Death’s Door

Eve Morton

After Adelaide was born, I had trouble sleeping. Not surprising, given that my little girl was a crier.

“A good set of lungs on her,” my mother-in-law Marta said. “This will serve you well. But you must still be careful.”

“Careful for what?” my husband, Derek, asked.

Marta sang something in return, something that sounded like an ancient song from another era. I was so doped up and exhausted from the over twenty-four hours of labour, I thought I was dreaming on my feet. Someone handed me the baby, I put her to my breast, and didn’t even register that she had begun to nurse.

“Good signs all around.” Marta nodded. “Just three more days of this.”

“I think it’s more like eighteen years,” Derek said.

Marta ignored him; she looked through my pale skin and grasped Adelaide from my arms. “I’ve got her for a while. You should rest. Your husband will get you steak. And liver.”

“Liver?” he repeated, but his voice was soon quiet. His mother had given him that look–a stern one that quieted anyone, and had always felt like magic. I wanted her to tell me how to do that now that I was a mother. How could I make my children still with a single glance? When Adelaide started to cry again, I wanted to sob.

“Go,” Marta said, and held my baby to her chest. She wailed, but Marta didn’t blink once.
“Go rest.”

Derek took me by my arm and laid me in the bed. He kissed my forehead, said that no one ever ate liver, and he’d get me something good instead. My body hummed for that meat. I opened my mouth to speak, but only the sound of more crying could be heard. Raspy cries, death-cries. “Oh no. Is she okay?”

“Yes,” Derek said. “Sleep.”

He left. I didn’t sleep. Each time my body gave in to that blissful oblivion, I was jolted awake by crying. I blinked and time disappeared. I blinked and she cried again. When I finally gave up and stepped out into the hallway, the house was dark.

I found Marta in a recliner, the baby in her arms still crying out. “This is normal, don’t worry. Though she does want to nurse.”

I took Adelaide to the couch; she was quiet as she suckled, yet, in the back of my mind, I still heard the crying. Like a song in my head, a never-ending repeating line from a movie. “Oh, God,” I moaned, a sudden swelling sadness taking me over. “What have I done? When will this be over?”

“Shh. You have made it through the first day. Give it two more.”

My own sobs matched Adelaide’s as she disconnected from my breast. I leaked milk and tears; Adelaide had none in her eyes. Babies wouldn’t get true tears until after three months, I recalled. I had no idea what was supposed to happen in three days; I could barely function, barely move to ask her, and before I knew it, she was singing again. The same strange tune as before, something so familiar yet distant.

“Did you sing that to Derek?”

“For all my babies. For the first three days.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s nice.” Marta’s face was stoic, almost like a coin that had been cut into the dark blue light of dawn coming in through the window. Adelaide had been born at dawn just twenty-four hours ago. I had been sleeping since the afternoon. Time was a mystery to me then, like that song, like Adelaide, who was now quiet with nursing.

When Marta asked for the child, and told me to sleep even if I didn’t dream, I followed her advice.

The next two days, I ate liver and steak. I licked the blood from the plate. I fed Adelaide between her bursts of sobs. Each time she fell asleep against me, Marta took her, told me to rest, and then sat in the same chair. I didn’t see Derek; he kept going out for more meat, and this time, he followed his mother’s orders for liver no matter what his tastes were.

On the morning of the third day, something had changed. When I closed my eyes, I dreamed again. I was sleeping again. Not the strange, half-animated state like before. I was growing stronger in my muscles and bones. My breasts ached now like a clock, waking me without an alarm. The house was quiet.

“She’s not crying,” I said to Marta as I entered the living room. “She’s just awake.”

Marta nodded from the chair, clearly exhausted. “Death’s door is closed now.”

I nursed Adelaide with ease, staring into her dark eyes so much like my own. I only realized what Marta had said when she rose to leave. “Death’s Door?”

“A woman and child pass through Death’s Door more than once when they separate through birth. They move back and forth for at least three days until they find their souls again. Sleep is dangerous since it is yet another place where the soul goes missing. But she has cried enough to keep away the demons and ghosts that linger on the threshold. She has good, strong lungs. And you, dear mother,” Marta said, and clutched my chin as if it was ivory. “You have
called your soul back from the brink. You are a mother now.”

I thought Marta to be like I’d once been, ravaged by lack of sleep.

Yet, when I set Adelaide in her crib, I glimpsed shadows by the window. Dark men and women, frail bodies covered in pale skin like bedsheets. Ghosts. Lost souls. They were everywhere now, outside our front door, on our porch, begging and waiting and longing to get inside.

I blinked and they were gone.

And so I sat in Adelaide’s room, singing the song Marta had been teaching me all along, and became a mother, a true mother, by the time morning came.

Eve Morton is a writer living in Ontario, Canada. She teaches university and college classes on media studies, academic writing, and genre literature, among other topics. Her poetry book, Karma Machine, was released in late 2020. Find more info on authormorton.wordpress.com.