by DONNA MAZZA
In the toilets at the back of the doctor’s surgery I pee into a plastic jar. Of course I also pee on my hand, I’m sure everyone does, but I wipe it dry with a piece of toilet paper and screw on the yellow lid. This is it—the test.
Just an eye-dropper of urine on the stick and they know right away. He turns to me and smiles.
And so it begins.
The digital imaging centre is a private company on a busy corner and Ben throws the car into the last parking bay.
‘Why the fuck did you want to get involved in this so bad, Stacey?’
I don’t know what to say. In fact I can’t answer the question in my own head. It was just a piece of idea but it infested my thinking in all that idle time while the kids were at school; when I lay in bed in the daytime, holding my empty belly and feeling the loss of the last baby, like stone.
‘I can’t explain it. It was the zoo and the miscarriage. That mammoth was so amazing, Ben.’
‘You’ve been depressed so now you’ve turned all our lives insane. I really don’t think I can come with you, Stacey. I don’t think I want to be involved in this baby thing. It’s not the same.’
‘It’s still our baby.’
‘It’s not. They sliced it up and made it into something else.’ He won’t make eye contact with me, his jaw is hard and I can see his teeth clenched through his cheek. I’ve never seen him so immovable.
‘You agreed to it. You signed your consent, too.’
‘Look, I just need more time to think it through. You put me under a lot of pressure. Don’t you remember?’
‘My appointment is in a few minutes. Please come with me.’
He stares at me with a fresh iciness.
‘I’ll be here when you come out.’
The weight of his anger makes my breath short and I sit gingerly in the reception area on the edge of my seat, foot tapping.
‘Come this way, please. Have you had all the water the doctor asked you to drink?’
‘Have you been to the toilet or is your bladder full?’
‘Oh, no. My bladder is quite full.’
‘Good. This way then and I’ll just get you up on the bed, shoes off and we’ll have a quick look to check your dates.’
She sets up the screen and squirts gel on my belly. I close my eyes. It was two years ago that we took the kids to Singapore Zoo for the Resurrection Exhibition, a travelling zoo from the Smithsonian’s de-extinction program. A flock of passenger pigeons circled overhead in a large, climate controlled dome. Photos of Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons in 1914, demonstrated clearly that within two generations the program has successfully renewed the species. The pigeon DNA was only 130 years old and the thylacine sample they used came from a preserved foetus in a museum. It was much harder to find DNA of high enough quality for megafauna but the project had been aided by the melting of the Arctic. The thing that impressed us all the most was the mammoth. It was just a juvenile, so without the huge tusks yet. Its size, its rich amber wool, its deep dark eyes just captured me. I was lost to its power and immensity. My heart pounded with the thrill of it! I actually fell in love.
The scan is so quick. They measure the millimetres of growth and estimate a due date but how they do that I don’t know.
It’s just for the records and quite unceremonious. I barely caught a glimpse but I did hear the beat. Fast and definite.
In the car my life changes irrevocably with Ben’s measured words.
‘I’m going back to Johannesburg for a while. The kids are all in school and they can stay here with you. I don’t want to disrupt them. I’ll tell them I need to help my parents on the farm.’
‘Will you come back? This isn’t it, is it? I can have an abortion if you want me to.’
‘That’s a very loaded way of putting it, Stacey. I can’t have you do that for me. I need to come to terms with this and I don’t know if I can or when I’ll be back.’
‘I need you here.’
He touches my hand but he is resolved.
I wish I hadn’t worn a dress. I feel so exposed here, an audience of fourteen around me with my dress hauled up to my armpits. A radiographer tucks the paper blanket into my knickers, pulling them down a smidgen, dark hairs coursing out to remind them where they all came from. She squirts a clear gel onto my hard stomach and moves the scanning device. The screen is turned so I only see a slice of the action. Clearly I am not the target audience.
When I took this on I really didn’t think about being treated as a science experiment myself. It was all about the baby.
I have three already. All perfect specimens excelling at various things. Everyone tells us we are great parents and we should have more. Easily said, of course, but when you get closer to 40 than 30, pregnancy seems like a greater effort.
