Iowa Writes

KAETHE SCHWEHN
The Summer Before


The lights are bright and bear down, reflecting the shape of a waning crescent moon on my forehead. Peder holds my left foot, pushes his thumb against the arch during the contractions. When I rest, he rubs his thumb over the chipping red polish on my toenails.

The baby is crowning, then she is receding, then she is crowning and the doctor tells me she can see the hair, the skull, how close I am to holding my baby.

One more push and she is born.  My body releases and folds backward and it is then I hear the silence in the room.

"A beautiful baby girl," says the doctor, after the pause, because we call all babies beautiful if they breathe, in spite of Down's or limblessness or birthmarks stretching like estuaries across the crest of the face, in spite of a cleft palate, cauliflower skin, an empty space where the ribs should be.

I haven't given birth yet, but it is this pause I live in all the time. Something is wrong, and everyone can see the monstrosity but me.

The lights are bright and bear down, reflecting the shape of a waning crescent moon on my forehead. Peder holds my left foot, pushes his thumb against the arch during the contractions. When I rest, he rubs his thumb over the chipping red polish on my toenails.

The baby is crowning, then she is receding, then she is crowning and the doctor tells me she can see the hair, the skull, how close I am to holding my baby. 

One more push and she is born.  My body releases and folds backward and it is then I hear the silence in the room.

"A beautiful baby girl," says the doctor, after the pause, because we call all babies beautiful if they breathe, in spite of Down's or limblessness or birthmarks stretching like estuaries across the crest of the face, in spite of a cleft palate, cauliflower skin, an empty space where the ribs should be.

I haven't given birth yet, but it is this pause I live in all the time. Something is wrong, and everyone can see the monstrosity but me. 

July 16th, 2009
A pouring down of rain last night.  Enough that I wake and exclaim "It's pouring" and then go back to sleep.  My husband, Peder, wears a lavender shirt to church today.  Brown linen slacks and Birkenstocks. He is handsome and there is no way to tell his spine is crooked and disobedient unless he bends over. Then you can see the hump, how his body is an uneven thing.

August 19th, 2009
Her heels beat, soundless bells, against my ribs. I imagine her a quail entering a Georgia O'Keefe desert-scape, tapping her beak against a bleach-white bone.

Which is to say: it is August and I am eight months pregnant. And I know the words and phrases that conjure what life ahead of me will look like: sleeplessness, colic, diaper rash, onesies, lactation, mobile sheep. But the words don't yet have experience attached and so here I am, perched at the end of summer, knowing my life is about to change but uncertain how to understand or mark this transition.

July 10th, 2009
My grandmother's nails were always painted salmon or topaz or tropical sunset: some color from the orange family with pink creeping in behind. The last time I saw her, at the hospital in November, her right index finger, covered in unchipped polish, was tapping the hospital tray next to the plate of Thanksgiving leftovers we'd brought.  "Did you bring gravy?  It's dry."

July 20th, 2009
Another night of heat. I wake up naked in the darkness, Peder's back catching the moonlight like a pillar of salt. I rearrange my set of pillows (one beneath my head, one between my knees, and one pulled just below my stomach) and return to dreaming. When I wake again it is morning. 

July 5th, 2009 (early morning)
The hospital calls my aunt at 3:45 a.m. to tell her my grandmother's breaths are becoming shallow. She is going. But there is fog, dense and thick, a milky vellum covering everything and my aunt is so tired, she left the hospital only hours ago. She sleeps for two more hours. The fog lifts. By the time she reaches the hospital, my grandmother is gone.

July 5th, 2009 (early morning)
Peder and I are driving home after watching fireworks boom and fizz over the Mississippi. We clip along the two-lane highway, admiring the fog that wallows in the moonlit fields. At a place where the road dips, a band of fog spreads over us, a rainbow sucked dry. Then there is a deer, zig-zagging in leaps across the road. I don't see the doe's eyes, just a wide haunch, gleaming silver. I press my hand to my belly as Peder presses his foot to the brake. Before we can even begin to slow, the deer is gone, vanished into brush and darkness. We are safe.

Days later a friend asks if I think the deer was a figure for my departing grandmother, if perhaps at exactly that moment her spirit had moved into animal form. 

"My grandmother never let us see her without her face put on," I say. "She wouldn't go that way."

July 4th, 2009
Just before dying, my grandmother called my aunt "Alyssa," although her name is Sarah. To our knowledge, my grandmother never knew an Alyssa. She must have felt what I do: the presence of a hovering unknown so close it must be called something, must be spoken to and accounted for.

August 27th, 2009
On a sunny day in 1963, my grandfather drove his 1959 Pontiac down the winding driveway of a farm, urged by my grandmother whose curiosity was piqued by the "Antiques for Sale" sign nailed to a fencepost in the yard. Far from the tables covered with china saucers and commemorative thimbles and embroidered handkerchiefs, in a chicken coop at the back of the house, my grandmother found a small wooden chest the size of a breadbox, covered almost completely in chicken shit. She paid for the chest, took it home, and worked the wood with oil and polish.  She lined the drawers with velvet and screwed delicate, white knobs onto the front.

Your great-grandmother died the summer before you were born. We still have her wooden chest. We keep her silver there. It gleams.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


KAETHE SCHWEHN

Kaethe Schwehn received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 2006. Her writing has been published in journals such as jubilat, Crazyhorse, The New Orleans Review, and Forklift, Ohio.  She lives in Northfield, Minnesota and teaches at St. Olaf College.

This page was first displayed
on April 12, 2010

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