Fiction Fiction Issue

What Happened to the Baby?

Uncle Simon was crazy about words. Really crazy

Which was how Simon fell in among the Esperantists. Bella was one of them. She lived four cottages down, and had a little boy a month or two older than Retta. Julius, her husband, turned up only rarely; his job, whatever it was, kept him at work even on weekends. Bella ordered a dimity blouse and a flowered skirt (dirndl was the fashion) and came often to sit with Essie while she diligently sewed. The two babies, with their pull toys and plush bears, prattled and crowed at their feet. It was a pleasant time altogether, and Simon, when he arrived from the city, seeing the young women sweetly side by side with their children crawling all around them, seemed no longer out of sorts. He was silent now about Essie’s deception, if it was a deception, because, after all, Essie herself wasn’t certain, and the boy from Ohio was by now only a moment’s vanished vapor. Besides, Retta’s pretty curls were as black and billowy as Simon’s own, and Essie was earning money, impressively more than Simon would ever make selling men’s underwear in the Bronx. One August afternoon he arranged to have a secondhand sewing machine delivered to the cottage. Essie jumped up and kissed him, she was so pleased; it was as if the sleek metal neck of the sewing machine had restored them to each other.

After that, Essie’s orders increased, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings, while she worked her treadle, Simon went round to one porch or another, happy in the cenacle of the Esperantists. They were eager for converts, of course, and he wanted nothing so much as to be converted. Of all of them, Bella was the most advanced. She was not exactly their leader, but she was an expert teacher, and actually had in her possession a letter of praise from Lidia Zamenhof, Zamenhof’s own daughter and successor. Bella had sent her a sonnet in fluent Esperanto; Lidia replied that Bella’s ingenuity in creating rhyming couplets in the new language exceeded even that of Ludwig Zamenhof himself. Bella knew everything concerning Esperanto; she knew, for instance, that the Oomoto religion in Japan held Esperanto to be a sacred language and Zamenhof to be a god. Zamenhof a god! Simon was entranced; Essie thought he envied Bella even more than he was inspired by her. Also, she felt a little ashamed. Simon loved all those outlandish words, he was possessed by them, words had always been his ambition, and on account of his wife and the child whose hair was as black and thick as his own he had been compelled to surrender words for a life of shirts and ties, boxer shorts and suspenders.

So when Bella asked Essie to take charge of her little boy for just two hours that evening—perhaps he could be put to bed together with Retta, and Bella would come to fetch him afterward—Essie gladly took the child in her arms, and stroked his warm silky nape, and did the same with Retta, whose nape was every bit as silky, and sang both babies to sleep, while Simon walked with Bella through the grassy dusk to be tutored in the quiet of her porch. An electric cord led indoors; there was a lamp, and a table, and a bottle of citronella to ward off the mosquitoes, and (the point of it all) Bella’s weighty collection of Esperanto journals.

Bella had promised two hours, but it was closer to five, and the crickets had retired into their depth-of-night silence when she and Simon returned. Simon had under his arm a fat packet of Bella’s journals, borrowed (Bella explained) to occupy his empty weekday evenings in the city. Essie had fallen into a doze in the old stained armchair next to the big bed—Simon and Essie’s marital bed—where she had set the babies down, nestled together under one blanket. Retta’s crib was too narrow for the two of them; they lay head to head, their round foreheads nearly touching, breathing like a single organism. Bella looked down at her sleeping boy, and murmured that it was a pity to take him out into the cold night air, he was so snug, why wake him, and could she leave him there until morning? She would arrive early to carry him off, and in the meantime wasn’t Essie comfortable enough right where she was, in that nice chair, and Simon wouldn’t mind a cushion on the floor, would he, for only a few more hours …

Bella went away, and it was as if she had plotted to keep Simon from Essie that night. But surely this was a worthless imagining: settling into his cushion at Essie’s feet, Simon was fixed with all the power and thirst of his will on Bella’s journals; he intended to study them until he could rival Bella, he meant to pursue and conquer the language that was to be humanity’s salvation, the structure of it, its strange logic and beauty, and already tonight, he said, he had made a good beginning—and then, without a sign, in the middle of it all, he sent out a soft snore, a velvety vibrating hum. Haplessly alert now, Essie tried not to follow her thoughts. But the night was long, so much of it was left, and the mountain chill crept round her shoulders, and except for the private voice inside her, a voice that nagged with all its secret confusions, she had nothing to listen to—only one of the babies turning, and Simon’s persistent dim hum. She went on listening, she wasn’t the least bit drowsy, she forced her eyelids shut and they clicked wide again, of their own accord, like a mechanical doll’s. Simon’s hum—was it roughening into a wheeze, or something more brutish than a wheeze? A spiraling unnatural noise; an animal being strangled. But the animal noise wasn’t coming from Simon, it was hurtling out of one of the babies—a groaning, and then a yowling—good God, was it Retta? No, no, not Retta, it was Bella’s boy! She leaped up to see what was the matter: the child’s face was mottled, purple and red, his mouth leaked vomit, he was struggling to breathe … She touched his head. It was wildly hot: a tropical touch.

