Another Labor
Esther Kang

There are many streetlamps here (mandated by state law) to light the broken cobblestones of the sidewalk. They hum against the vacuum of the early sky, globes of white power that burn blind-spots in her vision when she looks away. 

As she reaches the water’s edge, the wooden floorboards of the dock flex and strain underfoot. Before her, the Potomac writhes: black ropes of cedar-thick water, lunging and coiling over one another like the unbound necks of a hydra. 

The slim-bodied shell of a sculler slits through the muscular tangle, and for a moment, lays rest to the churning beast. But soon enough, it regenerates in a sprout of new disorder, and the fine wound from the rowing blade is quickly forgotten. 

Is this a picture of triumph? The hydra thrashes alive as it breathes, struggling to live with its many selves and its surplus of freedom, its multiplying lungs each drawing from the same buried heart. She imagines the mass of overworked organ, a rodent trapping the body-cave into the illusion of consciousness. It pulses at a lazy cadence, unaware of how its host has gone to war with its desperate selves, each fighting for its own meaning. 

A launch with a grinding motor lodges itself on the Arlington side of the river, pulsing up and down with every exhale that shudders upstream. A shade unfurls from the bobbing aquatic canister like a wisp of smoke, aiming a blurred prop over its head. 

The flash of light pierces the air like an arrow and catches her off guard, and she slips. 

The river swallows her in a womb. In unison, she hears:

I’ve never had a child before, but I know what it’s like to not have a child.

It feels free, but the freedom that comes with being unmoored. This is not an unfamiliar feeling. 

On my birth (it sounds absurd, but this is how I was born)—I don’t remember first words; I remember being cut off, that is what I remember first. I remember loneliness and distance. My body was used to the pull of a rope (though I never felt bound), an inertia of safety. Now, my body is free, and separate. It reels, a directionless diffusion of identity, restless and anxious to explain its existence. 

And now here you are, my one body that will die a separate death.

Like you, my mother made me. But now, I make myself every day; I am born every day, and every day, I remember cognizance, awareness, but mostly, a deep apartness. I remember selfness and individual power. But mostly, I remember being alone.

I’ve never had a child before; I know what it’s like to carry nothing.

The water is cold; her limbs and fingers are a world of willpower away, and an anesthetic weight veils her skin. An instinctive panic begins to swell in response to her airless surroundings, but it ebbs with each passing current that entwines her with gentle tendrils. She could stay here, a universe of potential, a human zero. She is no one’s promise. 

The loneliness that used to haunt her evaporates in the frozen dark. Behind closed eyes, she imagines she is in space, a point of unforced matter. Nothing pulls, nothing shoves. Everything is still.

She had always thought of herself as stillborn, a fossil of someone else’s future. And now, in the belly of the hydra, the Leviathan, the polluted vein of the Potomac, she finds solace in the absence of her creation.