“I’m going to be honest,” the doctor says. “Your chances aren’t good. Your AMH levels are low, which indicates that your ovarian reserves are low.”
My partner squeezes my hand.
“It’s a lot to do with your age. If you were to fall pregnant, it would be considered a geriatric pregnancy. An unflattering term, I know, given you’re only thirty-eight. But that’s the way it is when it comes to these things. And then, with your blocked tubes…”
My partner asks if there is anything to be done to increase our chances. Beyond turning back time, the doctor tells us, not really. IVF is our best bet.
I focus on the picture above his head as they discuss the details. An abstract. Grey and red and black—hard lines and shapes. It stands out in sharp contrast to the greenery I can see through the window, foliage pressed up against glass. Lush, vibrant. I wonder why anyone would choose such a piece to hang in a fertility clinic. So angry and sterile.
I fall pregnant on my third round of IVF. My breasts swell, become tender, my belly bloats and I’m so exhausted I dream of sleep.
But the HCG levels don’t increase as they should.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor tells us. “It’s ectopic.”
The blastocyst placed in me has gone walkabout. Never to be found, but still expanding. Trying to kill me. They give me a methotrexate injection. A drug used to treat cancer that halts cell growth, that requires the nurse who administers it to come out wearing a mask, gloves, a protective gown.
“For three months you must put trying to conceive on hold,” the nurse tells me.
In three months, I will be thirty-nine. Less fertile. I sit very still as the needle pierces my skin. I refrain from asking for a lollipop.
A week later, I bleed.
Three months pass and my partner and I try again. But my body won’t respond. We leave it for a couple of months. One, two attempts. Each time a single follicle appears but won’t grow.
My doctor shakes his head, he doesn’t know why.
Could it be the methotrexate?
“No, no. Highly unlikely. Enough time has passed.”
He tells me he’ll take the problem to the table. Take me to the table. I am the problem, after all. My ovaries.
My partner and I discuss this. We only have limited funds after all, we can only stand so much disappointment. We agree. One more time, we’ll try one more time.
The next time we see him, the doctor says, “A cocktail. We’ll try a cocktail this time. A combination of different drugs. We’ve tried Gonal-F and Menopur with Orgalutran and they don’t seem to be working, at least on their own. I’ve discussed it with the other doctors here—with Dr Magdalene in particular. We like to refer to her as our mixologist,” he smiles. “We’ve decided that Synarel, Elonva and Menopur are the way to go.”
Dr Magdalene. I’ve read her profile on the website. She’s listed as Clinical Director, but there’s no photo as there is with the other clinicians. In addition to her qualifications and the many medical boards she is on, her profile describes her as a world-renowned specialist in fertility with an interest in new and emerging technologies in the field. Passionate about pregnancy, she takes a holistic approach, believing that lifestyle has a major impact on fertility outcomes and a healthy pregnancy. Her pastimes include yoga and gardening.
A female doctor, one who’s so qualified, who loves yoga and a holistic approach. “Perfect,” I said, when I read it aloud to my partner, “she sounds perfect.” But Dr Magdalene doesn’t take patients. She only consults.
“Let’s see if we can get those ovaries to do what they’re supposed to,” my doctor says. “We know you’ve done it before, and we know your body’s capable of getting pregnant—we just don’t want the blastocyst wandering off like last time.”
He beams. My partner beams. I smile. He’s kind, the nurses are kind, my partner is kind. Everybody is kind. Except for my body. My body is cruel.
I snort the Synarel, inject the Elonva and Menopur, go for my scans, for my blood tests, hold out bruised arms, spread my knees, invite intrusion, invasion.
Double, double, toil and trouble—the magic potion, Dr Magdalene’s cocktail, it works.
Three follicles. All on my left ovary. Not many, but the best they can expect given my age, my history.
“The sinister ovary,” I joke, “but better than my lazy right ovary.” And I wag my finger over that side. “Freeloader.”
This time, I think. This time. I imagine a fat, little baby in my arms. I can almost feel the child. Smell it. Imagine the smile, the laugh, the downy head pressed to my chest, chubby fingers clutching at me. Me, me. Mine.
I begin to see signs everywhere. My nephew spontaneously gives me two kisses. I drop an egg while making pancakes. They will collect two eggs. I cut my finger making peach jam. Burn the fruit. It will be a difficult birth. I dream we have a baby and name her Evie Scarlett—it will be a girl.
