Molly BashawEssays / Number 92
I often imagined the birth would be similar to births I had already witnessed: the births of my younger brother and of animals on the farm where I grew up. I imagined it would be nighttime and I would lie down on my side and calmly breathe the baby out, as my mother had, or that I would squat on a bed of straw in the corner of a stall while the animals circled reverently. I recalled the magical nights my father had woken us, led us out to the barn with a kerosene lamp, and we had watched a sow or a sheep laboring peacefully: the wet lambs licked soft, the piglets sliding into life on a river of blood.
I wanted to have a natural birth. I wanted no medications, no painkillers, and no doctors in lab coats. If I couldn’t have a home birth—we lived in a thin-walled apartment in the city of Würzburg, Germany—and if I couldn’t have the baby on a field or under a big oak in the woods, then I was at least going to have it in a birthing center with midwives. I was going to request aromatherapy and massage, candlelight. I was going to give birth to a healthy baby in a bath of water and herbs. My grandmother had given birth six times, vaginally. My mother, three times. I should easily be able to have one child, I thought, though my gynecologist had often repeated to me that I was now already thirty-seven and the risks involved with a birth were higher than if I had still been twenty.
This was the winter of 2015. Aleppo waited somewhere under piles of rubble. Repeated bombing had destroyed much of Damascus. I was working teaching refugees German as a Second Language. Monday through Friday in the still dark hours I soothed my morning sickness with lemon tea and then drove through the snowy Franconian villages to a shelter in Gaukönigshofen to try to help Syrians, Afghans and one Ukrainian say things in German like this: My name is Ali. I come from Syria. I am thirty-seven years old. I like to play soccer. My favorite food is rice with chicken and vegetables. My hobby is surfing the Internet. I have a big family but now I live alone.
I was pregnant but not yet showing during all four months I worked at this shelter. None of the refugees knew of my baby, but I often had the feeling that my baby knew of the refugees, that it got to know them from inside my belly, even though it was still small, and even though my biggest worry at that time, while standing at the front of the musty room in the fire department that served as our classroom, was that I might have to vomit. Ali Al Darwish, my favorite student, often told me about his own baby, a baby he had only seen in pictures sent by his wife. He showed her to me on his iPhone, held next to a piece of a bomb, and next to his parked motorcycle covered in ashes. He played me a long video of her cooing into the camera, as he said, like a cat.
I don’t work at this shelter anymore and I only rarely have contact with those refugees, usually when I see one or the other of them walking on the street in Würzburg. My baby was, besides the students and me, the only witness of what went on in our classroom. It heard Hazem give a report in German on his favorite café in Damascus. It heard Ali complain to me in Arabic that the course was too hard, too fast, that no one understood me. It heard Jamaal crying quietly at his desk on his birthday after the first-graders from the village came to sing to him. And it heard him tell of his former chandelier company in Aleppo—of all those beautiful suspended lights.
I tried to avoid horror stories of pregnancies. My downstairs neighbor Marianne, a curvy, laughter-filled woman we called “the chickpea,” told of her emergency C-section at Marlene’s birth, the days afterwards when she was not allowed to see or feed her child even though her breasts were, as she put it, enormous bells. The women I walked with on Tuesdays talked about hemorrhoids, anal tearing, gestational diabetes and an internal poisoning that made one turn yellow. I blocked these conversations out because I knew that pregnancy was simple and natural, and I was going to have a birth as easy as a barn cat’s. I ordered a book about calm birthing, and Ina May Gaskin’s collection of stories told by mothers who’d given birth on her farm in Tennessee. I started rubbing oils into my belly. I listened to tapes about breathing through contractions, and looked at pictures of ecstatic mothers smiling while in labor—which Gaskin wrote could even be orgasmic. I skimmed the American birthing bible, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and completely skipped the chapters Managing a Complicated Pregnancy and Coping with Pregnancy Loss. Why not think positively? Women have been giving birth for centuries. Look at all the babies out there, babies in war-torn countries, babies born on mountainsides and in deserts. It can’t be that complicated, I thought. It doesn’t have to be medical.
