The first words were a simple request, gently spoken. It was a Saturday morning near the end of July and Naomi had taken a late, slow shower, singing to herself loudly and out of tune, celebrating her two-day reprieve from a job she no longer loved. She lay naked on the bed with a travel magazine that featured Costa Rica, gazing at photos of wealthy people riding shiny stallions on the beach and smooching in the torchlight of a veranda fringed with lush tropical foliage. Naomi sighed with a languid contentment that seemed to partake of their good fortune.
The voice had an odd pitch, higher than that of a man, thinner and more gravelly than a woman's, lower than a child's. It was a wet, burpy sound, with a shallow, tinny ring, especially in the vowels, like the speech of someone who has undergone a laryngectomy. "Could you sing that song again?"
There was no mistaking where the sound had come from. She was alone in the apartment, in a room with the door and windows closed. Ivan, her rowdy, hard-partying neighbor, had flown to Reno for the weekend. And besides, the sound didn't come from the wall behind her. It had in fact emerged from her own body, from near the center of that body, from, well, between her legs. She looked down, past her large, jello-ey breasts and the blubbery folds of her belly, to the lonely knoll at the junction of her thighs, and spoke back. "Excuse me?"
Silence. Silence that persisted. Not one to doubt her senses, Naomi didn't for a moment think she'd dreamed up the voice. She'd heard it. She waited a few minutes, careful not to rattle the magazine or emit any noise with her slow, shallow breathing. Still nothing. So she spoke again. "I wasn't singing a song. I was reading about Costa Rica."
There was a brief pause, and then the voice piped up. "In the shower."
"Ah... About the mouse who always outwits the cat?"
"That's the one. It makes me smile." The voice not only came from down there, it created a tingle that resonated through her hips.
She sang the song, and waited. Not a sound. "I hope that met with your satisfaction," she said with a tinge of amiable sarcasm. But there was no response.
A full week passed before the voice spoke up again. Naomi had had dinner at her sister Amy's house, as she did every few months, and was getting ready to head back to the city. Lowell, the older and cuter of her two scrawny nephews, was standing on the lime green carpet in front of their immense TV screen playing a video game, jerking his seven-year-old body in quick, dramatic ducks and twists as he navigated a two-headed gorilla through a twenty-third century battlefield. While the boy's ape-avatar pulverized soldiers and bystanders with bolts of lightning that emanated from its hairy nipples, she snuck up behind him and lifted him in the air, hugging him and planting a loud, joyful kiss on his head.
"You messed me up!" he shouted. "I was almost at the next level—it has face-corroding acid! Doggone you!"
That was when she heard the voice, quiet but clear. "I don't like that person."
Her brother-in-law Ralph, who was standing in the entryway waiting to say goodbye, looked over. "What was that voice?"
Naomi shrugged adamantly, then scanned the room with a perplexed gaze, acting as though Lowell's younger brother Mathew, famous for jumping from behind sofas and chairs and startling adults with his murderous screams, might be playing one of his tricks. She turned back to Ralph, a kind, blandly handsome commodities trader, and shrugged again.
Amy trotted out of the kitchen, where she'd been loading the dishwasher, and put her arm around her older sister as they walked to the front door. Naomi stopped in the foyer to shout goodbyes to the boys and thank Amy and Ralph. Looking into Amy's tired face in its frame of dusty curls, she wondered when the expression of conspiratorial mischief that had always been there for her had shifted to something more like concern—or was it pity?
She headed back toward the city in a storm cloud of brooding thoughts, the car stereo blasting the first movement of Mahler's ninth symphony, a fitting soundtrack to her dark mood. Had she passed up all her chances for a normal family life, just as she now cruised past one wide brick-and-concrete driveway after another, each leading to an over-mortgaged house littered with shin guards and skateboards and incomplete decks of cards? Amy, who had been so much a kindred soul when they were younger, now thrived in this foreign, suburban world, not only retaining the essence of her warm, quirky, wisecracking personality, but becoming, inexplicably, more herself, more congruent with her body, more at home wherever she went.
And Amy had Ralph, a faithful, hard-working provider and a good dad—the antithesis of the unreliable hipsters and intellectuals who comprised the sad parade of Naomi's own love life. Her former love life, as she now thought of it. She'd long since stopped dating—hadn't had so much as a one-night stand in at least a year. Over the past few years, as she'd put on weight and then more weight, she had cultivated a drab, even frowzy look. She wore plain, dark clothes so as not to draw attention to the increasingly alien mass of her body, and even allowed her long brown hair to obscure her face, still lovely with its wide, dark eyes and exotic cheekbones. Her confidence had dwindled, and with it the breezy irreverence that had always been at the heart of her character. Even her job at the natural history museum, once a stable refuge where her intellect and skills were challenged and admired, had become lonely and anxiety-ridden.
Tired of wallowing in misery, she turned down the stereo. Why did the drive home from a visit with her sister's family always lapse into dark contemplation of the failure of her thirty-seven years on the planet?
