2021 Prose Contest Winner: "Mother's Milk" by Alexa Dodd
Some say that Ada Osorio’s milk came in of its own volition, filling her breasts like magic. They say there wasn’t even a baby when she went into a war of words with Leah Delante, the first female mayor of Eden, Nebraska. They say it was witch milk, not mother’s milk, that destroyed the town. But most agree there was indeed a baby to begin with, though he was well-past the toddler years by the time Leah Delante noticed Ada’s milk.
The baby had arrived after a wind-chafed summer day, all ten pounds and seven ounces of him, Ada more breathless than the torn-up skies above the thrashed farm fields of her hometown. Ada had held her first child and cried, because the relief she’d longed for over her twenty-hour labor receded behind the overwhelming duty of motherhood. Her little Marco, his newborn face as squished as a pug dog’s, was finally and distressingly hers. She would do anything for him, and the depth of the responsibility was more exhausting than the contractions that had nearly split her apart.
Her husband Ruben, relieved at last to have his wife’s body returning to its normal shape and function, urged her not to breastfeed. Just stick a bottle in his mouth, babe, give yourself a break. But Ada read the pamphlets plastered to the hospital room walls. She saw the approving nods of the nurses when she said she’d like to try nursing. Ada chose it for Marco, for all the touted health benefits of mother’s milk, and perhaps a little for the opinion of the world, that told her this is what good mothers did.
To begin with, Ada was merely a young mother determined to tackle the sticky art of breastfeeding. Her milk came in slowly, Marco’s hunger an hourly demand, his cries sending needles to her breasts as she lay, bleeding and torn, on the uncomfortable hospital bed. A whole, sleepless night of feeding, of struggling to latch her son’s eager mouth to her swollen, chapped nipples. His tiny fingernails clawed against the soft, stretch-marked flesh of her chest. When morning came, her breasts were engorged, lumps as stiff as two full-term wombs. The milk gushed like a spray bottle, leaving Marco sputtering and fussy as he tried to eat.
Quick as magic, her body had transformed, overflowing at the call of her motherhood. She fought to calm its tide with pads and pumping and round-the-clock feedings. It took weeks for her body and Marco to reach an equilibrium, a rhythm of supply and demand. At times it seemed she cried more than Marco. But she battled through it, all for her son.
And then one morning, just when Ada was beginning to claim some confidence as a new mother, Marco awoke with a pussy, crusted-over eyelid. She called his doctor, half-certain they would tell her Marco’s eye would need to be removed. They would blame her for not preventing this catastrophe, and the shame nearly made the phone too hot to hold to her cheek. But the nurse assured her it was simply a clogged tear duct. She needn’t do more than wipe away the goo.
“You can put breastmilk in it, if you want,” the nurse offered. “The antibodies can take care of any bacteria.”
“Really?” Ada asked. “Mothers do that?”
“Sure. Some women swear it heals it right up.”
When Ada hung up, she stared at her son, sleeping swaddled in a hand-me-down bassinet, his angelic face tainted by the flaky yellow crust along his left eyelash. She bent down and, expressing a few drops of milk onto her fingers, massaged around his eye until she’d removed all the guck. Just to be safe, she dabbed a few more drops into the corner of each eye. In the weeks that followed, his eyes remained clear and bright, and Ada was pleased to learn that her milk could heal so efficiently.
It wasn’t until some months later, when Marco began to crawl and pull himself up, that she tested its medicinal properties again. Little Marco crawled under the coffee table, inevitably whacking his perfectly round head into the base. His screams, round-mouthed and echo-swallowing, filled Ada with a guilty dread—how could she have let him hurt himself? Sure enough, the skin had broken at his scalp, and blood dripped onto the tired living-room rug. His wails were shockwaves, instinctual nudges to do something fix this bad mother make it stop.
With Marco on her knee, she opened her shirt and expressed a puddle of milk onto the top of his head. The clear-white liquid slid over his thin hair without soaking into it, trickled instead into the wound. Like a thirsty orifice, the gash drank down the milk, sucking the blood back under the scalp with it. Before her eyes, the skin closed up, sealed together by a thin white line, as though her milk had transformed to glue. Marco began to laugh as he wiggled off her lap.
After this incident, Ada suspected there was something different about her milk, but it was Marco’s tendency toward accidents—and her need to smooth them over before anyone saw—that made her realize its true capabilities. With every scrape and knock, her milk proved the rapid cure—just a few drops and the bump disappeared, the scratch smoothed-over, the tears dried up. She began to pump extra bottles in the evenings, just so she would have milk on hand to pour into his wounds, simple as opening the jug of hydrogen peroxide.
Ada told no one of her milk’s powers, not yet. Back then, she still believed she would stop producing someday, so why grow accustomed to its convenience by sharing the truth? Besides, it was not the kind of thing to talk about in public, not with her polite mother friends, who never so much as said the word “nipple,” even if they were talking about a bottle. They certainly didn’t want Ada’s advice or questions about breastmilk, not when they knew so much about feeding and changing and how to keep a baby quiet in church. And Ruben preferred she left the mothering aspect of her breasts out of the bedroom. So, she kept the secrets of her milk to herself and Marco, who was growing more rambunctious day by day.
On the day he tore his favorite “lift-the-flap” book, Ada was drained, worn-out from calming his toddler moods, that could turn like the weather on a fall day. As he sobbed at her to fix it fix the letter “C,” she went to the fridge for a bottle of milk. His temper was too volatile to try nursing him, but she hoped the bottle would distract him long enough for her to take a breath and find the glue. But when she handed it to him, he chucked it at his book and flailed his fists, tight as tornado tails touching the ground.
It was when she saw the bottle poised above the book that she finally conceded. Holding the bottle over the torn flap, she coaxed the milk through the nipple, and wiped the excess moisture with her fingertips. The milk flowed into the pulpy seams of torn paper, soaking into the page with a subtle hissing sound. And then one torn edge melded back into the other torn edge, a faint line like stitches between them. When she tugged at the flap, its hold was stronger than ever. The letter “C” hid the picture of the “City” again, the tinted windows in neat rows across the illustrated buildings.
Marco was unimpressed by her repair skills, distracted now by the TV remote he found stashed in the couch cushions. Holding the cold bottle, Ada let the liquid—shades of yellow and translucent white—curve along the plastic interior, the fluid suddenly too weighty in her palm.
By the time Marco was three, he was breastfeeding only once or twice a day, but Ada produced enough to fill half the freezer. One Saturday morning, she found Ruben in the kitchen, piling the little yellow bags of frozen milk on the counter.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Why we gotta keep all this, Ada? There’s no room in here for food. Marco doesn’t need this anymore.”
“But I still use it!”
“For what?” He scooted the bags into the sink, turned on the hot water.
She pushed past him and turned off the tap with a boldness she’d never shown her husband. She stood between him and the sink as though protecting a child. But how to answer him? He still had no idea, even if Marco was constantly asking her to put milk on his booboos. He didn’t even know how much she saved them on cleaning supplies and repairs every month. Her milk could scrub the scuff off linoleum better than Fabuloso All-Purpose Cleaner. It could unclog a drain and stitch up his holey socks, mend the dent Marco worked into the drywall when he found Papa’s hammer, glue back together the lamp he toppled from Ada’s nightstand. She suspected Ruben wouldn’t believe her, just as she was sure her nice mother friends would raise their eyebrows behind her back. Sure, they all thought breastfeeding was nice for the first year, but most of them thought it was a little strange that she still nursed her three-year-old.
Couldn’t she have shown them? Couldn’t she have dabbed a little milk into the crack of the sidewalk outside so her husband couldn’t deny her? How many times had she thought of telling her own mother of her secret? On their daily phone calls, Ada could almost hear her mother’s response to her unsaid words: Más dinero para tu famlia, Ada. ¿Por qué no háces mas con eso? Because Ada knew she could do more. She knew that if she shared her milk, the world would gladly take it, even if the taking would cost her more exhaustion than motherhood already had.
Now, Ruben was glaring at her, hands clenched at his sides, his brow with a crease as deep as a cut. He didn’t like when his wife defied his authority. If she wanted to keep her milk, she needed a reason he could understand.
