An excerpt from:

One Insular Tahiti

Thea Atkinson

Chapter One

That's her there; that's Astrid. The one leaning against the doorframe, the girl who looks as though she's been invited to a nudist's picnic but has just arrived fully clothed. Crooked teeth, thin eyebrows that don't arch gracefully over her muddy brown eyes, but vee downward. The one with borrowed shoes that pinch her toes, who avoids everyone's eye as she fidgets in a skirt too tight, that she thinks shows too much leg. She's breathing deep, telling herself it can be over soon; she doesn't have to stay. She hates being here. Parties like this are not her thing.

The guy who will knock her up tonight — as she will term it — is gay. Astrid will end up believing she's done her part in turning him off women for the rest of his life.

Could I have chosen someone better, older — married — to be my mother? Perhaps. But Astrid is as necessary as the bones she'll stitch for me with her own nutrients, the blood that will form mine, as the skin that will wrap around my cells, my tissue, and brain, enclose me for the time I'll live.

She could think about it forever and she'll never understand what brought her here in the first place. She's miserable — fraternity parties with cocaine and tequila have never been her idea of a Saturday night. And so she stands as far away from the action without actually being outside as she can. A guy with fresh vomit on his T-shirt mistakes her for a coat rack and says, "My coat? You got my coat? I need my Coke. oops. Freudian slip. Ha Ha." His words are slurred as he stares at her. She's brave, Astrid, in a strange way. She wills herself not to flinch as he throws a punch straight at her face and stops just at the tip of her blunt nose. He laughs again, then crumples onto the floor at her feet, sans coat.

The panic bubbles inside her like pasta on a hard boil. She wonders what the hell she's doing here. Did she really need to get out of the apartment so badly? She's thinking she'll make Carley. Pay alright for dragging her here when she could be studying. And where the hell was said roommate anyway?

She looks down at the coat and coke searcher who has rolled onto her foot and lands him a kick in the stomach so she can be free of him. He grunts, rolls away, but doesn't move again for some time. He'll be sore tomorrow, and not just from Astrid's borrowed-from-Carley spikes. Three party-goers — one male and two female — take to sitting on his hip, stomach, and shoulders and begin bouncing up-and-down until a dribble of fluid makes its way out the corner of his mouth.

"Stop," he begs, trying to roll away from the asses intent on helping him purge the last of his booze. "Hell," he says to one of the girls. "Least you can do is sit on my face." And it's those words that drive Astrid from the door frame and out onto the porch where the March night seems so much more benign, even in the middle of Halifax, than the fully lit living room.

It's not easy watching her here. She sits resolutely on the step, her face clear to me even in the darkness. Her eyes still have the same cast as her newborn eyes. There's a hint of that plush fat beneath her cheeks I saw when she came into the physical nearly two decades ago. Once I looked out into the great expanse of the universe with its suns and galaxies, its constellations, and I narrowed my field until only one small galaxy, and one sun, one planet in particular, took my attention. I willed — will — myself down into one small space where Astrid's mom, just turned 22, pants and grunts on a hospital birthing bed. Feet stirrupped, legs splayed, she winces as another contraction snakes across her belly. Evan stands beside her, allowing her to grind the bones in his hand with hers as she screams and curses and then falls back, sweating, to the pillow.

"You're doing fine, honey," he says, and she looks up at him, her face flushed. Cheekbones that are high and firm, stand out painfully, and he winces as he looks at her. "Joan, Honey. You're doing great."

"Something is wrong," she answers. "I'm going to die, I know it."

The husband fleets a glance to the doctor, who by now has his fingers probing between Joan's thighs. "Is it true?" he asks, and he hears the panic in his own voice. He's too old for this. "Is there something wrong?"

The doctor signals to the nurse with his eyes, and with a nod, the nurse slips over to the instrument tray and retrieves a scalpel. It casts a light like a fairy on the hospital room wall that twitches and spasms. "No," the doctor answers almost as a reflex. "Of course there's nothing wrong. Joan," he says, addressing the woman on the bed. "You're doing great. Just keep bearing down when you feel the next contraction."

When another contraction spasms across Joan's stomach, Evan squeezes her hand too, knowing she won't care, and perhaps won't even feel it through her pain. He's sure he'll be sick when he watches the doctor's hand, and a scalpel that fills it, disappear into the folds of skin between his wife's legs. He knows the scalpel is slicing through the flesh, making the opening bigger, perhaps allowing a large head — or worse, a breeched hind quarters and legs — to finally exit the birth canal and find the air.

