This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Dunes Review, which is available for purchase here
Eloise’s ob-gyn popped her head up after inserting a speculum in Eloise’s vagina to mention that she had recently received a call from Eloise’s mother. She had? Eloise hadn’t realized that her mother, Odile, even knew the name of her doctor. Odile had wanted to know if fetal webbed hands and/or feet could be detected by an ultrasound. Eloise did not know what to make of this.
It was true that Odile had developed a new passion for the Internet, where everything that could go wrong in a pregnancy was given more than its due. Odile also read the science section of The New York Times assiduously, even now when she was in France. And Odile did seem surprisingly anxious about Eloise’s pregnancy. In fact, Odile had seemingly not relaxed for one minute since Eloise first told her the news, except for the few moments after each doctor’s appointment when Eloise would report that the doctor had said everything was fine, perfect, normal. Even with six thousand miles separating them, Eloise could tell because there was a fine mist of hysteria at the beginning of every phone call.
Eloise was, to be fair, pregnant with Odile’s first grandchild, which was a big deal. And a moment Odile had (mostly) patiently awaited for years. Odile’s two sisters were already awash in descendants. Still, Eloise sighed as her cervix was inspected. Hopefully, Odile would relax when the baby came.
Eloise called her mother the minute she left the doctor’s office. Odile answered on the first ring. She listened, exhaled, and pronounced “Bon.” But when Eloise questioned Odile about her call to Eloise’s ob-gyn, Odile became defensive. Why shouldn’t she do some “researches”? After all, she had been in agony.
“You have? What agony?” asked Eloise. But Odile refused to discuss it. She would explain after the baby was born. She looked forward to hearing about the next doctor’s appointment. It was very late there. Besides, she would be arriving in three weeks. “Praise God the baby doesn’t come too early” were her parting words, though Eloise actually no longer cared if the baby came early. She’d made it to thirty-six weeks. According to absolutely everyone, the baby was well cooked.
This is what Eloise did not tell her mother: from the very beginning, she thought of her baby-in-waiting as a frog. Eloise called it “the grenouille.” Even her husband called it that, though he could not pronounce it correctly no matter how many times Eloise tried to teach him. But it was a challenging word. It was the word—or so Eloise had been told—the French had used as a test to see if people were only pretending to be French, but were really German spies, in one or both of the World Wars. Instead, her husband called the baby the “gren-wee,” which Eloise thought was charming in its own way.
Why a frog? Eloise wasn’t sure. Her husband had once written a song about a frog-jumping contest that had gotten decent radio play. The first gift she’d given him on their initial—and unsuccessful—round of dating had been a vintage lithograph of a frog, which, at the time, he neither deserved nor appreciated, but which now hung in their living room. Newborns were frogish. People were froggy. And well, she was French (half), which meant sometimes being called a “frog,” though mostly by idiots. And though, when the baby first started kicking, it felt like a fish flopping in her abdomen, these days it felt more like a frog poking, flipping, leaping. Not that any of this frog/grenouille business had anything to do with webbing. It didn’t, because not even all frogs had webbing. Whatever. It was crazy. And babies with webbing? Who had even heard of that? Her mother was really reaching. Eloise didn’t even dignify it with a trip to the Internet.
The baby did not come early. Which was common, very common, and no cause for concern, especially with a first child. But Odile, now in town, was extremely agitated. Eloise was truly amazed. This same woman had opted not to take her to the emergency room when she had broken her arm at age six because it did not appear serious (no blood) until the massive swelling the next day was irrefutably bad news. This same woman had declared that a daily dose of cod liver oil was pretty much the only medical attention a child ever needed. Who had her mother become? Already she was showing more concern about the health of her unborn grandchild than she had ever shown about her own children’s. Eloise mentioned this to her husband, who did not seem fazed. What of it? Impending grandparenthood obviously brought out some next-level neurosis. His mother had already e-mailed him several articles about the disintegration of the placenta, all of which he had placed directly in his trash. Only Eloise’s brother recognized the uncharacteristic crazy.
Eloise’s water broke when she was in the parking lot of the supermarket. Unlike other female “events,” such as her first period and Braxton-Hicks contractions—both of which she had failed to recognize for an embarrassingly long time—she understood what was happening right away. She whipped out a towel placed with forethought in her trunk, wrapped it around herself like a dhoti, and drove home.
