cw: pregnancy loss
The sky was bright blue that day. There was the kind of lush wind that made you believe you could happily delete all your social media accounts and easily, miraculously, open a goat farm and make a living selling cheese. I rested my head against the window and watched the thousand shades of green whir past. I got to sit shotgun since I couldn’t stop crying.
We drove all day, starting in Montreal and following the Ottawa River before heading west across to Baptiste Lake. Six of us squeezed into the minivan.
When we stopped at a burger joint for lunch, my one-year-old daughter played in the parking lot with her cousin, jumping off the curb onto the greasy asphalt. From the inside of the restaurant, I watched my daughter stumble again and again on her long dress. I figured this was when a girl’s troubles begin – with dresses that are too long and get under our feet. From then on, we just accept it’s in our nature to fall.
I stared at the uneaten hamburger in front of me. My boyfriend sat down across from me and held my hands on the table, his thumbs in the soft part of my wrists. The worst part was not knowing the moment when it was going to leave my body. Not knowing exactly when I would have to say “goodbye.” I thought of toilets and plumbing and the tiny baby floating down echoing tunnels into the sewage.
When I had toppled back from the wave of sorrow and could breathe again, I went to the bathroom. I said, “I love you,” when I flushed, just in case. The red water disappeared and was replaced by clean, empty water. In the mirror, my eyes looked too little, like they were trying to disappear into my face.
Then we all got back in the van, and the gradual death continued. There was no pushing, no intense eye staring and synchronized breathing, just slow bleeding that I was told would last for days. An undignified death. Then again, wasn’t all death just messy and small in the end?
My younger sister and parents arrived before us, having driven a shorter distance from Toronto to get there. We hugged lightly as we always did, old fights and hurts making us stiff. But my sister gave me an extra squeeze, her curly hair in my face. “I’m sorry.”
My parents didn’t know, and I didn’t want to tell them. My mother looked at me and furrowed her brow. Maybe deep down, she knew she was losing something, too. Something that had once been hers. The egg that had become the baby was already in my ovary when I was inside my mother’s body.
The farmhouse where we were staying smelled of old vinyl and musty wood. The furniture was either Christmas green or the shade of velvety red that movie vampires want for their gowns. All the cutlery was flimsy, and the plates and cups were mustard yellow with beige designs.
My little family stayed on the second floor, up a narrow flight of slippery stairs. If we went to the bathroom at night, we ran our palms along both walls and tried not to trip on the steep steps. My daughter slept in a fold-out crib next to the bed. Before I went to bed, I popped a bunch of pain meds and drifted into a foggy and thick sleep.
In the night, we rolled into each other on the sagging mattress. It was a different kind of lovers’ embrace than during the early years of our relationship. While our touch used to have urgency and need, now it had comfort and quiet. He put his hand on my belly and slept with the side of his hip pressing into me. I listened to his breathing, my daughter’s snores, and the pulsing sounds of insects until I fell back asleep.
The next day I went for a swim, far past the clumps of weeds by the shore, to a clear spot near the middle of the lake. The water was so warm that summer. There was no difference in temperature from the air, so swimming felt like flying. I used to be scared of going out that deep, fearful of the darkness below. But now, I was begging it to be my friend and do me a favor.
I hoped the baby would leave my body then and flow into the lakey-green to sink slowly, slowly down into the muddy bottom. I hoped that, even for a moment, it would be as if it were swimming, and even in death, it might feel the freedom of summer. I wished the water would stay warm long into the autumn, so its teeny body wouldn’t be cold. And then, finally, when the lake froze over, I hoped it would have been consumed by the weeds and turned into nutrients. Next summer, it might reappear as a silvery scale on a fish or a freckle on the silky belly of a frog.
And, what if I was never to return to this lake? What if, in the summers to come, we went elsewhere? The pain of that thought hurt me in the chest.
I tilted my head back into the water and let the top of my hair get wet. Was this what it was like to lose something so small? To float and sink and then be held up by water.
Later, we all cheered for my daughter and her cousin as they chased a ball on the beach. She got to the ball first, but then it rolled down the short hill into the water. They watched it go, teetering in their sandy diapers with their chubby arms flailing like puppets. At that moment, I had forgotten what my body was doing. The long letting go.
We lit a fire outside and wore long clothes to protect ourselves from the mosquitos until it grew too dark for them, and they all vanished. What was it about the darkness that made them go? I sat in a button-up shirt and ankle-length skirt watching my marshmallow roast in the fire, an eye on my daughter as she toddled dangerously near the heat. Her father picked her up and brought her over so I could kiss her soft cheek before he took her to bed. She smelled like smoke and sugar.
My dad asked if I still had a headache, and I mumbled, “it’s a bit better now.” His beard was now completely grey, and he was wearing a fleece pullover despite the warmth.
Throughout my childhood, we stayed at this same place for a few weeks every summer. Once, when I was a little girl, my marshmallow was burning on the stick, and I jabbed it into my dad’s face so he could blow it out. In my memory, his thumb caught fire, and for a few moments, it burned brightly until he managed to extinguish the flame. It was terrible.
Years later, he told me, “No, it never happened. It couldn’t have happened. Fingers don’t just catch fire like that.”
Sometimes, I still thought about the flames rising from his hand. It’s hard to let go of a belief that old.
I was a woman now, and together we watched the blue of the fire. I laughed at all the jokes and sang all the songs, and all the while, I was losing my pregnancy. Some wood burst in the heat and ashes flew into the starry sky. It was beautiful. Maybe I was coming back, crawling up and out of the mud so I could see again. Maybe my eyes were reappearing in my face. Maybe I hadn’t turned to ash, or maybe I had never been burning.
On the morning of the last day, I sat on the steps of the farmhouse holding a coffee and looking at the trees moving in the wind. My bleeding was ending. When I last checked, it was light and pink. The baby was gone. Its exact parting was unmarked and quiet, but I hoped that at that moment, it was halfway to the bottom of the lake, resting for a day or two on a plant, soaking in the summer light that turned green and sparkly when it hit the water.
My boyfriend carried our suitcases down and out to the van, and I held my daughter in my arms as we all said goodbye. My parents hugged us. I squeezed my younger sister tightly.
“See you later this year. I love you.” Her hair was in my face and mine in hers.
I climbed into the middle row with the car seats. The fathers sat up front, and my older sister sat in the back, entertaining the toddlers with her hand motions. The tires ground into the dirt road, and pebbles flew into the ditches, and outside the window, the lake disappeared. I said a last goodbye.
“Water baby, my tiny one.”
The parade of green started back up. After a few minutes, my daughter managed to twist her leg into my lap. I held her round foot that was still sandy from the lake. I pressed a finger over a teeny pebble on her heel and watched her eyes flicker as she drank from her bottle and softly fell asleep.
Rachel Deutsch's writing and illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s, Prism International, The Pinch, and more. Rachel lives in Montreal with her partner and two young children.