The Burr

My first apartment had cockroaches. I’d open my eyes to the scissor sound of wings. For a moment when I’d turn on the light they’d go about their business. Then they’d flash to their dark corners and disappear.

The burr is just like that.

When the baby cries, I open my eyes and can feel the burr’s hair moving in my right breast. But then the burr realizes I’m awake. I rub where it’s hiding (just where breast meets armpit) and there’s no sign of it. It goes flat and still as a cockroach.

The baby knows. He’s stopped drinking from that side. The breast got red and swollen with neglect so I had to pump it. Whomp-WHOMP-whomp-WHOMP is the sound the pump makes, but sometimes there are sounds under the sound. Sometimes there are words under the sound.

The pump never gets as much milk out as the baby. I have to smell behind the baby’s ears to trigger the milk. He cries. He doesn’t like the noise.

I tasted the milk. The baby was right not to drink it. The aftertaste was of briny rotten things.

The doctor said I should write down what I want to talk about. This is because last time I couldn’t remember what was so urgent. Instead I told him how walking to his office made the stitches hurt.

He said that was normal. He said I should walk more.

When we got home I remembered the hairs of the burr. But in the doctor’s office, the burr wouldn’t let me remember.

I won’t show him what I’m writing here, though. It would sound irrational. I do not want anyone to think I’m irrational.

▴ ▴ ▴

I told the doctor I was sore. That I had a sore. Inside.

He says the burr is a clogged duct.

I’m supposed to push the clog out when I nurse. Push on my right breast with the butt of my hand to force it loose and then it will come out, gloosh.

The doctor says that won’t hurt.

There are many things he said wouldn’t hurt that hurt quite a lot. There are many things he said were normal that did not feel normal at all. There were many things that he said would be fine that did not turn out fine at all.

I stay quiet about these things. I do not want to seem weak.

I brought in a bottle of the seawater milk to show the doctor. I showed him how it was bluish at the top. Lumpy at the bottom. Dipped a finger in to show him the strings in it. They wrapped around my finger like threading leeches.

The doctor didn’t want to taste it. He didn’t want to smell it. I didn’t blame him.

Overall, the doctor was unimpressed. He said none of this is unusual. He said the baby won’t drink from the right side because he has an ear infection and lying that way makes him uncomfortable.

This is not true, because the baby will suck on his pacifier lying the same way. I told the doctor this. He nodded and put in a prescription for antibiotics for the baby’s ear.

The baby’s antibiotics come in drops. It is very hard to get him to swallow these drops. When he does, he makes a face.

Unlike the doctor, I do not tell the baby that any of this is normal.

▴ ▴ ▴

The baby is hungry because he’s only taking milk from the left side. He eats every ninety minutes. Sometimes he falls asleep.

If I try to pull him off while he’s sleeping, he bites. You’d think that wouldn’t hurt because he doesn’t have teeth, but it does. It hurts a lot.

It takes him forty minutes to eat now.

Yesterday I fell asleep while nursing him. I woke up and the baby was slipping out of my arms. So now I keep myself awake.

Mary is here to help me. She saw me mixing formula and said it isn’t necessary. Mary says my body is designed to adjust. She says the left breast will catch up. She has three children. She is still nursing the youngest, who is two. She also nursed her twins. Two babies at the same time. This seems impossible. So she must know.

I’m lucky she was able to visit at all. Mary is very supportive.

What Mary said is that I should pump between feedings to increase the milk supply. It takes twenty minutes to pump. I fill a quarter of a little bottle from the left side. I throw away the half bottle from the right side, because the baby won’t drink it.

Mary fills four little bottles when she pumps. Her milk is not blue, stringy, or lumpy. It tastes sweet. She is freezing the milk and will take it home in a cooler. She and her frozen milk are going home at the end of the week. Then her daughter will drink the milk.

When Mary pumps, the pump says MA-ma-MA-ma-MA-ma.

▴ ▴ ▴

Mary said I need to get out of the house. I disagreed but knew better than to say anything. We packed my pumped milk in her cooler. We went to the restaurant at the corner.

My stitches are supposed to dissolve. I can tell they’re not dissolving. I had to walk very carefully.

There were other mothers at the restaurant. Their babies were sleeping. My baby would not sleep. He cried even when I held him.

