It was Halloween. It had been raining for days, a hurricane-driven, whipping downpour. The James River had flooded the tobacco warehouses in downtown Richmond. A sodden sweetness of steeping tobacco wafted uptown to our house. I had spent the afternoon making Jules’ costume: a blue corduroy cape with red satin lining, a fake-fur beard with an elastic strap and an aluminum-foil-covered Masonite saber. He was three and this was his first trick-or-treating. With his candy bag bulging, pirate Jules splashed gleefully through puddles in the blustery darkness. I slogged, big-bellied, behind. As we rushed to get back inside, uneasiness snagged me: the baby hadn’t moved. The baby had been still. Utterly still. No kicks. No flutters. No hiccups. No elbows to my ribs. No knees to my bladder. Had it been for the whole day?
Later that night, I lay on the daybed in the study. Our nurse-midwife, Nancy leaned over me. A stethoscope connected her ears to my eight-month mountainous belly. Nothing. No sound of life.
For a week, I was pregnant with a dead baby. Jules and I stayed home indoors as it continued to rain. We played trains, made little boats glued together from scraps of wood, and read and reread the latest stack of library picture books. I grappled with the unthinkable: the baby would never move again. As Nancy had instructed, I drank increasing doses of blue and black cohosh tea to encourage my body to push the baby out.
At last, my uterus took up a lazy rhythm. At last, the sky was cloudless and calm. The silver maple in the front yard had turned completely gold, but had not yet dropped a
leaf. My parents came from out-of-town to care for Jules at a hotel. Mirabai, another midwife who was experienced in complicated home births, came from Yogaville—Swami Satchidananda’s ashram in the Blue Ridge Mountains—to assist. She arrived just as my water smacked the bathroom floor.
I lay on a low futon in my art studio, a room that was to become the new baby’s bedroom. I had painted it the color of tomato soup, the color of the womb. Sunlight sneaking through the closed Roman shades made the room glow like a fleshy hull. Nancy and Mirabai swathed my back and belly with flannel compresses soaked in a warm ginger brew. John held me and murmured encouragement. All of us breathed in unison. And then the baby slid out: silent and blue. He was broader and hairier than his brother. His eyes were dark and sunken beneath transparent eyelids that were fused shut. His mouth was flaccid--it knew no sucking. His fingers were curled and stiff, their tips wrinkled and boggy. He and I lay side-by-side, shipwrecked, the cord still connecting us by the un-birthed placenta.
Later, I wiped him dry and swaddled him, as if he were alive. We named him Ivan. I opened the shades and watched the leaves drift down from the maple outside, and we shared a holy silence.
Stillbirth on Black Paper