The Circle of Life Gets Sinister

“Rabbit in a Hat,” original fiction by Alison Wisdom

AN INTRODUCTION BY LUCIE SHELLY

Alison Wisdom’s “Rabbit in a Hat” follows a couple down the Amazon river on a doctor-prescribed vacation. The narrator and her husband are having trouble getting pregnant, and the doctor suggests a trip will help her find “rest, rhythm and timing.” She hears the crude tick of the clock within, while her husband believes that if she can just relax the pregnancy will happen, that the future baby is “an invisible bit of magic conjured by his wife’s body.” But Wisdom identifies a deeper anxiety than the burden of time. The narrator is worried about the “letdown of the trick” that is pregnancy, and that, if she does conceive, having a child will be a disappointment, “a bait and switch.”

As they travel down the river, surrounded by lush jungle, Wisdom watches her characters closely. Each night, the narrator undresses before her husband, hoping that this time will be the time she conceives. “But I have a theory I will never tell Marc,” she confides. “We won’t get a baby because the world is too full. Too many other babies being born, too many long lives still being lived.” Overwhelmed by her desire for a child, life becomes a one in, one out situation. A zero-sum game. She isn’t just hoping that her body will perform its special feminine magic — she is waiting for her unborn child’s permission to enter the world of the living, which means she’s waiting for someone else to leave.

She isn’t just hoping that her body will perform its special feminine magic — she is waiting for her unborn child’s permission to enter the world of the living, which means she’s waiting for someone else to leave.

The travelers in this story aren’t fearless and intrepid, they are wary of both the environment and their own instincts. With “Rabbit in a Hat,” Wisdom brings together the mysticism of nature, the surreality of pregnancy, and the foolhardy ways humans wrestle with time. The narrator knows time can’t be stopped and that things occur randomly, but that doesn’t prevent her from assigning significance to coincidence and deja vu. To say much more would get into spoiler territory, set up too many expectations. And “Rabbit in a Hat” is about the danger of expectation and of obsessive hope, about the deals we are prepared to make if we become too attached to certain outcomes.

Lucie Shelly
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading

The Circle of Life Gets Sinister

“Rabbit in a Hat”

by Alison Wisdom

We go to the jungle, to the river, because my body is empty, and we want to fill it. I want to fill it with a child, and my husband with peace, with whatever I need to be happy, anything to settle the restlessness of my body’s yearning. They say a man doesn’t become a father until he holds his baby, sees its fingers and toes and the way they move just as his do. Until then, the baby is an invisible bit of magic conjured by his wife’s body, the promise of a rabbit in her hat. She’s ready for his applause — because that’s what you do — but wary, still, of a letdown at the trick’s end. A disappointment. A bait and switch.

Rest, the doctor said. And time. A vacation. Then we will try something else. If we even need to, he adds. It can take a long time.

“Be patient,” Marc says. “Besides, I’ve always wanted to see the Amazon. Go down the river like Huck Finn.”

“Wrong river,” I tell him.

“I know that,” he says. “A bigger, better river.”

But now we are here, and the river itself might as well be the same river: murky, thick, snaky, though who can tell on the ship how the water trail twists and coils? To us, we go straight, point north, travel in one neat line. I only know it winds because that’s what rivers do, because that’s what the framed picture in our cabin shows — an aerial view, the river like a vein running down a giant’s arm.

Sun and water and green plants. Rest, rhythm, and timing. It’s all we need.

But I have a theory I will never tell Marc: we won’t get a baby because the world is too full. Too many other babies being born, too many long lives still being lived. I read an article once that said the earth knows she can’t hold us all anymore, that she is beginning to revolt against us with all she has — earthquakes, giant waves, droughts and sandstorms and hurricanes and floods. And maybe my body knows this. The earth and my flesh and muscles and bones in communication, tides and moons, dogs who sense the trembling under the crust before the ground splits open.

There aren’t many of us on board; it’s a small ship. We are led by a wiry man named Estuardo, our cruise director, who tells us to call him Stu. There are, thankfully, very few children. There’s nothing here for families, no looping waterslides or costumed people dressed like cartoons, no screenings of kids’ movies in the early evening while the adults eat alone like real adults. I have friends with kids. I know how it works, what they want when they go on a trip with their children. It isn’t this.

