I Know What’s Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom, edited by Shelly Oria, is a multigenre anthology with a focus on the crisis of reproductive rights in the United States. The book’s international supplement features sixteen additional works of fiction, nonfiction, and art by contributors from around the globe. Order the book, and receive the supplement, I Know What’s Best for You All Over the World, free as an e-book. Editor and author Shelly Oria will be touring through the summer of 2022, joined by contributors to the book as well as many other writers and artists.
Anne Boleyn is Pregnant Again
by Sarah Blau
translated from Hebrew by Geffen Huberman
Again, I am dreaming of Anne Boleyn.
In the dream, she is still married to King Henry VIII and just barely pregnant. A small bulge is forming under her gown. I notice that her corset has been loosened to allow the baby room to breathe this time around. Her dress is bright and transparent, and the baby is almost visible underneath. Its bones have started to take shape.
Anne tries to tell me something, brings her lips to my ear. I sense the bitter utterance of her breath, bitter almonds! She begins to whisper, searching for the right words, but just before she finds them, I wake up.
Alone in my bed.
I remember the first time I discovered her.
I was around eight years old, a timid, religious girl, living in the most religious city in Israel. The television was broadcasting a black-and-white show on Henry VIII and his six wives. I remember being mesmerized by Anne Boleyn, by her power, her fearlessness in speaking her mind. She was everything I was not.
My mother sat in the living room beside me. “Miscreant,” she enunciated every time Anne appeared on the screen. She didn’t understand how a good, pious girl could be so taken by Anne Boleyn. It was an ominous sign.
After the episode in which Anne was beheaded, I couldn’t fall asleep. Back then, she hadn’t yet invaded my dreams. Instead, there was Uri, the son of my upstairs neighbors. He was a redhead, just like Henry VIII, and like King David.
Historically, redheaded women were often suspected to be witches, while redheaded men were crowned as kings.
I am in London now, in Golders Green, a good Jewish neighborhood; but I am no longer a good Jewish girl.
Aunt Edith is our hostess. She is impeccably polite, a wide smile brimming from under her new wig, but I still cannot fathom why she has summoned me and my mother with such urgency from Israel.
The living room is elegantly British, with a mantel made of dark mahogany, embroidered pillows, endless photographs of grandchildren, all with toothy grins. Except for one with pursed lips, probably concealing braces. Or rotten teeth.
Aunt Edith inspects me, her gaze singeing through me like an ultrasound.
“Is there a man?” she asks.
“No,” I reply.
She turns to my mother. “How old is she?” From her tone, I can’t be more than eight.
“Thirty-seven,” my mother replies, and my aunt shoots her a look that suggests she should never have allowed this to happen.
My mother is silent. She herself does not know how she allowed this to happen.
In the morning, I make the mistake of going downstairs in sweatpants.
I seem to be breaking the house rules. Aunt Edith shoos me back upstairs with a casual playfulness, as though she’s about to take a swipe at my buttocks—if such a body part existed in Edith’s pristine universe. What is paramount to Edith is the pelvis.
When I go upstairs, I will hear her say to my mother, “She has an excellent pelvis for childbirth.”
My mother and I stroll around Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s royal palace.
It looks exactly as it did on television, just as I pictured it. I tell my mother, “Let’s split up,” and she has no choice but to agree. I know Aunt Edith has spoken to her, and that now she has something to say but doesn’t dare. I see capitulation in her gulp, as though her gulp is a surrender.
I see how much I am turning into her as I age. I gulp like her, walk like her; I inevitably got my wide, fertile pelvis from her, but every time I tell her any of this she says: You look like your father’s side of the family.
That is, those who survived the Holocaust.
When the phone rings and I see the caller, I freeze: it’s Eitan.
Don’t pick up don’t pick up don’t pick up. I don’t pick up and victory spreads through my body. Here I am, finally pushing against being a pushover. My astrologer told me that I intentionally choose men who aren’t suitable for me, so that the agony of separation will spur a process of growth and replenishment. “Cleansing torments,” as it is written in the Gemara.
Last year on Rosh Hashanah, after Eitan dumped me, I cleansed as I hadn’t cleansed my entire life. My mother stood beside me in the synagogue and prayed. I could taste the prayers taking shape between her lips, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out what she was praying for.
Now, she and I are here in London. And I am beginning to understand that these circumstances might have something to do with those prayers.
I am striding along the banks of the lake, the soft echoes of another’s steps beside me. It is Anne.
Her stomach has swelled and her buttocks sway when she walks. She, too, now appears to be a woman with a wide, fertile pelvis. But her face is thin and pale. Her hair is an ebony stream.
“I’m going to abort it,” she says. “And Henry will call me a witch, say I cursed him, and claim that’s why he cannot have children.” She stops for a moment, and I flee.
“But you can have children,” she shouts after me. “You can.”
It is impossible to flee from Anne Boleyn on the grounds of Hampton Court, where she reigned for so many years, and no corner is unknown.
When she finds me sneezing from the dust in the upper gallery, her stomach has ballooned to enormous proportions.
“Would you want to have a child with that man who won’t stop calling?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
I do know that he was with me because I am a decade his senior and seem like the liberal type, a woman who wouldn’t expect a thing from him, least of all children.
During our break-up talk, he informed me that he did, in fact, want a child, and that since I seemed reluctant, it was best if we went our separate ways.
