THE HOME FOR WAYWARD CLOCKS
The baby was crying again and Helena paced the floor. The thing just never shut up, never left her alone. It didn’t matter if she gave him breast or bottle, picked him up or put him down, played a music box or left him in silence, he cried and cried and cried. She knew he slept sometimes, she knew it. She watched him. But even then, even when he breathed deep in sleep and his eyelids fluttered above flushed cheeks, she still heard his piercing voice shriek on, flying into all her corners and curves of silence.
Now she turned away, leaving the baby alone again in his room. She called her husband at work. “He won’t stop,” she said immediately after his hello. “I’m going to kill him, I swear I’m going to kill him.” Then she slammed the phone down.
Returning to the nursery, she stared down at the baby, his eyes squeezed shut, his mouth a dark echoing oval. A cave, she thought. His mouth is a cave and I’m going to fall in and be lost forever. He wants to swallow me whole. “Shut up!” she shouted.
The baby gasped and stopped, closing his mouth and opening his eyes. He looked at her, he looked straight at her, and then he raised his arms and wailed again.
“Please, please,” she said. “Please, please. Just be quiet for a little while, just ten minutes, just five.” She rocked his cradle, back and forth, fast then slow, but he screamed just the same. He waved his arms and finally, she snatched him up and squeezed him tightly. He quivered and curled against her, pressing his hot damp face into her neck. She felt his heat spread like a river through her body and her own skin began to moisten.
Carrying him, she paced around the room. “Please, please,” she said over and over. “Please, please.” She felt his body relax and after a while, she tugged him away from her neck to see if he was sleeping.
He wasn’t. He stared at her, not blinking.
Quickly, she put him back in his cradle. The corners of his mouth turned up and he seemed to smile. For that moment and that moment alone, she felt her lips reflex and she smiled back at him.
Then she stepped away and immediately, he began to cry again. It started out low, but it built up quickly and soon his voice took solid shape, stuffing itself through doorways, crashing against windows, layering itself on the floor like wave after wave of briny thick water. His hands and feet beat furiously at the bars of the cradle and his head whipped from the left to the right.
“Stop it!” she screamed. Running back across the room, tearing through his voice, she put her face against his. “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” Then she took his blanket, his stuffed bear, the little gift pillow with his birth date and weight and length embroidered on it and stacked them all up on his face. If enough was there, it would muffle his cries. Then she flew out of the nursery to the living room and sat on the couch. She covered her ears with her hands and she rocked.
She remembered the pregnancy, the rolling contortion of her body, the pressure of those horrible first and last kicks. Her husband crowed with delight, but she cried at the way her stomach heaved, the way her skin molded around the baby’s knee or elbow or head. She knew that he writhed and howled inside her, his mouth perpetually wide, sounds thrashing through fluid, disturbing her sleep, disturbing her thoughts. She dreamed of babies with voices like foghorns, factory whistles and firetruck sirens. She woke to find her belly surging, toppling her in the bed. Then came the labor and the pain that left her hearing only her own voice, bent out of shape from screaming. The pain promised more to come and it did, a wet, blotchy baby against her chest, blood smeared on his face and her breasts, and he opened his mouth and screeched.
Now a shadow passed by and Helena felt a breeze on her cheek. Looking up, she saw her husband’s back as he ran into the nursery. She took her hands from her ears and realized it was quiet. She held her breath. Then, as big wails flooded the room, she curled herself into a ball. Her husband appeared in the doorway, holding the baby. “He was turning blue!” he yelled and the baby bawled louder. “You could’ve killed him!”
“I said I was going to,” she whispered, but she turned away, her fingers shaking. She heard her husband go back to the nursery, and then there was his off-tune tenor as he changed the baby’s diaper.
“Oh, where have you been, Jamie boy, Jamie boy,” he sang. “Oh, where have you been, charming James?”
That soft voice, that used to sing to her. That called her Helena baby, Helena sweetheart, come to bed, Helena girl. Come to bed. And she did and he kept calling her back and then she grew large and soon there was no more quiet, no more silence. Only noise and more noise.
“Jamie crack corn and I don’t care,” her husband sang. The baby was quiet, except for the hiccups.
Yet she could still hear him screaming. It was there behind her husband’s soft croon, in the hollow echo of the baby’s wet belches. Helena surged to her feet and ran from the house.
* * * *
She bathed in the moonlight. She shivered just a little, but the soft silver kept her warm, a light blanket of silence. There was no noise on top of the hill. She didn’t even hear any birds. Down below, lights sparked like fire in her house and her husband’s shadow moved from window to window. There was a dark curve on his shoulder and she knew it was the baby.
Alone on the hill, she shuddered.
The house fell dark. Then the porch light blinked on and the front door opened and she could see her husband, looking out, looking for her. She sat still in the moonlight, hiding in the gleam, knowing the silver light would mask her white-blonde hair, her pale skin.
“Helena!” he called. “Helena baby, come home! C’mon, darlin’! I’m sorry, I know you didn’t mean it! It was an accident!”
She sat still. Soon, he went inside. The porch light died.
Watching the moonlight, Helena waited until her eyes wanted to close and the grass grew wet against her thighs. Then she went down the hill and thought about hiding in the root cellar, hiding in the dark and the damp where nobody ever went. Never going inside her house again. Never touching that hot, clammy head again. Never hearing that voice. But her husband returned to the front door.
“Helena baby,” he said. “It’s late, sweetheart. Come to bed.”
So she did. Their lovemaking was silent and tender, but she was braced, feeling the baby in the next room, knowing he was waiting, knowing he would bust in just when she was at fever pitch.
