When I was sixteen, I sold my teeth each Thursday, and that is how I first met the doctor. This was before his celebrated school, his fame, his dogged pursuit of bodies for his collection, back when he was very young and took his income as a dentist. While the ladies of society ate cakes until their smiles were the same gappy gray cobblestone as our London streets, my own hungry mouth was full of pearls, and I let the doctor harvest them. He paid four cents an incisor, five for the fronts. After my first visit, he asked me to stay back for a word. Not ten minutes earlier, he’d pulled my right front tooth and planted it firmly root-first in the rotted mouth of a nobleman’s daughter, and already I could feel the edge of a new one poking through my ragged gum. I kept my lip down to hide it.
He said, “Am I wrong to suspect you won’t miss that tooth for long?”
Fear clenched my throat but I forced a laugh. “Only when I chew,” I said.
“None of that,” he said impatiently. “I keep many people’s secrets, and I’ll keep yours. Tell me, you have very fine teeth—do they always come back in so strong and white?”
Even young in his bloodstained dentist’s coat with his uncovered hair curling about the collar, the doctor had a totality of confidence that made it seem a waste of words to protest what he clearly understood. Too, he was handsome, and I was not immune. “Always, sir,” I admitted.
“There aren’t so many dentists in this town,” he said. “You’ll soon run out, for they’ll remember these teeth too well for a repeat visit. I, on the other hand . . .” He smiled. “I’ll forget you as soon as you leave this office. And I have no shortage of ladies wanting transplants.”
So our bargain was struck, and each week he pulled out all my teeth, and the next week, when they’d long since grown back, he pulled them all again. A steady arrangement for good money, but quite painful, and when after a few months I began my apprenticeship as a midwife, I stopped selling my teeth altogether. I regretted leaving my acquaintance with the doctor, however, and I kept my eye on him. As I’d left that day, I’d asked him, “How did you know what I was?”
“Your mouth,” he said. “Regenitrix tissue tears differently than that of human tissue. It’s a slight difference, but visible to the trained eye. I’ve had the pleasure of dissecting one of your kind before.”
Aside from our remarkable healing and our unvarying female sex, regenitrices were known for the manner of our death, when we were known at all—mostly our identities were kept in painstaking secret, due in great part to the curious knives of men like the doctor. We died one of two ways: old age at ninety, or childbirth. Though there were rumors that we’d survived parturition in the past, I’d never met a living person who’d known a regenitrix to make it through. We convulsed, became insensate, and bled to death, hours after giving birth. My mother died birthing me; her mother died birthing her; and god forbid I should fall pregnant, I would die giving life to my own daughter. The doctor, then, had dissected either a very old woman, or a body freshly post-partum. So I understood the depths of his ambition; and I respected him for it, as I was not without ambition myself. From then on, I watched him very closely—and when he called on me for a favor nearly a decade later, I learned he’d been watching me, too.
• • • •
The woman, Marya, had taken a room over a chandler’s shop, and the foul, fatty scent of rendered tallow followed me up the narrow staircase. I knocked once, listened. From below I heard the rattle of carriage wheels and the shout and clamor of people in the streets, but from behind Marya’s door there was silence. I knocked again; I shook the knob. I felt the floorboards bend beneath my feet and then a voice said through the door, “Can I have no peace in life nor death? Turn around, why don’t you, and break your neck on the stairs. Maybe if that damned doctor has your fresh body to play with, he’ll leave mine alone!”
“It’s true I work for the doctor,” I called. “But the stairs wouldn’t hurt me. I’m like you.”
There was a silence, and then she cracked the door open on its chain, so all I could see was a brown eye leveled at mine. “Prove it,” she said.
I’d sharpened my knife for this very purpose. I took the blade from my boot and showed it to her, then sliced the pad off my thumb, quickly, like peeling a potato. In the name of science I had cut into my own body enough times that the pain was quite familiar, searing but fiercely localized, and the sliver of meat dropped to the floor as my blood welled, spilled, then slowed to a drip as my flesh began to knit together. In a moment, the pain was gone and my thumb was perfectly whole. I showed her.
“You’d better come in and clean up,” Marya said, and unlatched the door.
