From multiple World Fantasy Award winner and Nebula, Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, Sturgeon, and British Science Fiction Award nominated author M. Rickert comes a gorgeous and terrifying vision of the Mothers of Voorhisville, who love their babies just as intensely as any mother anywhere. Of course they do! And nothing in this world will change that, even if every single one of those tiny babies was born with an even tinier set of wings.
This novella was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Liz Gorinsky.
The things you have heard are true; we are the mothers of monsters. We would, however, like to clarify a few points. For instance, by the time we realized what Jeffrey had been up to, he was gone. At first we thought maybe the paper mill was to blame; it closed down in 1969, but perhaps it had taken that long for the poisonous chemicals to seep into our drinking water. We hid it from one another, of course, the strange shape of our newborns and the identity of the father. Each of us thought we were his secret lover. That was much of the seduction. (Though he was also beautiful, with those blue eyes and that intense way of his.)
It is true that he arrived in that big black car with the curtains across the back windows, as has been reported. But though Voorhisville is a small town, we are not ignorant, toothless, or the spawn of generations of incest. We did recognize the car as a hearse. However, we did not immediately assume the worst of the man who drove it. Perhaps we in Voorhisville are not as sheltered from death as people elsewhere. We, the mothers of Voorhisville, did not look at Jeffrey and immediately think of death. Instead, we looked into those blue eyes of his and thought of sex. You might have to have met him yourself to understand. There is a small but growing contingency of us that believes we were put under a type of spell. Not in regards to our later actions, which we take responsibility for, but in regards to him.
What mother wouldn’t kill to save her babies? The only thing unusual about our story is that our children can fly. (Sometimes, even now, we think we hear wings brushing the air beside us.) We mothers take the blame because we understand, someone has to suffer. So we do. Gladly.
We would gladly do it all again to have one more day with our darlings. Even knowing the damage, we would gladly agree. This is not the apology you might have expected. Think of it more as a manifesto. A map, in case any of them seek to return to us, though our hope of that happening is faint. Why would anyone choosethis ruined world?
The mothers have asked me to write what I know about what happened, most specifically what happened to me. I am suspicious of their motives. They insist this story must be told to “set the record straight.” What I think is that they are annoyed that I, Elli Ratcher, with my red hair and freckles and barely sixteen years old, shared a lover with them. The mothers like to believe they were driven to the horrible things they did by mother-love. I can tell you, though; they have always been capable of cruelty.
The mothers, who have a way of hovering over me, citing my recent suicide attempt, say I should start at the beginning. That is an easy thing to say. It’s the kind of thing I probably would have said to Timmy, had he not fallen through my arms and crashed to the ground at my feet.
The mothers say if this is too hard, I should give the pen to someone else. “We all have stuff to tell,” Maddy Melvern says. Maddy is, as everyone knows, jealous. She was just seventeen when she did it with Jeffrey and would be getting all the special attention if not for me. The mothers say they really mean it—if I can’t start at the beginning, someone else will. So, all right.
It’s my fifteenth birthday, and Grandma Joyce, who taught high school English for forty-six years, gives me one of her watercolor cards with a poem and five dollars. I know she’s trying to tell me something important with the poem, but the most I can figure out about what it means is that she doesn’t want me to grow up. That’s okay. She’s my grandma. I give her a kiss. She touches my hair. “Where did this come from?” she says, which annoys my mom. I don’t know why. When she says it in front of my dad, he says, “Let it rest, Ma.”
Right now my dad is out in the barn showing Uncle Bobby the beams. The barn beams have been a subject of much concern for my father, and endless conversations—at dinner, or church, or in parent-teacher conferences, the grocery store, or the post office—have been reduced to “the beams.”
I stand on the porch and feel the sun on my skin. I can hear my mom and aunt in the kitchen and the cartoon voices from Shrek 2, which my cousins are watching. When I look at the barn I think I hear my dad saying “beams.” I look out over the front yard to the road that goes by our house. Right then, a long black car comes over the hill, real slow, like the driver is lost. I shade my eyes to watch it pass the cornfield. I wonder if it is some kind of birthday present for me. A ride in a limousine! It slows down even more in front of our house. That’s when I realize it’s a hearse.
Then my dad and Uncle Bobby come out of the barn. When my dad sees me he says, “Hey! You can’t be fifteen, not my little stinkbottom,” which he’s been saying all day, “stinkbottom” being what he used to call me when I was in diapers. I have to use all my will and power not to roll my eyes, because he hates it when I roll my eyes. I am trying not to make anyone mad, because today is my birthday.
As far as I can figure out, that is the beginning. But is it? Is it the beginning? There are so many of us, and maybe there are just as many beginnings. What does “beginning” mean, anyway? What does anything mean? What is meaning? What is? Is Timmy? Or is he not? Once, I held him in my arms and he smiled and I thought I loved him. But maybe I didn’t. Maybe everything was already me throwing babies out the window; maybe everything was already tiny homemade caskets with flies buzzing around them; maybe everything has always been this place, this time, this sorrowful house and the weeping of the mothers.
We have decided Elli should take a little time to compose herself. Tamara Singh, who, up until Ravi’s birth, worked at the library on Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other Saturday, has graciously volunteered. In the course of persuading us that she is, in fact, perfect for the position of chronicler, Tamara—perhaps overcome with enthusiasm—cited the fantastic aspects of her several unpublished novels. This delayed our assent considerably. Tamara said she would not be writing about “elves and unicorns.” She explained that the word fantasy comes from the Latin phantasia, which means “an idea, notion, image, or a making visible.”
“Essentially, it’s making an idea visible. Everyone knows what we did. I thought we were trying to make them see why,” she said.
The mothers have decided to let Tamara tell what she can. We agree that what we have experienced, and heretofore have not adequately explained (or why would we still be here?)—might be best served by “a making visible.”
We can hope, at least. Many of us, though surprised to discover it, still have hope.
There is, on late summer days, a certain perfume to Voorhisville. It’s the coppery smell of water, the sweet scent of grass with a touch of corn and lawn mower gas, lemon slices in ice-tea glasses and citronella. Sometimes, if the wind blows just right, it carries the perfume of the angel roses in Sylvia Lansmorth’s garden, a scent so seductive that everyone, from toddlers playing in the sandbox at Fletcher’s Park to senior citizens in rocking chairs at The Celia Wathmore Nursing Home, is made just a little bit drunk.
On just such a morning, Sylvia Lansmorth (whose beauty was not diminished by the recent arrival of gray in her long hair), sat in her garden, in the chair her husband had made for her during that strange year after the cancer diagnosis.
She sat weeping amongst her roses, taking deep gulps of the sweet air, like a woman just surfaced from a near drowning. In truth, Sylvia, who had experienced much despair in the past year, was now feeling an entirely different emotion.
“I want you to get on with things,” he’d told her. “I don’t want you mourning forever. Promise me.”
So she made the sort of unreasonable promise one makes to a dying man, while he looked at her with those bulging eyes, which had taken on a light she once thought characteristic of saints and psychopaths.
She’d come, as she had so many times before, to sit in her garden, and for some reason, who knows why, was overcome by this emotion she never thought she would feel again—this absolute love of life. As soon as she recognized it, she began to weep. Still, it was an improvement, anyone would say, this weeping and gulping of air; a great improvement over weeping and muffling her face against a pillow.
Of all the sweet-smelling places in Voorhisville that morning, the yoga studio was the sweetest. The music was from India, or so they thought. Only Tamara guessed it wasn’t Indian music, but music meant to sound as though it was; just as the teacher, Shreve, despite her unusual name, wasn’t Indian but from somewhere in New Jersey. If you listened carefully, you could hear it in her voice.
Right in the middle of the opening chant there was a ruckus at the back of the room. Somebody was late, and not being particularly quiet about it. Several women peeked, right in the middle of om. Others resisted until Shreve instructed them to stand, at which point they reached for a water bottle, or a towel, or just forgot about subterfuge entirely and simply looked. By the time the class was in its first downward dog, there was not a person there who hadn’t spied on the noisy latecomer. He had the bluest eyes any of them had ever seen, and a halo of light around his body, which most everyone assumed was an optical illusion. It would be a long time before any of them thought that it hadn’t been a glow at all, but a burning.
Shreve noticed (when she walked past him as he lay in corpse position) the strong scent of jasmine, and thought that, in the mysterious ways of the world, a holy man, a yogi, had come into her class.
Shreve, like Sylvia, was a widow. Sort of. There was no word for what she was, actually. She felt betrayed by language, amongst other things. Her fiancé had been murdered. Even the nature of his death had robbed her of something primary, as if how he died was more important than that he had. She’d given up trying to explain it. Nobody in Voorhisville knew. She’d moved here with her new yoga teacher certificate after the second anniversary of the event and opened up this studio with the savings she’d set aside for the wedding. His parents paid for the funeral, so she still had quite a bit left, which was good, because though the studio was a success by Voorhisville’s standards, she was running out of money. It was enough to make her cranky sometimes. She tried to forgive herself for it. Shreve wasn’t sure she had enough love to forgive the world, but she thought—maybe—she could forgive herself.
With her hands in prayer position, Shreve closed her eyes and sang “shanti” three times. It meant “peace,” and on that morning Shreve felt like peace had finally arrived.
Later, when the stranger showed up for the writers’ workshop at Jan Morris’s house, she could not determine how he’d found out about the elitist group, known to have rejected at least one local writer on the basis of the fact she wrote fantasy. Jan asked him how he’d found them, but Sylvia interrupted before he could answer. Certainly it never occurred to her to think he was up to anything diabolical. Also, it became clear that Sylvia knew him from a yoga class she attended. By the time he had passed out the twelve copies of his poem—his presence made them a group of thirteen, but they were intellectuals, not a superstitious bunch—well, it just didn’t matter how he found them.
Afterwards, as the writers left, Jan stood at the door with the stranger beside her, waving goodbye until she observed two things: first, that the last car remaining in the driveway was a hearse, and second, that the stranger smelled, quite pleasantly, of lemons.
Jan preferred to call him “the stranger.” Never mind Camus; it had a nice ring to it all on its own. Eventually, when the mothers pieced things together, it seemed the most accurate moniker. They didn’t know him at all. None of them did. Not really.
