In this beautiful creative non-fiction piece, ‘Gold Top’, Rym Kechacha uses Remedios Varo’s painting, Celestial Pablum, to explore her own experiences of breastfeeding her baby daughter through the night.
I’ve been drenching myself in the work of the artist Remedios Varo to write a novel based on her paintings. I finished it last winter with my belly huge with baby, typing up the final scenes with swollen fingers in the last weeks before she was born. In the days before she came I went to bed each night willing that first contraction to come in the darkness and bring the baby to me. During the days I sat and read, trying to enjoy the kind of quiet, languid moments I wouldn’t have again for a while. I got out my books about Remedios and flicked through them, looking at the paintings with no goal or interpretation in mind. I spent a lot of time gazing at one in particular, one that didn’t make it directly into the book. It’s an image of a crescent moon in a bird cage and a woman feeding it patiently with a spoon. Luminous dust from the sky pours into a funnel above them and the woman grinds it to load up her spoon. I have always loved this one. With my baby heaving restlessly inside me, I started to imagine that luminous dust to be the breastmilk I’d shortly feed her. I imagined us sitting calmly in bed at night, the darkness holding us like a womb, the stars watching over us as we eased into our new world, together.
While I was pregnant and working on my novel, I read books about how to look after your baby. Lots of them said you shouldn’t feed your baby to sleep because they will never drop off without a nipple in their mouth. They said you should put your baby down drowsy but awake and that will teach them to soothe themselves.
It turns out, My baby disagrees, fiercely, with this advice. When I break her latch and put her down she nuzzles back into me to try to suck again. Then she cries, bewildered by the cold sheets of her cot. I pat her, shush her, sing her little songs but her wailing grows louder and louder and my breasts start to ache in sympathy. So I give up, bring her back into my arms and offer her my nipple where she suckles away contentedly.
I watch the glow of the streetlights seeping in around the curtains and let my eyes drift closed. I wait for her mouth to slacken and her to fall off the nipple, milk drunk and satiated, where I will gently gather her tiny limbs towards my body and lay her back in the cot. I have failed, again, at teaching her to sleep on her own. Perhaps I’ll do better tomorrow night.
My baby hasn’t read the baby books. She doesn’t care about tomorrow night or the one after, only this moment where she is feeling full and warm and sleepy in my arms.
I read other baby books and I’m comforted by the ones which say: imagine you had a magic potion that would make your baby grow happy and strong and send her off to sleep almost infallibly. Wouldn’t you use it?
In a book which is specifically about breastfeeding, I see an image of a breast with its ducts and milk producing tissue. It looks like a flower, the petals radiating from the nipple, the ducts branching back into the body. I would like to have seen the painting Remedios might have made of such a thought, a breast as a flower, milk as nectar feeding the whole world. In this book I learn about antibodies, fore and hind milk, melatonin production and circadian rhythms and this is all interesting, but the thing that sticks in my mind is what a midwife told me in the hospital. She’ll want to suckle all through the night and you should let her, your milk is gold top at night. It should make me feel like a dairy cow, but instead I feel proud and as the sun sets I get us both ready for bed, waiting for that tingle in my armpits that tells me the extra special milk is coming in. We lay together in the bed between my husband and the cot, the two of us curved into each other, a big and a tiny moon. When I try to pull away to lay on my back, she complains and nuzzles back into me. We sleep like that every night, me swapping her from side to side, lying in each other’s warmth.
Remedios didn’t have children. In her biography of the artist, Unexpected Journeys, Janet Kaplan writes that she loved spending time with the children of her close friends, playing games and drawing and encouraging their imaginative worlds. She lived the latter part of her life in a community of exiled artists from Europe, a found family who nurtured her as she nurtured them. She knew of caring for the vulnerable, obligation in the home and the tender loneliness of love; but it is tiresome to analyse female artists through the lens of their motherhood or non motherhood. The painting would not speak any more eloquently to me if I knew there was a baby strapped to the artist as she worked on the canvas.
One night the baby sleeps through until two in the morning and I wake up with sticky dampness spread across my t-shirt and two solid, aching breasts. For a long moment brimming with dread I lay completely still, listening for her snuffling breathing and when I hear it I can’t help but let out a little whimper of relief. I can’t sleep with this engorgement so I lay there and listen to her quiet snores and stare at the dark ceiling, wondering if I should wake her to ease this tender, bursting feeling. When she eventually stirs and cries out, I gather her quickly into my bed and she latches greedily, gratefully.
The next night she is back to waking every three hours and a part of me, the secret martyr who guards her milk supply like a dragon, is glad. I don’t know how I’ll get her to sleep if the milk dries up.
I keep wondering why Remedios painted a moon that is waning, despite being fed something gloriously cosmic. I know there was no coincidence in her paintings, that they dripped with symbolism and meaning. I look at the painting again. I save a screenshot of it on my phone so I can call it up whenever it occurs to me.
As my daughter grows, I come to see myself in that hungry, waning moon. I am shrinking as she grows. Each week I can see a little more shade around my collar bones, each month I can do up a new button on my old jeans. I am constantly hungry in a way that doesn’t even seem to touch my belly, but hollows out my limbs and leaves me shaking.
