By Emily McKay
Eliot struggled with the meaning of life from a very early age. He had been conceived only a week before, and already he was convinced that his life was doomed. While it was plain to him, judging from his week of existence, that he was somewhat of a perfectionist, he had some rather serious qualms about his conception. It was insultingly uninspired. It seemed clear that love was the most interesting part of the universe, and from what Eliot could gather, the most important part as well, so he couldn’t help but laugh in the womb at his parents’ ambition – spawning life out of… apathy? Good luck. And while it was plain to Eliot, judging from his week of existence, that he was a rather idealistic, dogmatic sort of fetus, he could find nothing encouraging about biology. Ever since he had first amounted to an embryo, he was revolted by the materialism of his conception but dared to hope that with a bit of luck, perhaps birth could serve as a fresh start.
Eliot was looking around the womb for a suggestion box, but all his mother had left him was the umbilical cord, and he still wasn’t quite sure how it worked. Eliot’s mother was not making a good first impression. There were a few other furnishings scattered around the womb, though nothing that Eliot considered particularly homey. In fact it looked very like a hotel – a place meant to be forgotten, where even the wallpaper was supremely neutral. But even a hotel room has some hidden character – a dark stain behind the nightstand; gum between the Gideon pages; dust bunnies under the bed breeding with escaped pillow feathers, ever growing and growing. Eliot scoured the womb for anything vaguely interesting, and was startled by the presence a gene – one of his genes, apparently – which was shaped like a hyena and staring at him hungrily.
“What are you?” asked Eliot.
“Chronic chest pain,” said the hyena.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Eliot.
“I’m waiting,” said the hyena, “I’m from your father’s side.”
Eliot decided that he would wait until he had at least tripled in size, which would be quite soon, and then he would tell the hyena who was who. Day by day, in fact, he became more solid, bigger, and more powerful, while the genes remained as ghosts – countless ghosts, easing into the spotlight and fading away again. Slight as they were, Eliot did not like them.
Once, while Eliot was attempting to meditate, a pine tree leapt in front of him, which gave him such a start that the entire womb reverberated with his surprise. To Eliot’s dismay, his mother did not even notice.
“Who are you?” asked Eliot with a weary sigh.
“Straight teeth! Congratulations!”
“Are you even a gene?”
“Then what are you?”
“Just one of the many wondrous factors of your physical existence!”
Eliot only found this disheartening. He was already very bored of the womb, and his mother hadn’t even realized that he existed yet. And when she did, doubtless she would only send her sighs of fatigue down the umbilical cord, as if he wouldn’t notice. But on the upside, he was beginning to understand how the umbilical cord worked. It looked like a black bakelite telephone mounted to the wall, but he was annoyed to find that it was just a one-way system. He was acquiring a taste for the sustenance it mumbled through, and always held onto the receptor, just in case. But what he really wanted was to send up a help message. There was far too much company in the womb.
On his twenty-first day, Eliot encountered a tattoo artist in a wide-brimmed hat named Guthrie. Guthrie approached Eliot slowly from a particularly shady corner of the womb. He was full of sideways looks.
“Who are you watching out for?” whispered Eliot.
Guthrie didn’t answer. Guthrie stepped up very close and whispered, “Blood type A positive.”
“And who is that from? My mother, my father?”
“I can’t say,” he said, “These are inscrutable proceedings…”
And Guthrie promptly vanished into thin air.
Not long after, a fluorescent blue jellyfish slid out of the voice receptor of the umbilical telephone. It flopped across the womb, tentacles all flying out of control.
“Go away! What are you doing? This is my room! Go away!”
“I am VERY CHEAP VODKA!” said the jellyfish, “And I am TREMENDOUSLY STINGY!”
Eliot was terrified. He tried to dodge this venomous intruder, but there was little he could do. Luckily he remained out of reach by backing against the ceiling of the womb. More and more jellyfish thundered into the womb until hours later they all disintegrated on the floor, not like pine trees and Guthrie and the other ephemeral genes, but as fellow solid, physical creatures.
Eliot was sick of being passive. His mother needed to realize he existed. He devoted an entire day to aerobics – jumping jacks, running in place, back flips, and the more he did, the more acrobatic he became. He was quite possibly the most capable fetal gymnast of all time. It’s hard to say.
And sure enough, by the end of the week Eliot’s mother went to see a doctor about some abdominal pain, and was told that she was indeed pregnant as a pumpkin.
“Can you tell if it’s a boy or a girl – or anything like that yet?” asked the confused young woman.
“Not yet,” replied the doctor, smiling obnoxiously at her inexperience, “That will be around the twentieth week.”
Eliot smirked. He knew that he was a boy just as much as he knew that his name was Eliot and that it was, unquestionably, to be spelled with only one ‘l’, and that true life was, unquestionably, no more or less than true love.
Exhausted from his week of aerobics, Eliot dozed. He realized just how comfy the womb could be. Very warm now, very secure.
