The Littlest Wren

A woman retreats to a lonely island to learn how to mother a spirit child

The bridge between the mainland of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island is nearly a mile and a half long. They don’t mark it in miles—all distances are in kilometers, just like most everywhere else in the world—but I had done the conversion in my head somewhere between New Brunswick and the first highway sign for Prince Edward Island.

I spent much of our thirteen-hour drive from western Massachusetts with my fingers pressing into two new red scars, tender and raw. One snaked horizontally over the stretchy ridges and dents of skin just north of my pelvic bone, and the other ran across my belly, perpendicular to the first. I was dreaming about what this bridge to Cape Breton Island would look like. I imagined bougainvillea growing up diamond-laden pillars; I imagined extravagantly painted towers of ornately carved metal; I imagined rainbows at the end of the bridge and the liberation symphonies that would be playing (or, at the very least, a Florence and the Machine song), the music raining down from the sky just loud enough to confirm that this was the beginning of the part of our lives where we might be happy again.

I would have missed the bridge entirely if Jake hadn’t said, “I think we’re driving over water.” Indeed, the two-lane highway seemed to extend without pomp or fuss straight over a stretch of glassy black water, and with only a green sign with Gaelic writing marking the moment, we drove right onto the largest, northeasternmost island of Nova Scotia.

“That was it?” I said. “That was the bridge to Cape Breton Island?”

He nodded. “It’s not a bridge though. It’s a causeway.”

“A causeway? It’s a causeway?”


“Fuck that causeway,” I said. “Fuck that no-bridge causeway and fuck everybody on Cape Breton Island.”

Jake smiled. He took his hand off the steering wheel and put it over my left hand, which was covering my scars. My scars trembled and burned, and the burn went up through my underwear and pants, up into our hands and out of the car. I watched the burn spread out over the water that filled the space between the mainland and the island, diffuse and colorless, rising up and up and up until it was unrecognizable—until it was everybody’s. 

We arrived on Cape Breton Island late in the afternoon, a cool 60 degrees on a cloudy Monday in July. The island thrummed with the civilized wildness of a Nova Scotia summer. Simple, unadorned ranch houses with peeling white and gray paint and sinking porches sat alongside gangly pine and birch trees. Asters, buttercups, violets, irises, and wild roses sprang up on the sides of the roads. Roofs sagged, and clotheslines drooped with wet, homemade clothes.

I rolled down the window. The air smelled like seaweed. Swollen clouds folded themselves into silver chalices for the sky to drink. Their reflections moved lazily in the bay on the side of the two-lane highway.

We passed Gaelic street signs and French signs and English signs. On the radio, men crooned country songs in French.

We drove in silence.

Wild rose bushes five feet tall framed the dirt driveway on the side of the wood-shingled cottage where we would make our home. We arrived at dusk, and the air was the same color as the roses. The front door was open. The kitchen and living room were bright and airy, with a back door that opened onto a deck overlooking a rolling expanse of green and a small wooden dock at the edge of a lake. A cluster of houses dotted the lake.

We brought our bags inside. A few minutes later, a woman who looked to be in her early thirties, with red hair and a pale freckled face, made her way up a pathway through the backyard. She was holding a beige blanket.

“I think that’s Kelly,” I said. We watched from the kitchen window. “Laurie said her sister lived in the house just beyond this one.”

“Welcome!” The red-haired woman said with a big smile, opening the door and her arms to give us both a hug.

I had met Kelly once before, years ago, at my friend Laurie’s wedding, and she hadn’t changed much. Laurie grew up on Cape Breton and had met one of my best friends from high school while they were both teaching English in Korea. Now married, they lived in Brooklyn. Her parents had built the cottage themselves but were teaching for the year in Brazil.

“Hi, Kelly,” I said, grateful for her warm embrace. “Thank you for this.”

“Oh, well,” she said. “I wanted to have everything ready before you came, but I forgot that the blanket for the bed needed to dry.” Her accent had a strong Scottish lilt, not unlike most of the locals with ancestors from Scotland. She put a list on the table, things we should know about the house. The ice machine didn’t work. There was no TV or internet. The basement with the laundry machines was a little creepy, she said. We could always wash our clothes at her place.