It was harder for me to avoid checking the week-by-week pictures of fetuses online. At one point I read our baby was the size of a lentil. Then it was a blueberry, and then a large raspberry, a green olive, a prune, a lime, a small plum, a peach, a navel orange, an avocado. It became a sweet potato, a large mango, a small cantaloupe, a papaya, a cauliflower, an eggplant, a cabbage, a butternut squash, a head of lettuce, and then a honeydew. Some of the fruits it became in the third trimester included a pineapple, a canary melon, a large cantaloupe, a winter melon, a small pumpkin, and a watermelon. If a mother went beyond term the baby could finally even get to be the size of a jackfruit, one website claimed. I googled jackfruit. It was apparently part of the fig, mulberry and breadfruit family. It was green and rough and indeed, the largest fruit I had ever seen.
We started calling the fetus “Lentil,” and never significantly changed the name again. Towards the end it became “Lenni,” “Lenni-Benni,” or “Lennchen,” the way names do. Around the fifteenth week we wrote a list of some more adult names on the back of a used envelope: Ansgar, Matthis, Jan, Jasper, Miles, Ilya, Leif. And though we somehow knew the fetus was male, we created a small list of girls’ names just in case we were wrong: Clara, Stella, Ida. I wanted Josephine as the second name for a baby girl, I said, after my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, Grammy Jo, who’d played piano for the silent movies.
During the first ultrasound, Lenni did flips across the screen. The room was dark and Johannes sat on a bed across from me, watching eagerly for the heartbeat. Lenni looked less like an olive and more like a pollywog. The gynecologist, Dr. Wenzel, measured his skull, his length and width. She predicted his birth would be on the eighth of September.
I told my mother it was still just the size of a lentil or an olive or so, but we were expecting. She cried on the phone and related how happy for me she was, even though she lives in the United States in a home for Alzheimer’s patients and is no longer clear about many things. Her sentences often go something like this: We’ll have to take these cucumbers out of her fingers because she goes barefoot now. And toward the end of phone conversations, if she can notice the cues of traditional conversation at all, she shouts at the nurses, Can someone help me with this thing? She leaves the receiver on a windowsill until a nurse finds it and says goodbye to me for her. But in this moment she was lucid, crying with joy.
We told Johannes’s parents in his mother’s birthday card, pasting in a little copy of the ultrasound. Happy Birthday from Molly, Johannes, and ? His father got teary. His mother hugged us and brought out food. It was winter. It was snowing. We played the piano and ate gnocchi and cake. The Liepolds’ bright green bird sang and flitted from his tree branch to the curtain rod and back. Everyone seemed suddenly to celebrate my body with me. Lenni had turned me into a weightless, glowing sphere.
And yet I was still shocked and frightened. Johannes and I had only planned the baby in the sense that we had stopped all birth control and given things over to fate. We had been playing with fire for over a year and I had continued to get my periods, each time with a mix of regret and relief. We were not married and often still fought dramatically over small things in a way that made me think twice about offspring. I also still occasionally dreamed of the big adventures I could more easily have as a single woman: working a whole, long summer as a volunteer goat herder in the Swiss Alps; winning a writing residency and completing a second book of poetry while meandering alone in the New England woods; or riding a bicycle from Denmark back to southern Germany with only a backpack and some spare bike tubes. I often browsed the classified section of the Vermont newspaper, Seven Days, for jobs closer to my family, without really considering what that would mean for Johannes and me. And recently I had even played an audition on trombone for the orchestra in Bern, Switzerland. No one was going to tie me down, I kept telling myself. I was not going to sacrifice my chances in life for a man or a family the way my mother had, only to end up alone in a nursing home.
Some of the refugees, when I asked them what they liked most about Germany, mentioned the natural world first, the lakes and forests. They said it was clean here, and organized. They liked the public transportation system and Angela Merkel. They liked the safety. No bombs. What did they think was not so good in Germany? You don’t take care of your old people, they quickly and unanimously agreed. In Syria, they told me, and in Afghanistan, there were no senior living centers.
