On the history of fertility as dots, from cave paintings to period apps.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.
Illustrations by Suzanne Lustig.
Despite the rather disturbing ongoing rain and effective dreariness of this Auckland summer, my kitchen had still managed to become home to what felt like 10,000 fruit flies. It didn’t matter if I meticulously wiped or religiously stored all my perishables properly. The flies existed and multiplied for only their own pleasure. They were a family.
I had Googled ways to get rid of them. An open jar of apple cider vinegar and sugar sat on the bench as a trap. After three days and next to no victims, I questioned its effectiveness. Another online remedy recommended dish soap and vinegar, diluted in water. I threw in some blood orange Monin syrup because it sat on the bench with the word blood taunting me, awakening a murderous thirst.
I realised that none of the flies had died the first time because there had been no dish washing liquid; no poison involved. Instead, I had filled their bellies for war, mama-birded them the ammunition they craved to use against me.
Standing in the shower a few months earlier, a mound of blood half the size of my fist fell out of me and began running down my leg. My curiosity was stronger than my disgust, and my hand found itself scooping the entity into my palm for inspection. The jelly layers quickly disintegrated as I poked and prodded – I let the knotted, fleshy centre slip from my grasp. The ruptured fibroid painted its own portrait in red at my feet. Dots and drops of pain never ceased, marbling, stretching and eventually dying down the drain.
That is one of the events on the long, winding list of reasons and upsets and issues that found me sitting across from the same naturopath who had helped me when I was 16 years old. Then, I was petulant and reluctant to believe in anything but Western medicine. My mother had to practically force me to attend the appointment. My messy hysteria was in stark contrast to the serene, calming room and the naturopath’s subdued, caring presence. At 24, I had added many more notches to my poor-health bedpost and had cysts growing in all these different, new and exciting places. She: so kind, so patient, so soft. She watched the tears roll from my eyes, down my cheeks and onto my clothes. She gave me tissues that created an insurmountable pile on the window sill. She reminded me that she felt sympathy for me the first time I had been in, for some kind of digestive problem.
The prescription to begin with was magnesium powder every morning and Kindara, an app that tracks your periods and ovulation. It also informs you of your follicular phase, your fertile window, and luteal phase. I was not trying to have a baby, nor was I concerned with accidentally falling pregnant. Despite this fact, I became relatively dedicated to entering my personal data into the tracking device, day in and day out. Each dot formed by an entry into Kindara created a sort of future and past.
Back on the kitchen bench, my crude petri dish/attempted murder trap found no floaties, no fools. I slid the jar across to the side and found one crushed fruit fly underneath the glass, squished onto the bottom. I told it, “You’re on the wrong side. You’re supposed to have drowned on the inside.”
In some sense the method was effective. But the flies still adorned themselves on my peaches. The fates were gently warning me of a lack of what I had been eagerly anticipating – the sun. They crawled around the great orbs, sniffing and snacking; acting like they owned the concept of stone fruit which actually belonged to me.
On November 6 at 11.32pm I lay in bed and stupidly emptied my bank account on a replica version of a designer couch. Ten weeks later it arrived. It was a long, burnt orange tube that was folded over to create some sense of structure. The creases in the fake suede made flesh-like rolls. I would sprawl across its lumps and bumps, moaning about all the inconveniences I was experiencing.
I stumbled across a BBC article about a lay scientist, a London furniture conservator, who had become obsessed with 20,000 year-old cave drawings. He studied the meanings of different kinds of dots that accompanied these ancient European pictures, assuming eventually he would find that some brilliant mind had discovered the meaning of them. Drawings of animals such as fish, cattle and reindeer painted on walls of caves had been studied by scientists and historians for years, yet, as it turned out, none of them had deciphered the symbolism of the dots and dashes. He spent hours in the British library, accumulating as much data as possible to begin drawing patterns from the etchings.
Eventually, it revealed itself to him as a timekeeping system for ecological changes, but more so for the fertility windows of the various animals. The Magdalenians had, apparently, been keeping track of the cycles of the female creatures of their respective environments – some in Altamira, Spain and some in Lascaux, France. Of course, this would best allow them to breed animals for consumption, but it would also provide a more specific sense of timekeeping via lunar calendar. Dots represented the number of months gestating, a Y symbol by the rear of a reindeer drawing implied the occasion of birthing – one line emerging from another.
Kindara wanted attention, she wanted to remind me to enter my data. You bleed and you tell Kindara. You wake up and Kindara says hello in the form of a notification, perched at the bottom of the home screen of your phone. A red dot appears on each calendar day that you tell Kindara you’ve bled, and a gradient of yellow and orange appears about 10 days later to tell you when you’re most likely to conceive. Personally, I found it most useful for knowing why my libido had suddenly peaked on a random Monday through Thursday. An almost chiaroscuro effect is created in the beaded coloured dots on a night-mode background, not unlike those shadowy hollows of the Ice Age.
Days went by while we remained inside. I utilised my time by crafting a piñata for a friend’s birthday party. I made a flower because that was the easiest shape to make out of the heart balloons I had found. After hours of papier mâché and wondering whether I was hallucinating from all the glue and paint, I left my lounge-cum-dining room-cum- art studio. Upon walking into the kitchen I was met with an army of fruit flies gathering across potatoes, shallots, lemons – even my glass teapot. I was delirious and furious.
