CRAIG BUTLER

Remnants

      The bottle fell and shattered as it hit the floor.

      It fell, it wasn’t pushed. It fell because all of a sudden the hand that had been holding it
wasn’t holding it anymore. It shattered because it was glass and because there simply hadn’t been
time to get the carpeting installed yet.

      The bottle fell, and it bled warm milk.

      Her sister lived nearby and therefore was the one she called first after the bottle fell. She (the
sister) was the one who mopped up the milk and carefully swept up the pieces of broken glass and
took them downstairs to deposit in the mint green Rubbermaid wastebasket in the kitchen. But even
though she (the sister) swept carefully, she missed a tiny sliver, which three years later she (she, not
the sister, she) stepped on one night when she (again, not the sister) came into the room to stare and
cry.

      She was downstairs when it happened (it, not the bottle falling, but it). She had been upstairs
shortly before and was upstairs again shortly after, but when it actually happened she was
downstairs. No one was upstairs except for him and, very briefly, the other one. She was
downstairs, in the kitchen, and as she was going to be there for several minutes she made
chattering noises to the pet canary.

      (Her husband, who had never been near a coal mine, had bought the canary years before as a
joke because of her “habit” (twice does not constitute a “habit”) of leaving the gas on and unlit. The
canary’s name was Coal Porter, which was the husband’s contribution and which he thought was the
last word in humor. Two weeks and three days after it (not the bottle) happened, the husband took
the canary from its cage, intending to set it free. Instead, at the last minute, he twisted its neck in his
big, peasant-descended hands until it snapped. All the while he was humming “I Got Rhythm,”
which he thought was a Cole Porter song. It is not.)

      She was downstairs, and so was the bottle. It was the only glass bottle that she used, and she
always felt nervous feeding the baby with it, but it was a family heirloom – of sentimental if not
monetary value - and its occasional use was therefore preordained. If this were a different kind of
story, the kind of story one reads to small children who have survived their infancy instead of being
cruelly snatched away, if this were that kind of story, it might start something like this:

           “Once there was a happy little bottle, a baby bottle, and he was made of
      glass. He had a plastic ring at the top of his head, and a rubber nipple on top of the
      ring, but otherwise he was made of glass. And he was a happy little bottle, even
      when he was empty. But he was at his very, very happiest when he was full of nice,
      warm, delicious milk and was giving that milk to playful little baby boys and sweet
      little baby girls. He knew that playful little baby boys and sweet little baby girls
      need lots of nice, warm, delicious milk to grow up playful and big and strong on the
      one hand and sweet and gentle and lovely on the other.

           “He was a big help to lots of useless, disgusting mothers who were too selfish
      and vain to offer their very own milk, the milk that their bodies made especially for
      babies, to their own playful little baby boys and sweet little baby girls.”

      It was true that she did blame what happened (it) on her decision to not breastfeed him - in
spite of the fact that the cause of his death was unrelated to the method by which he received his
nourishment. Nevertheless, she insisted that had she been breastfeeding him, at least she would have
been there with him when he died. Her sister always argued back that his death was unavoidable
and therefore her presence would not have saved him and she should stop torturing herself.

      If she ever heard the words her sister said, she gave no sign of it, and eventually her sister
stopped arguing with her. Which was what she wanted in the first place.

***

      The other one had plenty of babies without hers. Sometimes when she dreamed (which
happened more often when she was awake than on those infrequent occasions when she actually
slept), she dreamed of meeting the other one and asking it why it had been so greedy, why it had
taken her very own special boy instead of being content with the Sudanese baby it had taken
moments before, or the sickly Peruvian infant it would take moments later. Sometimes the other one
answered her: “Because you deserved it.” “Because the sun was bored and the moon was wary.”
“Because of that time in the locker room.” “Because the grass must have and will not be denied.”

      “Because I can.”

      Other times it said nothing, merely looked at her and dressed her with its gaze in clothes
which constricted and choked her. When this happened, she allowed herself to momentarily feel
happy, allowed herself to hope that she at last was on her way. But inevitably she would be flung
out of her dream, her breathing would resume, and despair would flood over her as the sound of her
breathing made her realize that she was still as much a part of this world as she had been before.