When the second pink stripe quickly shot across the pregnancy test, a jolt of panic ran through me, and a jolt of joy. Johannes was away. I had begun to think I was not capable of being pregnant, that something was wrong with my body, that I was too old, that I was not domestic enough. I had begun to believe I was what my family had long characterized me as—the artist-traveler who never settles down, the one with a series of bad relationships trailing behind her, the one who loses watches and winter hats and important documents and shouldn’t be trusted with a child, the one who misses flights and locks herself out of her apartment one wintery night and then another, the one who values experience more than saving.
I did laundry in the basement, first revealing the news to my neighbor, Marianne. She dropped a crumpled t-shirt and threw her arms around me. When I finally reached Johannes, who was teaching saxophone ensembles in southern Bavaria, he answered his phone in a practice room, surrounded by other musicians. I could hear a trumpet warming up in the background. I told him to sit down. He said he would need some schnapps. I couldn’t tell if he was happy or scared, or both, as I was.
We were freelance musicians and teachers. I had just finished my master’s degree and was considering a doctoral program. We didn’t have much money. We hadn’t really had much of a plan for anything we had done so far, but we had, some mornings on Sundays, lain in bed snuggling
and said out loud how nice it would be to have a little person between us, in pajamas, laughing and getting tickled.
At the twelve-week ultrasound Dr. Wenzel spent a long time moving the machine over my sticky belly, stopping
it briefly and taking a measurement. I only began to look after several minutes. I could see the fetus’s head, neck, and a small, curled body with a dark spot on it. What is that spot? I asked her. Yes, that is what I am also wondering, she said calmly. It looks like the bladder. It could be the bladder. Let’s wait a minute and see if it empties. It could just be the bladder, she said again in a way that made me think it could not be the bladder.
She sent us away with a report for a specialist and only at home did we read what she’d written: Megacystis, followed by a question mark. Lenni has a spot, Johannes said quietly on the way to the car. Yes, Lenni has a spot, I said. Hm, we said. We were quiet on the way home. Maybe it is nothing, we told each other. Probably nothing.
I was trying to teach the refugees German dative prepositions. How did you get to Germany? I asked them. By boat? On foot? By train? One of the new students, Mohammed, made a swimming gesture. You swam? I asked. He told the others in Arabic that his ship had sunk and he had treaded water on the Greek shores for half an hour until a bigger freighter was able to rescue him and some of his fellow travelers. During the break, while the students were outside smoking, I called the ultrasound specialist and she slated me in at half past 11, under the circumstances, she said. I told my class I needed to leave early to go to the doctor, and they asked no questions, told me I could go now if I wanted, and wished me all the best. I think they thought I had a lung infection, since I had had an ongoing cough for several weeks.
The drive seems so clear and slow now: the snowy curves of road leaving Gaukönigshofen toward the larger B19 road to Würzburg, past the tiny bus stops where a few old ladies wrapped in head scarves waited, past the stone houses and churches. I picked Johannes up at the Old Main Bridge in Würzburg, directly across from the tiny model in the town hall of the city as it looked in 1945, completely destroyed after WWII, much as I imagined Aleppo or Damascus now. Sometimes it was hard to believe that even in seventy years a city so ruined could come back as Würzburg now was, full of art and music and young students from all over the world, riding their bicycles and flirting with each other along the riverfront, eating fish sandwiches in summer.
Dr. Zollner invited Johannes to sit in front of a wide-screen TV and began searching me for the fetus. It was not like looking for a path on a map or trying to point out someone in a crowd in an old photograph as the previous ultrasounds had been. Her equipment was more advanced than Dr. Wenzel’s. We could see Lenni’s heart pumping, red and blue for each direction. We could see his head and lungs and stomach. She carefully measured every organ, every limb, freezing the images one after another. Finally she measured his black spot, which she said was indeed the bladder. It was seven millimeters in diameter. She did not tell us what any of this meant until I had wiped the stickiness from my belly and gotten dressed. Back at her big wooden desk, lined with books about miscarriages, malformations, chromosomal defects and fetal deaths, she said, Ms. Bashaw, you know you are thirty-seven. She told us the risk associated with childbearing goes up each year of a woman’s life after twenty, and again after thirty-five. She looked down at her papers and paused. Lenni could have one of three things, she said. First, an enlarged bladder caused by a blocked valve. In this case we could opt for in-utero surgery that would place a small tube into his bladder, thus allowing it to successfully empty itself and not further enlarge. The risk of this operation was obvious and included the death of the fetus. The second possibility was a chromosomal defect, either trisomy 13 or 18. Trisomy 21, Down’s syndrome, was less likely, she said. But these other defects would cause the baby to die shortly before or after birth, and we would need to consider whether we wanted to proceed with the pregnancy or to abort. She finally admitted, given no other signs of a chromosomal defect were noticeable, that it could also be absolutely nothing. We should go home and wait a week and then return for a follow-up ultrasound.