The night before my third scan, I have trouble sleeping. I toss and turn. When I finally fall asleep, I dream that I’m running late for the appointment. I’m trying to get ready, but can only move slowly, hindered by elderly people moving in and out of rooms, up and down the hall, standing in the shower and sitting in the bathtub. Walking around, going nowhere. My partner tells me they’re from the dementia ward at his work in the nursing home. I shout at them to get out. I need to shower. But nobody takes any notice. They just seem to accumulate, milling into the bathroom, pressing in on me. I push through limbs, trying to find my partner, trying to call out. The people, they push back, moan, crumble. I’m crawling through them, through what’s left behind, tunnels of desiccated bodies, on hands and knees, searching for light, for my partner, deeper and deeper and deeper…
It’s a beautiful day. Blue skies and sun, wisps of cloud.
In the waiting room, I tell my partner of the tunnel dream. I can’t stop talking, smiling, laughing. I can’t stop tapping my foot. My whole body’s alive with anticipation.
“It reminded me of Italy—remember the catacombs just outside of Rome?”
My partner nods, yawns. It’s early, he needs more coffee.
“And the tour guide said not to get separated from the group because you could get lost forever? It was like a warren—all those burial chambers, all those bodies. In my dream, I couldn’t see any burial chambers, but it was like that—a warren.”
My partner squeezes my hand, asks how I’m feeling. “Whatever happens,” he says, “we’ll be ok.”
I don’t know how I’m feeling—I’m not scared or happy or sad or nervous or anything. Just full of energy. Electric. Humming. Being touched is too much and I gently pull away just as a nurse calls my name.
I lay back, legs open, an ultrasound probe inside me, while two nurses look at the screen admiring my endometrium, searching for ovaries to measure the follicles. My partner holds my hand.
Still nothing on my right. Then the left. There is a long silence. They whisper to each other. I feel cold inside.
“I’m sorry,” says one of the nurses. “They haven’t grown since last scan.”
“Let’s not panic yet,” says the other. “We’ll see what your blood test says. Wait for our call in the afternoon.”
We sit in silence on the way home. The blue of the sky, the brightness of the sun, mocking me.
“I’m sorry,” says the nurse when she rings.
Sorry. I wonder what it’s like to not get “sorry.” To be someone who has done a good job. Someone whose body’s behaving as it should. Someone whose ovaries are cooperating. Someone with healthy eggs. Good eggs. Someone who’s getting a gold star, a prize, a baby.
I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s for the best. What sort of world is this to bring a child into anyway? Turn on the TV: potential war in Iran, climate change, bush fires in Australia, a shooting in Thailand, Trump, pandemics. It would be selfish, irresponsible.
We can travel, we’ll have more money to spend on things we’ve always wanted to do.
Did you know that statistically, childless couples are happier? It’s true. And who doesn’t want to be happier?
I smile when I say these things, when I tell people.
I smile and smile, sing along to Nana Mouskouri, sip a gin, laugh and dance with my partner in the loungeroom of our apartment.
More grapefruit for my gin, that’s what I need. Ruby-red grapefruit. I slice membrane-like slivers, drop them in my drink. Juice seeps into a torn cuticle. I suck my stinging finger. Suck it hard, begin to cry.
I drop the knife, leave the gin, grapefruit, my partner and run upstairs. I pull the blanket over my head, burrow under. A womb, a cocoon, a coffin. My partner comes into the room, sits on the bed. I won’t let him in. So, he holds me through the blanket. He doesn’t say anything; there’s nothing to say. My body feels arthritic, swollen, painful to touch. I can’t move, can’t speak, can only cry.
A month passes. My limbs, my gut, loosen. I move from bed to couch, then venture out onto the doorstep to sit and watch my neighbours coming and going, listen to them argue, laugh, sing, fuck or cry. Sometimes I don’t know which.
I make it out onto the street. Trips to the supermarket to make important decisions about what brand of tuna to buy, fuji apples or royal gala, soy or cow’s milk. Walks along the river or a trip to a cafe. I cook elaborate meals, eat them. Run, lift weights. I will be strong. I will be something.
I’ll go back to work soon, I promise myself, though the thought terrifies me. It’s not that I hate being a physio or running my own business, but that’s all I can see now—a never-ending stream of patients with back and neck and knee and shoulder injuries. Physical injuries I’m expected to soothe, alleviate, rehabilitate, when I can’t soothe, alleviate or rehabilitate myself.
My partner is at work when the phone rings.
