Fiction Fiction Issue

What Happened to the Baby?

Uncle Simon was crazy about words. Really crazy

They buried her on the outskirts of a town fifteen miles to the west, in a small nonsectarian cemetery run by an indifferent undertaker who sold them a dog-sized coffin. There was no ceremony; no one came, no one was asked to come. A private burial, a secret burial. In the late afternoon a workman dug out a cavity in the dry soil; down went the box. Simon and Essie stood alone at the graveside and watched as the shovelfuls of earth flew, until the ground was level again. Then they left the kochaleyn and for the rest of the summer rented a room not far from the cemetery. Simon went every day to sit beside the grave. At first Essie went with him; but after a while she stayed away. How he wailed, how he hammered and yammered! She could not endure it: too late, that spew, too late, his shame, his remorse, his disgrace—if only he’d gone earlier for the doctor if only he hadn’t stopped to see Bella … if only he hadn’t told her the kid’s all right, my wife exaggerates, morning’s time enough to bring the doctor … if only he hadn’t knocked on Bella’s door, if only she hadn’t let him in!

In her flat whisper Essie said, “What happened to the baby, maybe it wouldn’t have happened—”

She understood that Simon had become Bella’s lover that night. She was silent when she saw him carry out Bella’s journals and set them afire. The smell of Esperanto burning remained in his clothes for days afterward.

She did not know what the doctor could have done; she knew only that he hadn’t been there to do it.

Summer after summer they returned to the town near the cemetery, far from all the kochaleyns that were scattered along the pebbly dirt roads in those parts, and settled into the top floor of a frame house owned by a deaf old widower. Simon never went back to his job in the men’s store, but Essie kept busy at her sewing machine. She placed a two-line advertisement in the “Personals” column of the local paper—“Seamstress, Outfits Custom-Made”—and had more orders than ever. Simon no longer sat by the little grave every day; instead, he turned his vigil into a sabbath penance, consecrating one night each week to mourning. Their first year it was Saturday—Retta had died on a Saturday night. The following year, Tuesday: Simon had burned Bella’s journals on a Tuesday evening. Always, whatever the day and whatever the year and whatever the weather, he walked out into the midnight dark, and lingered there, among the dim headstones, until daybreak. Essie had no use for this self-imposed ritual. It was made up, it was another kind of gibberish out there in the night. She scorned it: what did it mean, this maundering out to the cemetery to talk to the wind? He had deceived her with Bella, he had allowed Retta to die. Essie never spoke of Retta; only Simon spoke of her. He remembered her first steps, he remembered her first words, he remembered how she had pointed with her tiny forefinger at this and that beast at the zoo. “Tiger,” she said. “Monkey,” she said. And when they came to the yellow-horned gnu, and Simon said “Gnu,” Retta, mistaking it for a cow, blew out an elongated “Moo.” And how Simon and Essie had laughed at that! Retta was dead; Simon was to blame, he had deceived her with Bella, and what difference now if he despised Bella, if he had made a bonfire of Bella’s journals, if he despised everything that smacked of Bella, if he despised Esperanto, and condemned it, and called it delusion and fakery—what difference all of that, if Retta was dead?

Not their first summer, but the next, when Simon was setting aside Tuesdays to visit his shrine (“His shrine,” Essie said bitterly to herself), he began writing letters to Esperanto clubs all over the city, all over the world—nasty letters, furious letters. “Zamenhof, your false idol! Your god!” he wrote. “Why don’t you join the Oomoto, you fools!”

This was the start of Simon’s grand scheme—the letters, the outcries, the feverish heaps of philological papers and books with queer foreign alphabets on their spines. Yet in practice it was not grand after all; it was remarkably simple to execute. Obscure lives inspire no inquisitiveness. If your neighbor tells you he was born in Pittsburgh when he was really born in Kalamazoo, who will trouble to search out his birth certificate? As for solicitous—or prying—relations, Essie had been motherless since childhood, and her father had remarried a year after her own marriage to Simon. Together with his new wife he ran a hardware store in Florida; he and Essie rarely corresponded. Simon himself had been reared in the Home for Jewish Orphans: his only living connection was his cousin Lily—gullible Lily, silly Lily! The two of them, Simon and Essie, were as rootless as dandelion spores. They had to account to no one, and though Simon continued jobless, they had money enough, as long as Essie’s treadle purred. She kept it purring: her little summertime business spread to half a dozen towns nearby, and her arrival in May was regularly greeted by a blizzard of orders for the following autumn. She changed her ad to read “Get Set for Winter Warmth in Summer Heat,” and had an eye out for the new styles in woolen jackets and coats. She bought, at a discount, discarded pieces of chinchilla, and learned to sew fur collars and linings. And all the while Simon was concocting GNU. He named it, he said, in memory of Retta at the zoo; and besides, it announced itself to the ear as New—only see how it superseded and outshone Esperanto, that fake old carcass!