One night in early June, after events began to unfold as they did, Jan looked for her copy of the stranger’s poem, which she remembered folding inside a book, like a pressed flower. But though she tore apart the bookshelf, making so much noise she woke the baby, she never found it. She called the others and asked each of them, trying to sound casual (“Remember that poet, who came to the workshop just that once? And that poem he wrote?”), but none of them could locate their copy either.
Sylvia remembered that night well; waving goodbye to Jan and Jeffrey, who were standing in the doorway together, haloed by the light of all those overwhelming lemon-scented candles. Jeffrey was a good deal taller than Jan. Sylvia realized she could look right into his blue eyes without even seeing the top of the other woman’s head.
When Jan called in June, Sylvia pretended to have only a minor memory of Jeffrey and the poem, but as soon as she hung up she began searching for it, moving ponderously, weighed down by her pregnancy and the heat. How could she have misplaced it? She had intended to give it to the child some day, a way to say, “Here, you have a father and he is a genius.” But also, Sylvia felt, it was proof that what she had done had been the only reasonable response. The poem revealed not just his intelligence, but also his heart, which was good. Sylvia had to believe this, though he left her. Her husband had left her, too . . . and yes, all right, he had died, but Jeffrey made no promises. He’d come and gone, which Sylvia considered fortunate. She didn’t need, or want, the complication of his presence. But she did want that poem.
That night, when Sylvia’s water broke, she was surprised at how it felt: “As though there had been an iceberg inside of me, which suddenly melted,” she told Holly.
Holly, the midwife and a keeper of many secrets, had a house in Ridgehaven, but that May, she rented a small room from the Melverns, who were thrilled to have her in such close proximity to their pregnant seventeen-year-old daughter. Holly had told no one what she had seen: all those pregnant women in Voorhisville who didn’t appear to have a man in their lives. While this was certainly not scandalous, she did find the number significant. When the babies began arriving that last week in May, it became clear to Holly that something had happened to the women of Voorhisville. Something indescribable.
For Jeffrey’s appeal—though he was a good-looking man—went beyond description. Though there weren’t many, there were other attractive men in Voorhisville who the women had not fucked; receiving nothing in exchange but a single night, or afternoon, or morning (after yoga class, in the studio, the air sweet with jasmine). When the women tried to define just what was so compelling about the stranger, they could not come to a consensus.
Lara Bravemeen, for instance, remembered his hands, with their long narrow fingers and their slender wrists. She said he had the hands of a painter.
Cathy Vecker remembered the way he moved. “Like a man who never hurried . . . but not lazy, you see. Self-contained, that’s what I mean.”
Tamara mentioned his eyes, which everyone else thought so obvious there was no need to comment on.
Elli Ratcher stopped chewing on a hangnail long enough to say, “When he held me I felt like I was being held by an angel. I felt like I would always be safe. I felt holy.”
At which point the women sighed and looked down at their shoes, or into their laps. Because to look at Elli was to remember she had been just fifteen. Though no one could be sure about Jeffrey’s age, he was certainly a man. What he’d done to all of them was wrong, but what he’d done to Elli (and Maddy, they hastened to add) went beyond wrong into the territory of evil.
My name is Maddy Melvern—well, Matilda, which just goes to show how grownups like to make up the world they live in; my parents naming me like I was living in a fairy tale instead of Voorhisville. Let’s just set the record straight, I don’t remember no sweet-smelling day here or none of that shit. Voorhisville is a dump. The houses, almost all of them, except the Veckers’, are all peeling paint and crooked porches. Voorhisville is the kind of town where if a window gets broke it’s gonna stay broke, but someone will try to cover it up with cardboard or duct tape. Duct tape holds Voorhisville together. Roddy Tyler’s got his shoes duct-taped, and there’s duct tape in the post office holding the American flag up, and there’s duct tape on the back of the third pew in St. Andrew’s balcony. I don’t know why. There just is. I was born here and I ain’t old enough to do nothing about it. I can’t explain why anyone else would stay. I know the mothers like to say there are sweet-smelling days in Voorhisville, but there ain’t.
I agree with Elli. Jeffrey was a angel. And just to be clear, my baby was a angel too. All our babies were. No matter what anyone says. I don’t care if he stayed. What was he going to do? Work at the canning factory? Maybe you can picture him doing that and then coming home to, like, have barbecues and shit, but I sure can’t. He didn’t fall for it, you know, that way of doing things right. What I say is that if everybody in Voorhisville’s so concerned with doing things right, then just as soon as we get out of here I’m going to live my life doing things wrong.
It was the first day of school and me, Leanne, Sasha, and some of the guys was walking to Sasha’s house when we see this hearse parked in front of St. Andrew’s. Mark dares me to go into the church. I’m like, what’s the big shit about that? So when the door shuts behind me they all take off, laughing like a bunch of retards.
I kind of liked it. It was peaceful, all right? And it did smell good in there. And everything was clean. So I’m looking at this big statue they got of Jesus on the cross? He’s got the crown with the thorns on his head, and he’s bleeding, and I don’t know why, but whenever I see statues and pictures of Jesus and shit like that, I sort of hate him. I know that’s insulting to many people, but he annoys me, with that crown piercing his skull and those nails in his feet and hands and shit. I never understand why he didn’t do nothing about it, if he was so powerful and all? “You belong in Voorhisville,” is what I thought, and I guess I said it out loud ’cause that’s when a voice behind me goes, “Excuse me?”
So, I turned and there he was. At first I thought he was the priest, but he set me straight. We talked for a long time and then after a while he said we had to go somewhere safe. I kind of laughed, because ain’t churches supposed to be super safe, but he took my hand, and we went up to the balcony. I don’t know why, we just did, okay? That’s where it happened. I know me and Elli ain’t been getting along so much here, but she’s right: it ain’t bad, what we did. I know, doing it in the church makes it seem bad, but it was good, okay? Like how they said it would be, not like . . . not . . . Okay, I’ve been with boys my own age, and I’ve had bad, and this was not like that. And I ain’t just talking about his dick. I’m talking about the feeling. What’d she call it? Holy.
But that don’t mean that Voorhisville ain’t all stinky and shit. We don’t gotta lie about that. We should tell it right because what this shows everyone is that something like this could happen anywhere. If it happened in Voorhisville, it could happen in any town, and I don’t see that as being a bad thing.
The third anniversary of Shreve’s fiancé’s death fell on a Saturday when yoga class was scheduled, but she decided to teach anyway, and was glad she did. She started class with a short meditation. She didn’t tell the women what to think or feel. They just sat there, breathing in and out. Shreve thought about her plans. After class, she would go home and change into something comfortable (but not her pajamas, as she’d done for years one and two), make herself a nice pot of tea, light a candle, and look at photographs.
By the time she opened her eyes, those hard minutes had passed. On that day (though not everyone remembers) Voorhisville smelled like chocolate. Emily Carr woke up at 4:30 and began baking. By 6:30, when Stecker’s opened, she was waiting there with a long list of ingredients. She baked chocolate bread, and a chocolate cake (layered with a raspberry filling), a chocolate torte, and good old-fashioned (why mess with perfection?) chocolate chip cookies. Though the day was warm, she also mixed up some Mexican hot chocolate, which she poured into a large thermos. She made a batch of chocolate muffins and six dozen dark chocolate cherry cookies. Then Emily filled several baskets with cookies, muffins, and slices of cake, torte, and bread, and began delivering her treats to the neighbors.
“But why?” they asked, to which she just shrugged. Until, when she got to Shreve’s house, she said, “Let me know what you think. I’m going to open a bakery and I’m trying to find out what people like.”
At that point, Emily began to cry. Shreve invited her inside. Wiping her eyes as she stepped into the warm living room, Emily said, “I’m happy. That’s why I’m crying. I’m so happy.” Then she noticed the photographs spread across the floor, the wedding dress on the couch, the stricken look on Shreve’s face.
“My fiancé died,” Shreve said, “three years ago today.”
Emily, who had forgotten the date entirely until Bobby Stewart said, “What is this? Some kind of September eleventh thing?” resisted the impulse to ask Shreve if he’d been one of the thousands. Instead, she said, “There’s a thermos of hot chocolate.”
Shreve looked from the basket to the photographs, the wedding dress, the box of tiny bells. “I don’t know what to do.”
“We could go to the park.”
That’s what they did. On that mild September evening the women sat beneath the oak tree in Fletcher’s Park, ate too much chocolate, and became friends.
The following Saturday, after Emily’s first yoga class, the women went garage sale-ing together. Both women appreciated a bargain, and both women had appreciated Jeffrey, though they wouldn’t know this until October, when they confided their fears to each other and—like high school girls, giggling, nervous, and unsure—went to the drugstore for pregnancy tests, which, oddly, were all sold out. They drove all the way to Centerville to purchase them, during which time they told their stories of the stranger with blue eyes and thus discovered that they had shared a lover.
“Did you notice how he smelled?” Shreve asked.
“Chocolate,” Emily said. “Do you ever get mad at him? The way he just left?”
“Actually, I sort of prefer it this way. I’m not looking for anything else. You?”
Emily shook her head. “It’s the weirdest thing, because normally I would. I mean, I think so, at least. I’ve never done anything like that with a stranger. But for some reason, I’m not angry.”
Were the women of Voorhisville enchanted? Bewitched? Had a great evil befallen them? It was hard to imagine that anything bad happened that autumn, when everyone glowed.
Later, they had to agree it was more than strange that they all got pregnant, even those using birth control, and none of them suffered morning sickness. It was also odd that, given the obvious promiscuity involved, no one got an STD. But that fall, all anyone cared about was that the women of Voorhisville were beautiful.
Lara no longer stood at the small window in the upstairs hallway spying on her neighbor. Yes, Sylvia was beautiful. She had always been beautiful, even at her husband’s funeral, her face wracked with grief. But there were many beautiful women in Voorhisville. Why hadn’t Lara noticed before?
One morning, shortly after September eleventh (she later recalled the date because she’d eaten Emily’s chocolate cake for breakfast), Lara stood naked in front of the bedroom mirror. Why had she spent all that time studying Sylvia? Lara turned, twisting her neck to get a sideways look.
She decided to begin painting again. She would paint her own strong legs, the sag of flesh at her stomach, her tired eyes. She had to paint all this to try to express the feeling she had, of no longer being a sum of parts. Her parts would be there, but that’s not what the painting would be about. It would be a self-portrait, Lara decided, and it would be huge.
