1. My mother and I are sitting on the porch swing in the August heat. She is enormously pregnant, and she is asking me what we should name the baby when it comes. “If it’s a girl,” I say, “we should probably call her Laura.” I had recently experienced the god-like power of bestowing a name on a kitten. She was a gray tabby, and I called her Cucumber. I thought her stripes made her look like a cucumber, just gray on gray instead of green on green. “But that’s your name,” my mother says. “We already have a Laura in this family. Maybe we can think of another name.” I consider this. “No,” I say. “If it’s a girl, we should probably call her Laura.” My mother is days away from going into labor. Which means I am a month from turning three.
I don’t remember my mother before she was pregnant with my sister. As far as I could tell, she’d always had a baby in her belly. This didn’t seem strange to me. My foster brother, Phuc, had huge scars zigzagging across his belly. I later learned that these scars were from gunshot wounds he suffered in a refugee camp in Malaysia. But when I was small, Phuc would pull up his t-shirt to show me his ripped muscles and wide, pale scars. “I don’t trust American banks,” he told me. “I keep my money sewed up in here.” I loved Phuc, even though the hits he gave me on his cigarettes made me sick. He could catch birds out of the air in his hands. He had a pet pigeon he kept in the back yard. He’d brought it home, lame and broken, and nursed it back to health, and his pigeon lived with our chickens. It scratched and pecked at the chicken feed one of us kids scattered in the dust. It loved Phuc, and had also forgotten how to fly. It roosted and brooded and flapped its hale wings like the other foolish chickens, flight the furthest thing from its mind.
I thought I had a family of caterpillars living in my ear. I imagined a mother and father caterpillar, and a couple of kids. I pictured a living room much like our living room, battered wood floors, a braided rag rug, a busted couch and a blue and white checked armchair—except miniature. I didn’t mind the family of caterpillars living in my ear, but I didn’t want to see them going in or coming out. Seeing the caterpillars worried me, but if they just wanted to live in the tiny living room in my ear canal, that would be okay. Bodies were wild places—you might have anything in there. I thought every body was a curio-cabinet. A baby in your belly? Well, okay. I’ll buy that. Alright.
2. We were a big family in a small house, three little kids—my older brother, me, and my little sister—plus Phuc. The summer before I turned five, we moved from Colorado to Indiana, leaving Phuc behind. We thought, until the morning we drove away, that he would come with us. But he’d been declared eighteen by a judge since he didn’t know his own age, had been emancipated by the state, and at the last minute, he decided to get a job in a Chinese restaurant in Denver. He said, “See you later.” He kissed my sister on the top of her head and said, “Good-bye, pooh-pooh-head.” We heard from Phuc for two years and then we never heard from him again. But we were busy being who we were, and then my little brother came along. The years passed, as years do. At thirteen, I was pretty sure my childhood was behind me. My mother was forty-one, her four kids ranging in age from fifteen to five, when she became pregnant again. “I thought it was the change,” she said at our family meeting. “I’m too old to have another baby. Don’t get your hopes up, kids.” My little brother—the five-year-old—stood up from the kitchen table. He put his fists on his hips and fixed my mother with a disgusted look. “Mom,” he said—our father was traveling on business, I guess; he wasn’t at that family meeting—“either you and Dad need to start using condoms or stop having sex.” We all lost it. We melted into laughter. We put our heads down on the table and cried. This was life in our house.
My sister and I got our hopes up. We thought a baby sister would be fabulous, even if it did mean splitting our bedroom three ways until I left for college. We wanted that baby way more than our mother did. She said, “Oh girls, I’m done having babies. I’m ready to do something else.” We waited and hoped and prayed. I was sure it was a girl, and I wanted to name her Cynthia. Or maybe Kimberly. This was nineteen-ninety-two. My mother lost that baby on the day we were supposed to slaughter chickens. Every fall, the whole family worked together to slaughter, butcher, and put up chickens. We’d keep just a few as laying hens, and then each spring we’d order more through the mail. Did you know you could buy chicks mail-order? The postmaster calls—the chicks going crazy with their chirping in the background—and you have to drive into town to pick up that box. During the slaughter in the fall, the headless birds were tied by their feet to our swing-set to bleed. They flapped and thrashed and the grass would soon be covered in feathers and blood. The rule was this: no one was required to help with the chicken slaughter. But if you didn’t help with the slaughter, you didn’t eat stewed chicken.
