Auto-Duet: Essays on Competence and Acoustics

“You dork!” my sister shouted the day I called to tell her
I thought I might be pregnant. “Haven’t you checked
yet? Go to the pharmacy and call me back! Sheesh.”

 

1. FOLK ACOUSTICS

When we were in elementary school, my sister and I stood on our land-locked lawn and, pressing the pinks of seashells hard against our ears, said we heard the ocean when we didn’t. We’ d been told the ocean was a ventriloquist whose tune was changeless and ancient, but neither of us wholly bought it. We squinted and listened and tried, but as far as explanations went, that one reeked of the tooth fairy—too precious—and came with a little too much pressure a little too enthusiastically applied by the adults in our lives.

By the time we entered junior high, we had abandoned the ocean explanation in favor of one that was darker and somewhat more scientific. Or so we thought. What our shells really did, we decided, was play custom songs for us by magnifying the real-time rush of blood in our own heads. This theory was preferable because it echoed not only our solipsistic instincts, but also the formulaic hype our tv fed us: that each of us was unique and there was no time like the present. 

Somehow swapping real blood for spectral seawater fueled rather than snuffed our magical thinking. My sister and I imagined our shells were the ends of string phones whose cords slunk invisibly into our palms and down through the peculiarly blue veins of our wrists. On the other end of the line, of course, were our hearts, and so listening to the shells became a form of conchomancy, a way of communing with the desires we weren’t of an age to name, let alone to claim or make manifest; it was like having our futures read to us in French or some other romantic-sounding foreign language. We swooned without knowing what was said, picturing the escapades of our favorite soap opera characters, women who had hunky boyfriends and perky breasts and—judging by the power suits, corner offices, and below-ground swimming pools they cavorted in—really quite lucrative careers, despite how little they seemed to have going on in their heads. We may have been leery of the enthusiasm of the grown-ups who actually knew and loved us, interpreting their gusto as manipulative and indefinably self-serving, but we weren’t skeptical in the least of the programs we watched, or of the faceless advertising execs whose agendas were behind them. All that mattered was that we—a pair of chronically bored Midwestern kids—were special and destined for greatness. If we wanted to hear the ocean as adults, we’ d hire a private charter to fly the 750 miles necessary to get us there. 

Then we learned that the salt of our sweat and spit and blood actually was the same as in the ocean, and our thinking on shell sounds changed again, this time spawning new fantasies in which our ancient marine lineage and future selves were wed. Jacques Cousteau arrived in our lives like the dawn of religion, and we began to dream of swimming in the dark, sound-enhanced places where our lungs and big limbs would not let us go: into the coiled nautilus’s nacre-slick chambers, through the shipwreck with its spooks and pleats of rusty drapery, and along the forked cordage of our own circulatory systems. We would be explorers, paleontologists, marine biologists, microscopists, or maybe even chemists, we decided, but would retain the prerogative to wear impractical shoes and flip our hair like the good-looking doofuses on daytime television did. We would be dual without suffering ambivalence. We held our seashells up, folding our downy cartilage into their cold, aragonitic cups, and, ear-shape to ear-shape, we listened. We believed with what was left of our imaginations that the ocean dreamed of us, too, and called to us like a mother to her lost-adventuring children—with a song we didn’t have to free from its bottle in order to hear, in a language we didn’t have to speak to comprehend. Come back, it said.

 

2. ROMANTIC ENTHRALLMENT

“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” was what the script on my paleontology professor’s T-shirt read. An aspiring paleontologist, I turned to the dictionary countless times to help me decipher what I naturally assumed to be a code of the trade. I flipped from the os to the rs and then back to the ps, losing my grasp of one definition en route to the next. Not until I learned about the biologist who coined the phrase did I finally begin to understand what it meant.

In addition to being an illustrator, comparative anatomist, and zoologist, Ernst Haeckel was a contemporary and fervent supporter of Charles Darwin. According to one biographer, Haeckel received Darwin’s message as a religious calling and devoted his life to promoting the theory of evolution. One way he did this was through his studies of embryos. By comparing the embryonic development of different animals, Haeckel came to believe that every animal did a little interpretive dance on its way to meet the world, plastically moving through the major body plans of the “lower” animals from which its species ascended. Haeckel’s phrase, first published in his 1866 treatise on morphology, was a condensation of a condensation: the weeks- or months-long development of a single organism, its ontogeny, mirrors the millions-of-years-long evolution of its species, or phylogeny. A chick would do some time as a fish, in other words, before it hatched. As would a rat before it was born. As would a pig. Likewise, a human.

Although Haeckel’s idea is a beautiful one that modern embryology bears out to some extent, back then it was a baby—too loud, too blasphemous—doomed to go the way of its bath suds. It flew in the face of religion, and Haeckel made some serious errors along the way as well. For one thing, he was a little too literal and simplistic with his interpretations. For instance, the embryonic “gills” that humans possess in utero never function, as Haeckel claimed, in the same way that a grown fish’s gills do. For another thing, Haeckel let his scientific zeal get the better of him.

The idea of recapitulation is so elegantly seductive, so intuitively correct—why shouldn’t some record of our shared past play out in the secret course of our individual development?—that, in his eagerness for the world to share his enthrallment, Haeckel took some artistic license. He apparently fudged a few of his embryo drawings, dramatizing them so as to make his theory irrefutable to his readers. His illustrations made the early embryos of fish, salamanders, turtles, chicks, dogs, and humans look too alike, more alike than they are in reality. He made them interchangeable.

I like to believe Haeckel couldn’t help it. After all, he succumbed to his passion while engaged in a fundamentally artistic act, one on which his science and perhaps even his sanity depended—the act of illustration. Haeckel’s drawings of marine invertebrates are nothing short of religious in their beauty and devotion to detail. Fervor was his way. But the scientific community didn’t spare him much sympathy: once his drawings were proved wrong, Haeckel was deemed a hack, and the Recapitulation Theory, at least where biologically applied, was discredited. 

To Haeckel’s merit, the Recapitulation Theory has been adopted by modern experts on cognitive, behavioral, and language development instead. The stages each of us passes through in our quests for comprehension, social acceptance, and self-expression mirror the processes of knowledge, culture, and language acquisition on an anthropological scale.

 

3. FOLK ACOUSTICS

In the same way that Haeckel believed developing embryos retrace the evolution of their species while in egg or in utero, my sister and I recapitulated the popular thinking on seashell acoustics through the ages, completely glossing over, as most cultures have done and continue to do, the accurate explanation for the sound we hear when we listen to empty shells.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the prevailing theory was that seashells broadcast the thrown voice of the ocean. But then, in the mid-1800s, experts on wave mechanics figured out what was really going on. One textbook from 1835 says, “The concave, undulating, and perfectly polished surface of many sea shells fit them to catch, to concentrate, and to return the pulses of all sounds that happen to be trembling about them, so as to produce that curious resonance from within, which resembles the distant murmur of the ocean.”1

Even though “trembling,” the “pulse” of the ambient actual couldn’t hold its own for long against the allure of blood to humankind’s collective imagination; the phase of the real was short-lived. According to MIT anthropologist Stefan Helmreich, by the late nineteenth century “a weird explanation of seashell sound [had] wormed its way into folk acoustics: that shells amplify the flow of the listeners’ own blood.” Helmreich feels that the trajectory from the ocean to the real to blood “unrolls from romantic enthrallment toward a double-edged modernity that uses the language of science to disenchant at one moment and then re-enchant at another.”2

I wonder if the blood explanation has something to do with Haeckel and Darwin’s rise to prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the sudden cultural awareness of our shared marine ancestry that their work fostered. Add to that the physical resemblance of human hearts to seashells, an association evidenced by “the cockles of our hearts,” and “cochlea cordis,” the Latin name for the ventricles, and the blood explanation for shell sounds begins to seem like an inevitable one to land on. The real and the ocean and human blood are wed, both in fantasy and in fact. 

Here is what Steven Connor, a Cambridge University English professor and expert on the phenomenon of mishearing, has to say about suggestibility and what happens when we effortfully listen: “The self-emptying of listening, that making of oneself all ears, is in fact closely and continuously self-attentive.” You are bound, says Connor, to “find yourself absented in the self-admiring intensity of your intentness.”3 So maybe kids like my sister and me were destined to hear our own enthrallment in clams and snails, and to seek our futures in the sounds they caught, concentrated, and returned to us, their shapes honing the pulses of the fantasies we were already awash in. 