When Lara realized she was late she phoned the pharmacy. “I’m not coming in today,” she said. She didn’t offer an explanation. Even as she said it, she wasn’t sure she would ever return to work. She knew how this would sit with Ed. He wouldn’t like it, but it wasn’t as though she expected him to support her; she had her own savings.
As Lara dressed, she thought about Jeffrey. She’d taken a huge risk; he could have been a psycho. He could have stalked her. Or told Ed! Instead, he disappeared. For weeks, Lara looked for the hearse, but she never saw it again. He was gone as mysteriously as he’d arrived. She’d been lucky, Lara thought—guilty, yes, but lucky.
It didn’t even occur to her she might be pregnant.
Theresa Ratcher knew she was. She would say, later, that she knew immediately.
When Lara drove past the Ratcher farm on her way to Centerville for art supplies, Theresa Ratcher was standing in the driveway, shading her eyes, as though expecting a visitor. The women waved at each other. Lara sighed. Even Theresa Ratcher was beautiful in her old housewifey dress, her clunky shoes, her corn-colored hair in a messy ponytail.
Theresa watched the car arc over the hill with one hand on her tummy, which had not been flat since Elli was born fifteen years ago. Pete would never suspect a thing. Why would he? Why would anyone? She closed her eyes and tilted her face towards the sun. “What are you doing?” Pete said. Theresa opened her eyes, wide, as though caught. Her husband’s face had hardened with time, and he smelled of manure, but she loved him. She placed her hand on his crotch. After a moment, she turned and walked away. He followed, surprised when she didn’t go into the house but walked behind the barn, where she lay down on the grass and lifted up her dress, revealing her freckled thighs, the white crotch of her panties. This was very much like how it had happened, when, still teenagers, they’d made Ellie.
Here’s your dad, Theresa thought.
What all (or most) of the women of Voorhisville would have said was that beautiful was everywhere that fall: it was in the light and shadows and the muted green leaves that eventually burned into a blaze of color, it was in the duct-taped houses, in the bats that flew out of St. Andrew’s belfry each night, and the logey bees buzzing amongst the pumpkins and squash.
Beautiful was in the women, the way they talked, walked, the things they did: the stretch of limbs in yoga, the scent of chocolate from Emily’s kitchen. Jan Morris had never written so proficiently—or, she felt (and the writers in the workshop agreed) more beautifully. Lara Bravemeen began painting again, which caused an argument with her husband, a fight Lara could only think of as beautiful in its passion.
Strange things were happening to the women of Voorhisville. Anyone could see that.
“Like bones, and skin, and blood,” Elli Ratcher later said. “What could be more beautiful than that? What could be more strange?”
We, the mothers, understand the enormity of the task involved in relaying the events that preceded the seminal one. We appreciate the impossibility of incorporating each personal account into this narrative, and, after much discussion and several votes, made the decision to tell this story through the voices of a representative few. It is an imperfect solution, we know, but then again, we are in an imperfect situation. However, we would like to stress that we reject the penis-glorifying tone that’s been taken, as though we, the women of Voorhisville, were only completed through penetration. We would like to make it clear that we believe the women of Voorhisville were always beautiful, always interesting, always evolving, always capable of greatness.
The Veckers own the big white house on the hill. They pay people to do their gardening, mow the lawn, trim the bushes. Several Voorhisville residents think it’s unjust that the Veckers win the Gardeners’ Association’s blue ribbon each year, as well as the grand prize for their Christmas decorations; that big house outlined with thousands of little white lights, all those windows and doors bordered too, so that it looks like some strip mall.
Nobody is exactly sure how the Veckers got to be so rich. Even Cathy Vecker, twenty-five years old and recently returned from Los Angeles, looking a good deal older than her age, has no idea where the family money came from. The topic never held much interest for her. Cathy knew everyone was not as fortunate as she was; but what could she do about it? Whenever she thought about all the poor people—Roddy Tyler with his duct-taped shoes, for instance—it just made her weary.
Because what could they do? The Veckers were rich, but they weren’t that rich; they were no Bill Gates, that’s for sure. Even Cathy, who had never been good at math, knew the numbers didn’t work out. The world had more people than dollars in the various Vecker accounts. If the Veckers gave away every cent they owned, nobody would be rich, and the Veckers would join the masses of those without enough. For a while, Cathy had worried that she was becoming a socialist, but once she worked through the logic, she was relieved to discover that she was just a regular rich American.
Being a rich American meant Cathy could follow her dreams. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue modeling and acting. Cathy Vecker was pretty. She was not as beautiful as Sylvia Lansmorth, but everyone knew that Sylvia was exceptional—though overly attached to her roses. Sylvia’s husband was gorgeous too, or had been, before he died. He was a carpenter. Cathy’s mother and grandmother hired him from time to time for special projects.
Cathy had never been happier for the Vecker money than she was upon returning from Los Angeles. She was thrilled she didn’t have to come up with an immediate solution to the challenging question of what she would do with her life. It wasn’t that she meant to shrug the question off—she had every intention of addressing it eventually—but it was a relief not to have to rush to a conclusion, get a job waitressing or something.
Los Angeles had been an experiment, and she’d failed miserably. All the women in Los Angeles were gorgeous. It was kind of weird, actually. Also, Cathy discovered, she couldn’t really act. It wasn’t until she saw a recording of her audition that she recognized that. Why hadn’t anyone told her? Why hadn’t someone just said it?
By the end of August, Cathy had narrowed her choices to going to college—though she hadn’t applied, she felt certain her family connections could get her into St. Mary’s or the university—or opening a small business. She was bogged down in the details. What would she major in? What kind of business would she start?
Then she became distracted. She thought she was falling in love, or at least that explained the powerful attraction, the chemistry, the reason she did it in the back of a hearse, like somebody who couldn’t afford a room somewhere. Later, Cathy had to admit there was something about it that felt dangerous and exciting. She thought she’d gotten that sort of thing out of her system in Los Angeles, but apparently not.
He didn’t ask for her phone number, but she didn’t worry. She was a Vecker. Everyone knew how to get in touch with the Veckers. By September, she realized he wasn’t going to call. By the end of that month, despite the Pill—which Cathy had been taking since she was fifteen, when she had her first affair with Stephen Lang, who (she didn’t know it was a cliché at the time) cleaned their pool—Cathy guessed she was pregnant. A quick trip to the drugstore and a home pregnancy test confirmed it. Cathy knew she should be upset, but honestly, she wasn’t. She placed her hand on her flat stomach and said, “I’ll do this.”
She decided she’d start a community theatre, right there in Voorhisville. A Christmas play in December, maybe a musical; possibly Our Town in the spring; something modern in-between. It wouldn’t have to make money. The Veckers could do this. They couldn’t support the world, or America, but they could do this. Cathy could run it, even while she raised her child, and she could live off one of the Vecker accounts, and she could do something good for Voorhisville.
The senior Mrs. Vecker received the news—first of the pregnancy, then of the community theatre—with the traditional Vecker attitude. Cathy was worried her grandmother would be upset, but it turned out there had not been an exact alignment between Grandma Vecker’s own wedding and Cathy Vecker’s mother’s birth; a matter covered up, at the time, by an extended European honeymoon. “Didn’t you know that?” Mrs. Vecker asked.
Whereas Grandma Vecker said, “It’s quite clever of you to start without the man hanging around. Everything you need from him, you’ve already got.”
After her husband died, Sylvia Lansmorth found herself in the unusual position of being rich. Well, not rich, exactly, not like the Veckers, but she no longer had to work at the canning factory, a job she’d held since she was fifteen. Who would have guessed that Rick Lansmorth—who was, after all, just a carpenter—had the foresight to take out sizable life insurance policies for both of them? But he had.
All these months later, Sylvia was still finding the wooden figurines Rick had been working on during his chemo; tiny creatures that fit in the palm of her hand: a swan tucked in his toolbox (she’d been looking for the hammer); what appeared to be the beginnings of a wolf (the shape formed, a few lines cut for fur but no eyes or mouth) on the kitchen windowsill; a tiny mouse with a broken tail in the garden. Rick used to sit outside wrapped in blankets, even when the sun was hot, and Sylvia guessed he’d thrown it in frustration. Not the sort of thing he would normally do, but dying had been hard.
Sylvia was not living the life she’d imagined when she was a high school girl who thought her job at the canning factory was temporary. She used to look at the women working there and wonder why they stayed. Now, Sylvia knew. It just happened.
She and Rick had planned to leave Voorhisville. First, he tried building up a clientele in Centerville, but he was just another guy with a toolbox there. People in Voorhisville knew and trusted him, and while there wasn’t much work, what work there was, he got. Then he moved to Alaska. The plan was that he would get established before Sylvia joined him. They missed each other, of course, but it was a sacrifice they were willing to make. They thought they had time. Instead, he came back to Voorhisville with cancer and stories of moose.
After Sylvia quit her job, she spent a great deal of time in the garden; so much so that, as fall approached, she realized that her main occupation had been dying, and she didn’t have anything to replace it with. She would have denied that she had wished for it, or expected it; she would have resisted calling it a miracle; but just when the garden started to look barren, she discovered she was pregnant, the result of one single sexual encounter with a stranger she had no desire to see again. Sylvia had gotten quite good at crying over the past year. Why couldn’t it be Rick’s child? Why couldn’t he still be alive? What could possibly come of conception in a hearse? How Freudian was that?
Sylvia considered an abortion. Then she got in her car, drove to Centerville, and went to the Barnes & Noble, where she spent a good deal of money on pregnancy and parenting books.
“Wow, we’ve really had a run on these lately,” the clerk said.
Sylvia liked having a secret. It wasn’t that she was ashamed. She just liked having this private relationship with her baby. Once her neighbor, Lara Bravemeen (whose upstairs windows brooded over Sylvia’s garden) asked why she’d stopped going to yoga, and she just shrugged. Sylvia had recently discovered that most people accepted a shrug for an answer.
In January, Sylvia learned that Lara Bravemeen was pregnant too. Their children could play together. That is, if the Bravemeens stayed married and continued to live next door. Lately, there’d been a lot of shouting over there.
