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Betsy Tobin
Betsy Tobin

Betsy Tobin is a novelist and playwright, born and raised in the American Midwest, now living in the UK. She is the author of five novels: Bone House, short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize and winner of a Herodotus Prize in America; The Bounce; Ice Land; Crimson China, a BBC Radio 4 Book At Bedtime and short-listed for Epic Romantic Novel of the Year; and Things We Couldn't Explain. She is the past winner of the London Writers' Competition for her short story 'Joyride'. In between books she also writes for stage and radio, and teaches creative writing for both First Story and Arvon. She lives in London and Wales with her family.


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Things We Couldn't Explain: Excerpt


Excerpt from Things We Couldn't Explain by Betsy Tobin (Accent Press - November 2014)

 

 

ETHAN

 

I used to think this was just an ordinary town.  That was before strange things started happening here, things we couldn’t explain.  This is my home now, even though I’ve only spent a tiny portion of my life here.   Sometimes a place works on you – it creeps inside and takes root and won’t let go.  And I guess that’s what happened to me in Jericho.  Because the stranger things get here, the more I want to stay.

          According to my Latin teacher the city we’re named after is one of the oldest in the world.  He said that in ancient times Jericho was an oasis in the middle of the desert: a place of swaying palm trees and natural springs and fragrant orange groves, where people worshipped the moon.  Mark Antony gave the oasis to Cleopatra, who claimed that the perfume from its persimmons drove men wild.  But in the end the city was doomed.  Mark Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide, and Jericho was sold to Herod, a madman who murdered his own family.  Later, it became the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the Old Testament.  When Joshua marched his army into Jericho, he told his men that nothing should be spared, not even the livestock.  I’ve always wondered how a goat could be implicated in a holy war.  Didn’t anyone stop to question the wisdom of slaughtering animals?  But faith is blind.  I know that now, even if I didn’t before.

          The people who settled this town in the early eighteenth century were German Lutherans who came across the Allegheny Mountains by horse and cart.  Later they were followed by Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and last but not least, Jehovah’s Witnesses.  You wouldn’t think a small town like this one could stretch to hold so many branches of one faith.  You’d also be forgiven for wondering why each group insisted on worshipping their own version of the same God, but then Christians have never been much for compromise.  I guess the first settlers chose the name because it was holy, or maybe they thought it was poetic ­– either way they decided to ignore its history.  Maybe my family should have realised that a town with such an illustrious namesake might mean trouble.  But if I hadn’t moved to Jericho, I never would have met Annemarie.  So I guess I have God to thank for that miracle.  Or maybe I should thank the moon.

 

ANNEMARIE 

 

I was born sighted.  In fact, the world was mine for more than five years.  Sometimes I think I stored up a lifetime of pictures over that time, an endlessly revolving kaleidoscope of images that I will never get through, no matter how many times I turn them round and round in my mind.  Ethan is convinced my world is brighter than his.  He’s decided that the world in my head is like some kind of pop-up greeting card: bigger, better, and more vibrant.  But at the same time, not quite real.

          Are my colours more dazzling than his?  Maybe.  I guess we’ll never know.  That suits me fine, though.  I have a new plan for living, especially after the events of the past few months – sort of my own personal gospel.  The idea I live by now is ambiguity.  I love the sound of this word, the way all five syllables come crashing together to form a kind of vague suggestion.  But even more I like what it means.  ’Cause we’ll never really know for certain what happened to me – whether it was God or the Virgin Mary or a crazy dance of my chromosomes.  I can live with ambiguity, because it doesn’t try to trap me with conviction.  These days, what I really can’t deal with is other people’s certainty.  I guess when it comes down to it, I choose darkness over light.

          The world’s been dark since I was five.  I remember listening to Dr Paulson tell my mother that children adapt more easily to blindness than adults do.  He said I was lucky to have been sighted for so long – that my mind would quickly learn to fill in the gaps.  Looking back, I think it took me two years.  By the time I was seven, I was rewired.  It’s true what they say about your senses: that when one is switched off, the others glow more brightly.  Though I couldn’t see, I grew more observant.  I sensed things others didn’t, and asked questions.  People were tolerant – after all, I was an unlucky child whose genes had been blighted by some mysterious force before my birth.  So they indulged me, and told me things they shouldn’t.  I learned to listen carefully, and to remember.  Often it was the silences that told me most.

