Breech. Ass first into the world, my jelly body folded up like a levered chair. The summer, stretching into fall and filling the house with flies come up from the earth around the well, had exhausted everyone.
“That night was a boot on my neck,” mother told me.
Long labor. Longest the midwife had seen, and dangerous.
“He’s got the blue about him,” the midwife had said, gently shaping my not yet formed skull with her thumbs wet with amniotic fluid.
My father had been pacing between the yard and sitting room, failing to smoke, the matchstick flame flickering out with the tremor of his hand. Every so often he would linger outside the bedroom door, his face pressed up against the wood, and speak softly.
“Is everything okay? I don’t hear crying.”
The women would lie. Why worry him? If I died it wouldn’t be as a result of his inattention.
The midwife put her ear to my chest, listened for heartbeat, for breath. She pinched the fat of my leg. She wanted me to cry out as though my thick-throated wailing would be the peal of a bell announcing life. She palmed my chest and turned me over like someone inspecting the doneness of a loaf of bread. She drummed her fingers along my back.
“Look at the hair,” my mother said, just now propping herself up fully. Sweat inked her own hair to her cheeks, her forehead. She reached out to stroke my face but the midwife pulled back.
“He’s not going to make it, is he.”
“Wait, I said.”
And they did, my mother still tethered and patiently watching my limp body, my father metrically knocking and the subsequent sound of his footsteps receding out the front door. Cricket song found silence in the room suffused with heat, until, like a great held breath, my mouth opened and I shrieked. The midwife cut the umbilical cord rough with a knife and passed me to my mother, who pressed my slick body against her bare chest glossy with sweat.
Afterwards the midwife slept in the sitting room, spread out across two kitchen chairs. Her smock was stained with formless outlines of blood.
“Always there is blood.” That midwife, Hattie Grace, told me all of this piecemeal throughout my childhood. Every autumn she would pick clean the apple tree at the border of our property, a sort of long-term token of gratitude from my parents. I would sit on what was left of the rotted fence and watch as her hands, the same that had pushed around the gummy bones in my head, would pluck the fruit from the tree. She would always remove the stem, littering it into the grass, before placing the apple into a woven basket.
“Though that wasn’t the end of the trouble,” Hattie told me.
The heat broke in the days following my birth and rain poured in endless sheets, soaking the ground and bringing worms up through the soil. The house flooded and the crib my father built was propped up on crates to clear the standing water, which would later leave a permanent ring near the baseboard.
My mother took to melancholy, often holding me to her breast absentmindedly and then, after having nearly forgotten my presence, passing me to my father. Then she would roll onto her side and stare out the window streaked with the persistent rain.
“Have you given any thought to a name?” my father asked. The two of them were lingering beside the hearth, soaked socks and pants drying on a metal spindle near the fire.
“He needs a name.”
To this my mother said nothing, instead only watching as a log split in the heat of the flame, a plume of smolders spit against brick. During this time my father slept in the same configuration Hattie had the night I was born, blanket eaten through by moths barely covering his body.
“It’s too hot with both of us in there,” my mother had told him, pulling the sheets around herself. When I would cry during the night he would enter the bedroom and rock me in the inelegant way he knew, and I would spit up over his nightshirt. A month passed like this, my mother inattentive except to put me to her breast, holding me limp as she stood before the window and watched horses pass by on the road skirting the river.
“She felt responsible for nearly killing you,” Hattie told me, reaching on tiptoe for the apples not yet touched by insects.
I suppose now I can understand. She felt helpless, like she couldn’t control her own body, couldn’t birth a child as her mother had, and countless others far back in her lineage. When she finally did choose a name for me, after the spontaneous sobbing had abated and her and my father were again sharing a bed, it was like an act of permanence. By naming me she affirmed my place in the world. I was someone, not simply Esther’s baby—you know the one, who nearly died, purple in the face like wine? A named thing can survive on this earth and take refuge in it. A named thing exists, existed, lives. “Now take these,” Hattie told me, placing an apple in each palm, “and set them aside. Make sure they last. They’re especially good.”
-- Benjamin Kessler's work has appeared, or is forthcoming in, Hobart,DIAGRAM, Entropy, The Oakland Review, Epigraph, Superstition Review, The Masters Review,The Gravity of the Thing, What are Birds?, andPortland Review. "To Be Born" is an excerpt from his second novel, currently in progress. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.