Like a Distant Light
She moves the scanner over my stomach. Rain on the windscreen. l see the city lights come up, pulsing rings of traffic. I should’ve been part way there by now, lights on, driving in rain. It’s nothing, I thought. Not important, just a bit of blood. Simple erosion of the capillaries. Lots of women bleed in the first trimester. But he said, No. Call the doctor. Call the doctor Stephanie, or I will. And he drove me. I watched his hands on the wheel. I hate to be a passenger.
She moves the scanner over my stomach. A malpositioned or defective placenta. Lights come up, zip, a necklace of bubbles. I should have been part way there by now. Rain washing off the lanes, the white markings almost invisible.
Look, the baby’s head. The sonographer smiles. A blighted twin. But I can’t make sense of it. I’m looking from the screen to the rear-view mirror to the wing mirror; and none of it quite adds up. Someone comes up fast in my rear-view mirror, the lights sway and dip. The car suddenly tiny in my wing mirror and then it’s past.
At the end of this journey is a meeting. But I’m tired and my eyes glaze. She tells me and I watch the chain of lights curl and uncurl. This is my child, I tell myself. The chain of lights curls and uncurls. Blind spot, indicator. But the car that comes out of the rain has no headlights. Had I slipped over? Nothing in the rear-view mirror but the wash of rain. The neoplasms of molar pregnancy. Choriocarcinoma. Up ahead the red of tail-lights and the end of a journey, a meeting I have to make.
I dream and drive. I’m riding a lorry’s wake, drive blind into the wave, trusting the curve. Inside the wave the lorry is a dark wall the car buckles and spins beside and then the water thins out into spray, lightening as if suddenly I had sight of my destination.
There’s the heart, the sonographer says, the heartbeat. Like a distant light, too far away really to see. But she tells me and I think I see it; a fluorescent blink that pulses in the place I go towards, that pulses over all the faces in the meeting, over the words I must find to give an account of myself. Words taken from maps and signs, estimations of arrival, the glowing shards of tail-lights, brake lights, the white line of the road slipping under my wheels and it’s the dream I keep dreaming, the dream I wake to, of breakage and disaster, the cut body. The aborting processes of non-viable pregnancies. Askew through the windscreen, lights and blankness.
And then it’s as if nothing has happened. My hands are on the wheel, the windscreen is beaded with rain and light, on the stereo a woman is singing. I drive. I keep going into the tunnel of rain.
Transverse section of foetal thorax. Foetal heart action detected.
11 week pregnancy with bleeding. Still viable.
The Water Margin
She moves the transducer. Pattern of light pooled with dark, like flying in low sun, the topography flattened out, flashes of light over water. As if I didn’t see it till now, after the long drive out, the ramshackle, desolate airport, his face in the concrete building as I walked to the plane. Aluminium and plastic enclosed me, cut me off. And then, after the plane had lifted, after the end of everything, I saw it again, through a tiny misted oval, unreeling, as far as I could see over the curve of the earth: water jewelled in sunlight. The weeks and months I’d lived there, a life composed of water and moss. We flew over them and they were gone.
When I came to that country it was early spring. He drove me in a battered jeep between water, distant mountains ghosted with snow. He guided me out to the hut, ferried supplies, raised a hand in farewell.
Melt-water came from the mountains. The bogs were treacherous. I worked at the very edge of the moss-flow. In the evenings I sat in the hut and entered the day’s finds. Sphagnum cuspidatum. Yellow to white. Pale stemmed. Sphagnum magellanicum. Pink. Leaves concave and hooded. Eriophorum augustifolium. Windblown across the edge of the earth.
He came with vegetables, a drum of paraffin for the lamp. The jeep dwindled on the track.
The palmtop turned blank, hid its secrets. I sat outside the hut in the twilight and wrote scratchily, with a Biro. Sphagnum papillosum. Dark stemmed. Branches tumid.
His hands when they loosed the net of vegetables were the colour of peat water, of the pools I sank into, my notebook in a wallet around my neck. Sphagnum auriculatum. Stems black, cortex almost invisible. The inks ran in my notebooks, leaving washed indentations. My notes were stained a peaty gold, became indistinguishable from what they recorded,
long days of water and moss cradled by rock, by his hip bones against mine, for in the end I forgot my instructions, the meaning of the catalogues I had come to make. We lay on the waterlogged mosses on a groundsheet like a canvas boat. The silver speck of a plane flashed over us. Sunlight on water. We floated and sank in the midges’ hum until the bites became red weals I scratched at and we shut ourselves into the hut, its false twilight of paraffin fumes, sticky with love, the brief dark.
