Review of “Water in the Blood” by Megan Pillow, published in Triquarterly

Mother’s Day was over a week ago, but perhaps we ought to do ourselves a favor and read “Water in the Blood” by Megan Pillow, a story, essentially, about everything going to shit—when your world, dreams, husband, and own body fail you, what’s bound to happen? This is Laura’s story. To say Laura is under a lot of stress would be a sick understatement, and this story is a cautionary tale of what happens to a mother (or parent) under constant barrage from all people and situations in her life.

In grad school, one of my teachers used to talk about stories as nothing more than mounting pressure on a protagonist. Put the protagonist in a vice and keep turning until the character or the vice breaks. I was reminded of this astute writerly advice while reading Pillow’s story. Her main character, Laura, is stuck at home, but it’s a new home in a new neighborhood where she knows virtually no one, while her husband is literally halfway across the globe in “fucking Antarctica” romping around and writing “beautiful” articles about his adventures. But Laura, we understand, is a better writer: “You would’ve done better,” the husband writes back after Laura reads one of his newly posted articles. Perhaps she’s the one who should’ve penned the article. Perhaps she’s the one who should be out galivanting around the arctic ice and writing about her adventures while waiting for shout-outs from adoring fans: “Take me on your next adventure?” writes queenbey9122 to Laura’s husband.

Meanwhile, Laura’s taking care of three kids and trying not to bleed out. Her last pregnancy and delivery left her with complications spurred on perhaps in part by a condescending male doctor who, of course, knew what was best for her. All the while, as all of this plays out, “There’s something in the woods behind the house” and a Florida storm is brewing.

The brilliance of this story is the melding together of all of these mounting pressures. It isn’t simply one of these conflicts that’ll break our narrator; instead, what Pillow’s showing us is what happens to someone who is under constant micro and macro attacks at all times and from those who should be there to help and support (the doctor, the husband), but there’s no one to help. Only her and her three needy children, one of whom was born only months ago.

We return now to the original question – what’s bound to happen to someone in this situation? When “…she is a great white-hot mass of rage, and she can feel the small dark thing opening its maw, and then she clamps it shut again.” What happens when she can’t “clamp it shut”? When the protagonist’s anguish and frustration are simply too much? Megan Pillow shows us the answer, but you’ll have to read the story to find out. Here’s a hint: Grab your personal flotation device and maybe an extra oar.

Check out this fantastic, heart-wrenching story here.

Megan Pillow is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, The Believer, Brevity, and Gay Magazine. Megan has also had stories featured on the Wigleaf Top 50, an essay honored as notable in the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, and a story honored as distinguished in the 2020 edition of The Best American Short Stories. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children.