Katrina Vandenberg


I first learned my blood type in an emergency room in Western Massachusetts. At the time it seemed a bit of blood humor: Be positive, Be positive, the most Midwestern spin my body could muster on the miscarriage nobody I loved knew I was having yet, one thousand miles from home.

B is the rarest of the three antigens A, B, and O, and it is the blood type most closely married to geography. It developed ten thousand years ago in Asia, among the mixed tribes of Caucasians and Mongolians who lived in the highlands of the Himalayas, in what is now northern India and Pakistan. On the maps of the world that depict the distribution of blood types you can see the people who carry the B antigen living densely in China, Hong Kong, and north through the Ural Mountains, then watch them thin out as they migrate west, dropping off sharply after Austria and Germany—homeland of the grandmother who gave my B-positive blood to me—near the edge of the former Mongolian Empire and the beginning of the Alpine mountain chain.

I was thirty-seven and childless. I had waited long and wished hard for a child, and finally I thought I had gotten it, only to lose sight of it again. All through my thirties I had imagined the child moving toward me across ten thousand years, as if years were miles—picking its way across the ice-capped Alps with a yew-handled axe, bobbing across an ocean of time in steerage class. And the mountains had not stopped it, not smallpox nor starvation nor war, only a mistranslation in an offhand message sent from one cell to another.

Mutt of Northern European tribes that I am, someone must have brought my blood type to me. But who? A merchant, an interpreter, a bandit, a soldier? Though it’s possible it was a woman—a camp follower, a refugee—it was almost certainly a man. If you trace back ten generations, all of us have one thousand parents and grandparents, great-greats and on, not counting the horde of aunts, uncles, cousins surrounding them. The extended family, in the truest sense, fans across continents and centuries, ancestors alternately glancing in our direction, then turning away. Among them there must be both the wanted and un-, murderers and healers, the stingy and merciful, servants and queens. If my B antigen could speak, it might talk of the first rivers it knew, the Indus and the Ganges. It might detail the types of work that first made it course faster through the body, following sheep and yak across the steppes or hauling objects for trade on the Silk Road: cotton, pack animals, tea, medicine, and jade. It might say the Sanskrit words, hauled down that same road and eventually imported by my native English tongue, words like cot, crimson, crocus, dinghy; jungle, karma, loot, mandala; mantra, sapphire,orange.

Blood doesn’t bother me much, so I’m sure I sat on my hospital cot and watched the needle prick my skin and the blood rise through the plastic tube into the waiting vial. That tube was the last road my blood traveled that night, singing its mantras. The child was untethered. In the Berkshires, the leaves were muddy and fallen and brown, no longer the brocaded tapestry they’d made weeks before for migrating, jewel-toned songbirds — birds looted from the jungle by the wind, their plumage crimson, crocus, sapphire, orange. They travel at night, and did you know that scientists once tracked their passage by counting their silhouettes as they passed the full moon?


Two Bracelets

After my first husband Tim died from complications of hepatitis and AIDS, Tim’s older brother began reminding the family of a clinical study he called “the brother study.” When two brothers who were hemophiliacs became infected with HIV, one never outlived the other by more than seven months. The scientists had no idea why — genetics, expectations, grief. But after Tim died, Greg started to say, “Seven months,” and sure enough, Greg was right.

I confess: I had assumed that Greg would die first. Tim was in a relationship, Greg was not. Tim took his meds. Greg only took his sporadically, saying they didn’t work and if they did, he wanted to catch the virus unawares. Tim and I lived in the Ozarks, where the climate was gentle on his joints, which had all but been destroyed by untreated bleeds. Greg lived with five other people in the Bikes Not Bombs housing cooperative in Boston, which was heated by a single woodstove. Tim worked as a technical writer. Greg edited a grassroots activist newsletter; he lived on a few hundred dollars a month gleaned from various grants, claiming he only needed money for rent and ice cream. One afternoon, during a single inspired phone call, he talked a major pharmaceutical company into buying him a health insurance policy.


