Short Story Contest Winner: Water Birth
I was born in water.
I read recently in a fancy magazine I swiped from the bookstore on Blount Street that that’s what rich women in rich places are doing—natural water births in a special kind of tub with a birth coach and a midwife. Heck, maybe they even have a staff of nurses and doctors around to hand out cigars after it’s all done.
The water is important physically and psychologically for the newborn, because it simulates the safe environment of the mother’s womb, thereby reducing the trauma of the transition for the baby.
The woman who wrote that article has a Ph.D. According to the little author’s bio, she is a professor, writer, pundit and apparently super-mom. Her name is Marsha Longfellow, she is pregnant again (six months) and has decided on a water birth for her next baby.
It’s a nice thought, a nice idea, and I’m sure some women spend many hours thinking about it and planning the perfect birth right down to the water temperature and depth, what music to play, what natural foods to consume during the nine months.
My mama didn’t quite plan my water birth the way Professor Longfellow and her readers are planning theirs. She didn’t quite plan anything, actually.
I’m listening to the story for the hundredth time. I’d come over to Skelly’s to bum a cigarette and to look for Tommy; I should’ve known Skelly would corner me and we would have to dance this sad, broken dance, in this sad, broken room of his sad, broken trailer.
He tells me the story every time I see him, if he can get me to stay long enough. The words are the same each time; the setup never changes. He’ll cough his way through a wheezing laugh, his lips will pull apart like a drying scab, and I will stare at his yellow, gritty incisors as he points out the window at the dirty plastic wading pool by his trailer. The pool is so old now, mold has blackened half of its bottom, and because Skelly always forgets to cover it, there are scummy things floating around in the rain from the night before.
“We were sittin’ by the fire outside, though we sure as hell din’t need it cuz it wuz so hot. Shuld’ve been cold that late in the year.” I can see his tongue peeking between gaps in those yellow teeth as he speaks and enunciates words differently from how they’re spelled, like our people do.
The tongue disappears and reappears like magic, a little purplish rabbit in a moist red hat. “We just got the dang plastic pool too, got it off Mr. Simmons in that house down the street who done gone decided to get a bigger one in his backyard.”
I stare, perfectly still, knowing he’s not going to let me leave without retelling the story. I really need a cigarette now, but Skelly will not be interrupted when he’s on a roll.
“Yer mama, she wuz tweaked out and drunk, running around and singing all night long at the top o’ her lungs, and everyone yellin’ at her to shut her trap, but she just kept on with that danged singing.”
I concentrate on the flecks of spittle against the bristles of his half-hearted moustache. They remind me of this poem I read recently about drops of dew on grass at dawn—they might both have the same kind of texture, and in the same way, Skelly is like Robert Frost.
Skelly hitches up his pants and lets out a loud groan, rubbing his bad back. He’s distracted for a few precious seconds, and I seize the opportunity to inch away, but he anticipates me, moving with some difficulty to lean against his armchair and block my path.
He’s now at the part where he saw my mother stumbling over toward them.
“She so danged big with you, she looked like she wuz gonna pop any second now.”
Skelly coughs again and can’t seem to stop. When he finally emerges from that ecstatic fit of wheezing, he looks at me with a dreamy gaze. “You know, you look juz like her when she wuz growin’ up,” he muses. “Hair the color of night so dark you could go blind looking, and eyes so big there warn’t hardly any room fer nuthin’ else.”
I say nothing—it’s best to say nothing. Skelly blinks and goes on with his story.
“I tol’ her she wuz gonna hurt herself with all that prancing around, but she juz laughed at me when I yelled at her to get her ass back home. Then she snatched my bottle and went and sat in the pool, and she just continued drinking and laughing, and singing in the water.”
Skelly gestures at my birthplace but I don’t bother to look.
“It wuz so dark, the fire was out, and she wuz still sitting there. I wuz done ready to go to bed, and I shouted at her to go back home, don’t let me catch ya tomorrow morning passed out in my pool like the last time. And as I wuz walking up the stairs, then she started screaming and cursing, and motherfucker can yer mama scream and curse.”
I sweep my gaze around and finally catch sight of what I came here for on the counter in the kitchen. As he’s in the middle of a sentence, I sidestep him with a swift move and ignore his wounded look. I grab a cigarette from the packet of Marlboros lying on the counter and walk slowly back to him.
