Becoming a mother forces you into confrontation with parts of yourself you’d rather leave buried—childhood wounds, feelings of ineptitude, intrusive worries about worst-case scenarios. In Operating Instructions, a diary of the first year of her son’s life, Anne Lamott recalls praying, “Please, just let him outlive me.” Karen Russell dives into that dark territory here, in which Rae, a new mother, makes a deal with a demon living in the sewer across from her house. After she finishes nursing her own baby, she’ll lie in the gutter and breastfeed the devil in exchange for a guarantee of her son’s safety:
It lays its triangular head on her collarbone, using its thin-fingered paws to squeeze milk from her left breast into its hairy snout. Its tail curls around her waist. Unlike her son, the devil has dozens of irregular teeth, fanged and broken, in three rows; some lie flat against the gums, like bright arrowheads in green mud. Its lips make a cold collar around her nipple.
This nightmarish vision of breastfeeding is all the more unsettling for the way it also contains a whisper of tenderness—that tail curling familiarly around her like an embrace. Having recently become a mother—my seven-week-old son is napping as I write this—Russell’s story now seems to me decidedly un-fantastical in how it portrays birth and mothering as an undoing of all the old rules. Rae’s love for her son “scares her with its annihilating force. It’s loosening the corset strings of her history, the incarcerated fat of ‘personality.’”
First published in The New Yorker, May 28, 2018, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Orange World, Knopf, 2019