Short Fiction

The Comfort of Cabbages

By Ripley Patton

I had hoped to sleep off my grief for a month, for a year, for a lifetime, but my breasts woke me up on day two.  I sat up in bed, feeling the weight of them pull me forward.  My once small boobs, now three times their normal size, throbbed, taut and foreign.  I cupped one in each hand, hefting them; wanting to hand them back to their rightful owner. The drum-tight skin tingled with anticipation.  Physical pain, sharp and urgent, shot toward stone nipples.  This pain, at least, demanded immediate action.

Tipping over the edge of the bed, I fumbled for clothing on the floor. I came up with a t-shirt in hand, my husband's, but hopefully big enough that I could get it over my giant breasts without too much agony.  No luck.  The cotton fell on me like sandpaper and I yanked it back over my head, voicing several variations of "shit."

I stumbled naked to the bathroom, peed and then stood looking blurry-eyed into the mirror.   I was a full frontal movie star.  Turning, I took in my profile.  I was a movie star in a lot of pain.  The shower loomed behind me.

Doctor Shaney had said only to use a hot shower as a last resort.  It would express the milk and expressing the milk would induce my body to make more milk.  He'd said a lot I hadn't listened to, because he was a man, because he'd never had a baby, let alone lost one, because I was pissed off at him. But I had heard clearly why he wouldn’t give me the medication to dry up my milk.  They'd stopped prescribing it after someone somewhere (probably a woman) had discovered it caused breast cancer. 

I turned, crossed to the shower, and pulled the shower curtain mostly closed.  I reached in and dialed the handle toward very hot.  Just when steam began to billow from the stall, something heavy and internal, like an elevator uncabled, fell inside each breast.  Milk shot in all directions, not in one stream or two, but ten or fifteen. Several jets splattered against the outside of the shower curtain.  A few reached the fuzzy seat on the toilet and one seemed pointed directly into my face.  I plunged into the shower, groaning and cussing, and when the hot water hit me the splatter from my own nipples beat like heavy rain against the fiberglass shower wall.  At least it was going down the drain. I bent my head, watching the white milk clouding the clear water at my feet before it slipped away.  Something about its going made me weep.  


After the shower, I mopped the bathroom, which had already begun to smell like cottage cheese. I put on panties and a button down shirt, unbuttoned.  The pain had lessened, but my breasts rippled and writhed, possessed anew by their need to manufacture something no longer needed.   Damn Doctor Shaney for being right about the shower.  What could I do? 

I walked bare-foot down the hall and into my office where the screen-saver of Chez Guevara in a black beret grinned handsomely at me.  I sat down at the desk, my boobs resting on the edge of it, almost touching the keyboard.  This was my safe place.  This was where I wrote things: where I poured out the milk of my imagination and made a living.  And this was where the answers were, if one knew where to look.  Here I had sat for hours and researched Trisomy 18, the condition my tiny baby girl had been born with.  Here, on a pale screen I'd read with horrible clarity what Dr. Shaney had bumbled and hedged over after the delivery, as though he should be the one pitied for having to report such bad news.  Trisomy 18, the presence of an extra eighteenth chromosome, was thirty percent fatal in the first month and ninety percent fatal in the first year.  After nine months of joyful anticipation and twelve hours of hard labor, I had learned that my first child, little Carrie, would die.  My computer had informed me of this without the smallest twinge of false pity or personal discomfort.  

I clicked on the internet and typed "engorged breasts" into the search engine, scanning the hits.  Most recommended nursing one's baby as the best cure for what ailed me.  I pressed on.  Within ten minutes I had found what I needed.  I got up, dressed warily and headed out to the grocery store.      


I had never noticed before how many round things the produce aisle holds.  Oranges and peaches, honeydew and watermelon, round and gleaming, all seemed to mock me.  I strode past ample fruit to the vegetable section where man's anatomy, at least, made a cameo appearance in stacks of cucumbers and bins of corn on the cob.  Next to the broccoli stood a pyramid of cabbages, crisp and cold.  I hefted two, and they felt so like my own cumbersome new breasts that I dropped one, and it fell with a thud to the smooth floor.  A produce man, red apron flashing like a cape, came scurrying out of nowhere and picked it up.

     "I – I want that one."  I stammered.

      "What?  You just dropped it pretty hard, lady.  It’s probably bruised.  You should really pick another one."  He began to turn toward a set of dark swinging doors, where he could dispose of the fallen cabbage.

      "No.  It's fine.  I want that one."  I found that I had followed after him, grabbed his arm even.

      "Um, okay lady." He started to hand the cabbage to me and stopped, his eyes squinting with suspicion. "Is this some kind of scam?  I give you the cabbage and then you sue the store for contracting some horrible disease off the floor."  He pulled away from my hand.

      "No.  Listen.  It's nothing like that.  I- don't want to waste it.  It was my fault.  I dropped it."  The man looked into my eyes.  He thought I was a wacko.  Maybe I was, but he handed me the cabbage and walked away.

I had trouble letting go of the cabbages when the checker had to weigh them.  They cost $1.65.   Out in the parking lot I opened the back door of the car, took the cabbages out of their plastic bag and nestled them in the baby's car seat.  The top one rolled out and I put it back.  And then I drove home, carefully.


The gliding rocker’s smooth action cradled me.  Even the footstool swayed back and forth, which I had thought extravagant, but Ian had insisted on only the best for his new mother and child.  I sat there naked, except for my nursing bra.  Warm, wilted cabbage leaves, fresh from the microwave, peeked from the tops of the removable flaps.  On the website I’d found, I'd read that something in the leaves reduced the engorgement of breast and even dried up a mother's milk if applied for several days.  This “something” had eluded the exploitive efforts of scientists and pharmaceutical companies, though not from lack of trying.  Several attempts to make extract-of-cabbage-leaf cream had been completely fruitless.  It simply didn't work.  Here was a mystery mankind could not grab hold of - the comfort of cabbages. 

I sighed, feeling the pressure slowly ebb away, my breasts convinced to settle down, to rest and hush.  One cabbage, its outer leaves peeled away, sat coolly in the cleft of my crotch.  The other, the one I had dropped in the store, was nestled in the crook of my left arm.   I closed my eyes and lay my head back against the rocker's plush cushion, feeling the cabbage resting there, material and round, like my baby Carrie's head had rested there, two days before, when she had drawn her last breath.

I knew.  I knew that it was bruised, just like the produce man had said.

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The Comfort of Cabbages was published on 13th October, 2009.

About the Author

Ripley Patton Biography »