The teeth won’t come out, even when I pull hard. It’s because the carcass isn’t old enough. The skull wants to keep the teeth, refuses to be broken apart. Sometimes the teeth shatter in the jaws of the Leatherman tool I keep, along with a pair of work gloves and a Ziploc bag, under the front seat of my car. Long incisors are choice for my art; deer, elk, antelope, porcupines and coyotes all have excellent teeth. I harvest them, bleach them, and eventually implant them into giant papier-mâché fish that I sculpt when I am frustrated with writing.
The last months of my pregnancy correspond to high roadkill season. In northern Colorado, late summer and autumn are punctuated by dead animals on the highway. I count—often there are several casualties per mile of pavement. Skunks are the most common victims, but porcupines and deer and foxes also bloom on the highways, dead, sometimes fixed in horrible contorted poses, sometimes looking bloated and uncomfortable, other times squished into the pavement such that a few tufts of fur grow out of the blacktop, as if there had never been an animal, never been pain, never been a life at all.
Where animals are dead on the road, others are likely to have died before them. I realized this on lonely Highway 13 near the Colorado/ Wyoming border, where I once stopped to take pictures. A fence along the road boasted Burma-Shave signs, each only a foot across and half as high, stuck on fence posts about 20 yards apart. The first sign said, Take Steak, the next In America, then Beef Up Your Life, and finally just Eat Beef A long-time vegetarian, I decided to set the self-timer on my camera and pose, affecting an exaggerated body builder posture, under each of the signs.
I parked near a newly dead deer. Between the road and the fence, I walked over three skeletons; along the fence, within a hundred yards of one another, were eight or 10 more. I puzzled a few moments over the wreckage of life, wondering how an animal could deserve death by automobile. On the windburned Wyoming plain, over the corpse of a spike buck, I yelled out a few lines from E.E. Cummings, “i who have died am alive again today, and this the sun’s birthday…” Two semis roared by on the highway behind me, invading the prayer. I judged them to be moving at about 80 miles per hour. One driver pulled his horn, and before the sound was finished, the trucks had disappeared over a rise in the road. Gone like phantoms.
Fancying myself some sort of Georgia O’Keefe renegade in a Subaru, I picked up three deer skulls and tossed them under the hatchback door.
I don’t exactly enjoy pulling teeth. It’s a stinky business; often there are maggots to contend with, sometimes blood, fur, dried entrails. Usually the eye sockets are empty, and I wonder when the animal last had vision. I know pain is gone, but pulling, I utter the Buddhist prayer for a favorable rebirth, “Om mani padme hum!” Or I say to the animal, “Hope you’re in heaven.” I yank the teeth with a disquieting notion of having taken reincarnation upon myself.
In pregnancy, the process of scouting out dead animals and extracting their teeth is fundamentally altered by my shape. I’m not so agile; I must squat instead of bending. I have to get closer to the bodies. I have to get closer to death.
For the first time in my life, I start feeling like an animal. I can’t move very quickly, and I am vulnerable. The child inside me squirms and rolls. My breasts are swollen to twice their normal size, demanding that my attention constantly turn to nurturing and sustenance. The explosion of my olfactory capability makes me believe I could, if need be, sniff out food, or danger. I feel strong but also desperate and tender. The weight of technology seems heightened. I feel complicit in death every time I drive. When I see carcasses by the side of the road, I whisper to my baby, “I love you.” I tell her I’ll take care of her. I tell him I’ll protect him with my life.
Near home, I find a small, long-dead deer by the side of the highway. After soaking the skull in bleach for a day, I rinse it with the garden hose, at first superficially, but then with unabashed interest. I put my fingers in the eyeholes and survey the bone. It’s easy enough to tell where the spinal cord went into the skull at the base of the brain. Aiming the hose here, I watch the water flow in. A few dry maggot casings get pushed out of the sinuses, as little rivers spurt from two openings that led to the deer’s nostrils when there was still skin and cartilage to connect everything.
I put my finger to the tip of my own nose and roll the flesh while I sit on the lawn, speculating. It won’t hurt, I reason, to decompose. By the time the maggots are at me, I’ll be good and dead, already unfeeling, like this deer, whose head I have in my hand. Straight overhead, the sun seethes casually on.
I dig my toes into the grass. I think about birth and rebirth and God. It’s late August. A few leaves have already turned on the cotton-woods in our yard, and the changing season seems to recognize me. Even now, pregnant and unusual to myself, autumn does not just come: it bears me—baby and all—along in its golden stream. I lift the deer skull to eye level and scrutinize again. The child inside me kicks to tell me that birthing in fall is perhaps the ultimate paradox.
