This is yet another piece from our archive of digital good things.
Before Ursula and Hunter married, they agreed they would not bring children into the world. Too many wars, he’d said. Too much poverty, she’d said. Too many car accidents and stupid television shows and violent video games and expensive sneakers and nuclear weapons, they’d said. Too much sadness. Too much selfishness. Too much technology. Besides, the polar ice caps were melting. Besides, children born in the twenty-first century came out of the womb already spoiled, already bad.
But after they’d been married five years, whenever Ursula saw the moon-round bellies of women in pregnancy magazines or watched a neighbour stroll her child down the sidewalk at dusk in a frilly pink-and-white baby carriage, she felt some primal need snake its way from her womb to her stomach to her throat, until one day it came out her mouth. She begged her husband for a child. Each time she asked he said no, no, until a year later, finally, he agreed, but on one condition: that their baby be born as if it was from another time period. It didn’t matter which era—just not the twenty-first century or the second half of the twentieth. He laughed when he said it, but Ursula was so ecstatic she began picking names…Delilah, Selah, Micah. All the names she picked ended with a sigh, the sound of wistfulness, or disappointment, or desire, or maybe all three. She readied the nursery.
The baby dropped out of Ursula’s body like a bomb, and afterward she was so spent she didn’t look to see if the child was a boy or a girl. In fact, what she’d birthed was technically neither. The baby was a miniature World War Two soldier, equipped with a damp green uniform and a helmet slick with mucous, his tiny hands gripped around the butt of a semi-automatic rifle.
When Ursula finally woke and saw her child, she mumbled to her dumbstruck husband, Hunter, that the rifle was an M1 Garand. She knew this because her grandfather, who’d been an American soldier in World War Two, had a collection of rifles he used to show her while telling tales of the war. Hunter didn’t seem to care about the gun, however; he was hung up on the fact that their son had been born wearing clothes. But despite his hang-ups, and despite the doctors’ strange stares, the infant was declared healthy, and Ursula was happy with her new soldier-baby. They took him home the next day.
She named him Johnny. Johnny wailed whenever his parents tried to dress him in anything but the fatigues he was born in, so every week Ursula would take the fatigues out just a little bit, lengthening the legs and arms as the baby grew. Whenever Hunter asked her why she didn’t just get him new clothes, why she stayed up late with half-closed eyes trying to stick a piece of thread through the eye of a needle, she replied that she did it because she loved their son so much.
Hunter wasn’t sure if he did. He thought about it a lot, considered if he loved Johnny as he burped him, as he watched him sleep, as he changed his diaper. He thought about it on the long drive to work and then at his desk at the post office where he sorted mail, mostly bills and advertisements which he then delivered to houses three times the size of the one he shared with his wife. On the drive home he thought about his son some more, weighing the pros and cons of Johnny. The more he thought about it, the less sure he became that he loved his child.
But as Johnny grew, Hunter became more and more sure that, in fact, he didn’t love the baby. Johnny liked to play only with toy boats and tanks and planes and parachute men. When Hunter sat Johnny beside him on the couch and began to read him Where the Wild Things Are or The Velveteen Rabbit, the boy smacked away the book and reached for his toy grenade, which he then launched at his father. Johnny also didn’t enjoy other things Hunter used to enjoy when he was a kid, like drawing or colouring or making music by banging pots and pans. In fact, Johnny startled easily at the makeshift music of pots and pans and even at the Beethoven records Hunter sometimes tried to play for him. But, though shaken, Johnny didn’t cry; he was stoic, and he rushed at the record player with his gun, unloaded of course. Johnny cried when the gun wasn’t by his side, much like other children cried when their favourite teddy bears or security blankets were taken away. Hunter wasn’t sure Johnny should be allowed to have the gun, and suggested to Ursula they replace it with a toy gun while the kid was asleep, but Ursula insisted he keep it because it was the only thing that soothed Johnny when he was upset.
One night, after Ursula put Johnny down to sleep in his bed—or barracks as the toddler called it in his babble-speak—Hunter approached her as she was lengthening their son’s pants yet again, in the quiet lamplit corner of the nursery surrounded by unused picture books, and he told her that he was unhappy with how their son was turning out.
