Instead of hard cold paper covered tables and questionable sterility, there are feathery soft beds. Stirrups that are normally raw, unforgiving and unyielding are pliable and supportive and fade into the warmth and compassion of the room. The light blues and pale pinks of the area are soothing and gentle, like a warm hug from an old friend; one of those full-body-face-in-the-neck hugs that touches that deep place inside you that you return to time and time again when needed. This room coats the eyes with a memory and molds the experience with a measure of mercy and understanding not given to so many.
“Are all the rooms like this one?” I ask Grace.
“Suites. Yes. These patients, or guests as they like to be referred, require … luxury.” She says it casually but shade is there behind the drawl of the word and the slight lift of her lip. To the random stranger, the nuance would go unnoticed. I decipher it as does Alison. We sense the insolence in her. It floods the room, a juxtaposition in a cacophony of sorts lifting whatever comfort there is and flushing it with whatever hope she fails to give them and without having said it, I know what this becomes.
“Facilities are worldwide, but limited.”
“There are few rich people.”
“And they have all the money,” Alison groans. After a long dreary intermission: “What of the…rest?” She asks.
Silence, again. The information does not come as fast as I wish it. My patience has never been great.
“I’m only allowed to do so much,” she adds grinding teeth and flashing pain and anger. “There are…rules I’m not supposed to break…or else—I had been warned. I ignored them.” Yes, we know what the or else is: Niky. “You cannot simply have a free clinic nowadays or offer women’s health care. The raids, the illegality of providing any type of women’s care especially reproductive or fertility including abortion have all been outlawed or strictly regulated. With the restrictions on antibiotics and prescription drugs—the deportation squads rounding people up—even Americans—” her voice fades off. “We do what we can.”
“Then there’s this,” I say extending my hands to the specious festooned walls surrounding us. I refrain from laughing derisively at the thought of regulation; once upon a time, regulation was a way to protect citizens; now it was a way to control and exploit them.
“Watch whiteness work,” Ali mumbles gazing around guilelessly.
“Rich whiteness,” I say louder.
Gray, Parker, and Max are somewhere in the building while we tour the facilities. Heavily guarded, this place could withstand an armed attack.
We exit, moving back through unvoiced alpine halls adorned with pricey idyllic and oblique artwork and white marble floors that mirror the undefiled illumination of a propitious future. Dead-eyed pale faces—interlopers—move around us throughout the facility dressed in designer standards and fake sympathy that never quite reaches their eyes. A vacant privilege merges with a moral canon and the sacred duty inferred in their symbols of embellishment, whereby the fertile invocations are nothing more than pleas for immortality and other social diseases more nefarious. Gold crosses dressed in the facade of belief where there is none; a belief that has a no moral compass; fraud clad in the robes of religion.
I glance at Alison. We make eye contact and hold a beat. I feel the aversion for this place radiating off us from that part of our past with hollow stomachs and numb extremities; with threadbare clothes and thin shoes; with the feeling of insignificance and the shame of inadequacy; the frustration of obstructions born of suffering inequities and the pain of untreated illnesses. All this builds to thick callous of unconcern for these people with their vapid lives and even less so for the consequences that await them—normally none; history will tell.
“Are we going to change into our superhero clothes, flee through concealed elevators in the heart of the West Foundation, and make our way through elaborate tunnels that go deep beneath the city?” Ali asks.
No one says anything. I give her the look: Really?
She clears her throat: “Kidding. Where’s y’all’s sense of humor?”
Grace changes into street clothes while me, Ali, Parker, Gray, and the Presidium crew, already prepared, wait; Max stays behind. Pseudo-disguised in hats and sunglasses, we hop into black cargo vans and trucks and head cross town. Upon arrival of a dead-end rundown building, in a dark neglected part of the city that nobody cares about apparently, we find Dandria who brought one nurse, Sara, and readied the deserted area for patients while Parker, Gray, and Presidium blend obscurely into the backdrop. Oftentimes they too contribute as needed. Mostly, they venture out to bring back people in need in addition to security.
Dandria is tall, middle-aged, black, a striking black that highlights her lava-brown eyes and straight white teeth; her hair short; her long thin legs wrapped in tan cargo pants. On many interactions, Dandria can be a cold brusque woman, clinical and taciturn and devoid of empathy; however, that penetrable shield falls occasionally to let loose the fire burning beneath in an odd witty wordplay and act that leaves anyone on the opposite end of it flustered between amusement and vexation.
