Haruspex | Rebecca May Johnson | Granta


Rebecca May Johnson

‘I am not a haruspex,’ I said to my therapist.

I said it as if I were rolling my eyes, like you know, I’m just not a haruspex, as if she would nod along. Instead, she asked me what the word meant. It was a person in ancient Rome, I said, who divined the future by looking at animal entrails, a soothsayer, or a seer.

After explaining the term I got the sense that my comment had shocked the therapist. I had been telling her about my new situation and how it had developed over the past few weeks. It was a lot to take in: first, the news, and second, how I was reacting to it, talking about haruspicy. She looked at me silently from the laptop screen and I felt all too visible. Maybe I was also shocked, hearing my voice describe what had exited my body as entrails, but the word felt appropriate. Had I not been to the bathroom in the dead of night to inspect them?

Cicero describes how haruspices were summoned to Rome to produce prophecies about issues such as the outcome of war, sickness, or the fertility of crops by examining the entrails of recently deceased animals. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Dido performs haruspicy, wishing to see a hopeful future with her lover Aeneas –

Dido in all her beauty . . . would stare into their breathing entrails to read the signs
(Virgil, Aeneid, trans. West)

The entrails of Dido’s victim still breathe: still warm then and still wet. It’s the state of being on the cusp of life and death that makes this distinct kind of looking possible: inspecting one thing to see another. I remember looking in this way, late at night, after a stirring in my guts told me something might happen.

I consulted an official source on how to conduct a reading, but it says bleeding is common, especially in the first twelve weeks, and does not always mean there is a problem . . . but it can be a dangerous sign. The same sign signals both safety and danger – the advice on how to read was ambiguous but I kept looking anyway.

Though I said, ‘I am not a haruspex’, what I meant was, ‘I am trying to become one.’



entrails entrails entrails


When the blood arrived it was b­­­right red and the sight of it startled me. After some deliberation, unsure what to make of the advice given by the NHS, I phoned the midwife. She told me to rest and even to cancel my lecture at the university, which surprised me, and I decided to ignore her.

I remembered ruefully a few years before when I taught a class after vomiting on the street. I carried on because if I did not go, I would not have been paid and I had spent a lot on my train fare.

I did try to rest a little after delivering my lecture. I watched a mindless TV show and fast-forwarded through any moments that might cause me anxiety.

There was nothing to inspect for a week or so, but the first experience had made a reader out of me. Ten days later there was more to look at:


dark red, old blood, oxidised in what seems like small amounts (although I was uncertain what constituted a large amount) for several days

clots, dark and small quantities (?)

dark, stringy tissue

a few days later

specks of bright red fresh blood, alternating with darker blood


The bathroom became a divining chamber. I decided that brighter red meant bad fortune and darker red meant better fortune. Each time I conducted an inspection, I observed the colour and assigned it a meaning. My process began to feel official, reliable even. I honed my haruspicy then washed my hands with French, fig-scented soap.

In a grimly comic moment one afternoon when I stood up after taking a piss there was something in the water of the toilet bowl. I hadn’t felt anything depart from me, however I considered it might be a miscarriage. Struck by a confused terror, I half-looked, but then flushed, so that I could look no more. I reflected on the sensation of pissing and could not discern that anything additional had taken place. I left the bathroom and told S who said he had gone to the bathroom not long before and maybe the toilet had not fully flushed. We debated. It was funny, too: mistaking a shit for a miscarriage. And why not? It was in the bowl of the lavatory.



Still, writing down these moments makes me tense – breathing stops, muscles tightening around my chest ­– and a little nauseous.



A few weeks later, my abdominal cramps became worse and there was a similar amount of blood to when I had phoned the midwife before. I texted her this time. She said, ‘it can be normal, but I understand your anxiety, I can try and arrange a scan’. I almost didn’t text back, thinking that blood is normal and blood can be a sign of danger. But the offer of a scan was new, so I agreed. She was able to arrange one for 10 a.m. the next morning. I was surprised by the efficiency.