And maybe, he thought, now that his mother knew he was here, she could finally get his messages.
There were a few things he wanted to tell her – mostly, to increase security of the womb on all sides, particularly against jellyfish. Secondly, he wanted to know about his conception in greater detail. Even if it hadn’t been entirely divine, was there anything memorable, anything deliberate about it at all? Or was it just another blurred flame feeding the wildfire of overpopulation? Eliot did not want to be a part of anything destructive here. Oh, how lucky was the fetal Christ, how soundly he must have rested in the womb! Eliot desperately needed to have a word with his mother, but if he had to wait until birth to say these things to her in person, then he was willing to sit tight and twiddle his thumbs.
Actually, it would be a while till he had any thumbs, and it would be a lot longer until he could build up the muscles in those thumbs to actively twiddle them. But this was high on his list of priorities, and Eliot was an exceptionally diligent fetus.
Eliot was concentrating very hard on sprouting phalanges when suddenly he noticed a shark swimming round and round and round the womb, knocking lamps off nightstands, upsetting the curtains, displacing the dust from the skirting boards, turning the womb into a veritable whirlpool.
“What are you doing! Who are you? This is not your room! Stop, stop, stop, stop!”
The shark charged at Eliot with its enormous jaws, but Eliot dodged the shark, caught it round its great silver neck, and with heroic indignation demanded to know who on earth it was and why it had come.
“I am the bipolar gene!” growled the shark, “A present from your mother. I will be with you for your entire life, grow as you grow, and you will never escape me.”
A shiver ran down the young cloud of Eliot’s spine. The shark gnashed its teeth and faded out of Eliot’s grasp, back into the invisible crowd.
Eliot didn’t know what the bipolar gene was, except that it was a shark that wanted to eat him.
The next day a parrot came to visit Eliot. The parrot was a rainbow macaw, mesmerizing in the way it flashed, almost exploding with deep, intoxicating light – but its eyes were fish eyes – cold, stark.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the bipolar gene,’ croaked a dry, inane voice, ‘from your mother, I, mother, I will be, as you grow, grow growing as you grow, your life, go, grow, you will never leave me! ”
And it flew thousands of miles away until Eliot couldn’t see a single speck of it left in the distance.
Eliot had more than the bipolar gene on his mind. He observed that he was developing a brain. He was uneasy about the concept of a brain – it seemed so finite, and he wasn’t sure he could fit in everything he needed from self to brain. And it was ugly – no secret compartments, no handles, no locks – like yet another undeveloped muscle to take up his time. But as Eliot grew, the womb was getting smaller, and time was running out. He was nearly halfway through the pregnancy, according to the voice of the doctor.
A doctor visited Eliot in the womb. Eliot asked him if he were the bipolar gene too. The doctor said that yes, he was the bipolar gene, and he didn’t know what Eliot had heard from anyone else, but he was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be afraid of, nothing whatsoever to be afraid of.
Eliot was in the process of filing himself into the catalogue of the fetal brain, and was not focusing on whether the doctor had parrot eyes or if he was just imagining it. Eliot never used to imagine things.
Eliot wanted spinach. His mother needed to eat more spinach. Why was she not eating enough spinach? Eliot decided to kick his mother until she ate spinach. She did not understand. She cried. She felt sick. She was not very happy. So Eliot gave up on the spinach. Eliot suddenly felt ashamed of his selfishness – he had never acted this way until he had begun investing in this whole brain idea. It was making him do things, defensive things, destructive things, but he had no choice but to adapt to it! There was a deadline.
Eliot still had a nagging feeling that his mother had not yet acknowledged his existence, and it made him feel very, very afraid. Day after day came the shark, came the parrot, came the doctor, and they frightened Eliot more than the hyena or the jellyfish or the brain. They stole his focus from the questions he needed to present to his mother at birth.
He was afraid of those questions too. He could sense more than anything that his life was mundane, biological, and unrelated to whatever grand ideals he believed were necessary for true life. Even the unborn know of the black and white photographs of Full Lives, and even the unborn see the others, dwindling on hunchbacking wicks, doubling, redoubling, slowly fossilizing in their own wax, wide-eyed and whole-hearted, and doomed, ever. Is that what life will be, mother? Is that what life is? Will this brain, this shoddy suitcase and its threads already loose, will it buckle while I carry it? Or will we all drown together, papery skull and bones sinking almost as fast the pebble collection stored for so long in these cerebral pockets.
It was absolutely essential that he address these concerns the very second the birth was out of the way. He realized that he was grateful to have a mother. It was, after all, understandable for Eliot, as a fetus, to be confused about these life-questions, but his mother, the fully developed adult human, was bound to have the answers. And besides, she had recently begun to send him rations of pure love through the umbilical line, expressed through her humming and her breathing, pieces of something that must be his own life. Upon his birth, of course, he would ask her if her love were socially imposed, or if she had decided to love whatever entity supervened on her offspring, or if she loved him, Eliot, her own and more than her own.
