Read an Excerpt
The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark; the tree is a gentle old presence. The leaves of the oak bear the first blush of whistling autumn.
If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for the harvest machinery resting now after church on this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.
He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is as silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.
Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes are closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over the ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.
A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible in the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.
Clare and Elijah Waddell live in a shotgun shack two miles down Postal Delivery Route 310. Their small house stands five miles east of the town of Good Hope, the county seat for Pamunkey County. Local wags call these single-story, slant-roofed homes shotgun shacks because if you stood in the front doorway and fired a shotgun blast, you’d kill everyone through the whole house. Elijah and Clare bought the place last year, just after they married. For five months they sanded the heart-pine floors, put in new kitchen cabinets, and painted the clapboards. Clare wanted the exterior painted pink and got dusky rose, their compromise. The house came with ten acres; all of it except Clare and Elijah’s vegetable garden is leased to a corn farmer who cultivates four hundred acres on both sides of the road down to the river. The house and yard and the dusty lane are walled in by rising corn from May through October, until the crop is harvested. Elijah and Clare enjoy the isolation. Coming home once from their jobs at the paper mill, Clare took Elijah’s hand and stood beside their mailbox, the silks’ tassels higher than their heads.
She said, “It’s like being Hansel and Gretel coming up on the gingerbread house, isn’t it?”
Elijah is ten years older than Clare; she is twenty-two, but they share the same wiry build and long frame. His is a face of circles, pliant, with wide nostrils, long earlobes, and arching brows over dark pupils. Clare’s features are round too, but resemble the roundness of an infant’s.
When it can be, theirs is a sweaty, dirty love. They groom their big summer garden and work on the house. They bring each other iced tea. They make love in the rope hammock at nightfall in full sight of the road, daring the path to bring them an intruder. In winter they chop and carry wood. Elijah has knocked down a wall to take the space from a closet and add it to a baby’s room. Clare carries the detritus outside in a wheelbarrow, shoveling chips and scraps into the pickup to be hauled to the dump. They pull off their clothes to laugh at the dirty regions, hands, arms, necks, and faces, her whiteness showing the grit most, his grime blending into his skin. They make love that way too, with the dirt of home chores or the stink of the paper mill in their hair and clothes. Work seems to make them want each other, like thirst.
Clare and Elijah have a dog, a gray cocker named Herschel. It is Herschel who in this first year of their marriage shows Clare that her husband contains in him places she has not yet entered.
On a summer Saturday Herschel lies heaving on the back stoop of the house. His breath grates in his throat. His tongue lolls from his mouth onto the boards. The dog’s neck is swollen terribly, as though bees have built a hive inside it. Elijah finds him on the stoop and shouts for Clare to bring the truck around. Herschel has been bitten by a snake.
Elijah lays Herschel on the seat, the dog’s head in Clare’s lap, his tongue on her bare thigh. He drives fast to the vet, who confirms Elijah’s diagnosis and gives the dog antivenom. The vet tells them to leave Herschel overnight.
Returning to the house, Elijah walks away from the pickup to the backyard shed. Clare remains in the yard. Elijah emerges with his rubber fishing waders over his arm.
“There’s another pair,” he says. “Come if you want.”
Clare watches him enter the house. In a minute he exits carrying his old side-by-side shotgun and a box of twelve-gauge shells. She runs to the shed for the other rubber coveralls.
Elijah slowly drives the quarter mile to the end of the dirt road where he turns left up the farmer’s tractor path. He stops the truck at the foot of the trees and looks at Clare. His face is blank as slate, as though all purpose has been drained from it to better fuel his will. He climbs out and Clare follows. The cornfield stops here, the rim of it barbered neat. The air tastes musky along the riverbank in the shade. These trees were left in place two centuries ago when the land was first put under the plow, to hold the bank together. The roots of the trees closest to the river stick out of the bank, exposed by times of high water. Elijah pulls on his waders, then breaks the shotgun, slips in shells, leaves the barrel open over his arm and clambers down the bank holding on to the roots. Where the roots meet the water, spreading like arteries, is where the copperheads make their nests.
Elijah moves into the water as though he were himself reptilian, without ripple or sound. Clare puts on the second pair of rubber bibs, they go on easily because they are too big. She eases herself into the water but still makes a small splash stepping in. Thirty yards ahead, Elijah does not turn. He snaps closed the shotgun and raises it. He lets go with one barrel, then another, the branches overhead shake with the report and where he has aimed smoke whorls on the water. Something thrashes. Elijah unsnaps and reloads. He fires again into a cascade of roots, leaving another specter of smoke as a marker.
