The baby’s eyes were not brown like those of her parents. They were blue: a dark, dark blue that strayed almost into black. It was a color that made Sara think of sea and storms, of thunder over the open ocean and ships’ masts breaking in the wind. No one in their family had eyes that color.
The baby slept like an enchanted thing, only occasionally opening her extraordinary eyes. When she did, her gaze was bleary and unfocused. Still, that gaze seemed to shoot straight through Sara’s being. Sara stared into those opaque, dark eyes, and felt herself falling into them, as though down a deep well.
Was this love? She didn’t know. She was still waiting.
A few weeks after birth, the crying jags started. Thin, bleating cries tore at the air. The baby thrashed in Sara’s arms, arching her back. Tiny claws scrabbled frantically at Sara’s face. The baby twisted and writhed, a demonic worm. Sara gasped and held on, and the baby’s cries accelerated, scaling upward in panic. Sara stared helplessly into her daughter’s face. The baby’s features were a mass of ugly squeezed lines, creased and red as a shriveled tomato.
When the baby slept, the house seemed to echo with the silence. Sara sat on her couch, trapped by the weight of her infant daughter still pressed against her. In sleep, the baby’s features were pale and smooth as milk. Even in sleep, the baby could nurse from Sara, and round cheeks pulsed in and out as the baby suckled. The air was close with the scent of sweat and milk, the tang of curdled spit-up and its faint, underlying sweetness.
Sara’s husband came home at the end of the day, adult competence and words reappearing in her life. He cooked dinner and took out the trash. They snatched a few bites before the baby woke up. Then they took turns pacing and rocking.
Sometime after midnight, they all collapsed into bed. Sara and her husband lay with their bodies curved around their sleeping daughter. Sara watched her daughter, mesmerized by the gentle rise and fall of her chest, the soft escape of her breath. In sleep, the baby’s features were perfect. Tiny rose-petal lips pursed and then relaxed. Dark lashes quivered and stilled–long, long lashes, exquisite beyond imagining.
“Can you believe that we made her?” Sara’s husband said. Sara couldn’t.
Being outdoors calmed the baby. Sara made this discovery, and then spent nearly every afternoon out in the backyard, holding her daughter. Summer had shaded into fall; leaves rustled and murmured in the autumn wind. The birch trees at the edge of the lawn fluttered in gold. Sara sat in a hard deck chair, the baby wrapped in a blanket in her lap. In the crisp air, the baby’s sobs quieted and stilled. Round, dark eyes stared solemnly out at the world. Sara adjusted the blanket as a breeze gusted and sang. Yellow leaves poured from a tree in a sudden cascade, then lifted in the wind like a flock of birds. The baby’s eyes tracked the motion. To Sara, the expression in those storm-colored eyes was unreadable, impenetrable.
“She loves the wind,” Sara told her husband. It was true: on those long colicky afternoons, it seemed that the touch of a wind could always calm the baby. Wind ruffled the infant’s fine hair, brought a ghost of a smile to her lips. As the leaves turned and fell, the temperature dropped and the wind chilled. Sara fretted and shivered, but the baby never seemed to mind.
“Of course I’m going back to work,” Sara said into the telephone, pushing down her annoyance. “In January, yes.” She forced a laugh. “Yes, I know, the middle of winter and flu season and all that, but I’m sure we’ll be fine. It’s good timing, really. There are some exciting projects at work that will be ready for me just about then.” She nodded into the phone and simultaneously rolled her eyes. “Well, thanks. Yes, I will. You take care, too. See you soon.” She hung up and felt the phone lock into its cradle with a satisfying click.
Trust her mother-in-law to question her choices, Sara thought. Of course she was going back to work — work was part of who she was. She was still the same person.
But last week she’d had lunch with friends from work, and she couldn’t find her way in the conversation. Her colleagues spoke an alien language, their gossip and shop talk at once familiar and meaningless. She tried to concentrate, to fix her mind on the discussion, but the words slid past her, mere syllables of sound. Her hair itched, and she wondered how her husband and baby were doing, left to each other for an hour. Laughter erupted; a friend was recounting details from a disastrous date at a trendy new wine bar. Sitting in the brightly lit café, Sara had the sudden sense of being an interloper, a stranger at the table.
She was no longer part of their world, she realized. But neither was she at home in her new world of breastfeeding, rocking, holding, and incessant caring. She was stranded between worlds, a moon that had lost its orbit.
On a blustery day in early November, Sara decided to take her baby on an outing.
She bundled the baby in a red fleece jacket, strapped her in the portable car seat sitting on the kitchen floor, and tucked a blanket about her legs. The baby was docile, allowing arms to be tugged and bent under seat straps without complaint. Eyes like dark pearls fixed themselves on Sara’s face. Sara busied herself with car keys, tote bag, jacket.