I close my eyes. I don’t know what to look for, anyway.
‘She’s moving her fingers,’ says the radiographer.
There are drawn breaths.
‘It’s a girl?’ I whisper.
‘Definitely a girl.’
In the shard of screen I see a baby. Fingers and spine and baby-shaped head.
‘Looks good,’ Dr Anderson pats me on the shoulder. ‘Well done, dear.’
I want to cry. They all clap as if I’m in a circus. Maybe I am.
Maybe she will be one day.
There’s nothing quite as hollow as that little mass of human cells we saw on the ultrasound screen over a year ago. That human-shaped-almost that waited, refusing to beat or flutter. It seemed so real, yet fragile as dew, it was gone before it really began. I wonder at our intrusion into the secret room of life. What did it do to us to see that sad little thing? My last baby, who will never be.
Yet I can hardly profess to be a purist, to disagree with medical intervention. Not with the choice I have made.
This time the cells are not human—well, some of them are mine and Ben’s, but others were sliced and fused into our own embryo, our baby. There is not one chromosome in this little ball of cells. It’s a whole genome edited and reprinted: a new work using old materials.
Imagine her one day, seven years old in a blue bikini, plunging into the pool, rolling over, skating through the water, shiny and laughing. Chlorinated water dripping from her hair. How much will she have of normal? To learn and talk with other children, not like her. I have watched the mothers with peculiar children and I know I will be among them and I wonder how they feel with their little different one out there swimming with the four-limbed bright-eyed kids. I’ve had all that normal and now I will have something more, I’ll have what they have. It doesn’t take much to alter the development of a child. To turn its life and the parents’ into something entirely other. For those parents, the child is the pivot around which everything turns.
Surely she won’t learn to swim like other kids.
The team point to the screen and discuss the growth of my baby, ‘their work’. It is quite in keeping with human embryonic development, apparently.
‘What about the forehead?’
They all turn, surprised I am still awake, I imagine.
‘Did you say something, Stacey?’ asks Jeff, the obstetrician. Naturally he has the best bedside manner.
‘Can’t tell yet, I’m afraid, dear.’
‘We expect some different cranial development to show next ultrasound, in a few weeks.’ The geneticist and his postdoctoral sidekick nod seriously at me. One wears a nametag that says ‘Caesar’.
‘Remember, Stacey, the baby is also genetically yours, so we don’t expect the traits of the Neanderthals that we see in museum models. She will be something in between, so we expect she may have a slightly pronounced supraorbital ridge. She will look a little different but not too different.’
A museum piece for the next generation. A living museum. Possible titles for National Geographic articles they will write about her one day. Ultrasound images stored on the University hard drive, password protected, will be sold to exclusive media outlets. I’ve already signed a non-disclosure contract which protects my identity and my children. But not this child. They’ll know her inside out.
‘I think we’re almost done, Doctor.’ The radiographer speaks to the group, probably all Doctors.
‘Okay, any questions, Stacey?’ asks Jeff.
‘No. Well, I have one. How are the other mothers?’
‘I’m afraid we can’t discuss the details of the other pregnancies.’
‘But—are they? Will she be alone?’
‘Mothers and babies are fine. Our girl here will be loved by your family and then—well, we’ll see how things track. So we will take another scan in four weeks. You’d better start thinking of names—maybe avoid Lucy?’ He lets out a little laugh.
The screen goes still, then blackens. Our little secret is safe inside.
Outside in the car I search ‘Lucy’ and eventually find an image of Australopithecus afarensis, a crouched and hair-covered beast of a creature. Nowhere near human and much older by millions of years than this baby’s amended DNA. Hers emerged from a melted glacier in the Alps, an ancestor dressed in animal skin. Not an ape. She will not be an ape.
Researchers in our dept have been analysing the data on primate gestation across several species and have calculated an approximate gestation based on the size of the embryo at your 16 week ultrasound. Considering also the % human genome they estimate a 34 week pregnancy. We should get a clearer idea at your next scan. See you at our rooms then.
Mr Jeffrey van Tink
Honorary Professor in Obstetrics
The other mothers will have had this email, too. I wonder if he copied and pasted the words.