Eliot began downloading larger and larger amounts of his self into the brain, which he knew would pay off in the long run. He couldn’t risk leaving any of himself behind.
The shark returned and swam round and round the womb with ferocious speed. Eliot was becoming more familiar with the shark and kept it at bay with incessant interrogation, though his questions rarely achieved much. This time Eliot asked the shark why on earth his mother would have sent it to him in the first place.
“Because she can’t keep me inside the fish bowl.”
“What do you do, jump out of it?”
“Why doesn’t she put a lid on the fish bowl?”
“Because it is difficult to find a shark-proof fishbowl lid.”
“Fair enough. Why does she keep you in a fishbowl in the first place?”
“Because I’m an heirloom.”
“… well, go away.”
The shark vanished and was immediately replaced by the parrot.
“Hello, Elliot. Ellliot. Elllliot.”
The parrot bobbed its head up and down and here and there and its neck remained unaccountably intact.
“Parrot, are you… bad?”
“Am I bad, am I bad? I’m part of you, Elliot, are you bad, Elliot, are you bad, bad, bad?”
“I… don’t know,” stammered Eliot, caught off guard by the rapidity and the significance of the question.
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” echoed the parrot, harshly, accusingly, totally absentmindedly.
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” screeched the parrot, flashing its wings and grinding its beak.
Then the parrot burst into flames, immediately replaced by the doctor.
“Hello, doctor,” said Eliot, cowering wide-eyed in the corner of the womb.
“Hello, Elliot!” smiled the doctor, “What can I do for you?”
“What can you do for me?”
“Now don’t you just repeat everything I say! I want to get to the bottom of everything. I want to see you get well. To be normal. To function in society.”
Eliot felt unwell only insofar as he felt frightened, but the doctor seemed like a reasonable individual.
“That doesn’t sound bad,” said Eliot.
“All you have to do is let me cut off your head.”
“What? What does that achieve exactly, doctor?”
“Balance, control, equilibrium, peace of mind. Along with some possible mild discomfort.”
“I don’t want that.”
“Of course not! That was just a joke. What I’m actually going to do is give you some pills that will put you in a coma for the rest of your life.”
“What does that achieve?” asked Eliot, becoming faint.
“Balance, control, equilibrium, peace of mind. Along with some possible mild discomfort.”
“I don’t want that!”
“Of course you don’t! That was completely a complete, complete joke, a joke. What I’m actually going to do is give you some pills that will ensure your mental health, along with some possible mild discomfort.”
Eliot wept. Eliot wept. Eliot wept and he wept and he wept and he wept.
Eliot was six months through the pregnancy, and filed away all of himself into the human brain except the very last bit. This was the most essential, core part of himself, the part he used to direct his attention from here to there, the seat of intuitions, the part that recognized love and hate. It was the part he himself loved. He felt very weak and confused, and could no longer recite all the questions he had for his mother, but he was confident that once he could stop battling the shark, the parrot, and the doctor, and jumped entirely into the fetal brain, he would be able to recollect everything that was important to him.
Eliot’s mother continued to send him love and various other nutrients, and Eliot continued twiddling his thumbs, until one day the shark swam so fast around and round the womb that the wallpaper was ruffled to the point of pain, and even Eliot’s mother knew what was happening.
“Go away! Shark, go away! Go away once and for all!”
And the shark disappeared, along with all the water that had filled the womb. Eliot was at once relieved and panicked – the shark had disappeared, but he had not yet put the last of his self into the physical brain, and the birth could not be too far off. Suddenly he was horrified at the thought of embracing that tiny birdcage of a brain, but what could he do but be born in one piece?
The parrot flapped back into view, all red feathers, flying, flying and combusting and crashing and Eliot dove wholeheartedly into his body and everything went blank.
A doctor much larger than a baby cut the umbilical cord and picked the baby up by its ankles. The baby screamed, but that was all that came out of the baby’s mouth. This was completely healthy. The doctor noted expressionlessly that the baby was born prematurely, at 6.8 pounds, with a birthmark on its left arm, with bloodshot eyes, but this was all completely, completely healthy, this was healthy.
The baby was cleaned up, wrapped in a white blanket, and put into the arms of its mother.
Eliot knew his mother, beheld his mother, and Eliot cried. Eliot cried. Eliot cried and he cried and he cried and he cried. And that was all that came out of the baby’s mouth.
Emily McKay, originally hailing from St Louis, Missouri, is a recent Creative Writing MLitt graduate of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where she continues to live with her husband and their small menagerie of potted plants. Her fictional and nonfictional short stories have appeared in Shenandoah: The Washington & Lee University Review, and been accepted for 2015 publication in Glimmer Train. She is also writing a book-length memoir about her misadventures growing up with bipolar disorder and Pentecostalism in Tucson, Arizona. The rest of her time is currently divided between looking for work, trying to make bookshelves out of cardboard, and celebrating minor holidays.