“The sun and the moon could have been fighting.” Doña Luz pursed her lips in concern.
I breathed out, grateful she blamed heavenly bodies.
“An eclipse, Laurita. Without you even knowing!”
I nodded. For a moment I let myself indulge in believing this. “I’ll check my calendar. See if it happened on an eclipse.”
A woman in a blue flowered apron and long braid walked down the dark corridor of the market toward us. Doña Luz lifted herself carefully up from the chair and hugged the woman, who then turned to greet me, excused herself for interrupting, and said she needed a pot.
Doña Luz burrowed her head into a pile of precariously balanced breakables and emerged
moments later with a large aluminum pot. Her tiny market stall overflowed with woven tortilla baskets, wooden spoons, chocolate stirrers, clay dishes, metal cookware. It was a
comfortable place, like an attic converted into a cozy living room and plunked down in the
corner of a market. Years earlier, when I’d lived here in Huajuapan teaching English and doing research on childbirth practices, she’d treated me as a granddaughter. Whenever I’d needed a grandma she’d given me big hugs, and this visit—my winter vacation—was no exception.
While the women examined the pot, knocking on it and cocking their heads to judge the echo, I sat on the doll-sized guest chair and thought about the sun and the moon fighting. It didn’t surprise me that Doña Luz had shaken her head and clucked at a half-hearted explanation involving random microscopic causes. Wandering outside during an eclipse seemed much more likely to her. Menstrual cycles do correspond to lunar cycles. I liked this explanation, so poetic and mythical, with forces astronomical and ancient affecting my body.
Back home in Colorado everyone—the midwife, my mother, my women friends— had assured me it was a random event. “One in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage,” they chimed. “Lots of women don’t even realize they’re pregnant, just think it’s just a heavy period.” No one, I thought bitterly, no one could mistake the fist-sized thing that slid out of me as a heavy period. Statistics couldn’t make it less real; they couldn’t absolve me.
After the customer left toting the giant pot, Doña Luz settled down across from me in her
chair, smoothing her apron over her knees. “Or, Laurita, maybe it was a cold wind that struck you.”
I felt glad her mind was still acute enough to pick up the conversation exactly where we’d left off. Since my brief visit the prior year, she’d become thirty pounds skinnier, her hollowed cheeks and thin voice betraying a severe bout of anemia and stomach infections.
I nodded. Her furrowed eyes sifted through seventy years of life experience.
“Or”– and here she grew excited– “you could have passed by a heavy place, where an evil wind struck you. You travel so much you might not even know which places are heavy!”
For five months—since August– I’d tiptoed around some explanations, one in particular, and tried unsuccessfully to embrace others. My fear now was that my pregnancy had been a fluke, a one-time shot and I’d blown it. I blinked back tears. “So what should I do?”
“Prepare your body, my daughter! Do a limpia with herbs. Put the heat back in your womb.
Wear a red strip of cloth around your belly. And don’t leave the house on an eclipse!”
The first woman who ever talked with me about her miscarriage was in the same rural Mexican town, about five years earlier. At that time, sex was all about not getting pregnant. I wasn’t sympathetic. I thought of her fetus as an it. She was a custodial worker at the university. She had taken a series of herbal steam baths with an old woman up the road. “To bring the
heat back to my body,” she told me. “After I lost the baby, my womb was left cold.” I took a
steam bath with the old woman, not out of a concern for fertility, but curiosity, and to relax
Two years later, during my Masters research, women ages seventeen to ninety-six told me
how after giving birth, they’d entrusted their raw, vulnerable bodies to the older señoras who “cooked” them with steam and herbs. The consequences of failing to restore heat were disastrous: headaches, teeth falling out, chronic stomach pains, bloated bellies. One middle-aged woman told me with regret that a cold wind had penetrated her back while she was pregnant and stayed there, throbbing to this day. Another woman attributed her neighbor’s infertility to injections with cold needles and sitting on chilly ground. Although I dutifully recorded their experiences, I didn’t understand that one’s body could become a cold, inhospitable, unwelcoming place.
