Four Marys

by Paisley Rekdal

Paisley Rekdal

Madonna del Parto, ca. 1460, Piero della Francesca

Are the drapes drawn open or being closed?
Each of the heavy, velvet wings is clasped
in the hands of a little angel, a little man really,
in the shades of plum and mint green that frame
the birthing tent's opening for a girl
who retreats into or emerges from the dark.
It isn't clear: the perspective is such
that if I cover the painting's
top half with a hand, Mary steps forward;
if I cover the lower, she shrinks back,
her blue bodice split at the bulging seams
to show the pear-white cut of her linen shift,
the great weight of the child she is about to bear
and later bury. And even if I didn't believe
the child would rise again, I would believe the artist
had seen such fear paint a girl's face
when the eldest women in the village
were called for help, and fresh straw brought in
if there wasn't a bed, and hot water, and rose oil to rub
over the hips, and vinegar and sugar water
to drink, and hog's gut and a thick needle
to sew her up with later. Even if I did not believe
in Mary's joy, I would believe in her pain, the quick flick
of her thoughts turning to the sister, or the cousin,
or to her own mother who'd died giving birth,
the baby, too, not making it, for the birth
was in winter: ice so clogged the village's
deep ruts that the midwife's cart slipped
into the soak dike, splitting the wood wheel
in two, and by the time the woman could walk
the steep hill up to the villa, the mother had torn,
and in the rush to save her, no one worked
quick enough to cut the cord wrapped
around the baby's throat. Or the baby came out
strong and fine, but died two years later
when it stumbled into a fire, or was bitten by a rat
and sickened and starved, or caught the fever
that spread through the town when all the animals
were stabled inside the houses for winter.
So many people died, so many people
were supposed to die, it's hard to conceive
of how the mothers survived their grief,
and how they named their next, living baby
after the dead one because the name, at least,
was good. It's hard to know whether I should read
the deepest grief or resignation or both in the line
from Mary Shelley's 1818 notebook, the year
her daughter, Clara, died, two weeks
after Mary had given birth to her. Woke this morning.
Found my baby dead, all the little black scratching pen
could add to paper, and the rest was blank,
and then there were months, and then
there was Frankenstein. Piero della Francesca
painted an embroidery of pomegranates
into Mary's birthing tent, symbol of fruitfulness
and the underworld, of a mother's grief
and of her rage to get her child back, the daughter
both dead and alive to her, as Mary knows her own child
is both dead and alive to us. A winter fruit
for the winter birth of a rich woman
whose house wanted to ward off a grueling
delivery, and so whose midwife would feed her
pomegranate seeds to sustain her, a fruit
the midwife herself would eat only once, as payment
from the duke for the son she finally ushered
into the world for him. Such a strange, leathery
skin, though the color was bright
as blood on fresh linen, and who could have expected
those glistening cells packed inside, wet prisms
in the ruby eye of a ruby insect, or the heart
of a god who take what he wants
and never gives it back. The midwife took the fruit home
and split it with her husband and tried not to think
of the bed of the girl she'd just left, its stains
that looked almost black in the dawn light,
and how the girl's skin had turned bluish, the fragile spring
she'd require to spend alone in bed away from the duke
and healing. How can Mary not look
downcast before these curtains that threaten
to close on her, to open? I have no doubt
of seeing the animal today, Mary Wollstonecraft
Godwin, Mary Shelley's mother, wrote,
meaning birth, meaning Mary, the little animal
she never saw grow up, because Wollstonecraft
died of an infection days after giving birth.
But before that was told she could not nurse
her infant daughter for fear the corruption
would spread through her milk, though she stayed
at Mary's bedside the final three days of her life.
And Godwin stayed beside her, who, because he loved
his wife, believed her genius could survive
any truth, and so published a memoir later
detailing everything: Wollstonecraft's affairs,
her daughter's illegitimacy, her attempts at suicide—so that
in the 1798 index of the Anti-Jacobin Review would publish,
under the heading "Prostitution," See Mary
Wollstonecraft. Two towns over from his Madonna,
in a church in Arezzo, Piero della Francesca
painted a fresco of Mary Magdalene, her curled hair wet
with the tears she used to bathe Christ's feet,
her body a swollen green swathe of dress, the red cape
folded to accentuate the pendulous belly
and thick thigh, the Magdalene bristling
between arch columns that frame her, one
painted slightly forward, the other behind
her body, so that we do not know in which direction
Mary is headed, nor what she is, really,
her almond eyes glittering out at us, her halo chipped,
over centuries, away. It is wonderful
when time accentuates something of the truth
already within us: the frank look, the unabashed
leg with which the woman kicks off the covers from the bed
of the man to whom she is not married; the neat,
round muscle of his shoulder pressed against hers
in the dark, his body over and over coming alive
under her hands, a dream or a nightmare
Mary Shelley once had of Clara.
All this time, she told her husband, their daughter
had not been dead at all, only cold, the little body frozen
and waiting to be attended to. And so we rubbed
it before the fire, and now it lives, she told
Shelley in the conversation she recorded
in her journal, and cried awhile, and went to bed.
Then woke again the next morning, and remembered.
The midwife, walking back down from the villa
three summers later, having attended the birth
of the duke's new, less delicate wife, hums a song
to herself that she hummed to the baby
she just left, a girl this time, no pomegranates
for payment; a girl who will, if lucky, inherit
her mother's strength and her plainness, both traits
the midwife believes might protect her from
and in the birthing bed. She'll grow up,
the midwife thinks, and marry, and have children
herself, some less or more like her, sons
with obdurate natures, perhaps, or a daughter
who inherits her curly hair, perhaps the sturdy thighs
of a woman like this shopkeeper kneeling now by a store
in the Piazza Grande to retrieve a shower of euros
from someone's coin purse. The woman stands, straightens,
and I see her mouth thin to a not unpleasant line
as she looks out at me, calculating, perhaps,
the time until lunch as she tugs at the waist
of her linen pants. The yellow pleats sag, slack
at her belly. The weight from a pregnancy
she never lost, perhaps, or the thickening
that comes to anyone, in the later part of life.

Last updated August 26, 2022