I remembered the fliers she had pasted around town months ago (“Marya the Songbird, Hear her Warble Any Tune!”) and I remembered drawings of her face, too, but they had been wildly inaccurate. In real life she was young but not pretty, heavy-browed and heavy-jawed with an incongruously tiny painted mouth, like a red bow on a potato. Her skin was sallow as an old bandage. Even as heavily pregnant as she was, there was a spindly, underfed quality to her body, though she swept around the room with an energy that belied her sickly form. Our kind did not get ill. It was fear that ate away at her.
She handed me a dampened cloth, then eased herself down onto the hard chair by the window. The small room was clean, the bed perfectly made, the floorboards swept, the chamberpot tucked scentlessly out of sight, but the windowpane was caked with grease and dirt. She laid a hand over her belly and looked at me as I cleaned the blood from my hand.
“So,” she said. “He’s sent one of my own to persuade me.”
“He has,” I said.
“Why not let me deliver your lines for you?” Marya said. “I’m the performer, after all—I bet I’m more convincing. Listen.” She cleared her throat, deepened her voice to a growl. “Marya, selfish girl! Think of the generations who may come after you, think of the lives you could save. Sign here, and your dead body will be promised to the scalpel, we’ll tear apart your womb in the name of science and find the answer to this curse your people carry. And yes, your decomposing breasts will be bared to a roomful of foul-breathed rich boys, and yes, your flesh will be boiled away and your bones assembled in a skeleton for medical students to gawp and grope, but all in the service of science, Marya, and the continuance of your people!” She let her voice come back up to its natural tone and fixed me with a glare. “Well?” she said. “How was I?”
“Bravo!” I said. “But you’ve missed the part about our mothers, who gave their lives to usher us into this world, and how it may be your very body that holds the key to a generation of regenitrix children who grow up knowing all the tenderness of a maternal parent that we ourselves were cruelly denied.”
Marya leaned back in her chair. “How much has he offered you, should you convince me?”
I saw no reason to lie. “Education,” I said. “I’ve long wanted to be a doctor; he’ll train me himself, and find me a position.”
“You’re a woman and a regenitrix,” she said. “God himself could not find you a position.”
“The doctor does not put much stock in God.”
“Do you?” Marya said.
Suddenly the energy seemed to leave Marya like a snuffed candle. She sagged forward, and her eyes filled with tears. “I cannot blame God for my situation,” she said. “The fault lies with me. I took the stage where any man could see me, and desire me; I told myself I was a singer, but I’ve been proved a whore like any other.”
From the street came the high whinny of a horse, and a man’s voice rising in anger, then the snap of a whip on flesh. Tentatively, I said, “So the child’s father –”
“A man who came drunk to my dressing room after a show,” said Marya. “He would not listen when I screamed. He hit me across the face and made me bleed, here.” She touched her cheekbone. “When he saw it heal before his eyes . . . Well. It was he who sold my name to your doctor.”
“He is not mine,” I said, too quickly, my voice too high, but she took no notice. Already her fierce expression had hollowed.
“I thought, since God gave me this voice, perhaps He would protect me in the use of it. Foolish, foolish, I should have kept to hymnals in a dark church.”
“No, Marya,” I said, and clutched the bloodied rag around my perfect thumb. “We should not have to fear men so! Our kind cannot grow, cannot multiply, because the act of new life brings always the balance of death. But imagine if we lived long enough to give our daughters sisters. Imagine, then, that they had many daughters. Imagine a world of women who could not be killed or cowed by pain.”
Marya was staring down at her hands in her lap, curled pale against the dark damask of her skirt, and for a moment I was not certain she was listening. Then she said, “It would be a very different world.”
“The doctor,” I said, “has his flaws. But above all he is a true man of science. Ask yourself, why has the answer to what ails us not been discovered; nay, studied? It is as you said: Women cannot be doctors . . . And men would never seek a cure that may bring about the world I’ve just described.”
Still Marya wouldn’t look at me, her head bowed, and I reached out to touch her knee.
“The doctor wishes to add your body to his collection, yes, it is true. He wishes to dissect you.” I paused, and Marya did not flinch. “But in the name of science,” I said, “he wishes also to find our cure. That is why I trust him. Because knowingly, he would bring about a world of unbreakable women.”
Huddled on her bed, thin-shouldered, sallow-faced, Marya looked anything but unbreakable. Yet when finally she raised her eyes to mine, they were steady as a mountain. “You believe this cure is possible.”
