She was born with a hole in her stomach, a birth defect the doctors did not detect in utero. They brought her into the world through a slit cut into her mother, and with gloved and bloodied hands, pulled her kicking and screaming out.
It was not a large hole, not large enough that what was inside came out. Instead, the muscular wall of her abdomen helped to form a sort of cavity through which one could peer into her and glimpse the slicked intestines, sleeping like snakes. A half-moon sliver of stomach, the forest-green gallbladder like a thumb peeking out from beneath her liver. The hole was a neat rectangle from the bottom of her ribs to just below where her belly button should have been. The umbilical cord met a protrusion of pink flesh inside the cavity and was snipped. Aside from the hole, she was a healthy and normally-formed baby girl, her complexion pink with cheeks rosy from the failed pounding of her mother’s uterine walls and a head shaped like a cue ball—bald and perfectly round—for she had been feet first inside the womb.
During the Caesarian operation to remove her daughter, the mother’s head had craned forward, straining to see over or around or though the hospital-green fabric that blocked her view. After months of uncomfortable distention and phantom flutterings, the lower half of her body had suddenly become foreign and numb and inanimate.
The blue hospital cap had come forward and fallen over the edge made by her eyebrows. It was difficult to see. She was a young woman, not yet out of high school, and the young man who stood beside her was not her husband but the baby’s father, and he was there, which meant something to her.
“What’s the matter?” he said, looking to make eye contact with the doctor or a nurse. The doctor did not hold the baby up for them to see her, like he’d said he would. Instead the nurses whisked the child away. The young father stood by his partner’s head, riveted to the spot, because they had not yet closed her belly back up and he was squeamish and feared fainting.
The nurses weighed the baby and rolled black ink over her red toes to make the little card for the mother’s baby book.
“Will she live?” one asked.
The other, an older nurse with an iron gray bun and the disposition to match it, smacked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. It was not a polite thing to do, to suggest in front of the new child’s parents that said child’s mortality was already in question. Instead, she said, “Doctor,” and the doctor came and the three of them fashioned a sterile covering for the open wound, tamping it down gently with surgical tape. The baby girl squirmed and made snorting, cooing noises, disoriented and lost outside of the pulsing dark nearness of her mother’s womb.
“Excuse me?” the young father said. Unused to asserting his authority, his voice cracked.
On the operation table, the young mother asked, “What is it?” Her lips were blue, her body still open to the world, the placenta resting inside, a black-blood disk waiting to be delivered.
“Everything’s fine,” he said. He did not know this to be true. He pushed the cap back up from her face so she could see. “They’re cleaning her up.”
The young woman craned her neck. Her eyes were bright hard chips of light. The elastic band of the cap flipped forward again over her eyelashes.
“Ray?” she said, grabbing her partner’s hand. “Ray, where is she?”
An incubator was in order to prevent contamination of the inside body. There would be an emergency surgery to close the hole to the dirty world. The child was unlikely to survive, would no doubt be subjected to painful interventions that would ultimately fail, so for the moment, the doctor instructed the nurses to wrap the child tight in her swaddling clothes and lay her against her mother’s breast.
The young father strained on his toes to see around the nurses and doctor where they had his daughter on the table, and when he saw her, he saw the openness of her. He was afraid. He squeezed his partner’s hand.
“She’s beautiful,” he said to her. The nurses were bundling the baby girl up tight in white cloth and they put a soft pink cap on her round head.
He felt dread, the first flash of doubt that their child could be anything other than what he had imagined. She would require protection from the world in ways he hadn’t anticipated, in ways to be feared, more than others unlike her. The young man looked down at his partner on the operating table, and he shared a look with her to brace himself. But then the baby was there, on her breast, like a carefully wrapped and long-awaited package. The young woman let the baby rest against her as the doctor explained. Behind the curtain, they were removing the placenta from inside her and stitching her back up. She was open in the same way too, if only briefly. As the doctor spoke, explaining what would happen, their chances and odds, the numbers went past the young woman’s ears unheard. The young man was swaying beside her in a nervous rhythm, but she was watching the small bundle, the fists clinched tight with the tiny fingernails, eyelids translucent and wet with tears.
Two hours after her birth, not enough time for the ink to dry on her birth certificate, the doctors affixed a tiny oxygen mask to the baby’s tiny face over her tiny nose and tiny mouth, and attempted to close that open part of her. Her parents waited anxiously—rather, Ray did. The young mother, to her later embarrassment and shame, fell into immediate medicated sleep.