***

There are some sounds that, once heard in certain situations, imprint themselves indelibly in
your memory. This is what a glass bottle sounds like when it falls and breaks on a floor that hasn’t
been carpeted yet: “crinchunkle.”

      This is what warm milk sounds like spilling on a floor that hasn’t been carpeted yet:
“swurlp.”

      This is what a baby boy sounds like after he has stopped breathing: “ ”

      The husband does not know these sounds, although he imagines that he knows the last. The
husband, who was engaged in the vitally important activity of striking a small pockmarked ball with
a ridiculously long piece of metal when his only son was being taken away by the other one, seemed
at first to be as distraught and as heartbroken and as devastated as she was, and while this did not
actually help, it was expressed so forcefully that it managed to make an impression on her, to
penetrate the iron maiden which had formed around her and make her aware that another person
existed and walked the streets of pain - not her same street, but at least one in a neighborhood not too
distant.

      But the husband didn’t stay there. After some time – a few months? a year? no more than
two years – he began speaking to her in a manner which was infinitely cruel. There are some words
that you do not say if you are the husband of a woman whose baby has died. They are: “I’m
worried about you.” “You can't let it consume your whole life like this.” “Crying won't bring him
back, sweetheart.” “There’s nothing you could have done, nothing anyone could have done.”

      There are some other words that you do not say if you are the husband of a woman whose
baby has died. They are: All the words in all the dictionaries in all the world except these: “It was
a mistake. He’s alive.”

      Yet he continued to bombard her with words and phrases and sentences which stung and
burned and wounded. He, the husband, the once-father, even suggested she speak of it (it!) to a
complete stranger, not so that the stranger might understand that the world had come to an end
months ago and only she realized it, but so that the stranger might try to convince her that she is
wrong, might try to make her forget about it and him and the world that used to be and could have
been. And while she knew (with a certainty that would chill ice) that there was no stranger alive that
could achieve such a feat, she was repulsed that the man who now occupied her husband’s skin
would suggest such a thing.

      She came to despise the hairy smell of this man that took up unearned space in her life. One
day, after the husbeast (as she had begun to think of him) had left the kitchen, fiercely banging the
door behind him, an angry and ugly thought took advantage of her distraction to break free from its
prison and make its way to the front of her mind. That thought, which entered her consciousness for
only the briefest possible period of time before being brutally (but not brutally enough) destroyed
was that she was glad that at least her son had died before he developed a hairy smell of his own.

      As soon as this thought entered her awareness, she did as she must. She calmly unbuttoned
her blouse, picked up the shrieking tea kettle off the stove and poured the entire contents of the kettle
onto her left breast.

      The husbeast returned a few moments later and in typical fashion bullied her to a hospital.
He cried tears of remorse and concern, which caused her disgust to swell to new proportions, and as
she looked at him, she wondered how any person could ever dare shed tears in her presence for the
wrong reason.

***

In the hospital, all of the bottles stayed in their places, whether on shelves or tables or in
nurses’ hands. In the hospital, she was visited by the other one, and for a moment her heartbeat
quickened. But the other one did not reach its hand out for her. Instead it stood at the foot of the
bed and pointed at her breast and then at itself. She could not understand what the other one wanted,
and so it pointed at a mirror. Rising from her bed, she walked unsteadily toward the mirror, which
she had not noticed before. When she looked at her reflection, she noticed a tiny lump underneath
the bandages around her left breast. Unwrapping the bandages, she discovered that the lump was a
very, very small skull, its jaws clamped around her nipple. She touched it gently, and the skull
broke into many tiny pieces in her hand. She quickly stuffed the pieces in her mouth and swallowed
them. When she turned around from the mirror, the other one was gone.

      In its place, motes of dust swirled tauntingly in the half-light cast by the table lamp.

***

As a little girl (much older, comparatively, than he was ever allowed to be), she had read a
fairy tale once (or perhaps it was read to her) about a mirror which made everything look horrid and
ugly. Somewhere in the story the mirror fell from a tremendous height, as if out of the hands of
angels, and broke into a million tiny pieces. One of the pieces lodged in someone’s eye – a little
boy’s? a little girl’s? – and after it lodged therein, he (or she) saw only evil and repulsiveness.
Eventually, after too long a time, the child cried and the tears forced the broken piece out of the
boy’s (or girl’s) eye, and he (she) was normal and happy once again.