          When I was ten I asked Dr Paulson to explain the reasons for my blindness.  He hesitated, breathing hard through his nostrils, and I could sense his mind groping towards an answer.  Finally he said that vision was like a lightning storm behind the eyes; except in my case, he explained, the storm was misfiring.  Instead of sending millions of flashes from my eye to my brain, the nerves were flaring off into darkness, like tiny shooting stars that fade before they land.  But when I asked him why my nerves had lost their way, he paused uneasily, then told me that God had deemed it so.

          ‘God wants me to be blind?’ I asked.

          ‘God had a purpose when he took away your sight,’ he said evasively.

          ‘What purpose?’ 

          He coughed uneasily, and I had the sudden image of a small mongrel dog crouched nervously at his feet.  ‘That’s for you to discover.  In time.’  He rose, anxious to be free of me, and I listened as both he and the dog left the room.

          Dr Paulson’s words stayed with me.  After that day I saw my blindness not as a punishment, nor as an affliction, but as a mystery that could be solved in an infinite number of ways.  I still haven’t discovered why God made me blind, but I’ve found out other things.  Maybe that’s why I don’t mind going to church and listening to sermons.  Even though they claim to preach the truth, we all know that deep down inside, religion is just one big leap of faith.  Cora Lynn says God made me blind because He knew I wouldn’t fail at it, like it was some sort of test of endurance or flexibility.  I reckon she would know, since she’s the closest thing I’ve got to a sister, on account of the fact that her mama helped look after me when I was small, and we’ve played together since we were babies.  After I lost my sight, Cora Lynn made me tie a bandana around her eyes every time she came round to play, so that we could be even.  But it wasn’t because she felt sorry for me, it was because she was jealous:  blindness made me special, and Cora Lynn wanted a piece of it.  It was her idea when we were eight years old that we should stuff our ears with Ada’s cotton balls and pretend we were Helen Keller, until one day Mama found us groping our way around the neighbourhood, completely deaf and blind, and went ballistic.  These days when she comes around to visit, Cora Lynn sometimes puts the blindfold on again for old time’s sake.  ‘Blindness is gonna be your ticket out of this town, Annemarie,’ she always says.  ‘’Cause it’s what makes you divine.’

          Apart from Cora Lynn, I spend most of my time with Ethan.  He moved in next door a few years ago and after about six months started tutoring me in math.  Ethan is in love with me – I don’t need vision to see that.  His longing has got so powerful I can taste it when he stands too close.  Which he does a lot, lately.  Sometimes we’re like two magnets, pulling towards each other.  Then just at the last moment, one of us flips and suddenly we’re repelled.  Just like that.  I keep wondering why that happens.  Is it God doing that?  And what does He care about two seventeen year olds anyway?  Even if one of them is blind. 

          And pregnant.  I can’t believe I’m saying those words.  But they did the tests and I am well and truly with child.  Which is pretty peculiar, considering I’m a virgin.  Spiteful even.  I wonder if the Virgin Mary felt this way?  Dr Paulson says it could be possible.  Sort of.  He says that, medically, a woman might be able to conceive without a man.  But it doesn’t happen very often.  ‘Like every few millennia?’ I asked.  He didn’t answer.  In fact, he seemed a bit hazy on the details.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Dr Paulson isn’t exactly a rocket scientist.  I reckon he scraped through some podunk medical school, then came back to practise in Jericho because it’s the only place that would have him.  When I asked him for specifics he mumbled something about X chromosomes and cystic tumours and said he’d get back to me.  In the meantime, there’s a team of geneticists from Park Shore Hospital who’ve decided that I’m some sort of medical phenomenon.  And the local parish has launched its own investigation.  If there’s going to be a miracle around here, you can be sure the Church wants a piece of it.