“We can try one more thing,” says a female voice without introduction. “We have discussed your case and there is something we can try,” there’s a pause, “unofficially.”
“My case for what? Who is this?”
“A baby,” says the voice. “If you are willing, I have a cocktail. A special one. An unofficial one.”
And I know it’s Dr Magdalene.
For Lillia S_____
The package arrives. No return address. A freezer box, another box inside. Inside that is a vial, the contents green, and a syringe. On the vial, the words: Tempus vernum. Beneath the box is a note: I will be in touch.
My partner isn’t keen, he begs me to rethink this. Haven’t I been through enough? He doesn’t want to see me get my hopes up again, crushed again. He doesn’t mention money. I don’t know if he even thinks of it, if it’s a consideration. But I want him to. So I can be angry. So I can yell, spit, swear. So I can release some of this pressure that’s built up inside, that’s been building up ever since we began trying. Ever since I began failing.
“I decide,” I say. “I decide what’s enough.”
A day after the package arrives, the phone rings.
“After you inject, copulate,” Dr Magdalene tells me. “Every second day for a week, no more, no less.”
“When do I inject? Does it need to be around ovulation or the beginning of my period?”
“On the eve of a full moon, when the crow cries.”
“No,” says Dr Magdalene. “Do it tonight. And Lillia—”
“The side effects—or perhaps the word process is more suitable—either way, generally, they’re unusual. Often unpleasant. Though I cannot tell you specifically what they might be, they’ll be unique to you. Unique to what’s occurring inside of you.”
I press the phone so firmly against my ear it hurts. “I don’t care.”
“When the crow cries, then.”
But Dr Magdalene just laughs and hangs up.
Chartreuse-green, viscous, I draw up the liquid. Nancy Wilson is playing.
“Are you sure?” says my partner.
I flick the syringe, gently press the plunger until a bead appears at the tip, wipe my belly clean, ice it. Though I’ve done this many times before, my hand shakes. A new drug, a different method, new side effects.
My partner touches my back lightly.
“Are you sure?”
I push the needle in—I’m always amazed at the ease with which it penetrates the flesh, slides in, disappears—and depress—
The syringe is empty, the liquid gone. Whatever it is, it’s inside me.
We have sex every second day, no more, no less.
On the seventh day, I wake to cramps. A hot iron in my belly, acid in my mouth, sweat on my forehead, ice in my chest. I curl in on myself, grip the sheets, throw up.
Sleep, sour smell, taste, dreams of green, a flood of light, something lodged somewhere, the phone rings—
“How do you feel?”
“Excellent,” Dr Magdalene says. “Remember, don’t be alarmed by what occurs. I shall call back in a week.”
She hangs up before I can speak.
A lump in my abdomen. I think. Small. Easily missed, but tender to touch. Press on it and it disappears, as if it’s taunting me.
The cramps dissipate, but the thing lodged becomes more pronounced, solid, it shifts to my sternum, near my lungs. In the daytime, I have trouble breathing. My body tightens, hardens against what’s there.
But when I’m still, it pulses. Lying down at night, it feels like a second heartbeat.
It happens while we’re watching reruns of Frasier. I cough. Small, dry, abrupt barks.
My partner passes me a glass of water, pats my back.
I haven’t been sleeping well. Moaning, moving, twisting my body into impossible shapes, so that he thinks I’m awake, but can’t wake me. He’s worried. Why doesn’t this person, this doctor, give a name, leave a number?
I’ve told him I think it’s Dr Magdalene, but he’s not so sure. She won’t say. It could be anybody.
I drink, wave his hand away, feel pressure, feel the mass expand, the pulsing syncopates, leaves me breathless. Unable to get a rhythm, I gasp. Breathe in as deeply as I can. Something catches, irritates my throat, like pepper or ground cinnamon, and the coughing erupts. Violent, wet. I can’t stop.
I grasp my partner’s knee, clutching tightly, eyes streaming, as I try to expel whatever it is.
I claw at my throat, my partner’s voice is panicked, far away, further than I think possible being so close. And he’s pulling away, and I’m holding fast, coughing, drowning, dying and—
there it is.
Covered in saliva and blood. Something that was inside of me and is now out. Throat swollen, bruised, torn it feels. Hand trembling, I pick it up.
Spherical, it’s a deep green colour that shifts in the light, throws up maroon, flickers of movement, and is then marblelike in its stillness. Tender, velvety to the touch. Beautiful. Alien.