In the fall of each year they moved back to the Bronx. By now Essie owned two sewing machines. “My city Singer and my country Singer,” she liked to say, and in the winter worked her treadle as tirelessly as in the summer, while Simon went out proselytizing. He printed up flyers on yellow paper, with long rows of sponsors—lists that were anonymous but for their golden Park Avenue addresses—and tacked them on telephone poles.

Essie was not surprised that GNU could attract its earliest adherents—all the kochaleyns come home for the winter, and more: the Trotskyites, the Henry George people, the Tolstoyans, the classical-music lovers who went to the free concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, the Norman Thomas loyalists, the Yiddish Bundists, the wilder Hebraists, the evolving Thomas Merton mystics, the budding young Taoists and Zen Buddhists, the aging humanists and atheists, the Ayn Rand enthusiasts … and, most dangerously, the angry Esperantists. But after the first few meetings, too many of Simon’s would-be converts fell away, the merely inquisitive to begin with, the rest out of boredom, or resentment over dues, or because the rental hall was unheated (the stinginess of those Park Avenue donors!), or because the accustomed messianisms they had arrived with were more beguiling than Simon’s ingrown incantations.

“What these people need to keep them interested,” Simon argued, “is entertainment. If it’s a show they want, Essie, let’s give them a show, how about it?”

So Essie was recruited to sing. She had not immediately agreed; the idea of it repelled her, but only until she perceived the use of it; the ruse of it. She was already complicit in Simon’s scheme; give your little finger to the devil, and he’ll take your whole arm. And even the little finger was not so spare: no matter what Simon’s yellow fliers boasted, it was Essie’s industry at her two sewing machines that had paid for the rental hall. Well then, all right, she’d sing! It turned out, besides, that she had a way with a rhyme. Her rhymes were inconsequential ditties, private mockeries—the latest of her mockeries: the Park Avenue philanthropists were the first of her inventions. As for her singing voice, it had no range, and she was nearly breathless at the close of a long verse, but she poured into it the fury and force of her ridicule, and her ridicule had the sound of conviction. She put herself in the service of Simon’s gibberish—why not, why not? Retta was dead, Simon was to blame! Her performances in the cold hall—the costume, the patter, the ditties—were her own contraption, her secret derision, her revenge for what happened to the baby.

And still Simon’s meetings shrank and shrank, until only the quarrelsome diehards remained, and Simon’s enemies, the Esperantists.

“Jealousy!” he said. “Because I’ve outdone them, I’ve finished them off. And it’s Bella who’s sending them, it’s got to be Bella, who else?”

But it was Essie. She knew where they were, she knew how to find them: she had helped Simon with all those letters calling them fools, she had written their names on the envelopes. Slyly, clandestinely, she summoned them, and they were glad to come, and stand on chairs, and stomp and chant and shriek and pound and threaten. Simon, that usurper, with his shabby homemade mimicry of the real thing, had called them fools! They were pleased to shout him down, and some were even pleased to put up their fists in defense of the sole genuine original universal language, Zamenhof’s! Essie herself gave the signal: when she ended those nonsensical couplets, when she hopped off the little podium, the assault began.

She let it go on, winter after winter, with the summer’s expeditions to look forward to. From a secondhand bookshop she bought herself a world atlas, and instructed Simon in latitudes and longitudes, all those remote wadis and glaciers and canyons and jungles and steppes he was to explore from May through August (she always with him on every trek, never mind how hazardous), all for the purpose of uncovering fresh syllables to feed and fatten his GNU—while here they sat, the two of them, from May through August, lapping up their suppers of bananas-and-sour-cream at the kitchen counter, half of which held Essie’s faithful Singer, on the top floor of the deaf old widower’s decaying house.

She let it go on, the meetings winter after winter in the city, in the summers hidden away in their mountain townlet close to Retta’s grave. She let it go on until it was enough, until her mockery was slaked, until the warring Esperantists had left him sufficiently bruised to satisfy her. Her scheme prickled with more than spite, the almost carnal relishing of spite, the gloating pleasure of punishing Simon with his own stick. It was the fantastical stick itself: Essie’s trickster apparatus, the hoax of those exotic wanderings, when all the world—simpleminded, credulous world!—believed them to be … where? Wherever Dravidian-Munda, Bugi, Veps, Brahui, Khowar, Oriya, Ilokano, Mordvinian, Shilha, Jagatai, Tipura, Yurak, and all other swarming tongues, were spoken. From May through August, Essie’s atlas marked out these shrewdly distant regions; and on a Tuesday, or a Sunday, or any chosen day of the week, Simon moaned out his gibberish beside Retta’s grave in the misty night air.

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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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