IN UTERO by Elissa Lash

She is a recluse these days, a black widow wearing scarlet sequins. She is a madwoman in the attic at midnight. As the cock crows, I find her lurking in the basement amid the cobwebs, shaking and muttering behind an old broom, summoning dark magic.

My uterus is angry, and that’s her right, one of the few rights she has left.

She is remembering when the babies took up so much space. She likes babies well enough, but they ravaged her. They ate her flesh. The babies were hungry, always hungry. They kicked and pushed. They did cartwheels and backflips. They climbed her walls. They ripped the door off the hinges on their way toward the light. They turned her inside out.

Within my uterus there is a reckoning. Scrubbing the floor and ceiling, she is ripping out handfuls of her long, luxurious auburn hair, then pushing it down the drain.

My uterus has been bleeding for seven weeks now. My uterus, the psychic, saw the end times coming.

* * *

When my uterus was a baby uterus nestled in my baby body, she was a tiny perfect sea sponge singing her song to my tiny, perfect personhood to let me know that I was a girl.  We didn’t yet know that to be a girl in the world is to be the pointed end of the less-than sign, to be the angular tip of a witch’s hat, to be the whittled needle nose of a poison arrow.

Evolutionary biologists have only recently begun to crack how and why the uterus evolved in mammals. Live birth rather than emerging from an egg. A bit of non-protein coding DNA, changing positions, jumping genes. Growing a body right inside another body. My uterus imagines a world where she is not needed. Eggs are laid—some will hatch and some will not. Put the eggs in an incubator; maybe you’ll get some babies. Put them in a cardboard carton and sell them by the dozen. Men will conspire on how to legislate the eggs: soft-boiled, scrambled, sunny-side up, or deviled.

The daughter that has come from my uterus is petite and has long hair, large round aqua eyes, and a small perfect uterus that lives within her perfect twelve-year-old body. My daughter and her little uterus are frightened to wait at the bus stop. Last year a twelve-year-old girl in our town got off the school bus and stood at the end of her rural road adjusting her backpack. A dented white Toyota Camry slowed, and the men inside hurled lewd comments: hey baby, lick my balls, suck my cock, hey hot tits, you got a wet pussy?

The girl ran—heavy backpack on her back, lunchbox and violin case in hand—until she was home, half a mile down the road, locked the door, crying. Her mother called the school. As the news spread of the incident some parents were surprised; some just shook their heads. Our daughters know the story, and the stories that have come before.

This is how the world controls and condemns a tiny uterus.

* * *

My baby uterus grew into a young uterus as I grew into a young girl. When I go swimming on hot days, she’s in heaven. She is swimming in my body, as I’m swimming in the water body. She tells me that I will become a woman. She tells me to remember that she is the source of my magic, my instincts and power.

“I thought that came from my gut?” I ask.

“That’s an expression made by jealous men. Guts tell us that we’re unsettled, that we’re gassy. Guts don’t create magic.”

I think I used to know something about my magic once upon a time.

* * *

When I began menstruating, I was horrified. All day I’d been so tired and everything smelled metallic. There were brown smears and stains in my underwear, like rust.

Uterus, are you bleeding? Are you hurt?

The weight of it descended onto my thirteen-year-old misbegotten body. All the things I’d have to carry now that I was a woman: the household chores, the taking care of others, the lewd attention, the baby making.

I went downstairs. My mother was ironing.

“I have blood in my underwear.” I whispered it. I knew this announcement would be an inconvenience.

“Oh.” She sighed with exasperation at my body. “Are you sure it isn’t poop?”

“In this book I read, the girl, Margaret, is my age and she gets her period. I think that’s what it is.”

The book had infuriated me. These girls were obsessed with periods, bras, and boys. Who would want these things, and what was the hurry? Why wasn’t Margaret praying about things that were more fantastical? We were all eventually going to get bras and periods. My mother had a pained look as I said period. Couldn’t my uterus have waited?

I watched TV, a stiff crinkly pad wadded between my legs, repeating a mantra, she has a period, we all have a period, as I stared at Charlie’s gun-toting angels.

