By Beth Malone
The first thing the baby does is split in two.
One half—through some miracle from beyond the fringes of the cosmos—will multiply, cells popping out of nowhere, until there are tiny fingers, shoulder joints, hammers beating in her ears, blood pummeling through her veins, the doors of her heart opening, closing, opening again. This half will write itself into a bent toward music, an aversion to crowds, a hunger for the wild things of stream and sky. She will emerge from the womb hundreds of days later to shock you with her matchlessness, the way you cannot predict or control her, the way she reflects you and then doesn’t, her being so intricate and exact, a whole person written from the code folded and tucked into that first tiny cell.
The other half will become a shield against her mother.
The baby never attaches to the mother; the shield, which is the placenta, does that. This is the barrier meant to separate the body of a baby from her mother. The blood of baby and mother never mingle. The mother shall not oppress the baby with a policy of territorialism, assaulting the alien body; and the baby shall not announce herself a foreigner in a land not her own. The shield is crucial; without it, the baby dies. This is how the system is designed.
For hundreds of days, the shield grows, red as the strength and fury of mother-love, bursting with blood. It sends out fingers to grip the mother’s veins, sucking and drawing on them, devouring her nutrients and her oxygen along with things more subtle: her anxieties, her chemical transgressions. The shield is not impervious. It is not iron erected between mother and daughter. And so the shield lets these things pass, and they transmute a baby’s brain, molding it for survival. It whispers how safe the world outside might be. Or not.
In time, the shield will grow old. Parts of it will whiten, harden, grow fibrous and tough. It is not meant to support the child forever. The way a mother passes her food and breath to baby, the way the baby presses her feet against her mother—it is not intended to be permanent.
Listen, my darling, so be sure to understand. It is not intended to be permanent.
In time, the shield grows old; it cannot sustain its position. The baby becomes impatient, cramped; there’s no more room to grow. Hell, there’s no room to turn around. Something or someone sends out a signal. Like the voice in the crowd that begins a riot, the origin is uncertain.
Right before it happens, there’s a whistling in the air, like the sound of a missile, the sound it leaves in its wake, the sound of a space no longer occupied.
And then the shells hit. The mother’s body explodes in civil war.
She will understand what is happening. She will grip her hand in the hard vice of her teeth, drawing blood. She will gasp and cringe, the shelling toppling her constructs: Now she does not feel strong. She does not feel able. She wishes to abdicate, abandon her body in exchange for peace. She begs for a bullet to the head.
The baby is malleable; she will arrange her skull into a torpedo. The mother, though, is feral with pain, unquenchable; she will tear herself to pieces to build her baby a tunnel out of that country. The baby—slicked with mother’s blood, her hands balled in fists—punches her way into the world.
She drags the shield out after her, ripping her mother open as she goes.
Some mothers eat the shield afterward. They press its pieces against their cheeks and suck. They chew and swallow. Or they package it into something sterilized, a casing of plastic, and eat it without connecting to its nature. Other mothers bury the shield, plant trees by its disintegrating body. A tree is a more permanent fixture than a child.
Me, I felt my daughter’s shield fall, pulsing, out of my body, while I held my baby girl, warm and wet, in my arms. The shield was hideous. I had expected something like a pancake and instead found myself confronted with something like the skinned body of a rabbit. I remember being truly amazed with how large it had grown. So large my baby couldn’t live there, with me, anymore.
I did not want to touch that shield. I only wanted my daughter, her body wet with my blood, streaked with vernix, warm as the sun on my breast. That night, I couldn’t sleep without her beside me.
I don’t know what happened to her shield. I assume someone threw it away.
Here is one other thing about the shield though: It does not do its job perfectly. Migrant pieces of the baby slip out of the barrier, passing silently as spies into her mother. The baby’s cells circulate the mother’s system, passing the landmarks of bone, teeth, heart. And somehow, somehow, the mother’s body does not attack them. They survive—for months, years, decades.
Maybe they swarm to the places of pain—a burgeoning tumor, a damaged heart—and there transform themselves. Their future is full of opportunity, for like stem cells, they retain the ability to choose whatever destiny they wish. They might heal a mother’s broken places. They might be her cure. Those cells that survive.
So goes one theory.
Maybe instead, those cells chafe against a mother’s bones, inflaming joints and calling for a mother’s defenses to send soldiers to the scene. The mother’s army flares up, roaring. But even though the cells of her baby are fundamentally different, written with alien DNA, the mother cannot kill them off. Instead, she fights her own body. It translates as arthritis, lupus, inexplicable autoimmune disruptions that blow her body up into a warzone. And yet, the baby’s cells survive.
There are many hypotheses. Maybe the mother keeps those cells around on purpose, because she sees potential and she has hope they might help her. Maybe she fights them but her heart isn’t really in it; there’s pain but never extermination.
Or maybe the mother’s body simply doesn’t notice them.
Scientists just don’t know. But I do.
Of course the mother notices. She only pretends not to. This is how she keeps from breaking in half.
I know this because I have held my baby girl in our rocking chair, patting her back and humming long after she fell asleep, long after she could have gone peacefully to her bed. I know this because I have nursed her just as we almost finished the terrible process of weaning, because she asked and I wanted to experience her as a baby again. I know, because one day she will pack her things in boxes, jump in a car, smile at a future stretched before her, and leave my home forever. And her room will not be her room anymore, and I know I’ll go in there and pick up the pieces she’s left behind, pieces I’ll never be able to sell at garage sales, pieces I won’t call her to come pick up. I will hug her old favorite stuffed dog to my chest, and cry into its fur the way she did when she was a baby.
Nature gave me no shield to cushion the blows of my love for her. These left-behind pieces: They are all I have.
Beth Malone is a working writer with a background in journalism. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in Literary Mama, Salon.com, Drunken Boat, U.S. Catholic, Wanderlust and Lipstick.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.