We went in. I drove the car, thinking that I prefer it when I drive. But five minutes after setting off, I had sudden and terrible pain in my back, and I realised I could not drive as I sped along the A road. After what seemed like a long time, I saw a dirt track, turned off the main road and with great difficulty, got out of the car and climbed into the passenger seat. I adjusted the chair so I could lie almost horizontally, which seemed to ease the pain slightly. I moaned when the pain grew more intense, while S drove.

I paid for the hospital parking on an app on my phone. Something I could do while lying flat in the car. I was anxious that after the detour on the dirt track and stopping to change seats we would be late and I would miss this opportunity to see what was happening. After several weeks of interpreting specks of blood and tissue and talking about haruspicy and finding no answer, I hoped for clarity of vision on a screen, a prediction, even. As we drove, I looked for paracetamol in my bag. I found some and swallowed the tablets.

We parked a few hundred metres away from the hospital (the spaces close to the entrance were occupied) and walked across the landscaped area in front of the building. There was a footbridge over a pond with ducks, and a Christmas scene with polar bears and a sleigh on the muddy grass. There were people standing outside in the cold smoking and a group carrying Christmas presents for those inside. We took face masks from a dispenser in the foyer and a pump of hand sanitiser and carried on into the hospital, past a newsagent, the accident and emergency department, a brightly lit clothes shop with festive outfits on display. Only a few days until Christmas.

We walked past cleaning staff in loose pastel-coloured clothing, moving trolleys with equipment and bedsheets, and past abandoned trolleys in corridors. Other staff were moving patients in wheelchairs and or were just walking down corridors looking busy or tired. A group of paramedics in deep forest green uniforms were having a snack. The amount of work required to keep a hospital going seemed incomprehensible.

As we approached the ward, people with large bumps walked in the opposite direction, moving away from the antenatal clinic, accompanied by partners or friends holding branded folders containing their medical information. I had one like it which I should have brought but forgot. I had been turned off carrying it by the fact that despite receiving it from an NHS nurse, the plastic folder containing all the information about my appointments had been funded by private companies advertising their services on the exterior: services, products and apps with infantilising brand names associated with becoming a parent.

At some point the signposts for the ward we had been sent to disappeared and feeling panicked, I asked a member of staff where to go. He sent us to the wrong floor, or because we were feeling panicked, we went to the wrong floor, or perhaps we misheard. We rushed up several flights of stairs and then down some more stairs. I became agitated and hostile and sped ahead of S. There was a dropped medical glove on a step which made me think of haste, a lack of cleanliness, an emergency.

To enter the ward where the scan would take place I had to press a buzzer and wait for someone to answer and let me in. Initially I did not realise this and tried to open the door, which was locked. A flutter of panic. Then I pressed the buzzer and for several seconds heard nothing and worried I would miss the appointment. Eventually, a voice came and opened the door. I walked past a trolley with meals beneath clear plastic cloches. There was a sign on the door that in this ward there were ‘guaranteed meals’.

The nurses on reception handed me a form and sent me to the waiting room. At first, I only filled out half the form and handed it back to reception because I did not see the second set of questions underneath. They called out my name and handed my form back to me and sent me back to the waiting room to fill out the rest of the form. I did so, then went back to reception and handed it in again, correctly this time. While we waited, we looked at recipes in old magazines and assessed whether we would cook them. This felt like a safer and more pleasurable form of divination. Based on our reading of the text and the images, would they be delicious? Or disgusting? Eventually my name was called for the appointment.

There were three women in the room. A consultant, a nurse operating the scanning technology at the computer and recording details, and a trainee doctor. I made a comment about being told a in previous appointment to ‘cover my modesty’ – no that came later.

First, the consultant warned me that I might ‘find something out’ during the scan.

They did an ultrasound which did not require me to undress. The cold gel and a device held to my abdomen. I could not see the screen they were looking at. The doctor read out numbers that I could not interpret to the nurse working at the computer. The pregnancy sac (sack? – it was the first time I had heard that term said aloud) measured small but was in the right place. It was roughly the size for six weeks not nine weeks. I wondered if I had calculated the date correctly – they had to go from what I told them. When she was telling me about the size of the sac (sack?) the consultant said in an affectionate and mildly scolding tone, that sometimes pregnancies develop in unpredictable ways. The ultrasound provided an image of something that could be measured, but the doctors could not determine a future from the screen.