He wades the river the length of the field, almost a half-mile, firing the shotgun into the water, against the bank, under roots. Green plastic shells and shredded bits of snakes and bark float past Clare on the slow current. She is surprised the water is not redder with blood. After most of an hour, when an empty cardboard shell box drifts past her, Elijah stops walking, the shotgun under his armpit. He does not turn to Clare but stands watching the current slide past his thighs. Clare clambers out of the river and walks back to the truck. She removes the overalls and sits in the cab. Elijah does not appear. She considers honking the horn but does not. She sits alone for another hour eyeing the yellow palisade of corn. I had no idea, she thinks, no idea how much my husband can love.
Crossing the Mattaponi River your eyes are not on the bridge or the car ahead of you but on the mill. This plant is the giant, smoking, multitiered centurion of the town. Employed here are thirteen hundred people from the five thousand residents of Good Hope and twelve thousand total in the county. A stench issues from the tallest structure, the new boiler, which always sports a cone of steam the entire town uses to gauge the direction of the wind. The smell is sulphurous, the by-products of wood fibers being separated from each other in order to turn logs into cardboard and bleached white top. “It’s the smell of money,” say the townfolk, and just an egg stink to those driving through on their way to summer cottages elsewhere in the river country. Two red tugboats are tied at the massive pier, waiting to guide waterborne shipments of timber. Rail tracks cross the road leading into the wood yard. A sign welcomes you to the town. good hope, the sign reads. a good place to work, live, and play.
In July the heat and river humidity bear down on the town, pasting the odor to the ground day and night regardless of breeze. Clare is thirty-six weeks pregnant, so she has transferred from her forklift in the warehouse stacking giant rolls of bleached paperboard. She is in the office handling paperwork, sidling up to desktops and cabinets as best she can. She worries about the smelly air her baby is getting through her umbilicus.
Inside the plant, the Number 3 machine is down. Number 3 is longer than a city block. While it is down, mechanics and maintenance workers swarm over it. Elijah climbs a ladder at the wet end where virgin craft pulp is dumped into the machine’s maw. Brown paper mud splats onto a wire screen and is swept through the machine’s heat and pressure and rollers, forging a three-ply paperboard at the dry end 150 yards away where men wait for it with blades and pneumatic lifts. Elijah climbs with his tools into the spot called Hell. The metal ladder he mounts is slick with the congealed scum of pulp fibers and steam. Brown dregs hang from the rungs. One lightbulb glows, silhouetting the bits floating on the steam. Elijah hunkers low to fit under the beams and pipes, also ugly with dangling pulp drool. He squats beside a massive shaft and unhinges the coupling to inspect the cogs. He spills kerosene over the bearings to degrease them, then adds fresh grease. In July in this spot in the mill, you cannot wipe the sweat from your brows fast enough. Elijah’s drips fall on the bearings under his slippery, glimmering fingers.
When he is finished and has cleaned his tools in the shop, his foreman approaches.
Elijah looks up. He says nothing.
“There’s a meeting this afternoon at three o’clock at the chip-yard trailer. I want you to go to it.”
“I’m on ‘til four.”
“That’s all right. I need you to go.”
Elijah pours kerosene over his hands to dig the grease from his nails with a rag.
“They’re forming a Diversity Committee. This is the first meeting.”
Elijah draws in his lips.
The foreman leans his backside against the counter. He lifts a hand to help conjure the point he wants to make.
“What, with you being married to Clare and all,” he says, “I figured, well . . .”
The foreman brings his hand down on Elijah’s damp back.
“. . . you know, you might could shed some light, is all.”
Elijah blinks at his hands and makes no answer. The foreman springs away from the counter. He says over his shoulder, “We all got to get along.”
At three o’clock, Clare is one of the twenty-five at the meeting. Elijah enters the trailer. She drops her jaw comically at him in mock surprise. She draws from him a head shake. He does not sit beside her.
Men and women, black and white, two Asians and one Hispanic, from departments across the mill sit in four rows of folding chairs. Coffee and doughnuts are on a card table. Most of the people from the machine floor and the wood yard still wear their hard hats and safety glasses. The few office workers fidget in their seats, especially the heavy women from customer service and the suited men from management. Clare watches Elijah, who has knit his hands in his lap and lowered his head. He has removed his green hard hat and safety glasses and sits gathered to himself.