Every time I come in here and wait in this room I’m faced with the same posters: the amputee man ‘Nothing sweet about diabetes’ and the hollow-eyed girl ‘Pregnant and injecting?’ Normally I am pragmatic and I can see the point, but they are like sand in my eyes. I am so tired and after the Lucy-jibe I didn’t want to come back here. What I did to my baby is worse than drugs or too much lemonade. I volunteered her to be broken and made into something not human. I want to run and hide with her. I don’t want to bring this child into being with all eyes turned to her. She is a freak already and she always will be. I play scenarios in my mind where I pack them all up and go hide in a little town somewhere dry and inhospitable where nobody will know us.
And they did a psychological profile before they started—so much for that! I came up so stable they couldn’t believe their luck. Now look! Now I’m a single mother pretending Daddy’s just gone on a holiday before the baby is born, taking my kids to school looking normal as a serial killer.
‘This way please. Have you drunk all the water this morning?’
‘Been to the toilet since last night?’
‘But I bet you want to, so let’s get in here and get started.’
I bet you say that to everyone.
No dress this time, a skirt and a rounder belly too so altogether I feel a little more dignified, on the outside at least.
‘Just a little cold gel and we’ll tuck you up a bit here.’
‘Where are all the doctors?’
‘They’ll be in here in a minute. They are just with another patient but they said to get started on the measurements and we’ll record all the images so they don’t miss anything.’
‘You mean there is someone more important than me in here today?’
I just wish they’d let me speak to the other mothers. They must be thinking the same things as I am. I wonder if their husbands have run away.
‘Every patient is important, Stacey. There are lots of unusual pregnancies and the Professor and his team try to make sure everyone is looked after.’
Treating me like a child. Nice one, Miss Radiographer. Deep breath. Lots of unusual pregnancies, they must have a whole army of hybrid humans on the way. It’s alright that they aren’t here, really. Maybe I will find out more.
‘There she is. That’s a hand…’ She clicks and measures, narrating the body parts but I don’t really listen. I’m just looking, as if that is the only way to know something. Looking at her, little thing.
‘She looks like a normal baby.’
‘She is a normal baby.’
But she won’t be. She might be hairy. She might have a jutting jaw, lumpy forehead. She might not be able to speak, ever. She might walk like a gorilla.
‘She’s only half human, you know.’
‘Yes, she is half human. But she is your baby.’
It strikes so deep, that little sentence, like a charge quavering in my chest. She is. But she isn’t.
‘Just think, some people adopt babies and they still call them ‘my baby’. Yours is your baby, even if she is not genetically all yours and your husband’s baby.’
Maybe Miss Radiographer is only half human.
‘You haven’t really thought this through very much, have you?’
She looks sharply at me and the conversation is obviously over.
‘They’ll take her away from me eventually, you know. I won’t even be able to take her to the shop without people staring at her and wondering what the hell is wrong with her.’
Ben thought it through and that’s why he’s not here. And now there is nobody to talk through the possibilities with me.
She’s not saying a word.
‘She won’t be able to go to school. In fact she might not be able to talk or learn to talk. She might not learn to play with my other kids or learn to swim or ride a bike. None of us will ever have a normal day again.’
Not a word.
‘The whole world is going to change once these babies are born. Nobody will think of life the same way. We are going to be able to create our own slaves—an underclass of Neanderthals. And what do you think she is going to do when she grows up, if she actually does?’
Nothing. So I give full rein to the possibilities.
‘She’s going to be doing what I’m doing, having their babies. But her babies will be more Neanderthal, because that is the whole purpose of her being here. She isn’t even the real purpose of this experiment herself—she is a missing link that will take us to her children. She is of no real importance to anyone except me. Because I am her mother.’
And that last word is too much and I shake and quiver and cry until Miss Radiographer stands to leave.
She pulls a hard drive out of the computer and points towards the toilets.
A few minutes later I wipe the gel from my stomach and find the keys to my car. There really is nothing to do about it now. I am on the journey and there is no way out.
All signs from your ultrasound are normal and the baby looks to be growing as expected.