And he did, his voice ripping her husband away from her skin like a rent piece of cloth. He ran naked to the nursery and began to sing.
“Oh, baby love, my baby love…”
She crawled under the damp sheets and cried.
* * * *
The next day was the same. And the next. The baby cried and she picked him up. He cried and she put him down. She left him in his room for hours and he keened while she sat on the floor in the corner of the kitchen. She rocked, banging the back of her head against the cabinet. She stopped eating and drinking and there was no sleep, even when her husband took over in the middle of the night. That voice ricocheted around the house and inside her head.
On a mid-morning when she stood in a nightshirt she’d worn for a week, never finding a moment to take it off, never finding a moment for a shower, the baby lifted his head from her neck and bellowed right in her ear. The sound severed her spine and she went limp, slumping to the floor. But her arms remained stiff. She held the baby straight out, he flailed between her fingers. And then she began to shake him.
She saw the top of his hair, the bottom of his chin, a flash of white forehead and throat. He kept crying, but the sound became rubbery, then flimsy, going faint and loud with each thrust forward, pull back. And then he stopped altogether.
She held him still and for a moment, they both trembled. Then he tucked his head, drew his legs up, and curled into a ball around her hands. She rolled him on the floor, then smacked her forehead against her knees and cried.
When she was spent, there was one solid minute of silence. She raised her head, basked in it, and felt her shoulders relax. She felt hungry, but she was too tired to get up.
Then the baby uncurled and began to scream. Stretching out his arm, he batted her leg, his fingers wide and extended. She covered her ears and ran out of the house. But his barrage followed her.
Helena had to do something. Outside, she tripped over the root cellar doors and while she rubbed her toes, she remembered wanting to hide down there, in the dark and the damp and the quiet.
The dark, the damp, the quiet.
She straightened. Returning to the house, she stepped lightly over the crying baby and went to rummage in the pantry. She found the cardboard box her husband brought home last week, filled with groceries from the store. Going to the nursery, she took the blanket from the cradle and tossed it into the box. In the kitchen, the baby’s sobs softened to a whimper and she stopped for a moment, trying to think what it reminded her of.
She snapped her fingers. A puppy. He sounded just like the puppy her little brother got when he was seven. And she remembered what her brother tried to keep the puppy quiet, to keep him company. It reminds him of his mother’s heartbeat, her brother said. It hadn’t worked, but maybe it would now. Maybe it would here.
She hated that puppy. It cried all night, keeping the whole family up. Her brother cried too, when it died. When she killed it. When she wrung its soft neck. She never told anybody, but she helped her brother bury it out behind the house, marking the grave with a lopsided cross he made himself out of wooden clothespins.
Going into the bedroom, she dug into the back of the closet until she found a wind-up alarm clock, a gift from her mother that she never used. It always ticked too loudly, shredding the blanket of dark silence that always lulled her to sleep.. She threw it in the box, then went out to the kitchen to collect the baby.
When he saw her, he screamed, holding his hands out to her. She picked him up by the collar of his sleeper, dangling him like it was the scruff of his neck. She dropped him in the box, then carried everything outside.
By the root cellar double doors, she had to put it all down. The doors needed both hands for opening, tugging them up and then laying them to the side. The sunlight fell in on cement steps. Going down, she smelled the damp and felt the dark close in. Like a womb, she thought. He’ll be fine down here.
She set the box in a far corner, then arranged the baby on his back. His shriek went up to a strident pitch and his hands turned into little fists, beating at the air. She covered him with the blanket, then wound the alarm clock and placed it by his head. The ticking sounded loud and hollow and the baby paused for just a second, held his breath, looked at the clock, then began to cry again.
She shrugged, walking away and closing the double doors. It didn’t matter if the clock worked or not; she wouldn’t hear him anymore. She would sleep for a few hours, then go down to feed him. She slid a heavy branch through the door latches, telling herself it was to keep someone from breaking in, when she knew it was so he wouldn’t break out. He couldn’t, she knew that, not yet. But babies grow; she wasn’t sure how fast.
In the house, the sun suddenly seemed brighter. She made herself a ham and cheese sandwich and sat down at the table, eating with her eyes closed. She drank a whole glass of cold milk. Then she went into the living room where the sun flowed through a window, splashing a big square patch on the floor. She smiled and curled into the warmth like a cat. In a moment, she was asleep.
* * * *
When her husband came home, Helena met him at the door. Putting the bawling baby into his arms, she said, “Do something with him. I’m going out for a while.”
As she moved past, her husband touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?” he asked. “You didn’t call all day.”
“I’m fine,” she said. She flinched when the baby cried louder.
Her husband kissed the back of the baby’s neck. “I told you it would get better. I told you you could do it.”
Helena shrugged and smiled and her husband smiled back. She knew they could both be happy again. All afternoon, she planned as she sat in the sun and read, sat in the sun and ate, sat in the sun and let the blessed silence soak into her skin. The baby was locked up tight and he had his clock so she knew he was all right. When she went to feed him, she brought along a rolled-up newspaper. While it didn’t stop him from screaming, it made her feel better. Like she was doing something, teaching him something. Teaching him to obey. She would replace the newspaper tomorrow with a wooden brush. And then, as the baby grew, there could be a belt, a choke collar, a leash, a cage.
He would behave. He would be quiet. She looked at him now, crying in his father’s arms. He wouldn’t get away with that. Not tomorrow. The thought of another day in the silent sun made her smile.
Then she waved goodbye and slipped away, light as air, the baby’s cries hanging in a black cloud behind her.