The Barren Mother
by Suzanne Samuels
She hadn’t wanted to look at the baby. She had seen the other two, their shrunken, purplish faces like apple cores left out to dry, obscene against the lacy collars of their christening gowns. But she had yielded, forcing herself to look at this tiny girl, starved in her womb. She made herself see what she had done – how her body had failed her.
It had seemed less final with the other two.
The doctors insisted that they had the answer, a protocol that would ensure that the goal, a baby who lingered a little bit longer – a month, six weeks – was within reach.
She had cried for both babies. But she had still hoped, and thought it possible that she would still have a child. This time, she did what they advised: bed rest, perfect nutrition, and no sex. She prayed that her mother would see this baby, gaze upon her. Her mother was dying. Six months ago, the cancer had returned, a surprise even though it probably should have been expected. But now, there was nothing to be done. The doctors turned their backs on her mother and quietly closed the door as they left.
She had thought that the birth of her child, so long awaited and hoped for, might rally her mother, maybe even save her. When she passed her sixth month, then her seventh, the baby still moving well inside her, she had allowed herself to hope. She began to imagine her mother holding this grandchild in her skeletal arms. But deep into her eighth month, the baby had gone quiet. The doctor must have known. He did the sonogram himself, with no technician present, and stayed with her long after he switched off the screen.
Now, as she knelt before her mother’s coffin, she remembered what it felt like at that moment when her womb discharged its contents and became empty again. The way the nurses scurried back and forth, only one of them hesitating, not offering any words of comfort, standing close by but not touching her, as if any other gesture would be false. So while others placed their hands on her mother’s cold, swollen ones, she did not. She stood near the foot of the coffin, occasionally looking at that face that she had known, that body that had nourished her, brought her forth into the world, the shrunken torso – the breasts long gone, no need for the prostheses now.
In the deep of winter, there is still hope. The trees, blanketed with snow, still live beneath their brittle bark. In the spring, the new leaves come, bursting to life on those stems, those branches. There are a few, though, that do not come to life again. The spring reveals not life, but death, as those trees remain bare. And though she couldn’t find the words, not on that day, or the many days that followed, she felt a kinship with those dead trees, that seemed alive until they failed to produce leaves or fruit. It was then that everyone could see that they were really dead inside, waiting only for the inevitable fall.
When her mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground beside her daughter’s still raw gravesite, she had no tears. I’m dead inside, she thought. As dead as those trees.
She believed that for many months, until another baby, unbidden and unexpected, began to grow again inside of her. She allowed herself just a sliver of hope. She didn’t imagine his cry, piercing the delivery room. Or his body, squirming against hers. Or how he might grow, stretching out his arms to gather in the sunlight. It was that fragment of hope that compelled her to endure one more battery of tests, one more set of experimental protocols, one more attempt.
When she was delivered that morning deep in January, when she heard his cry, as gentle as a kitten’s mewing, and she held his warm, sleepy body in her arms, she sobbed. She watched him grow – slowly at first, then more steadily, and as he did, she ran her fingers up and down her own body, amazed to find that she could bend and sway. That deep inside, she had been waiting to come alive again, the thin green core coaxing the buds to come alive again, to burst into leaves and finally, fruit.
Suzanne recently left a career in academia to focus on writing. She is currently revising her historical novel, The Orphans' Wheel, set in Sicily and New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in Cacti, Cyclamens and Swords, and Life in Ten Minutes, as well as other journals.
Pieces Inspired by this Image
'Death and other litanies'
'Her Body, His Money, Their Child'