“The Art of Saving a Life” by Virginia Luck



Here her body was dying. Here her body was giving birth. Blood appeared in pools next to her and her father could not look at it. The blood would not stop. And so he, who’d been by her side all night, did not know how the wave traveled. “Oh father, dear father, help,” went in through his cells and imprinted the moment deep within the heart. And the heart pleaded with him to stop the aching, stop the dying, and stop the birthing. The clock on the wall dinged the hour. His heart cracked like the spine of a book. Her mouth fell open. She began hollering, crashing. The ever-bright future, where she was happy and safe and he was good and not afraid, streamed down the drainpipes and was deposited as a solid that settled on the ground and as the scum floating up.


He ran to the kitchen. Retrieved a bowl. Retrieved within the bowl a white dishrag. He saw in the bowl and on the dishrag the white glaring urgency of the moment. He stood paralyzed before the bowl and the dishrag. He stared at the whiteness, the cotton, the tile floor, the light through the closed window, how it struck the cornea and traveled through the mind, reminded him of the day that moved on regardless of her death, regardless of life, that came and went, ho hum, ho hum, as easy as the closing and opening of his own two fists. (He hated how her eyes revealed that in which he could not inspire within himself.)

He gathered the rags, the towels, the water. He carried them to her side to stop the bleeding, to heal the wound, to defeat the dying. The room was too cold, the windows iced, the air seeping in beneath the glass, along the walls, and on the body. Her toes were blue, her skin white, her contractions one after the other and one after the other.


And to survive he must act and to act he must ignore the presence of death. “Yes, yes dear, be calm dear, there is no such thing as the Death Thing, the Death Thing.” His throat and mouth were too dry and the lake in his heart was overflowing. He must create a world in the likeness of her safe and warm skin, for his child, for the child inside himself, for the one that must be protected.

There were more towels, more rags, more sheets, and more ways in which to heal the wound. And thus his two hands functioned together and his two eyes followed the motions of his hands. And the time rolled forward and the blood continued to flow and his mind focused only on what the heart said, and the heart said yes, always yes.

He pressed the sheets between her thighs. He elevated her legs. He fed her crushed ice, gave her water to sip and warmed washrags on her chest and across her forehead. He created a place in his mind where death could not enter, where outside it was snowing bright white sheets, where the sky was clear and the lake water humming a sound in his brain that was a familiar sound: a voice of a friend, someone he knew.


When he opened his mouth the air was clean and cold on his face, his hands and chest. When he looked down at his hands he saw them as a color and flesh and nothing else. The colors were red and brown then seemed to fuse together to make beige. A single ray of sunlight crossed over the palm and scattered little flecks of dust up into the air and onto everything else that was static. There was no clear message of what to do next, just this spatter of dim brown, crème, sun light, this nothing, its intensity, how it grew a thin layer of light over his hands like a prayer and moved through the room, out the door and into the trees and did not make a sound in the wind.


The bath towels were a lump on the floor and somehow very much like the feeling that hung around his neck and swayed back and forth and was in his body as something falling, rapidly and freely and without control.

She said, “I cannot, I cannot.” And her words delivered not an ache but a sudden dullness, an icy numbing cold, to his skin.

He said, “You will be alright, the worst is behind you,” while he was thinking the opposite—his heart so far up in his chest it beat out his mouth.


He stood in the middle of the room, his feet splattered in blood, and watched her face scrunch up in pain, and thought what madness it was all anyway, and there were no more clean towels, no more ice to feed her, no more water, or warmed rags to lay across her forehead. Her skin was not returning to pink but was instead white, her veins blue, the blood continuing between her legs and a contraction that broke the water: a brown tinged liquid on the floor.

The scent of her blood and her birthing was inhaled, breathed into the lungs and swallowed down the throat into the abdomen. He closed tight his fist. He closed tight his eyes. He closed tight himself over the slippage of time that funneled him into the nothing-left-more-for-me-to-do. He noticed in the window his reflection and his color was faded, opaque and secluded, superimposed over the view of the oak tree, dead leaves left over from spring swayed on the branches.


He held his hands over his mouth and he vomited. The vomit poured through his fingers in a gesture of loss, of himself, of no words to soothe her, the low guttural convulsing. No, the brain must never accept her dying, never accept his loss, must keep talking. He vomited again, gagged and swallowed it back down. His mind unable to accept what his body knew. “Can you hear the wind, the ice cold wind?” Air filled his lungs, words filled his mind. What else could he do to reject the dying? His vomit mixed with the blood on the floor, and with his heart, the dark center of his heart on the floor.

