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Maladaption

by Hilary Biehl

After thirty-two hours of labor they carve him out of her. Flat on her back and numb from the chest down, her head and body separated by a blue curtain, Paige hears exclamations. They have never seen anything like it! She glimpses him long enough to form an impression of lace and translucence before they rush him out of the room.

Hours later she is wheeled down on a stretcher, through locked double doors, her hands scrubbed raw with plastic brushes by a nurse. The waterless tank is labeled NB Male Paige Golding. Inside, beached and wired for breathing, is a diaphanous blob, a tatted waterfall, a pulsing heart.

“It’s a jellyfish,’ says Paige. The numbness, which is supposed to be wearing off, has spread to her lips, her brain.

“You’re just in shock,’ says the nurse kindly. “That’s your baby, dear.’

“But …’

“He’s very sick.’

“Maybe you should put him in water?’ says Paige, and is kindly, concernedly, promptly wheeled away.

In the weeks that follow, Paige learns the turns of hospital hallways, the dangers of stuffed animals and cell phones, which nurses have seen one too many babies die. The smell of antibacterial soap, the foaming kind, implants itself deep in some recess of her brain, ready to revive; for the rest of her life, public restrooms will echo with the beeps of pulse oximeters. Her husband, Liam, stands beside her, his hand warm and heavy on her shoulder, while she watches the bright numbers go up and down.

The name they had been planning to give him seems unsuitable now, naïvely ordinary. She dreams his name one night and makes the nurses write it on his crib: Finn Golding.

The first time she holds Finn — his domed body cool against her chest, her arms effervescent with his pearly fringe — has the quality of a hallucination. Cradling an actual sea creature would be less strange than this amalgam with a human heart and lungs that can be ventilated. But he stings her, and that registers as real.

He will sting her many times; by the time they leave the hospital, her arms and breasts are covered in varying shades of blue-green welts, and the nausea is permanent. She pictures her bloodstream as a line of venom branching into toes and fingers, ending in tendrils which detach, reach from her sleeping head towards the heap of jelly on the pillow and embrace it without any sense of strangeness.

Outside the hospital, people stare. Finn’s frilled arms overflow the stroller; she tucks them hastily back in and finishes her shopping.

At the breastfeeding support group she receives fixed smiles, polite nods. She listens to the other mothers, devours their tales of normality with eager masochism:

“I had a home birth. She latched on right away!’

“I made them put him on my stomach in the operating room.’

“He’s got a tooth coming in, and now he’s biting me.’

“I’m still waiting for three of his eyes to open,’ says Paige. The other eyes are pale blue and transparent, studding the hem of his bell with their quiet gaze. “And how is breastfeeding going?’ the leader asks with her smile in place. Paige doesn’t tell her she’s given up, that it’s too hard.

Even relatives don’t know what to say. “Maybe he’ll grow out of it,’ the brave ones hazard. “When are the doctors going to remove those tentacles?’ Paige doesn’t know how to tell them that the tentacles can never be removed, that he will never outgrow who he is. She stops answering their calls, but continues to post photos, stubbornly, on social media, despite the lack of likes or comments. Finn asleep in her arms. Finn exploring his latest toy. Finn in the bath. There are many pictures of him in the bath — he seems happiest there. She herself is never in the pictures, so her happiness is irrelevant.

In the middle of the night she lies face-down as if paralyzed, aware of Liam giving Finn a bottle. Due to a lack of vocal cords, Finn doesn’t cry, but they both know, somehow, when he wakes.

“Paige?’ Liam whispers. Perhaps he just wants her company. She suspects he wants her to refill the bottle. “Paige? Are you awake?’

Even if she wanted to, she cannot answer or get up.

It’s almost a relief to end up back in the hospital. The hypervigilance that has been with her since Finn’s birth is, in the PICU, not only reasonable but necessary. Crisis pares away the inessential. Here Paige knows what to do, and she does it, ignoring the faceless medical students that haunt exam rooms.

“The problem,’ says the pulmonologist on-call, “is that he’s not really adapted to life in water or on land.’ He starts talking about inefficient excretion of carbon dioxide, the thickness of the ectoderm, the mesoglea, while the medical students scribble eager notes. Without understanding every detail, Paige gathers that the same adaptations which are enabling Finn’s survival on land are the things that will probably kill him.