The consultant decided to do a pelvic scan to try and see more. That was the moment when I recalled being alone with two the male doctors, one of whom told me to cover my modesty – it was the previous time I had undergone a pelvic scan, which did require me to remove most of my clothes.


I was seen by the doctors fifteen years before. I went to the hospital alone and was very nervous. I had never had a pelvic scan. I did not understand their instructions about the modesty sheet, an item I had not encountered. In addition, it was never clear when the doctors were addressing me and not just each other – they acted as if I were not present and so I could not hear. I stepped out from behind the curtain slowly, embarrassed, my arms wrapped around myself and the white-haired man said, loudly this time, ‘cover your modesty girl!’

After the scan they said, with little explanation or information, that I had polycystic ovaries on one side, and made vague comments about future fertility. The comments have occasionally returned to me in the years since, along with the memory their disinterest when I tried to tell them about some other pain I had been experiencing.


In response to my story, the trainee doctor said: it’s not called a ‘modesty sheet’ anymore, but a ‘dignity sheet’. Then the consultant took out the pelvic scanner, ­which is a large white dildo-like device with a camera on the end. I tried to relax as she inserted it and looked for the ovaries which were not immediately visible. She joked that sometimes they ‘hide’ behind the bladder. Even while present ovaries are not always visible, even with the high-tech, highly invasive pelvic scanner. After a few moments imagining ovaries playing hide and seek and fleetingly recalling Denis Diderot’s eighteenth-century writing on ‘wandering wombs’ that I had laughed at as an undergraduate, the consultant found the ovaries with the scanner and said that they looked fine, in good order.

The three women spoke to me in a friendly way without excessive sentiment and made some appropriate jokes which felt expressive of the shift of terminology from ‘modesty’ to ‘dignity’. I was not made to feel unintelligent or irrelevant to the process taking place.

When I told the consultant about the diagnosis made by the doctors fifteen years before she said that sometimes it can look as if there are cysts on ovaries at certain times in the month, or if you are taking a contraceptive pill – but that it does not mean those cysts are permanent, or that you have the syndrome associated with having cysts. Cysts can be the temporary effect of medication; like ovaries, they can appear and disappear as signs, defying easy – or permanent – diagnosis.

I had not previously been informed of this qualifying information. Before, the doctors had been cold, distant and imprecise. They provided so little information as to produce a half-truth that – it now seemed – had perhaps been only partially true. I could not see inside as they could. I did not have access to the invasive camera. I only knew what they had said. I might have lived a different life if I had acted on their decisive-sounding-but-faulty omen.

The consultant booked me in for another scan a week later to check growth in case the pregnancy had an unusual timeline. She could not interpret the measurements or the scans conclusively, though there were indications it could be a miscarriage. Even medicalised haruspicy with two forms of scanning equipment and three medical staff produced only a vague prophecy.

S and I drove home.

During the afternoon and into the evening I lay in bed dozing and watching TV while the bleeding and pain increased. After some deliberation I rang the ward. When I told the nurse that I had taken ibuprofen for the pain, she told me in an agitated tone that I should not have taken it, pregnant people should never take it. She sounded angry. This made me panic. No one had told me this before, I said. But she said she would write my name on the board in the ward and that I should come in; she allowed me to come, despite my mistake. After I hung up, I adopted her tone with S and said repeatedly, I knew I shouldn’t have taken ibuprofen, I knew I should have taken paracetamol. I knew it, I knew it. I was angry, accusing. This was the first time I had taken this painkiller so far during the pregnancy. How did I know it? Had someone told me? I could not remember an occasion when they had. I felt S should have found me paracetamol but could not explain why I thought it was important.

Then I realised I had taken on the nurse’s panic, that the bleeding and the pain had preceded my taking a painkiller, and that it likely did not matter by now.

