The child cries out, and Janet, half-asleep, dashes down the hall to the nursery before the next cry. The second round will be louder, escalating to deafening, the same pattern for three months now, night after night, like a protracted hurricane. The night terrors, they are called, and they are, for mother and child.
Ron murmurs as she rises from bed, “I’ll go.”
“Sleep,” Janet whispers, the usual response, because she takes her maternal responsibility seriously and because her husband is up at dawn to face the drive to work. He made partner at the law firm shortly before Melanie was born, as planned, yet still works long hours. Janet works half–time now, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She had achieved the position of membership director and then, following an extended maternity leave, negotiated reduced hours: on-site Tuesdays, Thursdays, and attendance at major staff meetings, the balance of time from home. It is only fair, she believes, that she deals with the nightly wake-up call. More to the point, she is certain these terrors have something to do with her.
Melanie stands in her crib, clutching the railing like a prisoner condemned to serving time for a crime she did not commit. She is small for her age, petite, like Janet, thus all the more defenseless. Large dark brown eyes stare blankly at the window. Her lips quiver. The pediatrician described this state as hallucinatory, not a dream and not a nightmare. A primal terror with no detectable cause or correlation, he said.
Janet would like to believe him, but she is certain there is always a cause, always a correlation, and if not a solution, a resolution. Ron agrees, in principle, although he has accepted his naiveté as a father.
It’s all right, Janet coos to the child. She has been instructed not to touch her at first, not to startle her. She counts to sixty, slowly, silently, before leaning in to pat Melanie’s upper back and then gently ruffle her dark wavy hair, hair that came in late but filled in so quickly and so thick, she seems Medusa incarnated. Ringlets fan her head like the mythological snakes, reminding Janet of Caravaggio’s painting of the gorgon, whose power, according to Greek legend, was to turn those who might gaze on her to stone. That image these days sends shivers down Janet’s spine.
Melanie might have been born of the sea, conceived on their third anniversary holiday to Bonaire, a Caribbean coral reef a short distance from Venezuela. Mornings, also most afternoons, Janet and Ron donned scuba diving gear and descended into crystal-clear warm water to explore spiny sea urchins and tiny frogfish the colors of the rainbow. Janet delighted in the underwater hush, punctuated only by the muffled ebb and flow of her breathing. She had not experienced such serenity since her rare free time at college when she sat for hours at a sculptor’s table, her breath echoed by the chisel, the steady determined chipping as soothing as the surf. After the last dive of the day, they retired to their room, showered off salt and sand, and made love to the hum of a ceiling fan. Afterward, they napped until dinner, lulled by the heat and the inner sway of the sea. It was on one of those languorous afternoons when Janet felt something like bubbles rising from her pelvis, as if from the depths of the underworld, and she imagined her child a mermaid, bright as sunlight on a turquoise sea, although these nights, murky and mysterious.
Sleep little love, Janet whispers. You’re safe. Mama’s here. A mantra she devised on the recommendation of a sleep coach she discovered in an ad on the back page of a parenting magazine.
“What a way to make a living,” Ron snickered at the time.
“A specialty for everything,” Janet answered, grateful for the expertise and the hope that came with it. She dutifully followed instructions and reported regularly to the coach; however, after nine weeks, the coach confessed she too was baffled, such things passing in days or weeks, as a rule.
Melanie’s cries dwindle to shudders before her body grows slack and she crumples to the mattress. The first flight has passed. Janet stays in place awaiting the next round. She tenderly rubs her daughter’s back. Shhhh, she murmurs, like an island wind. Melanie folds her arms under her belly, butt elevated, her flushed cheek pressed to the sheet. The pose of innocence. Virtue.
Experts cautioned against a newborn sleeping on the chest to prevent choking or suffocation. Once Melanie rolled over, and back, and turned her head side to side, proving her ability to remove herself from harm’s way, she slept on her belly and, at last, through the night.
After a week of uninterrupted sleep, the parents celebrated. Here’s to the end of sleep deprivation, Ron toasted with champagne. They lingered over their lovemaking like newlyweds. They rose each morning with the light, their energy levels improved, and they all settled into a more predictable routine. Nine months later, as if a rebirth, the terrors began, and Janet was reminded, as she has been repeatedly since Melanie’s arrival, that nothing is foreseeable now. No matter the organization, the coaches and doctors and parenting literature, each day is an amorphous mound of clay.
