To Have A Birthday

Emma Denaples '19
Vermont, 1894
It should be her twelfth birthday, but she is dead and has never had any birthdays at all.

Despite this, Matthew bakes a cake.

Ora pretends not to know the date as she rises from her bed. The cabin floor is smooth, raw, and cold. She finds her slippers quickly.

In the kitchen, Matthew stares out the window. It is snowing, as it snows every day, but the cement soil is still visible because none of the snow has stuck. At least, inside, it’s warm. The perfume of sweet confections wafts around the small room as Ora pads out, her pajama set still on, face and hair undone.

“Good morning,” she says, coming up behind Matthew. She begins to prepare breakfast- putting water in the kettle and the kettle on the stove, mixing up ingredients for johnnycakes- and doesn’t mind her husband’s lack of response. Humming softly, Ora cuts a few tablespoons of the butter that she had just yesterday churned and then begin to grind the corn meal. Just then, the kettle screams. Matthew forgets to notice.

“What are you baking?” asks Ora as she brews some tea, her delicate hands protected by mitts. “It smells delicious.”

Finally acknowledging his wife, Matthew turns and tells her, “A cake.”

“Whatever for?” Ora avoids eye contact. She flits around the kitchen as if on edge.

“It’s a birthday cake.”

Matthew’s words take all the air away with them and the room becomes tense. The smile widening across her face, Ora says softly, “Today is nobody’s birthday, dear.” She procrastinates a beat, struggling to complete her thought. “No one was born today.”

Matching her grin, Matthew shakes his head. “Did you forget, Ora, that you gave birth to Kittie on this day, twelve years ago?”

Ora is petite. Her breasts have always disappointed Matthew and her hips are narrow. She has dark hair and dark eyes and olive skin. Her nose is too big. Men have never found her striking.

“No, love,” she says, and low amusement decorates her voice. But deep anger has whispered its way in. “I didn’t forget. It’s just that the baby to whom I gave birth came into this world still.”

“But it
is Kittie’s birthday,” Matthew argues.

Taking a deep breath, Ora pours herself a cup of tea. “To have a birthday,” she says, “one must be born alive.” She speaks with a teacher-like patience, as if Matthew is nothing more than a confused child.
“To have a birthday, one must be born at all.” Matthew continues to smile at his wife, blond beard and mustache muddying this expression. Ora blinks twice, eyebrows raised and yellowing teeth clear between her parted lips.

“I suppose you’re right,” she whispers.

Matthew walks to the oven. “The cake should be done by now.”

Ora moves away from the stove as so not to block his path and sips her tea. She breathes quietly in through her nose and watches as Matthew bends over to retrieve his dessert. The johnny cakes are bubbling. Soon, she’s going to have to flip them.

“Do you want a slice? It will have to cool first,” Matthew offers.

“Oh,” says Ora, shaking her head, “no, thank you. I’m not one for celebration.”

Placing the cake onto their counter, Matthew chuckles. “Funny,” he admits. “You always spoke of celebrating Kittie’s birthday with big parties, cake and cookies of every flavor, dozens of children coming over with little trinkets to give to her. Her friends.”

“I spoke,” Ora responds slowly, “of our child’s life.” She moves to the stove and finds herself a spatula. Grease splatters and crackles as unbaked batter meets pan. “But our child never lived.”

“Kittie.” Matthew’s voice is sharp, but neither of their smiles have faded. “Don’t you remember? We had decided to name her Kittie.”

Shaking her head with a soft, tickling sigh, Ora says, “Our child was never named, dear. The church did
not record a name.”

“But I named her. We named her.”

The tea is cold. The johnny cakes are ready but Ora hardly notices. “That child whom I pushed out of my womb was
dead, Matthew. I did not name a corpse. I named an idea that never came into reality.”
Cutting into his cake, Matthew ignores Ora. “She wouldn’t have liked chocolate,” he says with certainty. “Neither of us ever has.”

This, at least, softens Ora, if only the slightest bit. “I suppose she wouldn’t have,” she agrees. There is room for discussion in the hypothetical. The johnny cakes start to burn. Ora hurries to them.

Flipping the blackened little circles onto a plate, she shakes her head. “We can’t stomach these,” she says, and empties them into the trash. “But I suppose I’m not very hungry, and you have enough to eat.”

Matthew doesn’t disagree. He bites into the spongy pastry in front of him. For a second, Ora wishes that, when Kittie had passed, Matthew had comforted her and not simply disappeared to bury the child, because maybe, if she had only seen her little face and cried a few tears onto Matthew’s chest while they held her, she could think of her as something more than tragedy. But Matthew didn’t comfort her. He left Ora and her disgustingly hollow womb, the in-between of her legs stretched and loose from hours of labor, and he took the body and he cried alone. Ora wasn’t aware knew the gender until weeks later when he choked out that she had been a girl. A daughter.

And so, now, when Matthew pleas to celebrate the lost life of their tiny child, whom he swaddled in his arms and placed into the ground, Ora can draw no face to her mind, and only smiles and politely declines.

Deciding that today has been long enough, Ora kisses Matthew’s forehead gently. Her lips, after all these years, are still smooth. He is chewing. “Enjoy your cake, dear,” she whispers, and then makes her way back into bed.

There, it is quiet. There is no cake, no grieving husband.

And, alone, the pain begin lessen. Her wounds don’t heal, but, at least, they numb.

-2017 Chapbook

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