Natural Food Sources
By Michael Moriearty
“To his good friend thus wide, I’ll open my arms
And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican
Repast them with my blood.”
—Hamlet, William Shakespeare
The blue light of the television ripples over Miguel’s skin where he lies asleep beside me in our decrepit California king, making him look purplish and washed-out. David Attenborough’s voice spills out of the speakers and fills the room like a lullaby. These British nature docs always flick Miguel’s off switch. They usually do it for mine, too, but right now I’m staring at the strobing screen like a child at the scene of a grizzly accident.
On the TV, a pelican alights on an ocean-wave-scored rock. The beast is great and off-white like a water-logged corpse, its neck serpentine, its beak sagging and veined. Surrounding it are hundreds of little muddy nests, occupied by tiny peeping chicks—not pelican chicks, but the chicks of the gulls that flock around the tiny islet. The gulls flutter over their crying babies and stare at the pelican out of the corner of their red, panicked eyes, the way I might stare at a dirty pick-up truck coasting down the road beside me as I walk along the sidewalk on the way back to my car at night.
One nest is not defended. A shaggy grey head peeks out of the muck and grass and squeals blindly at the sky, at a parent who is not there. My hand instinctively darts down to caress the pale curve of my belly. Alejandra kicks at my hand from within, a squeal of her own.
On the screen, the pelican sidles up to the unprotected babe almost innocently, sly as a wrinkled man on a crowded bus with wandering hands and faux-apologetic eyes. The babe yells, craning its neck, thinking perhaps it is about to receive a nourishing meal of regurgitated fish.
The pelican moves quick. Its languid, eel-like neck whips suddenly, and now the sagging pouch of its beak is occupied. The little chick silently squirms within and presses itself against the orange membrane, reminding me of when Alejandra presses her little limbs up against the wall of my tummy. One small leathery leg dangles, twitching, from the pelican’s mouth. The pelican gulps once, and the baby disappears.
I press my eyes shut to prevent silly tears from escaping. They’re just birds. Nevertheless, I bite back the urge to yell for Miguel, to alert him that our baby needs protecting, that he is not doing his job. David Attenborough explains measuredly that a decline in their natural food source has led these pelicans to find extreme means to feed their own young. I think about babies eating babies. I picture it in my head, and then I don’t have to, as the screen helpfully displays the image of a wet, matted chick body slithering out of a mama pelican’s throat and into the gullet of a screeching pelican infant.
“Miguel!” The word vomits out of my mouth before I can swallow it. He rolls over immediately, squinting at me with sleepy concern.
“What’s up?” he says.
I look at the screen, and he follows suit. The pelicans are gone; cute porpoises swim about playfully, and I feel as though I have awoken from a dream. “It’s nothing,” I reply. “It’s stupid.”
He smiles a little and places a calloused hand on Alejandra, somehow knowing exactly what I need. “Nothing you have to say is stupid.”
The panic melts out of my body. I turn to tell him about the pelicans, to laugh about it with him, but he has already rolled away and dozed off again. Only the ghost of his palm on my skin remains.
I see a stork in the hallway of the hospital. Mother used to say that Our Lady of Guadalupe was the one who brought babies down from heaven, but I see a stork. Then again, my mother would say that Our Lady brings babies by the bushel, and that the devil invented condoms.
A swarm of nurses and doctors huddle between my knees like football players. Behind their heads, through the slightly ajar door of the hospital room, I see a flash of white feathers. Later I will tell Miguel about this, and he will say it was just a doctor walking by.
There is a great pressure at my pelvis. My mother also told me the devil invented epidurals, and right now I am terribly glad I do not often listen to my mother.
The blonde nurse in the butterfly scrubs at my head yells “push!” for what feels like the two-hundredth time. Miguel squeezes my hand but remains silent, out of the way. Again, he knows exactly what I need. I curl up around my knees, teeth clenched, sweat tracing little snake shapes down my forehead. I try to keep the tension out of my face and push with my pelvic muscles the way the nurse told me. It smells as though I might have shit myself, but I push on regardless.