But there is one family, and they are perfect. A mother and father, a boy and a girl. I can see them from where we sit at dinner. Tomorrow I will sit with my back to them, let Marc spend the hour watching her cut up the chicken nuggets the ship’s chef made especially for them, let him watch the little boy tugging at his father’s beard and laughing, like it’s a mask that won’t come off. It won’t bother Marc to watch that. He’s lucky that way. He’ll say they’re cute, or he’ll say nothing about them at all.

Marc reaches across the table and takes my hand. “Hey,” he says. “Look. Let’s have fun this week, okay?”

“What else would we have?” I ask. “Don’t we always have fun?”

He is careful here. “Of course,” he says. “I’m just worried you’re going to worry.” He smiles. “Now you’ve got me worrying,” he says.

“I’m fine,” I say. “I’m happy to be here.” The ship is compact and beautiful, more glass than steel. The river holds pink dolphins, Stu has told us, and the deep green shore teems with creatures, with birds and snakes and men and women and haunted things — Stu told us that too — and the ship keeps us safe from the river, the rain, the pull of the jungle.

“When it’s the right time,” he says, “we’ll have a baby. If it’s now, it’s now.” He shrugs. “If it’s in five years, well, then that’s fine too.”

I am silent. My body, or something deep inside of it, stirs. Yesterday, it tells me. You needed to have a baby yesterday or last week or last year. Hurry, it says. “I know you’re right,” I say. I watch the bearded father push his chair back from the table, taking the napkin off his lap as he stands up. The mother says something to her son as he climbs out of his chair. He nods and I see him shake the waiter’s hand. A tiny little gentleman. The waiter smiles at him. As they leave, they walk right past our table. “Baths,” the mother is saying. “Then a movie on the iPad if neither of you cry when I wash your hair.” Then they are gone.

“This,” Marc is saying, raising his hands and looking around the dining room — posh but tastefully exotic, all clean lines, low lighting. “We’re on an adventure. This is what we should be focusing on.”

But when we go back to our room, I undress so that he notices me, pull back the sheets of the bed, grab his hand, and he lets me pull him to the bed. I watch my body perform what’s necessary, I will it to open, to be ready. We are warm and flushed with wine and river, and I leave the curtains open, the window the size of a cinema screen, so that when it is over, we can lay in bed and watch the shore, black and jagged in the darkness, float by. It’s possible we have done it, the magical thing we’re waiting for.

“We should have closed the curtain,” Marc says.

Let them look, I think. If anyone can see, let them look. But the wall is only a window, and then water and then beyond that, there is wildness or there is civilization, villages we cannot see from here, and I know then, as sure as I am of anything, that we are alone. No life being formed. It is only us, only two, and the night outside our window. When Marc falls asleep, I tell myself not to cry, and I don’t.

There is a particular man aboard the ship who I believe is alone. He is older, though I’m not sure how old. His hair is the light color of ash, once blonde, and he has cheeks that are full and sag, like the jowls of a bulldog. Marc and I watch him during one of the excursions. “He reminds me of someone,” I say. “It’s the cheeks. But who is it?”

We are out on small boats in the river, fishing for piranhas. Up close, the river seems viscous, alive, and there’s so little separating us from it — planks of wood, thumbs and lines of caulk, not much else. Before we left, Stu told us we couldn’t keep the fish. “We get to have them for a while, look at them, admire them, and then they have to go back where they belong.” It still seems wrong to cast lines into the river, hoping for a knife-toothed fish snared, wildness baited and tricked — and yet I want to pull up my line and force the jaws open, that underbite, see the rows of tiny serrated teeth inside. Watching me, Marc seemed impressed but also alarmed “You’re unexpectedly intense about this,” he said.

Now he looks at the man, studies him. “Don’t stare,” I say.

“Winston Churchill,” he says. “That’s who he looks like.”

We laugh because it’s true, that’s exactly who it is. The guide turns around to look at us, and we smile, then laugh again when he turns back again. We cruisers, now fishers, are on three different boats, canoe-like, in a line one after another.

In another boat, the little boy is standing up, walking back and forth between his mom and dad, and the mom is snapping her fingers at him. Sit down, she says. The guide on their boat is grim faced.

