They were enormous pills, speckled brown, oblong, and chalky. But they came in a pretty blue jar, and the woman at the health-food store said they were better than the other vitamins. Those, she said, contained sugar and dye, carcinogens that were illegal in Europe. She was an unsettling woman in a long, mauve sweater. She stood close to Greta. She said her name was Bonnie.
The vitamins were required, Bonnie said, but she also said Greta needed to drink tea. Thirty-two ounces a day, actually, which might seem like a lot, but would flush the toxins out of her body and allow the optimal environment for baby to grow. “Baby,” Bonnie kept saying. “For Baby.” And Greta was startled by this designation since certainly she had not begun thinking of what was inside her in that way.
The tea came in a large barrel. It was free of GMOs, obviously, because it was grown by Mennonites. It contained a blend of leaves and roots to nourish the baby and prepare Greta’s body for labor. If her uterus wasn’t toned, she would end up with a C-section.
“Haven’t you ever wondered why Mennonite women don’t need C-sections?”
“No,” Greta said.
“Well, yeah.” Bonnie combed her thick bangs with her fingers. “ Look it up. Ask questions. There is a lot of reading you can do.”
Greta had gone into the store because she was hungry. She wanted fruit. But instead of fruit she bought the vitamins and tea. She felt bewitched and obedient holding these things. Bonnie threw in a coupon book. “See you again,” she said. “Take your vitamins and you’ll be alright.” Her face was solemn, but her hand was on Greta’s shoulder, softly patting, and actually, Greta thought, that was sort of nice.
In the car, Greta opened the bottle and swallowed one of the pills. They smelled awful, like dirt and ammonia. She took another one. It was the second pill that lodged immediately and resolutely in her esophagus. All through the day she could feel it — a bitter lump of folic acid and herbs coming apart inside of her. It wasn’t totally unpleasant, she decided, though it was distracting. She kept putting her hand to her chest, trying to coax in downward.
“Are you okay,” her husband said that night when she choked on a piece of bread. Greta nodded, but something stopped her from telling him that she was obviously not okay, from explaining the vitamins and the tea, the irrational pleasure she got from those things; from holding them while listening to a bossy woman with big hips and ideas.
“I’m just not sure pregnancy interests me,” he’d said early on.
And could she blame him? Was pregnancy interesting or was it half vile, half boring, like a rash or someone else’s long and disturbing dream?
A week later, the lump was still there, more settled than before. She told the obstetrician. He’d been in the middle of measuring, his hands pointing out a list of things that were happening to her body. Diastatis Recti, Linea Negra, words announcing the separation and marking of her midsection. “A miracle,” he said, tracing the line from pubic bone to breastbone with his finger. “How our bodies do what they do.”
“Not ours, exactly,” said Greta. But did she say it out loud? She’d developed the unnerving sensation that she was either frequently repeating herself or not saying things at all. The only choice was to be very careful about what she thought.
The doctor looked stern. “Have I told you about my five daughters?”
She tried to nod, but her head was flat against the bed. The galloping, static heartbeat poured out of the doppler. The doctor chased it as he spoke.
His oldest daughter, he said, had four sons. So that kept her busy. Another was a lawyer, a third did something improbable and creative with metal, another was a podiatry resident. There was one daughter who he always skipped over. Was she dead, Greta wondered. Was she hooked on drugs or stuck in one of those cults, waiting on enlightenment with glassy eyes? She tried not to think about that fifth daughter.
The doctor was unconcerned about the lump in her throat. Globus hystericus, he said. (More ancient words, why did they have to use ancient words in cases of medicine and God. Did they want to be misunderstood?)
“Blame it on hormones if you want. You might lose your voice. Drink your food and chew your drink. Gandhi said that.” He patted her knee. “Here comes Roseanne, for some girl talk.”
Roseanne was surly and flushed; tattooed with a spread of snaky, indecipherable designs. “I didn’t want to be a nurse,” she’d said early on, like something you had to get out of the way. She never said what she did want to be.
“Do you feel safe at home?” she said, before she’d even shut the door. “Because pregnant women are more likely to be abused by their partners.”
“Oh,” said Greta.
“Do you? It’s a yes or no question, and I need to mark it on your chart.”
Greta said she did, but disagreed that it was a yes or no question. Pregnancy felt uncertain at best. It was disorienting and jangly, like an antiquated amusement-park ride. Who knew what any moment would bring? Who knew whose fault it would be? It could get you down, always looking for blood.
At dinner, Greta chewed her food into a paste, held water in her mouth, thought about Gandhi.
“I have this thing,” she told her husband. “Globus hystericus.”
