The dozen fetuses of the sand shark feed on each other
until only one is left to be born.
When I visit, my father, nearing ninety, sings hymns aloud, tells me he wakes each morning expecting to be reborn, repeating it three times as if I’m the genie for resurrection. He says he hears the brothers I never had softly talking in the small bedroom where I slept while not one of them was born. They whisper, he says, about the way he refused them, saying “never” in the disciplined sign language of the rhythm method, keeping each of them a jealous spirit.
When he sings “In the Garden,“ I imagine those brothers, each day, rising to where my childhood window looks out at the rhododendron roof-high, the peace of its curtain, fragments of light that testify like character witnesses for weather. They move their mouths to those hymns that are heavy with sunrise and eternal joy.
Now, in October, the house holds the early darkness and the dry heat of the furnace, and my father repeats the chorus, raising his voice to be heard by those unborn boys who wake him each morning like birds.
One of my students tells me she devoured her twin in the womb, a doctor solving that natural crime with the spaced clues of ultrasound. “My mother explained it all to me,” she says. “She gave me a copy of the ultrasound photograph that was taken when there were two of us.”
She confides that she keeps her shadow twin sealed inside a scrapbook she opens on her birthday, leaving the photo face up in her bedroom. For when, she says, her family sings around her cake. For when their voices swell enough to reach her sister.
On my next visit, I bring my father a gift, a book that traces the stories behind the composition of more than fifty selected hymns. The words and music for all of the hymns are included, and the book, with its dark, austere cover, has the feel of church about it, as if I should rise from my chair as he opens it, ready to join in singing the processional.
It’s been fifteen years since he lost the glasses my mother made him get in order to be able to read any print smaller than headlines. He squints at a few pages, pauses at those which have the hymns printed on them to read the titles that are printed in the large, Old English Text font of the Lutheran hymnal he’s sung from for more than eighty years. Finally, he closes his eyes, one hand resting across a page, and begins to sing “The Old Rugged Cross.”
Astronomers now believe Earth once had three moons—News Item
If we are outside at night when I spend a day or two at his house, my father tells me to look up while he points out sets of stars he sees in the shapes of animals, objects, or people. He points out glowing dots that are planets, and though most of the time I fail to distinguish what he identifies, I keep my nearsighted eyes lifted to please him. During a winter visit, the evening surprisingly warm, I tell him there used to be three moons, announcing it as if that number had been proved. “They were either sucked into the sun or broken to bits by the one moon that’s left,” I say, and he nods.
For a moment I think that he’s somehow already heard about this theory, but when he says, “Yes, that’s a new moon,” I understand he hasn’t heard me clearly, picking out “moon” from the sound jumble created by his near deafness and guessing what a novice sky watcher might offer.
“There used to be three moons,” I say again. “Somebody probably stood here like us and thought they looked like three beautiful sisters thrown into the sky by some jealous god.”
My father nods again. He says “Good.”
Once, in Africa, boys ran to their teacher to tell how their friend had accepted candy from a stranger’s hand and turned into a yam. “There,” they said, “see what’s left?” and that teacher carried the yam to the police with care.
For three days, nearby, a girl’s been missing, turned into nothing but a column of cars outside our schools, mothers in silent bunches, buses that transport epidemic numbers, their red seats emptied by the virus of fear. Stories are told about girls vanished like time, yet returning like swallows.
The police, in Africa, displayed that yam and people flocked to see. Mothers from nearby villages worshipped the hope of metamorphosis, how their lost children might have been left uneaten by some candied stranger. If only they’d been transformed into things with voices; if only they could identify themselves, prove they were within some object to be kept and cared for.
I take my father to dinner, eating in a restaurant so familiar he can order what he’s had three times before without having to read the menu. On the way back to his house he asks me to park on Butler Street for the first time in nearly twenty years. The street is so deserted, there is room for ten cars, but I know to drift up to where a vacant lot sits among the buildings that house bars, a beauty shop, a tattoo parlor, and a long-closed hardware store that still sports its name on the side of the building. He uses his cane to shuffle into the middle of that empty space where the bakery he owned for sixteen years used to stand.
“The bakery’s been missing so long, pretty soon no one will know it was here,” he says.
“Probably,” I say, an easy agreement. It’s been thirty-three years since the building was torn down a few months after the bakery closed. Shortly afterwards, the cement we’re standing on was laid over the vacant space to provide parking for people who rented the rooms above those nearby businesses, though now, when I glance up, I can’t see any lights in the upstairs rooms on either side of us and no cars are parked near where we stand.
I half expect him to begin a hymn, but instead he leans on his cane and says, “The house where I was born is gone, and the house where you were born is gone,” sounding so mournful I offer to drive him to both sites, one leveled to make room for a widened highway, the other long ago razed and replaced by a church. With the sound of traffic passing, he seems to hear nothing of what I say.