“Simon!”

She pummeled him awake.

“Something’s wrong, you have to get down to the village right away, you have to get to the doctor, the boy’s sick—”

“It’s the middle of the night, Essie, for God’s sake! Bella’s coming for the kid first thing, and maybe by then it’ll pass—”

“Simon, I’m telling you, he’s sick—”

In those unaccoutered years none of the kochaleyns had a telephone, and few of the families owned cars. On Friday evenings the husbands, Simon among them, made their way up the mountainside from the train station by means of the one ancient village taxi, or else they trudged with their suitcases and their city bundles along the mile of dusty stone-strewn road, between high weedy growths, uphill to the colonies of cottages. The village itself was only a cluster of stores on either side of the train station, and a smattering of old houses inhabited by the year-round people. The doctor was one of these. His office was in his front parlor.

“Go!” Essie cried. Then she thought of the danger to Retta, so close to the feverish child, and seized her and nearly threw her, sobbing, and awakened now by the excitement, into her crib; but the thin little neck under the moistly knotted curls was cool.

“I ought to stop at Bella’s, don’t you think, and let her know—”

“No, no, don’t waste a minute, what’s the point, what can she do? Oh listen to him, you’ve got to hurry, the poor thing can’t catch his breath—”

“It’s Bella’s kid, she’ll know what to do,” he urged. “It’s happened before.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Bella told me. She said it in Esperanto actually, when we were working on it last week—”

“Never mind that gibberish, just go and get the doctor!”

Gibberish. She had called the universal language, the language of human salvation, gibberish.

He started down the road to the village: it meant he had to pass Bella’s cottage. Her windows were unlit, and he went on. But a few yards beyond her door, he stopped and turned back—how perverse it seemed, how unreasonable, it wasn’t right not to tell the mother, and probably the kid would get better anyhow, it was a long walk down the mountain in the dark and cold of the country night, Essie had hurried him out without so much as a sweater, and why wake the poor doctor, a doctor needs his sleep even more than ordinary people, why not hold off till morning, a decent hour, wasn’t the main thing to let Bella know?

And here, waiting and waiting, was Essie, with the boy folded in her lap; she kept him there, in the big armchair, lifting him at times (how heavy he was!) to pace from one wall of the narrow room to the other. Now and then she wiped the soles of his feet with a dampened cloth, until he let out a little shudder—almost, it seemed, of satisfaction. But mainly she stood at the window, her wrists aching from the child’s weight, watching the sky alter from an opaque square of black to a ghostly pinkish stripe. Retta had long since grown quiet: she lay in the tranquil ruddiness of waxworks sleep, each baby fist resting beside an ear. And finally the white glint of morning struck the windowsill and lit the walls; and at half past eight the doctor came, together with Simon and Bella. He had driven them both up from the village in his Ford. The child was by now perfectly safe, the doctor said; there was nothing the matter that he wouldn’t get over, and wasn’t the mother told repeatedly not to feed him milk? Her son was clearly allergic to milk, and still she had forgotten, and put some in his pudding.

“You know your boy’s had these episodes before,” the doctor said, peevishly, “and he may have them again. Because, dear lady, you don’t listen.”

And Bella, apologizing, said, “It’s a good thing anyhow we didn’t drag you out of your bed at three o’clock in the morning, the way some people would have—”

Essie knew what “some people” meant, but who was “we”?

“While I’m here,” the doctor said, “I suppose I ought to have a look at the other one.”

“She’s fine,” Essie said. “She slept through the rest of the night like an angel. Just look, she’s still asleep—”

The doctor looked. He shook Retta. He picked up her two fists; they fell back.

“Good God,” the doctor said. “This child is dead.”

Presented by

Cynthia Ozick is the author of award-winning short stories, novels, and essays. Her most recent novel is Heir to the Glimmering World, and a new collection of essays, The Din in the Head, was published in June.

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