Mary talked about work. Her work is important. She wants to know when I will go back to my work.

I tell her soon, but I don’t know. I don’t know how I’ll be able to, with all the leaking. I don’t know how I’ll be able to, with the burr growing every day.

My baby always wants to be held. He likes to put his hands on my neck and chest. When he touches me on the outside the burr touches me from the inside.

I am overtouched. My skin feels transparent.

One of the other mothers at the restaurant took out her breast and I watched her nurse her baby. Her breast was very large.

My breasts are not large.

I can’t make myself nurse in public. Mary says I’ll get there. I don’t think so, but maybe she’s right. She mainly is. When Mary first arrived I wouldn’t nurse in front of her and now I don’t mind at all.

People can get used to most things. Maybe I can get used to the baby. Maybe I can get used to the burr.

The baby started screaming. He screams a lot. Mary says it’s his disposition, but also that he’s hungry.

Mary got a line between her eyebrows when I asked her to feed him for me. But she gave the baby the bottle of pumped milk anyway. An old woman at the next table leaned over.

“You know dear,” she said, “you really ought to breastfeed.”

Mary was indignant. Mary said a lot of things. When she was done the woman gave her a pat on the arm and said, “As long as you know,” and went back to eating.

▴ ▴ ▴

I can feel the burr’s hair getting long. The spot where it’s hiding is itchy. I think it is trying to scratch its way out. The skin is red and there’s blood.

Mary said it’s me scratching. She told me to cut my nails. One bled at the quick, but not much. My fingertips are very tender now. Like everything.

Because of my skin cracking I use a special cream. I was using Vaseline but Mary said that’s made with the same stuff as gasoline. She made me a cream that doesn’t have gasoline. She made it on the stove, melted beeswax and some kind of oil.

I ordered silicone shields off the Internet. You can put them over your nipple to relieve the pain. They look like tiny clear hats.

Mary said the shields are unnatural. Mary says they’ll only hinder me. She says they make it hard for the baby to latch. Mary says my body will get used to the pain.

I don’t think it will. But I do think Mary hid the shields somewhere.

I hold the baby. WIMP-whoomp-WIMP-whoomp, says the pump. I know it’s insulting me. The baby and I watch the pump suck my tissue into its tube. It makes blood drip into the bottle. The pump leaves round red circles on my breasts that are purple at the edges.

None of this seems to negatively affect the burr.

I told Mary I feel like a wimp. I didn’t tell her it was the pump that had called me a wimp. I say less and less around Mary.

Mary says being a mother makes you strong.

I don’t think my body agrees.

▴ ▴ ▴

I think if I gave up nursing, I could sleep. I think I should not be moving around. Maybe if I rested more everything would knit back together. I think if I stopped nursing, the milk would dry up. Then the doctor might be able to see the burr in my breast.

I tried to have a reasonable talk about this with Mary.

“You’re a little goose,” she said. This is what Mary calls her children when they’re being overimaginative. “It’s hard at first, but you’ll see, you’ll adjust. It’s natural.”

I tried to have a reasonable talk with the doctor about this. He said I’m healing fine. He said I need more exercise, not less. He said the baby’s weight is fine. Which means my milk is also fine.

I did not talk to John about this. When I talk to him about these kinds of things he winces. In the hospital when he heard the sound of the pump he would say from around the corner “mooooo.” He thought this was very funny. That is all he’s willing to say about these kinds of things. “Mooooo.”

I do not think John is very comfortable around me these days.

So what am I supposed to do?

“If you need a break,” the doctor said, “you can supplement with formula. But it might lower your milk production.”

I snuck the baby some formula overnight when Mary was sleeping. But I started to leak milk while he ate it.

For ten months now my body has done things without me telling it to. Now, it mainly leaks without me telling it to.

And, of course, it grows the burr.

When the baby was done with the formula it took me forty minutes to pump out my milk. And then the baby woke up to eat again. There was no milk left in me so I gave him what I’d just pumped.

The baby let a lot of it dribble out. He does that. He doesn’t know how it hurts.

I looked down at him, suspicious.

“Where were you before this?” I asked him.

I can tell he knows. By the time he learns to talk he won’t be able to remember.