          That’s why I decided to make this recording.  Ethan calls it a diary, but I’m calling it my official version of events.  Because I can already tell this story is going to spin like a pinwheel in a hurricane, with me right at the centre, stuck fast.  Anyway I feel more comfortable saying things out loud than committing them to paper.  The State of Ohio bought me a Braille typewriter last year, but there isn’t much point in using it as no one can read what I’ve written afterwards.  Most of the time it just sits in the corner of my bedroom watching me.  Ethan gave me this tape recorder for Christmas.  It’s got four buttons: start, stop, rewind, and play, a microphone in one end and a tiny speaker in the other.  So I can listen to what I’ve said and redo it if I haven’t got it right.  I know he’s desperate to hear what’s on the tapes.  But there’s got to be a part of me he doesn’t see.  I mean, he’s got all the advantages, being sighted.  He can come and go when he pleases, can watch me from his house whenever he likes.  I know he does that, can sense it somehow.  Sometimes I go to my window at night and wave at him.  The first time he rang me up afterwards and asked me how I knew.  Now he doesn’t bother.

          I don’t know how I know, but I do – that and a whole lot of other things I shouldn’t.  Cora Lynn says that when God took away my vision he replaced it with second sight.  But I think maybe it’s in my blood.  My grandmother used to talk to dead people, only she called them angels.  When I was a little girl, she used to say: ‘Move over, your angel wants to sit beside you.’  I did as I was told, scooted over to make room, because I loved her and wanted to believe.  But it wasn’t easy, because her angels were quick to judge.  When I’d ask for another slice of cake she’d frown and say, ‘Your angel’s shaking her head.’  Towards the end she lost her marbles and Mama had to put her in a home.  She died when I was six: about a year after I became blind.  I don’t think she ever realised I’d lost my sight.  Though maybe her angels did.

          But the real story started about four weeks ago, back in early June.  One night a big storm rolled in, about an hour after I’d gone to bed.  It was what Deacon Joe calls a humdinger – which is to say, the worst we’d had in years.  There was no way I could sleep through it.  The storm must have passed right through Jericho, because I could see the lightning flash behind my eyes and feel the thunderclaps deep inside my chest.  I lay there and listened to it rage around us, until it eventually moved off and became nothing more than a grumble on the horizon.  When it was finally over the silence was eerie, as if the lightning had swept away everything in its path.  I was nearly asleep when suddenly I felt a presence in my room, as if someone was standing at the foot of my bed, and a small stir of air.  I sat up, my heart racing, and instinctively pulled the covers up to my neck.  ‘Who’s there?’ I called out.  My voice seemed to flit around the room like a sparrow.  I waited, hardly daring to breathe, but after a few moments the presence faded and disappeared.  Afterwards, I wondered if I’d dreamed it.

          I fell asleep, but when I woke the next morning, I knew that something wasn’t right.  My belly felt like it was on fire – like someone had literally lit a torch in my womb.  At first I thought maybe it was heartburn, and I remember crying out, then reaching for the bottle of water I always keep beside my bed and knocking it to the floor.  I scrambled round on my hands and knees, and when I finally found it I drank the whole thing in one go, just trying to douse the flames.  Eventually I calmed down, took some deep breaths, and the heat started to subside.  I got up feeling rattled and decided the lightning must have touched my head.  I dressed and forced down some toast, though my stomach was sliding around.  Ethan was meant to be working at the gas station that day and since I didn’t have much else to do, I decided to walk round.  In truth, I just wanted to hear his voice.  But God had other ideas.

          When I got to the garage, I could hear someone in the back of the workshop banging on metal, so I wandered over to the doorway and stopped.  All at once, the smell of oil made me woozy.  I put a hand out to steady myself on the doorframe.  ‘Gabe, is that you?’ I called out.

          ‘Hey Annemarie.’  His voice floated over from the far side of the garage.

          ‘Where are you?  Sounds like you’re inside a box.’

          ‘I’m over here under this chassis.  Just trying to fix an oil leak.  Boss reckons it’s the carburettor, but I got a hunch it’s back here somewhere.’  I heard him fiddle with some tools for a moment.  ‘Yep, found it,’ he said.  ‘Just where I thought it would be.’