Never having been pregnant before, Sylvia had nothing to compare it to except TV shows, but she thought it was perfect. She felt wonderful the whole time. Holly, the midwife, said, “Sometimes it’s almost harder if you have an easy pregnancy. It makes the birth just that much more of a shock.”
Sylvia, who had been feeling very much like a madonna—not the rock star, but the perfectly peaceful mother type—just smiled.
The pain was monumental. Right from the start. Ed called the doctor and she said, “How far apart?” and Ed asked Lara, “How far apart?” and Lara screamed, “What?” So Ed repeated the question. “There’s no time between, you moron,” Lara hollered. Ed relayed this to the doctor (editing out the “moron,” of course), who said, “When did the contractions start?” and Ed said, “Five minutes ago.” That’s when the doctor said, “Bring her in now.” Ed said, “Right now?” and the doctor said, “Wait. You’re in Voorhisville, right?” and he said, “Yes,” and she said, “Call the ambulance,” and Ed said, “Is there a problem?” and Lara screamed and the doctor said, “Call them.” So Ed called the ambulance and they came right away. It was Brian Holandeigler and Francis Kennedy (no relation to any of the famous ones), who tried to make jokes to calm Ed and Lara down, but between screams of agony, Lara was vicious. “She’s not usually like this,” Ed said. “Fuck you!” Lara shouted. “You’re going to be all right,” Francis said. “Fuck you!” Lara screamed. “Try to breathe,” Ed said. “Remember the breathing?” “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Lara screamed.
Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong. She knew it. And here she was, surrounded by these idiot men (“Idiots!” she shouted) who thought she was hysterical.
“I’m dying!” she screamed.
“You’re not dying,” Ed said.
It felt like she was being scraped raw inside by talons. It felt like her guts were being carved out. Or like teeth! It felt like small sharp teeth were chewing her up inside.
“Do something!” she shouted.
“Well, we really can’t do much,” Brian said.
“What?” Ed and Lara said.
“I could take a look,” Brian said.
“But we’re not supposed to transport women in labor,” Francis said. “We’re supposed to stay here. Unless there’s a problem.”
“There’s a fucking problem!” Lara shouted.
“Do you mind if I look?” Brian said as he slipped his hands around the waistband of Lara’s pants. Ed found the image disturbing, and turned away. Lara saw him turn away. She managed, through her pain, to form the words again: “Fuck you.” Brian sat up. “Hold your legs together,” he said. “What?” Lara said. “Is it coming?” Ed said. “Of course it’s—” Lara interrupted herself to scream. “Close your legs!” Brian shouted. “Are we taking her?” Francis said. “Yes. Yes. Oh God, yes,” Brian said. “Close your legs!” he yelled at Lara. “Oh, God; oh Jesus,” Brian said. Lara screamed. Ed leaned down and held her hand. “Please,” he said, “close your legs.” “I want it out!” Lara shouted. “Please,” Ed said, “do what they say.” “Excuse me,” Francis said, and shoved Ed away.
Brian and Francis set the stretcher on the floor beside the couch. “I’m dying!” Lara screamed. Brian and Ed lifted her to the stretcher. “Close your legs,” Brian said. Lara closed her legs. “Don’t drop her,” Ed said as he opened the door. “Can I come with you?” “Two steps,” Francis said to Brian, who was backing out. Ed shut the door. He looked at Sylvia’s dark house. Death could come to anyone, anywhere, he thought. “Are you coming?” Francis said. Ed jumped into the ambulance. The siren screamed, but it was nothing compared to Lara’s screams. “Let me see where you’re at,” Francis said. He spread a sheet over Lara’s lap and bent under to have a look. When his head came out of the sheet, his eyes were wide, his skin white. “Oh, Jesus,” Francis said. “Hold your legs together.”
Lara tried to hold her legs together, but it felt like she was being sliced by knives. “Ed,” she shouted. “Ed?”
“I’m here, baby, I’m right here.” He squeezed her hand.
She screamed. She screamed the whole ride from Voorhisville to the hospital in Becksworth. When they got there, the doctor was waiting for them.
“How about an epidural?” she said. “You better take a look,” Brian said. She lifted the sheet and looked. “Take her to the OR,” the doctor said. “What’s happening?” Ed said. “You stay here,” a nurse said. “What’s happening?” Ed said to Brian and Francis. They both stared at him, then Francis said, “There might be some complications.” Ed sat down. Brian and Francis left. The hospital was so quiet Ed thought he could still hear Lara’s screams. But it couldn’t have been her, because Lara had gone to the right, and the screams were coming from the left.
Jan Morris lay screaming in her hospital bed, but no one was paying much attention. Someone had checked her when she came in, and pointed out that she wasn’t even dilated yet. Jan insisted they contact her doctor. “She wants to know,” she said. But Jan’s doctor was busy with some other emergency, so Dr. Fascular took the call instead. The nurse checked Jan again, decided that she was making a big fuss over nothing, and administered an epidural. The mother was in her forties, and they were often the biggest pains. They wanted everything a certain way. But Jan kept screaming until it finally occurred to someone that there might be a problem.
The nurse who looked at Jan later said, over coffee and eggs with her twelve-year-old son, that it was the most shocking thing she’d ever seen. The woman hadn’t even been dilated ten minutes ago—or, okay, it might have been closer to twenty minutes, but then suddenly there was . . . she thought there might be an arm, a leg, something like that. Anyway, after she saw the strange thing protruding from Jan Morris’s vagina, she ran to call Dr. Fascular again.
“What thing?” the nurse’s son asked.
“I don’t know how to describe it. It was just sticking out, and it was like a, like the tip of a triangle, and it was sharp.”
“You touched it?”
“Look,” she said, and showed him the small cut on her finger.
“What happened next?” the boy asked.
She remembered touching that bloody tip with her finger; she remembered the sear of pain and running to call the doctor. The next thing she knew, several hours had passed and she was punching her time card to go home. Even though she was tired and her feet were sore and she certainly wanted to be there when her son woke up, she went to the nursery where she found the baby, a sweet-as-they-all-are prune-shaped thing, wrapped tightly in a blanket, sleeping. She read the chart and saw that there was nothing unusual noted.
Yeah, well, that nurse didn’t see nothing wrote down about it because they could hold them inside like the way you put your fingers in a fist, or maybe more like the way you close a eye. That’s what the babies did. They pulled them in real tight and it just looked like, I don’t know, kind of extra wrinkled and stuff. Who pays attention to a baby’s back, anyways? Not most people. Most people wanna look at a baby’s face or fingers and toes. There is a weird fascination with grownups looking at a baby’s fingers or toes. Also, baby’s shit. My mom could go on and on about JoJo’s shit. Was it greenish? Was it runny? She’d get mad at me when I rolled my eyes. “You can tell things about your baby’s health, Maddy,” she’d say.
My mom liked to behave all superior about babies with me ’cause she had two, and she figured that made her a expert. Also, I really think she liked the fact I was a teenage mother ’cause it proved her theory that I was a fuckup all along. Weird as it is, though, I sometimes wish I had my mom here with me like Elli has hers. But how fucked is that? Both of them doing it with the same guy? It makes me shiver every time I think about it.
JoJo was born at home, even though we didn’t plan it that way. Just ’cause we had a midwife renting Billy’s old room in the basement don’t mean we was going to use her. Holly was really busy. Once she came upstairs and asked me to turn the music down, but she asked like she knew it was a big pain for me to do, and so I turned it down. And one night we sat on the front steps and talked. I thought she was nice.
But it’s not like I got to choose much about JoJo. My mom liked to act like everything was up to me. “He’s your baby,” she’d say. “He’s your responsibility”—she said this about diaper changing and when he was crying. But other times she’d say, “Just ’cause you had a baby don’t mean you’re all grown up now.”
My mom said I had to go to a hospital. “It’s just ridiculous that in this day in age, with all the best modern medicine has to offer, a woman would choose to give birth at home like they was living in Afghanistan or something.” My mom loved to mention Afghanistan whenever she could. My brother Billy got killed there, and after that she blamed Afghanistan for anything wrong in the world.
After I talked to Holly that night on the porch, I wanted her to help when the baby came. It’s not like she tried to convince me, or nothing like that. We barely talked about it. Mostly we talked about other stuff. But I liked her, and I didn’t like Dr. Fascular. He has cold hands and is always grumpy and shit.
My mom was all like, “No way,” and said it had to be at the hospital. But there wasn’t much she could do when it happened the way it did, all of a sudden, with me alone in the house. I didn’t expect it to hurt like it did. It hurt a lot. I didn’t scream, even though I really wanted to. I just went down to Billy’s old room and laid down on Billy’s old bed, which was now Holly’s, and waited for her to get home. It hurt so bad I took the bedspread and rolled it up at the end and stuck it in my mouth. Every time I felt like screaming, which was pretty much all the time, I bit down.
I don’t know how long it was before Holly came home. She said, “Maddy?”
I just screamed. I let the bedspread fall out of my mouth and I screamed loud enough to bring my mom and dad down the stairs, and then there was this whole part where they got mad at Holly, and even though I was screaming and shit, I had to explain to them that she didn’t have nothing to do with it, and then my dad said he was going to get the car, and Holly was looking at my vagina and saying, “I don’t think so.”
I heard it hurt a lot to have a baby, but nothing nobody said told me how much. I don’t even want to think about it.
So Mom starts arguing with Holly, and then all of a sudden Holly says, “This baby is halfway here. If you want to take her all the way to Becksworth, you go ahead. But I sure hope you are prepared to deliver it.” Which, ha ha, got my mom to shut up.
Okay, so like it hurt more than anything I ever imagined. It hurt more than when Billy got killed, and I didn’t think there would ever be nothing that hurt worse than that. Later, Holly told me it was not a usual birth. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. Like I could! Ha, stuck here with all these women.
I was exhausted. I just wanted to go to sleep. Holly said, “What are you going to name him?” And I said, “JoJo.” And my mom said, “I knew it. I knew it was Joey Marin.” My mom was obsessed with trying to figure out who JoJo’s dad was. “It ain’t Joey Marin,” I said, but she just looked all superior. Holly cleaned him up and she said he was beautiful. And that’s coming from someone who delivered hundreds of babies, so that should tell you something. Then she gave him to me, wrapped up like a bratwurst in a bun. Everybody stood there, even my dad. Like I was going to breastfeed in front of him! I guess Holly figured that out, ’cause she said she had some things to talk to them about in private. When Mom and Dad were both out the door, I told Holly I was sorry I got her in trouble. “That’s all right,” she said. “I thought this room could use a birth.” I saw what she meant. Except for Holly’s clothes and a little glass jar on the dresser filled with some wildflowers, the room was just the way it was when Billy left to get killed in the war.
