Brady is in her seventh month. Her belly looms like a full white moon, jutting vast and unyielding so that she can no longer see her toes while standing. She leans beside the kitchen table -- a wood slab her husband, Parker, has sanded down and set atop a thick chunk of birch. Last year, they set the wood stump in a crock full of cement, so the table wouldn't tip, and Brady covered the cement with dried moss and an abandoned bird's nest.
Brady hums as she waits for waffles -- her one craving throughout pregnancy. It has made her a waffle-making master, a veritable Julia Child of the crisp, batter-cake creations. Carefully, so that it will not stick and tear, she lifts the lid and peers down at the thick-crusted, Belgian style waffle. It is golden, slightly brown and crusty around the edges, still warm and soft in the center perfect.
Brady lowers her nose for a sniff, savoring the warm bready smell that is sweet from cinnamon and honey she adds to the batter. Using a fork to lift the waffle from its hotbed, she places it gingerly on a plate, and lobs off a generous slab of butter. Since childhood, Brady's waffles have required butter in each and every square. It is only when that part of the ritual is complete that she pours from a bottle of maple syrup kept cold in the fridge. The flow of the syrup is hypnotic. She feels she could lose herself there, in that steady stream of amber.
Brady eats alone every moming. Or at least it starts that way. Parker leaves before six, and since she is no longer working, Brady allows herself an extra hour of dreamtime. Sometimes, when she sits at the table eating the good, crisp waffles, she wonders if she is still dreaming. For after a bite, Aunt Jemima wanders into the room.
Aunt Jemima regards Brady with calm, brown eyes. She takes a seat, curls her fingertips over the smoothly sanded table, smiles faintly, familiarly, as if there should be no questions here.
When Brady first met Aunt Jemima, she thought she was remembering a dream. "Aunt Jemima!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing here?" But Aunt Jemima didn't answer, only smiled back at Brady.
She is not the Aunt Jemima of Brady's youth. Gone is the red bandana over shortly cropped hair; missing is the plain white blouse and starched apron over some big dark skirt. This Aunt Jemima flourishes in brightly colored tunics with wild patterns that swish below her hips. This Aunt Jemima shimmers with shiny, silver earrings that dangle to her shoulders. She rattles and gleams in bracelets and neckrings. A pendant sways just below her breasts; it is set with a huge round stone colored deeper than azure, unlike any Brady has ever seen before.
When Aunt Jemima slides into the room, Brady smiles and waves hello. Sometimes Aunt Jemima waves back. Mostly though, she just sits and hums, smiling pleasantly, until Brady finishes the last few bites of waffle, some of which require extra syrup. Then Aunt Jemima pushes back the kitchen chair. "Bye, Auntie J!" calls Brady as she watches Auntie's plump behind glide gracefully away.
Brady is uncertain what to make of her morning visitor. She has considered telling Parker, but worries that he will think her unstable. Either that or indulge her with his quirky sarcasm -- "That's nothing," he'll say. "Guess who came to the restaurant to apply for a job today? Colonel Sanders!"
Once or twice Brady has thought of mentioning things to her obstetrician, but she is afraid the tall, bald doctor will raise his eyebrow and order more blood tests or send her to a therapist. She could call friends. But more and more she is feeling protective of Auntie, not wanting to have to defend her delusion from those who can't, or won't, believe.
In the beginning, when Brady still pondered the meaning of Aunt Jemima, she wondered whether her black friends would be insulted by the old-fashioned Negro icon come to life in her kitchen. The better part of Brady does not want to offend, but neither does she want to deny this source of comfort that has undoubtedly arisen from her subconscious.
For surely Aunt Jemima is not real. Brady tells herself this time and again, firmly believing it when Parker is home, as they are eating dinner or paying the bills at the kitchen table, or even as she drives to town to pick out a cradle and changing table for the nursery. Brady has to know that Aunt Jemima is not real. Yet, she has come to look forward to her visits all the same.
It is the middle of the ninth month, one morning not long after Auntie leaves, when Brady feels a curious pang in her lower abdomen. She is used to the baby kicking strong and firm just below her ribs, but this is different. All day long she moves with exaggerated slowness, protecting the treasure held within her belly as if it is made of glass.
Just after Parker arrives home, a few hours before midnight. Brady feels what she has been waiting for. She sits at the wood table, across from her husband, letting her fingers trace circles on his arm. It is then she hears the soft pop, feels the warm rush of water streaming down her legs.