She thinks of the other plant-wide committees formed in her three years at the mill: excellence, international quality standards, cleanup, collective bargaining, safety. She’d seen them come and go and they never stuck and they never before invited her or Elijah. Now it’s diversity and here the two of them are at the table.
Clare thinks of her mother Carol buried not too far away at the Victory Baptist Church. She wonders what her mother would think of this meeting. Her mother was a godly woman, Gran Epps has told her that many times. Her mother died of breast cancer eighteen years ago in North Carolina. Gran went down there and held her only child on the hospital bed, rocking her, singing a Jesus song. Gran Epps made arrangements with a funeral home in Winston-Salem for a long-distance hearse for her thirty-year-old daughter. She packed up her four-year-old grandchild and put her own child in a casket and ferried them both back to Good Hope, Gran’s hometown, where Gran’s husband, Granpa Charles Hutto Epps, is buried. If Clare’s mother were here, she would feel what? What would a godly woman read into this diversity meeting? She wouldn’t feel creepy, the way Clare does. More than likely she’d pity them, that they need to be organized and drilled just to get along with each other. But her mother is dead, and it’s easy, Clare understands, to make the dead wise.
A man in a plaid short-sleeved shirt stands from his chair at the corner of the first row, revealing finally who will run this meeting. His name is Sipe, a crane operator in shipping and receiving. Sipe is tan and robust, his shirt sloshes over his belt line like a water balloon. He wears khakis and loafers. Today is his day off. He’s come in just for this meeting.
“How’re y’all?” Sipe asks. He raises his thick hand quickly and uncomfortably. Clare cannot figure if it is in greeting or to ward off responses.
“As I hope you all know, this is the first meeting of the plant’s new Diversity Committee.” He grins hastily and a comradeliness flashes across his face, implying, Yeah, yeah, I don’t want to be here either.
“There’s been a situation here at the mill that management has said needs addressing. Each of us has been nominated to be on this committee. From the looks of things, we got a pretty well-rounded representation.”
Mother, Clare decides, would lean forward and touch Elijah on the shoulder lightly and whisper to him, Lift your head, sweetheart. They mean well.
Plaid-striped Sipe crosses his arms to ask everyone in the room to identify themselves, and they do. The first few shyly stand to say their names and departments, then others rise only halfway from their seats, holding the backs of their metal chairs and plopping down when finished. Elijah is the first one to stay seated, and the rest follow suit.
When this is done, Sipe tells the story of what happened at the mill to create in management’s mind the need for a Diversity Committee. Two days ago, a woman wore a T-shirt to work that read: it’s a black thang, you wouldn’t understand. Yesterday, in response, one of the woman’s co-workers walked in wearing a T-shirt on which he’d drawn with Magic Marker a burning cross, under the scrawled slogan: it’s a white thang, you wouldn’t understand.
One of the black women in the meeting volunteers, “We thought it was funny.” Clare figures this is the woman who wore the original offending shirt.
Sipe nods. He says defensively, “We did. That’s right. But a few others didn’t. So,” he clears his throat, “here we are.”
The room settles for a moment on the stupidity of these two people, and there is the sense that it is a very stable and big platform, their stupidity. The blame is not that these two should have known better than to taunt each other that way, even as friends, but that they are responsible for the birth of another committee. One man in the last row mutters, “Sheez.”
Sipe unfolds his arms. He holds up his hands. Clare sees they are callused.
“All right,” Sipe says. “Okay, look. We been told to form this committee and that’s what we’re doing. Our goal is for us as a group to explore ways to coexist with each other as well as we can. We’re going to talk about topics, put together a diversity newsletter and workshops, and after a couple months we’ll take what we learn in here out to the mill at large and it’ll be a big help. Because I’ll tell you for one, I missed my guess at how big this thing is to some folks.”
The woman who wore the Black Thang T-shirt says, “And people, it’s not just black and white. It’s men and women, too.”
“That’s right,” says Sipe, and nods, refolding his meaty arms. “We need to find ways to be more sensitive to each other. And it’s not just for the mill. It’s the whole community.” Clare thinks that this man has had his ass chewed out bad to be talking this way.
Then Sipe points at Elijah and says, “We all need to find ways to be more like Clare and Elijah here. More accepting. Like them.”
Elijah’s hard hat dangles from his fingers between his spread knees, his eyes turned to the floor. The hat spins a revolution in his hands. He catches it. He stands. The hard hat goes on his head.
Looking at no one, not even Clare, he softly says, “This is y’all’s problem.”
