“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
– Margaret Atwood
“…and it was large and dark and its eyes were yellow.”
– Evie Wyld
When my eldest daughter was pulled from her mother’s womb, covered in sticky mucus and screaming, her eyes were yellow. Wide open and yellow.
“Jaundice?” my wife whispered, pressing down the pad of her finger gently on our daughter’s eyelid to see those pupils again.
My wife and I were both doctors. We both knew it wasn’t jaundice. The midwife leaned closer and used her wrinkled thumbs to wedge both my daughter’s eyes open. Underneath those crepe-thin lids, her irises were lemon-zest yellow and the whites around them pale as pith. They say newborns can’t perceive faces at first, but I watched as our daughter tracked our movements with her eyes. She was incredibly alert. Cat-like. I could have sworn she was waiting for something. There was a moment – a millisecond – when her gaze caught mine. I looked straight into those yellow eyes and watched as her black pupils shrunk to tiny dots, as if she were staring into a glaring light. A dull ache bloomed at my temples.
“Did you see that?” I whispered to my wife.
The baby gurgled, let out a cry. Lil fussed, rocking and shushing and drawing the baby closer to her chest.
We named her Mary: drop of the sea; bitter; beloved. It was a family name on my wife’s side. Lil insisted we use the damn name straight away, convinced we weren’t going to have another daughter. Lil was wrong about so many things. The morning we brought Mary home, sun streamed across our tree-lined street and a cool breeze tickled the leaves piling up in gutters nearby. When we arrived home, everything that had seemed so perfect about the street when we left for the hospital suddenly seemed wrong. We had spent months perfecting our suburban paradise: painting our picket fence the perfect shade of cream, installing curtains in the nursery for an ideal infant sleeping environment, scrubbing down walls and floors and windows until the whole place gleamed.
As we rounded the corner in our sensible family sedan, I noted our neat lawn, freshly painted weatherboard, the tiles of our house’s roof that met each other in perfect symmetry. Two days ago, I had imagined bringing an equally perfect baby back to this perfect house. But now, we pulled into the driveway: me, Lil, and this child of ours. This baby. This daughter. It all felt wrong. I turned off the engine and neither of us moved. We didn’t even take off our seatbelts. After a second, I looked across to Lil, who closed her eyes before I could meet them. She took a breath in.
“Home,” I said.
Lil said nothing.
I looked up to the rear-view mirror, where I could see the baby’s car seat secured in the back. Lil had been nagging me to install the baby mirror back there for weeks, so that we could see Mary even with the car seat installed to face away from us. It was the only thing I had forgotten to do before the baby came. I would do it later, I thought to myself. We sat there a while longer, Lil with her eyes closed, me staring at the back of the car seat. I couldn’t see Mary from this angle. She made no noise. Must have fallen asleep on the drive. From that angle, and in that silence, it was almost as if she wasn’t there. It was just like it was before: Lil, me, the perfect house, the empty car seat.
Lil took another breath in and opened her eyes. She fixed her stare on our front door, and I looked too.
“And what do we do now?”
She was still staring at the door. I understood in that moment that I was meant to do something comforting. Or reassuring. Or confident, or whatever.
“No fucking idea,” I said.
Eleven days after Mary was born, Lil fainted in the kitchen, gashing her head on the sharp edge of a cabinet on the way down. The baby screamed down the hallway. I held a dish cloth tight to Lil’s head while I called an ambulance.
No answer. I shook her.
Her tatty, cotton nightgown was wedged askew between her legs and she was wearing mismatched socks. I thought of her red hair matting where the cabinet had torn open her skin. I watched as the lime-green dish cloth I was holding against her wound bled into a murky shade of brown. In the hospital, they told us that Lil had been haemorrhaging postpartum for days when she fell, her blood pressure dangerously low. The gash on her scalp was so deep that they shaved Lil’s hair. At first, they only shaved off a small section but when Lil woke up, clear of mind despite the opioids they had pumped through her veins, she begged a nurse to take it all off. I watched as she picked up a strand of her long, red hair and looked at it as if it were not her own. With distaste.
“I was going to lop it off anyway.”
“Really?” I asked.
Lil shrugged. I didn’t believe her. Maybe the pain meds were clouding her brain. Or maybe it was the hormones. Or the baby. Lil couldn’t breastfeed while she had the opioids in her system, so feeding Mary fell to me. She was a greedy baby. She tore at the plastic teats with her gummy mouth so violently that they started to wear down and split after only a few weeks. When I told Lil, lining up the teats on the stained wooden dining table, she dismissed it.
“They must be faulty. Are they the ones your mum gave us?”
“They’re not faulty. She’s too rough with them.”
“She’s three weeks old, Nic.”
We both looked across at her, sleeping in a Moses basket on the floor. She always looked too still when she was sleeping – as if she were a robotic doll with the switch turned off. I had watched Lil spend much of the previous few weeks panicked, her hand on Mary’s chest, checking that it was still floating up and down. Lil grew so worried that Mary would stop breathing or that her heart would stop beating during the night that we installed an expensive monitor that lay underneath her cot sheets. It would go off at all hours of the night – always a false alarm. Every time I went to check on her, Mary was still breathing. Her pulse still pumping. Lil and I lay awake one night after it had gone off, listening to each other’s breaths and listening to Mary breathing over a different monitor.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with her?” Lil whispered.
Yes, I thought. But not what you think is wrong with her.
“No,” I said, rolling over.
Lil had placed a baby monitor on both sides of our bed. When I turned, I saw the screen emitting a blurry, black and white image of Mary lying in her cot. Her eyes were wide open. Staring right down the lens. Glowing. Even through the grayscale of the monitor, I knew that they were glowing bright yellow.
