It was a new year, a new beginning, and outside the first rain was falling. It felt like a belt tightened around my waist, loosened, then tightened again, all through the night, through the morning, through the day. The rain washed the snow away and the next night I awoke as if by ambush. A thrusting pain in my back, someone punching as I slept, so hard it brought me to my knees, as if I wasn’t there already.
Bo went out in the morning and came back from the bakery with a sixty-kroner loaf. I had no idea bread could be that expensive, he said, but if there was ever a time we deserved it I guess it’s now. I held on and held on, soaking up the punches, the minutes ticking, the hours ticking, and there was the moon again, but I didn’t want to go yet. Normally I worried about being late, now about being early. They’d said not to come too early. The sounds inside my body, as if from a tortured animal, escaped from between my lips as the pain gripped me tighter.
I clung to the light of the moon, barely able to stand, let alone put one foot in front of the other. Eventually I realised that if I didn’t go now I wouldn’t be able to go at all.
I vomited in the taxi, vomited in the waiting room, but all the time I was in the woods, my thoughts beneath a tree, looking up into the branches. Pain tore me up; without pain I was nothing. I had no idea such pain could exist on earth, in heaven, that something inside me could hurt so much. In my pain I resided. But it was a pain I could not withstand, a pain that could never be kissed better, a pain that held me in its command. I could do nothing.
The midwife snapped at me in the delivery room. Screaming’s not going to help, she said; it was about the only thing she said to me. I lost heart then, because what else could help? I’m useless when people are angry, and anyway it wasn’t me; the scream was torn from my throat. I knew I wasn’t going to cope, there was no way I could handle it. But then the woods appeared again. As a new surge of pain racked my body, my thoughts took me away into the woods to stand under my tree and everything around me was bright green, everywhere around me, under and over, please let it soon be over.
The new midwife was kind and considerate, she asked if it was all right for them to stick this thing inside me, to empty me out, and I said do what you want, just make it stop. She said your baby’s got hair, feel, your baby’s got hair, urging me to be a part of something I wanted nothing to do with. I said no, I daren’t, but she took hold of my hand and guided me. I felt the baby’s head, felt its hair, and that was when I understood that a living baby, an actual human being, was going to come out of me.
She heaved at her end and I heaved at mine, we were at each end of a rope, a homespun rope she’d made out of bedsheets with a knot at each end, and now we were heaving with all our might. The white rope was what rescued me, the midwife in white my human saviour, and I heaved with my arms, braced with my legs, the midwife, me and my uterus pressing and pulling and squeezing and straining, extracting the baby, the life and the heavens from my body. The pain was gone in an instant, like a balloon slipping from the hand of a child and drifting away into the clouds.
You’re a week old now. Outside the window the first rays of morning are pale and thin; I sense your smell, and bending my head I kiss your scalp. You’re asleep in your baby carrier, your face against my chest, while I write standing up, words on sticky notes I put on the bedroom wall in front of me, words on the laptop I’ve placed on a shelf where I stand with you cradled at my tummy, swaying from side to side. In the daytime I must carry you, at night I’m your mattress; I’ve tried to trick you, putting you in your own bed with a hot-water bottle and clothing that smells of me, but you find me out every time, and then you cry.
After the birth I wanted Bo to be there, I wanted him not to have to go home. Night settled around me in the white room, and the transparent Perspex box stood next to my bed. I opened my eyes and turned my head, and the box was still there. I closed my eyes, opened them, and yes, it was there, the baby inside it. It seemed so unreal, that I had my own child, in a Perspex box at my bedside.
I lay awake, and when I closed my eyes images flashed in front of me, my brain uncoupling for want of sleep, the most absurd images, the brightest of colours. I didn’t dare have the baby in bed with me when these images came. And what if I actually did fall sleep, what then? It’s bad enough sleeping on my own, with my own body; when I wake up, the parts of me I’ve been lying on are totally numb.
Morning came and left us bare to the world. Mostly I was scared someone would come into the room; it felt as if anyone who opened the door would see how ripped apart I was, how cut to shreds, inside and out.
I’d dreamt of the first milk, only now I didn’t dare look down, it was like I was on a cliff with vertigo and could fall at any moment, too frightened to look and see if the milk was there, because what if it wasn’t? That scared me even more than falling off a cliff, the thought of not being able to nourish my baby. Its little body was so warm, but I couldn’t open the window in the boiling hot room, for the winter was out there, and all the dead besides. I felt the fear of being left on my own, felt it even though I now had a family, the terror of ending up alone.
You grizzle, cradled there at my tummy, unsettled. You’ve already caught a cold. We couldn’t even protect you for a week. I’m worried you’ll stop breathing, but of course you don’t, children don’t just stop breathing, I tell myself, although now I know it’s not true. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to be writing while you’re still so little. A person becomes so distant when they’re writing. Shouldn’t I only be talking to you, smiling at you, looking after you?
I’m useless when it comes to looking after things. I ruin everything, especially the things I treasure most. There was a wall that hadn’t dried and I got paint on the sleeve of my new blue coat, the old vase Edel gave me is in bits, everything I own comes apart in front of my eyes. I’m spilt, a glass of milk dropped on the floor. Giving birth to a child is a form of decay: the skeleton rattles, the pelvis comes loose, the body tears, all as if to remind me that I’m to crumble and turn to dust. The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wants to be born must destroy a world.
