Anna, do you know where you are? Can you tell me today’s date? Anna, do you know how you got here?
words are stuck in limbo. brain-action without body-reaction. I don’t know the answers anyway. I want to say it’s Ana. AH. NAH.
body is being jabbed, prodded. metal and plastic; lukewarm hands and icy instruments. I try to register the room but I can only just move my head. the light blue curtains are drawn, or are they green? bodies in beds. bodies being wheeled in by paramedics. incidents and accidents. alertness never lasts long. one, two, three blinks at the ceiling. four, I am unconscious again.
housemate’s face is at an odd angle. her head is hovering. not quite directly above me, tilted. This is what babies see when we coo at them. her smile has none of that joy. her eyes are tired and teary, big and amber. a forced smile. an attempt at reassurance. a heavy kind of relief. she doesn’t touch me. or maybe she does. I can’t feel it. death is sitting on my chest. Maybe she can feel it too. Maybe she’s scared it’ll catch her.
We’ve contacted your parents. Your mum will be in Melbourne soon.
warm tears on my cold face. one blink, two, three, fou—
the cannula in my arm being pressed on. I see my brown, limp fingers being held by darker, older ones.
I loved playing with the kids but I thanked God they were too tired that night. All that Christmas planning had me exhausted. That, and Antônio’s “few words” at the dinner table, which turned out to be more of a full sermon. He could have saved the preaching for the church service the following evening, but he liked to show off whenever he could, and this time he got to do it in front of a Catholic and an atheist. My niece and nephew almost fell asleep on their empty dinner plates, fighting to keep their eyes open, scared of their tall, bearded, always-serious uncle. It was a true Christmas miracle that the turkey didn’t go cold.
Stillness and silence have always made me uncomfortable. My children and husband now enjoy loud music and television just for the sake of filling in the emptiness around them. Not me. I love the sounds of people going about their day. I was taught to keep the body busy. Cabeça vazia é oficina do diabo, my mother used to say. An empty head is the devil’s workshop.
It was Christmas Eve. My brother, Isaque, and his wife, Lúcia, were visiting with their kids. Everyone had gone off to sleep and I was glad to not have to look at my sister-in-law’s face any longer. Lúcia always had a crinkle in her nose like there was a bad smell. She was Isaque’s pride and joy, with that full head of curly blonde hair and big green eyes. Maybe that’s why she collected ceramic cherubs; maybe she fancied herself one of them. But that woman was so particular about everything that she was more of a demon than an angel. She would not stop cleaning. Constantly, she was cleaning that big house of hers. At least she couldn’t carry on that way while she was here, in my home.
Antônio got a turkey from one of his clients’ family as thanks for sorting out some jail time. All in all, our Christmas supper turned out pretty good that year. Lúcia did the cooking because she knew best, and she did. I never had the time to learn, working my whole life the way I did.
The kids – João Pedro, Dalila, Alessandro and Carolina – were all sharing a room. For the first night since they arrived, they weren’t making a fuss before bed. Isaque and Lúcia were in the spare room, which was actually my room, but they didn’t know that. No one in the family knew. Antônio and I had been sleeping in separate beds for about half a year now. I couldn’t handle the smell of booze on his breath, the stale sweat on his body or his sticky hands attempting to get me going when he could barely stand. Then, after all that, waking up in a pool of piss in the middle of the night. No one in the family knew about his drinking, either. I told my kids that my allergies couldn’t handle the mould in the bedroom wall. They knew I had a picky nose, so they believed me.
That’s how I found myself sharing a bed with my husband after six months, feeling uncomfortable by that stillness filling up the room. He hadn’t been drinking while the relatives were visiting and we’d been putting on that happily married act we usually saved for church. I guess pretending sometimes gets you believing. That and the fact that I needed to do something. I needed to make noise; I needed to fill my head. So, when he began caressing my back, my body answered his.
anguish in my mother’s face. my body shakes with guilt.
I try to speak but can’t. hard plastic expanding my mouth, stabbing my throat, filling my oesophagus. all the way down to my stomach.
I squeeze my mother’s hand weakly. she touches mine with her cheek where the skin is so soft.
my mother talking quietly to God. one blink, two, thr—
Isaque’s kids came back to stay with us over Carnaval. It was mid-afternoon and the kids were getting restless. I decided to take them all out to the square around the corner from our place, hoping to break the tension. Some of the older neighbourhood kids were there too, playing with a billy cart they’d spent all summer trying to build.
Though their effort was commendable, it wasn’t really a billy cart; more of a wooden plank with wheels set into motion by an old broomstick. As soon as we spotted them, the fighting restarted. Everyone wanted a go. I thought, this does look like fun. So I asked to have a turn. Children don’t get to see grown-ups playing very often so of course they were loving it.
