Afterbirth

Megan Mayhew Bergman

Like loons we travel underwater
great distances, to surface next to each other . . .
No matter where you are
or who you’re near,
we come up for air together.
— Anne Michaels, “Sublimation,” Miner’s Pond

She took off her arm to bathe.

This is Sarah’s good arm, she said to her left arm.

This, she said holding the rubber prosthetic with her left hand, is Sarah’s bad arm.

We had laughed those nights, standing naked on our wooden stools in front of the bathroom counter. We sang into her detached arm like a microphone. We showed each other identical mouths full of toothpaste. Mom brushed our identical shoulder-length blonde hair. Scrubbed our identical cheeks. But I held the shampoo in the bathtub. I held the towels. I pulled her hair back with both of my good hands when she got stomach flu each winter. I peeled her fruit. I tied her shoes. I zipped up her prom dress. I kicked Ben Crumley in the crotch when he said his mom had made him invite her, that a girl with one arm would never be kissed on the mouth. I kicked him twice for that.

Mom upgraded Sarah’s arm every two years — more than she could afford. About a month before Sarah’s replacement came in the mail, we’d plan the perfect tattoo, which I would apply with permanent marker. One year it was a horse, which didn’t look much like a horse when I finished. Sarah said it looked like a meerkat. Another year, I drew a peace sign. The last year of high school I wrote: Ben Crumley sucks dick. Mom tried to wash it off before Sarah’s college interviews, but it only smeared. What’s wrong with you girls? Mom had asked, exasperated and tired from working extra shifts at the hospital. Sarah wore a bandanna on her right forearm that month and got into Dartmouth. Her college arm came in the mail a week later.

Growing up, Sarah expected help from me and only me. She balked at strangers who tried to hold her cafeteria trays at school. She ignored men who rushed to open the door. She grumbled at our science teacher who helped her pencil in bubbles on a standardized test. The thing was, Sarah could do anything. Sometimes she just didn’t feel like letting the rest of the world know. So when she invited me to her husband’s farm for birthing season, I agreed. I wanted to see the new things she was doing on her own.

I’ll just stand around and watch, I said. Take a few photos.

I’m putting you to work, Sarah said. You’re going to get your hands dirty.

With what? I asked.

Afterbirth, she said.

Sarah and her husband owned a farm outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. She called it One Arm Farm in her letters, but the ancestral name was Blue Sky Ranch. Her husband Mack’s family had grown soybeans and tobacco there for three generations. Mack had gray eyes, wore his brown hair short, and practiced Zen. He’s largely unexcitable, Sarah often said.

I drove down the oak-lined gravel driveway and neared the farmhouse, a white, two-story home with twin stone chimneys. I could see pregnant Nubian goats breathing heavily in the warm spring sun, their sides heavy with kids. I wondered if kids slept together, the way Sarah and I had when we were younger. You were so close in the womb, Mom had said, that you comfort each other. What good am I?

You’re late, Sarah cried, as I wheeled into the driveway. You’re late and a calf is about to be born.

Sarah had on coveralls and Muck Boots and looked exhilarated. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail. Hay and blood dotted her hair and clothes. Her left arm moved in a hundred directions while her prosthetic hung still by her side in a flannel sleeve.

I love birthing season, she said, breathless. I haven’t slept in three days.

She hugged me, then pulled me out of my station wagon and over toward a pen where a black Angus beef cow stood with her nostrils flared. The cow’s pink tongue flicked in and out of her mouth, over her nose. Thick lashes framed her pretty brown eyes, which flashed with pain.

She’s been at it for hours, Sarah said. We’re gonna have to go in soon.

With your hand? I asked, leaning closer to get a better look.

With my good hand, Sarah said.

It had always been hard talking about her hands.

Stay here, Sarah said. I’m going to get a palpation sleeve.

I waved to Mack. He stood over a goat and her new kid, who punched her mother’s milk sac with her square head. The green scent of fresh hay surrounded us. A honey-colored hen scurried by, chased by Sarah’s German shepherd. The sky was blue, the ground was lush with manure and mud, and the farm smelled alive.

Wait, I yelled. What do I do?

No one answered, so I moved closer to the cow. Her eyes bulged, from pain or fear, I didn’t know. I ran my fingers down the back of her thick neck. I brushed the red mud from her black cheek.

You’re going to do great, lady, I whispered to her. By the end of the day you’ll have a beautiful baby.

I thought about Mom, and how she would have loved this; she had loved delivering babies as a nurse. Sarah and I knew nothing about giving birth, just the living part that came after. We had done that OK.

All right, Sarah said, a blue neoprene cast around her prosthetic. Here’s what Mac taught me to do. I’m gonna wrap a chain around the calf in three places. One, the nose. Two and three, the front legs. And then we’re gonna pull. Got it?

Sarah did most of the work with her left arm. It nearly disappeared inside the uterus.

OK, she said, handing me a piece of chain, pull.

The chain felt cold in my hand. The cow bayed at the sky as Sarah and I pulled the calf from her womb. Hooves came first. The rest of the body came quickly after, black and slick on the clay ground.

Wake up, darling, Sarah said, getting down next to the calf’s mouth. Wake up.

Sarah pumped the calf’s chest, cleared fluid from its mouth. She slapped its small face. It seemed too large to be dead, too beautiful, too new.

The cow licked her calf’s eyes, mouth, and body, nudged him with her wet nose. Please, her big eyes said.

Sarah began to cry.

She still has to deliver the afterbirth, Sarah said.

She grabbed my arm with her good fingers, her good fingers that were covered in blood and placenta, and pulled me toward a small pond. She pulled me toward a small pond and removed her clothing, then her arm. I stepped out of my jeans. We dove into the cool water, found the mud bottom with our fingertips, pushed off with our toes. We surfaced with hay in our hair and sun in our eyes. We surfaced, naked, perfect, and new.

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