A wave of incredible heat spirals up from Evan's knees and finds a home between his ears. Darkness spreads from there to his eyes and he thinks he hears Joan's voice, but he can't be sure; everything is muffled, swamped as if his head is lying below the waterline in the bathtub. "It's coming," he hears, and he isn't sure if it's the doctor's voice or his wife's. The next time he hears anything, it's the sharp cry of some infantile thing. I feel pity for him at this moment, seeing him crumpled on the cold tiles of the hospital room.

He believes he's just failed the ultimate test. He's failed Joan, who he knew was petrified — who, in fact, only allowed pregnancy to swell her perfect form because he wants a child. Badly. Bad enough for him to study her cycle and promise her an old-fashioned governess — what this new world calls an au pair. Badly enough to promise her cosmetic surgery to repair the damage to her body, to promise her a full two weeks in Europe while she recuperates from the birth. Bad enough to stay with her during the delivery despite his deathly fear of hospitals and doctors and blood. And now he's failed and he thinks she'll take a lover because of it.

I sense age-old insecurities creeping back into his mind, but he pushes himself from the floor anyway. He offers a feeble smile to the woman on the bed. "You did great," he says to her, and I want to watch her reaction, and his to that. I've known them for centuries in various forms. I want to see how this new drama, this drama they have come for, they've met and married each other for, will ultimately play out, but it's not why I'm here. I realize I've forgotten that I'm watching because of the infant, and I force myself to drift away from these two, toward the girl. The gray and ghastly form on the scales that the nurses feverishly work on.

She isn't breathing. Limp arms and two small toes that are webbed together are death's shade of gray.

I don't want to see her offshoots. I don't care which direction her life takes. I don't want to see her choices, her decisions, her plans. I don't want to see the entity she will become if I don't choose her. I want to know nothing. I feel such sorrow for this small thing, this dying thing, that I'm willing to sacrifice everything so that this being can live. Nothing else matters: she'll be the mother I need to be reborn.

There is a shift within and around me. I hear a sigh of relief from the nurse closest to the baby. "Got her," she says, and another nurse swoops in with a warm towel and wraps it around Astrid's small form. They attach her to instruments and place her beneath lights to keep her body flush. If I could speak, I'd tell them it isn't necessary. She'll live; what they do now to save her doesn't matter.

Astrid will live because I've made a choice. And even as I think it, I wonder what it matters in the end. She'll be back to her own here eventually. But at least for now I've spared her from discovering the inevitable.

That there is no God.

Chapter 2

The colors of my bubble here in this otherworldly space meld like gasoline in water. The scene clarifies so that I catch a glimpse of my wife's cheek as a blaze of red on the wall. Red is a shade I recognize as a tribal color. It's the hue that matches the first energy center. And I suppose it's apt: the color of oxygenated blood, of engorged nipples, of heat and anger, and so finally, the color of my mate--the balancing leg of my tribe-- and down to the hue of crimson on her cheek that I've placed there.

There is a panning back and I can see into the life I once lived. Her fingers flutter against her face, taking stock, testing to see, I suppose, if it's swelling. Then I see her entire self, a dried out alder twig of a woman holding a glass of milk with the hand that isn't holding her cheek. The milk is for me, I realize, to help swallow down an aspirin for the headache she knows I have.

"What the hell good's that going to do?" I demand, raking out a paint-spotted chair from beneath the table and easing myself down onto it. A greasy slab of bacon leers up at me from the piece of Melmac with two fried egg eyes. My stomach squeezes out another ounce of bile. I'll be damned if I'll let her know I'm suffering.

"You want I should make you some oatmeal instead?" she asks. voice. I think she does know I'm suffering, and she fried the breakfast on purpose. I imagine she thinks it will be a good reminder, the sight of it, the smell of it, the feel of it in my gullet, when I'm deep in the bowels of a coal vein.

"You're a bitch, do you know that, Rose? I lift a fork and stab at a yolk. It bleeds out onto the bacon. "A real bitch."

She says nothing to that, and damn good thing too. I don't have the energy to act out the clichéd "off-the-wagon-wife-beater." No. The slap was entirely called for. I don't enjoy her making me hit her.

"Where's the coffee?" I make a cursory search of the table only to find it missing.

"There's none left."