Why? she asked, looking up from her sewing.
He’s too…modern, or something. He’s only interested in tanks and guns. I hoped our kid would at least like to read, so we could have something in common.
Ursula put Johnny’s fatigues down on her lap.
Maybe he’ll grow out of it, she ventured.
He won’t, Hunter said.
He shook his head and turned to leave the room. Ursula put the needle and thread down on the table beside her. As she did so, she accidentally pricked her ring finger and a bead of blood blossomed on the tip. It grew larger, slowly, and dripped on her nightgown, a small sunburst stain hovering over her belly button and seeping through the cloth to dampen her skin. Dizzy, she closed her eyes, and when she opened them again her soldier-baby and all the remnants of his existence were gone. Her belly was big once again. She sighed, tried out new names.
Their daughter was born wearing petticoats. And bloomers. And a long silk dress with a bustle. And a plumed hat with a veil which covered the baby’s face and which the baby would not let the doctor, nor her father, nor her mother lift even an inch to see her bare skin.
After his initial shock, Hunter rocked the child and smiled; he liked the Victorian era, its writers, its morals, its culture, its architecture. Ursula wasn’t so sure. As she held the infant, exhausted from a difficult and painful birth, she missed the smell of baby skin. Nothing, not even the child’s feet or hands, was uncovered, so the sweet, damp, familiar smell of baby skin was nowhere to be found. Ursula searched for it, sniffing her daughter all over, but she just smelled like starched linens and cried when her mother’s nose burrowed into her neck. Ursula named the baby, with a sigh, Victoria.
Victoria was a fussy child. She cried at the oddest things. Pointing at the bare legs of tables, chairs, and the bench of the old, out-of-tune piano Hunter had rescued from the side of a snowy road, Victoria wailed until her mother or father covered the legs with long tablecloths or sheets. Certain words her parents used set Victoria off, too. For instance, the words leg and arm caused the child to cry so often that Hunter and Ursula began to unconsciously use the term limb instead. Even when they thought Victoria was too young to understand, she cried in a recriminating way whenever her parents argued and used curse words, so Ursula and Hunter’s arguments got quieter and quieter until they had to whisper their anger into one another’s ears as if they were instead exchanging sweet nothings.
Most often, their arguments were about Victoria. Hunter was sure she had a learning disability, because by the age of two she had not yet started speaking. Instead of speech, Victoria expressed herself by rearranging the flowers in the house, and if there was no particular flower for what she felt, she drew it, creating beautiful pictures that resembled watercolour paintings except they were rendered with waxy, broken crayons. Ursula, who quit her job with her first pregnancy, spent all day with Victoria and came to understand her language of flowers. Whenever Victoria was told that she couldn’t play with her dolls and she had to eat lunch instead, the child plucked the yellow carnations from their vase and laid them, dripping, at her mother’s feet. When Victoria fell down as she was toddling around on their back deck, instead of sobbing, she crawled over to the garden and pulled out a marigold. An anemone meant Victoria was sick; a red rose meant she loved her mother. And despite the fact that the baby never did smell like a baby and always turned away from Ursula’s breast as if offended at the very sight of it, her mother loved her, too.
And while at first Hunter liked his Victorian child—the era she seemed to conjure—in the end, her language of flowers baffled him. In the dawn twilight before he left for work and in the dusk after he got home, Ursula tried to teach him, but he didn’t understand, couldn’t believe their daughter was really trying to communicate with them through floral arrangements.
It’s nonsense, he said one Sunday afternoon. She needs to learn to speak.
It was summer, and Ursula was kneeling down in the dirt of the garden, planting more flowers where Victoria had plucked up the morning glories.
I’m just disappointed, he said, kneeling down next to her. I thought we were both pretty smart. How could we have a child with a learning disability?
Ursula looked at her husband, his face aged and wounded like a bruised peach, his glasses glinting in the sun, his hands paper-cut from handling letters at work, bills and books at home.
I thought you didn’t like children who talk too much, she said. I thought you liked the idea of a child who doesn’t speak until spoken to.
Hunter stood, throwing up his hands.
But I am speaking to her. I’m speaking to her all the time! I tell her I love her, and she doesn’t even know how to say Daddy.
