Out of the Harbor and Into the Open Sea
by Hannah Gersen
My doctor, with her giant, ruddy hands and gap-toothed smile, said listen to me, I’ve been delivering babies for thirty years, and I’d rather do it the old-fashioned way, that’s why I’m recommending an induction. I have no other agenda, no plan, I just want to get this baby out before it gets any bigger. I said, okay, okay, I believe you. And I took the medicine and soon the contractions came, and the baby came, and he was very big, with a head like a hard, round pumpkin, except he was blue, and my OB had to rub him down to get him breathing and when he finally exhaled, he wailed and the blood came rushing to his face, and he was perfect. Then I birthed the placenta, and then, a few days later, in the privacy of my own home, I gave birth to another baby, a very tiny one, a girl. She fit in my palm.
I’d never heard of anyone having a second baby right after the first one, but everything was so strange in those early days of motherhood that I just acted on instinct. I laid her down on my pillow and swaddled her in one of my socks. My son was sleeping nearby. I rocked her in my hand until her eyes closed and her breath was whisper-soft. She was tired from being born. I named her Lena because when I was a little girl that was my favorite name.
Someone had sent me a pair of baby shoes for my son, and I used the little box to make a bed for Lena. I put the makeshift crib behind one of my larger houseplants, where my husband wouldn’t see it. I knew I shouldn’t tell anyone about Lena. If anyone knew—even my husband–they would take her away and study her, and she didn’t need to be turned into a subject. She was mine and I loved her and knew I could care for her, and that was enough.
Every day after I fed my son, I fed Lena, and after I bathed my son, I bathed Lena, and after I put my son down for naps and bedtimes, I helped Lena fall asleep.
She never got much bigger, but she learned to walk and talk. She grew slowly, so that she was a still an infant while my son was becoming a toddler. I didn’t mind, because I missed my son’s babyhood almost as soon as it passed. And as he grew taller and lost his milky, sweet smell, she stayed small. It was only when he entered elementary school that she began to walk and speak. She kept me company during the day when my son was at school and my husband was at work. She liked to help with the cooking and the gardening. She could understand what plants wanted, was friendly with mushrooms, and would tell me where to move things in the yard. She liked to go up into the treetops, and though she was a good climber, I worried about her falling. If something happened to her, I would be devastated, and no one would understand why.
I never told my son about her, but I think he knew. When he was dying, he asked me who it was I used to talk with when I was in the backyard. And when I said Lena, he asked if it was her idea to put in a little pond. Yes, I said. She liked to swim in it. My son smiled and said, I thought so.
His death was a black hole I fell into for years. I would look up and see my husband peering down. Lena lowered herself into the hole to be with me. She sang to me, returning all the melodies I gave to her when she was a baby. Eventually I crawled out into the sunlight, into this new version of the world without my son. And I found a way to be happy again.
Lena was with me when my husband passed away, too. She helped me care for him. After a long day of bringing my husband food and medicine and cleaning him and comforting him, she would sit with me on the sofa and watch old sitcoms. I would eat dry, sugary cereal from the box, and she wouldn’t criticize. I imagine I felt about Lena the way some people feel about their dogs. But she wasn’t a pet. She was scared of what would happen when I died. I asked if her if it would be better if we moved to a city, where she could get around on foot and take food scraps and not be noticed. But she didn’t want to live that way, she said. It would be too lonely.
One day she told me that she had found a place to go. She had read about it in a book. There was an island off the coast that wasn’t on any map, and it was full of people like her. I promised to take her and so I booked us a train ticket up north. I rented a motorboat from a man who was nervous to lend it to me, because of my silver hair and creased face. I assured him I had lots of experience, even though I didn’t, and was just as anxious as he was. But I trusted Lena. I drove out of the harbor and into the open sea.
After a couple of hours, we found ourselves in a fog so thick that water and sky disappeared. That’s it, Lena told me, that’s it ahead. I couldn’t see anything, there was no horizon, no color. The fog felt like gauzy silk. Then it seemed to fall away from us and all at once we were in a different atmosphere where the sky was clear and sunlit. There was an island ahead, with rolling green hills, craggy rock cliffs, and a little town. I pulled the boat into a cove and alongside a long dock that was perfect for Lena to walk on, but not for me. I realized she was going to walk down that wooden dock and away from me.
I said to Lena, I’m not long for this world, am I? She shook her head. I said, I’m going to miss you. She said, I will always miss you. And she sat on my shoulder for the last time and kissed my cheek and wiped my tears like she was the mother, and I was the daughter.
When I went back through the fog, I began to shiver, and I didn’t stop the whole way home. I checked into my hotel. I had a fever and chills. I ordered a pot of tea and had a few sips. I looked out of my room window. It was raining. I got into my hotel bed, with its cool, ironed sheets and I fell asleep. The next morning when I got up, it was very early, and I saw the sun rise, the pink and silvery sky like the inside of a shell. I thought to myself how the world is always being cracked open, it never stops. I looked back to my bed, and I saw my body there, my last breath escaping, just one soft, gentle exhalation.