"Didn't you go shopping yesterday? Christ Almighty woman. What do you do with all of my money?"

Rose sits her massive ass down at the other end of the table. Her cheek has gone back to its normal eggshell beige except for a longer trench of raised white skin that might be from my screw- you finger.

"Well?" I push the offending plate away.

"Donald called last night."

She can think again if she thinks mention of my brother will shock me off topic. "What's Donald got to do with my money?"

"He says he can get you work."

"Are you saying you've spent all my pay?"

She says nothing, blinks once, twice.

"I work damn hard, Rose. Damn hard." I stab at the egg. Time used to be she'd answer me straight away. She'd rush to fill the air after my questions. Now she's become belligerent. "Coffee, Rose." I say turning away. "I don't even smell it brewing."

"That's because there's no coffee," she answers. "Donald says there's a funeral home starting up. He can get you a job."

Donald again. "I got a job."

"Chasing a dead vein?"

"It's better than chasing dead people. And if you think I'm chasing my brother halfway across the country you're not only stupid, you're crazy."

She gets up, and I notice the run in her stocking, that makes her leg look diseased, like a leper's leg. I used to think I loved her legs, the way they wrapped around me, the way they flexed and tightened. I used to love her ass, so large for such a thin woman. I could take her from behind and watch it jiggle for hours. Now I just take her because the violence of it makes the constant itch in my spine stretch out for a spell. It's the only thing besides a good dram of Scotch that can put me into a fog of pure emptiness.

"Are the girls gone?" I say, thinking that I could use a decent stretch.

She catches my eye, and the expression on her face reminds me of the first time I'd convinced her to surrender.

"They're gone," she says carefully and I hear a “but” that she wants to tie to the end.

"I need something to take my mind off."

"Then maybe you shouldn't have —"

"Shouldn't have what?" I growl, pushing back the chair. "Shouldn't have had a few, shouldn't have gone truant, shouldn't have what, Rose, what?" I'm near enough to her now that I can smell the bed on her, the remnants of sleep sweat, of sheets not washed for a few days.

She skirts along the cupboards. "You might still have your job, Luke," she says. "Just show up today, they might not have —"

"They will have." I take a step toward her.

"Then maybe Donald —"

"Fuck Donald."

"But there's work in Yarmouth and Donald says —"

"I said: fuck Donald. Yarmouth's halfway across Canada; might as well be the ninth circle." My buckle feels cold in my fingers. It feels too cold, icy, as though she's hung my belt in the root cellar along with the last of the vegetables before she brought me my pants.

Her gaze is on my hands pulling the leather through my belt loops. "Please," she says.

"You should be more articulate, Rose. Please . . . it means nothing without a corresponding verb."

She swallows. "Yarmouth isn't across Canada. It's just across the province."

I ignore this statement. "Please," I continue instead because it's far more interesting a topic to pursue. It boils my blood. It makes my fingers tingle, my member rise. "Please don't? Please wait? Please go? Please . . . fuck." My fly is undone and her ass feels good in my hands. Especially when I squeeze. I slap it hard, then lift her skirt. The bruise on her hip, the knuckle-sized purple on her ribs stops me. She whimpers when she senses this, almost as if she thinks I'll pity her. I almost pull away. I want to pull away. I think of her at 19 and the beauty of her forgiving face — one set in cream by the Almighty and cast finally by angels. Angels. God. Rubbish. The only God is sex; the only religion, survival.

I stuff her whimpering with a brutality of kisses as I pin her against the sideboard. I taste her lips, her tongue, with my teeth until the liquid of her veins salts my mouth.

As I enter her and she cries, blood becomes all I see here in my bubble. The walls ooze it, as though I were standing in the middle of my own hot and flooded veins. Dante's Lower Hell, reserved for the violent.

I remember that blood represents forgiveness, that Rose was to be my salvation, that I've made of her one big vein of blood. One I open far too often.

Jesus wept red tears in the garden of Gethsemane when he felt the weight of his task. And now in my sphere, even knowing there is no Jesus, I weep them too.

Thea Atkinson

. . . is a teacher and freelance writer in Nova Scotia. Recent work has been placed in Yankee Pot Roast, Blowfish, Spoiled Ink, In Posse Review, Thought Magazine, Vestal Review, Happy, thirteen, The Shore Magazine, The New Quarterly, The Nashwaak Review, Front & Centre, NFG, The Danforth Review, Regina Weese, and QWERTY.