"I'm pretty sure it was the enchilada sauce." The voice spoke matter-of-factly, as if in mid-conversation.
She was not in an indulgent mood. "Enchilada sauce? What the hell does enchilada sauce have to do with the wretched, ever-worsening situation of my life?"
"Just an observation. You were raving about how good it tasted, but I think it made me hot and itchy, and it seems to have upset your equilibrium as well." The voice spoke with a calm politeness that had begun to annoy her, though she had to admit that the vibration in her crotch was not unpleasant.
And now this, she thought. What a colossal burden. On top of all her other problems she had this, a condition in which her genitals spoke to her in plain, grammatical English. Okay, so she was knocking on the door of lonely spinsterhood, but did she have to lumber across the threshold transformed by some cruel miracle into a sleazy sideshow, The Fat Lady With the Amazing Talking Vagina? It bordered on catastrophe. And adding to the vexing, embarrassing fact of having a voice holding forth down there was her near-certain conviction that the voice was masculine. The Amazing Talking Vagina was, oddly, a male vagina. Or perhaps a transgender vagina. She needed to see a specialist.
Dr. Madeleine Myshlovski—six feet tall and big-boned with wild, eely blond locks and a booming contralto voice that inspired both confidence and some trepidation—stood between Naomi's splayed and propped-up knees like a palm tree with attitude. Naomi had decided not to tell the gynecologist that her vagina not only spoke, but did so with poise and intelligence. The likely possibility that she might lie there half-naked, head propped forward, imploring her crotch to speak up—only to be answered with dead silence—prompted her to give a mitigated account of her symptoms. She complained of a funny feeling, an unusual odor, occasional farty sounds.
But Dr. Mysh, who had been poking around in there for eight years, after much peering and prodding and scanning and testing, proclaimed Naomi's kitty sound and healthy. "Nothing new here, vagina-wise," she said. That's not to say that all was fine. That last little phrase—'vagina-wise'—bracketed by pauses and underscored with a pensive shrug, signaled an important announcement. Dr. Mysh seemed to grow another inch as she took in a big, dramatic breath, smiled, and elaborated in her best medical sing-song. Her diagnosis was, in its way, more disconcerting, had more profound implications, than a vocal vagina: Naomi was pregnant. And not just pregnant, but long pregnant. She was, in fact, quite overdue.
"How long?" Naomi asked.
"Who knows. Months. Longer. He should come out now."
"It's a boy. A shvantz that big is hard to miss on ultrasound."
"I'm going to be a mother?"
"We'll schedule the delivery for Wednesday."
Again it was in the car, on the drive home, that the voice spoke up. "Wednesday isn't good for me," it said.
"So you're a child," she said. "A boy. I thought it was my vagina talking."
"Vaginas don't talk."
"But I haven't had sex in the past nine months." She thought back. "Actually, it's been a year, easily. Maybe two."
"I've been around longer than that, as best I can tell."
"Well, you're coming out Wednesday. We'll shake hands. We'll sing."
He was polite but adamant. "I really don't want to come out just yet."
He brought it up that evening. She had decided for the first time in months to pamper herself with a bath. She was lying in lavender-scented water, staring at her belly, wondering if it really looked pregnant, or just fat. What was the dividing line? It certainly didn't look very pregnant. It did look quite fat, there was no way around that. She had crossed a few blurry lines to arrive at that state, drifting from attractively zaftig to pleasingly plump to heavy to fat. And now this: quite fat. A step or two shy of obese.
She felt the vibrating sensation in her genitals, and a school of tiny bubbles rose up from between her legs. She immediately got out of the tub, dried herself off, and went to lie on her bed, as she had done when she first heard the voice. She waited.
"It's just that, well, the timing is bad right now," he said, speaking in his matter-of-fact, mid-conversation manner.
"What—you have plans? You're in the middle of something?"
"Not in here. Out there. The world's a mess."
"I'm not deaf. We live in dire times."
She shrugged. "It's not so bad, really. The weather's been good."
"I hear the TV news. Recession. Unemployment. War. These are things a boy worries about."
"You can't dwell on those things. They come and go."
"I'd like to wait a while."
"I don't know. Until it gets better. How long can that be? I don't plan to spend my whole life in here."
"You're waiting for the economy to change and the war to end? I don't think so."
"Well, I'm going to have to insist on it," he said, his voice edging louder, but still calm.
She felt a twinge of anxiety, even fear: this kid was a tough cookie. "I'll call Dr. Mysh. See what I can do."
"Thank you. What should I call you?"
"Mommy seems appropriate. Or just Mom."
"A little chummy." She felt him stroke his chin. "Let's go with Mother. Thank you, Mother."
The boy's resolute authority gave her some conviction when she called Dr. Mysh the following day to postpone the delivery. "I advise against it," the doctor said. "But you seem to be doing okay. You've lasted this long, and the little guy's thriving. Why don't you come back in a month, so we can assess how things are going. I'll show you his wang on the ultrasound—it's a doozy."