On the morning of the slaughter I found my mother, still in her bathrobe, boiling water to blanch the dead birds. My father and brothers were already at it outside. My mother turned from the stove and said, “I lost the baby this morning. I miscarried. I just bled that baby out.” And then she burst into tears. I cried too, and when my sister woke up, she joined us. We took the water off the stove, and the three of us got back into bed together. We stayed there, just being sad and comforting each other, and no one came to look for us. I remember that as the last fall we slaughtered chickens, although my memory might be suspect.
3. When I was twenty-four, I wrote a story about my mother’s miscarriage and the chicken slaughter, and I spent six weeks certain that I was pregnant. I was fucking a friend’s brother. We weren’t so much in a relationship as I was expressing rage and grief over other matters. We weren’t especially careful. When I missed my period, I sat on the bathroom floor at four in the morning smoking cigarettes and saying, “Well, shit.” I bought a pregnancy test at Walgreen’s but didn’t use it. I started throwing up in the morning. The guy I was fucking lived in Chicago and I lived in Ann Arbor, so I drove across three states to see him. I arrived on a Friday afternoon before he came home from work. I made myself comfortable. I made myself a drink. When he showed up he said, “Laura, we need to talk.” I said, “We sure do.” He said, “This is great, and you’re super fun and really smart, but I’ve met someone else.” I said, “Oh. That’s interesting.” He said, “I wish I could have you both, but I know I need to choose. And she’s hot. Like porn-star hot. Like every guy’s fantasy. You understand, right?” I said, “Yeah. I do. Have fun. Except, I’m late.” He said, “Late?” And I said, “Yeah. Late. Three weeks.” He said, “Oh, shit.” I was sitting on the counter in his kitchen. I had a whiskey on the rocks in my hand. He came over and wrapped his arms around me. I laid my cheek against the top of his head. He said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m not having baby.” He said, “I’ll come to Michigan if you want. You’re not alone.” I said, “Yes I am.” He had a seven-year-old son in another state. He’d gone to prom with his pregnant girlfriend. He had pictures of his kid in his bedroom, but he didn’t have any contact with him. The next week, I went in for a pregnancy test at Planned Parenthood. I got a lecture from a teenager about effective contraception. My urine test came back negative. They told me to come back in three weeks if I hadn’t gotten my period and they’d do blood work. Two days before my appointment I bled like a stuck pig. I ran a fever. The guy who said I wasn’t alone never called, and I never called him.
When my friend, Christine, was twenty-four, she got knocked up. She had every intention of having an abortion, but she went to her doctor rather than to a clinic. Her doctor told her no one did abortions anymore, she’d have to go to the clinic downtown with all the other embarrassed, knocked up women, with insurance or without. Christine was relatively far along. Her doctor tried to listen to the fetus’s heartbeat, but couldn’t find one. He did an ultrasound, and Christine didn’t have a fetus. She had all the right pregnancy hormones. She had an amniotic sac, but no fetus, no baby in there swimming in her water. She had the procedure that would have been an abortion if she’d had a fetus in her uterus, but because there was no baby to extract, her insurance paid for it. She had the procedure in a hospital. How strange, this confusion of the body, I thought. How strange to be both pregnant and not.
