By Karen Fisher
The psychic was an ugly man, aging, in gold jewelry. I was unsettled by the darkness of his lashes, the fullness of his lips. When he laughed, he threw his head back like a woman.
“What about her?” My boyfriend asked. We were at a table of friends, lunching at a restaurant on the pier. The air moist and heavy, smelling of tarred decking and fried fish.
The psychic, a friend of his, was in town for a week of readings, and specialized in past lives. I’d watched him read someone else at the table already: his body contorted, his eyes rolled back. It was creepy.
“No,” I said. “No, really, that’s okay.” The man reached out, smiling.
A skeptic born, and will always be. But who could resist knowing the past, any more than the future? Even if it’s nonsense. I reached in turn. Our hands settled, clasped among napkins and empty glasses. I was a year out of college. For the benefit of this boyfriend, this man I adored but would luckily never marry, I was (as I thought of it secretly), in costume: dangly earrings, a flowered skirt and white silk blouse, as beautiful and feminine as I had ever been, or would be.
The psychic breathed heavily, closed his eyes. His fingers twitched. His eyes opened and rolled, like the blind.
“You’re in a clearing. Cutting wood. You were a woodcutter.”
From a glass wind-wall behind him, a seagull tilted its head.
“You’re writing. A candle. A wooden table. Feather pen. You were a writer.”
I did keep notebooks. I’d never cut much wood, or planned to.
“You’re riding…bareback with other men, a lot of horses running, you’re a plains warrior, stealing horses.”
I smiled. I rode bareback most days, let my mare gallop the beach.
“You’ve never been a woman before. So it feels strange.”
My scalp prickled. He opened his eyes. My boyfriend threw back his head like a woman and laughed.
On a steep Forest Service road in Idaho, I read out scrawled instructions, folded and re-folded the map while Dave drove miles through steep canyons of pine, shady slopes of fir and tamarack. At last, through the trees, we saw the glint of windshields, turned and bumped through a rutted clearing to find a place among old trailers and battered trucks, Cutlass Supremes and Oldsmobiles with torn seats, trunks held shut with twine. The camp was empty, but for a black dog on a chain, and a pale-haired girl who waved quietly from a folding chair in the shade.
We parked. Kicked down the warm grass a little, enough to make a fire, strung a tarp, arranged a bed. We’d come to be yew-bark peelers, our first paid employment since leaving California.
The crew came in at evening, riding the edges of trailers towed behind ATCS. They gathered next to the tall wire-sided transport trailers, where, for an hour, the crew boss hefted and weighed each sack on a spring-scale hung from poles, called numbers to a hard-faced woman with red hair and a clipboard. The Mexicans stood together. There were local kids as well, a few Nez Perce, some white guys with beer guts, an old couple. The blond girl stood next to a young man, both of them maybe sixteen.
I peeled the next day, sitting on the steep damp slope, burlap on my left side, pile of yew-chunks on the right. I hadn’t known yew until that day: a small tree, unimposing, slow-growing and nearly immortal. Flat fronds of dark shiny needles, bark dense and smooth, almost leathery, which we scored with linoleum knives, stripped away to wood smooth and sinuous, pale as sea-bones. New wood would spring from the stumps, a regeneration rare among forest trees.
Two teen-aged boys sat on the hill above me, buddies, in sleeveless black T-shirts, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, long hair and acne, interchangeable.
“Fucking radical, man. Fucking Ruger, man, and this guy had these fucking armor-piercing loads, fucking put holes in a fucking bulldozer, man.”
They were earning money for the handguns of their dreams, talked sporadically against the distant roar of the saw. Purely about guns. Talk, then pause. Then, “Fuck, man.”
I finished my pile, and carried my sack up the canyon to be near the two old Indians, Donald and James. We worked. After a while, we talked a little. They asked if I had children. Not yet, I said, and told them I was expecting my first in December, five months away. They nodded.
“That blonde girl,” Donald said, “She’s gonna to have a baby too. The one lives in that old blue car with her boyfriend.”