I sat on that thing and off I went down the hill. There were bumps and holes that made my belly turn. I laughed. I gripped my knees with my hands. I smiled and screamed through gritted teeth. I opened my eyes wide, then closed them tight.
The kids and I all had a great big laugh over it; a grown woman squeaking with fear then dancing with adrenalin. Everyone applauded.
That afternoon, the kid inside me came alive. The baby in my tummy however was in for a hard time.
one, two, three, four, five, six, seven—
consciousness is beginning to linger.
easy to fall asleep, easier to be startled. sharp noises. constant beep beep beep. I feel nauseous from the repetition. machines beep, medical staff speak, machines beep, announcements are made over the ward’s PA. beep, more chatter. beep, they’re discussing my case, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. the insides of my ears throb with each sound.
Anna, do you know where you are?
I nod, the tube scratches my throat.
my housemate is smiling at me now, and I see what babies see. no sign of my mother. relief. she notices my eyes searching the room. she whispers, She’ll be back soon. warm tears sting the back of my eyes.
I squeeze her hand. She doesn’t want to be here. I close my eyes and let my ears fill with the constant beeping.
I had a hard time sleeping that night, kept waking up with a sharp, tugging pain in my belly. In the morning, I got my period and decided that had to be why. My flow was quite heavy, and the cramps were unusually painful.
I didn’t have the time for period pain, so I just tried to ignore it as best as I could. After lunch, my brother drove away and I decided to have a lie down on the couch. I slept heavily and was shaken awake by João Pedro telling me Claudete was on the phone.
Claudete and her husband Zezinho were church people and also the closest thing our family had to friends. They lived in the next suburb over and, because Antônio was away often, they regularly checked in on us. I got up and realised that my pants were damp with blood. I complained to Claudete about my heavy, painful period, hoping she’d concoct a special home remedy for me from her garden. Instead her voice grew worried and quiet. “What you’re describing is not a heavy period, that’s a baby and you’re haemorrhaging.” I told her that wasn’t possible, but didn’t tell her it was because her preacher was a drunk and we hadn’t shared a bed in six months. Claudete ignored my wavering, saying that once Zezinho got home in a couple of hours, she was coming to check in on me in person.
Claudete was impervious to the word “No”, so I jumped into the shower quickly to scrub the blood off my legs. There was a bit too much blood. It was coming out in a steady trickle. The shower steam made me weak, so I laid back down on the couch. I must have snoozed off again, because soon the doorbell was ringing and the kids went chasing each other to answer the door.
Zezinho stood there looking pale and shocked. He began ushering João Pedro and Dalila out of the room. My heart dropped to my belly before I looked down to see the small pool of blood, no – a river of blood surrounding me. I was drowning.
Claudete rushed towards me, placed her hand on my forehead and ran it down my face. Claudete was a tough and practical woman so when she held my face like that, I knew I was in danger.
She held my gaze, squeezed my hand reassuringly and said, “Benedita, here is the plan. Zezinho will stay with the children and I will drive you straight to the hospital. Where are your things?” She left the room to communicate with her husband and reappeared shortly, carrying my handbag and a pile of towels. Claudete squeezed my hand, looked straight at me and said, “I’ve got you.” Gently but firmly, she lifted me up and helped me to their family car.
eyes prodded open, a bright light shining into each. I close them tight, moan, shake my head. the doctor’s voice is loud and obnoxious. Hello Anna, are you with me? Try to stay awake. I grunt, I squint, my eyes moving around rapidly.
You can’t talk because you have a tube down your throat, a nurse will come to remove it shortly. We had to pump your stomach.
Beep… so we’ll probably have to keep you for a few days… Beep.…irregular heart rate… Beep… psychiatrist liaison… BEEP. Anna? Anna! The nurse will remove the tube now. BEEP.
Hi Anna, my name is… BEEP…your nurse for most of today… BEEP… slight discomfort… BEEP… as quickly as I can… BEE—
the hard, hollow plastic tube scraping my insides as it’s pulled out of me through my mouth. I cough and gag and cry and don’t say anything.
mamãe. Has she been here this whole time? I close my eyes to avoid looking into hers.
Doutor Teodoro Guimarães was a gentle man who – as if made by God to fit the image of his profession – also happened to be very handsome. He had a full head of neat dark hair and a mature, reassuring face. That same evening Claudete’s suspicions were confirmed. I had been haemorrhaging and I was, indeed, pregnant. Amused at the story but not its consequence, Dr Guimarães determined that my ride on the billy cart had caused the bleeding. I was to spend the night in hospital and once I went home, physical activity would need to be reduced to a bare minimum. I couldn’t help thinking of my mother and dreading the devil’s workshop.
