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Karolinska Hospital, Stockholm
27 MARCH 1993
The child is lying naked in his cot. He is stretched out on a sheet, perfectly still, his arms and legs splayed, like someone surrendering.
S. sees the little fingers with their tiny real-life nails. The child's head is turned to the side. He is asleep and in his slumber he sucks in his little lips and his eyes move rapidly under their translucent lids. He has long, dark eyelashes. His thatch of dark hair is sticky with sweat. His breathing is rapid and rhythmic, his little tummy rising and falling, up and down, up and down. A shred of gauze quivers on what is left of his umbilical cord. His pink, dry skin is almost purple around the knees and in the folds of his neck. His little feet stick up into the air, motionless.
Observing him from the side like that, he looks dead and S. quickly turns her head away.
This is supposed to be her son. She gave birth to him that afternoon at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm. But to her this is simply a nameless little being who after nine months has come out of her body. Nothing connects them anymore. S. feels relieved at the thought. She is free. Her entire past has spilled out of her body with this child. She feels so light, as if she could get up this very moment and walk away.
She is not alone in the room. Maj occupies the other bed. The woman turns to her and says, my name is Maj. S. does not reply. Maj is nursing her baby. She has enormous white breasts and as she pushes the nipple into thebaby's mouth she looks as if she is going to smother it. Every so often the baby pulls away from the nipple, waving its little arms angrily and grimacing. Maj then props it up against her shoulder, smiles and looks at S. She does not smile back. She thinks how her own life is so very different. Maj, at least, is in her own country. S. is from Bosnia and that is like having no country. Maj's baby, a little girl, already has a name. She is called Britt. She also has a father and they know his first name and last, his occupation, the colour of his eyes, his habits. Maj's baby has everything: a family, a language, a country, security. The little being S. has given birth to has none of that.
S. does not pick the child up. She does not want to touch it. If she were to touch it even once she would become responsible for it. Like finding a stray kitten. As long as you do not pick it up off the ground you have nothing to do with it. But once you pick it up, that's it, it's yours ...
She feels nothing but animosity toward this creature. The first thought that came to her mind when she realised that she was pregnant was death. This child was condemned to death from the start. It lived only because by that time it was already too late for an abortion. She had to carry through her pregnancy to the bitter end, with a swelling stomach that deformed her beyond recognition and made her hate her own body.
At breakfast that morning she had felt the first sharp piercing pain in her stomach. But she was not afraid of the labour pains; she welcomed them. She could hardly wait to get rid of her burden. She was used to the pain of being hit by a rifle butt, slapped, tied up, to the dull pain of her head being banged against the wall, of being kicked in the chest by a boot. Then the kind of pain from which you pass out, the pain that one body inflicts on another, the pain you feel when somebody else is in pain. And finally, the pain you simply stop feeling.
She welcomed this particular pain with a certain sense of relief. For the past few months she had been living like a vegetable, benumbed, waiting to give birth. This was something real, something sharp that snapped her out of her deadness and reminded her for a moment that she did exist.
While her body was being wracked with the agonies of labour, S. kept thinking that she had to hold on just a little longer. Her life was going to change. She would forget, forget the summer of 1992. The nurse was saying something to her, perhaps she was telling her to relax or to push harder, it was all the same to S. She did not hear her. The nurse would not be able to help her anyway. S. did not think anyone could.
Then she saw the doctor leaning over her and felt the touch of her hand on her face. It's over, said the doctor. That was the first tender touch she had had from an unfamiliar human hand in a long time. Only then did S. relax and cry. All the accumulated pain inside her slowly trickled out with her tears, and with the blood which was still flowing between her trembling legs.
And then peace. She no longer felt any pain. Half-asleep, she was roused by the nurse who brought over the baby, holding it upside down by its feet. S. made out the shape of an elongated, blood-streaked little body. It made no sound and S. thought that perhaps her wish had been granted and the baby was stillborn after all. That very same moment she heard it cry. She turned her head away. The baby's cry was no concern of hers. It had nothing to do with her any more.
Even before giving birth she had told them that she did not want to see the child. G., who had accompanied her to the hospital, had repeated S.'s request several times and the nurse at the admissions desk had duly noted it down. Just in case (what case? in case they did not believe her?), she had brought along a copy of the letter from the psychologist explaining S.'s decision to give the child up for adoption because she was not psychologically ready to take care of it.