The broken women shuffled quietly about in the hospital corridors, on their way to the pharmacy for more painkillers, or to the canteen to eat. Such small steps they took, one foot gingerly in front of the other, for it hurt so much to walk, in their great big old-men’s nappies, with their big, empty tummies that looked like they didn’t know the babies inside them were gone, that they weren’t there any more and lay now instead in their transparent Perspex boxes, which the mothers wheeled in front of them like walking aids, supporting themselves as they moved through the corridors. Their breasts were open wounds, bleeding, and the women prayed quietly for the milk to come, please let the milk come soon, please.
Home again, I lay awake crying over the trauma I’d been through. Is it OK to call something a trauma when it’s your own doing? Whatever it was, it left me hopeless and helpless. But I couldn’t lie like that for long, because then there’d be someone else crying, someone who needed me.
I placed my hand like a protective shell around the soft head, the child was a peaceful apostle. My finger was as long as the child’s forearm, and his vulnerability overshadowed my own. His gaze felt like he’d already seen everything, knew everything, and was familiar with swathes of eternity. And his palm lines had lint in them, the lines of his tiny hands were so deep that lint collected in them.
Illness crept in. The thought that I might get ill again is with me constantly, ready to assail me when the body is worn thin. I was worn thin after the birth, days without sleep, and what if the illness came back? If it did, we wouldn’t be able to cope. We’d have to move in with my dad, I said to Bo, we wouldn’t be able to cope on our own. We’re not moving anywhere, he said. I fed the child, as Bo fed me, and then he said we could sleep on the sofa together that night, all three of us, because then the pressure to sleep wouldn’t be as great.
I dreamt that I died, I dreamt that my birthmarks bled and came away, falling from me like tired leaves from trees, and when I woke up I had to go and check in the mirror. The days then were a dance between joy and sorrow, sorrow and fear, and within the fear was the terror of going mad.
It can’t be that bad, surely? you might be thinking now. And you’d be right, of course. It’s your brother I’ve been talking about, by the way – when I’ve been telling you about the baby, the child, I’ve been talking about your brother, because you’ve got an older brother. I don’t know if you can remember, but someone spat on you when you were only a few hours old. That was him. He spat on you at the hospital, but since we came home he gives you kisses and has hardly hit you at all.
I’ve had two children in the space of eighteen months, and now I’m not so slow any more; I was slow for thirty-four years, but in the last three everything’s been going so fast. Falling in love went so fast, then being a family, of three, and then four, went even faster. Only my writing has gone so very slowly.
Spring came and your father and I put that first harsh winter we’d been together behind us. We sat on a bench in Peggy Guggenheim’s garden, Venetian light smarted in our eyes, penetrating our thoughts, penetrating our skin. It was as if we melted together there on that bench, thawing out. The words, hidden away inside my mouth, came loose and rolled onto my tongue, those impossible words suddenly became possible. Bo said he’d been thinking the same thing. A child.
I looked at the art Peggy Guggenheim had collected, and I was afraid the artists had taken advantage of her. She seemed such a lost soul, her odd gesticulations, the way her tongue darted in and out of her mouth, but surely there was no reason to feel sorry for Peggy Guggenheim? She took advantage of the artists too: she bought their work for next to nothing, they couldn’t afford to say no. She slept with the artists, or the artists slept with her, and she slept with writers too. For four days and nights she made love with the finest of them all, and presumably Samuel Beckett would only have wanted to make love for four days and nights with someone out of the ordinary? But I worry far too much about such things; why do I have to take it all so seriously, why do I have to be so afraid of allowing others to get close to me?
We travelled such a lot that spring. It was as if there were all sorts of places we had to visit so we could make a child, as if we had to try out different cities to see where we could make the child we wanted, or else we were looking for the seed of our child outside ourselves, as if the child were something we could find if only we went to the right place. And so we went to New York.
I’m no good at recounting travels, the impressions are always too many, my head’s a chaos, so instead I’ll tell you about when we left New York, or were about to leave. We ought to have been in the taxi that was waiting outside to take us to the airport, but all at once it came to me that at that very moment our child would be conceived. Bo put the sheet back on the bed, the sheet we’d only just tossed in the laundry basket, and then when we were sitting in the taxi afterwards I felt life streaming into me, continuing to stream into me. I felt I needed something to eat then, and at the airport I bought a sandwich, one of those revolting great cardboardy ones you get at airports, and I thought to myself how sad that the first nourishment I would give to what would become our child was such an awful sandwich.
I need breakfast. I lift you out of your carrier so you won’t get crumbs and jam in your hair. You’re three weeks old now and the leaves haven’t yet fallen from the trees – they cling to their twigs this autumn. I put you down on the kitchen counter. You curl upwards, embracing yourself, your face going through a repertoire of grimaces before you’re properly awake, before you look around and look at me. You stretch out your frog’s legs, your long frame. You’re so long, it’s as if you belong to other people altogether – neither Bo, nor your brother nor I myself are particularly tall. You lie there with your arms stretched over your head, as if relaxing on a lounger in the sun, while I eat a slice of bread. I haven’t bathed you yet, only washed you with a cloth; in that way you still belong to the inside of me.
Photograph © JoLynne Martinez
Read ‘Notes on Craft’ by Kjersti A. Skomsvold, which explores the process of writing this novel.