There have always been rumors of a family curse. My father was a clear-cutter; his father, a logger; my great-grandfather was a bookkeeper turned arsonist—he set fire to the forest his family had lived in for centuries. A cousin keen on family history dredges up stories from old newspapers of our ancestors’ eyes impaled on the gnarled limbs of lowland oaks, their bodies found stuffed with lichen. There is an aunt who, as a girl, disappeared forever into the woods. No one speaks of her. My family has treated the forest as an enemy for a long, long time.
When my wife gets the call offering her the park ranger job, these old family tales roll around in my mind. But I grew up in a city, surrounded by concrete; I have nothing to fear from trees. Besides, I work from home; I can mix sound and compose anywhere. And my wife, who grew up on rural farmland, is so happy, squeezing me, telling me that now we can raise our baby—that little raisin growing in my womb—in fresh air and nature.
Yes, I tell my wife, yes. Let’s move to the forest.
The air is wet with spring. Our baby grows fingers, toes, tiny pale fronds on a grainy screen. Already I love this baby so much.
Our new home is a cottage ringed by white pines and mountain hemlock. Above the tree line I can just make out Mount Shasta’s white peak. Birds tickle the air with high notes. I spend mornings in my recording studio, composing short sonatas for a radio series: playing the keyboard, adding guitar, working the mix until it’s right.
Every afternoon I walk in the woods. It helps my midday sickness pass. I record the tocsin of a blue jay, thinking to use it in a score. I rub my face against the rough bark of a cottonwood and breathe the fresh air. The light filtering through the dense canopy lends my skin a pleasant greenish tint.
After our first week, I begin to lose things during the walks along the creek. After one walk my favorite lipstick is missing from my jacket pocket. Then a costume ring. Then my driver’s license.
I fret about the license. “What if I get pulled over?”
“There’s no highway patrol around here,” my wife says, “except for the park ranger.” She winks and tips the brim of her brown felt hat. The hat’s not part of the uniform, but she bought it anyway.
The next day, I get a temporary driver’s license. Immediately, I lose a credit card.
“You’re distracted,” my wife says, rubbing my belly.
Several days later, I lose one of my boots while walking. I have no idea how: one minute it’s on my foot, the next it’s gone, my sock muddy and furred with twigs.
“Very distracted,” my wife concedes.
The doctor tells us the baby can suck their thumb, yawn, can form facial expressions. I think it must be such a pleasure to find a feeling for the first time.
One by one, the mirrors in our house disappear. From the bathroom, the bedroom, the fireplace. Even the palm-sized round one I keep in my bag.
My wife reports to her supervisor that we’re having a problem with burglars. She installs a video camera on our porch to catch the thief. It records nothing but the dart of birds, the flickering sway of trees.
It is strange not to be able to see ourselves. Now we rely on each other for information about how we look, my wife brushing crumbs from my cheek as I adjust her crooked glasses.
My favorite sofa cushion for mid-day naps disappears, followed by a silver harmonica gifted to me by my dad.
I am painting the nursery and composing in the minor key.
One morning, when the back door is briefly opened, our cat, Tulip, bolts into the dark trees. She is silly, thick and sleepy. Old. Not a fast mover. And yet, there she goes.
We spend hours walking through the woods, calling her name. It’s no use. For weeks afterward I find her long grey hairs on furniture and clothes, like a reproach.
When I call my father and tell him about the cat, he says, “Probably just coincidence.” There’s an uncertainty in his voice I try to ignore.
Our baby kicks when they hear our voices. Likes major chords and the flute. Has a sex we plan to keep private until after our baby is born.
My wife’s vision starts to grow worse. One morning she has to call out of work because even with her contact lenses in, everything is a blur. I drive her to the ophthalmologist, my temporary paper license stashed in the glove compartment. They give her a set of heavy glasses, the prescription far stronger than her old one.
But a couple of days later I wake up and can’t hear in my right ear. Every time I talk it sounds like I’m in a tunnel.
An ER doctor peers into my ear with a tiny flashlight, then tells me the eardrum is blown.
“What did you do?” the nurse and doctor keep asking. “Were you hit in the head?”
“No,” I tell them. “Never. What about my work?”