I’d never planned to have children. Dave and I had agreed, we valued our freedom, happy with holidays on horseback, adventures unencumbered. We’d laughed at Dave’s father’s wedding toast, his hope that we’d populate this continent with a new generation of Fishers. We had no such intention.
Then, one January morning, I’d wakened achy and out of sorts, too long cooped up, I thought. We still lived in California, and the Los Padres Mountains, just above us, had turned white overnight, a rare coastal snowfall. Dave and I saddled our horses and climbed into them, and rode and hiked all day in fresh drizzle and falling snow.
A pain in my chest woke me that night, knifelike, worrying in its strangeness. I tried to be reasonable. I was young, healthy, nothing could be seriously wrong.
By two in the morning, though, I couldn’t breathe; the tiniest movement was searing, worse than broken bone, it burned. I rolled and whimpered, put my fists close under my chest, tried not to breathe. It was nothing I’d felt, or heard of before, some sudden deadly onset. I waited, frightened, willing it away.
But it was there, the tiniest breath an agony, and I was hot, in some fever, sweating. My thoughts twisted. I dreamt lights, colors, warping faces. In one clear moment I understood, for the first time in my life, the certainty of my own death, and cried. Not for myself, but for the lack of something I’d never known I’d wanted.
Dave drove me to the hospital. It was pleurisy, painful, but nothing antibiotics wouldn’t cure. I was better when he came back next evening. We signed papers, and he helped me with my sweater.
“I thought I was going to die.”
“You just needed more exercise,” he grinned.
In the car on the way home, I thought again about that revelation, that dying regret, the despair so absolute and overwhelming, worse than burning bones, worse than knowing I would die.
I told Dave, as we drove, how bad it had been in the night, and why I’d grieved.
“Well,” he said. “It would make all our parents happy.”
“How about you?”
“I could get used to it.”
“Okay?” It had felt like falling off a cliff.
Between stints peeling yew bark, we worked on our new farm. Sunday, lunchtime, Dave climbed down from the chickenhouse rafters, I took off my toolbelt (let out three notches, I rumpled it to hide its length, to keep him from teasing), and we walked up the slope toward the house. Smiling, he reached for my hand.
“You’re so beautiful.”
I felt like shit. In that raggy red t-shirt, I felt like a tomato, but I smiled. It made me shy, when he talked like this, but while I sometimes doubted his sincerity, I never, never doubt his kindness.
I can’t say it, but my husband is the most beautiful man I have ever seen. No movie-star face, it’s endearingly awkward. The nose too long, the chin too long, the lips straight and undefined, unruly brown hair, glasses. His smile carves deep lines on his cheeks, the teeth square and unremarkable. His eyes crinkle. It’s a funny smile, a fine smile, it’s worth making him smile.
But his body. His body is perfect. So light and strong, beautiful as a gymnast’s, those broad muscled shoulders, neat hips, that elegant lumbar curve, buttocks round and lean, hollowed at the sides, the hips narrow. Perfect. His hands broad and tough and heavy jointed, flat wide wrists, forearms thick with curved muscle, his knees and ankles and toe-joints are huge, he’s indestructible. He runs fearless, full-speed down slopes of loose rock and brush, never loses balance, never trips or turns an ankle. If he was a horse I would buy him, and trust him to carry me anywhere; if I had to choose a man who could endure anything, who could walk a continent with only his rifle and his wits, it would be him, and I am so jealous of this that I can never speak it. His is the body I want. That perfect male body.
“You are,” he said. “You’re beautiful.”
“Right.” I looked away. I didn’t want this body, this woman’s body. I had never wanted it, not since my first memories of childhood. It wasn’t strong enough, fast enough, lean enough, muscled enough, male enough. Trapped inside it, my beauty or lack of it, was immaterial.
“Really, you are. When you aren’t, I won’t tell you so.”
I smiled at him. At his effort to convince. At the sincerity, at least, of his love.
“Well, not so often,” he teased.
The worst thing about this body I inhabited, the thing that I knew in my reasoning mind but still could scarcely admit, was this: if I wanted to have a child, I was the one who had to be pregnant.
Dave worked the last week without me, on the bark crew. I made dinner on Friday night, and sitting to it, he said, “That girl had her baby.”
