as he keeps her ‘comfortable’.

Susan doesn’t like the trail. She never has. She wants it plowed over. She wants a Starbucks—one of the big ones with a drive-thru—to dance on the trail’s grave.

“There should be a damn gate, at the very least,” Susan proclaims over a glass of wine.

Martin, her husband, languishes poolside. He slips his sunglasses up over his eyes any time his wife utters a sound.

“How are you going to keep it gated? There’s no way to secure it,” Hillary says. She’s half Susan’s size and though they pretend to be friends, they’re not.

You’re always on the trail,” Susan remarks to me, her eyes dropping noticeably to my round, pregnant womb.

“Yeah, don’t you worry who’s out there?” Hillary asks.

A sea of women’s eyes turns to my body with most of the gazes pointedly at Mirabelle, who stills inside of me. She’s shy before she’s even born. She gets it from me, of course. The shyness. The wanting to be alone and with others at the same time.

I cover my womb with both hands and repeat lines from my single friends, “I think it’s a great amenity. It’s good for exercise...”

My last syllables turn to mumbles as my drooping ego steals my voice.

The herd exchanges sly glances which say, above all else, that I am going to fail as a mother.

Two hours after the barbecue, a misty rain settles in and I go into labor. It’s long and painful, though anyone who talks about the pain of motherhood is not talking about the visceralities. The true pain comes later.

Susan Lina takes credit for Mirabelle’s birth. She pounces around loudly at every social gathering and proclaims that her barbecue induced my labor. Others joke she should bottle and sell the recipe.

Woman after woman ogles and judges my newborn while my hands fill with tacky barbecue-themed onesies. It’s embarrassing.

Soon the visitors and parties fade.

My Mirabelle is my refuge and my love. She is more than my imagination. She is my own heart, which I see beating outside of myself for the first time. The vulnerability is agonizing. There are long stretches of time where I sit with her pressed against my chest.

My tears spritz her newborn head which already grows small black hairs. She has a birthmark on her left cheek, a small star-shaped souvenir of labor. As she grows and smiles, the star contorts just above her pudgy-cheeked baby dimple.

*

Motherhood’s true torture begins in the early months, when both Mirabelle and I realize we are two separate people and that we must find our own way, together.

She cries and I reach for her. I feed her with my breast, at any odd hour making myself available. Yet it’s not enough.

All she wants is her mother and yet I cannot quell her sadness. Because outside, it’s lonely and cold. Outside, there’s hunger and waiting. Whereas once we had navigated the world completely together, now we navigate it as two.

And two is always so much harder than one. We sit together in the chair, Mirabelle and I. Out of my mouth pour lullabies. They come forth as if they’ve been lurking since my own birth, waiting to be awoken by my transformation from woman to mother.

“You never sing,” my husband remarks. A respectful but distant patron, he doesn’t cross the threshold into the nursery and instead stares in from the doorway.

“You don’t like it?” I ask. I am always wanting in my own mind, a failure waiting to be discovered. I expect one day he’ll claim his investment in me is not worth the return.

“It’s beautiful. I just never heard you sing before,” he says and he disappears into the shadows of leisure, a luxury I am not granted.

As filled with love as I am by my Mirabelle, I also am pining. For what, I cannot understand, but it lies somewhere between a predator’s maw and a man’s caress.

I begin to read books on my sadness and follow their instructions to take breaks from Mirabelle. I put her down for a nap and go count a serving of grapes in my kitchen. I try to pretend I care about myself. I try to pretend there is someone waiting for me.

*

Outside the window, beyond the perfectly shingled roofs of my neighbors, is the trail. It taunts in its liberty. While it grows unfettered, I sit in the cage of my design. The visitors at my door are like the joggers on the trail; they’re just enough to keep me thinking I’m not really alone.

The books advise that it’s important to eat, to rest, to see friends, and to get fresh air. Motherhood is prescribed as a perfectly balanced schedule of recreation and duty. But I don’t feel balanced. I begin to have fantasies about the trail. I remember things I shouldn’t. 

Like the time Kevin Jenkins and I went there together with a six-pack of cheap beer tucked under his elbow. The stream had muffled my overdone moans and when he was sated, I felt like a curtain had been drawn before I could take a bow. No sooner had I shone than he was zipping up his pants, a chipper glitz of sweat over his chubby face. I had felt, somewhat, that my efforts had been wasted.

I over-count my serving of grapes as I think about it. My imagination sours what little happiness I might muster.

I start to tell Mirabelle, “I will return.”

She cries from her chair as I go off to brush my teeth or to take a shower.

Over time, she begins to understand this concept. Her baby face gives way to a toddler’s features. The small birthmark stops contorting and instead just lays itself bare.

I begin saying, “I will return,” more often, and to my husband, too. He’s now less a stranger and more a marital monument I can’t remove. Stone-faced, dutiful, and ever-present.

One night, his fingers roam my phone screen and stop at messages I’d exchanged during the lonely moments between breastfeeding and actual sleep.

“Who’s Kevin?” he asks. I reach for my phone but I’m not strong enough, not quick enough. I flail like a guilty child before her father. My longings are now public record between us and I can no longer hide behind the sanctity of having given birth. Soon his hands are on my waist again, pulling me closer to him in bed, the murmur of future children on his lips. Only it’s not really the promise of future children, but of chains.

My cage tightens. The trail beyond the neighborhood grows wider in my mind. It allures at all hours. I take reprieves outside when the moon is out.

