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The Drowning of Maribelle Lane
“He is born and I am undone — feel as if I will / never be, was never born.”
– Alice Notley, “A Baby Is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead” (1972)
Maribelle Lane entered the world drowning—a dowsing-rod-girl, never far from water, who stood with her feet in the surf, sea foam tickling her skin and beckoning her deeper into the shallows.
It was early spring, a time when the wind still held the biting breath of winter, but Maribelle ran warm—always flushed and heady in her anxieties. And so, with a breath, she dipped beneath the waves, letting the sea take her to a quieter place where her body became as weightless as shadow—limitless as memory. Suspended under the waves, she was both tangible and intangible, neither touching nor being touched.
Maribelle thought of her mother’s form, buried deep and heavy under her duvet. For Mrs. Lane, woolen blankets and linen sheets acted as a second, third, fourth skin. She lived half-asleep and mourning something that could never be returned. As though she had lost the lines of her body and was now forced to redefine her physical form in the safety of her bed.
Maribelle surfaced with a gasp and felt her lungs expand, pushing those elusive emotions from their hiding spots and to the surface of her heart. Anger was easy to coax from the depths of her body, but grief continued to escape her. It was not as though she had never felt grief sink and settle in her stomach, but it had been too long since she acknowledged its presence within her, and she found her hands empty and wanting.
“Mari!” a voice called from the shore. It wasn’t loud but it shot through Maribelle all the same—pulling her from within, from the water, and back to dry land.
Ada Mousey was a girl with wheat-blonde hair who found peace in combing the sand for shells and the discarded husks of rock crabs. Mrs. Mousey and Mrs. Lane were girls together and had decided to stay in the same salt-swept town of their youth; naturally, Ada and Maribelle kept to the same shore their mothers had. Ada had just turned ten years old when her mother died birthing the youngest Mousey child.
The funeral was held at the fishermen’s church—a gray steepled building where captains and their deckhands would unload their sins before leaving the Cape for wilder waters.
Mrs. Mousey looked peaceful in her casket of plush velvet; Mr. Mousey held week-old John Mousey close to his chest; Ada hadn’t been present for the public funeral.
Maribelle remembered how her mother’s eyes never wavered from the casket as the priest eulogized over his salt-dried pulpit—how her gaze lingered and Mr. Lane had to tug his wife away and out of the church. She didn’t recall where Mrs. Mousey was taken after that; she didn’t recall why Mr. Lane left her mother exactly a week following the funeral.
“Do you not have work today?” Maribelle asked, taking the towel offered to her.
Ada walked towards a sun-bleached piece of driftwood and Maribelle followed.
“It’s your birthday today, right? Eighteen. So, your mom, she’s gone?” Ada hesitated. “Are you going to be okay?”
Ada liked to ask questions that she already knew the answer to—not so much to be annoying, but rather, to give the person another chance to think about their answer.
And as Maribelle thought, bothering the soft skin of her cheek with her teeth, Ada motioned for her to join her where she had sat on the beached log.
There was a time when Maribelle wondered why her mother stayed so close to the source of her sadness—when she believed that Mrs. Lane cried because of the salt air that stung her eyes. That was a time before she realized her role in her mother’s grief, and when Maribelle was willing to give up their little house by the sea if it meant her mother would cry less. But Mrs. Lane took it upon herself to leave, bereaving Maribelle of a mother, but allowing her the water.
“Look,” Ada murmured, pulling Maribelle from her thoughts.
In her palm, she held a quarter-sized shard of glass, beer-bottle green and curved like a sickle. Ada let the glass tumble between her fingers and tested its edge.
“Damn,” she breathed, “This one isn’t done yet, still too sharp.”
Maribelle watched as Ada flung the piece of glass into the waves to be ground to smoothness by the ocean’s currents.
“I don’t really have a choice in the matter. I’ll be okay.” Maribelle finally admitted.
Ada hummed. “Well, if I can do anything for you, you know where to find me.”
“Ironic, given that you’re the one who found me today.” Maribelle quipped. “So, what’re you doing here?”
“You’re not going to like this, but Scott and I are getting married.”
Maribelle focused on burying her feet in the sand to escape the burning lump in her throat. “Do you want to marry him?”
“I don’t really have a choice either. I’m pregnant.”
Maribelle started, whipping her head up to stare into the face of her childhood friend.
“Ada. How many weeks? The earlier you abort the better. I know a clinic that will—”
“Scott wants to have the baby, and so do I.”
Ada’s face was clear and her eyes were set and Maribelle knew she would not be able to talk her friend down from the ledge she perched on. She thought of Mrs. Lane staring down into a velveteen casket, and wondered why girlhood had to die for life to begin.
Ada frowned. “Don’t make that face, Mari. Don’t look so betrayed.”
Maribelle wanted to throw herself to the ground like a child.
A month after Maribelle turned eighteen—after Mrs. Lane stood from her bed, donned her Sunday best, and left their little house by the sea to take up residence with her sister in the city—Ada Mousey became Ada Barnes in the fishermen’s church by the dock.
EVERYTHING ABOUT MRS. LANE was red the night she waddled into the hospital, tiny feet hanging from between her thighs. She wanted to have a home-birth—a “natural” birth. But, as a girl, no one told Mrs. Lane of the inherent unnaturalness of birthing, or of how the act of labor is an act of undoing, an obliteration on the cellular level.