          ‘Gabe, is Ethan working today?’

          ‘He went over to Youngstown to pick up some spare parts.  He should be back soon.’

          ‘Okay.  Mind if I wait?’

          ‘Sure.  Nice to have some human company for a change.’

          I smiled.  I’d always had a soft spot for Gabe.  I listened to him fiddle with the engine for another minute.  ‘Gabe, how’d you ever learn so much about cars?’

          ‘I don’t know.  It’s in my blood, I guess.  I’ve always been good at fixing stuff.’  I heard him slide out from beneath the car and rummage around in a box of tools, before disappearing beneath the car again.  ‘Engines aren’t so hard, Annemarie.  If you listen close enough, they’ll tell you what’s wrong.’

          ‘I guess so.’

          ‘Gabe Junior used to talk to ’em.  He reckoned cars had feelings, just like we do.  And that you had to sweet-talk ’em if you wanted them to behave.’

          Gabe Junior died in a car accident when he was nine.  One day he chased a ball into the road and got hit by a speeding BMW driven by a lawyer from Shaker Heights.  The lawyer had been doing 50 in a 35m.p.h. zone, but he still managed to argue that Gabe Junior shouldn’t have been playing with a ball so close to the road.  The lawyer ended up with a fine and a suspended sentence, while Gabe and his wife Shona lost their only child.  It could have happened to anyone, I guess, but it struck me as especially sad that it was Gabe Junior. 

          ‘Did you ever think about giving up cars and doing something different?’ I asked.

          ‘Yeah, I thought about it.  Especially after the accident.  But cars are what I know best.’  He was silent for a minute.  ‘Besides, it’s not the cars that are to blame, it’s the people who drive them.’

          ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’

          ‘Anyways Gabe Junior loved cars.  I reckon he would have made a fine mechanic one day.  Every night I stop by his grave on the way home from work and tell him so.’

          ‘Gabe, did you and Shona ever think about having another child?’ I asked.  ‘You know, after Gabe Junior died?’  I heard him fiddle around in the toolbox some more, and for a moment I thought he wasn’t going to answer. 

          ‘When Gabe Junior was born, Shona got a bad infection,’ he said finally. ‘Afterwards, the doctors said she couldn’t conceive again.’

          ‘Oh.  I’m sorry.’

          ‘That’s okay.  It was a long time ago now.  Shona and I still count our blessings that we had nine years with Gabe Junior.  That’s more than some folks get.’

          ‘Yeah, I guess so,’ I said.

          He came out from under the car again and walked over to me.   ‘You feeling all right, Annemarie?  You look a little peaky.’

          ‘Guess I woke up on the wrong side of bed.  And the oil smell isn’t helping, I gotta admit.’

          ‘You wanna sit down?’  He pulled up a chair and helped me into it.  As soon as I did, I felt nauseous and tipped my head between my knees.

          ‘Gabe? I might need a bucket,’ I said, upside-down.

          ‘Oh, Jeez.’  He grabbed a bucket and thrust it into my hands, and I retched into it.  After a moment, I sat back and lowered the bucket.  I heard him take it and rinse it out at the tap in the corner.

          ‘I’m really sorry,’ I said weakly.

          ‘You okay now?  Here, take this.’  He handed me a wad of wet paper towel and I wiped my face with it.

          ‘Yeah.  I’m a bit better.’

          ‘You want a glass of water?’

          ‘Actually I think I need to eat something.  You got any food?’

          ‘I got some peanut butter crackers.’

          ‘They’ll do.’  I heard him rustle in a drawer and after a minute he put a packet of peanut butter crackers in my hands.  I tore it open and stuffed one in my mouth.  It tasted of heaven.

          ‘Wow, Annemarie.  Looks like you needed that.’

          ‘Sorry,’ I said, my mouth full.

          ‘No problem.  When Shona was pregnant, she couldn’t get enough of those.  Better watch it though.  Shona put on thirty pounds during her first trimester.  She looked like a warehouse by the end.  But I doubt that’ll happen to you, being so slight and all.’