In Winston Churchill’s boat, a black-haired woman taps his shoulder, extends a camera, and he grapples with the rod and the camera while the woman positions herself, leaning into her black-haired husband. She takes off her sunglasses and then puts them on again. She turns her head to one side, tilts it the other way. Winston holds the camera up for a moment and then hands it back to her. She looks at the screen and frowns at what she sees, then waves — it’s okay, it’s fine — and goes back to fishing.

“Excellent military leader,” Marc says. “Apparently terrible photographer.”

“He looks like a sad person,” I say. “Just a sad person piranha fishing.”

“Nothing sadder than that,” Marc agrees.

There is squealing in the other boat, not Churchill’s, and we look over. It’s the family’s boat, and the mom is hoisting her line out of the water, the little girl beside her is clapping, and there is a small fish on the end of the line, wiggling and twisting.

“Is that it?” I ask. “It’s so little.”

“You sound disappointed,” Marc says, and I am.

At dinner I sit with my back to the family, so now I face the black-haired couple. She has her hair pulled up off her shoulders, turquoise earrings she fingers as she talks to her husband. At another table nearby is Winston Churchill, and he eats slowly and chats with the waiter, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. More couples, a group of women who all wear chunky necklaces, caftans, lip gloss.

I let myself turn to look at the family. Just once. The kids have macaroni and cheese. The dad spears a clump of noodles from the girl’s plate and eats them. The girl shakes her head at her father — no, Daddy — and her ponytail swings. Her brother grabs it because how could he not? When I turn back to Marc, I watch him deciding what to say.

“I feel like a drink,” he says. “And fresh air.” A good answer to something I didn’t say. I nod.

When we walk away from the table, I look once over my shoulder at the family. The little boy wipes his face with his napkin. The mother tips her head back, wineglass to lips.

Back in our room, we have sex again. Marc closes the curtains but not all the way, and there is a sliver of window exposed, a stripe of moonlight. Earlier, we watched the moon on the upper deck of the ship, perfect and cool in the sky, its twin rippled in the river. “Relax,” Marc says now. “You’ll never get pregnant if you worry.” His hands are everywhere, and I try to pay attention to where they go: my face, hair, breasts, my hips. His fingertips are light on my skin.

Stu told us earlier that the moon is a protector, that she watches over the people she sees, the women especially, who are more vulnerable to the dangers of the night. “I’m not worrying,” I say, I tell myself over and over, but my thoughts are winding and twisting, and they are coiling out of the room, up to the moon, like smoke — just one, they say to the moon. Tell someone his time is up, close your eyes for a minute, rest on the job, and let someone go. Let someone new come in.

The next day it rains. But the rain is fine, nearly a mist, and the air is steamy, the breathing of the giant whose veins are the river. We stand in brightly hooded, rain-jacketed clusters and pairs as we wait to leave the ship. Today we are going into the jungle. “Macaws and sloths and anacondas,” Stu promises. “Jaguar, Jesus lizard.”

“A what?” a woman asks.

“A lizard who dies for your sins?” Marc whispers to me. “A lizard who comes back to life.”

“Walks on water,” says Stu. He points his index and middle fingers of his right hand downward and walks them across an invisible surface. “It skitters.”

“I liked my explanation better,” says Marc. “It could be a movie. Jesus Lizard: Messiah Complex.

Jesus Lizard: He Returns,” I say.

“Just when you think he’s dead,” Marc says, “here he comes again.”

Soon we’re walking off the ship and onto the beach, a strip of tan before the green begins. Now that we are closer, I can see there are different shades and depths of green in the jungle: houseplant green, the skin of a snake, the darkest corner of an emerald, the color of lily pads, of lettuce, of lichen. There is also a small building with the door open, a man standing in the doorway, waving. There’s a white sign propped up in the corner of the window that says “Amazing Amazon Animal Tours.” Marc turns to face me, the red hood of his raincoat bright against the gray sky, and gives me a thumbs up. “Jaguars,” he says. “Let’s go.” They split us into small groups, each led by a guide, and we are off. In another group, I see Winston Churchill in a blue jacket, no hood, a wide-brimmed hat over his head. When he turns sideways, his jowls are so prominent they obscure his mouth.

