Breast milk is sometimes prized so highly that it’s called “liquid gold.” In Shannon Perri’s harrowing story, it takes on a literal meaning.
Fernando A. Flores, guest judge for our 2019 short story contest, says his favorite stories are those that “take some kind of risk, strive for something greater, unknown, undefined, and afterward leave you lost in the woods of what you read.”
That’s certainly true of “Liquid Gold” by Shannon Perri, the first of three contest finalists (plus the winner) we’ll be publishing in the coming weeks. This startling story imagines that a new mother, unable to pay the hospital bill for her son’s birth, must instead settle her debt in a bodily way. Like parenthood itself, the story contains both incredible highs and devastating lows. After the story, Perri shares a few thoughts about the inspiration for “Liquid Gold.”
Anyone who knows anything about birth and babies knows that breast milk is king. Or I guess queen. Maybe you’ve heard it referred to as “liquid gold,” but what I want people to understand is, that isn’t always an exaggeration.
At least, it wasn’t for me.
The birth of my son was like nothing I could have imagined and exactly what parents describe: I felt the purest, most potent form of love. I tried ecstasy once in high school—this was all the more wild. Despite the unthinkably expensive cost, despite the episiotomy, despite no partner by my side, I’ve never experienced a higher joy than when they laid my son’s six-and-a-half-pound body, still speckled with blood and white vernix, on my bare chest. I have so many regrets in life. My son will never be one of them.
“Are you planning to breastfeed?” the nurse asked once the doctor finished stitching me up.
How I wish I could change my answer.
The nurse recommended the football position. I knew the term from a book on breastfeeding and was eager to try. It was already unbelievable that my body had grown and birthed a human being—and now it would feed my baby? It’s what mammals do, sure, but a miracle all the same.
I pressed a button to lean the bed forward as the nurse surrounded me with pillows. The baby was like a wet noodle, fragile and formless, so I moved slowly and carefully as I tucked him by my side. I feared he wouldn’t latch or that his sucking would hurt, but his feeding came easy. My nipple between his gums felt only the lightest, sweetest pinch. As a yoga friend suggested, I visualized love flowing out of my body and into my son’s, until I worried if he was actually getting any food. The nurse pointed out the gobble motion of his jaw and the crusty, gold-colored colostrum seeping from my other nipple.
“You’re a good producer,” the nurse said. “Very good.”
“Is the milk supposed to look like that—so sparkly?”
“Hmm. We should get the doctor.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked, but she was gone. A metallic odor entered the room. I stared at my son’s reddish-blond hair, thin as a whisper, trying not to agonize over how I’d handle the medical bill. I’d planned to give birth at home with the help of a neighbor, but when my water broke at Macy’s, the manager called an ambulance. I attempted to refuse, to waddle-run to the bus station, but the manager insisted I wait. It was a matter of liability.
My son was born with the longest of eyelashes, the most beautiful curve of the ear. His jagged fingernails had never been cut. The freshness of his body, the smallness of his nose, reminded me that his life brimmed with infinite possibility. Dried blood from my insides still caked his scalp. His head was cone-shaped, long and curved, from squeezing through the birth canal. I swore to myself that everything I did from then on would be to launch him forward. As he continued to nurse, I massaged the tips of his petal-soft fingers. Together, we’d figure this out.
“Let me hold the little guy,” the doctor said. I never heard him, or the woman in the tight pencil skirt, enter the room. “After all, I brought him into this world.”
No, I thought. I did.
“He’s eating,” I said instead.
“We’ll wait,” the doctor replied. The woman in the skirt nodded. I nodded back, though I pulled my baby closer. I should have said no. I should have trusted myself, had more courage. Never, ever let someone you barely know hold your baby—even if they delivered them.
Soon my son was in the doctor’s arms. He let out a yelp and then rooted his head in the doctor’s chest, searching for me. My breasts ached. The baby wailed. Milk streamed out of my nipples as if they too were crying. The milk wasn’t white, though. It was a shocking yellow. Not like urine, but darker and shinier, less transparent. Gold.
The nurse attached flanges to my breasts. It’d be a shame to waste a substance so precious, she said.
“Can I see my baby?” I asked.
“He needs to come with us,” the doctor said, handing him over to the woman in the skirt.
“I want my son,” I said, but the two started walking away. I tried to get up, but my legs were like two giant, useless tongues. The epidural hadn’t worn off.
“You’re lucky, you know,” the nurse said. “Most who can’t pay are penalized.”
“How do you know I can’t pay?”
“Are we wrong?”
“Give me my baby. Give me a chance.”
“Rest, dear. Be thankful.”
The last thing I remember is screaming. I was still hooked up to an IV machine, so they must’ve drugged me. I woke up the next day in a tucked-away wing of the hospital. A glass vase of roses and a tray of sugar cookies rested on the nightstand.
