Illustration by Galen Dara; Story and illustration originally published at Scape Magazine, January 2012
By Lauren Dixon
The umbilical cord, once detached from the mother’s body, is supposed to dry up and fall apart, the placenta should be expelled and everyone should be happy on account of detachment. But not my mom. When the time came, her placenta didn’t drop and instead of allowing the doctors to yank it out of her and so end my suffering, she declined. When she didn’t allow them to clamp or snip the cord, and it continued pulsing, delivering nutrients between us, she said it was meant to be, and the doctors clearly had no capacity for miracles. When the umbilical continued to thread us together for months and years after that, she treated it as necessary, not as an aberration but as a divine act. I, of course, got no say.
It’s the kind of night when the heat bleeds paint from the walls and sweat rains from the body in sheets that wakes me up from a trilogy of nightmares, each one successively worse. In the last one, a carcass of a dead javelina chased after me, its organs cascading from a hollow in its side. I wake, my heart a pendulum swaying me between hyperventilation and relief. Louise, my mother, snores, a buzzsaw of air ricocheting from her pillow. I try to roll over on my side, but my movement jerks her and she slaps out her hand, the death grip of sleep latching onto my shoulder and gluing me into my place. I freeze, melt into the bed, my eyes fixed on the spatters of plaster above me. In the dark, they resemble miniature stalactites, and I imagine myself in a cave of hell, my mother the devil and the muggy bayou heat her chosen flames of torture.
Over the years the cord has stretched from one foot to three feet and now it is five feet. It is silver, grey in some areas, and doesn’t shine like it once did. Because of the cord, mom works on medical transcription from home and I don’t get to go to regular school, but I wouldn’t want to anyway. My mom’s part of me, and that’s that. But it hurts sometimes, this attachment. When I’m sad, she knows it—her honeyed insides go coated with grey and mud, and then she can’t work or think straight. Same goes with me. She’ll try sending her honeyed glow to me, and sometimes my body catches the lilt of the color, the joy of being with her flowing out of my fingers. Together we are a prism, a shelter, gliding into and out of one another.
But sometimes I wish I had friends—ones who don’t know my thoughts, ones who will giggle with me as we stuff our bras and gossip about boys, the way they do on the TV. So at night, when mom sleeps, I think about stretching at our cord, to pull it apart, but in my mind, it always refuses and bounces back to its normal length. Sometimes I imagine hacking it apart, but I stop before I ever try. I think it would hurt. Maybe I wouldn’t be her daughter anymore. Maybe she wouldn’t be my mom.
Tonight when mom’s death grip loosens, I sit up and hold the shriveled cord in my hand, fingering the places where the veins sometimes still pulse, but Mom grunts in her sleep and rolls over, jerking me forward. Mom snores, a low snuffling grunt. I lie back down, my chest a pounding cave, sweat dripping from the cord and onto my stomach.
“I found my angel,” mom sleep talks.
It’s grocery day and mom and I walk. It’s a long walk, a mile down the road, gnats and mosquitoes buzzing at us the whole way. The protesters are out, lining the main street of town, stretching all the way to the entrance of the store. Mostly clean-cut women of all ages, the protesters are probably mild-mannered when they’re not picketing or throwing chicken eggs at people who leave with packages of Layla’s Litter, “delicacies” we will never, ever eat, according to mom. I get grossed out thinking about them, a flush of brown flame licking at my chest. Mom told me she had them once, over fourteen years ago, before I was born, and they’re really expensive and not worth the trouble, even if they can double someone’s life span. Plus, Layla’s Litter is just fancy talk to hide that they’re really super processed human eggs. They stack them in regular looking chicken eggshells, but what’s inside is this enlarged human egg — something like 1000 times its size. It’s not natural, mom says.
