The whole reason Molly was here, inside an overcrowded barn at the orchard, was to prove to herself she was a good mother. That she could do this. What a joke. A sick and twisted joke.
Her mother had told her last week that she just needed to get a grip, to get out of bed in the morning. She told her mother she couldn’t think of any good reason. Only your three children, her mother had said, and Molly had rolled her eyes like she was still in high school.
She didn’t think she should have to explain it to someone who’d also had babies. The purposelessness, the monotony. The lethargy and guilt that battled inside her at every moment, making her so tired she felt like she was deep underwater, the pressure a cocoon that enveloped her. How she wished she could cry because at least that would be something. Some kind of release. Ennui was a word she’d learned in college, and because it sounded right to her, she whispered it into her pillow while listening to the hungry cries of her six-month-old through the static of the baby monitor.
How could she explain her desire, demented as it was, that her husband, who never once complained (not even that time the kids were jumping in a pile of laundry that had been building for weeks) would complain, would yell at her and call her lazy and pathetic, a terrible mother to his children, things she called herself in her mind.
She’d filled out the forms, sitting on thinly cushioned chairs in the waiting rooms of the OBGYN and pediatrics offices, rocking the car seat carrier with one foot to keep the baby asleep. She knew how to pass a test. “In the past month, have you blamed yourself for no good reason?” Well, not for no good reason, she’d think checking the box for “Rarely/Never” and moving on to the next question.
And so, after talking herself into an outing with the kids, all three of them, in order to prove to herself once and for all that she was a good mother, she found herself at an apple orchard in a muggy barn where the air refused to move. It was packed with people sipping hot cider from Styrofoam cups and shoving fistfuls of caramel corn in their mouths, some of it spilling onto the rough-hewn hardwood floors between displays of apple butter and raw honey. She gripped the handles of the stroller her six-month-old sat in and asked her oldest son again, “You’re sure you didn’t see where she went?” referring to her two-year-old daughter who had somehow managed to sneak away and disappear among the gluttonous crowd in the barn without her knowing. And she thought, I can’t even keep track of my own children, while the pressure from lethargy surrounded her on all sides until she thought her knees would buckle.
Her son shook his head, “no.”
She looked around, searching for a curly blonde head attached to hands that were probably breaking something. She chided herself for having so little faith in her daughter, assuming she was up to no good. After all, what if it had been the lure of a stranger with candy that pulled her away from her mother and siblings, and right now she was being shoved into the back of an unmarked van? Her breath caught in her throat. Please, let her be breaking something.
But scanning the barn, she saw nothing but strangers’ faces coming towards her and towards her, stranger after stranger. Were they really all looking at her? Were parents really yanking their children away from her, tsk-ing and shaking their heads? Were they really saying words like “unfit” and “unworthy”? Laughter from a group of mothers in the corner, and she knew they were laughing at her, were telling each other they would never lose their child—the proof of it sitting there at the table as little hands gripped apples much too large.
She bent down to her son and placed his hand on the metal bar of the stroller. “Do not let go,” she said, and for once he listened. Have I frightened him? She could see the panic on her face reflected in the stares of strangers who looked at her, alarmed. Or were they looking past her? Through her? Was she as invisible to them as her daughter was to her now?
She had to get out and fix her eyes on the rectangle of blue sky on the other side of the crowd. But when she tried pushing the stroller, it didn’t budge. She was stuck there with all those faces, telling her she couldn’t do it, that she wasn’t worthy to be a mother. The baby threw his hat out of the stroller, and Molly bent to pick it up and shove it deep into her purse. And seeing the wheels, she remembered and released the locks. When she pushed again, the stroller moved.
She dashed through the crowd and around the displays; the baby sliding in the seat of the stroller. She felt the burn of stares on her back. It only caused her to move more wildly, to lunge forward fast enough to move the floor beneath her, as if her own legs could spin the earth. Her son, holding onto the stroller, only barely kept up.
Finally, she reached the doorway and burst through, blinking in the sun. How could the sun shine so brightly when darkness clouded her heart and mind? Before her stood the apple trees, lined up in neat rows like soldiers. To her left there was a tractor—with enormous, little-girl-crushing tires—idling, ready to pull two trailer-loads of people. Among them, she couldn’t see tiny red cowboy boots dangling off the edge. People milled about aimlessly, and Molly envied their calm. She thought for a moment of running to them, asking if they’d seen her little girl, but couldn’t face the inevitable judgment in their eyes. Shame rooted her to the spot. If she couldn’t find her own daughter…
But then again, she would do anything, face anything for the sake of her daughter. Wouldn’t she?
The distant sound of children laughing wafted toward her, and she perked her ears, searching for one she recognized. Like little bells ringing, she thought, though she’d never thought of it that way before. And her daughter’s face, like a bright sunflower basking in the sunshine.
On their way in, her two-year-old had squealed in delight when she saw a field of them. “Mama your favorite,” she’d said.
She’d been right. They were her favorite. The way they smiled up at the sun, their long stems dancing in the breeze. She’d been as happy as those sunflowers once. Had led a cushy life, growing up in the suburbs with parents who took good care of her, always made her brush her teeth before bed, told her they loved her. She had a husband who she thought was really too good for her and hoped he’d never find out. All three of her babies were healthy; she was healthy herself, at least in body. There was a time when she couldn’t imagine how anyone could be unhappy. Life was too good not to be enjoyed.
But that was before the listlessness settled in along with her breast milk at the birth of her third baby. And that encouraged the guilt that told her she didn’t love her baby enough, or sometimes too much, at the expense of her other children. Or that she should be more grateful for what she’d been given and not wish, as she sometimes did, that she could give up, turn in her notice, take it all away.
Impulsively, she pushed her way in the mud with the stroller toward the field of sunflowers that stretched along the road, telling herself that while she might deserve to lose one of her children, certainly her daughter had done nothing to deserve to be lost, or taken and beaten and…she didn’t want to think about what else. Nausea rose from her stomach to her throat, and she tried to breathe it back down. Air seemed impossible to capture.
As she neared the field, she saw one sunflower head bend downward and disappear among the stems. She held her breath as she ran toward the spot where the sunflower had been felled. The stroller bounced over the gravel and then dirt. When she reached it, she saw her curly blonde in red cowboy boots holding a cheerful sunflower in her hand. A little dirty, yes, but unharmed.
“For you, Mama,” she said, offering the sunflower.
Relief, like coming up from underwater and taking that first, gasping breath. She scooped her daughter in her arms and held her tight, making promises to herself that she would do better, would be better. Wouldn’t take her children for granted again. Wouldn’t ever yell at them, would be patient and understanding and kind. Promises she knew she couldn’t keep. She sobbed, tears soaking into her daughter’s curls.
She stayed like that for a long moment, hoping it would never end, until her son, still gripping the metal bar of the stroller said in a bored whine, “Mom, can we go now?”
And Molly grit her teeth.
Kelsey Askwith’s short fiction has appeared in Sonder Midwest, Cleaning Up Glitter, The Lindenwood Review and Miracle Monocle. In May 2019, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She lives in Monticello, MN on a small farm where she tends to her large garden, eight chickens, two bunnies and four cats. She loves reading, baking, and spending time with her husband and four children.