          I stopped chewing and swallowed a lump of cracker.  ‘Gabe, I’m not pregnant,’ I said, my heart starting to rev like one of his engines.

          ‘Oh.’  He hesitated, and I could sense his confusion.  ‘Sorry, Annemarie.  I just assumed …’  His voice trailed off.

          ‘That’s okay.’

          ‘It’s just that you got that look.’

          ‘What look?’

          ‘Kind of shiny-haired and big-eyed, like you’re sucking up air for two.  Horses get it.  And cows too.  You know, in the spring.’

          It isn’t possible, I thought desperately.  But a part of me already knew.

 

I didn’t tell anyone at first.  Not Cora Lynn, or even Ethan.  I waited, and the following week I missed a period.  By that point I wasn’t exactly reconciled, but a part of me wasn’t completely surprised.  My life had never conformed to the rules, and this struck me as another instance of it veering off on a crazy detour that no one else was required to take.  I figured I would have to tell someone soon, but I wasn’t quite sure who to tell or even what to say.  It wasn’t a straightforward story: everyone except Ethan would assume he was the father.  And I suppose I could have let them.  But the thing is, I was raised on the Ten Commandments – they’re part of who I am and lying isn’t.  So the problem was how to tell the truth.  But truth’s a slippery thing sometimes.  And I had a feeling it might wriggle away from me if I wasn’t careful.  The truth is I was, and still am, a virgin.  I realise that sounds suspicious, but you’ll have to take my word for it.  And Ethan’s.  Lord knows, we wanted to change that.  We’ve been hovering round each other these past six months like flies to a cowpat.  But something kept us apart.  Ethan always said it was guilt, but now I think it was something else: some sort of intervention.

          I decided to tell him first, but of course he got angry and accused me of two-timing. ‘With who?’ I asked.  ‘Deacon Joe?!’  Deacon Joe is my step-uncle and he’s the last person on the planet I would sleep with.  Ethan knows this, but I could still feel him frowning, like a stubborn child who refuses to come out to play.  ‘Ethan,’ I said, taking his hand,  ‘outside of school times, I am with you nearly every waking moment.  When could I possibly sleep with someone else?’

          ‘Annemarie, you can’t conceive a baby without sex.’

          ‘We don’t know that,’ I said.  ‘It might be possible.  And anyway it’s a bit of a moot point.  ’Cause it’s happened.’

          ‘Have you been to a doctor?’

          ‘You’re the first person I’ve told.’

          ‘Then how can you be sure?’

          ‘I can’t explain how.  I just am.’

          Ethan sighed.  ‘Look, even if I believe you, no one else will,’ he said.

          ‘Maybe not, but I guess we’ll find out.’

          ‘We should have done it months ago,’ he said glumly.

          ‘Don’t you see?’ I said.  ‘We weren’t meant to.  This is what has kept us apart.  I don’t know how, but it did.  It was there all the time, waiting inside me.’

          ‘Like a time bomb,’ he said miserably.

          ‘I think you’re confusing creation with destruction.’

          ‘If you say so.’

          ‘Look, this might make things difficult for a while.’

          ‘Like decades?’ he asked.

          ‘I’m just saying, things will probably get worse before they get better,’ I warned, thinking of Mama and Deacon Joe.  Ethan hesitated for a long moment.

          ‘Annemarie,’ he said finally.  ‘How could things possibly get worse?’

 

But once again, I knew.  When I was a little girl I always identified with Miriam, child prophetess and rebellious older sister of Moses.  When Miriam was seven she dreamed that her mother would give birth to a son who would one day lead the Jews out of Egypt.  She persuaded her parents to defy the Pharoah’s orders, and when the infant Moses was born they did not throw him in the river as commanded, but kept him hidden until the day his desperate mother placed him in a basket and left him in the bulrushes by the Nile.  But it was Miriam who hid nearby to ensure that her prophecy would come true, and when the Pharoah’s daughter stumbled upon the basket, it was Miriam who leaped out of the reeds and offered to find her a Hebrew wet nurse, thus contriving to reunite Moses with his mother.  Even though Miriam was blessed with the power of a seer, she knew when to take matters into her own hands.  She was stubborn, cunning and resourceful, and I decided that in the coming months I would have to be the same.