Maybe we would’ve imposed our own blood song on any cavernous ring or whoosh to which we paid our wistful attention, regardless of how its source came to be deprived of its original contents, whether hungrily poured, scooped, dumped, dragged, birthed, or scavenged. This makes me wonder how much agency any of us has over our own enthrallment, and who among us can see or hear their way through or past it, and (to make myself feel better) what the hell went wrong in their childhoods. Perhaps they grew up to become surgeons. Most of us make mistakes and plenty of them. Try arguing with your heart. Try it. The heart suffers no backtalk because it’s never quiet long enough to listen.

 

4. DIAGNOSTIC LISTENING

The late renowned cardiologist W. Proctor Harvey, who, it is rumored, could diagnose an enigmatic heart condition just by noting the arrhythmic throb of a throat vein above a new patient’s shirt collar, used to introduce himself to his students by playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—composed when Beethoven himself was completely deaf—and then asking who in the classroom heard the trumpet. This was meant to be a primer in the art of auscultation, or diagnostic listening. By straining to the unseen swells of orchestral arrangements, Harvey’s students eventually learned to cull the voices of individual instruments. I’ll confess that I’ve tried this exercise numerous times and each time gotten too caught up in the music to listen for, let alone hear, the trumpet. I looked it up though, and the original score calls for two.

 

5. FOLK ACOUSTICS

Cans with rippled sides worked best. Soup, for instance. And the string had to be taut for the contraption to function. When my sister spoke into her can, vibrations from her voice thumped the bottom as if it were a big metallic eardrum, an eardrum with a navel of twine knotted into the middle of it. The can bottom imperceptibly undulated, amplifying the sound waves and sending them through the belly button and out along the length of string that snaked the hallway to the place where I kneeled on the floor, waiting. The string’s waves thumped the flat of my can, which thumped the air it contained, which thumped my middle ear’s trampoline-like tympanum, which thumped the three amplifying ossicles of my inner ear, which plunged the fluid-filled snail of my cochlea, which wagged my inner ear’s hair-like cilia, which converted the sound waves to the basic currency of my comprehension, electricity, and let me know what my sister was saying, or at least that she was speaking. All of this occurred in amazingly rapid and effortless succession.

Hidden out of sight from one another, we took turns whispering: Are you there? Can you hear me? And maybe, once we’ d ascertained the sensitivity of our device, we told a lie or an embarrassing secret, or confessed something shameful, or spoke something cruel and heartfelt into the lingering aroma of Chicken Alphabet or Condensed Tomato. As long as the line remained taut, you could whisper with impunity. But the moment it went slack . . .

_____

Looking out my urban window some twenty years later, I could see that, except for their catenary droop, except for the way they hung like a middle-aged waistline, the wires of real phone lines weren’t so different from our childhood strings. They looked archaic, like the cilia of a creature on the verge of extinction. Up close, they twined like a pair of jump ropes, strands of a licorice whip, or the arteries and veins of an embryo’s funiculus umbilicalis. (I can hear you. I’m listening.) Farther out, landlines made a selvage at sky’s edge, keeping us from raveling even with the distance of the Rocky Mountains and a Dakota between us: 

“You dork!” my sister shouted the day I called her to tell her I thought I might be pregnant. “Haven’t you checked yet? Go to the pharmacy and call me back! Sheesh.”

 

6. A DOUBLE-EDGED MODERNITY

The same phone call that set up the first in a telescoping series of doctor’s appointments also enrolled my husband and me in a childbirth education series to be taken eight weeks in a row on the weeknight of our choosing, preferably ending within a month or two of our baby’s due date. Participation in “A Sound Start” was not required, but the receptionist assumed it in such a way—delivering her funnel of choices with the right amount of authority (“night,” “location,” and “payment method” taking the place of “yes,” “no,” or “hey, let me think about it, maybe”)—so as to make the class seem compulsory. 

And so on a summer evening, after the doctors and nurses and desk people had all gone home, my husband and I joined a group of other parents-to-be in the waiting area of our shared doctor’s office. With the fluorescents and the easy-listening channel off, the lobby felt like an abandoned stage, and we like amateur actors milling among its workaday props. We took our seats, whispered to our spouses, dispensed water from a belching cooler into mini Dixie cups, flipped through dog-eared parenting magazines whose addresses had either been Sharpied over or scissored off, and waited with equal parts dread and excitement for things to get started.

Mrs. H, whose own children were grown, presided with a fairy-
godmotherly giddiness over our class. She greeted the women with shameless appraisals of their pregnant bodies. If we carried our babies high, it was because we were having girls. If we waddled when we walked, it was because our pelvic bones separated easily, increasing our odds of delivering vaginally. To some women this was bad news, to others, a blessing. If someone’s bump was lower a couple of weeks in a row, Mrs. H declared that time was almost up. The bulbous abdomen would soon become a hollow melon akin to Cinderella’s post-midnight carriage. It would ache as though gnawed out by pestilential rodents, and even though the new mother would have found love like she’ d never imagined, she would return—limping and suddenly dowdy—to a kitchen sink heaped with thankless stacks of dirty dishes. Or at least that was the vanishing point to which Mrs. H’s tinkly voice, that tooth fairy reek, seemed to lead the skeptical among us for whom the sound of an empty shell is the existential peal of the abyss. 

How could we have known then, without someone to explain? A shell held to the ear only forecasts drowning if drowning sounds are already ambient.

Mrs. H assumed that most of our fears were based on getting fat and the violent rending of our vaginas, and not on, say, the meaninglessness of our collective existence, or guilt over bringing another human into a world that was turbulent and already frighteningly overtaxed. She coached us to deal with our anxiety by shopping, and she frequently passed out coupons at the end of class. The items on the shopping lists she provided were arranged by price. Somewhere below the Tucks Medicated Pads and the front-flap nursing bras was a battery-powered bouncy seat that would cradle our infants so we could tackle chores like vacuuming and washing the dishes. An essential feature of the bouncy seat, Mrs. H noted, was a speaker with the option to play at least one of two things: the ceaseless crashing of ocean waves and a maternal heartbeat. Instead of Come back, our babies’ chairs would, lying, say, Welcome home.

 

7. THAT MAKING OF ONESELF ALL EARS

In his popular book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, paleontologist Neil Shubin illustrates how the embryological journey of human beings retraces, albeit somewhat cubistically, our evolution from the first creatures with backbones. Of particular elegance is the growth of our ear bones. 

On each side of every budding embryo’s throat, be it fish, frog, alligator, bird, dog, or human, there are four ridges of cells called arches. These fleshy folds are some of the most prominent features in illustrations of embryos—doubtless you’ve seen them. In fish, the indentations between arches develop into gill slits. In humans, the indentations develop into Eustachian tubes, glands, and the housing for our tonsils. The ridges give rise to the miraculous machinery of our jaws, throats, ears, and voices.

The bones in our uniquely mammalian middle ears—the stirrup, anvil, and hammer—are derived, writes Shubin, from the first and second of these embryonic gill arches, the first arch being the one highest on the throat, nearest the head. Position-wise, our anvils and hammers grow out of the first arch, our stirrups out of the second. In terms of evolution, however, our stirrups evolved before our anvils and hammers.

To appreciate our ear bones in the recapitulation sense, we have to go back about 400 million years to the Devonian. That’s when the first ear bone appeared in the paleontological record. This was the stirrup, or the stapes, and it has been found in the fossilized ears of early amphibians, a class of animals that evolved from fish.

Because water conducts sound more efficiently than air does, it makes sense that the first ear bone would show up in the first vertebrates to transition from living in the water to living on land. By the time amphibians ventured ashore on their little fin-legs, the Earth was already alive with the sound of amphibian food. There were scurrying mites and ’pedes and at least one kind of flying insect, and the hearing methods of fish probably weren’t up to the task of hunting them. Over time, some millions of years perhaps, the embryonic arch that develops into a jawbone in fish began developing into a stirrup in amphibians. Over a much shorter period of time, as in the first three weeks of an embryonic life, that same arch develops into the stirrup that resides in an adult human head. 

After amphibians came reptiles, whose skulls bore not only the amphibian stapes but also a multitude of complicated jawbones specially adapted for chewing. As new beings evolved to exploit other ecological niches, a pair of reptilian jawbones repurposed itself for higher frequency hearing, growing minuscule and migrating brain-ward during the 200-million-year journey from croc to croc-dog to human. These two bones are the anvil and the hammer. 

