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Old Baby, A Fable by Leslie What

I'm reading this 7-minute story tonight at the Phantom Drift Ensemble Reading:

The newborn was wrinkled and curled like an old man.

"You look as if you've already lived," said his mother.

The baby, eyes watery and butterfly blue, opened his mouth, popped imperfect spit bubbles with his tongue.

The husband stood beside the hospital bed to massage the mother's shoulders. "He's like a fish," he said. "Slimy. I never knew he'd be this ugly."

The mother agreed. Her pregnancy had not gone as expected. Indigestion and swollen feet. Stretch marks on her belly, thighs, breasts. An episiotomy cut à la Dr. Frankenstein.

A nurse washed waxy coating from the baby's skin and swaddled him in a cotton cocoon. "He's all yours," she said, passing him like a football to the mother.

The mother's emotions swelled, faded. She felt drained by the long labor. She stared, mesmerized by her son's face, the way his fists curled like soft flamingo beaks. Mothering felt unnatural.

The baby scared her. He slept. He tasted the air with his tongue. He fussed. His moods erupted and calmed. He was off in his own world. Would that world expand wide enough to include her? Her son appeared wise at times, other times thoughtful or disapproving. As she watched him sleep the mother recognized something peculiar in the baby's expression–perhaps the uneven arch of the eyebrows or his very long earlobes. Something about his impulsive nature was uncomfortably familiar. She knew this baby.

"Dad?" the mother asked, feeling like an idiot it had taken her nine months and fifteen minutes to comprehend his true nature.

"Holy crap," said her husband. "It is your father! Swell."

The two of them had not gotten along, which she ascribed to jealousy while her husband blamed a mean streak exacerbated by the old man's alcoholism.

The baby's face reddened at this accusation. He raised his fists and jerked his legs and pierced the hospital quiet with an enraged cry. He was minutes old and already a master manipulator.

The mother entertained second thoughts about breastfeeding. This was, after all, a man who had not seen her naked since the third grade.

The next day they filled out the paperwork. After a brief argument, they named him after her father and took him home. The mother and her husband grew quietly exhausted by the work of being his parents. The baby was unreasonable, self-centered. He was up all night. He drank dinner from a bottle. He misbehaved through diaper change. His poop smelled like chewing tobacco. He threw up just after she'd changed the bedding. He was so much like her father it made her laugh, though while he was alive, she had not found his antics all that funny.

The baby stayed a baby, except that he got bigger and perfected new tricks. When he learned to hold up his own head the mother felt inordinately proud. At five months he managed to push himself off the bed and a neighbor whispered behind her back that only a bad mother would leave a baby alone, even for second. From then on, the mother left the door open when she used the bathroom.

Her husband pestered her for sex but she fretted the baby would hear them. Their love triangle softened into a curved line circling baby and mother, leaving her husband outside.
There were times when her body buckled with tenderness for the infant. When his scream turned to a whimper she knew only she could calm. When she smoothed the velvet soft of his hair. When he stared into her eyes with an expression she struggled to understand.

One Sunday morning, while her husband slept in late, she sat in the rocking chair cradling her son. She watched him work the rubber nipple, and when the bottle was empty, watched him suckle the air in dream.

She had so many questions she wished to ask…. Did her father blame her because her mother died in childbirth? Could she overcome her anger about the past? Would she live long enough for this little old baby to know her as a person, or would she remain a character placeholder, the mother, throughout his life?

She stared at the blush of his cheeks, watched the rhythmic motion of his puffy lips. She waited, waited, wondering what the baby would say once he learned how to talk.

Copyright 2008 by Leslie What

first appeared in Shape of a Box

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