When we opened the fridge, we found it fully stocked with bread and cheese and wine and fruit and juice and eggs and butter. A couple of days later, we found a handmade calendar of island events—music concerts and farmers markets and sheep shearings—in our car. It was a welcome gift from Tessa, Laurie’s other sister, who lived up the street.

In the flurry of emails Laurie had sent to us, from the first one inviting us to stay at the cottage to the last one with detailed directions on how to find it, she had included me in a thread of exchanges between her and her mother. I read them absentmindedly until the last sentence of the last one.

“Let them know they can stay as long as they want,” it read. “We’ve been through it too, honey. We know how it is.”

A few days before I gave birth to my daughter, I had a dream.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have had vivid dreams where people from my waking life have come to me and told me things. When I was a child, it was hard for me to distinguish between what somebody told me in a dream and what they said to me while we were awake because both pieces of information were almost always useful to me. Later I learned to remember the difference.

I was not surprised to see my daughter, who in the dream was around four years old. She came up to my bedside and told me that her name was Indira. She took my hand in hers. We smiled at each other. I woke up from the dream smiling.

Only a few weeks earlier, when I was seven and a half months pregnant, I’d found out that I had an unexpected ovarian torsion and needed emergency abdominal surgery. During the ultrasound, we’d learned that our daughter had a congenital heart defect. As he looked at the images, the doctor said, “She’s fine as long as she is inside of you. She’s happy and growing and strong. She’ll need surgery as soon as she’s born, but right now, she’s doing great.”

While my body struggled to both heal from surgery and continue to carry the baby, I focused with razor-sharp, primal intensity on ensuring our daughter’s heart operation was a success. I read every bit of information about heart defects I could find. I tried to rest and take my vitamins. I made deals with God. I thought constantly about the doctor’s words: I could keep her safe as long as she was inside of me. With every kick, every hiccup, every time she rolled over, I tried to remember that she was happy. I could keep her happy. I could keep her safe.

The morning after my dream, Jake was boiling water for tea. I waddled over to him and put my arm around his waist.

“Her name is Indira,” I said.

“That’s a beautiful name, Em. I love it.”

“Indira,” I whispered to her. “Sweet Indira.”

She was born on the last day of March, at the end of a dark winter. Indira cried when she took her first breaths. She sounded like a powerful bird. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

As soon as she was born, the doctors rushed her off to connect her to the wires, tubes, and medication she needed to survive, but I could see that she looked like me, with a full head of dark hair and rosy skin and tiny, perfect hands that were open wide to greet the world. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know how many times I said it. I still say it. We gave her the middle name Wren after the house wrens in our neighborhood. I thought I could keep her close to me that way.

We had my daughter for three days before we decided to take her off life support. The doctors told us she was too small for the heart surgery she needed. They had put her on medication to keep her alive in the meantime, but she wasn’t growing fast enough, and the medication itself was starting to poison her. It would have killed her eventually.

Time warped and bent and shifted in surreal and magical ways in those three days she was with us. There is a particular sound to the time warp that slices up a mother’s body to take a life out of it, and then breaks the mother’s life a few days later when her child dies. There is a sound of trying to fit a lifetime of mothering into three days. Three days to equal a century of remembering. The sound while the mother holds her daughter, who looks like her, wrapped in a dozen wires connected to beeping machines yet still smelling like new life, like a promise that was supposed to be kept; the sound underneath the whispered words of a face pressed up close, telling her every secret she knows. Every good story and piece of wisdom she has to offer. Every detail about the father sitting beside them in the room, the most kind and noble and gentle man, patient and slow, and didn’t she love him most of all for this? Because she was impatient and impulsive; because she was too whimsical, and fiery too, and so terribly stuck in her own head? What are you like, little Wren? What would you have been like?

There is the sound, too, of gratitude and joy, underneath all of the whispered wisdom and stories, for being able to hold her child for these long hours, a lifetime of hours in three days, a lifetime of longing for this moment fulfilled; gratitude for knowing such love, for understanding finally what it means to love this way.

This is the sound: during my last year of college I lived with two of my best friends in a remote cabin off a dirt road in the middle of the New Hampshire woods. The cabin had no heat, save the two cords of wood we burned in our woodstove, inconsistent electricity, no garbage pickup, and no mail delivery. It rested at the edge of an enormous lake that was home to hundreds of loons. In the winter, the ice on the lake shifted as it froze, creating an acoustic dispersion—vibrating sound frequencies moving through the ice at different speeds. The time lag between the high- and low-speed vibrations produced an eerie, high-pitched, yet guttural wail that seemed to start well below the bowels of the lake and move straight up into the sky. The anguished sound made the twinkling stars look like they were wringing their hands, nervously twitching in the inky darkness.

