Menu

Essay

ONE SUMMER at the lake house, I forgot my swimming suit and found one of my grandmother’s—an old, plastic mold of a suit, perhaps unworn for twenty years—hanging like a replica of her younger body in the upstairs cedar closet. The suit smelled green and sweet, like the lake. When I pulled it onto my teenage body, I could feel all the cupped, empty places where her body used to fill it, the plastic lining trapping the heat of my sunburned skin and rolling it like warm air inside a seashell. I went to the pink bedroom, the room where my parents slept on their honeymoon, the corner room flooded with light and the creaking of the dock down on the water, and I looked at myself in the half-mirror of the dresser. When I jumped off the dock into the water it was almost like swimming naked and yet swimming to save some other, heavy form that hugged and breathed against me, the water swirling between us, lifting us and dragging us down, sometimes causing our bodies to buck apart and sometimes causing them to seal.

Years later, years from the afternoon I wore that suit, my grandparents drive me through the countryside to the airport. As we pass blank, shorn fields, my grandma turns to me where I sit in the back seat. She lowers her chin and peers over the rim of her glasses, as she does when she is telling me something difficult.

Neither she nor my grandpa is going to be buried, she says. They are giving their bodies to a medical school. “No one visits the graves anymore,” she looks at me. “We want to make our bodies useful.”

Before I can say anything she speaks again: she lists the flowers, the expense, the caskets and the graves, all the things that they are saving us. Cremation at the last, the tidy remains that will weigh nothing, cost nothing. My grandpa holds the steering wheel, nodding as she speaks. He never looks at me. I nod. I look away. When I look back, she is still gazing at me, and I see the black-speckle motes swimming in her blue eyes. I feel a stammer in my chest, a bucking and sinking that confuses me. It is the suit, the water, the weight on my body, the kicking off and the soft, sticky glide of the plastic fabric. It is all the empty places where our bodies barely touched.

§

The woman’s cadaver lies like a baby fallen into charmed sleep: palms up, legs bowed, eyes pinched shut as if making out the last of its dreams. I have seen babies sleep like this only on rare occasions, after they have been sated with food or sun or long travel, and the sleep always brings heaving breaths that make their chests rise and fall. The cadaver’s chest is still. It lies on a silver table, and beneath a bandage of cheesecloth I can see where my husband and his classmates have peeled back its skin to reveal the dry, flaking meat of its arm. The ligaments and tendons are exposed, and as the cut extends up the hand a bit of bone shows, too. I don’t touch the cadaver, but later, I can feel the clammy leather of its skin and the thick, yellow nails curling over its fingers, which seem as if they have lain heavy in my own.

The cadaver is tall, thick-boned and broad. When the students first open its hinged metal casket, they find it lying on its stomach. Until it is rolled onto its back, my husband will think it is a man. After the first day of gross lab, Ben and I sit at the dinner table and he describes to me the size of its feet.

“Almost as big as my dad’s,” he says. “Calloused, like he stood all day. Big calloused hands, too.”

“How did he die?” I ask.

“Heart disease,” Ben says solemnly, as if pronouncing the body dead himself.

Every night at dinner, we talk about the cadaver. An image of it grows in my mind: silent, brown-skinned, shaven, and then, when they turn her, female, with breasts sunken into the folds of her chest. White bones and blanched organs; flayed, jellied fat on her belly, the shock in her opened eye. These things are confirmed when I visit her. It is her vagina that surprises me: its lips gray-brown and solid as a mouth, fine skin as age-stained and worn as all of the other parts of her body. Ben sweeps a gloved hand over the hole dug in her abdomen. Even now, he says, her organs bear signs of childbirth.

The day they split her pelvis and cut her skull in two, Ben does not talk about her. We sit that evening in a lonely coffee shop, reading and waiting for it to close, the waitresses mopping and tidying in ever-closer circumference. Their reflections move like ghosts in the darkened windows.

