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by Tara Isabel Zambrano

In the bathroom mirror that night, the man looked through his eyes into his forehead for a long time. He was a forty-year-old car salesman in a small town and had managed to be the employee of the month twice in a row ten years ago. His biggest accomplishment was that he owned a Chevy truck and a navy suit. As he watched, his thoughts knotted like a fist and pushed a sparkling membrane inside his cranium. He picked up a paper clip lying near the sink and concentrated hard at it. A blob of gluey substance fell from his head and settled on the clip. Jell-O-like, sparkling. He tried to rub it, wash it, but it didn’t disappear. It became a part of the clip. On a closer look, he saw the same pattern he saw inside his mind.

Lying next to his wife, the man tried to sleep. His hands brushed her belly, and unknowingly, he concentrated on her exposed stomach. The pressure on his eardrums increased as if he was underwater. What he saw inside the dark of her body was astonishing: a myriad of capillaries, bones threaded with empty sacs, a half-animal and half-human creature in her womb. The baby with its barely formed eyes looked at him and smiled.

How did this happen? They never planned on having a baby. He looked into the dark again, tried to make his mind a blank. He had no business being a father. What if he attached his thoughts to the fetus and it stopped growing? The umbilical was twisting and untwisting around the baby’s body. Both the cord and the baby were moving slowly, as if swimming in a gentle sea. He felt ashamed and closed his eyes. He could hear a chord strumming, a faint voice singing. It felt as if he was in outer space, and the baby, nothing but a big head and a mound of flesh and limbs attached to it, was holding on to him. They were a part of an endless song.

The man imagined renovating the second bedroom, making a crib. The toys and the bedtime stories. The bliss and the heartache that’d grow side by side while raising a child, the feats of strength he’d be expected to perform. Eventually, the baby would grow up, tall with broad shoulders and large wrist bones, unlike him, and restore their house, take care of the man and his wife, fall in love, father a bunch of cheerful kids. Someday, he’d place the man’s frail, dead body in an oak-lined coffin. And speak at his funeral with a genuine politeness for someone who lived too long.

The man was still drifting in the dark, listening to the singing, when he felt a pressure in his chest like he was going to burst. A stream of liquid fell from his head and stuck to his wife’s belly, followed by the sound of the slow fill and release of new lungs, a light pop. He realized a thought had escaped, something had made it real. He could feel himself reforming, empty and light. The darkness in his head receded like a fading pain. When he opened his eyes, his fingers were still closed around his wife’s navel as if gathering all the hope. Moths tapped against the glass windows. The night had fallen and scattered. Glancing at her glittering skin, the man wondered if the pattern inside the baby’s head matched the one inside his mind, if the baby would do things the man wanted to do. If in the distant future, this baby, then a man lying next to his sleeping wife, would decide that they’d have the baby, of course they want the baby, the baby is exactly what they need.

Author's Note

I was arranging my pantry and throwing away old boxes of Jell-o when I first thought of writing this flash piece. I wondered if my brain was like Jell-o, shiny and loose. And if this is how a life begins, with a mere thought and its acceptance.

Tara Isabel Zambrano moved from India to the United States two decades ago. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Moon City Review, Gargoyle, Storm Cellar, Juked, and others. She lives in Texas and is an electrical engineer by profession.

Permalink: Unborn

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