From And Me Among Them:  

Even after I have reached the pinnacle of my growth, I still find safety in my yellow room, a museum holding the souvenirs of my existence. My collections of pine cones and pressed leaves are here, as are the stacks of tattered comic books I’ve read a hundred times. There are miniature soldiers as well, salvaged from my father’s childhood and passed from him to me. Feet molded to tiny platforms, they wield weapons and bugles, and stand at attention as I rise up, up, pushing right through the roof to look down on the little world below. 

I can see out, all the way to far-off lands, and I can see back, to years and years ago; place and time unravels in all directions. My eyes and ears are many times the size they should be. My heart is swollen. My bones are weak. But something good can come from even the most terrifying things. For everything that is taken away, something else is given. 

So here I am, head in the clouds. Family photographs resting in my huge hands. I hold the pictures by their edges, the way I was shown to as a little girl, and I see me and my mother and father locked into the grains of silver. My thumb can obliterate a house or a row of people, so I take great care as I crack open the flat, drab photographs to release us all in a spill of colour. 

First to come is my father James. I hover over him as he makes his way through town on his postal route, and along the way I see Elspeth, my mother, deposited at the suit factory, reaching for the sewing machine in front of her. Her brown hair curves around her ears and is smooth and glossy, trimmed to perfection. Her skin is pale but flushed at the cheeks and her lips are fuller than usual. Pregnancy softens her, but she has always been pretty in her quiet, delicate way. The big belly that contains me is covered by a dress she made herself, white with yellow swirls. Later she will undo the stitches and refashion it to fit her slender frame, but for now the belly beneath comes between her and her work, and I feel the hard ridge of the machine press against my forming body. The vibration as it pulls the cloth through is my clue to the outside world, like the hum of her voice, or the sound of James whispering each night, telling me how things will be. But nothing prepares me, or any of us, for what’s to come.  

Elspeth quits her job at the suit factory weeks before I am born, when her stomach gets in the way of her arms reaching the machine. Everyone says she has to be further along than she thinks she is, or that there are two babies inside of her rather than just me. Is it because she is small, or because I’m big? Already we are defined by each other, and we haven’t even met yet. We haven’t looked at each other or touched on the outside. Thinking of it this way, the fact that I’m growing inside her body seems like an invasion of privacy. Hers and my own.  

I watch as the other seamstresses throw a party for Elspeth on her last day. Someone brings a three-tiered cake dripping with icing, with a china baby on top surrounded by sugared violets. Sitting in the quiet factory that normally whirs with the sound of machines, Elspeth looks at the figurine — his fixed gaze and his menacing smile. She insists someone else cut the cake, but then she is given the piece with the baby stuck to it, and he stares up at her as the sweet taste fills her mouth. She has never liked sweet things.  

She begins to see out her pregnancy in the ordinary ways, readying the very room I’m in now and napping in the afternoons. She paints the walls bright yellow, which is not a popular colour nor one she particularly likes, but something compels her to do it. Me, perhaps, pushing a wish through the umbilical cord. Every day James comes home from his postal route and says he wishes she would wait and let him do the painting, but she can’t possibly wait. She is nesting, or panicking. She climbs up and down the ladder and pushes herself to exhaustion with the need for everything to be just so. I am an honoured guest due to arrive at any moment. All of my things await me in their appropriate places, and in this room, where Elspeth often sits in silence, an aura of anticipation rises, yellow as the sun, around which everything revolves. 

The women at the factory have used their various skills to fashion sleepers and booties for me, as well as little hats and underthings. One woman — Iris — embroidered the flower of her name onto a bib, which to Elspeth seems a strangely personal thing to do, given that Iris is nothing more than a co-worker. More clothes and blankets have come from my grandmother, who saved everything from James’s infancy. Elspeth folds the linens into dresser drawers scented with lavender sachets. But as the pregnancy progresses, it seems unlikely that I will fit into such tiny garments.  

Day by day I turn in Elspeth’s womb, a dark, shadowy place with an orange glow. My ears prick when James sings to me, and I sit still, hugging my legs and listening, sensing his presence outside. The orange glow dissipates when he comes close and puts his ear to Elspeth’s belly, and then seeps in again when he moves away. I put my hand out to him, and he sees it moving under her skin, presses his own palm against it.  

