Bethlehem Farms

Bethlehem Farms

       The shabby petting zoo had been built on one of the last farms in Northern Virginia. Like all the other parents, Ellen and Dale had dragged their daughter Claire there on a hot late April morning to assuage their guilt at the amount of time Claire spent staring blank-faced at pixels and screens. Families went on outings. Families took their children to the zoo.
         All of the parents and children were in a terrible mood. Teenagers taunted the caged cockatoos and tried to teach them curse words. Parents clutched tickets and jealously guarded their spots in line so their kids could ride a slow, fat pony three times around a field with neither grass nor shade. Parents pushed other parents out of the way so they could take photos on their cell phones of the glum children riding the glum animal.
         Ellen and Dale took Clare into the long aluminum warehouse where pigs and sheep milled in pens waiting to be fed. Ellen gave Claire a quarter to purchase dry pellets from what looked like gumball machines and feed them to the overfed and slothful animals. There were so many animals that none of them mattered, like the clothes in Claire’s closet, Ellen thought.
          The highlight of the petting zoo was a hayride around a barren hillside where camels, ostriches and zebras grazed just out of reach. To get to the ride, they walked past the cages of shrieking monkeys and stood in a long line that ended in a shack with a corrugated roof. Everyone in line longed to reach the shack, but the wait was long and parents glared bitterly at a group of birthday party children who were advanced to the front of the line. Dale left the line to buy a bag of Doritos for Claire, who stopped whining long enough to munch. Ellen wanted to point out to Clare how grateful she should be to be taken to the petting zoo, how her own parents would never have taken her on such an expedition, would definitely not have bought her a bag of Doritos, but she stopped herself.
        Finally, a sweaty college girl in a blue polo shirt and khaki shorts opened the gate at the front of the shack and Ellen, Dale and Claire were ushered on board the long trailer hitched to a huge green tractor. All of the parents were scrambling to get the best seat, but no one knew what the best seat was. The children were given a long stick with a contraption on the end that released food pellets when a button was pushed, and Claire and the other children immediately began pushing the button and spilling pellets on the trailer’s dirty floor.
          A man in overalls kicked the tractor into gear and began the slow pull up the dusty hillside. The polo shirt girl began a memorized speech that the kids ignored, fooling with their pellet sticks and calling out to the bored camels. “Camels are mean,” the guide explained. “Ostriches and zebras are also mean. Keep your fingers away from their mouths.” But none of the camels even approached the trailer.
         Ellen gazed at the open field where no grain grew, just short, dry grass around the rutted road. It was dirt, but it wasn’t earth. It was like a large, open-air terrarium. Beyond the wire fence she could see the subdivision houses that backed up to the zoo and hear the rush of cars from the highway.
As they rounded the corner she could see zebras and ostriches standing in clusters. The ostriches did approach the trailer and the children pushed each other to get to the edge and hold out their pellet sticks, which the ostriches pecked at with their big, hard beaks. Claire had lost all of her pellets and started to cry.
        As the tractor pulled them further up the road toward the clusters of zebras, Ellen saw something strange. A zebra was lying on the ground and the other zebras had moved away from it, but something small and white was moving around the prone zebra. As they got closer Ellen saw that it was a little dog, it looked like a Jack Russell terrier, and it was nipping at the zebra’s hoofs and tugging at its brushy mane. It nipped and tugged and ran in circles, barking with a high-pitched yip. It seemed to be nudging the belly of the downed zebra, which remained motionless.
         When the polo shirt girl saw the dog and the zebra, she pulled out a cell phone and called someone. “There’s a dog out here. Must have crawled through a hole in the fence. And one of the zebras is on the ground. I think it might be, um, having problems,” she said.
         The children on the trailer became very excited at the sight of the dog and the zebra. They crowded on that side of the trailer and pushed each other to get a better view. “That zebra is dead,” one of the older kids proclaimed, “and that dog is eating it.” Some of the younger kids wailed, but they all wanted to see.
         But the dog did not really seem to be eating the zebra. Ellen thought he was trying to wake it up. He was acting like the zebra was his mother, like she had slept too long or had an accident, and he needed her to wake up and tell him she was fine.
          Claire pulled on Ellen’s arm with sticky fingers. “Mommy, what happened? What’s wrong?”
          “It’s okay, honey,” Ellen lied. “It’s fine. She’s only sleeping.”