Knowing that she was pregnant somehow made Naomi feel pregnant. Suddenly she was experiencing waves of nausea, then cravings for foods she didn't like—Velveeta cheese, dried pineapple, marzipan. She was chronically running out of energy—it took so much to sustain the little creature inside. Sometimes, when the queasiness and enervation subsided for brief spells, a quiet emptiness would wash over her, and then her body seemed to fill up with warmth and light and a kind of expansive power. At such times she would imagine nursing her little boy, holding his hand on his first day of school, watching him sprint around a baseball diamond. She felt herself entering a new land, rich with possibilities and welcome obligations.
Her tiredness was aggravated by the boy's demands. He made more and more of them, though he presented them as polite requests: How about a day at the beach, just lounging in the sand in the afternoon when all those chattery birds come around? Can we sit on a swing and rock gently for just a few minutes? Is there a chance you could take an hour this evening where you only eat sweet things, filling our bloodstream with as much sugar as possible? Sometimes the requests had a more negative, dour ring to them: "Could you not stomp so hard on the stairs?" "Could you just roll over on your left side? My back is in a knot." "Please stay away from the salsa picante for a while. I think it might be giving us both gas." Requests of a sort, but more like complaints clothed in courtesy.
She felt the aura of a character, a distinct and powerful personality, emerging in this boy who went everywhere with her. No doubt other pregnant women had similar intimations, but her boy had a track record, a veritable transcript of needs, aversions, enthusiasms, cravings, spoken plainly and repeated often. He was confident, energetic, stubborn, a bit naggy and whiny. At times he got on her nerves as she lugged him around in her hulking body. But then she thought of him lying there, waiting for his life to happen, and her heart ached.
One morning a name arrived. She hadn't been thinking about a name—it just showed up, announcing itself with an almost theatrical reverb inside her head. She immediately said it out loud. "Limbo." She tried it with her last name, "Limbo Fish." The boy said nothing, so she asked him point blank: "How do you feel about the name Limbo?" There was a long silence, so she figured he didn't hear—or maybe he hated the name, or was just in one of his laconic moods. Then he spoke up. "I can't really think of a better name. It's your job to name me. Limbo... I can live with it."
"My own Little Limbo," she said. To celebrate his new handle, she took him to the local theme park. It was a hit. He loved the Ferris wheel, the smaller roller coaster, the ride through the fun house, with its little twists and jerks and surprising sounds. But when they got to the merry-go-round, things took a bad turn. None of the other rides, not even the roller coaster, had upset his equilibrium, but for some reason the carousel disoriented and scared him. He threw a fit. "Get me off of this thing! Are you trying to kill me? I'm dying! Dying! Halt!"
She had to ask the operator, a slouching teenager with a cell phone pushed against his ear, to stop the ride, pleading that she was pregnant and in pain. When she got to a bench to rest and to calm Little Limbo down, he laid into her. "How could you do that to me! What kind of mother are you? You could have killed me!"
"You liked the roller coaster. How should I know that a regular old merry-go-round would upset you?"
"Don't ever, ever take me on that thing again. Do you hear me? Never ever!"
She wanted to throttle the little brat. But she took a deep breath, then another, and decided that she needed to adjust to a child whose temperament was more mercurial than she'd suspected. Limbo was still his earnest, demanding but polite self, with occasional glum stretches or mildly manic interludes. But if things weren't going his way, he could turn sour pretty quickly, with the possibility of a tantrum always on the horizon.
Naomi's nausea twisted into cramps and vomiting, her chronic sleepiness became an enshrouding, bone-heavy exhaustion. Sometimes she skipped work, or showed up late. She'd been at the same job at the natural history museum for twelve years, and rarely had so much as a cold, so she had hundreds of hours of sick time saved up. It wasn't just her own physical state that determined whether she would go in to work. She became sensitive to the boy's mood swings—little and large—and when she woke up in the morning she could usually get a feel for how feisty and vocal he would be that day. If he seemed in one of his pissy, volatile, loose-cannon moods, she'd stay home. She didn't want to make a scene, to be forever branded by her coworkers. Marcie Fontaine, an underachiever in the payroll department, had a particularly sharp tongue and a penchant for alliteration, and Naomi could imagine the taunts: "Well, if it isn't The Lady with the Loquacious Loins, The Vixen with the Vituperative Vulva," and on and on.
She was by training a taxidermist, specializing in reptiles, amphibians, and aquatic mammals. A large part of her job was maintaining the musty, increasingly decrepit collection of preserved fauna in her department—geckos, chameleons, iguanas, salamanders, pythons, vipers, cobras, tortoises, crocodiles, sharks, an orca, a manatee, a New Zealand tuatara, a Komodo dragon, endless frogs and toads in a vast array of colors and sizes, and two true whales, a humpback and a gray—most of which were stored in a complex of small, dehumidified rooms in the museum basement. Twice a year she met with curators to plan temporary exhibitions. Then she'd sort through the inventory of stuffed corpses to see what was available in-house and what they would need to borrow, and set about repairing and sprucing up the usable specimens. It was easy to plan things in advance, and she found that she could judiciously take days off and still keep up with the work.