Maybe she doesn’t need to learn to speak, Ursula mused, fingering a rose head. She’s still smart. She’s still beautiful.
Hunter kneeled back down, cupped his hand around his Ursula’s ear, whispered:
Beautiful? We’ve never even seen her face, because she always has that fucking veil on!
Ursula cupped her hands around Hunter’s ear and said:
You were the one that asked for this, asshole. Remember?
Hunter looked sadly through the screen door at his daughter arranging flowers at the kitchen table, then looked at his wife through another kind of screen. He whispered in her ear again.
I know, and I’m sorry. But she’s just not right. She’s not the one.
Ursula sighed, another sigh in a long marriage of sighs. As she moved to stand up, her finger grazed the thorn of a rose-stem and a cloud passed over the sun, darkening the garden and dizzying Ursula. When the sun reappeared a moment later—an hour, a day, a week later?—the yard was full of blooming flowers, and Ursula was pregnant again. Through the screen door there was no sign of Victoria; there was no sign of her anywhere. The only thing she left behind, which Ursula and Hunter later found lying across their pillows, was a single black rose.
During labour, Ursula thought her doctor was performing an episiotomy, but it was the new baby himself doing the cutting with a long silver sword. He brandished that sword when he was finally out and the mystified midwife held him. The baby was a miniature knight, fully equipped with clanking plate armour and helmet, which the doctor lifted off his head so his mother could see his blinking blue eyes. Hunter, no longer struck speechless as with the last two births, said they should name their son Gawain. Ursula objected, covering her son’s tiny ears by gently placing the helmet back over his head, telling her husband that she would not have her son be the butt of jokes, and that, besides, she’s the one who’s been through labour three times, so she was going to pick the name.
She named him Arthur, Art for short.
At first Hunter was perplexed by Art; he hardly looked like a real boy or even a real human being. Whenever Hunter looked at the child, sleeping peacefully in his crib in a full suit of armour, pin-holes in the face plate so he could breathe, Hunter didn’t feel like he was looking at his son but rather a slightly larger version of the statue of a knight that he remembered seeing on his father’s bureau when he was a kid. That old silver statue was the only thing his father owned that was worth something substantial. He always imagined it a relic, as if the statue had really been passed down from the Middle Ages. The knight was mysterious, its whole body and face cloistered behind armour, much as his father was hidden from him when Hunter was a child, and as his own son was hidden from him now.
Despite Art’s resemblance to the statue and the memories it evoked, Hunter had fun playing with him as Arthur grew into a toddler. He took his high school fencing pole out of the attic and jousted with the child, not caring that his son always beat him. Whenever Ursula wanted to join in, Art never wanted to joust with her; he’d usher her back to the couch, cover her legs with a quilt and fortify her body with pillows. At those times she felt less his mother than some anonymous woman he was protecting.
Art’s attitude toward Ursula revealed itself one night when he toddled into his parents’ bedroom just as Ursula was crying out under Hunter’s thrusts. Art rushed toward the bed, slicing his sword through the air, and attacked his naked father, who yelped in surprise and whose first reaction was to cover his genitals with cupped hands. The toddler repeatedly slashed at his father’s thighs. If Ursula hadn’t replaced Art’s real sword with a plastic sword one night while he was sleeping, he probably would have killed his father. Luckily, Hunter had only a few scratches from the rough edges of the plastic sword.
Ursula watched the episode amused at how Freudian it all was, thinking how she’d love to tell this story to her college friends if they were still in touch. But Hunter was not so amused. He spanked the boy, shut him in his bedroom, then returned to his wife, face red, and huffed:
This kid is going to grow up to be the next Jack-the-Ripper.
Ursula laughed. I think you’re off by a few hundred years.
Not to mention Jack-the-Ripper liked to kill women, not cut off his dad’s balls.
Ursula let the sheet drop from her chest, motioning Hunter to come back to bed. He shook his head, pulled on his boxers, said:
All I’m saying is he’s way too violent. What if he becomes one of those kids who shoots up his whole school? God knows kids are gonna make fun of him with that get-up he refuses to take off.
