On Fridays, the baker left stale loaves in a steel drum out behind the kitchen. For the pigeons and the poor, a charity and a celebration. The Allies had won. Clara took two loaves.
She paid three cents to the butcher for a half-pound of paper-wrapped castoffs: entrails, snout, and ears. Clara asked that the meat be diced no larger than one-half inch on a side. Her babies couldn’t swallow anything larger.
She smelled them as soon as she opened her front door. Wet. A curious mix of iron and musk, and underneath that the earthy punk of fungus that told her the pressed garlic she added to the water was doing nothing to cure their skin of the white film that spread in patches.
A quick stop in the kitchen to unshoulder her purse, and she descended the short flight of stairs to the basement. Even before she flipped on the light, she heard them swimming to her—splash of spine and fin in too-shallow water, scrape of skin on the concrete slab that only did so much to keep the wet from seeping away. She ran the tap all day and all night, and still the water stood no more than three inches deep.
“Oh, Eddie. Oh, Merle,” she said. “Maybe we should try the tub again.” At least in the bathtub the water had been deep enough for real swimming. But they’d grown so fast, and that’s where the fungus started, in the close confines of the tub. She’d thought the basement would help, that with more space they’d be healthier.
Eddie, the oldest and ever the bravest—first to go to war and last to come back in a flag-draped coffin—reached the stairs and wallowed beneath her. She crouched down, and her breath hitched. The fungus had spread to his head, and one of his eyes was milk-white.
“Eddie . . . ” She ran a finger down the rib of spines that ran the length of his back. Eddie wiggled, pressed himself against her touch, slick against her skin. By this alone, Clara would have known her son. When he was a baby, a human child, and she’d held him close—soft warm skin, and the scent of milk on his breath—he’d always been soothed when she traced his spine with her finger.
She offered out a rubbery piece of meat, and Eddie gulped it down. The others were here now, all five boys together, and Clara tossed out handfuls of food. The water roiled.
Fungus patches everywhere, flashes of gray and white. She dropped her head to her hands and tears leaked between her fingers.
• • •
Johnny went to war.
• • •
Johnny went to war with his girlfriend’s ring in his pocket. Clara didn’t know this, not until an envelope arrived with the personal effects that had been plucked from the mess that the mortar made of his body. The girlfriend didn’t come to the funeral; Clara saw her at the cinema with another young man just weeks after Johnny came home in a coffin.
Clara, on the other hand, stood under that slate-colored February sky while the pastor spoke, and at the end she fell to the cold, dry grass. She clawed free a handful of grave soil, rolled to face the clouds, and cried because she couldn’t let him go. Because she couldn’t believe he was gone. He was her last baby, the one who crawled earlier than all his brothers had. And if God or Fate had taken him, then God or Fate be damned.
A week later, her always-predictable monthly failed to come. Two weeks after that, the first fluttering movement, deep in her belly. Like a butterfly flying inside her.
• • •
Merle went to war.
• • •
Merle had played cards on weekends. He’d filched small bills from Clara’s purse when he visited, even after he was twenty-one and not yet decided whether he would be a soldier or a salesman. Paintings of pinup girls on the nose of fighter planes: that’s probably what brought him to Uncle Sam’s call.
German guns shredded Merle’s plane over Hamburg. Clara stood graveside while they buried an empty casket beneath a granite headstone.
Her belly swelled for five weeks before the first labor pain.
• • •
Alan and Tom went to war.
• • •
If not for a recruiter willing to make an exception for the twins’ myopia, they’d never have crossed the Atlantic. Alan died an accidental death at the hands of a confused comrade whose trigger finger twitched when he saw movement in the fog. Tom fell three weeks later on a beach, into cold waves that rolled him back and forth. Rocked him like Clara had when she sang the twins to sleep.
She knew Tom’s death was coming when they lowered Alan into the earth and still her womb remained empty. Only once both brothers were ready to swim together, the amniotic pair forever bound, did she ripen again.
• • •
Eddie went to war.
• • •
If it were possible to love one son over the others, Clara would have chosen Eddie. Of course, she claimed to adore them equally, but Eddie was the one who brought her flowers when he visited. He stopped to take the laundry off the line, and sometimes even folded the clothing before she knew he was out in the yard. Once, she sprained an ankle and couldn’t walk to the hospital where she worked as a clerk, and Eddie came every day in his brand new Plymouth to drive her across town.
Earlier, when the boys’ father had finally grown too gruff while sober and too violent while drunk, when he came home with liquor on his breath and steel in his fists, fourteen-year-old Eddie had stood in front of his father and told him to go. To come back only if he cleaned up. They never saw the man again.