“I believe it’s closer than even the doctor knows,” I said, and took a deep breath. “I trust him, Marya, as I’ve told you. Yet I have not told him everything.”
Marya held herself very still, waiting. I went on. “My deal with the doctor extends beyond education. If I convince you to sign your body over, it is I who will preside over the birth. For my own scientific curiosity, I told him, which he well understands. But what he does not know is that I have a theory I wish to put into practice. A theory that—if it succeeds—might save you.”
“Go on,” said Marya.
• • • •
The stages of labor are as follows. First come the contractions, and the slow dilation of the cervix. The water breaks, light blood can show. Then, when the cervix is completely opened, the contractions become more intensely painful and focused, and the mother begins to push until the baby is born. After the child has emerged, the cord leading from the placenta is clamped and cut, and some time later the placenta is delivered and discarded, a lump of useless meat.
So I had been taught, so I had observed in the city’s private chambers, in bedrooms turned to birthing rooms, women red-faced and screaming for God to kill them or kill their husbands while I knelt between their legs and coaxed their children out into the light. Childbirth was a sure death sentence for regenitrices, but it was far from safe for normal women, and I kept a tally of how many mothers died on my watch, and the cause. I saved hundreds more than I lost, however, and I tallied this too. The answer to my peoples’ curse was as likely to lie in success as in failure, and I filled notebooks dedicated to my theories, all tried on human women and ultimately discarded. I rented quarters in the busy family home of a friend, and learned to hide my notes and diagrams lest the maid come in to clean and passed away from shock, as she once did at the sight of a particularly detailed mid-birth illustration.
Meanwhile the doctor was much talked-about in town, and I drank the chatter with a thirsty ear. He’d been a prodigy at the medical college, and at a young age had been placed in charge of procuring bodies for the dissection room. He did his fair share of waiting dutifully at the gallows, but it was no coincidence that during his tenure the city’s nighttime graveyards began to crawl with groups of men, shovels and crowbars slung over shoulders as they stalked among the stones searching for freshly turned dirt. Several times I dressed myself carefully in breeches and a hat to hide my hair, and hired myself out as a boy for the evening, leaping into open graves to haul the stiff bodies from their coffins. One of the corpses I collected was a pregnant woman, her belly bloated hard as rock from the dead child inside, and for her the doctor paid double the going rate. I kept my head down as he dropped the silver into my palm, but I watched his hand approach, flaked with dried blood and gore from an evening in the dissection room. I closed my fingers ever so slightly as he withdrew, and brushed his skin with my own.
Years later, after I’d begun working steadily as a midwife and he’d started his own prestigious school, I took to standing by his wooden doors to watch the students filing out, smelling of blood and the spirit of wine in which they preserved organs, chattering excitedly about whatever lesson they had learned that day: how air moved through the lungs, how were finger joints articulated, how heavy was the human heart. Aside from a few odd looks, most men paid no attention to a common girl in a wool cloak, and I was not noticed. I would have given my hands to attend those lectures, though of course for me it would not have been much of a sacrifice, beyond the brief but awful pain. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of the doctor himself, and on these rare occasions I admit my heart would thrum in my chest like sudden rain.
I had spent my life terrified of men, of what they could do to me, but alone late at night that terror sometimes turned to something else, turned to a deep curiosity that began between my legs and bloomed exquisitely when I attended to it. The doctor’s unhallowed dealings with the dead and his insatiable experimentation had given him a reputation beyond the bounds of the medical establishment, and there were those who said he was a monster; but so, too, were we regenitrices considered monstrous, and for this and other reasons I felt a certain monstrous affinity for the man.
After all, I too had experimented. As a motherless little girl I’d often cut off my fingers and watched them grow back, fascinated. I experienced pain like any other child, of course, but mine was different because I knew I would get better, and so the pain was all sensation and no emotion, no fear. It was not mortal. In fact, I did not understand mortal fear until the first time I saw a woman giving birth, when I was nine: her eyes were filled with animal terror, the pupils blown black and the whites showing like a mad dog’s, all decorum vanishing in her body’s panic as her arms thrashed and curses flew from her bitten mouth, but she survived. In her place, I would not.
Men, then, were my only true source of fear—and whatever other feelings they engendered, fear had to prevail.