“The umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck,” the doctor closest to my crotch says with the measured tone of David Attenborough.
“What?” I say.
“Nothing, honey, you’re doing great,” says the blonde nurse in the butterfly scrubs. She nervously fingers the sleeve of my hospital frock. “Let’s give us another push.”
I curl up again, holding my breath.
“Stop! Don’t push!” the doctor yells. A chorus of white-jacketed men echoes her.
I flop back in confusion, my mind inexplicably occupied by images of baby birds slurping down baby birds. As I picture the damp corpse of the baby gull sliding out of the mama pelican’s mouth, I feel a great release between my legs. I do not hear crying.
My head raises slightly against my will, eyes darting to the hands of the doctor crouched between my legs. Alejandra is there. Her eyes are closed, her little limbs curled up onto themselves. Her skin is blue. Vibrantly, brilliantly, horrifyingly blue.
The doctor delicately but efficiently unwraps the wet grey cord from around Alejandra’s neck like she’s removing a scarf from a porcelain doll. A silence fills the room, a silence so profound I realize for the first time just how loud everything had been moments earlier, and how quiet Alejandra’s heart monitor has grown.
A second passes, but that second is as long as Christ’s six hours on the cross. It’s long enough for a life to flash before my eyes; a life belonging to a woman who sits quietly at the edge of her bed, eyes glazed, hair long and wild, an ultrasound image of her stillborn daughter clutched in her hand.
And then Alejandra breathes.
Her breath is tiny and rattling, but it quickly crescendos into a hearty, wailing cry. The assembled doctors and nurses clap their hands politely, as though watching the performance of a magic trick. I do not clap. I weep.
The head doctor extends Alejandra, braying and blue, to Miguel, her would-be assassin still dangling from her stomach.
“Would you like to cut the cord, Dad?” the doctor says. She offers what looks like a set of silver sewing scissors.
Miguel nods uncertainly. He takes the scissors in his fingers, and the doctors hold the cord taut for him to slice. The whole thing feels peculiarly ceremonial, like a ribbon cutting at the opening of a car dealership.
He slides the cord between the blade of the scissors and squeezes, but it only buckles between them like a rubber hose. He squeezes again. It will not cut.
Alejandra still cries. The head doctor clears her throat impatiently. “You have to put some muscle into it.”
Another squeeze. It cuts partially this time, the two halves of the cord connected only by a few fleshy sinews. Dark blood wells up from within. I squeeze my eyes, try not to think of how Miguel is brutalizing our daughter’s flesh. I want it to be done.
Then I hear a snip, and Miguel exhales a sigh of relief.
I open my eyes as the nurses wrap Alejandra in a towel and roughly rub at her limbs as though they’re trying to scrub the color back into her. Then they plop her, wet and yodeling, onto my bare chest. She stops crying. Her torso is still blue, but her fingers and toes have turned something of an off-white. I wonder if she will be light-skinned like me or dark like Miguel and my father. Right now, her little face is scrunched up and purple the way Miguel’s skin looks in the light of the television at night.
I slide my fingertip into the palm of her tiny hand, which is small enough that she can only partly wrap her fingers around the first two joints of mine. She clasps with surprising strength and uses the leverage to drag herself up toward my breast. She roots about for my nipple, making little snuffling noises like a piglet, and finds it quickly, so quickly I am filled with surprise and pride. Then she curls up on my chest and suckles sleepily.
The blonde nurse in the butterfly scrubs drapes a blanket over us and smiles. “You want us to send in your family now?”
I nod, not looking up, as I run my fingers gently through Alejandra’s wispy black hair. I touch her lightly, feeling the curve of her head, the places where her skull is soft. I fear I might break her, but I also know that she is strong; a survivor.
Miguel kisses my head and stares down at Alejandra, eyes glistening.