I get a thrill imagining the paleontological trajectory of these arches and bones. I picture them changing shape and skittering around the skulls of extinct and extant species at warp-speed along some evolutionary branch that leads by countless fortuitous accidents to my own head, allowing me to hear the clack of my keyboard and the hum of my basement’s dehumidifier as I sit writing in the early morning. I picture them as in a flipbook; this sequence doesn’t make me feel exalted like an endpoint of a billions-of-years-long process, but thrilled to be a part of something ongoing and imponderably big. I am reminded that there’s no time like the present, but not in a way that makes me want to rush out and buy a new lipstick. It’s more like I want to invent a line of greeting cards for people who find themselves in existential crises and wonder not only if they’re doing the right things with their lives, but also what the value of right things even is—in short, for people who grapple with context. Such cards would celebrate the infinitude of guileless inner fishes in all of us, in full and shameless thrall to our anatomical inheritance. 

 

8. A DOUBLE-EDGED MODERNITY

Mrs. H introduced herself by telling us that she would give birth to all of our children for us if only she could. The singsong quality of her voice was supposed to make this claim seem true. She would do this not to spare us something horrible, she said, but to partake in the splendor of life-giving as often as possible herself. Only the biological impossibility of birthing our babies for us was keeping her honest; were it doable, she would be a brazen thief, she assured us, of all our labor and delivery processes. 

Childbirth wasn’t what scared me so much, but what came after. It seemed to me that if my belly were the carriage, then childbirth was the last dance at the ball—a fleeting unforgettable twirl—while my son’s infancy loomed like a paradoxically intense and tedious lifetime. Would Mrs. H bring our babies home with her? Would she rock them, strung out on exhaustion and hormones, while they wailed insatiably through the merging blurs of bottomless nights? Would she press their blind, angry-looking faces to breasts that felt like balloons filled with a few pounds of incredibly angular gravel, desperate to relieve both baby and balloons, if only for a blessed little while? Giving birth was the easy part; that was the scary truth behind our teacher’s if-only offer, the reason her eyes took on a grave look while her voice maintained its aura of pink ribbons and bluebird whistles.

All in all, “A Sound Start” passed with a surreal, tv-sitcom-like quality; we all fell easily enough into our prescribed gender roles, performing them with good, practiced humor in the off-hours theater of our doctor’s office. None of us ventured our true fears: What if I suck at parenting? What if I go crazy? What if some secret coil of my genetic code is lying in wait to sabotage this wanted (wanted? yes, wanted!) pregnancy? We followed Mrs. H’s advice and left those fears to manifest as readily fulfilled physical needs instead: what, when, and where to eat and buy new things. There seemed to be an endless supply of commercially available props to fill in the holes that our doubt steadily excavated, supplies that when arranged just so in front of freshly painted backdrops would make us into real parents. 

After these sessions, my husband and I often went to a nearby restaurant for dinner, his only and my second meal of the night. The two of us would eat wordlessly, the clank of forks on plates sufficing in the space between us until one of us asked something like, “Do you think we really need one of those vibrating heartbeat bouncy seats things?” and the other naively answered, “Nah. I’ve got two good arms.”

 

9. THAT CURIOUS RESONANCE

Haeckel was found guilty of fraud in a trial by his peers along about the time that the Curie brothers discovered piezoelectricity. In 1880, the sibling physicists figured out that some struck things throw a spark. Not the fire-giving heat of flint on metal, but electrical current. 

Fourteen years after demonstrating piezoelectricity, the younger Curie brother, Pierre, met Maria Skłodowska. She was earning her degree in mathematics at the Sorbonne, where Pierre was a professor of physics. Comically, it was their mutual interest in magnetism that drew them together. But before that (and less directly), it was a promise between Maria and her older sister, Bronya. The sisters had made a pact to flee Warsaw for Paris so they could pursue their studies freely. For financial reasons, the two would have to go in turns. First, Bronya studied to become a medical doctor while Maria sent her the money she earned from her crappy governess job back in Poland. Then it was Maria’s turn to go. She moved to France, where she would one day discover ionizing radiation. 

Love, invention, discovery, and conception: all are often said to spark or to be sparked into existence. Physical things that spark when struck include sugar, quartz, diamond, bone, and dentin. 

The Curie brothers demonstrated piezoelectricity with some sugar, minerals, wire, and a jeweler’s saw. Here’s how it works: some substances, when stretched or squeezed, become electrically unbalanced. Their structures deform so that their positive and negative charges, which usually sum to neutral, are separated. This creates an electrically unstable situation that the electrons remedy by springing back to the protons. The reunion of charges generates current.

Sometimes, when a molecule’s structure is not merely deformed but all the way broken, the nitrogen in the air between the separated protons and electrons gets excited by all of those flying electrons, and gives off blue and ultraviolet light in response. The technical word for this is triboluminescence, but we know it simply as lightning. Sugar makes it. So does ice when it cracks. And diamonds. And Scotch tape ripped off in the dark. And splintered bones. (This electricity may, in fact, be part of what mends them.) And the quartz (what Pliny called frozen ice), whose invariable resonance keeps time on the watches we wear on our pulses. And the dentin of our teeth. And the Life Savers we crunch between them. (The flavor crystals of Wint-O-Green Life Savers absorb the lightning that grinding sugar makes and light up blue in your mouth until the wetness of your saliva puts it out.) 

_____

In April of 1932, a drunken Hart Crane, pining for some handsome spurning mariner, removed his coat, bid a generic “goodbye” to his shipmates and, with a recently fist-blackened eye, leapt over the rail of the SS Orizaba to drown in the Gulf of Mexico. The poet was a big fan of Melville. 

When Crane was twelve, his father invented the Life Saver candy. It was 1912, the summer after the Titanic brushed its fatal berg, and the “summer candy’s” ring shape, an artifact of the pill-making machines used to manufacture it, capitalized on the popularity of recently invented throwable life preservers. “For that stormy breath,” read the early Life Savers ads. The SS Orizaba stopped its engines and sent lifeboats to circle above Crane for two hours, then continued its course like the ships that ferried the Titanic’s 706 shivering survivors twenty Aprils earlier, onward to the docks of New York.

Also invented shortly after the Titanic’s ill-fated cruise: sonar

Early sonar utilized a copper tube and an alternating current to transmit sound waves underwater. Later, Paul Langevin, a former student of Pierre Curie and rumored short-time lover of Pierre’s widow Marie, used the piezoelectric property of quartz—which generates a current when compressed and compresses when under current—to echolocate, like dolphins and whales, in the ocean. From these early innovations ultrasound technology was born.

Also in 1912, Warsaw-born chemist Kazimierz Funk isolated the first vitamin; the son of a balloonist, Albert Berry, made the first parachute jump from an airplane—1,500 feet—and, though unhurt, vowed not to repeat it; escapologist Harry Houdini debuted his Water Torture Cell act; the general populace believed that empty shells amplified the sound of their own blood; and Ernst Gaupp published his mind-blowing idea about the ear-bone link between embryonic mammals and extant reptiles, an idea that would become triply mind-blowing when, in less than a year, paleontologists and embryologists would finally begin working together. Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe had been translated into twenty-four languages by 1912, and cubism was about to shift from paintings to cardboard guitars. 

There is something of Ernst Haeckel in cubism’s early paintings, something of the Recapitulation Theory. I’m reminded of bones and arches skittering like tectonic plates through hybrid skulls and am compelled to agree with the cubists. There is truth in a portrait that depicts a thing from all angles at once, or at least its most memorable facets, even as the subject moves by turns in time and through space, merging, as a projection must, with its background—there fast, here slow, there catching up again, much like cells migrating hither and yon in utero. One of the corollaries of cubism was that even simultaneity is relative. Cubist paintings swept between opacity and translucence, nodding to Einstein in their conveyance of matter’s plasticity, and matter’s alter ego: waves. It’s no wonder the movement culminated with stringed instruments. 

Marie Curie fell ill and did not work much in 1912. Though she had just received a second Nobel Prize for the isolation of radium and polonium, a smear campaign that accused her of defaming her deceased husband by having an affair with Pierre’s student, the married, handlebar-mustachioed Langevin, took such a toll that she and her two daughters spent the year in reclusion. Marie was still devastated by the convergence of random events six Aprils earlier: a rain-slickened Rue Dauphine; a horse-drawn cart coming fast and heavily laden off the Seine’s Pont Neuf; a noisy tourist tram also passing; the river’s surface bombarded by rain like gamma-rays, pitted by alphas, pocked by betas; a man, her husband, his senses obscured by scientific reverie, romantic enthrallment, and an overly big umbrella, crossing the street with the slur and staccato of a man whose very gait has been radiated, the calcium in his bones swapped for glowing, singing radium; Pierre’s heels slipping; the horses miraculously passing over but the wheel not missing, and Pierre’s skull submitting to a painterly rearrangement of interpenetrating pieces. 