In all my years in London, the doctor was the only person in the city who knew I was a regenitrix. He kept his silence, and so kept my respect. Nearly a decade had passed since I’d first tilted back my head and let his gentle forceps extract my front tooth, and though I’d seen him all those times while hidden by disguise or distance, and even passed him in the street, we had not spoken so much as a word; nor did I ever see any evidence that he noticed or recognized me in return. Yet I persisted in feeling he was aware of me. It was the delusion of anyone who much admired someone else’s work; if you immersed yourself in the words of a favorite author, or followed a favorite singer from theater to theater, you could not help but feel, on some level, to be their intimate. It was the delusion of distant love. Intellectually, I knew my acquaintance with the doctor was a false affinity, one-sided. Knew it, and yet beyond the confines of my rational mind, deep within my thwarted heart, I still believed that somehow we circled one another like points on a pair of compasses. And so when he’d come to call on me in my home, despite what he asked of me, I could not help but tremble from the pleasure of being seen.
• • • •
“I’m surprised the doctor never took you,” said Marya. It was some weeks after my first visit, and I’d since called on her nearly every day. “He knows what you are—why has he never tried to claim your body as he’d like to claim mine? If you had his child, he’d have both your corpse and a child’s living body to study.”
She said it in her usual forthright fashion, but something in my face must have changed because she sat up a little in the bed. I was beside her in the chair, my palm on her belly, performing the examination that was my excuse to come and see her. In truth, I simply liked to be around her. She was the only person in the city—besides the doctor—who understood me for what I was, and I had come to see her as a friend.
“Lie back,” I said.
“I didn’t mean to cause offense,” she said.
“The doctor is not violent,” I said, hoping this was true. “At least, not to the living. He wouldn’t force himself upon me in that way.”
“Have you ever been with a man?” she asked.
I smacked her lightly on the hip. “Marya! What a question.” Of course I had not.
“Have you desired men?”
“Take a deep breath,” I said, ignoring her impertinence. “Another. And out. Good. Give me your wrist now, and let me take your pulse.”
Obligingly, she held out her arm. Her heart was beating strong beneath the skin. “You’re doing very well,” I said.
“I’m dying,” said Marya. “I was dying the moment that man began his violation. You know, I tried to—to end it, with herbs, and with a fall, but nothing can harm me, nor it. I could feel it reforming healthy within me, a parasite.”
“She’s not a parasite,” I said. “She is your child, whether you live or die. Have you plans for her? In case you . . .”
“Yes,” said Marya. “The papers are just there, in the drawer. She’ll go to a woman named Anne, a particular friend of mine.”
There was a subtle emphasis to the word friend, and I glanced up, but her eyes were fixed on the window, staring out at the grey sky. “I myself have never been tempted by . . . a man,” she said.
“Ah,” I said.
“Of course that did me no good, in the end.” She turned to me. “Have you tended a mother like us before?” she said. “Am I your first?”
I took a quick breath, ready to lie, but, ever-observant, she said, “I can see from your face that you have. Did you attempt to save her?”
“Of course I did,” I said, and to my shame I felt a hot swell of tears.
“The same way you’ll try and save me?”
“No,” I said. “On her, I performed a caesarean. That is, I sliced the infant out of her—I thought it might be trouble with our vaginal passage, you see. It wasn’t. But that was years ago, and—”
“Don’t tell me any more,” said Marya, and turned her head to face the wall. “I can’t do anything but trust you, anyway, so I’d rather keep my ignorance, and with it my hope.”
I still had hold of Marya’s wrist, and I didn’t let go, letting the thrum of her blood beneath my fingers soothe me. To this day I could picture the face of the regenitrix woman I’d let die, her cheeks growing paler and paler as she bled out from within, weeping quietly, resignedly, as I’d frantically tried to save her. It hadn’t been the caesarean that had killed her; that had healed as quickly as the pinprick I gave all my patients, the secret test I administered on the passing chance of finding someone like me. She was the only one I’d found by such means, and there’d been a moment right before I’d cut the baby’s cord when I thought I’d done it, when I thought she might live, for the incision was closing neatly around the wet umbilical and she was smiling with joy, reaching for her daughter. But soon after I’d snipped her free the convulsions had started, and then she’d died.
“Even should you prove false,” said Marya, “and your promises are all deceptions for that accursed doctor . . . I’d still be grateful if you’d look in on my girl once in a while. Would you do that for me, do you think? When I’m gone? Try and keep your doctor away from her, anyhow.”