I started to believe in magic. And God. And that Lenni could hear my every thought. I believed that if the dying rubber tree I had inherited from my neighbor lived, so would Lenni. I watered it every day, spraying its broad leaves, breathing on it, singing and talking to it. There were two sets of larger leaves and one set of baby leaves in between them. Those are Johannes’s, those are mine, and those are Lenni’s leaves, I thought. I bought organic fertilizer and a larger terracotta pot. I took an old necklace from my mother’s jewelry box and began wearing it and chanting to it at night as if it were rosary beads. When I slept I draped it over a white hat and pair of gloves for a newborn—the first clothes we had bought for Lenni. I prayed to an unknown someone who was miles away and also deep inside my own body: Please stay with us. I’m sorry I was scared of you. Did you really hear me when I said you should go back where you came from, that Johannes and I weren’t ready to be parents? I’m so sorry. Please come back. I didn’t really mean it; I was just scared. I didn’t want you to see how we sometimes are to each other when we are scared, or frustrated, or angry. I wanted you to have perfect parents.
Johannes and I panicked, used harsh words. I slept on the couch, clutching Lenni’s baby things. I blamed Johannes. I blamed myself. I blamed my bad thoughts and my very specific message to Lenni to leave my body.
The geneticist drew our family trees, adding one human after another until they were all there on the branches like the online harvest of fruits I had been following. She asked if we were related to each other. She asked if anyone had died or had miscarriages or stillborn babies. I mentioned my nephew with the underdeveloped ear, my mom’s Alzheimer’s, my aunt, whose baby Caleb had died just before it was born. We told her that Johannes’s aunt’s diabetes had driven her to commit suicide, and a drunken truck driver had hit his uncle when he was only six, before his mother was even born. She marked each of these with a ghostly X next to all the other babies that had slipped easily into the world as though they had always been here.
The refugees revolted impressively in the streets because the guards had taken their Internet from them as punishment for smoking in the building. A man called “Mr. Justice” came to talk with them. He apologized for the Internet, but emphasized that they must not smoke, that some refugee shelters had been burned by neo-Nazis, that they would be ashamed if theirs burned because of cigarettes. A bad mood spread throughout the shelter. Many of the students did not return to my lesson. One hand under the desk on my womb, I flipped through our textbook with the other as I waited for them. Where is the post office? Can you please give me directions to the church? Excuse me, how do I get to the library? Is that a left or a right on Main Street? The pictures were brightly colored, the people a mix of immigrants with names like those of the students: Mahmoud, Jusef, Jamaal.
After we found out that absolutely nothing was wrong with Lenni, that his little bladder or whatever the black spot had been, had disappeared, I became confident almost to the extent of righteousness. I didn’t want any more ultrasounds, I said. I didn’t return to the follow up visit at Dr. Zollner’s, and I didn’t even call her to cancel it. I signed up at a birthing center where they would only observe Lenni with their hands and an old-fashioned looking wooden cone. I started imagining the sheep and cows again. I said things like, Even if our baby comes to us dead, we are going to carry out this pregnancy and we are going to meet him. I said I didn’t want to do any more baby watching. I wanted to be prepared for the best, to imagine my way toward a perfect birth. I told myself Lenni had heard my pleas, that he knew I was sorry and really did want to be his mom, and that Johannes and I would pull ourselves together and grow up in all the ways that make good parents. We would work more and plan more; we would get married. I would take Johannes’s last name. We would change everything officially at the town hall next to the model of the ruined Würzburg. We would get to know all the other parents near us. I would go to a birthing class and take notes. I would do more yoga and eat spinach and take folic acid pills and give up all alcohol and coffee and even black tea and chocolate.