“What?” She was seven months, maybe only six. Just a pale little teenager.
“Their car wouldn’t start. I had to take her and her boyfriend up to Grangeville.”
“Is she okay?”
He told me how by the time they were near Grangeville her contractions were every five minutes, and he’d stopped the truck, thinking she’d have the baby right there, and then decided to go on. How they’d gotten her to the hospital just minutes before she delivered.
“She’s okay. The baby was dead.”
October. Deep in the forest thirty miles from home, Dave had found a gold mine. It was in a wet cove on an old overgrown spur; not even the crowns of these trees were visible from the roads around.
“There’s nowhere to turn around down here,” he said. We unhitched the trailer. A stream trickled on the low side of the road, through tall grasses and fems.
We climbed back in, and he gunned the truck backwards up the hill, tires spinning on slick mud, and catching, bouncing hard over berms in the metal clash of tools, the clap of chain and cables, saws, wedges. Rolls of flagging tape bounced from the dash and fell into my lap, unfurling ribbons of blue and yellow.
We walked through the trees, our boots soft in deep rotted needles. Holding our saws high, slid through dark rhododendron, the sky distant and silent. He’d thought there were four, but we counted now five, six, seven, eight, maybe more down below. Standing dead tamarack, a rich vein, a fortune in firewood to sell.
I waited with maul and wedges while Dave cut a deep notch in this biggest tree, then made the back cut and quit. The tree swayed, a killing weight, it could have its revenge. I fought the impulse to run, handed over the maul and wedges, and in their ring, ring, ring, the old tree creaked, and against that high dizzy blue the crown carved a gentle arc, and tilted faster, speeding down through the shadows. Struck and leapt with a soft whump and dry explosion of limbs. Then the slow sympathy of falling needles.
Dave cut rounds while I limbed and cleared a trail and then rolled them down to the truck, to be loaded whole, transferred to the trailer. I squatted on my heels, drove my fingers under their weight, the wood dark orange and heavy with sap, heavy as oak, big around as oil drums. Excited by their smell, their weight, I rose and heaved-they were a hundred pounds, some of them, and my belly was tight and awkward under the big sweater, the bones of my pelvis aching. Up on the hill Dave sawed, and below I lifted and heaved and banged one round into the bed of the truck, and another, and another, then climbed among them to roll and lift again, stacking them high against the sideboards.
The saw quit. Dave came down to help, as I jumped out and lifted another. Seven
“You got those in?”
I shrugged. Ah, it was nothing. A skeptic, of course, but apparently, I was a woodcutter once. I wondered if my most ancient satisfactions were still my deepest.
It wasn’t just my belly. Not even the sleeves of my old shirts would fit any more, too narrow to roll, and when unrolled, my wrists hung out. How could my arms be growing? In the bathroom, I wrapped a towel around my chest, shrugged and admired the humped muscle at the tops of my shoulders, curled my forearms to see their new breadth. I folded them across my chest, admiring their manly definition. Then into the bath where I lamented those strange heavy breasts, and a belly that rose obstinately, a bald pink island, out of the water. I covered it with a washcloth.
At night, a stranger to this body, I read books on being pregnant.
“…arrange to attend some pregnancy exercise or dance classes…”
“…Get out in the fresh air and walk..”
“…be sure to allow yourself rest times each day when you lie on the bed… learn how to lift without straining your back…”
In the illustration, a woman carefully straightened with two bags of groceries. I tried to remember the last nap I’d taken.
My doctor, accustomed to the local population of pregnant teens, drinkers, smokers, living in trailers on chips and soda, thought I was wonderful. He told me about the birthing classes, an hour’s drive away. Not only was I too tired after each day to make the evening drive, but I couldn’t imagine, I said, what they could tell me that I wouldn’t forget or figure out when the time came.
Women have given birth without classes for thousands of years. How hard can it be? Why would you need instructions? He smiled.
“Could use a friend, though. If you know anyone.”
He gave me the name of a woman across the canyon, recently from Seattle. “Heather. She’s due in November. It’s her second. You’ll really like her.”
