All They Take

by Laura Leigh Morris

When the baby’s mouth closes over her nipple, Irene goes from half asleep to painfully awake. The chapped cracks in her areola come alive, and she whimpers. The baby snarfles and gasps as he suckles, a hungry little thing.
      Insatiable, Irene called him at his four-week-old appointment. The doctor nodded, said they were like that at this age. Irene said, no, he truly can’t be sated, offered to show him nipples like hamburgers. The doctor held up his hands, backed away. He offered lanolin ointment and slid out the door.
      None of her friends’ babies eat twenty times a day. None of them describe having their very marrow sucked through their nipples. The baby comes at her breasts ferociously, starved. She is grateful he has no teeth—he would puncture the skin, suck her blood. Formula, one friend suggested. As if Irene’s supply isn’t enough. Except, the baby has rings of fat around his wrists and ankles, dimples on his butt. He is no plucked chicken.
      Irene closes her eyes, pats the baby’s back as he gulps her milk, the pain more manageable. He claws her chest, looking for more, leaving red marks. She needs to cut his nails. Except when she isn’t feeding him, she sleeps. Or feeds herself. She’s gotten too thin, her body leeching everything it can to make enough for him, her hair and nails dry and brittle. When her husband said, all you do is feed him, she replied, I know. Then, she cried.
      The baby pulls away and screams at her now-deflated breast. Irene makes shushing noises as she flips him to the other side, then holds her breath as he latches. Her life has narrowed, the rest of the world hazy. She blamed the baby after she drove to the store wearing slippers, when she forgot a doctor’s appointment, even when she didn’t shower for two days. But last week, when work called about something—apologizing profusely for interrupting her leave —Irene couldn’t create a mental image of her office, or the face of the person on the phone. She feared something serious was wrong, but the doctor called it mommy brain. Then, just this evening, her husband leaned over, kissed her goodnight, and Irene didn’t recognize him. She knew who he was—why else would he be in her bed—except his face was alien, his name gone. She reminded herself what the doctor said: you can’t imagine all they take.
      She looks down, rubs her finger across his brow. Greedy as he is, the baby is a beauty— long lashes, full red lips, a dimple on his left cheek. As she admires him, his jaw opens wider, her areola disappearing in his mouth. Then wider still, until he pulls half her breast in. Lips stretched thin, he inches more and more of her into his maw. First, her whole breast. Then, his upper lip wraps around her clavicle before his jaw clamps down on her shoulder. Irene watches, the pain exquisite. She wonders if the baby will get all he needs.

Laura Leigh Morris is the author of The Stone Catchers (UP Kentucky, forthcoming) and Jaws of Life (West Virginia UP, 2018). This short story is part of a new collection that she terms “uncanny domestics.” She teaches creative writing and literature at Furman University.