"Water!" she cries, "It's my water!" For a moment, Parker is uncertain what to make of this. "Water?" he asks. "You want a glass of water?"
Half-crying, half-laughing, they hurriedly gather up a change of clothes, extra pillow, toothbrush, and tiny, fuzzy baby sleepers -- a gift from Parker's mother -- to make their way to the hospital in Brady's little Honda.
"It's really going to happen now," Parker keeps saying as he weaves his fingers into hers.
At the hospital, a pink-faced, cherubic woman with a dimpled smile helps Brady into a wheelchair. The woman is not a nurse but a volunteer; Brady senses this as the woman rubs her shoulders, smoothes back her damp, honey-blonde hair. Parker nervously fingers an insurance car, scribbles name and address on a triplicate of forms, grumbles to the night nurse in charge while his wife is whisked away.
"Easy now, sweetie," says the volunteer as she wheels Brady into the elevator, up to maternity. A contraction clenching her belly, Brady grasps the arm of the wheelchair and watches her knuckles turn white. "Won't be so long and you'll forget all of this ever happened," dumpling woman soothes.
Brady labors throughout the night. Parker alternately sits and stands at her side, reading the fetal monitor. "Another one's coming," he says as his red-rimmed eyes stare at the digital display of numbers that climb steadily each time a contraction approaches. "Get ready," he whispers, and Brady sighs and grunts and wails her way into the early hours of dawn.
As the sun begins to peep through the window, a nurse announces the time to push is drawing near. Before long, the bald doctor makes his way into the room and Brady is allowed to launch into a series of moans and propulsions that seem to her not entirely her own. For a moment, she hears a distant rush of whispered cries, like other women wailing.
When the baby's head emerges fully, slick and spattered with blood, Brady watches in the overhead mirror with amazement. There is a flood of relief, and the warm ooze of a tiny body, shoulders scrunched and legs flailing, is lifted and placed on Brady's chest.
"Just look!" Parker exclaims, "Just look at that!"
"Oooh," says Brady, her eyelids growing heavy.
The baby squawks in small, soft bleats. Its tiny red mouth opens and closes in tempo to its yelps, its body warm and wriggling next to Brady's skin.
Curiously, the room begins to darken then. Brady cannot believe she is falling asleep, but color drains swiftly from the room. As she pries her eyelids open one last time, all has turned flat and gray.
Brady strains to hear voices, the nurses and doctor as they talk to her, but their words are coming from the end of a long tunnel, far away, too far to hear. Parker's fingers squeeze her own, and she tries to tell him they feel funny, cold and spongy, like the fat, moist mushrooms growing deep in the shade of the forest behind their house.
Brady is lured by sleep. It is enticing -- oh, to curl down among the dank and humid fungi on a patch of moss just big enough for her own body! She wants only to lay and rest, her hot skin cooled by the velvety moss, but as her fingers reach down to feel the ground, a voice -- harsh and insistent -- accosts her from above the trees. Brady's eyes fly open and from out of nowhere, arms descend, a pair of hands snatching up the squiggling baby -- Oh, she remembers now! The baby! -- from her chest.
A moment later, or maybe less or more, since time no longer has any real meaning, Brady hears a muffled pop within her head. In one startling lucid moment, she decides it is not unlike the popping of her water, just one night ago -- strange how far away that seems.
The bed swirls. Snippets of sound and sight and feeling whirl at her in a dizzying tapestry: Big hands lifting her. Bright lights flashing in her eyes. The doctor's stale, sour breath, a finger jabbing up her eyelids. Parker's voice, strained and pleading -- No, no! The ceiling, a blur of ceiling tiles whizzing by.
There is a pause, and then, another pop inside her head. It is the stomach-dipping, ear-popping feeling of take-off in a jet. Brady sees large red numbers lighting in succession. Her woozy confusion is jotted by the doctor's sharp-edged voice pulling her back to earth. It is then she makes out that the numbers designate floors -- this is not an airplane, but an elevator. "Stay awake!" the doctor barks. "Get back here, Brady!"
Brady rolls her head. There is another elevator, its silver doors sliding open in invitation. To prove to them just how awake she is, Brady heaves herself off the gurney, jumps down onto the floor. But they do not notice, so busy with their doctor business. "Fine," says Brady with just a hint of indignation, as she hurries to the other elevator and slips inside.
The doors snap shut and Brady's vision is softened. That's better, she murmurs, for color has returned to this part of the world, brighter yet mellower than before. She smiles in the soft amber glow of the elevator. It is the right place to be, and Brady yawns with open abandon as a voice, smooth and sweet, flows into her consciousness.