“Don’t amphibians live between land and water?’ Paige asks.

“Yes, but he’s not an amphibian. He’s not even a vertebrate. He’s ….’ The doctor looks at Finn doubtfully and does not finish the sentence.

After a long silence, clutching her son’s soft body, Paige says, “What can we do?’

“Nothing,’ says the doctor. “It’s a miracle he’s alive at all.’

A visiting research team requests permission to take photographs; numbly, Paige gives it. Shortly afterwards Finn is sent home, with instructions to spend at least eight hours per day in water.

That afternoon she bathes him, then lies next to him in bed, tracing the threadlike veins that marble his translucence. His heart, like a small purple fist in the middle of that ring of unblinking, watchful eyes, ambiguously beats.

Days pass and Paige can feel herself drifting away from everyone, even Liam. Liam goes each morning to his bright world of paper and deadlines, brushes Finn’s otherness like algae from his coat. It’s not that he doesn’t care, or doesn’t feel it — she knows he does. But he is buoyed five days a week by the simplicity of being human without question mark. Meanwhile, she sinks.

The fin simply appears one morning without any announcement. She notices it while taking a shower: a thin membrane, the same color as her skin, runs from between her shoulder blades down to the small of her back. She’s twisting in front of the mirror, trying to get a good look, when she hears Finn flop off the edge of the bed. By the time she’s checked him over and gotten him settled again, the fin on her back seems unimportant. She puts on a thick sweater and forgets it.

The next morning she wakes up to find some sort of feathery stalks growing out of her neck, one on each side, and from her shoulders, and between her shoulder blades. This frightens her. As soon as Finn takes his first nap, she scours the internet, trying one search term after another. Finally, an online encyclopedia informs her that they are external gills.

Is that why she feels short of breath? The reddish filaments are all clumped together, the stalks unhappily curved forward.

When Finn wakes, she draws a bath and climbs in with him. The water flows over her gills, gently spreading the filaments to touch every part, and her whole body relaxes. That sense of there never being quite enough oxygen — which, she realizes now, has plagued her for months, not hours — subsides. Finn, too, is reveling in the water, propelling himself this way and that with gentle undulations of his bell, his thin arms trailing.

Liam is disgusted by the gills but pretends not to be. She tries to make him say that he’s disgusted; he changes the subject. Later, in bed, he tries to tell her about something to do with work; she watches him, wondering how he can talk about such everyday things.

She takes to sleeping in the tub. She can breathe better there, anyway.

She no longer attends meetings of mothers, or rushes through her grocery shopping, or defers to doctors who tell her Finn will not survive his first year. When people stare, she looks them in the eye and turns her head a little, drawing their attention to the branches that protrude from her neck and back, daring them to speak.

“You’re always taking a bath,’ says Liam, home from work.

“Come join me.’

He dips his hand in the tepid water. For a long time he stares at his own hand in the water, as if he’s forgotten what he meant to do.

On Finn’s first birthday, they drive three hours to an empty beach. The light is sharp and gray. Handfuls of gulls slash the silence. Liam spreads a towel on the shore.

Carrying Finn, Paige walks past jellyfish evaporating on the sand, past the line where the waves have abandoned their foam. Wet sand sucks at her feet, then gives way. She floats on her back, hair and gills spread wide in the water, sun on her face, drawing breath from above and below. Near her Finn shuttles back and forth, luxuriating in his freedom. He is beautiful in the water, soft, unclouded. His pale eyes look happy, she thinks. She is happy, too.

Only when she lifts an arm to wave to Liam on the shore does she realize how far out she is. At first she cannot see him at all; she is afraid. The terrible knowledge that she has forgotten how to be human seizes her. She is dizzy; she is falling into the enormous sky. There is nothing to hold onto, here–no walls to grasp, nothing to keep her from slipping into that vast steel sky and disappearing. Finn cannot catch her, cannot hold her.

She is alone.

Across the distance, across the sea that grips her like ice, a small black figure waves back, then lets his arm fall to his side again, uncertain.