*Featured Art: “Caretakers” by Mali Fischer
In the Santuario de Chamayo, the Santo Niño de Atocha altar is covered with baby shoes left by pilgrims. I place a blue pair beside the others. The shoes I have hidden in a drawer since I shopped for my pregnant friend—pink for her baby girl, blue for my unbidden glimmer. I don’t pray. In my pocket is a vial I will fill with dirt from the sacred well in the chapel anteroom.
I sit up all night, stroking my flat stomach and talking feverishly to the flipperling within. I’m thirty-six and broke and a single mother. Your father is a crazy writer who tells me I’m perfect then threatens to put an axe through my forehead. It was one night after months apart. I rock my empty arms, imagine the sweet tug at my breasts after all these years. I’m so sorry. Please understand. Then I read Alice Through the Looking Glass all the way through, finishing minutes before he arrives to drive me to the clinic where he drops me at the entrance. It is raining.
When he arrives, I am holding the paper bag (because the woman is always holding the bag) they gave each of us in the recovery room where one brash young woman stood by the window pointing out a rainbow. In the bag is a cookie for blood sugar and a package of condoms for better luck next time. When I get in the car, he will say he ate an entire box of Oreos while he waited, and I will think of planets whose orbits intersected then glanced apart.
“Western women don’t do well with this,” says my Jungian therapist who mothers me on credit and knows her world religions.
“I‘m fine. Really.”
She tells me her Catholic mother revealed her abortion on her deathbed although she intended to take the secret to her grave. “She paid a terrible price for her silence.”
“I’ve made my peace with this,” I insist.
“Come talk to me when you are ready,” she says. As I leave, she gives me a book on Chinese mythological symbols.
In ten years I will meet my Chinese husband.
I make a small collage, a fish person carrying a rhinestone beacon. I apply netting, dried flowers, a fishhook. I write on the back—little swimmer, our hearts were heavy and dry-docked that summer—then dip my thumb into the last of the blood to make a seal in place of a footprint. I present my former lover with the collage but months later take it back.
Thirty-four weeks later, I lie weeping at the lip of a well, inhaling updrafts from a mineshaft dark where stones can never hit bottom. My sixteen-year-old daughter knocks on my bedroom door and asks if she can spend the night with a friend. Do I answer?
In the morning I wake to loud knocking. My daughter’s friend is making no sense. Hospital. Pills. Stomach pump. Saying terrible things about you. At the hospital (how did I get there?), my daughter says over and over in a baby voice, “Mommy, I’m sorry!”
She is a locked fortress with the therapist. She stares at the wall while I confess, but then she flickers and says, “Oh, Mom, you must have been so miserable!” When the therapist says something about her absorbing my pain, she retreats behind the wall and mutters, “Not everything is about you, Mom.”
On the drive back, my father and I are even more silent than usual. No one mentions the two Oregon doctors my parents located through the Unitarian Church, how we have subverted Washington State laws, how I now have to wait until I am four months along then return to have my womb salted. At seventeen, I am perfecting the art of disconnection.
My mother brings my best friend along on the final trip to Oregon because she doesn’t know how to be alone with me, but my friend refuses to visit the hospital where they make me sit in a backless robe in the waiting room with the fathers-to-be, where I miscarry into a bedpan held by a nurse who, when I moan in pain, tells me gruffly that I should have thought about this before I had sex.
In a Shanghainese restaurant in Hong Kong, between the pork dumplings and the fish, my Chinese mother-in-law announces that she tried to abort my husband’s younger brother. My sister-in-law and I meet eyes—Can you believe she just said that? The brothers nearly choke, spluttering through food and laughter. My husband says, “No wonder he was such a puny kid!“
“Good thing she didn’t succeed!” his brother says. I wonder that there is no blame in his tone.
“Yeah, you’re the one paying for everything now!”
She continues and my husband translates, “She had three kids and didn’t want any more. She went to the doctor for some herbs, but nothing happened. Grandma finally told her, ‘Stop taking those herbs—that baby’s not leaving!’”
She starts dissecting the fish.
At the entrance to the clinic, a group of protesters waves signs displaying dismembered fetuses. I don’t meet their eyes when I pass them on my way to my volunteer job as a clinic hand holder. I know the gory pictures are fake because our trainers made us look in the lab trays to make sure we knew what was in the balance. Of course we know. I sit beside patients while the doctor empties their wombs using a small vacuum device. As they grip my hand, I reassure them. Just a bit more. It won’t be long now. There are sighs, tears, resolute silence. My other job is to talk with patients before they leave. I hear stories of ignorance and betrayals and rapes and parents who abscond with birth control pills. We collect the brands of condoms that break, antibiotics that interact. I warn about anniversary grief, how the body broods over what the mind chooses to forget.
In Japanese Buddhism, stillborn babies, miscarriages, and aborted fetuses are called mizuko, waterbabies. Lost or refused entry, their souls swim between worlds in the realm of liquid life. In the rural past, mizuko were buried under floorboards so they could return to their beginnings via underground streams. Sometimes mizuko are asked to return at more opportune times. Prayers and offerings are made to Jizo, a monk who transports mizuko to the afterlife in the sleeves of his robe.
Candle stubs dot the mizuko-jizo shrine near Honolulu. In Kyoto, rows of gray Jizo statues are dressed in bibs, capes, and caps the color of blood. Sun flickers over the stones like a school of minnows.