What Is the Shape

by Liz Scheid
What Is the Shape by Liz Scheid

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other waythings I had no words for.

-Georgia O’Keeffe

Of distance

I’ve been staring at the linea nigra, a bluish jagged line that connects my pelvis to belly button. At 34 weeks pregnant with my second child, my body is covered with blue lines: spider veins burst along my calves in web shapes, veins on my wrist wrap around each other in deep purple lines. I don’t recognize my body; my feet are too far away, too distant. I trace the line that separates me from my baby.

The distance between California and Wisconsin is roughly 1800 miles. Give or take. As a child, I used to fly back and forth from California to Wisconsin several times a year, bouncing states, bouncing between parents. After their divorce, my dad moved back to Wisconsin, where we originated. My head pressed against the plane window as I watched the horizon collapse. I liked being in-flight. Time seems to suspend in the sky. I can’t explain it.


Of time

During pregnancy, time seems to move backwards. Like backstroking through a dream. Things you thought you knew seem to vanish—or the thought hangs in the backdrop and you can’t pinpoint the word for it. Like trying to put your hand on static in the air.

In 1962, George Kubler’s book, The Shape of Time was released. Among other things, Kubler suggested that strings of events which follow each other at different speeds shape time.

During pregnancy, short-term memory disappears. In the morning, I lose my cups of tea. They seem to sink in a black hole. So I make more, and later in the day, I find cold cups of tea in closets, bookshelves, and atop dressers. My mind seems to move in a flurry.

My sister Sarah gave birth to her second child by C-section. For days after, the incision burned, slicing into skin; her belly looked swollen and beaten. She was supposed to rest; doctors told her to stay in bed. But she had a newborn and a three-year-old. She lifted and bent, moved in ways she shouldn’t have. She tried to fight time, to move against what was pushing her back. Three months after she gave birth, she died in a car accident.


Of anger

Sarah hadn’t spoken to my father for close to a year at the time of her death. They had an argument; sharp words were thrown like swords. Their anger held them back, smothered all other emotions, and took their voices hostage.

When my husband is angry, he talks with his hands. His lips press together and his hands flit and flutter, slicing the air. Follow my hands, he says.

I spent summers with my dad in Wisconsin in the beginning. He rented a cottage across the street from a lake. During the day, I rode bikes with my best friend or we’d swim underneath a pier. We loved how chilly the water was there, how our voices hummed like murmurs, the murky sand below us. Every now and then, a fish would tickle our toes or legs and we’d plunge upward. When my dad got home, he’d cook dinner, and then we’d watch a movie or play basketball. Some nights after talking to my mom on the telephone, he’d ask if I wanted to go for a drive. During those long rides through back roads, he’d say nothing, and we’d listen to music, watching rows and rows of corn swirl past.

These last few days, my baby has been kicking my ribs in rapid movements. I’ve tried to figure out his triggers: loud voices, caffeinated beverages or if I lie too still. All of this seems to send him into a furious frenzy.


Of water

My mom loved California’s hot weather. She was tired of the long, cold winters in Wisconsin. She said her skin looked gray there; her hair ash. She wanted more color. We rented a house with a black-bottomed pool. We spent many hot days floating on rafts, tipping each other over. Some nights, we’d swim, turning off all lights, and it felt like we were part of the black sky.

But my father loved the lakes in Wisconsin. He used to take my brother and sisters and me fishing in early mornings. He showed us how to cast a line; to pull it back over shoulders, how to swoop over heads, and to wait for a vibration, a slight twitch, and how to snap the wrist back, like a reflex. All I wanted to do was swim. To keep me in the boat, Sarah told me there were piranhas in cages at the bottom of the lake, and if my feet got too close, they’d bite my toes.

At this point in the pregnancy, my amniotic fluid is at its highest peak, and he is swimming in it, digesting it, excreting it. His muscles and bones move at ease in this watered cocoon.


Of dreams

My dad had the same dream several nights in a row, and it’s the only dream he’s ever talked about. In it, he’s fishing, and everything begins to ascend into air, silver fish, shadows of other fishermen, snakes, and as he begins to rise in his boat, he stops midway up. Everything else rises past him as he hovers in his boat halfway up the sky.

My daughter tells me that she dreamt about yellow hummingbirds. That they were everywhere, and that she was tiny and could ride them.

During pregnancy, I dream a lot about my sister. At some point within every dream, I realize that it isn’t real, that I’m dreaming, that she’s dead, and I ask her what she’s doing here. She never answers and then I wake up, and everything feels distorted again. It seems she dies over and over again.


Of bruises

At first my parents had thought they wanted an open casket funeral for Sarah; they thought it’d bring closure. They must have thought she’d look like she was sleeping in the rose casket they picked out. But when we all went to view her body before the funeral, their minds changed. And it was there that we first used words to separate my sister from her body. My mother collapsed on the floor next to it. My dad walked in, holding his breath, holding all his emotion, and walked out. I’m not sure if I ever saw him exhale. I wanted to see her hands; she once pressed her hand against mine to measure whose fingers were longer. She said, we have the same hands. Someone had folded hers like a paper fan. There was a yellow bruise between her thumb and index finger on her left one. I stared hard at it, losing myself in its shape, wondering how she got it. She must have been gripping onto the steering wheel as her car flipped upside down. At what point did she let go.

Lately, my body bruises easily. All the pressure on veins. The lack of iron. My daughter traces the small bruise on my arm with her finger. She tells me that it’s shaped like a heart, and asks me if I knew that all bruises were blue hearts.


Of loss

Shortly before they split up, my parents went on a retreat to reconcile things. There was a distance between them, and my mom said they had trouble communicating. Silence is the worst kind of anger. The retreat was in the mountains, and they took walks uphill, up paths with overgrown flowers and weeds, and rested on rocks. He wrote my mom a beautiful letter with beautiful words. She said it was long and heartfelt, and that she never knew he felt so strongly. Could he write those words because he was trying to save something or because he’d already lost her?

After my sister dies, my dad doesn’t say her name much. He doesn’t chime in when we reminisce. Sometimes, he walks out of the room when he hears us talking about her. Early Sunday mornings, he fishes. My dad is patient, quiet. He likes to anchor his boat in the most secluded spot, just above all the weeds. I’ve been with him—and it’s beautiful—the boat’s hum, whistling cicadas, black lake, distant porch lights. You feel like you’re in the shaping of a day. Like you’re sitting inside a pool of loss. There are no words for it, really; it just encircles you, and everything feels watered. Like the mind during pregnancy. You tell yourself to move forward, but something pulls you back.


Liz Scheid’s essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Sou’Wester, Mississippi Review, Third Coast, Post Road, The Collagist, Terrain, DIAGRAM, The Prose-Poem Project, and other magazines. She holds an MFA (poetry) from California State University, Fresno.