"Auntie J!" gushes Brady, suddenly overwhelmed by the great, good fortune of finding her silent breakfast companion standing in the corner.
Aunt Jemima smiles and reaches for Brady's hand. "Is it really you?" asks Brady. But such thoughts are heavy in the elevator of light, and in asking whether Auntie is real, Brady begins to wonder if she herself is real.
"Am I still on the gurney? Was that my body that got wheeled away?"
Brady is excited now, giggling like a 12-year-old. She has read the books; she has listened to the talk shows. She know's that out of her body she could float down to the operating room and see her real body stretched out on a table, doctors and nurses buzzing beside her. Or she could float up and find the bright, white light and the end of the tunnel, where dead relatives would wave to her from the other side.
"Oh child, those are other stories," interrupts Auntie with a snort and a shake of her head. "You come on. We have other things to see."
Before she was the Queen of Syrup, Aunt Jemima was a midwife. She does not tell Brady this, or any of the other young women who don't know the first thing about giving birth. No common sense these days, thinks Auntie. Things are different now. Not like the old days, when her girls squatted in the fields, their strong, brown thighs pulsing, trembling wildly as the urge to push grew stronger.
Auntie does not tell Brady that she is not really the face plastered on the syrup bottle. It would be too much to explain that in times gone by she has worn many faces. Auntie can be a wizened old witch of a woman if she wants. To some she appears a helpful traveler or craggy-faced fortune-teller, generous with her knowledge of bearing young. She has been red-skinned, with high cheekbones -- hair glossed back with bear fat, special roots for pain hidden deep inside her medicine pouch. Some thought her the first woman, arisen from the primordial earth, fashioned from dust and stone. To others she revealed herself as a warrior -- tall, smooth-faced, dark as ebony -- that one in her younger days.
"What's happening?" asks Brady as she moves closer to Auntie J. "Who are you really?"
Lately, Auntie has enjoyed her syrup persona. It surprises the ones who think they know so much, the high-strung, anxious ones who read new-age birthing books, expecting some blue-eyed angel to soothe away their woes. Auntie snickers, likes to tease them now and then, show up early to gently mock them with her plain brown ways.
"Did you know back then -- at the breakfast table? Did you know what would happen?" inquires Brady, who now realizes she can sense Auntie's thoughts just as easily as the black woman can read her own. "Is that why you came to see me? Did you know?"
Auntie swats away the questions with a brush of her hand. Brady settles into a smile, amazed and intrigued with her ghost of a body that shimmers in the golden elevator of light. Still, there is a part of Brady who wants to know everything: Where are they going? Is her other body in danger? If she isn't dead, then what is she? Can she take back a souvenir? Brady's thoughts buzz about the elevator like pesky, small-winged insects.
When the door opens, it is not to the hospital scene, but to a riverbank, lush, dark and soft of tune. Aunt Jemima helps all her girls to voyage, though nowadays most have no sense of the power a good vision holds. Some can only stand so much. Others, like Brady, can't quiet their minds to see. It is not like it used to be, when her girls would be eager to spirit up among the clouds or hike to the cool, spring waters in the mountains to bathe before their journey. Auntie sighs. It is worse today. So many more are in need of healing; so many have forgotten the fullness of who they really are.
"Come," says Auntie, as she leads Brady down the path to the river. There is always the river, just past the fringe of forest, a few footsteps down along the mossy, well-worn path. The river is where they might remember best, reasons Auntie, and so it is there they begin. Floating, just as their babies floated within them. Floating. By canoe or rowboat or rubber raft, they float away into the cool, dark night; floating away, to places known and unknown, following the curves and bends of the vast, ever-changing river.
Brady is still chattering until Auntie shushes her with a raised eyebrow. Pay attention, that eyebrow warns. You might never have this chance again.
They drift along in the tiny boat and Brady forces herself to listen to the throb -- a distant, moaning, wailing song that becomes closer and louder the further they travel. Auntie knows there are many scenes to see along the way, for always the full-bellied are present along these banks.
Brady squints and cranes her neck, seeing that all along the river there are women in labor. Warmed by the glow of campfire, stroked and sponged by longhaired attendants, their taut bellies cry to the moon, seized with contractions steady as drumbeat. Or there, palms and knees grinding in the dirt, the mother a makeshift cradle, moaning low, rocking her baby into the world. Or over there, female cries so naked they glimmer in the dark. Everywhere, faces hold fierce concentration -- mouths contorted, brows furrowed, eyes wild and untamed. Like a thick, drifting fog of incense, these are the sweet and bitter prayers that cover all the earth.