Knees and legs slide out of the way, allowing Elijah to exit his row. No one looks up to his face moving past them as though fearful his face is where he keeps the blow he would throw at them if he were to throw one, because it wasn’t in his voice.
The trailer door opens with the break of a seal and Elijah closes it gently. When he is gone, again the room ponders on something and now it is Clare. But she has a baby in her belly soon to be born and so she is not disposed to carry the weight of their inquiry. She will not explain Elijah to them, he is her husband and the father of her child and they all, all of them in the world, are not.
Clare stands. She wishes she had her own hard hat to put on. To get to the door she has to pass only one set of legs in her row.
“Look,” she says, walking, “you all know him. He’s got a mind of his own.”
Clare grips the trailer doorknob. Her back is to the committee. She turns fully to them. The globe of her coming child is included when she says before leaving, “I’m sorry, but we are not your damn role models.”
Clare and Elijah do not like being made to feel they love each other despite something. They are not better people because they have married someone outside their own race. They are not tolerant because the other is of a different color.
They do not in this first year of their marriage discuss race, in the same manner they do not discuss gravity. That he is black and she is white is a subject for others, who once in a while try to hold the matter up to Clare and Elijah with curiosity, seeking feedback and impressions, postcards from someplace exotic and perhaps taboo they themselves will never go.
He is a black man only the first time she sees him. She is at the high school track, jogging. She finishes and walks past the basketball court to watch a game. Elijah’s name is called a lot by the other players. “Nice take, Elijah.” “Fuck, man! Put a stop on Waddell, will you!” When the game is done, he stays and shoots on his own. His bare chest and stomach glisten with the sweat which ripples like hot oil poured down cobblestones. He shoots, retrieves, shoots again. Often the ball flies through the hoop and comes back to him as if it is on a tether. She walks beneath the basket to catch the ball after his shots. He says nothing but takes her bounce passes and shoots again. He makes eight in a row, never looking at her, only the ball and the rusty rim.
She knows he’s trying to impress her. When he misses, she keeps the ball, as is protocol, and takes her own shots. She misses her first, but she is not yet warmed up so Elijah bounces her the ball. When she misses her third in a row, he keeps the ball and shoots again, making it. She knows he is telling her, You make it, you keep it. No special girl rules. Clare likes this, feeling equal, measured by the same standards that measure him. After he misses, she gets the ball and hits three in a row. The fourth rims out. It drops near Clare and she wants it, she is getting loose, but Elijah is quicker. He stabs a hand under hers and dribbles the ball away from her. He grins over his shoulder and Clare decides to guard him. He turns to shoot. She stays with him, she is almost as tall as he, she jumps and puts a hand in his face and he misses. She retrieves the basketball and looks at him. He stands hands on hips and smiles again. He nods and says only, “All right.” She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she has but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting but like a pinprick fast and sharp, for having ever felt whatever ugliness it was she has just said goodbye to. She stands with the ball pressed against her stomach, where Elijah’s baby will be.
It is time for the baby.
Clare and Elijah stand in front of their bedroom mirror making love. Elijah is behind her, the child in front. She flattens her palms against the wall on both sides of the mirror to keep from rocking the baby too much. But she wants Elijah inside her badly, and with both the man and the child tucked up in her where she can warm and please and care for them, Clare is happy.
When they have finished they linger before the mirror. Her breasts are swollen almost twice their normal size but otherwise she has gained little girth about her shoulders and neck. Her skin and hair are infused and radiant. Elijah circles his open hands over her belly. There is something magical for Clare in this, like watching a black-robed sorcerer swirling his arms over a large white crystal ball. What is the future? she wonders: Tell me, Elijah. See it in my belly and tell me.
Clare lies on the bed in the waft of the air conditioner. He stretches beside her. She is on her back and, within minutes, a knob appears above her navel.
Elijah leans closer to inspect. He says, “It’s a knee.”
Clare does not lift her head from the pillow to look, she keeps her hands beside her. She lets Elijah have this alone.
The knob slowly disappears and is followed by other protrusions, each of which Elijah examines with his fingertips and identifies. An elbow. A shoulder.
The baby rolling over touches Clare with fingers and toes, with a heartbeat and a kick. The movement inside her is liquid, and she thinks she cannot express to Elijah what she feels, so powerful is it. She covers his hand on her stomach with both of hers and concentrates on the child.
Two hours later, near midnight, she rises to pee. In the bathroom, there is blood on the toilet paper and Clare knows her mucus plug has broken.
