The night my daughter was born

By Laura Cline

The night my daughter is born is the night that I start to grow the feathers. Smooth and black, their prickly shafts stab into my skin. At first they grow on the softness of my inner thighs, and then they begin to sprout across my back. I can feel them on the inside, plumes in my chest, clumping in my throat, blooming behind my irises.

I remember the birth like Polaroids strung on a thin black wire. My mom sits on the mauve couch, her face concerned; I lie on my side, splaying hospital gown, wild woman hair; my sweet doula gently rubs circles on my back with a neon tennis ball. I curl on the cold metal table in the operating room, my back fully exposed, holding my arms around the neck of the dark-haired nurse, a total stranger, while the anesthesiologist in his blue scrubs and white face mask tries over and over again to find just the right spot between my vertebrae for his needle. The explosions from my constant contractions scream.

All I feel when the baby is born, when they pull her from the slit in my abdomen, through layers of flesh, are my lungs filling, drowning, and my limbs shake so hard I can’t even hold her small body. She comes out looking thousands of years old. Her feet are all scales and wrinkles, like some deep-water amphibian, like something that has been in the dark, deep ocean for all its life. The wrinkles of her nose are primordial, alien. The experience of giving birth itself is ancient. Even with all the lights and the machines and the nurses buzzing in and out, I am an animal, a fox in a den, the very first woman birthing the very first baby. It smells of the earth, of the sea, of the essence of our bones and marrow, the insides of our veins. I see the brightness of my pain in front of my eyes like a million shining stars, like the whole universe imploding. To give birth is to touch death, ever so gently, to come right to its edge and peer into it, to lose the edges of one’s body, to blur with the divine. “My little bird,” I whisper into her ear.

In the early nights after my daughter’s birth, those long hospital nights, I am wide awake, staring into her miniature face, eyes no bigger than buttons, tiny berry mouth. People say all newborn babies have blue eyes. It isn’t clear blue like the sky, but a cloudy blue, like a stormy ocean, almost no color at all. Birds drown in oceans. There is always a light on in the hospital, dim but not quite dark; there are always sounds, squeaking shoes, women in labor, chatting husbands in the hall, the beeping from the machines connected to my chest and my wrists, the tightening and loosening of the cuffs pushing the blood through my legs. In and out go the nurses all night, checking and adjusting and questioning.

All night the baby makes tiny little noises, grunts and sighs, her arms pressing against the insides of her flannel swaddle, so alive in the vastness of the outside world. Her eyes are dark, open slits, pointed at the sky as she lies in her bassinet, reflecting the fluorescent hospital lights. And I lie awake, on my bed of feathers.

I always thought depression came like the fog comes in the Carl Sandburg poem, “on little cat feet.” Postpartum depression came on differently, like an 18-wheel truck slamming into a cement wall, its driver asleep at the wheel. At home, I spend all my time flying thousands of feet above my house, peering down through my roof at my family, flapping my wings and flying in circles. I walk around my block every day so I don’t forget how to put my feet on the ground. Sweat pours down my body, and I feel nothing but the pain, the scalding from the Arizona sun, the burning in my lungs, the pulling of my c-section incision, the out-of-control ticker tape of my thoughts. I pass by my neighbor’s beat up metal mailbox and I see the bird. She is lying on her side, the black of her wing shining in the sun. Her glassy eye stares up at the clear sky.

In the house, the news blares the death of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church. The air conditioner is broken, and it is almost the fourth of July. For weeks the reporters say the same thing, and finally I ask: “Was there a bombing at a church in the South?” I make my own nest of damp blankets, seas of my tears, and I curl there with my small baby, wrapping my bird mother body around hers. She coos and smiles and breathing her is my only song.

Every day I walk past the bird; I expect her to be gone, but she remains. July and then August, her black feathers bake into the asphalt. I’ve never liked birds. Many afternoons a murder of crows descends on my yard, with their heaviness, their earthiness, their strange stillness. This bird was smaller. Sadder. Her bones start to show; her flesh disappears into the asphalt, and I think to myself: How would it feel? How would it feel to lie so still, to sleep in the insistent warmth of the sun? How would it feel to slowly disappear?  On the way home, I rub my hands up and down my arms, along my own black feathers, feeling their sharpness.

A monsoon night, mid-August, the steady thrum of rain on windows and crashing thunder. I wake up, sitting straight in my bed, like lightning runs straight down my spine. I cry out for my baby. I wail from a place in the bottom of my abdomen. I cry from the bowl of my pelvis, from the bottom of the sea, molten cries from the center of a volcano. A mass of black feathers erupts through my beak. My husband, returning from taking the colicky baby for a ride in the car, can hear my cries from outside the front door, even over the sounds of the storm. He brings her back inside and I tuck her in our nest.

Every day I walk, and there is less and less of the bird. One day, I notice that she doesn’t even look much like a bird anymore. She is a smudge on the concrete, the outline of feathers and feet. One day, she isn’t there at all.  In her place, I lie on the hot pavement, curling my feathers around my swollen, milk-filled breast. I stay just for a moment to feel still in the warm sun before I hop onto my newly formed talons, spread the expanse of my wings, and take to the sky.

Laura Cline is the mother of two toddler girls. She also teaches in and chairs the English department at a community college. In her spare time, she writes essays, reads books, drinks coffee and does yoga.

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