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Table of Contents


By Kathryn E. Hill

It’s up to you, the ultrasound tech said. At this stage, it’s too soon to know exactly how the plastic will manifest.

Rachel watched the screen as the jellied wand turned against her cervix, her womb rendered black for fluid, gray for embryo, bright white for the eddies of plastic. Plastics small as seeds, small as cells lined her uterus, beaded the embryo’s yolk sac, only six weeks along. Sean whispered something, pulled on his earlobe, his other hand light on her knee. With a final swirl the wand was removed, feet helped out of stirrups, towel and panty liner placed next to two brochures on the exam bed, one called Living Plasticized, the other Pills and Procedures.

You don’t have to choose today, but you’ll have to choose soon, the tech said. Rachel sat cross-legged on the off-blue table, staring at the swatch of triangulated space between her heels, her thighs. The tech scratched her nose. I can go over the options with you if you like.

We can read, Rachel said.

The tech turned and closed the door. Rachel and Sean unfolded, curled, opened and closed, bent, picked at the corners of the waxy brochure pages: Avoid all plastics, avoid all bodies of water, ask your insurance company about reverse osmosis filters when you ask about your breast pump, the pills work in 24-48 hours, procedures can be scheduled right up to the end, wear only natural fibers, a plastic hip means no hip replacements later!, cook only with wooden spoons, eat only out of glass or steel, the National Suicide Hotline is, go to the hospital for any heavy bleeding, dizziness, meconium when your water breaks, when contractions are five minutes apart, when they are regular, when they are strong, when they are so strong you can no longer speak.

I love you, Sean said in the chill dark of the ultrasound room.

Rachel balled both hands together in her lap, leaned forward and exhaled, slowly pressing them into her fleshy stomach until they found the newly tight orb of her uterus. Her womb a snow globe, her womb a dump, bag of waters riddled with navy microbeads from lemon-scented soaps, bits of elastic waistbands and pink toothbrush bristles, shards of bottles, slivers of beige bags. She wondered how much pressure it would take to force the embryo out now. How hard would she have to grind her fists. How long could it live in a warm glass test tube, an incubator, glowing and sterile and pristine. Maybe they should have spent the money after all, found a remote surrogate from northern Canada, or an island somewhere, still untouched, above water.

Their friends Alison and Marshal had done it, found a young girl from somewhere once gorgeous, eighteen and eager, so eager to help, only one month post-evacuation, young, tropical, on-trend, virgin, bloodwork with a plastic count of just one hundred parts per million, what a find, and with such wide eyes, Rachel remembered thinking, such wide eyes, such wide open eyes.

When do you think the next appointment will be, Sean said, turning the brochures over in his hands. I didn’t see anything like a schedule.

Depends on what the appointment is for, Rachel said.

Gender, I guess? He still had his hand on her knee, rubbing the side of her kneecap, the small slope of the indent, back and forth with his thumb. A motion she was used to, a habit of his even before they were married. Even the first time they were together, the long pads of his fingers dipped into the wells of her collar bones, her navel, her kneecaps, her high arches, his eyes looking up from the edge of her bed, lips mouthing Gorgeous.

Sooner, she said, nudging his hand off her knee. To make sure nothing happened to it.

He misinterpreted the slide of her hand and put his hand over hers to hold it, hold it tight. Nothing will happen, he said, squeezing too hard.

Forty percent, she said. Sixty percent in some places. Basic facts. In every article I’ve ever sent you.

The technician had left a still frame up and the sour white light of it shadowed Sean’s face as he stood up, scowled, walked toward the heavy door, saying Why do you always have to be like that.

Rachel rolled her eyes, but they landed on the image of the embryo still up on the wall, steeped in a slush of plastic, bits and bobs weaving themselves into its eyespots, stomach, heart. Last night she had sent Sean a link to the news story about the whales in Australia, the plasticized whale calf born in the shallows, its mother hours from dead. How the newborn’s spine was a blade of sharp blue plastic, its tail and flippers compressed athletic mesh. How it could not swim and it could not breathe and though it had ripped its mother clean through, she loved it. How she turned it over and over between her fins, lifted its silent blowhole to the surface, bellowed, sang long lullabies, dirges, let the tide bring her in to beach. The last known mother of the species, the last known fertile whale in the world.

And all Sean had said before they went to bed was how sad it was, that kind of thing, what a world, what could they do, was she cold, did she want him to turn up the thermostat.

You just keep talking about it like it’s already dead, Sean said, looking up at the starch and cloud of their baby. Ever since we found out about it. And I’m sick of it. Rachel laid down, tossed her head back and forth on the flimsy pillow. You are allowed to be happy, Rachel. Until we know otherwise, this is happening, he said. We are going to be parents. Just like we talked about. And I am allowed to be excited. We are allowed. Rachel lay motionless on the table. Sean sighed hard so he would be heard. Well?

What, she said.

I’m going, he whispered sharply, hand on the door handle, I’m going to go ask for the pictures they took of the scan.