She does not wake Elijah. In the dark she sits in a chair beside their bed, listening to the labor of the air-conditioning window unit, thanking it. She is thankful for everything she senses around her. Elijah does not hear Clare’s grunt with the first cramp. She glances at the red digits on the bedside clock, waiting for the next wave.
Near five in the morning Elijah stirs and knows she is not beside him. He sits upright to find her in the chair, sitting on a towel. He snaps on a light.
“How long you been up?”
“Since almost midnight.”
Elijah bites his lower lip.
“Girl,” he says. He stands, naked and beautiful. He runs his hand over her brow. “You want to do this alone,” he says, joking, “I’ll head over to the mill and put in some overtime.”
At seven o’clock Elijah calls the plant to say they will not be in for their shifts. Her contractions are six minutes apart. He calls Gran Epps, then drives Clare to the hospital.
Her obstetrician, Dr. James, knows she does not want an epidural but she tells him No again when he asks. Elijah’s left hand stays clutched in her right and they do not let each other go. Anything Clare needs her right hand for Elijah does for her.
In the hospital room she stays in labor for five hours. Just after noon, she is wheeled into delivery. She squeezes Elijah’s hand, gritting her teeth. She will not close her eyes. She watches everything and thinks of her mother, wishes she were alive, thinks of Gran Epps waiting at home by the phone to hear that she has a great-grandchild, and the thankfulness that began in Clare’s bedroom last night is eclipsed by a love so anchored in her it is a harrowing pain as it moves through her. She cries, she knows her face is pink and crushed together like a soda can. Elijah’s hand wipes a tissue over her cheeks.
Clare’s bulging middle is the center of a whirl of hands and faces. The lights are so bright she feels them in a warm lace against the insides of her thighs hoisted in the stirrups. Elijah whispers to her, “Yeah, baby,” and, “Good, baby,” mopping her brow, kissing the top of her head. The two nurses nod agreement with Elijah. “You’re doin’ great, honey.”
Dr. James is a handsome man in his early forties, graying just at the temples. He has the gaunt face and rueful eyes of the avid runner. Clare winces and watches his eyes.
The obstetrician tracks Clare’s contractions. He says, “Now push. Soft at first. There you go.” He fiddles with his hands out of sight between her legs. She barely feels his fingers, so engorged are her nerves and muscles there. For several minutes the doctor asks her for soft pushes. Finally he says, “Okay, now give me one good hard push. Come on. There you go. Almost . . .” Clare bears down, squeezing her abdomen as hard as her pain will let her. She fixes her stare on the doctor’s face. He sees the baby coming into the world, she wants to witness the arrival but cannot so she will watch the man who does see it.
Suddenly the creases like wings beside the doctor’s eyes flinch and fold. He pauses and all action in the room ceases, even Clare’s push. She senses the instant change. The air in the room has cracks running through it, like hot glass plunged into ice. The doctor softly shifts his voice, he speaks not to Clare but to his nurses. “Bring me a blanket,” he says.
Dr. James firmly says to Clare, “Push again. Push.” Elijah’s grip tightens over Clare’s. The doctor continues to pull and support the emerging baby. His paper face mask puffs, he has said something but to himself.
Elijah asks, “Doctor?”
Dr. James glances up at Elijah with the look of a man at the bottom of a long and tedious hill, who must run up it and is certain he cannot. Then he looks down.
Clare cannot see around her belly and the spread of the hospital gown to her child. Elijah stays strong in Clare’s hand.
She pushes her hardest. If something is wrong, she will cure it by dint of will and effort. She and Elijah will bring their child into the world even if the doctor is worried, even if he has quit looking up at them.
The infant does issue into Dr. James’s waiting hands. He takes a small suction device like a turkey baster and uses it to remove the mucus blockage from the baby’s nostrils; Clare hears him discharge the thing twice into a napkin. He takes a clamp from a nurse, throttles the umbilical cord, and snips it with scissors. He reaches to the nurse for the blanket and swaddles the child. He does not rise to lay the newborn on Clare’s stomach to be loved in its first seconds but turns away from Clare and Elijah, carrying the child. Clare’s back is on fire with the pain of birthing. The blanket is pink and the doctor has wrapped her baby in it from head to foot, she cannot see her child.
Keeping his back to Clare and Elijah, the doctor hands the newborn to a nurse. While the woman cradles it, the other nurse helps Clare take her legs down from the stirrups. Clare watches the rear of the doctor’s arms and shoulders doing his final work, sees him wipe the little body with sterile cloths that he tosses into a bin with a heavy arm. She hears her baby cough in the nurse’s arms behind the obstetrician’s white back. Elijah says again, “Doctor?” Clare keeps herself on the table, though she wants to get up and wrest her infant away from the doctor. The child has been in the world a minute now. Clare yearns to begin.