Dandria is an obstetrician and gynecologist. Few remain.
Unsmiling she studies us as we pull on scrubs and prep for incoming: “Grace says you’re to join the cause?”
Before we can answer, the clang and clunk of doorways open and close and the hall fills behind her gaining our attention. Three sets of anxious eyes frame dull white tired scleras in the dark hallway that forms in front of Grace and Dandria as a catalyst for action. Alison and I stand to the side of them; an avid audience awaiting instruction. An ambient light from a flickering EXIT sign blinks red across faces with the buzz of energy failing to feed the fullness and the hiss of loss that foreshadow what’s already begun: the boiling of a long-unearthed shame and dust and loss of a planet rendering and tremoring; regenerating brick by brick, atom by atom while the intruders that inhabit it fall doomed and dying from it like fleas. The bleak hallway laments an impoverished world where light and hope fade into darkness as it covets and crawls around enveloping us in its wake. Childbearing uteri at the center of it all. This one standing before us, amongst the group, gains our attention with groans and grunts, sweat dripping from her like dirty bathwater. I can hear her grind teeth and hum to alleviate the pain as blood leaks black from between and down her legs dropping to the floor leaving a trail behind her. Bringing up the rear, a tall slender Black teenage girl with a lovely short Afro in a stained sleeveless yellow dress, scrambles along the floor wiping all trace of the affliction lest it lead to confrontation, imprisonment or worse, all our deaths.
“Bring her.” Dandria instructs.
We follow and watch Sara, Grace, and Dandria silently prepare a sparse cold steel room filled with broken equipment and little hope. Tall bare dirty windows line the room closed to a dull grey sky giving it an ominous shade. The smell damper and stale than sterile and sanitized.
The two accompanying her are silent; worry edges their features. They help remove the woman’s clothes assisting her onto a cold steel table while she continues to gasp and moan in pain while Sara inserts an IV.
“Please, get it out of me.” She whimpers from weakness and fatigue, misery, and the taste of mortality as it hovers around her. The stretch marks of her small round belly are pale and cracked, crooked from the branch of past births and the pressure and pain of this present diseased one.
Alison and I watch the scene unfold from a corner out of the way until we’re ordered to assist by Grace: “
Gloves.” We comply willingly as Grace and Dandria inject and spray anesthetic agents into their patient’s abdomen prepping her for surgery.
“I’m Francis, that is Safia, and this is Mary. Can you save her?” The older woman with her clutches the hand of the younger. “Forget the fetus, save the woman; always save the woman,” she trails off into a whisper: “Always save the woman,” murmuring the mantra of the forever women’s movement.
Mary pushes the oxygen mask away: “I know I’m gonna die. Don’t make me sleep. I wanna stay awake till the end. I need to stay awake till the end.”
“If you had gotten to us sooner—” Dandria says as she slices the young girl’s abdomen pulling apart blackened diseased muscles, reaching in to extract the irregular fetus.
It’s the smell that hits us first—the acrid scent of despair and death…and the nauseatingly sweet smell of sepsis? Grace works silently across from her assisting. Sara busies herself while Safia stands blank-eyed and mute in a corner.
“Should she be in here?” I ask concern for her well-being.
“I need to. I want to be a doctor—a scientist.” Safia says.
“Do you have kids here with you?” Grace asks.
“Yes,” Mary says breathlessly. “Two girls. The boys…are with their dad.”
“Tell me about them. The girls.”
In between deep breaths under the oxygen mask, she talks about her girls. Her oldest wanted to be an explorer. Now, like Safia, she wants to be a doctor. The youngest, a scientist. They want to join the movement.
The tiny fetus is still. Its pale shape covered in gray and bloodied-black goo; sticky, like mud and spread in an ink-like pattern around the womb; Grace dissects through the infected muscles easily, pulling the diseased fetus out and pushing it into Alison’s freshly gloved hands. Ali stands staring at it voiceless and unresponsive, unsure what to do with it as it tries to draw a painful shallow gurgling last breath. It’s malformed body and smaller than normal head, sunken and empty, irregular, unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
“I…” Ali starts to say then stops speechless uncertain what to do. Her bottom lip quivers.
“I’ll take it,” Sara says looking at Alison with sympathy. She takes the tiny fetus, now lifeless, from Ali’s hands and places it in a sealed plastic container in the corner labeling it with a black Sharpie.