“From the Greek!” he said. He was a classics guy. He taught at the college, and his students loved him. They loved him so much that they sometimes showed up on the doorstep with home-baked cookies and pie. How did they know where he lived? How did they bake in their dorm rooms?
He didn’t know. This wasn’t the kind of thing he was interested in. They’d met at their college library, where they’d both had work-study assignments. Later she’d joke that this is why she became a librarian. Back then, she’d liked his confidence, his focus and optimism; those things that were the antidote to dread.
He was a good teacher and he would be a good father. He was kind and patient with capable hands, a strong hairline, a confident jaw. He rode in bike races, prepared for a conference about a recent shipwreck on the Nile. The shipwreck had proved something about Herodotus. He was so excited about this. So excited about this dead thing.
“Is he taking care of you?” asked Greta’s friend Lisa. “Because when I was pregnant I made Steve quit drinking. Coffee, alcohol, Coke. And he just did it. We went on a lot of walks together. We took our vitamins at the same time. Every morning we read a poem to the baby. Frankie still loves Robert Frost.”
Did Greta want this? Certainly not. Even the thought of laying out such a self-important plan embarrassed her. So then what did she want? She thought about Bonnie, the warm store with its proud rows of green juice. Its promises of regeneration. Rejuvenation and vitality. When she was a child, she’d gone to a store just like it with her mother. Greta sat on a bean bag in the corner while her mother determinedly picked out beautiful pink apples and little glass jars of blue-green algae. But that only happened sometimes. The other times they ate macaroni and cheese and her mother drank a lot of wine and apologized. Now Greta saw the comfort in the promise for renewed cells, increased immunity, control. There was an essential oil for stress, there was an essential oil for headaches.
The next morning Greta went back. That was a mistake. The store felt darker, weirder, more unkempt. Bonnie was there, but this time she had a little girl at her side. They floated toward her, in the same pale linen.
“How’s our baby,” Bonnie said. But there was an edge to her voice. She squinted.
“Did you take the vitamins?”
“Actually,” said Greta, “One got stuck in my throat.”
“Those are very easy to swallow. If you’re choking it’s negative emotion and stress. Magnesium deficiency, probably, which is common. Stress, depleted soil … Bad for baby. I hear it in your voice, actually. You do know your child can hear you?” She shuffled off. The girl, who looked identical to Bonnie, stared at Greta. “Sit down,” she said, pointing at a wicker rocking chair.
“No school today?” said Greta.
“Ha!” yelled Bonnie from across the store.
The child snickered. “The store isn’t doing well,” she whispered happily.
Greta looked at her face, which was pinched and dry.
“Can I touch it,” said the girl, already reaching toward Greta’s belly.
Her hands were dirty and cold. Greta pushed the chair back like she’d been shocked.
Bonnie came back with a tub of magnesium powder. She put it in a basket and handed it to Greta. Then, without prompting, still stomping about the store, she said she had birthed each of her seven children in water. The first in the bathtub; the last in a river. She said her births were not painful, because she was not afraid.
“Are you using crystals?” she asked. “It would be wise if you spent more time in the woods, eliminated toxins and unnecessary furniture from your home, and took two teaspoons of cod liver oil daily.” Greta nodded. Bonnie went to get the cod liver oil.
Greta bought the magnesium. She bought the cod liver oil. She bought a lamp made from Himalayan salt. How did this happen? Bonnie kept piling things into a basket. It cost $150. Greta was shocked, and said nothing. The magnesium was called RELAXIUM and had a person stretching toward a sunrise on the label. She took the things to her car. Across the street, a couple of teens were smoking and drinking Big Gulps. Greta poured the powder into her water bottle and sighed. It tasted like drinking the river.
Maybe the RELAXIUM worked. Maybe it was the lamp. But probably not. Probably it was the change of season, the melting snow, the fact that the end of her pregnancy was quickly, undeniably, approaching. But something did change because even though her voice had gotten scratchy and strained, Greta was thinking clearly. She threw away Bonnie’s coupons. She was embarrassed about the expensive supplements lined up in the bathroom, the way she’d been taken advantage of, listening to stupid Bonnie mounting her stupid soapbox.
All of this might have been a funny story, such whimsy is a pregnant lady’s brain, but then one day Bonnie showed up in the children’s library where Greta worked. Bonnie was smiling, wearing a wide blue hat.
“I didn’t know you were a librarian,” Bonnie said knowingly. “It’s been awhile.” The girl was with her, wearing a corduroy pantsuit, weird for a child, weird for a warm day. Greta knew then that Bonnie didn’t have answers, that she didn’t have six more children, that she had made up this story and her others as some sort of performance, a fable for Greta’s benefit or her own. She knew too that this wasn’t the first time someone had done this; that people were telling stories all the time, that that’s all any of it was, and that she had believed it all, devotedly and without discretion.