      It was a story that always bothered her, for a number of reasons, four of them being: How
could a piece of mirror get stuck in someone’s eye without it cutting the eye and causing blindness?
And how could it be allowed to stay in someone’s eye without a mother taking the time to get it out?
And why didn’t the child realize that something had gone wrong and try to get it out him (or
her) self?

      And what were God's angels planning to do with this mirror in the first place?

***

On the night when she walked into the room to stare and cry (one of the nights, tonight, just
a little while ago), the house was shrouded with silences new and old. As she looked across the
room (the room around which all things now centered) at the crib (the sheets of which she still
changed every day), between the slats (which she still polished twice a week) she caught a glimpse
of something, and although she knew in just a second that it was Rogie, her son's raccoon toy, in the
space between seeing and knowing, she thought that she saw him, her boy, her son, staring at her
with eyes full of pain and sadness - in other words, of blessed life.

      And it was that thought, that fleeting thought that he was back and it all really had been a
mistake, that propelled her across the room and which caused her to step on the last, lingering sliver
of glass which had patiently lain in wait for her for three years.

      “And the happy little bottle, or what was left of him, sighed a happy sigh at a job
well done. And when he saw the anguished look on the wicked mother's face as she realized
her mistake, realized that her precious little boy was nothing more than a shell stuffed with
cotton and polyester, the little bottle laughed and laughed and laughed. He laughed so hard
he completely drowned out the sound of the wicked mother's sobs. And as the wicked
mother, overcome with anguish, fell to the floor, the bottle wondered whether she, too, would
shatter.

      “But there was nothing left of her to shatter.”

***

This is what you do if you step on a piece of glass:

      You do not cry out in pain, because you have already experienced the sum total of all the
pain in the world.

      You do not tell your husband about it, because there has been no husband for some months.

      You do not get a pair of tweezers and try to remove it from your foot.

      What you do do is this: You sit in the rocking chair that you used to sit in every night. You
sit in the rocking chair, with your arms feeling strange because they once used to hold a certain
amount of weight when you sat in this chair. You open your blouse and expose your scarred tissue
to the night air. Then you place your feet firmly on the uncarpeted floor and, putting all your weight
on the injured foot, you methodically grind it into the floor, over and over until you can see a small
pool of blood trickle out from underneath it.

      Then you sit back in the chair and you wait. You wait for the small sliver of glass to work
its way through the muscle and the sinew and whatever else is in its way until it reaches the nearest
¼ artery (yes, that’s the word – art-e-ry). And you wonder how long it will take for the blood to
grab hold of the sliver and to guide it on the long, circuitous journey throughout your body until the
sliver at last finds its way to your heart and, embedding itself therein, makes it possible for you to
stop going on.

      You start slowly rocking in the chair, hoping that the movement will speed the sliver along
and deciding that if the sliver never reaches its destination you will just keep rocking and rocking
and rocking until your rocking draws the attention of the other one and the other one will have no
choice but to take you, for you will continue rocking (no matter how long it takes) until the other
one does as you wish.

      And as you rock, you remember. You enumerate and list. You speculate and ponder.

      There are reasons that bottles fall. They fall because you let go of them. They fall so that
you can one day step on the last little overlooked bit of them. They fall so that you can find out if
you really will be reunited with your son.

      There are reasons that bottles fall, and there are reasons that they shatter when they fall.

      But you are tired of reasons. And so you rock and wait for the moment when reasons will no
longer matter.

Craig Butler's fiction has appeared in a wide variety of online and print outlets, including HAPPY,
TROIKA, MANY MOUNTAINS MOVING, ROCKFORD REVIEW, ECLECTICA, THE DOOR, SATIRE,
TWISTED QUILL, PAUMANOK REVIEW, LINES IN THE SAND, DISENCHANTED, DARK MOON
RISING, BLUE REVIEW, 42OPUS and ANTIMUSE.







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