“Sixteen bony fragments,” wrote daughter Eve.4

“What was he dreaming of this time?” his father angrily lamented.5 Marie wrote, “Yesterday, at the cemetery, I did not succeed in understanding the words ‘Pierre Curie’ engraved on the stone.”6

The heart suffers no backtalk.

 

10. A DOUBLE-EDGED MODERNITY

One night near the end of “A Sound Start,” Mrs. H opened the class by prompting the women to imagine their cervixes as pink fleshy doughnuts, firm and plump and perfectly round. A cervix is a muscle, she explained, just like a heart, and labor is its time for lub-dubbing. She strode around the room with her arms crossed, her face lit up with a self-satisfied smile. She was giving us time to get used to these images.

Our muscles would need to be soft and relaxed in order to do the work of childbirth, she said; it would help if we were to telegraph encouraging thoughts to them. She asked us to close our eyes so that we could better leaven our cervixes. Her pants swished as she walked around lowering the window blinds and twiddling their poles to slant them shut. The harder I tried to block out these noises, the more colossally I failed at doing it. As long as I could hear Mrs. H moving about, the sounds of her body were all I could telegraph to my cervix.

“Having more sex with your husbands won’t hurt either!” she called, her voice like a twig snapping and flushing all hope of calm thoughts from our mental perches. Around the room, people fake-chuckled. We knew from our previous week’s lecture on inductions and interventions what would happen if our cervixes didn’t cooperate at the appointed time. If it turned out that nice thoughts and clumsy, turtle-like intercourse weren’t softening enough, and our due dates were drawing uncomfortably near, our doctors would smear our cervixes with a “ripening” hormone derived, it was rumored, from pig spunk. And if that didn’t work, we would be given an intravenous hormone of a similar origin. In any case, we were absolutely not to feel like failures as women. Or mothers. Or, for that matter, human beings. Just because our species had been giving birth without the aid of pig spunk for a million years or more didn’t mean we were evolutionary chaff if we failed to do so ourselves. That kind of prideful thinking was sure to lead to a bad case of the Baby Blues. The important thing was Baby. Pronounced just this way: Baaaaaby! Ten fingers. Ten toes. Everything in between. 

I tried to think nice thoughts, but the effort of communing with my cervix was making me too self-conscious and distancing me from whatever messages I was supposed to be sending and/or receiving. Instead, I recalled how my sister and I played with string phones as kids and what we inevitably did after assessing the lower end of the phones’ sensitivity. As long as the line remained taut, we could air our thoughts with impunity. In the lobby of my doctor’s office, I couldn’t help thinking the bad things. 

Loud and messy, ugly Baby. Our babies would be more fragile than the dingy dolls we self-consciously practiced on in class, but less fragile than we thought, or so Mrs. H said. They would have holes in between their skull plates—Jesus, holes!—below which their brains would visibly pulse, and which we would want, naturally, to guard with our ever-loving lives. (For years, I would be afraid to tarry beneath a wintry overhang with my son for fear of falling icicles.) They would have scabby stumps of rotting-off umbilical cords that we would want to keep clean, but not too. And shit like seedy mustard. And delicate flop-necks, the folds of which would foment a sour cheese. And nails that would draw blood from their faces but rip like paper moons from tiny perforate sheaves. It was better, said Mrs. H, to tear them than to cut them free. We should wash their faces before their butts and always be sure to mind their eyes. Their eyes would be too new to leak tears. But they would still cry. Oh boy, would they. The sound of it would take to your heart like a seam ripper to a skirt’s hem. Their lungs and voices would more than make up for the tearlessness. Make no mistake: we would know when our babies were upset. On the bright side, we were told, when our babies screamed at us, we would be able to smell the sweet honey of their breaths.

When Mrs. H decided we’ d gone long enough thinking positively, she clapped her hands several times to rouse us. Then she tossed a roll of Life Savers at the person on the nearest end of the U-shaped row our seats were arranged in. The candies would demonstrate the process by which a cervix effaces and dilates during a normal labor and delivery, she explained. She told us all to take a candy and suck on it. 

Mrs. H used a stopwatch to coordinate what came next. When she gave us the go-ahead, we all placed our candies on our tongues. She instructed us to sit there and suck until she decided that we were ready to go into labor. At regular intervals thereafter, Mrs. H asked us to retrieve our candies from our tongues so that we could see how, first, the life preserver becomes thinner (effaces), and then the hole begins to expand (dilates) until eventually it grows wide enough to accommodate the diameter of a newborn baby’s head. “See there, that wasn’t so bad, now was it, Dads?” she chirped. Some people’s mouths were pasty, so their cervixes remained stubbornly undissolved at the end of the demonstration. Some accidentally swallowed their candies. One guy became so nervous during the exercise that he accidentally crunched down hard on his make-believe cervix, grinding it to sticky mortar between his back teeth. One woman’s cervix was lost to the carpet as its owner attempted to retrieve it from her outstretched tongue. She declined to take another. One of us who was already wise to her cervix resented being made to show her tongue in public and was angry about the whole stupid exercise to begin with. Ahem. Several women resolved to request caesareans. I let out a small burp which gave way to one of the episodes of painful spastic hiccupping that had come to characterize my pregnancy.

By the time I was made to suck on my symbolic cervix in a roomful of people, I already had several months of cervix-themed metaphor-making under my belt. However, up until then no combination of candy, doughnuts, hearts, fists, and/or life preservers had occurred to me. My sister told me early on that cervixes are just giant buttholes and, as her expertise was hard-earned, this was the pragmatic direction I was leaning toward. But then, in my obstetrician’s imaging office I learned that a cervix could be so much more than a sphincter. It could be of a whole different species. 

 

11. AMPHIBIAN ACOUSTICS

Our inner amphibians aren’t as quiet as our inner fishes. Since our vocal cords evolved by way of frogs from lungfish, animals whose gills no longer serve the purpose of gas exchange, I guess this makes sense. It is funny, though, to think that the first vocal cords evolved to protect fish from drowning. Now we use them to cry for help.

Our inner amphibians make themselves known whenever we succumb to hiccups—which, writes Shubin in Your Inner Fish, are the evolutionary vestiges of tadpole breathing. When a tadpole “breathes” underwater, it takes a big gulp of water to replenish its gills with oxygen. Then a quick hic closes the flap that seals off its ripening lungs. In the same way, when we hiccup our diaphragms tighten, causing a big involuntary in-suck of air. This spasm triggers the closure of our glottises, the V-shaped cleft between our vocal cords, shutting off the passage to our delicate lungs and thereby protecting us from drowning. 

I wish I could tell Haeckel all of this because I think he would find it validating. He was a teenager when scientists figured out that “vocal cords” is a misnomer because our larynxes function a hell of a lot more like woodwinds than stringed instruments. “Vocal cords,” in its romantic similarity to “heart strings,” lingers in the vernacular like the blood explanation for shell sounds, like “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” on my paleontology professor’s favorite T-shirt.

That human babies hiccup a lot, both as infants and in utero, suggests there is some developmental benefit involved, and many believe hiccups are a way for embryos to get ready for suckling. If this is true, hiccups are an ontogenic vestige, and not a phylogenic one; we should give them up, or they us, as soon as we have outgrown the bottle or the breast. Beyond suckling age, hiccups are proof of a coordination glitch brought about by simultaneously attempting to do two contradictory or contra-indicated things—laughing while crying, or swallowing while breathing. Hiccups occur when we are either ambivalent or amphibious. Sometimes, though rarely, we get hiccups when an insect finds its way into our ear canals and tickles our eardrums.

I squirm to think of the sound of a bug knocking on my tympanum, and my heart goes out to those who endure tinnitus, their cochlear hair cells doubled over and broken, damaged by loud music or loud labor or both. People with tinnitus are forced to continually hear, or try not to hear, an insectile whine, chirrup, or hum, or a cardiac throb and whoosh. In the late nineteenth century, some doctors believed that the biggest job of the ear was to filter out the roar of our blood so we could hear things going on outside of ourselves. I can’t decide if the problem of intently blocking out a sound is the same as or the opposite of the problem of intensely listening. Either way you’re doomed to fail due to self-attentiveness. As Steven Connor points out, efforts to listen carefully to a sound distract us with self-admiration. On the flip side, efforts to ignore a sound only sharpen our focus on it via maddeningly self-aware frustration. We so often get in the way of ourselves.

Beethoven suffered from tinnitus. As did Madame Curie. I wonder if Curie’s tinnitus played the score of photons erupting from radium. I wonder if Neil Shubin, should he develop tinnitus, would hear tree frogs blowing their balloon-like Helmholtz resonators. Maybe a widow hears the whistle through her perennially leaky window. Maybe a bereaved mother hears a red arterial throb. (Are you there? Come back!) They say that Beethoven used to clamp his jaws to a rod attached to his piano’s soundboard, so that its vibrations, after kicking him in the bones of his skull, could meet their maker full on, like a kiss on the brain, a bug on the drum, and a piezoelectric spark, all at once.

And so I confess: I find it hard to resist romantic enthrallment when thinking about amphibians and what it must have taken, evolutionarily, for an animal to go from filtering water through gills to respiring air through lungs. Like an infant at the moment of its birth, a pollywog knits the subaqueous life to a life powered by breath. To deal with the transition, he hiccups. 

My son and I both suffered terrible hiccups during the time we shared my skin. His were amphibious, where mine were a little ambivalent. His struck me as especially violent. Their aftershocks used to rock in me, the epicenter of my belly visibly rippling, particularly after a meal and often, I could feel, in the first moments after I’ d fallen asleep.

One night toward the end of my pregnancy, I slept through a thunderclap that startled my son. I could feel him throw out all four of his limbs in the classic Moro Reflex, a vestige for which we have our hairier, less upright ancestors to thank—in order to survive, most simian babies need to be able to automatically reach around and cling hard to their kin. Jarred awake, I threw out my limbs as if to catch him, as if seized by a hypnic jerk—itself an evolutionary vestige, left over from when our ancestors made their beds in trees. My son threw out his limbs, and I mine. Then he began hiccupping. And then I did.

These were things propagated in waves that built and radiated and amplified and interfered with each other, like rings from a skipped stone or sound waves from a soup can’s umbilicus: the boom spooked him and he woke me, like a thought, from the inside, and I heard again, this time awake, the thunder whose echo rang round the forest outside our rain-slashed window. Fixed in the next bright flash, waiting tensely this time to hear it, I fed my adrenalin back to him. The two of us hic-gulped in our inner and outer dark realms together, straddling not only disparate versions of ourselves—aquatic and terrestrial, mother and not-yet—but also life itself, the tenuous margins that bracket birth, consciousness, hearing, vision, and breath. The adrenaline rang like a shell song in my ears. I couldn’t make out what it said.

 

12. DIAGNOSTIC LISTENING

The French doctor and flautist who invented the first stethoscope did so in 1816 when he found himself in a precarious situation with a patient. René Laennec was presented with a fat young lady whom he suspected of a heart condition, a palpitation that he was dually thwarted from diagnosing not only because of the ineffectiveness of applying immediate auscultation—listening, ear to flesh—to a person of her girth but also because of the awkwardness of placing his tender ear to her lonely, ample breast. Laennec surely knew about the resonance property of cylinders. He rolled a piece of paper into the shape of his beloved musical instrument, and thereby gave rise to mediate auscultation—listening, but from a cool remove. 

The stethoscope evolved rapidly from there. An advertisement from 1866 warns of inferior devices that produce a sound reminiscent of “the child’s toy resonator, a sea-shell,” and a manual in 1893 says, “The principal pathological venous murmur is the venous hum or bruit de diable. It is compared to the sound heard on placing a sea shell of moderately large size against the ear.”7 In other words, if a shell sounds like blood, it’s doing its job. If, on the other hand, the blood sounds like a shell, either the stethoscope is bedeviled or the heart is.

 

13. A COORDINATION GLITCH

Tended by a heavily perfumed ultrasound technician, I lay on a paper-lined examination table with knees bent and legs in the air. Booties covered the stirrups so that my heels pressed into the yawning maws of two prosthetic sock puppets. The booties were a lot like the cozies my grandma used to sew for toasters and blenders when I was a kid, except instead of bright, tropical patterns featuring parrots and palm trees, each mitt bore the carefully crafted logo of some pharmaceutical company, some made up O- and V-words silk-screened in a purple font that had been field-tested by people in-the-know to evoke my fraternal-twin entitlements. The product’s name was less memorable to me than its message: You are feminine, yet free here, it seemed to say, and Ask your doctor if [insert O- and V-words] is right for you. Like the table, the booties were about half the length of the body part it was designed to accommodate, and it seemed to me that everything in the room, down to my waffle-woven paper-towel gown, was, if not created with some homunculus in mind, then perhaps just hacked off, a phrase which also properly describes the frame of mind these appointments tended to find me in. 

The technician, who had the advantage of being neither naked nor, as far as I could tell, worried about vomiting or urinating on herself over the course of the exam, was also pretty and, in the parlance of our fashion industry, petite. First she prepared the equipment, and then me. She played the straight man (as, in a few months, Mrs. H’s eyes sometimes tellingly did) while I scooted my butt in a series of jerky, paper-ripping increments to a precipitous dangle over the table’s edge. She spoke to me in a soft, inflectionless voice that I’m sure wasn’t meant to make me feel like a child, a hothead, a moron, or some combination thereof. 

“I need you all the way down at the end of the table. A little bit more. A bit farther, still. There. Okay. Oops, not quite that far. Can you back it up for me, please?” she said. “We don’t want you falling off. There you go. Okay, that’s right. Okay, perfect.” At the start of my second trimester, I had already begun to lose track of the flesh beneath the hard, proud mound of my new belly, but I pictured it in my awkwardness as something monstrous and über-mammalian, so much of it and all so far from my sensible head, rippling with the flaccidity of something recently anesthetized.

“Normally, this wouldn’t be necessary,” the technician said as she shook a truly colossal tube of K-Y Jelly as if it weren’t a truly colossal tube of K-Y Jelly. “The doctor must have seen something on your ultrasound that he wants to get a closer look at.” To this end, she needed to insert a wand—something I declined to look at, but imagined as a cross between a Mr. Microphone and a snake light—into my vagina and angle it around for twenty or so minutes. 

One of the more reliable consolations in life is knowing how the instruments of your torture operate. Had this been the kind of test I was used to taking, one that could be completed fully dressed and with the addition of only pencil and paper, I would have explained that the ultrasound wand about to go in my vagina had piezoelectric quartz crystals in its tip, and that, as soon as the wand was turned on, those crystals would deform in response to a pulsing electric current. Between pulses, the crystals would relax with an emission of sound waves that would travel through my flesh at some frequency that was too high for me to hear, but not so high as to cook me or my tiny offspring. The sound waves would pass through my insides, moving at different speeds through different tissues and reflecting back to the wand at the boundaries where densities changed. The wand would receive the reflected sound waves and relay their arrival times to the computer. In the next millionth of a second, another electric pulse would go out and the whole thing would happen all over again. This would go on as long as the wand’s business end was plugged into me and its cord into the computer. The slight time discrepancies in this quicker-than-lightning exchange would create a moving picture of my insides, and maybe Beethoven’s Ode to Joy would begin to play.

“Would you be more comfortable inserting this yourself, or would you like me to do it?” the technician asked, holding up the Mr. Microphone for me to see. 

“Uh, no thanks,” I said.

“ ‘No thanks,’ you’ d like to insert it? Or ‘no thanks,’ you’ d like me to insert it?” she asked.

I was desperate for her to stop saying insert. “No thanks, you can do it,” I said.

As soon as the technician inserted the wand, a black-and-white image snapped onto the screen. Then the sonographer took hold of the wand and began guiding a remote tour of my reproductive system. It was hard for me to interpret the squishy Rorschach blots that she pointed out to me. Mostly I was struck by how the walls of my uterus showed up striped on her monitor. My working days were spent in labs and lecture halls looking at all manner of macroscopically and microscopically striped things—shells and rocks and mud, analyses of water columns and ice cores, chemical and temperature profiles, and so on—and I knew from my training that stripes are tellingly narrative. Looping the fantastic to the scientific, I couldn’t help wondering what secret record the laminae of my insides kept. I imagined there was a mantle for every time I had ever ovulated, and I supposed some stripes were thicker than others depending on my age and the season they were laid down, and whether times were hard or soft then, love fat or lean, and whether the love was the love of self or the love of a man. I pictured them like sheet music. 

In short order, my portion of the exam was over and it was time for my son’s to begin. In the middle of all the dark pixilated strata, his form appeared. 

In the previous twenty weeks my son had morphed from a primitive seahorse-like being with gills, notochord, and tail to a creature more suitable for land-living, with a brain, lungs, and limbs. He now had hands and feet attached to arms and legs, and he could flag them with enough vigor for me to distinguish his motions from the rumblings of my dyspeptic gut. Quickening, the doctors call it. Coming to life. The quick from the dead. 