When it was time to drive back to the hospital it was dusk and a dense, low fog had settled. It was not possible to see more than a few metres in front of the car. I did not attempt to drive this time. The sky-high cranes in the port where we live had disappeared. The fog was expressive of my situation: the need to see, the impossibility of seeing, the difficulty of interpreting what could be seen when it appeared on scanning equipment. I became a poor haruspex, a reader of weather to try and see inside myself. On the road it was perilous, we could not see what was coming and it did not feel good. S had to drive very slowly and carefully, despite the apparent urgency of the situation. I hated that I could not drive.

This time I was more relaxed about paying for the parking on the app and I waited until we’d arrived. When we walked past the festive display outside the hospital, the pond was shrouded in fog and Christmas lights twinkled in the dark. It was night time. The passage through the building was familiar now.

In the waiting room a nurse arrived with a mobile measuring station on wheels and wordlessly took my temperature and blood pressure. She wheeled her equipment out of the room again. A different, younger, very friendly doctor talked to me in a consultation room. Gave me a new dignity sheet and then, before conducting the examination using a another, different examination method, had to leave to see an emergency. I waited a very long time, several hours lying on my side on the examination table, pants down. S and I chatted while we waited. Made jokes, talked about books we liked reading and what we wanted to write. He told me that he liked hanging out with me with my pants off. We had a good time in there.

The exam took place around midnight. She used a speculum, which was less painful than I had previously experienced, or maybe it was relative. When she looked, she couldn’t see much. She said it seemed likely that a miscarriage was taking place given the symptoms I had reported, though despite adding a third form of examination to the two that had been used earlier in the day, the doctor could not say conclusively what was taking place. Indeterminacy lingered.

She advised me to keep my scan appointment in a week’s time, so if the likely scenario of a miscarriage did take place, it would be possible to make sure that the body had disposed of the tissue properly. If not, they would need to intervene with drugs, or surgically. Then our discussion expanded to more general terms; the doctor told me it’s a one in three chance of miscarrying at this stage, correcting me when I had quoted one in four or maybe five. She was chatty and jolly and it made us chatty and jolly.

I forgot to note before: when I first arrived for the evening appointment before having my blood pressure taken another nurse spoke to me and when she asked me to describe what was happening I began to cry. She rubbed my arm and said, ‘bless you,’which made me cry more. I said, ‘Oh no, don’t be nice to me or I’ll cry.’

I said to the doctor, as if joking, ‘earlier someone made the mistake of being nice to me and then I cried’. After the rational and jovial tone I had been using with her, I felt I should offer reassurance that I did have feelings. ‘They catch me off guard,’ I said, so she did not think I was an unemotional monster.

I was reminded of the conversation with my therapist a few weeks before when I had spoken about haruspicy. It had also seemed necessary to say then, ‘I do have feelings, you see.’ She said, ‘of course.’

It was 1 a.m. by the time the appointment with the doctor ended. We left with a codeine prescription and drove to the McDonald’s off the main road and had a coke, cheeseburgers and chips, which were mercifully very hot. We ate and drank in the carpark and felt a little merry again – high on adrenaline from talking to the doctor, emerging from a crisis with renewed morale shaped by the collective effort of survival – or maybe just hysteria.

Overnight terrible pain grew and continued, defying the initial low dose of codeine. I had to take more.

Then, at 3.30 a.m., in a quiet spell, the pregnancy sac (sack?) left my body. It seemed smooth, roundish, and what might correlate to the word. It simply slipped out, a novel feeling. Finally, something I could interpret. Looking at it, a shift in mood came – the initial hush of an ending. I paused for a moment, and then flushed. There were more days of pain after that, some so intense I moaned, but gradually the sensation became more intermittent. There was also constipation from codeine, and I took laxatives before going to bed at night so I could shit in the morning – the work of noticing what my body produced continued.