We talked on the phone, and I invited her up. She was younger than I by ten years, very animated, had a pretty two-year old girl. We leaned together on the pasture fence, in the warm light of evening, and watched her daughter hand hay to our horses.
“God, you hardly even look pregnant,” she said to me.
“You must be kidding. I feel like a toad.”
“Well, look at me!”
She, I thought, hardly looked pregnant. “I keep reading how women like this.”
“Oh,” she said with sudden sympathy. “You probably got morning sick. That puts a lot of people off.”
“Are you getting, like, varicose veins and all that?”
“So, you’re doing great.”
“How about you?”
“Great. Totally. I love it.” She was beaming, grinning. Totally.
“Well,” I shrugged. “Want some tea?”
When not working, I sulked. Propped aching and beached on the couch at night, watching Wheel of Fortune, the slow tears slid down.
“You’re not huge,” Dave assured me. “You’re not huge.”
I sniff. Liar. Of course I’m huge. Vanna White minced around, turning those big glowing letters, all in her spangles. She was pregnant too, but they wouldn’t let her turn those letters when she started to look like me. Assuming she ever would. Nobody gets to go on TV looking like that. Babies might be cute, but pregnant women are ugly. They’re obscene.
“You’re pregnant. Everyone understands.”
“I don’t care if they understand.”
And, anyway, they don’t. Not everyone. Because no man can ever understand this. No man has ever known what it feels like to have a perfectly healthy functional body bloat suddenly out of control, to bulge, stretch, ache, swell; no man has ever understood what it’s like not to be able to sleep unless he’s on his side with pillows crammed under his belly, between his aching legs, to lie awake burping gastrointestinal juices, to have to flounder out of bed every three hours to pee. It was ugly. It was uncomfortable. It was humiliating. And I was sick of it. And had two more months to go. I got out the book. There it was, the baby, curled in the cutaway womb, looking fully human.
“Most women are pleasantly surprised at the vitality and sense of inner fulfillment which they experience during pregnancy.”
I looked in the index, wondering where to find a discussion of appropriate degrees of physical exertion during the third trimester. So many people were giving me dire warnings. There was nothing but a suggestion not to begin new sports. These authors covered shoes and bras and cosmetics and airplane travel, but it was a different world from mine. I knew that all over the country pregnant women were working in rail yards and on construction crews, feeding cattle, cleaning fish, chopping cotton, picking apples. I knew that all over the world and all through history, women have been responsible for the maintenance of their households-hauling wood and water, scrubbing clothes, butchering animals, plowing, milking-while in an almost continual state of pregnancy. I knew that maternity leave, like day-care, was a new concept: not a God-given right but a modem indulgence. I knew that I was in the majority. So why was our story not in these books?
In the bath, I watched my belly bulge and ripple, in movement independent of myself. A strange sight, and a strange sensation. Something alive in there.
“Take some time to relax each day, breathing deeply and concentrating on the new life within you. Talk and sing and have private conversations with your baby.”
“Okay,” I said. “Whoever you are, two more months, you’re outta there. No hanging back. Understand?”
My sister, not yet a mother, was worried that all this pre-natal negativity would harm my child. On the phone she said, earnestly, “They can sense these things in the womb. People can describe their own births. They can sense any kind of hostility.”
“It’s not hostility,” I said. “I’m going to love my child, I just don’t love having it in my body. That’s fair enough, isn’t it? It’s nothing personal. I’m sure the baby will understand.”
But would she? And would I come to love this child, when I had recoiled all my life at offers to hold babies, when I’d said so many times-admiring a cavorting foal, a puppy, a chick-that the human infant is the most pathetic and least appealing of all? Mewling, stinking, helpless.
“Your instincts will take over,” my mother said. I hoped so.
From Silverton, Oregon, three fifty-pound sacks of Red German garlic arrived, a day before the coming winter rains. We hauled the last firewood, then rushed out to our fields, the soil prepared and waiting. We tied bags of the big cloves to our hips and crawled along, setting each clove upright in its trench, four inches apart, in two-hundred foot rows, the soil already damp, our knees pressing tracks as we went.
After three trenches, my back was aching. I felt like a sow waddling in the mud, though I was faster than Dave, with my woman’s hands. The clouds deepened, thunder rolled, and the rain hissed over us, a sudden downpour.