They’re not going to print them for you. They already said they’d email them.

I’m going to ask them and they’re going to print them for me because you are not in charge of whether I can ask and because I am the father of that baby. Sean notched the handle down. You can stay here. Do what you want.

Rachel turned and Sean turned and Rachel was alone. The room was cold and smelled of odorless soap, purple nitrile gloves. She imagined Sean ogling over the pictures in the lobby while he waited for her to come out, the sharp shine of so much black ink on so much paper powdering his fingers, how it would feel to storm out to the waiting room and rip them from his hands, saying Don’t do that. Don’t look too long. Stop it. Don’t list any names. Don’t smile. I said don’t smile. Stop it. Don’t hold on too tight.

Rachel ground her fist into the exam bed. Her feet were cold. Her head was heavy. Like she’d stayed up all night. Like her skull was a shoe that pinched. Like she was on the far side of the moon, black air, black dust, bare feet on the rim of a wide black crater, a thousand ways to fall in, disappear. A place where she was dead and not dead. Where their child was dead and not dead. Where their child was vegetative and not. Plastic and not. Where the child they wanted was drifting away. Where the birth was easy, where the birth was hard. High-risk, C-section, emergency C-section, vaginal, forceps—the cold slice of a plastic nose through her hips, the slide of silicone, the itch of polyester. Where its arms were gel. Where its spine was milk caps. Where she loved it, sang to it, wouldn’t let them take it away. Where she let them take it away. Where it only lived for half an hour, where it only lived twenty years, where it never actually lived at all, where it kept on living forever. Her child, growing up without water. Her child, the ground choking up its last. Her child, gripping her face, shaking her face, saying Look me in the eye, mom, no, look me in the eye, did you know, mom, did you know that I would suffer.

Rachel had been there for the birth of her sister’s twins. The first a boy born still and traffic-cone orange, the second born alive, a single oblong mole on her shoulder, crinkly like cellophane to the touch. She remembered the placentas studded with plastic, the umbilical cords thick as garden hoses, all dropped into the biohazard bin on the wall. She remembered how Margo had cried when she said cremation instead of casket. When she said casket instead of cremation. When she said Do we have to do anything at all, what can we do, his body will exist for ten thousand years.

At first Margo didn’t want to hold him, not yet, not right now, and so Rachel was the first to smooth his dark hair, put lips to nose, say hello, a hush of condensation on his cheeks, say hello and hello and hello, you’re so beautiful, you’re so warm, hello, hello.

Margo didn’t hold him until the delivery room nurse started taking pictures half an hour later, saying Hold him! Smile! Here, bring in his sister, come on mama, let’s snuggle these babies in right up close to you, let’s get a big family photo now, first time all together, that’s it dad, come on in, wow, look at you, beautiful family, look at you guys, a little family of four.

And Rachel wanted to scream in the nurse’s face, how dare she, how dare she pretend, how dare she interrupt, her camera clicking so loud, her voice so loud, couldn’t she tell, didn’t she know, where was her supervisor. But two months later Margo pulled up the pictures. So thankful for them, so grateful. Look at him, she would say. She had one printed on thick canvas and hung it next to their bed. She had it made into a magnet for the fridge, a print for the stairwell. She sent away for a throw pillow embroidered with it, a mug with it stamped, a paperweight, a mouse pad, an ornament, then six more. I can’t stand it anymore, her husband would scream. He’s your son, she would say. Look at him.

The horrible sun of her sister’s grief, how it shone through every sentence, every off-center picture of her girl, always leaving space, an extra shoulder width, inviting the ghost. How much she pitied her sister, hated her sister, never knew what to say; her sister just another woman collecting sympathy cards, another woman crying in the grocery store among the turnips and eggs, until she moved to the Provisions. How quiet it was when the divorce was finalized, just a year later, when her husband had moved out, how he had taken their wind chime, the water filter from the fridge, a single newborn onesie with thin blue stripes.

The last time Rachel had seen Margo was on the news, naked on a boat with other protestors paddling the new Capitol building outside Philadelphia, chanting Have you seen the pictures of our funerals for our children, Have you seen how they do not decay in their caskets, Have you seen how they are made, how we are torn, how we have wept, the protestors’ boat twisting in the fast wind of the helicopters.

The last time Rachel had seen Margo in person was when her left breast was passing a milk stone. Rachel had decided to visit Margo’s home in the Provisions a few years after the divorce, a small cob house she and her neighbors built surrounded by herb circles and medicinal shrubbery, chicken hutches, a food forest swirling the edges of the grounds. Rachel had winced at the sight of Margo’s areola, deformed and purple, whole breast hot to the touch, hanging as Margo crawled in her garden. Gravity will help, Margo had said while chewing dark green leaves, spitting and rubbing the paste into her breast tissue from shoulder to nipple. I’ve got cabbage leaves cooling in the water bucket. If that doesn’t work, I’ve got a knife, some tubing.

And if not, Rachel said, I’ve got my car.

