I light a fire in your mouth
Soon, I launch my first book. It is a poetry collection that in writing has helped me stitch together my fragmented self that were left after I gave birth to my son. The collection grew from the word corpse, a word I wrote in an old journal on the day postpartum women are told to expect the onset of baby blues.
I think I read that somewhere or it was told to me, by an aunt or my mother. Yes—my mom. And there we all were in the maternity ward at Park Lane Clinic, sobbing on day three. Cabbage leaves pressed to engorged breasts. Catheters inserted, catheters removed. For many women, lucky women, it is fleeting: the blues pass, and the colors of new life arrive; soft creams of brushed cotton bed sheets, the milky white of talcum. Baby colors: baby pinks and blues and yellows, cosseting, cuddling, containing.
For others, the baby blues is just the beginning. A second gestation where emptiness blooms like a blind, blackened magnolia, bursting open in cruel beauty to burn away the light. Poison bleeds into everything. Joy is eaten. Not even the wellspring of oxytocin is a match for it. The depression seeps into the floors and rises up the walls like damp.
I live in a surfing town. East London. We plot our days and weeks around the movement of tides. Against the whims of the moon we pin our hopes: praying for west winds, warm water, good swell. On days when the wind blows east, we shutter ourselves away in contempt, stitching jerseys to our skins, remaining barefoot, in shorts, though. Babies cry crocodile tears and refuse their pureed meals. Everyone is grumpy.
When the east wind blows it brings with it the dead, plucking them from graves, hurling them far across the oil-stained skins of our beaches. Quiet spirits rest in coral tree boughs, furious ghosts climb up walls. The worst of their kind, the ones who refuse a later departure, who prefer turns of malevolence to the rest offered by unending silence, overturn mugs of coffee and curdle milk.
On afternoons like these, when the wind turns, my mother tells me to take my son inside, take out a pile of books and read the afternoon away. An early bath, she advises, is the only antidote to a windy day. She isn’t wrong about the wind and my son’s mood, which becomes increasingly tetchy as the wind picks up and leaves are whipped into furious spirals and salted windows slam unexpectedly.
My sister is a child when she tells me that the wind is so annoying because you can’t see which direction it’s coming from. It’s not something you always even see; you can only watch its effect on the environment it enters. Watch as it sends stratus across the sky. Arches the trunks of trees like broken bodies in agony. Tears laundry from the line. If you were to tell an alien from a windless planet about this invisible force that turns swell into waves and animates leaves and hats and flags, they might struggle to believe you.
As a child I experience night terrors. I often wake shaking, sweating, sobbing. I am sure that there is something in my room that is watching me, something in the shadows knotted around my bed. Often, I scream, or try to. Sometimes, I hide under my duvet, praying that somehow my mom will know that I am afraid and rush through to my bedroom. Sometimes she does, and then I realize that I have been crying out: Mommy! Mommy! The nightmares continue throughout my childhood. A sensitive child, I am unable to watch horror movies at sleepovers. I do not read scary books. The R. L. Stine Goosebumps books are enough to trigger the kind of thought process that welcomes hypnagogic states: the planes of visitation, the place where ghosts come from. Like many small children who are afraid of the dark, I run to the bathroom at night, switch on the light, and on my return, leave the light on. I run into my room and leap as soon as I possibly can into the duvet. I want to avoid the monsters that prowl around my bed. I don’t need to see them to believe that they are there.
When I am sixteen years old, I am told that my grandmother had often complained of feeling empty. As if there was a vacuum in her middle, something missing in her core. Having no direct experience of Granny Valerie, I have only my mother’s words to go on. Words, words: I am told that I am good with them, as was the woman who birthed my mother almost three months too early in 1960. My mother should have died. She didn’t. The framed front page of the Rand Daily Mail hangs in our passage, dated sometime in September of that year, when my mother should only have been born. Gillian is a Miracle Wonder: Gillian Maclear, 2lb, 1oz at birth, sleeps contentedly in the arms of her mother, Mrs Valerie Maclear, when they left a Johannesburg nursing home yesterday. Gillian, who now weighs 5lb, 1oz, was born prematurely seven weeks ago.