When I see the hungry moon as my daughter I think of the cage that surrounds her as all the ways the world will keep her in, keep her down, keep her small. When I see myself as the hungry moon, I wonder what my cage is. It is tempting to think of the baby as my cage, each urgent demand for feeding another bar keeping me from the sky, but if so it is a cage I chose, a cage I love, a cage I do not wish myself free from. This is what keeps me coming back to Remedios’ work, this betwixt and between. The feeling I have that the work senses me and my moods and changes itself to suit.
The painting has two English titles, Star Maker and Celestial Pablum. In Spanish it is called Papilla Estelar. Star Maker is innocuously descriptive; it is a simple translation that captures something of the beauty of those mini galaxies pouring into the funnel to feed the baby moon. I think Celestial Pablum is a closer translation of the Spanish title, but there is a sarcasm to it that makes me pause. Pablum was an infant cereal developed in Canada in the thirties to combat malnutrition. It was bland and easily digestible so it also came to mean simplistic, infantile ideas. The Spanish word papilla is more ordinary, meaning simply mushy baby food but it isn’t entirely without shadow. The expression echar hasta la primera papilla means to throw up so much you even throw up your baby food; hacer papilla means to beat someone up, or to be so exhausted you become a kind of mush.
Translation is never neutral. Words have weight, and they land differently in different tongues. My words to the baby are light, they skitter and dance and loop as I sing all sorts of half remembered nonsense songs. I am giving her a mother tongue with her mother’s milk. But the words in the title of this painting are heavy. They do not evoke the wonder of breast milk as glittering stardust, singing a magic spell of sleep in the night; they do not evoke the beauty I feel whenever I nurse my own hungry little moon.
When I start to wean my daughter, I strap her into her highchair to spoon broccoli and carrot and courgette into her eager little mouth. Sometimes she grimaces at the unexpected tastes and the mush falls from her lips into her lap; sometimes she sucks at the spoon as if it is a breast and swallows happily. It is joyful, in its own way, to introduce her to the earth-given flavours of the world; but it is bittersweet too. It is the beginning of the end of that milk tie, her first step out into the world away from me.
It is also the beginning of the scene in the painting; the moon in a cage, the spoon hovering at the moon’s mouth, the woman in a slightly larger cage. The washing machine humming, the carpet crunchy underfoot, the dinner raw and cold in the fridge. The constellation of lonely tasks that never end.
Before I had my daughter I couldn’t decide if what I saw in the painting was tenderness or sadness. After she was born, it didn’t take me long to realise that I could see both, and that I have come to know the combination very well. I feel it most acutely when my daughter learns to sleep on her own in her cot and I wander around the house during her naps not knowing what to do with my arms if they’re not wrapped around her, finally consoling myself with swiping through pictures of her on my phone. Then, when she wakes up, I am annoyed at myself for failing to use the time to do anything productive, like make dinner and clean the bathroom; or any of the things I claim I long for the time to do, like read, write, or sleep.
When I look carefully at the face of the woman patiently feeding the moon, I see that she is exhausted. She probably wishes she was sleeping. It is night, the stars swirl around her lonely tower and her eyelids are heavy and drooping but there is a being demanding to be fed and so she must feed it. She looks as if she could fall asleep where she’s sitting, face first in her stardust grinder, eyes tightly shut against the radiant moon she can never escape from.
If I could, I would presume to rename the painting. I would call it something like Dream Feed, or Milking the Sky, except those titles both sound trite and they do not speak of the bite in the painting, that aching sense of recognition of being trapped in love. Perhaps it is just the connotations of papilla and pablum that I don’t like. My milk is stardust, it’s gold top. I will miss it when it’s gone.
Sometimes when my daughter cries out in the night with that wail that says mama where are you I’m all alone in this cold bed, I am pushing off the duvet and reaching into her cot before I am fully awake, standing on the border between the baby and sleep, a nowhere space where I am still dreaming as I pick her up and climb back into my bed.
And then she buries her face in my chest, she knows exactly where to go now, latches and calls the milk forth like a spell. My dream dissolves with the tingling of the letdown and leaves me groggy. I rest my head back on the pillow and gaze at the light space around the curtain. My husband lies still and sleeping in the bed beside me and I am half glad at least one of us is sleeping, half resentful that it’s never me.
I feel as if I am the only person awake in the whole world. The street is silent, the bricks are hushed, there is not even a rustle from the trees outside our bedroom window. It seems as if we are all alone in the darkness, just me and her, and everything in the earth and sky is listening to the gentle sounds of her sucking and swallowing and soothing herself back to sleep.
About Rym Kechacha
Rym Kechacha is a writer and teacher living in Norwich. Her debut novel, Dark River, was published earlier this year by Unsung Stories. Set between mesolithic Doggerland and a near-future UK, Dark River is about motherhood, sacrifice and awe of the natural world. You can find out more about Rym’s work here: https://rymkechacha.squarespace.com
This piece was commissioned under our current theme, Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, we at Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.