Margo pumped her hand slowly along her breast, the plastic stone like the hump of a fingernail, a bite of potato under her skin. This is just what we get, Margo said, sucking air through her teeth, for things like cars in the first place.

By evening Margo had crawled to the heart of the gardened forest where she knelt, parted the wet leaves and soil with the side of her hand until it became a bowl of cool dark earth she could tuck her breast into. The center of the garden was circled by stone fruit trees with an understory of hazelnuts and salmonberries, dandelions and sword ferns. The center of the garden was where Noah was buried. Rachel sat off to the side with Hannah, the twin who had lived, now a little girl, as they watched Margo sweat into the soil.

There is no word for it, Margo would say later, her nipple blown out by the milk stone. There is no word for what I am without him. When I’m here, in my garden, and I notice the patterns in the black cherry leaves, when I notice the black earth, when I notice the rivulets of rain collecting in the cisterns next to the house, how they drip like they’ve always dropped, fall like they always fall, like a beat, a breathing, a throb, it’s as if I am sitting in his lap. As if he is older than me. Larger, cosmic. Beyond outside. As if I am in his lap. A reversal, a circularity. As if circularity is combing my hair, kissing my cheek. My sweet Noah. Above me and in me and outside me and of me. I’m sorry, she said, holding a cold cellar jar of pickled garlic to her scabbing nipple. I could never leave the place he’s buried. Not for an hour, not for a day. If you want me to be present for the birth, you’ll have to do it here.

Rachel pressed both fists into the plastic exam bed and watched the indents rise back to the surface. She pressed her fists in again and watched the wrinkles in the fabric stretch to reach her knuckles. She pressed her fists in harder and thought about the whale off the coast of Australia, how she had drifted above the white coral reefs, the trail of blood stretching four miles. What did she sing about, Rachel wondered, what did she sing as she lifted her child toward the light and realized her child was empty. That her child was hard. Was her song hello and hello and hello. Was it goodbye, an apology, a grunting of pain, angry, belligerent, thankful, happy. Did she choose not to notice her child’s silence, did she love the little weight of him, his bright colors. As she lifted him toward the sun, the quivering, blurry light of surface water, did her song become a prayer, a prayer to hold him just one breath longer, one mile longer, just enough to bring him to shore where he could be seen and celebrated and cheered, her baby, the baby everyone had been waiting for, where she could sing Look at him, look what I’ve made, he is worth it, he is worth all of it, he is beautiful, sing with me, today is his birthday, I have named him something lovely, his name is When He Was Born He Was Warm.

Rachel stood, rallied her jeans back up to her hips. She did not look at the screen. She did not look at the cheap brochures as she jammed them in her jacket pocket. She did not know if she was technically a mother yet. But she sensed she was. Because she was undone by it, upended by it, this sense of infinite duty, infinite love, infinite concern, dumb and strong as gravity, instinct, sunlight. She was not sure a mother was something she wanted to be anymore. But she sensed there was no way around it now either. Whether the child lived or died, whether she chose how it died or not, it would someday die, and she herself had already died, the young woman she was, the wife she was, the person she was before she was somebody’s mother.

She slammed the door as she left the room. In the lobby, Sean and the others waiting were all watching the screen above the check-in desk. The receptionist was standing, holding the remote in her hand, clicking up the volume. An artist had walked through the streets of Paris with a four-mile-long red ribbon behind her, then marched into the Seine and began swimming to the channel, the channel to the sea. Every bolt of red fabric in Paris, the reporters said. Chenille, tulle, cotton, jersey. Look how it shines, look how it soaks, imagine the weight of it, so heavy.

As she swam she added plastic bottles floating by to her fingertips, her hands becoming too wide and light to dig into the water. She paused several times to tie drifting takeout bags into her hair. There were bits of trash collecting in the swale of her red ribbon and people were laughing or frowning or taking videos. There was no boat in front of her to guide her down the river. No one knew if there was anyone behind her, making sure the ribbon didn’t get caught.

Rachel felt sick as she watched the woman swimming. The receptionist brought her a bucket, but she didn’t use it. The receptionist had a shiny blue ear that became purple along her jawline, iridescent as a seashell, a sheen that threw light along the counter. The receptionist clicked around on her screen, asked about Tuesdays and Thursdays, your email address, your phone number, the best way to reach you, and before Rachel could say no she tucked a glossy black photo into a matte paper display card onto which she wrote some numbers with a slim gray pen, and handed it to Rachel. The card said Welcome to the Sisterhood of Motherhood and Rachel looked at the bucket.

She went over to Sean, still standing under the TV screen, and put the card in his warm, wide hand, saying here, it’s the baby, I don’t have any pockets, hey. But he was watching the screen and slipped the picture into his back pocket without really noticing. He put his arm around her shoulder, his thumb like a windshield wiper along the shoulder seam of her winter coat.

Rachel let his thumb flick the seam back and forth, until he was pinching it, twisting it, rubbing it and grinding it between his fingernails. The steady, angry beat of his fingers in the fabric. They watched the artist swim, wondering how she would drown.