I was so tired I forgot to clean and hide the bottles. Mary found them in the sink. I saw her sniff them and she wrinkled her nose when she smelled the formula. She didn’t say anything but after that I think she’s been watching me more closely.

I would very much like to sleep, but the baby keeps crying and the burr itches.

▴ ▴ ▴

Yesterday morning when I opened my eyes I could hear the burr gnawing. It paused and I thought it was going to hide like usual, but it didn’t. It kept chewing.

I know I shouldn’t be writing this. But since I can’t say anything out loud, it is a relief to write it down.

I showed Mary the skin stretching over the burr. It’s turned red and hot and the veins are bright. Because the burr isn’t hiding anymore.

This time Mary came with me to the doctor. The doctor agreed with Mary that the burr is an infection. The doctor said if it doesn’t go away it can turn into an abscess and they’d have to cut me and drain the pus.

I do not want him to have to cut me and drain the pus. But I do want the burr out.

The doctor said I should try harder to feed the baby on the right side. Because the baby will drain out the clogs. He said the baby’s suction will help clear the infection.

Mary seemed to understand all this so I didn’t ask any questions.

I told the doctor it felt like something was moving in there.

The doctor laughed. He says something is moving. Milk.

He also said my stitches are healing fine.

They don’t feel fine. They feel exactly like what they are. Thread poked through thin skin.

The doctor prescribed me antibiotics. My antibiotics are not drops. They are large dry pills.

After the appointment, Mary brought home a cabbage. Then she made me put one of its cold leaves over my right breast. She says this will help heal the infection.

I looked this up on the Internet. Of course Mary was right. This is a thing people do. In the pictures cabbage leaves cupped full, round breasts. On me the cabbage leaf stood up like a tent.

Mary showed me all kinds of ways to feed the baby. Mary says the angle of feeding can make a difference when you’re trying to unclog things. She even laid the baby down and had me hold myself over him. It was very tiring. I was afraid I would slip and crush the baby.

None of it mattered. The baby still wouldn’t eat from the right side.

Mary leaves tomorrow. John is coming back.

▴ ▴ ▴

I didn’t realize how much work Mary was doing around the apartment.

John is gone most of the day. He’s gone sometimes at night. His clients are very demanding. He works hard.

Now that Mary isn’t here, there is no food in the apartment. With Mary gone, the apartment is a mess.

John is good with the baby. But he can’t spend much time with him. Because of work. And because I have to do the feedings.

John is not used to all the crying.

When the baby is nursing he stops crying and I can hear the burr. She’s started to whisper things. Her hairs are hooked into my spine now. They graze the base of my brain.

“Sweetheart,” she says, “you need to do the laundry.”

“Dear,” she tells me, “you need to get dressed.”

She keeps me awake to do these things.

▴ ▴ ▴

I nurse near the window now so I can watch the woman across the street.

She wears lovely white sweaters. She wears soft silk pants. Her baby is fat and smiles and nurses every three hours.

Overnight her lights are never on.

The burr told me about her.

The woman across the street is very beautiful. Her baby is very beautiful.

My baby is not beautiful. He is losing his hair. The burr agrees he looks thin.

I am also not beautiful. I am losing my hair.

But I am not thin.

Once I had a loaf of bread. I took a piece off one end and bit into it. Even though it looked just fine, it tasted like mold. I took the loaf out of the bag. There was a spot of mold all the way on the other end of the bread. Its tendrils had traveled through the whole loaf, so tiny you couldn’t even see.

That’s what the burr is like. That’s what my body is like. On the crust I still look like me. But when I take my clothes off, when I look closer, I cannot recognize my body at all. Full of moldy hairs.

I keep trying, but the baby turns his head away from the right breast. He puckers his mouth tight. If I trick him and get him to take some when he’s half asleep, he spits it out. When he does that, the milk looks like the white of an egg when you first put it in to poach—white and stringy bits swimming in clear liquid.

If I were the baby I would spit it out, too.

I finished my antibiotics. They didn’t matter to the burr. She’s still making the right breast hot and painful. The skin is webbed red. The burr has carved out a space in the breast with her serrated mouth.

I am sure now that the burr’s hairs have attached to the inside of my skin.

More and more my right nipple is inverting. More and more the skin on my breast looks finely puckered. Like an orange. It’s because she’s pulling those hooked hairs from the inside.

