Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
MOTHER'S MILK: A Dairy Tale
b y   g a y l e   b r a n d e i s   ~   r i v e r s i d e ,   c a l i f o r n i a

THE BREAST pump stretches Ruth's nipple out so far it looks like a hitchhiker's thumb. Ruth pushes the button that makes the pump "suck," nursing her plastic baby, its whirring mechanical hunger. No milk flows yet, and won't for a while. It will take weeks of pumping, twenty minutes per breast, per day, before the first drops peal from her body. Until then, Ruth ices her nipples at night and wonders if they'll shrink back to their normal size. Her rosebud areolas are spreading into rounds of bologna, nearing sandwich proportions. The breast pump box says nothing about big nipples -- then again, it's called "Gentle Expressions," and there's nothing gentle about the pump.

Ruth's sister gave her the pump "just in case." That "case" never came to be, however, and Ruth felt resigned to the fact that it never would. But then, one day, while getting a cavity filled, Ruth heard the dentist's radio over his drill. There was a story on NPR about women who nurse their adopted babies. These women pump their breasts for months before the babies are due. Ruth was surprised to hear that pumping can stimulate lactation even in women who have never been pregnant. As she spit into the sink, Ruth's breasts suddenly felt empty. When she got home, she pulled the pink pump from her closet, skimmed the instructions, and started to pump.

Now, blue veins snake across Ruth's breasts. Her bra size increases in both numbers and letters. She aches like she did when her breasts sprouted in seventh grade. She wonders what in the world she is doing.

The milk comes in slowly -- thin, bluish, drops which Ruth licks from her fingers, amazed. In a couple more weeks, her breasts really inflate. Ruth feels as if they might burst -- she can't pump the milk out fast enough.

The milk... It has changed, turned sweeter, richer, more bountiful. Ruth's horns of plenty drench her shirts, send sharp streams shooting across the shower. The face of a baby, or sometimes even an animal, brings the milk prickling into her breasts. Ruth leaks constantly; she always smells slightly sour, lightly spiced.

Ruth advertises herself as a wet nurse and soon is feeding most of the babies on her block, plus some of the men and two neighbor women. Although the men may stroke her other breast while they nurse, they do not make sexual advances. The women both fall asleep at the breast; Ruth lets them nap until they have to pick up their children at school. Even with her steady flow of customers, Ruth has more milk than she knows what to do with. She forms Mother's Milk Merchandising in her kitchen, and markets custards, muffins, and cheese under the MMM label. The cheese sells for $15 an ounce at the local deli.

Dairy maid, dairy animal, Ruth luxuriates in her new calling. As her nipples toughen, stretch marks furrowing her breasts, Ruth's face opens like a baby's mouth, becomes as calm and radiant as her milk.

Ruth creates drops for pink eye, as well as a healing skin balm. She fills milk baths at health spas and bonbons at confectioneries. She donates to milk banks, sends cartons of breast milk to Third World nations, and boycotts Nestlé, which pushes artificial infant formula there.

And while the rest of the neighborhood dreams its milky dreams, Ruth takes off her shirt in her back yard. She throws her arms out, her head back, and sprays the night sky with new constellations.

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