Outside the skies had turned gray, and trees were waving in the wind. But Sara had been up with the baby since six in the morning. She hadn’t left the house in two days. She knew that she had to get out of the house now. There was only this small window, while her daughter was in a good mood. She snapped daughter and car seat in place. She got in the driver’s seat, turned up the radio as she backed down the driveway. She felt both giddy with freedom and somewhat daring, a mother skirting danger, sliding on the edge of an afternoon tantrum. But the baby’s rhythms were starting to settle, and Sara was settling with them. She would be safe, she knew, for an hour or so.
Plenty of time.
She had thought to drive to the grocery store to pick up milk and eggs. But the car drove past the store, as if of its own volition. She found herself turning into the parking lot of a large bookstore, its windows warm and full of light. In their child-free days, she and her husband had spent many weekend mornings at this store, browsing through The Atlantic or gossip magazines, then picking up a copy of The New York Times, to read over coffee and croissants in the store café. Now she found herself pulling up before the familiar doors for the first time in months.
Half an hour, she told herself. Half an hour to browse, maybe grab a croissant. Half an hour for herself, a taste of the life she’d once had. And then a quick stop at the grocery before the baby’s nap, before the forecast afternoon rains.
The baby was perfection itself as Sara wheeled the stroller past tables of paperback displays. Content with curiosity, the baby looked with equal interest at bestsellers, advice books, stuffed children’s toys, and coffee mugs discounted at 50 percent off. The smell of brewing coffee soothed Sara’s nerves, and generic soft jazz enveloped her like a warm bath.
She stayed later than she had meant. With a start, she pulled herself away from a translation of a Japanese novel. Her baby was still lying calmly in the stroller beside her. Dark blue eyes met her gaze, and she felt a pang.
It had grown darker outside. Glancing out the windows, Sara saw that the sky had taken on an ominous cast, a murky blue-gray like a scene viewed underwater. She turned to wheel the baby out the store. They were interrupted by a small, silver-haired woman, who bent to admire the infant girl.
“Beautiful,” the elderly woman said. “So precious.”
Sara nodded and smiled politely, even as the other woman touched the baby’s cheek without asking.
“Your first?” the woman asked.
The older woman’s eyes glimmered behind wire-framed glasses. “It all goes by so fast,” she said. “You’ll see.” Her eyes were kind. “But it’s certainly an adjustment, isn’t it?”
Sara murmured assent, her eyes on the darkening sky. The woman bent again and cooed. The baby squirmed.
“Bye bye, sweetheart,” the woman said. “You take it easy on your mommy, now.”
Tossing pleasantries over her shoulder, Sara hurried the baby out the double glass doors. They were greeted by the rising wind. Dry leaves skittered at Sara’s feet and spun through the air. She half-ran through the parking lot, forgetting to raise the baby’s stroller canopy. In the nearly bare autumn trees, the wind roared like the sea.
The first scattered drops beaded against Sara’s car door. She felt a cold drop on her face. Panicking, she fumbled with the straps that held the car seat in its stroller frame. Her fingers slipped. The contraption seemed an unanswerable puzzle. She was still sorting out the confusion of buckles when she heard a rhythmic gasping sound, a series of short intakes of breath. A soft, breathy staccato. Her baby was laughing.
The fleece hood had slipped off the baby’s head, and a shock of dark hair blew like a flag. The baby waved her arms in the wind, her eyes half moons of delight. She laughed and laughed, arms upraised in the rushing air.
“Avery.” Sara spoke her daughter’s name aloud in surprise.
Avery’s face was pale against the gathering storm, her eyes and hair dark. Suddenly, Sara saw the baby as something wholly other: no human child, but a changeling daughter of wind and rain, an elemental creature of the storm. Across Sara’s inner eye flashed a striking image: the baby lifted up by the wind, above the tree-tops, above the flat terrestrial world. In the vision, the baby’s expression of joy did not change; she extended her hands, catching the rain, eyes shining.
Sara’s hands found the strap they’d been seeking. She deftly loosed the infant seat from the stroller frame, swung Avery neatly into place in the back of her car.
Sara bent to make sure the car seat was secure. Avery looked at her, rain glimmering on dark lashes. Sara tried to brush the drops away. Avery squealed, and seized her mother’s hand.
It began to rain in earnest. Avery shook her head from side to side, scattering water from her hair. She kept hold of Sara’s hand, and Sara stood in the rain, letting her daughter hold on. Avery laughed, her eyes fixed on some point beyond Sara’s sight, and she was as beautiful and unknowable as the sea.