          So the following Sunday evening I gathered them all together to break the news.  We sat at the kitchen table, Ethan and I on one side, Mama, Ada and Deacon Joe on the other, and I felt like I was guest of honour at a war council.  When I told them I thought I was pregnant, for an instant the room went eerily silent.  Then I heard Deacon Joe’s chair creak ominously as he leaned forward.  ‘You!’ he snarled in Ethan’s direction.  ‘Math, my ass!’

          ‘Joe!’ cried Ada.

          ‘Ethan’s not the father,’ I said quickly. 

          ‘Honey, what are you saying?’ Ada asked tentatively.

          ‘If Ethan isn’t the father, then who is?’ demanded Deacon Joe.

          ‘No one.’

          ‘Annemarie, you are beginning to try our patience,’ he said irritably.  ‘May I remind you of the ninth commandment?’

          ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness,’ I said.

          ‘Precisely,’ he said.  ‘Satan is the father of all lies.’

          ‘This is not a falsehood,’ I said.  ‘I swear it.’  Deacon Joe took a deep breath and exhaled through his nostrils, and I could almost see them flaring.  I turned towards Mama, desperate to know what she was thinking.  So far she hadn’t said a word, and I knew from experience that Mama’s silence could be far worse than Deacon Joe’s spoken condemnation.

          ‘Annemarie,’ Mama finally said in a flat voice, ‘do you honestly think we’re that stupid?’  The air between us almost crackled with hostility.

          ‘Mama, I do not think you’re stupid.  I swear to you, it’s the truth.’

          ‘Honey, lies are like snakes,’ said Ada anxiously.  ‘They’ll turn and bite you at the first opportunity.’

          ‘I’m not lying,’ I insisted.  ‘I don’t know how it happened, but it did.’

          ‘Annemarie, what exactly are you saying?  That you conceived a baby all by yourself?’ asked Deacon Joe.

          ‘Yes,’ I said.  For a long moment no one said a word.

          ‘I think we’re done here,’ said Mama.

 

Ethan was right.  Despite all my protestations, they refused to believe me.  In the end we had to call an arbitrary halt to the discussion, with the resolution that Mama would ring the doctor’s office first thing in the morning.  Before we got up Deacon Joe insisted on leading a prayer, so we sat around the table, all five of us, hands clasped, listening to him recite the prayer of the penitent.  He carried on so long my bladder was nearly fit to burst, and when he finally finished I heard him rise, his chair groaning from the strain of it.  Deacon Joe’s not fat but he’s what the clothing stores call ‘plus size’ on account of all those chicken buckets he’s so fond of.  Ethan says his hair is like a shiny metal helmet, as if someone buffs him up each night while he’s asleep.

          Later, long after Ethan had been sent home, and Mama and Ada had gone to bed, Deacon Joe came to see me in my bedroom.  I heard him lumber heavily up the stairs.  When he reached my door he didn’t knock, just opened it and stood there for an eternal moment, his anger expanding like a balloon until it filled the room – by which time it felt like he was looming over me like one of those giant Thanksgiving Day Parade characters.  In that instant I had a vision of him as Underdog, with sneaky eyebrows, floppy ears and a long blue cape flowing out behind him.  Except he wasn’t Underdog.  He was Deacon Joe and he was hopping mad.  He stood there for a long moment, radiating fury, then finally turned and clomped away down the hall.  I wondered about the source of his anger: whether it was righteousness or jealousy, ’cause ever since Deacon Joe came into our lives he’s been unhealthily fixated on me.  He may be Ada’s fourth husband (and therefore technically only my step-uncle) but he has involved himself in nearly every aspect of my upbringing.  Mama and Ada look to him for advice on just about everything; I swear they’d let him choose what brand of menstrual pads to buy if they could.