Times were bad for natural history museums. Crowds weren't flocking, schools were canceling their regular field trips, revenues were in the toilet. People didn't want to pay fifteen dollars to look at stuffed animals, even very big or exotic ones. They wanted to push buttons and see things move. They wanted sound, video, surprises. In response to this shift in expectations and shortening of attention spans, the board of trustees had dumped the longtime director and hired Phillip Rensid, the former head of the Whalerider's Wild West Aquarium in Las Vegas, to run the place. Rensid was famous—some would say notorious—in the museum world for his edgy hipness in presentation and his use of new technologies and popular media icons to attract visitors and bring in donor and grant money. His mandate was to transform the place, bring it up to date—play down information, play up snappy experiences, bring bodies through the door.
Rensid's first major action had been to fire Driscoll Flemmock, Naomi's mentor and a legend in taxidermy circles for his invention of preservative chemicals and surgical techniques for preparing and then reassembling the largest of beasts into Platonic ideals of themselves. The new director went on to fire much of the exhibition staff, using the extra money to beef up his fundraising and marketing departments. Naomi was the only surviving member of her department, left to wander the basement labyrinth alone, checking the stuffed carcasses for split seams and signs of decay.
When Firing Phil (as the old guard called him) summoned Naomi to his office, she prepared herself for bad news. His first words, after a perfunctory greeting, didn't allay her worries. "So, you've been taking quite a bit of sick leave."
"It's a stomach problem. I've had some crummy days."
She smiled. "Thanks. It's a passing thing. More or less."
A wiry, energetic man with long, floppy blond hair and a scruffy, faintly pubic soul patch under his lip, Phil was unable to sit still for more than a minute or two. He always seemed to be sweaty and out of breath, and somehow projected both intense anxiety and boundless self-assurance. He jumped up from his chair and paced the perimeter of the room. "Well. We just need to be sure that sick time is not used for leisure. I mean, I know you know that."
"I don't enjoy my sick days. I get tummy aches. Nausea. I barf."
"Have you seen a doctor?"
"And everything's basically okay? No diabetes, liver disease, multiple sclerosis?" Phil had dropped out of medical school after a year.
"No." She took a moment to consider how much she wanted to reveal. "I'm pregnant."
"Oh." He glanced at her belly, then shifted his gaze to a photo of Darwin on the wall, avoiding, she was certain, the obvious question: how would anyone know? "Gee, that's, uh, that's—"
"It's a boy," she added, as if in answer to a question.
"Wow," he said. "Well that's very big news. Congratulations."
"Is there something I can do?"
"It's too late for an abortion," Naomi said.
"That's not what I meant."
"I was joking."
"Oh." He sat back down at his desk, shifted some papers. "So. About your spotty attendance of late. Do you think you can adjust enough to this condition—this very joyous, propitious condition—to cover your work?"
"I'm doing that already."
"I'm not so sure." He gazed across the room, his professional, generic smile at odds with the innuendo in his words.
"I keep up with my work, Phil."
"Part of the job is just showing up. Ass in the chair, ear to the ground, as they say." He looked at her and chuckled quietly. "But of course you know that."
"I've been using sick time that I earned." She looked into his ice blue eyes, felt their chill run through her body. "But, um, yes, I'll show up more consistently. You're right. I should do that, and I will."
Limbo held his peace until they were safely in the Ladies' Room, alone. "He makes you feel bad."
"You should stay away from him."
"I can't. He's my boss."
"But he makes you feel bad, and then I can feel it. I don't like it."
"He decides if I keep working here. I need the money to live, Sweetheart."
"I don't like him. Maybe if you hurt him he'll stop."
"Sometimes I'd like to. But then he'd fire me."
"He can't fire you. You're my mother."
"You're very sweet."
"What if you killed him?"
She laughed. "The world doesn't work like that, Limbo. We have to find subtler ways to deal with schmucks who cause us grief."
That evening, as she rested on the couch after dinner, Naomi sang Limbo a lullaby. This had become a nightly ritual. It worked like a charm getting the boy to sleep, usually for the whole night. His breathing slowed to a deep relaxation as she sang the last verse. She hummed another two choruses, trailing off into a delicious, welcome silence. Just when she was convinced he was out for the night, he spoke up.
"Why did you agree with him?"
"The schmuck who causes us grief."
"He's my boss."
"He has a funny laugh."
"He's nervous, insecure."
"Is he afraid of something?"
"How should I know? He's not a comfortable human being."
"Does he have a boss too?"