But someone waited for him at the edge of the moss-flow. And far away was a calendar, a stew of potatoes, engines on a road. Then the airport and the oval window of a plane through which I glimpsed again the shining months that had seemed to flow into one another.
When the plane touched down, there were taxis, coins I struggled with, a language I used to speak. How was your trip? Good, I say, Useful. I chart my findings against heights and depths, contours, water margins.
The landmarks are the umbilicus, the midpoint of the pubic bone, a line connecting these two points.
On the map water and earth are separate.
Longitudinal Scan showing Placenta with venous lakes.
Intact pregnancy at 13 weeks gestation.
Rose Tube, Star Tube
She pushes the transducer over my belly. A sweeping movement over the abdominal wall. It doesn’t glide. She pushes, as if my skin were heavy snow or icing thickening, setting too soon. She pushes and pushes and the swirls and ridges of icing show on the screen, rippled, convex, random. Inside the swirled icing is a tiny figure frosted with light.
She pushes and pushes. She rocks the transducer over my belly. I know what I should see, fronds of light, my child waving to me, stars, needles, prismatic columns. But no pulse of light flickers from the heart. The sonographer has stopped pushing.
Is there someone with you?
But there’s no one with me. I’m alone and around me the crystals grow awry, asymmetrical. I'm alone at a kitchen table icing a birthday cake. I’m not good at this, not fast enough. I’m pushing with a knife at the loose heavy surface but it sets as I work. Icing is piled in mounds under damp cloths, cold shining syringe with rose tube, star tube. Through the starred mist on the cold glass of the kitchen window I can see my son out in the winter garden. He makes a little lumpy snowman, gives it hands of twigs, dances round it madly in all his colours and then is suddenly still. I watch him cup his hands for the heavy flakes. The air around him turns to twilight. I strain for the orange of his coat but his colours flicker and fade. There’s a shine of chrome, the duller shine of plastic, a jazzy flickering light in the blueness.
I’m in the dim scan room.
I’m sorry, the sonographer is saying. Stellar crystals will grow only in a narrow temperature range.
I’m in the dim scan room.
I’m very sorry, the sonographer says. The baby has died.
The light flicks over him. It flicks over the grass showing scrappily through the cleared snow. It flicks over the empty garden.
It spills from the kitchen door as I go out, through the frosted shrubs into the lit circle of the lawn. I know the little creature out there is dead even before I reach it, pale fur stiff already, tipped with ice. It’s frozen to the ground. I can’t move it and the snow keeps falling. The wind blows. The snow drifts, banks up around it.
Scan showing intrauterine foetal demise in a pregnancy of 12 weeks gestation.
No foetal heart action detected.
She moves the transducer. My heart thumps against the walls of my chest. But its beam lights up the dark, the way a torch beam does, angled into the cavity from above the obstructing bone. A space opens.
There are shapes on the screen. Fossil fragments.
At 12 weeks, she says, the rib and spine are hardening into bone.
The light pulses. It fills the fluted vault with shadows, the way our headlamps did through the ooze of groundwater, rock dissolved to tunnels I crawled through, ribbed floors against my hip bones.
The screen is lit with calcite.
Foetal skull. Cranial Vault.
Our breath pushed up into the air of the cave, its cathedral roof awash with swaying torch beams. How long did we gaze upwards into its fretted limestone? How long did we play with echoes, laughing until we heard a note that seemed to tremble?
Cavum septi pellucidi. Sylvian fissure.
Next to me the sonographer’s even breath is a dust in the blue static of the air, in the moment before everything trembles. Thalami. Third ventricle.
Dust motes, rock-dust crumbled over us. We were buried in sound. Eyes and ears and nostrils stopped with grit. I felt for his face, his hands.
The foetal skull is thin; is not corrected for the velocity of sound in bone .
Were our voices like this, torch beams through mist? I can no longer hear them, muffled translations echoing through water.
But the sonographer, busy with measurement, makes no answer.
David's face, dusty, taut, listening, frowns at me. Turn off the torch.
