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A Little Language, under which is Love

by Kate Özel

What a surprise it was for Katherine to wake up with a dream still caught up in her lashes and find the light rushing through the window in mirrored sheets. Her lips were on Emir’s shoulder but it was the sun that was caressing her hands, wobbly and trembling with a softness like thighs. It was a cold sun.

She kept dreaming of her sisters, which was funny, since she had never thought too much of them when they lived together. But now, separated as they were by trains and planes and the fact they no longer merely existed as reflections of one another, each morning she awoke with the certainty that she had dreamt of them: a feeling she could almost touch the limbs and hearts and hair that spilled out before her in a tender, swan-like mess, that she could hear the violence of their love like a rush in her ears. She awoke with a longing for the closeness they had only had as children, when they used to tumble over one another in the garden with sun-hot limbs and white skirts. How innocent their sexuality had been! as they gave each other flutter kisses by brushing their eyelashes against the other’s cheeks and then snuck actual kisses behind the garden shed, touching their lips against each other so softly it felt invisible. Katherine always used to grab her sisters by the back of their head and dart the red tip of tongue across the glaze of their teeth viciously, grinning. Little love-havers, her grandmother had said, watching the way their bodies wove together in ropes and lockets, their legs smooth and white like the inside of shells, the undersides of feet. It wasn’t real, of course, Katherine knew: the magic of it. That had only come retrospectively.

And now, besides, here she was, curled up like a thumb against the man who lay asleep beside her; now she had the bulge beneath her pyjama waistband, a belly filling up with molecules the size of lentils. She was certain it was a daughter.

They had met amidst a few singular days in August where the weather had been so hot the sun became haze and then glitter and then glass. He had tapped her on the shoulder and said, you’re dressed like winter! For she had been wearing a puffer jacket in the thirty-degree heat. Well, it was cold this morning, she had replied, defensively, as always. She hadn’t liked him particularly at first. He had an awful way of snuffling his breath in and out after he said something he found particularly funny. Like: huh-hrrr, huh-hrrr, with some chuckles in the middle like a baby hiccuping. And they had gone for some dinner dates in which he had been silent, watching the way the waitress’ legs became wishbones beneath her skirt as she walked away, answering Katherine with one word, or simply shovelling food. But he was persistent, and she missed him when he wasn’t around. How he hummed under his breath like a refrigerator, the way he exclaimed ‘oh!’ like a child, the way he would slip back into Turkish when caught off guard — those rummaging sounds that reminded her of the whole other person he was without her. His eyes, which were soft and brown like butterfly wings. And after a while she had spent so many nights watching the shadows chase down the windows of his apartment and fall onto his naked body, curving it to bones, and so many mornings watching the plants on the windowsill becoming planets in the ragged half-light, little sun-hatched uteruses gone grey and ashy — the room humming with a silence of ears and the little sounds of his breath beside her — that she began to think she might not be able to live without him. And then one day she had woken up tearful and tender, and certain she was pregnant.

That had been August and now it was October. An autumn of fresh-linen mornings with dewy skies blue enough to eat, mornings that were always hesitant, and gentle. Strong white feet in sheets so cold they were silver, her cold feet resting against his, slender hand to slender hand. The light that seemed to move in reverse in the morning. And her belly. Is there blood yet? He would say each day, once he had woken up. Woken up for the second time, that is. He would blow her a kiss as she got up for work at six and fall back asleep, and still be there in bed when she came home at three, just as the light was beginning to dim from the sky. Is there blood yet? Eventually she stopped saying no, and just pretended. She liked keeping her swollen belly to herself: a secret, like a jewel, like a word she could say over and over. Kastanien, Bäume, Babybäuche: she was learning new words as the baby was learning to live, and she muttered them to herself on the U-Bahn, keeping her eyes closed with the train’s sway. Charmed by sounds that shivered like water and deepened like milk. Süt, Emir said, pointing at the carton.

Süt süt süt, he chanted.

Repeat, he said.

evet, hayır, adam, ​​kadın, uyuruz

This one is easy, he said. Little spheres with a handful of sleep, she would hold the words close to her as she held her belly on the second bus to work, eyes heavy and soft with almost-sleep, each limb content and fat with Sundays. Her mind like a cat, the blankness unfurling as she got off at Antonplatz and started to walk. Trace them with your teeth, he said, each one a poem: poems with teeth, little poems like little shells, tiny white teeth nibbling at the edges of the morning, these milk-teeth October mornings that opened their mouth like a window but had nothing to say. Oh to tell him, she thought. She would have to tell him. She thought of tiny baby fingernails, of her own collection of teeth that was still beneath her mother’s bed. I will teach you to walk, little baby, she thought, you can grow from me.