My uterus and I didn’t speak much those first few years.

I remember being lonely. Margaret wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with me. She would be friends with girls like Kathy, Jenni, and Kimberly, who went to the mall to buy roll-on perfume that smelled of cotton candy and ate fries at Roy Rogers while giggling at boys.

* * *

“I was not put on this earth to only birth children.” My uterus tells me this as we share a small glass of absinthe and a cigarette. She speaks in a husky voice, hoarse after all the screaming.

She is capable of birthing other things too.

Elephants gestate for almost two years. Camels, giraffes, rhinos need over a year to develop their offspring within the darkness of their bodies. Whales and some sharks can carry a pregnancy for up to three years.

This is the kind of time my uterus needs.

Twice I said no to the seed growing in my body. My uterus gave me her blessing.

Abortion #1. A queasy relief.

My uterus and I were ready to shed the unfaithful man dragging us down. Nauseated for weeks. Was it the boyfriend, with his hands that smelled of garlic, too self-involved to talk about the piece of him implanted in the wall of my womb? I pulled my car into the bank parking lot so I could lean out the door and puke onto the asphalt on my way home from Duane Reade with a pregnancy test.

“What are you going to do?” the cheating boyfriend asked every night. As if this were all my doing, my problem.

Abortion #2. A medical mystery.

Swollen with grief and anger. The skin of my belly tight, my feet and hands hot and puffy.

The dermatologist who had prescribed Accutane to perfect my skin wrote out the scrip without even looking up from his computer. It was a normal request from an emaciated aspiring actress.

“Also, birth control pills,” he said. “You’re not allowed to get pregnant on Accutane.” He paused his tapping on the keys to wag a finger.

The pills, a pastel crescent of tablets packaged up like a compact, shell pink and slender, each dose a tiny Sweet Tart. My daily breakfast was 1 Ortho Tri-cyclen, 1 Accutane tablet, 1 large coffee with skim milk, and 1 packet of Equal.

I got pregnant.

My husband drank heavily, sometimes until he blacked out. We barely paid our bills; we had no health insurance. And there was acne-fighting poison inside me.

The gynecologist asked, “Why didn’t you take the pills? You were supposed to use birth control!”

“I did.”

Squinting, he asked, “How did you get pregnant?” Would I need to recite the facts of life to a gynecologist?

“We strongly recommend terminating this pregnancy,” he said. “This fetus is not viable because of the Accutane.”

Inside my body the spongy chaos whirled.

It is my uterus and I who will be in the hands of strangers to be scraped and emptied.

I wasn’t sad for the beginning of the idea of a child; I was sad for my uterus. I lit a candle in the park, a little votive, ninety-nine cents from the bodega on the corner.

My goodbye was a prayer.

“Little cell, I release you.

I’m not ready.

I’m sorry.


I drew a heart with a stone in the dirt.

I was having the abortion the next day, and I was relieved.

* * *

Sitting in the birthing center, I have a wrinkled baby boy and a throbbing uterus. I’m told that my uterus will shrink. It is a process called uterine involution.

The nurse midwife in her bright flowered scrubs, her southern accent dripping honey on her words, is sending me home with maxi pads that are larger and thicker than my infant son’s diapers. “Okay mommy. You sleep when baby sleeps, okay? There may be cramping and bleeding for a week, maybe longer, as your uterus gets back in shape.”

I imagine my uterus in a unitard and rainbow leg warmers, with small hand weights, drinking only green juices so that she will shrink.

They call it involution but what my uterus wants is revolution.

The first six weeks postpartum, my husband does not try to touch me sexually. There are many types of liquid coming forth from my body: salty hot tears from my heart, milk that is warm and watery and can’t possibly be enough to sustain the shrieking big-headed baby, and ribbons of pink and brown mucus that my uterus releases when I breastfeed. There is a symbiosis, an agreement among the fluids of my body, a harmony, and my uterus is the conductor. My husband listens when I say no to sex. He does not try to talk me out of it. I think he may be afraid of what is taking place.