My partner and I look at each other.
The phone rings.
“I believe we are at the next stage.”
Bury it. Bury it deep in the earth.
Here we are driving towards a place we’re told to go to by a voice whose owner we’ve never seen, to bury—
In its way, it’s a blastocyst. This next stage is what I like to think of as implantation.
I drive, my partner navigates. A small terracotta pot sits firmly between his legs. We’ve packed for a month away. There’s a cabin we can use there. A cabin for this purpose.
Maybe you’ll stay longer. It’s hard to say.
The landscape changes. From the ocean and city to flat, green paddocks to rolling hills to grey, white-peaked mountains to forest.
“Here,” says my partner. “We’ll have to walk.”
I take the pot from him, hug it close.
Plant it beneath one of the tallest pines. For protection.
Here the forest is dense, pines tower above us, their mossy trunks thick, ancient-seeming. The air’s crisp, sweet, cool. Dappled light decorates the shadows.
Dig with your hands.
We dig. The earth is moist, cool, peaty. Slick pink worms ribbon their way through.
Before you place it in the earth, caress it. Each of you.
I take the blastocyst out of the pot, give it to my partner.
It’s changed in the few days since it emerged. Pale and vivid green speckles cover it, the maroon has deepened. It is, I think, the colour of dry blood, but there’s a sheen to it, a moistness.
Gingerly my partner touches it with the tip of a finger, strokes it. I see his face change—enthralled, he gently presses against it.
A flush of jealousy. Startled by the sudden emotion, I thrust my hand out. “My turn.”
Briefly I caress it before carefully placing it in the hole.
Once covered, water. Place a marker, so you know where to find it. Go back to the cabin. Check on it every morning. It won’t take long.
A bright-red tendril emerges from the earth. Overshadowed by the pines it appears more vulnerable, delicate, than it would otherwise. I wonder why we couldn’t plant it at home, protect it. But upon touching it I find it’s fibrous, sturdy, stronger than it looks.
I frown. “What is this? Some kind of Cabbage Patch scenario?”
The tiny shoot moves, leans towards me. Without realizing, I shift back.
“Hey,” says my partner. “I think it’s responding to your voice.”
The tendril twists its body in his direction.
“And now mine.”
The tendril grows, it flourishes. The stem thickens. Nubs, like small limbs, jut. Leaves sprout, curled up like tight fists, unfurl, broaden. The red deepens. A foot high, the plant seems muscular, the tiny branches like bone. It flexes, hums, when we are near.
Two weeks pass. My partner spends much of the daytime sitting by the—plant? Growth? Thing? I don’t know what to call it. Hate being near it. I sit in the cabin waiting for my phone to ring, biting my nails, edges of my fingers, until they’re red, raw.
“Why don’t you join me?” my partner says. “It’s so peaceful there. Sometimes—sometimes, I think I can hear her—this low chattering. Whispers. Out of reach, though. I think I’m about to grasp a word or two and then it goes. Stops. Returns to the humming.”
I’ve heard it, too. A crackling sound, it seems to come up from the earth. If alone, sitting or standing still for too long in the forest, I think I can feel it. A vibration that makes me flee back to the cabin and shut myself in. Curtains closed, music on up loud.
“Yes,” he says, “I think it’s a girl.” And he smiles. “I’ve always wanted a girl.”
The phone rings on the eighteenth day. It’s early. A hint of light shows through the curtains. My mouth’s dusty from a night of poor sleep and strange dreams. Fragments linger: a bomb blast; a cockroach with human arms and legs; the ghost of my first dog following me through my childhood home, barking and then ringing at me…
“I assume the child is thriving?”
“The foliage is healthy? Leaves have appeared, haven’t they? How is the colour?”
I describe the “child,” as Dr Magdalene insists on calling it.
“But it’s not that,” I say finally.
“It is. You and your partner are part of its makeup.”
“Part of? Isn’t this my child? Our child?”
“This is new. This is more than you. Your child is of the future. It will give back in a way ordinary humans can’t. Ordinary humans pollute, take. But not yours. Yours will be extraordinary. Amongst other things, yours will be able to photosynthesize. Make the planet more habitable.”
I’m livid. “What? I don’t care about that. I can’t even communicate with this—”
My partner takes the phone from me. “You need to calm down.”
He goes into another room to talk to Dr Magdalene, shuts the door. Shuts me out, my protests. I sit on the edge of the bed. Pinch the flesh on my thighs hard. Twist.