The door opens, and my parents bustle in. Mother comes first, small and round and eyes full of fire. I can tell from her expression that she is still angry at having to wait outside the room during the delivery. I had asked the nurse if there was any way my mother could be prevented from coming in, so the nurse concocted the lie that only one person was allowed in the room at a time. The lines of her face soften as she lays eyes on Alejandra.
Father shambles in behind her, as tall and wiry as she is short and plump. He smiles boyishly beneath his white moustache and hefts a grease-stained fast food bag into the air as though he has brought me the ambrosia of the gods.
He’s not far off. The nurses take Alejandra away to be cleaned so that I can finally eat. The burger drips with oil and mustard and is the best thing I have ever tasted. They did not think to bring something for Miguel, so I offer him the pick of my French fries.
He licks salt from his fingers and, head bowed, thanks Mary for her precious gift. I thank the stork.
I have only had Alejandra for ten months, and yet I’ve known her all my life. She has taken some steps and calls me “ma” and Miguel “doo,” to which he always responds with a chuckle that sounds like caramel. He shows photos of her on his phone to bemused convenience store workers on his new Pepsi truck route. I paint the walls of my social media accounts with her smile.
The nursery is upstairs, down the hall from our bedroom. The room is colored eggshell white. I had wanted pink, Mother wanted spring green, but Miguel insisted that we should not decide for Alejandra who she is before she is old enough to decide for herself.
Right now, Alejandra naps in her crib upstairs and I am in the living room folding laundry at the cigarette-burnt chocolate-colored sofa Father gave us when we moved in to this bigger place in the country. My stack of folded clothes in the basket has grown valiantly tall, but it pales in comparison to the mountain of freshly-laundered onesies, bibs, and burp cloths that has overtaken the couch.
The baby monitor is perched on our chipped glass coffee table. It hisses and whispers unintelligibly. I listen for signs that Alejandra might be stirring, hope for them. It grows dull quickly in the house when Miguel is at work and the baby’s asleep and I am alone. Sometimes I think of returning to my receptionist job at the urgent care clinic, but the thought of leaving Alejandra behind with my mother during the day makes my stomach tight. Defeated, I collapse into the sea of clean clothes and let my eyes slide shut.
Hiss! The baby monitor spits and growls, jarring me out of my stupor. I snatch it from the coffee table with a groan and begin fiddling with the dials. The monitor was the cheapest one we could find at the store, and it acts like it. I tune the pair of little knobs carefully like a safecracker, and the sound abates. I replace the monitor on the table and lean back into the cushions.
Bemused, I grab it again, shaking it like an Etch-a-Sketch.
I turn the volume down low, leaving the feedback a barely audible murmur at the edge of my hearing. I hold the speaker up to my ear, waiting.
The monitor is not making the sound. It is something in Alejandra’s room.
Once as a child, maybe five or six years old, my father took me to feed geese at the little pond in the park downtown. I did not know to toss the bread crusts to the birds, so when a long-necked goose approached me, head tilted inquisitively, I extended my little handful of crumbs out to it. It snatched the food from my palm, inadvertently nipping my tender fingers as it did so. Out of pain and reflex I made a tiny fist with my other hand and batted the goose atop its head. It reared back in response, ruffling its feathers, and let out a great throaty hiss unlike anything I had ever heard. It sounded like a rockslide. I ran crying to my father.
That is what the noise on the baby monitor sounds like.
Before my brain has registered what’s happening, I have already dropped the baby monitor sputtering to the ground and am halfway up the staircase.A sudden loud bang shoots down the stairs from the direction of the nursery. I yell my little girl’s name.
In my mad scuttle, I stumble over one of the steps and collapse, my ankle twisting sharply. I purse my lips and puff my cheeks, stifling a yell of pain, then drag myself to my feet and continue limping up the stairs.
I reach the white door to her room, which is still shut tight. I put my ear to the door. I do not hear the baby crying, but I do hear movement.
I throw the door open and am frozen.
