Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

The first time I heard your heartbeat, you were a green grape. You’d already been a poppy seed, a lentil, a blueberry, a kidney bean. The technician pressed a monitor to my abdomen in late January and the sound of running horses filled the room. That’s what I heard first: galloping, the hooves of so many wild horses and not your tiny grape heart. You were equine because I couldn’t describe the strange wonder of hearing you alive within me for the first time. Our baby app said you were the size of a single grape.

In the classroom, I tell my students that metaphors and similes are mathematics. That metaphors are equations occupied on both sides by nouns or images. That similes are asymptotes approaching grid lines they never touch. That figurative language makes abstractions concrete, that all fifteen of us can say I am sad and mean fifteen different things. It is implicit in the lesson that speaking so plainly lacks artfulness. Instead, one student’s sadness might be an empty rocking chair. Another’s might be a deserted highway. I do not tell them that my sadness was a strawberry river and that there was no art at all in crossing through it.

Five months before we heard your heart, before you even made it to a monitor, a different technician waved a different kind of monitor over my belly and told me a different baby was lost. The shower rivered red and I lost all language for three months. I taught my fall classes. I made dinner conversation. I met friends for drinks. But all I remember from those months is a garland of words pulled from my throat. I’d been working on a book. I stopped writing. I drove my car to work and the engine hummed and I wept with the humming but didn’t feel sad. I only felt my body. In the absence of language, there was only dampness on my face. You are crying, my brain told me, as if observing someone else driving a different car.

And before the red river: there was an entire ocean, leaden and lightless, leagues upon leagues of weighted water. But rivers kick up silt, rivers erode sedimentary layers of bedrock, rivers unrest their way toward the ocean floor. Rivers find the sea, of course, and everything the sea buries.

Before you, and before the lost baby, a wave of women found words for what they formerly could not describe. Before phrases like gaslighting and rape culture and toxic masculinity, there was only masculinity. There was only culture. There was nothing in a woman’s vocabulary to name what had happened to her. There were only fathoms and fathoms of clouded ocean. But after the wave, more than one friend told me they didn’t know they’d been raped until their therapist said the word. I listened, the only thing I could think to do. I didn’t think to share the same space of vulnerability from which they’d confided in me. I didn’t say that I’d just taken a fourth Plan B pill, that I’d told your father I was ready to have a child four times and four times had thrown all my prenatal vitamins in the trash. I saw no connection. I thought I was just a woman scared that parenthood would erase her entirely and not a woman terrified of growing a child where a boy once bore a black hole that swallowed everything, including the word.

In the two weeks when you became a lime, and then a peapod, I flew to Virginia twice. First over the mountains, then again over the Atlantic coast. I gave two presentations in the same suit and hoped no one could see you beginning to press against my beltline. No one did. I was offered two jobs I couldn’t take due to the timing of your arrival and the lack of opportunities in either place for your father and spent the next three weeks, when you were a lemon and then an apple and then an avocado, laying in the dark breathing away the absolute certainty of my own erasure.

Before you, I’d spent my life earning degrees and publishing books and securing an academic job. It was easy to pit you against this, to be afraid that a child might wreck everything. But in a support group I joined after the second Plan B pill, I learned a new word: tokophobia, the pathological fear of pregnancy and childbirth. The name carried power. I could call it what it was. But I stopped short of seeing myself in the other group members who knew their phobia stemmed from past sexual assault. I stopped short of seeing any correlation at all between an assault I buried because there was no assault, there was only boys will be boys, and so many breathless years of dogged non-erasure.

Before you were a lime, six months before I flew to Virginia, I lay on the same bed behind a wall of closed blinds and called my parents and told them there was no baby and hung up. I couldn’t explain to them or to anyone that it wasn’t just the loss of the baby but something else, that I’d never burned to be a parent, that if not for your father I might never have considered becoming one, that I didn’t understand why this loss undertowed me to a salted deep. I couldn’t explain to the people who, in the weeks after, said someday you’ll still have your dream child, that for me there’d never been a dream child, that four months later I wanted you, just you, when your test streaked two pink lines. But that before you, there was another baby, a loss that still mauls me. There was a loss that pulled me from the ocean floor back to a teenage bedroom where I first learned how to be erased.

The fall of the lost baby, a therapist tried to teach me how to re-speak. Each week she asked me how I felt and I could not name what it was. I could have said I was blue. I could have said I was a chrysanthemum coiled closed, a sunflower squeezed shut. But I didn’t and neither of us used another word, not once. Two months in she asked if I could ever imagine another baby, which is to say if I could imagine you and something broke inside me and I cried until I couldn’t breathe and she told me that the session was over, that I should go home. The next week, I said I was sorry. She said there was nothing to apologize for, that our previous session was only what she called a black hole. That there was nothing to do with that kind of emotion, that it pulled everything in and let nothing out. I sat on my couch that night and thought about those two words. I felt them all over my limbs. It wasn’t her fault that she used them. At least they were words. But I never saw her again.