“They’re called meat puppets,” says Dandria continuing to work on Mary. Her cold clinical response of the crude moniker leaves me and Ali open mouthed with horror and dismay, but little reactions show from the patient or the determination and care of those surrounding and supporting her. “They have tiny malformed brains and lungs. Most organs are worthless. They last only seconds. Sometimes not even that. Usually die in the womb or soon after forced births. And they rot a woman’s body from the inside out, like a tumor. Like cancer, only worse. There’s no cure. Cesarean sections are the only means to evacuate since the birth canals are now too small. After so many C-sections over the last fifty years, the evolution of the birth canal has changed. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing. it is what it is. Vaginal deliveries do more damage to both mother and fetus now regardless.”
“We believe this is another factor in the rot,” Grace says.
“You’re calling it the rot?” Ali asks, her face taking on an ashen color.
“That’s what it is, isn’t it? Look at that and tell me what you would call it?” She points her black bloody glove and scalpel towards Mary’s insides. “There’s the clinical name, but far be it for me to whitewash the truth of the matter. That’s not what I do,” Dandria says dryly.
“Mary’s undocumented. She and her girls are hiding from the deportation squads and their Gestapo-like tactics. We tried to get to Dandria and Grace and the movement for the past month. Drove up from Texas at night the last few weeks. Our car kept breaking down. Safia fixed it.” She points to the young woman in the yellow dress standing quiet to the side. “Mary started cramping and bleeding in the last twenty-four hours.”
“ICE is the new American Gestapo,” Ali mumbles.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t get to you sooner,” Grace says working on Mary opposite Dandria. “I’m sorry our team couldn’t reach you. Another state that’s…brutal on women. I’m sorry,” she says again. The crack in her voice unmasks the emotion beneath. “I’m so sorry.” And just like that, Grace’s stone-faced demeanor melts into the face of this ugly madness and I witness the sadness and anger firing from her eyes.
I swallow the chords of revulsion and wrap my free arm around my stomach protecting my body from the intrusive laws that have seized the fundamental human rights of this woman—of all women and people with female reproductive organs—that lays dying in front of me. The pain she suffers and the shallow concerns of those that dismiss her self-worth evident in the blood and life seeping from her body.
Mary sputters breath and blood leaks black from the side of her mouth down crooked lines along jaw and neck.
“The rot is a better name than any,” Dandria says, continuing work on Mary. “This? This is purposeful and inhumane. This is what they do to us.”
“I never wanted it. It was forced on me. I needed food for my family. They knew it went bad from the start and they wouldn’t get rid of it. Said it was illegal and ungodly and I had to carry it till the end,” Mary says barely audible. She lets out a raspy breath and another gurgle. A shudder goes through her body. Blood bubbles from between her lips.
Dandria stops working on Mary. Making eye contact first with Grace then the older woman, she gives a silent shake of her head. She strips the black bloody gloves and pulls a syringe and vial from the bag next to her filling it with an amber colored liquid, which she then injects into Mary’s IV who immediately quiets and releases a long-contented sigh.
“What’s that?” Alison asks.
“Heroine,” Dandria says.
Francis unmasks her grief. She grips both of Mary’s hands pulling them to her mouth kissing them repeatedly. “You can’t leave, Mary. You’re too young. You have to stay and fight.”
“Would you like me to get your daughters?” Safia asks.
Mary’s attempt to shake her head fails. “I’ve said my goodbyes.” She looks towards Dandria and Grace reaching to them. They lean down to her. “Thank … you … for … trying. Please, save my girls … don’t let my fate become theirs.” Her eyes go blank, her hands slack as the drug takes hold and eases her into peace.
The roaring silence emanating from Dandria, Grace, all of us, and the room, shakes the walls, windows, and fixtures. The fire from their eyes could level dragons and brands us with the mark of a movement begun long ago, escalating against the force of time and decline and the bondage of breeding and reproduction rights denied.
Under the guise and security of Gray, Parker, and Presidium, patients are surreptitiously escorted to our covert mobile facility for the next sixteen hours. There are fifteen more women after her; all forced pregnancies—some diseased, some not; all patients now dead. Twenty-eight more require surgical abortions and over one hundred more need mifepristone and birth control; all now highly illegal in the United States. All women and people from poor and middle-class incomes, seven different states and multi-ethnic backgrounds including several poor white girls from Mebane that had the unmistakable marks and that blank dead-eye stare of rape trauma. After tending to their wounds, they confessed to Ali and I that they’d been raped by a group of frat boys from a rich private college down the road. “You know, the one with the notorious past?”
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins