Then there you are
You are born underwater. In the moments before, the shock of your near being – where before you had not been – leaves me silent. The midwife warns the next contraction will bring out your head.
“Don’t push!” she barks, sweet Chiara from Italy, barely twenty years old. Later, I think abstractly, as I focus on breathing in staccato bursts, when this is over, I’ll make her a CD. A mix tape, like the mix tapes you made people you loved when love meant being 14 years old, when love meant more like liking.
I close my eyes, holding on with as much strength as I can muster, clenching muscles I didn’t know I had, to ease you out. Chiara whispers in urgent, honeyed tones. She isn’t talking to me. She murmurs to a person I didn’t know was there, a stranger intruding on my pain.
“She’s going to tear.”
My ears pop open, like the wing flaps on a plane to slow descent, to stop the hurtling, to stop a hundred deaths. An alarm calls from somewhere outside of my body. I’m going to tear? Flesh can slice and burn and bristle, it can scratch and break and scab and heal. But a tearing?
My teeth clamp together, unyielding, bone on bone. My jaw aches with the effort of slowing your passage. The contraction stops. The next is sixty yawning seconds away.
“Look down,” Chiara says. “You can see baby’s head.”
I look down, and there you are between my legs, a not-born, an almost human, a hybrid fish made ours, halfway to living.
“You can touch her, if you want,” Chiara smiles, and I think about it, I do – how does she know you are she? – but I am afraid, afraid of your partial existence, afraid that to touch you would spark life into lungs submerged under tepid water like lichen clinging to the rock of all that I am, of all that I’ve ever been.
What if you drown? I know you aren’t breathing air; biology tethers your blood to my blood; your oxygen is my oxygen. Your lungs are flat, perfect balloons waiting to inflate, like the party we’ll throw you when you’re one, or five, or twenty-five.
Yet looking at your head like this, half inside me, half out, feels like a wrongness, and I’m scared to touch you, lest touching makes you real.
Ten… nine… eight. The pain comes again in waves and I know that soon you’ll be out of me, that I’ll lose a part of you, a part of me, forever.
Seven… six… Stevie Wonder is playing and I take a moment to marvel that this song about the end of love, about two people making empty promises to stay together as one, will mark your beginning.
I ignore Chiara’s frantic warning to “slow – go slow” as I pass your shoulders, and there, there it is – there you are – a burning, roaring, red-tinged tidal wave of pain and happening, and you are free. You are not of this world. You are ancient, a primordial precursor to flesh and sinew, to tendons and bone. You have gills, you swim.
Then you are pulled up, up, up out of the water, a grey-green thing, too startled or perhaps too stubborn to take a breath. I sag against the side of the bath, waiting for your lungs to fill with air, for you to turn pink, to hear you sing.
Why is it so quiet?
For a heartbeat, nothing happens at all and we are suspended in time, figurines caught in a bauble made of glass, hanging from a green and silver tree. Our tiny world is static. Fake snow erupts from the ceiling.
Chiara cuts the pulsing blue cord that binds us and wraps you in soft, white cotton, rubbing your chest to get you going, like my father’s watch that needed wearing, needed winding.
Time stutters and starts, slows and stops and then – yes, yes! – you cry, a furious, anguished squawking, and it is over, and you are here, and you are everything.
Victoria Richards is a freelance journalist and writer. She has worked for BBC News, The Times and The Independent, has appeared on Newsnight, BBC World and ITV News and regularly writes for Independent Voices. She won the inaugural Oh Zoe! Rising Talent Award 2017, was longlisted in the Bath Short Story Award 2017 and The Guardian Short Story Contest 2016, and was published in the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2017. She lives in London where she is working variously on a novel, a short story collection, poetry, flash fiction and a series of books for children.
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