The Hatbox Babyby Carrie Brown
Carrie Brown is the author of two previous novels, Lamb In Love and Rose’s Garden, which won the 1998 Barnes & Noble Discover Award. A journalist and newspaper editor before entering the University of Virginia's MFA program as a Henry Hoyns Fellow, she now teaches writing part-time at Sweet Briar College and lives near the college with her husband and their three children.
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The Century of Progress Exposition
The young man with the hatbox under his arm was among the first to arrive at the fair that morning. He stood alone at the top of the Avenue of Flags, under the weak light of the early sun, wondering which way to go. Then, from inside the hatbox held close against his chest, he felt a small, muffled concussionthe baby's foot striking the side of the box. Or the baby's hand? Or head? Or tiny shoulder like a wren's wing, as the child flipped and turned and struggled against the round walls? The movement resounded against his chest, and he felt himself awakening at last from the long night behind him.
It was the first time he'd felt the baby move since Mrs. Hermann had stood up from between his wife's bloody knees and closed the lid over the box and handed it to him. "Take it to that doctor, that one at the fair," she had said. "He's the only one can save it."
He stared straight ahead into the light of the morninghe didn't dare look downand moved his hand to touch the side of the box. It was like running his palm over Sylvie's swollen belly, the same smooth, round dryness. The same baby inside.
Before him, the empty concourse opened up, a broad runway demarcated on either side by two long lines of flagpoles surmounted by brightly colored pennants. In the insistent wind off Lake Michigan, the flags held taut against a pale sky streaked with declining brush strokes of clouds. When this was all over, when he had found the doctor and left the baby and come back home again, he would tell Sylvie and Mrs. Hermann aboutthis.
I felt like the last man on earth, he would tell them.
Yet, alone as he felt, the fair was slowly coming to life around him. Solitary preparations were being made behind closed doors and in hidden places. Awake and present, for instance, though invisible to the young man, was a gathering of Hopi Indians, young men and women drinking green tea together in the long, flat shade of a mud hut while repairing the intricate beadwork on their costumes for the butterfly dance to be performed later that day at one-hour intervals. Also at work at this early hour were the lion tamers, unloading backbreaking hunks of beef and ice from an early delivery truck.
Two waitresses at the Costa Rica Coffee Shop were sleepily measuring and grinding mountains of fragrant beans for the first of the day's many cups of coffee. The driver of a noisy, ten-ton Pabst Blue Ribbon truck backed slowly down an alley in the Streets of Paris. The aging pianist who played the morning shift at the Baldwin Piano Company's display practiced in the company's suffocating, velvet-draped booth in the empty General Exhibits Pavilion. Under the rising sun, the fire walkers from Darkest Africa silently spread their coals, and at the Maya Temple, the Nunnery of Uxmal, a tiny, barefoot woman in a black dress stepped from the cavelike opening of the temple's entrance and set to sweeping the first of the temple's one hundred steps.
The young man had read about the fair's marvels in the advertisements and the newspaper stories. And everybody in Chicago talked about it. Now here it was, on either side of him, up and down the broad concourses, all the wonders of the world spread out before his eyesthe secrets of science and aeronautics and architecture, the methods of magic and medicine and art and love.
He had read, for instance, about the grim, mechanical pterodactyl groaning from sixteen steel cables in the icy, marble Hall of Science, the creature's shadow falling like a huge webbed foot over farmers from Kansas or Missouri.
And he'd been told about the scientific display from the Baltimore College of Dental Surgerythere they were, George Washington's wooden teeth! Someone had thought to mount them, for purposes of public edification, on a steel pedestal under a glass dome. Alongside were images of George W. before (with original teeth) and George W. after; the improvement certainly was striking, people said.
There were (reportedly) other sights, some troubling. The Deutsches Hygiene Museum's Transparent Man, for instance. In an otherwise empty circular hall, dimly lit and trimmed with a mosaic frieze of inscrutable hieroglyphs, the ten-foot Transparent Man rotated slowly, its arms uplifted in a pose of worship. Its organsbrain, stomach, heart, spleen, liver, gall bladderwere illuminated one by one, a human switchboard.
And there were miracles, too: the fragile Japanese house of polished cedar and bamboo, erected roof-first to the astonishment of all onlookers.
The replica of Mount Vernon fashioned entirely from pearls.
Chains of elephants solemnly moving trees.
The Nocturnal Gardens of Enchantment.
The seven-foot nine-inch boy from Pennsylvania, fifteen years old and still growing.
Willy Vocalite, the electric robot.
A real, live Ethiopian princess, smoking a cigarette and flicking ash at the feet of the men who came to stare at her.
These were strange sights, to be sure, strange and wondrous, but none was so temptinghis friends saidas the plump, outstretched, freckled arms of the taxi dancers, encouraging passersby onto the floor for a turn or two for a dime. Or the famous fan dancer herself, Caroline Day, her magnificent body glazed with a pink court plaster and dusted with white powder, her breasts a high shelf, rippling like a mirage. She appeared onstage three times a day in a smoky ring of light, her charms winking and vanishing behind a pair of ostrich-feather fans that slowly grazed the blue and indefinite air of the Lido theater.
