By PAMELA REESE
NONFICTION PRIZE WINNER
Judge: Dianne Aprile,
author and editor of nonfiction books, including
A Landscape and its Legacy: The Parklands of Floyds Fork and
Making a Heart for God: A Week Inside a Catholic Monastery
“With an economy of words and emotion, the author of
‘The Stone Child’ creates a world of grief and loss, betrayal and
redemption. The essay’s vivid but never obtrusive imagery imbues
this familiar story with a fresh perspective. The arresting opening
paragraph brings strange hard fact into a story of intimate personal
trauma, deepening the reader’s curiosity and attention.
In fewer than 1,500 words, we travel a lifetime.”
“We think back through our mothers if we are women.” —Virginia Woolf
Sometime during the pregnancy, the fetus broke free of the uterus and drifted into the mother’s abdomen where it died and slowly calcified, forming a tumor-like shell that protected the mother’s body from infection. Years later, chronic pain finally drove the woman to seek medical attention. An astonished surgeon discovered the child, then lifted it free of its mother’s body. Other lithopedions are discovered by way of x-ray or autopsy. When brought into the light, some are nearly fully formed, limbs splayed in what resembles the startle reflex of newborns. In other cases, their spines are curled like delicate fronds, their palms cupped, as if dipping water.
Right now, though, on the video sonogram, my granddaughter is definitely in utero— definitely alive. She brushes her hand across her cheek and because of this, I fall in love with her. I am not happy about the man who is her father, and I’m not happy that my daughter is pregnant again, but somehow, I already love this baby. I love her so much that I want her to stay in there forever, alive and safe.
On the monitor, she drifts toward the near wall of her mother’s womb. She opens her legs—opens a hall of mirrors. First, there is her mother’s reflection, and just past hers, mine. Still further back, my mother’s and beyond that, the faces of generations of women whose features are softened by distance.
I am six and newly fatherless. A week after Daddy died, Mom moved us from Oregon, back home to West Virginia to be near her family, where the world smells like wet leaves and something very, very old. I struggle to understand their talk, contort my mouth to mimic their strangely shaped vowels.
For a while, we lived with Grandma and Grandpa in a crowded back bedroom, but now, we have our own house in Frogtown. Once a week, this ritual: we drag baskets and hampers from Mom’s Corvair into the Fayetteville Laundromat. Mom hands us nickels and dimes, then dumps our clothes onto a battered Formica table. Meanwhile, my brother and I fret over the candy machine or beg to go around the corner to the taxi stand for Cokes. When our coins are gone, my brother runs around tables, climbs over chairs, and I worry the slick pages of magazines or try to sound out words on wilting signs tacked to the walls. Sometimes, though, I just watch my mother sort. Each piece of dirty clothing she picks up releases a murmuring dream of the week before. My sister’s bibs and shirts say baby food. Bradley’s corduroy pants: grass stains, coal smoke.
When the washers are full, Mom pushes coins into slots, turns knobs, slams lids. Inside the trembling machines, things I cannot say slip from the fabric of my clothes into the twisting water. Whispers of sweat from my pj’s, the slow give of brittle stain in my panties, the sound of a man’s voice as he held out the pink Kleenex and said This is what makes babies. If Mom would just lift her hands to her ears, she could hear my ragged breath as I watched what he was showing me seep toward the edges of the tissue. She would feel me stumbling through the ridges of her palms. She would know the thing that has taken root in me has already begun to harden.
Two years later, Mom is married again, to a nice man who buys a swing set for the backyard of our house in Tennessee—far away from West Virginia and its simmering Laundromat. I should be happy about the new Kenmore washer and dryer in the basement, should feel more relieved to be away from that man, that boy, and the corded Sears bedspread and the dark with its many, many hands, but I can’t feel anything but shame—always there, always knocking around in my ribcage.
Before we moved my new grandmother said, “You set a good example for your brother and sister. They look up to you,” and my stomach sank, my legs floated away.
Now I’m 10. It’s my baby sister’s fourth birthday party. Some neighbor kids are over for cake and Drop the Clothespin. I slip away from the noise to find some quiet, to get away from all the happiness. I go into the bathroom, where sometimes I lie on the cool black linoleum, but today, I stand looking down at the front of my pants, running my hand over my belly, feeling for a swollen lump. I whisper, Please, God. I’ll be good. If there is a baby, please don’t let it grow until I’m a grownup so no one will find out. Amen. Then, I look into the mirror over the sink. A kid at school had told me that if I stare at myself long enough, I’ll see the face of the devil. I keep staring. For a few moments, there is only my face, and then finally, I think I can make out the outline of horns.
In my sophomore year at college, a public health nurse will tell me what I already know: I am pregnant. I will have known this from that moment a few weeks before in the winter-quiet room where it happened, and I will know because I am so very tired and because the scent of my bath soap makes me woozy, feel like I won’t ever be hungry again. Here is something else I will know: my parents are going to kill me. Finally, they will see inside me. Finally, my mother will know what I have done, and she will not love me, just as the voice had whispered that first night, years ago.
During the next few days, I will take my finals and page through medical reference books in the university library, calculating the sizes of embryos. And I will sleep and sleep. Finally, when I am hospitalized with a small kidney stone, I will have to tell. The father, who has already said he cannot marry me, will not come to the hospital as promised. Instead, he will get drunk that evening and several times after, and he will call me late at night for months to blame me for what has happened.
After Christmas, I will let my mother make the appointment. During the procedure, I will squeeze and squeeze the nurse’s hand until I think it will break. I will think I’m going to break, but I will keep staring at the ceiling and not dare glance at the glass jar at the end of the table. When the abortion is finished, I will go out into the Nashville evening, body-heavy under streetlights and falling snow.
Two decades later, I will write a letter to my mother telling her what happened to me those nights she left me with her nephews and to ask her why she never held me or tucked me into bed and why she wanted me to get an abortion when the same thing was not asked of my sister. Mom will write back to say she is sorry that she hadn’t realized what was happening to me, that she had done the best she could as a mother because she, herself, hadn’t gotten much affection as a child. She will tell me that before I got pregnant, she had such high expectations for the life ahead of me. She will say, “Your father is very disappointed.”
Today I practice alone: Mountain, Tree, Sun Salutation, then Child’s Pose: forehead on floor, arms stretched ahead, breasts to bent knees. My soft belly, folds over itself, presses into my thighs. I conjure my yoga instructor’s voice. Crests and troughs of her words tell me to soften the eyes. Release. I try to quiet my mind and focus on the dot I’m supposed to imagine on my forehead, try to smooth out the newly etched parentheses of wrinkles, but I am thinking of my daughter and the baby she will deliver in two months. I think of my mother and my grandmothers, work back to watery images of their mothers. I swim back until it’s too dark to see, too dark to think.
Then comes again the slow current of the instructor’s voice: Release.
My spine lengthens. My ribcage opens. I float free of my body, weightless, kicking toward the surface of the mirror, reaching for light. I am breathing through my hands.
Pamela Reese is Appalachian by birth. After several trips back and forth across the Continental Divide, she lives on a ranch in Eastern Oregon. Reese received a master of fine arts degree in poetry from Spalding University (2004) and is the recipient of Fishtrap and Jentel Arts fellowships, as well as the George Scarbrough and Jim Wayne Miller poetry prizes. She has published two books: Paper Bird (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2007), a poetry collection, and Greasewood Creek (Counterpoint, 2011), a novel.