Melanie breathes evenly. Her torso gently rises and retracts with each breath. Janet slithers to the floor to recline on a pale gray area carpet rimmed with stripes of terra cotta and aqua blue, a color scheme designed to be gender neutral. This was the first room she decorated in their first house, each space thoughtfully curated. She painted the walls a pale coral color to set off the white furniture and billowy white curtains, like an island villa. She curls into a fetal position on the rug, pulling a decorative throw pillow off the antique chair where she had contentedly nursed and rocked her daughter to sleep when everything seemed on track.
Janet feels herself slide into the sublime state of limbo that precedes sleep – behind her eyes, a midnight sky filled with stars. And then, like a meteorite bursting into that sky, Melanie cries out again, this time a shriek so palpable Janet feels the fear as her own. Sobs escalate to a frantic wail and Melanie strains to catch her breath, heaving so hard her tiny body shakes until, as if a demonic force has released its grip, she collapses and resettles into a resting pose. Janet stays as still as a statue until the child sleeps again and then stumbles down the hall and slips under the bedcovers, curling close to Ron for warmth.
“The second round is the worst,” she told the pediatrician last week at the 18-month check-up. “Sends chills up my spine. How can a child so young, so well loved, be wracked with terror? She eats well, she naps well. She wakes with a smile. By day, she’s cheerful and friendly, so much so I fear she might walk off with any stranger who takes her hand.”
Melanie was sitting on Janet’s lap that day, babbling at the doctor, like her mother, while twisting the chords of his stethoscope.
The physician nodded knowingly. “Anything new on the home front? Unusual stress?”
“No. No change, no stress. We were all settled into a routine. We were even talking about having another child.”
Janet and Ron agreed from the first on two children. Siblings who might lean on each other and each get adequate attention from their parents. Janet presumed she would rise to the challenge of mothering with her usual competence and, although juggling parenting with her job, she had no doubt she would strike the right balance. She’s been a lifelong workhorse. At fourteen she was already bagging groceries. She paid her way through college with a smattering of jobs she managed masterfully enough to graduate cum laude. She had planned to return to the museum after maternity leave, but she was besotted with her daughter and wanted to be home with her more often than not. Good in theory; in practice, daunting. Some days, and nights, Herculean.
The pediatrician observed Melanie while peeking into ears and eyes and tapping at pulse points and joints, searching for triggers a physician of nearly forty years would recognize.
“Word count? Phrases?” he asked.
“At least fifty words. I’ve written most of them down. The first was cat, which she shouted incessantly for a while, but with a hard-g, gat, even though we don’t have a cat. Fruits and berries. Animal names and sounds. Even names of books, well, her version of the names. She says please and thank you, and bless you, if you sneeze, and the other day I pointed to a bee on a lavender bush and told her we never touch a bee, and she watched the bee very closely, as if she might figure the insect out, and then, a few days later, when we saw a bee, she said, no touch.”
The pediatrician smiled. “Smart girl.”
“I assumed by now she might string words together into longer sentences.”
“The baby tweeter,” he said with a chuckle.
The pediatrician inscribed notes onto a laptop before he gently extricated his stethoscope from Melanie and turned his attention to Janet.
“Babies come with emotional DNA, as unique as every other facet of their genome. We think we see and feel what they see and feel, but we don’t. It’s frankly impossible to comprehend what’s prowling the recesses of their brains or what might upset the nervous system. They keep their secrets close. She won’t remember any of it. This too shall pass.”
Janet’s mother also favors that platitude and Janet believes, deep down, it’s true, although she’s no longer certain of anything. Surely some things never pass; instead, they hide. They fester. They wreck a life.
“She’s doing fine,” he reiterated. “And so are you.”
Janet nearly burst into tears, so grateful for the approbation. She had not realized how desperately she has needed that since the terrors began.