While finishing my poetry collection, I feel as if my grandmothers are close by. This is especially true when I write the last poem in the collection, which I feel as if they urged me to write. There are so many signs along the way, a collection of private symbols that seem to say that they are egging me on. I dedicate the poem to them. Them, mothers of my parents, them, deceased. These were women who didn’t belong to the lives they had been given. Talented, ballsy, brainy women who should never have been bred into domesticity. Who, for their own reasons, some different, some similar, had no safe place to call home, or, had it taken away from them.
Valerie, my mother’s mother, died in the early 1980s. Marcia, my father’s, in 2005. My Granny Marcia died in a cold flat in the east rand of Johannesburg. Granny Valerie, in a hospital not long after my mom married my dad. Both women were alcoholics. Granny Marcia died drunk. Granny Valerie died going cold turkey.
Childbirth and its meaty aftermath made me feel strangely beastly. Milk soaked all my T-shirts. I became fiercely protective of my newborn. I was also frightened, and felt a sudden empathy for scared mothers—sow and sheep and cow and human—realizing, with a shock, that I was now one of them. I had a particularly difficult birth and the lack of empathy and institutional violence I experienced in addition to this wounded me. I felt abandoned and alone. When I expressed these emotions I was told that it was at odds with what mothers should feel, do feel, after childbirth.
Driving in my mother’s car one day, about three weeks after Oliver was born (still smarting and raw from my c-section), I told my poor mom that I felt as if I had died in childbirth, as had my child. I looked on this body of mine as a shell, and the person inhabiting it as a ghost. And what of your baby, my mother asked, concern forming creases in her forehead.
This isn’t him, I wanted to say.
Instead, I told her that I felt increasingly detached from my newborn son, as if the baby I gestated disappeared the instant I gave birth, and this child, a shadow child, had replaced it. I didn’t know how to tell her how much I had loved the baby that bounced around inside my uterus, a 4.36kg child that responded with kicks and hiccoughs to ’70s rock music and hip hop. Who began rolling around my tummy the instant I tried to sleep and poked about my ribcage. I could not reconcile the child I held in my arms with the child I grew. I felt as if I were a continent breaking apart. An island. A schism formed. When I cried out for help I was told that these emotions were abnormal. I felt apart from other mothers. Devious—monstrous.
While doing research for Milk Fever, a collection that became increasingly layered with intertextual references, I rediscovered the chimera. Despite studying the Homeric creature in art History and Classics at university, I had quite forgotten about it, and read about the creature with renewed interest. It appealed to me: this beast of many, this haunted thing considered a bad omen, especially in the maritime world.
Head of a goat, body of a lion, a tail ending in a snake’s head. Fire-breathing. Chimera.
Growing up I had many recurring dreams but there is one that still chills me to my core. In the dream, I wake up in my bed, and know, instinctively, to go to the passage that bisects our house into its north and south parts. I stand at the beginning of it, a landing, sort of, from which the bathroom and other bedrooms emerge, and watch as the faint outline of a figure forms in the darkness beyond. I know something awful is coming, something terrifying. The figure moves closer. Appears to be a woman. I am rooted to the spot and grow increasingly terrified. I become aware that it is a dream and I try to wake myself but I cannot move. Frozen, I watch as the woman moves closer to me, along the passage that has now grown impossibly long. When she reaches me, the dream ends. There is a dark quality to this dream, something subterranean that feels as if it was dredged not from my mind but somewhere further away, an ancestral place.
I am seventeen when I tell my mother about this recurring nightmare. Expecting her to comfort me, I am shocked when she recoils in horror. Pressing her to explain this unexpected reaction, she remarks, somewhat cryptically, that her mother complained of the same nightmare.
She’d wake up Grampa Keith and tell him something terrible was on its way.
Among other things, pregnancy is a miracle. It is also difficult, tiring, boring, and sometimes, downright traumatic. As a pregnant mother, I pore through “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and all manner of maternity manuals, hoping some of their wisdom will prepare me for becoming a mother. They don’t, of course; they can’t. But what they can do, and do do for me is explain the magical biological processes of the mother’s body, how information is passed from the developing fetus’s body to that of her own, the exchange of nutrients across the placental barrier. When I am breastfeeding, I learn that breasts are diagnostic machines designed to create a potent superfood individually tailored to each woman’s baby. When he breastfeeds, some of my son’s saliva enters my body and tells my breasts what nutrients he needs, and whether he may or may not require antibodies for a cold. My body responds with liquid gold and cements the delicate bond that is beginning to form through the thick of my postpartum depression. I become a breastfeeding advocate, and take on work with clients who do the same. It is another two years, however, before I discover the miraculous exchange that takes place across the blood-placental barrier.
