A Small Box

By Grace Yee

When the mother runs out of push, they put the stirrups on. She lies with her legs up at right angles, ankles shackled. “Don’t run away now,” the doctor jokes. She’s been labouring for thirty-six hours.

The doctor stings the mother and slices her open – her flesh gives way like a ripe avocado and her heart beats so loudly she fears the baby will be born deaf. The doctor inserts the salad tongs, scrapes the baby out, hauls it up by the ankles.

The room is silent, the air ceramic. There are no congratulations, no gender revelations – nothing. Until the suction machine starts up and the nurse pokes the tube into the baby’s mouth. It cries. They clamp the cord and cut it.

The doors burst open and the Grandmother and the Aunty rush into the room. They run straight for the baby already wrapped in a flannelette sheet. The nurse hands the baby to the Grandmother and says, “It’s a girl.” The Aunty sighs and the Grandmother says, “Never mind.”

The mother, still on her back, feet numb, legs white, nether regions exposed, cranes her head to see. The Grandmother brings the baby over. The baby’s eyes are closed, her lips are purple, and she has a red ‘V’ on her forehead right between her eyes. The mother frowns. As she reaches out to finger the ‘V,’ the placenta slithers out between her legs and plops into a kidney dish. The doctor hands it to the nurse. The Grandmother scurries over, lowers her glasses, picks up the placenta and examines each cotyledon: “Ah…good,” she says, “… very, very good.”

There are two weeks in the hospital: silk flowers and fruit, hand-knitted matinee jackets and, delivered by the Aunty, urns of pigs’ feet and black vinegar soup to build up the mother’s strength. Every evening the baby has her cheeks prodded with her father’s stubby cigar fingers and every morning the Grandmother watches her through the nursery window. On the day they leave the hospital, she tells the mother, “Ah you are so lucky – your baby has a nice fat face and she never cries – she will be easy to raise.”

At home, the Aunty serves bowls of soup and fuss. The mother is seldom alone with the baby, not even in the mornings before the sun comes up. The Grandmother gives instructions at every feed. “Hold her like this,” she says, “not too long now,” and when the mother is silent: ‘don’t sulk – you’ll spoil the milk.”

The party is held at the Dragon. The baby, asleep and wrapped in pink, is passed around. The Grandmother holds her for the longest time, beaming and flashing her gold teeth at the camera. There are fifty-seven guests in all. They sit at big round tables with lazy susans laden with so much food they can barely turn. The men drink beer and whisky and the women sip lemonade.

The mother sits demurely in her pink cheongsam and white shoes. She says little, eats nothing. As the afternoon wears on, her breasts begin to ache and her underarms grow wet beneath the cheongsam, which is not one hundred percent silk as the tailor had promised, but synthetic, man-made: like the children playing under the tables, the babies asleep in their mothers’ arms, the wontons in the soup, and the cigar smoke wafting in stratus cloud strips across the room.

The baby cries all the way home in the car on the mother’s shoulder. In the excitement, the Aunty had left the bottles at the Dragon. The father, jolly from too many whiskies, chuckles and pokes his stubby fingers at the baby’s face. It doesn’t help the crying. Stopped at a red light, the father gropes the mother’s thighs and finds a small box.

“What’s this?”

“The leftover eggs.”

The father pulls out a little pink egg, pushes it in the baby’s face. “Hey look! An egg!” he shouts. When the baby takes no notice, he cracks the egg on the steering wheel, flicks off the shell and eats it.

When they get back to the apartment, the baby is still crying, the front of the mother’s cheap cheongsam is soaked with milk, and there is a piece of cochineal-coloured eggshell stuck to the hem.

Grace Yee has published fiction, poetry, and essays in various journals and anthologies in Australia, including Meanjin, Southerly, Heat, Island, Hecate, Mascara Literary Review, and Westerly. She teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.