Art by Isabel Hu
Writing by Misha McDaniel
Content warning: graphic childbirth sequence
They tell her to push so she does. Her knees are up in the air, ashy and trembling. The blue-green hospital gown is gathered up above her hips, right at the top of the massive, throbbing bump where belly meets torso. When she takes a deep breath, bracing herself for that rip that burns deep inside her and then all the way through her toes, her swollen breasts shake, her bottom lip quivers.
She has come to the hospital alone. The only people in the room are the nurse, a young woman in her 30s, just a few years older than her, and the doctor, a man with gray in his beard and eyes the color of soil. The sad hospital bed rattles on its wheels as she grips the railing tight, her knuckles threatening to turn pink with all the effort, even through her chestnut-colored skin.
The doctor, a quiet man that smells of rubbing alcohol and lemon, gently pushes her left thigh to the side, his fingers warm and male just a few inches above the knee, and she feels it. Through all the pushing and the salty sweat curling the roots of her hair and the nurse rubbing at her back, she feels it.
She doesn’t want to but she does and that’s what sends her back, back, back, back to that gravel road, back to the feeling of sediment and rock pinching into her knees—they weren’t ashy then, now were they?—back to that aching stretch where hip meets inner thigh except different now because now she’s on her back and now there’s something in between her and the invasion and now she knows nothing will ever hurt more than that gravel road. Not even the thing inside her trying to rip her apart. Not even bearing the weight of the Devil’s spawn and sin.
She should’ve pushed that wire as far up her as she could, but the myth of death haunted her. She figured she wouldn’t let her life be taken, too, not after so much had been taken from her, so much that she could never get back, not even in pieces. She figured she’d give one last time—ain’t that the role of the colored woman anyway?—and then she’d finally rest. But that knowing, the knowing that gave her hope of solace and reprieve, didn’t stop the rage; nothing, not even God, not even her grandmother risen like Lazarus, could stop that.
She opens her eyes because she had squeezed them shut when she started to see gravel and couldn’t believe it was still happening, that this, her in that hospital room pushing when they said to, breathing when they said to, wasn’t over yet. She wanted it all to be over, but it had never stopped. She had been feeling gravel in between her toes for weeks now, smelling the stench of piss and semen in the shower, at the store, anywhere, everywhere, seeing the Devil in the mirror. But she knew that once that thing was gone from inside her, after she let herself be ripped in half—again—by something undeserving—again—it’ll all be…
They tell her to push so she does, this time a curdled scream like that of a wounded bird, escaping her unpainted lips.
“You’re doing good, girl,” the nurse pants next to her. She’s sweating too, her pin curled hair frizzing up and away from her head, strand by strand. The nurse is the color of coffee with two spoonfuls of milk, her eyes almost golden when the light reflects just right, and cheekbones smudged with old dark red lipstick the color of day-old wine.
The nurse is used to birthing babies who have Devils for fathers and she can always tell the type. The mothers are full of empty, have eyes made of glass and voices so hollow it sounds like the wind blowing when they speak. They’re always alone too, as if they couldn’t bear to let anyone who knows them see what has truly happened, as if they couldn’t bear to let those they loved witness them give horror and shame new life.
“You’re doing good, girl.” The girl is one of many to hear the nurse’s attempt at consolation but she doesn’t hear the nurse. The words are spoken by something else, by something long dead and with a voice made of shards. She squeezes her eyes shut so tight, tears escape from them. The pain rocks through her, from in between her hips spiraling out into her chest and throat and limbs and ankles. It grips her like barbed wire and drags through her bones and muscle and flesh. Her legs are shaking now, shaking like before, before all this, before the gravel, before she knew what it was supposed to feel like, before when she could love right, before she learned of the pain wicked men could unlock from within her, before she had learned of the rage terror brings.
A part of her hopes she’ll never have to feel anything inside of her again, dreams of a wombless life, of a sexless one. She doesn’t want to give anymore.
She can feel the thing inside her moving, pulling against her and she’s almost sick. When will it be over? She asks herself the same question she asked herself all those months ago, on that warm-for-November night. That’s why she had gone out that night, isn’t it? Who can remember the calm before the storm, the content before the terror? But that’s why she had lotioned her knees and painted her lips. She figured it would be the last true night of Fall, before the cold began, and she was right. She should’ve known the Devil would be out, too, though. Should’ve known not to look anything that pale in the eye.
She opens her eyes to her swollen belly, the stretch marks like lightning across a clear sky. Maybe she should’ve gambled with Death, should’ve crossed her heart like her grandmother taught her to and prayed she wouldn’t bleed out. It didn’t matter now because she was already there, her hospital gown damp with sweat and tears and blood. She could feel it pooling underneath her, the blood as warm as pie, and already knew they’d have to sew her back up before she could walk again.
The blood on her skin makes her smile. The warmth of it reminds her of the feeling of it running down her chin and dripping onto her collar bones as she crushed the thing that violated her. The one moment of clarity that night gave her in all those moments of shame, horror, disgust. She remembered reading somewhere about how strong the jaw was. (She used to want to be a doctor when she was a girl and before she knew that everyone was lying when they said she could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up.) So the moment she got the chance, she tested the theory.
It was easy to bite through, easier than she thought it would be. By then the damage had already been done, but the rage had replaced the terror and finally he was the one screaming, crying, and she was the one laughing as she hopped-ran away. She remembers spitting it into the gravel, of how soft it was once detached. He had tried to grab her but he couldn’t through the pain, the shock. She didn’t stay after that, but she hopes he bled out right there in the spot he ruined her.
They tell her to push and they say it’s for the last time. She holds on to that moment of joy, of freedom, before she knew what was left inside her, and she does. The pain washes over her like water; it’s only a dull throb now. There’s a moment of stillness, the heat and sweat in the air waiting, a soft wet pop, the doctor’s smile, and then? And then.