Blood Memory

LISA BIRD-WILSON

In the home for unwed mothers, as she waits for me to be born, one word in Cree is spoken over and again in her head—macitwawiskwesis, bad girl.

Every pregnant woman dreams of what her baby will be like. But babies shouldn’t have to dream their mothers. It’s been more than thirty years and I still struggle to quell the haunting voice at the back of my mind that urges find her find her. Instead I invent her.

I want to start at the beginning but beginnings are slippery to pin down. What would hers look like? Was it the moment she realized her period was late? I can imagine the instant of understanding that her actions, up to now carefree and light, came with real consequences. Or maybe the beginning was the conception itself, when she and my father pushed the limits behind the big barn that housed the cattle in winter, the small heated calf-shack tucked into its shadow. What made her think she was immune to it all, to the fecundity of the land and animals that every day plugged her nose with pungent odours, filled her ears with bawling bleating madness?

More likely, the beginning had something to do with the day the gnarly, squashed fetus (she made herself call it a fetus, to avoid thinking of it as a b-a-b-y) squalled its way into her world and she made her way out of its world—a double beginning. Each a newly released hostage, not quite believing she had survived, fleetingly grateful before moving on as though nothing of import had occurred. There’s got to be a reason why babies and mothers forget the pain of birth.

I picture what she went through something like this. At the height of the ninth month, swollen like an overstuffed olive, lungs and other internal organs squeezed so tight she felt out of breath on the wide staircase of the antiseptic “home for unwed mothers” (read “institution for misfits and fuck-ups”), she tried to understand, but she could not find a reason for the mythical underwater creature swirling beneath skin stretched so thin and taut that in her dreams she popped herself with a shiny dinner fork. All the while, inside, the fetus (repeat: fetus, fetus) sank and swam in murky depths of blood memory bonding secret-identity mother to child. And a word bobbed about in the depths, tickling the tadpole. The word waited to be picked up and held in the palms of two hands, examined then crushed to the chest rubbed into arms over shoulders across the belly, the word more than a word, to be inhaled then expelled bit by bit with every breath—the word Métis.

I don’t know about the home and the wide staircase; she could have been kept like an animal in a barn for all I know. But going off to a home seems the kind of thing that would have happened, back in the day. I imagine them saying she’d been sent away to live with a sick aunt after her father made an angry visit to the neighbouring farm and scared the hell out of the farmhand, who was really just a boy, while her mother got on the phone with the priest. Sent away for five months before returning deflated, with large leaky breasts, eyes swollen from lying in the back of the family station wagon and bawling all the way home.

“Growing nicely,” Dr. Dubious pronounces as he measures my belly from pubic bone to top of fundus—some of the new words I’ve been learning. What about the words she learned? Not the words of a fantastic and beautiful anatomy to be revealed during the rite of passage through pregnancy and birth toward motherhood. Instead the words she learned—truly learned in their deep and hurtful meaning, maybe for the first time—those words may have been shame, wrong, bad, disgrace, words that make her cover her head and stop her ears to deflect their blows.

I also learned, on my visit to Dr. Dubious, that it’s awkward to have a baby when you don’t know your medical history. Any history of heart disease?

No.

What about in your family?

Nana died when I was nineteen, and my mother dug into herself to find the words to tell me her mother was dead. That is when I understood that my mother had been a daughter first. But Nana’s stroke doesn’t count for Dubious’s question—he is looking for hereditary conditions. I have nothing to offer, only a great yawning blank. I give him the only thing hereditary I know: Métis.

Not a baby, not a baby. She must have willed herself to remain blank and distant from what was right below the sternum. No picturing startled fingers, tiny heels that would fit in her palm, a dark silken bloom of hair, down-covered shoulders. Instead, a fishy eyeless globe, a silent sea monster in the well of her incubator body, gnawing at the base of the cord that attached them, one to the other, trying desperately to escape as a muskrat will chew its own leg off to get out of a trap. She once saw her father open a ripe sturgeon, full of black eggs, and saw him lament the lost potential of those eggs, as though somehow he’d been a careless steward. But her insides only harbour a single shimmery orb shadowed by a thin stretch of tail. She imagines this thing contained, herself a container. She is filled with blue-green water, soft seaweed tendrils undulating in time with her movements, a secret underwater world like a dark aquarium. There must be a reason we’re grown in the dark, submerged in water, hermetically sealed—what is it we’re trying to keep out?

She dreams of gigantic garden shears sharpened to a razor’s edge, oiled and free of catches, her hands holding the rubber-coated grips and cutting the briny cord, setting herself afloat as the fetus fetus fetus drifts lazily away like Huck on his raft, and she is laughing.

In one of her dreams she finds a small blue jewellery box bobbing in the toilet. She scoops it out and holds it in her palm, wet and messy, leaking onto her bare toes. She’s afraid to open it because she thinks it is ticking. She panics and tries to hide the thing before it explodes. She blurts out mock-Latin words, cul cum id esto, grievous, faulty, in a solemn voice, flicking her fingers over the box, a magician’s black-magic flourish, léger de main, before flushing it down.

I tell Dubious that I’ll have my baby at home with midwives, that my baby must remain with me at all times, particularly during those few first lucid hours when the most intense bonding is said to occur. I mention my anxieties about “attachment capabilities” and “emotional glue.” But I don’t tell him that I’m teetering on the edge of an insurmountable regret, a loss so large it threatens to smother me—the loss of what was mine by birth, a deficit that I wear like a scar.

When I was a child I had two best friends— both adopted, both Native. It was as if we recognized each other’s wounds, as though we saw the pieces that hadn’t formed, the missing parts that would have made each of us whole. Instead we were left inhibited, less attached, without much capacity for love and intimacy. I turned into an angry teenager, hungry for an unnameable, unknowable presence. I tell Dubious that I want the best for my baby. “All expectant mothers say that,” he laughs. I don’t tell him he’s wrong.

