She didn’t mean to have twenty babies. It was an accident, the unexpected result of one wild night. But once they were there inside her, she couldn’t throw them out. She explored her options, talked to doctors and shamans and priests. All told her that twenty was too many for one woman — that either they would die or she would. But she couldn’t choose between them. (Who knew which would grow up to be the concert pianist, which the neurophysicist, which the sad slow homebody she might love the most?) And so, when they were quite small, a cluster of grapes, she stopped them from growing larger. They still developed, cells dividing and differentiating into hearts and lungs, ears and eyes. Their brains rippled in on themselves, folding and creasing. In sonograms, they looked fully formed. Though their delicate fingers and toes were too small for the imaging systems to pick up, she saw each of their little faces pulse on the viewing screen, grainy in black and white.
Throughout the second trimester, the specialists took samples. Samples of fluid, samples of stool, cell samples scraped from the inside of her cheek. They recorded her family history, sequenced her DNA. They performed countless scans and predicted ever worse and more immanent outcomes, but she trusted her mother’s instinct: her twenty babies would be fine. The only thing she saw to worry about was how close they clustered. She had stopped their growth while there was still enough room, before they crowded each other, squishing the outliers against the floor of her pelvis, the wall of her spine. And yet they remained in a tight ball, hugging one another, spooned and snuggled, intertwined. She wanted her children to know freedom, to swim and explore. She had given them space to develop, and yet they packed ever closer.
Mothers worry, she told herself. Children must be who they are. So she ate her omegas and her folates and exercised regularly as the books and doctors recommended. She played Mozart and Bach and did deep breathing exercises to oxygenate their shared blood. And she let them bunch together as they wanted, trusting them to find their way.
In the third trimester, the specialists became more vocal and more assertive, insisting on various complex plans and procedures. They lined up twenty incubators, kept a team of nurses on staff, ordered her to come in daily for checkups, threatened to induce on the first of June if nothing changed before then. As a mother, she wasn’t quite ready for the dramatic and traumatic ending they predicted. To be honest, she felt a bit alienated by all of the technical terms, the machines and wires. She continued to go to her appointments because she loved to see her twenty babies all perfect there inside of her, but eventually the pressure of so many professional opinions came to be too much.
In late May she watched her twenty babies on the monitor, nestled together and napping, and knew it was the last time she would see them that way. She thanked the doctors and nurses and left the clinic for good. How could any mother tear apart such a group? Even if the hospital engineered one special incubator to keep them all together and warm, eventually they would separate her babies, force them into clothes, give them names and genders and personalities, whether they were ready or not. They would get pushed into opinions and confrontations and educations, into relationships and careers. No, better they stayed inside of her and grew up at their own pace. They were too small for the outer world anyway and would have been crushed by attention and expectation.
So there they stayed, into the fourth and fifth trimester, then the sixth and seventh. They were still growing; she could feel it. It wasn’t an increase in size or even density, (how could anyone walk with the weight of twenty toddlers inside?) but they were growing nonetheless — growing in, not out. She spoke to them as she moved through the larger world, described the things she saw — animals, trees — hoped they might one day desire to see these things for themselves, but didn’t pressure them. They made sounds as well, the babbling of babies. They cooed and gurgled. They soothed each other’s tears. Her favorite were the plumes of laughter that moved through the group, ignited by one tiny giggle, then spreading and changing until they were all there together rolling and laughing and joyous inside her. They were happy babies, and she loved them all.
It was early in their childhood, once she’d accepted they had no plans to be born, that she began worrying about their futures. She didn’t need them to excel in school, or make lots of money, or win prestigious humanitarian awards. But she knew that when they matured to a certain point, they would want love beyond the love she could give them, love beyond the kinship of siblings. No good mother would hold her child back from adulthood or stand in the way of romantic relationships. But how could she give her babies the world if their world remained inside her?
She couldn’t return to the specialists for fear that they’d cut her open or tie her down and force her into some climactic compromise. She was on her own. It was up to her to give her children the lives they deserved. It wasn’t an easy choice, but she knew what she had to do. The burden of twenty babies was already quite large, but she had to get pregnant again. At least she’d left some room.
She spent months searching for a man as genetically diverse from the first father as possible. She was far more conscientious this time about family history, mental health, hereditary diseases and predispositions. She knew that whatever new gene pool she introduced would be everything. It wasn’t ideal that all of her babies would have half of her, but what choice was there? And civilizations had grown from less.
She chose a stranger from the other side of the globe who had come to pursue his PhD and seduced him with oysters and prosecco — luxuries he would not have bought on his grad student’s budget. She didn’t tell him about her twenty children, or the twenty more she hoped to make that night. She just sipped her single drink and filled his again and again until he bubbled over, warm and pliant. She took him in his apartment, on a mattress on the floor, and thanked him as she did, over and over, thank you, thank you, thank you. He palmed her round belly and cupped her thighs and thanked her in return.
The twenty babies were now twenty more, and her love for them doubled. She was relieved to think that there was a future in her for them all.
She carried them through her middle years as the first fine lines formed around her eyes, this tribe of playful children. Some of them were quiet — introspective. Others were wild. In times of strife, it seemed that they were all fighting constantly inside of her, keeping her awake through the night. She tried to stop them, calm them down with soothing words and chocolate bars, but either they chose to ignore her, or they no longer heard her as a voice with meaning. Their language was not her own.
What was once baby babble had developed into distinct words, but not words she could understand. Her children spoke only to one another. At times it made her lonely, isolated, even with forty people inside. She imagined her voice was like an echo to them, or the wind, if they even heard her at all. Had her lullabies ever soothed? Had the Mozart mattered? What was it like in there? She couldn’t fully imagine the scope of their world. She pictured it like the earth, only inverted, round and contained. Would they know the difference between day and night? Did they feel hungry? Sad?
She had not seen her twenty babies since the beginning, had not seen the next twenty at all, but she could feel them growing in her, changing, getting to know one another, forging bonds. The first rush of hormones that hit en masse was a shock to the system. She was riddled with mood swings, excess energy, heights and depths of emotion she hadn’t felt since her own adolescence. But she survived, attending to her adult acne and the wells of self-consciousness and doubt. As her first twenty babies moved deeper into their teen years, she grew steadier, and by the time the second twenty reached puberty, she was ready. She had done it all before.
Still, she was glad that as she grew older, they did as well, calming down, settling. She didn’t have it in her to stay up late or worry anymore. Her hair grew gray and she hoped they were finding one another, falling in love. Maybe there was an inventor or a musician among them. Maybe there was an athlete. Her skin sagged and she imagined each of their lives, their joys and disappointments. She could hear them in there, more and more of them it seemed, grandchildren, perhaps.
Her joints weakened and her bones became brittle, but her stomach remained round and active. She wondered what they were doing sometimes, how they were all getting along. She worried too, worried about the time when she could no longer take care of her children, no longer contain them. She would be dead and gone soon enough. But what could she do? This was life. They were grown now. They would take care of themselves. She hoped they had become more adventurous with age, unknotting from that early group, venturing out to explore their world and each other. Or maybe their exploration worked in some opposite way that she couldn’t quite conceive of. They would never leave her, she knew, never make their way into the outer world, but maybe they would continue in, creating space that she herself did not understand. That idea brought her comfort in the end, and she imagined them mapping her, sounding her depths, delving ever deeper. A universe within.