"I suppose that would be Dave Frank, the head of the board of trustees."
"Is he afraid of Dave Frank?"
"Probably. People fear their bosses."
"If you don't fear yours, you'll have more power."
"But I do fear him."
"He can fire me."
"Don't be afraid. It's a better strategy."
She let the conversation go at that. She didn't feel like explaining that you can't choose what to fear or desire or detest, that emotions have their own life, and the best we can do is to gently steer them to the right or left, and occasionally rein them in a little. But there was something in what he said and the way he said it—a stubborn, deadly conviction underneath the earnest naivety—that left her considering and reconsidering her relationships at work.
Limbo Fish drifted into the deeper limbo of slumber—she could even hear soft snoring emanating from between her legs. But after a moment he stirred in her belly, then cried out. "No! You're hurting me! Stop hurting me!"
She called to him. "Limbo, are you okay?"
She heard a quiet groan, then the boy's calm voice, a little weaker than usual. "Boss Phil was growling. He bit my foot."
"You had a dream, Sweetheart. A bad dream, that's all."
Naomi showed up at Dr. Mysh's office for her scheduled appointment. Dr. Mysh checked her out, and again told her that she strongly recommended that they induce labor. But she had to admit that things were going well. Naomi's robust signs showed no hint of compromised health, for her or the baby. "I think you're making a mistake," the doctor said. "But so far so good. I'll be in Costa Rica for three weeks. Come back in early October."
"Wow, Costa Rica. I've always wanted to go."
"I go every year—play some tennis, ride horseback on the beach, fuck my brains out. I go alone. Have you met Arthur, my hub? He's a sweetie pie, but he's older and, well, he kinda ran out of steam below the belt, if you know what I mean." She gave Naomi a conspiratorial wink.
As she stepped out of the regulated climate of the small office building and into the blustery breeze of the mid-September afternoon, Naomi felt a pleasurable wave of emotion, part longing, part contentment. "You know, fall is about to begin, but it feels like spring is in the air," she said, speaking more to herself than to Limbo.
"How do you mean?"
"Squirrels are chattering. Birds are singing. The flowers aren't exactly budding, but they're still in bloom."
"I feel a little different, too. Something new. A kind of emotion."
"No. Maybe a little longing. But that's not really it."
"Can you describe it?"
"Still too new, I think. It's sort of good. But crummy, too."
Another of his complaints, one about which she couldn't do anything, so scant and contradictory was the information. She felt helpless, then sad, then a little angry. "What about sad and angry? Do you feel either of those?"
"No. Not really."
Deflated and annoyed, she walked on in silence for a while.
"I would like to touch skin on the other side, the dry side." He said it hesitantly, expressing an idea not fully formed.
Naomi waited a moment, then responded. "Yes?"
"I want... I want to hold somebody."
Naomi's heart opened up. "Of course, my sweet child. I'm your mother. I want to hold you too."
"Not you. Somebody else. A woman like you. Not too much like you."
"How about my sister, your Aunt Amy?"
"Good grief. I'm thinking young, moist ivory skin, tits with ruby nipples, a breathy voice that stirs my balls like wind in a hayfield."
"Ah," she said. "I understand." And she did. He was a boy, he had been around a while, and now he was changing. His body, caught in the transforming grip of puberty, was sprouting needs, desires, fantasies. Limbo wasn't complaining, he was growing up.
The following week, Phil Rensid called Naomi into his office again, this time to talk over some ideas for getting visitors more excited about reptiles. A couple months ago he'd had the exhibit techs place video screens among the stuffed reptiles, to show funny clips of snakes and lizards and dinosaurs in cartoons and old movies. He showed Naomi an article in the paper about Dorque, the flying, farting dragon from Disney who had become their most popular animated character since Mickey Mouse. He had asked visitors what they thought of when they thought about reptiles, and seventy percent of them mentioned Dorque. Phil wanted to build an exhibition, whose centerpiece would be a kinetic diorama about how evolution might have produced a giant lizard that could fly and fart fire. He jumped up, began pacing and gesticulating.
"Can you imagine it? We put together a collection of dragon-like reptiles—we can borrow some from Chicago—and create a story line that parallels medieval legend, with clips from all those cool dragon movies. Wouldn't that be spectacular?"
"I like the idea of featuring reptiles. The origin of reptiles. I like that part."
"We have to do better. I'm talking about an evolutionary fairytale. You get dragons and evolution together. I'm thinking of writing up a treatment and sending it to my old college roommate Artie—he's a muckety-muck at Disney. He might be able to help us out with some animation support."
"Wow. Disney." The words slipped out with more sarcasm than she would have liked.
Phil looked her over for a moment, as if trying to decide what part of her to keep and what part to throw away. "We've already talked about the shaky nature of your position, no?"
"Yes, Phil. I'm with the program. Really I am."
Phil, standing directly in front of her now, sat back on the edge of the desk and shrugged. "We got an email from a guy at the Smithsonian. He was here with his family last week—he noticed some loose stitching on a platypus head in the Tasmania Hall."