Outside, I feel the possibility of my own feet. There’s a road and so few eyes. The darkness protects me as it does every other miscreant. It just takes one step and then another.

Soon I’m halfway to the trail. I stand alone by the hawk-nosed tree covered in graffiti by the Millers’ house. I wonder if they can see me through their windows. I feel half a devil in the dark looking for my other half. I have a hideous appetite and I hate myself for it.

As I listen in the darkness, I hear something. Something feminine. And wild. It has to be the sound of sex. It paralyzes me with curiosity and as I strain to hear more, the screams stop abruptly. All I hear now is the sound of crickets and rustling.

It’s teenagers, I tell myself. They’re young and can still feel joy.

The night passes like all the rest and I again count my morning serving of grapes. I stare out my window down the hill, over the shingled roofs of others’ happy lives.

The trail stares back at me. Not it, exactly, but a man. The way he looks at me from under his black baseball cap makes me feel as though I’ve seen him before. There are so many passing glances during the course of a lifetime that I cannot be sure.

He holds my stare and even at a distance, I can feel that he wants to eat me alive. I look away and immediately hate myself for my submission. Mirabelle interrupts with a high-pitched cry and I hurry to her with a bottle. I return to the window and the man is gone. Only the trail beckons, its overgrown entrance disturbed.

Mirabelle goes down for her nap and I kiss her soft head. I feel her downy hairs against my lips and a tear rolls down my face. It’s hormones, I tell myself, though I feel in my gut that wailing of woman’s instinct, which always reaches out with a shield and is battered back by self-doubt.

I lace up my sneakers and while my child sleeps, I creep out into the wild. I go to the trailhead and stare down its muddy way. The stream sloshes and bubbles alongside. It threatens to muffle my every movement, should I yearn to be heard.

I take one step and then another. I am alone, far enough that I cannot see houses and they cannot see me.

The path’s neglect, like an abandoned child, calls to me. I go with my breasts and my milk, my hips and my womanhood. I feel called upon to nurture and to give, to provide, to fill, to please, and to hold...

The trail calls what little’s left of me. It wants to eat me, too.

There is a bend in the path that goes down toward the river and dips into a mucky trench. It’s here that I see an outstretched hand with skin as pale as last night’s moon.

In this small, stream-forged valley is the fresh corpse of a naked woman.

There is no propriety in her pose; I see everything. The sight strangles my voice. I kneel beside her and look at her breast, its battered visage a shade of blue I’ve never seen. It’s her eyes that haunt me, for even in their mortal stillness, they scream.

I want to warm her.

I want to feed her.

I want to put her back in the womb.

When the police arrive, I tell them she looks so cold and won’t you put a blanket on her at least, I ask them. I tell them she’s somebody’s daughter, you know, and they look at me strangely.

Because they’re men and they don’t know. They’re always men.

It doesn’t take a week before Susan Lina has a gate put in at the trailhead. And it doesn’t take long after that for the first of the first to arrive. The visitors and the oglers, the true-crime buffs and the lonely people from strange basements.

Mirabelle grows and so does the trail. Years after Susan Lina dies of breast cancer, the growth from the trailhead overtakes the gate and graffiti becomes more prevalent than joggers.

Mirabelle speaks of the dead girl with her friends as if it were legend. The girl’s cold skin and the way her fingers curled up, nail beds crusted with mud, soon becomes something exciting. A story and a warning. A way to survive.

Don’t go to the trail at night.

I no longer want to go to the trail. I don’t step out at night any longer, either, not even for an errand. I welcome my comforter and my bedside book. The touch of my husband, as feeble as it now seems, is less a chain and more a mercy.

Mirabelle leaves more and more frequently now, into strange cars with strange girls, and sometimes boys, too. She covers her birthmark with concealer and sometimes I do not recognize the girl I raised in this new woman’s body.

I try to touch her hand and to feel its warmth. She pulls away. Always, she pulls away. There’s a smile on her face when she leaves and a brightness in her eyes. Her miracle tendrils frame her beautiful face and an innocent hue colors her cheeks.

I will return, she says as she leaves.  With my face pressed against the cold windowpane, I watch as she steps into some boy’s idling car. It’s cold out there, I think, even as the first flurries of the year sprinkle our manicured lawn.

The car rumbles off down the road and I stay at the glass. Though I cannot see it in the dark from my front window, I know the trail waits in the shadows. I can hear it breathing. It has an appetite.

I take to sitting on the armchair in the living room to idle the time until Mirabelle is home. I shrink and wither while the trail triumphs and conquers. My aging body is no match for its regenerative sprawl. There are still times in the dead of night when I think I hear something from within its wild embrace.

Something feminine. And dying.

I used to go seeking, but now I know better.

Yes, I idle the time.

I wait.

***

Samantha Kolesnik is an award-winning writer and filmmaker living in Pennsylvania. She is one of the founders of the Women in Horror Film Festival and currently directs the PA Indie Shorts Film Festival, an international event celebrating the art of short film. Her fiction has been published in The Bitter Oleander, The William and Mary Review, Rougarou and Hypnos Magazine.

"Homeless Madonna" is a photograph by Christopher Woods, a writer and photographer based in Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, The Dream Patch, a prose collection, Under A Riverbed Sky, and a book of stage monologues for actors, Heart Speak. His photographs can be seen in his online gallery His photography prompt book for writers, FROM VISION TO TEXT, is forthcoming from PROPERTIUS PRESS.

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