“Keep going!” Dave said. We ducked and kept going. What didn’t go in that day, wouldn’t go in at all. I finished the row, and another. We were both soaked, and covered in mud. My hands were numb with cold, my nose ran. Dave brought raincoats. Twenty more to go. Halfway through, I sat up, hands on my hips, shouted against the rain.
“What?” Dave shouted back.
I leaned into it this time, louder. “I said, I bet Vanna White’s husband doesn’t make her do this!”
In November’s early dark, we pulled up to the loading dock at the feed mill in Genesee. A moment of quiet in the cab, tired from another day of firewood. Our breath steamed in yellow light from the wide sliding doors. Chicken feed was the last errand of the day.
“I’ll load,” Dave said, “if you go over to the office and pay.”
I sat. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to load or pay.
Those ladies in the office, in their pumps and skirts and crooning advice. “I can’t.”
“What’s the matter?”
Again this flood of tears, unreasonable. “I can’t.”
“Some women dislike and have a profound distrust of their bodies. For the first
time in pregnancy they can come to know and be comfortable with themselves.”
If you didn’t like your body before pregnancy, why, why would you feel happier with yourself when you’re thirty pounds heavier (thirty pounds, there, lift a feed sack that weight, strap it on your front and wear it all day, what do you think? More comfortable now?), and you can’t reach your shoelaces, and even in your amplest brown sweater you look like a goddamn kiwi with legs, like a bloated-up tick, and your pelvis hurts and your fingers are fat and your sinuses are congested and your bellybutton looks like a fucking fried egg? Why should you feel more beautiful than you’ve ever felt?
For the first time in my life, I literally couldn’t face being seen. Not once more. Not ever again, by anyone. Not until was over.
“I don’t want to be a woman. I never wanted to be a woman.”
“But I like you as a woman,” Dave said. “I couldn’t have married you otherwise.”
In my books, hugely pregnant women in stretchy clothes squatted, serenely panting, with their “helpers,” in beautifully appointed birthing rooms. Quilts, rocking chairs, curtains with country prints and bows.
I read lists of what women should bring: sponges and facecloths, lip salve, lavender oil, talcum powder, tape deck, candles, soothing lotion, incense, pillows, massage devices, slippers, cuddly blankets, soft and attractive apparel, video camera, still camera, swimwear, pleasant object to use as a visual focus (my husband would have to do), juice and snacks, books, magazines, herb teas, journal, stationery and pens, cosmetics, earplugs, deodorant, cellular phone, hair accessories…all packed in a light duffel or suitcase which is not awkward to carry.
And I was supposed to be thinking about my layette. In the doctor’s office, family magazines advertised Irresistibly Adorable reversible sunhats for $15, Cuddly Bunny crib toys for $23. Twenty-five is what we had for a week’s groceries. I wasn’t going to be ordering the Land’s End mix-and-match.
And I wasn’t inspired, only made angry by glossy magazine photos of nurseries, large airy rooms with pastel carpets, color-matched dressers and cribs and bassinets and rockers, changing tables, mobiles, stuffed toys, ruffly curtains, country-style trunks. This charming bookshelf nook provides a cozy place for toys and reading…Playful Wild West horseshoe rack gives your little cowboy a place to hang his hat…Wooden chest with its hand painted scenes
Our house was assessed at seven thousand dollars. Just these curtains and carpets would cost a month’s earnings. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be believed, not meant to be taken seriously, maybe it was just so all of us could dream, but I couldn’t even dream this, and neither could the girl in the blue car.
The woman in me was supposed to nest, I saw. But with no means, I had no model. Because true poverty, like true pregnancy, profits no one. In our consumer dreamland of denial, my thrift-store attic crib, my little box of secondhand sleepers, was not enough. And if I was in the majority, my story was nowhere there.