“Like the sun,” Lil had said the other day while gazing into Mary’s eyes.
Bewitched. The baby, with her plump smoothness and downy hair and tiny toenails, had softened Lil into warm butter. And I felt a chill run down my spine at a moment that should have been the tenderest, warmest minute of my life thus far. Wife, baby. Wife. I had my wife. I struggled to convince myself that we had a baby as well.
Mary was only the start. Next came Delilah, eighteen months later, and then Eve, two years after that. They all had Mary’s yellow eyes. We had lost parts of our identities anyway in parenthood, but this was something else. The Lessing Sisters became an entity of their own. On Tuesdays, Lil worked and I had the day off. I would take the girls to the park in the mornings, mainly because it was fail-safe entertainment with minimum effort. I noticed the way the other kids seemed, sometimes, to know my daughters even if the girls didn’t seem to know them. I watched the way they whispered when they saw Mary, Delilah, and Eve. I wasn’t worried about other kids teasing. The girls were magnetic. We stopped going to the park soon after that.
One day, when the girls were all in high school, I drove to work, backed into my parking spot and decided that it was my last day. I was simply done. I did not want to sit in my office for one more day prescribing for minor infections, or diffusing mental health crises, or checking flabby bodies for irregular moles. We had savings. We would be fine, I told myself, turning the engine of the car on again and reversing out of my parking spot. We told the girls over dinner.
“So,” Lil started, glancing around the table. I looked at the girls, too. Who were they? These women. With their long limbs and long hair and bright, yellow eyes. They slouched, siren-like, over the dining chairs, twisting their hair between their fingers and running their hands over the skin on their shoulders, checking for imperfections. I cleared my throat. They barely stirred.
“I’m leaving medicine.”
Eve let out a sigh and tore a piece of chicken wing from its bone.
“That’s nice, Dad,” said Delilah. I looked to Lil who nodded encouragingly.
“I’m going to start painting. Full-time.”
Mary looked across at me. I tried not to meet her eyes. They still gave me a headache.
“So, we don’t have to catch the bus to school anymore? You’ll be able to drop us off now?” Lil raised her eyebrows as if it were a possibility.
“No,” I said. “Absolutely not. I’ll be working nine to five. Like usual. Nothing’s really changing in that regard.”
Mary picked up her plate and left the table. “I don’t really see the point then,” she muttered as she disappeared down the hallway.
Later that night, after I had already been in bed for a few hours, I slipped back down the hallway again to get myself a glass of water. I stopped before I entered the kitchen. I could see Lil, leaning over the bench cutting up peaches which Mary was dishing out into delicate bowls and drowning with pouring cream. There was a bubbling feeling to the room. They had been laughing.
“I mean,” Mary said, licking a long finger clean of cream.
“Who does he think he is? Pablo fucking Picasso?”
I watched as a small smile wormed its way onto Lil’s face. Delilah burst into a sudden fit of manic giggles, stumbling across the kitchen floor and knocking into her mother, whose hand slipped and missed the peach flesh she had meant to cut. Her finger wept blood from where she had nicked herself. She swore softly under her breath. I went back to bed.
A few years ago, the girls had found an abandoned kitten while they were walking by the creek. Its fur was fluffy but matted, and it was scrawny like a newborn chick. They cooed over the kitten and bathed it delicately in the sink and hand-fed it warm milk from a syringe. The cat turned out to be a bitch. It was pretty, but it also had claws ready to scratch at any moment. We never named it. It was always just the cat. Not in a Holly Golightly kind of way but simply because none of us cared enough about it to name the thing. Lil was the only one of us who fed it.
Later that week that I had decided to quit my job, I watched as the cat leapt onto the kitchen table and slinked over the length of it, to where a glass was resting near the edge. The cat seemed to consider the glass for a moment, and then softly nudged it over the edge of the table, shattering it hundreds of thousands of pieces on the floor. Eve walked in when she heard the noise, unwittingly lodging a piece of glass that had traversed the width of the room into her bare foot. She winced and her eyes filled with tears. I rolled my eyes and swore under my breath.
Of course, Lil was there immediately. She sterilised a pair of tweezers and smoothed Eve’s hair away from her wet eyes. I swept the cat up in my arms and took it outside. I took it with me deep into the backyard. I nuzzled the cat and kissed it gently on its head. Then I threw it in the pool. I didn’t look back to see whether it could swim. It felt good. Really good.
Later, I asked Lil about that cut on her finger, now bandaged in a bright blue, plastic Band-Aid. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. “I’m just clumsy. You know me.” She pressed her lips into a smile and shrugged. It was then I knew that it was over. I didn’t know Lil. I realised that perhaps I had never known Lil. And I certainly didn’t know these girls – these women – in my house with their diseased citrus eyes and their limbs and their giggles.
I told them to pack for a trip. They got excited. So easy to please. I pretended to pack a bag but didn’t pay any attention to what I put in it. I insisted that we all went in the same car.
“More special that way,” I said, ruffling Mary’s long, strawberry blonde hair.
She frowned, smoothed her strands back into place. But she came along anyway. I would drive the car. I would do it quickly. They wouldn’t have time to scream. Or even giggle.
Ciaran is a third-year Bachelor of Fine Arts Creative Writing/Bachelor of Laws student. She is fascinated by the complexities of everyday relationships and the darkness we hold inside ourselves. She loves exploring these themes through fiction and aspires to become a novelist.
She can be found on Instagram at ciaran.elizabeth.