That night I dreamt of Ana for the first time, drinking double the blood potion concocted by her loving husband, Elcana. I saw her being scorned by her enemies for her infertility. I saw her pleading to God for a son. I saw Eli mistaking her silent praying for drunkenness. Her mouth split open and gave birth to a child with an infinite length of hair.
Antônio had been unreachable.
a small puddle from between my legs, warm piss quickly turning cold. a painful pinch in my urethra as the catheter, Sorry Anna, it hadn’t been attached properly, is yanked out of me. moaning, groaning, warm tears turning cold.
Ready? One, two, three. two pairs of strong hands carefully turning me on my side. another pair rubbing the back of my body with a wet sponge, then the front. my skin hurts.
a black male orderly smiling reassuringly, lifting me from my bed onto a dry one. Ready? One, two, three. the beeping is louder for a moment but his eyes are kind.
my mother’s face looking grave. I think of the time I was so sick I shat the bed. I was six and she wasn’t mad.
The haemorrhaging happened three more times after that. The last time it happened, I woke up slowly, stuck between dream and reality. It was the dream of Ana and her child’s infinite hair coming out of her silent, moving lips. I could feel Samuel’s wet hair sliding from inside me. Ana’s mouth was the opening between my legs.
I was soaked in sweat and the current of blood flowing from me. I began to cry. I prayed for my baby, begging God to protect her, and, if it was too late, for Him to take her into His fatherly arms. I feared that she too could feel the agony I felt.
A small, warm hand softly shook me by the shoulder. João Pedro had woken up. He asked me if everything was okay. I told him to get his father and to not turn on the light on his way out. I heard Antônio coming in, telling João Pedro to wait in the living room. He picked up a small sleeping Dalila and moved her too, closing the door behind him once he returned. He took a deep breath and turned on the bedroom light.
We both looked at each other before we looked down at the mattress. As soon as I saw the pool of blood flooding out onto the bedroom floor, I shut my eyes and gritted my teeth so as not to scream and scare the children.
My husband kneeled to talk to me. I kept my eyes shut, but I could smell drink lingering faintly on his breath. I said, “This is it, the baby is gone.” Antônio attempted to soothe and calm me, but his hands trembled as he placed them on my face and stomach. He mumbled a prayer. Antônio started planning the trip to the hospital but I couldn’t hear him. All I could feel was the panic, the pain, the weakness and the blood. He left the room to use the phone in the kitchen and came back with a pile of towels.
Antônio gently removed the bloodied sheets and began placing towels between my legs, attempting to contain the flow. He got up and headed for the door. I tried to stop him. He never did believe in sparing children from the darker things in life. I heard João Pedro crying and I cried because I couldn’t go to him. Antônio went back and forth, carrying towels dripping with my blood and bringing back dry ones to compress the blood coming out from between my legs.
Zezinho and Antônio helped me up and started moving me towards the car. The two men were nervous, but they rose to the occasion.
Dalila was wailing on her big brother’s lap. Claudete was trying to comfort them, holding both children by her side. I heard him ask, “Is mum dead?” and as I passed by she said, “No, look she just has to go see the doctor.” I tried to feign a smile, but my fear was visible. My body was tense, shaky and weak. My eyes were red and puffy. My tears were as unstoppable as the blood.
Ana’s mouth giving birth to Samuel’s infinite amount of hair. Ana’s blood flowing out of me.
I knew, in that way mothers do without really knowing, that she was a girl. In my mind and heart, I’d already named her Ana Maria, after those two mothers in the bible who, like me, prayed and prayed for the lives of their babies not yet born.
my mother asleep with her cheek against my hand. she looks smaller than usual, as if bowing to her God in constant prayer. I try to pray but I’m remembering the nothingness of death.
my return was violent. the defibrillator forcing my heart to beat, my blood to run, my lungs to resume breathing. strangers crowding around me, poking and prodding life into my body. rebirth was as crude as death was serene.
I no longer have to pray. the thought soothes me.
I pray anyway. cabeça vazia é oficina do diabo.
I pray silently, like my namesake, but not to God. I pray to my mother, asking her to forgive me for trying to take away the life she carried. I give her thanks for everything.
my prayer is interrupted by a loud, obnoxious voice.
“Anna,” the doctor starts, but before he continues my mother and I both say, “It’s Ana. AH. NAH.”
she squeezes my brown, limp fingers with her own.
Cover image © Adelson Boris