On her way to work the next morning, Janet drops Melanie with Mrs. Angelos, a retired kindergarten teacher who regularly watches over her daughter for the extra dollars in her fixed-income pocket, and because her own grandchildren live far away. Short and round, with mocha skin and gray hair, she emanates kindness and good cheer, so much so that at the first interview Melanie leapt from Janet’s arms into Mrs. Angelos’s lap, where she played with her beaded necklace and burrowed into her body as if returning to the source.
She had asked the sitter at the first interview, “Do you have a particular parenting style? An approach that served well in the classroom?”
“Every child is different. I listen to their hearts,” she answered, pausing to give Melanie a loving hug. “I offer you only this advice,” she added, recognizing a new mother’s anxiety.
“Please,” Janet pleaded, because she has never sought advice from her sister, who takes a totally different approach to just about everything, or her mother, enjoying retirement on the golf course.
“Kids change,” Mrs. Angelos said. “Constantly, they change. Always the new, also new joy, although at times, hard, like the adolescents.” She chuckled. “Repeat, please, after me… nothing is forever, all things are only now.”
All day Janet repeated those words, the way she had, in childhood, memorized a poem. Nothing is forever, all things are only now. Much as she appreciated the optimism in the sentiment, the now, these days, feels crushingly endless.
What Janet doesn’t mention to the pediatrician or the babysitter, or her husband, is the panic she experiences during the night terrors. When Melanie wails, she turns unrecognizable, ugly, like a creature in a fairy tale under the spell of a witch. Janet has considered pressing a pillow over her daughter’s face to still the evil spirit. Perhaps the shock might bring her sweet baby back to her. The thought makes her sick with shame. To do nothing, however, to simply accept or wait it out, to wait out anything that requires intervention, has never been, for Janet, a rational course of action.
Melanie often mutters odd words during the terrors, as if in a trance. Sounds staccato and indecipherable. Sometimes she growls like a feral animal. Janet would call them nonsense if they were not uttered with the ardor of an orator. She is convinced her daughter is trying to communicate something Janet needs to know, but she cannot fathom what Melanie is saying, much less respond, and she fears an abyss has already formed between them, which they might never cross.
Increasingly anxious, Janet reached out to her mother to ask if she or her sister experienced anything like the terrors.
“Not that I recall. I always hated when you girls cried, but babies cry, you know. That’s just what they do sometimes.”
“Not like this, Mom.”
“Hmmm, but you’re so smart, Jan, you’ll sort it out,” her mother said, simultaneously supportive and judgmental. She’s always been that way and, in her defense, Janet has always sorted it out. “Or it will pass. Most things do. Just keep in mind, you cannot mold a child as you molded clay.”
Long ago, and for a long time, Janet aspired to be a sculptor. She started with play dough, dabbled in mud, and evolved to clay. She loved the dribs under her fingernails, the distinctive mineral scent. She kept chisels close at hand, obsessed by the idea of manifesting something from nothing. She realized early on that it would be too hard to make a living in fine art, so she flirted with a career in architecture, drawn to the elegance of design; however, by the time she graduated college, she was already in debt. Instead, she seized an entry-level administrative position at the museum and discovered the pleasure of a tranquil workplace. On even the busiest days, balancing demands of members and patrons, planners and curators, she wanders a gallery, absorbing artistic beauty as she once immersed herself in clay. She longs to be there in the midst of these awful nights.
Twelve weeks pass with no respite. Melanie takes to sleeping three hours midday–an olive branch, of sorts, when Janet might rest, but as sleep-deprived and grumpy as she is, she is also restless. She digs out a drawing pad and sketches, furiously, as if a mystical force has commandeered her hands, producing Daliesque surrealistic images or hybrid forms with animal features, like Magritte. One day, she draws a charcoal portrait of spectral archangels in the throes of battle, all with a disturbing resemblance to her daughter.
Despite, or because of, the peculiarity of the drawings, Janet feels emboldened, like an explorer or an archeologist on the trail of discovery. Perhaps the images will evolve to three dimensions and she will return to the clay, but each day, as the drawings take shape, Melanie awakens and Janet resumes the mothering.
The next night, Janet doesn’t close her eyes at all. She runs to Melanie at the first peep and goes through the steps. While awaiting the escalation, she stares out the window at a full moon, a harvest moon, nearly orange, nearly consuming the sky. She implores the gods of exhausted mothers and terrorized children to save them. When Melanie wails again, Janet cannot sit there any longer. She bundles the child into a blanket and charges down the stairs to the back door, opens the garage and flops her into the car seat with the blanket tucked tightly around her from neck to toes.
