Are wombs a kind of echo chamber for picking up vibrations from the universe at large? Is menstrual blood the language in which women speak to each other, even across time or space? Alas, this writer does not have enough information to risk giving general answers to these questions. I can only offer my own experience as evidence.
Some time in November 1962, I decide to lie down because my tummy is upset. I am eleven years old, and I currently live in the San Francisco Bay area with my family because my academic father is spending his sabbatical working on a Ph.D. thesis at Stanford University.
I have a horrible dream about discovering a dead body, face down, covered with blood. A long, thick knife anchors a note to its (his? her?) back. The note reads: Thursday 19, Leningrad 37. I suspect this mysterious message has to do with World War Two, which is still replayed endlessly on TV, in the movies and in magazines. What happened on that date, in that place, and what does it have to do with me?
I ask my mother and she tells me not to worry about it. My parents are rationalists who don’t believe in premonitions, extrasensory perception, past lives or uncanny events of any kind. I decide not to tell them about my dreams any more, because if they are sufficiently alarmed about me, they will probably take me to be examined and possibly medicated or locked up, all for my own good.
Nothing unusual happens to me the next time the 19th of the month falls on a Thursday. I still don’t understand how my mother could claim to be a rationalist and also claim that some dreams (or waking visions, or feelings of déjà vu) simply have no cause. However, I can’t explain my dream except as an expression of my own childish fears, and doubting my parents’ logic doesn’t comfort me, so I decide to put all this stuff out of my mind.
On Thursday, November 19, 1964, I am in junior high school in a college town in southern Idaho. I go to the girls’ lavatory and see blood. Finally at age thirteen, I’m having periods like all my friends! So that was why I dreamed about a pool of blood! I feel like an idiot. Like a girl sleuth in the novels I love to read, though, I’m not convinced that I’ve worked out all the angles of the case.
I am fourteen and bored in summer 1966, sitting in the back seat of the family car
between my two younger sisters to prevent them from fighting. We are on a road trip,
rolling steadily over miles and miles of desert highway on our way from Idaho to the
Pacific coast of Oregon to visit our grandmother.
I have a sheet of paper in my hands. I try to empty my mind and watch what floats
through it so I will be inspired to write a poem. This is one of my favorite ways to pass the time, a close second to masturbation, which is obviously not an option now. I imagine a bolt of black velvet cloth slowly unrolling as though to tempt me with possibilities. This doesn't surprise me, since I also love to sew. Something strange is happening in my belly, and it makes me feel homesick, for lack of a clearer word. I really miss something -- or someone or someplace -- that I can't clearly remember. Years later in the delivery room of a hospital in Canada, I will recognize the strange feeling, which is both physical and emotional, as a series of contractions in my womb. In the family car, my period starts. I write a poem named "Mother Velvet" that I don't consciously understand. I choose words that look relevant to me. It's a popular word these days, "relevant."
At age twenty-two, on another family adventure when we all spend a year in England
(1973-74) for my father’s sabbatical, I meet a Nigerian student, a man who escaped to
London from the civil war in his country. His name is Pepple, and he tells me he was
named after a fiery Nigerian king of the Victorian Age, whom the British called "King Pepper." At the time, I think he is the blackest person I've ever seen. He tells me that his mother, named Velvet, was famous in the Niger Delta for her beauty, and she died tragically young while giving birth to his younger brother, who also died. He and I become engaged and eventually have our own baby.
It’s midnight on December 10, 1981, in Saskatchewan, Canada. I can't sleep because I'm having horrible cramps. My four-year-old daughter sleeps peacefully beside me in our fold-out bed.
We’ve been living in a co-op for low-income single parents since summer. I’m still grateful that I found this place, they let us in, and I can afford to pay the monthly housing fee from my salary as a Teaching Assistant at the university, which is in walking distance. The day-care centre is right underneath our apartment, in the basement of our building.
My period is due any minute. The worse my cramps get, the more likely it is that my blood will start flowing tonight. I look forward to the relief, and spread a towel under my bum. I wonder how my sister-in-law (as I think of her) is doing.
She is Pepple's current white Canadian wife, whom he married after I divorced him. She is nine months pregnant. My own daughter turned four on December 7.
My womb and ovaries seem to be screaming. I am Woman, hear me roar.
Here it is: blood on the towel. What a relief. Now I can sleep as the tension flows out of me. I’ll use a sanitary napkin instead of a tampon this time, so the blood can flow until morning. I look at my bedside clock, and notice that it is 1:00 a.m.
It’s afternoon on December 11. My daughter is in day care, and I have a few minutes to spare. I can’t help thinking of my sister-in-law. If I never have another child, my daughter can only have brothers or sisters if her father continues to mate with other women.
I need to ask Pepple what’s happening, so I phone him.
“Oh, Jeanie," he says, "it’s funny that you called.” He is laughing. He sounds more spaced-out than I feel, possibly because he is also sleep-deprived. “I just returned home from the hospital. My wife has given birth!”
He now seems to regard me as an interested bystander, a sister or a friend. “She had a healthy girl. We have named her Velvet.” So now poor Mother Velvet has a granddaughter with her name.
“Was your wife in labor a long time?” Maybe I’m nosy, but I feel I have a right to know.
“Oh yes, she was there since afternoon yesterday. She was very brave. Our baby was born at one o’clock this morning.”
It is the mid-1980s. I "came out" as a lesbian in 1982, and noticed changes in my menstrual cycle: I pick up on other women's rhythms. A wild red-haired girlfriend who calls herself Trixie in queer hangouts spent a weekend with me, and my period started along with hers, even though I had just had one two weeks before. She lives in another town, about 300 miles away, and we visit each other. My periods fall into synch with hers when we are together, but we fall out of orbit when we are apart.
I mark all episodes of bleeding on my wall calendar: circled dates for real periods, little pictures of blood-drops for spotting. I bleed a little between periods. I mark it on the calendar although it doesn't seem like a big deal. Four weeks later nothing happens, and I suspect that some bleeding really is random and unexplainable.
Weeks later, I bleed again. I check the calendar and notice that the second spotting episode is exactly eight weeks from the last one: two menstrual cycles. This seems like more than a coincidence, and I ask all the women I know if they were having a period on those dates. All of them say no, and I have no reason to think they are lying. It seems I picked up on the cycle of someone distant from me: a famous woman that I admire Someone with whom I have some secret thing in common? I never find out.
I’m still not convinced that the irrational nature of womankind or the cosmos causes random events in general, or random, unnecessary bleeding in particular. I became an academic like my parents, and I look for the patterns in things. It seems unlikely that I will ever get all my questions answered even now that I’m post-menopausal, but I am clearly a rationalist by nature.
Jean Roberta lives on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. She teaches literature, composition and creative writing in the local university. Her diverse fiction (mostly erotic) has appeared in approximately 100 print anthologies, and in the single-author collection Obsession (Renaissance). Her historical fiction includes The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press) plus The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). A revised, expanded version of her out-of-print erotic novel, Prairie Gothic (set in a pre-millennial world of conflict and dread) will be published by Lethe. She coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction.