This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2023


Jenny Heijun Wills

 Illustration by Lilian Sim

The ropes at the bottom of my macramé pot-hanger are frayed. Not on-purpose frayed. Just unravelling. The fern, the one I planted only a few months ago, is growing more on one side. It greedily reaches for the window even though the sunlight is inconsistent. Today is the first day that I watered it without needing to race down my Ikea step ladder and mop overflow from the fake birch table. I don’t want the veneer to peel. It already has a ring from that time I didn’t use a coaster.

The dead bird on the ledge outside my window is missing its head. It won’t decompose. It’s been there for months. Before, there were two decapitated birds out there. Now there is only one. I thought a crow ate their heads. But once I was walking in the parking lot behind my building and I almost stepped on a bodiless bird head. It was a different species than my headless birds. Winnipeg is a tough city. Even for wildlife.

In the past, I don’t think I would have paid much attention. But these days I do because a tarot reader alluded that my baby’s soul is in the woodpecker who visits the trees behind my building every morning. At least that’s how I understood his words. I tell my baby to eat her breakfast as she slams her head against the trunk, searching for insects. I say, good morning, baby. Eat your breakfast. Usually, I don’t see her. Mostly, I just hear her tapping.

I’m waiting for the woodpecker to release my baby’s soul so she can come back to me. My girlfriend stares at me, failing to hide her concern, every time I tell her about it. But mostly we avoid eye contact. She doesn’t look up from her phone as we drink coffee in silence, me listening for my baby to tap against the tree. She puts her AirPods in so she can pretend she doesn’t hear me reminding my baby to eat her breakfast.

I should say “our” baby, but I don’t want to.

Sometimes Wendy drinks her coffee in her home office. She closes the door, which is fine by me. The apartment is spacious. But Wendy complains that it’s cluttered because I refuse to throw away anything that my baby ever touched. Stale boxes of arrowroot cookies remain open in the small pantry. Her teething ring is in the freezer next to a bag of frozen peas. “Let me put it in the storage locker,” Wendy begs, gesturing to the infant pod we used to click into the back seat of our CR-V. But I cut her a dangerous glare and she drops the subject. The brackets that anchored it are still in the car. I won’t let her take them out either.

I hear Wendy typing on her laptop in the office. I’m angry when she does it because she’s making a spectacle of moving on. Of working as though nothing is wrong. Besides, her noisy typing makes it harder for me to hear if my baby is eating her breakfast. I’m afraid that my baby might think the clicking is another baby, a new, replacement baby, and then she’ll really fly away forever. In my mind, I tell Wendy I hate her. But she never responds. She just keeps typing. Writing reports about heightened cortisol levels in fish whose ponds have been polluted or some other stupidly obvious thing that her lab gets millions of dollars of funding to “research.”

I can’t move from the “birch” table until my baby has eaten. Which means sometimes I sit here, waiting all day. Wendy emerges every now and then to use the toilet or eat lunch and either sighs in my direction or ignores me completely. I don’t look at her at all. Just straight ahead. I will her to be quiet in case my baby needs me.

My baby’s crying used to feel like a crystal chandelier was crashing to the floor. In helpless slow motion. Glass and beads delivering a devastating cluster bomb of tiny cuts all over. She exploded me with her crying. It was a tripwire to past horrors of unexpected cramps, pink water followed by endless fated clots running down my thighs at the grocery store, another failed round of IVF, and Wendy’s threats that this was absolutely the last try. My baby’s crying was the emotional shrapnel of what I previously, stupidly, thought of as trauma. I would pick her up quickly and sway her to sleep. Or place my pinky finger upside down in her mouth, her tiny tongue perfectly curling around it. Her black eyes would sparkle and I would wipe the tears from her lashes with my lips. Now, while I sit and wait to hear my baby tapping, I imagine her when she was still a human infant. I conjure the sound of her crying, so I can blow apart all over again. It reminds me that I’m inside. My own body, that is.