Red blood cells, carbon dioxide, antigens and nutrients all pass through this channel from mother to baby and vice versa. This, I understood. Cells from the baby pass into the mother in order to communicate with her cells and tell her things like, Hey, make me some milk, please! I’ll arrive soon! What I didn’t know is that medical scientists have now discovered that these cells stay in the mother’s body, and travel the bloodstream like passengers on board a Nile cruise. From there, they continue to communicate with the mother’s body above and beyond what was necessary during pregnancy, possibly even predisposing the mother to inflammation and potential cancer risks later on.
These cells form small bodies that can influence the mother’s fertility, and, scientists have suggested they may even play a role in miscarriages. Every single pregnancy stores this living information in the mother’s body, whether or not the pregnancy is continued to term. Microchimeras, they’re called.
In an interview for the Paris Review (Art of Poetry No. 88) writer and interviewer Will Aitken tells Anne Carson that her poems feel more like objects than poems. “They feel constructed, like a painting.” Carson responds by saying, “But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. His mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.”
Growing up with a parent who suffers from substance abuse is terribly difficult. We know from studies that the impact on the child’s wellbeing and development can be enormous. I know from first-hand knowledge that when that child grows up and becomes a parent, they’re usually wholly determined not to become their parent and continue the cycle of abuse. (Sometimes, of course, it does go the other way).
Whether or not they succeed depends entirely on how much of their own shit they’ve dealt with. To understand the symbiosis between addiction, abuse, and distress in my family, this kind of intergenerational haunting, if you will, I wrote a poem where ordinary objects take on significance in relation to their symbolic attachment to addiction and abuse. A bedroom becomes a war zone, the driveway becomes the place a father beat his son, cracking the bridge of his nose, fracturing his wife’s skull when she tried to defend her child.
As the child of parents who experienced abuse and whose mothers were alcoholics, I become keenly aware of my parents’ fractured sense of time and memory, and how this impacts the act of home-building.
Growing up, I knew that I could always count on my parents; they were solid and stable in a way that theirs simply weren’t. And yet, the ghosts of their pasts hung around, so that when we were enjoying this stable childhood, this happy life, we were aware, my sister and I, that it hadn’t always been so. That it might not always be so. The specters of dead family members, afflicted, addicted, loomed ever closer as we entered our teens.
I remember reading an article about how children of children who were abused or who had alcoholic parents will inherit the same PTSD and struggle with similar attachment issues to that parent, even though the addiction or abuse is one generation removed. In my own life, I remember tiptoeing around my mother a lot, afraid of her outbursts, or that she would be mean to me, in a way that didn’t really match her actual behavior. It was almost as if I had inherited the way she acted around her own parents, through some kind of strange genetic osmosis, and it sawed this edge into our relationship. This cleaving space we both move very quickly into no matter how good things are between us.
My partner and I begin dating when I am nineteen. We break up and get back together and continue this pattern for years. At twenty-five, I fall pregnant with his baby in a Thai city not known for sleep and keep it and move back to South Africa. He knows me, all of me, as a man should when he is expecting the woman he loves to carry his child. Perhaps he knows me because we’re cut from the same cloth. Both stitched and sewn from broken hearts and women bent on changing that. Perhaps because there is something in him that is haunted too, he recognizes my own demons, and accepts them as his own. It could also be why he feels comfortable telling me when the haunting is too much: when the second selves and shadows have overcome the daylight parts of me. I think I am twenty-four years old when his cousin, also my friend, phones to tell Chad about a dream he has had.
Bro, it was fucking terrifying. I was in the house, her mom’s house, and I knew something was terribly wrong. I looked around me: saw bookcases, plants; but I knew something was off, you know, I just knew.
What he told Chad is what I already knew, because I had dreamt that same dream many times before.
I looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. As had I. And the thing fucking stopped.I remember. And something evil filled the room.It always does. And then I was being held up by my throat in the corner of the room. Oh, yes. And I knew, I knew. Moment of truth. It’s not the house, bro, it’s her.