So when we walk past the protesters, mom smiles at them, and they hush as we walk past. A hush always falls as we walk past. In the produce aisle, we cruise for kumquats, cucumbers, zucchini. Mom picks up a ripe, round orange, cradles it in her palms, smiles, and glances at me. She puts it back but my gaze travels past her, to the produce boy, his hand on the water hose, letting loose a stream of water over the lettuce. His hair falls into his eyes, and he’s tall, in a gangly way. He looks like maybe a rock star or a guy you’d see in a movie, but never in the produce section of the local J&K. He has brown hair and glasses and on his shoes he’s scrawled in Magic Marker the name of a band I’ve never heard because mom won’t let me listen.
“Stop it, Addie,” she always says when I turn on the radio. “That hurts my head.”
I trace my finger along a row a plums, try to position myself so that if he glances over, he won’t see the rope that ties me to my mother. Not a chance. Mom stops between the aisles, tearing me from my hiding place, her voice a cackling boom over the muzak.
“Addie, do we need limes?” she asks. Produce boy looks up, his eyes drifting from my mother, to me, and finally to the cord. I cringe, brush my hair out from behind my ear, and nod, my head dipped low.
“Good,” she says. “They’re on sale.”
I know what he sees — a scrawny girl with no boobs and a shriveled grey cord that sticks through a hole in the middle of my dress and curves over to my mother and up between her legs like a snake embedded in her flesh. I know he sees all of us. I don’t look at him again.
“Sweetie, I don’t think you should be wearing that lipstick,” mom says when we sit down at the kitchen table for breakfast.
“I like it,” I say and shovel a spoonful of oatmeal into my mouth so I don’t have to say anything else. Smudges of crimson come off on the spoon. I feel her glow pushing itself into me, but I push back with a sick, grey lump. She unfolds the newspaper and buries her head for a moment before looking at me again. This time, she touches me on the wrist and tells me to look at her. For a second I do, then I go back to my oatmeal. I dribble a little on the cracked formica.
“It’s not like I don’t think you shouldn’t wear lipstick, honey, but that color isn’t appropriate.” Mom keeps her hand on my wrist, like I’ll try to run away or something. I swallow.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s bright. It’s not like I’m going outside or anything.” I push my bowl away and down my orange juice, swishing the acidy stuff around in my mouth.
“We’re having company, and really, it’d be better if you looked like normal. Take it off. Now.” Mom takes her hand away, props the newspaper back up and reads the headlines. One of them is about the egg trade, but mom usually says not to ask about it anymore, so I don’t.
When the company comes, they’re ladies from the protest lines, the ones who hold up signs that say “Not a Piece of Meat” and “My Uterus, My Eggs!” One of them looks like mom’s age, but the others, I doubt they even have uteruses, judging from their white hair and sour puss lips, and if they did, I don’t think normal people would want to eat their eggs. Since I’ve never had those kind of eggs, I guess I wouldn’t know. One of them carries a book, her hand so covered in rings that it is hard to make out the title. Still, they nod in deference to my mother, and I hang behind her, silent, digging my fingernails into my palms.
We don’t have visitors often, maybe once a year, and usually it’s Deenie, the town librarian, who is also mom’s cousin and a “pot stirrer,” according to mom. Deenie only comes for Thanksgiving, she always wears her hair in a long black braid, and tries to slip me books beneath the dinner table. While mom passes around green bean casserole, Deenie passes me Madeline L’Engle and Lewis Carroll and grins before spooning a gloppy mound of sweet potatoes into her mouth. When mom finds the books, which I slip in the pockets of my dress and then later beneath our bed mattress, she hides them away and tells me I can read them when it’s time, once I know better. So far, I don’t know better, even though mom’s supposed to be my teacher.
The protest ladies sit in a prim row by the kitchen table, sipping iced tea and casting glances at our yellowed refrigerator, the cracks in the table. One of them fiddles with a charm bracelet. Mom sits, her hands in her lap, a straight arrow in her seat. I sit in a chair with a textbook about American pioneers and try to ignore the visitors.
