Once upon a time, a woman and her husband lay together, and the man’s seed navigated the hollows and chambers of his wife’s body until it came home. Cells began to divide and re-form, as they do, and something new was made. As the weeks went by and the woman began to feel odd and sick, the new thing took shape: a comma, a tadpole, eventually the bud of a brain and a spinal column. Suddenly, in the shallow darkness of a summer night, a heart completed itself and began its iambic beat. The heart beat while the new thing grew a head and arms and legs, while it began to flutter and then to turn in the seas of the woman’s womb. For a long time the creature floated free, tumbling and kicking, learning to listen to the rumble of voices, to dance to music coming from the bright world beyond. When the woman swam, letting the water carry her swelling body, the growing being drifted and spun within her. When she walked the small thing was lulled by the percussion of her footsteps and the constant thrum of her heartbeat against its own, the engine of the ship bearing it on. But as winter passed and the sun strengthened on the ground where the woman walked, as the snowdrops and then the daffodils pushed through the earth and began to open apple-white and yolk-yellow, the creature found itself cramped. The walls of the womb seemed to close on its arms and legs, to wrap even its ribs and behind, and soon the being was pushed down, its head held in the woman’s bones and its hands and feet gathered in. The woman no longer swam. She walked less than she had, and she and the little stranger began to be sore and cross. At last, one bright April morning when white clouds drifted high in a blue sky and leaf-buds beaded the tired grey trees, it was time for the woman and the new thing to part, a painful work that took many hours, into the cold night and through the next morning, which the woman and her husband did not see because they were in a room with no windows, awaiting the child’s birth. The heart had been working for months now and it kept going, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, but always beating the same rhythm. Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. When the child was born there came the ordinary miracle of breathing, that terrible moment when we are cast off from our mother and from her oxygenated blood, when we have never taken a breath and may not know how to do so, the caesura in the delivery room. She breathed. The music of heart and lungs began, and continued, and no-one listened any more.
The child was a girl, but the most important thing about her was that she was herself. She was someone new, someone who had not been before and so, like all babies, she was a revelation. She throve in her mother’s arms all through that summer, watching the shadows of leaves on the parasol that shaded her new skin from the sun, watching her own hands drift and dance. She learnt to smile, to look her father in the eye and smile. By concentrating hard, she learnt to close her starfish fingers around the things she wanted to explore: stones, buttercups, the silk edge of her blanket. Suddenly, one pale night, she learnt to roll over in her cot, and although it took her a while to learn to roll back, she began to work on lifting her heavy head. And all the time her heart beat, carrying the blood she needed to grow and learn around her changing body. All the impossible intricacies of her biology worked, and only in rare moments did anyone think to wonder at the astonishing processes of lungs and gut, of kidneys and brain.
By the time the next spring flowers came, the child was learning to walk. Her father took her to the park, where she held onto a bench surrounded by purple crocuses and then confided herself to the earth and the air, launched herself across the grass in four staggering steps to his waiting arms. She was finding her words by then: Dadda, bird, more, no. She learnt to hold a crayon and make her mark, to bat away anyone trying to feed her because she wanted to do it herself. She did not need to learn to dance, because she could already do that.
We know now that the first time the music stumbled, the child was five. She had started school that autumn and by spring was reading fluently, beginning to take over her own bedtime stories, although still uncertain about numbers and frankly not interested in learning to write. She was playing tag with her friends in the square of concrete that passed for a playground, running and shouting under a watery sky, her skin warm and her cheeks pink while the supervisors pushed their hands deeper into their coat pockets. Her feet slowed. Her muscles tired. Not enough oxygen, not enough sugar. Not enough light. Fear. Her lungs sucked hard and could not make a vacuum, could not pull in the air her blood needed. And yet by the time her mother arrived, by the time they had the child lying down in the room behind the receptionist’s desk, she was fine, was pink and cheerful and distinctly annoyed. They’d given her the inhaler they kept for forgetful asthmatics, they said, they were sorry, they hoped it had been the right thing, only it had looked just like an asthma attack and look, it had worked. The child’s mother knelt at her side, having been called from work took out her stethoscope and listened to her daughter’s chest, to the free flow of air, to the percussion of her heart. There was nothing wrong. Asthma, she said, is over-diagnosed in children. Perhaps some virus, some passing disturbance, one of those things. And perhaps she was right. Perhaps it was not a warning that nobody saw.
After that, the child wheezed, sometimes, with a cold. It was nothing much, not often. Not, her mother said, asthma, not really, although yes, worth keeping an inhaler around, no harm to use it when the girl was uncomfortable at night.