“Right here,” he says, and when he spreads his arms, I guess that he’s standing at the memory of work-bench, that when he pulls his hands back together and lifts them , the cane dangling from his right hand, he is ready to carry something to the bank of ovens in the nearby remembered room.
After a few seconds he lowers his hands, steadies himself, and asks me to stand closer. He tells me my mother is slicing bread, the cash register behind her, the three of us working together because he is icing a wedding cake just before delivery, spiraling sweetness so thick with sugar and lard around the figures of the bride and groom, no one should eat it, trusting me to balance the three white tiers to the car.
Vanishing twins may occur in as many as one of every eight multifetus pregnancies and may not even be known in most cases. In one study, only three of twenty-one pairs of twins survived to term, suggesting intense fetal competition for space and nutrition In some instances vanishing twins leave no detectable trace at birth. More than one amniotic sac can be seen in early pregnancy. A few weeks later only one.
Because his house becomes so dusty, I suffer asthma attacks during two consecutive visits. The next time I arrive, I tell him that I have other business the following day, that I have a reservation sixty miles away in order to be closer to my morning appointment.
And that’s mostly true. I drive for an hour and stay in a motel along the highway I use to return home. It’s one hour cut from the four hour drive, and I’ve stayed late enough that the trip wouldn’t have ended until after one a.m.
The motel room is clean and free of dust. I watch the late news and sports on the Pittsburgh channel that my father watches each night before he hobbles, bracing himself on furniture and the walls of his hall before lying down in the bed I slept in for thirteen years.
I mention to the student who absorbed her twin that my daughter sent me ultrasound photos of both of her yet-to-be-born. That I stuck those photos among cards and snapshots and short lists of things-to-do on my refrigerator, not telling her my daughter asked not to know their sex, her daughters old enough, now, to study their early selves like scholars of pre-birth.
Transformations fill the museum I imagine for the missing—a lunch box, a ribbon, a mitten, one untied shoe. A boy become a newspaper satchel, a girl turned into an emptied purse. When I think of the nearby missing girl I imagine leaves on the tongue, mud in the eyes, the sound of weeping stifled by blood in the throat.
The morning of the first milk carton child–Etan Patz, six years old and vanished–my own three children, ages two to seven, ate breakfast as if they were promises waiting for a kiss to revive them.
At eighty-nine, my father gives up his cane for a walker. Because he is embarrassed by his weakness, I have to convince him to go to the familiar restaurant. I park by the front door and leave the car running while I help him stand. I unfold the walker and set it up for him, telling him to go inside while I park the car.
When I return he hasn’t moved. During dinner he says, without any prompting, “When you have just one son, there’s no room for anything terrible to happen.”
My daughter has painted a sky of chairs that sparkle like redundant constellations. Her heaven is moonless, the chairs, she says, ascending. The sky bleeds from one side from the wounds she imagines on an adjacent panel, one that waits nearby, brilliant with light. Her two daughters, ages seven and four, dream of painting it blue, a sun shining the chairs invisible.
The vanished twin can die from a poorly implanted placenta, a developmental anomaly that causes major organs to fail or to be completely missing, or there may be a chromosome abnormality incompatible with life.
During the three-moon era it would have been possible to simultaneously witness the crescent moon of anticipation, the half moon of mercy, and the full moon of joy.
Or some other arrangement of emotions for those triplets. Or some extraordinary apprehension if, one night, all three lay below the horizon.
After my father, a month into living at a nursing home, acquiesces to a wheelchair, he lasts six weeks before he dies. My sister, a church choir director, keeps the book of hymns.
I make sure my last two visits to his house are as short as possible, the asthma attack-inducing dust an issue in every room. What I want most are photographs, especially those that help to deny the never of what is irretrievable.
I spend half of that time in my old room rummaging in boxes from department stores that closed decades ago. Inside one from Horne’s are photos so unfamiliar that I barely recognize myself from ages six to eleven. After I look at others in the box I can tell that the photographs were taken by an uncle, that they were stored in my bedroom closet after both he and my aunt had died.
My father, about ten years earlier, had claimed all of them from another empty house.
Never arrived with his flashlight, and people in the next town followed it to the river and the woods and the damp basements of a half-constructed houses. Those search parties, on the fifth day of looking for the missing girl, dwindled from “rescue” to “recovery,” and yet nothing was found.
Today I wake with the coffee maker set to six a.m., its cough driving me out of sleep like a smoke alarm. Now, when I talk to the air, somebody is there. This morning three birds fly into the living room windows, one of them dead in the iris, the other two missing. A neighbor says it’s three flights of the same bird, but I remember the music of those thumps, the variation of size and speed, and I see the colors of the missing above the trees, shades necessary as water as I stand beneath them, my face upturned to spaces they have left in the sky.