Hunter paced the length of their small room, his body thin and pale, his shoulders hunched forward. This posture of defeat and helplessness shot pity through Ursula, and then anger.
We got a kid from a different era, she said. We didn’t get the era itself.
I just said I wanted a kid that had old-fashioned qualities, Hunter replied. Who knew it’d turn out like this?
Why can’t you just be satisfied with what you have?
Hunter sat on the edge of the bed, slumped forward as if under the weight of invisible armour, and mumbled:
How could anyone be satisfied with anything in this world?
There was silence in the room, and Ursula sighed, ready for clouds to cover the summer moon, for blindness, for blood, for a stab of pain to wake her with a new pregnancy.
I’m so tired, she said.
Hunter lay down beside her.
I am, too. Why’d we even decide to have kids?
Ursula turned her back to him, picked up a book from the bedside table and opened it, the sharp corner of a page slicing her finger.
Maybe we didn’t decide, she whispered.
But Hunter was already asleep. When he woke at dawn, Ursula was standing near the window, belly full like the sun. She placed the book on the windowsill with her papercut hand.
For you, she said.
In his dreamlike state Hunter thought she was handing him the telephone.
Their next baby babbled out of his mother’s birth canal, asking questions in a language no one could understand. He wore a toga, stained by amniotic fluid and tied at the shoulder. Ursula had wanted to name this next child Micah, but in her exhausted delirium that lasted almost a week after they brought the baby home, she neglected to give their son a name. She fell asleep anywhere she could—the couch, the kitchen table, the foyer floor, the top of the running dryer—and she always woke in a pool of her own breast milk. Meanwhile, Hunter brought the infant to the town library, where he tried to translate his son’s language.
Turned out, as Hunter had suspected, the baby was speaking Greek. He was elated—they had birthed a philosopher!—and he rushed home, eager to tell Ursula that they should name the baby Socrates. But before he could, his son spoke to him in English, drooling a little out of his toothless mouth, and insisted that his name must be Aesop. Hunter thought Aesop was not nearly as good a name as Socrates. The historical figure associated with the baby’s chosen name was not nearly as important as the one associated with the name Hunter had chosen, and he told his son so.
And is there a reason you should pick my name? the baby asked.
Because I’m your father, Hunter replied, still giddy that he was having a dialogue with his infant son.
And that grants you authority?
And what is the nature of fatherhood that grants you the authority to name me?
Hunter made a sharp turn and looked at his son through the rearview mirror, little flashing eyes challenging his father.
The baby continued, Shouldn’t a name belong to the one whose existence it is attached to? Or can names even belong to anyone?
Hunter pulled into their driveway, put the car in park, whipped his head around.
Babies get their names from their families, okay?
And what is the nature of a family and its relationship to the individual that leads you to believe the family should have priority over the individual?
Hunter exited the car, unbuckled his son from the car seat, picked him up, and slammed the door. He was no longer giddy.
Families have a history of names, he said. Names are passed down. I think that gives parents some kind of historical authority to name their children.
As he carried the baby up to the porch, the child spit up on his shoulder and then said:
You use history as your reason. But what reason does history have? Is there even such a thing as history? Is your knowledge of time so absolute that you can say without a doubt that there exists such a thing as past, present, or future?
Hunter paused at the front door, looking down into the doughy, expectant face of his child. There was no use. This week-old baby was more adept at rhetoric and argumentation than anyone Hunter had ever met, including himself, and this fact inspired more annoyance and frustration than it did pride. He carried the child into the house like a loaf of bread, with only enough tenderness to not crush it. He woke Ursula, who was sleeping on the wooden stairs.
The kid wants to be called Aesop, he told her. Oh, and he’s been speaking Greek, but apparently he can speak English, too.
Ursula sat up and took her son from Hunter’s arms. The weight of the baby, despite its tiny size and light clothing, was like a sack of bricks.
I can’t argue with him anymore, Hunter told her, walking away.
Ursula didn’t reply. She looked down at her now-silent child. His opened his mouth for her breast, and she smiled, imagining what verbal lashing his soft-gummed yap had given her husband, who was ripe for it. Yes, the gums were soft, but she did not offer the child her breast; she was afraid of letting it attach to her. She was waiting for the moment when some small eclipse would rid the world of this still-unnamed child and replace it with another, when time would circle back, again, to a new first pregnancy. Time kept circling back, but she was getting older and older. She wanted to cry, but only her breasts wept.