So I took off my T-shirt and put JoJo up by my boob, and he started sucking.
The next day, after I moved back upstairs and my mom cleaned all of Holly’s sheets and even baked her a tube of chocolate chip cookies to thank her for everything she did, I was undressing JoJo, and the next thing I knew, my finger was bleeding and JoJo was crying and my mom was standing there going, “What are you doing to him?”
“I ain’t doing nothing to him,” I said. “I pricked my finger.”
“This is no longer all about you,” she said, and, “You better make sure you keep one hand on him when he’s on the changing table, or it won’t be long before he’ll just roll off.” About as soon as JoJo was born, my mom started imagining all the horrible ways he could die.
I looked at JoJo laying there with his face all scrunched up and all I could think was that I had a huge problem. I didn’t love him, all right? For the first time in my entire life I wondered if this is what was wrong with me and my mom, that she just didn’t love me and couldn’t do nothing about it. I felt real bad, and angry too. I decided that wasn’t going to happen with me and JoJo.
I picked him up and took him with me to the bed, and that’s when I saw them sticking out. They were tiny, like his fingers and toes were tiny. They were tiny like that.
“Holy shit, JoJo,” I said. “You’ve got wings.”
When Tamara met Raj and found out he was Hindu, she didn’t think much about it. It wasn’t until she was already falling in love that she discovered how much his faith mattered to him. She told him she wasn’t sure she could convert, but he said she didn’t need to. It might have been easier if she could fool herself into believing that her infidelity had been Raj’s fault, but Tamara could not believe that. She had cheated on him for the worst reason of all: because she felt like it.
There was justice in her pregnancy. It was a Catholic thought, she knew, but no matter how many years had passed since she’d gone to church, she could not escape the idea that God did things like this to Catholics. He punished them for being bad.
Tamara knew it was not uncommon for pregnant woman to have horrible dreams, but she was sure hers were the worst. Several times, Raj died. Once, she drowned the baby. (How could she even dream that?) She had many dreams that featured birth defects. When she woke up crying, Raj held her, soothed her, made her tea, told her jokes. He was the perfect husband, which just made everything worse.
Tamara thought of confessing. Being raised Catholic, how could she not think of that? But she couldn’t decide. Was she confessing to help their marriage, or just to relieve her guilt? What was the right thing to do? She no longer trusted her judgment. How could she, after she’d displayed such a colossal lack of any? (After it all came out and everything fell apart the way it did, she would decide she must have been put under some sort of spell, though the other women say things like, “Sure, if that’s what you wanna call it, honey.”)
Tamara had passed the bar exam, so she was technically a lawyer, but hardly anyone knew that. She never practiced. She hated law school, but didn’t dare quit after her parents had put so much money into it. She hadn’t really mentioned, in any of her phone calls or e-mails to her parents, that she wasn’t doing anything with her degree, but instead was working part-time at the Voorhisville library while writing another novel. She’d never told them about the four previous novels she’d written (but not published) so it was difficult to tell them about the fifth. They wouldn’t approve. Her father used to make fun of her art major friends. He called them “the future poor of America.”
She and Raj moved to Voorhisville because they had fantasies about small town life. Raj, who worked as a litigation attorney in Becksworth, and therefore wasn’t really in Voorhisville much, still believed it was a quaint community, a perfect place for children. Tamara wasn’t so sure. She’d seen things: the way Michael Baile (whose cousin was on the school board) got all the contracts for the school maintenance jobs, even though there were consistent complaints about the quality of his work. The way almost everyone talked about Maddy Malvern’s spiral into sexual promiscuity, but did nothing about it. The way Roddy Tyler flopped around in those duct-taped shoes even in the winter, despite the fact that he worked for the richest people in town. Tamara did not think Voorhisville was quaint, though it did have the annual Halloween parade with all the children dressed in costumes walking down Main Street. That was quaint. And Fourth of July in Fletcher’s Park, with Girl Scouts selling baked goods, Boy Scouts selling popcorn, and Mr. Muller twisting balloons into animal shapes while the senior citizen band played God knows what . . . well, that was quaint too. But Tamara saw the looks Raj, with his dark skin, got. “Doesn’t it bother you?” she asked, but he just laughed. That’s just the way Raj was. He didn’t care. It had been harder for Tamara. She wasn’t used to being a victim of prejudice.
“It would be like this in almost any small town in America,” Raj said. “You can’t let it upset you.”
But it did. It upset Tamara very much. It confused her, too. She could never be sure. Had the man at the post office been rude because he knew she was married to someone with dark skin, or had he just been a rude man? What about the checkout girl at the supermarket, and the lady who cut her off at the corner of Henry Street and Wildwood?
The novel Tamara was working on was called Underskin, about a nomadic tribe of tree dwellers and the consumers who ate them. It was a love story, a dark fantasy, a brutal indictment of prejudice, and her best work. But after her strange encounter with the blue-eyed man, it was contaminated. Also, Tamara would later note, wryly, she had to resist the urge to put in a band of avenging angels. They weren’t part of her plan for the book, and yet they kept appearing. She kept crossing them out.
Essentially, the work that had been going so well before she cheated on her husband started going very badly. This, Tamara knew, was God’s way of getting her. This and her pregnancy; that’s how she thought of it. She thought God had made her pregnant just to prove a point—which, she reasoned, was unnecessary, because she already knew she shouldn’t have cheated, so why’d God have to make her pregnant as well?
After Tamara took two home pregnancy tests, she called Planned Parenthood and made an appointment she never kept. Much later, when the bad things happened and she was stuck with all the other women chronicling their stories, she wondered if this decision had been a matter of enchantment.
When she told Raj they were expecting, he kissed her all over. (Raj, thankfully, mistook her tears for joy.) They talked about names and the dreams they had for the child. “I just want her to be happy,” Tamara said, and Raj laughed and said, “That’s a big dream.”
Over the next several months, Tamara found herself praying. She prayed to God, and she prayed to Krishna too. She prayed to everyone she could think of, like the Virgin Mary, and her Great-Uncle Cal (who would probably be embarrassed by all this, but was the only dead person Tamara had been close to.) Hi, Uncle Cal, she’d think. This is Tamara. I’m married now. And I made a mistake. Please, please make sure that this baby is Raj’s and not, well . . . I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done it. I know that. Thank you, Uncle Cal. She prayed to Kali, with her four arms and that mysterious smile of hers. She even prayed to that elephant—she could never remember his name, but Raj had a small statue of him in the living room, and she prayed to him because he looked nonjudgmental. For eight months, Tamara suffered in fear and anguish while her body blossomed, effortlessly. “I don’t know why women complain about being pregnant,” she told Holly.
“Sometimes it’s more difficult to have an easy pregnancy,” Holly said, “because then you’re not really prepared for the birth.”
At this, Tamara smiled.
But when the pain arrived it was the worst feeling Tamara could ever imagine. One second she was sitting at her desk crossing out angels, and the next she was on the floor, screaming. She was in so much pain she couldn’t even move. It hurt to breathe. It was torture to get up or slide across the floor, which is how she tried to reach the phone, because Raj had gone into work even though her due date was approaching. (“I’ll just call if anything happens,” she said. “We’ll have plenty of time. All the books say so.”) Tamara screamed and writhed on the floor for hours before Raj found her there. During those hours, Tamara accepted that she was being punished. She also accepted that she was going to die. She even reached the point where she wanted to die.
“I’ll call Holly,” Raj said.
“I’m dying,” she said.
“You’re not dying,” he said. Then she opened her mouth and screamed, and his eyes got round, and he called Holly.
Later, Holly said it was not an ordinary birth. “I think something’s happening here,” she said, mysteriously. Tamara was studying her baby, trying to decide who the father was. After several minutes of intense scrutiny, she asked, “Who do you think he looks like?”
Holly looked down at the baby, then at Tamara.
She knows, Tamara thought. How could she?
But Holly did not reach into her bag of birthing supplies to bring out a large scarlet letter. Instead, she left without addressing the question.
He did have blue eyes, but lots of babies do. His hair was dark, his skin was pink, and his body was an amazing, intricate, perfect blessing. After all those horrible dreams, and the months of guilt, and most especially the horrible pain of birth, Tamara felt blessed. In the end it didn’t matter who the father was. Well, it mattered, of course, but also, it didn’t. The only thing that really mattered was the baby.
Tamara thought she knew how she’d feel about her first child: protective, loving, proud. She had not been prepared to feel the way she did. In fact, she would say she had underestimated the power of the love she would feel for this little boy as much as she’d underestimated the pain of his birth.
It was three days later, after Raj had gone to the Becksworth airport to pick up her parents, when Tamara discovered the tiny sharp wings protruding from her baby’s back. By then she already loved him more than she had ever loved anyone or anything else. Her love was monstrous. When she saw the wings, she turned him over and stared into those deep eyes of his and said, “Nobody is ever going to know, little one.”
When Raj came home with her parents and their frightening amount of luggage, he kissed her on the cheek and said, “Everything okay?” She nodded. Later, when she had time to consider the disturbing events that followed, she pinned her ruin to that moment. The “thing she’d done with the stranger,” as she’d come to think of it, had been wrong, but she could no longer wish it away without wishing away her child.
No, what had sealed her fate was that moment when she decided to lie to her husband about the baby’s wings. It was no longer the three of them against the world, but mother and child against everyone else.
So many women were pregnant Shreve started a prenatal yoga class. “Something in the water,” they’d say, or “Who’s your milkman?”
Emily and Shreve thought they shared the biggest joke of all. Emily liked to say that they were “fuck-related,” though Shreve found this crude. They could not agree on what had happened to them. Emily thought Jeffrey was a jerk, while Shreve thought he was some sort of holy man.
“I can’t believe you think that,” Emily said. “Saints don’t have sex.”
“Not a saint,” Shreve said. “A yogi. And they do.”
