the mothers

There was an afternoon at Union Hill, as I waited to meet my friend, Emily, that I found myself surrounded by mothers. And it wasn’t obvious in any way, because only one of the many mothers had the child tucked against her breast. She cooed to him softly and moved pale hair behind his ear. He was still so new, and she so new, too. She had never been so needed, her body so kneaded, her eyes so heavy, her heart so full. 

I sat against the white brick and watched her, sliding my hand from one side of my belly, to the other. Within the warm walls of my womb, my son hiccuped and rolled. My second child. My skin had been well worn, shaped like clay between my daughter’s palms. I was a mother of two; one without, one within, waiting.  

To my left, the second mother sat alone and cracked the spine of a book. We said hello, and then I let her be. In another life, we had known each other better. But time splits ties in odd ways. Slowly, surely. 

Three years ago, she called me from the airport while she waited for a plane to fill with fuel and take her to Norway. “It happened this morning,” she told me. “I didn’t even know I was pregnant, and then there she was, soaked in red. She was so small. Barely the size of my thumb.”

She felt her womb empty in waves. And though her body was unchanged, she was a mother then, in that moment, when she buried the tiny girl in the daffodil planter beside the terminal. She thanked her daughter for coming, uninvited. She thanked her for leaving, unbidden.

There was a softness that leaked into the corners of her eyes during the quick weeks that she carried the child. In the cafe, she caught me trying to spot it. I nodded, and looked away.

While I waited, the third mother came in with the breeze. 

Lauren ordered a Gibraltar at the bar and carefully carried it back to a table. She sipped a milk-foam oak leaf from the rim of the mug and smiled. When we were seniors in high school, she casually mentioned her pregnancy one afternoon over mint chip ice cream.  

“I met him hiking in Yosemite,” she told us. “I knew I was pregnant right away. I just felt an enormous shift. Something like the Earth moving. Not physically, but energetically. Right here.” Lauren pressed a palm to her womb. 

“I called him the next morning,” she continued, “and he told me that he didn’t care what I did about it. It wasn’t even an option. I can’t be a mother yet. Not yet.”

I watched her write something in a notebook and then take her empty mug to the counter. 

But you are a mother, now.

After a while, Emily joined me by the brick wall and asked how I had been feeling. 

“Round,” I laughed, “and ready to meet him.”

She clicked her tongue and smiled. “I’m sure. Can I get you anything?”

While Emily ordered a coffee at the counter, a young man passed by the door to the cafe and stopped at the bench just outside. I didn’t know him, but I could feel his tired heart through the brick and the plaster. 

He sat rocking his child fiercely in the autumn air, a babe so small that her head still had to be tenderly cradled between his rough-skinned thumb and index finger. He shushed her gently, right beside her ear. The baby waved still new arms and suckled clenched fists blindly.

“She’s hungry,” I told Emily. “Do you think he knows?”

Emily sat across from me, shuffling papers and shaking the ink from the tip of a pen. 

“If he doesn’t, he’ll learn. Fathers acquire that sense more slowly than mothers, but it comes just the same.”

She pushed dark hair from her eyes and chewed her bottom lip. Everything about her physical presence was warm and full and maternal. She was like a harbor where ships might go when fleeing a storm. The fourth mother. Wide hips, tender skin, lips fit for singing, for soothing scrapes, for smiling softly. A birth worker, she had watched half a hundred women tear through the veil: from Maiden, into Mother. 

And yet, her own womb was still. Though they charted and counted and held one another close, still she bled. Her children waited quietly within her, a thousand silver beads, quaking with hope and promise. Whispering, one day, one day, one day.

We sat quietly for a while, listening to the grinding of beans, the shoosh of steaming milk, the tap of empty cups against wooden tabletops. I thought to mention the strangeness of the room to Emily. The way we had all collected like that, mothers of many, in many different ways. Five of us, holding one another sweetly, without touching. 

But I sat still and listened instead. 

The mothers, we mothers, inhaled and exhaled and heated the room in a subtle, ancient way. Like the Earth moving. Like fire catching from one branch, to the next, to the next. Somehow forming a harbor, a holy space. Whispering together: we have you, we’re here, you’re safe, you’re loved.