Virginia Luck

The Art of Saving a Life

Here her body was dying. Here her body was giving birth. Blood appeared in pools next to her and her father could not look at the blood. And so he, who’d been by her side all night, did not know how the wave traveled. “Oh father, dear father, help,” went in through his cells and imprinted the moment deep within the heart. And the heart pleaded with him to stop the aching, stop the dying, and stop the birthing. The clock on the wall dinged the hour. His heart cracked like the spine of a book. Her mouth fell open. She began the hollering, the crashing. The ever-bright future, where she was happy and safe and he was good and not afraid, streamed down the drainpipes and was deposited as a solid that settled on the ground and the scum floating up.

He ran to the kitchen. He retrieved a bowl. He retrieved within the bowl a white dishrag. He saw in the bowl and on the dishrag the white glaring urgency of the moment. He stood paralyzed before the bowl and the dishrag. He stared at the whiteness, the cotton, the tile floor, the light through the closed window, how it struck the cornea and traveled through the mind, reminded him of the day that moved on regardless of the death, regardless of life, that came and went, ho hum, ho hum, as easy as the closing and opening of his own two fists. (He hated how her eyes revealed that in which he could not inspire within himself.)

He gathered the rags, the towels, the water. He carried them to her side to stop the bleeding, to heal the wound, to defeat the dying. The room was too cold, the windows ice, the air seeping in beneath the glass, along the walls, and on the body. Her toes were blue, her skin white, her contractions one after the other and one after the other.

And to survive he must act and to act he must ignore the presence of death. “Yes, yes dear, be calm dear, there is no such thing as the Death Thing, the Death Thing.” His throat and mouth were too dry and the lake in his heart was overflowing. He must create a world in the likeness of her safe and warm skin, for his child, for the child inside himself, for the one that must be protected.

There were more towels, more rags, more sheets, and more ways in which to heal the wound. And thus his two hands functioned together and his two eyes followed the motions of his hands. And the time rolled forward and the blood continued to flow and his mind focused only on what the heart said, and the heart said yes, always yes.

He pressed the sheets between her thighs. He elevated her legs. He fed her crushed ice, gave her water to sip and warmed washrags on her chest and across her forehead. He created a place in his mind where death could not enter, where outside it was snowing bright white sheets, where the sky was clear and the lake water humming a sound in his brain that was a familiar sound: a voice of a friend or someone he knew.

When he opened his mouth the air was clean and cold on his face, his hands and chest. When he looked down at his hands he saw them as a color and flesh and nothing else. The colors were red and brown then seemed to fuse together to make beige. A single ray of sunlight crossed over the palm and scattered little flecks of dust up into the air and onto everything else that was static. There was no clear message of what to do next, just this spatter of dim brown, crème, sun light, this nothing, its intensity, how it grew a thin layer of light over his hands like a prayer and moved through the room, out the door and into the trees and did not make a sound in the wind.

He held his hands over his mouth and he vomited into his hands. The vomit poured through his fingers in a gesture of loss, of himself, of no words to soothe her, the low guttural convulsing. No, the brain must never accept her dying, never accept his loss, must keep talking. He vomited, gagged and swallowed it back down. His mind unable to accept what his body knew. “Can you hear the wind, the ice cold wind?” Air filled his lungs, words filled his mind. What else could he do to reject the dying? His vomit mixed with the blood on the floor and was his heart, the dark center, his heart on the floor.

In a fit of rage, in that space that separated himself from himself and was always marked with regret, he grabbed a vase filled with stale water and old carcasses of flowers and threw it at the window. And the vase hardly made a sound when it crashed through the glass. The cold air rushed in the room with the smell of the flower’s decay and the sensations of winter, which were stark white and dead silence. His hand was dry and shaking, cracked at the knuckles. The shards of glass were different shapes and many all over the floor.

A large section of the fetal scalp appeared from between her legs. A dark moss clung to the windowsill and peeled away at the white paint that warped and bent to the weather and the earth. A tiny beetle zigzagged over the moss and out through the shattered window back to the lake. Her head fell back and her body went limp. The wind was frozen. His mind was also frozen. The infant’s forehead appeared, then one ear, the mouth. The features were concealed by a milky white fluid and blood. The baby’s mouth was open, the tongue was fat and red and when he touched it, it curled around his finger. The lips were pathetically small.

He waited at the foot of the bed. He waited for a sign in the wind, in the trees, the air between their two bodies to reach out and touch him. He waited for a door to open and keep opening to the possibility that death might mean something, might be worth keeping, worth holding onto with his hand on her thigh.

Her body jolted and fell to one side as the baby was expelled. The placenta was smooth to touch, steaming, was a strong scent that interfered with his breath, his thoughts, and the cold air entering his mouth, on his tongue and the back of the throat.

A ghost, or maybe it was just the intensity of the moment, appeared suddenly on the lake, gathered enough energy to travel to the small moment between life and death, between the sheets, between her thighs, in the warm blood on the infant’s forehead. He moaned. He was lucid. He held his thoughts out in front of him. He begged: “Please lord, please, no.”

The wind hummed and a flurry of images hummed in his mind: his daughter, her wild hair, a hornet’s nest, the horizontal layers, the working bees, the time it took her to die, the thawing the freezing. He did believe in the love (he did he did). He could have spent the entire day and night rowing a slow boat across his memories, his arms pulling and pulling to arrive again in this image of death: his daughter’s white hand, the mind’s questions, the way death came, knelt at the bed and swallowed whole the body.

The trees in the distance all leaned in to listen, all leaned in and waited. The snow turned to freezing rain. The ice coated the ground, a thin clear ice, this pristine crystal, that repulsive white, that acute loss of sight. And the wind froze in the air as if it too went to speak and then pulled back. He closed his eyes to this brightness, the freezing that got dizzy that twirled in circles like a pair of eyes in his mind. Her eyes were opaque, like the water, cooled and stilled, settled then stirred up. His heart had gone and buried itself beneath the ice. The newborn kicked her legs and flung her arms in the air.

Everything was touched by the taking and the giving, was death, was life lightheaded and dry in the mouth. He picked up the infant. Her knuckles knocked against the hard wood of the side table. (The lake too was dying, breaking into parts, turning to crystal.) The infant wrapped her hand up in his hair, tangled up in hair, the fingers were pink, the legs kicking, the voice close up to his eyes and pleading.

Virginia Luck lives and works in the Seattle area with her husband and three sons. She holds an MFA from Goddard college and writes poetry and fiction.
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