How long did we wait, nursing our batteries in the dark, praying for sound, for light to echo from helmeted skulls?
The dust rises in the room like bubbles of air in water. On the screen our child turns, a nodule lined with a crystal glitter. I move my hands towards her. The sonographer rocks the transducer through rubble. The baby's toothbuds are calcite flowers. The creamy yellow walls are ghosts.
Is it David's voice?
And then I hear it, a distant beat, the unmistakable singsong of the human heart.
Transverse scan through foetal head showing midline echo.
Viable singleton pregnancy at 12 weeks gestation.
In the Window behind the Woman
The sonographer slips the gel like glaze, brushes the transducer over my belly. She’s talking to me but I’m in a dream. Paint trembles in waves; in a fold of cloth, translucent bone through skin. Sound-waves transmitted across a lubricated interface. Canvas like a memory under the paint’s sheen.
Light shows now on the screen. The sonographer adjusts the controls but the picture is flat. It’s not the window I expected, filled with depth like a painting. A painting is a thick thing light pushes into. In the window behind the figure of the woman it unravels the spider’s web of the dark wood. It reaches the tissue interface. It glides and slips over the ruffled surfaces of her dress, is a wave rolling against the ridge of her cheek.
I wait, watching the flat patterns. What do I expect: a watercolour framed in silver, a pastoral miniature, a turning snippet of my own blue child? The scanned structure may be solid or cystic. I wait, freighted with faces: a woman in a leghorn hat, an old man in a white cravat, a young girl dancing; citizens and scoundrels and impish children who regard me from the edges of their portrait frames. They’re the family I’ve assembled from history. Daily in the cramped museum office I’ve written their entries, reluctantly, as if to tell their stories is to part from them.
I wait while the sonographer unravels the abstract, this light without texture or surface and I understand now that it’s not love but a kind of knowledge. She goes backwards and forwards. She has stopped talking.
In the quiet I long for those faces again, framed by carved wood or gilded plaster. They say to me now, children, family, continuity.
But the sonographer is silent and the pattern ravels and unravels. Thickened uterus. Double contour of sac wall.
I want to ask her where is my child amongst these lights and darks, this tonal scale? Where is my flesh and blood child?
I’m sorry, she says. There is no picture of him here. The gestational sac is devoid of echoes.
But he’s waiting for me, I tell her, among the faces, the carved frames. But as I look at them the paintings come adrift and each gilded oval encloses a mirror, fragments, shards, then nothing at all.
The shining gel stiffens and dries on my skin, gilds and encases me, turns matt.
Transverse scan at 10 weeks gestation, transonic area indicating blighted ovum.
The Blues of the Marvellous World
Even before I've smoothed the coupling fluid onto her skin or pushed the transducer across it, the echoes come to me, the foetus on the screen frozen and my own voice asking, Is there someone with you?
But there’s the shadowy thumbprint. There will be no horrors. The horrors are echoes, my own voice saying, I’m afraid there’s a problem.
I measure uterine cavity, gestational sac, placenta, crown-rump length. I hear the echo of my own silence, not offering a photograph, saying, I’m sorry. But the foetus turns and kicks. I struggle for a measurement and the foetus turns and kicks on its umbilical cord.
I’m sorry, I tell her. The position of the scanned structure does not relate to the surface of the earth. We can't be sure that your child won't float away.
But it’s I who am adrift, she says, out here in frozen space, in exploding light.
I'm sorry, the hospital cannot be held responsible for the trajectory of your foetus.
But she does not answer, held spellbound by shifting continents of light, by the blues of the marvellous world. The echo she hears is the echo of my own voice calling from a distance.
Come down to earth. Anchor this child. Its bones are thinner than yours. Its nature is flighty and uncertain, the result of an interplay of two acoustic properties of tissue. It may even be a trick of the light.
I measure the diameter of the foetal skull. Shafts of sunlight are attenuated by intervening tissue. Clouds pass across the screen, intervening and performing tricks with light.
I measure the foetal thorax.
Look, I show her, the baby's heartbeat.
It's a bright satellite glimpsed in a dazzle of ocean and icecap. It pulses back to us from deserts and cities and forests and ploughed soil, a signal determined by the angle of the interface and the acoustic impedence of the tissues.
Look. I show her an echo decoded to an image, a child turning.
Our world from space.
Longitudinal scan of intact pregnancy at 12 weeks gestation.