Melanie’s wide eyes open wider. She stops crying and stares at her mother as intently as an owl might glare at an invader to the nest, and then, just as Janet believes they might have a bonding moment, releases a high-pitched wail.
Janet slams the door and slowly reverses the car out of the garage. The neighborhood is dark and still. Street lamps go off at midnight and few front door lights are lit. She drives to Main Street where a screaming child is less likely to be heard at this late hour, then parks far from the nearest lamppost and opens both rear windows an inch for fresh air. She steps out of the car, locks it, twice, to be sure, and walks to the corner, far enough for the sound of her daughter’s cries to be hardly heard, but not out of sight, and she crouches on the curb on wobbly legs like a drunk.
This was not the way it was supposed to be. When she was pregnant, she and Ron had devoured child-development and parenting literature. They watched Sesame Street and kids’ videos. They purchased a family home with a fenced yard within walking distance of good schools. They would shower their child with affection. They would pave the way to a healthy, productive life. Nothing could have prepared them for the night terrors, nor could Janet have conceived of the animosity she might feel toward her precious firstborn.
She listens to her own breath as she once listened to underwater breathing. She pictures the bubbles rising to the surface, the flicker of sunlight above, but here, under a cloudy night sky, there is no path to the light. Hidden from her daughter’s cries, from a crushing sense of failure, the stillness is suddenly terrifying, as if she’s trapped below the water’s surface and has run out of air. Has her daughter suffocated? Abandoned to perish in the backseat of a parked car?
She dashes back to find Melanie sound asleep, her head resting on the seat cushion and one hand clutching the edge of the blanket to her face for comfort.
Someday you will hate me, she mutters as she climbs into the car. Worse, you will fear me, but you won’t know why, because you won’t remember this, you will only know, deep down, I betrayed you in a moment of need. I failed you, sweet girl and, it seems, I will fail you again and again.
Janet slowly drives home and parks in the driveway. Not wanting to disturb the child or incite another bout of hysteria, she reclines her seat, nearly flat, and turns on her side to face her daughter. They sleep until Melanie wakens, arching her body to stretch out the kinks, with no sign of antagonism or fear. Janet releases her from the seat, and Melanie bounds into the house as if they have only been to the playground.
Ron is pacing the kitchen with cell phone in hand, so relieved to see his wife and baby safe, he falls to his knees.
“What the hell did you do?” he cries.
Janet shakes her head and murmurs an apology as Ron hugs his daughter and lifts her into the highchair. He tosses cereal puffs on the tray and pours a Sippy cup of milk. Janet reaches for a bag of coffee beans from the cupboard to grind, but she is trembling so severely, Ron takes the bag and eases her into a chair.
“Sit,” he says, turning to retrieve orange juice for her.
Janet sips then stands to grab a bowl of blueberries from the refrigerator for Melanie.
“Sit, I said,” Ron repeats, taking the food from her hand. “What happened?”
“I took her for a drive and then we fell asleep in the driveway. That’s all. At least she slept.”
“Jan, this has got to stop. Now you’re the one who’s hysterical, you see that, right?”
“I couldn’t handle another night of it. I have to try everything.”
“The doctor was clear there’s little to be done; we have to get through this. She doesn’t even know she’s in distress.”
“I don’t believe that. She must know.”
“Honey, this will pass, all things are only now, right?”
“Spare me the bromide, please. Fine in principle, not in practice.”
“Please, Jan, get a grip. This will end, eventually.”
“And what if it doesn’t?” Janet whimpers.
“Maybe it’s time to see a therapist,” Ron says.
Janet ignores the remark. “Ron, if this were induced by someone else, you know, if she were possibly abused and cried her eyes out every night, we would put a stop to it. We would save our child. This is no different. This is trauma – it’s going to corrupt her world view.”
“Jan, honey, she…”
“Listen to me. Her whole body shakes. She screams. She sobs. She says weird stuff. Something awful is happening to our daughter.”
“Do we need an exorcist?” Ron asks, a comment meant to assuage the gravity of the conversation, but Janet considers the possibility.