My miscarriage had a ridiculous soundtrack: bluegrass. Knee-slappin’, yee-hawin’, chicken
dancin’ blue grass. Last July my old freshman roommate Mara was in town. For months she’d been planning this trip from her flat swampy New Orleans home to the Rockies. She’d hiked here with other friends from our college days and wanted a nostalgic re-play of her earlier visit. For Mara, the mountains were pathways to heaven, metaphors for life and love. Months before her trip, she called me to make eager plans, her Southern twang bursting with squeals and sighs. She sent me daily e-mails confirming the three bluegrass festivals we’d go to, the rivers we’d raft, the mountains we’d climb. In July I hesitantly e-mailed her that I was pregnant, hoping she wouldn’t feel disappointed doing less strenuous versions of our original plans.
I was eight weeks pregnant at the first festival. I had never listened to bluegrass much
before, but associated it with happy outdoor things, mountains and sunshine. My husband,
Ian, Mara, and I sat in lawn chairs in a shallow stream and watched people wading through the sparkling water: pregnant hippie women in halter tops, mothers with Mayan slings toting rosy-cheeked tow-head angels, naked toddlers building sand castles. Mara and Ian tapped their feet and sipped their microbrews and I dutifully ate my high-protein peanut butter-apple snack and wished my stomach were round and full enough to smooth my hands nonchalantly over its taut skin. By October, I would look like that.
I counted months constantly, estimating the stages of the warm dark world inside of me,
moving my fingers in their secret patterns. When would the queasiness end? I’d ask myself. When would the delivery happen? When would the baby’s ears be fully formed? When would she transform herself from what my pregnancy book called a “miniature seahorse” into the promised big-headed baby?
As freshman roommates ten years earlier, Mara and I would stay up late in our narrow beds, talking tirelessly, examining our romantic flings from every possible angle. On her most recent visit, I’d listened to her boyfriend problems with detachment. Birth had become the center of human experience. Across the cultures I’d studied, motherhood bonded women together, sometimes transforming them into goddesses, saints, heroines. After years of living with Mixtec families, where women my age—twenty-nine— already had four or five children, my childless state felt unnatural. On our most recent visit to Mexico, at least a dozen times daily someone asked Ian and me when we would have our own children. “Mira, Laurita! Look at your husband!” my pregnant friend whispered as we watched Ian spinning her nephew in circles, making airplane noises. “You can tell he wants a baby!” For years I’d had the visceral urge to hold a small soft creature at my suddenly useful breast. That summer— the start of the limbo between my Masters and Ph.D. fieldwork—seemed the perfect time to begin.
Mara’s idea was to use the hike up the fourteen thousand foot mountain as a healing ritual to spiritually recover from a recent failed love relationship. The midwife had given me standard advice: “If it’s a sport you did before the pregnancy, it should be fine to continue through the first few months. Just stay hydrated.” If I had asked Doña Luz, she would have said, “Ayy, my little daughter! No! No! What about the cold wind on the mountain top?”
I’d gone hiking at high altitudes before the pregnancy, but only once a month and my legs would always ache for days, even after many Advil and hot baths. My pregnant body didn’t want to hike, but this was Mara’s long-awaited visit, and I was determined not to let my paranoia mess it up.
On the hike, Mara brought along a blue-purple kite to fly at the summit to symbolize her freedom from the ex-boyfriend. The first mile and a half was a forty-five degree incline upward, no zigzagging, just straight up. She talked about her relationship issues, and I made comments here and there. My mouth felt parched, not just from the dry air, but from anxiety. Was I overdoing it? I’d read that as long as you can hold a conversation while walking you’re alright. So I kept walking and sipping water and asking Mara questions periodically to see if I could still talk. After a half hour of hiking up the incline in open
sunshine, we entered shady woods. At that moment, with the step into the shadows, my lower belly tightened sharply. The squeezing sensation made it hard to stand up straight.