The pelican freezes, too. It stares at me with wet, pink eyes. A gentle breeze whispers through the open window behind the thing, making the curtains billow around it like lilac clouds. It smells salty and mildewed like how I imagine the sea must smell. Its feathers are greyish and matted, and it is big enough that it would dwarf Miguel if he were here. If only he were here.
My eyes dart to Alejandra’s crib. It is empty.
I look at the monster’s beak. It is dark orange and varicose, with some kind of grotesque chitinous growth protruding from the top like a cluster of horns. The pouch sags, and there is movement within. A tiny purple foot dangles from the thing’s mouth, twitching. David Attenborough’s gravelly voice in my mind reminds me that the average pelican can hold three gallons of water in its beak. This is not an average pelican.
Hiss! It makes a sound like a steam train.
I lunge, grasping at its winding neck, but it is faster. It squawks mightily and shoots for the open window. How had it opened the window? My fingers constrict on its long tail feathers as it flaps up and out of the room. The feathers rip away into my hands and I topple to the floor.
I ignore the searing pain in my ankle and drag myself up to look out the window, clutching the wad of feathers tightly. The pelican soars up toward the sun, crying, my Alejandra in its beak.
It has been a week since Alejandra was taken and the police are giving up hope. They have never said as much, of course, but they do not have to. I can hear it in the way they speak, see it in the way they do not look at me. They say that the first 24 hours after a kidnapping are the most important, that beyond that, there is little they can do.
A kidnapping. That’s what they call it. The police theorize that I must have accidentally left the window open, and someone must have scaled the neighbor’s big mulberry tree, come in, and taken her. There has never been a ransom note or anything like that, so they have no idea what the kidnapper’s motive might have been.
Whenever I bring up what I saw, whenever I bring up the pelican, the police glance at each other and Miguel takes me out of the room.
He tells me to wait outside in the hall a minute while he finishes with the police and gives me a look creased with fear and embarrassment, a look I have never seen from him before.
“Don’t look at me like I’m being stupid,” I say.
“Nothing you have to say is stupid,” he replies, quietly. Then he turns away.
My doctor tells me about postpartum psychosis. She says that postpartum symptoms can sometimes last for more than a year after the baby is born. She says that in extreme cases, postpartum can cause women to even see things that are not there. She says I imagined the pelican, or that my mind created the image of it to cope with the trauma. Whenever I mention the feathers that were clutched in my hand when Miguel found me in Alejandra’s room, she clears her throat and changes the subject.
My life is now the life of the woman with long hair who sits at the edge of her bed. I clutch a photograph of Alejandra in my hand, only looking at it when I can feel the pain starting to soften. The image of the pelican sticks in my brain like an engraving. Why had it taken my baby? Was it even a pelican, or was it the stork? Perhaps it made a mistake delivering Alejandra to me, a mistake that needed to be corrected. Nothing makes sense.
In my other hand I hold my phone, from which I have purged all my social media accounts, tired of the artificial chorus of condolences. I look up the distance to the nearest pelican habitat in the country. It is hundreds of miles away, on the coast. I look up how long it takes a pelican to digest its food. It’s quick. I look up where the story of the stork originated. It dates to a 19th-century Hans Christian Andersen story called “The Storks,” which describes the birds gifting new siblings to well-behaved children and refusing them to those who are cruel.
I learn that while storks mate for life, pelican couples part ways after every mating cycle.
I do not learn why there might be a pelican out here in the dry, flat countryside. I do not learn how it opened my window, or why it took my baby. I do not learn where she might be now.
Miguel checks on me often. He brings me food, which tastes like nothing, and water, which I sip when he’s in the room and dump into the yellowing succulent on the window sill when he isn’t. He offers to run me a bath, and I shake my head.
One day, I ask him if he believes me.
He says, “Of course. I know you wouldn’t lie. I believe with all my heart that you saw a giant pelican take our daughter away. I believe that’s what your brain told you that you saw.”
