Ashley Valmere, White Balloon (photograph)

Ines’ eighth baby died inside her.
Her waters long broken, she was too far
from town, from the doctor, from the knife
she needed to rescue the child from herself.
It struggled at the end, then stilled, a drowning man
finally glimpsing the shore he knows he will never reach.
Tonight, another child threatens its own death,
pressing hopelessly down between her legs
and will not come.  Her husband is far away
in el campo cutting illegal lumber, and she almost laughs.
He could not save her anyway.  “Benito!”
she screams to her eight-year-sold son.
He comes, solemn and steady.  She presses
her last coins into his hand, tells him to buy a sharp knife
from the tiny shop nearby.  The boy,
who has seen death before, runs too fast to see.
Ines rocks back and forth on her knees, remembering
the child who had lived and stopped living in her body.
Grief felt like contractions in reverse.  First, it came
in waves so close together that they all seemed like one
long storm, one that would level a woman.  Then,
as time went on, as the welcome burden of everyday things
returned, the waves spread out.  She would be pounding corn
and feel it coming, feel it rise, peak, sting her,
and ease away.  The baby thrashed under her navel
and she knew that she would die.  She lay against the wall
of her rough, empty brick house by candlelight and tipped
homemade mezcal back into her throat. Benito returned.
“Mama, a knife,” he said, closing her fingers around it.
“Take the others away,” she said through her teeth. “Find help.”

When she was alone, she finished off the liquor, spat the worm,
and pictured every pig she’d slaughtered in her life.
Flesh was flesh, animal muscle, vessels and veins.
She leaned back and pushed her hips forward
so her womb was pressed against her skin. The child kicked
and she opened herself.  The blood was black
in the low light.  She cut again.  She cut three times, screamed,
and gave up.  Her intestines lay warm outside her,
blood like a blanket. But then the dead boy’s fingers ghosted
across her brow, and she recalled the unmoving weight
of him, the cold stone of her child who never breathed.
She inhaled and found the thin film of her uterus, gripped the knife.
She opened herself and found the child’s ankle, pulled him
into the world. He cried.  He cried and she inhaled it like a drug.
She named him, had barely time to love him, and she lay him
at her side, sliced the cord that joined them, and began
pressing her organs back inside her the best she could.
Her vision flickered in and out.  The candle died in the night.
Later, after the tailor came and sewed her, after she was carried
in the hills to a lorry, her insides still contracting, after the hours
in the dark, after the doctor at last, she saw the boy open his eyes
and knew it would be a long time before grief would visit her again,
knew that her body, which had been a coffin, an ocean, a tomb,
was also a doorway, a candle, a weapon, a ship.


Katie Bickham