“Will you look at this,” said Bonnie, reaching across the desk to rub Greta’s stomach. “What did I tell you!” Greta turned back to a stack of books. She had a sudden, desperate need to get away.
But Bonnie kept talking. “You’re close now,” she said, “ and your energy is shifting.” She was whispering, her eyes bright and wet.
“I don’t really think this is the best time,” Greta said.
“What?” said Bonnie. “I didn’t catch that. What’s wrong with your voice? Sounds strained. You know, I had a dream about you, and in this dream you looked like my mother, who, although uncommonly beautiful was a devout Catholic. She hit us with a hairbrush. Can you believe that? You’d think she was going to brush your hair and then all of a sudden, smack! They knocked her out during childbirth, chained to her bed, practically. They said it would be better if she didn’t remember. But you know, the body’s pain doesn’t just disappear; it has to go somewhere.” Bonnie looked at her clogs, which were brown and scuffed, and reminded Greta of hooves.
“Anyway,” she went on, “I’m going to tell you something for your benefit. If you insist on giving birth in the hospital you are putting your baby at risk. You don’t have to let them rub poison on your baby’s eyes. You don’t have to let them stick your child with their needles. Actually, you never have to do that.” She took Greta’s hand and pressed a shining black stone into her palm.
“We didn’t always have so many choices,” she said, sadly.
Greta said nothing. Was it fear or globus hystericus that lodged in her throat? Either way, she couldn’t talk. Bonnie, on the other hand, talked until her daughter fell off one of the small chairs and started to shriek, and then weep. Reluctantly, Bonnie went to help her. The girl stopped crying and then carefully put a crayon in her mouth. Greta ducked behind a stack of books, the stone still wrapped in her hand.
“Why won’t they listen?” Bonnie said vaguely, looking around at all the mothers, patting, wiping, kneeling beside their children. She left the library, sulkily, her daughter trailing behind with the crayon. Greta looked at the stone. It felt cheap, like something from a child’s collection, and though it was obviously a bad omen, she put it in the pocket of her skirt. Later, at home, she left it on the table. Her husband found it and held it to the light. “Hematite,” he said. “Where did it come from?” The stone was benign in his hand.
“There’s this woman,” Greta said. “Bonnie. She’s got a store.”
“A rock store? Okay. The Romans used it. They rubbed it on their skin.”
“Of course they did,” Greta said.
After that, Greta had nightmares about silent, blue babies, crystals, river births, ancient women surrounded by weird rocks. Those women lived such a long time ago. They were only girls when they gave birth. Did people stuff them with herbs and tell them how to sleep? And what had happened when their bodies broke open so bloodily?
She asked her husband, lying beside him in bed.
“Well,” he said easily, stroking her hair, “for one thing they died.”
The weather got hot. The town was crowded with people from the city, getting lost with their ice cream cones. She was exhausted. She kept bumping into things, usually children. A man on the street offered to cut her open with scissors. It was all getting to be too much. At her last prenatal appointment she cried openly and Roseanne was kind. “I also had a baby,” she said quietly. “It is dangerous and lonely. But we do understand each other.” Greta cried harder, because why hadn’t Roseanne, or anyone else for that matter, made any sense before.
The next week, Greta labored. She labored all day and into the night, though labor didn’t necessarily seem like a good word for what she was doing, because labor is a word for tamed beasts, cart horses for example, and for the first time in her life Greta felt feral. Time tangled into itself and she didn’t care when she vomited or screamed or swatted violently at anybody who came too close. She developed a fever and faces appeared before her, on the wall and ceiling. She saw her mother’s face, the face of an unidentified girl, a golden retriever she’d had as a child who was hit by a car. But it was Bonnie’s face that was biggest of all. It took up residence in the room and stayed there, shimmering. Your body has one job, it kept saying, grimly. Do your job.
Greta was weak, hurriedly injected with something. Her husband’s eyes were concerned, and then the doctor’s eyes were concerned, and it became obvious then, how little anybody really knew.
But then the fever was gone, and Bonnie was gone, and she’d done it, the baby was screaming, and everyone knew this was good. The doctor was proud. He said he knew she could do it. He put a hand on her head, like a priest. And then he was gone, too.
The baby was healthy, a girl and a marvel. She came out powerful; covered in gunk and blood. They named her Penelope. Greta knew that she would be all right. As for Greta, she could hardly talk. Her throat was scraped out and vibrating. She used a button and requested cranberry juice.
