There’s a myth in my family about the woman who was so fed up with her pregnancy, she forced her body into labor. She was eight and a half months along, and woke up in the middle of the night to vomit again. She was miserable; with each pregnancy the sickness lasted longer. She knew what was coming. She had to get that thing inside of her out. It was a parasite; it was pulling the life away from her. Cordelia spit a mouthful of saliva into the bowl and wiped the corner of her mouth where the strand still clung. It was either her, or the baby. She turned her head toward her bed, narrowed her eyes at the lump of her husband, who had sensed her body weight leaving and so turned toward her side, but did not wake up. She would have to make sure to not disturb him until the time was right. She walked back to the bed, each step a meditation. A calculation. How to do this. How to start giving birth. How to trick the baby into leaving.
She laid down on her bed and focused. She thought hard about the sensation of the warm fluid running slow out of her and soon her bed sheets were wet. Remembered the pulsing and gripping of contractions. The timing of each spasm building, closer, closer. Peak, relief, start over. Match the breathing, focus. Picture the baby emerging, first the head, then the shoulders. After that, it’s practically over. You barely feel the rest, the hard part’s done.
Breathe, pulse, push.
Soon she began to feel the pressure in her pelvis, the contractions started. Sweat pressed out of her pores, strands of her hair clung to her forehead. She controlled her breathing, counted the time between each contraction all while her three other children slept in the next room, her husband snoring next to her. This was something no one could witness. The witness would draw too much attention to what she was doing. The witness would say she was not actually ready to do this. The witness would make her guilty. So she passed the hours of the dark, humid morning breathing in and out, counting the seconds to the minute, bearing the contractions in silence. A long labor was better than keeping the child in any longer.
Paul rose when the sun did, sometimes before. Cordelia followed. Manual labor is in our blood, our bones, and muscles, and skin. The working, that was part of all of them, the physical strain of bodies, it made forcing that child out easy. You can do anything if you focus hard enough. When Paul opened his eyes, he heard the difference in Cordelia’s breathing and looked straight into her eyes, at her heaving belly and shoved his hand under her nightshirt to check for fluid.
“Going on a few hours.” She didn’t sound any different, but Paul knew. This was her work breath. This was how she sounded while helping him plow before they had enough money saved to buy the horse. He caught the pause between the words, he saw the calculation happening in her mind, could smell the sweet rancor of how long she had been sweating.
Paul left the room, pulling his pants on as he opened the door. Cordelia heard rustling, the kids being woken up, sent for water at the pump, the stove being stoked back to flame. With each contraction, her mind wandered further into the birth, into the water of her belly, into the blood in her veins.
It was the blood that did it.
Her thoughts grew so strong against the baby, her blood ran too thick, too dark. Became poisonous. She gave the baby little choice—leave the womb, dead or alive. Some people in our family say Aunt Pauline came out hating her mother. Even she could not say, her memory never went back that far, try as she might. Paul said from the moment Aunt Pauline emerged, she never wanted her mother. The child was sustained on goat’s milk from their farm. Any touch or look from Cordelia threw her into fits.
My own grandmother, Grandma Delia, was born two years before Aunt Pauline. Just before Cordelia really went sour is what she liked to say, “At least I got some love, even if it was on it’s way out.” Cordelia had three more children after my grandmother, and she referred to them all as farm hands. That’s all they were good for; too stupid to do anything but mend clothes and fences and milk the goats and cows and kill a chicken to fry for dinner.
So you can understand why my Grandma Delia doesn’t talk much about her mother. She got a little love, like she said, but not enough to think of her mother fondly, and sometimes I think it might have been best to not have any at all, like Aunt Pauline. She could spite her then. Talk horrible about her all she wanted and feel nothing.