A different nurse, a man, held out a two-month-old girl. She wore a big pink bow tied around her dark-haired head. The nurse explained that the little girl wasn’t healthy, but that maybe my special milk could help. Her parents had worked hard and paid tremendously to get her to me.
“Where’s my son?” I asked.
“Once you pay your bill, you can see him,” the nurse said. “He’s safe, I promise.”
“How the fuck am I supposed to pay my bill?”
“Your milk, silly,” he said. “You’re lucky. Most moms in your situation don’t have this option.”
“Who’s feeding my son?”
The nurse didn’t answer, but instead plopped the baby girl in my arms. My milk let down and began to soak through my hospital gown. I hated my body, this wrong baby, in her designer onesie. I almost threw her to the floor, imagined her skull crushing like a Tootsie Pop, until I heard her cough. She smacked her wet pink lips and then yawned. Her eyes found mine. The male nurse, sensing the moment, untied my gown and nudged the baby’s face toward my gold-stained breast.
I let her latch. As the girl ate, I loved her, in a way—I couldn’t help it—though never like I loved my son. At first I nursed her and three other babies twice a day, and then they started bringing me new babies. I pumped some, too, to collect my milk for bottles, which I assume were sold. That’s when I’d see the milk most fully, the color of melted trophies.
After two years, the hospital let me go. My debt was paid. I demanded to see my son, but I soon learned that a couple who couldn’t have children of their own had adopted him. The best luck of their lives was the worst of mine.
Once out, I couldn’t afford a pump, so I hand-expressed my milk into glass jars. I finally found a lawyer who’d take my frozen milk as payment. He had my milk tested and certified—it was indeed gold, of high monetary value and packed with nutrients of the earth. I wanted to sue the hospital, but after looking into the matter, the lawyer said they had acted within their legal rights. He suggested I take my milk to the bank, that I could be rich and start over. But what would I do with money? Wealth wouldn’t bring me back my son.
I became homeless for a time, and without adequate food, my milk supply dwindled. I considered returning to the hospital, to all those tiny babies. At least there I had a purpose, however grotesque the situation. Instead, I ended up at a shelter that found me an apartment and a job at Walmart. My first purchase was an electric pump. I regained my strength. It’s been seven years, but I’ve kept up my supply, just in case. I now donate my milk to a nonprofit that aids poor preemies.
“You can breastfeed them if you want,” the social worker has offered, but instead I bring in bottles. The anonymity is safer, though I long for that newborn smell.
When work is slow, I walk down the toy aisle, examining bicycles and the latest action figures. Unless they ask for assistance, I try not to interact with the children. Sometimes I can’t restrain myself.
“Wait,” I recently called after a running boy. His skin shined especially bright.
“Yeah?” he said, spinning back on his light-up sneakers. My breasts swelled at the swish of his reddish-blond hair. Would it be possible for him to remember me?
“I like your shoes,” I said, my voice nervous. I wish I at least knew my son’s name; that I had a picture. “Were you by any chance adopted?”
“No?” he said, his nose scrunched.
“Perhaps your parents kept it secret.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Lady, why are you crying?”
I wiped my eyes, but before I could respond, a woman appeared, walking swiftly toward us from the end of the aisle. Her hair was also a reddish blond. This boy, he was not my son. None of them are.
“There you are,” she said. She tugged his hand and then they were gone.
On good days, I wonder if what happened was for the best. Perhaps those first sips of my milk were all I had to offer. Now, a privileged family is raising him, with both a mom and a dad. Plus, so many babies have been saved.
Most days aren’t good days.
I’ve started putting a little milk aside to pay a private investigator who tells me to stay hopeful. She has an incentive to keep me hopeful, and that’s fine. I need that hope in order to go on, to help the preemies, to remain mother-ready for my son. When we one day meet, I pray we can begin again.
Shannon Perri on “Liquid Gold”:
On June 30 of this year, I gave birth to my son. The first few times I sat down to write after his arrival, childbirth and breastfeeding dominated my mind. I decided to go with it and see if a story arose out of the mess. Why did this story get so dark, especially when my personal experience has been so positive? I don’t know. Maybe because the holiness with which the nurses and lactation consultants spoke of breast milk gave it a touch of horror. Maybe because it’s strange, and beautiful, to share your body with another soul. Maybe because loving someone this much is risky. Even my son’s blankets have tags warning of the possibility of death. And death, of course, is not the only nightmare. Our own government rips children away from their parents. Medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy. The average family, with insurance, still has to pay thousands on childbirth. I did not write this piece with a political message in mind—I wrote this piece with the body in mind. However, the two are often interlinked.
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