The doctors toiled.
“We must prevent infection,” they said. That would be the greatest trick of her continued life, to block the passage of dirt and other particles into the open peritoneal cavity.
The child’s skin was fragile like wet paper. Blue and green veins ran beneath it. When her mother held her to feed, she cradled the baby’s head and could feel the faint heartbeat of the branching vessels in the child’s head, crisscrossing through the softened fontanels that would later fuse to become the bones of the skull.
“We must prevent contamination,” the doctors said. They argued over all the invisible things that might invade or infect: microbes, bacteria, foreign bodies.
“There is not enough skin,” they said. “No fascia to create an anchor for skin or muscle to attach. A barrier cannot be built.”
The first operation was unsuccessful, as was the specialist’s, whom they consulted next. And then the pediatric gastroenterologist, then the talented plastic surgeon who flew in from California. It could not be done. They began to prepare her for the coming infection, for death. But she did not die. Though exposed, the baby girl, whom the young parents named but called B, not only continued to live but began to grow.
“A miracle,” the doctors proclaimed.
The medical phenomenon drew the media’s attention. Reporters appeared when Ray rolled mother and child out to the hospital’s loading area in a wheelchair. By the time he returned with the car, the wheelchair was surrounded, everyone eager to report on the baby’s condition.
“Doctors have been unable to close her up,” the reporters said, “but she’s thriving. How does that make you feel?”
“We’re so happy she’s well,” the mother said into the microphone. “We’re prepared for what may come. Our time with her is precious.” She looked to Ray, but he was busily tucking their daughter into the car seat, tight, just so.
At home, B gained weight and slept four hours at a time. She nuzzled her mother’s breast like a pup searching across a bitch’s belly, latched, suckled. Around the edges of the hole, her skin was not ragged open flesh, as if it were that which surrounds a wound or an abrasion. It was smooth pink skin, thickened and leather tough.
“Keloid tissue,” one specialist explained to her amazed parents. “Like an old scar.”
They gave her less than a year to live. They warned of serious infection, blood poisoning, sepsis. They showed the young parents how to wrap the infant in layers of surgical gauze, to not push on her stomach or poke at the things inside. They stressed upon them the realities of living with a condition such as B’s, the constant fear of contamination, the care and concern of anything but physical ease. B’s father vowed to keep her in a soft world with round corners.
But the young woman who had so quickly become a mother was inwardly pleased. The body, it would seem, was capable of much more than anyone expected of it. She touched the tender line of her own healing incision, in her own belly, and refused to smooth cocoa butter over it.
B lived, grew. Never a terribly hardy child, she remained small, scoring low in the growth percentiles for her age group. Wide-faced, but not ugly, plain but freckled with shiny teeth and fragile limbs.
The young parents quickly became seasoned, their nerves set to the hair trigger for any warning sign that a hospitalization might be in order. B did not run or jump, but played nicely, seated, and under parental supervision. Her entire existence seemed something left to chance or fate or some forgiving God who might rescind the favor at any given moment.
B’s consciousness awoke as she became aware of her ownership of a body, all its nooks and crannies and folds. The existence of the hole in her abdomen opened up the queer realization that beyond mind or soul, she was also a collection of things, of parts. An animation of flesh and bone. Instructed to never touch herself inside, she could trace the edges of her hole and confront the body as object, as her flesh. Cavernous and delicate. Slicked with mucus.
“Mommy,” she said, a prying child. “Mommy, why don’t you have one like me?”
The mother often gave the girl sponge baths to prevent water from pouring inside her, and B insisted that they take off their clothes together, fascinated by the seemingly familiar yet different parts that made up her mother. She fit her small hands over the toughened scar under the curve of her mother’s belly.
“Did you ever have one too?” she said.
“Yes,” her mother said. “The doctor had to make me like you, to get you out.”
“I was in there?” B said, eyes wide, fingers splayed. “In your tummy?”
“Yes, you were,” she said.
“Was there anybody else there? Was I all alone?”
“No,” her mother said. “Just you.”
“Are there any more babies in there?” B watched her mother’s stomach, fascinated that something could spring forth from it. A sister or brother.
“I don’t know,” her mother said.
“How long was I in there?”
“For nine long months.”
“But why? Did you put me in time out? Was I bad?”
“No. We had to get ready for you to burst out.”
