We come in for the sonogram. Jilly is in her third month and already showing. For weeks I have been feeling that bump poking out—a hard knob to the left of center. My baby, I think, this is my baby. But when the nurse rolls her wand over the bump and we look at what is there, all I can see are coils of hair—strawberry blond—wound round bits of bone. The nurse swallows; she is not allowed to say anything about what she sees, why there is no baby where our baby should be. Jilly is staring at the screen, at the rictus of broken teeth nestled in a bed of hair, and her face is calm, like she always knew what was inside her. The doctor is a long time coming and when she arrives she pronounces our child an ovarian teratoma.
Maybe our baby is an alien creature—an advanced species with the body of a lizard—fighting an enemy called, I don’t know, the thyroid cysts. These two species are all that is left on the dying world of Soma, a planet cold and dark as its sun slowly dies. Ovaria, the place where the teratomas originated, is equatorial hill country. Back in the day when the sun was not dying—long before the teratomas evolved into the peace-loving lizards they are now—teratomas had alligator jaws filled with double rows of teeth like sharks. Alligators and sharks are the worst of the toothed world, and the teratomas went around gnashing everything up—especially the defenseless cysts—who were mostly balls of fat covered in hair and still are to this day. But as the sun began to die and the temperature on Soma plunged, the cold-blooded teratomas got so slow they couldn’t catch the cysts anymore. During this epoch both species evolved. Both became peace-loving, but their planet was dying and constriction of resources led to conflict. No one can remember a time when the teratomas and cysts were not separate, were not at war.
Which is why our baby is such a miracle. Technically she is a teratoma, but the nest of golden hair indicates a cyst pedigree. If Romeo and Juliet had a child, she would look like our little angel. “Babe,” I tell Jilly, “Ours is a real life love child. She’s perfect, just the way she is.”
Jilly, who has been staring at the screen the whole time, puts her finger on my lip and says, “Hush, silly. Look deeper.”
They told us it was safe. And you know, the water looked just like water. It felt like water, it tasted like water. It had been months since all the dead things floated up. I told Jilly all about it when she was a little girl, told it like it was a surreal fairytale. When I got sick I had to change my tune, explain none of what I saw was right and had led to my current difficulties. Little Jilly played doctor, laying her plastic stethoscope against my belly.
Perhaps if I’d made other dives around the atolls I’d have formed a different impression. I might have guessed at the taint on the future, realized the wonder was danger in disguise. But the world I saw was magic. The coral was purple, it glowed and pulsed, and when I swam close I could hear it and taste it. It droned, like a cello holding a long note. It tasted like roses.
I saw schools of two-headed fish swimming in syncopated unison. I don’t know what kind of fish these were, but they were small and brown with protuberant eyes. The whole school would turn left, following the left heads, then swing right, following the heads on that side. I could not decide if it was a dance the fish were performing or a tug-of-war between two minds sharing a single body.
I would stay down as long as I could, until the air in the tank was just enough to rise, and then I would find my way up. I loved this part of diving, the slow ascent, the rhythms of the body as it moves toward air. I pretended I was Aqua-man, my legs encased in green slime scales, my torso ripped with muscle, gills sprouting on my neck. When I broke the surface of the ocean, the slits in my neck closed and I was Lincoln again, an air-breathing, gamey-shanked male of European descent.
I loved those dives so much. I was a grandpa before I learned the truth. By the time my Jilly was five years old I was sprouting tumors like sacks of fish roe in my submandibular lymph glands. In my groin too. My testicles swelled up like jackfruit and I couldn’t walk or even roll over in bed. I thought I would die, but the docs zapped all that with radiation and the tumors disappeared. That would have been the end of it. I’d have gone home to play with my Jilly, never putting two and two together, except there was an intern on my case, a tiny, talkative, Filipino woman named Penny. “It’s ironic, don’t you think,” Penny said to me, “That radiation is both cause and cure of your cancer.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about; no one had said the word cancer to me. And what did she mean about radiation causing this?
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