Jessica Bates: Memoir: March 2022


Southern Legitimacy Statement: My people hail from Tennessee, and I grew up in my grandpa’s kitchen, with a shotgun in the corner and a bowl of reused flour where he made catheads from scratch.

When the Dead One Fell From Me

I had a miscarriage three days before my thirty-third birthday. It was a gray Wednesday morning.

Tuesday I went to the high school where my sister teaches for our after-school writing club. I held my son’s hand walking up the stairs, and he led the way to his aunt’s room. I pulled out a snack for him from my backpack. I noticed a black banana, rotted, forgotten, and with it a molded bag of blueberries. I threw them out. I was bleeding into my underwear and breathing and writing and telling myself it would be okay.

That night the cramping got worse, and I made tea and drank water and held my womb. I went to pee and saw more blood, a dark stain, red-brown, in my underwear. I changed them, put on a pad. My son saw it and said I had a dirty diaper. He said, Lay down, mom, change your diaper.

I slept fitfully, feeling slow blood leak from me while my stomach cramped and ached.

The next morning, Wednesday, I got up to let the dog out and I had to pee, too. I sat on the toilet and pissed blood. And then it slipped out. The baby. My baby. Dark purple in its sack like a bloodchild. It was about 2 inches long. There was a head, and there was a face. It looked like a doll with a wet blanket draped over it. The tiny indentions, the eyes, the mouth, and then the nose poking out. I thought of how you cover up the dead with a blanket. I could have held it in the palm of one hand, could have closed my fingers around it. 

I stared at it before I could bring myself to flush. I stared at it. I told it sorry. I didn’t know if it was a boy or girl. It didn’t have a name. I hadn’t gotten too attached, almost like I knew this one wouldn’t stay, or would be back later in another stronger body. It still doesn’t feel real, feels more like a dream or a story that someone else told me. 

Soon after the dead one fell from me like a piece of shriveled fruit, I crawled into bed with my husband and child. I thought of plucking her up from the bloodied water, I thought of burying, or burning, or setting free on a raft in the river. I thought of a ceremony. I thought of a shovel. Of dirt. I thought of my compost pile, of my dogs nosing through it. I thought of the sewers, the pipes that carried her away, the water and blood and urine and feces. I thought of the wide open sea.

Later that afternoon I started a load of laundry, and I found a plastic bag tied tight, and inside, a pair of clothes my son had puked on a week before. They were covered in bands of mold, eaten by it. I threw them out, along with the blackened underwear I wore when my child-who-wouldn’t-be dropped out, head first. I thought of pushing a tiny doll up my vagina and to play out the sad birth again. I was lost inside myself.

My son reminded me to drink water. He chanted om, om, om, om for several minutes and asked me to join.

I felt like an empty shell. I felt like a held breath. I felt like a slashed balloon. I felt like a quiet open mouth. Minutes moved by, and I ate and drank water and played trains with my son. He lined up the people, five in all, and he placed their wooden bodies in a circle. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. I wonder if my baby in the pipes will ever be ashes or if she will be food for some animal, or if she’ll be sucked up and squeezed and tumbled and processed and flattened or scattered by however we treat our water. 

The face bubbles to the surface, purple, wet, dark, cloaked with that unforgettable blanket. The face. I tell it I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It was nothing you did, nothing you could have done, the midwife tells me. Friends tell me. Still. I think of what I could have done better and did not do. It doesn’t matter.

I’m scared to go to sleep because of the little face. I pull out a cool slim wand, a crystal for good dreams. I think of my husband telling my son weeks ago, Your mom believes crystals have powers. And I smile. Believing is the hardest battle. And so I slide the white wand beneath the bed, right under my skull. I do not dream, and that is a gift. 

When I wake, I can’t help but think of the face again. The face. The tiny body, the empty palm of my hand. If I had held it, if I had scooped it from the toilet water, would it have been warm or cold? Did it feel pain? Does it know that however briefly it lived, it was loved? Did it know its big brother kissed it from the outside? Does it know that I will never forget its face?