Poem of the Week | September 25, 2017

We are proud to offer a new poem by Emily Schulten. Schulten is the author of Rest in Black Haw (New Plains Press). Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Barrow Street, Mid-American Review, New Ohio Review, and others. She lives in Key West, where she is a professor of English and creative writing at The College of the Florida Keys.

Born Under the Veil

for Zaza

                      The caul means that portion of the amnion which occasionally persists
                      unruptured over the child’s head when it is born. Such circumstance
                      was believed by the superstitious of olden times to foretell luck.
                      – International Journal of Medicine and Surgery


My aunt had the caul, Hanrow tells me, his new daughter’s
eyes fixed solid on us, That’s how I knew she was in the room.


She was born face-shrouded in the tissue, emerging from
and into darkness, a sure sign she could see. Not the way


we can. No, our sight is limited. When he was a child
in the city, she brought chickens into the apartment,


where they’d squawk and jerk across the wooden
kitchen floor, competing with his mother’s and aunts’ voices,


the television, and the oil speaking in tongues, hot in the skillet.
After the dinner, the bones were cleaned and placed in a basket.


Once collected there, she’d throw them, one swift motion,
to where they’d land on the heavy hide mat unrolled


in the living room. Every divination became truth.
He hands his blanketed daughter to me, somehow heavier


than an infant should be, the insight of time far greater
than her few days here, her lineage made clearer by her gift,


announced as this holy hood was peeled from her face
so she could draw her first breath. (This is when he felt


his aunt in the room.) In exchange for the caul, for
entering the world under the curtain of birthright, blind,


she is given second-sight, protection from witches and drowning,
the ability to bring fertile harvests, to transcend.


Born under the weight of these gifts, so much gravity placed
upon her infant form. She makes no sound as she’s passed to me.


I bear her weight like water, she never blinks. And I’m both
healed and afraid, so much I fortune cradled to my feeble torso.


Author’s Note:

When I met my friends’ infant daughter for the first time, I was struck by her gaze – pensive and steady, knowing. When I mentioned this to her father, Hanrow, he explained it’s because she was born with the caul. Furthermore, this was a birthright, as Hanrow’s aunt had also been born with the caul. His aunt had, he told me, been there in the room when the baby was born, he was certain, and when he saw Zaza had the caul, too, he knew he’d been right about his aunt’s presence.
I’d never heard of the phenomenon, the caul. It’s rare. It is when the baby is born with the amniotic membrane wrapping her head, translated from the Latin for helmeted head. This has long been thought of as a sign of luck and unique abilities. Years ago, sailors purchased and prized these cauls and carried them around as talismans, as they were said to prevent drowning. Some say the child born this way will be psychic. Some say the child born this way will be protected from spirits. Some say the child born this way will promise fruitful harvests.
I held onto the story. I’m drawn to folklore, particularly when I come by it from a personal account. I became fascinated by the contradiction of emerging into the light and being unable to see, by the idea of this second sight bestowed on a child born, for all intents and purposes, blind. There is also the element of how families pass things down, how tradition can shift shape but remain intact, how sometimes it cannot be escaped.