Critical Thought: Sleeping

Often I'll get to the end of a short piece I'm writing, like this one, and I'll think, Who cares? Why would I bother reading that? Sometimes I also think that when I get to the end of other people's stories, and I think those are valid questions to ask when we read. Besides being well-crafted and not wordy, I like for the things I read to mean something, though to say that sounds somewhat old-fashioned? I certainly don't know what “The Sleeping Woman” means; it's surreal and maybe it invites you to look at it like a dream, and to think about the images as symbolic or meaningless or just strange. Maybe you wonder why you bothered reading it when you get to the end. Maybe more than meaning, what I want from a piece of writing is for it to affect me—make me feel, know, or realize something, laugh, gasp, twist my heart a little, and in that way, mean something to me, whether or not the meaning was something the writer placed in the work for me.

Lena Bertone writes and teaches in Central New York. Her stories have appeared in Monkeybicycle, NANO Fiction, Redivider, and Puerto Del Sol.

The Sleeping Woman

At first I took cat naps on the sofa. Ten minutes. I just needed to shut my eyes. Then I slept sitting up while eating dinner, food in my mouth or a drink dripping out of one corner. I was so sleepy—so I slept all night, having long dreams about another life I lived on a silent beach, juggling baskets, and in the morning, I drove to work and fell asleep on the way, watching the road and traffic lights through my eyelids and waking up just in time to not collide with the cars or small animals interfering with my remarkably straight path.

But one day, I laid down in the morning and when I woke up it was night. I felt something in my belly—a cringe, a flinch, and when I looked down, I saw a bump there—a swollenness that had grown in just the time it had taken me to catch my breath from this awful aching sleepiness. It looked like a jelly roll under my shirt.

“Smith,” I said. “Come look at this.”

My boyfriend came out of the bedroom and looked down at the odd thing. I lifted my shirt but it was under the skin, this log of something, this fleshy lump.

“How long was I asleep?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Just since this morning. Maybe yesterday.” From then, I could not stay awake. And when I did wake up, my belly was larger. I fell asleep at work, and woke up at home. I fell asleep grocery shopping, and woke up in the car. I fell asleep on the bathroom floor, and woke up at a birthday party at my Grandmother’s house.

“You must be hungry,” she said as I staggered out of her den, a protrusion I didn’t recognize extending from large pants that I also didn’t recognize.

Yes, I was hungry. But I fell asleep and when I woke up I had partly chewed rare steak in my mouth.

“Where are we?” I asked my boyfriend, who had finished his steak and was waiting for me, who looked like he had been waiting for me for a very long time in a restaurant that was dark and empty.

At home, my favorite place was the Persian rug left by the former owners. It was red and brown with a big soft pad beneath it, and it swirled with lush flowers that I could lie against and trace with my fingers and stick my nose into and inhale. When I fell asleep on it, I could sleep for days.

The next time I woke up, I was in a hospital bed. My belly was covered with a sheet. I looked under the sheet, thinking there must be something there other than me, but no: all me. My skin was stretched and powdery, mountainlike. And there was movement on the mountain. An imminent eruption. Indigestion, perhaps. A doctor came in the door, wheeling a nursery cart.

“Congratulations,” she whispered, and she smiled a very white smile. The baby was swaddled completely and turned to its side. I could not see its face. “Wait,” I said, pointing at the mountain. “What’s left in here?”

I slept again and woke up in a barn on a bed of straw. “Smith,” I said, “are you here?” I shouted, but it came out a whisper. It was dark, but I could smell the dank water, the animals.

“Congratulations,” he said. “They’re beautiful.” His teeth and eyes were shining and bright, and he was cradling a pair of pink and brown piglets.

I looked at them: they were perfect, downy and still moist. “But Smith, I think there’s more.” My body rumbled. A leg, then a hoof circumscribed an arc across the globe of my belly. I’ve always loved goats! Dear God, I thought: let there be goats.

But there were no goats. Instead, a donkey, and it was long-legged and loud, braying and kicking. I screamed but it screamed harder, the tangle of legs pushing and burning its way up my body as its head ripped its way down. I would die, I thought, or pass out. I passed out.

When I woke up again, Smith was crying and there was a bare bougainvillea bush lying between us. “Where are the flowers?” I asked. They were my favorites: the paper flowers, like tiny lanterns, so fragrant and delicate.

His head was down and he held one green branch between two fingers. “They didn’t survive.” He could barely say it.

I wanted to console him, I wanted to cry with him, but I was so tired. “Smith,” I whispered, but only because it was easy. Only because his name sounded so much like a breath.

by Lena Bertone