In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Mother's Encyclopedia
  • Rochelle Harris (bio)

In a twisting kinesthetic of joints and tendons bathed in the hormonal flush of pregnancy, my mother fell. The marble steps of the public library, icy and slick, skidded beneath her as she tried to turn, nerves firing wildly into muscles, neurons heightened by amniotic need. We tumbled down the stairs in a blur of color, bits of sky and body spinning. My mother chose the child within, landing on the girl who was me to save the unborn baby who would be my brother.

She fell and so I fell, and my brother fell inside her.

My mother had an encyclopedia pregnant with babies blooming in the bowls of women's bellies. Pictures of ballooned abdomens lined up next to diagrams of the uterus and fetus: each part cleanly labeled, each organ functioning perfectly, each baby silly and upside down. I sat on her lap, curving my limbs around her tummy, and we read. The white covers of the book held us in place, its bloody-maroon binding across my thighs. The Mother's Encyclopedia explained the progression of her belly full of my brother. Captivated, I arranged us in layers: chair, mother, girl, book, and the baby within.

"Tell me," I said to my mother, sitting on her lap in the rocker. She found diagrams in the encyclopedia for the first trimester, the second, the third. She pointed to places in the drawing: See his feet? His nose? You looked like this, too. [End Page 77] See the pillow the womb makes? He's floating. Bright pinks of intestine and the darkening reds of blood marked organ and womb; pale apricot flesh marked baby. He was tucked between ovaries and kidneys, curled into a ball. Only the mother was severed in this drawing: body sliced in half from the crown of her head through her breastbone and stomach.

Except she didn't fall this way. The library's marble steps were cold with the snow of November, yes, but she held my baby brother, seven or eight months old, on one hip, held me with her other hand. After my dance practice or swimming lesson, we went to get books. She held him, me, books, a diaper bag, a purse. She fell—tucking him against her breasts, physics jerking her hand around so that I fell beside her, pressed against the baby for a moment. Then, she flung me away, held him aloft by gripping the back of his snowsuit, landing only on herself.

"Mommy, Mommy, we fell!" I yelled.

The child needed careful entries to keep her anchored, the illusion of books archived in rows—where ambulances come before babies, wheel chairs follow rocking chairs. How beautiful, unthinkable this happened at a library, a catalog full of the radical stutters of story.

Faces merge, chronologies conflate. A stretch of icy marble. The warm globe of mother's stomach. The crackling fear of falling. The mind associates, piecing together sensations. The gallery that holds the flickers and flutters of remembrances is not an archive or scrapbook, but a tumble of arms and legs. Memory is neither safe nor sure, not chronologized or alphabetized like the encyclopedia with its ranks of babies and mommies safely locked in their diagrams on the clean page. Here, my brother is always flailing in utero, always held aloft in a white-knuckled grip. I am the child being left, the child choosing to leap. She finds a way, this three-year-old, to understand the intricate adjustments of body and word as she becomes simultaneity. [End Page 78]

When baby brother was seven or eight months old, we fell, the three of us, down the marble steps in a tumble of babies and books, diaper bags and snow. I remember a queer pressure I named as my mother's abdomen pressing on my tummy, the baby sandwiched between us, both our bellies working to hold him still while marble turned bones to grit. She carries this tension of a mother choosing to shield one child with the other, even though mom didn't do this, not even close. The mind braids the encyclopedia into the library...


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pp. 77-80
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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