When she grew old enough, B went to school. And the children were cruel, as children can be. The newspaper stories and “miraculous child” moniker followed her, even there. The teachers prepped her peers to play gently with B. They described the hole and how it must not come into contact with the outside world, to protect her. And the children, knowing of her, felt entitled to her.
On the playground, they asked B, “Can we see your guts?”
“What does it look like inside of you?”
“Why doesn’t your blood fall out and go everywhere?”
B did not yet have the words to tell them the neatness of her body, of their own bodies, that they were not sacks of blood and organs sloshing around in some bag of skin, as they seemed to think. They were ordered, all delicately connected.
But the children were also curious of her. They demanded knowledge of her that wasn’t theirs to demand. There was one boy and he was nine and at the age where he was obsessed with his own bodily secretions. When he came over to play, he wiped his boogers on her mother’s couch. His name was Jack. B’s mother followed behind him with Lysol and disinfecting wipes. Danger was in the price of friendship; she did not want her daughter to always be alone.
The mother arranged play dates and served the children lemonade and cookies on the back porch. While they played, she sat in the air conditioning, for her belly had begun to grow and swell again and she craved strange foods—only orange foods, carrot cake with pumpkin icing and mango smoothies sweetened with mint and honey.
Having spent much of her life indoors under her mother’s worried eyes, B cherished any time allowed outside. She dreamed of camping, of jumping in creeks. They were to play on the porch and drink lemonade and eat the cookies and leave her mother alone a while so she might do something she described to B as gestating, a process that involved reclining back on the day bed beneath the window and lying very still. Concern for sudden or jarring movement worried her forehead lines, a concern that predicated itself on the provocation of some catastrophe that B did not understand. But on the porch, she had Jack and they played. He had many annoying questions.
“Is it like a pouch? Or a pocket?” he said. “Like the kangaroos at the zoo?”
“No,” she said.
“But you can feel in there?”
“Yes,” she said. Of course she could.
“What does it feel like?” he said.
“I don’t go around sticking my fingers in,” she said. She remained bandaged and shut away, to minimize the possibility of contamination.
“Well, why not?” Jack said. “I’d want to.”
“Because it would hurt me. It could make me sick.”
“I want to see it,” he demanded of her.
“No, you can’t,” she said. He had no right to her.
Jack held up his toy fire truck. They’d been waging a war between the dinosaurs and trucks, using the wooden blocks as ammunition.
“Isn’t there space?” he said. “Would this truck fit?”
“Can’t we play like normal?” B said. “We could play House or Red Light, Green Light.”
“But you could carry so much in there,” he went on. He piled his toys together. “I bet we could build a pyramid with all of these. Then you’d always have something to play with. You’d never be bored.”
She had never thought of it that way. He didn’t seem to understand that the hole was something she’d been taught to conceal since birth. Something unseen and protected. Jack grew animated, wiped his runny rose excitedly with the heel of his hand.
“Just think, you could shove all your guts to the side and fit whatever you want in there.” His eyes gleamed with imagined adventures: pirate games where B was the treasure chest and cops and robbers where she could be the safe.
“And I’d crack you open,” Jack said, “and gold would pour out.”
A sibling never arrived to play with B on the porch, or appeared in middle school when the dentist cemented braces to her crooked teeth. Not then and not later, beyond first bras and the beginning of high school. At sixteen, B was much more concerned with her first real crush, her Human Biology teacher. He was handsome in a way that made her very aware of herself, her hips and breasts in contrast to his manliness, which manifested in a feral smell as he walked by, aware of his square shoulders, which seemed to cut a shape like a doorway when he lectured at the front of the room. When he stood by her desk, she flushed. His footfalls pounded in her ears. She felt swollen up to meet him. Never had B known that her body could react, as well as be reacted to. When he rose from his desk, pushing his button-down shirt back into place where it had pulled free, B felt a coursing fear, desirous and terrible. His brown leather belt was obscene. But it was not his lessons of human sexuality and reproduction, with its clinical diagrams of the limp penis and flowered labia that captured B’s attention. It was the digestive system.
Little Jack was there with her, puberty well on its way to transforming him into Big Jack. He had acquired that musk so characteristic of male adolescence. His hair was long and often sweaty. It hung in his eyes over his shiny forehead. He sat two rows behind B and stared through the two students between them, at the back of her head. When she informed him of her crush, he called it gross.