          It was Deacon Joe’s idea that I be home-schooled.  Up until he married Ada three years ago, I was mainstreamed at the local high school, though I only attended mornings.  I guess I was relieved when Mama took his advice and withdrew me.  Being at school with sighted kids was like throwing a man dying of thirst into the ocean.  So much went on around me that my senses were on permanent overload.  But I was never a partaker.  Once I was back home, Deacon Joe took it on himself to oversee my education, which means that now I’m an expert on all things ecclesiastical.  The first thing he did was mail-order a copy of The Talking Bible, all ninety-seven hours of it.  Deacon Joe says the Bible has enough stories in it to last a lifetime and I’ve certainly heard them all, though I prefer the Old Testament for sheer entertainment value.  Mama likes the classics, so I’ve listened to my fair share of those too:  Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Anything she could lay her hands on from the Ohio Blind Library.  Ethan tutors me three times a week in math ’cause neither Mama nor Deacon Joe has a head for figures, owing largely to the fact that they never learned their times tables, though it’s one of my best subjects.  And Deacon Joe does history with me, which consists mainly of readings on his two favourite topics: World War Two and the Bible.  Ask me something about the Luftwaffe or the Corinthians and most likely I’ll know the answer.  But that’s about it.  Deacon Joe doesn’t set much stock in science, which is hardly surprising.  Though I think he’s beginning to realise that there’s more to biology than just the birds and the bees.

          In the evenings, Ethan reads me poetry.  I like Emily Dickinson best, even if she was just a lonely old spinster scribbling away in the attic.  I’ve always thought that she and I had something vital and romantic in common, ’cause up until now we both led an imagined life.  According to Emily, exhilaration is the breeze that lifts us from the ground, and leaves us in another place whose statement is not found.  I wondered how she knew what exhilaration felt like; or whether she only dreamed of being lifted from the ground.  Now I feel as if I’ve reached that other place she writes about, because reality has finally got more interesting than my wonderings.  Lord only knows what Emily Dickinson would make of my life.

          The day after the war council, I went to see Dr Paulson.  Mama wanted to come with me but I told her that if I was old enough to gestate, I was old enough to have a conversation about gestation.  Besides, I didn’t exactly want her peering over his shoulder when he did the examination.  After Dr Paulson had taken some blood and urine samples, I sat in silence while he fiddled with the results for a few minutes.  Then he came over and sat down heavily in a chair.  ‘Well, Annemarie,’ he said with a sigh, ‘normally I would offer my congratulations.  But in your case, I guess it better be condolences.  It would appear that you are indeed pregnant.’  He took a deep breath and exhaled.  ‘In order to accurately date your pregnancy, it would be helpful to know exactly when intercourse took place.’

          I hesitated.  ‘Didn’t Mama speak to you?’

          ‘Your mama briefly outlined the situation, yes.’

          ‘Then you’ll know there was no date,’ I said.  He hesitated.

          ‘Annemarie, are you completely sure you understand the question?’ he asked.  ‘Your mama suggested I might need to explain a little more fully.’

          ‘I know what intercourse is,’ I said, mortified.   Though in truth, it wasn’t a word I’d ever spoken aloud.  Deacon Joe referred to it as fornication, as in: After midnight, only fornication happens.  ‘And I would definitely remember if it took place!’ I added.

          ‘You know,’ Dr Paulson said carefully,  ‘saying something didn’t happen, won’t alter what did.’

          ‘I can’t tell you what I don’t know.’

          ‘Ah.  Well, that’s a different proposition altogether.  And you don’t know because … it happened more than once?’ he asked.

          ‘No!  Lord, no!  I already told you.  It didn’t happen!’

          ‘Fine,’ he said curtly.  I heard him open a drawer and take out some papers.  ‘When was the date of your last period?’ he asked.

          ‘The tenth of May,’ I said.

          ‘You’re certain about that?’

          ‘Yes.’

          ‘Yet you don’t know the date when relations took place?’

          I sighed.  ‘No,’ I said.  Any further denial seemed pointless.

          ‘Blind or not, a girl with your smarts ought to know better,’ he said summarily, standing up.  ‘Guess it’s time for us to take a look.’

          I undressed and stretched out on his examination table while he poked and prodded my abdomen with his hands.  And I couldn’t help but think how funny it was that doctors always fall back on touch to tell them what they need to know.

          ‘As far as I can tell,’ he said,  ‘you seem to be about six weeks pregnant.  Which would suggest intercourse took place in late May.  Would that be about right?’

          ‘If you say so,’ I said.

          ‘You ever had an internal examination before?’ he asked.

          ‘Internal?’

          ‘Gynaecological.’  He pronounced it guy-knee-co-logical.

          ‘No, sir.’

          ‘Well, we should probably do one now,’ he said a little unwillingly.  I had the feeling he didn’t warm to this part of the job.  The idea of an internal exam made me feel queasy, but if I was going to give birth I reckoned I’d have to get used to other people’s heads stuck between my thighs.  And anyway, I was hardly in a position to argue.  He placed my feet in two cold metal brackets at the base of the bed, then instructed me to take a deep breath and relax.   It was the first time I’d ever had what Mama calls my ‘sacred parts’ on display, and I was terrified.  As I felt him gently probe, I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to picture angels flying overhead.  Small cherubic faces floating in the clouds.  And then I felt his fingers cease, and there was a long moment of silence.

          ‘So the two of you did not have relations?’ he asked carefully.

          ‘That is correct.’

          ‘There was definitely no …?’  He stopped himself.

          ‘Definitely not.’

          ‘And yet … you do seem to be pregnant.’  He sounded genuinely confused at this point, as if thinking aloud.

          ‘You mean, I may not be?’

          ‘I didn’t say that.  It’s just … unusual, given the presentation.’   He made me sound like a layer cake.

          ‘So is it possible?’ I asked cautiously.

          ‘Is what possible?’

          ‘Is it possible to get pregnant without having sex?’

          ‘Well, theoretically, there has to be an egg.  And there has to be sperm.  And the two have to come together.’  He paused.  ‘Did you all even have sex education at school when you were younger?’ he asked, clearly irritated.

          ‘Sort of.’

          ‘Then I guess you weren’t paying attention that day,’ he said.

          ‘I guess not.’

          He cleared his throat, and I heard the snap of latex as he pulled off his gloves.  ‘Why don’t you haul your clothes back on and I’ll see you outside,’ he said coldly.  And before I could climb out of the stirrups, I heard the door open and close, leaving me alone in the silence, splayed like a frog.

 

Not surprisingly, I was intact.  Or, in the words of the Bible, undefiled.  My mind floated back to Deuteronomy, and the fate of the wife whose token of virginity was not in evidence on her wedding night.  And the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she may die.  But I was not such a transgressor.  And the proof was there for him to see.  So why did I feel the stain of Dr Paulson’s disapproval all over me?  Both for being pregnant in the first place, and for the peculiar failures of my anatomy now that I was with child.

          I knew at once from Mama’s tone of voice when I came through the front door that there’d been a telephone conversation.  He must have called her as soon as I left his office.  Lord only knows what he said to her while I was tap-tap-tapping my way home.  ‘Well?’ she asked.

          ‘Well what?’

          ‘What did he say?’

          ‘He said that I’m pregnant.  Which I already knew.’

          ‘What else did he say?’

          ‘He said the presentation was unusual.’

          She hesitated.  ‘He told me it was peculiar,’ she admitted.

          ‘Well, that is what I have been trying to explain.’

          ‘Annemarie, you need to be straight with me.  Did you or did you not have sex with that boy?’

          ‘I did not.’  I felt her eyes on me as she digested my words.

          ‘Well, you must’ve done something,’ she said finally.  ‘’Cause babies don’t just fall from the sky.’  She sounded defeated, which was the way I felt too.  We stood there in pained silence for a minute, ringed by her dismay.

          ‘I’m tired,’ I said.  ‘They say early pregnancy does that to you.  But maybe you don’t remember.’

          ‘I remember it all, Annemarie.  Especially the ring on my finger.’

          ‘You are not exactly a poster queen for marriage, Mama.’

          ‘That may be, but it’s not me we’re speaking of,’ she said.

          There was nothing more I could say.  I turned away from her and started up the stairs, retreating to the holy sanctity of my bedroom.

          And the truth shall set you free, I thought wearily.

 


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