“How was she today?” I ask, looking up from my book.

He is quiet for a moment, and then he recounts the sound and heft of the saw, the precision of the cuts, the chipping and sputtering of bone and innards. His face softens. Then he begins to cry. I know he is thinking of what I have been trying not to think of all autumn long: my grandparents’ bodies, still alive but waning and strangely, by my grandma’s wish, slated for the same fate. We stare at each other, hands barely touching. I think about the muscles holding up his face, my face.

The last week of gross lab, I visit the woman again. She is cut to gristly spine and skullcap, no longer human, more like a tree. All of her organs are gone: heart, lungs, liver, uterus. The vertebrae lie half-coiled and unconcerned; the skull seems never to have lived. But the bowl of her hips still tips up, expectant, like hands open and waiting.

§

I wake my grandma when I call her on the phone. This happens several times, on afternoons when I expect to find her in the kitchen or just back from the garden, her hands damp and red at the knuckles or dirty with soil from the gladiolus bed. Each time I catch her, she is half asleep and frightened. I have never heard her voice like this. I talk her down as if calming a child, and to keep myself from fear I imagine sitting next to her, touching her soft curls and the glistening, waxy scalp beneath.

“I used to have so much hair,” she says, “so thick I had to thin it.”

I murmur a reply; she can’t hear me. I think of the dark, wavy hair of her youth, her long eyes like calligraphy strokes on her face, and the way she gazed in her high-school portrait. It is the same gaze she gives the mirror when she draws on her dark pink lipstick: she knows she has been beautiful.

I dream of her aging: her eyes going watery like brilliant opals, her mouth shaky and musty when she leans to me. I don’t want it, and I feel a pang in the soft, idle space between my hips, as if another life from my body could stop her dying. My father carried me to his own grandmother’s open casket, my knees against his chest, my arms around his neck. It was the first of many funerals, the first of many graves. The room throbbed with organ hymns and bright space; I touched her pink hand, and as we left the line I was passed from arms to arms, held warm against each chest. Soon, I could walk other visitation lines on my own, holding the hand of a sister, stooping to hoist her up and tell her, too, that it was okay to touch and see that the body was no longer alive. There were always bodies, proof of death. Their souls had gone to judgment and to God. On the last day, the trumpet would sound and they would rise again, white-robed, graves opening to let them fly, to let me fly, up from the earth: air cold as water in the reawakened lungs, sun burning on the skin.

Every morning, I stand at my dresser and take one white birth control pill. Then I open my drawer and choose one of three bras I bought with my grandma: pink, black, and lavender. She bought a lavender one, as well, trying it on with me in the tiny dressing room of a crowded outlet mall shop. She undressed carelessly before me and the mirror, so I did too: my creamy skin beside her purple-spidered thighs; her heavy, swagged breasts beside my own. She chose the lavender bra because it was lacy. She slipped it on and turned to the mirror to survey herself, and her hand touched neck, her navel, her soft flank. Standing at my dresser, clasping my own lavender bra around my ribs, I catch my thin reflection in the bedroom mirror and I swallow again, the pill rolling slowly to my stomach. It traces the muscle, white-tailed, and as it falls I feel I have taken back from her the baby for which she has never asked.

§

When a baby comes, the first sign is sickness, an awakening to every scent in the world. Bodies, particularly, present themselves like thuribles, ambling through the air and swinging off their dense perfumes. Once, in a crowd, I smell a body so potent that I am almost drunk on it; I turn and turn, stumbling, until I step close to one woman and know that I have found her. She has red hair and a pitted face; her expression is sad and shifty. I am marveling over her; I wish she knew. Her face and scent are still in my mind on Christmas morning, when I call my parents and grandparents to tell them I am pregnant. Together in one house, their cries of joy blur.

The next morning there is hot, hard pain, then there is blood. Ben drives me through the snow to the hospital near the Big Flat, where he was born. As the morphine hits my body, I am censed from my throat through my nose. The putrid scent is green and particulate, sparkling like fallout in its fast blanket. It is no comfort. They take my blood and tell me to wait.

