Anna, a woman in her 80s. An aging hippie, a Gloria Steinem-esque look but not an exact copy.
Whenever I travel, give speeches, talk to people—which isn’t that often anymore, I’ll say, I’m veering into obsolete for most people, except other women my age of course, but they’re becoming obsolete too—there’s one question everyone loves to ask—
Are things worse than they used to be?
I’m asked this question over and over again. And no matter what approach I take, no matter what I say—and I’ve answered this question I think a different way every time—they’re never satisfied with my answer.
Back in my heyday, I wrote one of the leading texts on feminist theory. And, it was the 70s, yes, so we were asking different questions back then. And we made strides together—undeniable strides forward.
Are things worse? I don’t know. They’re certainly not better. They’re just different, I suppose. Roe v. Wade is gone again. Black women are losing their sons every day to gun violence. Children are being shot in classrooms. The planet’s going to shit. More often than not, I read the news and think, I have seen the worst. But that was before I met Melody. Melody was more than a woman: she was an experiment. The details of her past were gritted so tight between her teeth that I never got them out.
When I saw her on my doorstep that night, I thought: victim. it wasn’t the first time. It was like a scene from a tired historical drama: the young woman desperately knocking on the aging feminist’s door, thunderclap, bolt of lightning, her hair matted down around her skull, her eyes bright and pleading. Only now, if she’s being honest with herself, the feminist isn’t aging, she’s aged, and unprepared for the survivor the universe has carried to the steps of her apartment. She was clearly pregnant—again, not the first time this had happened. I never knew how they got my address, it was always an unnamed friend-of-a-friend, always under the cloak of night, eyes shifting, hands nervous, belly swollen to varying degrees of fertility. Sometimes it was an abortion. Sometimes it was just a safe place to stay. And once, it was dropping the infant at the orphanage myself, barely a day old, because the young woman said if she handed the baby to a stranger and walked out the door, she thought her heart would give out. How odd and beautiful it was that she did not consider me a stranger.
I ushered Melody inside, wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, sat her down by the fireplace. She had been on the road for months, she told me, trying different doctors and different abortionists, but none of them would operate on her. The question: Why? hovered in the air, but instead I offered her dry clothes and assured her that she was safe here. As I turned the corner into the hallway, I heard a sharp gasp and rushed back into the living room. Melody had just had a contraction. She told me they had been happening for hours, which is why she needed to find a place to stay tonight.
Can I take you to the hospital? I asked.
No. A doctor won’t understand them, she said.
Them? Is it twins?
But before she could answer, she was wailing with pain again.
I was determined not to show it, but I was frightened. I had attended several births—my friends were all hippies, you know, so when they started having babies they wanted to give birth in a hot tub with harp music playing and a circle of chanting women welcoming their baby into the world. It’s all downhill from there for the baby, if you ask me. Sets their expectation pretty damn high. But anyways, that was different than me, alone in my apartment with this strange girl— woman—forty years later. This was more than just holding hands and singing kumbaya. This could, ostensibly, mean life and death.
I wrapped Melody’s arm around my shoulder and ushered her to the bathroom. I filled the tub with a few inches of warm water while she undressed, then helped her lower herself into the basin. The contractions were coming faster now, each one contorting Melody’s face into a tapestry of pain. I couldn’t believe she had made it to my apartment like this. And with every bout, a wincing cry escaped her dry lips over and over again:
They’re coming. Oh God, they’re coming.
My fear for Melody began to give way to fear of Melody. I couldn’t help it. At one point, I had the fleeting thought of what if my time is up? What if this is some demon sent to usher me to the fiery pits for having sex before marriage and taking women to clinics? But then I remembered that Jews don’t believe in Hell, and my mother and father and Rabbi Isaacson raised me to be a good girl, so I squared my shoulders and went into the kitchen to get more ice for Melody’s forehead.
When I returned, there was a tangible difference in the air—a stillness that wasn’t there before. And a smell—earthen, deep, and probing. Melody had a look on her face that I will never forget. It was the face of a woman who has seen the other side of hurt and will never go back. The face of a body that has transcended pain. I could hardly look at her, this young girl, woman, experiment, victim, survivor—who was I to look at her?
I never had children. It wasn’t a choice for me.
That’s just life, I guess.
A head began to crown at the opening. I knelt down and clutched her hand. Vaginal fluids floated stagnant in the bathwater. Melody let out a maternal cry that still echoes across the bathroom tiles to this day. Push! I cried, and readied my hands, a net of flesh, to catch the baby. Melody pushed, and pushed, and out of her womb, slick with internal matter, came ten rabbits. I caught each one. I wrapped them in my towels. Their skin was blush pink, not that different than a human baby, but there was no doubt that these were not human.
Melody took a deep breath. Her body slouched against the side of the porcelain. I didn’t know what to say to her, this girl, this thing, this woman.
Finally, I managed get out: You can stay as long as you want. To recover. No, she said. I’ve gotta get going. She began to hoist herself out of the tub. Her strength seemed to have returned. It was uncanny.
Are you sure? I—
If I could at least trouble you for some dry clothes…
Of course, I said, still shaking from what I had seen. I opened my closet in a daze. I could hear Melody, back in the bathroom, draining the water in the bathtub. And softly, ever so softly that I thought I was imagining it, I heard the whimper of the baby animals, crying out for their mother’s warmth.
But their mother was slipping on a pair of my old baggy jeans, pushing her head through a turtleneck, shaking out her umbrella…
Are you really leaving? I asked.
Yes, I think it’s best, Melody said.
And…the— I didn’t know what to call them.
The rabbits? Keep them. She put her rain slicker back on. Suddenly, she looked very childish. I could picture her on the streets of my hometown, splashing in puddles, wishing for rainbows. Then she added: It’s not their fault they had to be born. She thanked me, and then she was gone. If it weren’t for the rabbits still nestled in my towels on the bathroom floor, I would have been certain I dreamed her.
That night, I got my period for the first time in six years. I have never bled since. For the first time, the smell of my menstrual blood made me gag. There were notes of sick sweetness I had never noticed before, like artificial flowers excessively perfumed. The smell was rank and deep, heavy, cloying. For the first time, I realized my body was dying.
The rabbits are now fully grown. I gave one to my niece’s daughter, but the other nine still live with me. I have never named them. Every time I try to…I don’t know. I just can’t.
So are things worse than they used to be? They’re not better, I know that for sure. I don’t know what happened to Melody, who did that to her or why or how, but I know that we live in a world where a woman gave birth to live rabbits in my bathtub. And we live in a world where no one will believe me, even though I know what happened that night was real and true. So I don’t know how to answer your question. I guess I don’t know.