My intrigue with fish began when I was an undergraduate and flew to Alaska for a summer to gut salmon for money. We worked eight-hour shifts, with only three or four hours between, for weeks at a time. In a constant state of half-wakefulness, I performed the various jobs in the plant—heading, gulleting, washing, sorting the fish, which came in a steady barrage. The actions were repetitive, at first monotonous, but as the hours and the summer wore on, everything fell into a rhythmic lull. Although I knew nothing about Zen at the time, the actions associated with killing and cleaning fish became, ironically, meditative. Standing at the wash table at 3 a.m., cutting the blood line at the backbone—scooping the clots that resembled thick strawberry jam away from the spines, then placing the fish back on the conveyor belt to be sorted, frozen and eventually sent to Japan—began to be nearly pleasant.
The packing process was cold and clean; the fish were firm and silver. I expected to be horrified at the sheer volume of life being raked from the ocean. In one small packing plant with a crew of 30 people, we processed 20,000 pounds of salmon every hour. But instinct betrayed me. A false, quiet sense of abundance prevailed. The constant pouring forth of fish gave me the feeling the ocean was fecund and inexhaustible.
In school the following semester, I was required to write a paper on a modern novel of my choice. Near the end of Virginia Woolf’s “Between the Acts,” a giant carp surfaces in a garden pond. The dreamlike image of the carp resonated with my memories of salmon, and after hours in the basement of the university library thumbing through dusty books of symbols, I found out that fish represent fertility.
Having a baby has never been a life objective for me. I didn’t presume that I would not be a mother, but while friends waited and yearned for children, maternal longing only skirted my consciousness. When I began sculpting fish, it was with the concept of fertility in mind, not of reproduction, necessarily. I thought of fertility of imagination and spirit, proliferation of thought and creativity as jostling shoulder to shoulder in one category. The fish were a way I could be creative, could be fertile when I was not writing.
Fish I have made range in length from about 8 inches to over 6 feet. Beginning with cardboard, I cut two identical fish shapes and tape them together, stuffing the form with paper to give it dimension. I crumple up drafts of particularly bad stories and seal them inside. I add fins, also cut from cardboard. When the shape is finished, the papier-mâché process begins; two or three layers are required for structural integrity. A mosaic of colored fabric pieces goes on in decoupage fashion over the paper. This is the most time consuming part of the process, but also the part by which each fish takes on its distinctive look. Several layers of sealers are applied over the fabric to give a shiny, finished effect. Eyes are difficult to decide on—sometimes I use colored clay, sometimes painted sand dollars, sometimes various hardware-store items, such as faucet handles or dish-drain covers painted with bright nail polish. The finishing touch is adding the teeth.
Teeth are chosen according to the size of the fish, the size of the mouth and the “personality” the fish has acquired over the course of its creation. Using a power drill, I make holes in the papier-mâché, then glue in the teeth. The dental work transforms the art. The teeth make the fish look fiendish and determined. I use this idea to remind myself to be relentless about thought, to be committed to ideas, to be terrible and foreboding in pursuit of mindfulness, gentleness and fertility.
When I decided I wanted to get pregnant, I hung the fish all around the bedroom and conceived on the first go-round.
In a conference room in the hospital basement, we sit around an oak table strewn with handouts on how to time contractions and our options of cloth or disposable diapers. We have already discussed colostrum, and pre-term labor, prolapsed umbilical cords and jaundice. Everyone is starting to yawn, the prospective mothers rubbing their bellies, the fathers-to-be tipping their baseball caps back to scratch at their hairlines.
The instructor says, “An episiotomy is when the doctor snips the skin of the perineum to let the baby come out more easily.” Everyone nods, and then there is silence.
The term is not new to me; still, it takes some effort to remain calm. “But it’s not skin, exactly, right?” Several eyes shift my way but dart just as quickly back to the tabletop or the clock on the wall. The instructor looks as if she hasn’t understood my question. There’s silence until I go on. “I mean, the perineum is a muscle; when the doctor cuts it, he or she is cutting a muscular wall, right?”
“Well, yes,” she says. She runs her fingers quickly through her bangs. She has a tiny waist. If I hadn’t seen her around town with her two children, I wouldn’t believe anything she said about birthing. “But when the doctor cuts it, it is stretched paper thin by the baby’s head.”
I have to think about this for a minute. I fold my hands and rest them on top of my belly, even with my chest. “OK, but when the baby is out, the perineum will no longer be stretched paper thin, so when the doctor is sewing, we’re talking about muscle, right?”
My husband, John, squeezes my knee under the table. People are staring at me now.
“That’s right, but it doesn’t hurt as much as you think.” I must still be wearing a question mark on my face, because she adds quickly, “The sewing, I mean.” Then she smiles right at me and says, “I promise.”
The first week in childbirth class we get to know one another by introducing ourselves and our partners and then saying what we associate with the word labor. Of 13 women in the class, 11 say pain. I say that I hope labor will be a time when I am able to concentrate and focus in order to bring my baby into the world. I start wondering if pain is a bad thing. I start paying attention to what pain means.