“Oh no! You don’t think…”
“I was kidding!””
Ron pulls her to him and wraps his arms around her, and this display of compassion undermines the last of Janet’s self-control.
“This is absolutely agonizing. What am I doing wrong?”
“Absolutely nothing! You, we, we’re doing nothing wrong. It’s just inexplicable. No rhyme or reason. Something she was born with, maybe a reaction to the environment…”
Janet pulls from his embrace. “Oh my God! We should check for black mold. Lead paint?”
“Okay, but we checked when we moved in. Everything we’ve read says this doesn’t last long. It’s one of those things beyond our control, and not the first, I’m sure.”
Janet hangs her head, desolate, yet undeterred. She believes she must be the one to unlock the secret, before she implodes, or worse, explodes in a way that will harm her child. She fears this likelihood is more and more present, more and more disturbing, and too horrible to confess. Is she meant to save her daughter from an unseen danger? Or is she the danger?
The coach has suggested a last ditch sleep training which necessitates five-minute bouts of crying between visits. The suggestion runs counter to their instincts, but they relent, smothering their ears with pillows. In barely three minutes, however, Janet jumps up and runs down the hall, ignoring Ron’s entreaties.
A siren rings out nearby. Police cars are rarely heard in this neighborhood and never in the middle of the night, a concession to the community in light of nearly empty streets for emergency vehicles to speed through. The alarm is an angry assault on sleepy ears, as jarring as Melanie’s cries, and when Janet enters the nursery, Melanie is standing with her eyes wide, clutching the crib railing, shouting. Foo-egg-oh!
More nonsense language Janet cannot comprehend. Perhaps something to do with the beginner Legos Ron has brought home, building with Melanie floppy little creatures that look like dachshunds or trolls.
Foo-egg-oh! the child repeats, her arms outstretched in desperation, and when Janet lifts her from the crib, Melanie grips her mother’s neck with both hands, as if to strangle her. Janet feels the volcanic heat rising from her daughter’s body. For a moment, she is frightened of her own child. She jerks the girl’s hands off her throat and carries her downstairs to the living room, hoping a change of scene might alleviate their mutual panic.
Janet’s throat hurts, as if she too has nonsense words buried there. Her breath is hard and fast. She feels the heat rising under her own skin. She wants to toss her daughter out a window. Suffocate her into silence. She is terrified of what she may be capable of and as she starts back up the stairs to bring Melanie to Ron for safety, Melanie’s cries suddenly cease. Her little body curls into Janet as if pleading, please, don’t give up on me. They sit on the top stair, holding tightly to each other, bonding in their misery, until Melanie falls asleep in her mother’s arms and Janet returns her to the crib.
The next morning, she tells Ron about the sirens and the nonsensical word, and he alleges that Melanie may have graduated to real nightmares and these might prove more manageable. Janet is not appeased. She drops Melanie at Mrs. Angelos’s place on her way to work and when she returns at the end of the day, the sitter, who has noticed the dark bags under Janet’s eyes, the slumped shoulders and lumbering footsteps, invites her in for tea.
Within moments, Janet breaks down in tears and confides in the sitter. “It’s so awful. She cries, she shouts, she babbles, she gazes into space like she’s an alien!”
Mrs. Angelos makes a sign of the cross and brings her fingertips to her lips. “Dios mío,” she murmurs, and then leans forward to embrace Janet, who collapses into her arms. After a short cry, Janet pulls away, embarrassed by her weakness.
“I don’t suppose anything like this ever happened to one of yours,” she says, swiping her tears away with the tissue Mrs. Angelos has handed to her.
Mrs. Angelos shifts from solemnity to a smile. “Similar, yes, one of them, yes.”
“You’re not sure which one?”
“Four children, born close together, those early years, they blur. I do remember now I wanted to smother her. Yes, that’s it. Magdalena. The first girl. I thought she would be easy after the boys. She laughs. Never easy, oh no. More than once, I handed her to my husband to keep her safe, from me!”
Janet stares at Mrs. Angelos in shock.
“Of course, you do not, do you?” she assures Janet. “You want to, now and then. Sometimes in class, too, there was one I wanted to banish. No, you never give up. Not on a child. Even the most belligerent or restless children need us, yes? Maybe all the more.”
