Warmth, beginning, bubbling, rolling, advancing, exploding, diminishing, subsiding, retreating, gone. A harsh sound. I must not eat this to be more. Brittle deep thirst red salt and copper tang liquid lumps. Footsteps coming down the stairs. I get in the pantry but the fridge door will not shut. Something must be there but who can ever know? Focus. Light through narrow gaps grows wider now shifting they close. Don’t resist the cost is high, must leave.
34 installed - Alfredo Salazar
Sit propped up. Keep this pose. Arms cradling. Face tilted down. Looking at my son. Muscles ache with forced immobility. Almost there. Deep inhale, then exhale. Half inhale, hold your breath. Don’t blink, let your eyes sting. Only my heart has motion now.
It begins: his skin colour is the first to change. Dull dusk of blue turning pale even a slight pink. The sloughed patches on his cheek and neck shrinking, re-epithelialising without scarring, now smooth. The weight of his body—no longer cool—transmits warmth through the blanket onto the length of my forearm. A sudden rise and fall of his tiny chest as he hiccups, and again, then draws in his first breath.
My own lungs start to feel the need.
His eyelids squinch shut as his head begins to move, this way then that in the bend of my elbow, knitted wool tickling my skin. I sense the warm puffs from his nostrils on my exposed flesh. Red lips purse into a small O, sounds of sucking as his cheeks hollow. A faint tack of tongue on palate. He suckles the air just short of my nipple. It stings in anticipation. Colostrum oozing, forming into a droplet, running in a rivulet down the underside of my breast. I yearn to lean forward. I cannot. If I move all will be lost.
Deep in my chest the pressure is building—an accumulation of carbon dioxide in my lungs. The need has grown into pain, the burn starting to overwhelm, my throat spasming in an effort to override the urge. Don’t give in. Hold on. Keep concentrating on your son.
Mouth still searching, he begins to cry, face and neck flushed, rubicund with the effort. The vision of him is blurring, distorted by the watering of my unblinking eyes. His lips so close, almost on my nipple, just a fraction to the right. If I can hold on till he suckles then I know it will be okay. There’s vigour of movement in his body as his tiny curled fist rises, wavers in the air.
Air, air, it’s agony now. Bright white sparks of scattered stars curl crazily across my vision. The beat in my ears pounds. I silently scream—Timmy, take my breast, pull from it sustenance so that you can go on living. He is close but not there. Strength in my arms seeping, I am going to drop him soon. Eviscerating pain now endemic, colours fade.
My head falls forward with the expulsion of air then a great inward gasp. Neck arched back, eyes closed—I cannot get enough. The euphoria of oxygen rushing into my lungs. When they have reached their capacity I blow out, pant in, out again. One more breath in, measured now. I stay like this, relief abating.
I can tell before I look.
The absence of movement—but of course more than that. The cool instead of heat, the dull weight of his body, head tilting at an impossible angle. And his face, oh his face, with those dusky blue lips and the angry red sores where death has started its decay. Between his partially open eyelashes I can see his irises and pupils.
They look back at me, unseeing.
There is pain, I know that much, what else lies here I choose to ignore. In this darkness I await the return of what is due to come. Let me go, I need to sleep, turn the light off as you leave.
Oedipus Loves Electra - Alfredo Salazar
I give up.
It’s time for lunch, I must have slept in. If only they would keep quiet I wouldn’t have to worry. Who let them into my bedroom anyway? Why can’t they leave me alone? If they won’t I will need to remind them of my rest.
Blood, so much blood, help me Gavin, what’s happening?
Thick fatigue keeps rolling over me, pushing me under, so dense I can’t rise.
Copious flow like a faucet, dark red pooling in a puddle between my thighs.
It’s time to try. Will yourself. You know you have a finger on your arm.
He had rushed to the door and roared for help.
There is noise. I must be here. Concentrate. Move your knuckle just a tiny bit. That is all it needs.
An alarm bell sounded.
Wake up. I’ll close the blinds myself. What’s that smell? If I can only open my eyes I will see.
People ran into the room. Raised voices.
Nerve, muscle, tendon, bone, I can’t get my finger to work.
She grabbed Timmy from out of my arms.
