Fresh Eggs

by Gretchen Wright

Part I

“Now this is what is meant by the term ‘copious mucous’,” the gynecologist said reverently, peering at me over the peak of my draped knees. Why did they do that – drape my knees – when they would be probing the most intimate of my body cavities? To shield me from what, exactly? “Would you like to have a look?” he asked my husband.

The hopeful look on my husband’s face answered my question. I gave him a nod. This was our first attempt at artificial insemination, and I knew the scientist in him was fascinated by this process which, for the most part, didn’t involve him. Unlike my aging, renegade eggs, which had formed thirty-four years ago when I was is still in utero, my husband’s sperm was fresh. He needed only a high gloss magazine center-fold to produce his donation to the cause; I needed daily shots of Perganol.

We called it the Nun Piss Regimen. Perganol was produced from urine donated by post-menopausal European nuns, or so we were told by the gynecologist, who administered a course of daily injections into my hip until I could neither stand nor walk without assistance. My ovaries grew to the size of apricots, sometimes to the size of oranges, lumpy with an abnormal number of ripe follicles. I was aware of their presence, aware of the many eggs they had unwittingly prepared for the planned insemination procedure. They jiggled; I could feel them, palpate them, even, though I resisted the urge. If they burst, we could not proceed.

While my husband and my gynecologist fiddled with instruments near the foot of the examining table, I thought about the expected outcome and imagined my mucus as thick, globular albumen from old eggs, old eggs like mine, oozing from the neck of my cervix. Old eggs whipped quickly into meringue; old eggs were easier to peel when they were hard boiled. They did have their uses.

Using a long, flexible tube, the gynecologist injected a condensation of my husband’s sperm into my uterus, then carefully placed a pillow beneath my bottom, tilting it slightly upward.

“Is this the part where I roll over and smoke a cigarette?” I asked to ease the awkwardness I felt lying there exposed and, hopefully, becoming fertile. My husband exhaled an abrupt snort of laughter. The doctor offered me a glass of water instead, which I declined, sure it would only dribble backward down my neck and onto the paper sheet. Once upon a time my husband might have sipped a bit before kissing it into my waiting mouth, but not here, not now. While I lay still, he and the doctor discussed football and big screen televisions. Looking upward, behind and above me to the high window, I strained to see the earliest buds on the tree tops outside and imagined catching autumn leaves with my baby.

Pregnancy statistics show that there is a one in a million chance of fertilization on any given occasion. Or one in two million – something incomprehensible. I wanted to be that one.

 Part II

I was born on the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota in the mid-Nineteen Fifties, a place and time when some of our neighbors still raised small livestock in their backyards, and butcher shops had sawdust on the floor. We bought most of our food at the corner grocery, but some vendors sold door to door.

We never knew when the egg man would show up. Ruddy-faced and balding, he appeared on our back stoop cradling a stainless steel bowl and calling, “Fresh eggs!” They were the best, my mother said. When we cracked them into the pan the albumen was runny, unlike their older, store-bought counterparts, which sat on a shelf in the cooler until their whites were thick and gloppy.

Sometimes we were surprised to find bloody tendrils emanating from tiny red sacs nestled safely in the heart of the thick golden yolk. These were accidents, fertilized eggs snatched from beneath a wild hen that had strayed too far from the coop, my mom told me. The blood belonged to the forming chick, which would have eventually absorbed the yolk as it developed until it was ready to peck its way out of the shell. The sight of fertilized eggs in the frying pan made my father gag. He couldn’t stand the mere thought of that blood and the emerging life it represented, preferring to buy eggs from the store – safe, sterile eggs with no thoughts of a family. He insisted any fertilized eggs be thrown away or fed to the dog. But my mother was too thrifty to waste food; she took to cracking eggs into a bowl first, so she could scoop out the embryonic chick and save the rest to use in cake or cookies.

I once imagined that we found more than blood in the bowl: fragile bones, a beak and tiny, featherless wings. A farmer I worked for years later explained how she candled her sale eggs, holding them up before a light to detect late signs of fertilization. She admitted that the early stages were more difficult to spot, which explained the bloody sacs and the infinitesimal veins; but bones and a beak would be obvious by inspection. Yet no matter what form they took, these were the most exciting eggs, the fertilized ones. I lingered in the kitchen at my mother’s elbow as she made breakfast or prepared to bake, heart throbbing, anxious to spot the telltale signs of life even as I was repulsed by the thought of blood and untimely death. She labored to beat the runny egg whites to a stiff froth with beaters, shifting from one foot to the other as she turned the hand crank again and again for long, buzzing minutes before they formed peaks; then she folded them into our waffles after Sunday School.

