Jennifer Lorene Ritenour

My mother told me stories. She’d put me to bed, pull the blanket up to my chin, and turn off the light. I’d asked her, “Since I don’t have a dad, how was I born?” She’d tell me my spirit fell into a watermelon and then into its seed. I’d imagine everything cold, wet, and sugary around me, curled up like a shrimp and waiting to be born. “It’s where you got your black hair from,” she’d say. “It’s why your eyes are green. Why your cheeks are so pink.”

My mother found me at the grocery store. Near the onions, tomatoes, and peppers. She went to buy vegetables for a salsa dish for her friend’s birthday party, but when she walked up to the chilies, all in a pile, red and green, she felt the hot thirst come up in her throat. Her legs sweated and she felt grains of sand in her mouth. She looked around for the water that comes out to spray the vegetables. But then she saw a round, green, watermelon.

My mother had one of her funny feelings that if she drank the melon’s juice, she wouldn’t be thirsty anymore. She gripped it with two hands and cracked it onto her knee, and it split right down the middle. Two perfect halves. She cupped her hand to scoop at the insides of half the watermelon’s flesh and shoved it into her mouth. The juices ran down her chin to her breasts and pooled inside of her belly button and slowly dripped down her thighs and between her sandaled toes. It cleared her thirst, even though it was the sweetest thing she’d ever tasted. With every bite she wanted more. She picked up the other half of the watermelon and bit the insides, her cheeks slathered in chunks of fruit. When she was done, she licked each finger and the whole store stared at her and all the pink juices stained her white dress. She left, not knowing she had swallowed a small black seed that held my spirit which had then settled in at the bottom of her belly.

Every morning my mother noticed her belly get bigger and bigger and she looked at the sky and she stared at the clouds and while she used to see all kinds of things — dresses, flowers, and violins — now all she saw were watermelons. At first, when she couldn’t fit into her pair of jeans, she thought she was getting fat, so she tried to eat less. But when her belly grew so big that she could only wear sundresses and her work scrubs, she realized something strange was happening to her.

My mother’s friends at work called her Earth Mother. She had gotten a job as an assistant at an obstetrician’s office. She was prepping a room for a patient when she felt a tight pain in her stomach. She leaned over, had to put her hand on the counter, but the pain was too much and she fell. She couldn’t scream. It hurt so bad she just lay there with her mouth open. No sound; just tears. The doctor found my mother on the floor, clutching her belly. He had the nurses carry her up onto the exam table.

The nurses helped my mother out of her scrubs and into a hospital gown. They noticed, poking out of her bellybutton, a thick green vine about five inches long with one leaf. The doctor didn’t know what to do; he just stared at it, so my mother howled, “Pull it out!” He grabbed the vine and pulled hard. My mother screamed with every tug he gave. After a time, the doctor yelled for the nurses to help and they all grabbed hold of the stem. They counted to three. They pulled and pulled. Slowly, the head of the watermelon emerged and my mother’s belly button stretched to the size of a salad plate. The juices in her sloshed and when the watermelon was finally released it made a POP sound. It was dark green and very round. The doctor passed the fruit to my mother. Her belly button shrank back, but was never the same, its shape turned into a pimento olive.

My mother kicked the doctor and the nurses out of the room. She rotated the watermelon in her palms and felt a pulse coming from inside of it. It was still slimy from her belly juices. When she put it up to her ear, she heard the thump of my heartbeat. She grabbed the scalpel on the tray next to her table and cut all around the melon, making sure not to go too deep. She broke the melon over her knee and palmed each half of the thing and gave it a twist, a sound like pulled apart Velcro. And there — instead of the juicy pink insides of the fruit — was a baby girl covered in sugar water.

My mother held me to her chest and named me Thumbelina, as I was as big as her thumb. The doctors kept me in the hospital, in an incubator, I lived warm like a chick for weeks. When I was finally human-baby size my mother brought me home and kept me right beside her bed in my own crib.

Years later, after my mother died, I found a photo of her and my dad shoved in the back of her dresser drawer. It was the only photo I ever saw of him. My parents, both in stone washed jeans and black high top shoes, had their arms around each other like they’d never let go. On the back of the photo someone had written: Like magic!

I looked nothing like her and everything like him, a stranger. Our eyes, the color of peridot. I stuck the photo inside a book to smooth out the creases over their faces. Pressing their memory like a flower, while I ate watermelon and spit out the black seeds.


about the author