Nonfiction by Christen Noel Kauffman
I want to feed you the way oxygen fuels fire. I want to feed you as river, saturate the sediment and build an ocean to carry us both. I want to feed you the way barnacle geese fling themselves from cliffs to survive.
I examine my shape in front of the mirror, measure the diameter of my breasts, the width of my sternum, and conjure the illusion of swelled glands. I say prayers over unwashed bones, light candles made from organic wax, give offerings of wild birds. I express colostrum for days and swirl it in a jar, a talisman that hangs from my neck. I forage my body’s memory as mother, this utility drafted in the spirals of my DNA.
Somewhere a dairy cow drops afterbirth into hay, her calf spilled into tangled legs, slick and thin-boned. She licks the wobbled joints as wet nose pushes against ribs. She feels the soft mouth nuzzle and pull, a build and release, the memory of fescue and the way her body calms.
My body stiffens as roots recoil from drought. Your hunger cries drown us both in need as deep as the Caspian Sea. I am morning with you. I am day with you. I am sleepless nights waiting for perfect latch, a ghost of myself lying shirtless on the couch. I write notes to a mother god, bury them in the back yard next to squash and poison oak.
Tell me how to be filled. Tell me the right way to ask for rain.
The calf takes what it needs, a connection formed in molecular spheres. It knows by scent how it grew from the tiniest seed. How a body hunched into cold contracted and broke for the promise of sun. It revels in abundance of milk, a response to its cry for familiar cocoon. How safe it must feel. This natural rhythm a kept promise, made before it was born.
I want to feed you the way tides need magnetic pull. I want to feed you as avalanche, build from the highest peak and flow into wide expanse. I want to feed you the way humpback whales swim six thousand miles to safely deliver their young.
I will myself to be hope-filled, spin open wounds into lists, the cracked and bleeding numbers on infinite repeat. I try pumping machines and sterile tubes, the woman who smiles and cups the slope of my breasts. I drink oceans made of tea, oatmeal hardening on the spoon. I stuff my mouth with bread, heat oil brimmed with swordfish bones, clasp and pull—eager hands kneading skin like sacred dough.
I was not made for this.
Still you search me through famine. Your fingers curl around my hair. You believe, wide-mouthed, that there is water in the stone just waiting to be split and released.
When they come for the calf, night is heavy in the throat. The mother is caught in the repetition of loss. A bellow for the print in the hay. A bellow for the cold on her ribs. She waits between stable walls, calls for days into weeks. Engorged through it all, her barrel frame shifts with the wait for a hungry jaw and soft tongue, a memory of her calf’s black fur.
I want to feed you the way trees push through canopy to light. I want to feed you as galaxy, cosmic dust spun into the largest star. I want to feed you the way Arctic terns migrate the circumference of the earth, crossing hemispheres for endless sun.
Can you feel how this is a poem? I open myself to be broken. I give in to the swells when I long to extract the defective parts, replace them with ways to soothe your hunger pains. I weigh you through day, count ounces into moon, curse every god who formed the desert playa. I ask your forgiveness, whisper into your ear how the earth was formed from a willow branch. How a giant tortoise carries us on her back. How I’d give everything to be the one you need.
The mother nurses metal tubes that pump her into use. Her calf a memory stored in mammary veins. They will milk her into summer and fall, pour her into years of filled and emptied womb. How simple it all seems. What other purpose could there be in the mapping of her cells.
I make the bottle in a fog of grief. I watch you accept it the way you wished for me; hands relaxed to open palm as milk drips down your chin. The round of your head no longer against my skin. I wonder if you know the difference. If the bottle’s hard cool could ever be mistaken for me. If it’s me you’ll still be calling when you cry.
I hold you into sleep with the bottle still cradled in your mouth, the rise and fall of your chest a reminder of elderberry bloom. That the world spins on a tilt, and still we move with our feet on the ground.
Your great grandmother was raised on a dairy farm, and someday you will hear how her body withered. How her mother cried into immeasurable guilt. How her father bought cow after cow to offer its milk, the right milk her roots could absorb. How there was only one that made her grow, extended her arms and legs into harvest gold.
Someday you will hear how they sold the ones whose milk dried, slaughtered them into thick cuts of meat. You will hear how I don’t know how to free them, and your belly will be full. You will hear this, and in the distance a slow roll of thunder, a signal to come in from the rain.