Jessica Roeder | Migration

Photo by Shutterdog | Dreamstime
by Jessica Roeder
Date of publication: 
September 12, 2013
















In the apartment, Edna was without her baby. But she was a little crazy then, and sometimes she led herself to believe the baby wasn’t gone. She could cradle an imagined infant the way she’d once cradled her sisters. The eyes were dark blue, the lashes and brows blond, and the top of the nose had an inward dip like Daniel’s. The fingernails were thin and would not protect the fingers, and yet they had white rims and half-moons at the cuticles. They grew and would have to be clipped. The fine swirl of hair would need to be washed. It was a matter of proportion. She reminded herself of these things.

In the morning, she ate cream of wheat with butter and brown sugar. She ate a piece of fruit if there was fruit. She washed her hands at the kitchen sink, dried them on the towel she no longer laundered, and moved to the living room to make the baby a nest on the sofa. She and Daniel had only kept the sofa in case of company. The sofa had lain in wait; it came in handy now. The baby woke and slept. Edna did, too. She’d talked to Daniel just after he died. She’d held conversations with him in her mind. But she’d also said, one night, It doesn’t help if you’re not here next to me, does it? If I don’t have your living body. She no longer permitted herself such chatter. She thought she would never again.

The apartment building’s brick was rougher than the brick of her father and Clara’s house. It was grittier. You could feel the sand. When she went outside, as she didn’t often, she’d drift too close to the wall. She’d scrape the skin on the back of her hand. The scraping was tonic, like a sharp wind. Daniel would have caught her hand back. She’d had to defer the rest of her student-teaching. You couldn’t stand before a class of deaf kids pregnant and husbandless.

When Edna gave birth, she thought that she would remember none of her labor later, and for the most part, she didn’t. She remembered the room’s whiteness. She’d asked if they would please turn out the light that was shining in her eyes no matter which way she turned her head. They didn’t. In a flash, although her mother wasn’t there, she saw her wristwatch and the cuff of her sleeve.

About the delivery, she remembered, later, the shock of the smell of blood and something like vomit. Daniel’s spirit didn’t come to her, but she hadn’t known she was hoping he would. The baby weighed seven pounds and seven ounces. The only time Edna held her, she wore a pilled yellow blanket that seemed to have been someone else’s, and she looked up at Edna with an intensity that suggested her vision was clearer than an infant’s should be.

When Daniel’s friends visited, after the baby, she didn’t tell them anything. They were afraid, she knew, that she would cry or mention Daniel’s throat, but she wouldn’t. She wished his friends well. They were all the same, mostly, and they should stay the same, whole and uninjured. They seemed to dance before her. They danced around the apartment taking care of what she’d neglected. Dirt didn’t fall from their shoes, and they didn’t mention Daniel. She asked them about their lives. Bobby and Jane had four children at home. Edna understood little. When Jane brought dinners, she brought what the children were eating — macaroni and cheese, chicken soup, spaghetti and meatballs — and Edna wondered if Jane knew how well it suited her. Mary brought food from the diner downstairs, always a bottle of milk and a slice of pie on a thick white plate that Edna would wash so Mary could return it next time.

Eleanor visited, and Edna asked after her Chihuahua, who’d had a respiratory problem. Edna asked questions of all Daniel’s friends. Often when she asked, the dancing about the apartment would stop. They’d come to rest before her, or they’d pause wherever they happened to be. She watched, but she didn’t try to catch every word. She caught, instead, glimpses of Daniel: his eyes or the way he blinked and almost shook his head to show astonishment; his fingernails, which were always even; the way he tapped his cigarette; the accelerating voice, which he had slowed for her whenever he remembered, though his friends did not. It was as if they were his family, or as if she had gathered up his characteristics after he died and distributed them among these people, and that was that.

A bath towel rolled tight could fit in the crook of the arm like a baby, though it lacked the weight. A wine bottle was too much a wine bottle. After the funeral, Eleanor had brought her a black-and-white kitten. Edna set the kitten on the dark floor, and his legs slid out. She would have liked to call him Spider, but he had a name already, which was Friendly. Since the funeral, he had grown into a cat. She liked him better. His head fit him. He didn’t look like a toy that would pitch forward and break.

She rested on the sofa and sometimes believed that the baby was on the sofa with her.

She had never given her breasts much thought. She’d ignored them. After the baby, for the first weeks, they were like two more bodies, irrelevant but not separate, with their own weight and leaks and schedule of pains. She should set them on a plate, she thought. She should rest them on the rim of the bathtub. This was when she knew she was a little crazy. You could drown in two inches of water if you didn’t know to save yourself.

Most babies lost weight after birth. She wasn’t sure how soon they gained it back.