But I did know this: That children have been cradled happily in trunks and packing crates, in trundles and shared beds, clothed in scraps of linen, diapered in moss, and never known or minded. That style was only status, was only a way to package and sell motherhood. What I could provide were those things most genuinely important: love, mother’s milk, strength and comfort. And what we were “buying,” what I was determined to give my child at any cost, was a safe place to grow up, a place to roam and explore. Healthy food, animals to love, a pony to ride, rocks to climb, seeds to plant, courage to explore, hands to hold. My child would not be dropped at day-care each morning from infancy. My child would never be reprimanded for slipping out the front gate.
That was the whole point of what we’d chosen to do. That there was no gate.
Dave went to California with our last three hundred dollars, to sell Christmas trees. Alone, I lay in the long silent gray of morning, looking out the window to snow and fog and eaves hung with icicles, and for the first time felt a surge of tenderness for this child I’d soon meet. I wanted her suddenly to know everything about me, about us, about this house she’d be bom into; and I wanted suddenly to know everything about my own mother: where she was when I was bom, what she was thinking then, feeling, wondering. And I thought of all the mothers who were my ancestors, the hard lives they’d lived, the work they’d done, the babies born dead or lost in infancy, the fears for their children.
For the first time, I thought of myself as a mother, and understood the ancestral urge I’d first glimpsed on the night I’d believed in my own death, and all those exhortations of parents and grandparents to procreate. I understood that nothing in life was likely so permanent as this act of creation, a child whose own children might go a hundred generations, a thousand, unbroken, to influence a future unimaginable by us. Children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, all descended from this one.
And understood the deep and unlikely truth, that I myself was pure product of life, proof that since creation there had been this thread, this one of many others, not broken by untimely death: one line, of mothers, of daughters and sons who had survived long enough those worldly hells of war and famine and pestilence, who were not lost at birth or drowned, had not fallen prey to wolves or died of fevers. And I knew them, their stories, their names: A great great great grandfather, soldier, a Hessian come by sea to fight for the English, who did not die of wounds but turned coat in Vermont and married there, and had family. A great great grandmother, crossed to Oregon to marry at fifteen, had lost three children before she was twenty, and borne four more, and one was great grandmother to me. Hundreds who had lived and fought and found each other, on in that way, and on until my turn was come.
I had not set anything on paper since coming to Idaho, and for the first time, I felt a reason to. I wanted my child, years from then, to see me here, on this bed in this house, looking out at this snow and sky, to hear me thinking, to feel me reaching, unsure, but ready to embrace.
I wished I had something of my own mother’s that I could hold and read, but I thought of her, and that was enough. The only thing I had to give this child, the only thing of meaning, was myself.
Dave came back, triumphant, his three hundred dollars turned to three thousand, the Visa paid, full of stories of how he’d bought trees and driven them over snowy passes down to California to hawk them in a mall parking lot. He was full of plans for next year, a bigger operation, a formal lot, a wife to make change for him. I had made and sold quilts while he was gone, for enough to pay the mortgage. Well done. Survived again.
My water broke. In a light duffel, not awkward to carry, I packed toothbrush, hairbrush, flannel robe, tiny diapers, sleeper, snowsuit, the one crib quilt I’d made. This baby was alive, no doubt, but on the drive down, the empty car seat strapped behind my own seemed eerie. I remembered the girl who had labored there in August, in that very place, and remembered the ghost of her baby.
“Are you nervous?” Dave asked.
I’d forgotten all this time to be afraid. My childhood heroes fought grizzlies and crossed the unnamed wilderness. My husband went into the unknown with a used-up credit card and a chainsaw, and came back rich. So I’d denied that I would be afraid.
He looked, waiting for an answer. I nodded. My heart pounding.
I wasn’t a man. I couldn’t tackle this problem with an axe or a shovel or a rifle. I was a woman, about to give birth. Candles, incense, soothing music, lavender oil, cellphones: these, I knew suddenly, did not deserve my contempt. They were only someone else’s names for courage.
I’d come in those last weeks to understand the scope of the journey that by instinct I’d embarked on. To understand a little more of who I really was: woodcutter, writer, mounted warrior, man who became a woman. Daughter of all those whose lives had weighed in favor of promise, now mother to one who might in turn survive. And even then, I wasn’t sure it would be enough.
On that day, though, it was.
© Copyright 2001 Karen Fisher