“I’m donating it,” she said quickly. “For mothers who can’t produce.”
Ruben cocked his head, the trough between his brows rising just slightly. “That’s a thing? Like, you just give them your milk for free?”
“Yes.” She could see he was skeptical, if slightly amused. “Well, and sometimes, you can get money for it.”
“Really?” His fists loosened, and his forehead grew smooth again.
“Yes.” She was sure someone would. “I thought it might be nice to have a little extra.”
By now, Marco had wandered into the kitchen, asking for a snack. She filled a cup with crackers for him, and began piling the bags back into the freezer.
“I guess if it’s for a purpose, that’s fine,” said Ruben, and he went out to mow the lawn.
Two weeks later, she brought her husband a check for $1,500.
“Man, babe! Is your milk made of gold? Those must be some lucky babies.”
She didn’t say, “You mean just like your son, Marco, who I fed with my body all this time?” Or “I guess you only recognize the work I do if it has a price tag?” She didn’t want the fight—or rather, she didn’t want the chore of detailing every little thing she did to keep their son alive and their home together.
And, if truth be told, she didn’t want to tell him there weren’t any lucky babies besides Marco.
She’d dated Billy Branson in high school, nothing serious, though he was the first boy to see her topless, which was perhaps why she’d thought of him first for her business proposition. Conveniently, he’d recently taken over his father’s construction company, Branson & Sons Building, with a dozen new projects going up around Eden.
How did Ada—Ada who hadn’t worked a paying job since giving birth; Ada with half a bachelor’s degree in education, because she couldn’t find the money or the time or desire to finish school while planning her wedding; Ada who’d spent the last three years negotiating nap schedules—how did she negotiate a ten-year contract with Billy Branson, ensuring “Mother’s Milk” would be used in all of his building projects? How did she demonstrate that her milk was stronger than concrete, finagle the intricacies of the deal, all with Marco playing under the conference table, all in time to be home to make dinner?
Some say Ada Osorio entranced Billy with her voluptuous breasts, uncovering herself behind the closed doors of that conference room. That she tricked him into drinking her freshly-pressed milk, offering her nipples to Billy, that high school crush, who’d never forgotten Ada’s curves. That her milk itself, the witch-magic of it, seduced him into signing a business deal with hardly any proof, or rather, with hardly any guarantee that her milk could stand the test of time.
But it was years before the legends grew to this proportion. If Branson’s constructions and repairs were known for their durability, their sustainability, their sleek designs that sometimes seemed to resist the rules of architecture, almost no one knew that it was because of Ada’s milk.
By the time Marco was in high school, Ada’s income far surpassed her husband’s, though he was not the kind of man to retire young. When Ruben learned where Ada’s milk really went, he was embarrassed at the thought of his wife as the sole bread winner, especially because it would mean telling his friends and his brothers that his wife sustained his whole family with just her breasts. To quell Ruben’s shame, Ada devoted herself even more to the housework and the cooking. Shades drawn, she pumped milk and ironed clothes, pumped milk and vacuumed their stairs, pumped and planned their dinners. She wanted to be the good wife, but even more, she wanted to be the example of a good wife for her son. He would marry someday, and he deserved a woman who loved him as much as she did (if such a thing were possible). He deserved a sense of normalcy, a mother who made a home for him, even if she left the house occasionally to deliver her product. She stored the money away for Marco, for the future, for nice things for herself that she never bought.
And then Marco was grown, college bound with the money Ada had saved so studiously. Never in her life had Ada been so proud as on the day Marco graduated from high school, honor roll, his handsome profile barely an echo of his crinkled infant face. He’d be the first in his family to graduate college, and he would do so debt free because of Ada. It was not just the promise of his success, but the promise of an entire future. At Notre Dame, he’d meet a nice Christian girl, Ada was sure, give her beautiful grandchildren. With a prelaw degree, he wouldn’t have to toil with his hands at those backbreaking jobs that even now were wrecking Ruben’s body. He would have the American dream, all because of Ada and her milk.
