As she sees the baby in mid-air, her brown head falling toward the floor, her legs and red shoes above it, the mother – too far out of reach to catch her or even to break the impact of her fall – feels the moment at the base of her womb, its sides contracting with a sharp pain as though the child were being born again. There is a light thud as the small body hits the floor. There is a cry, a deepening in the color of the baby’s face from ivory to red, the baby’s placid face scrunched into a tight mask. The mother scoops up the baby as though she is weightless, presses her to her breast, presses her small shaking body into her own where it had once been safe, yet unborn.
The baby dances on tables. She cries out in a deep lusty voice that is unchildlike. She howls in delight at the sounds her soles make on the tabletop, at her great height, at her power to yell and dance at the top of the world. The mother holds her breath as the child dances, fearing the fall from this bravado of innocence. (She imagines her own birth, emerging from her mother’s womb, cautious, scanning the faces around her before she lets out her first cry.)
While she was pregnant she dreamed she left the baby sleeping in a bar, on the seat of a booth like a pocketbook.
She dreamed she gave birth to a baby who looked like a flipper, and she embraced it, not anyway, but on its own terms.
She was told not to expect much: that her newborn child would look like a veal roast.
Her belly grew larger and she felt inside it little kicks like tap dancing, and, later, somersaults as though she housed some sort of circus or zoo. Still, she didn’t believe it was a baby who caused the movement. She dreamed she sat in the delivery room, on top of the cold steel table, and while she waited to give birth, watched her belly become smaller, then smaller and smaller until it was flat. The intern, in the voice of a department store salesman, explained, “There must have been some mistake.”
In the delivery room she struggles to keep her eyes open against their impulse to close as she pushes down. She must see the baby as it emerges, before it becomes air in the doctor’s gloved hands.
The baby doesn’t wait to be slapped, but cries at once. The baby is complete: the mother will have to do nothing more, nothing. Already without her knowledge or planning there are eyes, and hands and feet with toes like pebbles, black wet strands of hair against the scalp.
The sky darkened outside the hospital window. The baby is two hours old. The mother wakes from a Demerol sleep, holds onto the edge of the bed as she lowers herself, tests the cold tile floor with her bare feet. She walks out into the hallway and follows the distant wail to the nursery. But a white curtain has been pulled across the nursery window. (Three years later the baby flies down the sidewalk on a red motorcycle, professionally dragging one tiny foot as she disappears around a corner.)
The nurse wheels the baby into the mother’s room in a colorless, transparent Plexiglas tray, closer and closer to the mother, who sees the white of the nurse’s uniform, the gleaming cold white tile floor – the baby in mid-air, the white tiles, red blood spreading out around the tiny body like ripples in a pond, the nurse holding the baby out to her like an offering, the tiles, the red blood whelming over the body, a squashed fruit.
“Don’t leave me!” the mother cries.
The baby is a neat, tightly-wrapped bundle in a white blanket, like a small mummy; only her face is not wrapped. Her face is a small moon, a pale light in the mother’s arms, in the darkening room. The mother holds the baby lightly, like a girl carrying a bough of flowering branches across her arms.
The baby’s face is calm, her eyes open, waiting for the discovery. (It is the same look the baby will have two years later when she hides by turning her back to her mother and being still.) And the mother begins to cry because the baby is not a stranger to her and her feeling for her is overwhelming and unmistakable, is what she had imagined falling in love might be like. As she looks at her child, the names she’d considered – Vanessa, Zoe, Claire -- shift in her mind, boy or girl shifts in her mind, distinctions that no longer matter.
Peripherally, she notices the flowers that arrive in high waxed paper wrapping like a bishop’s hat. She sees her baby’s face in the opening roses, hears her cry when the room is still. At night she lies awake and, in the light from the streetlamps, looks at the face of her watch. At six in the morning the baby will be brought to her to be fed. Her breasts burn and throb, leaking milk into small pools on the sheets.
She sees the faces of her husband and friends as though underwater; she hears their voices as echoes from a deep tunnel.
The baby in mid-air falling
She dreamed she left the baby in a booth
At home, the baby sleeps small in the vast expanse of crib, her head a small moon on the sheet. The mother lies awake, listening: a pause in the rhythm of breath, as a yawn or cough is forming, and the mother stops breathing, suspended mid-air until the rhythm begins again.
In the daytime, when the baby is sleeping, the mother peeks over the edge of the crib, waiting until she sees the baby’s lips flutter ever so slightly as breath passes. Doing the dishes, she hears the baby’s cry in the whine of the hot-water faucet; outside, she hears the baby’s cry as a bus rounds the corner. The cries bled into the quiet, and the mother lives within the cry.
The baby in mid-air
The baby is two-and-a-half, still small, with delicate bones like her mother’s. She stands alone outside a barbed-wire fence, her hands cupped on either side of her mouth. She is calling the horses. “Pu-oy!” she calls her favorite horse, Pie, in her Brooklyn accent, and the horse, grazing out in the field, turns. “Hor-ses!” The baby’s deep alto lifts a note on the second syllable, holds on the “s” in an echo of the voice of the stablehand. The horses thunder toward her, stop short at the fence, and snort. The baby stands with her hands clasped behind her back, rocks back on her heels, and grins.
The mother, who is afraid of horses, shivers around the corner of the barn.
The baby in mid-air
The sturdy baby, in red boots, talks to the horses, a spirited gibberish with emphasis on the word “hay.” The mother turns and walks from the barn toward the house, conscious of each foot as it passes the other, hears the neighs and the stomping and the baby’s throaty squeals, and she feels a coolness on the palms of her hands like raindrops.