top of page

Thea Swanson

The Unfurling of Ann





Claire opens her eyes, the sheets askew.  Abdomen still swollen—three hours, it’s been—she gathers her muumuu and brassiere from the floor.  In a sweaty haste, body eliminating stored waters of nine months through pores, she must first stop in the bathroom, even in such a rush.  More water pours from her as from a hose, taking much too long, and she hammers her heal in impatience.  Grabbing her purse from the living room carpet, she slips on espadrilles, plods down rickety apartment steps and pushes the door into the summer night.


Running past the closed diner, halting to thumb, and then running again through the city neighborhood, she grasps her heavy breasts that beat and ache, that want to expel.  Down Grant, then Ferry, to a house of ill-repute, Claire steps again into the building without knocking, over bodies rank and hot that snore and snivel.  At the end of the long hallway of bedroom doors, there is a final one.  Designed, it was meant to be a sunroom, windows wrapping its walls like eyes.  Utilized, it is a junk room, unwanted items shoved in its space.  Amidst the broken end-tables and lamps, in a corner, a skinny length of near-extinguished life cries under a belted coat, the sound as small as that of an expulsed alley kitten.  The sound is so little, Claire cannot hear it.  Knees on the floor slats, Claire removes the coat carefully, her first tear for anyone but herself in nine months landing on the wee chest, a weightless thing, resembling a breakfast sausage going bad, from pink to gray.  Behold: When the ample tear lands, the chest beats quicker.  “Wretch,” Claire agonizes.  “No matter.  I can’t live without you.”  Employing her prophecy, she leans back against an off-kilter credenza, bringing the babe to her breast.           


the naming


It is two a.m. and the moon’s glow shines through the large glass panel of Claire’s living room apartment window, above the Buffalo bank, a history to which Claire is unaware and uninterested.  The baby sucks, and although Claire’s generation gives formula, Claire has no strength or interest to go to health offices, but soon will have to because diapers cost more than her wallet holds.  Up until now, Bruce and Craig and Bill and Don filled her wallet, belly notwithstanding, though less so as her belly waxed.  But alas, she has no time to frequent bars, and no one has rung her bell.  The babe is content at the breast only, and as Claire dislodges the fierce suction, the infant screams.  A pillow keeps it from rolling to the carpet as she rises.  Letting the baby wail for an eternal moment, she pulls down her muumuu and drags herself to the black and white television, turns the knob.  Audrey Hepburn is Princess Ann, Anya Smith.  Claire trudges back to the couch, scoops up the screeching, small mass.  Claire watches the screen with great interest as she gives the baby life.  Audrey, Ann, and Anya are everything Claire is not.  Claire longs for these differences, and as the girl-baby drains her ducts, its cheeks full and roses, Claire is stricken as she stares fervently at her child: “You are Ann.  You’ll be whatever you want.  Don’t let anyone push you around.”       




The walls of the welfare office are weighty, black marble, which Claire finds oppressive.  In a sturdy chair, Claire waits her turn, carrying Ann not in a carrier or pram, but in a sweater in her arms.  Claire has been around enough to know there will be questions about this baby who has no paperwork.  Claire, too, has no paperwork, or little: a social security card, a birth certificate.  Transactions have been with cash: a fifty from a thick hand here, from a clammy hand there.  Collected and stuck in an envelope and handed with a smile to the neighborhood landlord who let things slide.  No phone, and utilities included.  But now Claire scowls at the clicks of the typewriters.  She had been here before and never returned—an invasion, it was, the application.  What is your income, exactly?  How do you obtain this income?  Why do you have such little income?  Why do you need government assistance?   Where do you live?  Where is all the paperwork proving all of this?  Give us proof of the past six months of your existence.  The application’s tiny print had swelled and blurred before her.  She had tossed it in the trash on her way past the looming marble.


Ann has demanded she return.  Claire’s bosom does not fill so plenteously.  A lack of food, Claire suspects.  Claire has been ravenous too, having cleaned out the cupboards of macaroni and cheese.  Peanut butter.  Milk.  Bread.  There is nothing left.  The men have not visited, and Dotty only once, three days ago, with promises.  Word has gotten around, Claire surmises.  Friends slink away, she reflects, staring in the small, perfect face, when times are tough, when transgressions are left to die on the floor. 


