Hamlet, Claudia, Zanzibar
by Ilana Masad
They suck the air out of their inhabitants and blow it back through drivers shouting obscenities, the drone of subways, the heaving of buses. The air transforms into sirens in the distance and pigeons cooing on windowsills.
In her tiny room underground, with a slit of a window where all she can see are feet glancing by, Siobhan inhales. She holds the smoke in and lets it out slowly, watching the tragic waste of weed spiral up into invisibilia.
“Bon! Come on, open the door, babe!”
The knocking has been a consistent strain on her zen for the last half hour. The rhythm has changed, from a steady one-two-three to a count of four to the honking pattern heard at football games and when elections are won. One, two, one-two-three, one-two-three-four, one-two.
“Open. The fucking. Door.”
There’s nothing to be scared of, nothing to be ashamed of. The booze and vomit-stained couch is propped against the door. She’s safe. A kick and a shoulder slam have been tried and failed.
“At least—at least come the fuck out and talk to me.”
Siobhan lets smoke out through her nostrils. I’m a dragon, she thinks. Hear me roar. But she doesn’t. The baby is asleep, little Hamlet in her cradle. Little Claudia. Zanzibar. She hasn’t decided on a name yet. The birth certificate says Daisy, the name of the knocker’s dead mother. But Siobhan won’t let the baby be sullied by the rotting perfume of flowers.
God is gracious, but not enough to let the baby sleep through all the racket. Finally, baby Hamlet wakes up. Little Claudia stretches. Zanzibar begins to wail.
“Now look what you’ve done.” Siobhan doesn’t raise her voice, but the walls are thin, the door thinner. The pounding stops.
“Is that my baby? You have my fucking baby? I knew it, I told them I was right, it was you, you cunt, you fucking thief, you crazy motherfucking—”
She picks the baby up and rocks her. She hums, her body vibrating the tears away, satisfying Hamlet’s need to be held, Claudia’s need to be rocked, Zanzibar’s need to fed. Her breast is out and the baby latches on, sucks, suckles, tries to find something in there, but there’s nothing. Siobhan has nothing to give. She is bone and desert dry, so dry her saliva is evaporating from her hung-open mouth.
Her breasts will fill. The stimulation will create the hormonal response and the baby will be fed and sated and loved in this room. Siobhan has heard stories. She knows this can, will, happen. She has always wanted to experiment with motherhood, or so she has decided at this juncture in time, this fork in the road where she refuses to move forward and has chosen to stay put, in this room, with this baby.
“Please let me come in. Just let me see her. I won’t touch you. I promise. I won’t do anything. I just. Please, Bonbon. Please.”
Nicknames are what you make of them, and Siobhan has never made a sweet gooey thing of hers. She doesn’t like candy, caramel, anything that melts and sticks in your throat and mouth. Not even chocolate. Or peanut butter. She has good oral hygiene. She is lucky there is a sink in the room, and a toilet tucked behind a curtain, and running water. It’s the right room to stay in. All her basic needs are met. She has been picking splinters out of the floor to use as toothpicks. Three threads from her shirt rolled together are better than any floss she’s ever used. There is one outlet, a hot plate, and the kind of milk you don’t need to refrigerate, boxed in cardboard. There is enough to feed her, granola bars and cans and cereal boxes.
Everything they will ever need is here. Oceans of water through a tap, mountains of old newspapers for both inhabitant’s excretions. A working lightbulb, for now. A window, with bars, that can be opened. Fresh air is important for babies, Siobhan knows.
She dandles Hamlet and marvels at her face, so alien and unknown. Whose is she? Siobhan has decided that Claudia is hers, donated by a man locked in a room far, far away. Semen pressing through his fingertips into a plastic cup. Harder to position than urine. The former is less predictable, less of a tidy stream. There is something to envy in a baby, Siobhan realizes. The ability to just go. Zanzibar won’t need to learn to aim down for some years. Years in which the truth will morph to Siobhan’s specifications.
It’s quiet outside now. The battering of the door has stopped. Not that ceasing one form of battery corrects another kind. Siobhan walks in circles with Hamlet, with Claudia, with Zanzibar. She heats the Ultra High-Temperature Pasteurized milk on the hot plate, puts it in a bottle, feeds it to the whining wrinkle in her arm. Cow milk is fine for babies, isn’t it? Siobhan’s biceps are rigid, visible below her sleeves, and she admires them while the baby coos and burps in sated satisfaction.