"I'll go have a look."
"See that you do."
They hadn't even made it through the door of the Ladies' Room when Limbo blurted out, "He's a weak man."
"He's my boss, Limbo."
"Weak. He had to intimidate you when you didn't support his dumb idea."
"That may be true, but he's in charge."
"No way. Decide Boss Phil doesn't exist."
"He's a bad dream. Talk to his boss—Dave Frank was it?—talk to Dave Frank. What's Dave Frank afraid of?"
"Not much. He's a happy man. A little dull."
"Give him a good idea of your own. Something small. Talk to him like he's your boss, not Phil. And don't go around thinking he's dull. Decide that you think he's the life of the party, and act that way around him."
"I can't do that." But she thought about it. This boy was no fool.
Dr. Mysh, her skin awash with a rufous tan that radiated satisfaction, her muscles taut and toned from exercise, greeted Naomi with a powerful hug. Still euphoric, she raved about the trip. "Ah, Costa Rica, I'm in love with the place! Parrots, howler monkeys, toucans, orchids, bromeliads." She squeezed some gel onto Naomi's belly and applied the ultrasound transducer, moving it around slowly and observing the monitor on the rollaway table that held the imaging equipment. "I ate too much, drank too much, danced, swam, and—" She glanced at the door, which was still open a crack, then spoke in a more hushed, lurid voice, "...and fucked my way through half the guys there, married and single, not to mention a few of the townies. Ooh, those Latin men." She chortled to herself. "What a penis!"
Naomi, already a little embarrassed and uncomfortable, didn't know what to do with this last exclamation. "There was, uh, one guy in particular, who had a big, um—?"
"What? No, your son." She turned the monitor so that Naomi had a better view. "Look at that thing. It's growing as I speak. Why, the little tyke has a serious boner."
Naomi looked at the screen. There was no mistaking it—the boy's pecker stood out like a hitchhiker's thumb.
Dr. Mysh was flabbergasted. "I've been scanning uteruses for nearly two decades, and I've never seen the likes of this. It's like watching porn, this ultrasound. The kid's hung like a giraffe."
"I'm flattered." It was the voice of Limbo Fish, loud and clear, with only a slight farting vibration coming from Naomi's nether parts.
"He, um... he just said something." Dr. Mysh flashed Naomi an accusatory look.
Naomi, caught, as it were, pants down, said nothing.
Naomi looked in the doctor's eyes a moment, but quickly looked down and shrugged, then nodded.
"How long has this been going on?"
"Since I first felt something."
Dr. Mysh stood there, towering over Naomi with her arms dangling at her sides, momentarily dumbstruck. She took a deep breath, as though she were about to blow up a bicycle tire. "Okay, that's it. He's coming out."
Naomi's body, at first tense and aching with shame, went limp, then flooded with desperation. "He refuses. I mean, he will come eventually, just not now. But we're in negotiation. I think he'll be ready soon."
"Now," Dr. Mysh said. "The cognitive damage may already be irreparable."
"We're close to a resolution. I swear."
"We do it now or you get another doctor."
Torn between her longtime physician and her domineering son, Naomi began to weep.
"It's okay, Mother. She's right: it's time." The boy spoke with his usual calm assurance. "The world is in better shape, and I believe this is my moment."
"Well," Dr. Mysh said, "the kid has some sense. Don't eat anything the rest of today, only clear liquids. Come in at six-thirty this evening, the O.B. reception area at Children's Hospital."
Naomi left the doctor's office in a haze. She was grateful that Dr. Mysh had given her the afternoon to take it all in, have some peace and quiet to think things through. Her shell-shocked psyche needed to catch up with all that had just happened.
Little Limbo was feeling expansive. "Okay," he said as they headed back to the elevator. "This is it, my big entrance. Life on earth commences." He raised his voice to something like a shout: "Get ready, earthlings, Limbo is on his way. Make room for Limbo Fish!"
"Are you sure you're ready, Sweetheart?"
"Oh, I'm ready all right. Bring it on." She could feel him shifting inside her, perhaps stretching out a little. Then he spoke again, his voice dropping lower and taking on a quiet urgency. "This Dr. Mysh: does she have large breasts? An ass I could write on with my tongue?"
Phil Rensid was surprised to see Naomi standing in his office doorway. He gestured with his head for her to come in. She shut the door behind her and walked up to his desk.
"I'm going in for delivery."
"Like I told you, I'm very pregnant. Extremely. They're going to induce labor tonight."
She felt a little dizzy, and sat down. "So, obviously, I need some time off."
"Of course," Phil said.
"And I hope you don't hold it against me. I mean, this baby has to come out. My doctor said so."
Phil flashed his best impression of a caring smile. "Gee, I don't know what you take me for. We have guidelines for maternity leave, and I support them."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"I wish you the best—a speedy recovery, and all of that."