The lady with the charm bracelet leans across the table and beckons for mom’s hand. They come to the point.
“Mrs. Mitchell,” the lady says, and though mom tries to correct her, the woman speaks too quickly for mom to get the “Ms.” out. “You must’ve seen the dire straits we’re up against by now. Quite frankly, it’s a perfect shame that things are so out of hand that people think we’re the bad ones and all these egg eaters are some kind of eco-saints, or whatever the watch word is now.”
“Mary, I don’t think that’s what they’re calling them,” the younger woman pipes in, but Mary shushes her.
“I don’t care what they call them Rosalee, they’re perfect ruination. Look around. I’m old. Why do they keep trying to price me? Me. Rapture’s coming, I tell you. Egg eaters’ll be weeping in the streets when they see what the dear lord does to my body, I say.”
Mom butts in, a tiny smile on her face. “Ladies, I don’t know what you think I can do for you. Simply put, we stay out of it. It’s disgusting, but it’s her choice. Some women need the money—and who’s to say what people should or shouldn’t eat? I don’t want to get involved.”
“Women don’t need another reason to be ogled. You should at least see that,” Rosalee says.
Mary ignores her. “Who’s to say? Who’s to say? The Lord for one,” she says. “Look at you, sitting on your tush drinking tea in your dank little kitchen. Acting as if you don’t know what you did. That kind of escapism isn’t helping any of us, Mrs. Mitchell. Is that any way to raise your daughter? Away from the world like that? You should be proud you’re here to show them this is all wrong. We need you on the front lines.”
“You’re acting like this is some kind of war,” mom says, shaking her head, her fingers playing with the hem of her skirt. “My daughter and I don’t need the exposure.”
I want to lie down. The ladies continue bickering, but I don’t listen anymore. The smell of brewed tea and White Diamonds perfume dizzies me. It’s as bad as the thought of mom dragging me down the road, marching with these women and letting the world see us, locked together forever. I think of the produce boy bicycling to work and swerving when he sees the old ladies carrying mom and me on their shoulders and screaming things about God’s saviors. I bend forward in my chair and hold my head between my knees. Mom touches me on the back and the women fall quiet. She says she’ll talk to them about this another day, and they show themselves out. The honeyed glow sneaks into me before I’m aware of what mom’s doing.
“Finish your homework,” mom says.
Next week I’ll turn fourteen, and mom promises she’ll make me a cake. We’ll work together in the kitchen, like we always do, she says, only all I have to do is read to her. We’re sitting on the front porch stoop, iced tea in our hands, watching the gulls flap into the sunset.
“Not that weirdo stuff Deenie brings, but something nice, something down to earth,” mom says. “You can put on a performance for me.”
She hands me a book wrapped in tissue paper, an early birthday present. When I take it out, the cover shimmers in the sunlight, but when I read the title, it’s just another school book. Emily Post and something or other. I smooth the pages, breathe in the pulpy scent of crushed trees embossed with ink. Mom laughs and waves her hand at me.
“Do you like it? Your grandma got one for me when I was your age.” I’m too busy flipping through the pages to respond. All this stuff about first dates and sending thank you notes and getting a job. I close the book. Mom sees my expression, but shrugs and continues.
“After we make the cake, we can go out for pizza. What do you think? Stretchy cheese and birthday cake? Nothing but calories. I’ll even call Deenie if you want.” She smiles and smoothes my hair back behind my ear.
Pizza sounds good. I close my eyes and think about the stringy globs that hang from the slices and the noisy thrum of Pizza Palace, all those people, chewing and laughing and yelling. In my mind, Produce Boy sits at a table to the left of us, a pile of tomatoes and his water hose set on the checkered pattern tablecloth. When he picks up the water hose, I open my eyes.
“Can we order in instead?” I ask. Mom swills her tea in her glass and nods.