My eyes sting but I do not allow my expression to change. “What about the feathers, Miguel?” I say.
“They’re feathers, baby,” he replies, starting to pace the room. “They’re just feathers. All kinds of birds make nests in the Cisneros’ big tree. Doves, things like that. If the person climbed that tree to get into the nursery, some of those birds’ feathers might have stuck to him.”
I snort. “What kind of dove—”
“Look, I’m sorry, but I need you to move past this thing,” he says. “I know it’s hard. But the more you start talking crazy around the doctors and the police, the more…”
He stops, standing in front of me, forehead in his hand. “You were home alone with her,” he says. “You have to understand what that looks like, love.” I am silent. He continues. “I trust you. But you need to help me out here, okay?” He turns and marches back to the door.
As he’s closing it, he pauses and adds, softly, “I’m sorry I used the word ‘crazy.’”
I have not spoken to him since. For his part, he continues to bring me food and water and act like nothing happened.
Mother tells me that I should not grieve, that Alejandra is probably with Mary and Jesus, that she is happy. That she is their child now. I ask what kind of selfish God would steal my baby for Himself.
About a week after I last spoke to Miguel, Father comes into my room with a Tupperware container filled with a heaping serving of Mother’s homemade flan and two plastic spoons. He plops down onto the mattress beside me and offers me one of the spoons. I refuse to so much as look at him. He sets the spoon in my lap and silently begins to dig in to the flan, taking large, dripping bites.
After a moment, he pauses and says, “You gonna make me finish this by myself?” I look at the flan, now half-eaten and swimming in caramel like a desert island. I take up my spoon and peel away a thin layer of the dessert. I shakily place it in my mouth and scrunch up my eyes. It is the first substantial thing I have eaten in two weeks. I take a larger bite. Father hands me the whole container.
He stares at me as I eat, tugging at one of his moustache hairs. Finally, he says, “You remember your Uncle Lonnie?”
I nod. Of course I remember Uncle Lonnie. Uncle Lonnie who used to watch me as a girl when my parents were working, who used to pinch my legs and tell me I was too skinny, that a girl ought to have some meat on her.
Father continues. “Your Uncle Lonnie and his first wife—the one with the mole on her nose—tried for years to make a kid. Your abuela was breathing down their necks, you know how she is. People at church were starting to talk. They did everything. Tried everything. Nothing worked. Doctors said she had some kind of cysts or something, that she might never be able to get pregnant.”
I take another bite of flan. It is soft and supple, like meringue, or baby food.
“Then there was that fire. You remember that? That white girl George Mendez married set their house on fire trying to make tortillas for him. Their baby didn’t make it out. Was all anyone would talk about for a long time. Anyway, it was shortly after that, another week or two maybe, that Lonnie’s wife got pregnant with your cousin Junior. A miracle, that was. George Junior, they named him, after the baby that died.”
I finish off the flan, consider using my finger to scoop the last dregs of caramel out of the bowl. Father grips my hand. I look at him, really look at him for the first time since he came into the room. His eyes brim with tears.
“I think sometimes Our Lady has to take a child out of one home to give it to another that needs it more. I know it hurts, but you and Miguel, you’ll have another baby. You’ll be okay. I know it doesn’t seem that way right now, but I promise you will. But maybe there’s another family out there who was about to give up, and so Our Lady plucked up Alejandra and gave her to them. Maybe Alejandra saved them. I don’t know.”
He takes the empty container out of my hands. “I’ll go rinse this out,” he says, and he kisses me on the forehead and leaves.
I look at the cracked, wrinkled picture of Alejandra in my hand. I think of babies eating babies, and things start to make sense.
About Michael Moriearty
Michael Moriearty is a playwright and author born in Lubbock, Texas. His work has been previously featured in the literary journals riverSedge and Canyon Voices, as well as being produced by Texas Tech University Theatre. He currently resides in Wolfforth, Texas with his partner, two daughters, and beloved cat.