I understand you are having some emotional stress about the child so I have referred you to our resident psychiatrist. Please call my offices and they will make an appointment for you at a suitable time.
I shall see you at your next scan at week 24.
Mr Jeffrey van Tink
Honorary Professor in Obstetrics
That’s as warm as it gets.
My bladder leaks a little but I’m hanging on to most of it.
I nod. Not the same radiographer. This time it’s a young man, same blue uniform.
‘This way, please. How are you today? Have you drunk all the water? Been to the loo since last night?’
‘Yes, no. You know what I mean. I’ve done this before.’
‘Oh good. And how are you? That was a question too.’
‘I didn’t think you wanted an answer to that one really.’
‘Well, now I am hurt. Do you take me for one of those automaton types who has no bedside manner?’
He smiles at me. I try to return it, a little bent and lacklustre.
‘Is it just us today or shall I expect the Professor and his team?’
‘Just us,’ he smiles warmly. ‘I’ll just record the scan and they get it emailed to them. Have you seen your obstetrician? And the notes say you were also due to see a psych?’
‘Yes and no. Yes to the obstetrician and I don’t need to, I’m fine.’
‘Sure.’ He smiles and notes this down and now I am not so won over by his charm.
The scan begins. Gel, screen, sweeping across my skin… There she is.
‘Looks like she has her back to us. Not talking today huh, sweetie?’ He measures and clicks anyway.
I close my eyes. I just want this to be over.
The posters in the waiting room irritate me but they draw my eyes. I can’t focus enough to read a magazine but I page through, trying to distract my thoughts from what I might see today, growing inside me.
‘Back again, Stacey.’
I nod at the charmer in the blue uniform.
‘Yes I do have a full bladder, yes I do need to go but I haven’t.’
‘Come on love, let’s go check on this bub then maybe you should take yourself out for a nice lunch. You sound like it’s getting to you.’
‘That’s a glorious understatement.’
He gives me a bedside-manner-smile. I sigh and follow him to the same room. He sets me up on the bed, gels my belly and looks me in the eye.
‘You know, I realise that this must be a very difficult experience. It is absolutely not normal to be having a de-extincted half-Neanderthal child, no matter how much they tell us to pretend like it is.’
He looks in my eyes and touches my hand.
‘Stacey, I’m speaking out of turn, you know. They record these sessions but I haven’t switched the webcam on yet.’
‘They record everything?’
‘Yeah. Shit, huh? That’s why you have me and not Miriam. They saw your big rant.’
‘If you want to talk about it you can call me. I’ll give you my number. Just tuck it in your bag. We’d better get started or they’ll start to wonder.’
‘Before you start. Will they record the birth?’ He flicks on the webcam.
‘I reckon. Now, here we go. Oh, look, there she is! She’s turned over.’
Click. The shape of the nose—just like the other kids. Click. She is small. Complete. Click. Big, dark eyes, I imagine. A little well rises up. Baby. My baby. Click.
‘Looks like she’s moving down into the birth position, Stacey. They have an EDD down here of 34 weeks but it looks like she’s ready.’
A little charge inside—a thrill. Fear. He grabs my hand. Looks at me.
‘You have done this before. Not like this, I know. But you will be fine and she will be too. Look at her, she’s gorgeous.’
His phone rings.
‘Yes, yes. Yes, I’ll ask her.
‘They want to know if you’ve had any of the normal signs of labour. Just tell me, they can hear everything from the webcam.’
‘Um… cramps a bit. Yes, but I thought they were just expanding pains or Braxton-Hicks.’
‘I don’t think so. They want you to go down to the hospital and book in. They are sending down a taxi.’
‘But I need to go home, get my things. I have to pick up the kids from school. It might be the last time I can do it. I can’t take this baby to school with me. Everyone will know.’
‘Calm down Stacey, calm down. It’s all going to happen anyway. She’s on her way.’
Donna Mazza was awarded the TAG Hungerford Award for her novel The Albanian, which was published by Fremantle Press in 2007. This story originally appeared in Westerly 60:1 in August 2015. Author photo by Robyn Mundy.