Her Flesh and Blood

[Cornerstone, Summer 1998]

A foot, a rib, a womb. A piece of glass. Whalebones smoothed and polished, netted in cloth. The mother takes her daughter’s hand.

The girl is dizzy; bright sunlight stripes through the shutters and dims her eyes. The old cloth tape is in her mother’s hand. A pause of disappointment; her waist has still not met the mark of 20. The whalebones that stripe across her bones, the bones of the dead behemoth, are stronger than her bones. Her bones are young and they will give. She pauses between small tastes of air. On the day she was born her waist measured 16 inches. The bones press in. The mother thinks: this hurts, yes, but this is the way the world is. Not to do this would hurt my daughter more.

Though she is still a very little girl, the mother has brought her, this bright day, to the old woman. The root of springing desire, that can lead a woman to ruin, must be cut out before it awakens. The sun beats on the grass, making it hot and dazzlingly green. The other women join them; they hold the girl down, many strong hands, and in the old woman’s hand the piece of glass is sharp, but not sharp enough to be swift. The little girl is screaming, higher screams flung higher, like red rags of banners cast into the air. The blood on the green grass is hot. The strong hands are firm and not without love. The little banners float higher, still unheard, and disappear. The mother thinks: this hurts, yes, but this is the way the world is. Not to do this would hurt my daughter more.

Because the child’s foot is so young, it rolls, it rolls more easily. The mother unwraps the cloth and finds the foot beginning to conform, beginning to meet the shape of its binding. She bathes it. The foot is pale, and in places the swaddled skin has been crimped into tiny folds like crepe. The tiny toes, once lined like peas, are beginning to splay under, to meet their new configuration. The mother is young herself, and frail. When the child drops her painted ball it rolls, it rolls out of reach; she lunges, but does not try to run, to retrieve it. The mother thinks: this hurts, yes, but this is the way the world is. Not to do this would hurt my daughter more.

The clinic waiting room floats with gray April light; heavy rain streaks the windows, flushes seeds from their beds to the gutter. The room is too small for the restless girl. Her limbs are long, still growing, but a second bloom is on her: roses riot in her cheeks, creamy light flows from her skin, her hair is thick, her waist thickening in blind eagerness to welcome the new daughter within. The mother sits across from her, feeling very old. A dozen years ago the girl sat on the third step smacking loud kisses on her doll’s half-bald head; today she is silent, all the protests washed out of her. The mother sees, in the girl’s hand, the tiny teddy bear she carries with her keys. The girl rubs the matted fur softly, but her eyes pierce the floor with hot, yearning tears. The mother, the grandmother, thinks: This hurts. Yes. But this is the way the world is. Not to do this would hurt my daughter more.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.


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