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Wormwood

Wormwood

      “You have coldness and stagnation,” Dr. Choo told her. She was laying on yet another table with her legs spread wide open and really, what did it matter?
        He patted her shoulder. “You need heat. And no more sorry for yourself. I see this.”
From a cabinet he pulled out what looked like catheter bags. So much for holistic medicine. “Spa World” should have been her first clue, or the location at the intersection of 29 and 66. Centreville, Virginia. More like Periphery-ville, at the furthest outskirts of the Washington suburbs, where house prices dipped below the half million mark and a few people still remembered farms.
         Right off exit 17, Spa-World occupied a large warehouse-style building like a cheap church. When she had arrived a half an hour earlier and crossed the hot asphalt of the crowded parking lot, cursing herself for forgetting her sunglasses, she saw a little Korean man with a posthole digger stabbing at the hard red Virginia clay. It was the ruined dried mud of suburbia, what’s left when the trees are cut down for Home Depots and the run-off ruts the clay on its way to concrete ditches and the sun dries it to an unpromising ceramic hardness. The man hacked away in the shadeless late morning.
       Inside, all of the surfaces were shiny and each represented something organic but was really made out of plastic. There was a large lobby and lounge area with a snack bar and a series of little huts like the dwarves’ house in Snow White or those collectable knick-knacks with the rustic cottages with tiny lights that come on in homey windows until the batteries die. Each hut was named: Red Clay Room, Blue Onyx Ice Room, Oak Wood Charcoal Room, Amethyst Gem Room, Salt Room, Geranium Blue Onyx Room.
       But the onyx and oak and amethyst were molded plastic. Embedded in the stucco-like structures, they looked like colorful enlarged pills or candy, like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel and you could snap off a morsel and eat it, knowing your peril but wanting to become larger or smaller or to see the world through eyes that were mottled and clouded like marbles.
       But she had stayed focused, walked up to a counter where an old woman sat on a stool watching a Korean soap opera on the lobby television. She had informed the woman of her appointment with Dr. Choo for the Gyno-Steam and been led down a hallway past the studded huts to an unmarked door. A room without jewels or even a name.
       She was asked to undress, put on a terry cloth poncho, and lie on the flannel-covered table. Now she watched as Dr. Choo pulled bunches of herbs from the catheter bag and threw them in a large silver bowl with the gusto of a chef on a cooking show. Then he picked up a red electric kettle and poured hot water on his concoction. Steam rose in a twisted wisp like a snake from a basket and smelled like the incense she’d burned long ago with her boyfriend the first time they’d had sex.
       Dr. Choo placed the bowl beneath a wooden bench that looked a lot like the seat of an outhouse and instructed her to sit, bare-bottomed, for half an hour.
       “This is detoxification,” he explained. “Wormwood, mugwort. Close your eyes. Good for dreams, cleansing. Clears the stagnant womb.”
         He left the room and she sat on the bench in her poncho while steam rose through the cut-out hole and warmed her exposed vulva. She felt like she was melting, like she might turn to wax and drip globs of herself into the bowl. She remembered sitting in an outhouse on a camping trip as a child and fearing the snakes and spiders she was certain lurked in the stinking dark hole.
       But now it wasn’t the hole she feared, it was herself, what might fall out, what might become monstrously visible, the ropy scars of fibroids or dead embryos like the one that slipped through her fingers into the toilet. She feared there were more. There must be dozens in there.
       She felt dizzy like the last time she had gone to the Quest Lab to have her blood taken and the phlebotomist hadn’t put enough pressure on the puncture. She always got dizzy giving blood and she had laid down on the plastic-mattressed table, curled on her side next to the stuffed animals they kept there for kids. The mattress was like those mats you nap on in kindergarten, and each time her body shifted she heard the brushing sound she remembered from her sleepless fearful naps. After a while she had looked at her arm and blood had soaked through the Band-aid and pooled in weird little clots on the plastic cushion.
        She had called out to the phlebotomist, who hurried over and applied pressure and a tighter bandage. When the bleeding stopped, the phlebotomist had grabbed a silver scissors from a table and snipped off the bloody tail of a stuffed giraffe and put the striped body back, no harm done, while Vicky watched her blood bags swing from a hook like hung puppies.
        The herb bags looked like blood bags, not catheter bags, she realized. Between her legs felt moist, not in a sexual way, but in a spongy way, as if her female parts were a rapidly expanding fungus or those little compressed sponges kids put in water and they swelled into sponge animals. But what were they good for, once they’d popped out into red and green sea horses and dolphins?
        She dug her elbows into her thighs and sagged forward, propping her sweaty face in her sweaty hands. It was getting hard to stay upright. She felt like she truly had been drained of blood, like she was hit and waiting for an ambulance.
        Finally Dr. Choo returned, raised his eyebrows and clucked his tongue at her droopiness. “You need more heat,” he prounounced. “Still too much cold.”
         And although she already felt melted and lightheaded, she let him lead her back down the hallway to the Red Clay Room, which even though this was a Korean establishment looked faux Native American, Pocahontas meets The Hobbit. It was shaped like a hive or a kiln, low to the earth but there was no earth, only waxy tile floors like the hallways of schools. The exterior walls were cobbled plastic like the rock-climbing walls they’d started installing in playgrounds, replacing the heavy leather swings and sharp, fast metal slides of her childhood. They paved the playgrounds now with shredded tires so no one would ever get hurt.
       When she entered Red Clay Room, she saw three Korean women lounging naked on the floor: an elderly woman, a middle-aged woman, and a very pregnant young girl. It was too late to flee and she didn’t have the strength. She sank to the floor, kept her legs tightly closed while she pulled her poncho over her head and exposed her small breasts and middle-aged dimpled thighs. She wasn’t fat but she felt fat, like she had eaten a pink rock and grown impossibly large for the small room.
       The floor was made of smooth stones that were heated from below, while the walls were a reddish stucco studded with rough red rocks that looked real. It was quite hot and a reddish miasma hung in the air. It smelled the same as the Gyno-Steam, and in the corner she saw a smoldering bowl. More wormwood.
       She was so tired. The two older women sat with their backs propped against the bottom section of an uncomfortable-looking wooden bench, while the pregnant girl lay flat on her back, eyes closed. Her belly was a dome, the protruding belly button at the top like the nipple on a breast or the pole of an alien world. The girl’s skin was pale and oddly translucent and even in the dim reddish light Vicki could see the blue map of veins on her arms and breasts. She seemed herself not fully formed, fetal, sweat beading her small untroubled brow, her black hair spread across the stones like the straight silky strands of a paintbrush.
      The elderly woman, she must have been the grandmother, leaned forward and pressed the girl’s swollen belly, palpitated it like a doctor. “Her baby is backwards,” the grandmother said in heavily accented English, looking over at Vicki. “Sook, mugwort, helps the baby turn.” She continued to push and stroke the dome. The girl had almost no body hair.
      “Her hips are so narrow,” the grandmother continued. “Not like you,” she observed, with a glance toward Vicki. “Wide hips, good for childbearing.”
       Something terrible swelled in Vicki’s throat, something worse than a spider, a trapped rat with sharp digging nails. She could not speak and laid backwards, spread her body across the hot stones. Her eyes stung and she kept them closed but liquid slid out like an accident, slid down her flushed cheeks. She kept her chest still. She would not heave or even tremble. She opened and closed her hands and dug her nails into her hidden palms. Both of her big toes worked back and forth furiously.
      There was no more conversation and after a while she settled into the torpor that follows tears. She dozed and someone handed her a baby but there was something wrong with it. Its great domed head sagged to one side and she knew she was supposed to support its head and neck, she’d been told so many times, but the head was too big and translucent and crimped on both sides like it had been grabbed by a damaging forceps. Its limbs seemed to be made of clay and kept falling off and she stuck them back on and pinched them like Play-Dough but the baby kept falling apart and it was her fault.
      She opened her eyes to the red haze, so hot. The elderly woman was crouched next to the feet of the pregnant girl, holding a burning stick next to one pearly baby toe. The ashy red tip of the stick glowed and the girl lay still but Vicki saw something pushing against the inside of her belly, a little hand or foot, and it seemed trapped like a kitten in a sack, trying to get out.
      Vicki sat up and the grandmother glanced over at her. “Baby is trying to turn,” she said. “Moxa to the bladder meridian when the baby is breech.” Vicki didn’t know what the little toe had to do with either the bladder or the uterus, and she wasn’t going to ask.
      “You want some too?” the woman asked. “She’s had enough. I use the rest for you.”