Pushing her nose into the sweater to inhale the intoxicating scent of Ann, Claire’s name is spoken through speakers, and she rises, Ann’s head rolls momentarily down the slope of Claire’s weak arm. 




The cart is full.  White bread and grape jelly.  Pork chops and ground chuck.  Cheddar and milk.  Cheerios and Nescafé.  Diapers and diapers.  Claire has laid Ann in her sweater in the cart, where an older child would sit.  Pushing the cart slowly so as not to jostle, Claire is quite happy to not choose formula that lines the shelf.  She has been enjoying the synchronous tug of duct and uterus, imagining a string connecting one from the other, and only recently able to name such things.  The nurse had been adamant, enclosing the literature in Claire’s hand with her own, sensing complete ignorance.  An informative nurse, instructing on the great benefits of formula, of its heartiness.  Of the ease.  The peace of mind.  How a babysitter could feed her while she is free to look for a job.


No, Claire refrained from saying, nodding instead.  She needs me.  And she thanked the nurse, shoving the pamphlets in her bag, paperwork accruing, authenticating the reality of Ann.  And there had been relief to expose her penitence, to give it a viewing in the health office.  Ah, yes, she had expected from the physician’s mouth, as Claire bit her thumb knuckle, doctor, nurse and mother observing the specimen on the table.  We’ve seen these before. 


“Beautiful baby!”  Dr. Miller had said, his eyebrows lifting above his glasses’ frame. 


“Is she?”  Claire hesitated. “I haven’t been around babies much.”


“Indeed, she is.”  And the baby was turned over on the doctor’s forearm in one swift movement.  “I see them all.”


How can one put formula in such a mouth?  Ann is six-winged!  Ann is light!  Ann eases into deep tranquility in the arms of Claire. 


Claire hands the cashier the colored bills.  Of course she should be afforded the use of this pastel money—do you not see who is in your presence?  It is Ann!  Claire smiles at her treasure, and places bag after bag in the cart.




The moon is still.  Claire gapes at her sleeping offspring, the plump of cheek—six months of life now—and sheds a tear, this one sliding into the curled fingers of the small hand.  In response, Ann opens her eyes, gazes at her mother, smiles, returns to slumber.  Claire starts, but holds her gasp at bay.


The sun is delighted.  Ann rustles but for a moment before Claire is kissing her temple.  The day has begun!


Ann is a glowing pumpkin, a creamy forest creature.  Magical powers are burgeoning from her just as new, longer eyelashes sprout.  Just yesterday, as she sat on the carpet, pillows surrounding her, Claire inspecting the hairs on her own calves, Ann threw up her short arms in the air and squealed!  And when Claire caught her eye and said, “Are you a funny baby?  Are you a funny baby?” she laughed from her belly, a laugh bigger than herself, a laugh that Claire thought might hurt.  Worried, getting down off the couch to peer at her seraph, she took heart, remembering Ann is special and has dominion over mere laughter, and if anything, will rise to the ceiling from it, like a helium balloon. 


And this morning, more unexplainable.  As Claire spoons cinnamon oatmeal into the opened pink bloom, Ann takes the nutrients willingly, like a flower most grateful for the watering can.  And when the tummy is full, Ann simply closes her mouth, puts one hand atop the other, and looks to the cupboards.  It is enough, her gesture majestically says.  Ann’s faithful subject bows her head slightly, wipes the tender petals with moist cotton, and lifts the long-lashed sprite away from the mundane mess and back to her pillowed throne on the carpet, where they giggle and babble in a secret language.    




The cup of milk is placed before her majesty.  The princess is gold and red, a perfect peach.  Nine-month-old tendrils soft on her cranium.  From her belted chair, with spongy knuckles, she sweeps the cup to the floor.  At the disruption, Claire turns from the basin to see.  “Oh, no,” she exclaims, hurrying to the puddle.  “Mommy will get you more.”  Ann watches with interest, leaning over her tray as her subject circles with a rag in the sticky mess.  Oh!  Mommy does such things!  The white milk-milk is now gone!  Ann squeals.  Claire squeezes the rag in the sink, rinses, makes circles on the floor again.  Rinsing the cup, she then fills it, and with a smile, places it on the tray.