“As you can see here,” the teacher pointed with his red laser to a diagram projected onto the whiteboard, “if you remove the peritoneal lining, you reveal the small and large intestines.” Here he gave B a look as if to say he were sorry, sorry for pointing out that which was a part of all of them. That everyone knew of her hole was something B had grown accustomed to, the yearly reminder with each new teacher, each new class, that she was different. But it was less his obvious nod to her, and more the sense of his embarrassment for her that confused her, as if the hole were something shameful, something to be acknowledged but never seen. She knew that as the students sat there in the classroom with her, there were parts inside of Jack and all the rest of them that secreted and moved in coordinated waves of contraction. How did they not know this as she did? Why was it an embarrassing thing to point out? “The small intestine is divided into three parts,” the teacher continued, “based not on structure, but on function: the duodenum, the jejunum, the ileum.”
Finally, someone to give her the names for all that she was. She knew stomach and rib, but not all the separate parts, how they worked together. B wrote down “peristalsis” in her notes and circled it.
“How does it stay that way, though?” a girl from the back of the room asked.
“Stay what way?” the teacher said.
“All squished in there like that,” she said. B heard a chair scratch against the floor, could feel Jack somewhere behind. He had grown protective of her in their adolescent years.
Her teacher laughed. “There’s a membrane that connects all of it to a kind of web of veins and arteries that brings blood to the intestines. Called the mesentery.”
It sounded like lace. B wrote that down too.
Halfway through the class’s two-week block on digestion, a pause in the lecture brought excited whispers from the back of the room. Such murmurings were expected during uncomfortable lesson blocks like Sex Ed, but not here. They rose in fervor until the teacher was forced to address them.
“Yes, what is it?” he said. B knew what they would ask. Their expectation of her—an unchecked obligation, a right they must assert—came in rolling waves. All of the class’s attention, including Jack’s, slowly lasered in on B as she sat behind her desk, knees locked. Theirs was expected, but Jack’s was a betrayal.
The teacher was looking at her as though he did not know what the class would say. They called, “Yes, B! Please. Let us have a look.”
“You can’t fault them for asking,” the teacher said. His eyes were gentle, but coaxing. He wanted to see as well. “It would be educational, purely to your comfort level.”
“Are you asking?” she said. The lack of questioning her for consent was something B had begun to notice as she grew into a young woman. It was expected and therefore implied.
He seemed bashful. “Yes,” he said.
“I’ll consider it,” she said. But the idea that her hole ought to be revealed was a new and awesome power. Never had B imagined she could hold such sway. She felt flattered.
That night at home, she asked her mother, “Were you ever afraid?”
Her father looked up from his peas.
“When?” her mother said.
“At the hospital? Having me? Having someone like me?” B said. “Any of it?”
Her parents exchanged a look she could not know.
“Always,” her father said.
After dinner from behind the banister, B watched her mother sit on the bottom step of the staircase that fed into the foyer. They had a nice life, a dining room to the left with a grand table and place settings for eight that they never used, and a second room off to the right where her father hauled in and tied down the Christmas tree each year.
Her mother sat very still on the step, staring out into dusky shadows that stretched into the house. B could not know what she thought, if she regretted anything at all. Her mother looked old; she looked sad.
B crept down the stairs and sat beside her mother, stared into the aged version of herself. She wondered at all the things her mother had given up to care for her daughter. The brother or sister who never came. She thought of the surge she’d felt knowing there was something desirable in her condition. Something powerful.
“Have you been ashamed of me?” she asked her mother. “You’ve kept me so close to you.”
“Of course not,” her mother said. “We’ve only wanted to protect you.”
B thought of telling her mother of the teacher’s request, how the class was encouraged by the opportunity to see what they’d been studying, but she did not know how to defend her choice to expose something so private. She said nothing.
At school in the hall, before she could walk into the classroom, Jack stopped her.
“You don’t have to,” he said. He touched her arm, a plea.
“I want to,” B said. “Don’t you want to see, too?” He’d spent most of their lives trying to unwrap her. How could he balk at what he wanted now?
“Yes,” he said, unconvinced. “But everyone else will see.”
“You don’t have to be afraid for me,” she said. She went inside.
He followed, sat at his desk.
“Ok,” B said to the teacher.
“Yes?” the teacher said.
“Yes, I don’t mind.”