The fall Marco left for school, Ada was too busy missing him, working to pay his tuition, really to notice the campaign ads going up around town for the new mayoral candidate. She liked Leah Delante’s promises, talking points like getting back to our historic roots, increasing property value, creating local jobs. She had no objection to repairing the municipal courthouse, the historical landmark at the center of town, crumbling at its seams. And when Leah won, beating out the incumbent by a narrow margin, Ada read the headline outside the post office. She muttered, “Good for her,” before hurrying inside to mail Marco a care package. She didn’t read that Leah planned to sign with Branson & Sons to renovate the courthouse. If she had, she probably would have wished she had voted for the woman, instead of forgetting like she did every election. She had no reason to protest the woman to start with.
But when Leah’s treasurer discovered the clause in the contract detailing expenses to Mother’s Milk LLC, Leah was forced to ask for clarification. She’d promised her voters transparency; they’d want to know where their taxes were going.
From her office across the street from the courthouse, Leah called Billy Branson and learned the truth about his success.
“You mean to tell me that our courthouse—a courthouse built in 1832, once visited by President Taft on his tour of the Midwest—would use a woman’s breastmilk as mortar?”
“Please understand, Ms. Delante,” Billy said, adopting the tone he always employed with women when he knew they didn’t understand. “We’ve had a contract with Mrs. Osorio for over fifteen years. And her product really is an astounding building material. Half of the office buildings you see on Second Street use her product, and you can see how well they stood against last year’s hail storms.”
“Her ‘product,’ as you call it, is a human fluid,” Delante countered. She was an expert at deflecting men’s explanations. “It ought to be reserved for human consumption, preferably infant consumption. I can’t allow it to be used in a government building. Can you imagine the headlines? ‘Female mayor thinks breastmilk can save local government.’ They’d call me a lunatic! Besides the fact that you have no proof her ‘product’ can last more than fifteen years.” Delante made air quotes with her left hand, though there was no one there to see them.
“It’s not as though anyone has to know…”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Branson, but if you think this is the sort of thing the press won’t get ahold of, then you don’t know a thing about politics. I can’t allow you to use ‘Mother’s Milk’ on the courthouse renovations.”
“Well, I’m sorry to tell you, Ms. Delante, but the contract we’ve signed with Mrs. Osorio requires us to use her product in all of our projects.”
“Well, you’re going to have to tell her that needs to change.”
“Are you saying you will break contract with us otherwise?”
Delante, catching Branson’s tone, faltered for a moment. She was barely a month into her office, and she didn’t want to make any enemies, especially with a company that employed half the town.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Mr. Branson. Perhaps we can reach a kind of compromise. I’m sure Mrs. Osario is a reasonable woman and would understand my concerns. I’d be happy to speak with her myself.”
In years to come, this is what people would remember: That the reasonable, cautious Delante had tried to compromise, but the crazy milk woman had acted out of spite. Because between Leah’s conversation with Billy and her meeting with Ada, the press got ahold of the controversy. Some say the treasurer sold Leah out. Others, that Billy went to the press because the chance for publicity was just too good, because Ada manipulated him into fighting her battle. Some say that Ada finally chose to show her milk to the world.
Whoever the source, the newspapers and the local networks made their money’s worth from the story. Before either woman had made a public statement, the battle was set, their narratives cast by their opposing groups.
For Leah, who had worked all her life for an office like this, who had hopes to move beyond city politics someday, the situation was a disaster. It brought her down in the polls and had the potential to cast her into the national spotlight in a negative way.
“Delante is anti-small business!” people argued in the Eden diner.
“So much for Delante’s Democratic principles. She’s happy to oppress a Latina woman trying to support herself and her family,” said esteemed guests on Channel 8 News.
“Women’s work is never valued, even when it holds this city together!” read opinion pieces in the local paper.
But there were plenty who sided with Delante, loyal voters, historical society activists, and the women who had always found Ada a little strange.
“Delante wants what’s best for the city. Has anyone really tested the safety of this woman’s milk?”
“Her child is way too old for her to still have milk—it’s just not natural.”
And when Ada, awkward and overdressed, appeared on interviews beside Billy Branson—his thinning hair slicked back too far, his shoulder a little too close to Ada’s, the criticism only grew worse.