Because I had no words, there was only a body that bled blood and then shed tears and did not make the blood a river or the tears an ocean but only sat with them in a sealed car, the radio off, the engine a hymn. I was not someone else driving a different car. I was in my body again for the first time in two decades. The body’s grief, the reliving of another grief. I’d tried to outrun it. And then the blood whispered, you can run, but—

Even in the absence of words, I can tell you, the body still remembers. The body bleeds a river and recalls the lightlessness of the ocean. The body stands before a classroom three days after returning from an emergency room, still bleeding a secret, and remembers a ninth-grade classroom, the day after, a pain so similar radiating beneath the desk. A boy made a graveyard, the reason the body has swallowed four different pills. A shower floods red and the body loses language because language is what the body used for two decades to outpace everything. The body sees itself for what it is: a land of the dead. The body carries shame instead of a child, the same shame of high school, of wanting to rip itself inside out. The body doesn’t speak, not yet, never whispers a word in a therapist’s room. The body has no words at all. The body isn’t a sea floor, isn’t a river, isn’t a moon-tide, isn’t a cemetery. The body is only a body in the dark, so dark it can finally hear its own presence, its own heartbeat. The body asks where it hurts and hears every muscle echo back, here and here and here.

For years, I have tried to find language for the tight nautilus of terror curled inside me, for the way my teenage bedroom came ghosting back in the fits and starts of taking prenatal vitamins, of upending every bottle, of taking so many morning-after pills, of screaming at your father that of course my body killed what it meant to grow. My sadness was an anchor. My body, a burial ground. The past, a fathomless deep. The lost child, a spark that blew out. But I have spent my life in asymptotes, of being always so near to this pain but never naming it. There is no metaphor here. A body lays in the dark and drives to work and, without language for once in its life, hears itself speak. The pain was pain. The sorrow was sorrow. Before I carried you, I carried grief.

It wasn’t just before you. While I carried you, I was on fire. My body glowed fear. I thought everyone around me could see it, that my skin radiated panic, that if someone touched me their hand would burn. I meditated it away, imagined fear as pink light rippling in waves off my body, imagined you cocooned from it in a small glowing circle. I biked it away, swam it away, walked it away, read it away. But there was this, too, despite everything: my hands on my belly in the dark, you rippling beneath my skin like a wave rolling toward shore. The flutter of your little fists inside my abdomen, as if you were cheering. The ineffable fact of your skull, your pointed toes, your tiny spine on a glowing monitor. The stillness of standing by a pond at dusk, you quiet inside me, both of us listening to the wind push through the reeds.

Over Virginia, I snapped a picture out the airplane window of the Atlantic seashore. I texted the photo to your father. Baby’s first ocean. I was marking our journey as much as I was documenting something else, I see now. I could show you someday if my academic career fell apart that once, when I was three months pregnant, we flew to Virginia. But when you were three months old I flew to Virginia again, of all places. This time, I didn’t tuck you beneath a suit. Instead, I told them I could only stay one night; you were waiting for me at home. I sat in the window seat on the night flight back and saw a flash of light skitter across the earth. At first I thought it was fireworks in one of the tiny cities below. Then I realized it was the full moon high above the plane’s window reflecting off a long stretch of river, a quicksilver bolt of lightning following us home. I’d never seen any river look like that in my life. Even if, after what would be three more months of flights and presentations, I ended up with no job, I became someone who didn’t hide. I became someone who was bone-tired from a fourteen-hour interview but stayed awake in a darkened cabin to watch the moon. I became someone who learned all over again how to love writing, how to love my work, without burying anything. You did not erase me. You redrew the world.

I will teach you to love language, to honor words. I will tell you what I tell my students: that metaphor is the power to name the world in your vision. But I will also teach you to call things what they are so that no one will name the world in their vision in order to erase you. I will teach you to call things what they are. I will teach you to say Mama, I am so sad.

The week you were a honeydew melon, three weeks before your arrival, I didn’t hear horses. Your heartbeat was a heartbeat. The kicks beneath my ribcage, your tiny feet. The pulsing after meals, your hiccups. The billow inside my belly at three a.m., you turning on your side.

I might have found another way through this, if not for your father, if not for the lost baby, if not for you. If there is a wormhole to another multiverse, there is some parallel version of my life out there without a child, a vector surely intersecting with another kind of reckoning. But this is my vector, and this vector brought me to you. For years, I was a ghost hovering above the earth of my own body. From a graveyard, you made a garden. You dried the river, you drained the sea. You unburied me. You replanted everything. Which is to say, plainly speaking: I am abloom.

Anne Valente

Anne Valente is the author of two novels, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down and The Desert Sky Before Us (William Morrow/HarperCollins), and the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books). She lives in upstate New York where she teaches creative writing at Hamilton College.

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