By Laura Resau
Breathless, I hurry along narrow trails between Quichua family farms, past squawking chickens and curly-tailed piglets. My destination is a shaman who lives in this village on the outskirts of Otavalo, Ecuador. I’m going as a last-ditch hope he can heal me. Back in Colorado, I tried everything—Eastern and Western medicine, herbs and tinctures, weird diets. And now I’m teetering on the edge of bitter despair.
I emerge from the foliage to a vista of fifteen-thousand-foot peaks rising above emerald fields, dotted with red-tiled roofs and grazing sheep. Two of these mountains are said to be ancient Incan gods: the male, Imbabura, and his lover, Cotacachi. When she’s covered with light frost at dawn, locals claim it’s semen from a night of passion. Their offspring— smaller, baby mountains—lie scattered between them. Then there’s the ubiquitous Andean deity, Pacha Mama, the World Mother, whose fertile body spills out in swirling folds, patchworks of velvet fields, silken pastures.
Fertility is a deep and ancient craving, at once visceral and mythical, elemental and universal. This, at least, is my impression as an anthropologist, or, more to the point, as a woman who cannot seem to have a baby.
If my first pregnancy hadn’t ended in miscarriage, my child would be five. And if any of the next years of fertility treatments had worked, I’d have a preschooler, or toddler, or baby. I’d be holding his pudgy hand, or idly tousling his hair, or, what I crave most, kissing his tiny feet.
A few months ago, after years of heart-breaking negatives, a miracle occurred: I got pregnant again, naturally. But anxiety eclipsed the joy; my body felt fragile and broken. Terrified I’d lose the baby, I ate only hyper-hygienically-prepared organic food, let no synthetic chemicals touch my skin. Despite my vigilance, after eleven weeks, I lost the baby.
Now, one month later, my heart still feels as raw and broken as my belly. If my body had functioned, a baby bump would just be showing. I place my hand over the plane of my abdomen, flat except for a smattering of recent bug bites.
After this second miscarriage, I mustered up my scant energy and planned a trip to Ecuador, ostensibly to visit my friend, MarÃa. At the heart of it, I needed to get out of my house, with its heavy, empty, childless silence.
The shaman’s curing room is large and high-ceilinged, yet cave-like, with soot-blackened adobe walls holding the scent of candle wax and wood smoke and incense. He positions me smack in the center of the room and gives an instruction in Quichua, translated by MarÃa with a suppressed snicker. “Strip to your underwear, Laurita.”
I stand, blinking, taking stock of my body, which frankly, I’ve come to hate more with every month of infertility. Encased in my unflattering beige sports bra are my ever-milkless breasts, six pounds of useless meat, serving only to remind me of what I don’t have. My gaze drops lower, to the faint surgical scar at my navel—evidence of a fruitless effort to restore fertility.
The shaman picks up a green glass bottle shaped like a woman in large skirts—reminiscent of the old Aunt Jemima syrup bottles—filled with alcohol. He chants and whistles a meandering tune as he circles the bottle in a blessing. From the altar, he grabs a pinch of rose petals, sticks them between his lips, takes a mouthful of liquor, and spits it all over me.
I shut my eyes, try not to wince. As the shaman spits wave after wave, I try to imagine myself as a goddess, solid and fertile as the semen-coated mountain Cotacachi. I envision Pacha Mama herself, rising through the earthen floor, filling me. I visualize the gusts blowing away the dark energy clinging to me.
It does require effort, however, to ignore the germ-laden saliva of a strange man covering my body, and I’m relieved when he stops spitting and begins beating me instead. Gently, I should add, with a bundle of healing chilca leaves. It’s actually a nice sensation, my body turned into a drum. He pounds the leaves on my chest, as if giving it a new rhythm, a passionate, strong heartbeat. But now my thoughts are creeping to the distinct lack of heartbeat on the ultrasound last month. That night, I’d lain in bed, staring at the overhead fan in the blue half-light, tear-soaked and sob-wracked. Near dawn, when I was cried out, I found myself repeating, fuck, fuck, fuck, a beating like a heart, a rhythm like a drum. It went on for a long, long time. Hours, maybe. By the time morning light came, I knew I couldn’t bear another month of hope and heartbreak. A few days later, in my bathrobe, with damp tissues spilling from the pockets, I searched online for adoption information. Maybe, I thought, heavy with desperation and shame, if I adopt, then I’ll get pregnant.
* * *
My gloomy ruminations continue as the shaman beats me with shell-intact raw eggs (to absorb negative energy), and then (for reasons that remain unclear) blows cheap local cigarette smoke all over me, punctuated with a kind of smoky kiss on the top of my head. He then picks up the Aunt Jemima-style bottle, which he raises to his lips, presumably, to spit on me some more. Still half-lost in mournful memories, and vaguely aware that I already reek of a seedy, late-night bar, I take a deep breath and brace myself for the next round.
But this time is different. This time the shaman, standing about six paces away, extends a lighter at arm’s length before he spits the liquor.
A mist of alcohol blasts through the flame and catches fire. Catches fire!
And oh my God there’s a fireball heading toward me and holy crap I’m covered in flammable liquid.