“Look, it’s the milk whore!”
“Like we all want to see those milk machines! Cover them up!”
After weeks of tension, the women finally agreed to meet. As they shook hands in front of Delante’s office, the camera flashes augmented their differing bodies. Delante was notably thinner, her shoulders held square while Ada hunched forward, the posture of a perpetually nursing woman.
“I appreciate you agreeing to meet after all this time,” said Delante as she led her into her office. They would speak in private; no secretaries, no cameras. Delante gestured to the couch and then sat beside Ada. She thought the setting would be better—more casual, intimate—than the stiff chairs at Delante’s desk.
“I appreciate you inviting me,” Ada replied. She was staring at all the plaques and pictures on the walls, awards and certificates and diplomas detailing Delante’s successes. She noticed Delante eyeing her chest, and tugged at the collar of her blouse.
“You know,” Delante began. She chose her words with the tiresome care with which she directed every aspect of her life. She was always afraid of her words turning against her. “I think you and I are really quite similar. We both care about this city, and we both care about our careers.”
Ada cocked her head, flattered, a little, that Delante would compare them, even though she knew it was a tactic. “Yes, well, for me, it’s really just the principle of the thing. I think people should keep their word. And when you signed Branson, you signed on to me. So, backing out is, well, somewhat of a lie.”
“But, you see, when I signed Branson, I had no idea about you. And if you think about it, that’s rather deceptive. But, of course, we’ve been through all this, haven’t we? And aren’t you tired of all the back and forth? Gosh I hate the media sometimes. They just twist everything.”
Ada looked at her hands, at the simple gold band that fit snugly over her knobby knuckles, at the calluses along her fingertips, at the veins like estuaries down her fingers and up her arm. She looked at Delante’s hands as they moved, at the sparkling diamonds on her ring finger, the jingling pearl bracelet, the smoothness of her peach white skin. Ada remembered how soft her skin had once been, back when Ruben first slipped that little gold band onto her narrow finger. Back then, he’d smirked at their reception and promised her something bigger. “Something that sparkles,” he’d said with a wink. And though Ada knew they could afford something like that now, he’d never gifted it to her. She’d never brought it up, of course, because she knew how silly it was to want a trinket like that, not when there were so many more important things to save for. Ada knew that Delante was a woman of taste, a woman who spent hours on her appearance every day. Delante was the kind of woman who’d never once had to pause to wonder if the work she did was right for her family, if she was being selfish if she didn’t devote all her time to her family. She didn’t have much of a family in the first place—no children, and she didn’t even share her husband’s last name. What did this woman understand of the exhaustion and loneliness and loss of self that was motherhood? No, Delante was not anything like Ada. How could she understand that Mother’s Milk was not just a business to Ada? It represented everything—everything—she’d given to her son and her husband and their family, the years of hard work and no one to understand. And now, just like that, Delante wanted Ada’s name wiped from the record—from the one building in this town with historical import. The building that stood for justice and truth and good.
“Yes, I suppose things have gotten a little out of hand. But, you know, I’m just trying to take care of my family.” Ada laid extra stress on the word family, pronouncing it slowly, as though Delante might not be acquainted with the word.
“Of course,” Delante was quick to answer. She’d known Ada would say something like this, and she hated the way she sat there, so demure, and yet with this aura of “better-than-thou” about her. The way she crossed her legs at her ankle and held her work-worn hands in her lap. She even disliked the slight pudginess of her middle, how it suggested the child that had made her into the woman she was. As though Delante had not also spent years of her life toiling to have the successes she had. As if Delante was somehow less of a woman—of a person, yes, the kind who understood family and honesty—because she had never had children. And hadn’t the doctor said it was too late for that, even if Delante and her husband wanted to try? She hadn’t been ready before, not in her 20s or 30s, and was that her fault? She’d married late, for one, and she’d seen the toll that children had taken on her mother, on her sisters. The lives they’d envisioned for themselves hadn’t panned out, not the way Delante’s had. And wasn’t she doing something just as good and vital as motherhood? Perhaps she wasn’t caring for a child, but she was caring for a city, one of the building blocks of the nation. And now here was this woman, who knew nothing of policies or politics, thinking she could teach her. Delante already knew! She knew the ache of an empty womb, of the breasts that would never feed a tiny child. So what if she hadn’t wanted those things—she’d still sacrificed her children upon the altar of success, because to be a woman was to be a mother or always not to be a mother. She knew her future widowhood would spell empty years like blank notebooks, tomes of loneliness. All she would have left was the legacy she made for herself, here in this little city, perhaps beyond. The courthouse—Eden’s oldest building and symbol of government—that would be her legacy. She would not have it besmirched by Ada’s questionable product. She would not be forgotten, glossed over by this little mother and her milk—the flowing symbol of her fecundity to contrast Delante’s empty womb, her dry bosom.