For two more days, I bleed. We go to a wedding party in a town on the other side of the mountains, where the blue snow has burned off to bright yellow ground. When the party moves from the reception hall to the bar, I go to the old hotel where we are staying and sit at the fire. Behind me, in the back apartment, the proprietor and her husband are getting drunk, and the brassy scent of beer spreads in the parlor. They fight sloppily, in slow, repeating slurs. I stare out the wide front windows, down the town’s main street and up into the sky. I think about a teenage girl at the party.

“The hotel is haunted,” she said again and again. “It’s a little girl. She walks up and down the hallway every night.”

I wait for the ghost while the man and woman fight. She will come to tell me or take me where my child is. Once, there is silence in the back apartment and a scrabbling, breathing in the hall. The man emerges and stands in the parlor’s dark dining room. The longer he stands, the stronger the cloud of his body: anise-scented, a cologne-colored sweat.

“Oh,” he says, seeing me, his eyes red from alcohol or tears. He straightens the ball cap on his head. “Are you out here?”

“Yes,” I say.

“I apologize,” he says. “I do apologize.”

I stare at the fire, my face so warm from the flame that I feel almost feverish. The man goes back to the apartment, and for a while there is silence. But then he and the woman start to fight again. I am too scared of the ghost to go upstairs; I don’t want to meet her alone in the long, dark hall. I wait by the fire until Ben comes across the street, smoky and tipsy, ready for bed.

In the dark, we lead each other up to our second-floor room, at the end of the only hallway. The room is small: a dresser and a bed, the air heavy with cold must, detergent, dim pheromones of past guests. The walls are decorated with rose-printed paper, and at the foot of the bed, a bay window looks out over the dark town. I fall asleep wrapped in the smell of his body; I wake up alone. The room is bright and changed to day: the ghost did not take me. But still, something is different, somehow flat and spaceless, deflated to a grimmer state.

I dress, leave the bedclothes in a mess, and walk across the main street to meet Ben at the café. When the cold wind touches my lips, it is dull: only salt and sand. In the café, the food I eat tastes like dust, and the people crowded in the tiny, warm space are only people, not bodies whose aromas have secretly bloomed. All the way back across the mountains, I know the baby is gone. We cross the pass, the sky goes dark; the mountains sink into the clouds.

§

Even when it ends, my stomach swells and grows, as if the blood and the tests have lied, as if my body does not know. We return home and my grandma calls and calls for me. I wait for her name on the phone’s lit screen; I watch it pulse and I never pick up. I go back to the hospital, shot up with a drug that will finally kill what is left of a baby that was never a baby, the doctor says. No yolk, no sac. His words make no sense. They take me from the emergency room to the maternity ward, to a private room where I can still see bassinets wheeling past, hear small human cries. My breasts are soft and pained.

When I can stand, I walk slowly from the bed to the bathroom and untangle the IV from the gown, drawing the thin dress up over my head. I see my body in the mirror, bloated and pale-purple with fluorescent light. Bloody between the legs, unfamiliar to me. On my pale abdomen there is a strange marking like a spread wing-print. I fold at the belly; I press the wrinkled gown against my skin and try to replicate the mark. It is perfectly symmetrical, perfectly centered on my stomach, and placed perfectly over my womb, as if death has pressed itself against me. I have already seen the angel, felt its brown wings curling around my shoulders, shielding me as I hunch and sob and lose the contents of my womb. Its hair is long and its torso is firm. Is it a woman or a man? Maybe it is the girl, the ghost waiting for me. I shower slowly. I step out of the stall into the steamy room, and when I look down, my skin is pink and the mark is gone.