She would have liked to visit the Shedd Aquarium. They’d given her a pass, out of regard for Daniel and his work. Instead she had the apartment’s windows. She would never have guessed how much would float past. White feathers with a downy ruff at the base, bits of paper, gray feathers rising and flying away in the wind. Small pieces of glittering tin or aluminum. She’d seen a chiffon scarf once, lime green. It fluttered and corkscrewed. She imagined a lady in a worsted coat, laughing as it left her, clapping her gloved hands. She would be on the steps of a church. A square purse would hang from her wrist. She’d wear perfume.

Leaves and swirls of dust flew by, and clumps of fur. The birds, except for the pigeons, were too quick for her. There was chalky dust that she attributed to the university. Once, there were fine grains she took to be rice. She saw it all as she lay on her back on the platforms by the windows. She watched the clouds when there were clouds. She saw a pig with horns and a dove with pincers. Amazing, the spectacle, when you no longer cared to watch the street.

She was up at night with the thought of Gabrielle — that was the baby’s name, Gabrielle — up every night as long as she could stay awake alone, because she wanted to stand watch with her daughter’s new parents though they and her daughter were elsewhere and would always be.

The cat had grown up without leaving the apartment. Edna was almost all he knew. Sometimes he slept in Edna’s arms, upside down with his white belly exposed, and his intestines rolled beneath the fur, and his head dropped back on her arm. She didn’t know if Eleanor had named him, or if some child had. Gabrielle had gone to New York with Mark and Angela.

She lay on one of the platforms with the night slick black in the glass above her. The cat prowled for mice, but the apartment didn’t have any. He stood at the window and flicked his tail. She set her hand on his shoulders and felt a buzzing like a motor; he was purring into the streets so the mice would come.

Eleanor said cats needed mice. They needed the bones. Edna clicked her tongue and opened the door to the hall. Friendly brushed past her shins.

In the morning there was a dead mouse at the door. It was white, like the ones they fed to snakes or used in laboratories. Maybe it had escaped. At the labs they were always subjecting mice to cancer or removing parts of their brains. How you operated on a mouse and expected it to recover, she didn’t know. Friendly must have broken the mouse’s neck; his head was cocked to the side, and his eyes were closed. Squeezed closed, she thought, though it was hard to tell with the fur. Edna called, Friendly. She thought, Spider. The cat came running up the stairs. Lint hung from his whiskers.

Inside the apartment, he groomed his face. When he’d finished, his green eyes were narrow. Finally he looked away. Still, he followed her to the kitchen. She emptied a can of tuna onto a saucer. There, she said. All yours. The tuna smelled of death as much as any mouse would. He didn’t scratch the door to go out again.

She lay on the platform. Friendly kneaded her stomach, her chest, and if she flipped over, he kneaded her back. Daniel’s friends, except for the ones who had taken Gabrielle, seemed to worry about Edna in shifts. She thought it extraordinary that they’d remembered her so long. Eleanor swept the floors. Edna didn’t believe it was an insult. Then, too, Eleanor always brought food for the cat.

None of them had been her friends, really. They’d been Daniel’s, or Daniel and Althea’s. Maybe they were curious about her. They might pity her or think she was bad luck; she had lost her ability to discern emotion or judgment from facial expressions. The police said that the men who killed Daniel had mistaken him for someone else. She wondered how much the intended victim looked like Daniel. She wondered how the police knew and whether it had been an even exchange, so that the other man got away free. The police wouldn’t be obliged to answer her, and she couldn’t ask Daniel’s friends, who had also loved him.

Back in Maglie, her father and Clara believed she was doing as well as could be expected, for someone who would not come home. Clara sent a bathrobe, a hairbrush, stationery. Edna wrote letters. She asked them not to visit her yet.

She had stayed away long enough that they didn’t need to know about Gabrielle. It was for the better. They might have wondered what a baby would do in New York City. Edna knew. Angela and Mark would take her to the museums. They’d walk with her in Central Park. They’d have her hair cut when she was old enough. She’d wear a red wool coat with braid trim. For the summer, they’d all go to Maine or Europe.

In Edna’s mind, Gabrielle grew as quickly as a cat. Every day they were both further from that moment in the hospital when she looked past the yellow bundle of Gabrielle in her arms and saw a moth hole in the bed’s gray blanket. She thought, in that second, of her little sisters when they’d licked the window screens in the apartment above the feed store. Lizzie had a smudge of dirt on her nose. Her stomach pinched, and she curled around Gabrielle. Now that she’d thought of her sisters, she would have to refuse to let the baby go.

She was further from that moment, but she wouldn’t have been able to improve it if she hadn’t practiced. Time alone would not have been enough. In the afternoons in the apartment, Edna went back. And now the baby is here. And now there is the blanket. The sunlight. And now the nun is smiling at me as if I’m a nice wayward girl getting away with something. And I am.

These days, she could let Gabrielle go every time. She could kiss her once on the forehead, trace her nose, and hold her up.