A community, a network, this forest, these trees. They’ve bonded with our daughter. This is what my partner tells me. He’s telling me about our child. Our not-child.
Push your hands into the earth where she is, it will be soft, moist, easy to navigate. She’ll feel your warmth, sense your scent, your pheromones. Plants communicate through the fungal networks around their root tips. At least, it’s one of the ways. Try it, you’ll see. It’s an important step in forming a strong attachment.
“But she’s not a plant. Apparently,” I say sullenly.
My partner shakes his head, rolls up his sleeves, and pushes his hands into the dirt.
I watch. He shifts about a bit, brow furrowed, bites his lip, and then stops. His face relaxes. He smiles. Tears appear. Spill down his cheeks.
And I see it.
A face. As if carved. The face of a sleeping child, a sleeping baby. It opens its eyes. Opalescent irises, hues of greens and blues and purples. But the shape—they’re my eyes.
A chill goes through me. A flock of lorikeets burst from the tree above.
Back at the cabin, I start packing. Throwing everything haphazardly into a bag.
My phone rings.
“What am I supposed to do with this? I can’t keep plants alive. I kill cacti! Or cactuses—or whatever they are. See? I don’t even know the right terminology.”
“Please be sensible, this isn’t a cactus. It’s your child. Your daughter. Congratulations.”
“This isn’t what I asked for. This isn’t what I wanted.”
“It never is,” says Dr Magdalene.
“I hate you!” I yell, I stamp, like a child whose mother won’t buy her the toy she wants. The child I once was. “I don’t know what to do with this.”
“They never do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? They? They?”
There’s a sigh.
“What does your partner think?”
I think about his face, the look of joy. I hate him for this. That he’s so easily accepted the situation, the outcome. That he embraces it.
“It’s not what I wanted,” I repeat.
“When you’re ready and have calmed down, I’ll be in contact.”
I throw my stuff in the car. I’m leaving. I’m not a gardener. I’m not a mother. I don’t want to be a physiotherapist. I don’t know what I am, where I’m going to go, can’t think to work it out. I am empty, I am nothing.
I start the car and begin to sob. I need to talk to someone, to be heard. I just need someone to listen, to hear me out. Every. Ugly. Thing.
My partner’s where I left him. Bent over, arms elbow-deep in earth. He doesn’t notice when I approach, he’s so absorbed in what he’s doing.
I touch his shoulder, say his name. He looks at me, puzzled, as if pulled from a dream, and then turns away, turns back.
The plant, the child, the thing, turns toward me, leaves part. The face is more pronounced. Dimple in the chin, wide nose, cheeks like apples. I’m there in that face. My partner’s there. The eyes focus on me, the lips smile. I find myself smiling. Find that I’m curious. Feel shy. Want to say something. Want to say sorry. Want to say this isn’t going to work. Want to say this isn’t going to work with me; I’m just not right for this. But don’t.
I squat down. Timidly brush earth and fallen leaves with my fingertips. Skimming the surface, making arcs in the dirt with each sweep. I can hear it—the crackling. Feel the vibrations like soft kisses against my skin.
Biting my lip, tasting blood, I push through the earth, until, like my partner, I’m nearly elbow deep. I feel something shifting, moving, reaching out—and it’s all around me, through me, like the plucking of a harp, like the swell of the ocean. Voices. Felt, not heard.
We are here We are here Stay Stay We are here Stay
A multitude. Amongst them, I feel my partner there, and, to my surprise, Dr Magdalene.
We are here Stay Stay We are here Stay Stay Stay
And soft, gentle at first, but clear, like a thread of light, and getting stronger, I feel my daughter.
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Story copyright © 2020 by Michelle Jäger
Artwork copyright © 2020 by P. Emerson Williams
Michelle Jäger is an Adelaide-based fiction writer whose work has appeared in various anthologies and journals. She won the Elle Australia 2018 short story competition, placed runner-up in the InkTears 2018 short story competition, and was shortlisted for the Hammond House 2019 short story prize. Michelle has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide.
P. Emerson Williams has an extensive background as a multimedia artist whose work synthesizes alchemical musical expressions with visual art, video, and performance. As a member of UK theatrical company FoolishPeople, his work included the creation of soundscapes and scores, set and graphic design, and live and voice acting. Williams brings his visual work to performing live with Jarboe around the world, expanding these performances with aspects of multimedia, including painted banners, video using footage shot around the world, and animation created from his own visual art.