Sweet joy, sweet joy, I hum against the kitten cry of my newborn daughter, three days old, who directs her distress at my dry nipple. Home today from the hospital and no milk yet in my breasts. Since the doctors cut her out of me, she has been living on fat reserves and a few drops of the sticky, yellow colostrum I squeeze from my body into her rooting mouth. Baby wolf trying to howl, no sound coming out. Baby polar bear burrowing into white, substance-less snow.
Half of all young will starve by spring, the narrator intones.
Outside, there is snow, crumbling walls of it surrounding our house, slick footprints in the packed-down paths where students have penguin-walked to class. Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 2014. On the weather map, a cone of purple descending from the top of the world. Inside the house, two new parents trying to swaddle their screaming child. We camp out on the couch, watch the wildlife on TV, drift in and out of sleep, our daughter nestled in the lair of our arms, propped on pillows. She wakes and we try again at the nipple. Sweet joy, sweet joy.
The arctic fox and her feathery kits—or are they pups?—trail a female polar bear, hoping to scavenge from a kill. The coal-colored seals lie hidden in the snow, tunneling escape routes. Two bear cubs watch their mother punch through the hard-packed layers with her massive paws, trying to surprise a seal before it can slip on its belly into the sea. The mother bear needs nourishment to produce enough milk for the two cubs, one of which will starve.
Sometimes parents don’t have the luxury of patience. Our daughter, three days old, is hungry. She howls at my empty breast, a teacup overturned. Her tiny mouth pecks at my chest. Then, jaundiced and exhausted, she settles against my husband, light as a parakeet, 12% of her birth weight shed. Her face a mask in sleep. When she stirs again, my husband snuggles her, shushes her, tries to mimic the womb, her recent hibernation with plentiful food. She pecks helplessly against his arm, mewling limply.
I hold my stitched abdomen as I shuffle to the kitchen and cut a hunk of bread with the serrated knife. As I tear the bread and smear it with butter, I steel myself against the counter, heat a bag of corn kernels in the microwave to place against my bare chest. Let down, let down. My body curls over the incision, a thin seam holding all my insides in. My knees bear me down to the floor. My mouth opens, soundless maw.
Desperate, the mother bear attacks a group of walruses lying fortified on the glacial seashore. The fight is brutal. The walruses swing their heft, puncturing the bear with their trumpeting tusks. They gore her flank, her legs. Eventually, she hobbles off-screen, trailing blood. We do not see her cubs again.
In the early morning, just before daybreak, I feel my body come unfrozen and begin to leak. Relief cracks my ribs like icy faults.
Amy Monticello’s work has appeared in The Iron Horse Literary Review, Upstreet, Redivider, Natural Bridge, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere.
Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user trasroid