I think about sleep all the time. John says to sleep when the baby sleeps, but when the baby sleeps I have to watch over him. I have to make sure he’s okay. He’s so thin.

And I have to listen to the burr.

“Dear,” the burr says, “the sink is full of dirty dishes.”

“Honey,” the burr says, “you need to get food for that man.”

She keeps me awake to do these things.

The apartment is very clean now. But the woman across the street’s apartment is cleaner.

▴ ▴ ▴

I fell asleep in the doctor’s waiting room. The nurse laughed about this when she woke me. I did not laugh. They’d told me not to bring the baby. John was going to take him. But at the last minute John got called into work.

What was I supposed to do? I brought the baby along.

The antibiotics hadn’t gotten rid of the infection. The doctor had to drain the abscess after all.

I wanted to watch. I wanted to see the burr when the doctor cut my skin open. But the doctor made me lie down. He draped me with blue paper. He wore a mask and plastic glasses.

The baby didn’t like being left in the stroller. He cried and cried. A nurse put a pacifier in, but he was so hungry he spat it out.

The doctor made her wheel the baby somewhere else.

“Dearie,” the burr said, “how could you let them take your baby away?”

I could feel that the burr had grown eyes. Eight gelatinous bubbles.

I reached out for my baby but right then the doctor stuck a needle into the hot part of my breast.

He said it was to make my breast not hurt, but the injection hurt very badly. It made my hands go into fists. The doctor asked if I was okay, but he didn’t mean for me to answer.

The doctor took a scalpel to the burr’s hiding place. He made a small, surprised jerking motion and I could see something splatter on the paper. When I asked what happened the doctor said that it was fine. He said it was just pus. Under pressure. He put swab after swab in a steel bowl and talked quiet to his nurse.

I watched him. I was waiting for him to find the burr. But his face stayed smooth. He didn’t see her. I could hear my baby crying and the milk let down and then there was milk soaking the paper. This also hurt very much.

“All very normal,” the doctor said. “It’s all looking very clean.”

“What kind of mother are you?” said the burr.

▴ ▴ ▴

The woman across the street drank a glass of wine with her husband. Later, I saw her brush a strip of paper against her nipple and stare at it. Satisfied, she nursed her baby.

I don’t know what these papers are.

“But you haven’t had anything to drink,” the burr said.

This made me feel a little better.

The doctor said I can’t feed the baby from the right side. Because of the infection. This made me happy. I lied to John and said the doctor had told me to stop breastfeeding altogether.

“Whatever’s best,” John said. I think he knew I was lying. I think he’s been talking to Mary.

But the milk won’t stop coming. It hurts terribly to pump from the bandaged right breast. But I have to. Or else it swells so tender even my clothes hurt.

I wish my body would let me stop. My skin is nearly gone now, because of all the touching.

MMM-mmm-MMM-mmm, the pump says. It sounds pornographic.

The baby wouldn’t take the bottle overnight. I fed him from the left side as I sat in front of the window.

The lights were on across the street. The woman was naked. She straddled her husband and rode up and down. She kept moving her hands over her own body. Her husband kneaded her enormous breasts.

I watched a long time. It took a long time. After, she looked refreshed.

I thought about cutting her with a scalpel and watching the pus come out.

▴ ▴ ▴

John keeps thinking I’m talking to him. “What?” he says. “Nothing,” I say. I am talking to the burr.

John is giving me a lot of space.

Every time I close my eyes the baby cries. Every time I close my eyes and he doesn’t cry, I think, “Why isn’t he crying?” Then I have to go make sure he is still alive.

So far he has always been alive.

I put the baby to sleep on his back in his crib. This is what you’re supposed to do. But the baby doesn’t like it. When I lay him down he screams and screams.

Across the street I can see the woman lay her baby down. I can see that other baby through the bars of its crib. It wiggles then it falls asleep on its back. This is what is supposed to happen.

I hold my baby and sing and rock hard in the rocking chair until his head lolls and he falls asleep. When he falls asleep I sneak him into the crib on his back. This is not what you’re supposed to do. I close my eyes but then I am sure he’s rolled onto his stomach so I have to get up and check.

So far he has never rolled onto his stomach.

The pump wheezes GIVEIT-tome-GIVEIT-tome. But less and less milk is coming out.

