THE PHANTOM BABY
The baby dies on garbage day. It’s a Monday, very cloudy, with a sixteen percent chance of rain. There’s a little cough, a little spit, then nothing. The collection truck comes on time.
It was not a Monday when the baby first revealed itself—in my table drawer, wrapped in something now a far cry from my best cloth. The police found it hard to believe that the baby in my house wasn’t mine. It didn’t help there was no documentation of that time it had happened to my grandmother. Only after I offered my birth canal for their examination, did they begin the search for the baby’s family. Still, I was obliged to care for it as more officers came and went, their theories more and more unsettling. The mother would be found in the worst neighborhood. The mother had to be an inmate at the local institution. The mother just didn’t want it.
Your mommy loves you, I told the baby. She’s on her way. She just stopped to get a little tan by the lake.
It was much more difficult to speak to the baby about its father. I knew as little about men then as I do now, so I signed up for a story-telling workshop. Then I remembered the baby and called up the place, asking if it could come. The receptionist had to confirm with her boss. It’s fine, she said eventually, as long as they’re quiet.
It’s a baby, I wanted to say, it’s never quiet. I said thank you instead. I then wrote an e-mail, hoping for a refund.
Being in public with the baby made me miserable anyway. People I didn’t want to speak to came over in the supermarket, day after day, with questions I continuously didn’t want to answer. I only care for it temporarily, I’d say loudly, hoping to be heard by the people I did want to speak to, who now hid from me and the baby in the cat food aisle. I cried a lot in the supermarket. Everybody but those I cared for showed understanding they should’ve saved for actual new mothers since I really didn’t want it.
At home, the baby took enthusiastically to television. It had an elaborate taste. It wanted authentic suspense, exquisite acting, and superior cinematography. I became an HBO subscriber, but within a week, the baby was over all the breasts. I got Netflix then and hooked it on the IV of complex people and their very real crimes. Mostly murders. It bothered me, it really did, but the crying bothered me more.
The baby didn’t like music, so we didn’t listen to any. Some days the sounds of my insides wouldn’t leave me alone and it drove me a little insane. Sometimes I heard birds chirping in the garden and wondered how long they’d lived there.
In the only piece of writing on the phantom babies my grandmother left behind, she mused about their purpose. Her own grandmother believed it was to share certain much-needed wisdom before fading away into a spring night. For a time, I believed my lesson was that I should spend more time at home and never go to the supermarket. Long after I considered it learned, however, the baby was keeping me up each spring night. Every other night, too.
The birds and the isolation lost their charm after the baby and I survived what I believed to be a home invasion. I put the baby to sleep early that evening, but still bitter over my singing sending it into seizure-like fits, I came back later to recite poetry over its little limp body. I found cigarette ash on the floor. The baby didn’t smoke. I ran into town where a young drunk man drove us to the hospital. The doctors had many peculiar questions. Was I sure I wasn’t a smoker? Could the butt be left by a friend? What friend? Postpartum hormones, they whispered back and forth. I couldn’t correct them as I watched myself from the outside, hyper-crying and hyperventilating, clinging to a baby that didn’t want to be with me very much. What was this wailing creature? What happened to the one I used to be? The things doctors administered turned out to be lovely. Perhaps the baby’s wisdom was that sedatives were my friends.
It was that night we stood outside the house for an hour, the baby’s cloth left inside, and I’m convinced that’s where the illness came from. Many people came to tell me it wasn’t so. Nurses, therapists, cousins. Even my neighbor came over to claim he saw us that night and that it wasn’t so. But I am convinced. I am convinced the baby sneezed.
In the first three days after the “incident”—“Young mother distressed after potential home invasion,” the paper said—nothing much happened. On the fourth day, the illness began. My mother had been grieved by no one in town, and deservedly so, as she broke even more marriages than she did municipal laws, just for fun. But all that fever, and wailing, and acidic saliva in my shirt made me wish she was here. Not because she’d help, not because she’d know how. She’d be someone, though, and if there was someone, I could force the baby into their arms and run, run, and run.
The hospital didn’t want us to come. They told me to take the baby’s temperature via its anus. I refused. If she’s not desperate enough, it can’t be that bad yet, I heard a nurse say. But then, a baby shouldn’t pay with its health for an unfit parent. But then, the ward is full. They then discussed the underfunding. I put the phone down when they moved onto workplace relationship policy.
I sat down with the baby, and we had a conversation. I told it about my mother, and the men she’d left me with, and that I couldn’t take its temperature because I’d had things done to me and it would undo years of intensive therapy. I informed it that therapy was expensive, and how expensive, and that it wasn’t covered by insurance. I told it about capitalism and that the world had a lot of issues. The baby got better. As a token of my gratitude, I took it for a stroll by the river, which it hated.
The illness came and went after that, seemingly with no logic behind it, but always accompanied by a small-scale peculiarity. Once the baby’s eyes went back to the post-natal deep dark blue. Once a bird died in its drawer. The one time the hospital agreed to admit us, they reached no diagnosis. So the illness came and went, marking fleeting moments, grandiose or not. St Patrick’s Day. Christmas. Wednesday. Valentine’s. Sunday. Grocery day.
I went to the foster services to enquire about the appropriate day for the baby’s birthday celebration. I received little advice. Whenever is fine, they said, since you will not keep it anyway. If you insist, the file says it was probably born in early spring, mid the latest. I chose the first day of May. I booked a clown and an ice cream truck and made an invitation list of twenty children. Then I made a list of ways to convince their parents the illness was not contagious.
All that’s left to do now is to cancel all that because the baby is dead.
Things move quickly now, where they used to drag and crawl. Everybody listens to me, too, now that I have nothing to say. It’s because I took it outside, I said once. They didn’t like it, so I’m quiet now. I don’t want to see any more therapists. Or neighbors. Most of all, cousins.
It’s a Monday, garbage day, sixteen percent chance of rain. The baby’s dead, and the collection truck comes on time. I smile at the driver, ask her about her cat. She says it’s responding well to the chemo, its appetite is back. She says that God is good. With no answer, I place my plans and affection among the rubbish.
A.C. is an aspiring computer scientist, ballet dancer, and learning addict. She has published fiction and poetry in spots such as Litro, Maudlin House, Sideways Poetry, and Pulp Poets Press, and she thinks this writing thing just might stick.
Cover Design by Karen Rile