March 2013

A Nest of Milk

I watched the rabbit on the moon through my bedroom window, and I wondered how people of the tropics imagine the world differently. It was my last thought as I fell asleep.

Several palms of a kind I had never seen before swayed in the warm ocean of my dreams. The thick, banded trunks led to a canopy of green fronds set high above a knoll of tall reeds. I saw the radiant figure as it passed through the stand of trees; in her white robe, she shone like a lantern on a passing ship. The girl turned her head in my direction and then, as if time had skipped, stood right next to me. I reached out to touch her hand. Her smile was soft and familiar.

“This way,” she whispered.

I swept my arm to part the dry grass and walked along the shifting shadows of the fronds. Each time the wind blew, I could feel the warmth of the tropical sun on my shoulders.

“Why do you seek us out, Noë?” she asked.

“Who are you?” My voice sounded harsh compared to hers.

“My name is Lily.”

For a while I took to walking in the poor island neighborhood where the maids, gardeners, and other laborers who work for the tourist industry lived. What stood out most about it were the dogs, how wretched and frail they were, nothing more than bags of bones. I went there so I could hand them scraps of food. Each time, those poor animals looked anxiously at my hands, but did not dare come too close. They flinched when I tossed the morsels at their feet, even after repeated times. Each time they saw me coming, the desperation in their eyes grew.

I looked into the girl’s melancholy eyes and understood the pity in them. In the presence of that radiant being, I felt like the dogs who roam the streets of the Caribbean barrio near where my wife and I lived.

I awakened with a start and felt as if the darkness itself had passed judgment on me. I turned over and hugged my sleeping wife. Nora wiggled against my body and settled there, making the dark seem less like a looming presence. I was comforted by the soft, long, slightly raspy breath that she sometimes made as she slept. But the dream, which began so beautifully and turned pitiable, had settled in my mind.

I had recently stopped feeding those island dogs, since we would soon be leaving this once-British colony. What did it matter if I fed them for a few extra days? My efforts would not alter the reality of their miserable lives. That’s what I had told myself, until the dream of the radiant girl, when I realized I stopped mostly because I could no longer bear to look upon their desperate state.

“Are you all right, Noë?” my wife said as she shook my shoulder.

“I don’t know. I had a bad dream,” I replied as I sat up.

“It’s just a dream, honey.” She reached over and turned on the light. “Just a dream.”

I rubbed my eyes, trying to wipe away my disorientation. “I’m sorry for waking you. Go back to sleep. I’m okay.”

“I’m not sleeping,” she whispered, pushing herself up onto her elbows. “Noë, I have something to tell you…” She paused, unraveling the blanket from her body. There was just enough light to see her wipe away the lock of hair that had settled between her breasts.

“I went to the doctor today. I know we decided to wait but I’m pregnant.”

My dreams are often nested, and I thought myself in another layer. I didn’t say anything, waiting to see what would follow.

She drew back the curtain by the bed, letting the light of the moon inside. “Did you hear what I said?”

“But we’ve been so careful since the honeymoon,” I replied and saw the look of disappointment on her face. I lay down beside her. Nora’s eyes widened as my fingers moved slowly over her belly, ever so lightly brushed her nipple, and settled on the curve of her neck.

After a moment, she pulled slightly away. “I thought you would be upset. That’s why I didn’t say anything.” The tears ran down the side of her face, leaving dark splotches on the linen.

“Shh. Everything is fine.” I ran my cheek along her arm, gently kissing my way up to her lips. The feel of her skin lingered, as ephemeral as memories of a dream, and I waited for her to respond.

We made love and I woke later that Monday morning. I left Nora in bed and went out to get the Sunday Times, which usually arrived dog-eared and a day late at the corner store. All thoughts of the girl in my dream had morphed into my impending fatherhood. All the reasons for not wanting a child were disappearing one by one. I walked along smiling at the stretched morning shadows of the trees and their funny bends along the sandy berms that acted as curbstones.

“Good morning, Noë. Going for the paper?” My neighbor, an elderly lady with a house full of plump cats, greeted me with an unusual look of worry. She was standing awkwardly just outside her adobe apartment building, clutching the faded blue door with one hand and with the other holding her white sweater tight around her neck.

“Hello, Mrs. Fielding. Can I pick up anything for you at the store? More milk perhaps?” The woman bought vast quantities of the stuff, but she rarely left her house. I would often buy her milk and she, knowing this, waited for me by her door.

“Oh, that would be lovely.” She relaxed. “But not the skim. Get me the two percent. Did you sleep late today?” Two of her cats were peering out the door through her legs.