“I need to stop a minute,” I whispered. Calm down calm down, I told myself. Mara showed concern and kindness but not alarm; I suspected that since I wasn’t showing, she didn’t really think of me as pregnant. We sat on a log and I sipped water. After ten minutes the pain subsided a little, and I decided to walk it off—what else could I do? Women’s bodies were designed for carrying babies, I assured Mara; a few small cramps here and there were probably normal. We hiked for another hour or two, more slowly now, and she talked more about her ex-boyfriend while my mouth grew drier. Near the top, the pines ended and the land opened up, treeless now. Rocks and tiny shrubs and mosses huddled close to the ground. A lunar landscape. The wind whipped at us, blew the hats off our heads, knocked over the water bottle I’d placed on the rocks. I lay down and pressed myself against a flat boulder, trying to escape the wind. The blue-purple kite darted around the sky, and Mara played and danced, enraptured, free of the seedy boyfriend. I put my cold hand on my flat belly under the flimsy nylon jacket. The wind howled, a lonely moaning wind you might hear in movies set in post-apocalyptic worlds, devoid of life except for a few hardy primordial mosses.
This was the howl of the fetal heart monitor as the midwife moved it over my belly several days later, looking for a heartbeat. She systematically glided the metal instrument over the skin between my jutting hip bones, and listened to the sounds of my belly magnified. “The wind sound,” she murmured, “is your blood flowing.” For a long long time she searched, pausing every once in a while, trying to tell if a sound was static or a heartbeat. Her head tilted sideways, her ears alert as a dog’s. I closed my eyes and focused on taking one breath after another and not letting the tears well up over the sides of my eyes.
A few days later an ultrasound confirmed it. The fetal sac had already begun to shrink, to reabsorb into my body. Now it was only the size of a five week sac. The midwife hugged me. “This just means your body is functioning correctly, Laura. It recognized that something wasn’t perfect, so it ended the pregnancy.”
These assurances of randomness seemed like a well-meaning plot to absolve me of blame. Explanations involving the sun and moon and wind seemed more believable than the idea of miniscule chromosomes splitting awry. Yet the explanation I really believed, which I was terrified to admit, was the hike up the mountain.
The second bluegrass festival was a few days after the hike. Mara had spent the night at another friend’ s house, so Ian and I drove to the festival to meet her there. I cried the whole way, although at this time I hadn’t had the ultrasound yet. Still, I knew. My breasts no longer hurt; in fact, they seemed to have shrunk. They looked like little girls’ breasts compared to their earlier round moon swell. No longer did I feel lazy and queasy in the afternoons; no longer did Indian spices turn my stomach. Reclined in the passenger seat, I hit my breasts, trying to make them sore again. And yes, I did feel nauseated, but that was probably from the twisting mountain roads.
It rained most of the festival. We sat on the blanket, soaked and cold and shivering. I stole glances at a toddler with white-blond curls and a purple corduroy dress who clapped her hands and danced, catching raindrops with her tongue. For the first time I understood the rural Mexican idea of giving a child “evil eye”—an affliction inadvertently imposed by an adult who gazes at a child or a baby with too great a longing. No one noticed my struggle not to look at the girl. Ian kept his arm around me, comforting me, although he still didn’t think our baby was dead. Even after the test results confirmed my miscarriage, he didn’t cry, because for him the baby was just a miniature seahorse, a little tadpole creature that didn’t have ears yet.
By the third bluegrass concert the following night, I’d made the ultrasound appointment and resigned myself to waiting. A pool of sadness settled quietly in my belly. I hadn’t told Mara about my fears—it might have ruined her vacation. She chicken-danced and flapped her elbows and bounced up and down. I wondered how many other people there felt a settled sadness, for one reason or another, and what they thought of these people flailing their limbs around.
