Fiction · 06/08/2016

Galactagogues

The voices of the new mothers gathered in the lobby carry to the examination room, where Carla waits for the midwife. Accompanied by the cries of their infants, the mothers in the mom-and-baby group talk mostly about breastfeeding — the tingling, often painful, sensation of letdown; the nuances of their infants’ suckles; breast milk’s sweet, earthy odor. One woman, whose high-pitched voice Carla recognizes from her prenatal care centering group — her name is Amanda — admits to tasting her own milk. She unhelpfully describes her milk as both tangy and mild. Carla, a high school English teacher, gives the description a D. What does that even mean, tangy and mild? Amanda is the same woman who shared once at centering group that she dreamt she’d breastfed her cats. When a well-meaning but stupid aunt recently suggested Carla and Lowell get a cat, Carla imagined a gray cat kneading her breast to make the milk come, its scratchy tongue lapping at her areolas.

It was in this exam room that a nurse had checked the dilation of Carla’s cervix before approving her admittance into one of the birthing rooms. How pleased she had been to claim the large room with the Jacuzzi. Between contractions on the drive over, she’d chanted, “Jacuzzi room, Jacuzzi room, Jacuzzi room,” much to Lowell’s chagrin. He’d said, “Aren’t there more important things to concentrate on right now than a Jacuzzi?” After bracing herself against the glove compartment during a contraction, she repeated, “Jacuzzi room.”

Six weeks and two days have passed since that night. She doesn’t want to be here, but the alternative for the standard six-week post-partum checkup was a home visit, and there is too much she doesn’t want people to see: Lowell’s makeshift bed on the sofa, the milk that now dominates their freezer because she cannot let it dry up.

The mothers in the lobby talk about galactagogues, a word that conjures space explorers for Carla, but really “galacto” means milk or milky; “galaxy” is a derivative. Galactagogues are foods that stimulate or increase milk production. One woman says she thinks that’s nonsense, and Amanda quickly retorts, “Oh, it’s definitely true. After I’ve had a bowl of oatmeal, the milk will spray ten feet out if I let it. I’m like one of those high-powered showerheads.”

Now that Carla is here in the building where she labored, she can’t stop herself from tiptoeing around the corner past the kitchenette to the room where she gave birth. The shade is drawn up. An ocotillo outside has sprouted fiery red tips like stretched nipples.

Strangers don’t know this about her: that she labored and gave birth like any other mother. The proof is hidden, not on display in a stroller or strapped to her torso where people can see. But her uterus knows, even though the books say it will have shrunken to its original size (a standard shot glass) by now. Her bladder knows. Her stitched perineum. Her breasts.

Well before her due date, Carla met with one of midwives to review her birth plan, a homework assignment in which she was supposed to envision how she wanted the birth process to unfold, from whether she wanted music playing while she labored (and what kind) to whether she wanted the baby handed to her immediately or sponged off first, like a nugget of gold panned in a muddy river basin. Carla turned in a ten-paged double-spaced typed document, and the midwife said, “Why don’t you just summarize it for me?” When Carla was done, the first thing the midwife said was “You know you can’t control the birth process, right? Believe me, there’s no control in birth.”

Carla had wanted to say, then why did you ask me to write up a birth plan? A plan is a map, a blueprint, a procedure. But instead she said, “Of course. I understand.”

And she went home and revised the birth plan to sound less controlling, even though no one would see it other than her. Lowell said, “Just tell me what you want from me, and I’ll do my best.”

On the bed now is a plate of half-eaten crackers, wrapped cheeses, and grapes. Beside the plate is a plastic baby doll wearing an old-fashioned cloth diaper held together by safety pins. The doll’s little mouth is open, poised to nurse. The remains of a lactation consultation perhaps.

In the lobby of the birth center, Amanda declares proudly that her baby has gained a pound a week since birth.

“That’s some milk you have, lady,” another woman says.

What follows is a burst of laughter that sounds to Carla like flatulence.

She sits on the bed. She pulls a grape from its stem. It’s cool in her mouth. She unwraps a cheese and spoons it onto a cracker. It’s creamy and delicious despite being processed. Always Carla is hungry. Because always Millie is hungry. Millie of the ether. Galactic Millie. She may be returning to dust, but she still wants.

Carla has long loved the process of revision, the way something scrappy and ugly can be transformed into something exquisite. She loves the labor of it, so much, in fact, that if the words seem to come too easily, too quickly, she’s suspicious of them. She tells her students that if an essay they submit contains more than thirty percent of the words of the original draft than they have probably not done that essay justice in revision.

She’d thought of motherhood as a process of revision: the way her body was remade day by day, hour by hour, all those months; the way her identity was remade. For instance, people who had before ignored her at best, at other times cut her in line at the grocery or complained to the HOA about a few weeds in her yard, smiled approvingly at her once it was evident that she was more than just Carla Woods. She felt that shift internally too. She ate more vegetables, went to bed early, bought a stuffed bunny at a store where she would have before shopped for a new pair of jeans.

What she hadn’t considered, certainly not after she was well past the thirteen-week marker, the possibility of doom, she thought, safely behind her, is that her narrative of motherhood could be susceptible to revision too.

Like that woman in the news who has the pet alligator she babies. The old Carla would have pitied the woman. She would have called her a nut.

But now Carla eyes the doll next to her on the bed with longing. The doll cannot replace Millie, of course, but if Carla were to close her eyes and pretend, would the doll feel so different?

She brushes the doll’s arm as if by accident. When the doll does not recoil, she touches its cheek.

“Hi,” Carla whispers.

Amanda yelps from the lobby. “He’s got the most powerful latch-on of any baby in the universe, I tell you. A grip like a Gila monster. Sometimes I think he’s going to take my nipple clean off.”

To latch on, Carla thinks, can mean to close or fasten, to hold onto, to attach oneself to, to join with, to take possession of.

Carla takes the doll into her arms and sinks back against the quilted pillow.

She’d held her daughter for several hours before the nurse took her away. She did not want to mourn a faceless child — a mere pattern of kicks at five in the morning, fierce bones that prodded the thick muscle of her uterus.

Even so, if it weren’t for the photographs, Carla knows she would not be able to picture Millie’s face now. She has never been good at recalling visual details.

But Carla refuses to say she “lost” the baby. Millie is not misplaced. Besides, given the process of birth, every baby is a loss — a removal, a lessening, an injury.

“Are you hungry?” she asks the doll in her arms.

She nursed Millie when everyone but Lowell left the room. He didn’t say anything, but she’d understood that it made him uncomfortable, her milk, or colostrum really, yellow and thick, on their child’s unmoving lips, making her and Millie’s skin sticky. And the fact that she’d pinched and pulled at her nipple to get the colostrum to emerge. She’d read about how to do this, known that many newborns did not latch on immediately. She’d been prepared for this at least.

Carla holds the doll to her chest. She feels the prickling like tiny cactus spines prodding her milk ducts. Soon, oxytocin makes her tipsy, and her animosity toward Amanda is like a bouillon cube dissolved, watery now, cloudy. Like the hazy dust that makes up so much of the universe. She thinks that she and the other mothers are like stars, the way their bodies are always burning, burning, burning. Recycling particles: so that new stars can form.

So when Amanda says, “It’s all so wild. I mean their flesh is our flesh. Or was. And our flesh was theirs and is theirs and keeps on becoming theirs,” Carla nods and says in response, “And every day they claim more of us.”

+

Michelle Ross’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Cream City Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Moon City Review, Paper Darts, Superstition Review, Word Riot, and other journals. She serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review.