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  • The Cells That Bind Us
  • Sara Henning (bio)

When our calico Manx tests the limits of her world from the basket laced with towels, my mother says she’s queening. I watch her lick her vulva in the laundry room near the water heater, amniotic sac enclosing a kitten like iridescent burlap. I watch my mother grasp each tiny wet body that comes, cut the umbilical cord with blunt-end scissors, then tie off the placental scrim with dental floss. When she ceases to squat and pant, we believe they’ve all arrived, two toms squalling from a heating pad layered with fleece.

We don’t know hours later, one more will crest from her pelvic canal into the litter box. That we won’t find her until her mother’s yowling draws us out of bed. When we cut the runt Manx free, she struggles to breathe. All night I watch her throng her mother for milk, eyes still sealed, stretching her body into a world already failing her. Months earlier, her mother was nimble around my mother’s ankles as the deadbolt turned, estrus cycle driving her to the heated canopy of azalea bushes. Her mother’s scruff bitten by feral tom after feral tom, the spines on each penis triggering her ovulation. When her mother moaned to be let in, the morula was already forming. I watched her swell with gestation all summer, another single mother slipping back into the world barely noticed as my mother must have slipped, some teleology of circumstance placed on her, some random predestination.1

Years later, what fascinates me are the cells migrating in the body long after birth, fetal cells joining the mother’s aortic surges, her brain’s neurotransmitters, the individual platelets in her blood. Microchimerism, scientists call it, when really mother and child have bonded beyond their bones. Cells eternal and directionless, pilgrims tessellating the body like the long tan throats of beer bottles smashed in the street by our home, the way my mother stepped through them to reach our duplex door, my head pressed to her hip, our shadows fused to the glitter.

As scientists continue to find Y-chromosomes in women who have only birthed daughters, or miscarried, or were never pregnant, I’m convinced that lovers never truly leave either, that our urges become our ancestry. And what about men, do Y-chromosomes upwell into their beloveds’ bodies and linger, genes colonizing like English [End Page 4] lavender, infected T-cells? Does a man’s body, like a woman’s body, become a blood garden?

Once, in my twenties, hours of reverie climaxed in the bathroom, my boyfriend and I giggling to each other through the door. We were both so high we couldn’t move. When I found out that he was using needles, not snorting, I went to the Health Department, ordered tests for Hepatitis C, HIV. Negative, then six months later, still negative. I wonder if his cells still lurk inside me, dark as placenta, Siberian iris, or the cats of my childhood, lusty boys delivered between tongued interludes, the lone female who slipped free from her mother and into her own fallen Eden. As with my fear, we found homes for the healthy, kept the bird-boned queen who learned to sleep on my chest at night.

Like the cells that bind us, we welcomed her as our own.

Sara Henning

Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (2013), her debut collection of poetry, as well as two chapbooks, Garden Effigies (2015) and To Speak of Dahlias (2012). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Quarterly West, Witness, Green Mountains Review, Crab Orchard Review, and rhino. Winner of the 2015 Crazyhorse Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, she is a visiting assistant professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University and serves as an associate editor for Sundress Publications.


1. This poem was written in direct conversation with Sandra Meek’s poetical exploration of a mother’s death in “Coma,” and as such, appropriates several phrases and images, including “teleology of circumstance” and “random predestination,” the image of glittering broken beer bottles, and...


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