“If you’ll tell me what you want for your birthday, I’ll bet we can make it work, baby.” Her voice comes out dry and cracked.
“Let me think about it, mom,” I say, even though I know there’s no way we could.
When my birthday comes, there’s a problem. While chewing on breakfast, mom reading her newspaper and me reading my Emily Post book, we hear a thump against the front door. Both of us drag ourselves from the table and outside. On our porch step, another newspaper sits, only we don’t subscribe to this one—it’s an out of town paper I’ve never seen. I pick it up, but mom tells me to drop it.
“No way,” I say, and flick the rubberband that binds it at her when she tries to grab the paper. “It’s my birthday. It’s obviously a present.” Mom stops her hissy fit. When I spread open the front page, it’s the same old headlines about life in the big city—oil, war, eggs. I shrug, still keeping it in my hands, and we go back inside to finish breakfast. We let our cord drape over the kitchen table and I read as I spoon scrambled chicken eggs and french toast into my mouth, and Mom digs at her crispy french toast with a steak knife.
But something catches my eye when I page through the rest of the sections, and I let the paper fall to the table. A full-page advertisement, an anti-egg ad, boasts a picture of mom and me, our cord hanging just below our clasped hands. We are God’s wonders, the advertisement boasts, a signal of the coming days when God will judge all of those devouring the souls of the unborn. Mom and me. My throat closes and I can’t breathe and all I want to do is crawl beneath the table or in the closet or anywhere no one could find me, only I can’t because my mom would find me no matter where I go.
I grab the steak knife and stab it into the cord, jerking my mom forward. The knife bounces off and clatters to the floor, but not before I’ve carved partly through. My mom jerks up, howling, clutching at the cord. A pattern of red begins on her dress.
“Addie,” she whispers. “You can’t do that.” She slumps back into her chair, wincing. Neither of us look at the other for a long time. I cast my eyes down, back at the newspaper. So full of grey. I glance up and mom shakes her head.
“We’re not wonders,” she says. “I don’t think God knew what he was doing.”
I say I’m sorry but it doesn’t erase the newspaper. It doesn’t erase her hand still clenching around the cord, hues of red filtering in and out of our bodies as she bleeds.
I call Deenie because I don’t know who else to call. I curl my fingers around the phone cord, stretching it until the curls lose their elasticity. Deenie says she’ll be right over. I watch my mother, her breath slow, and wish she’d push her light into me. All I can give is grey, so I hold back, waiting while she presses a towel against her body, at our physical connection.
“It’s all right, honey,” she says, but my stomach turns. I want to throw up—there’s too much blood, a spiral I imagine stretching out toward me. I swallow, mouth thick with acid. Then Deenie sweeps in through the front door, her braid swinging back and forth.
“Dear God,” Deenie says. “Let’s get going.” She grabs mom by the arm and tries to help her up, but mom can barely stand. Together we balance her fragile frame between us, the cord limp, fibers raveling from it. I try not to look at the threads hanging between my mother and I, but can’t look away. I don’t feel honey or red or grey or even brown. A void of color swirls between the two of us, its grip smothering. By the time Deenie gets us to the car, I throw up on the black earth. Mom’s too bad off to help me and some of it gets tangled in my hair. I do this the whole way to the doctor, the metallic tinge of blood on the air never allowing me relief. Exhaustion slips in as we near the hospital, and somehow I pass out.
I wake up lying on a hospital bed, across from mom. I don’t feel her pushing at me, I don’t feel her warm glow washing over. A white coat hovers over her, and when the doctor stands up, I see creases and frown lines etched into his face. Mom is asleep, her face expressionless. He whisks past me before I can ask how she is. Around me, machines beep, slow, steady. I try to sit up but find I can’t. My stomach sloshes with something and I look down to see it bloated with a crimson red and rising ever higher.
Deenie comes in and stands beside me, her lips trembling a little. She caresses my hair.
