Rowan Lucas

WATER OF THE WOMB

There is a stone that lies just below the hollow of my throat. Suspended above my heart by bile and blood. A bezoar I crafted out of what was given to me. Whole, I pushed it down a reddened gullet. Down to weigh down my stomach. Down into the places my body sinks. Down to anchor me to earth.

When I was twelve, my great-aunt Miranda gave me a pink coral cameo. It was her mother’s, she said. Written in yellow ivory was the face of a strange woman crowned in flowers—her edges surrounded by twisted gold filigree that no longer shone. She looked away from us, smiling down at what we couldn’t see. Great-aunt Miranda told me she wanted me to have her and pressed her into my cupped palm.

Thank you, I said.

My grandmother’s belly swelled and stretched with her daughter before she became an adult. As penance for their sin, my grandfather married her. Her daughter was wrenched from between her legs and given a name honey sweet to match her hair. Her daughter inherited everything.

My grandmother says that my grandfather is a lot of things and so they broke.

Long before I was born people would dose themselves with small slivers of poison to build immunity. Increasing their doses bit by bit, until it was that which would have been fatal otherwise. They made their bodies learn. Learn to take the small bits and attack. To break. To nullify what could stop your heart; to make it harmless.

Once, tradition held that a bezoar dropped into a cup full of poison would make the poison as safe to drink as water. The word “bezoar” comes from either the Arabic “badzehr” or the Persian “panzehr.” Both these words mean “counterpoison.” In the 11th century the knowledge was brought to Europe. It was used when there was nothing else.

My mother liked to tell me with wine stained lips and cigarette teeth that I was my father’s child. She spat it like a curse. It flowed freely through clenched teeth and fingers until I drowned.

My mother says that my father is a lot of things and so they broke.

Bezoars were so prized and cherished that some were decorated with gold or silver or gemstones and turned into jewelry and charms. Formed into special things. Trinkets meant to protect. And if the time came, desperate hands would crush bezoars to powder and add them to wine. Then gulp them down and plead for salvation.

I swallowed my mother’s venom for her as she went to different men that did not love her. I spat it back as it burned my gums. I spat at the violence they hid beneath the whites of their eyes. The secret they kept carefully clutched away from their children. But I was my father’s child.

When I was eight, my father hit a deer with his truck. I watched him as he walked to where it crumpled. I watched as it gasped through a broken neck. I watched as its body jerked, its legs swimming against the red ground. A struggle for something solid. I looked away when my father grabbed his gun.

Poor thing, I heard him say.

Bezoars were taken from either the intestines or stomachs of goats, oxen, and deer. They are made of what the animal could not digest—rocks or too hard plant matter. Over time, calcium and other minerals collect around the object, making it grow while muscles smooth it out. If it grew too large, the animal would die.

All my great-grandmother’s children live on the same road, with the cemetery at the corner, across from the church. The family’s roots have been there so long that both road and church carry its name. My mother was the only one who left, heavy with the weight of her womb.

My mother told us as children that if not for us, she would still be with the family. She said this with her poisoned breath and we tried to swallow it around what air she didn’t take from us. I swallowed what my brothers could not. I breathed it all in and felt it take shape.

My mother had a box full of her grandmother’s jewelry. None of the rings fit her fingers, but she would open the box sometimes and look at them. She sometimes let me look too, but never touch. They were too precious for me.

Bezoars can also grow in the stomachs and intestines of humans. They too are made of what humans cannot digest. And like animals, if a human’s bezoar grows too large, they will die.

The family whispers to itself while pretending not to see past their road and their church. They whispered as my mother continued to poison herself. They whispered as her poison seeped into her children. They whispered as I swallowed it bit by bit, to spare my brothers. Trying to make my body learn. I was my father’s child.

My father is a lot of things. He married another woman and had new daughters with her. I imagine they live a happy life. A life I do not know.

Your mother is a lot of things, he said before he left.

My mother once gave me a small heart-shaped box of tarnished silver. The heart’s top layer had worn away—beaten and chipped by time and the jostling of being unused. But inside lay bright pink velvet. It was new there. It was raw. She pressed it to me when I was six and said, Be careful.

My brothers’ father bit syrup lies to my mother. Sweet to match her hair. Sweet to soothe the sting of him finding another woman. The family reminded my mother that she left them.  

I swallowed what remained of the bottles on the floor. The secret my mother gave me. I felt her hands close around my throat as I stared at where she swam—her glass spilling red onto her hand while she slept.

My brothers’ father is a lot of things. I watched them as they broke.

In the 16th century, a French physician poisoned a prisoner and gave him a bezoar as an antidote. It did not work, and the prisoner choked as his heart stopped. The bezoar crumbled away out of favor and into nothing.

My brothers’ father took my mother’s box of jewelry and never gave it back. I see it lying in a ditch collecting leaves and dust. I see it next to the tarnished heart my mother gave me—a tarnished heart that hides a cameo framed in raw velvet. Never touched.

There is a stone I keep just below the hollow of my throat. At times, I feel the waters of my body push it up. I feel it as it scrapes against the backs of my teeth until I bleed. The acid of what I cannot swallow comes back up and mixes with my blood. The bezoar absorbs it all. I curl my palms around it and press it back in. Back in to weigh me down to earth. The flood of what I was made to carry seeping through my fingers.


Rowan Lucas lives on the top of a hill in Richmond, Virginia. She likes to collect tea and plants, and when she’s not writing she hikes around the James River. She holds a M.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University in English Literature and Composition. Her fiction and creative nonfiction work have been published in Amendment and Ghost Parachute.