She places the baby back in the crib, a single floor-bound drawer with a pillow and blankets for padding. Hamlet looks snug. Claudia seems like an egg in a nest, though she isn’t one any longer. Zanzibar is hatched, this ugly duckling.
There is a lot of weed for Siobhan to get through. She is lucky that it suppresses rather than enhances her appetite. She has seen people grow couch-sized, cuddleable as teddy bears, but she trained herself early to go the opposite way. To avoid that east-west growth. She shrivels when inhaling laced air. Her north-south becomes more prominent. If there were a mirror, she’d think she’d grown an inch.
The light coming through the bars grows dimmer and the footsteps prolific, telling her the stories of faceless voices returning from work. “See you soon, hon,” and “watch the game tonight?” and “I told you to buy the fucking potatoes, asshole.” Mostly, the shoes speak in squeaks and clip-clopping. Carriage wheels and horses. The voices die down, then the shoes. A Harley rumbles its music into the night, an abrasive mating call. Then silence.
Siobhan realizes she has slept, the joint smoldering in the ashtray. Wasteful. Wasteful. Wasteful slut, cunt, baboon, fucking whore. Her hands are fisted and they knock her head as hard as the knocker was knocking before, as hard as the kick and the shoulder smash that came days earlier. Siobhan could break herself if she wanted, too; it isn’t only the prerogative of other people. A waste, a waste, she is wasting away, wasted, wasting her precious antidepressant herb. She falls asleep again, crying, the baby’s cries harmonizing.
Hamlet was plump when Siobhan first got her. Claudia, Siobhan thought, was too round. Zanzibar was maddeningly fleshy. But she is already less so now than when she was born because Siobhan is still dry and has been rationing the UHT milk.
The knocking is back this morning.
“I’ve called the police, Siobhan. I didn’t want to, but you made me. I told Auntie Enid first. I had to.”
No more bonbons for her. Good. Finally, she is being taken seriously. Although the mention of Enid, that is disrespectful. Babying, even. Siobhan doesn’t need reminders of a legal guardian more useless than a piece of plywood lying in a gutter.
She picks up baby Hamlet. Claudia squeezes Siobhan’s finger, a tight fist of small brown fingers and pink nails. Delicate and crushable as rosebuds. Her fragility, baby Zanzibar’s, is remarkable. She could blow away so easily. A dandelion puffed in the wind or a fish flushed down a toilet. There are few things as vulnerable in this world, Siobhan thinks, as a blooming baby. How interesting to mother one.
It is pounding now, the door; banker-serious, repo-man serious, but not yet cop-serious. Siobhan will recognize it when it comes and she has her argument down pat. It is on her face, in the lines of her ribs, on her back. The evidence is everywhere: she is fitter, if not the fittest. She will not hurt this baby. Not willingly. She wishes she could let Hamlet be chubby, but she knows how hard life will be for Claudia then. Children are cruel, especially to ones with names like Zanzibar. Siobhan is only trying to save her acquired daughter from those snipers who will take her down, one essential organ at a time.
“You come out here right now, Siobhan Elizabeth Macaulay.”
Siobhan, holding the bottle of lukewarm milk to the baby’s lips, almost drops everything in her urge to run. He actually did it. Got Auntie Enid to not only leave her apartment but come all the way down the elevator and then the stairs to the old bomb shelter.
Inching towards the door, babe in arms, Siobhan feels the magnetic pull, her body betraying her desire to hear the woman’s voice more clearly. Enid is not to be ignored. Even in her half senile old age, there is basalt in her bones. Not birthed in fire, but hardened by it, Enid has never borne insubordination in her one surviving family member.
“Auntie?” Siobhan’s voice is croaked, from smoking, from not speaking, from days of motherhood.
“The police are here. I’ve told them they’re wasting their time, but you sure as hell know that I don’t waste mine, so come on out here this instance.”
“Ma’am, with all due respect…” Siobhan hears a big man’s voice, and the way it peters out, snuffed by Enid.
“Is he with you?” Siobhan asks, leaning over the couch, words scratching at the door. “Is she?”
“No one is here but this police officer, all of them are too big for their britches if you ask me, killing Negros and all. Now come on out. I’m not waiting.” There is a chuff at the modified, old fashioned N word, but is it the police officer or is it her? The woman whose skin is visible all over the beautiful Hamlet, whose cheeks sit on Claudia’s face, whose bulk made Zanzibar puff-armed?