“Those of you with me, this way,” calls our guide. Our group is us and the caftan women, who are now wearing muted hiking clothes, like they changed overnight from birds of paradise to swallows. In another group is Winston Churchill, the parents and children. The little girl holds a disposable camera and points it at a tree, back at the ship, at her brother, who jumps off the corpse of a downed tree, weak and porous. The rain is steady; it clings to our guide’s jacket. The ground beneath our feet is soggy, sticky, and it feels like it could suck me in, pull me below its surface. In the distance, a bird calls.

Our small group forms a line — the trail into the jungle is narrow — and we set off. Behind us, the other groups wait for their turn to walk down the same path, a few minutes separating us, and before we turn a corner I glance back at them, standing on the shore making mental lists of all the things they hope to see.

We see wild red birds with beaks hooked and sharp, small frogs so bright they look painted. We see wet paw prints, their muddy borders caving in, only two and then no more, as though the owner of those paws disappeared mid-stride. A lizard, but one that cannot walk on water, a lizard that lives only once. Two monkeys, white birds so thick in a tree that it looks as if the branches grow cotton. At the shore, we thank our guide and scurry back to our cabins, shaking ourselves off like dogs when we get under cover.

Our cabin room looks out onto the banks where we just stood, and once we have changed out of our jungle clothes, we sit in the chairs by our window and watch the second group traipse out of the trees and onto the shore and clamor up the walkway to the ship. We hear their voices as they walk to their rooms. We read. The rain is a fine spray on the windows. We see the third group gather together on the little beach. In a huddle, they are indistinguishable from one another, rain-jacket hoods covering faces, heads. The only one I can recognize is Stu, their guide, who is hoodless and hatless, and we watch him peering at the group, one finger extended and bouncing over each person, making the shape of m m m in the air as he counts. We see him count again. He walks back in the direction from which they all came — the expanse of shore narrowing into the trail — and then jogs around a corner, disappearing.

“Someone forgot something,” Marc says. But then, only minutes later, Stu emerges from the green again and waves over the other two guides. The men talk. A few people begin to walk back to the boat. Marc gets up from the chair, flops onto the bed. “Want to watch a movie before dinner?” he asks. “Since it’s gross outside anyway, and the boat isn’t leaving yet.” He turns the TV on and begins scrolling through the channels.

“Sure,” I say. Outside Stu has left the huddle of men and is waving the remaining passengers toward the boat, and when every last raincoat has wandered aboard, he shuffles back to the two men. Marc pats the bed. I join him, lying on my stomach. I look out the window, and the men are gone, and I wait to feel the boat begin to move, to push through the mist of rain, to slice the river water and go.

It is dark, and we have not left. The windows of the little building hum with yellow light, the tour company sign a black rectangle cut out of the glow. At dinner, we hear people asking each other why we haven’t left, the itinerary demands it, could it be the weather, the rain is so light, a mist really, is there something wrong with the boat?

“It’s odd,” Marc says. “But we’ll get where we need to go, no matter what. We won’t be stranded out here forever. If we’re even stranded.”

At dinner I look around for Stu, who I am sure has been cornered by other passengers or is hiding somewhere to avoid being cornered at all. It’s then I see Winston Churchill isn’t at his table. There it is, a few feet away from our own, the candle in the middle lit, though the chairs, both of them, are empty. “I don’t think someone forgot something,” I say. “In the jungle, when we saw Stu go back on the trail. I think we’re still waiting for someone.” Marc stares at me. “Winston Churchill is missing,” I say.

Marc frowns, a slight pursing of his lips and eyebrows gathering. “I bet he’s sleeping,” he says.

“What if he got lost?”

“It seems unlikely,” Marc says.

“It would make sense, though,” I say. “Why we haven’t left yet and why there hasn’t been any explanation. I bet people are looking for him.”

“Where would he be?” Marc asks.

We both know. The jungle, the river. Where else?

“What a terrible place to be lost,” he says. “There’s no way you’d survive.”

“I don’t feel like eating anymore,” I say, pushing my plate away. With one finger, I slide the wineglass away too. “I want to go back to the room.”

“Okay,” Marc says gently. “But hey, I’m sure it isn’t what you think.”

