Ana lay on her side, twitching her nose against the unfamiliar pillow. A film of dust was tempting her nostrils into a sneeze, but her head was too heavy to care.
It was odd trying to sleep in a dead person’s bed.
It was odd to think that this dead person had once given her life.
It had been a few days now, but Ana wasn’t any more comfortable than the first night she’d lain awake on the lumpy groove of her mother’s pillow, ill-fitting against the back of her own head.
Out of sync with each other, as they had always been.
The screen of Ana’s phone lit up on the nightstand, and next to it, the ruddy face of a babushka doll was illuminated for a moment. The shadows somehow cast sadness on to its static, stoic expression. Fine strips of paint had worn away, exposing the cheap wood creeping up its bodice. It had been sitting on her mother’s nightstand for as long as she could remember – a silent witness to life and, eventually, the slow, agonised process of death.
Ana pried herself off the pillow slightly to peer at the phone screen, pupils narrowing at the offensive burst of light. She could tell it was Dave from the first two words, and her annoyance only grew stronger from there.
sup anna? lets talk about this. call me plz. xx.
She flipped the phone over and rolled away from it in bed.
It’s Ana, not Anna, she thought, her tone more pointed than she’d ever said aloud. She only approached him timidly to his face, with a strained chuckle hiding the disappointment when he inevitably ignored her and she was Anna once more.
Ana thought of the babushka’s shadowed face, and her mother’s voice shadowed in memory.
They’re matryoshka dolls, not babushkas. That’s just what the Anglos call them, Anastasiya. Babushka means a very old woman.
Just like you! She could hear her younger self chortle in response, forever dismissive in her sarcasm.
A tear caught on Ana’s eyelash. Her mother certainly hadn’t been a very old woman, and now, she never would be.
Dave texted again in the morning.
And then some more.
Each time, Ana’s phone buzzed harshly, reverberating its demands against the antiqued wood of the nightstand.
The removalists would be here again soon. She also needed to call the funeral director. Not to mention, her grandparents were flying in from St. Petersburg in few days’ time. And she didn’t know if she could deal with any of it, without even adding Dave’s situation to the mix. Each plea of Ana’s phone was a fresh wave of stress, as if dirty fingernails were picking at a newly-formed scab, leaving an infected crater double the size of the original wound.
The influx of messages started taking on a rhythm in Ana’s brain, a call to action she was not ready to face.
There was too much to think about. She couldn’t switch her mind from mortality to maternity. Not yet. And much less with Dave – why, why did it have to be Dave?
Ana’s lips were already gnawed raw with anxiety, and the butterflies in her stomach flittered stronger with each day, churning ambivalently with its own creation.
She reached over and roughly pushed her phone to the floor, where it landed on the carpet with a dull thud. Ana then turned her attention to the familiar comfort of the weathered babushka. She clutched it to her chest, breathing in the wood stained with years of scent and sentiment.
Ana gently twisted the babushka doll open, hatching the fresh face within. It looked happier than the outer layer – protected by its sacrifices, and blissfully unaware of them. She put the biggest doll back together, now empty but independent. She did the same with the next, and the next, lining them up across the blanket in a generation of babushkas.
The penultimate layer, the one before the solid, tiny nub of doll nestled in the heart, creaked as Ana twisted and tugged. The wood, firmly fixed through years lived in tandem, squeaked in protest as she finally pried their halves apart.
Triumphant as the doll popped open, Ana eagerly checked for the littlest doll. It had always been her favourite as a child – there was something satisfying about its hopeful, sturdy form, where no one else was hiding within it.
But she was met with a vacant cradle in the middle of the doll. Ana was disappointed; the final surprise proving an empty promise. She stared at its face for a moment, thinking how much more lifeless its expression seemed now that she knew its hollowed form was uninhabited.
Nonetheless, she firmly pushed the two halves back together, placing it next in line to its predecessors.
They were still a family, at least on the outside.
Ana was still in bed when the removalists arrived to tackle the living room furniture. After she let them in, she immediately went back to bed. She couldn’t bear the sight of this particular ending, although she could still overhear the sounds of her mother’s life being dismantled, their gruff voices and calloused hands shaking dust from the corners of Ana’s childhood.