I notice that ads for cell phones, mortgage companies and oil changes all use the word painless to mean fast or handy. Looking around the faces in my class, I try to translate what that means to childbirth. Pain has lapsed in the vernacular to the same status as annoying and inconvenient. To feel is presented not only as upsetting to fast-paced living, but also as a competitive disadvantage.
When I am not paying attention in childbirth class, I think about dead animals and their pain and their teeth. I remember a time two years ago when I killed a cat on a state highway. Heading home at 10 or 11 at night during the first real snowstorm of the year, large flakes rushed my headlights. Yellow lane lines and silver reflectors marked the dimensions of the road, everything else lost in white. I saw the animal maybe a second before hearing the thick sound of its head connecting with my axle. Immediately I thought skunk, but after driving on, agitated, for half a mile or more, I thought, no, maybe it was a cat. Finding a place to turn around, I measured the relative values of cats and skunks: It didn’t matter to me. I might actually prefer skunks, with their shuffling, little steps, heads to the ground, sniffing things out. But I had hit the animal close to a ranch house, and it was my moral obligation to tell the owners if I had smashed their kitty.
Letting the car creep onto the scene, I saw the animal in the road, a black blotch on the highway between the stripes left by my tires in the snow. No other vehicles had passed. It was a cat. I gagged, half out of sympathy for the unfortunate cat, half in dread that I would have to go knock on the ranch-house door.
The porch light was on, and an upstairs light. I resolved to be swift and honest, ringing the bell and clearing my throat. I waited. There was the sound of people mumbling inside. There was clumping down the stairs. Finally the door opened a crack. I tried to appear meek and harmless, standing there in the snow. A man, maybe 30, maybe less, wearing only boxer shorts stood shivering.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I mustered. “I know it’s late, but I think…” I stopped and looked at my feet, pushed some snow against my boot with the other foot then looked at the man again. “I’m so sorry. I think I killed your cat.”
“Oh,” he said. He said it thoughtfully, raised his eyebrows while he surveyed me. He stood there, saying nothing, for 10 or 15 seconds. He rattled the doorknob in his hand. He closed his eyes slowly, as if he would fall asleep standing right there. Then he opened them again, leaned toward me and said, “Actually, we don’t have a cat.”
On the way back out of the driveway, my headlights fell exactly on the cat. I looked hard; there was no blood. The thought that it might not be dead burst first into the pit of my stomach, then worked its way into my head. I set the brake and left the lights shining on the animal. I went to it and leaned over, terrified, snowflakes stinging my skin. It was breathing. It could not move; its spine was probably broken. Maybe it was in terrible pain. Maybe it couldn’t feel anything. The cat looked up at me with unadulterated terror.
I reached out to pet it. To comfort it. To try to pick it up and take it to a vet, even though it was the middle of the night and there wasn’t a vet for 20 miles in either direction. I didn’t know how to help, and it hardly mattered. When my hand came near, the cat lifted its head, hissed and tried to bite, even though it was unable to use its legs to scratch or run away.
Tears were freezing on my face. I kept telling the cat I was sorry— sorry that it had to die so that I could drive on the highway after dark, sorry it had to die at all. I said the Lord’s Prayer, then thought the best, most merciful thing to do would be to get in the car, take aim with the tires and run it over again, eliminate its current suffering, kill it absolutely.
I told the cat again that I was sorry, then got into the car. I held the wheel in rigid hands, alternately watching the cat and the clock buried in my dashboard. Two minutes passed, then three, then five. I sat until a snow plow advanced over the horizon. Surely the plow would finish the cat, send it tumbling into the ditch, with all its metal, diesel force. The flashing blue light was a harbinger of mercy, and I pulled away and drove home.
I think about it now, in the late months of pregnancy. If the cat had belonged to the man in the boxer shorts, of course it would have been worse. His pet would have been violently and tragically killed. There would have been tears and loss. As it was, I felt bad for a few days, but eventually, in my mind, the cat became roadkill. So it seemed it was not I, or even the car I was driving, that was responsible for the death. The cat became roadkill, as if the highway itself rose up from its embankments and strangled the animal where it walked, as if neither the cat nor I had ever been possessed of feeling.
Clearly, people have intense feelings about birthing and raising children. An unborn baby evokes unsolicited and inexplicable love. A friend from far away has me hold the phone to my belly so she can whisper to the child. Neighbors arrive at the door with casseroles and flowers. Everyone wants to touch my stomach. I get the feeling that, through pregnancy, I have assumed responsibility for a child’s pain, forever. Of course, the child’s joy will come running with it, hand in hand, and the mystery of it all is too great to brush against intellectually. No one tells me this, but everyone knows it. They let this vast, shapeless secret shimmer just behind their eyes when they meet me on the street and just smile and nod in recognition of my burgeoning figure.