Siobhan looks at the room, her home for the last however long she’s been here. She stopped trying to keep track when she began to be confused by whether it was dawn or dusk. The shoes and voices sounded the same at both times, and she slept in between. It could have been a week, a month, a year. Maybe a day and a half. Two. Missing persons take two days to report, don’t they? Do babies count as persons yet?
Hamlet lets go of her bottle’s nipple and looks up at Siobhan. Claudia yawns and squirms like a cat in her arms, trying to get comfortable, leaning her head against Siobhan’s empty breast. Zanzibar smacks her little lips and her fat tongue pokes out, and she closes her eyes, ready for sleep. She looks like she has three lips, the rounded muscle in her mouth still pushed out, bubbling quietly. Siobhan gently puts the baby back in her crib and watches the delicate, breakable limbs rearrange themselves again, one fist waving an invisible rattle before stilling.
The couch is heavier than she remembered it. Or she is weaker. It takes her a few minutes to get it to move just a little, her lungs heaving and ribs straining against her skin. She cracks the door open, just enough to peak through, leaving the heavy couch as a barrier to actual entry.
There she is, in all her housebound glory, Auntie Enid, hair wild-scientist puffed, tortoise neck wrinkles covering her face, her torso and legs hidden by a long, stained nightgown. Her breasts sag to her belly button and her arms jut out of the gown’s sleeves with limp muscle turned to fat. She is beautiful to Siobhan, who never expects to reach such an age. All old people are beautiful to Siobhan.
“You come out here, girl. All the way out.” Enid stomps her foot, slippered in brown corduroy. A healthy size eight foot with calluses that wrinkle in the bathwater. The officer standing a little down the hall from Enid is large and young and white, probably of Irish stock like Enid, uncomfortable in his too-tight uniform, his fingers hooked into his belt loops like a cowboy. He coughs.
“Ma’am,” he says, nodding. It is unclear which of the women he is referring to.
“Okay,” Siobhan finally says. She’s left the weed in the room. She doesn’t want to be arrested for possession. Definitely not with intent to sell. But she knows how the system works. They could twist this all around on her, saying she was running a business through the window. Maybe she should have run a business through the window. She could have survived longer that way. Stupid cow, dumbass harpy. Frigid bitch.
She pulls the couch a little more, and the door opens a bit wider. There is a new sound now, heavy breathing, but Enid is perfectly still and the cop isn’t wheezing. Siobhan stands in the doorway, stares at Enid, and knows that she has been lied to. She backs up and tries to shut the door, but it’s too late. The heavily breathing woman, fat and tear-smeared, has turned the bend in the hallway, Siobhan’s ex right behind her, and before the cop can do anything about anything, the woman has pushed Siobhan right back into the room and forced her own way through.
The woman looks around frantically, her hair a tangled nest ripe for a hatchling. Her eyes lock on the drawer-crib. She lets out a wail, a truly melodic scream, her hands first on her face and then on her baby. The keening sound is layered with every bitter thought Siobhan has had about this woman, every hated bit of the woman’s flesh, sagging and ugly.
The man isn’t far behind her, and right there, right in front of the officer, who seems to be moving through lava, the man who called her Bonbon punches her hard in her concave stomach and she crumples to the floor, on her side, facing the fat woman and her baby.
“Daisy,” the woman is cooing. “Daisy, Daisy, Daisy. You’re alive. She’s alive.” The man reaches the woman and the baby, he drapes his arm around her, his hand tightens on her meaty shoulder and Siobhan watches his own shoulders shake over this baby that the two of them made together. This remarkable being that never knew they existed, that loved Siobhan and smiled at her. That yawned and cried and smiled and slept and ate and shat and whom Siobhan took care of for however long it’s been.
“Her name isn’t Daisy,” Siobhan says from the floor. The cop is picking her up, handcuffing her, and Enid is leaning against a wall, her flesh no longer bursting with energy but wan, exhausted. “Her name isn’t Daisy.”
The happy family doesn’t hear her. Enid looks up at Siobhan and spits on the floor right next to her feet. The cop, still holding her arms despite the cuffs keeping her rigid, begins to say something in monotone, but Siobhan only thinks of her loss and listens keenly as baby Hamlet, Claudia, Zanzibar begins to cry.
Ilana Masad is an Isreali-American writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Printer’s Row, Broadly, Vice, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Mcsweeney’s Internet Tendency, Joyland Magazine, and more. Follow her @ilanaslightly and check out her podcast, The Other Stories.