       “Sure. Yes. Thank you,” Vicki agreed. Why not? She’d come this far. It was probably no more or less useful than Clomid or Lupron.
       The woman approached with the burning stick and Vicki lay back, expecting her to wave it at her toes, but instead she approached her head. “No need for toes,” she said. “It’s all in your head.”
       She held the glowing moxa not an inch from Vicki’s head and the warmth was luxurious and comforting on her scalp. She imagined ashes falling in her hair and remembered the time her hair caught on fire at her sixteenth birthday party. Her family and her boyfriend were all seated around the great slab of a dining room table that looked like a place where animals might be sacrificed, but it was really just the site of awkward holiday dinners. She had leaned forward to blow out her sixteen candles and her long curly hair had ignited with a crackle. For about thirty seconds everyone watched her burn, the steel blue of her mother’s eyes trained unblinking on her writhing hair until her boyfriend at last leapt up and smothered the flames by boxing her head repeatedly. The smell of singed hair hung in the house for days and she cut off the charred clumps and threw them in the trash.
       It seemed odd to her that Dr. Choo said she was cold because she had felt so often like a smothered burn. On a camping trip, the same one with the outhouse, her father had warned her that forest fires travelled underground, burning through the root systems of trees, and the fire could be right under you and you’d never know. She always thought she could smell the smoke and often bent to touch the ground, check its heat, peer into holes where flames might smolder. He taught her dirt could burn and she never trusted it again. This floor she lay on, there was fire beneath it, well, really, pipes filled with hot water. But wasn’t the earth’s core molten, if you dug down deep enough?
       Vicki felt her face grow slack and smooth and even the jagged ball in her throat melted and grew soft. The old woman lay her hand on Vicki’s forehead and stroked, smoothing back her hair, still holding the smoking stick. “Poor baby,” she said. “Poor baby.” It was bliss to be touched by her competent hands.
       The pregnant girl eased herself up and blinked crossly around the room. “I’m hungry,” she complained in the accentless American English spoken by Northern Virginia residents of all ethnicities. “It’s hot in here and my back hurts and you guys made me stay here, like, forever. I can’t believe I let you drag me into this Korean voo doo crap.” Her face was crumpled and flushed like a child who has slept too long.
       The grandmother and the mother both stared at her coldly and said nothing. It was their turn to have their shame exposed like a stained sheet hung on a line. The grandmother rose and began to gather their belongings. Vicki pulled on her poncho, still dreamy and relaxed from the moxa.
       As she stood to go, the grandmother pulled from her bag a paper packet and handed it to Vicki. “Burn some very day,” she instructed. “Breathe deep.”
      “Will it change anything?” Vicki asked.
       The grandmother glanced at the pregnant girl, who was fuming impatiently in the doorway. “Can’t hurt,” she said, but she barely moved her lips.
       Vicki retrieved her clothes and got dressed to leave. Walking out through the lobby, she saw customers lounging in easy chairs, sipping colorful drinks and checking their e-mail on the free Wi Fi. She saw the pregnant girl, still in her robe, sitting at a table painting her nails. The base coat was a dark blue and on each nail, with a flick of a tiny brush, she created a white daisy with a yellow center. Her boredom and resentment hovered like smog, and the mother and grandmother had scooted their chairs away from the table and turned toward the TV where the Korean soap opera played on and on, no end to the bitterness of spurned lovers and ungrateful children. None of them noticed as Vicki walked past, out the front door and into the humid afternoon.
      The sun was glaring and her eyes felt exposed and vulnerable like pink rabbit eyes. The parking lot was full. The gardener was gone and the small hole he had made was no deeper than a coffee cup. The posthole digger, abandoned, leaned against the side of the building. The air was sticky but the ground was utterly dry. She walked up to the digging site and pulled from her purse the paper packet and dumped the contents into the shallow hole. Dried petals and leaves and seeds, purple and yellow and brown, fluttered and settled in the small depression.
      Maybe it would rain. Maybe something would take root, some great flowering bush, and birds would roost in its branches like a new paradise. More likely, the next downpour would strip the soil, wash the herbs to a muddy culvert, to the broad brown Potomac, to the Chesapeake Bay, to the vast Salt Room of the Atlantic Ocean.
      She could see the highway from the parking lot, already congested with afternoon traffic.     There was only one route home, all of them funneled into the same strips of asphalt. There was no where else to go.

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