“Hush,” I said. “That kind of talk will court bad luck.”
“Will you, though?”
I said, “Of course I will.”
“I wrote a song for her,” said Marya, and two bright spots appeared on her pale cheeks as she raised her chin, defiant. “A lullaby. I can feel her moving inside me sometimes, restless, and I swear it calms her. You see, I wouldn’t be such a terrible mother after all.”
“No,” I said. “You would not.”
“Do you want to hear it?” she said, cheeks still pink, and when I nodded she began to sing.
It was a private song, a song between a mother and her daughter, and so I will not set the words down here. But even now I remember every note. Marya’s voice was as tender and transcendent as the birds that live in the rafters of old churches, their wings catching the light of stained glass windows and their feathers rustling as they fly from perch to perch, uncaring of god. Listening to her, I forgot the dirt staining the hem of my dress, the stink of the street on my too-small shoes, the snug embrace of my stays; I forgot my body. For a moment, I forgot my fear.
When she finished, I was weeping. After a while she reached out to me, and took my wrist just as I had recently taken hers. It had been years since someone had touched me in this manner, gently, with such attention, and I shivered as she held two cold fingers over the delicate vein that beat beneath my skin. She said nothing, but with her touch she listened carefully to the pulse of my life.
• • • •
The first stage of Marya’s labor began Tuesday evening. A boy came to my door, pink-cheeked and panting with the news, and immediately I gathered my things and set off for the doctor’s house. The doctor had insisted the birth take place in his own lavish home to better accommodate the swells of people he expected in attendance: his colleagues, his students, and newspapermen, all eager for the moment a post-partum regenitrix body was available for immediate study, but he was sensible to my insistence that the act of birth itself must be a private, respected affair, and he’d agreed that only I must be allowed with Marya as she labored. And, at varying intervals, the doctor himself, of course. So the parlor, with its heavy doors, had been transformed into a birthing chamber, complete with a bed in the center of the room and a hot fire on the hearth.
When Marya entered, my stomach gave a lurch of pure nerves and I had to work to keep my lungs from seizing. She was pale and plainly terrified, but when she saw me she offered a small, brave smile, and impulsively I reached out and took her in my arms. She clung to me like a child might, and I could feel her trembling. For a moment I allowed myself to imagine what it might be like to have a daughter, or a sister, or a mother of my own, and I kissed Marya’s hair with a tenderness I did not know was in me.
“I’ve been glad to know you,” she said. “Even if you cannot save me.”
Before I could respond, the heavy doors creaked open and through them came the doctor. Marya stepped quickly away from me, wiping her cheeks, and the doctor looked at me for a long moment with his clear grey eyes, and then he turned and shut the doors behind him.
“People will shortly be arriving,” he said. “Let us make the lady comfortable.”
Together, the doctor and I set Marya up on the bed, she gasping every so often with contractions. I would never admit it aloud, but the doctor’s presence soothed me. His every movement was crisp, deliberate, and unafraid, and his entire stocky Scottish body projected competence, down to the set of his broad shoulders. I tried to trust my own trust in him, tried to believe that if he noticed the glaring change to the standard procedure, he would allow me my experiment. He would allow me to save Marya if I could, because we were on the same side: the side of science, the side of life. Weren’t we?
When Marya was settled on the bed and water was boiling on the hearth, the doctor knelt beside her and took her limp hand in his.
“I am certain you are frightened,” he said. “But know this: Your sacrifice allows your life to continue beyond its mortal limits. Your contribution to science will help those generations who come after you, and so every generation will have a piece of you inside them, carrying you forever onward into the future. Thus, you will be eternal. From my heart, I thank you.”
Marya took her hand away and glanced at me. “It is her you should be thanking,” she said.
The doctor, too, looked in my direction. The force of his gaze burned through me like fire on a wick. Quietly, he said, “Thank you.”
“Out,” I told him, and he made his exit.
It was hours before Marya’s contractions showed change, and slowly a mass of people began to gather outside the door. “Like wolves, they are,” said Marya, with disdain. The doctor kept them well out, though each time he opened the door he was followed by a swell of clamorous noise, men calling questions and shouting drunkenly for updates. It seemed there was a party outside, and I was unspeakably bitter at their blithe celebration of what they thought was imminent death. They drank and laughed while Marya grimaced and cursed through her contractions, though around the eighth hour the sounds from outside grew quieter and the doctor told us many of the hangers-on had gone off to have a kip or find supper.
