THE SWADDLE by Janelle Bassett

I am at the sink, rinsing a food processor blade, when I hear the cry of a tiny baby. Carrot bits go down the drain, easy, but the insistent wailing isn’t going anywhere. I assume the sound is some sort of inner-ear repercussion from the electronic-tornado buzzing of the food processor, yet the sound continues even after I open my mouth wide to pop my ears. A baby is definitely crying and it’s an I’ve-been-left-alone-which-I-am-not-built-for cry.

I look up and think back, “Didn’t my babies grow past the baby stage?”

I consult the refrigerator where, sure enough, their recent school pictures confirm that my children are old enough to wear collars, sit upright, have teeth growing from their gums, and act natural when exposed to sudden flashes of unnatural light. 

Have the neighbors left their baby outside? I don’t judge other parents (except constantly, inside my head) but I might have to call someone if the Rheingold’s have forced that baby to do yard work. 

I walk to the other side of the kitchen to get a clear view of their backyard. No baby. Just an upside-down bucket. I don’t think the Rheingolds would leave their baby outside under a bucket—they put an awful lot of effort into their Christmas decorations. 

I swear the crying must be coming from my own yard. It’s that close—I feel a certain duty. I dry my hands and head out the back door.

The baby isn’t even hiding, it’s on top of the picnic table. The baby would make a terrible picnic host— swaddled arms cannot scoop, serve, fetch or pour. All those tears would water down the potato salad. I say “shhh” to my incessant inner chatter and to the swaddled baby crying atop my backyard picnic table. 

I realize the baby is translucent and that this means that I am having some sort of breakdown. An auditory hallucination led me toward a visual hallucination. I don’t like where this is heading. If this baby has a smell I am really in some trouble, mentally. I bend down and sniff. When my face is so-close the crying stops, or the hallucination mutes. The scent: a mix of blood, leather, and that smell the furnace makes the first time it kicks on for the season. 

The baby and I stare at each other. It looks up at me with such love and acceptance that I feel rather guilty for looking back down with eyes that make accusations like, “You are not real. This is not happening. You are alarming evidence of my deteriorating mental health. You look a great deal like my father-in-law.”

The crying resumes. I’ve broken whatever promises I made with the earlier proximity of my face. I pick up the baby because it seems healthy to follow your instincts even as you’re falling apart. As soon as my hands touch the baby its skin and blanket become as solid and opaque as everything else in my backyard. Now the table-baby and the heartleaf brunnera are on an equal footing. 

It stops screaming and I know it is my baby because I hear a voice in my head saying, “I am your baby.”

“You can talk? That doesn’t make any sense!” We both laugh at that, my laugh emitting out into the grass, the baby’s giggling between my ears.

“If we are touching you will know what I’m saying. I am the baby you are too selfish to have.”

I turn the baby over to see if it has a tag or a tether and also to punish it for calling me selfish. 

I use my maternal-wisdom voice to say, “It’s not selfish to know your limits.”

Okay Mommy, I am the baby you are too limited to have.”

My other children are also smart asses. My other children have also had my number from day one. I kiss the baby’s forehead and ask how it ended up on the picnic table even though I’d diligently prevented its existence. 

The short answer is that I wanted you that badly. I wanted you enough to manifest on my own, all while knowing you don’t want me.”

Look baby, this is exactly the kind of hungry need I was avoiding when I decided not to have you.  “Do you have a name?”

Lou.”

“Do you have a gender?”

Why? Would you have me if I came with a certain gender?”

“No.”

If you want to know my gender you’ll have to birth me and then keep me alive me long enough for me to know myself.”

“That’s a lot to ask.”

“Admit it, you think of me just as much as I think of you.”

I stick my face into Lou’s neck. “Of course I do. I am a walking hormone swamp. But it would be irresponsible to bring you here now. The planet is dying.”

“I’d love to witness a thing like that. What a gift you could give me: consciousness with which to view the great collapse.”

I cup Lou’s cheek. “If I had you, there would be fewer resources for your siblings: parental attention, money, hot water. It wouldn’t be fair to them. They got here first.”

“I’ll have you know they pushed and shoved to get to the front of the line. They maimed and belittled!”

“I’m sorry, Lou. Are you cold? Do you want to go inside?”

“Inside your womb?”

“No, dear. Inside the house.”

