by Elizabeth Horneber
Some years ago, a hospital in Guangzhou, China, fell under investigation when it was discovered that the nurses there were selling patients’ placentas for 20 RMB apiece. The nurses would take the placentas to the streets while on break, and many had regular customers. A newspaper reported that the nurses would take the money and use it for breakfast.
The ancient Chinese practiced placentophagy—that is, eating one’s own placenta after birth—to fortify the blood, the qi, their life force. They believed it would increase longevity, give them glowing skin, longer lives.
Sir James George Frazer was the first to compile descriptions of kinds of magical thinking throughout the world. He said those who believe in contagion think the essence of one entity can reach another through proximity and touch and have a lasting influence, even when time and distance come to separate the pair. It implies that a person’s essence is physical and can be spread like a disease.
Depending on the relationship of those involved, contagion can bring gifts or trouble. The Hua of Papua New Guinea believe they can pass strength and good wishes to others with their hands, with their fluids. Spit, blood, semen, tears—these of themselves are neither good nor bad. They act as emissaries of their hosts, epitomizing their identity, their intentions.
If my own saliva were floating on the surface of a glass of water, I would not drink it.
The person, the one that mattered, was Chinese, and even when I first met him, I began collecting him. Notes he wrote about me and to me. Photos of pages in his journal. His cigarettes, his penny-colored temple beads. At the time I barely knew why I did this, though as we became closer, my collecting only became more feverish. I did it with a sense of fatality, as though I knew he would soon leave me, or I him. It wouldn’t be permanent. I knew this, and yet I realized his worth, because every day I perceived myself to be changing, to be stronger than I’d known I could be. I wanted so badly to keep this feeling.
In 1901, J. J. M. de Groot described an ancient Chinese medical work that says a placenta should be buried deep in the ground, in a place the sky and the moon can see. The earth should be heaped over it to protect the child, to ensure its long life. Because if a dog eats the placenta, the child will lose his intellect. If insects or ants find it, his character will be damaged. And if crows or magpies swallow it, the child will die a violent or sudden death.
In his discussion of human exchange in India, E.V. Daniels observes, “The mouth is certainly the most vulnerable orifice, through which not only food substances enter but also...spirits.”
In teaching me how to eat snails, crab—in teaching me how to shape Mandarin words—in teaching me of his skin and its inclinations—he, the Chinese man, entered through my mouth.
To me, the fluids of this man were like water. Thirsty for strength, for understanding, I drank all of him. I wonder now what his mother did with his placenta.
Mine was burned in a biohazard bag with other medical waste, other capsules of fluid.
Elizabeth Horneber is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she hosts KMSU 89.7's Weekly Reader author interview program and is the nonfiction editor of the Blue Earth Review. Her nonfiction is forthcoming in AGNI, Yemassee, and Monkeybicycle. She lives in an attic with her goldfish, Andronicus.