[Table of Contents]



Gayle Brandeis


(The seeds) remember what their god whispered into their ribs: Wake up and ache for your life. —Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem


1. (True Rib)

One of the most annoying lingering symptoms of presumed long haul covid has been costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs and around the breastbone. I've never been as aware of my ribs as I have these last few months—they grump at me with every breath, resist each inhale. They've never felt so much like a cage, my lungs large pulpy wings trapped inside.


2. (True Rib)

The rib cage is also called the "thoracic basket"—I love how these words sound together, that hissin the middle of each, thorasssssic bassssssket. My basket is made of concrete and steel. My basket sometimes feels full of wet muscle, sometimes venomous teeth.


3. (True Rib)

"Maybe you've cracked a rib," a friend says, telling me she cracked ribs coughing when she had a bad case of flu. She said it felt like there was a band around her chest, and it does feel like there's a band around my chest, tight and strong, but in the x-ray, my ribs look fine, ghostly fingers splayed beneath my skin.


4. (True Rib) 

We have seven "true" ribs, three "false" ribs, two "floating" ribs. The true ribs span from spine to breastbone; the false connect to the breastbone via cartilage, the floating attach only to the backbone, their fronts hovering inside our bodies, free.


5. (True Rib)

I've had two courses of antibiotics this illness, a short course of steroids, two inhalers, and a nebulizer, but the thing that's helped most is my husband rubbing my ribs. He'll stand behind me and run his hands up and down the sides of my rib cage, fast, like he's playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" on a washboard, and a riot of pain and pleasure ricochets through my body. When he removes his hands, my ribs continue to pleasantly burn.


6. (True Rib)

Each rib has three parts: a head, a neck, a shaft. This makes me think of Eve being made of Adam's rib—no womb, just hard bone, head and neck and shaft. The myth has always irked me. I rename the parts of the rib to my own liking—lip, crest, curl.


7. (True Rib)

My father cracked one of my mother's ribs on one of their early dates. He was lifting her into a boat for a tour of Lake Michigan off the coast of Chicago and his oar-like thumb snapped the delicate bone. The only time he ever physically hurt her, although she would claim otherwise decades later in the grip of paranoid delusion. I wonder if her rib healed properly, if it ached when I was growing beneath it.


8. (False Rib)

The Sumerian word "ti" means both "rib" and "to live"; the Sumerian goddess of life, Ninti, was birthed to heal the rib of Enki, the god of creation, after he had eaten forbidden flowers. Some people believe the Adam and Eve story stems from this myth. Some people who believe the Adam and Eve story think men have one less rib than women, but this isn't true. We all have twelve pairs (except for the occasional human who has what's called a "gorilla rib", a thirteenth pair, like those in the animals we evolved from.)


9. (False Rib)
When I was a teenager, my parents and I tried to go to a hot new rib joint in Chicago named Bones, but the line was long and we were too hungry to wait. My sister, nine at the time, was visiting relatives out of state; she called in the middle of the night, homesick, and my mom answered the phone in her sleep, dreaming of ribs. "Bones," she moaned to my freaked out sister. "Booooooones!"


10. (False Rib)

In Babylonian mythology, heaven and earth are crafted from the ribs of Tiamet, the goddess of salt water and chaos. Are we her vital organs? Her alveoli? Her breath? Does her cage ever ache with the swell of us all?


11.  (Floating Rib)

Maybe my tight, inflamed ribs are my body's way of trying to protect me after I've shed the virus, each bone a curved arm, a mother holding me close.


12.  (Floating Rib)

Halfway through the cremation process, the crematory operator hooks the rib cage with a rake and stirs the body around so the flames will lick it clean. I sweep my fingers over my ribs, dig my thumbs into the aching, living, tissue between them, the place the rake will someday catch.




Because I was aware of my ribs pretty much 24 hours a day (since the pain there often woke me up) for months on end, I decided it made sense to learn more about ribs—their anatomy, their mythology, etc. The more I learned about them, the more I could appreciate them, and the better I could handle their discomfort. Writing this piece felt like a way of learning to live with that long ache. Still, I was really relieved when a rheumatologist put me on a mild immunosuppressant/anti-inflammatory that, after a month, eased the pain. In a bit of happy timing, the meds kicked in the same week I received the acceptance letter for this piece—it felt like the closing of a circle, or maybe the opening of one, the ribs finally free inside their cage.