• • •
In the thirty-six weeks of the pregnancy, Lenni and I rode a lavender-colored Bianchi racing bike along the Main River together. We danced at Johannes’s and my wedding on a red carpet that was really a picnic blanket while children threw rose petals at us under a disco ball. He heard my weekly choir rehearsals and moved his little feet during two very muggy concerts of a program that highlighted life’s milestones, called “Lebenslauf”—music by Schumann and modern settings of Hölderlin poems by Harald Genzmer: Die Mauern stehn/ sprachlos und kalt, im Winde/ klirren die Fahnen (the walls stand speechless and cold, the flags flap in the wind).
Lenni slept snugly between Johannes and me, nudging Johannes’s back or legs or stomach. He listened from inside as I breathed and sang and groaned with the nine other pregnant women in an esoteric pregnancy yoga class taught by a teacher who only told us her spiritual name—Nam Rattan Kaur. He walked with me along the vineyards above Würzburg as I chatted in English with my visiting cousin Conrad, a twin boy born via emergency C-Section in the thirty-fifth week who told me that saying premature babies were cute was like saying anorexics are hot.
Lenni listened patiently as the weekly succession of trombone students bumbled their way through short pieces and scales, right up to their final recital in Bad Mergentheim, where he helped me accompany them on piano, tucked between my body and the keys. And every day he continued to meet the refugees, riding inside me on the bus to Gaukönigshofen on roads lined by buzzards. He heard the village children sing Christmas songs to these men, some of whom cried into their hands or kissed the children’s foreheads, telling them they reminded them of their own.
I first felt Lenni kick during a concert of Johannes’s called “Conversations,” in the Spitäle church in Würzburg. He kicked twice. His foot felt like a new heartbeat in my belly, distant and essential. After that I began playing lullabies from around the world for him, out of two books my father had sent me, on a piano at Lou and Rolf’s and on the Bechstein at Johannes’s parents’ house: A Scottish lullaby called Can Ye Sew Cushions; an Armenian Lullaby with its simple but beautiful melody in a minor key; All Through the Night; Dance Little Baby; The Sandman; Raisins and Almonds. I played with the soft pedal on, singing along with the simpler melodies.
Lenni visited my friend Marion’s goats with us and must have felt that one kid’s heartbeat gradually relaxing when I picked it up and held it against my round belly and it fell asleep pressed along his body, its wet nose tucked into my neck.
And Lenni was also with me when I was offered a full-time, contracted position teaching German as a Second Language and lost it two minutes later after I admitted being pregnant. The boss said she wouldn’t be able to give me the contract after all, but I should go ahead and reapply after the baby had been born and I was ready to work again. Lenni rode home with me after that, on the tram, holding me from inside as one holds hands with someone who has just lost something important, squeezing a little from time to time to say, I am still here. He was wrapped in my red wool toggle coat, the one I have had for ten years, the one Johannes had had relined for me when I was in the U.S. He was wrapped within me during this time when I was still worried about where we would put a crib in our one-bedroom apartment. He was inside me when I cried and said it was all a big mistake. He heard me tell Johannes during an argument that I regretted he would be the father.
He may have felt that his birth meant I could not go to America for a whole year, could not visit my fragile mother whose last words to me before I had come back to Germany in October were, Well I guess all you can do for me now is be around as much as possible. Maybe he felt my sadness about not being able to see my family before my wedding or during the pregnancy, or that his birth meant I would not be able to teach in the summer language program to which I had already been accepted, or attend writing workshops, or play trombone, or travel at all for a while. I would not be able to work. He must have felt my selfishness. I hope he also felt that I considered him more and more to be a little anchor in me, the first thing to hold me in one place, the first real root my body had ever dared put down.
Lenni was with me when I bought him a mobile at the Fair Trade Store. It was a soft red cloud made of felt that I told Johannes looked like a placenta, though at that time I had no clear vision of a human placenta. From its first tier hung farm animals; from the next, sticks, hay, eggs, worms. I imagined little Lenni would lie on his new changing table looking up at the red felt cloud and all the spinning farm animals and somehow be transported to the scene from my own childhood of the milk cow giving birth in the magic of the night.