She cannot hear what the doctor says to the nurse. But the nurse does not want to do what he asks. She hesitates. Clare hears the nurse say, “No, doctor. Please.”
Dr. James steps aside. The nurse comes closer to Clare and Elijah bearing the pink blanket. She hangs back from the bed. She does not lay the blanket across Clare’s flattened and flabby waist. The nurse says, “It’s a girl.”
At last Clare lets go of Elijah’s hand. Her palm is soaked. She reaches both arms for her daughter. The nurse withholds the child.
From the foot of the bed Dr. James speaks. He pulls down his blue mask. Clare sees the defeat in his face. He has not, he never could, run up the long hill.
“Clare. Elijah. Wait a minute.”
Clare says, “Give me my baby.”
The doctor says their names again, “Clare. Elijah.” Clare drops her arms. Elijah’s hand returns into hers.
The doctor says, “I need to tell you something first.”
Clare waits for the man to continue. In those seconds she feels a wall erect itself inside her, stolid and fast, of love and loyalty for her baby. Dr. James batters the wall with his pauses and anguished eyes but the wall is holding.
He says, “There’s a serious problem. With the baby’s brain.”
The child in the nurse’s arms, as though to refute this terrible statement, squeaks inside the pink blanket.
Clare shakes her head. “No. I can hear her. She’s fine. Give her to me.”
No one moves. The child is held away from them. Elijah adds his voice, it is firm.
“Give us the child, doctor. She’s ours.”
The doctor stands his ground in silence, staring into Clare’s eyes. He shifts his gaze to Elijah, then nods. The doctor says to them, “Prepare yourselves.”
The nurse presents the wrapped infant to Clare’s eager hands. With no hesitation, Clare lifts the blanket from her daughter’s head. She hears the doctor say, “I’m sorry.”
Above the baby’s brows, there is nothing. The cap of her head, the bowl of skull where the brain should be, is not there. Instead the skull is flat, covered in warm, pink skin; the child is horribly incomplete. The wall inside Clare cannot take this, not this, she draws a breath as if bashed; Elijah’s grip has moved to her shoulder, his hand tightens there. She cannot let out her breath. She closes her eyes; the child in her arms feels so right, so perfect, it is the right weight and it is breathing and needing her. Clare’s breast aches with the desire to give to it. Inside her, under this assault, the worst of her life, somehow the wall holds. Clare releases a cry. She opens her eyes and knows she loves this child, just as she loves the pain which brought her daughter into the world, pain which did not stop and will not stop now that she is here. It is the softness of the top of her child’s head, smooth and flat to Clare’s lips, which breaks her heart and cements the wall forever. Clare sees that her daughter’s hair, when dry, will be white and wispy as corn silk.
Elijah’s hand comes to the baby’s cheek. Clare hears him whisper, “Oh my Jesus.” The baby gurgles, seeking the tip of Elijah’s finger with her lips. Clare laughs with a gasp. Her tears splash over the baby’s face.
The nurse says, “She’ll feed. Go ahead, she’ll suckle.”
Clare looks to the doctor for confirmation. He gives it with a strained, tight mouth. Clare turns a smile up to Elijah. He nods to her. She sees him swallow. He stands so straight, she thinks, the glint of tears in his eyes. Turning her gown down, she gives the baby her nipple.
One nurse shuts off the hot lamps beside the bed, leaving only the soft glow of dimmed ceiling lights. The child sucks. There is no milk yet, not for another day or two. Elijah laughs quickly, almost a weep, and Clare’s sense of loss flies up into him, like birds to his branches. He will hold the grief, she thinks. I must hold our child.
The doctor, standing back, speaks.
“It’s called anencephaly. It’s a failure of the neural tube to close soon after conception. The brain, it . . . never develops beyond the stem. Your baby can suckle, swallow, respond to stimuli, but that’s going to be all. Don’t misinterpret those reactions. You should know . . .”
Elijah leaves Clare’s side for the first time in thirteen hours.
“Doctor, can we go in the hall?”
Outside the delivery room, away from Clare, Elijah asks him to continue the explanation. The doctor speaks carefully, reaching to take Elijah’s arm while he speaks.
Anencephaly, Dr. James explains, is the most common major central-nervous-system malformation in the United States, striking one in every twelve hundred births. Anencephalic babies, if born alive at all, do not survive.