The doctor starts talking about hearing aids and I cut her off.
“I’m a composer,” I say. “I make music.”
“Maybe consider a new job,” the doctor says.
Later that day, I walk through my studio, idly twanging strings and pressing keys. The sound is muted and distant. I pick up my acoustic guitar to play a chord but discover the strings are missing.
I call my father, phone pressed to my left ear, and unroll my litany of strange woes.
“Should we move?” I ask.
“No,” he says, “no point.” His voice, so jubilant at the start of the call, has gone colorless. “It’ll find you wherever you go after this.”
“Anywhere? Any forest, any town? The city?”
“Even a city’s built on something living.” He sounds very old when he says, “I’m sorry, honey.”
“But what can I do?” I ask. I let myself cry. There seems to be no point in being brave.
“You have to sacrifice something for the forest,” he says. “Give up something you love.”
“Like Aunt Janet?” Her photos still haunt our family mantels. “Did you give her up?”
“No,” he says. I hear him swallow, clear his throat. “We didn’t give up enough. That was our mistake.”
“But how do you know what’s enough?” I ask.
He has no answer for that, nor for why this trouble has befallen us so belatedly. He says, “I think the forest recognized you. That’s all.”
After our call, I cut into my work time and double my daily walks, although walking is exhausting now with the baby so big inside me. Before the walks I stuff my pockets until their bellies droop. I carry a sterling silver charm bracelet from my wife. Photos of my parents, my brothers. My favorite paring knife. Lucky guitar picks. Fridge magnets from vacations, the best-smelling candles and the sharpest pair of scissors in the house. Pine needles crunch under my feet, manzanita rustles. Tall grasses prickle my shins. The light filtering through the canopy makes the skin of my arms and legs look sickly green. I drop one thing after another and whisper, Please, please, let this be enough.
It’s not enough.
On a Wednesday, when I come home from the grocery store, the pale living room carpet is covered in albums, loose photos. My wife sits amid them, as though at the center of a tableau.
“Why aren’t you at the visitor’s station?” I say. She always staffs it on Wednesdays.
She looks up at me in confusion. “I can’t remember our honeymoon,” she says. “All of a sudden. I mean. Lauren from the gift shop is on hers, and someone asked me where we went. But I can’t remember. I can’t remember anything about it.”
I sit beside her and we leaf through the photo album together. Photos of us standing above the red folds of the Grand Canyon, then down in its depths, silhouetted against rock, hair greasy and wild from days of camping. Scrubland, hawks crawling through the sky. I narrate each photo: this is me washing our bowls with the water we had to ration. This is us at the top of a ridge. This is the cactus we named Mildred. I point at photos of my wife’s face, broad and grinning against a stormy sky. Her feet balanced on the edge of a dusty ridge. Her face blurry, too close to the lens as she comes in for a kiss.
“This is you,” I say, “this is you,” and “this is you.”
“It looks so nice,” my wife says wistfully.
“I love you,” she says.
“It’s just stress,” she says. “Don’t worry about me.”
“You look so hot in hiking boots,” she says.
I laugh and hold her close to me, but I can hardly bear to look her in the face.
Our baby swims circles inside me and kicks hard.
I no longer remember how to sing the lullaby my mother hummed when I was small. It was the first song I fell in love with. Even as a grown woman I hummed it to put myself to sleep. I would sing it to my growing baby. But now the song has been taken along with the rest. Maybe my baby is dreaming in melodies.
I am so pregnant that it hurts to perch on the side of the table at the obstetrician’s office. I shift and shift, the wax paper crinkling static beneath my bare rump.
Doctor Xu gives me a check-up: the stethoscope, the shot, her cold hands probing the orb of my belly. After she is done, she pronounces everything normal. I am carrying a supremely healthy baby.
I say to Doctor Xu, “We have patient confidentiality?”
“Of course,” Doctor Xu says.
“Can you talk to me about alternatives to pregnancy?”
Doctor Xu looks up from the computer. She clicks the mouse three times. “Well,” she says, slowly, “I can. But it’s too late.” She pauses, waits for me to explain. When I don’t, she says, “You’ve told me many times that this is a wanted pregnancy. Have you talked to your wife about how you’re feeling?”