It was noisy in there from all of the blood, I had read, like a vacuum cleaner or a super-amplified shell song, which is why babies will soothe to a “hush,” but only if it is spoken loudly enough. Still, my son could hear things and recognize my voice, even if the sound arrived as through beds of silt or a stack of blankets. He was learning my routines effortlessly by ear. I thrilled at how, when I laughed out loud, I could see his limbs flutter on screen like little polyps reaching out for plankton. Watching him made me laugh harder, and in that way we locked into another one of our feedback loops together. 

A being within a being, he was. A signature within a signature, and a record within a record. I recalled a seminar I had recently attended about otoliths, the tiny stones that grow deep in our inner ears, and also in the earless skulls of fish. Crystallized from elements in seawater, “ear rocks” work like ballast in fish, helping them to orient themselves and navigate when they swim. Not only are their shapes unique to each species, but otoliths are also striped. They have concentric layers that can be counted and measured like tree rings, except instead of each ring accounting for a year, each one accounts for a single day in the life of a fish. 

I remembered how, after the otolith lecture, a group of professors and graduate students from the geology department assembled for lunch in a nearby restaurant. My graduate advisor ordered a whole steamed fish for our table and was warned by the server that it would take longer than all of the other dishes we had ordered to come out. When the fish finally arrived, my advisor explained to us all that the cheeks are the most tender parts of a fish, but you must beware of the otoliths. She prized a gray lump of cheek meat out of one of the sockets with a pair of chopsticks and set it on the plate in front of me. 

“The first thing to do about the pregnancy,” she lowered her voice and said to me privately, “is get on the wait list for the university’s daycare.” That way, she explained, I could walk over and nurse my baby every couple of hours, just as she had done when she was a brand-new parent at the U. I stared into the blue, rheumy eyeball of the fish on its platter. I could bring in a bassinet, she said, to place between the two mass spectrometers. The hum of the instruments and the air hoods would lull my son to sleep. This would not only obviate a bouncy seat that broadcast ocean waves or maternal heartbeats—which then, to be fair, I didn’t even know existed—but also allow me to continue running samples through the lab and training the new graduate students. Then she said to eat up because fish are loaded with calcium. 

Thinking of my tiny fetus while about to eat cheek meat made me feel vaguely cannibalistic, and I remembered how crazy it drove me to hear grown-ups tell their kids that there is a baby in Mommy’s stomach, as if mommies grow babies by eating them. I thought about how my son’s bones were probably growing faster than they ever would again, recording in their atoms some lovely cryptic proof of the days and meals we shared. I ate the fish and it was good.

These things came to me in super-condensed associative form during that ultrasound. The monitor was a perfectly polished surface which captured and returned the pulse of my present, past, and future—all without, I dearly hoped, steaming the baby whom I took such comfort in finding so far evolved from a fish. Because I was in such thrall to all this, I cannot recall at what point during the exam the sonographer’s demeanor changed. But change, it did.

“Okay,” she said, extracting the snake light and handing me a stack of tissues, “the doctor will be in to see you in just a few minutes. After that you can get dressed and use the bathroom.” Something in her tone told me that this was not a test I had passed. She excused herself and slunk sideways through the cracked door and out into the hallway. I swiped at myself with the stupid tissues and sat up to toss them into the trash. My feet still in the sock puppets, I collapsed back down onto the table, this time letting my knees fall together. It occurred to me that the booties were the only things in the office I would come into direct contact with that wouldn’t be thrown away or autoclaved after I left; I suddenly hated them intensely, and wished I had worn socks instead of sandals that day. I hated the smell of the sonographer’s perfume that lingered, and I resented its intrusion. I hated how badly I needed to pee. 

I turned away from the image frozen on the monitor—which looked just fine to me, thanks—and, without comprehending, stared at a series of posters depicting the cross-sections of ethnically ambiguous women, each suspended in a different stage of her pregnancy. I lay on the table and waited alongside them, grateful for the kinship at least. 

 

14. FLYING FISH ACOUSTICS

A twelve-week-old fetus is about two inches long. This is how big it has become by the time the pregnancy, simply by enduring, has declared itself viable. Also, two inches is the length to which a flying fish must grow before it can lift off. Smaller than that and the water’s surface tension overwhelms, keeping the fish from breaking through. 

Fish evolved flight to escape predators. A flying fish begins its escape by building up speed while aiming skyward. When it reaches the surface, it only partially breaches. Its tail remains submerged. It holds its side fins like airfoils into the wind while furiously vibrating its tail fin under water. This it does at the rate of about fifty hertz, or beats per second, the same frequency at which most of the world receives its electrical current. The flying fish’s tail fin whirs like a mainspring until its action is wound tight enough. Then the fish soars up and all the way out of the water; something hungry is left behind, baffled. An arc may be as high as four feet and as long as three-quarters the length of the RMS Titanic. In order to pull off these aerial stunts, flying fish, though small, grow the largest otoliths of any fish species.

 

15. AVIAN ACOUSTICS

“Your cervix is beaking, dear,” the doctor said after a quick, brow-furrowed assessment of the ultrasound images. “Do you see that triangle-shaped opening up there? Looks like a beak?” He rapped on the monitor with his knuckle. “That shouldn’t be there. You have what we call ‘incompetent cervix.’ Your cervix is opening prematurely. That beak you see there will keep getting bigger. Eventually the bag of waters will start to descend through the birth canal.” (This he demonstrated with a cow-milking gesture.) “Aaaaand your water will rupture.” (Exploding his fingers outward.) “We don’t want to take any chances, so we’ll have to perform a cerclage, probably in the next week or two.” 

“A what?” I asked.

“A cervical cerclage,” he said. “What we’ll do is we’ll admit you to the hospital and give you a little anesthetic, see. Just something to make you sleepy. And then I’ll thread a purse-string stitch through the cervix.” He interlaced his fingertips. “Then I’ll draw it closed to cinch the cervix up tight like this.” He pressed his palms together and smiled really big. “Like a purse. Not a modern purse with a clasp, of course,” he laughed, “but an old-fashioned one, like one of your great-grandmother’s purses. In most cases the pregnancy can be carried to term after this with few complications, but we’ll want to keep a close eye on you. The critical thing is to make it to about thirty weeks. After that, Baby will be able to breathe and swallow at the same time, and that’s pretty important if we want to avoid tubing.” 

My mind flashed to the casts of pre-dinosaur reptiles I’ d seen in college, the paddle-limbed crocodilian creatures that hadn’t yet evolved the anatomy to simultaneously swallow and breathe. More than anything, I did not want to give birth to a proto-crocodile. 

“But is an anesthetic safe?” I asked.

“Oh yes, perfectly safe. It’s just a spinal block like the one you’re likely to have when you’re in labor. It wears off after fifteen minutes or so. We probably won’t put you all the way under. Of course there’s always some risk associated with anesthesia, but it’s really pretty minimal. We do it all of the time.”

“Well, when does the purse thing come out? Do I have to have a caesarean if I get this . . . what’s it called again?”

“Cerclage. No, no, no. We’ll take the stitch out in the office a couple of weeks before Baby’s due date, if we make it that far. That’s just a quick snip, no biggie. We’ll do that right here in the office. And you can keep the stitch and put it in Baby’s scrapbook, if you like.” 

I visualized the cord that binds the drumsticks of roasting chickens, and the way it looks when it’s time to pull the chicken from the oven. “No thanks,” I grimaced, “but what if I go into labor before the . . . stitch thing . . . comes out?”

“Well, we’ll have to get it out as soon as you go into labor. Otherwise it can tear your cervix. Also—and you should really be made aware of this—we don’t routinely perform cervical cerclages at this stage. Usually at this point it’s too late. Unfortunately, diagnoses of incompetent cervix tend to be made after a woman has serially miscarried a number of viable fetuses. You’re very lucky in that regard. This is your first, right? Yes? No? Well, the down side is that the surgery is a lot riskier at this stage, and can cause you to go into labor prematurely. There’s the possibility of bed rest.”

“Bed rest?” I whined.

“Yes, it’s not uncommon for a mother with an incompetent cervix to have partial or complete activity limitation for the duration of her pregnancy after the stitch is put in. The important thing is to keep your eye on the prize,” he said, wagging a finger at my belly. “It’s all worth it in the end, right?”

The doctor went on to explain how fortunate I was to be having a baby in an era in which ultrasound imaging is commonplace. Cervical weakness is genetic, he said. Did my mother have any miscarriages, he wanted to know. In fact she did, between my sister and me. My own premature birth might be evidence of her cervical incompetence, he explained.

Then the doctor leaned in to examine the screen more closely. The glow of the monitor illuminated the parts of his face that were accustomed to shadow, inverting his features and making him look clownish. His tie, I could see from that angle, was a clip-on. In light of the proposed surgery, this struck me as funny, but not in a way that boosted my confidence. “Everything looks beautiful otherwise. Just beautiful. A-OK, then,” he smiled and said, offering a bare hand to pull me up to sitting.