“Oh, come on! He was just a man. He was just like other men.”
Shreve sighed, apparently remembering something wonderful beyond words.
This, of course, stressed Emily out. Did Shreve have better sex with him than Emily did? Was he gentler? Rougher? Had something profound happened between those two? Was he more attracted to Shreve? Was Shreve better at sex than Emily was?
She suggested that, in the interest of peace, they stop talking about it, and Shreve agreed.
Agreeing to disagree on the nature of what occurred with Jeffrey had been the first big test of their friendship. The next big test happened later.
Emily discovered her baby’s small, sharp, featherless wings on June fifth, while changing Gabriel into one of his cute little baseball outfits (Red Sox, of course). She watched in amazement as the tiny wings unfolded and folded shut again, drawn into his back. She touched the spot, certain she’d imagined the wings, a weird hallucination. (Maybe she’d just never gotten to that point in the pregnancy books.) She almost convinced herself that was what had happened, when, with a burp, the wings appeared once more. Emily reached to touch one. The next thing she knew, she was walking down the street with Gabriel secured in his Snugli against her chest. She patted the baby’s back, but didn’t feel anything unusual.
At that exact moment, Shreve was saying to her baby, Michael, “You’re going to meet your half brother today.” She believed Jeffrey had been some kind of an angel sent to her by her dead fiancé. She wasn’t sure why her dead fiancé had sent the angel to Emily also, except that it gave her son a brother . . . and that was a very good reason, the more she thought about it.
Michael had blue eyes, a remarkable head of dark curls, and two dimples. His pink flesh was already filling out, losing that newborn look. He had a round face and a round body, round hands, almost round feet, and a little tiny round penis. When Shreve turned him over to admire the beautiful symmetry of his little round butt, she watched, in amazement, as two wings blossomed from his back.
“I knew it,” she said.
She wanted to investigate the wings, but Emily would be there any minute, so Shreve hurriedly dressed Michael in a pink romper (she didn’t believe in the certain-colors-for-certain-genders thing) and wrapped him in the yellow blanket Emily had given her. It was rather warm in the house for a blanket, but Shreve thought it the best protection against any revelation of his wings.
Right then, the doorbell rang. “Hellooo,” Emily called, in a soft singsong voice. “Is there a mommy home?”
“Come in,” Shreve singsonged back, walking to the door with Michael in her arms.
“He’s beautiful,” Emily said. “He looks a lot like his brother.”
“Oh, let me see.”
“He just fell asleep. I don’t want to wake him.”
“Okay,” Shreve said, realizing that she had no idea what kind of mother Emily would be. “Well, come in. I’ll make some tea.”
The first time Emily had seen Shreve’s tiny kitchen—which was painted blue, yellow, and red—she thought it quite strange, but she had grown to like the cozy space. She sat at the small wooden table while Shreve prepared the teakettle and teapot, all while holding Michael.
“You look completely comfortable,” Emily said. “You probably gave birth like it was nothing.”
Shreve couldn’t even smile the memory away. She turned to her friend with an expression of horror. “No. It was terrible.”
“Me too,” Emily said.
“I mean, I expected pain, but it was—”
“I know, I know,” Emily said, so loud she woke up Gabriel. She didn’t move towards unstrapping the Snugli; but remained seated, jiggling her knees while the baby cried harder.
Shreve did not like to judge, but the thought occurred to her that Emily might not be very good at this mothering thing. “We could go in the living room,” Shreve said. “Lay them down on the blanket and introduce them to each other.”
“Sometimes he cries like this,” Emily heard herself saying, stupidly.
Shreve thought that even the way Emily tried to soothe her baby, like a police officer patting down a suspect, proved that not all women are natural mothers.
The teakettle whistled and Michael joined in the crying. Shreve, laughing, turned to take the kettle off the burner.
“Okay,” Emily said over her baby’s wailing. “Let’s go in the living room.”
It was warm enough that Shreve had opened the windows. The chakra wind chimes hanging outside were silent in the still air. Shreve realized she wouldn’t be able to justify laying Michael down wrapped in a blanket. Instead, she got the little carrier seat one of her yoga students had given her.
At the time, Shreve had not expected to ever use the thing. She intended to raise her child without ever making his body conform to the unnatural rigidity of plastic. Now Shreve placed the carrier at the edge of the blanket on the floor. She set Michael—who had already stopped crying—into it, and adjusted the straps. Emily could see his beautiful face and perfect little body, but there was no danger of exposing his wings.
“Oh,” Emily said. “I thought we were going to lay them down together.”
“I’ll get the tea. If he gets fussy, just leave him there, okay?”
Emily unfastened the Snugli and took Gabriel out. He looked at her with those intense blue eyes of his. She patted his back, and he started to make small noises. “Shhh, it’s okay,” she cooed. “Mommy’s just checking.” Satisfied, she laid him on the blanket in the sun, facing Michael.
Immediately the two babies grinned at each other.
“Shreve,” Emily called, “come quick. You have to see this!”
Shreve ran into the room. “I told you not to touch him,” she said, stopping short when she saw that Michael remained in the carrier.
Emily decided to forgive Shreve’s odd behavior. She pointed at the brothers. “Look,” she said, “it’s like they recognize each other.”
“I can’t believe he can do that already,” Shreve said.
“Lift his head up like that.”
“Oh, yeah,” Emily shrugged. “He’s really strong.”
“Look at them,” Shreve said.
“It’s like they’re old friends.”
Shreve walked back to the kitchen and returned with the tray, which she set on the table next to the futon. She poured a cup for each of them. Emily sipped her tea, still focused on her baby’s back. That’s when she remembered that there had been a paper mill in Voorhisville, years ago. She’d heard about it once, she couldn’t remember where. Maybe there were chemicals in Voorhisville, in the soil, or perhaps in the water. “Have you ever heard anything bad about the city water?” she asked.
“Oh, I use bottled water,” Shreve said. “He’s beautiful. Have you thought of a name yet?”
“Like the angel?”
“I guess it’s old-fashioned.”
“I like it,” Shreve said, but was thinking, Does she know something? Is she trying to trick me? “Why’d you choose it?”
The two women sat sipping their tea and staring glumly at their beautiful children, Michael and Gabriel, who continued to coo and gurgle, occasionally even thrusting little fists in the other’s direction, as though waving.
“Emily?” Shreve asked.
“Do you believe in miracles?”
“Now I do,” Emily said. “You know, I’ve been thinking. Let’s say that we found out there was some kind of chemical, oh, in the soil, or something—you know, from the paper mill, for instance. Let’s say it was doing something to the people in Voorhisville. Would we call it a miracle? You know, if it was a chemical reaction or something? I mean even if what happened was, well, miraculous? Or would we call it a disaster?”
“What are you talking about?” Shreve asked.
“Crazy thoughts, you know. I guess from the hormones.”
Shreve nodded. “Well, you know what they say.”
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“Oh,” Emily said. “That. Yeah. I guess.”
The two mothers sat on the futon, sipping green tea and watching their babies. The sun poured into the room, refracted by the chakra wind chimes. The babies cooed and gurgled and waved at each other. Shreve took a deep breath. “Do you smell that?”
Emily nodded. “Sylvia’s roses,” she said. “They’re brilliant this year. Hey, did you know she’s pregnant?”
“Maybe there is something in the soil.”
“I think maybe so,” Emily agreed.
On that day, it was the closest they came to telling each other the truth.
Theresa Ratcher had joined the library book club with her daughter Elli right after her fifteenth birthday. They left the house at 5:20 p.m. with the car windows rolled down, because the Chevy didn’t have air-conditioning. Elli sat in the front seat, leaning against the door, which Theresa had told her a million times not to do, in case it popped open. Theresa drove with one elbow sticking out the window, the hot air blowing strands of hair out of her ponytail. Elli had been humming the same melody all week. Theresa reached to turn on the radio, but thought better of it and pretended to wipe a smudge off the dashboard instead. She knew they would just have an argument about what station to listen to. The news was depressing these days.
“Maybe you could think of something else to hum?”
Elli turned, her mouth hanging open, a pink oval.
“You’ve been on that same song for a while.”
“Sorry,” Elli said, her tone indicating otherwise.
“I like to hear you hum,” Theresa lied. “It’s just, a change of tune would be nice.”
Elli reached over and snapped on the radio. Immediately the car was filled with static and noise, until she finally settled on something loud and talky.
Theresa glanced at her daughter. Did she really like this sort of “music”? This fuck-you and booty-this and booty-that groove-thing stuff? It was hard to tell. Elli sat slumped against the car door, staring blankly ahead.
Theresa glanced at her pretty daughter leaning both arms on the open window’s ledge, as though trying to get as far away from her mother as possible. She resisted the urge to tell Elli to make sure her head and arms weren’t too far outside the car; this was the sort of stuff that deepened the wedge between them. Still, Theresa argued with herself, she had heard that story about the two young men driving home after a night of drinking, the passenger, his head hanging out the window, hollering drunken nonsense one minute and the next—whoosh, decapitated by a guide wire. “Stick your head back in the car this instant.”
Elli gave her one of those you’re-ruining-my-life looks that Theresa hated.
“I just don’t want you getting your head chopped off.”
“This isn’t Iraq,” Elli said.
“Nothing. I was making a joke.”
“It’s not funny. That’s not funny at all.” Theresa glanced at her daughter, hunched against the door, arm crooked, elbow hanging out the window. “Billy Melvern died over there. The Baylors’ daughter is leaving in a week.”
“It was Afghanistan.”
“Billy Melvern didn’t die in Iraq. It was Afghanistan.”
“Still,” Theresa said.
Theresa snapped off the radio. Elli snickered, loudly. They drove the rest of the way to Voorhisville in silence.
What was it about him? Later, Theresa would spend many hours trying to name the thing that made Jeffrey so attractive. He arrived late, and, with a nod towards the moderator, sat down. That was it. He sat there, nodding, occasionally recrossing his legs as they talked about Faulkner, Hemingway, Shakespeare, and Woolf.
Theresa felt like she was in way over her head. She thought this would be like Oprah’s Book Club. Well, before Oprah started doing classics. To Theresa’s amazement, Elli was talking about one of Shakespeare’s plays. That’s the first time the stranger spoke. He said, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” and Elli smiled.