"Well thank you, Phil." She stood up slowly, suddenly feeling like the earth itself had gotten heavier.
"You know," Phil said, "I just had a thought."
She'd taken a step toward the door, but turned back and waited, still a little queasy.
"For a while I've had this vision of an exhibition about fetal development, that shows the different stages. My idea is to pose the hot-button questions: When does the fetus become a human being? Is it at conception, just a couple cells with the potential for all that's human? Is it when it starts to look human in its features? Is it when the brain becomes fully developed? Is there some point where it would be immoral to have an abortion?"
"Those are interesting questions," Naomi agreed.
"They're among the defining questions of our time."
Naomi's head was in a fog, but a dim memory appeared in the distance. It was a joke her father had told when she was a kid. "I believe," she said wearily, "that the Jewish people solved this problem long ago."
"Yes. The rabbis got together and decided that the little critter is a fetus until it graduates from medical school." She patted her belly with both hands in a halfhearted drum roll intended for Little Limbo. Phil stared blankly, and Naomi sighed. "It's a joke, Phil. A very old one, in fact."
Phil let out a brief, mirthless laugh. "Here's what I envision: Our visitors would come look at a progression of fetuses in different stages of development, along with an animation. Then we'd ask them to vote on those questions. They could leave comments, and comment on each other's comments—in an ongoing dialogue. In essence, our visitors would collectively solve these tough, age-old conundrums."
"Great idea, Phil."
"Thanks. So I just had a notion. We have an array of fetuses in formaldehyde, showing the different stages. But we don't have a fully formed baby. If, Lord forbid—and that's a really huge Lord forbid—something goes awry in your delivery, I was hoping you'd consider donating the little fella to our collection."
"That's not something I really want to think about—"
"It'd be like a second chance for him. Formaldehyde is a kind of immortality, and he'd be an educator, of sorts. The museum would pay you a reasonable sum, say—"
He was interrupted by a deafening, almost incomprehensible screech coming from the center of Naomi's body. "He's a fucking moron! An idiot! How can this lump of duckshit be your boss!" Naomi instinctively put her hands over her crotch.
Phil looked horrified. "What is that? Some kind of recording? Where did that voice come from?"
Naomi smiled demurely. "My vagina."
Phil started to speak—"I, I um—" but couldn't put a sentence together.
Limbo Fish wasn't finished. "Hey asshole. Boss Phil. I'm talking to you."
Phil managed a barely audible whisper. "Yes?"
"You aren't fit to wash my mother's underwear. What makes you think you can treat her like some sort of servant? You should be butchered with a chainsaw. You should be cut into pieces and fed to your own children!"
Naomi, still holding her crotch in a vain attempt to stifle Limbo's tirade, began to inch toward the door.
"This... this is highly inappropriate," Phil blurted.
"Yeah?" Limbo went on, his voice a little more muffled than before. "Well we talked to Dave Frank on Tuesday, and you're on your way out. The board of trustees had a secret meeting. You're history! And I ain't talkin' natural history, either."
Phil seemed about to cry. "Naomi?"
"He's a child, a baby. Technically, I think he's still a fetus. He says crazy things. I need to go." She yanked open the door and fled.
At seven-thirty that evening, Marvin Wing, the anesthesiologist, released an I.V. transporting a cocktail of labor-inducing drugs into Naomi's arm, and little Limbo began his slow slide toward light and air. The nurse, a former NFL defensive lineman named Blake Slate, monitored Naomi's progress and gently coached her through cycles of pushing and resting.
Limbo began to whine almost immediately. "I don't feel so good," he said, his voice more growly and burpy than usual.
"It's the drugs," Dr. Mysh said. "You'll probably get used to them in a few minutes. The side effects from the most powerful one, the Pitocin, will wear off pretty quickly. Right Marvin?" She jabbed the anesthesiologist with her left elbow. Dr. Wing, tall, whip-skinny, and consummately imperturbable, shot back a chilly look through his cobalt Carrera glasses that seemed to say 'If you want to bullshit this little freak of nature, don't involve me.'
"I feel better already," Limbo said. He lowered his voice. "Tell me, Missy Mysh, what are you wearing?"
Dr. Mysh, whether out of annoyance or shrewd calculation, became all devilry. "On the outside, surgical greens. But underneath: wow."
"You heard me, Shorty. Lace stockings. Sheer lavender camisole. A thong so tiny in front it couldn't hide a spider."
"I'm on my way!"
Naomi, who had been pushing, felt the change. "Something's moving, big time. Oh my God, it's happening."
The immense mound of her belly had indeed begun its slow migration downward. Blake Slate began cheering Naomi on with slogans like "Let's do this thing!" and "No pain, no gain."
Limbo, understandably in one of his manic states, kept up a steady stream of inane commentary, mostly directed at Dr. Mysh: "Mysh, my little dish, I'm swimming like a Fish, to you," and, "I feel a pressure on my head. This is not good. My head is soft, you know, it could easily squish—that's not the wish of Limbo Fish, Mysh."