In the space where questions and protestations belonged, I could only offer stunned silence. In a few minutes, my doctor would repeat the whole explanation while drawing a cartoon of my cervix on a prescription pad. It didn’t help. Somehow the species had gotten all wrong. Everything was getting off at the wrong evolutionary bus stop. If ontogeny actually does recapitulate phylogeny in the anatomical sense, I might have expected to see an inner fish, amphibian, or reptile up there on the ultrasound screen. But birds and mammals diverged at a reptilian fork; I absolutely should not have seen an inner bird. Why, I wondered, was my body recapping phylogeny like some kind of weird nesting doll—my son a miniature croc, my womb a bird, myself the mammal that had hungrily devoured them all? Why was my body more a food chain than the venue of a recapitulation play?

I struggled to imagine how my cervix, like a lazy stork, was threatening to spit out my baby, especially now that it had grown legs and was no longer so fishlike. In the following months, I would stew on fables of birds and bird chicanery. I would read about Aesop’s crane who masqueraded as a stork in order to keep from being slaughtered alongside its seed-thieving kin, and about Greek gods punishing women for their hubris by transforming them into birds—in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the irreverence of the Pygmy queen provokes Juno to change her into a crane, separating her lifelong from her infant son. I would read Pliny the Elder’s claim that cranes sleep along the shore at night, assigning a sentinel to keep watch—a guard crane who clutched a stone in its upheld foot so that, should it drowse, the stone would drop with a plink into the water and wake it.

I imagined my son tumbling from the crop of some dumb incompetent bird just as it was beginning to nod off, and then freefalling and disappearing without so much as a ripple into the terrible indifference of the ocean. I imagined all of our feedback loops broken, his body sunk and silted over, his bones too soft for fossils, dissolved and taken into a school of earless fishes. He would never again hear me, I feared, nor I for the first time hear him. I believed that this was the price I would have to pay for the ambivalence I felt toward impending motherhood. It was too steep, all of it.

 

16. MUSICAL REMAINS

During the spring of my appointed purse-string surgery, workers from the Titanic Ancient DNA Project exhumed the body of a young child who had been spared burial at sea. That the women on the Titanic likely had purses with cords akin to the one that was supposed to cinch my cervix closed—“reticules,” they were called, derived from the French for “net”—was just one of the reasons this news story obsessed me. The main reason was that there was this baby whose body had gone unclaimed and whose identity was unknown. 

The captain of the ship that recovered Child #4 said that what he saw looked at first like a flock of seagulls bobbing restfully on the water. That’s because the water was calm, and at a distance only the gray fabric of nine life vests was visible. The captain said that when the ship drew nearer, he could see the baby’s face was held aloft, fringed by his fair hair and the fur-trimmed collar of the coat his mother had taken care to fasten around him. The captain and his crew personally saw to the boy’s burial. 

Child #4 was the only baby whose body was recovered. I don’t know if he was put to rest in his coat—I dearly hope so—but I do know that he was buried without his shoes. In order to prevent looting, the workers assigned to collect the Titanic’s floating wreckage were ordered to destroy her passengers’ personal effects. Stacks of garments were bundled and bound with string and then burned onshore. But one pair of tiny brown leather shoes was spared in secret by a supervising police officer who kept them for the remainder of his career, like a placeholder, in a box tucked into a desk drawer. The shoes belonged to Child #4.

_____

My research at the U involved collecting and assaying the shells of lake bugs, and my main chore after the purse-string surgery was to prepare the graduate students who would be taking over my work while I was on maternity leave. On the way back from collecting samples one day, one of the students and I got stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Mississippi River Bridge. The driver in the car next to us kept looking over and grinning, and for some reason my passenger found this hilarious.

“Oh my god, that’s so funny!” she shrieked, then slapped her hand over her suddenly hiccupping mouth. She was the only non-pregnant person I knew who hiccupped as much as I did. I gave her my most disgusted what-the-hell frown and she pointed across my nose to the car where the now-humiliated guy was sitting. When she finally caught her breath, she turned the finger on me and said, “He doesn’t know you’re a . . . you’re a . . . you’re an (hic-gulp) iceberg!” It’s true, the steering wheel skidded over my bulge whenever I turned it. “All he can see is your head! And your . . . ” she gasped, slightly lowering the finger. “He thinks you’re hot but, like, most of you, like 98 percent of you, he can’t even see! Like an iceberg! Do you get it? Below the (hic-gulp) . . . surface? Iceberg? You’re like an . . . ?” 

Six stories above water, fifty or more below. I got it.

“Yeah. Huh. That’s funny,” I said. 

_____

Early in my pregnancy I learned that a fetus, if it has to, can harvest minerals from his mother’s skeleton in order to grow bones of his own. I already knew that to prevent calcium depletion the mother could supplement her diet with tablets mined from the fossilized shells of marine plankton—and the Tums had the added benefit of easing indigestion. At first I found this kind of cyclic process comforting. 

But the more vulnerable the pregnancy felt, the more I dwelled on the dark side of the cycle. I knew that if a mother died at sea, and gravity, a current, or the hunger of animals dragged her frame to the ocean floor, eventually the water down there would leech the minerals of her bones back to the soup from which, ultimately, we all were born, and maybe those minerals would wind up inside some netted fish’s skeletal or navigational system. I didn’t like thinking of the mother in the sea and the son on land. It was backwards from the whole pregnancy arrangement. But I was pleased to learn that, even though the groundwater in his cemetery was acidic, some pieces of Child #4’s skeleton remained after nearly ninety years beneath the stone that had been “erected to the memory of an unknown child . . . ”—a few honey-brown teeth and a sliver of arm bone. This wasn’t much, but maybe it was enough to reunite him, in name at least, with his mom.

The Titanic Ancient DNA Project discovered genetic material in the dentin of one of #4’s milk teeth. The DNA spoke to his maternal ancestry. Combining this genetic information with assessments of his age, which were based on his teeth’s wear and tear and crown development, workers were able to narrow #4’s identity from the list of the Titanic’s unrecovered passengers. Investigators concluded that Child #4 was a thirteen-month-old Finnish boy named Eino Viljami Panula.

About a year and a half later, the two teeth that had not been digested by laboratory analyses were reinterred. That same year, the police officer’s grandson returned Child #4’s shoes to the city of Halifax, where they were put on display under the heading “Unknown Child” at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. 

I suppose I hold onto this story because it fills me with the greed for life that I sometimes forget life deserves, and also because of the delicious sense I’m left with—that each of us is connected like sweat glands in some global human skin. I imagine that all of us are baby-loving and awe-seeking and somewhat ocean-obsessed, and I remember that we all are, in spite of every other way that we are common or dissimilar, exquisitely delicate and terribly short-lived. 

But then, after these and my other big responses wear off—my primal fears of the dark and cold and death and drowning, and my inculcated fears of love, loss, responsibility, and hubris—what nags me, what sticks and burs, is how badly I want to hear this boy’s name pronounced. I want to know what the syllables sound like without the interference of my skull and the intrusion of my Midwestern accent. I want to hear the words as they should sound, spoken aloud, in the boy’s mother tongue. Maybe my itch is born out of a desire for justice because of the Titanic’s mortality bias—fewer third-class passengers survived because fewer of them spoke English; they couldn’t understand the crew’s life-saving directives and didn’t want to leave their possessions. Or maybe it’s just because naming is a starting point for comprehension, in terms of both ontogeny and phylogeny, and because when a thing disappears we tend to loop in our minds back to its inception. Spoken words help us grapple with bereavement. We want to shout and scream and sing things. The other senses seem less vital by comparison with hearing; pictures and recordings refuse our pleas for interaction; smells fade the harder we try to smell them; taste is painfully fleeting and eventually sickens; touch can be too generic and, if it is skin we seek, may leave us ashamed of our attempts to make substitutions. But when we speak, the world answers us by giving our voice something to sink into, reflect off, or resonate in. Sound—as voice, as music—is, to my mind, the medium most evocative of the human spirit because, as philosopher Don Ihde wrote, “in the musical world as perhaps no other it is possible to create something from nothing [ . . . ] and when it passes there is no residue.”8

_____

Six years after my passenger pointed out my glacial proportions, the portion of bridge we’ d been stuck on collapsed into the Mississippi River. It wasn’t one of those bridge failures that result from runaway harmonic oscillations. In other words, it wasn’t a resonance disaster like the ones caused by soldiers marching on suspension bridges or people lurching in step to compensate for the sway their own walking created. It wasn’t like the time when twenty people performing syncopated Tae Bo exercises caused a 39-story shopping mall to collapse. It wasn’t a positive feedback problem. It was just good old chemical degradation. Rust ate away at the bridge’s hardware.

