art by gregory colbert
a novel by
Manuel slid the Rolls Royce into the Hart’s driveway on wheels silent as death. “Here you are, Mr. Hartos.” Manuel got out and opened Hart’s door. Hart stepped out and shook Manuel’s hand.
“Thanks, Manuel. You’re a lifesaver.” Manuel returned the gesture, but didn’t make eye contact. Apparently, Bicky Coleman never shook Manuel’s hand.
“Anytime, Mr. Hartos. Give Mrs. Hartos my best.” The car pulled out as silently as it came. Tired and disheveled, Hart watched Manuel leave before heading up the walk.
The front door of the house was slightly ajar. Hart stared at it then back over the expanse of the lawn. His heartbeat quickened yet his hands were steady as he opened the door in infinitesimal increments so as not to wake, or alert, anyone inside.
He saw no one in the foyer and swung the door open wide, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. He peered into the silent study and saw a single ray from the streetlight, the only illumination. Nothing appeared amiss. He looked across the hall at the formal sitting room, useless space they never set foot in. Even with just the paltry single streetlight to illuminate it, one could attest to the pristine condition of this room. The couch cushions, plush, white and fluffed to capacity were offset by the deep red, hand-stitched Moroccan pillows, an attempt to convey reckless indulgence, except they were exactly where they always were. Sonia couldn’t go to bed at night until the magazines were in the rack, the recycling in its bin, and all errant glassware stashed neatly in the dishwasher, as if a careful regulation of her home before bed would afford her an ordered night’s sleep. When she couldn’t sleep, she sorted tupperware.
Hart continued down the hallway past the stairs. The kitchen was dark so he turned back to the stairs and crept slowly up to the landing. The effect was comical and he suppressed the urge to laugh. Just who in the hell am I sneaking up on? Sonia was probably asleep, and Hart’s overtired, overactive imagination stressed beyond endurance. The light from their bedroom spilled into the far end of the hall. Hart inhaled deeply and let out a sigh of relief as he strode toward the bedroom door, the monotonous drone of the television growing louder with each step.
“Geez, you had me so worried,” he said, crossing the threshold. The bed was empty, but a light from the bathroom escaped from under the door. “Why didn’t you pick up the phone?” he shouted to the door, shutting the television and crossing the room. “Sonia?”
Hart turned the handle, pushed open the bathroom door and pulled back the bathtub curtain. He found the tub filled to capacity, the water cold. Small rivulets of water cascaded over the side. “Jesus.” He reached in and shut the dripping faucet. “Sonia?” He turned and ran out of the bathroom, fear spilling out of him like the bathtub water.
“Sonia? If this is a game, it isn’t funny,” he said loudly. A growing terror gripped him as he tore down the hallway and hit the stairs, taking them two at a time. “Sonia?”
He rounded the steps at the bottom and ran back into each of the rooms he had already inspected, flipping on the lights and scanning their perimeters in urgent, yet methodical fashion, opening closet doors and checking behind furniture. The rooms were as empty in the light as they were in the dark.
“SONIA!” After a brief glance outside, Hart bounded down the hallway and into the kitchen. He reached for the light and tripped over something solid and inert. He half fell, half flew headlong across it. He crashed with a loud thump, his head hitting first, and lay sprawled on the floor.
“Jesus Christ.” He rubbed his head and sat up, looking back at the source of his precipitous fall. Sonia’s prone body stretched in front of the kitchen door, as if in sleep. “Sonia?!”
Hart scrambled over to her and put his fingers to her neck, checking for a pulse. He recoiled in horror as his fingers touched her cooling skin. He wavered, dizzy and gulping air to keep from passing out. He shook his head, trying to regain his dwindling presence of mind. He tried CPR, a rotation of pumping the chest followed by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, cringing each time his warm, twitching lips touched her cool, lifeless ones. She made no move to breathe on her own. His large rough hands, the same hands that stroked her gently during their afternoon lovemaking, now shook her gently at first, and then, as realization dawned, more violently.
“Sonia! Wake UP.” Gripping her by the arms, he shook her again and again, her hair, wet and sticky, flipping back and forth around her face with each surge. Her neck jerked and bobbed like a rag doll’s until Hart heard a snap that brought him round and he abruptly stopped shaking her. He looked at her face, illuminated by the night light in the corner, her eyes closed, her mouth agape. He laid her back on the floor, smoothed the hair back from her face and kissed her cool lips tenderly.