Lenni heard me talk long-distance on the phone with my mother, trying to decipher her comments from the Alzheimer’s home in Vermont. Probably he was the only one who could really understand her words. Probably the whole world sounded to him like my mother’s speech sounds to me, so near and known and familiar, and yet incomprehensible. This is what I imagine the world sounds like from underneath the earth’s surface, maybe to a shrew. Yes, Lenni could hear my mother’s strange, opaque language. He could hear the beavers swimming in the water in her words. He could hear the tree trunks in her voice, cracking peacefully and going blank. He could hear her talking without any words at all.
In the last trimester, Lenni heard me finally talking about him proudly to people around me; he heard that I was entering the adult world of women through him. He heard strangers on the tram sit next to me and say how wonderful pregnancy was, how they had children, too, how birthing was amazing and painful, and it, too, would pass. He heard my Indian student say, It will be a girl, and a Somalian student say, It will be a boy, each with absolute confidence. He heard a Romanian student tell me she had lost her baby when her husband kicked her in the stomach; an Eritrean student tell me she lost her twins during the journey to Germany. He was there when I visited Anna in Ulm—Anna, one week ahead of me in her pregnancy with a baby not yet named Thomas. She had taken me to the stone-age museum in Blaubeuren where we looked at the sculptures of Venus found in caves there. Venus was round and had basically no head or legs, just huge breasts, and a huge pregnant belly.
And Lenni was there when Johannes and I said I do and pushed golden rings onto each other’s fingers. He was there when I tried slowly to sign my new name, Molly Liepold, on our marriage contract, and everyone took photos in which my belly is large and all the guests are looking on with hope and satisfaction. He was there when we posed on the Old Main Bridge in our wedding attire, my dress ordered from an English maternity-wear company along with the three others I sent back; and the light gray suit Johannes had sent me pictures of from the changing stall to make sure I would approve. Lenni went to my first ever manicure and pedicure, my hair appointment where the hairdresser tucked in the rose wrapped in wire. He went with me to pick up the bridal bouquet—thyme, lilac roses, and thistles, because, as the florist said, love can also be painful.
• • •
I’m sitting in the garden looking down toward Würzburg, looking down toward the river that I can’t see but know is there by the way the whole valley is carved by it. The cabbages are done, waiting to be picked; the blackberries are almost gone. The sun is shining. Perhaps because today would have been his birthday, I’ve been trying to remember his actual birth. What I know is this: Lenni’s heart stopped beating at some unknown point in the night between the ninth and the tenth of August, 2016, while I was sleeping. He stayed in my body twelve days and then was born on August 22 at 4:47 AM—after eleven days of continuous attempts to induce, sixteen hours of labor, and an epidural. I know that the midwife, whose voice I can still recall next to me as Lenni crowned from my body, was named Christina. She made us footprints.
In the first weeks after his birth, I wrote a list of reasons Lenni may have left us, since to this day it has not been medically determined. I included all of my own guilty, indulgent ones: that he had heard my frightened thoughts or I hadn’t done enough ultrasounds, or that he wanted me to go back to Vermont to see my mother. I added reasons other people admitted to me about their own imagined influences: Marianne said she shouldn’t have made me carry the six jars of honey we bought from her brother, even though they only weighed just a bit less than Lenni did, three kilos. My German teacher Ursula said on the phone it had occurred to her that her speech about ignoring the gods’ wrath at the ring ceremony at our wedding might have been too bold. I came up with fifty-five reasons and then my favorite finally arrived via email from my cousin Luke and put a stop to the list. He said Lenni probably wanted to do another lap around the soul universe before joining us here, and that he had likely realized he needed to be born in another three hundred years so he could be the savior of a last nature reserve.
Since Lenni’s death, other dead children—a baby lost in the fifth month, twins in the seventh, ones lost at nine months, seventeen months, four and five years; a baby lost during birth and one just after; some by Caesarian, some vaginally; some only-child babies, some babies born second or third or last in a family—have been returning to the world around us for brief visits. Parents and siblings who have not spoken of their losses in a long time, or ever, have been saying the names out loud to us. Marcel, my yoga teacher’s boyfriend, told me his older brother, who made it to five months, was also named Marcel. Tillman, a trumpet teacher and colleague, said his mom passed away before she could explain to him that he had briefly had an older brother. A bass from my choir told of his first girl—who left his wife alone with him and his three boys at the delivery. Even one of the midwives in the clinic told us she had also once lain helpless, waiting while a doctor searched her belly for a second heartbeat. Johanna’s.