The same day the Mississippi River Bridge gave way, a BBC report was issued that declared the initial analyses of Child #4’s tooth DNA were erroneous. Thirteen-month-old Eino Viljami Panula from Finland became nineteen-month-old Sidney Leslie Goodwin from England, a boy who perished alongside his six third-class family members. This game of musical remains echoed in a weird way the struggle of my husband and me to land on a name for our son. We spent hours voicing names, trying to find the right one for the lifetime of stories we hoped my body sheltered, something unique that would honor our ancestors, and that our son would, in some distant, distant year, take to the grave with him. 

By the time the bridge collapsed, our son had grown into a kindergartener and also become a big brother. My husband missed the collapse by a couple of minutes—the same amount of time he was delayed at work by something trivial and unexpected. Or, more likely, more minutes than that. More likely that dalliance is a contrivance we invented to underscore our sense of being given a second chance. Survivors automatically do that. My husband called me when he was just short of the bridge to say that traffic on the interstate had come to a dead stop and there were crazies driving the wrong way on the highway’s entrances and exits, doing anything to get off; he didn’t yet know why he would be late, only that he would be. 

What I learned in the following moments fixed my memory like film in a chemical bath; the surge of my adrenaline made otherwise forgettable details indelible. I remember the squeak and shush of the oven door as it closed and then sealed shut, and the oven’s Fresnel-like light simultaneously nodding off. I remember the feel of my neck as I let go the phone from between my ear and shoulder. I remember taking off my oven mitts. 

The next time the phone rang I learned from a relative across the country what had happened. I turned on the news and saw a school bus cantilevered over the bridge’s fracture; the kids inside who had been on their way home from a water park were now dangling over the edge of the bridge. 

Imagined sensations snaked their way into my neural netting after that. My nightmares manifested that night, and many nights after, with a pressure that drove deep into my ears, and an alkalinity like soap high up in the caverns of my nose and throat. I dreamed of the turbid water coming in through my car windows, the green of it, the rush and bubble up into my sinuses, and I dreamed of the two car seats behind me that I would have to (but which one first?) manage to unbuckle, and the voices and forehead smells carried downstream like slippery paddlefish disappearing, and the side-scan sonar searching for cars and body-sized things afterward, and the horribly calculable distance things drifted, and the grotesquerie and failing tonic of science at this, the hands-in-the-air end of a tragedy, and the ridiculous double-edged modernity of all of it.

In geology, competence is a property of flow; it refers to the largest-size particle that a stream will pluck up and carry, and it varies as a function of speed. 

Putting things side by side doesn’t make them equal, doesn’t make a gill arch the same as an ear’s anvil, or a steamship the same as a truss arch bridge, or a cervix an errant bird—or an essay to reconcile those things a cubist’s rendering of a stringed instrument. It doesn’t make 1,517 dead in the icy water after promises of unsinkability the same as 13 dead during a routine summer commute. It doesn’t make a conflicted woman a rusted gusset plate, or a paint-streaked berg. It doesn’t make a lost baby a drowned poet or, at the other end (assuming there are ends), a lowly tadpole. But it does make what’s random seem explicable, even if it’s not, even if I haven’t unknotted and tightened and strummed all of its strings, or even played the woodwind of my own voice yet. 

At their headwaters, the currents of my worry tend to be one-way and uprootingly swift; they entrain as competently as any reticule can, as competently as a pair of baby shoes snags sentiment. When gradually the flow slows down, the bigger things fall out: catastrophe, carnage, nightmares of the apocalypse. By the time fear spreads and flattens like a river at its delta, its water braiding and choking, the finer things too will have settled—the minor pains, embarrassments, and regrets, each according to its own life-heft. When the details of the stories fade, our somatic memories linger. That sight, that sound, the taste and whiff and imagined pulse of it. With senses like ours, how can we help looping the scientific back to the fantastic?

I wonder if, while grinding against the ship’s hull, the glacial ice produced piezoelectric sparks that dazzled the Titanic’s crew and passengers. I read once that the people who stood on her deck that moonless night in 1912 collected the pieces of ice that showered down and dropped them into their drinks, as though they were precious, as though they were gifts. Those are sounds I think of often.

In the end, it turned out that my cervix wasn’t really so incompetent. The pregnancy lingered, hugely and ponderously, for weeks after the stitch was removed, and my son was born naturally—without the catalyst of pig spunk—a full ten days after he was due. What happened was—and forgive me dear reader for not saying so sooner, because I still don’t really like to talk about it—I lost my son’s twin within a couple of days of my sister sending me to the pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test. This may have been—may have been—the reason for my cervix’s beaking. In any cases, the question wasn’t what to do about the loss—there was nothing—but what to do after it. 

 

17. A CURIOUS RESONANCE

Also in 1912, Picasso constructed his groundbreaking cardboard and string guitar. Its materials were similar to a string phone’s, except instead of a soup can there was a paper-towel tube. The tube played the role of the guitar’s sound hole. By sticking out of the guitar, the sound hole inverted negative space. It was like a skin wrapped round a secret—we knew it was there all along, but had never previously been able to grasp it—and it seemed to make the voice of the guitar more human, more woodwind, sharper, and more direct. Like Lanneac’s first stethoscope. All in all, the instrument resembled an opened-up chest cavity, its strings forming a slack net that spilled over its corrugated neck. Neither painting nor sculpture, it was its own object—a cardboard and string guitar. 

This heralded an important shift in cubism. The paintings meant to depict simultaneity had begun obscuring instead of illuminating the painters’ subjects; all of that shard-like movement had started getting in the way; to remain viable, the movement had to evolve. The cubists seemed to conclude that scientific truth is not enough and neither is vision. We know things not only by formulae and senses, but also by how we’ve encoded what we’ve learned, by associations, words, and intuition. Symbols are key. So, instead of being time-warped, cubism’s second movement was pun-riddled. Puns are amphibious and ambivalent, of two worlds and two directions. They invite us to problem-solve, to participate, and the participation is always iterative. So long as there are no right or wrong answers, there are also no dead ends. Conflict is inherent, but so is twining. Whether we find an empty shell ear-shaped, heart-shaped, or vulvate, its sound tells us who we are and what problems we bring to it. From Picasso’s guitars came more guitars, increasingly two-dimensional ones, and also violins. There were paintings with sheet music, strummers, and trumpets. The new work asked with what minimum qualities can we be presented and still recognize the subject. 

18. the trumpet

Coming out of the cerclage surgery, I had the distant sensation of my belly hardening as my doctor drove his Doppler monitor over it. His wand made tracks in the blue gel I knew, but could not feel, was cold. My baby’s heartbeat could always be found low on my left side.

“Do you hear that,” the doctor asked me loudly and firmly, more of a directive than a question. “Baby’s just fine.” 

I rolled my leaden head against the pillow and, whimpering, lied: “No, I can’t hear it.”

The rhythm hovered somewhere outside of me, like a butterfly, skittish and too light. Not the whoosh or usual horse clopping. Not the clicking of teeth in the gear that once kept something vital running in me. I tried, but it wouldn’t sink in, my heart wouldn’t hear it. I felt, in every sense, beside myself.

“Sure you can, dear,” the doctor said after indulging me with a longer-than-usual listen. Then I heard the switch of his machine flipping off, the metallic slap of his clipboard snapping shut, and finally the receding click of his heels, whose rise and fall lifted light like sparks from the dazzlingly bright hospital floor. All these years later, I still think about that.

 

_____
Notes

1. As quoted in Stefan Helmreich, “Seashell Sound,” Cabinet Magazine, Issue 48 (Winter 2012–13). Online at www.cabinetmazine.org/issues/48/helmreich.php (accessed 9 September 2014).

2. Helmreich.

3. Steven Connor, “Earslips: Of Mishearings and Mondegreens.” Online at www.stevenconnor.com/ earslips/ (accessed 9 September 2014).

4. Eve Curie, Madame Curie: A Biography (New York: De Capo, 2001), 245.

5. Ibid, 246.

6. Ibid, 254.

7. As quoted in Helmreich.

8. As quoted in Steven Connor, “Sadistic Listening.” Online at www.stevenconnor.com/sadisticlistenig/sadisticlistening.pdf

 

Karen Hays received a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award for her nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the Iowa Review, the Normal School, Conjunctions, and Passages North. Prior to essaying, Karen studied biogeochemistry at the University of Minnesota. She recently moved with her family from Minneapolis to the Monterey Peninsula.