by Claudia Monpere
The twelve of us baby killers, all in purple sweaters, circle the empty crib. ‘Feel your shame,’ says the guard.
We close our eyes and hold hands. We pray and place the booties we knitted inside the crib. Then one at a time, we women stand before our hung paintings and speak our penance. Alice talks the longest, weeping. The onlookers watch with icy eyes.
‘Very nice,’ says the pregnant guard monitoring our exhibit at the annual Mother’s Day Fair. ‘I feel your repentance.’
My painting is called My Baby, Andrea, at Seven Weeks. The webbing between her fingers and toes is beginning to disappear. Her tiny arms are raised to her face as she floats in amniotic fluid. For last year’s fair, I painted My Baby, Andrea, at Six Weeks.
‘Your painting is lovely,’ Kim says during Ten Minute Mingling. ‘So tender.’
Kim rarely talks; she’s just being kind. My painting hangs in a corner with other mediocre acrylics in Sector 9’s Nursery Exhibit. But Kim’s is centered for all to see: My Baby, Jillian, at Eleven Weeks. Jillian’s skin is transparent. All her organs are formed, and she even has teeth buds. A light-yellow wash with streaks of blue surrounds the baby. Kim’s the only one of us baby killers using watercolors. She’s that good. The youngest of us, only sixteen, she was supposed to be incarcerated for five years in Level 1, Maximum Security for women who killed their babies 9-12 weeks after conception. But her rich family pulled some strings.
‘Time for you three to see the other exhibits,’ says our assigned guard. Kim, Alice, and I head to the midway with her. After walking a bit, she stops to joke around with another guard.
‘Hold on a sec,’ she calls to us.
I close my eyes, hold out my arms, and raise my face to the sky. I remove my purple sweater. The sun, oh the sun. It’s warm butter on my skin, wild poppies, Elgar’s cello concerto. I miss my cello more than my husband even though we were married for eight years.
‘Put your sweater back on, fool!’ Alice hisses.
I do. Alice watches out for the three of us and together she and I watch out for Kim. The girls here are jealous of her. When she moved to our dorm, she got the corner bed that had just been vacated even though it was supposed to go to another girl. Kim’s kind of spacy, and I don’t think she knows how lucky she is to be with us in low security where we’re allowed an outing twice a year to help with our rehabilitation.
We follow our guard to the center of the midway to view this year’s two award winning sculptures. There’s a 30-foot sculpture of a nude pregnant woman, stately and slim except for her huge belly which her left arm rests on. The right side of her has been cut away to reveal her skull, muscles, and baby.
Next to her is a smaller sculpture with cradles, baby bathtubs, strollers, and infant car seats fused together. Inside some are extraordinarily lifelike baby dolls: playing with their toes, sucking their thumbs, sleeping. Inside others are small trash cans spray painted with red text: We were garbage to you. We would have cured pancreatic cancer. God will never forgive you.
There’s this thing I must do sometimes where I blizzard my mind with facts. The capital of Texas is Austin. State flower: bluebonnet. Shortest navigable river: The Comal at two miles long.
After the required fifteen minutes of viewing and silence, we head to the birthday cake exhibit to see Alice’s cake, marking what would have been her child’s second birthday. She’s a pro with a piping bag, and this year she’s made a mermaid cake: buttercream waves, seaweed, and shells.
The cake exhibit draws crowds. We’re admiring Alice’s cake when a little girl breaks away from her mother and tugs on my skirt.
‘Can I see your necklace?’ she asks.
‘What? My necklace?’
I hated my necklace at first but now it’s part of me. On at 7:00 am and off at 10:00 pm. The oval pendant contains a high-res photo. Tiny fingers and toes. Ears, eyes, nose, mouth. Everything is transparent: the amniotic sac, the umbilical cord, the baby. You can see red veins and bones. The girl’s upturned face is eager, curious.
‘No.’ I shake my head, covering the necklace. ‘That’s not a good idea.’
‘How come you killed your baby?’
I crouch to her level. ‘It’s not exactly like that,’ I say. ‘It’s very complicated.’
‘Honey, get over here. Right now,’ says a woman approaching us. I stand up. She grabs her daughter’s hand, moving closer to me. ‘You women,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘Evil. Pure evil.’ Her teeth glisten as she says evil.
Those teeth. I see them shredding girls and women. The 22-year-old I heard about, dead of an infection from black market misoprostol. The 35-year-old, dead from liver failure after taking herbal supplements. The 14-year-old. Dead from a placental abruption and hemorrhaging after she begged her boyfriend to punch her in the stomach when other methods she tried to end her pregnancy failed.
And more. A waterfall of dead girls and women.
Shame. I’m done with it. I stare right back into this woman’s face. I do not flinch.
Claudia Monpere’s fiction and creative nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, The Forge, River Teeth, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry appears in such places as Plume, The Cincinnati Review, New Ohio Review, and Hunger Mountain. She’s a recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and second prize in Vestal Review’s food themed flash fiction contest. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and tweets @ClaudiaMonpere.