His head made it through Naomi's cervix and into her vagina, then came to an abrupt halt. Somehow, mercifully, Limbo could not speak. The only sound that came through was an occasional muffled groan. But they couldn't get him to move any further along the passage of his emancipation. A quick palpation indicated, and ultrasound confirmed, that the snag was Limbo's erect penis, which seemed to be catching on the wall of the womb or the back end of the cervix.
Dr. Mysh tried to talk him through. "Limbo, grunt once for yes, twice for no. Are you choking or smothering?" There was a muffled but distinct double grunt. She continued her questioning. "Is there something in your thoughts that might be making you, um, aroused?"
Blake, who had been keeping an eye on the eerie moving image in the ultrasound, cleared his throat and spoke tentatively. "Uh, pardon me Dr. Mysh, but it looks like your voice might be making things worse. Every time you speak, his dingdong perks up even more. Look at this."
"Enough already," Dr. Mysh said. "Let's get her down to surgery. We're doing a C-section."
Naomi was livid. "You're cutting me open because the little bastard has a woody? Dr. Mysh, you need to hush up. I'll talk him down." Blake found a wide respirating tube, and Naomi held one end to her lips and placed the other end in her vagina. She started in on poor Limbo. "Okay young man, you've pretty much had the run of the roost up to now, but you're about to enter a world that is not of your making. There are rules. You will address all adults with courtesy. You will set the table before dinner, fork on the left. As for pets: no insects, spiders, or—"
Blake, still monitoring the ultrasound, interrupted with news of progress. "It's working! His pecker is on a limpening trajectory."
"Limpening?" Dr. Mysh spoke derisively, clearly miffed that she'd been upstaged on her own turf.
But Naomi was on a roll. "I'm not done yet. Your friends: They don't walk through the door without a polite hello, they don't leave without a thank you, and they don't go shuffling around my apartment with their pants hanging below their butt-cracks. You want to have a farting contest, take it outside. You will practice your clarinet for half an hour whether you have a little league game or not; you practice in your room with the door shut, and no long silences while you text your girlfriend. And no back-talk—if I ever hear the word bitch come out of you, I will bitch-slap you into next week..."
Dr. Mysh had to intervene. "Give her a sedative, Marvin. She's going to scare him back up the birth canal. The drug should help to keep the kid's putz limp... Wait. Okay, he's coming out. Let's get busy, people!"
Limbo arrived wide-eyed and mute, looking like something between a plucked chicken and the tiny wet teenager that he was. He gazed around from face to face in the room, and then at the room itself. His mouth hung open in a gawk of sensory overwhelm—he didn't even try to speak. Tears began to stream down his cheeks, and then he sobbed uncontrollably. Blake swaddled him and put him in Naomi's arms, and she hugged him close to her breast, rocking him and humming an old tune that came from some obscure, forgotten corner of her own childhood, a lullaby she'd never sung before.
When he calmed and quieted, Little Limbo looked around the room again. Dr. Wing was switching bottles on the I.V. Dr. Mysh was murmuring orders to Blake about pain control for Naomi over the next few days. Limbo spoke. "It's so big," he said.
Naomi, flush with love and a drug buzz, looked deep into his strange, wizened face. "What is, my little noodle?"
"The world. And there's more than all this?" He made a sweeping gesture with his chubby little hand.
She smiled, spoke softly. "This is just a room in a hospital."
"So it's even bigger than what I see."
"By a long shot."
"But you'll grow, and it will seem smaller."
"I don't think I'm going to grow much more. Look at me."
"He's got a point," Dr. Mysh interjected. "Right now, the kid's a gnome, an adolescent dwarf. We're in uncharted territory here. Who knows, if he eats all his veggies with a little protein powder, he might surprise us all. But I wouldn't bet on it."
"Okay," Limbo said. "That's how it is then." His face—tiny and fragile yet strangely ancient—became pensive, exuded something like wisdom. "It's just... I don't mind the bigness so much, but I wish things were closer together, cozier."
He began to weep again, very quietly this time, so that Naomi felt that he wasn't so much upset as expressing an existential sadness, which she understood. "You'll get used to it," she said, wondering if it was true. "So maybe your body won't grow much, but your spirit will expand until it fits the world as it is. And it's not such a bad place, for the most part." She paused, trying to decide if she should say more, lay more cards on the table. She shrugged. "I won't lie to you. There's some ugly stuff out there. There's the greed, people just grabbing what they can for themselves, never mind anybody else. There's the uncaring and slothful neglect, the petty meanness and backbiting, the downright cruelty. Human nature runs the gamut. Most people are pretty decent, but the bad ones can be horribly, unspeakably evil."
"Oh, that," said Limbo Fish. "Don't worry, Mother. I'm ready for that."
Title image "Into the Void" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.