Much like the refugees Lenni met last March, and much like Jamaal’s chandeliers glistening dully somewhere among the rubble of Aleppo, all these souls are still out there, though I don’t know where. I imagine they spin like bright spheres when we name them. I imagine they are lanterns on the way to a barn.
• • •
I’ve gone back over that last day Lenni was alive many times in my mind, trying as it forms and hardens and then changes again—like a fetus of its own—to keep it.
Marianne had driven me to Aichau with her. It was the first of the fall weather and a golden light had spread over the hills. We ate lunch with her parents in the kitchen across from the old wood-fired cookstove and I remember feeling the baby kick more than usual, as I often had in those last days. I thought he was growing. We walked out behind the farmhouse to the tomatoes and the turkeys and the dog, Gustl, in his cage, and then continued along a field and into the woods. Sitting at a pond with our feet dangling from the wooden dock, I could feel Lenni kicking again. I was quiet as the sun singed the treetops and I looked at my pregnant reflection. Marianne told about her childhood in these places, parties with teenage friends, the nightmares she used to have of cannibals. I remember I thought she had said carnivals.
When we got up to go, I saw perfect, thimble-sized blackberries at the edge of the water. Marianne went to pee in the woods and I yelled I was going to try to pick them. She cautioned me as I realized myself the only way to reach them without falling into the water would be to lie down on my stomach. As we began leaving I thought what a pity it was all those fruits would dry up there on the stalks. We walked slowly up a long hill and Marianne kept asking me if I was okay because I was breathing hard. But I noticed afterwards when we were back at the table with her parents that the walk had given me a second wind. Marianne’s mother asked about the pregnancy and the wedding we had just celebrated. Her father asked if Johannes had proposed to me on his knees. I laughed and he said the doctor had made the proposal for him, too. Marianne’s mother, eighty-five, smiled shyly.
We helped her brother Thomas label and cover twenty-four jars of honey. Even though I was sitting down on a chair, gluing the labels on, Marianne kept asking me if I was okay. I was excited about the honey. I bought six jars. I could still feel Lenni moving.
Driving out, we remembered the newborn kittens Marianne’s mother had told us to peek in at in the barn. Shall we go back, she asked, putting on the brakes. Yeah, I said, let’s go see the kittens. She pulled the car into the cement yard again, where Gustl was still barking from his cage, and we got out and undid the iron latch on the barn. Three white pigs stuck their snouts out at us, jumping up on their stall wall and snorting wildly. And then a very skinny, quiet white cat came out from behind a straw bale and stared at us intently. She seemed much too young and too thin to have just mothered kittens. Is that the mother? I asked Marianne. She looks too thin. I couldn’t read the cat’s signal and didn’t believe it was the mother cat until I bent down to it, putting my hand out and saying, Hey kitty. The cat, as if in slow motion, wound back her paw and gave my hand a clawless yet very firm swat that made my heart jump. I pulled away. Oh, I laughed, she doesn’t want us to see them. I will probably be that kind of mother, too. Let’s go.
We drove home in what for a long time seemed would be a rainstorm but never was. We drove home laughing and not knowing those would be the last hours. We drove home not knowing that Lenni would soon come into this world and leave it all at once, via a natural birth—an induced, natural, stillbirth. We didn’t know the sympathy cards would line up next to the wedding cards and Johannes and I wouldn’t touch any of them for weeks, or that Lenni’s ashes would arrive before my milk could stop, or that we would soon be burying him in the woods on the purple mountain that we were driving by in that very moment. We just drove further, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, looking out the windows at the ominous clouds marbling the sunset, my feet on the dashboard, my hands on my belly, Marianne’s hands on the wheel, the car cruising along, the radio on, the honey in the back.
Molly Bashaw’s book of poetry, The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It, was published in 2014.Image by Gaelle Marcel