Part III

As a child, it hadn’t occurred to me that I, too, was an egg producer. But after the onset of puberty, my reproductive organs proved to be problematic. There was no predicting what they would do to make my life miserable during any given month, no escaping the discomfort they caused, and no way to force them into conception once I was ready to start a family.

Artificial insemination provided windows of hope. Five times a nurse drew blood from the soft underside of my arm. “It’s not positive,” she said five times. “You’re not pregnant. I’m so sorry.” Five times I smiled at her and murmured that, oh well, I hadn’t thought so, before hurrying to my car. I wanted to be a mother. Simpering while slumped against the wheel would not change the fact that most adoption agencies felt that my husband, in his mid-forties, was no longer fit to be a reliable parent, and I appeared to be too old to produce a baby myself.

An acquaintance phoned one afternoon with the news that Peru did not discriminate against older parents. Within minutes I was on the phone with the agency she recommended.

“Yes, we have lots of babies,” the director told me. “What do you want: boy or girl; just one child, or maybe twins? We even have a set of triplets.”

I fumbled to think clearly, a maternally starved woman in a veritable grocery store of infants. “One healthy baby would be enough,” I said. “Either gender is fine.”

Five weeks later, after completing a hurried home study and reams of paperwork, we flew to Lima in the hopes of taking custody of an infant daughter. She had been abandoned at birth and was a ward of the State. Each day my husband and I rode an ancient Volkswagen Beetle taxi through the honking chaos of urban traffic to the Palace of Justice, in Lima’s city center. The cab drivers leeringly called it the Palace of Injustice. We crawled out of their cramped back seats to stand in the queue of visitors at the entrance to this imposing building grey with soot. We endured daily body searches and relinquished to inspectors my carefully packed bag of baby clothes and blankets before filing into the cool darkness. We became experts at waiting.

Most days we never spoke to anyone more senior than a file clerk, but after a week we were granted an audience with a judge. His wood-paneled office was windowless and stuffy, and the judge himself was joined by a half dozen men in stiff, dark suits – our inquisitors, I thought – who spoke to me condescendingly when they spoke to me at all.

“Why do you want to adopt a child?” the judge asked. He addressed this question to my husband, who did not speak a word of Spanish and relied on me to answer. “Why don’t you produce a baby yourselves?”

The men glanced at me dismissively, and at my belly, suspicious of its uselessness. They returned their gazes to my husband, who only shifted in his seat.

“They want to know,” I repeated to my husband, “why we need to adopt.” Each official tilted his head toward him expectantly, waiting for the answer they must have known he could not articulate in Spanish. What difference did it make whether or not we could make a baby? We wanted this particular baby, the baby whose fate they controlled. These men had no way of knowing that the cause of our infertility lay with my reproductive system; yet that was the assumption. Their indifference was suffocating, but I was surrounded by sperm. I would have their child.

“My husband had the mumps after his second child was born,” I told them. “When a man develops this illness in adulthood, it damages the testicles.”

They looked at me then, crossing their legs protectively.

Our daughter came to us when she was three months old; one year later, we adopted a son from Guatemala. My reluctant, aging eggs were no longer needed. Unhappy and perhaps feeling neglected, they rebelled, erupting with cysts which, when they broke, made me double over in pain. Eventually, everything was removed – uterus, fallopian tubes, and scarred, useless ovaries.

For a long while afterward, I dreamt about babies with featherless wings, swimming in deep, yellow pools.

 

These days I miss my eggs only because my skin is dry and itchy, even though I know it’s only the estrogen my body used to produce that I need, not the eggs themselves. Occasionally I think of myself as a spayed dog, overweight and waddling. I miss mornings of cooking beside my mother, watching carefully as she used a slender finger to scoop out the remnants of fresh albumen the way her own mother had demonstrated. Because of the danger of cholesterol, the eggs my children eat are processed, poured from a paper pint carton, and safe in every sense. They stand at my elbow while we mix cookie dough – not by hand, but with a sleek automatic mixer.

And sometimes, though they are unaware, I imagine a firm rap on a wooden back storm door, followed by the familiar boom of, “Fresh eggs!”

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Gretchen Wright lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with her husband and two nearly-grown children. This is her first published story.

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