Mary was wearing a borrowed white cotton maternity shirt that reminded Elizabeth of spring, when she herself would give birth. She wondered if she too could borrow the pretty shirt after Mary had her son and didn't need it anymore. Mary sat on the couch and lifted the shirt so Elizabeth could see her smooth, round belly. Elizabeth was intimidated by the vast expanse of skin, the winking belly button eye. Wait, wait, Mary said, here, here, he's kicking. Mary put Elizabeth's hand over her warm skin but the baby did not move. She waited for awhile and then took her hand away. Elizabeth rested her old bones back on the couch next to Mary. Mary smiled contentedly, feeling for her son's movement. Elizabeth was worried. Elizabeth, the older one, first in most things, would be second to give birth. She thought of her own burgeoning belly and aching bones and chastised herself for not doing the necessary exercises to feel limber and young. She thinks of Mary giving birth, of the muscles inside her clenching, of Mary screaming and sweating for hours. She worries there will be complications; there always seems to be complications. Labor is a woman's work; she must descend then, into the underworld of pain and one by one surrender each organ to the work that must be done to bring a child into this world. It is great effort combined with great sacrifice. She wonders if Mary considers such things, but she doesn't ask her because she knows Mary doesn't want to talk about it. She has told her so, several times before. But Elizabeth can't help but weigh the alternatives; the descent into the underworld of pain or the wash of numbness to accommodate an acute slice to the womb. Cutting the womb seems to her a sacrilege, an invasive intrusion to such a serene place. Women have told Elizabeth about the sheet that hides all, all the blood, the sharp metal utensils, the baby itself. “Youth is given up to illusions,” she once read. “It seems to be a provision of Nature, a decoy to secure mothers for the race.” But Elizabeth is not young.
Why is this portal of birth so severe? And if she is drugged and feels nothing, is she somehow at fault for not doing her woman's work? Will the baby suffer for it? Will it become obese and lazy, non-committal in relationships?
Mary has researched all the necessary accoutrements for her baby, including but not limited to car seats, cribs, changing tables, etc. She has forwarded websites to Elizabeth regarding these items, as well as other articles on pregnancy. She avoids all deli meats and especially goat cheese. Mary knows the size of her baby week by week, and its corresponding fruit or vegetable size. Right now she's got an eggplant and Elizabeth two lemons for the twins she carries. Elizabeth remarked how that seemed right, because the saliva in her mouth was continuously spewing out, as if there was something exceedingly sour and tart inside her. But she was overwhelmed by the information, by the accoutrements, by the nausea and she did not have to tell her sister this. “You need to be grateful,” Mary told her. Elizabeth reprimanded herself for her feelings. Yes, grateful. But still, why is nature so cruel?
Work, she tells herself, not cruelty, preparation; a woman must begin practicing giving up her own needs, her independence and it begins with pregnancy.
Mary tells Elizabeth the baby is doing something with his hand; she can tell the difference between the hand and a foot now; she is that in-tune. Elizabeth herself feels nothing inside her but the groaning of her ligaments. She feels guilty for each one of her aches and pains. She feels remorse for her heavy thoughts.
Mary pushes up her girth from the couch, pulls down the white cotton shirt and kisses her sister good-bye. Elizabeth watches her leave, how she maneuvers herself through doorways and down steps. “Blessed, Mary, are you as a woman,” she thinks, “and blessed is the child you will bear.”