The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 22, No. 4

Little Mothers

by Esmé Weijun Wang

Sabina had been awake since two-thirty, and now the morning was gathering itself. Sunlight made squares and rectangles on the wall that slid, buttery, onto the white pillowcases, smearing the cotton duvet. Her jaw ached from habitual, unconscious clenching—she rubbed the joints with her fingers, feeling the muscles like pebbles. She was in the study. They called it the study, but the name was too fancy. In her mind, she called it the sickroom, which seemed British and quaint, and not horrible, as was her experience. At five-thirty in late August, the light in the study was still blue and not bright. Finches sang: five, six of them outside, two collecting long strands from the succulent baskets Kiyoshi had hung and filled early that summer. Birdsong was supposed to be cheerful. She had the overhead light off. She had been awake for hours but had little recollection of what the fuck she’d been doing.
     In the kitchen, the light made the gauzy lace curtains glow from within, and the window screen glowed, too, an unfortunate wasp zipping from corner to corner. Wine glasses from the previous night sat next to the sink. Some had zinfandel dregs settled in their bowls. One was almost full; a fruit fly had drowned, lured in by the jammy sweetness.
     Last night had been a good night. She and Kiyoshi had friends over, an enormous rarity: Matthew and his new boyfriend, Felip; her sister, Amelia, and her husband, Daniel. It had been too long since Sabina had felt strong enough to see anyone. She hadn’t wanted them to recognize how thin she’d gotten, or how pale despite the San Jose summer. Her dark brown hair was well past her shoulders now, as she hadn’t trusted herself to cut it, and she certainly didn’t trust Kiyoshi. And she shouldn’t have eaten all of those rich foods; she shouldn’t have had anything to drink. Daniel had watched her with kind, concerned eyes as she poured herself first one, and then two glasses of wine. It was seeing Amelia so pregnant that did it. Sabina was reckless, and then more reckless as the alcohol swam through her blood. She’d leaned her head against Kiyoshi’s shoulder and called him Kiki in front of their guests. He’d been happy, too, she knew. She had always encouraged him to go out with his friends, but he missed being around people with her, missed socializing with her.
     Now she was parched. Her muscles felt wrung out and achy. Her joints throbbed. She’d slipped a thermometer under her tongue and discovered that she was running an actual fever—a rare feat, because the disease had caused her average body temperature to run low.
     But this was what it meant, she understood, to exert her body, to push it in ways that it was no longer all right with being pushed. The illness had no name; still, she knew its boundaries. She heard a hummingbird buzz and tried to see it through the window at the feeder. The lace curtains were pulled shut, but she could detect the familiar, darting movement as the small body dipped its beak into one of the plastic blooms, tonguing sugar water into itself. She turned onto her side as her body flushed with heat at one moment, filling her with discomfort, and then her body trembled with chills. The back of her neck was cold and damp. She wanted a thermos of water, but Kiyoshi had fallen into bed without preparing one for her, and now she was painfully thirsty. She thought about ringing the bell by her pillow, but she wanted to give him a full night’s sleep.
     Down the hall, to the right, through the closed door—as it turned out, Kiyoshi was awake. At the same moment the hummingbird had poised itself at the artificial flower, his phone had buzzed: a text message. It would not have woken him if not for the fact that his dreams were tumultuous and disturbing—he couldn’t remember their setting or content, but the text seemed an extension of their same sick feeling. He saw Daniel’s name, and for an instant he feared the worst, but it was only news about the baby: A’s water broke at 3. At Kaiser. Will keep you & S updated.
     Kiyoshi pressed his fingers to his lips. The baby was coming the day after their dinner party—his niece or nephew—and a week before Amelia’s due date. He had to tell Sabina, who wasn’t in bed with him; he knew she was in the study, although he had no idea when she had left. She lit scented candles in there, or sometimes palo santo, and he didn’t understand how she could tolerate the stench, or the stifling, suffocating atmosphere. But it was her room. She needed space for herself. It was all right, for there to be one room in the house that wasn’t his.

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