In the room, I begin to undress again, just as I have the past two nights, more quickly maybe. Urgently. The lamps on the bedside table are on, the curtains are open, and, in only my underwear, I walk over and close them, though before I do, I see the sky has cleared, the moon is up. I turn to see Marc standing in the doorway to the bathroom. “What are you doing?” he says. He watches me, like I have a gun, cocked and aimed, or a suitcase with a bomb inside.

“I feel worried,” I say. “I need something to distract me.”

Marc keeps looking at me in that same way, eyes narrowed, movements cautious, easy. “Want to have a drink?” he asks. “Or do you want one of my Ambien?”

“No,” I say. “I think we should have sex. Please. It will make us feel better.”

“You’re putting too much pressure on us,” he says. “That’s probably why we can’t get pregnant.”

“That’s not it,” I tell him. If they find Winston Churchill, padding down the jungle trail, still wearing the wide-brimmed hat, or if they find him, dazed and clothes torn and muddy, weeping and hungry, it will all be the same as before; we will sail down the river, we will arrive at our port, we’ll fly home, and it will be only Marc, only me, no tiny child growing inside my body.

“Look,” Marc says. “I just don’t want to. Not tonight. You could still be pregnant — who knows — and if you’re not, we can try again next month.” He shrugs. “Another month won’t hurt.”

I say nothing.

“I love you,” Marc says. “We can try again tomorrow night.”

“You don’t even want a baby,” I say. “You don’t care at all.”

“Stop,” he says. “I don’t even know what to say to that.”

I grab a robe from where it hangs in the little closet of our cabin. I wrap it around me, pull the belt tight. Marc opens the curtains. The night is still and murky from the old rain. The ship hasn’t moved at all; the building on the shore still has all its lights on, and I think about Winston Churchill, out there in the night, maybe seeing the yellow light through the trees, worrying that the hulking mass in the distance isn’t the boat he’s meant to be on but some sinister mirage, a delusion. The stars are nearly invisible through the clouds, but there is the moon, round as a blank face, like it’s been listening to the conversation and it, too, has nothing else to say.

In the morning, Marc makes it up to me, tries to prove he does want a baby, not the baby of next month, baby of someday, but the baby who begins here. “See,” he says. He pulls me close to him, and we fall asleep afterward. When we wake again, we stroll out to the ship’s roof, and I lie down in a hammock while Marc looks for coffee. The ship hasn’t moved, but we hear it will soon. There will be a change of itinerary. A cluster of people come up the stairs. “The mosquitoes are terrible out here,” one of them says. I sit up. It’s Winston Churchill. He sees me watching and waves, and I wave back, a pain echoing in my belly. Disappointment swells there, or fear, and my insides coil and tighten and expand, forming words I can never say, how I hoped for disaster, an end for a person I didn’t know but who surely loved, was loved, would be missed. But here he was all alone, I would have traded him in an instant, and it doesn’t matter now.

When Marc comes back, he has two coffee cups. He hands me one, and I say, “Look who’s okay. You were right after all.”

“Only partly,” he says. His voice is thick, like he has drunk the water of the river and now it has swelled up in his throat. He looks down, at his fingers clenching the coffee cup, and looks at me. “The little boy,” he says. “I asked one of the waiters what was happening. He said the boy got lost somehow. In the jungle.”

In the sky, the morning sun is loose and sloppy, burning hazy at the edges, no face to speak of, nothing like the neat contours, the watchful face of the moon. The small hand held out to the waiter, fingers grabbing his sister’s hair. A sister. A mother, a father. Back in the room, Marc rubs my back while I cry, and I must fall asleep for hours because when I wake up again, the ship is sailing, doing exactly what a ship is meant to do.

To make up for lost time, we don’t stop again. After lunch the next day, we come back to our cabin to a note slid under the door, typed and printed on flimsy stationery with the cruise line’s letterhead. An accident, it says, involving a guest. Over Marc’s shoulder, I skim the rest: Emergency attention required, partial reimbursement to guests, many apologies, best wishes. “Well,” Marc says. “Sounds like they must have found him, and he was hurt or something. Poor kid.”

“Maybe,” I say.

“Are you okay?” Marc asks.

“Queasy,” I say. “And tired.”