Today is Thursday and on Thursdays Wendy comes out of her office just before noon and puts on her own jacket before placing mine over my shoulders. Like the flight attendants tell you to do if the oxygen masks fall down from up above. If it is a good day and my baby has visited and eaten her breakfast, I slide my arms through the sleeves and zip it up on my own. If it is a bad day, I just let the parka hang on top of me. A stiff, waterproof blanket. Like the ones firefighters drape over people they’ve rescued from burning buildings or mangled cars.

We are always late. Wendy apologizes to my therapist but I don’t because I don’t care. Sometimes, after therapy, Wendy admonishes me because she says that as queers and immigrants, we have to have better manners than everyone else. “We’re representing a lot of groups of people,” she says. I just stare out the windshield and ignore her.

On those days, she chatters to herself to feel less awkward. Mumbling something about “immigrant time” and making a good impression. She talks to me as though she’s somehow possessed her mother’s body and I’m a child version of Wendy herself. Because my girlfriend is second-generation, so what does she care about immigrant time? Her parents came here before she was born. Her dad owned a Tim Hortons franchise and her mom worked at the IGA. And even though technically I guess I am an immigrant, I was sent over as a toddler, so I don’t know anything about Korea. Wendy doesn’t either. But she has no excuse. Her parents aren’t white.

Today, we are only a little bit late. “How are things this week?” the therapist asks, looking at Wendy even though I’m the patient.

“Not much change from last week, unfortunately, Dr. Evans.” Wendy is very polite. To Dr. Evans, she is very polite.

“Again, please call me April.”

They talk about names and doctorates for a while and I stare at the wooden duck on the bookshelf.

Back when we first got together, we inherited a pair of wooden ducks from Wendy’s friend who got divorced. Wendy had never heard of Korean wedding ducks and didn’t believe me until I Wikipediaed them to prove that they’re a thing. I told her the set we inherited were lesbian wedding ducks because both of their bills were tied closed with string and I thought that only the female duck’s mouth was supposed to be sealed. Her silence a symbol of her matrimonial submission. But then we read online that sometimes both Korean wedding ducks have their bills bound so it wasn’t gay after all. We laughed about how apparently there are no gays in Korea anyway.

“Are you feeling tired, Maggie?” I don’t immediately react at the sound of my name. Then, I shake my head no, but just barely.

“She’s always catatonic.” Wendy speaks on my behalf. She squeezes my hand to prove that she’s a sympathetic partner. I want to pull my hand away but then Dr. Evans will write something down in her file.

“So, perhaps we have found a good balance.” I deduce she is talking about my SSRI dosage. It doesn’t sound like a question but like she’s talking to herself.

“Sure,” I say at last. Wendy squeezes again, this time harder, as though chiding an insolent child.

We sit in silence for a long time. “April” attempts to make fake-worried expressions but her face is full of Botox so she looks ridiculous.

She hesitates. Then: “And the birds? Do you still see the birds?”

I glare at her. She’s acting like I’m faking it.

“One of the bird bodies is still there. The landlord says it’s not his responsibility to remove it.” Wendy fills in when the silence becomes too awkward for her to bear. Then she adds, as though hesitating, “The woodpecker still comes around nearly every day.”

“How does that make you feel?”

I can’t tell if she is talking to Wendy or me. So I wait. Everyone looks at me.

“Good,” I volunteer.

“Great! Good! Yes, why does it make you feel good?” April’s voice is excitable in contrast to her frozen face.

“Because soon my baby will come back. The bird will release her soul back to me.”

I sense Wendy holding her breath. She and April exchange “uh oh” looks. I go back to staring at the duck on the shelf. April is whispering something about adding an antipsychotic to my nightly regimen. “It will help activate the anti-depressant.” Wendy is nodding, conspiratorially. She asks some obnoxious questions in a foreign language. They shut me out with their scientific jargon.