The weeks go on. I am told that my uterus is doing well. I’m given the “all clear” by the nurse midwife with a wink. We can go back to “normal” sexual activity.

My uterus tells me she is not ready. She is very tired. The baby is wanting things from us, the husband is wanting things from us.

My husband does not try to change my no to yes. He tells me he misses me. “I’m right here,” I say.

My uterus is sleeping, and I don’t want to disturb her. She wants me to draw the shades, shut the doors, and be left the fuck alone.

* * *

My uterus has been bleeding for seven weeks. I’m told that it’s a normal part of menopause. I should just bear it with patience and wads of cotton. Some days I sit on the toilet for forty minutes as the blood flows and drips in such abundance from my body that I’m scared to stand up.

It’s just menopause.

How about some pills or an IUD?

You could cauterize your uterus. It’s called an ablation.

You could remove your uterus. That is a hysterectomy.

The word uterus comes from Latin, which means womb, but also belly. The plural is uteri. Speaking the word is an undulation in the middle part of my mouth, the sound existing in the cave created by my tongue and teeth. In Sanskrit, udaram is abdomen.

The Lithuanian word, uedras, strangely also means sausage, an allusion to the intestines.

In Slavonic, the uterus is vedro, which is a bucket or a barrel. The Greek word for womb is hysteria, and a variation is hystericus (suffering in the womb). In English, hysteria is ungovernable emotional excess.

Hysterectomy is the surgical excision of the uterus, a practice first noted in 1881 and first suggested to me this past summer.

Wamb is Germanic for the belly, the bowels, but also connected to the heart, wambo.

I don’t want to lose her.

* * *

My uterus grows older, and my body changes. My uterus wants to retire. She talks of moving to a beachfront community, finishing the book she’s been working on; she’ll stop wearing shoes that pinch, take up tai chi, and get a cat. She can’t trade my soft and dated body in for a new and angular condominium on the shore.

“That’s not how it works,” I say. “This is your home.”

It is dark outside my window. I’m vibrating and awake. My heart thuds with the drumbeat of anxiety. I lay both hands over my belly. My uterus is heavy. She is the biggest muscle in my body. I consider the work she has done and the work she has yet to do. I wonder how much my uterus weighs. She has gravitas and solidity like an elephant, like a whale.

Is this why I’m so tired yet so awake?

* * *

I sit on the exam table in my paper gown. I am still bleeding.

The nurse practitioner is excited about my uterus. She talks fast, almost out of breath. “We could do a D and C, a dust and cleanup, ha ha ha!”

I had to fight to get this appointment. I had to beg and cry on the phone to the hospital administrator to convince her that bleeding for seven weeks deserved to be seen. “I’m exhausted. I can’t stop bleeding. Shouldn’t I see someone? Blood for seven weeks. The clots are the size of hamsters.”

I wonder if she thinks I’m suffering from hysteria.

If a man bled for seven weeks out of a hole in his body, he would demand answers.

The gynecologist rubs his hands together, sanitizer and glee. “Okay kid, scoot down on the table.” Maybe he thinks being called kid is flattering because my uterus is shutting down. I’m fifty. I’m glamour and wisdom and a seasoned pro at being a woman. I’m not a kid.

* * *

My uterus still bleeds, and she is angry. We sip our tepid coffee and read about the supreme court. We have been stripped and plucked of our rights and dignity, like a factory farm chicken.

My uterus asks, “Why does the world of men want to govern and rule me?”

She excretes power like a poem, like an ocean, like an aria.

She gathers the uteri together, a valiant coven, wearing our red sequined gowns. We simmer a potion over the flickering flames. We are brewing a mighty storm.

“We’re queens,” she tells me.

“Queens are not always exalted,” I say. “They are beheaded, sold into slavery, locked into towers.”

She should be a goddess. A holy vessel. An energy source. Yet the laws of men classify her as a plastic grocery bag, a test tube, an empty jar.

“The reckoning is coming,” my uterus proclaims.

The women answer, “It is here.”

Photo by Malcolm Murdoch, used and adapted under CC.