Ann stares at Claire, a look which belies nothing, a blank look, merely showcasing brown circles of clear newness.  Claire turns back to the sink.  Or is there something else in those eyes?  Claire looks again, and to her horror, witnesses her blessed issue’s soft digits pushing forward the cup.  Arms hanging, Claire gapes at her child.  Demonic possession has surely taken hold.  Fear seizes her, so she tries reason.  “Ann.  Why did you do that?”  Ann slaps the tray, sings her monotone “bub-bub-bub” chant, makes no eye contact, but simply and intentionally eludes.  “No, no, no!” Claire demands acknowledgement.  “We don’t throw our milk.”  And she, more roughly then she could imagine she would ever do, wipes the bad little fingers with a rag.  With pursed lips, she unhinges the tray and belt and places the blemished peach in the living room, far away from where she works in the kitchen.


The breach has been committed.  Claire’s vision is cloudy from tears.  She washes the plastic spoon, wipes down the faucet, but it is hard to see through the confusion.  Tiptoeing, she peeks into the living room, spies.  Plastic, colored squares are mouthed and dropped, a jack-in-the-box is slapped.  “She knew that was wrong.  She knew.”  Incomprehension shakes Claire’s shoulders.                 




Twelve times twelve the moon has gone and come.  Ann is glorious.  Lips are cherries soaked in sugar syrup, eyes are soft, brown mink.  An even disposition.  Curiosity, yes, but reserved, contained, and often Claire can’t help but wonder if Ann’s first hours of life had caused this keeping to oneself, this holding of one inside.  At times, these past three months, Claire has stuck her face in Ann’s, and Ann has merely looked away.  Claire wants to know what she’s thinking, but a chasm is growing.  Claire’s penance, she assumes.  But there is something else too, a gathering of sorts, Claire senses, as Ann drags her finger along the wall, as she pulls her blue crayon across the paper in long lines, as she walks unsteadily to the window and points to the sky above the roof of the novelty store.  And on this day of days, this other thing, this invisible but palpable thing is not so much a growing tumor as a building helix.  And as Claire places the party hats on the table that she and Ann have made with The News and sticky primary colors, Claire must steady herself, gripping the kitchen chair, keeping the dizziness of the gathering away.  “Mama!” Ann announces, and then kisses Claire’s hand, causing Claire to open her eyes and Ann to shake her head.  “No, Mama.”  Ann kisses the hand again.  And here is the eye of the cyclone, tracking every odd move Claire makes, even as she thinks it. 


And there is the eye again and again, the brown, soft eye, keeping Claire on the correct path.  “No, Mama,” to the can of beer in the cold aisle, “No cry, Mama,” to the lonely woman who rocked on the carpet, face in knees.  Circling the despondent martyr, the creature had traced her crying mother with her phalange:  around shoulders, arms that clutched knees, and hunched back.  Once, twice, thrice.  When Claire lifted her head, lowered her knees to the floor, and opened her eyes, Ann’s finger was aimed at her heart, causing Claire to wrench her shirt with her fist, to gasp for air.


But today is the day of days.  “Happy Birthday, my Anna-Banana.”  Claire takes her hand from the chair and pushes back the yellow ringlets.  With a cone of blue, she crowns her royal offspring.  The red cone she snaps on her own skull, the rubber band tight below her chin. 




Thea Swanson holds an MFA in fiction from Pacific University in Oregon.  Her novel, The Curious Solitude of Anise, independently published in 2013, received excellent reviews from Kirkus, Switchback, Amazon and Goodreads.  Thea’s stories can be found in Anemone Sidecar, Camera Obscura, Crab Creek Review, Image, New Plains Review and Our Stories. Thea has taught all levels of English, from middle-school through college, but she can't afford to teach anymore, so she does other things. 



bottom of page