“And,” Delante said, after a few seconds of gathering her resolve. “I certainly understand that. So, I thought we might come to a compromise.”
“Yes, you know, a deal?”
“I know what a compromise is.”
“Of course. I wasn’t suggesting otherwise. I just prefer the word. You know, more personable than ‘deal.’ More familial, if you know what I mean.”
Ada nodded, raised her chin just a little as she reminded herself not to back down. It’s what Ruben had said to her on the way out, his kiss to her cheek warming her as she headed for the door. “Don’t back down,” he’d whispered. It was the most support he’d ever shown. After all his years of protesting, after all the rumors about her and Branson, it did surprise her.
“I was thinking that,” Delante was saying. “With the age of the building, and the yet unproven longevity of your product…”
“It’s lasted over fifteen years in several buildings…”
“Yes, but for caution’s sake, I thought we could refrain from using Mother’s Milk for the building itself, and instead use it to construct a monument outside of the building. Perhaps of Eden’s founder? I have some plans drawn-up…”
As Delante rose, went to her desk, and began to go through her stacks of papers—she knew exactly where the plans were, but wanted to give Ada a few seconds to think before showing her the drawing—Ada felt the pin-prick pressure in her breasts, telling her that her milk was about to let down. Nineteen years, she thought to herself. Nineteen years since little Marco first latched onto her and made her milk flow. It was so strange to think of that hairy, deep-voiced, opinionated young man as the same baby whose wounds she’d patched up with a kiss and a drip of milk. He rarely asked for her help now. A little stooped kiss to her forehead was the most affection he ever showed. All these years she’d done this because of him: he was both the inciting cause and the perpetual reason for her milk, to nourish him, to care for him, to support him.
And then, just last night, he’d called with the most incredible news. He was dropping out of school. Moving with his boyfriend to Portland. Ruben was furious, of course, which was why his attentiveness this morning had been so unexpected. She’d spent most of the night trying to skirt his sleepless wrath. There would be no grandchildren now, Ada imagined. And, likely, Marco’s dream to live as a writer on the west coast would leave him financially strapped for years. It was not at all the life she’d planned for him. But Ada…Ada was preposterously relieved.
“Don’t worry about me, Ma,” Marco had said when it was just the two of them on the phone. “This is what I want.”
As she sat on the plush red sofa of Delante’s office, she thought about herself at Marco’s age, a young woman betting her life on her handsome fiancé. Now that she pondered it, she could scarcely remember the young Ada, the one whose middle was flat and whose breasts did not sag with so much stretching and shrinking and tugging. The one who had wanted motherhood, but who had wanted something else, hadn’t she? For the life of her, Ada couldn’t remember what that was, not now, as Leah Delante uncovered a large blueprint for a giant statue of Eden’s founder, a stocky man with a thick beard, riding on horseback. Ada was certain she’d seen a statue like this before—on their rare vacation to a new city, on TV behind some reporter. A famous man? But then, Leah Delante read his name—Henry Eden—and Ada realized she recognized the statue because it was just so similar to a hundred others across the nation. This man was practically the same man who’d founded half the cities in the nation. He was the one who got the credit, though of course he hadn’t been alone: a wife had surely been there in the background, raising his children, cleaning his home, giving him cause to found this city and make it safe for the future. And even if there hadn’t been a wife, there had been a mother. There was always a mother.
