There are animals who eat their young. Hamster mothers do, apparently. And sometimes hens. Something to do with nutrients; a lack of calcium.
I do not often feel like I’m an animal.
By that I mean, I do not often feel like I am built, against some crisis, to survive.
When I wait too long to eat, my head feels loose: a baby tooth. Unseen hands, slackening the root. Slip a shiver more, and I might fall away. This doesn’t frighten me. What does is others’ hunger—that which I am bound to feed. Or possibly the hunger of a tiny someone, so brand new she doesn’t know it yet—the scale. Her place, or where she’ll fall among the animals.
It’s springtime. Yosemite. Fields of almond, corn, and fig. My boyfriend’s cousin’s wife, Teresa, holding court—under backyard tents, under the waxing heat. She talks of nearly bleeding out after her second son was born. I stand a little distance off—chilled bottle of Corona to my wrist, hot stars behind my eyes. Teresa laughs, resplendent in a fuchsia dress. I watch her lips, purple like the plump black-purple figs gone sun-ripe in the orchard. Watch her as she speaks: about the blood that soaked the sheets, blood and water in the shower, blood that dripped and pooled against the cracked linoleum.
I watch the curve of her black hair, her brimming hips.
Of course, when I got pregnant for a third time, I was nervous.
It’s then that I stand up—Excuse me—and move east. Past the cousins as they listen. Past their waiting eyes and paper plates weighed down with chili-reddened meat and macaroni salad. Past Teresa’s children as they eat carnitas, as they shove each other in the rented bounce house. Past her smile as she watches them, Corona bottle slick with sweat against her nails—vermillion, shellac.
I make it to the east side of the house, then turn the corner.
Suck the sweet of shade-chilled air, then hold it.
After, I go looking for the kittens: five strays that hide and scratch and scamper in the eaves of this old house. Night after night, we hear them: my boyfriend and I, asleep beneath the oak and metal-mounted buck’s head, gutted eyes gone black as hills.
I find them mewing in the moonlight, their heads poked out above the once-white, rust-red screen. Earlier this year, their mother disappeared. Vanished, and the aunties whispered—over Touched By An Angel, over Jerry Springer, over coffee and pan dulce on the sofa—that she must have died.
Hit by a car, or caught by a coyote.
What other explanation? Why else would she leave?
Tonight, I see her.
The mother: tail alive, and down; hunting in the orchard.
I do not tell.
I watch her, as the big sky darkens. I duck in through the front door; pour two fingers of tequila in a water glass, with ice; watch her from the kitchen window, cool and safe inside, sweat drying and invisible against the cotton dark of my green dress.
I watch the tall grass quicken in the sunset wind. I watch the children, hungry from their bouncing, reach and grab into the foil tins of meat and beans and macaroni salad.
I mirror them; I reach.
I reach and bring the glass up to my lips.
The heat and beer have loosened up my neck.
I watch the cat move silent and away.
I feel my anklebones, cold and solid underneath my skin.
Until she disappears; and then I drink.
AUTHOR NOTE: The phrase ‘milk clock‘ originally appears in Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (2015).
Lauren W. Westerfield is an essayist and poet from the Northern California coast. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, The Pinch, DIAGRAM, Sonora Review, and Hobart. She received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Idaho, where she served as Nonfiction Editor of Fugue. Currently, she teaches at Washington State University, and is the Nonfiction Editor of Blood Orange Review.