“Not yet,” I tell her. Not ever, I think.
“There’s always adoption,” Doctor Xu says. “If you really want to give up this baby.”
My stupid eyes itch with tears. I shake my head an emphatic no.
“It’s just, what happens later? After I give birth. What if the baby gets hurt?”
“Ah,” Doctor Xu says. “That’s something else. You know, during pregnancy, hormones can magnify normal anxieties about parenting. I’ll refer you to a psychiatrist.” She clicks her mouse umpteen times, then tells me to await a call on Wednesday.
But on Wednesday, I let the psychiatrist’s call go to voicemail. Then I delete the voicemail without listening.
I know the problem isn’t with my head. It’s with the choices I have in front of me: what to sacrifice. What to try to hold on to. But I don’t know what I’ll be allowed to keep.
Our baby screams into the cool morning, her voice picking up as mine drops. I didn’t know a body could be so tired. The nurses bundle our baby into my arms and I look into her face, so small, still sticky with my blood, purple-red and shrieking. I hold my daughter close and rock her. I no longer know any songs; I cannot remember melody. All I know now is rhythm—exhalations, footsteps, the beep of the monitor. So I speak words to our baby in a moderate tempo. I say, “Yes, yes, yes.”
My wife says my name.
“Yes,” I say drowsily. “Yes.”
My wife asks the nurses, “Is that normal?”
Panicked, I look into my daughter’s face. “What’s wrong with her,” I say, “what’s wrong?”
My wife says, “Your fingers.”
I look at my hands; the fingertips are green as spring grass, as though I’m standing in the light of the canopy of trees. The color spreads steadily towards my knuckles. I peer down at my bare toes, peeking beyond the cover. They’re so green they look like tiny brussels sprouts.
What I feel is not panic. It’s curiosity about whatever this thing is. This strange path opening in front of me.
Someone lifts my daughter out of my arms. I call for my daughter; then I cry out in pain. A shot stings my arm. The dark comes down on me. Inside the dark, I hear the wind singing through aspens.
Sometime later, I wake. Bandages bind my arms and my feet. There is a window laying light on the floor. Outside I can see the pines undulating.
A doctor says my name.
“We couldn’t save all of the left one,” the doctor tells me. I blink. It takes me a long while to figure out that the doctor is talking about my hand. “We couldn’t save all of the left one,” she repeats. She continues: “You should maintain the use of the fingers on the right hand.”
“Baby,” I say, in a slurred voice. “My—baby.”
“The baby’s with your wife,” a nurse says. “I’ll let her know you’re awake.”
I cry, and the doctor asks me what hurts. But I do not hurt; I’m crying with relief.
A week later, we bring the baby home from the hospital wrapped in a soft blanket. The stump of my hand pulses and aches; my toes, though intact, are numb. Our car kicks up dust as we slip into the forest, the sky swallowed incrementally by the bodies of the gray pines. They are not so tall, I think, looking up at their blank peaks. They just know things that are very old.
We sit in our living room by the crib we built together. Our daughter wriggles her fingers and toes sleepily. I tap rhythms to her on the crib. There is half a composition forming itself in my head: the low, steady tempo of a heartbeat and the susurration of wind through boughs.
My wife fusses over our daughter until she is asleep, then says to me, “How do we do this?”
“Do what?” I ask.
But I’m too quiet; my wife doesn’t hear me. I’m still learning how to control the volume of my voice, now that I only hear it in one ear. There are so many adjustments to make.
“How do we do what?” I ask my wife again, louder.
“Be mothers,” she says.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. But I do know; and maybe I’ve known all along. We’ll give anything we can, more than we thought we could. And we’ll be grateful for the things that remain.
“Remainder” by Emily Dezurick-Badran and the artwork titled Alchemy by C. R. Resetarits appeared in Issue 41 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Emily Dezurick-Badran is a writer, artist, librarian, and roller derby player living in San Francisco / on Raymatush Ohlone land. Her stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from various places, including Tin House Online, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and The Commuter at Electric Literature.
C. R. Resetarits is a writer and collagist. Her collages have appeared in the pages and upon the covers of dozens of magazines and books. She lives in Oxford, MS.