A week later, after a quieter Christmas than usual, I returned to the hospital. The festive crescendo of the season had passed. The corridors were calmer and our movement through them was unhurried, as if routine. When I saw the words ‘early pregnancy’ on a sign, they did not seem to refer to me. We sat in the waiting room, but our waiting had a kind of flat energy, as if waiting for nothing, knowing there was nothing to wait for. The flatness that comes after a storm has passed. Flat water, no wind, endless horizon.

We were called in for the scan by a nurse. The examination room was dark save for the light of the scanning equipment. Like being let into a mystic’s tent, the doctor’s face was illuminated only by the object on which the images of prophecy would appear. I briefly summarised what had taken place over the last week and lay on the bench for examination. She used the ultrasound and looked at the screen and then looked at me, her face shining with reflected light.

The doctor at the final appointment was the only person who could see clearly and what she could see was nothing. Bless you, she said in between every sentence, intoning it almost.

If you try again, it will be as if it never happened, she said afterwards.



A few days later, I’m writing from a train as it moves through the Alps near Grenoble. I can see raw rock faces, a pale turquoise river and snow in the distance. In front of me I have a hot quiche with red onion, Emmental and mustard from the dining car. I could have chosen pizza, a cheeseburger, a warm salad of grains and vegetables, a croque monsieur, a mystery hot dish of the day, aubergine parmigiana (an unfamiliar version with meat and gorgonzola), etc. I also buy a bottle of fizzy sweet-bitter agrum and San Pellegrino water, which S and I share. I like how self-contained the quiche is, neat and defined. I buy one each to sit on the individual fold out tables. It tastes so good: sweet from the onions and cream, intense and salty from the cheese, and the pastry is nutty.

I set about recounting the visits to the hospital the week before in my journal. I am reminded of the episodes of The West Wing in which Josh is shot and then ordered to have therapy because his repressed trauma is causing him to behave erratically. He had been misremembering and had gaps in his memory. The breakthrough comes when the therapist gets him to relive his experience by precisely narrating everything that took place. His narration is a reliving of the trauma, physically draining. I don’t want to forget details.


Adrenaline shoots through my body.


I need to write more, but as I re-read to find my place, a pressure builds up and I stop. I keep stopping, getting lost. The distance needed for writing is hard to find; I slip back into what I am trying to get away from. What the doctor could see was an absence, and from that she knew there was nothing coming. Horror vacui, nature abhors a vacuum. I am trapped in the nothing, trying to interpret what was there.

Each time I sit down to write the tense changes, it wavers between past and present, past and past historic. I need to choose. I keep trying to straighten out the timeline and make it consistent. I experiment to see which feels right and lose track of what it should be and switch back. My sense of the story changes. Time has passed and is still being lived. The future has not come and yet is coming anyway.

There is a return to ambivalence, albeit a different kind. The illusion that I can speculate safely about the future without the dramatic irony of pregnancy.



Not long after that train journey, someone asked me about the final scan over text, and when I told them, they responded with a clear narrative of what I must be going through. It seemed like the wrong narrative was being mirrored back to me. I did not recognise the certainty of their feelings; I did not recognise the description of what I must be feeling.


They used the word ‘grief’.


I made a list of responses –


I tell a friend via message, and she writes about grief.

I tell my brother and tears come to his eyes.

I tell another friend and she cries, too. S and I keep explaining what happened and more tears come. She apologises for making it about her. Tells us about an abortion she had. I did not think she was making the conversation about her.

Another friend checks in with me every week or so, even though her father has recently died.


Telling people what happened made people recall their own difficult feelings and experiences.


There are several important friends I have not told. I had not yet told them I was pregnant, or that there was a miscarriage. The burden of telling them grows. I do not allow them to care for me: what state am I in? I do not know.


A month later I get in touch with a friend, a psychoanalyst, because I want a book recommendation, and I tell her what happened.


Am ending up writing about it of



OMG what a slip!


The inelegance of the unconscious . . .


She sends me a book recommendation and I realise I don’t want someone else’s words, having not found my own.



12th January


When I have therapy again, for the first time since the miscarriage, I am a little late and also nervous. Four minutes late to the zoom call. I prevaricate about being tired and then say,

I suppose I should say that the pregnancy came to an end before Christmas.

