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This Is the Humming Hour

Kate Heartfield is a journalist and fiction writer in Ottawa, Canada. Her fiction has appeared several times in Daily Science Fiction as well as in Crossed Genres, Strange Horizons, Lackington's and elsewhere. Her website is heartfield.com.

It is 4:32 when Arabella's head smacks the top of the rocking chair and she wakes. She lets her facial muscles mimic a groan but risks no sound, nothing to disturb the warm weight in her arms.
Gigi's face is a watercolor in pink and blue; her lashes sleep on her cheeks.
Arabella stretches her neck, her shoulders, like trying to straighten a wire coat hanger that has been wrenched into some unnatural shape to some purpose. With every fiber of thigh and belly she rises smoothly, carries Gigi to the crib.
Gigi frowns, turns onto her side, but does not wake.
Arabella lets her eyelids drop for a moment in relief, her eyeballs feeling bruised where the lids slide over their surface. She opens them again and flicks the baby monitor on. Green light, more than seems possible from the monitor's single LED, illuminates the crib.
And under the static, a sibilant murmur, punctuated every now and then by a rise in pitch, a break of the rhythm, something like laughter.
She tells herself: How strangely sounds travel on the frequencies of a suburban street, how a baby monitor captures snatches of lives.
She tells herself: How strange that her exhausted brain makes meaning in the noise, a grey chemical mush molding a story out of sound.
She asks herself: Who do you think you're fooling?
It is 3:57 the following night when Gigi's wail cuts through the crackle. Arabella reaches to the bedside table, smacks the monitor so Suzanne won't wake.
The nursery carpet, beige during the day, is dirty eldritch orange now, lit by the streetlight nearest the window; they forgot to pull the curtains again.
Arabella settles into the rocking chair. Gigi settles into a perfunctory whimper; she is satisfied, or soon will be. Arabella pulls her t-shirt up, smells sour milk and sweat. Gigi opens her mouth wide. Arabella pokes the top-right of her right nipple, denting her breast, so the nipple will point up, so Gigi will have no choice but to latch onto the round flesh. A habit now, this strange manipulation of her body. This practice learned through months of pain and blood, of ointments and plastic sheathing, of gut-rot painkillers, of formula in tubes taped to her swollen breast and the mournful eyes of peering women. The midwives, the nurses, the lactation consultants. Even Suzanne's mother, who did not nurse, but who had opinions.
And Suzanne, who tried to have opinions but was too tired, and had given up, and said, my dear, there is nothing wrong with formula. And Arabella said, I know. Yes. I'm being silly. Just one more day. I want to keep trying.
This is what she wants: to try, to try fiercely, because as long as she is fierce she is moving and as long as she is moving she will not collapse. Arabella, Suzanne says, is bloody-minded. She has always struck bargains to get what she wants. She does not know how to concede her desires, only how to rank them against each other, and trade them away.
So one night when all her will was exhausted Arabella asked for help in the night, when she and Gigi were alone. A whispered request. A saucer of cow's milk on the windowsill, as bait, as a signal to negotiation. Then a bargain made in a dream: her last, she swears it will be her last. Three things she has given up, this time. One day of her own life, one lucky coincidence, one friendship. Not such a steep price.
Now there is guilt but no pain, not really, just the sharp swelling ache for a moment as the milk comes and Gigi gulps with her eyes closed.
Arabella has been a conduit for so many forces; it is a relief to be a conduit for a force as simple as food.
Arabella stares out the window. This is the quietest part of night, but quiet is not silence, not here where she lives. Here this is the humming hour, the streetlights and furnaces lulling. Broken now by the footfalls of drunks, now by the yowl of cats. A car slows, stops at the end of her driveway. The newspaper delivery, only the newspaper delivery. She watches until the car revs up again, so loudly she wonders how she never noticed the delivery before, in the days before motherhood, when her dozing heart did not flutter like a bat at every crackle of the monitor.
The wind moves a tree branch and Arabella sees a shadow exposed. The shadow of some watchful being. If only there were an ointment for her eyelids that would let her see if it were a good watcher or a bad one. Or better still, an ointment to blind her eyes to the watchers altogether.
She stares until the shadow breaks into a pattern like leaves and scuttles into darkness.
It is 5:04 when the blue before dawn softens the blue of the nightlight and Gigi, finally, exhausts her store of sobs, and sighs, and sleeps.
Arabella is too jangly-wired, too stomach-weak, to do anything but watch the window and listen to the uneven static from the monitor. She will not return to bed now only to be woken by Suzanne's alarm at 6:30. She would rather sit, and hold Gigi for as long as Gigi will sleep, and watch over her.
She replays the conversation in whispers, held over Gigi's crib, the first time she went down to sleep that night.
"Sometimes I think it should have been you," she choked out, when Suzanne had asked what's wrong the magical three times. "You should have carried her."
"You wanted it more," Suzanne said, gently. "Didn't you?"
"It?" Arabella asked, trying to pick a fight, to latch on, to pull herself out of the morass. "You call her 'it'?"
"I meant that you wanted to be pregnant more, to nurse more," Suzanne said, doggedly disingenuous. Dear solid Suzanne. "You have done so well, sweetheart."
Arabella gripped the crib rail.
"But what if she is... like me?" she whispered.
Suzanne's cool fingers over hers. "Then I will be proud and happy."
"You know what I mean," Arabella said.
"Yes. I do."
Suzanne has faith but it is Arabella who knows what it is to be a lodestone for dreams with strangers in them. It is Arabella who must watch over their child and help her meet whatever secret bargains might tempt her.
It is 5:47 and Arabella cannot watch any longer. Her head is heavy, and blank oblivion presses heavy, ready to curtain her eyes. She is too tired to watch, too tired to worry.
She puts a fingertip below her left nipple, catches the drop there. She flicks the watery milk to the windowsill, to the crib, to the door, to the wall. Arabella calls them for one last bargain. She will ask whatever creatures lurk in the shadows of her child's life to do her no harm, now and forever. She would like to compel them, by the force of a mother's will. But all she knows how to do is ask, and wait for the dream, for the price to be set.
She sleeps.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Author Comments

I started work on this piece when my son was quite young, when I was still breastfeeding him, as I did until he was two and a half. In the first four months of his life, though, I struggled with recovery from postpartum hemorrhage and from a great deal of pain and difficulty in breastfeeding. For my own reasons, I chose to keep at it. This piece stems from my attempts to process my complicated emotions about that experience, about the fierceness and delight and sheer exhausted horror of those 3 am feedings. My son is now five; it took me a long time to get this story right.

- Kate Heartfield
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