Authors: Leni Zumas
The Borough Press
An imprint of HarperCollins
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published by Lee Boudreaux Books 2018
Published by HarperCollins
Copyright © Leni Zumas 2018
Jacket design © HarperCollins
Jacket design and illustration © Lauren Harms
Leni Zumas asserts the moral right to be identified
as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright
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Source ISBN: 9780008209827
Ebook Edition © March 2018 ISBN: 9780008209858
for Luca and Nicholas
For nothing was simply one thing. The other
Lighthouse was true too.
Born in 1841 on a Faroese sheep farm
The polar explorer was raised on a farm near
In the North Atlantic Ocean, between Scotland and Iceland, on an island with more sheep than people, a shepherd’s wife gave birth to a child who would grow up to study ice.
Pack ice once posed such a danger to ships that any researcher who
knew the personality of this ice
could predict its behavior was
valuable to the companies and governments that funded polar expeditions.
In 1841, on the Faroe Islands, in a turf-roofed cottage, in a bed that smelled of whale fat, of a mother who had delivered nine children and buried four, the polar explorer Eivør Mínervudottír was born.
In a room for women whose bodies are broken, Eivør Mínervudottír’s biographer waits her turn. She wears sweatpants, is white skinned and freckle cheeked, not young, not old. Before she is called to climb into stirrups and feel her vagina prodded with a wand that makes black pictures, on a screen, of her ovaries and uterus, the biographer sees every wedding ring in the room. Serious
rocks, fat bands of glitter. They live on the fingers of women who have leather sofas and solvent husbands but whose cells and tubes and bloods are failing at their animal destiny. This, anyway, is the story the biographer likes. It is a simple, easy story that allows her not to think about what’s happening in the women’s heads, or in the heads of the husbands who sometimes accompany them.
Crabby wears a neon-pink wig and a plastic-strap contraption that exposes nearly all of her torso, including a good deal of breast. “Happy Halloween,” she explains.
“And to you,” says the biographer.
“Let’s go suck out some lineage.”
“Anagram for blood.”
“Hmm,” says the biographer politely.
Crabby doesn’t find the vein straight off. Has to dig, and it hurts. “Where
she asks the vein. Months of needlework have streaked and darkened the insides of the biographer’s elbows. Luckily long sleeves are common in this part of the world.
“Aunt Flo visited again, did she?” says Crabby.
“Well, Roberta, the body’s a riddle. Here we go—
you.” Blood swooshes into the chamber. It will tell them how much follicle-stimulating hormone and estradiol and
progesterone the biographer’s body is making. There are good numbers and there are bad. Crabby drops the tube into a rack alongside other little bullets of blood.
Half an hour later, a knock on the exam-room door—a warning, not a request for permission. In comes a man wearing leather trousers, aviator sunglasses, a curly black wig under a porkpie hat.
“I’m the guy from that band,” says Dr. Kalbfleisch.
“Wow,” says the biographer, bothered by how sexy he’s become.
“Shall we take a look?” He settles his leather on a stool in front of her open legs, says “Oops!” and removes the sunglasses. Kalbfleisch played football at an East Coast university and still has the face of a frat boy. He is golden skinned, a poor listener. He smiles while citing bleak statistics. The nurse holds the biographer’s
file and a pen to write measurements. The doctor will call out how thick the lining, how large the follicles, how many the follicles. Add these numbers to the biographer’s age (42) and her level of follicle-stimulating hormone (14.3) and the temperature outside (56) and the number of ants in the square foot of soil directly beneath them (87), and you get the odds. The chance of a child.
on latex gloves: “Okay, Roberta, let’s see what’s what.”
On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the shrill funk of an elderly cheese and one being no odor at all, how would he rank the smell of the biographer’s vagina? How does it compare with the other vaginas barreling through this exam room, day in, day out, years of vaginas, a crowd of vulvic ghosts? Plenty of women don’t shower beforehand,
or are battling a yeast, or just happen naturally to stink in the nethers. Kalbfleisch has sniffed some ripe tangs in his time.
He slides in the ultrasound wand, dabbed with its neon-blue jelly, and presses it up against her cervix. “Your lining’s nice and thin,” he says. “Four point five. Right where we want it.” On the monitor, the lining of the biographer’s uterus is a dash of white chalk
in a black swell, hardly enough of a thing, it seems, to measure, but Kalbfleisch is a trained professional in whose expertise she is putting her trust. And her money—so much money that the numbers seem virtual, mythical, details from a story about money rather than money anyone actually has. The biographer, for example, does not have it. She’s using credit cards.
The doctor moves to the ovaries,
shoving and tilting the wand until he gets an angle he likes. “Here’s the right side. Nice bunch of follicles …” The eggs themselves are too small to be seen, even with magnification, but their sacs—black holes on the grayish screen—can be counted.
“Keep our fingers crossed,” says Kalbfleisch, easing the wand back out.
Doctor, is my bunch actually nice?
He rolls away from her crotch and pulls
off his gloves. “For the past several cycles”—looking at her chart, not at her—“you’ve been taking Clomid to support ovulation.”
This she does not need to be told.
“Unfortunately Clomid also causes the uterine lining to shrink, so we advise patients not to take it for long stretches of time. You’ve already done a long stretch.”
She should have looked it up herself.
“So for this
round we need to try a different protocol. Another medication that’s been known to improve the odds in some elderly pregravid cases.”
“Just a clinical term.” He doesn’t glance up from the prescription he’s writing. “She’ll explain the medication and we’ll see you back here on day nine.” He hands the file to the nurse, stands, and makes an adjustment to his leather crotch before striding
Asshole, in Faroese:
Crabby says, “So you need to fill this today and start taking it tomorrow morning, on an empty stomach. Every morning for ten days. While you’re on it, you might notice a foul odor from the discharge from your vagina.”
“Great,” says the biographer.
“Some women say the smell is quite, um, surprising,” she goes on. “Even actually disturbing. But whatever
you do, don’t douche. That’ll introduce chemicals into the canal that if they make their way through the cervix can, you know, compromise the pH of the uterine cavity.”
The biographer has never douched in her life, nor does she know anyone who has.
“Questions?” says the nurse.
“What does”—she squints at the prescription—“Ovutran do?”
“It supports ovulation.”
“You’d have to
ask the doctor.”
She is submitting her area to all kinds of invasion without understanding a fraction of what’s being done to it. This seems, suddenly, terrible. How can you raise a child alone if you don’t even find out what they’re doing to your area?
“I’d like to ask him now,” she says.
“He’s already with another patient. Best thing to do is call the office.”
“But I’m here
Can’t he—or is there someone else who—”