When my sister was twenty-four, she had her first son. She was newly married and naïve. Neither she nor her husband had a job, and he was showing the first signs of the violence he was capable of. When I learned she was pregnant, I secretly hoped she would miscarry. Lots of people lost pregnancies. Why shouldn’t she? They lived in Ohio, but my sister was very far away from me. She had shoddy Medicaid. She struggled to gain weight. Only later did we learn her husband had restricted her to a diet of yogurt, carrots, and Lean Pockets. Who allows someone else to tell her what she can eat? She delivered a full term baby who barely weighed five pounds. She and her husband told us neither my mother nor I was welcome to stay with them. I was furious with my sister. I was livid that she’d brought some innocent person into the crazy world she’d chosen to live in. I hated her husband. I pitied her son. Later, my sister would tell me that her son saved her life, that when she saw her husband take the baby’s diaper off to spank him, she knew she was going to leave. Her son was six months old. He couldn’t crawl yet. If she hadn’t seen her husband hit her son, she would have stayed and stayed.
4. We’re grown-ups now, my sister and me. Legitimately. She got remarried last summer to a great guy. They’re perfect for each other, and he loves her son. The three of them live in the wilds of Alaska. When we talked on the phone last September after they’d been on a long camping trip, I asked my nephew if he had helped his mom pick blueberries and gather fireweed for making jam for the winter. “Mom picked berries, but me and Rusty didn’t,” he said. I asked him, “What did you guys do?” “Man stuff,” he said. My sister and I have been talking about babies lately. I’ve been thinking about it, though I’ll probably do motherhood alone. My ex-girlfriend got jealous when I talked about which of my friends might make a good sperm donor. For that reason and others, we broke up. My sister and Rusty got pregnant the month after she went off the pill. I gave her a sexy black maternity dress for Christmas.
But then, at nearly five months in, my sister started losing blood. At first, just small amounts. Then enough to frighten anyone. The village they live in has no clinic. It also has no roads. Only a cinder airstrip for flying in and out on prop planes. She needed to get to a hospital in Anchorage, but the last flight to Anchorage had already left. Instead, she flew to Nome. There’s a clinic in Nome and a GP but no OBGYN. The guy was in over his head. She got counter-productive care. They wanted to get her bleeding stopped before they put her on a plane. Nome is 700 miles from Anchorage. Between the two cities, there are no roads. After a week of inexplicable blood loss without miscarriage, they put my sister on a flight anyway.
The doctor in the emergency room said my sister was bleeding from the placenta, that the placenta had penetrated her cervix, that she’d bleed for the next four months. She said transfusions would probably be sufficient to keep her from bleeding out. “The pregnant body makes pints of extra blood,” she said. “You can lose a ton of it.” I wondered about the fetus. “He seems fine,” my sister said. “The fetus only uses half the blood available in the placenta. There’s way more blood in me than anyone can use.” The trick, the first doctors told my sister, would be to keep her immobilized. No walking. No car rides. Nothing that could jostle her insides. Keep the placenta from rupturing. Keep her from going into labor. Those things would kill her. The blood loss she was currently experiencing? That could be managed. I started making plans to leave for Anchorage. If my sister needed extra blood, I wanted her to have mine.
Over the next two weeks, her diagnosis evolved and transformed. Her bleeding stopped and started and stabilized. One ultrasound after the next showed a healthy male fetus inside her, active for his gestational age, kicking my sister in the placenta. She is stable now, for the moment. Her doctors think a flight out of Alaska would be a minimal risk. If all goes well, she will return to our parents’ home to wait out these coming months of bed rest and hospital visits. Her husband has gone back to the village to return to his job. He’s thinking about mortgage and insurance payments. He’s thinking about his duty and desire to provide.
I’ve been thinking about my sister’s body, her delicate bones and lean flesh. I’ve been thinking of her bone marrow and her spleen, all the secret places where her blood is made and stored. I’ve been thinking about the network of veins and vessels, and that fierce determined heart, through which that blood pumps. I’ve imagined the muscle of her uterus and the thick, red pulsing of her compromised placenta. I’ve been thinking of all those quarts of extra blood in her body, keeping her filled up and afloat. I love my sister’s body, that fantastic, liquid machine. I know she already does, and I will someday, love her new son just as much. She can feel him in there. She thinks of her body as the place her son lives. I think of her body as the place my sister does.
Laura Krughoff holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and is currently a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her fiction has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, The Seattle Review, Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXI, The Chicago Tribune, and Threepenny Review. This is her first published work of non-fiction.