She was promised only joy.
“When did she go into labor?” Maribelle yelled over the wind and sleet that threatened her foothold on the pavement below. “Why didn’t you bring her to the hospital?”
Scott Barnes kept pace beside her, one hand keeping his hood in place, the other holding a flashlight. He had come knocking on Maribelle’s door a little after midnight, face ruddy from the cold and the news of Ada’s labor.
“About an hour ago, and she refused,” he said, shrugging. “She insisted on having a home-birth like her Ma.”
Maribelle wanted to scream herself sick.
Since their wedding, Ada and Scott had stayed with the Mousey family, planning to move into a house of their own once the baby was born. And while Maribelle held no animosity for the men of Ada’s family, she had little confidence in those who couldn’t possibly imagine what it meant to break.
A knife was drawn down and deep into the flesh of Mrs. Lane’s belly. Gloved hands reached into the confines of the woman’s center, pulling body from body, an infant blue as her mother was red.
Entering through the back door, Maribelle found Ada slumped against the refrigerator, gripping her father’s hand. Maribelle ran to her then, scooping Ada into her arms to haul her off the ground.
“Mr. Mousey,” she tried, “go ahead of us and run a warm bath.”
The older man gave her a sullen nod and disappeared from the room.
Ada grimaced. “Where are you taking me? Ma was here. I can’t go to the hospital.”
“We aren’t—just to the bathroom, so I need you to walk for me.”
With slow, jolting steps, Maribelle led Ada into the warm waters of the bath. The heat and steam of the room caused a sweat to break on her brow and Maribelle found it difficult to think clearly.
The water bloomed red as Ada wailed in pain.
Maribelle kept her place by the tub.
Mrs. Lane began to sob, relief and sorrow overcoming her. A nurse neared the table and spoke in a tone, not unlike a mother’s: “Don’t worry, hun, we’ll get her breathing. Hold her.
Call her back to us.”
“It hurts,” Ada moaned, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Maribelle squeezed her friend’s hand to bruising. “You have to, there’s no other way. I know it’s painful, and I know it’s nothing like all those mothers and teachers told us it would be, but you have to push. You have to be willing to let yourself come undone.”
She let the nurse position the body on her chest. The plastic oxygen mask seemed to swallow the infant’s head whole.
Hours passed in the bathroom smelling of copper and sweat. And then, in the fragile hours of dawn—the time of day when the world exists in a state of unbecoming, threads of sky loosening to make room for a new sun—Ada delivered her baby boy.
Mrs. Lane remembered the Challenger disaster
that took seven lives just last week.
Kneeling before mother and son, Maribelle crumbled, overwhelmed by the companionship offered by the dawn and the universal risk of shattering.
And she felt herself to be no more than something of an explosion.
MARIBELLE LANE ENTERED the world as her mother had lived: drowning.
It was once again spring, and the sea seemed newly born, having freed itself from the weight of winter.
She let the waves pull her under, encasing her in memory.
All of the windows of the house are thrown open, the silky drapes take shape with the breeze, creating soft-bodied specters in the living room. Maribelle sits under the window, letting the fabric dance around her.
“It’s been three years.” Her mother’s voice trickles from the kitchen. “The pain is still there, where she should be.”
Another voice joins in a similar cadence. “Remember her first steps,” it says. Her aunt’s voice is smooth in places where her mother’s is sharp. “Her first words, Carla, you must remember those? There are other things to think about besides pain.”
“They said it would be worth it. That holding your baby would make up for the blood, but I hold her as a wound. So do not sit there, Laura, and tell me that there is anything besides pain.”
Maribelle surfaced and found that Ada Barnes, whose hair was the color of wheat, had entered the water, the waves licking the bottom of her shorts. She had healed since that night in the bathtub, though Maribelle could discern a new slowness in her movements.
“Ada,” she called. “Are you okay?”
“Where is Henry? Is he okay?” Maribelle tried next.
“He’s with Scott. I’m a little tired today, so he offered to watch him. And Henry’s okay. He’s an easy baby, sleeps more than he cries, which I’m grateful for.”
“Does it hurt to hold him?” Maribelle asked, thinking back to Mrs. Lane.
“No,” the other girl said. “But I’m tired, Mari. If Henry doesn’t want something from me, Scott does. I don’t hate either of them, but I miss the days when my body was mine.”
Ada spoke these words in the cadence of a woman twice her age.
Maribelle neared her friend and stopped when the waves touched her midriff. She lifted both hands, palms open and reaching for Ada. Beckoning her closer.
“Come into the water, Ada. Fully. You feel weightless, like you were never given a body to lose, to begin with.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Ada wept.
“It would be,” Maribelle said.
Carefully, she takes Ada’s hands between hers and drags the other girl down and deep into the sea—where the pressure might keep their bodies from breaking apart.
▪ ▪ ▪
This past May, Jade Chin graduated from the University of Maryland with her B.A. in English Literature and Language and has since completed an internship with Autumn House Press. “The Drowning of Maribelle Lane” is her first published piece and is a work that encompasses the most present themes of her writing—motherhood, bodies, grief, and love. Always, love. Until her next adventure, she writes and works alongside her two cats in Maryland.
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