Brady's being is silent now. Auntie leans back, her plump shoulders rounded against the bow of the boat. She watches Brady. That one's spirit-skin is so pale and white in the shine of the moon. Fragile. And yet, her green eyes have become huge and dark, all pupil, at last, taking in everything around her.
"Ancestors," whispers Auntie, pointing to the women on the shore. There, on the banks of the river, everything flows into the one. Moon and belly, blood and water, the river washes away all distinctions. Past and present flow into the future, one long stream of life becoming.
Brady trembles. "Let me go back," she pleads. Like so many of the others, she does not want to see, does not want to know. Back home, in the fleshy folds of her body, she could hide.
But Auntie is not here to judge. Rather, she wants to educate her girls, so they might remember the full extent of what they've done, this magic they've accomplished. She knows this is a lot to ask. Still, she gives them as much as they can see and hear and taste and smell and grasp, as much sense as they can hold. Auntie J. is trying to change the world. Remember, she tells them all, though she knows full well that many will remember nothing. Ah, well, sighs Auntie. You do what only you can do.
Slowly, resolutely, she guides the boat to the muddy shore and takes Brady firmly by the hand. Off the boat, up the slippery bank, they approach the tents of wise women, healers and other midwives. The old women whisper into Brady's ear, hang healing pouches around her neck and belly, smudge her with the smoke of sweetgrass. Brady is silent among the potent, musky herbs. She and Auntie step past the bulging poultice packs set out to dry. They pass crackling fires, bubbling potions, a myriad of bottles filled with strangely colored brews. Shrouded in the heavy, pungent mist, they are surrounded by the magic juices only women conjure.
When Brady steps outside the tents, she looks deep into Auntie's old brown eyes. "What do you want from me?" Brady whispers, a tender voice. In the hush of dewy grass, she wonders how the pleasant days of waffle eating could have led her here.
Nighttime odors fill the air. Brady fears the answer while Auntie wonders if maybe this one will come through. For many moments they stand silent, listening to the whoosh of river, as the mingled music -- groans and gasps and newborn cries -- passes through them in the moist, sweet air.
Three days later, arms aching from the constant IV's of blood and plasma, Brady is released from the hospital. The tall doctor comes to her room and squeezes her hand. "We almost lost you," he says while Brady looks away, embarrassed and confused.
Close to her chest, baby Isabel is huddled deep inside a flannel blanket, her tiny face ruddy and puckered. Brady takes refuge there, kissing the top of her daughter's warm, sweet, downy head.
As the doctor leaves, the same woman who wheeled Brady to maternity shows up at the door. In the commotion, Parker remembers to gather gifts and shake hands with all the smiling nurses he knows by name, while the dumpling woman wheels Brady and her baby from the room.
Down the elevator they travel, out into the lobby. "It all fades away," the woman says to Brady, not a question, but a fact. "Don't know why it happens, but it always does."
Brady bites her lip, nodding as she searches the open lobby. Try as she might, she can't recall what happened. She knows only that for a time she was somewhere else. Parker refuses to talk about it. "You're here now," he told her when first she asked. "That's all that matters."
Brady peers down at the mysterious and wondrous creature who has come to her from so very far away. It reminds her that she herself has traveled far. In the back of her mind rests a rowboat, a river, another world, cool and sweet. An old black woman tugs on her hand and everywhere other women are connected to her, her sisters, her grandmothers, her relations in that distant, dreamy past.
"Here we are," says dumpling woman as she pushes Brady and the baby out the door.
A stream of sunshine floods their faces. Isabel squeals and Brady gasps in the chilly, bright, morning light. Her body tingles in the sudden brilliance. Colored patterns -- orange and red and glinting gold -- swirl and dance inside her head, the radiant particles of light flashing before her eyes, sweeping past brain and heart, rushing down bone and muscle, racing through nerve and blood to permeate every, single, distant cell. Something small and dim is illumined there, connecting the whole of Brady to something vast, ancient, trembling with light.
As she opens her eyes, Brady is light-headed with remembering. Smiling stupidly in the sunshine, looking to all the world like a new mother waiting for her husband to bring around the car, Brady's heart swells. She laughs a laugh as clear as the sky, for the world has cracked opened -- it shimmers before her, fresh and alive, all its secrets waiting to be shared. Brady can hardly believe she had forgot so much, back then, before she was the Queen of Syrup.