When America joined the new fight, and Clara thought back to the Great War, and all the boys her age that had died in trenches, she got down on her knees and begged Eddie to stay with her. She knew her other sons would go sooner or later. If they learned one thing from her, it was the importance of duty. But she couldn’t bear to lose Eddie. Her first baby. The boy who hid in her skirts until he was five, who called her Mama even when he was an awkward teen and his friends teased him for it, who kissed her goodbye whenever they parted.
Eddie had promised to stay, and he never enlisted. But the conscription lottery chose him anyway, just as soon as he came of age, and in 1944 Eddie boarded a ship bound for England.
The man who delivered news of his death dropped a shame-filled gaze to her feet. Tom and Eddie’s discharge orders had been en route to their field stations at the time of their deaths—no family should have to lose so many. He commended Eddie’s valor in combat and his quick rise to the rank of officer. What worth were commendations and apologies, when your last surviving son was food for the worms? That’s what Clara asked the Army man before she shut the door in his face. First to go, last to die. Dear Eddie.
Eddie was the biggest, and her labor was the most difficult. By the time he was born, his spines had already begun to stiffen, and he lodged inside, fought the contractions. She screamed and screamed again, and finally he slid free in a wash of blood and water and fish. A quick wipe of the towel over his flesh, and she stumbled and barely kept her balance as she ran to slip him into the sink where she’d slowly cool his temperature over the course of hours. Water over his gills, and he paused to stare at her before swimming to explore the contours of his pool.
She watched and remembered his first coos and gurgles from twenty-three years before—she imagined that he smiled now as he swam.
• • •
Five boys went to war, and all came home.
• • •
Chaste conception followed by short and strange gestation. The births were secret; she told no one. Inside her, the fish grew faster than human babies did, and when her skirts grew too tight in the waist, she hired a car to drive her to the city, to Woolworth’s where she purchased an array of clothing that would hide her condition.
Johnny was the first, and after his birth she sat up all night next to the sink that was his cradle. She dipped her finger into the water over and over to check its temperature. From a kettle she kept warm on the stove, she added hot water drop by drop, and she sang to him while he swam, Hush Little Baby and Brahms’ Lullaby both. The next day she slept on the floor of the bathroom, curled around the porcelain pedestal of the sink.
After a week, she moved him to the bathtub and not long after that, news of Merle’s death arrived. For comfort, she placed a stool next to the tub and dangled her fingers in. Johnny nibbled, whiskers and the brush of fins against her. Absently, she fed him pieces of bologna.
Six weeks later, his fresh-born brother joined him, slick skin and fins edged in amber. Clara fancied that some of his spots looked like the hearts and clubs from the playing cards he’d favored. She smiled when the boys rubbed up against one another, swam together.
The fungus appeared shortly after the birth of the twins. It struck Johnny first, and Clara initially tried to scrub it free with a washrag. Tweezers after that—she plucked strands from around his eyes, but he wriggled and fought, and her ministrations did no good anyway; the white patches spread quickly.
She changed the water twice a day, transferring her babies back and forth between sinks and tub. Thinking that there might be some connection with diet, she tried corn instead of bread, good ground beef rather than the pig offal they seemed to prefer. Nothing worked, and by the time Eddie washed out onto her sheets, flopping and with gills gasping, all four of the other boys were afflicted.
She kept them separated, Eddie in the sink and his brothers in the tub. But that first afternoon after the birth, she came in from the kitchen and found Eddie on the floor, squirming forward on fins not made for land. He crawled for the tub to be with his brothers. After putting him back in the sink three times just to watch him jump back out, she finally acquiesced and put him with her other sons.
The fungus. Clara had visited the library, scoured texts on fish husbandry. The conclusion was clear—her boys were sick, terribly ill. After the skin, the fungus would invade their eyes, gills, muscles. Already, she saw that Merle was weak on one side. He swam in circles and his side fin flopped uselessly.
• • •
And all came home.
• • •
And so on that last day she sat on the stairs, still crying with her head cradled in her palms, and knew it was time. If her boys were to have this second chance at life, to live free of the bullets and mortars and gunpowder that had killed them, she had to let them go.
Slowly, Clara slipped off her shoes. She unhooked the clasps that fastened her nylons to her garters, balled the hose and stuffed them into the toes of her flats. Off with the silk blouse and wool skirt, and she slid down into the water in her underclothes. Babies cherish closeness. That’s what the nurses said all those years ago. Skin against skin.
She lay flat. Catfish whiskers tickled her fingers and the soles of her feet. Wavelets rippled over her shins and ankles, and when the waterline rose and dropped from her ears, she could almost hear their whispers.
Tomorrow, she’d borrow a bucket and take a trip to the marsh. They’d be healthy there, surely. Maybe they’d make homes among the cattails there where she could still visit them.
Tomorrow. Not today. For now she closed her eyes and remembered her lost sons.