At the final childbirth class, graduates from the previous class come with their newborns. They use words like, amazing, miraculous and magical. They hold their children and whisper, “Just new to us, from God.”
But I get confused when the fathers talk to us about labor. Referring to his wife, one says, “After she got the epidural, she was like herself again, happy and laughing.”
Another says, “I loved the monitor! I could watch the screen and tell her when to push.”
A new mother confirms, “It was great. I really couldn’t feel anything.” My heart rate goes up, and I feel it like the pulse of a pink neon sign. The mother is glowing; she’s radiant; her baby is perfect. Everyone in the room is happy for the woman; I am happy for her, and for the tiny girl she cradles. Then she says, “Really, it was almost painless,” and I start to feel as if we are all on television. I keep thinking, I hope childbirth isn’t like a commercial. I keep thinking, I want to feel the pain.
I call the nurses’ station at the hospital. Home alone, I take the phone into the bedroom so I can stretch and do pelvic tilts on the bed while I make the call. I tell the nurse that I have been researching the use of the fetal monitor and anesthesia, and I have some questions.
“Of course, anesthesia makes things easier for everyone,” she says, “but it is optional.” So I tell her what I’ve read about fetal monitoring —that the monitor has no benefit for low-risk mothers and that the chances of having a cesarean go up with the use of the technology.
It feels like she is using her knowledge against me when she says, “Yes, unfortunately, there is a lot of negative lay literature out there.” She goes on to explain why the medical staff needs the monitors, for the health and safety of my baby and me.
The monitor wraps around the mother’s middle and has two devices, one that measures the intensity of contractions, one that monitors the baby’s heart rate. Each of these is a disc about 3 or 4 inches in diameter. There is a sensor on the back of each disc that goes on the mother’s stomach; it is not invasive. Thick straps hold the discs against the mother’s belly.
The nurse throws in some medical jargon as she tells me what I already know. Her voice remains even and pleasant. She explains the theory of the monitor, which is the same, basically, as what I’ve read in the books, but she has nothing negative to say. She finishes her speech with a sweetly phrased question. “You do want to have a healthy baby, don’t you?”
I’m helpless and vulnerable. I consider shouting, “No, I hope it pops out with four heads and a mustache!” But I also want to cry. I don’t know what to believe. The nurse implies that wearing the monitor during labor will somehow make my baby healthy, that the well-being of my child depends not on what I eat, how I take care of myself, or even how I prepare for labor. She must be right. She’s an informed professional, and she’s articulate. But in the eighth month of keeping someone I’ve never met alive with my own body, science doesn’t make a lot sense to me.
I take a deep breath, consider, and try again, “I am concerned that the monitor will interfere with my ability to relax and concentrate and birth my child.” I explain that I’m sensitive. I think having a monitor will not only distract me, it will inhibit me from concentrating on the work at hand.
The nurse doesn’t hear me. She ignores my words and says, “Are you afraid the sound waves from the monitor will hurt your baby?” She launches into another speech, but I cut her off. I decide to quit being rational and instead to be honest.
I’m not afraid the sound waves will hurt the baby. I tell her I’m going to tell her the truth; does she really want to know why I don’t want the monitor?
“Yes, all right,” she says, and I can practically hear her rolling her eyes on the other end of the line.
I tell the nurse that my problem is one of imagery. I know, in theory, what the monitor does and what it is for, but I can’t seem to move beyond the visual impact the machine has on me.
“What do you mean?” the nurse asks. “I’m not sure I understand what you are saying.”
I give up being delicate. I’ve already exposed myself as an irrational being, unable to grasp simple concepts and reason, so I tell her. “Well, in the diagrams and photos I’ve seen, the woman is lying on her back against the white sheets of a hospital bed. She’s got an IV in her arm and two wide straps around her stomach, and it looks to me like she is being executed.”
I debate about going on about death and roadkill and how now, in pregnancy, I understand that we are bound to our parents and children in a huge circle of pain and love and birth and feeling that has nothing at all to do with fetal monitoring or epidural anesthesia. But I don’t say anything.
After a pause, she says, “Wearing the monitor is just the first of many sacrifices you will make as a mother. Surely you realize that we are not going to electrocute you.”
“Yes,” I say. “Surely. Thank you.” I hang up the phone and cry for some time, patting my stomach and telling my baby, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.” I tell him that any way he comes into the world, I will love him. I tell her not to be afraid, because I am not afraid. I cry wholeheartedly and enjoy it—the hot tears that hit the pillow, the air entering my throat. I watch my belly heave with every sob. I tell the baby, “Your mama is sad; can you feel it? It’s not a bad thing.” I lie on the bed, looking out the window. “I am so happy that you are coming,” I say. A few golden leaves flutter to the ground, and the toothy fish swim through the air over my head.