My panging heart led me to claim that I had just come to realize that with him, I would agree to a child.
None of it helped. He took off, leaving an avalanche behind him. But now all these phone calls, each of them a closed door hiding a world of unknowns.
I am resting on the clean, elegant bed in Golders Green.
My mother and Aunt Edith are chatting downstairs. That is, Aunt Edith is chatting and my mother is listening. “She just needs a little push,” she says, and my mother mumbles her reply.
A voice cries out to my right. It is Anne. Her stomach has shrunk a bit, and I am beginning to worry that her white nightgown was not such a good choice.
“He’s very fickle, you know.”
“Why were your kings in the Old Testament never this stubborn about having children? Why is it only our kings?” she asks all of a sudden.
I want to tell her that all the Hebrew kings were married to multiple women, so having offspring was never a problem, but then the old verses come to mind. Those who were deprived of their desperate desire for children had been women. Sarah Imeinu (our mother), who tried and failed to have Hagar be her surrogate, Rachel who lamented to Yaakov, “Give me children, or else I will die” . . . Hannah who prayed and prayed . . . the men, somehow, got by.
The pain belonged to those women with their unfulfilled desire. But what if their desire was never there?
My mother is standing in the doorway. She tells me that Aunt Edith is waiting for me downstairs.
In the living room, I find her standing straight-spined with her back to me, looking at the photographs of her offspring on the mantel, directly in front of the unsmiling one.
“You need a child,” she says. “I’ll pay.”
The position of the generous baroness angers me. “Israel covers fertility treatments for free, I don’t need any favors!” I fire at her. “And if the first round doesn’t work, they’ll shoot me up again and again until they succeed!”
“If you know all this information, why don’t you do something with yourself?”
Behind me, Anne Boleyn emits a wispy wail.
“I don’t know,” I whisper.
“I’ll send money every month until he is eighteen, like a salary—I give you my word.”
She tries to catch my gaze, but my eyes shift across the photographs of her grandchildren, those glimmering, blinding frames.
“You’re selfish.” She takes a step toward me. “Your mother is sick with worry, and you don’t intend to offer her any solace?”
I look at my mother, who appears more afraid than worried. She gulps again. Do we really need a third generation of surrender-gulpers?
Aunt Edith takes a seat in an armchair, seeming to understand that she has gone too far, or that I am less submissive than I appear.
“Look at that one,” she points to another photograph on the wall. “You know who that is.”
I nod. Of course I know.
“That is your grandfather. You are aware that he did not come out of Buchenwald alive.”
I freeze. Anne does too.
“We cannot let ourselves loaf around,” she says.
I stare at my grandfather on the wall. He has good eyes that do not demand anything of me.
Behind me, Anne Boleyn cries out again, and for the first time I almost join her.
The air is heavy, foreboding; tonight it will happen.
“Help me,” Anne Boleyn sighs from her bed.
“What should I do?” Historical films flash before my eyes. “Should I get some towels? Boil some water?”
“No, idiot!” For a moment she is the conceited Anne Boleyn, the one who bossed around King Henry when he was in love with her. “It’s too early, help me push him back up, from the top of his head.”
Her thighs are bloody, her eyes are bloody.
“He’s going to be a monster,” she groans. “They’ll say I slept with the devil, push him back in!” She tries to close her legs but can’t, something begins to moan inside her, something slow and tenacious. It doesn’t look like a baby, or like anything, but it speaks to me and says, “I could be yours.”
I hear knocks on the door. It is my mother.
She comes in and sits beside me on the bed. I hide my hands, dripping with blood, behind my back.
“There will be no child,” I tell my mother. “You know that, right?”
“I knew before you did,” she replies.
“Because everyone seems to want this child more than I do,” I say slowly.
A cry sounds from under the comforter. Can my mother hear it?
“You know I only want the best for you,” my mother says in a tone I have never heard her use. “It’s just . . .” She stops to gather her words. “It’s just that I want for you to feel what it’s like one day. There’s nothing like it in the whole world.”
We lock eyes.
“I can feel that way about you, Ima.” I force a smile.
She is supposed to force a smile in return, but gulps instead.
After my mother leaves the room, Anne lets out another scream, and Aunt Edith’s dazzling white floor is covered in blood.
“I am going to die,” she tells me. “That’s it, I’m dying.”
Anne Boleyn will die, but not now. Not like this.
She will be blamed for adultery and witchcraft, she will be beheaded, Henry will marry Jane Seymour, she will birth him a son, she will die, the son will die, Henry will die, and the one to eventually reign over the kingdom will be Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.
She will not get married or have children, and she will be the most supreme leader the kingdom has ever known.
The phone rings. It’s Eitan. “Please don’t call anymore,” I say, hang up, and finish wiping the blood off the floor.
Sarah Blau is the recipient of the 2015 Levi Eshkol Prize for Hebrew Literature and the 2017 Bar-Ilan University Alumni Achievement Award. She has hosted and edited various television and radio shows with a focus on Jewish topics viewed from a feminist perspective. Single and childfree, she is the author of the psychological thriller The Others, which is centered around four childfree women who are murdered for not giving birth.
Geffen Huberman is a writer, translator, and software developer based in Tel Aviv, Israel. When not hunched over her laptop at a café, eavesdropping behind dark sunglasses, she can be found at the beach, book in hand, still eavesdropping.
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