A year ago, the woman loved the baby. In the secret basket of her belly, she remade herself, cell by cell. An imaginary scientist, she began with the basics, the foundation: one X, then two. She rebuilt the code. She kept her father’s high-arched feet, solid shoulders, eyes like razors. She dropped her mother’s rolling veins and delicate chin, signs of weakness. This baby, she thought, this baby will have no fear.
Once perfect, the code was copied. Eager chromosomes thickened and split–orgasmic bursts. They wriggled out of tired cells and into new ones. They trebled, then quadrupled, then became a million, a billion.
The baby grew. From complex proteins, the woman made a strong stomach, a surgeon’s brain. No barefoot-and-pregnant for you, she thought. No taken-for-granted. She sloped a nose, smoothed skin, stretched a mouth, twirled ears. She cut eyes, filled the slits a sharp blue. Finally, she made a heart, half-closed but thick as rope. No bleeding heart, she thought. No heart-on-your-sleeve.
The woman knew success, swelled with her experiment.
Week twelve, the woman ate everything strong. Hot coffee. Shrimp pâté. Eggs with anchovies. You are what you eat, she knew. A lifetime of hotdish, now the woman became a chef–continental cuisine. No ham-and-bean bake, no cheesy potatoes. This baby would have the sun in its mouth, the sea in its skin.
She avoided vinegar salads, bitter olives. No sour wit, she thought, no acid tongue. This baby wouldn’t talk hard. This baby wouldn’t use its words as weapons.
One afternoon, the woman attended a wedding lunch, petit fours and chocolate strawberries. Afterwards, she imagined the baby meek, all dimples and coffeecake knees. She imagined the baby saying “okay,” and “it’s alright.” She saw the baby alone, crying in the blank of night.
That evening the woman cooked Spanish–chorizo, spicy sausage. If cornered, this baby would be feisty, ready to fight. It would say “no,” cock its thighs like tight-wound springs.
Three months ago, the baby was born. The woman paced in a gleaming room. Like a nurse, she inhaled bleach, the good smell of nothing. The pads, the sheets, her gown, her pillow–all white. Cleanliness, she knew, is close to Godliness. Even the woman’s pain seemed scrubbed.
The woman wanted to stop right there, pickle the baby. She wanted to label its parts and store it in deep freeze. Transparent, she would see the baby through plastic. A mirror. A photograph. A time machine. The woman would know her own brow, her own small wrists, but they would be new, neat. Touching the baby’s cold hand, the woman would come to know herself. Before the broken arm, the chickenpox scars. Before the lectures on daydreaming, the clumsy-cut dress, the mongrel puppy sent back to the pound. Before the battery of adult do’s and don’t, the regular job, the cookie-cutter house, the generic husband.
But then the close smells of iron and salt, new pain the color of blood. Now a fisherman, the woman waded in fluid that splattered the floor with each contraction. Brine ringed her feet like chalk. She tried for a trawler’s patience, let the line spin out. She waited for the tug, the hard pull that would cleave water from air.
The baby came. Gutted, the woman was slit fin to mouth. The umbilical cord was darker than she’d imagined, a purple that bullied the air.
The baby cried; they cut the cord and placed it on her stomach.
A weak chin, wooly eyes. A face only a mother could love.
These days, the woman hates the baby. In the basin of her body, she gurgles milk, blood. I’m a rotten tomato, she thinks, a pail of dirty dishwater. Breastfeeding or bleeding, the holes of her body slacken and dilate as if she were dead, as if to invite the worm or the beetle. She leaks, rills of slow, tickling fluid that stain the woman’s sweaters and skirts, make her cross her arms, her legs. A gourd or a waterskin, the woman must fill and fill herself, offer herself again and again to the little fingers that miss and clutch.
The baby is a cracked bowl, holds nothing. Sleek with urine or shit or spit, the baby’s body slips in her hands. Once she dropped it hard, banged both shins trying to catch it. From the floor, the baby screamed and rolled–a run-away olive.
When it eats or rests on her shoulder, the baby leaves trails–crusted salt along the woman’s cheeks and chin. The trails mark her, map her. The woman feels her jaw and cheekbones tighten, her face a grid, a prison door.
A child should be seen and not heard, but the woman hears the baby everywhere: in the hum and click of the kettle, the gulp of the bath, the small hiss of the pillow. She hears the baby in perfect silence, the whirr between its calls and cries. Then she imagines the nightmare, the muffle of death, and strains for the huh, huh of its breath.
The woman stops sleeping. She sharpens her ears to quick points, but the baby is too quiet.
Tonight, the woman must soothe the baby. It’s sick, hot-faced and wiggling. The night is clouded, and the woman can see nothing but uneasy blues or blurred reds, the cheery, bold colors of the baby’s daytime room.
No stranger to darkness, the woman bends to pick up the baby, pushing her nose to its face. Shadows pool in the hollows of the baby’s eyes, under its lip. It’s a silhouette, a mask.
Pull the wool off your eyes, the woman thinks.
As a young girl the woman could see, and as a teenager. Seeing is believing, so she’d taken the world at face value. At school, they told her about sugar and spice and everything nice. So she whispered and played house and sang about sunshine. At home, they told her a woman’s place is in the kitchen. So she learned pie dough and potatoes and mastered how much salt. At the movies, they told her a look can speak volumes. So she traced eyeliner and smoothed lipstick and curled her hair. The pictures were clear: attract a husband, find a job, have a baby. Kodachrome.
But turn off the lights, and the wavelengths die: yellow becomes white, green turns grey, purple is black. Night gave her metaphor. Her husband would slip his hand under her pajamas, and she’d say “okay” or “it’s alright,” and then the shadows would spread and drop. She died to herself. A chemist, and her burnt hotdish became an experiment–the carbonization of carbohydrates. A femme fatal, and her mistyped memo was the missing clue for that crackerjack investigator, that deadeye dick. Even the joyless sex turned into a test of endurance. She was a harem wife, a gang member, a prostitute. Tabloid sexy.
But now the woman opens her eyes wide. She sees air fleeing the baby’s cough, its cries ricocheting off the walls. She sees clefts and sleekness, bumps and a ragged outline. She sees the small wind caused by her rocking, rocking–streaks of clear white, a spider’s thread.
“This baby is just a baby,” she says.
This baby is sick and looks up at the woman, projecting its mother’s shape on its retina. The mother is an electrical impulse understood by the baby’s brain: round, bumpy, fuzzy, gray. The mother is what it recognizes; the eyes do not lie.
Closing her own eyes, the mother tucks the baby under her own soft chin. Shifting and pink, the baby’s afterimage is an outline against the mother’s lids. The baby’s shape is a sketch, the mother thinks, a rough draft–like the page from a coloring book that’s waiting to be filled in.