At night I’d walk to the edge of the lake and share a communal silence with all the other animals listening out there. But sometimes the lake’s wailing was so mournful, so agonizing to listen to, that I cried too. I imagined the lake was an old woman hunched over in pain, lamenting the coming dark winter and all of the sorrow in the world that she was freezing inside her wild, watery body.

I understood that wail during our days with Indira. It was the sound my own body made every day. It is the sound my body still makes every year, on the day of her birth and the day of her death.

illustration by Anna Hall

We came to Cape Breton three months after Indira died so that we could start over in a new place. But I also came to figure out how to mother a spirit child. My child was still with me. I could feel her everywhere. I felt her while I was in the shower. While I was writing in my journal. While I was riding my bike. I wanted to understand how to mother this presence and keep her close to me. There were no books to tell me how to do it, but I knew the island cottage where we had come to stay had its own spirit baby. When Laurie and Kelly were children, their mom gave birth to a baby who was stillborn. He was born right before Easter.

“He was their only boy,” Laurie had told me shortly before we left for Cape Breton. “Nobody knows why he died.”

After dinner that first night in the cottage, I searched for the missing son. This was my initiation. There were things I needed to learn. I needed to find something, some clue that he existed. I wanted to see how they incorporated this baby into their lives and into their living children’s lives. Where did he fit? Did he?

“We never talked about him,” Laurie had said. “But he was always there, in my mother’s sadness around Easter every year.”

I scanned the wooden bookshelves in the living room. They were filled with stories of island life. I gazed carefully at the photos in picture frames, at the pottery above the stove, at the dishes filled with sea glass in the bathroom cabinet. I put my hand on the cool windowpanes. I knew this was not the house where Laurie, Kelly, and Tessa were born and raised, but I knew he was there. I was certain of it.

On our first night, just before I fell asleep and long after Jake’s light breathing had deepened to a soft snore, I whispered the baby’s name. “John,” I said into the quiet island night. “John.” I fell asleep whispering his name. I slept deeply. It was my first night in months without dreams.

We’d been on the island for less than a week when I started to remember details from my childhood that I hadn’t thought about in years. Stories, moments, smells came back to me with such a visceral force that I struggled to organize all of the memories in my mind. Jake and I both shared stories we had never told anyone—stories about our youth; stories about what kind of children we had been. Sadness was a fog that would not let us look forward beyond the day at hand, but it kicked the pebbles of our past loose and gave us a trail back to who we were.

“I had one line in my seventh-grade play,” I told Jake one afternoon, while we lay on our backs in a stand of birch trees. A leaf blocked the sunlight. If I moved my head to the left or the right, I had to squint.

“They made me say it,” I said.

“They made you?”

“They made me. It was our middle-school production of Oliver! I practiced over and over and over again. I practiced so many times. I whispered it while walking home from school. I looked in the mirror after dinner and said it. I said it while getting dressed in the morning. I said it until it was irreversibly scorched on my psyche.”

“What was it?”

“Hey! Anybody got some ketchup over there?”

“That’s it? That was your line?”

“That was my line. It was during the scene where they have the children’s picnic. And I got so nervous and practiced so much that I made myself sick and then I gave myself laryngitis. So, when my big moment came, I croaked my line like an eighty-year-old man who just bought a hot dog on Coney Island.”

Jake laughed out loud.

“You know, I had one line too,” he said. “It was for our school play in elementary school, but I can’t remember the name of the play. Only the line.”

“What was it?”


“That was your line?”

“Yes. I just had to run on stage and scream it and then run off. I was so terrified I’d forget my line that I think the audience really thought I was terrified my biscuits were burning. It was very realistic.”

We laughed for a long time. I took Jake’s hand in mine. It felt warm and familiar. Cool, damp dirt and sprigs of grass poked my arms. I leaned my body toward him. He kissed the top of my forehead. We stayed like that, lying on the cool ground between the sunlight and the grass and the sadness and the singing marsh wrens.