S. believed she was quite prepared for life after giving birth, however. She had had time to think during these past few months. She had made a bargain with herself: she would give birth to the baby provided she never saw it again. That seemed to be the best, the most rational solution for them both. Since she had been unable to abort. Or to finish the child off with her own hands.
She looks at the little creature sleeping and thinks of F. When F. gave birth at the refugee camp in Zagreb, S. happened to be there with her. There had been eight of them in that cramped little room with its iron bunk-beds. F. had picked up the pillow herself and placed it over the baby. It was a little girl, S. remembers. She had not even washed the blood off the child; that is what S. held against her the most. The woman from the next bed had cut the umbilical cord with an ordinary knife and F. had simply pressed the pillow down on the baby, covering it completely. After about ten minutes she said, it's over. Then the woman from the next bed picked up the limp little body and put it in a blue plastic grocery bag. S. never saw what she did with the bag. F.'s face revealed nothing but exhaustion. Later she got up and washed the blood-stained pillow-case herself.
Perhaps S. could do the same thing. Press down gently and it would all be over in a second, both her suffering and his. The baby is sleeping so peacefully, she is sure he would not feel a thing. She reaches down, almost touching him, feels the warmth of his skin and sees how his ribcage flutters with the beating of his heart. Abruptly she withdraws her hand as if afraid of burning it.
No, she could not do it. She has seen so much death that the very thought of it makes her sick. Worst of all, death has a smell all of its own. It is not the smell that is usually associated with dying and that makes people's skins crawl: the smell of freshly spilled animal blood, rotten meat, old age, illness or decay. It is not one of natural dying, but of violent, sudden death, of the moment when one feels one is dying but does not yet believe it, not quite. It does not last long. The smell of deathly fear starts spreading from the still living person the moment the entire body knows that this is the end, although the mind keeps on hoping. It is this clash that produces the stench of death, so pungent and repellent. Once you have been near it, it is difficult to forget. Once dead, the person develops a completely different stench, sweetish, like that of nauseating decay.
Earlier, before everything that happened this past year, she used to think she would have a baby one day. Now that seems to her like a different time, so far removed that it has nothing to do with her own life. She can no longer be sure of anything; least of all can she rely on such a distant memory. That was in those long-gone times, when there was still a connection between one's life and one's desires and decisions.
In the meantime, her life has become something different, unrecognisable. Or perhaps unimaginable. Lying in her hospital bed in Stockholm she still does not know what to call it, although she knows that the word already exists and that the word is: war. But for her, war is merely a general term, a collective noun for so many individual stories. War is every individual, it is what happened to that individual, how it happened, how it changed that person's life. For her, war is this child she had to give birth to.
From the day she learned that she was pregnant, there was nothing she hated more than this creature. Who knows if it would ever have survived her hatred had she not wound up in this hospital? S. herself found it hard to live with. Tossing and turning in bed at night, feeling this foreign body moving inside her belly, she would see their faces looming over her, the faces of the men, of his fathers. Nameless men, usually drunk. She did not know how many, but here and there she did remember a face, eyes, a voice, hands, a smell, often a stench. Any one of them could be the father.
They come to her in her sleep. They do not leave her alone; even here in Sweden they return, like lost luggage arriving on her heels. She often dreams the same dream: she is walking down a street in a strange town. Suddenly she catches sight of a familiar face. She is sure it is one of them. She always has a knife with her in this dream. She walks up to him and stabs him in the stomach, making sure that he gets a good look at her face first. As the knife plunges into him, she feels relieved, even happy. But she sees only surprise in his eyes. The man does not recognise her and is surprised that an utterly strange woman should deal him a lethal blow. S. cries in fury that he did not recognise her as his victim and that her revenge is pointless.
When this being, the fruit of their seed, started growing inside her it was like a tumour. S. fought this alien body, the sick cells that multiplied inside her against her will. She had read somewhere that by visualising cancer cells you could arrest their growth. But she felt that the tumour was growing rapidly. When she shut her eyes she saw the foreign cells quite clearly, multiplying, occupying her from within. She saw herself as an enormous receptacle whose sole purpose of existence was to feed the voracious clusters of cells. The image drove her crazy.
Now the tumour is beside her, as if transformed by some miracle into a child. It is difficult for S. to accept. She has never thought of it as a child, only as a disease, a burden she wished to get rid of, a parasite she wanted removed from her organism. She is horrified by the thought that all this time, all these nine long months, it was growing inside her against her will. That, in spite of her, it had clung to the walls of her womb until the end, that it had been born, that it had survived. Just like her.
Now that she has rid herself of the child's weight, her still weary body feels somehow unencumbered, if that can be said of flesh, bones and skin. But she is still bothered by this sense of being split in two. She does not yet feel that she is in possession of her body, that she is in complete control of it, that she is now herself. Perhaps she will have to live like that, with this crack that cannot be closed.
Again she is obsessed with a sense of dirtiness. This is another feeling she often has, and it is just as disturbing as her dream of revenge. She looks at her hands, at the dirt under her fingernails, at her smelly armpits, at her skin which is peeling away in tiny, almost invisible scales, at the thin layer of dust that is like a second skin. She knows she will never be clean again. No amount of water is enough. She drags herself out of bed and goes into the bathroom. She stands behind the blue shower curtain and lets the jet run over her face for a long time. The bathrooms here have no bath tubs, only a metal semi-circular rod with a curtain and a drain on the floor for the water. She sits down on the plastic chair beneath the shower, feels the water pellet her shoulders and breasts. A long, hot shower that gives her a feeling of luxury.
She watches the light trickle of blood run from between her legs and colour the water. She feels as if trickling out with it is something painful and heavy which hid inside her all these months. As if washing her from within, the water helps her to forget.
Looking at herself in the mirror, she sees that her face has not changed. Nothing can be seen on it, this is a clear, unmarked, ordinary face. She looks pale and has circles under her eyes, that is all. The first time she took a good look at herself in a mirror after her ordeal was when they arrived in Zagreb. She was in a common bathroom, she remembers the moment precisely. The only light came from a naked bulb and in that yellowish semi-darkness she saw her face. The same smooth skin, the same fawn-like eyes, straight eyebrows and full mouth.
At first S. did not like the fact that her face did not show how much she had changed. How could you survive what she had gone through and have it leave no external trace, mark you only from within? Were these traces really so invisible, or was it simply a matter of knowing how to read them? But now, looking at herself in the hospital bathroom, she feels it is better that nothing shows. It is better that all traces of suffering have been removed from the surface. It will protect her. With an innocent face like this it will be easier for her to lie to people about herself
She takes immense pleasure in opening the jar of face cream. How wonderful it is to have face cream and a mirror again. And a face in the mirror. Is that what the future looks like?
When did she realise that there is a future after all? Perhaps the moment that she reconciled herself to her own death. It dawned on her that death would be better and it was then that something inside her snapped. And quite unexpectedly, that moment of complete reconciliation opened her up to the future.
It is already over. She is lying on her back, her eyes shut. Her head is turned away. She does not want to look at his face. That is her only defence. She feels a dull pain but does not open her eyes. She does not move. She makes no sound. The soldier leans his boot down on her chest. Turn around, he orders her. S. turns her head to him but does not open her eyes. Not yet. Open your mouth, the soldier orders her again. S. opens her mouth. She feels the warm spurt of his urine on her face. Swallow it, he shouts. She has no choice. She swallows the briny liquid. It seems to last forever and all she wants to do is die.
A man in a wheelchair is slowly moving from one end of the courtyard to the other, a blue-caped nurse walking beside him. The air is crisp, almost like in the mountains of Bosnia. For an instant she feels so lonely that she would gladly go down to the courtyard and sit in that wheelchair, just to have someone walk beside her.
She looks at this child who is no longer a part of her, whose future does not belong to her. In that instant S. believes that she is completely divested of any responsibility for him, but all the same she is glad that she gave birth to him, that she gave him life rather than death. How easy it is to forget that death also marks the person who causes it, she thinks to herself.
She feels a sudden pressure in her breasts, her night gown is wet. Her milk is flowing. She sits down confused, not knowing what to do. She had not counted on this. She takes a towel and shoves it under her night gown. What is going to happen with all this milk now?