Early Signs of Life by Mary Ann McGuigan

Sometimes her name is Mary, but mostly she’s called Mama. She doesn’t know my name. She doesn’t know I exist yet. I can’t tell up from down, right from wrong. I just am. No pressures, no stress. Not yet. I’m cushioned, like a tiny potato in loamy soil. It’s comfy and mostly I sleep, except when he calls her name that way, although sometimes he doesn’t use her name. He lets out harsh sounds that make her muscles tighten and my heart race. I can tell she doesn’t like when he does that. I don’t either. But there’s nothing I can do.

He’s quieter when he listens to the radio, talks to her about hits and strikes and Joe DiMaggio. We smell some kind of smoke when he’s near, and she breathes in the scent of ashes, the promise of a rest, a break.

Lovely times come in between. Loud melodies with a pounding beat that rises and falls, when she bounces and spins me around. The best is when all her muscles soften and her heart pumps evenly, lifting me like great waves, and her breathing deepens and she makes those beautiful sounds. The ones who call her Mama ask her to do it again and again. “Sing another one, Mama,” they’ll say. And she always has another. Some that make them giggle. Some that make them pound the floor. Some that make them hold her close, their arms around her tummy. I recognize almost all of them now, all the tunes. And each of the voices of the darlins. That’s what she calls them mostly, her darlins. 

I’m hungry a lot, because she doesn’t eat much. She feeds the darlins first. Despite that, I’m taking up more space every day, and I worry that she’s figured out I’m here. When she rubs her tummy hard, I feel the vibrations. “Please, god, no,” she’ll say. So I try to stay very still, because I don’t want her to know I’m here.

She talks to someone—her sister?—about what to do. She has five darlins and after the last one was born, another one started just a few months later. “Not yet,” the doctor told her. “You won’t survive it.”

So she talked to the priest, explained what she had to do. “You’ll be excommunicated,” he warned, “banned from the sacraments.”

“But who will take care of my children?” she said.

“God will show you the answer.”

But he didn’t. So she made it go away.

But more than a year has passed since then and now I’m here. And I don’t want to go away. I want to hear the tunes, be one of her darlins.

I sleep most of the time, and I’m growing fast. But once again it’s not good. All her muscles are constricting, and sudden, hard movements toss me around, rapid breathing that makes my pulse race. The darlins are crying, calling Daddy, no! Then they’re silenced by a high-pitched, wailing sound, and speed and jostling about. People talking of blood. And loss. And hurry, hurry.

Calmness returns at last, but I’m shaken, disoriented. I kick and turn and thrash about. To let her know I’m here. Maybe if she knows I’m here, she’ll be more careful.

Then I hear her. “Feel that?” she says.

“He’s a busy one,” someone tells her in a sing-song voice. “Won’t be long now.”

“Yes,” Mama says. Vibrations from her hand on her tummy reach me, and I calm down. Then it’s quiet, and the tune starts. But I don’t hear the darlins, so who is it for?  

“For it was Mary, Mary, plain as any name can be,” she croons. Her voice is very soft, very low, as if these words are secrets. “Though in society, propriety they say Marie. But it was Mary, Mary long before the fashions came.”

All the tightness is gone, and her breathing is deep and regular and I want to sleep, but she starts again. “My mother’s name was Mary, she was so good and true. Because her name was Mary, she called me Mary too.”

Her hand moving across her tummy brings ripples again, waking me, signaling me. I think she knows I’m here. I think she knows my name.

Biography: Mary Ann McGuigan’s work appears in X-R-A-Y, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, The Sun, Massachusetts Review and other journals. Her second collection of short stories is due out soon. Her novels, one a National Book Award finalist, are top ranked by the Junior Library Guild and the NY Public Library.

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