By: Jo Varnish
I resisted this appointment. I didn’t take the clinic’s earliest available date, or the second or third. The doctor sits opposite me, a wide leather-topped desk between us. It’s my first mammogram so she takes inventory of my family history. Father: died of kidney cancer, age seventy-two. Mother: died of brain tumor, age forty-three. Brother: survived testicular cancer. My risk for breast cancer computes as low.
My friend in Switzerland discovers an egg in the forest, sea blue and speckled against the black earth. Looking up, the towering trees bear no answers. She tucks the egg in her bra to warm it as she walks it home, hoping she can save the baby within. I read the unfolding fairy tale through messages lighting up the screen of my phone.
In a white hospital gown, I go straight through for the mammogram. The oppressive machinery clamps down this way and that. Hold your breath here – breathe now – lift your arm – be still. There is no discomfort. Instead, I field the quick snaps of shame from having avoided my doctor’s advice to have my first mammogram for eight years.
In Switzerland, my friend improvises an incubator. She places a towel in a glass tank and sets up a heat lamp above. The egg goes from bra to soft bed without incident. My friend Googles and sends me her findings. This is a song thrush egg. I open a photo she messages: the egg’s beach cottage color scheme fills the screen, and we dare to imagine its survival.
I am shown to the hallway, still in the gown. The doctor reads my images and calls me into her office. She points out a concerning mass—a white-grey smudge—though it is likely nothing. I will go across the hall for an ultrasound for further scrutiny. There is a thickness forming in my stomach with a gravitational pull. I am breathing too deeply. Or too shallowly. The ultrasound will surely be negative, for this day doesn’t feel like catastrophe. My hair is washed and shiny. On a day of catastrophe my hair would be a mess.
In the dark of the moonless Swiss evening, my friend gently holds the egg and illuminates it from beneath with a flashlight. This is candling. In the video clip she sends, I can see the egg rendered bright orange-red, a minuscule dark being surrounded by a spiderweb network of tiny vessels.
The cold gel gives me goose bumps. The doctor moves a handheld scanner across my breast and presses down, rubbing back and forth over the mass. I see it clearly on the monitor, whiter and more distinct than in the mammogram image. I memorize it for later online searches. I am to come back for a fine needle biopsy. It is probably nothing.
My friend researches birds in Switzerland. Orphaned song thrushes can be fed with tweezers. We share photos of bald alien fledglings, mouths agape, their fluffless wings a series of sharp stalks. Further developed, they can be taken outside to begin flying small circuits. It is possible to house-raise a song thrush and release it back to nature.
I have found a mammogram scan online that looks like mine to my untrained eye. I have looked into options if it is malignant. I know about treatments and chances, thanks to my nighttime internet searches, and they calm me. I go to the clinic and have the needle biopsy with its pinching and pulling, and a titanium marker is inserted where the mass was. I have another mammogram to check its position. On this new image I see the titanium seed glowing bright white, nestled in the ghostly spectral tissue.
The egg is likely around a week old. My friend carefully candles it daily and monitors its progress, sending me footage of the updates. The baby should hatch in around another week or so.
Days later, when I am told the mass is a benign tumor, I call my friend in Switzerland. Her relief prompts me to realize mine more fully. Later, that solace moves aside for melancholy. The song thrush has faltered. My friend sends me the final picture: the dark smudge on the luminous orange egg. The life is no longer viable, it has failed to develop.
I take a walk in the woods with my dog, the clench of the clinic appointments released. I know that across the world, my friend is walking the egg back into the Swiss forest.
Originally from England, Jo Varnish now lives outside New York City. She is the assistant editor at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in Okay Donkey, Ellipsis Zine, Brevity Blog and others. Jo has been a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers for two years and is studying for her MFA. She can be found on twitter @jovarnish1