“You screamed pretty loud,” said her husband. He was awed, frightened, in love. “Also, he said, who is Bonnie?” Then he fell asleep. His face grew young, at rest in the dark. Greta stayed awake, clutching the baby, terrorized, energized and aching while the sun came up outside her window.
A couple of months passed hazily. Greta’s voice did not return to normal. She emailed the doctor but got a note from Roseanne. He retired, it said in all caps. Your birth was his last birth. You’ll just have to be patient. You can gargle with salt water if you want. This also helps with bad breath which is more common than people think.
She was probably just tired. But specifics aren’t important here, and by the time her voice came back she had other wounds. She lost touch with friends, lost her sense of time, showed up late or early or not at all. She found that this was okay; that she no longer needed to tell anybody where she was. It was an organic process, she thought with confusion, because people are supposed to wonder about other people when they suddenly disappear, even if they don’t like them.
Penelope was a great baby. Everybody said so. Sometimes she went to work with her father, and rode around in a backpack while he gave lectures on Sappho, Circe, Penelope, for whom she was named. In the grocery store people congratulated him, lingered nearby, marveled at his devotion; at the way he talked to his daughter as he pushed her through the produce. Since fathering a girl, he’d taken on a new interest in women. He recited poetry into Penelope’s small shell of an ear as she slept: but my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a subtle fire races inside my skin, my eyes can’t see a thing and a whirring whistle thrums at my hearing.
He came away smiling, stars in his eyes. “Our girl,” he said, “is going places.” Then he went for a six-hour bike ride. Greta thought she probably needed a hobby, and couldn’t imagine what that would possibly be.
“Where did you go,” Greta said when he got back. “Where have you been?” Her voice was supposed to sound firm, but it did not, it wavered, traitorous.
“There was a head wind,” he said, taking off his jersey, taking Penelope in his sweaty arms.
Greta developed the unfortunate habit of pondering the future. There were things she was certain about and things she was not. Her husband would go on to do things, publish things, win things, become a handsome grandfather with a big chair on a big deck that looked out at a big sea. He’d never lose his hair, never grow one of those big hard bellies. Maybe he’d have high cholesterol, but probably not.
Meanwhile, where was she? Sometimes she was sitting with him, but more often she wasn’t. So what then? Was she dead or in the kitchen? She shook her head, ashamed of her own cliché. In college she liked the feminists, especially the Victorians. She liked their ugliness and severity and the way they stalked around on the gray moors in their big skirts. Now she wished for a moor to scatter her rage upon like a pocketful of stones. Instead she drank water with lemon and honey and walked for hours at a time, on trails and streets, with Penelope strapped to her front.
It was during one of these walks that she saw Bonnie for the last time. Penelope was maybe 6 months old, and asleep, and even though it had started to rain, Greta would keep walking.
Bonnie and her daughter came toward her, marching, holding hands.
“Well look at this!” said Bonnie. “We had a baby! A girl, right? Just like I said.”
“You never said that,” said Greta.
Bonnie smiled, put a hand on Greta’s shoulder. “How’s the breastfeeding coming?”
Greta contemplated Bonnie’s face. The last time she’d seen it was in the delivery room, illuminated and dancing on the wall of the bathroom. It was not a good face. It was wide and cagey beneath the thick forelock.
Greta wondered what it would feel like to punch Bonnie. Instead, she wrapped her arms around sleeping Penelope. Things would be different for her, Greta decided with resolve. Greta would tell Penelope something that was more like the truth. Who cared if that was what every mother of every girl since time imaginable had whispered to their sleeping daughters. This time it was true.
Her husband had been reading the story of Circe, famous for trapping men and turning them into pigs, out loud. He laughed, and snorted, and Penelope giggled with delight and grabbed his nose because she didn’t know the end, how Circe had to kneel and beg. He always left that part out.
Where are your other children?” Greta asked Bonnie. For once, Bonnie withdrew her hand.
“And you, why aren’t you ever in school.” She pointed at the child, with her blank little face. It was inappropriate to point at a child, and the girl looked scandalized, but Greta didn’t care.
“Postpartum mood disorders are a construct, developed by pharmaceutical companies,” Bonnie said. “On the other hand, you obviously have a hormone imbalance.”
“You’re a liar,” she told Bonnie. “Why did you say the things you did? People don’t give birth in rivers. Not even animals do that.”
“Fish do, “ said the child.
But by then, Greta was already walking away. Actually, she pretty much ran.
Penelope woke up, but it was okay. She was fine, looking up to see her mother, or maybe something else.