“But you never want to strangle Melanie?”
“Oh no, this angel?”
“Not in the middle of the night,” Janet mutters.
Mrs. Angelos nods. “This will pass.”
“So my husband says, and the doctor says.” Janet sighs. “Last night, she was shouting another strange word. I wonder if it’s something you’ve heard. Sounds like foo-eggo. Ever hear her say that?”
“Fuego?” Mrs. Angelos says, with less emphasis on the g.
“Yes, I mean, that’s what it sounded like.”
“Fuego means fire. I do speak Spanish to her, better to start now, but I don’t think I’ve used that word.” She chuckles. “I must tell you, Melanie may be a Mexican, I mean in another life. One of us, sí Niña?” she asks Melanie, who climbs into her lap and nestles there.
Janet is incredulous. “There were sirens last night, but is she old enough to connect sirens to fire?”
“Toys have sirens. Books too,” Mrs. Angelos says. “And these little ones, they learn fast. Or…”
“Maybe the child experienced a fire in another life.”
“How do you mean?”
“Maybe she died in a fire.” Mrs. Angelos again makes the sign of the cross.
“You believe that sort of thing?”
“Oh yes. Not you?”
“I’m a Catholic. We go to heaven, end of story.”
Mrs. Angelos breaks into laughter. “I too am Catholic, but I believe we carry the past with us into our future. And the babies, they are closer to their pasts. Closer to the angels that guide them to new life. They haven’t had time to let go.”
Janet is stunned by her words. She’s not spiritual by nature, nor mystical. She favors the concrete. She prefers representational art to the abstract. That night, when she contemplates the concept of a previous life tormenting her daughter, she cannot sleep at all. When Melanie wakes up screaming, she lifts her from the crib and carries her to the window to gaze at the sliver of a moon. Janet knows little of astronomy and takes no interest in astrological signs; however, in that moment, she considers the cyclical nature of the moon, the cycle of all things – a reminder there is renewal in what seems to conclude.
Look, Mel, she says. The beauty of the night sky. The moon, the stars, the galaxy, so bright, so clear, yet distant and majestic. The gods relied on the night sky. Sailors use stars to navigate. Farmers follow the seasons to plant. All part of who we are, where we go and how we grow. Nothing to fear.
Melanie continues to sob. Her body trembles, her head shifts side to side as if rejecting an inner command. She’s just a child, Janet thinks, even as rage wells within. This might be the night, the night she will demand acquiescence.
As if reading her mind, Melanie’s body stiffens. She flexes her feet, kicking Janet hard in the belly, and as they start to keel over, Janet rights them just in time and flops into the rocking chair – pain, fatigue, despair, taking their toll. She too sobs, the two weeping together as one. When Janet regains control and carries Melanie toward the crib for safekeeping, Melanie clings to her as if otherwise she might drown, all the while mumbling a series of syllables with clipped consonants and vowel endings that sound like Spanish.
Is it possible Mrs. Angelos was right? Janet wonders. Disbelieving, and desperate, she reaches into her memory for high school Spanish.
Todo está bien, sweetheart. All is well.
Beyond a thin stream of tears and lingering shudders, the child grows still. She seems to be listening.
Todo está bien, Janet repeats.
Melanie calms in her mother’s arms.
Te quiero, Janet whispers. I love you. Your mother loves you.
Melanie lowers her head to her mother’s shoulder and closes her eyes. Although Janet will look back and wonder if she imagined it, she feels her daughter’s body release some weight, as if a spirit has been set free.
Todo está bien, Janet repeats, as she sits down again.
She rocks Melanie to sleep and together they rest until daylight floods the nursery. Melanie slips from her mother’s arms to drag a few toys from the toy basket to the carpet.
Janet is smiling and Melanie is playing cheerfully when Ron enters the room.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“Está bien,” Janet answers.
“Está bien? What’s with the Spanish?”
Melanie looks up to her father and nods her head yes, with a smile, and in that smile, Janet sees more than relief; she sees the delight of conquest. The sculptor has been sculpted.
She cannot contain her laughter. “I’ll explain later. For now, todo está bien. Muy bien.”