It was as if Marya’s body had been waiting for this peace, because shortly after the men’s ruckus had died down, her cervix showed an increased dilation.
“Is it coming?” she kept asking.
“Not yet,” I kept saying, until she was fully dilated and finally I could answer, “Yes! It’s coming! It’s time to push!”
At this, Marya threw her sweat-damp head back on the pillow and screwed up her eyes in terrible effort, but her body seemed to clamp up and seize inward, and suddenly I realized she was doing the opposite of what she ought. She was trying, with all her might, to hold her child inside.
“Marya!” I cried. “You must push!”
“I don’t want to die,” she said, tears leaking from her screwed-shut eyes. “Please, please . . .” She stopped with a cry of pain, a howl.
“You have hours of labor yet,” I told her. “If you try and fight it, you’ll only prolong your suffering! You have to trust me.”
“I can’t,” she wept.
“You have no choice,” I said, and a moment later she screamed in agony and frustration and I felt her muscles clench as she bore down, and pushed. In between contractions, she panted for air and wept, crying over and over that she didn’t want to die, until my face was as wet with tears as hers. Dimly, I was aware that the noise in the hall was rising again, that hours had passed and the men were back at their bloodthirsty post, but my world had narrowed to Marya’s wails and the stretch of her flesh.
Now and then the doctor came in, and his presence was a comfort. He would murmur words of encouragement to Marya, address a few brisk but sympathetic questions to me, and then sit quietly with us for a while. He watched me more than he watched Marya, his brow furrowed, and once he said, “I did not think . . . It did not occur to me how this might strike you.”
“Strike me?” I said, distracted.
“It is hard for you,” he said. “In your heart.”
At this I did not trust myself to look up, and occupied myself with sponging sweat from Marya’s face. She, however, turned towards the doctor and let out a particularly ear-splitting scream in his direction, and a moment later he took his leave.
“I hate him!” she screamed. “I hate him, I hate him!”
And suddenly, there it was—a round dark-haired head, pressing at her opening.
“I see the child!” I said, and Marya screamed ever louder, a sound of pure rage and pain and exhilaration. She pushed, and the head emerged further, then further, then a tiny little scrunched-up face appeared. “Push!” I said. “Push, you’re almost there, her head is out and you’re almost done!”
Marya was pushing, and there were the shoulders; she was pushing, and there were the arms; she pushed and I reached out and guided the slippery purplish child into my arms and stared down into her shocked infant face. A beat, and she began to wail. As if on a switch, Marya’s own screams stopped, and when I placed the child on her bosom her expression changed completely; one second her face was full of pain and terror and the next it was shining with wonder, lit from within.
“Oh,” she said, and the doctor burst into the room.
“No!” I said, and stood to bar his way. “No, not now!”
“I heard the babe,” he said, and looked down at me in some surprise. My hands were on his chest and I pushed against him while behind us, the baby yowled. “It’s born,” he said, craning his head and trying to move past me, but desperately I pushed at him again.
“Not yet,” I said, “please, give me time, give me time with her.”
At this he stopped, and his face softened into the lines of compassion. “Of course,” he said. “I’ll return in—” But then he ceased talking. He was looking past me, at Marya, examining the scene with a shrewd eye, and with a jolt of panic I saw that his gaze was trailing from the child’s stomach down between Marya’s bloodied thighs.
“You haven’t clamped the cord,” he said to me, slowly. “Shall I do the honors?”
“No,” I said frantically, “Please, leave us our goodbyes in peace! Please, go.”
“What do you know?” he said, speaking loudly over the din of the baby. “What have you been keeping from me?” His tone was more excited than angry, and finally he moved me bodily out of the way and strode forward to the bed. Marya clutched the child to her breast and pressed her lips against her daughter’s sticky forehead, closing her eyes as if expecting a death blow. The infant moved her little arms like a sea creature and kept shrieking, and I tried one last time to send the doctor out.
“I know nothing,” I said, trying to sound calm, rational. If my theory was wrong, Marya was not long for our world, and it was not a lie to say I wanted us left alone, so that her death might be witnessed by a soul who loved her. “I simply want a last moment with my friend.”
“You forget our long acquaintance,” said the doctor. “I know how clever you are, and I know you’re lying. Tell me.”