“We could construct the monument entirely from Mother’s Milk,” Leah was saying. “Your name would be on the plaque.”
Ada imagined it: a stark white figure, bleached whiter by the sun. Her name in tiny print, underneath the man’s story, the city’s story, maybe even Delante’s story. Ada’s story—her years of invisible work—made visible in the shape of a man’s body. Her life reduced to an attribution, a line of text.
“What do you say?” Leah was asking. “I would make sure you earned your regular rate.”
Ada blinked up from the drawing. She looked at Delante, whose eyes wore bags just like Ada’s, the crescents of them nearly hidden by the right shade of concealer.
“Actually, Ms. Delante,” she said, resisting the instinct to draw an arm across her breasts because the milk was flowing in full, seeping into the reusable bra pads she washed every week. “I think I’ll stay out of this one.”
The corner of Delante’s eye twitched, almost imperceptibly.
“In fact,” Ada continued as she rose from the couch, leaving Delante seated, the plans in her pleated-pencil-skirt lap. “You won’t need to worry about my product in any of Branson’s future projects either, if the city chooses to hire him.”
Rising, Delante tried to compose herself as she followed Ada to the door. Are you sure? What are you talking about? These questions rushed through Delante’s mind. In the years to come, as Mayor Leah Delante struggled to rebuild her city, she would ask herself why she didn’t require some clarification from Ada that day. But though she’d been trained all her life to be suspicious of other women, she’d also learned not to complicate things, not when it seemed easier to smile and accept.
And did Ada really know, then, what she was about to do? Was she aware of the toll of leaving behind her work, of setting out to find the old Ada, or rather, the new Ada?
Ada ended her contract with Branson. Ruben was angry, but not so angry as when she told him she was tired of cleaning and cooking, not unless he was going to do his share too. She begged him to travel with her; together, she hoped, they might uncover the love they’d promised in the beginning. But when he said no, Ada bought herself the car she’d always wanted—just a little four-door sedan, but new, and bright blue, her favorite color. She packed her things. Called her son to tell him not to worry about her.
As she drove out of Eden, onto the freeway, could she see the dust, rising like a steep hill, in her rearview mirror? Could she hear the rumble and crash of collapsing buildings over her stereo? Could she smell the smoke and dirt, the gas and putrid water from busted pipelines? The nauseating reek of spoiled milk, as if the stench had lain dormant until the final moment. Sirens wailing, drowning out the cries of the townspeople as they rushed out of Branson-built structures. From cornfields and animal pastures, they watched the city fall apart.
People say she knew what would happen if she let her milk dry up, if she left it all behind. She knew the milk that held together shops and office parks, bridges and streets, schools and housing complexes would evaporate, like a river stemmed from its source. Ada’s milk had sustained an entire infrastructure. Her milk was the glue—like a web through the city—holding it together. And when it dried up within her, it sucked the life from the town too, structures decomposing without the spells of the witch.
People say she left to spite Delante, to spite her husband, to show them all who she really was. Others maintain she left because her son had broken her heart, her grief driving her to the point of madness; Eden was simply collateral damage. Others, of course, fault Delante. Even as she worked to rebuild the city—the crescents beneath her eyes turning to full moons—people cast their anger at the only woman left to blame.
Who can say if Ada Osario planned for the destruction, if she willed the mess onto Delante? It does seem a little too cruel, for a mother like Ada. Maybe she didn’t know the city would crumble if she wasn’t there to sustain it. In her meekness, maybe she never suspected how much we all needed her. Maybe, really, we were the ones who knew.
Alexa T. Orozco Dodd is a woman of Mexican heritage, a native of Texas, and the mother of two. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University and a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Dallas. Her work has been a semi-finalist in the Nimrod Literary Awards and has appeared in Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, River Teeth Journal, Heavy Feather Review, The Write Launch, and elsewhere. She is a Tin House Summer Workshop alumnus and a recipient of a Hypatia-in-the-Woods residency for women artists. Currently, she’s working on a speculative novel with elements of magical realism. You can follow her on Twitter @alexa_writer and on Instagram @alexatdodd.