Her eyes rolled back. Her mouth dropped open. His body entirely separate from his mind of liquid thoughts, the substance known as grief, pooling in a bundle of nerve fibers so that the brain function would not, from that moment on, be distributed evenly throughout both the right and left hemispheres, but would instead function only from the murky center where the image of his daughter dying was communicated in each nerve cell.

His eyes moved over her chin to her mouth and up again over her face. Her nose turned up, her eyes blue. She breathed taking in shallow breaths. Her sweat accumulated in tiny clear beads above her lip. The sheets over her belly, her baby under her skin, the blood dripping down her legs in one slow stream.


In a fit of rage, in that space that separated himself from himself and was always marked with regret, he grabbed a vase filled with stale water and old carcasses of flowers and threw it at the window. And the vase hardly made a sound when it crashed through the glass. The cold air rushed in the room with the smell of the flower’s decay and the sensations of winter, which were stark white and dead silence. His hand was dry and shaking, cracked at the knuckles. The shards of glass were different shapes and many all over the floor.


A large section of the fetal scalp appeared from between her legs. A dark moss clung to the windowsill and peeled away at the white paint that warped and bent to the weather and the earth. A tiny beetle zigzagged over the moss and out through the shattered window back to the lake. Her head fell back and her body went limp. The wind was frozen. His mind was also frozen. The infant’s forehead appeared, then one ear, the mouth. The features were concealed by a milky white fluid and blood. The baby’s mouth was open, the tongue was fat and red and when he touched it, it curled around his finger. The lips were pathetically small.


He waited at the foot of the bed. He waited for a sign in the wind, in the trees, the air between their two bodies to reach out and touch him. He waited for a door to open and keep opening to the possibility that death might mean something, might be worth keeping, worth holding onto with his hand on her thigh.


Her body jolted and fell to one side as the baby was expelled. The placenta was smooth to touch, steaming, had a strong scent that interfered with his breath, his thoughts, and the cold air entering his mouth, on his tongue and the back of the throat.

A ghost, or maybe it was just the intensity of the moment, appeared suddenly on the lake, gathered enough energy to travel to the small moment between life and death, between the sheets, between her thighs, in the warm blood on the infant’s forehead. He moaned. He was lucid. He held his thoughts out in front of him. He begged, “Please lord, please, no.”


The wind hummed and a flurry of images hummed in his mind: his daughter, her wild hair, a hornet’s nest, the horizontal layers, the working bees, the time it took her to die, the thawing the freezing. He did believe in the love (he did). He could have spent the entire day and night rowing a slow boat across his memories, his arms pulling and pulling to arrive again in this image of death: his daughter’s white hand, the mind’s questions, the way death came, knelt at the bed and swallowed her whole body.


The trees in the distance all leaned in to listen, all leaned in and waited. The snow turned to freezing rain. The ice coated the ground, a thin clear ice, this pristine crystal, that repulsive white, that acute loss of sight. And the wind froze in the air as if it too went to speak and then pulled back. He closed his eyes to this brightness, the freezing that got dizzy that twirled in circles like a pair of eyes in his mind. Her eyes were opaque, like the water, cooled and stilled, settled then stirred up. His heart had gone and buried itself beneath the ice. The newborn kicked her legs and flung her arms in the air.


Everything was touched by the taking and the giving; it was death, it was life lightheaded and dry in the mouth. He picked up the infant. Her knuckles knocked against the hard wood of the side table. (The lake too was dying, breaking into parts, turning to crystal.) The infant wrapped her hand up in his hair, the fingers were pink, the legs kicking, the voice close up to his eyes and pleading.

Virginia Luck writes poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine, Pif Magazine, Burnside Writers, The Lake, and Rawboned, where she is also an editor. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three boys. The Art of Saving a Life is an excerpt from a longer piece of the same title.

Read Virginia Luck’s comments on Catherine Uroff’s “Model Home.”

Notes from Alexander Slagg, Senior Associate Editor
Raw. That is the word that comes to mind when I read this story. Raw details. Raw human experience. We spend most of our lives skating across the surface of life, figure skaters on a frozen surface whose solidity is never in question—until it cracks into a million tiny pieces and you fall in. These experiences are the sink or swim moments of our lives. We are altered by them. We are totally alive in these moments, and totally raw. Our experience of life becomes primal, focused only on the essentials. This story communicates the same sense of urgency. The narrator’s choice of words to describe the setting he’s in, the author’s syntax and sentence structures, the subject matter itself (the simultaneous birth and death of a loved one)—all of these story elements are stripped down to their most fundamental qualities. Stripped bare so we can experience the intensity of what the author is conveying. The overall effect is to cause you to read slowly, allowing you to soak up every facet of the story. Gird yourself as you sit down to embark on this journey. It’s well worth the effort.

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