Finally, I saw no way out but the truth.
“It’s the cord,” I said. “I believe it’s the practice of cutting the cord that kills us.”
“How so?” the doctor said, and despite myself I was glad to finally share my theory with this man of medicine; proud, even.
“Our bodies regenerate whatever flesh we lose,” I said. “When we cut the cord before the afterbirth separates naturally from the mother’s body, the cord is still part of the woman, and so the body of the mother attempts to regenerate a piece of itself that cannot ever be spontaneously regenerated—the child itself, lost on the other end of the umbilical. It’s an impossible thing to heal; and so we die. Marya’s convulsions should be starting any moment, but I don’t believe they will. Not if you allow the cord to remain uncut.”
Marya’s lips were still against her crying child’s forehead but her eyes were trained on the doctor, huge with fright. The doctor was frowning, staring at the bloody cord that linked the girl to Marya.
“Please,” Marya managed. “Sir, please. There’s no harm in trying it her way, is there?”
The doctor said, “You’ve tricked me.”
His voice was devoid of the humor and warmth I’d come to expect from him, and a chill took me. “I—”
“I’ve promised a body to those fellows shouting outside,” he said. “I’ve promised a body to myself, to science, to the future.”
I was unable to respond, near senseless with fear and guilt. All this time, I had allowed my wretched heart to cloud my mind, had trusted this man because I wanted him, wanted to justify my own desires by believing him good, but of course he was a man like any other. Suddenly my legs were flimsy as tinder, and I caught myself on the edge of the bedpost.
“Damn it to hell,” the doctor said, and scrubbed his hands roughly through his unwigged hair. “Well, I’ve no choice. We must see it out, if you think she might live.”
It took a moment for his words to penetrate my fog. “See it out?” I said.
The doctor was lowering himself to crouch at Marya’s bedside, his eyes on the child, not noticing that Marya shrank from him. “See your theory to its conclusion,” he said, and raised his face to me. His eyebrows shot up, and he looked for a moment like a small boy. “You could not think I’d kill this woman?”
My head was dizzy with relief, and I laughed aloud. “Doctor,” I said. “I truly did not know.”
He was still looking at me, his expression hurt. “I’m not a monster,” he said. “Were she condemned to death, yes, naturally I’d want to be on hand to collect her remains, but I’ll stop at purposefully killing her, if I can help it. Now, Marya,” he said, and my heart was hollering in harmony with the child. “Let’s see how well this girl takes to the breast.”
• • • •
Those gentlemen who had gathered outside the door, waiting only for a corpse, were ultimately disappointed. But those men who’d truly come for love of science were well-rewarded, for they could claim they’d been on hand for one of the great obstetric breakthroughs of the eighteenth century. A breakthrough that was fully researched, planned, and performed by the great doctor. The news of Marya’s survival did not quite bring the fanfare that a gory death might have (success never could sell as many papers as a scandal), but the coverage was more than enough to grow the doctor’s already formidable renown, and his fame henceforth reached such heights that he was appointed surgeon to the Crown, and presided over the deliveries of the Queen herself. In all the papers, no mention was made of the attending midwife.
“Fame would only cause you trouble,” the doctor said to me in bed, after I’d satisfied my long-held curiosities, several times over. This was true, yet it did not quite stopper my resentment, and we made another deal, the doctor and I: I would keep my part in the matter quiet, and he would provide the funds to get Marya, her daughter, and Marya’s particular friend Anne away from London with new names, for it boded ill that Marya be known to the public as a regenitrix. We kept up a correspondence all our lives, and if ever I was feeling down I had only to think of Marya in the countryside, singing to her daughter, and my spirits would lift like a bird. The doctor may have wiped me from the incident, but he did not hide the manner of Marya’s successful birth, and though the regenitrices of England kept as quiet as ever, I knew that all over the country women were giving birth in secret and choosing not the cut the cord, keeping themselves connected to their daughters so that they might stay connected to life.
The reporters did get one scandal out of the incident, however, and my name did after all receive some small public notice. Several weeks following Marya’s delivery, the first female student was admitted to the doctor’s college. That I was also a regenitrix was naturally not disclosed to the public. People were already outraged enough over my sex, and I didn’t like to think how appalled they’d be if they knew that, instead of tuition, I paid the doctor in a steady supply of dissectible body parts.
Even, when he asked for them, my teeth.