For days, pain shifts like stars from the stomach to the torso, shoulder, arm. Finally it touches my palm, like the ghost’s hand tapping, trying to wake me, bring me to her side. Ben above me, my body alone. I see a doctor staring down, saying whatever is in my womb still wants to live, or take me with it: it keeps growing, sprawling, straining until it breaks the narrow tube to which it clings. I am flooded with blood. I go in for surgery in the middle of the night, drugged and parched and ready to give birth.

§

I feel my spirit in my chest, a lit pulley heaving all the strings so that I will not die. My whole body was baptized. I waded into the water, white-robed, holding my grandpa’s handkerchief high up in my hand. It lay against my mouth as the pastor lifted my body down, dying with Christ, rising with him to newness of life. I won’t die. No one dies from this anymore. If I do, I will rise. If it wasn’t a baby, it won’t rise with me. If it won’t rise with me, what was it? I closed my eyes against the heavy, deep pool, the warm water. The robe floated to my knees; I pushed it down, but it kept rising. I was a child and so modest; now, I am open and bleeding, naked and cut apart. My hair was wet to the roots and every crevice of my body flooded. Lifted up, the light blazed. I pushed blindly from the stool where I stood in the water to the steps at the edge, suspended and sinking, the robe a second body on my limbs. Hands pulled me out; water gushed back. The robe came off, peeled arm from arm, and the second body dropped its skin at my feet. I was shivering and free. But this body will never die. When I rise, it will rise. Even God kept his scars; which scars will I save? The scar on the left or the scar on the right, the long scar from which they drew blood and flesh? They told me the baby would glisten, the size of a grape, the tiniest of fruits bled out from my legs. In the end, it clutched and swelled, more death than life, seething and beating with blood.

§

My grandma pours water over my head. My sisters press wet washcloths down my back. Their hands sink to the pooled bathwater and come up dripping; they brush my legs, my face. They whisper to each other as they reach to trade the cloths for the cup. I close my eyes. Open, I stare at the bruised stomach, pumped full of gas to push the muscle from the cavity, rippled and sloped like a slumping, purple sack. Fingers pet the stomach, stroke the sharp black sutures on the scar. I forget to be ashamed. They lift me up and wrap me in a robe; they lift me up for medicine. The bed beneath me smells like skin and hair. The drugs fall like a drape: hiding my hips and then my shoulders and my neck. Next, a host of bodies will descend, bending over the bed. Every night, hands touch my face, and in the dream of pain and chemicals, this fawning comes before death. I search for the faces I have seen in caskets, for my great-grandmother and for the ghost, her long hair. The drape falls fast. I want to die. Slowly, I sound the body from the top of the skull to the bones of the feet. An echo comes back, wobbling like an old woman’s voice: my grandma’s voice. The bed rocks and she lies down beside me, in my husband’s place.

She turns to me and takes my hands to pray. I turn to test the body. It is not mine, except for the breasts; they are still pained, now overripe. Blood sticks at the thighs; skin grazes, touching far away. Then her face and voice come close; her hands are knotted up in mine. I bury my head against the ridged nails, blue veins, spots like soft moths sleeping in the skin. My lips touch her, and the grasping hands pull back at the sound of her prayers. I open my eyes. Her eyes are closed. A lamp is burning on the desk and the shades are drawn. At the window, a strip of darkness shows that it is night, and time moves. There is nothing left. The blood has almost stopped. Mucus riddled in the hair; the bruise. It will disappear. No proof, no sign. In my grandma’s face, I can see the wrinkles radiating from her lips and the waxy lipstick seeping up the lines, her whole mouth like a pink sun. The pearly teeth, the flat nose, the white-blue skin that beats under her eyes. The eyes, so long. They are like my eyes. When they turn her over on the silver table, they will see her eyes. When they give us back her body it will be crushed white coral, bone and bone, small as a baby, small enough to hold in my hands. My hands are wet; I hear something trumpet from my chest, some ripping sound that only, at the last, holds a voice. It is a terrible cry. I close my eyes; she takes away her hand and brings it to my face.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest