The sterile metal of the needle pushed against my skin. It probed the quivering tissue, like a ripe grape. Then with skin pillowing around the tip, it sank beneath the surface. I suppressed a wince. It wasn’t so much the needle as what I knew was waiting for me in the next hour: crushing immobility and confinement, my insides lit up and probed like some sort of avant-garde Christmas tree. And what would come after that?
“You have lovely veins,” remarked the nurse in what she must have thought was a soothing tone, “big with firm walls.” She said it as if she were inspecting an empty house and part of me pictured this woman, with her childish voice and pajama uniform, crawling into these veins, inspecting each meandering twist with her scrupulous gaze. I nodded in response and took a shallow breath. Control was an imperceptibly unraveling thread and I knew that anything deeper would make me lose it altogether. I knew I should feel lucky. Not everyone had the luxury of medical precaution. But I couldn’t help it.
It was all I could do to keep myself from shaking and my trembling thighs were evidence that it was a doomed effort. I took a final look around the room, but it resisted swimming into focus. All that would surrender to my vision was the nurse’s freckled arms and too-bright lights wedged into the ceiling and floor, equidistant and periodic. They flashed stale colors in a futile attempt to make the fleshy concave curve cozier. But it was too much – the way they were just stuck there, equidistant and immobile, with no change in store, only shifting pale colors. I had to go back to the nurse.
She was taping the needle in place now, wrapping the slender metal in tape that matched the eggy whiteness of the walls with rough, jolting movements. Her shoes were a thick red, like the fondant on birthday cakes. They squelched when she shifted her weight, which she did every time she unrolled an inch of tape, and I imagined her wearing birthday cake with little candles for shoes, the flames puttering each time she took a step. This comforted me and I regained control of my tongue for a moment,
“Water-” I tried, “could I—”
“You’re doing quite well,” she cut me off, the babyish melody in her voice growing sharper. My eyes grew hot. I felt like a scolded child, as if I’d committed some sort of reproachable transgression. Had I done something wrong? “no water. No sedatives.”
“No.” The machine under me shuddered to life and my teeth began to chatter. I wasn’t sure if that was me or the machine, but they fell into rhythm with the metallic hum. The nurse, finally satisfied with her construction, gave the needle an appraising wiggle before collecting her equipment.
“Alright. Now. You,” she pointed at me with jolting, robotic movements, “will lie on your tummy like this.” She annoyed me. I wasn’t a child so why was she speaking to me like one? Who says tummy anyway? “No moving. After…the bed’s in the tube. I’ll inject the dye,” I understood – of course I did – but, my limbs seemed to have turned to rubber and I floundered like a netted fish. Several long minutes passed as we worked together, fumbling to get me in the right position. Lights cycled their stale colors against eggy walls.
“Okay,” I imagined her give the machine one of her squelching nods, “now remember – no movement!”
With the grinding slowness of a tectonic plate, the bed moved into the tube. My face, contorted in an effort not to cry, was pressed into the crinkled paper towels. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. I couldn’t even see the shrinking curve of the walls. But no sooner had I realized this that my leg grazed the wall and I jerked my neck around, suddenly horrified.
It was hot in here. Hot and far too bright. The low-tide of agitation rolling around my stomach began to creep up my spine and neck, its ebbing harmonizing with the infernal churning of the machine. I inhaled. Fluorescent light pressed itself into my shut eyes. Exhaled. Stale soap and hot breath pushed back against my face. Inhale. It was taunting. Exhale. I was envious of it, free, wafting out of this infernal amnion of a tube, while I was stuck here, intolerably dense, like the interior of a giant puff pastry. The tube was shrinking, the paper towels disintegrating against my flushing body.
“Alright, here comes the dye,” came the melodious voice of the fondant-shoed nurse – ridiculous woman. The needle wedged into my elbow crease grew hot and dense. I bit my lip. No movement, she had said and so the machine began.
First a throaty hum reverberated through the pipe, the overture to some machinated opera. Then the lead soprano took center stage, sucking in a deep breath before shrieking a series of high-pitched notes in perfect time.
I pictured the dye spreading slowly into the bloodstream, blooming in willowing clouds, twisting into the dark warmth of my insides, turning from blue to red to green to pink with each beat of my heart.
The machine gave a deafening screech before a second voice joined in, huskier and more urgent. My ears ached. The nurse had propped a pair of headphones on me for the noise, assuring me she’d play something calming. Nothing could soften the whirrings of the machine, though, I thought I heard the distant fluttering of little wings somewhere. Inhale. Exhale. What would happen when this was over? Would I miss the not knowing? I’d always hated waiting for things, but with stuff like this, it’s not the process or the tests that end up feeling unendurable. It’s the waiting, for the results, for the appropriate number of days to pass until you can be sure the doctor won’t call and say they made a mistake. Again, I heard the fluttering of little wings, hammering around me. This time I was sure I heard it. They pulled me out of my spiraling thoughts. Something was forming in the corners of my vision, incandescent flowers but the tunnel was bleeding in, diluting it. The fluttering grew louder as the machine changed its song again and the amniotic smell of stale soap intensified.
It was August. It was raining. And the power had cut. We worried about the food in the fridge going bad, but we enjoyed the peace it brought. The weather had trickled into the drafty house and left me sluggish. The occasional leak made wandering in socks a hazard. But I did anyway, hypnotized by the monotony of thuds on the window and the green hue of the light. Besides, it was quieter that way, without the invasive squelching of thick-soled shoes.
Tonight, I found myself drawn downstairs to the kitchen, where the winking glow of candles I hadn’t lit spilled and curled around the doorframe to the base of the stairs.
I placed my foot in it delicately, like a bather testing out water, before jumping into the pool. It was quiet and private and warmed gently. A page turning and the twinkling of little bells pierced the wet silence and faded just as suddenly. I padded to the oily wood of the doorframe.
“You’re still up,” I said to the little figure on the kitchen counter. She sat pretzeled, grasping the large, dusty book that used to make her sneeze. Looking at her now, it seemed like it had always been the two of us. Together. Alone. With dampness trickling in. An assortment of candles was piled on the table in the center of the room, their wicks melting together into a colorful, waxy puddle, “and you really shouldn’t light candles by yourself yet.” I scolded, though, I admired the constellation on the table, the way the colors billowed into each other with incandescent warmth. They looked like flowers. The soup illuminated everything above, throwing the lower half of the kitchen into velvety darkness. In this light, it was impossible to tell how high the ceiling or how large the room was. She smiled, not looking up from the gold-trimmed pages. Her hair glinted darkly in the light. Elsewhere, rain thickened against glass.
“No. Too much to do. Besides, I think there’s something living in my bathroom.” She looked up. “We needed some space from each other.” It had been eight years, but I still marveled at those eyes.
In the hospital, the nuns had cried ‘it’s a girl’ and pushed a wrinkled mass that wailed like a goat into my trembling arms. They surrounded the bed, their voices echoing loudly around the stodgy room. They were prone to exaggeration – the nuns – and I remember them shouting, how it had snowed, rained, and shone in the same minute before her birth. ‘Surely a good sign! And so late in the season!’ With increasingly clouding vision, I looked down and at the same moment the wailing mass had looked up. She fell silent. Her half-closed eyes, unused to the light, met mine. They shone dark and sad, as if having seen the deepest corners of sorrow. Then she broke away and, sniffling, found her way to nourishment.
“Don’t worry, my love” I whispered as another Sister joined the ensemble of rejoicing nuns, “I’m here to sustain.”
I padded toward her and kissed her head, breathing in the smell of her lilac baby-shampoo. She un-pretzeled her legs and let them dangle over the dark granite of the counter.
“I’ve been reading about soup,” she said stoically. “Did you know it was invented as soon as bowls became a thing.”
“That makes sense.
“I can’t imagine living in a world without bowls, though.”
“Me neither. Imagine trying to drink tea out of a plate.” She giggled.
I felt a tickle somewhere in the murkiness below the soup. Something was crawling over my damp, sock-covered foot. I shrieked and we both jumped, her little legs flailing over the edge,
“Mommy!” she called, then with a furrowing brow remarked, “Rain termites…I wedged a towel under the door earlier, but they must have pushed in anyway.”
“Typical,” I replied and dove into the darkness, listening for the flittering of the tissue-like wings. They were an unpleasant part of rainy season, though I suppose they had a kind of beauty. The way they fluttered blindly through the dark and the sound of their tissue-like wings. But let one live and they’d breed everywhere. Last year she found a colony, glimmering and writhing, behind the fridge. She had broken into tears and hid behind me as the fumigator gingerly placed a tarp over them.
“It’s okay, I got it.” The towel had blown across the floor and a steady stream of termites was making its way across the tiles. I worked my way down the assembly line in the half-dark, wrinkling my nose with each juicy squish. I could feel her shuddering behind me, probably caught in the same memory.
For my second ultrasound, I had to travel to a distant city, renowned for its doctors and perpetual rain. It must have been Halloween. I seem to remember vague shadows dressed in sequined cloaks and pale sheets as I wobbled through damp and leaf-strewn streets with a ratty board-case. Exhausted and nauseous, I had fallen into bed at a little motel that smelt like old crackers and dust. I was alone and scared and I couldn’t stop feeling it. What would her future look like? How could I possibly keep her safe? Then I felt it for the first time, just as my eyes grew hot, a kick. It was a fluttering in my belly, like moths or gossamer in a storm. Once. And then again, until my entire thorax tingled.
By the time I left the velvety darkness the candle soup on the table had almost burned out. I washed my hands. Then I washed them again and lit some more. She watched me all the while, with a mixture of admiration and concern.
“Thank you. I couldn’t do that,” she said.
“It’s alright, my love. I’m here to sustain.” She smiled at me and held out her arms. I pulled her close.
I can’t remember how long we stayed like that.
Angry termites swatted at the window, egged on by the heavying rain. Or maybe they just sensed the renewed heat. Every so often, a clap of thunder would rattle the frame. But it didn’t matter. In here, illuminated by ripples of dim light, oblivious to all but the song of this room, we were safe. I suddenly realized I was hungry. I forget if she was too.
“How about some soup?” one of us asked.
“We don’t have any.”
“We can make some.”
“Alright. But not too heavy.”
“No. Not too heavy.”
“Alright. But help me down.”
Her head barely reached above the murkiness of the kitchen floor and she squealed at this realization,
“No – back up! Back up!” I moved her closer to the stove.
A wax wall gave way on the table and the thundering chorus outside was joined by the twinkling of translucent liquid, hardening as it fell.
Under the gloom, we filled the kitchen with the haze of comfort food and felt ourselves grow looser. The burner I had lit was almost too harsh for the candle-darkness we had grown accustomed to and we both squinted as we held our heads over the pot, letting the heat and the scent condense into little droplets on our faces. Elsewhere rain and wings of lace pounded against orange windows, screeching to be let in.
A sudden boom and a jolting movement pulled me back. The machine buzzed in low guttural segments. I realized, my face, pressed against the crinkling paper towel, was no longer grimacing. How long had passed? Had I moved? I couldn’t tell, but the clicking and whirring of little gears blurred my vision and I felt the panic stalk closer. Immobile, I squeezed my eyes shut. It didn’t matter. I would hold on a little longer. Again, the machine changed its song and the smell of stale soap and iodine intensified.
The tube presented me to the cool air of the room, a detachable mess. Spotlights still beamed their stale colors and a nurse with birthday cake shoes was unlocking a door. I rolled over, exhausted as the day it had snowed and shone and there she was, steadfastly still and watching. There, in the corner of the room, pretzeled up, despite the impossibly narrow chair, definitely bigger, but still exactly the same: all disheveled books and mournful eyes. She furrowed her brow and the fear I’d fought to keep at bay finally caught up with me.
Even to your old age and gray hairs I am (s)he, I am (s)he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. (Isaiah 46:4)
Noor Ender is a German-Egyptian third-year student at BCB. She spent most of her life in Nairobi, Kenya.