During the last months of my pregnancy, my mind becomes watered down with the weight and change in my body. I sit for hours dreamily staring into space while the radio plays softly in another room. I relish the quiet, the peace, the opportunity to do nothing that those with experience tell me will soon end. I imagine what these months were like for her, in that home, day after day, a prisoner serving a sentence, waiting to be let free.

At the home there’s a girl she’s taken to calling Mary K. Mary K is lithe and sexy, even at nine months, while she herself is puffy, toxic with high blood pressure and nauseating headaches. She can envision Mary K sitting on an older man’s lap and fiddling with his pants, toying with the idea of being taken advantage of, a spunky, sway-back, streetwise Lolita, her slippery seal’s body a horny turn-on. If she’d had something other than sex to peddle she’d be the queen of snake-oil sales. If life had dealt her a different hand she’d be driving a big pink Cadillac with vanity plates that read Mary K. As they smoke in the alley behind the home, one girl dares to confess she misses her boyfriend. The rest of them drag on their smokes and say nothing.

The days are long and bleed one into the next. The girls are not allowed out of the nuns’ sight; many resent not being free to walk and shop and pretend to live a different story than the one they do; many are from remote rural places and being on the edge of the city, only to be forbidden a trip downtown, vexes them to the point of tears. Only Mary K, looking like a malnourished, pot-bellied orphan, manages to slither out under the cloak of night to secure cigarettes. She brings back small flat bottles of lemon gin and the girls, with their skewed centres of gravity, tumble one atop the other with shrill delighted screams. The Mother Superior threatens to put them out, to call their parents.

One evening at the home, as she makes toast, she looks at her bloated reflection in the chrome and dreams of being thin again. The girls can talk of nothing else. As she reaches into the toaster with the point of a knife she knows that it’s a stupid thing to do. Would the shock throw her back onto her ass? She thinks about the pond of dew she might be standing in were it not enclosed inside her body, and how water and electricity make bad company, and what might happen to the cloudy lagoon sloshing about in her distended belly with its fragments and bits, if it were touched the way she once saw a loose live wire send a blue-white spark skipping over puddles in the barn like stones over water. I don’t know what happened, but my own mother, the one who raised me, told me what the social worker had said. There was an accident and I could have been lost. She’s told me this story as confirmation of how much I was wanted, even before they knew who I was, even before I was born. I want to be grateful, I am grateful. But still I know she wouldn’t understand my feeling that I’ve always been lost.

As she completes her sentence at the home, waiting for me to be born, shameful words creep up on her. In Cree one word is spoken over and again in her head—macitwawiskwesis, bad girl. Perhaps she had a note from her mother on her birthday, expressing hope for a better year, yet between the lines she reads her mother’s desire for a good daughter, not such a bad nitanis. My heart twists, half with empathy and half with jealousy, for at least she got to know these words, difficult as they are. At least she was nitanis, no matter how bad. When my husband returns home from work I chalk up my tears to hormones and he holds me until I sleep.

I imagine that all her dreams occur under water. The night she goes into labour, she floats peacefully, hair swaying about her face, hands gripping her garden shears, only to be tossed on shore by the insistent tides of her body. She gasps, lying in a puddle. Has she breached the thin membrane between dream and wakefulness, somehow exposing the netherworld to this one? She cries out with her first conscious contraction and the girl in the next bed tells her shuddup, fer fucksake.

A sentimental girl might name the baby. It never occurs to her, before, during or after the birth, that it is anything other than the black- penny-eyed tadpole of her imagination. She fills in the blanks as best she can—there are rules about these things—but no one can make her open her heart and no one can force her to leave anything behind, not even a name.

I sit in my bathtub at home, riding waves of contractions, soothed by the warm water, two midwives amiably attending, prepared for the long haul that most first births are. I can’t shake the dream-world mother I’ve created. Nitanis, she whispers, as I let my head flop wearily between contractions; one midwife mops my brow with a cool cloth while the other perches on a chair and sips tea. Someone’s put soft music on, my husband warms towels in the dryer, and I can hear the excited voices of our families downstairs in the living room.

My mother, real or dreamed, never had any of these things. No one whispered nitanis in her ear, mopped her brow, made the tea, warmed the towels, waited in the wings, treated my birth like a celebration. Instead, I imagine harsh words, harsh towels. Maybe a younger nun secretly attempted to mitigate the punishing experience of most births at the home. I am confused and angry over the loss of what I needed: identity, blood inheritance, to be Métis, to know where I’ve come from, something to pass on to my own child, who will be blinded when she sees all the things she lost as well.

Hours later my daughter is born amid scurry and scuffle, worry and joy. I hold her next to my skin and she looks at me—looks and looks—her eyes wide and serious. And I think, This is the first and only blood relation I have. Together we will invent ourselves, she and I. She is beautiful and real.

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LISA BIRD-WILSON

Lisa Bird-Wilson, a Métis and nêhiyaw writer from Saskatchewan, is the author of three books: The Red Files, a poetry collection (Nightwood Editions, 2016), Just Pretending, short stories (Coteau Books, 2013) and An Institute of Our Own: A History of the Gabriel Dumont Institute (Gabriel Dumont Press, 2011). Just Pretending is the 2019 One Book One Province selection for Saskatchewan. Her first novel, Probably Ruby, was published in 2021 by Doubleday Canada. Her shorter works have been published in periodicals and anthologies across Canada. Bird-Wilson lives in Saskatoon, SK. Find her at lisabirdwilson.com.


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