When Moses was seventeen, he saw a Nova special on PBS about life in the oceans: the chimaera, whose long nose was like a metal detector, able to stalk prey by sensing other animals’ electrical impulses; the blue-ringed octopus no larger than a fist, whose poison has no antidote; the male blackdragon, who is three inches long, compared to two-foot long female, and has no teeth or stomach, living only long enough to mate with a female.
These animals were nothing like the tired circus lion he once saw walking in circles. Sometimes he pictured his father in some nameless desert, with the body of that tired lion, refusing to stop walking until the ground turns wet.
Moses sat on the couch next to Annie Oakley Jones. Her parents were out of town for a church revival, but did not take Annie because she said she had too much homework. She told Moses she loved nature specials.
Her father worked long hours as a construction foreman and was also a deacon at their church, so when he came home he would lie down on the couch and watch the local news, and then the world news. Nova was on after that, and he would stay awake for about ten minutes of the program before falling asleep. Annie would lie down on the carpet next to the couch and watch silently with her father, knowing he would raise his voice if she talked while he relaxed. In this way, she learned about the solar system and gravity and the habits of polar bears. She had told Moses that when she thought of any of these things, she could hear her father snoring in her mind.
Moses had never seen this show before, and was fascinated by what he saw. None of these creatures were in his school’s science book. Most of what he learned involved revealing evolution as a false science. Mrs. Fenley would tell them at least once a week that believing in evolution took more faith than believing in Christ. She would say, “The ocean is not a womb,” and she would have the students repeat it back: “The ocean is not a womb.”
“Some people will tell you life began in the water,” Mrs. Fenley would say. She gave this same speech once a month, either because she did not remember she had told them or because she felt it deserved repeating. “You know what a life form that just grows inside something is called? A cancer. If we just grew inside the ocean, inside the ocean’s bloodstream, would we not be a cancer? No, God gave you a mother and a father to make you in a real womb.”
When Mrs. Fenley gave this speech, Moses would think about his lion father, who left before Moses could remember.
He would think about his brother, what “stillborn” meant, about the pictures he had seen in health class of a developing fetus—no, child. Mrs. Fenley would not let them use that F word. She had pointed out to them how developed a child was in the womb: “The uterus will become one thousand times larger than normal. This is God making room for you. This is your first bedroom, even before mom and dad paint your walls pink or blue.”
Moses thought about this, how this meant his mother’s womb was a hand-me-down room from his brother. Mrs. Fenley had not shown them pictures from the first few weeks, pictures Moses found in a library book: a young fetus, curled and grey, like a carry-out potsticker.
Although he could never tell his teacher or his mother, he did not believe his brother was as “real” as he, himself, was.
With Annie Oakley curled up next to him, her head against his shoulder, smelling a mixture of shampoo and perfume he had never smelled before, he knew two things: that he wanted to know more about the creatures that lived in the oceans, and that he wanted to make love to Annie Oakley Jones. That night, high on images of chimaeras and octopi and blackdragons and the smell of each other’s skin, Annie unbuckled his belt and pulled his jeans down just far enough.
“Only this,” she said. “I don’t want a baby.”
The ocean is not a womb.
The mouth is not an ocean.
The mouth is not a womb.
The next day he bought a National Geographic, and had Bobby buy him a Playboy. He hid them in what had once been his mother’s hope chest, which she had given to him to store all the books he read. When he was done with both, he would remove all of the books inside, place the two magazines at the very bottom, then restack the books on top. Every time he removed the books, every time he replaced the two magazines with two new issues, he felt as if he were paying his penance by having to remove and replace each time. He made himself remove each book one at a time and replace each book one at a time, so that he would think of what he was doing and then bury his guilt at the bottom.
For months, Moses read everything he could find on ocean life, always reading the books in the library so that his mother would not find them. Annie was the only one who Moses felt he could talk to about his growing obsession, but she began to become weary of his long scientific explanations.
They only had hours at a time to be alone while her parents were gone, usually at a prayer group or a church meeting, and she wanted to make the most of that time.
She would keep her clothes on, allowing him to touch her under her shirt and never below the waist.
When he asked to go in, just for a second, she said no. “Only in the mouth. The mouth is not a womb.”
Something to do with a head moving slowly, down and up.
Something to do with a tide moving to the shoreline, and back.
Something to do with the moon.
One night in her bed, she said, “I’m sick of your voice. I don’t care about the ocean. Please be quiet and touch me.”
That night, he did not come, and she tired of trying.
She turned toward the wall.
Moses lay there, nude and cold, pretending his penis was the nose of a chimaera, smelling for its prey.
Eventually, without a word, he dressed and left.
David Rawson is completing his MA in fiction at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he is an educator and assistant fiction editor for Sou’wester. His work has previously appeared in Mixed Fruit.