Fear explodes through me. There is no time to dive out of the way. There is only time to squeeze my eyes shut and pray.
A wave of heat rolls over me.
MarÃa gasps on the sidelines.
I open my eyes, look down at my body. I am not on fire. Thank God, I’m not on fire! Chest pounding, I peer closer, at the light hairs on my arms. Unsinged. The fireball must have burned up just before reaching me. I let out a breath. Oh, thank God, my bug-bitten flesh is intact. Thank God my broken body remains whole.
The shaman is already taking another mouthful. I steel myself, shut my eyes, and pray. Another wave of heat. A flash of fear. Afterward, a mental scan of my flesh. Still not on fire. Thank you. And on and on they go, these fire- balls that tug me right into this place, this moment.
By the time they stop, my body is quivering like a plucked string, but now thoroughly warmed. Pulse racing, sweat pouring from my armpits, I wonder what comes next.
The shaman picks up a large, smooth, black stone from his altar. Andean shamans’ stones have personalities, talents, lives of their own. The shaman places his helper stone over my belly, and then, in a powerful voice, as if he’s channeling the wind, shouts, “Shunguuu!” it’s a whoosh, this word, and it whooshes right into me.
“Shunguuu!” he shouts again, with the force of a storm, and any silly thoughts that were not burned up by the fireballs are now blown away. Shunguuu! A perfect word for this focused power aimed straight into my center.
He murmurs something to MarÃa, who translates, “Think about what you want, Laurita.”
I am very practiced at wishing. For every birthday and shooting star sighting and heads-side-up penny over the past five years, I have wished for increasingly detailed versions of the same thing: that I get pregnant with a baby in my own womb with my own egg and Ian’s sperm and give birth to my healthy and beautiful and happy full- term baby. There is no room for nasty surprises from the universe with that degree of specificity.
I now prepare to carefully whisper my wish, but then, I stop.
I surprise myself by asking, Laura, what do you really, truly want?
In response, something happens inside my chest. A kind of whoosh of sunlight into my heart. It’s as if a doorway has opened, a passage I never knew existed. And on the other side, in the light, are tiny, tender feet. A baby who nestles into my body, his world. A baby who is not inside my belly, but inside my heart, in this light-filled space that was here all along. This baby, these feet, they are my joy.
This is what I want. This is the wish I whisper.
* * *
After the ceremony, I stand, soaking wet in my sports bra, plastered with bits of rose petals, my heart still hurting, but stronger now, encased in this flawed but loved body. I bask inside my own hidden patch of light as the shaman explains that to complete the ceremony, I may not indulge in the following items for three days: chocolate, pork, fish, avocado, milk, chili, and (regrettably) showers.
For the next three days, I’ll be living with a thin coating of alcohol and saliva and smoke and rose petals on my skin. But none of that matters because I’m not thinking so much about my body now, but my heart, and its surprise doorway, and the baby feet, and the glimpse of joy.
Nodding confidently, the shaman tells MarÃa one more thing. She beams as she translates, “this mujercita—this little woman—will have a baby very soon!”
Yes, I think, my heart freshly full and newly light, this mujercita will.
* * *
Back home, as my bug-bite welts fade, as springtime blooms in Colorado, I embark on a nine-month-long adoption process, not as means to a pregnancy, but as a pathway to this baby inside my heart, my baby. My husband is supportive, but, as is typical in adoptions (and pregnancies), it is the woman who labors, the woman who, one way or another, delivers her child. My life quickly fills with reams of paperwork, long waits in government buildings, and multiple trips to Guatemala.
I deal with these tasks the way a pregnant woman deals with morning sickness and swollen feet and other annoyances that pale beside the monumental and sparkling anticipation of the baby coming. At the three-month mark, instead of an ultrasound, I’m rewarded with photos of the newborn whose spirit is growing inside me. As his arrival nears, something inside me thrums, something stronger than kicks or hiccups—something inside my chest, the beating of thousands of shimmering wings.
* * *
Three years later, when he’s old enough to begin to understand, I tell my son I wish my belly hadn’t been broken so that he could have been in it. I wish my breasts could have given him milk. I tell him it made me sad, but that even though he couldn’t grow in my belly, he grew in my heart.
He nuzzles in my lap like a baby animal and tells me my breasts are soft pillows for his head. He tells me, in our whispered conversations, “I always wanted a mommy like you. Out of all the mommies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”
And I tell him, my voice breaking, “I always wanted a little boy like you. Out of all the babies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”
Then, for the ten thousandth time, I kiss his feet.
Author’s Note: During the process of adopting my son, I wrote the novel The Indigo Notebook, about a teenage boy searching for his birth parents in the Andes. This book gave me the chance to explore the idea of looking beyond what I think I want, to discover what I truly want. (It also gave me the chance to include a shaman-spitting-fireballs scene).
Laura Resau has lived and traveled in Latin America and Europe. Her experiences inspired her novels for young people—What the Moon Saw, Red Glass, The Indigo Notebook, Star in the Forest, and The Queen of Water. She lives with her family in Colorado (www.lauraresau.com).