Lou cries a bit, setback, and then says, “I will love you completely despite your many faults. I’ll never ask for anything. I’ll wear hand-me-downs and eat table scraps. If you don’t like the name Lou I’d happily be called after one of your great-grandparents or the offspring of a bottom-tier celebrity. You don’t even have to look me in the eye! I just want to hold a bug in my hand and taste vanilla bean.”

“Oh Lou,” I say. “If you promised to never come out—a permanent pregnancy, an ongoing residency—then I’d do it. I think I could carry you as long as you were forced to go where I wanted.”

“Is that your best offer?”

“Yes. I’m not proud of it.”

“That helps.”

Someone nearby starts a lawn mower and I instinctively pull Lou into my breasts.  “How do I put you in there?”

“Wait! Are you sure this is your best offer? I will wear any Halloween costume you choose and let you take as many photos as you’d like. I’ll pose without any regard for my own self respect. I could even carry a small broom and dustpan and sweep up all my own footprints and crumbs. And… I don’t mean to brag, but I will be your favorite. Hands down, your favorite. A joy. A delight. A human stocking stuffer.”

“You sound like the perfect constant presence, Lou—a right-nice inborn companion.” I squeeze so tight and push so hard that if Lou’s body were real it would be in great pain. But instead of being injured, Lou is being absorbed. 

Lou quickly says, “You could be more generous. You could challenge yourself and then grow from it” before being fully smooshed into my body. 

Lou is gone from my arms. I remember the stew I was making before being summoned outside. Lou says, “Can I have stew?” from within and I sigh so heavily I wonder if Lou could’ve been dislodged. 

Before going inside, I place my hand on my belly and we settle our terms. Lou will remain quiet inside me—observing, recording—until we are in bed, alone, the siblings asleep nearby. At that point of the day I’ll be available for questions—we will engage, we will process and if Lou wants to jump and flail I’ll put my hand on the site of that jumping. 

I go in and Lou goes quiet. I finish stew preparations, wipe the counter, and send my closest friend a text that says, “I hope menopause comes for me soon because every month my PMS gets deeper and stranger.”

I walk to the bus stop and retrieve my children. I greet them and in response they hand me their belongings so they can run ahead, unburdened.

I can feel Lou wanting to ask for a backpack. 

At dinner my partner asks, “Since when do you put ketchup on cornbread? Don’t you hate ketchup?” I couldn’t tell him, “Lou wants it. Lou needs it. Lou is ecstatic about experiencing ketchup.”

After reading my children a chapter from a book about a family of bickering yet relatable armadillos I say goodnight, kiss their necks and try not to picture them forcefully kicking, slapping, or shoving Lou away from the front of the line. 

Downstairs, my partner and I read and hold each other’s feet. Then he’s shaking my foot, waking me, telling me to go to bed.

I’ve barely laid down before Lou asks, “What did that tweet mean… about how people who are reluctant to pee in the shower probably have sad inhibited sex?”

“You can see out of my eyes?”

Of course.”

“This is not how a pregnancy works, Lou. You’re supposed to be captivated and fulfilled by the sound of my heartbeat.”

“We both know this is a special pregnancy. Get up. Let’s go outside and lick the grass! I want to taste grass immediately.”

“No, it’s time to go to sleep. These are the rhythms of a day. Let’s talk about the sunset.”

What was that feeling we had when we closed the door to my siblings’ room? I didn’t like it.”

“That was relief and regret and longing and tenderness.”

“What was that sensation whipping us as we rolled in the trash bin?”

“That was wind.”

“Why did you scrape the dinner plates into the trash?”

“That was waste.”

“Can we lick the grass now? I’m awake to it all. I’m not a bit tired.”

“No, Lou. I am going to fall asleep.” I put my hand on my lower abdomen. “I can touch your dance first, if you’d like.”

“The grass the grass the grass.”

“I said no and I meant it.”

Lou adds movement to the chant—pendulum elbows poke and stretch my skin to the beat of “grass grass grass.”

I roll onto my stomach, pressing my weight into the bed, trying to end this day.

“You push me and yet I can… feel myself growing. My intestines just developed a new capacity. My forearm can nearly flex. I think the spurts come when you deny me the experiences I need, Mommy. If you don’t respond to my impulses I’ll become a head to push. Life is insistent, Mommy. I’m a steamroller, Mommy. It’s all chemical, Mommy. My growth is your growth is all toward the end, Mommy. The grass grass grass. My lightening could be your strike, mommy. I could. Let me! Let me. And when I’m all said and done we can call it your decision.”

Read Next: TIME TRAVELING ANTIQUE DEALER by Travis Dahlke