Last week when I was trying to figure out what to blog, I found a prompt that said, “Write one entry for The Atlas of Fictional Places.” I decided that incorporating prose into my style sheet would be refreshing, and this story kind of happened. (I blame the Starbucks fumes.)
This is the fourth city I’ve tried this in. My town was too small. All the cities on the way to the capital were too small. But here, surely, this has to work. How could a city of five thousand people have an empty drop box?
My heartbeat charges through my ears like war elk. Every crack in the mortar of the cobblestone streets yawns and stretches like a canyon. The harsh bastion of the town hall’s white marble slows my tentative steps. The double doors are still open, but the elders have gone home for the day. A solitary night watchman has taken up his position just inside the arched doorway.
This drop box has figures carved in it: lambs and puppies and kittens and bunnies. The bottom edge has fluffy shapes like clouds or cotton.
As I climb the steps, my stomach is where my lungs should be and my lungs are in my ears. I imagine what this would be like if the situation were reversed, if I were young and I had nowhere else to go. I imagine the anguish that must have flooded her ribs, the tears that must have written her story on her cheeks.
My husband is waiting on our farm. She had no husband. Maybe he went away to the wars beyond the great river, or to the fields in the west. Maybe she never had a husband.
Maybe she never came to this city.
I lean against one of the marble columns and take a deep breath. Can I go through this again? The sorrow of the first three drop boxes engulfs me. Every night for six months, despair walked me home from the one in my town.
My darling has come to terms with our deficiency. He comforts me when the loneliness fills our house and threatens to smother me.
The drop box is four feet away now. I force myself to take a step forward. Then another. Two feet away. I strain my ears, hoping to steel myself for the inevitable disappointment. I hear nothing. The street cleaners sweep in the distance. The lamplighter moves methodically away from the town hall. I’m so nervous that I can hear the crackling of the oil in the lantern wicks.
I place trembling fingers on the edge of the drop box and peer into it. At the very bottom is a small blue bundle. My heart leaps up onto my tongue. I reach down and carefully pick it up. It wiggles and yawns and opens big brown eyes to look up at me.
In that moment, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t carry him for nine months. Whatever is written in the letter tucked into his bundle doesn’t matter.
I am a mother.
Story inspired by the back cover of a book by the same name, which I saw while stocking shelves at work. Also, Happy Mother’s Day! (super late)