Hunter apologized for getting angry with their child-philosopher and promised Ursula their next baby would last, would be the one they keep forever, but Ursula was nervous throughout her pregnancy. What if this kid didn’t work out? What kind of baby would pop out this time, and where would it come from—when would it come from? Could she even physically endure another pregnancy?
Ursula and Hunter argued about the baby before it was born. Ursula blamed Hunter for putting this curse on them in the first place. Hunter blamed Ursula, arguing that she must be subconsciously choosing the historical periods from which their children come. Ursula argued that she’d rather not have children at all if they were going to keep getting rid of them, especially after she already loved them. He asked, then—knowing as he did so it was a question both stupid and cruel, but unable to stop himself—how could she love a person that she only knew for a few days, a few weeks, even a few years? Her eyes shone as she said, I loved you after a few days. Silence followed, then, while with faraway eyes they remembered the days of their youth, when her hair was long and light brown like a muddy lake and his jaw was still slim and covered with only the slight fuzz of his late bloom into a man. Ursula said, You were a rare boy, so shy, so sad, so disappointed with the world. Hunter put his hand on her belly, said, I swear this is the last time. She said, I’m doing this to make you happy. He said, I’m doing this to make you happy. And the conversation was the same every day.
Their next baby was a difficult birth, and he tumbled out howling, wearing a loincloth. Ursula wondered if his head had been misshapen in the delivery process, because his forehead was unusually low, his brow ridge stuck out like a shelf, he seemed to have no chin, his nose looked like it had been smashed down the middle with a shovel, and his overbite was pronounced even before he had any teeth, although teeth began to sprout from his bleeding gums much faster than normal. Ursula loved him precisely because of these abnormalities.
Rocking him one day, it occurred to her that throughout her life she tended to love people or things because of their defects or pitiable qualities. For instance, the stuffed animal that she saw at a flea market once when she was a child, a panda bear with a missing eye, its nose skewered to one side, its mouth a lopsided mess, its white parts gray, its scent of mothballs and vomit. Or the cat that she took in as a teenager, one side of its orange fur torn off, its exposed skin pink, raw, festering with worms. Or the dog she cared for that lost all its legs in an accident and had to slither around on the floor like a snake until it died. Even her husband, when she met him, a gangly teen too smart for his own good, with glasses too big for his face, sadness too big to be contained in his body, so some of it spilled over around him into a puddle that once in a while looked beautiful, like an oil spill in rain.
They named this child Micah, the breath at the end of his name a long awaited sigh of relief. He was a quiet kid who liked to eat and sleep, as if he were more animal than human. His body grew much faster than normal; by the time he was one, he was the size of a three-year-old and knew how to run well enough to chase squirrels in the backyard. But he couldn’t speak except for grunts and groans, which, like the mute Victoria, frustrated Hunter. He tried to hide his frustration from Ursula, to make good on his promise, and he tried to enjoy playing with twigs and rocks with his son in the yard, because he wanted his wife to be happy.
Micah stayed in their lives longer than any of the other children had, Hunter holding back his reservations about the child out of respect for Ursula, Ursula holding back her worries out of spite and stubbornness. But both worried about him. He’d be entering kindergarten in the fall and hadn’t yet learned to speak clearly, much less read. He did know how to draw, and his parents encouraged him in that, trying to remain positive, neither one wanting to say the wrong word that might plunge them into another loss, another pregnancy. Both believed, somehow, their words or wishes had caused their previous children to disappear and new ones to be conceived.
But Micah’s social skills seemed lacking, too: when they brought him to the park, he pushed other kids off the swings or the slide, yelling at them in gibberish, protecting his territory with a violence that seemed worse than normal childhood behaviour. But the most worrisome thing about Micah was the way he often strayed from his parents and put himself in dangerous situations, such as when he chased squirrels up the hill beyond their back yard or trailed big dogs to neighbours’ houses, sometimes running into the street so swiftly neither Hunter nor Ursula could grab him until he was already on the other side, poking at the dogs with sticks he’d sharpened with his own nails and teeth.