It was just a smile. There was nothing extraordinary about it. Well, other than that Elli had smiled. Theresa didn’t give it another thought after that. Certainly she hadn’t thought it meant anything.
Afterwards, when they were trying to decide if they would all go out for coffee, Mickey Freedman showed up and invited Elli to spend the night. “Are you sure it’s okay with your mother?” (Theresa was perpetually suspicious of Mickey Freedman who, though only Elli’s age, always acted so confident.)
“Yeah, it’s no problem,” Mickey said. “You wanna call her?”
Theresa considered the small purple phone the girl dug out of her backpack. The truth was, Theresa had no idea how to use these portable devices. She turned to Elli, who was chewing gum as though it was a competitive event. “Well, have a good time,” Theresa said, trying to sound breezy, fun.
The girls didn’t wait a second. They were gone, leaving the scent of gum, as well as something Theresa only noticed after the fact: a worrisomely smoky scent, wafting in the air behind them.
At that point, Theresa discovered everyone had left without her. There were only two places in Voorhisville where a book group could meet for coffee and conversation: The Fry Shack, out on the highway, or Lucy’s, which was a coffee shop in the pre-Starbucks sense of the word—a diner, really; though Lucy was fairly accommodating of the new fashion for only ordering coffee, as long as it was during off hours. Theresa walked out of the library and took a deep breath.
“Smells nice, doesn’t it?” the stranger said.
He was standing by the side of the building. Almost as though he’d been waiting.
“Mind if I join you?”
What could she do? She couldn’t be rude, could she? He seemed perfectly nice, it was still light out, and it was Voorhisville, for God’s sake. What bad thing could possibly happen here?
“I’m not going to Lucy’s,” Theresa said, turning away from him.
“Neither am I,” he said, and fell in step beside her.
What had it been; what had it meant? Over and over again as the leaves fell to the dry flameless burn of that season, Theresa Ratcher asked herself these questions, as though if she asked enough, or in the right mental tone, the answer would appear. What had it been; what had it meant? As leaves fell in golden spiral swirls, on autumn days that smelled like apples. What had it been; what had it meant? As ghosts and vampires and dead cheerleaders carried treat bags and plastic jack-o’-lanterns through town—Theresa had forgotten what day it was—she returned home to find her husband in the living room watching The Godfather again, and she stood in the kitchen and stared out at the lonely unbroken dark.
What had it been; what had it meant? When she said, “I’m pregnant,” and her husband looked at her and said, “Are you kidding?” and she said, “No,” and he said, “This is going to be expensive,” and then, “Wait, I’m sorry, it’s just . . . are you happy?” and she had shrugged and gone to the kitchen and looked out the window at the lonely dark fields of broken corn.
What had it been; what had it meant? Standing in the frozen yard, snowflakes falling, swirling around her and then suddenly gone, leaving a cold ray of sun and the feeling in her body as though tortured by her bones.
What had it been; what had it meant? Opening the door to Elli’s bedroom, and seeing her standing there, naked, and realizing that she had not merely been gaining weight. “I’m your mother. Why didn’t you tell me?” Theresa asked. “I hate you,” Elli screamed, trying to cover her distended belly with a towel.
We are running out of the library, giggling because we are free! I see the guy from the library, not the old one with the tie, but the cute one with the eyes like Eminem. He smiles at me and I smile at him and Mickey goes all nuts and says, “Who is that?” and I just shrug. We are walking down the street and Mickey says, “The graveyard,” and I go, “What?” and she says, “Old Batface’ll tell my folks if we have a party or anything, but I know where my dad hides his peppermint schnapps. Let’s go home and make hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps and go to the graveyard. You’re not scared, are you?”
“I’m not afraid of ghosts,” I say. “It’s real people that freak me out. What if Batface sees us leave?”
“She watches Seinfeld all night long. We’ll go out the back door.”
So we walk down the street to Mickey’s house and that line keeps going through my head: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” I feel like I am in a dream, like I have a body but I don’t feel inside it, like we are surrounded by fireflies, even though it’s light out, like the sky is filled with twinkling; and I feel free. Free from my mom with all her fears and rules and that depressed way of hers, and free from Dad with his stupid jokes, and free from the farm with its shitty smell and the silence except for all the birds and bugs.
Mickey says, “Who should we invite?”
“Where’s your brother?” I ask. “Isn’t he supposed to be watching you?”
“Vin’s got one goal between today and Sunday night, when my parents get back, and that’s to get into Jessica’s pants. He doesn’t care what I do, as long as I don’t get in his way.”
Sure enough, when we open the door, we see a purse and two wineglasses. Upstairs, there is the sound of pounding, and Mickey looks at me and says, “Do you know what that is?” I shake my head. (We are such stuff as dreams are made on.) “He’s doing her,” she says and we giggle until we are bent over. Then Mickey opens cupboards and says, “Here, make the hot chocolate. I’ll be right back.”
I fill the teakettle with water and put it on the burner and think, What are we doing, why are we doing this? Then Mickey is back, talking on the phone, saying, “Yeah, all right.” Through the window I can see right into Mrs. Wexel’s living room where she’s sitting in a chair in front of the TV, and in the TV is tiny Jerry Seinfeld saying something to tiny Elaine, and even from all this distance I think how big their teeth are. Mickey puts the teakettle on and says, “They’re going to meet us there.”
We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
I pour hot water into the thermos and the light begins to fade and we leave out the back door, cutting across driveways and yards until we are on the road walking past the crooked house with the roses that smell so sweet, going up the hill to the graveyard, which is glowing. Mickey says, “You’re sure you’re not afraid?”
I say, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
“Did you make that up?”
Before I can answer, Larry is standing there and Mickey says, “Where’s Ryan? Where are the guys?” Larry says, “He couldn’t come. Nobody could come.” He looks at me and nods and we trudge up the hill, weaving through the graves, past the angel, back past where all the dead babies are buried. We spread out the blanket and drink hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps. I feel like one of those body diagrams in science class. I picture a red line spreading to my lungs and my heart and into my stomach as the hot liquid goes down, and I think, We are such stuff as dreams are made on. The fireflies are blinking around the tombstones and in the sky, which is sort of purple, and that is when I realize Mickey and Larry are totally making out, and just then she opens her eyes and says, “Elli, would you mind?” So I get up and walk away, weaving through the headstones and the baby toys, the stuffed animals on the graves. I head up the hill to where the angel is, and that’s when I see him sitting there, and he smiles at me, just like he did at the library, and I am thinking, We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and I must have said it out loud because he goes, “Yes.”
I thought I saw a light shining out of him, like a halo, but let’s face it, I was wasted and everything was sort of glowing—even the graves were glowing. He didn’t try to talk to me and he didn’t ask me to come over, I just did. He didn’t ask me to sit down beside him, but I did, and he told me I had beautiful bones: “Slender, but not sharp.” I never saw wings, but I thought I felt them, deep inside me. He smelled like apples, and when I started crying, he whispered over and over again, We are such stuff as dreams are made on. At least, I think he did.
I passed out, until Mickey was standing over me going, “Jesus Christ, Elli, I thought you were dead or something. Why didn’t you answer me?”
“Did you do it?” I asked.
“He didn’t bring any condoms.”
“But you still did it, right?”
“What are you, nuts? I don’t wanna get AIDS or something.”
“Larry isn’t going to give you AIDS.”
“Come on, I feel sick. Let’s go home. You all right?”
“I had the strangest dream.”
She was already walking down the hill, the blanket trailing from her arms, dragging on the ground. I looked up at the angel and said, “Hello? Are you here?”
“Shut up, Elli. Someone’s going to call the cops.”
I felt like a ghost walking out of the graveyard. “Hey, Mickey,” I said, “it’s like we’re ghosts coming back to life.”
“Just shut up,” Mickey said.
Dogs barked and lights came on the whole way back to her house, where the two wineglasses were still there but the purse was gone. Mickey dropped the blanket on the floor and said, “I am so wasted.”
I said, “Nobody even knows we are here.”
Mickey rested her hand on my shoulder and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much.”
I followed her up the stairs into her room where we went to bed without changing our clothes. It wasn’t long before Mickey was snoring and I just lay there blinking in the dark, and it kept repeating in my head, over and over again: We are such stuff as dreams are made on. I fell asleep thinking it and I woke up thinking it and I’m still thinking it and I just keep wondering, Is any of this real?
June in Voorhisville. The sun rises over the houses, the library, Lucy’s Diner, the yoga studio, the drugstore, the fields of future corn and wheat, the tiny buds of roses, the silent streets. Pink crab apple petals part for honeybees; tulips gasp their last, red throats to the sun; butterflies flit over dandelions; and the grass is lit upon by tiny white moths, destined to burn their wings against streetlamps.
The mothers greet the day with tired eyes. So soon? It isn’t possible. The babies are crying. Again. The mothers are filled with great love, and also something else. Who knew someone so small could eat so much!
Cathy Vecker complains to her mother and grandmother, who encourage her to consider bottle feeding. “Then we can hire a summer girl,” her mother says.
Jan Morris calls the real estate office where she works and breaks down in tears to the young receptionist there, who calls her own mother, who shows up at Jan’s an hour later with two Styrofoam cups of bitter tea, bagels from Lucy’s, and a pamphlet entitled “Birthing Darkness: What Every Woman Should Know about Post-Partum Depression” as well as—inexplicably—Dr. Phil’s weight loss book.
Sylvia takes her son into the garden, where she sits in the twig chair and thinks how tired her husband was before he died, and how she feels tired like that now, except alive. She cries onto her son’s shoulders.
Lara dresses her baby in a yellow onesie, checking his back several times, convincing herself that the strange thing she saw had been an hallucination. She is very tired. She can’t believe how much she has to arrange just to walk down the street to her studio. She feels like she’s packing for a week: diapers, socks, change of clothes, nursing blankets, an extra bra, a clean shirt. All while the baby lies there, watching.
The mothers of Voorhisville are being watched. Rumors have begun to circulate about strange births and malformed babies, though the gossip seems unfounded. Sure, the mothers look exhausted, but there’s nothing unusual about that. Yes, they describe the pains of birth as severe, but women have always said so. The only strange thing about the babies, despite what Brian and Francis think they saw, despite the rumors that nurse spreads all the way in Becksworth, is that they are all boys, and they are all beautiful.