“It’s going to be all right, Addie. It’ll be all right.” She takes my hand and sits in a chair between me and mom. I want to ask what’s happening, but can’t find the words. All I see is the bubble of my stomach, like it wants to float away, carrying me into the air.
Deenie pulls a book out of her purse and tells me she’ll read to me. She starts reading a story about children who disappear into another world, but then stops herself.
“Maybe I’ll go find you a magazine,” she says and leaves the room. I lie in the bed and watch mom, her chest rising and falling. Steady beats. I count them, and am still counting when the doctor comes back in and instructs a nurse to hook me to an IV. He smiles at me, though his frown lines win and make him look like an ugly clown, and tells me they’re taking us to surgery.
I try to tell him not to tear us apart, that he’ll kill her. Her skin looks like it’s turning to ash, like one poke will make the rest of her dissolve. As they wheel us through the halls, flashes of light sparkle on her grey skin. Somehow, mom turns her head and a familiar wave floods into me. She smiles a weak smile. I try to return it, but my stomach twists and then it’s too late to do anything—we go through the doors and they start to take us apart, in whatever way they can.
They can’t cut through, no matter how hard they try. I feel my mother’s blood pumping into me, too much. It doesn’t belong on this side. The scalpels, knives, scissors clink against our cord, sparks flying with each attempt. But Mom is out—me, I’m struggling, trying to keep watch. They put something in my IV, but so far it doesn’t work, and I can be her guardian. I use her blood to stay awake, to keep her safe, to keep us alive. My heart beats. Her heart beats. When I hear the doctor say he’s going to open her up, I send a wave over to her, and by the rise of her chest, I know she receives it. When I hear him bark at the nurse to pull out her uterus, I give mom one last, lingering pulse of amber, crimson, and marigold, just to tell her that I love her.
When he wrenches out her uterus, slicing through the place where we join, mom slips away and our paths disconnect completely. But she hangs on, and moments stretch, the seconds are feathers fluttering to the ground. Beads of scarlet spatter from the table, dribbling to the ground, and a hush falls over the room. When they start working on me, mom’s eyes close. They don’t re-open.
When I leave the hospital, my belly bandaged and sore, they give me a box. The doctor pauses as he hands this box to me, glances at Deenie, who stands behind my wheelchair, and then leans forward. In the box is our cord, and a smaller container of glass slides.
“You might not want them, but the eggs are your mothers, and now they’re yours,” he says, nodding to the slides, then sticks his hands in his pockets and backs away. I wish the slides were warm, like my mom, but they’re just bits of her, barely there bits of amber. I close the box and Deenie takes me home.
That night, I sit at the dinner table, dragging my spoon through my mashed potatoes. Deenie doesn’t ask me if I want to eat, but pats me on the knee instead. She smiles and gives me a book, this one about a boy who can use magic, but it scares me, and I close it. I hold the box with the cord in my lap, and when Deenie gathers our plates and takes them to the sink, I open it. I touch the cord, but can’t stop staring at the slides. Balancing them on my fingers, I take the slides out. Together, my mom’s eggs form a dollop the size of a dime. They glint in the kitchen light, and without thinking about it, I pick them up and drop them into my mouth, swallowing hard.
In my dream that night, I hook my arm around my mother’s, the sunlight in our hair. As we walk toward the grocery store, I see the protesters, lined up all over again. One of the ladies who visited us pumps her hand in the air, waving a Bible at us. She screams “abomination” when she sees me, untethered. I touch my hand to my stomach, the scar still red and raw. But mom takes me, wraps her other arm around my back and together, we stroll into the store. As the automatic doors glide open, the cold, recycled air whooshes over me. I stand at the entrance, overwhelmed by the people shoving baskets down the aisles. But mom nods at me, gives me the list, and we separate, my hair still standing on end. She heads toward the dry goods, me toward the produce. And when I see the produce boy stocking tomatoes, I blush and rub the goosebumps away, honey dancing beneath my skin.