When female babies are born, they enter the world with every ovum perfectly formed inside their new ovaries. If you think about it, the potential children of a baby girl already exist inside of her. She is born carrying her possible biological descendants. And if you think about this even more, it seems possible that, in a way, her mother, who carried this child for nine months, has, in doing so, if only in their beginnings, met and kept her possible future grandchildren as well. Blood crosses the placental barrier in an exchange of cells that nourish and irrevocably change both bodies.
When I am pregnant with my son, I realize that his beginnings was in me when I was born and so in a beautiful twist, he, too, lived inside my mother. In pregnancy, she held me. She held her grandchild, just as I slowly realized, my Granny Valerie, who has existed to me only in polaroids and the faint whiff of her perfume in old clothes my mother kept, held me. These aren’t my memories, or my dreams. They enter me through my mother, as they did through her own. Loss is a bomb and I have been feeling for its heat. Hoping I could transcend the absence of Valerie and Marcia, somehow step over it to the glassy lake where my lost foremothers might have been swimming all along in characteristic poise and grace. I write the last poem in my collection and when it ends I have somehow convinced myself that I am exorcizing something of the memories that aren’t mine and in their place, summoning the flesh and love of real women. Expecting oceans, I was met instead with desert. Terrible, shimmering desert.
In writing, I wanted to fill this hollow with words. I wanted to build a cathedral where girls danced with their mamas and mamas sang them songs. I thought I could locate the genesis of this emptiness and follow its trail right back into the bellies of my foremothers. Maybe I thought I could erase their pain, at least some of it, or transport myself into their arms and be held and feel their love entering me in the warmth of their bodies and not the fond, detached gaze of family photos.
But I was writing about women in absentia. Piecing together personalities from familial myth and legend; painting with negative space and hoping it would birth portraits.
I have been writing about my son and my own motherhood, yet, unbeknownst to me, I have been trying to find the part of me that begins with one woman and the edge where I flow into another. Perhaps in defining what isn’t me I will trace an outline around the place where I might be. Where all of them are, where they still exist in me.
I was writing about my son, about myself, but as I have always done, I was unpacking emptiness, and finding that it contained centuries. Silence speaks volumes and absence can manifest a universe of joy, of pain, of inherited ghosts and intergenerational haunting.
Maybe it was my imagination, but my post-birth pain, elation, confusion—also contained a dead thing. A frightened thing. Nebulous and inorganic, it was the opposite of a seed. It contained no life. Held zero potential. And yet, there was something in this word corpse that spurred me on to write a complete poem, and then another, and another, until Milk Fever, a collection, was born.
Where will all my nothing go?
What began as poems to explore my own motherhood became a time machine I commandeered back into the murky waters of my mother, and her mother, and our line of women who have seemed, through blood or birth or coincidence, to harvest under their skins a homing beacon for haunting. How terrible this is, how strangely perfect, too? Parts ancestral, paranormal, biological.
Haunted, afflicted, addicted, yes, but how my foremothers loved and were loved in turn. These women who I call my own. These women who bore me, and continue to do so.
Where will all my nothing go?
Onwards, forwards, in blood and teaching and words. In the ways that I am able to send it on, because the nothingness, the emptiness, was never anything to be afraid of. Our earth was formed in the belly of darkness, in a universe black with night. Beneath the earth, seeds germinate in damp night, and break through the ground to receive the sun. Humans, like other mammals, grow round and warm in our mother’s wombs: a place of no sight, the place before.
The universe sprang forth from nothing. As do we. Each living creature echoes these patterns of creation, birthed from emptiness into a world of beauty and grit and gore. Maybe all we can do to survive whatever private afflictions are ours, whichever ghosts we inherit, whichever monster haunts our nights, is to honor the life-giving hollow. Flame, serpent, beast. Let it swallow us, and all our beautiful monsters. •
A version of this essay originally appeared in Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction.
This version appeared in Catapult.
Megan Ross is the author of Milk Fever (uHlanga Press, 2018) a collection of poetry, and several short stories and essays that have gone on to achieve critical acclaim.
She is also an editor, journalist and graphic designer, working on both the copy & art aspects of book production for publishers across the African continent. She is a recipient of the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction (2017) and an Alumni Award for the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavik (2016), as well as a finalist for the Gerald Kraak, Miles Morland, Short Story Day Africa and Short. Sharp Awards.
Megan lives on the South African Wild Coast with her partner and four-year-old son.