“Pregnant,” he says triumphantly, and I roll my eyes.

He folds the letter from the cruise line in two and tosses it, like a Frisbee, into a wastebasket near the door. “I wonder what happened,” he says. “I guess we’ll never know.”

But three weeks later, back home in our own bed, I wake up nauseous, and I barely make it to the toilet before I throw up. And it’s in that way, I think, we know what happened to the boy. Marc was wrong. The boy wasn’t hurt; he was gone. We’ve seen his family on the news, still waiting, searching among all that green, but now I know they won’t find him. The jungle swallowed him whole, the river drank him up. I cry and cry. “I’m happy too,” Marc says. “A baby. Unbelievable.” He puts his hand on my stomach, and I imagine a baby as small as a seed, the head of a pin, swimming in my body, as miraculous as a dolphin in the river.

The months are long, and my body hurts. It’s painful in a strange, surreal way. I am me, and my body is mine, but I’m not and it isn’t, and though I feel every ligament stretch, each rib forced apart as the baby flips and turns and kicks, it seems as though I am feeling the body of another person. The stomach, growing and swelling, is my own, but it feels alien, and I stay up late and watch the baby push against me, looking for a foot there below my skin or a hand, the angle of elbow, the curve of his head. I feel more thankful every day. I regret less.

Marc is giddy about the changes, the ones already happening, the ones still coming. He puts his hand on my belly, he leans over and puts his ear to it. “I can hear his heartbeat,” he says.

“You can’t,” I tell him. “That’s not how it works.”

“Aren’t you happy now?” he asks. He sits up to look at me. “You’re getting what you always wanted. And everything worked out.”

“Not yet,” I say. “It still might not work out.”

My voice catches, and Marc softens. “It will be okay,” he says. “And if nothing else, look at the numbers. You’re out of the woods for a miscarriage. We’re going to have this baby.”

I say nothing. I nod. A different kind of magic. A disappointment. A trick where the rabbit goes in the hat but never comes out.

I am over halfway to my due date when, one night, we watch an episode of Dateline. It’s the kind of thing that we don’t mean to watch, but my body is already unwieldy and tired, and so we stay on the couch, and neither of us touches the remote control. The subject is a man who disappeared hiking alone in the mountains of Nepal, was injured in an accident that left him an amnesiac, rescued by high-dwelling villagers, and was treated by kind Swedish doctors living in Kathmandu as his memory came back. Then, when it finally returned, so did he, back to his family in Kansas, a wife who tearfully said she never stopped looking for him. He was gone for seven years. “Wowza,” says Marc when the show is over. “No offense, but I would probably stop looking for you.”

“What are the odds?” I ask.

“One in a million,” says Marc.

That night, in bed, when the baby inside my belly is still and Marc is asleep, I search the Internet on my phone: “boy missing in Amazon,” “cruise passenger dead in jungle,” “child comes back to life.” But he is nowhere, only in old pictures, old news stories. I check every night after that, with one hand on my stomach, pressing against it, waiting for the pressure of the baby to pulse in response. A deal’s a deal. But so far I am lucky. I erase the history after each search. I know how it would look if Marc found it — melodramatic, fatalistic. I feel ashamed at my worry, and then more worried: what if by looking for the boy, I set my fear in motion, and the boy in the jungle is already making his way out of it, heading for the shore, for the light of a ship in the distance?

And if everything does work out there will be so many more days to worry about. So many weeks, years. So many things that can happen to a child. What would this baby’s life prove if not that?

“Do you remember that family?” I ask Marc. “From the ship?”

“Of course,” he says. “Why?”

“Do you think the little boy is dead?”

“Yes,” Marc says.

“What if he comes back?” I say.

“Then it would be a miracle.”

A miracle. An old life for a new one. An emptiness and then a fullness, a ripeness, and then the threat of emptiness again. Outside the house, there is the moon, and beyond the borders here, a jungle, a river and monsters who swim in it, a ship of glass and steel, something hiding in the dark, something waiting.

As Marc sleeps, I turn my phone on and hold it under the covers of our bed so the light doesn’t wake him. A ritual. I expect to find the boy in the jungle, miraculous news of his return, but I don’t. I make myself stay awake until I feel the baby move. Then I wait for him to move again, again, again.

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