Daniel had looked thinner in his casket. Clara took her arm and said into her ear that they’d done a good job. Don’t, Edna said. Don’t say that. We’ll have it closed. It was ridiculous to try, obscene really, and she thought she might scream at someone. Bring them, Clara. Please. Now. They have to close it. She grabbed for his hands, which were not his hands. The wound could open at any time, no one could guarantee the stitches, and she would feel it as a cut to her neck if she caught anyone trying to see.


Daniel’s shrimp ran north each spring, and he went south and into the water to visit them. That was how Edna saw it. Daniel would stand on the bottom of the ocean the way a vacationer plants himself the first day on the beach. The sand would be white, and Daniel would have a mask, flippers, a tube in his mouth, and his hair would fly up and wave in the current, and he would hardly know he was in the water except for the fish and the dark clothes-iron shape of the ship and the ripples of light overhead.

But he didn’t spend all his time in the ocean. He traveled into the estuaries, too, where the salinity decreased and the bottom was muddy and the shrimp lived part of their mysterious lives. He was studying north-south migration. One of his interests was a species of bacterium that existed in perfect balance under the legs of the north-south migratory population. He thought there might be a connection between the bacteria and the shrimp’s lifecycle, particularly the change from female to male. And he ran into trouble with funding because much of what he wanted to know was of little use, so far, to the fisheries.

In the days before he left for the ocean, they lay on one of the low white platforms by the windows. The artist who had lived there before Daniel had built the platforms; Daniel didn’t know what purpose they had served, but they both liked the sun in winter. It came through the windows in sheets, and the heating pipes clanged so that she felt a knocking in the wood, and Daniel took the spot closest to the outside wall, but sometimes she half sat up and pressed her hand to the shaded corner of the window, because she liked the cold to shock her. She was on break from her classes. They’d start up again, and she would start her student-teaching, the day after Daniel was gone.

She told him about his journey, signing above them for practice as she spoke. “Maybe it’s a tugboat, your research ship?”

Daniel stretched his arms and tried out the tugboat sign, propped himself on his elbow and tapped her. “Did you make that one up?”

She shook her head and turned to watch him. “I can’t lie if I want to teach. You’re in a tugboat, but there’s a kitchen. Who cooks?”

“It’s not a tugboat. It’s a boat-boat. A fishing boat.”

“All right. You go out in your fishing boat, and the weather is always fine when the shrimp migrate. Though it’s hurricane season.”

He brushed her hair away from her neck. “It’s not hurricane season. The weather is fine, Eddie. It’s always fine.”

“And you meet a whale.”

“A whale. Are you thinking, perhaps, a whale that bears a resemblance to a tugboat?”

She laughed. “Yes.”

“But is in fact more like a postman. He spits toward the boat, and there, on deck, is a letter from home.”

“And then the water starts to roil — roil, I don’t know that one — bubbles start to flow through the water, and you dive down to the bottom with your shrimp tape recorder and all your shrimp instruments, and suddenly the bubbles streaming past aren’t bubbles anymore, they’re shrimp.”

“I love you, Eddie.”

“You love me, and you love your shrimp.”

“I don’t love the shrimp.”

“You love the migration. So the whale swims in a little closer, until he can’t swim. The beauty of the migration has stunned him. In fact his jaw is hanging open. The shrimp pass right through. He’s so touched by the spectacle he’s entirely unable to feed.”

He took her hands. “I think you missed a few words.”

She pulled her hands away from his and folded them together on her lower ribs. “You’ll come back thinner.”

This was the third year she’d seen him off.

He stretched out again, shivered, and kissed her neck. “We have radios, if we get into trouble. We’re not that far out to sea.”

“Far enough.”

“You know I’ll write to you.”

“Tell me more this time. Don’t be so vague.”

“I thought you liked love letters.”

“Love is fine, but it’s a little vague. You shouldn’t let it take over. Three paragraphs. And after that, the next three paragraphs, you should tell me what you’re seeing. Tell me about your meals. How bad the food is. Otherwise I’ll worry that you’re ill and you’re keeping it secret.”

He began to work at her buttons. “Three and three. You’re going to make a tough teacher.”

“Maybe I’ll be nicer to the children, because they’re deaf.” She closed her eyes to let the moment settle into her memory.



Jessica Roeder lives uphill from Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota. She teaches writing online and dance in person. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Third Coast, Narrative, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She has received a Pushcart Prize, a Writers at Work fellowship, and, most recently, a McKnight Artist Fellowship. "Migration" is part of a linked-story collection in progress.

She was born in Chicago and grew up in its suburbs, mostly out of viewing distance of Lake Michigan. Early memories include a beach full of dead fish and a sense that the city — and the world — dropped off somewhere beyond the Art Institute. She has become one of many Duluthians with a nearly familial devotion to Lake Superior, which almost always wins the local vote for Best Place of Worship. Microbeads are out of the question.