She once commented that I seemed more enthusiastic talking about writing than having a child, which made me feel like I must appear unnatural or unfeeling as well as ambivalent. It is hard to know you want something unknown, or to know how you want it. I talked through what happened. Other people’s strong responses to the news and my plan to write something. I made fun of myself for being a writer and using life opportunistically.

She observed that I seemed more worried about other people’s feelings than my own. I had more clarity about what other people were going through and their needs. My own were unclear and I avoided talking to certain friends as I didn’t feel up to the work of having or performing feelings. Writing is my way of thinking and feeling away from the gaze of other people, I said. I recalled that when I was writing on the train, I physically turned my whole body away from S. It felt very, very important to do this. I did not want to be interpreted before I had done the work of interpreting myself.



‘Mourning is commonly the reaction to the loss of a beloved person or an abstraction taking the place of the person, such as fatherland, freedom, an ideal and so on.’ (Freud)

The event of miscarriage prompts the need to create an image of what has been lost so that it can be perceived. I do not want to fabricate an ideal so that I could comment on its loss. When I finally tell a close friend about the pregnancy and the miscarriage and my lack of certainty about what has happened, I feel the relief of being understood. She says when she was pregnant people would say oh you must be so excited and she thought, excited for what? She did not know until her son was born.

Pregnancy gestures to the future and I became a haruspex to try and see what was coming. I found out that pregnancy is not a prophecy of birth. There can be abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, complications, and if there is a child what can be known beyond a need for care.

Often – before – when I imagined the future it was as if there were no body there – as if the future would unfold cleanly in an abstract dimension without the heavy indeterminacy of a body, of emotions.

I had been ambivalent about becoming pregnant because I was already happily engaged in living. I am more excited when I speak about writing than I am about a child who has not yet arrived: and so what? The imperative that I should not be demands a kind of oblivion that I refuse. Reflecting on writing while having children, Natalia Ginzburg warns

‘If . . . we do not have a vocation . . . then we cling to our children as a shipwrecked mariner clings to a tree trunk . . .; we end up asking them for all the things which can only be given to us by our own vocation; we want them to be entirely our creation, as if having once created them once we could continue to create them throughout their whole lives.’

The idea of a child is not a way to solve a problem or fill a gap in my life. A child, if that does become the outcome of pregnancy, would be something else entirely, unknown. The life of a child is ambiguous and that is the pleasure of living, as well as its difficulty.



I cannot know what does not speak of its own existence. I cannot fabricate a firm idea to mourn. But I have experienced physical and emotional trauma. Intense feelings have settled in my chest. Writing down what happened leaves my whole body exhausted, the muscles in my shoulders are sore from the work of pulling the events from me. How can I accept a trauma or a loss that I cannot define? An indeterminate absence.


– I also felt relief afterwards and an awareness of the burden that was no longer there. Relieved of the work undertaken through pregnancy. I had been existing in a future-oriented state that pressed heavily upon the present, and now that I was no longer pregnant the anxiety lifted.

I want to occupy a position of unsentimentalised vulnerability that does not have a form. I cannot wrench something out of nothing. I cannot render it in the symbolic realm. I am beneath language, underwater.

The first line of light on the wall in the yard that I’d noticed since winter solstice. A sudden desire to clear a bag of old soil and roof felt from the yard and take them to the tip. I finally planted some bulbs that I’d left outside in a shopping bag over Christmas while I recovered – hoping that the chilling process essential to flowering would take place. The green shoots of tulips and bulbs planted in previous years were already coming up in the pots – though last year they sprouted, appearing to offer the hope of spring, and many of them were ‘blind’, false prophets with no flowers. A sign that could not be depended upon – though spring comes anyway, bringing other flowers, and the loss is not total.


I know that something has ended,

but what?


Image © clouds of wine

Rebecca May Johnson

Rebecca May Johnson's first book is Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen. She earned a PhD in Contemporary German Literature from UCL for her study of Barbara Köhler's reworking of the Odyssey, Niemands Frau.

Photograph © Sophie Davidson

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