I wouldn’t worry, her mother said grainily, over Facetime. This happened to me all the time when I was your age. I didn’t get my period for two years before I got pregnant with Mirabel! Katherine was on her way to the doctors. She had left it too late: it had been months, now it was snowing and she was fat with possibility. Each day the layer round her midriff grew thicker, curdled and plump like pork belly rind, and her ankles were tough and hard. She couldn’t walk up stairs. The woman across from her on the tram was weeping silently and Katherine glanced up from her mothers’ face in her phone every once in a while to check: yes, she was still crying. I mean, why would you be? you are being safe, aren’t you? Her mother didn’t know about Emir. In fact, she was certain her mother thought she was a lesbian. She thought she was a lesbian, mostly. Why do you keep fucking him? said her sister, when Katherine rang her the week before. Emir, backing into her like she was a parking space; Emir, saying I’ve never fucked a girl with a body like this. The way his nose curled when he came. When they were apart, Katherine always seemed to forget what he looked like. I don’t know, she said, it’s the dreams, mostly. Oh, her mother sighed, well then. You always were thinking yourself into feeling things you didn’t really feel.

The doctor’s surgery was just past the Weißensee, and the snowfall had become heavier by the time she had walked round the lake. Great flurries of froth drifted into her open mouth like toothpaste and she took step after step like a chant. Hello, she said, when she got into the waiting room. No one answered. There was a little girl making piles of coins on the floor. She always kicks the right, she whispered to the woman next to her, her hand on her stomach.

The doctor was a man. He made Katherine lay down like a frog and then he put his hand in her vagina as if he was birthing a lamb. He frowned and said nothing. He got another doctor, who placed his hand on her stomach like she was a pebble, and then put his hand inside her as though putting on a glove. They looked at each other, and then looked at her. There’s nothing there, they said. They looked at her as though she was some terribly sad person they needed to humour. Did you do a test? You’re not pregnant. We're very sorry, they said, but you’re not. Do you struggle with flatulence? Difficulty defecating? Perhaps it is a gluten intolerance, have you —

On the way home she thought of Emir, of how he would be lying asleep now, his mouth open wide, his face all squishy from sleep, swollen like lips. Emir, naked as a moon, tapping her belly from behind with a hollow hand, and how it made a sound like a cow’s flank, curved and full of water. Papa! Come quick, he cried, here is the best watermelon! He was always doing this, dipping into different realities as easily as slipping off a coat, wearing others’ minds like a hat. Listen, he would say, I am doing a backstory, listen.

The snow had stopped falling by the time she got off the tram and the graveyard beside her apartment captured the white snow-light in thick dashes. Her belly still heavy, her throat taut, unable to face the stairs: she went in and sat on a bench. The trees were feeding her the light through their leaves like a drip, it dribbled down her throat in a clear sheet and was held there like glass. She felt she was casting her own life in resin with how desperate she was to capture the present; how urgently she wanted some moments to hold onto; something to bite down onto and keep warm inside her. Her limbs, her lungs, the cold still air outside: each trickling amber, each caught like flies, like little gold raisins each leaf a fleck each sound a bell. Her thoughts getting caught in her throat, fine and wiry like strands of hair. Her baby! Her daughter!

But it had been her sisters who had folded over and over in her mind as she lay in the doctors’ room. In that tiny patriarchy, with their wormy bodies before her, their long thin feet, she had thought of her sisters, inside her. Figments, like her daughter, like her mother, far away and existing only in her mind. Of herself, a woman: the little glowing emblem that had rested in her uterus like a Madonna, sending its warmth through to her belly. These limbs, this love: all of it nestled at the base of her spine like pomegranate seeds. Somehow she would never stop thinking she could make something from nothing, again and again and again. Oh, she had said to the doctors, ok. Ok that’s fine, thank you. Couldn’t it be fine? Couldn’t it?

She started to sob. The only people in the graveyard were women: six old women hunching over their husband’s gravestones, moving silently, like a hush. No one spoke to one another. The graveyard was cold: a baby asleep in a house too cold to sleep in. Katherine sat there and thought: that there’s something about living in someone else’s shoes — it’s not quite — or something, or something, or something.

KATE ÖZEL reads Modern Languages and Philosophy at St. Hugh's College. She wrote this story secretly at work, adding a sentence each time her colleagues went to use the photocopier.

Art by Sophie Enkay.


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