In fewer than 1 in 80,000 births, a baby is born still fully enclosed within the unruptured amniotic sac, or caul. Babies born en caul emerge in the very same gelatinous sac that protected and nourished them throughout their time in utero. Because it’s so rare, caul births are sometimes thought to possess mystical, healing powers. A new novel, Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins, examines the precarity of the “gift” of caul.
Opening in Harlem in 1998, the book starts with Laila, an emotionally and physically fragile woman who has had miscarriage after miscarriage: “Some of the fetuses grew, saw the dents of their past siblings in her womb, and joined them in the ether.” When she finds herself pregnant again, she’s desperate to enlist the services of the Melancons, a local family who sells their precious caul to the highest bidders, who are usually wealthy white families. The Melancons refuse, and Laila’s child is eventually stillborn.
At the same time as Laila’s life is falling apart, her niece, Amara, is desperate to end her own unexpected pregnancy so she can continue her studies at Columbia. Instead, she gives the baby, who is born with her own caul intact, up for a closed adoption—to the Melancons.
The novel charts 20 years of the disparate paths of Laila, Amara, Amara's daughter and the women of the Melancon family as they deal with heartbreaking losses, invigorating successes and family turmoil. Through its setting, it’s also a fascinating commentary on gentrification, as young white professionals “discover” a new neighborhood with little to no care for the families who have built their lives there. And though this is Jerkins’s debut novel (she’s published two nonfiction works), her talent suggests that of a much more seasoned writer.
Caul Baby, which is dedicated “To Black Mothers (Past, Present, and Future),” is a striking meditation on Black motherhood, the commodification of Black bodies, gentrification and folk magic. Read it with an eye towards the present and heart aware of the past.