So much, so many things, all competing for a young man's time and attention, his money, his heart, and his imagination. And yet this young man had none of those to spare. All he had was a hatbox, and in it his infant son, born too soon.
He walked alone down the thousand yards of the Avenue of Flags, the hatbox held close in his arms, the pennants of geranium red and snow white and sky blue snapping overhead. He had not once looked inside the box since leaving home. He could not bear to see it if it was dead.
He knew that the fair doctor kept his special, tiny babies on display in shiny boxes called incubators. In those incubators, it was said, people could see how nature takes its course deep within the body, how a man can contrive to make a woman's womb. Now his own child had come, nearly three months early, and so he'd traveled obedientlythe way a child takes a nickel and goes to buy a loaf of bread for his motherto find this famous incubator doctor, as his neighbor Mrs. Hermann had proposed. He'd done what he was told to do.
But to him it only felt like his heart was tied up so tightly inside that it hurt, tied up like something bound and gagged for fear it would give itself away. Within minutes of beginning his trip, he had convinced himself that the infant had already died in the hatbox. Mrs. Hermann had said she thought it might; she'd wanted him to be ready if it came to that. But she had succeeded chiefly in making him even more terrified of the child. Wouldn't it move again? He ran his fingers over the box's round side, over the eyelets through which the thin string ran and which admitted air into the hatbox.
"It's enough," Mrs. Hermann had said. "It can breathe, if it will."
But he would not open the lid now, not even to peek.
The giant, elongated shadows of early morning fell around him. Passing through zebra stripes of light and dark, he saw fountains and monuments, tents and bivouacs, brightly colored facades and cool, dark passageways. Pausing at the intersection of two wide thoroughfares, he hesitated. A vague instinct prompted him to look up. There in the pale blue sky, between the towering canyon walls of the exposition's architectural monuments, a dirigible balanced lightly on a rack of cloud.
Oh! It was a fantastic thing, such as might be found in a book! An airplane drew a foamy zigzag in the empty air, a child's thick alphabet sloping toward the horizon.
He hoisted the hatbox higher in his arms.
Was it alive or dead? Alive or dead? He did not want to be touching it if it was dead.
Within minutes of his arrival at the fair, the roadways became crowded. People now filled the avenues in groups of two and three and more, their voices high and incoherent-sounding. The fair's bold new buildings, their soaring height and immutable bulk; its barkers and gawkers; its peddlers and converts; its acolytes and innocentsthey began to close in around the young man. He stopped, confused.
Which way should he go? Where was the baby doctor?
He walked quicklyJust go in any direction; it doesn't matter, just keep goingand soon was soaked. His hair darkened at his temples, and the back of his shirt became stained with sweat. He hurried now past colorful flower gardens, past the reproduction of Abraham Lincoln's rough cabin, past the Belgian glassblowers and the sloe-eyed Moroccans with their piles of brass and leather. He was a fast walker, accustomed since childhood to running if pursued. He would not ask directions; it didn't look smart to be lost.
Though it was still early in the day, he was as hot as if he were running a fever. He wanted a drink of water. At every corner, he saw refreshment for saleProhibition was over, beer was backbut it seemed a man could not find just a glass of water, something for nothing. Yet that was what he longed for.
He had eaten nothing before leaving home. He couldn't remember when he had last eaten. The past twenty-four hours blurred behind him, appalling and terrible. He knew what bad luck was (he'd had it all his life, hadn't he?) but he had not been prepared for something so terrible as this, this baby born too soon, this child who now depended on him for its life, to findquickly, quicklyin this vast, perplexing, hallucinatory landscape, the one man who could save its life.
If there was even a life anymore to be saved.
Meet the Author
Carrie Brown, a former journalist, lives in Sweet Briar, Virginia, with her husband, the novelist John Gregory Brown, and their three children. Her first novel, Rose's Garden, won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Her most recent book, The Hatbox Baby, won the 2001 Great Lakes Booksellers Association award for fiction and the 2001 Library of Virginia Literary Award.
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An unusual story filled with richly developed characters, filled with compassion and a wonderful glimpse into a time gone by. A very rewarding read. One I'll pass on lovingly.
Please, please, please read this book. It's an incredible work. Brown has quite a way with language. Her story is intricate, heart-wrenching, beautiful. This novel is one of emotional beauty. Read it to find out.
As a "preemie" born just 10 years later, this was fascinating. A story with many layers. Great exploration of personalities and roles.
This book was just great. You might think the subject would be depressing but it is not. The strong characters make you imagine yourself in their roles. The descriptions are so vibrant you can't skip a word. The symbolism is subtle and connective; I am considering reading it again just to pick up everything.