The burr is drinking it now.

▴ ▴ ▴

The stitches have dissolved. I thought this was what I wanted. But instead it just means I’m unstitched.

The doctor said it all looks normal. The doctor said my breast is healing well.

“Be polite,” the burr said. So I thanked the doctor.

But he is not a good doctor. He did not cut out the burr. He does not understand my body is loose and unsewed.

I told the doctor I can’t sleep. I told him the baby won’t take the bottle. I told him the milk has slowed. I told him the baby is hungry all the time. He said this is normal. He said this will take time. He said I should think about getting help. He said if we can’t afford help, we should ask family.

He knows nothing about our families.

I asked the doctor about the skin around my wound. I ran a finger over it to show how it’s dimpled. I told him it looks like the skin of an orange.

The doctor peered at the skin like it was an acquaintance he couldn’t quite place. But then he said I shouldn’t worry so much. He said I should think about coming to his office less.

What do other women do? They must come to his office less.

I didn’t cry. The burr is drinking everything now. I’m all dried up.

When the doctor left the room I got off the crinkly paper. Before getting dressed I opened his cabinet and took a few things.

Wheeling the baby home the burr yanked my skin tight. She pulled my spine bones. I can feel a pain go down to my heel when she pulls there.

The pain made it take a long time to get home. The baby screamed most of the way.

▴ ▴ ▴

Mary forgot a bag of milk in the freezer. I found it under the frozen broccoli.

I thawed the milk and gave it to my baby. I rocked him hard in the chair and his little head went back and forth until his eyes were closed and his mouth was open. I put him on his back in the crib.

He was so quiet. I knew it was because he was finally full.

The scalpel I stole from the doctor’s was in a plastic pouch. I opened it and took the gauze off my wound.

The gauze didn’t smell right. It smelled like when the tide goes funny. But that’s because the burr was there.

Cutting didn’t hurt much at all. What hurt was the burr pulling her hairthreads.

“Hunny, you are going to make yourself look so ugly,” she said.

But I’m already ugly. I’ve been ugly a long time.

I kept having to sop up the blood with toilet paper. The fat was yellow and warm when it came out. It looked like the lumps in the milk. I pinched around inside with my fingertips until I managed to catch a hair.

It was my turn to pull. The burr was lodged deep. I had to use the scalpel to cut some of her feelers. I had to use the scalpel to dig.

She was so slippery. Because of the fat. And the blood. But I pulled and pulled and snap crackle pop! at last she was out.

I held her up. She was smaller than I thought she would be. She was a baby compared to what I thought she would be. Her hair looked like a tangle of fishing line, it was just that transparent. Her hair looked like the undersides of poisonous jellyfish, it was just that long and uneven.

I found her eight bulbous eyes and stared into them. They were the size of pinheads. Each strand of hair moved independently. Each strand of hair was barbed.

“Thank you,” she said.

Her hairs pricked me and I dropped her. She started to move across the floor. She moved fast as a cockroach. Her rangy hair worked like legs. In the light she would disappear.

A horrible coldness went down my side, dripping with the blood.

I tried to catch sight of her. I walked the few steps out of the bathroom into the nursery.

“No!” I said out loud, because I was terrified then that she was after the baby.

And she was.

“No!” I said again. “Come back to me!”

The burr spindled into the crib, fast and going in and out of sight. I reached out quick but felt her hair slip between my fingers.

She looked at me with all eight eyes and slid into the baby’s open mouth.

I scrabbled at the last of the hairs tickling on his lips but they whisked away from me. So I reached down the baby’s throat to try and grab her out.

Then I heard her whisper. I felt her tendrils snag inside my skin, serrated as cockroach legs.

“Oh hunny,” she said, “don’t you worry. You don’t have any choice in these things.”

She was still inside me. And she was still in the baby.

John came in then.

And why should he have been so upset?

After all, I’m the one who will have to get her out of the baby.

Tracy Sierra was born and raised in the Colorado mountains. She is an attorney who currently lives in New England in an antique colonial-era home. When not writing, she spends time with her husband and two children. Her debut novel, Nightwatching, will be published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking in February 2024.
Read “Really Dark Really Fast,” a conversation with Tracy about this story and her forthcoming novel.