She stood at the front of the room, the portable projector casting the diagram over her face and body with ghostly light, blinding her. The teacher shut it off so she could see, and the class in their plastic seats stilled. Jack was close, his eyes watchful. She could not read his face.
It went the way she knew, with her daily changing of the gauzy wrap dressings, of sanitizing the edges of the hole with saline wash. Unwind. Cleanse. Rewrap. She pulled the hem of her shirt up and rolled it under the band and wires of her bra. Her dressings neatly wound around her stomach. A vertical row of three metal clips held the bandages in place. No one spoke in the back of the room; there was not even the barest hint of a salacious whisper. They sat on the edge of knowing some truth about B, about their own visceral selves. This was confrontation.
The teacher shut the classroom door, quiet. Did he know to stop? He should have.
B unclipped the metal fasteners from their ordered row and placed them one by one on an empty desk.
“May I?” the teacher said. She nodded and then blushed at his proximity, his dexterous fingers. Never had a grown man touched her this way. She seemed to travel out of her body, viewed herself from above. He took the edges of the white band in both hands. B, belly ready to be bared, pivoted on her toes, a spinning dancer in a music box, and let him unwrap her. Blood pounded inside her chest, in between her legs.
“It will be very dark,” she warned. Her voice had shrunk down. Exposed, she stood with her hands out in front of her, obscuring the hole. Jack’s eyes were pinpricks of light in the darkness.
The teacher gathered her bandages and placed them next to her metal fasteners. B did not have words to tell him that he did not have to be so careful; the bandages were contaminated the moment he touched them. She kept two sealed packages of spare dressing in her backpack. She searched for Jack under all of their attention. He would anchor her. She trusted him. But he could only see her hands, what waited behind them.
“Let’s adjust this,” the teacher said and moved the projector head so that its dark eye looked directly at her, into that place at her center. He removed the transparent diagram so that the projector simply cast white light. He tinkered with its focus and the light sharpened and illuminated her hands, which were shaking. Her insides buzzed with strange energy.
“Tuck in,” the teacher told his students, and they gathered at the front of the room, put their heads together to see. “Are you ready, B?”
“Yes,” she said.
She put down her covering hands. She put her shoulders back and stood tall. Proud.
Shocked silence. Awe. Faces crowded before her, leaning in, eyes peering deep inside as if she were a window into the unknowable. Jack in the front row, as hungry as the rest of them.
“But,” one said. They were confused. “But it all looks the same.”
“It isn’t what you showed us,” said another.
“Where are the colors?”
“Isn’t this part supposed to be green?” They pressed forward. B instinctively stepped away from them.
“Stay back,” the teacher said.
“But how can you tell what anything is?” They looked to B with angry and saddened faces. She had no explanation to give them, could only show what was there. They were baffled, horrified.
“Is that all there is?”
The wet curve of B’s diaphragm moved up and down. Never had she stood before them all so exposed. Panic rose then, near the apex of her ribs, at their rejection of her. Finally, Jack released his gaze from inside her and met her eyes. Now you’ve seen it, she wanted to tell him. It was everything he had always asked of her. A gift, given. The teacher took his laser pointer from his pocket. He moved the students back and stood between them and B.
“What do you mean?” he said. He moved his red light to a pale rope of viscera, the laser’s light bouncing off the inside walls of her abdomen like a candle in a cave. “Here’s the small intestine.” The light moved, cutting her into sections. “If you’ll imagine a line running up and down and one across, you create the four quadrants we’ve talked about.” He corralled them, re-conquered their interest in the face of such disappointment, confusion, anger.
“On the right here is the descending colon and the spleen above. See? See how red it is? A highly vascular organ. Imagine if it were to rupture—a common impact injury—see here, the large amount of space it would potentially bleed into.”
B stood tall. She stood open.
Later, she found him in the hallway.
“Did you see?” she asked Jack. She had to tug on his backpack because he was rushing away.
“Yes, I did,” he said.
“So?” she said.
He turned on her. His cheeks flushed purple with rage, hair sweaty and plastered to his forehead. She shrank before him. The power she’d experienced standing exposed before them wilted.
“But didn’t you want to see?” she said.
“Yes,” he said. He stood back from her, a stranger. “Yes, I did.”
Elle Drumheller holds an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and moved to Louisville, Kentucky, for the bourbon, the river, and her husband. Previously, she served as nonfiction editor of Ecotone and participated in Tin House‘s Winter Workshop in 2017. This is her first publication. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @elledrumheller.