Eventually they decided they’d put a fence up around the front and back yards, but before they could do it the inevitable happened: one spring day Micah was struck by a car while running across the street. Ursula and Hunter had been watching him from plastic chairs on the lawn, but neither was fast enough to grab him by the t-shirt before he darted into the road. It didn’t matter that he was fifth in a line of children that had disappeared without a trace; Ursula reacted like any mother would, screaming and crying and sprinting to her baby’s body, which was twisted and bleeding in the road, still as a fossil. Hunter trailed his wife, overwhelmed with the need to swallow but unable to, unable to breathe for what felt like hours as they waited in the hospital for the pronouncement to be made, and when it was, they felt the sky darken and pain deep in their guts as some invisible force caused their child to disappear. Only this time there was no new one to replace him.
They followed the doctor into the room where Micah was lying in bed, his head bandaged, tubes in his nose attached to a machine that was the only thing keeping him alive, even though the doctor said there was no hope for improvement, there was no brain activity, and there never would be again.
They had almost expected the bed to be empty, almost expected Micah’s body to have mysteriously disappeared like the others’ did. But his body was there, as real as a rock, and they had to make the decision, tell the doctor whether or not to pull the plug. Neither Ursula nor Hunter could speak for nearly ten minutes as the doctor stood beside them, waiting for their decision. Finally, Hunter knew the word he had to say, and he spoke it with the knowledge that he was doing it for his wife, to spare her the pain of saying it.
Now, he said.
Now, Hunter and Ursula are alone again in a house that seems bigger than before, despite or perhaps because it is still filled with remnants of Micah’s existence. They go through the painful task of putting his toys away in boxes, folding his clothes and placing them in wooden chests which they then carry to the attic, out of sight. Ursula and Hunter hold one another closer at night, heads touching so that it seems they’re sharing the same dreams. This time, neither blames the other.
It is a long time before they make love, and when they do, it’s as quick as a sneeze, out of animal need, on the floor of the tiny apartment they’re renting because Hunter quit his job at the post office and their home is being foreclosed. When Ursula comes, her vision goes dark and she sees lightning beneath her eyelids.
In a few weeks she finds she’s pregnant. In her first trimester she cries more than she ever has in her life, her tears beading on plastic flowers and wetting the pages of books and making puddles on the linoleum so that when Hunter comes home from interviews in his dress shoes he sometimes slips. He helps Ursula in and out of bed, makes macaroni and cheese dinners for her, reads children’s books to her before she goes to sleep to ward off bad dreams. He mothers her in that tender way until the day she goes into labour, a snowy winter morning. They wade their way through gray slush and speed down slippery roads, car still half-covered with snow. The hospital they make it to is new to them, less familiar than the old one, but nevertheless a place with good doctors who will deliver their child.
It’s a messy birth, like the messy day. Ursula pushes and pushes but the baby will not come, so the doctor does a cesarean section. She doesn’t watch as the doctor cuts her open; she looks only at her husband’s hand holding hers. His veins stick out, swollen, the blood running through them not the same as hers but mingled with hers in their child’s body, a new life made of their blood, a new life they’ve made. But as the child is being taken out of her belly she wonders if they’ve really made it, if anyone at any time in history truly chose to have a child, if anyone could possibly make a conscious decision to create a child, knowing the inevitable ocean that the rivers of their blood lead to.
Meanwhile, Hunter looks at his wife’s insides for the first time and wonders at the magic of her messy body, the miracle of that ugly place inside her that has created the existence of the child being lifted out to take a first breath. He grips her hand a little tighter.
And then Hunter and Ursula join gazes upon their baby: a girl, naked and screaming out of her black void of a mouth surrounded by raw, pink, splotchy flesh, an anonymous infant like the millions of other infants born this day, nameless as the future, always new, always now.
Jacqueline Vogtman’s fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Connotation Press, Copper Nickel, Drunken Boat, Emerson Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Versal, and other journals both in print and online. She is an Assistant Professor at Mercer County Community College, where she edits the Kelsey Review, and she received her MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she served as an assistant editor of Mid-American Review. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, daughter, and dog.