Almost two weeks later I was sitting on a kitchen chair, watching Ian fry onions when, after hours of especially persistent cramps, something slid out of me. “It came out,” I told him. I didn’t move, afraid to look. Would it have recognizable body parts? Images from sci-fi movies swarmed in my head—slimy alien creatures emerging from women’s bodies. I could almost hear the X-Files soundtrack playing. In a daze, I stood up, light-headed from the smoking oil, four Advil, and blurred days of dull pain on the sofa. As I waddled to the bathroom, the thing weighed down my underwear. I sat on the toilet, took a deep breath, and looked.
In no way did it look like a baby, or even a miniature seahorse. It had more in common with an organ—a kidney or liver. I called Ian into the bathroom. Our horror morphed into curiosity as we examined it, speculating on its various textures. Was this part the placenta? Was there any remnant of a fetal sac?
I carefully filled a mason jar with rubbing alcohol and dropped the thing in, as the midwife had instructed. I tucked the jar into a brown lunch bag. Several days later, the midwife translated the lab report. It had been a cluster of vessels and tissue from the uterine wall—the baby’s future feeding apparatus, now rendered useless.
Doña Luz’s name means “light” and she is light in the lives of everyone she talks to. Her eyes are crinkly and warm and grandmotherly even after her sickness. In my interviews several years ago, I found out that when she was about thirteen a man in her town raped her, and when her father found out he went to the man’s parents and made them force him to marry her. The man got her pregnant, brought her far away to Mexico City and abandoned her. She gave birth to the baby—her only son—and sold cigarettes and candy on the street with him strapped to her back. They eventually made it back to her home town, and over the years her sorrow transformed into warm wisdom.
At one of my follow-up blood tests the midwife told me, “Now you’ll find you belong to a group of women who have experienced this kind of sadness. You’ll find you can connect with them and understand them.”
I don’t know if I’ve gained any of Doña Luz’s kind wisdom, but I do think I can connect more with other women who have had losses. I’ve always thought of my baby as her, even though later, a well-meaning doctor friend told me my baby had been a soul-less it. I can concede that the tissue that came out over a week after she died was an it. But the baby had reabsorbed into my body. I’ve heard that other women, too, find comfort in this. A woman I work with told me she was going to plant a tree in honor of her own lost baby. Wind chimes outside my living room window are a memorial to mine.
I continue taking my twenty-six dollar a bottle prenatal vitamins. It’s been nine months since the conception, seven since the miscarriage. My fingers continue to move in their special secret pattern. I count months off silently—in line at the store when I see a mothering magazine or on the sidewalk passing a pregnant woman. I tap out the months on the tables at restaurants when I eye a newborn in a blanket and then look superstitiously away. Right now I would be waddling along with my hands on my
belly, feeling kicks and hiccups.
I didn’t tell Doña Luz about climbing the mountain in the cold wind. I let her think I accidentally passed a heavy place or innocently got caught in a fight between the sun and the moon. That day at the market two months ago, she gave me a big hug and sent me off with a gift—a beautiful lopsided clay incense burner. Back at home in Colorado, a week later, I gave my apartment and body a limpia—spiritual cleaning– with sweet copal smoke. I sweat in saunas and visualized the heat and steam warming up my womb. And finally, yesterday, I checked my calendar for eclipses. There was one, about a week after the
After seeing again, this month, the heart-sinking blood stain, I’ve decided that tomorrow I will buy a strip of red silk to tie around my hips, as Doña Luz recommended. Meanwhile, I imagine life and light inside me, heat, a comfortable warm place where a baby will want to live for nine months. Welcome, welcome, welcome, I tell her. Maybe this November she will be born. I count off on my fingers and avoid eclipses.
Laura Resau‘s first novel, entitled What the Moon Saw, is scheduled to be published in Fall 2006 by Delacorte Press. Her essays and stories for young people and adults have appeared or are forthcoming in magazines including Brain,Child, Cicada, Cricket, Skipping Stones, and Matter, as well as anthologies published by Lonely Planet and Travelers’ Tales. She teaches English as a Second Language and Anthropology at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colorado.
This piece was previously published in Brain,Child magazine.