On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Tim’s family volunteered at the mall in Toledo, wrapping gifts to benefit the Red Cross. There would be up to ten of us, and we would take over the entire booth. Greg liked to greet people up front and help them fill out order forms; Tim liked to wrap gifts, the metallic papers and endless rolls of Scotch tape, steady low-key industry where he was free to laugh with his sisters. I liked to hand off packages at the pick-up window, smiling and wishing people a happy holiday. At the time I thought it a leftover urge from my waitressing days, the desire to please, though now I can’t imagine why. At that point the packages all looked alike, and the shoppers were all wet wool and impatience. If a mistake were made at handoff, no one would know until Christmas, when it would be too late.

Our last Christmas Eve, in the last minutes before we closed the booth to new orders, a young man wearing a black overcoat came to the booth, holding two rectangular black-velvet boxes. Inside the boxes were identical gold bracelets, monogrammed for two different women. Neither girlfriend knew about the other, he said, and he wanted to keep it that way. It was critical that we wrap the bracelets so that he could tell the packages apart.

News of the infidelity ignited the gift-wrap booth. The entire family was disgruntled. Greg half-joked that we should switch boxes on this guy. A sister wrapping one of the bracelets said that she didn’t like being part of his lie, not a bit. And when the man picked up the packages from me, five minutes before the mall closed, he pointed to each package, saying each woman’s name, and I anxiously agreed, my stomach tightening. He gave me a wink and left. I’m pretty sure I knew which was which, but that didn’t feel any better, and in my head I saw two women, maybe both blondes with highlights, similar but not exactly alike. That night or the next morning, each would sit with the man, next to two separate baubled trees, or in the same passenger seat of his car at separate times, untying ribbons and opening each box, oohing as he helped each fasten their bracelet’s clasp.

Of course, we never knew what happened. After the mall closed, we ate dinner at the same Chinese restaurant we always did, sharing beef and broccoli, General Tso’s chicken. For dessert, we tore open the cellophane wrappers on our fortune cookies, then broke the cookies in half.


Black Bears and Their Bear-Dreams

When my baby Anna hugs the stuffed black bear that is almost as big as she is, the bear is only a bear. She does not know it was given to me and my first husband, whom she does not know existed, at the National Hemophilia Conference in Atlanta. October 1992, near the height of everyone’s anger, an awful lot of people sick with HIV but not yet dead. The keynote was done by a woman who studied the power of laughter. She wanted to teach us to fake it til you make it, and as we were all getting started with a few half-hearted ha-ha-has, she began to pass around giant cuddly bears for us to hug. At what point did the fake laughs turn into real ones? The ballroom rocked, and the laughter got louder, raucous, infectious; it rattled the windows in the Peachtree Hyatt. Tears streamed down the speaker’s face as she laughed deep from her belly into the mic. The laughs were a swift river with jagged rocks, I did and did not want them to stop; the terminally ill boys and men and their doctors and families screamed, and the soft bears kept making their way. After the speaker sold the bears in the lobby for $50 each, and my husband’s father, never a spender, bought several, though at the time $50 for a stuffed animal was a crazy amount, and when he held out a bear to us and we looked at him dubiously, he shrugged and said, “Interesting times.” Anna hugs the bear, delightedly. The bear has survived decades, eight moves and four states and nearly every hemophiliac born before 1987, and it is as if that whole room and the laughter never happened. The bear is only a stuffed bear, nothing like the real black bears this October in northern Minnesota—gorged on acorns and blueberries, shy and shadowy, settling with their unknowable bear-dreams in their dens as the leaves drift—and the stuffed bear is hugged by a real child whose full story I will also never know.


Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two books of poems, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Southern Review, The American Scholar, Orion, Post Road, Poets & Writers, and other magazines. She has received fellowships from the McKnight, Bush, and Fulbright Foundations; been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; and held residencies at the Amy Clampitt House, the Poetry Center of Chicago, and the MacDowell Colony. She is the poetry editor of Water~Stone Review and a professor in The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. After years of devotion to B.T. McElrath’s dark chocolate bars, she is now trying to (mostly) give up sugar. Her website is http://www.katrinavandenberg.com.

… return to Issue 9.1 Table of Contents.