“I’m afraid so. Had an unsettling night.”

“Oh dear. Don’t you have any pills for that?” she said with noticeable anxiety in her voice. I realized how dependent on me she and her happily spoiled felines had gotten.

“No, Mrs. Fielding. I don’t like pills. I’ll be back in a jiffy; don’t you worry.” Curiously, and for the first time, the thought of all those privileged cats lapping up the milk was somehow displeasing.

I glanced back at the old woman and wondered if I was meant to provide for the meek and desperate. Why did I find that look of dependence in her eyes as she asked for the milk so unsettling? Perhaps it bore too close a resemblance to the eyes of the wretched dogs, or perhaps because it contrasted sharply with the indulgent look of the cats that stared at me from her feet. Was the suffering of the stray dogs as opposed to the luxury of the cats the result of local karmic influences, or was the god of this island more partial to cats?

It was a beautiful morning, and I was dimly aware I could not give the day the attention it deserved because of my heavy ruminations. In most religions, I mused, suffering is tied to salvation and selflessness is the highest virtue. If so, those cats were damned to hell and the dogs…but I wondered if the moralists were in error, and there was no thereafter…the dogs were not so blessed after all.

“Actually, you’d better get the whole milk today,” Mrs. Fielding yelled as I rounded the corner.

Those poor dogs, I thought, as I walked on. Was there ever a culture that worshipped them like the ancient Egyptian venerated the cat? What cat owner does not cherish her pet, not just in spite of, but because of his regal insolence? If there is some eternal law of correspondence, does God looks upon us as we see our creature pets? Perhaps He pities the moralist among us and esteems the hedonist.

“May I help you?” the teenage girl behind the counter asked from behind a dull green apron. Her dirty blond hair was tied back with a limp red ribbon. “Six fifty, please,” she added, with pretty blue eyes glazed with disinterest. She stuffed the Sunday paper next to the dewy cartons of milk and handed me the bag.

At home I saw the damp stain that had formed on the headline: The World Mourns the Death of Lady Di. A slightly smudged photo showed her in a bikini with her millionaire boyfriend on a luxurious yacht, while in another she was holding hands with an AIDS patient.

“Isn’t it terrible about Lady Di,” Nora said as she placed a cup of coffee in front of me. “She was such a saint,” she added as she poured in a dab of milk.

I watched the milk swirl in my coffee. It coalesced into an opaque image of the radiant girl; the vision blotted away the rest of the world. “Will you open your heart to me?” the radiant being’s voice whispered. I watched as her form swirled into the coffee until the cool whiteness blended the black liquid brown.

With the cup in my hands, I glanced at my wife flipping through the pages of the damp Sunday Times. I always liked to look at her when her dark hair was loose and unkempt as it was that morning.

She smiled at me. “You want more coffee?”

“No, I’m okay. Did the doctor tell you when you’re due, honey?”

“Due for what?” She lowered the paper and looked over the crumpled pages at me.

“The baby. When is she going to arrive?”

“What on earth are you talking about, Noë?”

“Didn’t you tell me you were pregnant, you know, last night, in the middle of the night, when I woke up?” I replied, lifting the coffee to my lips.

“Pregnant? How could I be? I’m on the pill. Though I’m glad you woke up. Feel free to wake me up like that any time.” She smiled and winked at me, and then her face became more serious. “Do you want to have a baby?”

“So you’re not pregnant?” I placed my cup down, feeling as if a part of me turned to mist. “I guess it was just part of my dream.”

“I hope this isn’t one of those prophetic dreams. I’d better get one of those rabbit tests,” she winked and then reached for my hand. “We discussed this, remember? Maybe we should get a dog, a cute little puppy.”

“You know they don’t allow dogs in the building.” I squeezed her fingers and smiled. “Don’t worry. It was just a dream.”

There was a knock on the door. I rose from my seat to answer it and found Mrs. Fielding with a green basket of tiny white kittens on the crook of her arm. Gently, she picked up one of the little creatures. “I want you to have her,” the elderly lady said. “You’ve been so kind to us all these weeks.”

“Oh, aren’t they so tiny and white,” Nora said as she reached for the creature.

“They’re awfully young. Where’s the mother?” I asked.

“There is no mother, I’m afraid. A pretty young girl brought them to me yesterday. She said she found them in a bag in the alley by the butcher shop. Can you imagine separating these poor creatures from their mother at this age? How cruel can some people be?”

Nora held out the tiny white kitten for me to hold. “I think this one would suit us fine, don’t you?”

I took the blind little creature in my hands, wondered about the color of her eyes, thought about what might follow, and how nested my dreams really were.