Skelly digs into his trouser pocket and gives me a light. “Those things will kill ya,” he says gruffly. I don’t even pause to think how random that statement is.
He continues: “She din’t stop screaming and cursing, and we wuz like, ‘What the hell?’”
I take a drag of the cigarette and savor the grimy smoke at the back of my throat. It’ll be over soon, I think. He should be almost done. There’s a patch of sunlight that has landed on my forearm, illuminating the fine hairs on my skin. The prickly summer heat almost seems to attack each individual hair, blanketing me with a million pinpoints of warmth. The patches of light on my arm are strangely fascinating, and I move my arm up and down, watching them dance and struggle to keep up, imagining the heat curl around their edges. Skelly furrows his brow, wondering what I’m doing, but then he decides it’s not compelling enough for him to pause in the middle of his story to ask.
“And I go over, I’m sayin’ to her, ‘What’s wrong, Maddie? What’s wrong?’ And she just screamed and screamed, and I’m holding her. We’re both in the pool now. And she’s saying, ‘motherfucker fuck fuck fuck,’ and Michael wuz just standing there, looking like the screaming wuz hurtin’ his head.”
Michael was my father, I think.
“And then you popped out.”
There’s a strange, terrifying note of tenderness in the old man’s voice. He lays his hand on my arm, covering the patch of sunlight, which makes me temporarily angry before I remember I don’t need to be angry about anything, really.
“I goddamn birthed you in water, right here, seventeen years ago,” he says. “Cut the cord with my own goddamned scissors. With my own goddamned hands.” He holds them up, displaying those marvelous birthing hands. I notice that the yellowed fingertips are the same color as his teeth, but that doesn’t bother me as much as when my gaze falls upon a big pair of shears hanging by the door. They’re rusty and blackened with dirt. I shudder, imagining them ripping and slicing roughly through an umbilical cord.
He follows my gaze.
“No, heck, that warn’t it,” he assures me. “We used them bright shiny ones, from the kitchen.”
He reaches out then, and I hand him the cigarette I’m smoking. He takes a drag but doesn’t hand it back immediately. I eye it as wafts of smoke curl around the tip and rise to the ceiling.
So far, I haven’t said a word. I’m thinking about my mother now. My entire life, my mother has barely tolerated me, and she’s done her best to distance herself from me. She was never around much, and my earliest childhood memories are of Skelly and Tommy, and then Beau. I can see them so clearly—Skelly barbecuing, Tommy and me playing, and Beau with his dusty cowboy hat dancing the two-step with my mother. In contrast, I don’t see my mother. I think I’ve absorbed her through smell, hearing and touch, and seeing her … hurts. I can’t explain it, but when I think about my mother, I feel her, and it’s always a painful feeling.
Skelly eyes me cagily, sensing that I’ve stopped listening to him. He takes another puff on my cigarette and I nod slowly as he continues his monologue.
“That Michael wuz no damned good,” he proclaims. “Big baby who ran out at the first sign things weren’t all peaches and cream. A real prince. And Beau. Now don’t get me started. Yer mama could do a whole lot better, let me tell you.”
I listen a few more minutes to him as he rants about my mother and the mess she’s made of her life, and the blasted men who can’t keep their hands off her. And then I can’t stand it any longer. Mid-sentence, I push past him and I’m at the door, my hand on the handle. He looks stricken, and he sounds suddenly fearful.
“You leavin’ so soon?”
Skelly’s lonely, but we’re all lonely.
I don’t answer and turn away, walking out the door and racing down the steps and across the grassy patch in front of his trailer. I have to circle the pool of my birth in all its scummy glory, and I try not to think about how lucky I am not to be retarded, brain-dead, or just plain dead. Instead, I think about professor Marsha Longfellow.
Simulates the natural environment of the baby.
Reduces the trauma of the transition for the baby.
I don’t know why I look back, but I do, and I see Skelly outlined in the doorway. He’s a black figure against the light of the blinding Texan sun and I know suddenly, with a conviction that almost saddens me, that he’s going to die soon.
As I’m watching, Skelly lifts his hand. I think he’s waving goodbye at first, but instead his fingers go to his lips and he takes a drag from the cigarette.
I’d forgotten to take the cigarette back from him.
Born and raised in Singapore, Larina Lavergne now resides in North Carolina, where she works in power grid engineering and clean energy. In between writing novels, she likes to fly aerobatics—the world just looks a lot better upside down.