“Sonia. Please. Wake up.” His voice, contorted by fear and sorrow, seemed to hover above them, alien and disengaged. His fingers reached again for her soft, white neck. There was no pulse to enliven that hardening, dead body.
As if he just remembered something, Hart’s head jerked toward her belly and his eyes grew wide. In that moment he tasted eternity for time stood still. One second, and then a million passed as he held his breath and looked – not with the detachment of an ascended master, but the calm of one in a state of shock – at what should have been his son. His eyes observed the splayed legs of his wife’s body, her twisted arm, the displacement and slight concavity of her stomach as a result of the partial delivery. And then….
Hart shuddered a pervasive, body-wrenching shudder that cascaded from the top of his head to the very soles of his feet. He was back, lucid and substantial, with full awareness of the surreal snapshot lying before him. He made no move to turn on the light, perhaps to hide her visage for a moment longer from the pain that would surely color her face and stay with him for a lifetime.
He inhaled raggedly and gripped his hands together to stop their shaking. Sonia’s robe, her only garment, hung loosely around her body. Unwilling to look on the child just yet, he steeled himself and began an examination of his wife. He inspected her body inch by inch looking for signs of injury, using his powers of analysis, long honed in the field, all the while trying to maintain a clinical, dispassionate attitude. If he thought for a moment that this was his wife, the woman whom hours before had been alive and vibrant in his arms, he would surely crumble on the spot.
Hart noted no bruising around her neck. No large hands held her, squeezing the tender blood vessels beneath the surface until they were pinched and bruised and dying. He took another deep breath and ran his hands through her hair starting at the face and coming around to the back where his fingers intertwined in something sticky. His heart jumped and he raised her head to find a large welt and a small cut at the base of her skull, misleading because of the amount of blood in her hair and on the floor. Head injuries bled profusely, but this bump didn’t cause her death.
He continued his foray downward, slowly, haltingly, stalling the inevitable. His fingers probed her belly, still plush, although somewhat less than round now that its occupant was only partially home. He steeled himself for the final examination, letting his glance fall between her legs. Tears welled in his eyes and he turned away, his body shaken by paroxysms of vomiting.
After several minutes, he stopped, wiped his mouth and looked again at the gruesome scene. Protruding from his wife’s vagina, approximately half a foot into the world, lay the legs and torso of his dead baby. Hart touched the curled, little legs, clammy with the blood of childbirth, noted the fingers of one hand protruding from Sonia’s body. He tried pulling the baby the rest of the way out, but he was stuck. Rigor mortis was already starting to set in for both mother and child. Even without the rigor mortis, Hart knew from the parenting classes he and Sonia had attended, that breech births were the most difficult and delicate and that the baby was likely not coming out without assistance.
Whether it was the need to know, to see his child at least once, or to set him free in the world even if only in death, Hart couldn’t say for sure. But he began pulling and prodding and adjusting until he had managed to wedge the chest out. He continued wiggling the baby back and forth until he heard a crack. He reached in and pulled out a tiny arm, broken now from all the jostling. And still he pulled until he reached the neck and only the head remained inside.
The neck was wrapped tightly with the umbilical cord, three times around, leaving no more give in the line. Hart stood and walked calmly to the counter and pulled a large pair of scissors, used for cutting meat, out of the knife rack. He took a deep breath and began cutting the cord, still slightly warm to the touch, the tendency toward life the last thing to go. He worked one piece at a time until he’d cut it thrice, then pushed it away. He pulled again and this time the baby emerged with a pop, his lackluster, unblinking eyes fixed on his father.
Hart cradled the head, a halo of blood forming beneath it. He leaned over and kissed the tiny cheeks, touching the faintest line of the small eyebrow and ran his finger over the little nose and then the whole face, the color of a midnight blue sky. He closed the baby’s eyes and laid him on his wife’s belly. He stared at them for several minutes, tears spilling down his cheeks, anointing their bodies like holy water. He wiped his eyes and clawed at his face, the blood and ooze of the afterbirth smearing it, a warrior preparing for battle.
The scream started as a low moan, growing in intensity and fury, building and climbing toward the crescendo, a high-pitched wail which ended when Hart was out of breath and fallen, left with his only remaining partner, the shadow of grief, lying prostrate across his past and future.
to be continued. . .
to read what came before, click here. . .