But Grandma Delia received some and so she carried an open wound from her mother, a question of who she was. She spent her life trying to figure out how she could please Cordelia. Even after she died, Grandma Delia searched for ways to please her mother. She went to Cordelia’s grave often with flowers, tried to tell stories of happy moments, but they always fell flat, always led into some violent outburst or trailing memory. She forgot to enjoy her own daughter, my mother. Grandma Delia wanted mom to be something she thought would please Cordelia, tried to dress her up like a doll and keep her small so she would never leave. Of course, in the years Cordelia had left in her, after my mother was born, she could care less about babies and dresses and pretending to be fancy. Mom estimates she saw Cordelia maybe three times before she died and there’s not much to remember except that the woman had hard eyes and hardly spoke and most times you weren’t sure if she had already died sitting in her chair or not because she sat so still and quiet for hours.
Aunt Pauline though, she was born with a scar from Cordelia. There was no open wound to poke at and when the time came that she had her own kids, she was able to fuel all of her hatred to her mother and none to her children. Everything was Cordelia’s fault and if she was impartial toward her children, that was good enough.
It was her own way of loving, Pauline said.
All the women in my family understand: We grow up with this story and listen about this mythical woman who forced a baby out of her simply because she didn’t want to carry it anymore. We get how a woman could want that. We get how she came to hate her children. We get how she would runaway for days or weeks sometimes, only to return spiteful, the glow on her face fading as she walked up the dirt road to the farmhouse. On especially late nights, when we can’t sleep and Cordelia surges through our veins, searching for a cut in the skin to break through, we understand how she did what she did to that baby that was born just over a year after Aunt Pauline that no one likes to talk about. The baby disappeared from the Earth before it even had a name and my Grandma Delia says she is the only one of the kids that heard it crying because she had a habit of listening at the door when the adults were whispering in rooms. That baby sounded perfectly healthy, with clear, full lungs. Paul told her later she didn’t hear a damn thing and to not ever talk about it again and if he caught her wandering around in the abandoned field to the north of the house again, he’d send her to live with his brother. There wasn’t anything over there except for hard dirt that nothing could grow in.
Even if we don’t want it, Cordelia is in our blood. She’s part of our cells and whatever fueled that hatred of hers is in us, too. That woman sits inside our bodies like cancer, waiting for the right environment to feed her so she can erupt. We feel the static of her rage stirring in our chest, sitting like a splinter underneath our skin. Some days we forget it’s even there, and then suddenly, the agitation starts to rub against our skin and bones and our bodies begin to hum with inexplicable anger. A car moving too slow, the mispronunciation of a word, a piece of trash left on the counter. Anything can set us off and we never know how long the rage will last. Sometimes once it’s let out, we can’t get it back in. Sometimes it’s a quick outburst and then it tucks away back into our veins. Some of us get by well enough and can hold her in. You would hardly be able to tell from the calmness of my cousin Irene that she once got so angry she pulled a knife on her boyfriend and ended up in county jail for a year. All because he had a habit of leaving the silverware drawer open and one day she bumped into it with her hip and the bruise was enough to let Cordelia erupt out of her.
Some of us don’t want to tempt her. We avoid relationships and even imagining kids because who’s to say we’re not the reincarnation of Cordelia? What if she is most alive in one of us and we would repeat everything she’s ever done, right on down to sticking our head in the oven after breaking every dish in the cupboards because a plate was left in the sink from one of the younger kids and no one knows how to clean up after themselves.
When I was six, my cousin and I took a baby doll and pretended we were Cordelia, forcing a child out. I felt her then, rippling beneath my muscles. I tore the head off that baby doll and buried it in the field behind our house. Cordelia found a portal into my body and I wasn’t going to tempt her further into being. The women that marry into our family, they look at us and wonder why some of us chose not have children, how we could ever feel complete without them, or how we could treat each other the way we do and still say the word “love.” But me and my cousins and aunts and mom, we see Cordelia rising inside our pupils. We see her urging to break out. We know it’s a gamble and we hold our breath every time someone announces they are expecting.
But we don’t have to explain ourselves.
Rebecca Woolston has a forthcoming piece in New Urge Reader Vol. 3 and was a semifinalist in Gazing Grain’s 2015 Prose/Hybrid contest. Her works have also appeared in Lumen Magazine, Enclave, Red Light Lit Volume 5, From Sac: Home, Myths, and Other Untruths. She has written book reviews for The California Journal of Women Writers and was the Managing Editor for 580 Split. Rebecca currently teaches at CSU Sacramento.