The director who was working with her husband on a movie in her husband’s garage studio, on the other hand, did not seem to understand what was happening. Or did not feel the same urgency that Eloise and her husband felt about getting to the hospital. Or was simply too passionate about his passion project to care. He did not jump up and depart, as the situation obviously dictated. Instead, he followed her husband to the car, continuing to give notes on his movie through the open car window, even as the car was backing out of the driveway. Finally, Eloise leaned her head out the passenger side window and yelled: “Shut the fuck up! I’m in labor!” The director stopped walking alongside the car, smiled blankly, and waved good-bye. Eloise hoped he would remember to close the front gate whenever he decided to finally leave their house, so the dogs would not get out and be eaten by coyotes during the birth.
Odile waited outside Eloise’s room. Eloise didn’t even know she was there until her doctor mentioned it. Eloise was alternating between clawing her husband’s arm as the pain consumed her like she was the prey of an invisible boa constrictor, and feeling perfectly fine. Eloise stuck her head outside the door and invited Odile to walk the halls with her while Eloise’s husband took a break as birth partner or husband or “Dad,” as the nurses were already calling him. Which, it occurred to Eloise, would be unforgivably cruel in the event that things took a turn for the tragic.
Eloise was mindful not to break the small bones in her mother’s hand during contractions.
“Why webbing? Where did you see that?” asked Eloise. Odile shook her head no. Did her mother think that discussing it would cause flesh to sprout between the fetus’s fingers and toes?
“Les jeux sont faits, Mom. Really.”
Later, after the birth, when Eloise was still feverish and woozy from who-knows-what drugs and experiencing a form of locked-in syndrome caused by the not uncommon traveling of the epidural not just down but up her spine, she would start to change certain details about what her mother had told her. She would make it better.
Odile and her sisters had had an aunt, their father’s only sibling.
An aunt who was never allowed to leave the second floor of the house she was born in for the first sixty years of her life. An aunt who was never mentioned to anyone outside the very immediate family. An aunt born with webbed hands and feet. Tante Rose.
“Wait, are you saying that Oncle Thierry and Oncle Jean have never heard of this aunt? That your sisters never told their husbands about her? Does Dad know?”
Odile exhaled and threw up one of her hands. Imagine that Tante Rose was born in 1900. Imagine that no one would ever have married into the family if they had known about Rose.
“I can’t imagine that. It’s crazy,” said Eloise, pausing from walking, eyes rolling, huffing, seizing, forgetting to breathe, remembering.
“I don’t know, maybe I can imagine that,” she reconsidered. “What happened when Rose was sixty?”
Tante Rose’s father died. Her mother was already long dead, Eloise knew, in suspicious circumstances involving a gas oven, not unlike Odile’s own mother. So the house Rose had lived in her entire life had been sold. Her brother, Odile’s father, had used Rose’s share of the money to buy her a trailer.
“A trailer? Like an RV?”
Odile, again, was impatient. Eloise contracted and released.
“A very nice trailer on a large piece of land,” Odile snapped.
“Why would your father buy her a trailer? He couldn’t buy her a house? This doesn’t make him look very good. What if you lived in a trailer? Even a nice trailer? Would you like that? I don’t think you would like that,” Eloise rambled.
It wasn’t all bad. Rose played cards, entertained in her trailer. Apparently had gentlemen callers. At sixty, she made a life. A life on a piece of land in another part of France. Eloise didn’t see it that way.
“So she was exiled. First she’s locked away, and then exiled.”
“Et voila,” sighed Odile, exhausted by Eloise’s failure to grasp what was significant and what was not.
Rose lived in the trailer for ten years, then died. But when they went to clean out her trailer, it was alive with fleas. Entering the trailer, their legs looked like they were wearing black stockings. The trailer was torched with everything in it.
“Who was the ‘they’?” Odile didn’t know. Eloise remembered to breathe on the next contraction.
“Mom, why have you been so worried about the webbing? At least fifty children have been born in the family with perfect digits since Tante Rose. Besides, it’s probably not even that big a deal today.”