My time is coming closer. Elspeth’s stomach stretches further and rings of purple discolour her ankles. She is bedridden in the days leading up to my birth, and James brings her meals on a tray and eats next to her, propping her up with pillows. But her appetite is waning. There is no room in the overextended stomach that bulges beneath her nightgown. The heartburn, she says, is unbearable, and she has to sleep sitting up, which means that the weight presses on her bladder, and she feels a constant need to pee. Her toes are cold and James has to put her slippers on for her because she can’t reach that far herself. In the hard line of her jaw, in the frantic shifting of her bloodshot eyes, he sees an anxiety caused by something other than physical discomfort, and he waits for her to confess a wash of fears that would be lessened by the simple fact of her head on his chest, the drum of his heart beneath her ear, as always. That is his role, the soother, but she doesn’t ask to be soothed, and he is unsure how to behave when nothing has been requested of him. At times in his life he’s known this to be his weakest trait. 

While convinced she is as terrified as he, James doesn’t offer his own fears for discussion, or explain his irrational panic when, between Monday and Tuesday in the middle of the night, he hears the doorbell ring. It rings once in his sleep to awaken him, and then again as he rises on his elbows in bed, blinking. He looks at Elspeth, whose face, inches from his own, is still as death. As he is sometimes moved to do, he puts his hand in front of her mouth to satisfy himself that she is breathing. In his slippers he steps through the dark house, stands in the hall, and places one eye close to the door’s window.  

“James, what are you doing?”  

Her voice startles him and sends a shock up the back of his neck and over his scalp. He turns toward her and sees her standing in a column of light that comes through the window. Her hands clasp her big stomach, and he watches my foot travel across the width of her, masked by clothes and skin.  

“Did you hear the doorbell?” he asks.  

“No. I heard you.”  

He puts a finger to his lips and opens the door. A leaf scuttles across the walk. The sailboat chimes tinkle in the breeze, and then slow to nothing. Under the yellow porch light, the pavement glistens with dew. 

“Come to bed,” she tells him wearily. “You were dreaming.”  

And beside her his heart aches in the darkness. He keeps his eyes shut and lets his mouth fall open in case she’s watching him. He even fakes a snore rattling at the back of his throat, and rolls away from her to face the wall. But he remains awake, waiting.  

Later James will tell me I was born with manners — you rang the doorbell first, and then we asked you in — and he’ll pass over the other details of the night and morning: the gush of water breaking, Elspeth squatting in the tub and him in there with her, stroking her hair and feeling altogether useless in underwear and bare feet. She clings so tightly to his legs he thinks his bones are crushing. As he watches her moan through the contractions, a deep animal sound that echoes throughout the neighbourhood, he feels almost afraid of her power. For it is she, holding him so tightly, who keeps both of them from slipping down the drain in a black spiral. This is an emergency — he should have known. Her eyes roll back in her head, and red veins creep across the whites. She has to tell him, “Call an ambulance,” and he lays her down in the tub and runs to the phone. 

Even in the hospital she believes what is happening to her has never happened to anyone else before. As they wheel her away, she looks at James and sees the fear in his eyes and knows she can’t say what she’s thinking: we’re dying. The baby and I will both die together.   

But her silent frenzy subsides as the anaesthetic pulses through her. It rushes along this vein and that to ensure tranquility, and she feels herself smiling and rising to another place. There is no such peace for me. I come shuddering through a hole too small for me, fighting to stay inside of Elspeth while every part of me is squeezed and shoved forward. Forceps clamp my head and pull me. Light burns my eyes, sounds scrape my eardrums, and the cold air pierces through me. The cord that joins us is cut, and though it was part of both of our bodies, neither of us feels it happen. I am washed and bundled by strangers who record the first details about me as Elspeth sleeps. In a way she isn’t present when I am born, even further off than James who roams the hospital halls with his shirt crookedly buttoned, his socks mismatched, his mind travelling to other bone-chilling events as a way of convincing himself he can get through this one too. Until a nurse taps his shoulder. 

“Mr. Brennan,” she says. “Congratulations. You have a healthy baby girl.”  

Copyright © Kristen den Hartog, 2011