Although both Kelly and Tessa had young children, we didn’t see many other babies when we went out, which was always a relief. The trails on the island were often empty, so I could—slowly, slowly, with caution—look up at the soft, gentle green hills that looked to me like swollen bellies against the sea. On an evening walk near the cottage, I saw my loneliness in the solitary stare of a deer. On another hike, I saw the scars on my abdomen in the fissures of an old oak tree that stood majestic in a stand of small birches. On walks on the beach, I watched in awe—and later with faith—as the wild beach pea flowers that grew in the sand got battered by wind and rain and the constant pounding of surf, their pink and purple flowers a vibrant, persistent flash of color in the hard glacial rocks.

I felt a psychic power in those days, and I understood it was not healing that was making me powerful, but learning how to live with what was irreparably broken. After Indira’s death I could see the broken parts of the land and the broken parts of people with a vivid pulsing intensity that took my breath away. The island, in all its wildness, gave me the space and quiet to begin to figure out how to manage and channel the intensity; to understand its unwished-for beauty; to use it in ways that could give something back to the world.

“A lot of the younger people leave,” said Brian, Kelly’s husband, one afternoon over tea at their home. “We were out west ourselves for eight years before coming back here.”

Brian still worked on an oil rig in Alberta for months at a time, but came home for a week or two whenever he could. Tessa’s husband also regularly left his family for work out west. This seemed to be a big part of island life: many of the men left for long periods of time to work for the oil companies or on fishing boats, and the women stayed home and raised the children and took care of the house. I watched the women every day—I saw their silhouettes hanging wet clothes on clotheslines, filling their carts with food at the grocery store, waiting tables at restaurants, chatting together, laughing—and I wondered if resiliency could be defined by the amount we are able to give one another during our loneliest hours; if powerful women are made not only by what happens to them in life, but by what doesn’t happen as well.

We decided to go back to Massachusetts at the end of the summer. I didn’t want to leave, but the duties of our former life called us. We would spend our last week camping and hiking on the Cabot Trail—a 185-mile loop on the northern end of the island that ventured into the rugged mountains of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

We packed up slowly, assuming familiar rhythms from the past decade. The trail maps lay spread out on the kitchen table next to open backpacks, food, guitar, and journals, just like always. On the evening before we left, I was packing my rain gear and looked up to see Jake cleaning our camping stove. For a moment I felt like I was looking back in time; that we had already done this, before we became parents. Things had to be different now that we had become parents. I thought I heard Indira crying in another room. She must be hungry. I hadn’t nursed her in so long.

I started to cry.

A knock on the back door startled me. Kelly was waiting on the other side of the screen, holding an enormous white fan.

“Hey, you two,” she said. Jake opened the door for her. “We thought you might need this fan, what with the heat wave we’re having over here.”

“Heat wave?”

“Haven’t you all been sweating buckets up here? We’ve been worried about you!”

“But it hasn’t been hotter than 70 degrees,” I said. “Has it?”

“Ughhh, 70 degrees! I’m so sorry about that. It’s the worst heat wave we’ve had in years.”

Jake and I looked at each other.

“You don’t need to worry about that with us,” I said, grinning. “We’re fine. Really.”

Kelly smiled. Her kind blue eyes matched the lake outside. “I really can’t remember the last time it’s been so hot. We’ve all been staying up at Tessa’s. Her house gets the best breeze in the cove. Well,” she said, handing me the fan. “Please keep it just in case.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Oh, it’s the least we can do.” She turned back to the path toward her home.

I followed her outside with the fan in my arms and watched her disappear into the night. The air smelled like wet grass and wild roses and, if you waited until the wind shifted just the right way, like autumn. Overhead, the clouds feathered out like sleeping swans, nuzzled against the moon. I took a deep breath. Jake came out behind me.

“How does anybody survive it?” he asked, looking at the fan.

“The heat wave?”

He was quiet.

I looked at him and leaned in. He opened his arms and hugged me to him. After a few minutes he took the fan from my arms, and I opened the door. We went back inside to finish packing.

About the Author

Emily Polk

Emily Polk lives and writes on a small island east of San Francisco, and she teaches writing at Stanford University. Her writing and radio documentaries have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the Boston Globe, NPR, National Radio Project, AlterNet, the Indian Express, Central America Weekly, The Ghanaian Chronicle, and Whole Earth Magazine, among others.

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