I break through this layer only to find another. It keeps on swamping me. I drift. All over the bed, splashes on the wall. Pain of Dr Russo’s fist up my vagina, pushing down hard on my uterus with the other.
Stickiness of my eyelids. Some light now. She must have come back. Excuse me, Can you tell me where he is? Must speak louder. The expression on the midwife’s face as she stood over me, squeezing a bag of fluid. Sound of metal on metal, fading away. Throat so sore, can’t cough. Something’s in it. Cannot move my lips.
Very hard. Try again later.
Pain, parch and itch in my throat as I lie here with my eyes closed. I swallow. It hurts. Footsteps, murmured voices, a short sharp laugh. I could ask someone for water but then I would have to face the next. The rolling wheels of a supermarket trolley. Why is it here? Several rhythmic whoosh tchs, whoosh tchs. An almost subaudible grating to my right.
Dr Russo had jabbed the long needle repeatedly into my abdomen, trying to get the bleeding to stop. In, out. In, out. I’d screamed, I remember that much. I’d screamed until my vision blurred. Then blank.
The back of my throat burns with each inhalation. Not that my throat is the only source of pain. My whole body feels like an atlas of discomfort, each place clamouring for relief. The space behind my eyes pulses, my left forearm and hand tingle, my neck is crinked, and within my lower belly there is a deep, stretched, wrung-out twisting.
Dry, so dry, I can no longer put it off.
No sound comes out. Gluey eyelids as I try to open them. Harsh neon light—too much—I let them shut again. Count backwards from ten. Move my head to the right. Slowly. Careful of the neck. Try again. A shape rises by my side.
Oedipus Loves Electra detail - Alfredo Salazar
Fingers and palm gently across my forehead.
Gavin’s voice. I’m safe.
His body shades my eyes from the light. I blink several times to clear them. Vague forms begin to shift into focus.
I make an attempt to lift my head from the pillow. Dizziness hits me. Nausea worst than anything I’d ever experienced in pregnancy roils up through my chest. I swing to the left to hang my head over the bed’s edge but a barrier of metal bars gets in the way. Too late. I retch. It seems to go on and on—an accumulation of spasm. Throat stinging, my belly aflame, a hand rubbing clockwise in the middle of my back. When the tide subsides I stay here, cool metal pressing into my forehead.
Opening my eyes I see Gavin’s hand holding a blue kidney dish under my mouth. A small volume of green drool lies in its base. Something else appears in my visual path. Blue-trousered legs and a pair of flat leather shoes.
‘This will help with the nausea,’ a female voice says. I feel a tug on the back of my left hand. ‘You need to be careful. We don’t want the stitches to pop.’ The legs and shoes go away.
I slump slowly back on the pillow. The motion sets the room rolling again so I shut my eyes against it.
Bad taste in my mouth.
‘Water,’ I say again, this time out loud.
I hear movement, a faint tinking and the sound of water pouring. A moment later Gavin’s hand is on the back of my neck as he helps my head up. I take a few sips from the plastic cup, nursing the liquid down my throat in small swallows. When I have had enough I shake my head and rest back down again.
Something else has happened but I’m not sure what. Memories resurface. The late night drive to the hospital. My rising panic as the midwife kept repositioning the CTG probe over my belly, trying to find a trace. Dr Russo coming in, confirming the news with ultrasound. Not sleeping. The induction the next day. My fits of weeping as I pushed, giving birth to a child already dead. Holding Timmy. The bleeding. Now this.
This isn’t the labour ward. The sounds of this place are different. No screams from adjacent rooms, or shouts of encouragement, no babies crying. Here mainly the monotonous workings of medical equipment—whirring, ticking, the occasional beep. I think it’s a place to avoid if you could.
What is that grating? I open my eyes slightly, allow them to accustom, then look. A crimson bag hangs from an arm of a pole. Dripping blood into a burette. The thin red plastic line snakes down, hanging then rising up to lie taped to my right forearm, curling into a cannula on the back of my hand.
On the same side of the room Gavin stands against a windowless wall. He is wearing the same blue Levis and polo top but they are rumpled, not fresh. Stubble is on his neck, cheeks and chin. The room’s neon light highlights the sprinkle of dandruff on his shoulders and the sagging grey folds of skin around his mouth and eyes. They are looking at me.
I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am - Alfredo Salazar
‘Do you want some more water?’
I shake my head.
‘If you’re feeling hungry I could ask them for some juice.’
I shake my head again.
We look at each other.
He touches my right hand, avoiding the cannula as he does so.
‘Get some more sleep if you need to. You’re probably still feeling groggy.’
Turning my head I take in the surrounds. Three plaster walls and a tall curtain on runners. Two rows of fluorescent tubes in the white corklike ceiling above. In the corner opposite a sink and soap dispenser, behind Gavin a low-set chair. To my left is another IV pump, the fluid running in this line clear. Also on that side an LCD monitor on a swivel stand, numbers and multi-coloured lines continuously skimming across its black screen. Cords extend from the underside of the monitor towards me. Two thin blue ones connect to stickers on my chest, and a grey one loops across my bed to join a flat plastic peg on my left index finger.
There is a small gap between the curtain and the wall. Several metres away I can see a portion of a workstation and a nurses upper shoulder and ear. She has short black hair. Behind her there is another curtain.
At the foot of the bed is a broad white propped-up board on a stand. Although I know it’s not, it reminds me of an easel. But what’s in the room doesn’t matter. Something has happened and I’m afraid.
Gavin turns away, drags the chair closer, sits down. He grasps the railing on his side and tries to move it. It rattles but stays where it is.
‘My mistake,’ he says. ‘These ones use a lever.’
There is a clack as he lowers the rail with one hand. Then he reaches over to take mine in his.
‘Do you want to see Timmy again?’ he says. The whites of his eyes are crisscrossed with fine red lines.
‘Where is he?’
‘In the hospital’s mortuary.’
‘Don’t you remember?’
He squeezes my hand.
I look up at the lights, the smooth long tubes of white fluorescent gas.
‘Are you sore?’ he asks me. He is still not answering my question.
I close my eyes. I ache all over but the worst of it is concentrated over my lower belly. There it’s more than sore. It really, really burns.
Slowly, not wanting to pull on the IV line, I place my left arm under the sheet that covers me. I inch up the cotton gown until I reach the hem. I catch it and move it upwards, the tips of my fingers running over the skin of my thigh, over a rubber tube between my legs, and my pubic hair. Above this something big and crinkly has been stretched across my belly.
I open my eyes but I don’t want to look.
‘What happened?’ My voice is a whisper.
Gavin’s other hand comes up and rests on my knee. It’s as if he’s holding me down, trying to keep me still.
‘You had a massive postpartum haemorrhage.’ The tone of his voice has risen, is strained. ‘I was really scared. I felt so useless just standing there.’
I want to say something to comfort him. But my lips don’t move.
‘They had to do everything. That’s the sixteenth unit of blood you’ve been given. You lost so much you became coagulopathic.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It wouldn’t stop. You almost bled to death.’ His hand on mine is damp. ‘You’ve been in ICU for the past two days. They just extubated you this morning.’
That explains my throat. But not the stitches. I keep watching my husband’s eyes.
‘Dr Russo took you to theatre. He had no choice.’ The eyes drop. ‘He had to perform a hysterectomy.’
His gaze returns from his lap. His eyes are on my face but they avoid looking directly into mine.
I stare at the tiny pockmarks on the tip of his nose. Golf-balled surface. Cold inside, hairs rising, goose bumps over my arms and legs. What does it mean? What does it do? What does he want from me? Blur at the edge of my vision, the dryness in my mouth returns. I think they’re coming to get me but I have nowhere to hide.
Gavin shifts in his chair, shoulders forward. Furrowed eyebrows, flaking skin. He says something else but I don’t hear.
Ring the buzzer. Tell the midwife to bring Timmy back. It’s dangerous in here, we have to get out.
Unhook me, pick me up, you need to take me away.
More lip movements from Gavin but he doesn’t get up from his chair. I don’t understand. Why is it up to me?
I adjust my body. Close my eyes. Settle my shoulder blades. Arms by my side. Prepare to be still. If I do it correctly things will change.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Deep breath in.