The second call was louder. You knew that, of course; there are three warnings, three chances to stop the bad thing happening, although if we succeeded in doing so there would not be three, there would not be a story at all, only another in our unthinkable collection of things that didn’t happen. The child had been swimming in the sea off the island of Kalymnos. The water was cold. At first she had been reluctant, chilly, afraid of the waves, not wanting the salt water over her fair head and in her ears and her nose, but gradually, hand-in-hand with her father, she had edged herself deeper into the Mediterranean, squeaking as the water gripped her knees and thighs and stomach but then learning to jump and mock the breakers on the sand and to let the smoother waves lift her body and set her back on her feet. There we go, up and down, swooping and landing. Her hand was blue with cold and slippery with sunscreen and sea but her father held on until the four of them were bobbing adrift, awash, afloat where the sirens sang, until the child’s mother lost her nerve, wanted the air in her children’s hands again and the ground beneath their feet, and she was right because the child was still knee deep in the wine-dark sea when her breathing began to sound in her chest, to make a strange call. Mummy, she said, Mummy, and her mother took her hand and hurried her up the beach to where the inhaler, unused for months, lay at the bottom of a handbag. Here, she said, sit down, lean forward, you remember how to do this, and in half an hour they were all going for ice-cream. It is a strange moment for any body, for any arrangement of blood and skin and bone, leaving the water, cold water for hot air. Anyone’s heart might miss a beat, might not know if it is on land or sea. Anyone’s lungs might be surprised. Perhaps she did have asthma, after all. Lots of people do.
The third time, the girl was growing up, living between longing for and dismay at her own adulthood. She was as tall as her mother and heavier, more rounded, a less provisional presence in a room. She was clever and brave and stubborn and she didn’t dance any more but she read and she wrote. She had joined Amnesty International and Greenpeace and the Green Party. She said patriarchy and hegemony and neo-liberalism, several times a day. She put streaks of blue in her hair and enjoyed baiting her teachers by wearing mascara: but Miss, you’re wearing makeup. But Sir, aren’t you just inducting us into a world more interested in policing women’s sexuality than giving us knowledge?
They found her on the sports field. The PE teacher found her on the sports field, had looked out and noticed a huddle of clothes under a tree when everyone was supposed to be in lessons, and wondered what was going on. She was unconscious but making, he said, odd noises, her breathing like someone trying to saw through cardboard with a blunt knife, and before he’d had time to call the emergency services the noises stopped. The breathing stopped.
He did the right things in the right order. Pulled out his phone, pressed the 9 three times, pressed ‘speaker’ and laid the phone beside the girl among the dandelions while he rolled her onto her back, checked her mouth for obstructions, tipped her head back, the seconds dripping now like honey, held her nose and blew into her mouth, watched to see the chest rise and it didn’t, not much, but since he knew how to do this and not how to do anything else he kept going. As he’d been taught, he sang in his head for the rhythm as he braced his arms and found the opening of her ribcage, felt her bra under the heel of his hand as he forced her bones down into the earth. Nellie the elephant packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus. There was not much space between the girl’s breastbone and the cold grass: easy, at first, to press a third of its depth. Ambulance, he said. School. Unconscious, not breathing. Doing CPR. Off she went with a trumpety-trump. More breaths.
Inside the girl’s body, the teacher knew, inside her brain, cells were dying. Oxygen levels are reduced in exhaled air. Pressing on the chest, even hard, even this hard, does not move much blood. Her face and lips were turning blue. Keep on singing, keep on pushing down. Nellie the elephant. His arms tired. Harder. He heard sirens now on the road, blue lights coming across the field, a car bouncing over the grass. Said goodbye to the circus, off she went. Car door left open, engine still going, a woman in a green boiler suit. Blue plastic gloves on her hands. Running figures, an ambulance. We’ll take over now, well done, and he stood to make room, stumbled. They knelt at the girl’s side, four of them: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on. A helicopter now hammering the sky, bending the trees.
Suddenly, your heart began; suddenly in the darkness of your mother’s womb there was a crackle and a flash and out of nothing, the current began to run. Suddenly you began to breathe. Suddenly, you will stop, you and me and all of us. Your lungs will rest at last and the electric pulse in your pulse will vanish into the darkness from which it came.
Put your fingers in your ears, lay your head on the pillow, listen to the footsteps of your blood.
You are alive.
This is an extract from The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss, published by Granta Books on 7 July. Available for pre-order now.
Cover Photograph © David, tidal pattern 2, 2011