The last few days had been difficult enough, when she had watched the removalists peel away the stove used to cook borscht and stroganoffs, and the austere, Soviet-era dining table she had sat at for her whole life, grumpily pushing food around the plate and begging for chicken nuggets, roast lamb or spaghetti bolognese.
Mothers are the birthplace of culture, she realised. And yet, Ana had inherited very little, and not from a lack of her own mother’s effort.
Ana thought of Christmases she’d spent in Russia watching Disney videos she’d brought with her, so she didn’t have to sit through the subtitles of any esoteric local children’s programs.
In high school, Ana always begged her schoolfriends to go to their house, so they didn’t come to hers where she’d be embarrassed by her mother’s thick accent and offerings of humble Slavic dinners.
And now, she was pregnant by a True Blue Australian who called her Anna and complained about boat people.
Ana’s mother was quickly evaporating around her, and with it, so was every piece of herself she’d neglected.
What could a child serve to inherit from her, when each gift from her own mother had been traded for Vegemite and Ugg Boots?
Ana folded the pillow over her ears as she tried to sleep through the shame snaking through her belly like a sickness.
Ana woke after dark having wasted the day in bed, her stomach restless and angry. She realised that perhaps shame wasn’t her only affliction when bile flooded to the back of her throat as she sat up, and her abdomen convulsed in unknown protest.
She tumbled out of bed, shaky on her feet, toppling the babushka dolls from where she had perched them on the bedspread. They rolled along the carpet in various directions, sprawling under the bed, or towards the closet, but all of them out of sight.
Ana lurched towards the bathroom, clutching her stomach and wincing in pain. Out of habit, she reached for the basin to steady herself, but awkwardly grappled with thin air. The bathroom had been stripped just the other day, ready to be redesigned. All that was left was the bathtub and the toilet.
Trembling, Ana crumpled herself down next to the toilet, waiting for a wave of nausea that seemed to have gotten lost within the tangle of her guts.
She gagged over the toilet bowl, coughing up nothing, desperate to purge.
Perspiration ran down Ana’s temples, and she began breathing sharply as her stomach twisted in a full-body wretch.
Tears sprung to her eyes.
Was this really morning sickness? She couldn’t imagine however many months of this. She thought of how she’d never gotten her appendix out, or perhaps this was a stress ulcer. Her thoughts were quickly interrupted by another jabbing sensation that felt as if it were splicing all the way through to her lower back.
Sweat swamped Ana’s armpits and chafed uncomfortably between her legs. She felt an intimate trickle of heat dripping down her inner thigh.
Dazed in pain, it was then that she spotted the dark red patch on the groin of her pyjama pants.
Her heart was beating violently, and she began to choke on a sob.
‘No, no, no… no, no…’ Ana babbled as she frantically grasped at the bloodied stain pooling wider and wider across her lap.
Ana knew what was happening.
Her sobs became louder, echoing within the empty walls of the room.
Ana cried out as another cramp seized her stomach, aggressive in its clutches as if eating her from the inside out. Her breath was raspy with pain and sorrow. She remained propped against the wall for what felt like hours, with its chipped, ageing paint flaking into her hair as she writhed through each cramp.
Eventually, the pain subsided, and she hiccupped as she tried to catch her breath. Drying blood from Ana’s pyjama bottoms smeared against grout of the cracked tiles beneath her, the same ones that had once soaked up so many bathtimes’ worth of sudsy water.
Long-awaited but barely detectable, the hideous sensation ended as a thick, clot-like deposit slid into the confines of Ana’s underwear. She let out one final sob of heartbreak alone. Ana sat paralysed deep into the night, head aching and tears drying, but unable to face the grisly, barely-formed loss of life coagulating on her clothes.
She didn’t want to look at it.
She didn’t want to move.
She just remained there, empty.
Alex Creece is writer, poet, student and average kook located in Victoria, Australia. She studies Arts at Monash University, and loves bizarro worlds, craft projects, and brave literature. Alex is passionate about diverse voices and perspectives within the arts, and often incorporates her experiences as a queer and neurodivergent woman into her pieces. She has been published with Scum Mag, SBS Life, Archer Magazine, and others. More information and works can be found at creecedpaper.com, or you can summon her through Twitter @roguedyke.