I think “I hate you” on rhythm with every beat of my pulse. It is slow, so it’s a mantra. I tap my fingers on the arm of the chair to express my impatience. No one notices me.

I open my eyes, which maybe were closed. I can’t remember. We’re back in the car. I turn on the seat warmer even though it’s not that cold yet.

“She might come around less, once winter arrives.” Wendy warns me like I’m stupid. Just because I don’t have a PhD in biology or whatever doesn’t mean I’m completely ignorant. “Woodpeckers go where the food is.”

“She’ll be back.” I am firm.

At the apartment, Wendy hangs our coats up and I sit on the couch by the window. It overlooks the visitors’ parking lot. I sit with my legs folded under me like I’m a cat. It’s colder near the window because it is an old building. It is okay because it reminds me that I’m inside my body. That my organs haven’t entirely detached from my skin. That I’m still somehow here even though I wish I wasn’t. Dr. Evans and Wendy want me to expose the things in my head, but I am just trying to hold my body together.

Wendy goes back into her office after eating some raw egg on leftover rice. She doesn’t offer me any. She knows I’ll say no. “I’ll pick up your prescription from Rexall after four,” she says and closes the door. I’m relieved to be alone.

I think back to when my baby was learning to sit up. We propped pillows all around her in case she tipped backwards. If she dipped too far forward, I would catch her. Once I caught her with a kiss, her wet mouth against my smiling lips. A string of saliva stretched between us as I angled her upright again.

She laughed and said “Ummah” and I looked at Wendy for confirmation.

“She’s just mumbling nonsense words,” I remember her saying.

Nowadays it’s hard for me to sit upright. My head feels too heavy. My neck too brittle. Like the single sunflower that grows in the alley out back. Every October, the sunflower collapses in on itself. Its face bows almost to the pavement, several feet below where it once blossomed. It dies crumpled to the ground, the flower part eventually ripped off by a passing car or buried in ice and snow.

My head is tired. I took a lorazepam before therapy when Wendy wasn’t looking. Then I took two more on the car ride home because Wendy was listening to a true crime podcast and I didn’t want to hear it. Now, my head is bobbing forward while I look out the window. Like my baby’s head bobbed forward before she kissed me and called me Ummah. Like my baby’s head bobs forward when she eats her breakfast.

Suddenly, I see a flash of black and white. A wisp of red. My baby swoops right by the window and perches on a telephone pole only a few metres from the building. I try, carefully, to lean forward to get a better look. To see if she is okay. I try to focus my eyes, but it’s difficult. She looks small. Like she’s lost weight. She pokes at the telephone pole but she won’t find anything there to eat. “Go to the tree and eat your lunch, baby,” I call to her. Through the office wall, I hear Wendy’s typing slow to a stop.

Before I can instruct my baby again, my head falls forward. Fast. It is too heavy. It crashes against the window pane. I hear Wendy’s desk chair push back. I hear her office door swing open.

“Holy fuck, Mag,” she mutters, rushing toward me. Blood is streaming down my face. It reminds me of when I used to be able to cry. My cheeks feel warm and it is comforting. I haven’t cried for many months. Dr. Evans’ words, “a good balance,” repeat in my mind. I imagine my head and face are red, like my baby’s is now. Wendy is blotting my forehead with a dishtowel. It doesn’t hurt. She is scared but is trying to act confident and calm. And everything I see is tinted red because I have blood in my eyes.

I look out the window but my baby has flown away. I scared her away. Inside I am screaming for her. I panic. Imagine myself chasing after her into the sky. But instead, I just close my eyes and let the blood come.

Jenny Heijun Wills s the author of Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related.: A Memoir. It won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for non-fiction in 2019 and the Eileen McTavish Sykes award for Best First Book in 2020. She is a professor of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she is also Chancellor’s Research Chair. A Korean adoptee, Wills was born in Seoul but raised in Southern Ontario, Canada. She has a book of creative non-fiction forthcoming.

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