Odile insisted that Eloise was wrong. It was a big deal. Eloise insisted that Odile was wrong. It was not. They agreed that neither of them was a doctor who specialized in that particular deformity, but Odile was still unsettled.
“C’est dans la famille, dans nos genes. You never know,” pressed Odile.
Eloise froze, but not from the violent clenching of her midsection. She suddenly remembered what her mother used to make her swear when, as a young girl, she came over to the park bench where Odile was sitting. And how Odile used to hold Eloise’s small wrists tightly until she swore it.
Just then, Eloise’s ob-gyn came flying down the hallway, her white coat flapping, and placed a hand on Eloise’s forehead.
“You have a fever. The remote monitor is going off. We don’t want it to get to the baby. It’s time,” she said.
Eloise was puzzled.
“The baby has to come out,” the doctor elaborated.
“Do I have a choice?” Eloise asked. This was not how she had wanted things to go. A fever—something so innocuous, stupid, mundane—had not occurred to her as a problem, as a C-day scenario. She didn’t even feel hot.
“Not really,” said the doctor.
Her mind compressed with fury, disappointment, more fury, sadness. Her legs felt like sandbags, stuck. She looked to Odile, who cupped Eloise’s chin with her hand in a firm but not uncomfortable way, and stared her right in the eyes.
“Ca va bien se terminer. C’est ca qui comte. On y va,” Odile said.
Eloise’s mind flushed. “Okay,” she said, shuffling after her mother, who was already pulling her arm in the direction of the operating room.
Able to only move her eyes, Eloise decided not to panic. She had given birth, if you can call having a baby yanked out of your stomach that, and she no longer really cared about her “birth experience.” The baby was healthy. The doctor had held it up. But now, when she tried to remember it, she couldn’t say if the baby had webbing or not. Was it even a baby, or was it a frog? She moved her eyes left and right, side to side, which she had read could help with memory. But it didn’t. Had others seemed alarmed? No. That was probably good. Her mind floated. And then parts of a story started to move around the ceiling like a game with sliding pieces coming together.
Her Rose would come out of the shadows at forty, orphaned by a bomb at the beginning of World War II. She would move to an island where the fishermen and their families would come to accept her, as if her fishy extremities bound her, like them, to the sea at whose mercy they all lived. She would, in return, save the islanders by winning vital provisions from the occupying Germans with her gift for cards. She would gamble—literally—for her beloved brother’s life, and save him from an uncertain fate in a German POW camp. She would take her brother’s youngest neglected child, Odile, and raise her as her own until the child would be ripped away by the child’s vain and unstable mother, only to be sent too young to a boarding school back in Paris. And Rose would, in her grief, rise above freakhood through the casinos of France to fame and fortune, reuniting herself with her surrogate daughter, and saving her now-broken-but-always-beloved brother’s family by restoring them to the life they had known before the war. The bell sleeves that she designed to cover her hands (though with hooks to roll up for playing cards) would become all the rage in the 1960s. She would be a heroine, a legend who would travel the world, renowned as “La Grenouille.”
“Perhaps you’ve heard of her?” Eloise asked a nurse who rolled her bed into another room.
“It’s just the drugs, honey. It’ll wear off,” said the nurse.
A year after the birth, Eloise came out of her office in the backyard. She was writing her version of Tante Rose’s life, which she would later dedicate to her mother. In a funny twist, the director who had loitered at their house when Eloise was in labor would eventually direct the film adaptation, which would be atrociously bad.
Eloise dropped into a chair in the garden, near Odile.
“Really, it’s surprising that the webbing would be such a big deal. Because it would seem more reasonable for everyone to be concerned about the fact that several people in the family either killed themselves or tried to,” she said, looking to see how her mother would react.
Odile’s hands flew together to clap because Remy, who had just started walking, pointed at the sky with his well-defined—though stubby—digits as an airplane passed overhead. Odile cried, “Bravo! Avion!” and kissed Remy’s plump palm. She turned to Eloise, smiling, and said, “You are impossible.”
Eloise reminded Odile how she would make Eloise swear never to kill herself, in the park, every time Eloise came over for a cookie or a Kleenex.
Triumphantly, Eloise said, “Who is the impossible one now?” and Odile just laughed.