“YOU’RE SICK! YOU’RE ALL FUCKING SICK!”
“THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THEM!”, I yelled down the hallway.
My partner appeared and declared that in the battle of Beth versus the fruit flies, the fruit flies had won. He shuffled me into the “hall and closet” – a wide accessway to the balcony or a sort of small study, with two constantly arguing doors that we had turned into our shared wardrobe and dressing room. We had to get ready to witness the destruction of the piñata that had consumed my life for the past five days. At the party, the piñata gave birth in an explosive manner; her children included a variety of miniature alcohols and beauty products. I assume the gin, tequila, skincare, lollies and rum all had different fathers.
When the weather had redeemed herself somewhat, I hauled myself down the road to Jason Books. I found a second edition print of Linda Goodman’s Love Signs – the less reputable sequel to her 1968 bestseller, Sun Signs. The thin paper book bag almost tore apart while I lugged it around on my other errands (Mecca, print shop, Gong Cha). My mattress practically caved in from its weight when I finally got home. The subtitle to the book read: A new approach to the human heart.
I looked at the cover for a long time, considering if I should read it from the beginning like a regular book or use it as a dictionary, referring to it as necessary for the remainder of my life. Naturally, I had already decided to keep it for a long time given its grandeur and size. One of its observations, on Libras, read that rather than seeking outside validation and meaning, they would do better to trust their own intuition.
My mum and I are both Libras. She gave birth to me exactly one week before she turned 40 years old. Apparently it was not planned to be so late. She had my sister when she was 34, in 1994. In 1996, she went to her GP, who told her that fertility drops off quite severely after age 36. Follicle-stimulating hormone tests revealed that her body was trying to release an egg, but that they weren’t necessarily viable. A year or so later, a naturopath prescribed a foul tasting brew, which she took only once (or twice, maybe, she can’t remember) before falling pregnant. What she does remember is manually, haphazardly, tracking her cycles on an old filofax type of calendar.
A common autumnal migration scene depicted in one of these caves shows a row of swimming deer – one particular stag has seven dots marked to its ear. Eight dots could represent a beginning to the mating season. They were applying abstract symbolism to the natural, external world, based on the cyclical phases of the moon. In turn these signifiers helped adapt and develop an advancing society. Linda Goodman says funny things like “Libras like to wear chunky jewellery to attract partners”, based on the same lunar system. I think she’s wrong but I still respect her. A sort of meteorological calendar is developed through these markings, these proto-writings. I thought of my mother’s practice of naturopathy and her own rudimentary time-keeping system.
In 2123, no one will have fertility applications any more. We’ll all conceive and grow our children in third party rooms because of hostile wombs, and some amateur historian with an interest in ancient ways of reproducing will discover Kindara and the like and they’ll determine that we did, in fact, know how to track our reproductive cycles in this era, but we accidentally sold all our own data, leading to some kind of downfall.
I would rather have a primitive picture of a cow represent my fertility than the popular Venus or ultra yonic orchid flower that these applications like to apply to the chaos of childbearing. You can enter a little pink heart if you’ve had unprotected sex that day – the protected sex heart includes a delicate white outline. Femtech likes to highlight its astonishingly new way of life, a life free of hormonal pills or pain inducing insertions. As it turns out, this is not new, not ground-breaking. It harks back to the past.
Discussions around earlier humans can often be about how animalistic and primal they were. Pulling hairs and ripping tangled trees apart in an attempt to make sense of things. Fumbling through the world, unknowing that they themselves are prototypes for what is still to come. Much the same as children – before age 12 we’re not really online yet. Printing our own hands on the walls of our childhood homes. Imprinting ourselves into our own history. When I was five, in perhaps the largest rule-breaking event of my otherwise polite and well-behaved childhood, I found a brand new Vivid and wrote my own name on the wall of a classroom at my primary school.
Without their prospective future or elusive past, the dots on Kindara carry little to no meaning other than blood. In a different era, in an ambiguous environment such as a cave, identifying an animal by the learned patterns of contours and curves can be a matter of life and death. Prey, obscured by lack of light, can find power through its invisibility. Survival relies on the increased sensitivity of a particular human’s reactivity. We are predisposed to interpret patterns from unidentifiable shapes. Suggestive features in the environments we curate for ourselves create illusions of things that may be there, like the Palaeolithic people’s need to interpret what is a mystery as a system in order to survive the long, harsh winters. Anchoring finger marks into the screen serves in much the same way as those markings next to various animals.
Together, Kindara and Love Signs became a system for sanity. They were the two avenues that allow for a sense of order or understanding, although neither would realistically change me. A few days after I had purchased the copy of Love Signs, I started using it as a laptop stand. I sat at my desk, staring up at the complimentary Wah Lee’s calendar that hung on the wall behind the computer. I had produced all of these permanent structures for myself; my apps and my books are all a methodical practice, an information-keeping pattern. Just when I had resolved that the fruit flies could live out the remainder of their days suckling at the teat of my produce, they disappeared. I decided that the flies had a timed visit, a holiday planned tens of thousands of years ago, even.
I told my partner I felt I was actually quite masculine, despite all the outward facing evidence.
He laughed and said,
Yes, masculine in the most beautiful, feminine way.
Yes, like a cow.
Or a bison.
Or a mammoth.
With nine dots next to my head, someday.