Far from the rumors of town, out past the canning factory, over the hill behind the site of the old paper mill, Theresa Ratcher stands in her pantry, staring at glass jars filled with jelly. She means to be assessing what remains from the winter; instead, she is mesmerized by the colors. She stands, resting her hands on her great belly, as though beholding something sacred; certainly something more spectacular than strawberry, jalapeno, or yellow-tomato jelly. Her husband is in the field. She has no idea where Elli is. Theresa doesn’t like to think about Elli, and she doesn’t like to think about why she doesn’t like to think about her. For a moment, Elli, with her long limbs and protruding belly, stands in Theresa’s mind. She shakes her head and concentrates on the jars before her.
Elli is in the barn. She has no idea why. They don’t have any animals except for cats and mice. But Elli likes it in the barn. She finds it a peaceful place, her dad out in the fields, her mom somewhere else. These days, Elli likes to be far from her mother, because even when they are in different rooms, she can feel the hate. Elli stands in the middle of the barn, beneath the beams, which her father still obsesses about. She is biting her fingernail when the sharp pain drives her to the ground. She lets out a scream, which rises past the spiderwebs and silent, hanging blobs of sleeping bats, out the cracks and holes in the roof, where it mingles with Theresa’s scream as she falls to the ground in the pantry, knocking over several jars that shatter on the floor—an explosion of red goo, which her husband, when he returns for supper, assumes is blood. He runs to get the phone, but she screams at him to help, so he kneels before her in the glass and fruit, and she screams the head and shoulders out. Later, she tells him it’s jelly. He licks a finger but it tastes like blood. He helps her upstairs and tucks her into bed, the baby in the crib.
He looks everywhere for Elli, finally going to the barn where he barely sees her in the evening light. She is lying on the ground, surrounded by pools of jelly (he thinks, before he realizes, no, that can’t be right). She looks at him with wild eyes, like his 4-H horse all those years ago when she broke her leg, and she cries. “Daddy? It’s dead.”
That’s when he notices the small shape beside her. As he leans closer, she says, “Careful. They hurt.” He doesn’t know what she means until he sees the tiny bat wings spread across the small back. But that can’t be right. He looks down at his daughter, horrified. “It’s some kind of freak,” she weeps. “Just get rid of it.”
He picks the creature up, and only then notices its barely perceptible breathing. “Don’t touch the wings,” she says. He looks at her, his little girl who gave birth to such a thing. Now she can get on with her life.
“Get it out of here,” she says.
He takes the shovel and walks out of the barn, bats flying overhead. Curiosity gets the best of him, and he touches the wings. The next thing he knows, he is standing in the cornfield, beneath the cold light of the moon, staring at his dark house, listening to screams. He looks around in confusion but he can’t find the creature, or the shovel, or any sign that the ground has been turned. He runs to the barn.
He finds Elli lying on the ground, surrounded by wild cats, and screaming. He hears a noise behind him, the snapping of gravel, and turns to see Theresa slowly making her way towards them. “Go back. Just go back in the house,” he shouts. She stops, washed with white moonglow like a ghost. “You’ll be in the way. Call 911.”
Slowly, Theresa turns and walks towards the house.
He reaches between Elli’s legs, relieved to feel a crown of head there. “It’s all right. You’re just having another one.”
“I’m dying!” she screams.
“Push,” he says, with no real idea if this is the right thing to do or not; he just wants it out. “Push, Elli.”
She screams and bears down. He feels the head and shoulders. Squinting in the dark, he barely sees the cord. He’s already forming a plan for suffocation, if it’s like the other, but what comes out is a perfect baby boy that he tries to hand to Elli. She says she doesn’t want it. He is pleading with her when the EMTs arrive. They help all three of them into the house, where Theresa sits in the dark living room, cradling her baby.
“Everything all right?” she asks.
Elli opens her mouth, but Pete speaks first. “Everything’s fine,” he says. “A boy.”
“And a freak,” Elli says.
“What?” Theresa speaks to Elli’s back as she walks up the stairs, leaving the baby with the EMT who carried him inside. He hands the baby to Pete Ratcher, who thanks him for coming all that way “for nothing.” He says it’s his job, and not to worry, but Pete Ratcher watches the man walk down the driveway to the ambulance, shaking his head like a man who just received terrible news. Pete searches the sky for a long time before he realizes what he’s looking for. “I have to take care of something,” he says, and steps forward as though to hand the baby to Theresa.
She looks at him like he’s nuts. “Give him to Elli. She’s his mother.”
He walks up the dark stairs and enters his daughter’s room. “Elli? Honey?”
“I have to check on something. You know, the other one.”
“Elli, these things happen. It’s not your fault. And look, you have this one.”
“I don’t want him.”
“God damn it, Elli.”
He thinks that, all in all, he’s handled everything well. It’s been a hell of a night. He tries once more for a calm tone. “I have to go check on something. I’m going to put your baby right here, in the crib, but if he cries, you have to take care of him. You have to. Your mother is tired. Do you hear me, Elli?”
Elli mumbles something, which he takes for assent. He places the baby in the crib. It squirms, and he rubs its back. Only then does it occur to him that the baby is not diapered or clothed, not even washed, but still coated in the bloody slime of birth. He picks it up, and by the moonlight finds what he needs on the shelves of the changing table (a gift from Elli’s high school teachers). He cleans the baby with several hand wipes, tossing them towards the plastic trash can, not troubling to make sure any of them actually land inside. Finally, he diapers the baby, wrapping him tightly in a clean blanket and setting him in the crib. “Elli.” She doesn’t respond. “If he cries you have to take care of him. You have to feed him.”
“I want Mom.”
He realizes Elli doesn’t understand that Theresa has given birth today too. He tells her this, saying, “You have a brother, a little baby brother. Your mom is too tired to help you right now.”
When he closes the door, Elli gets up and walks across the room to stand at the window. After a minute, she sees him walking towards the cornfield. What could he be doing out there? she wonders. She turns away, shuffling like an old woman. She stands over the crib and touches the flat of the baby’s back, places her hand on his soft cap of hair, then reaches in and picks him up. He cries softly. She says, “There, there.” She jiggles him gently on her shoulder, but the soft cry turns into a wail. Why are you crying? she thinks. I’m not going to hurt you.
What is she supposed to do? She takes it back to bed with her, where she sits against the wall, jiggling it, saying, “There, there,” over and over again, until she finally gets the idea of feeding it. She unbuttons her shirt and smashes its face against her breast. It cries and wiggles in her arms before latching on to her nipple and sucking until he finally falls asleep.
She would like to sleep with him, but she remembers hearing how mothers sometimes squash their babies by mistake. She thinks this is probably an exaggeration, but she isn’t sure.
Eyes half-closed, she walks across the room, lays the baby in the crib, and shuffles back to bed. The next thing she knows, her mother is in the room in her nightgown, standing over the crib, and the baby is crying.
“You have to feed him,” Theresa says. “You can’t just let him cry.”
“I didn’t hear it,” Elli says.
“You didn’t hear him, not it. You have to take care of this, Elli. I’m busy with your brother.” Theresa picks the baby up and brings him to her. “Do you know where your father is?”
“He said he had to go take care of something.”
“You have to feed him, Elli.”
“In the cornfield. I know. Could I have some privacy, here?”
“I don’t want to have to keep getting up for your baby, too.”
“I didn’t hear him. I’m sorry.”
“You’re going to have to hear him,” Theresa says. “What’s he doing in the cornfield?”
But Elli doesn’t answer. She’s turned her back and is unbuttoning her shirt.
“Can you hear me?” Theresa asks.
“I don’t know what he’s doing in the cornfield. It’s Dad, all right?” She pokes her nipple into the baby’s mouth.
Theresa walks out of her daughter’s room, trying to stay calm, though she feels like screaming. She hears the baby crying and turns back, but Elli, who gives her a look as though she knew her mother had plotted this surprise return just to look at Elli’s bare breasts, is nursing him. It takes a few seconds before Theresa realizes the crying is coming from her own baby. Suddenly life has gotten so strange: her daughter nursing a baby whose father she won’t name; her husband out in the cornfield in the middle of the night; her own baby, whose lineage is uncertain, crying again, though it seems like only minutes since she fed him.
Voorhisville in June: those long hot nights of weeping and wailing, diaper changing and feeding, those long days of exhaustion and weeping, wailing, diapering, and feeding.
Sylvia’s roses grow limp from lack of care and—just as some dying people glow near the end—emit the sweetest odor. The scent is too sweet, and it’s too strong. Everywhere the mothers go, it’s like following in the footsteps of a woman with too much perfume on.
Emily continues baking, though she burns things now, the scorched scent mingling with the heavy perfume of roses and jasmine incense, which Shreve sets on a windowsill of the yoga studio.
“I have to do something,” she says, when the mailman comments on it. “Have you noticed how smelly it is in Voorhisville lately?”
The mailman has noticed that all the mothers, women who had seemed perfectly reasonable just last year, are suddenly strange. He’s just a mailman; it isn’t really for him to say. But if he were to say, he’d say, Something strange is happening to the mothers of Voorhisville.
Maddy Melvern doesn’t know any different; she thinks it’s always been this way. She stares at her son, lying on a blanket under a tree in the park. She looks away for one second to watch the mailman walk past—not that there’s anything interesting about him, because there isn’t, but that just shows how bored she is—and when she turns back to JoJo, he’s hovering over the blanket, six inches off the ground; flying. She holds him against her chest, frantic to see if anyone’s noticed, but the park is filled with mothers holding infants, or bent over strollers, tightening straps. Everyone is too distracted to notice Maddy and her flying baby. “Holy shit, JoJo,” she whispers, “you have to be careful with this stuff.” Maddy isn’t sure what would happen if anyone were to find out about JoJo’s wings, but she’s fairly certain it wouldn’t be good. Even pressed against her chest as he is, she can feel them pulsing. She eases him away from her shoulders to get a view of his face.
He has three dimples and a deep belly laugh. Maddy laughs with him; until suddenly she presses him tight against her heart. “Oh my God, JoJo,” she says. “I love you.”
Tamara Singh has just secured little Ravi in the stroller—not wanting to hurt him, of course, but making sure the straps are tight enough to keep him from flying—when she sees Maddy Melvern laughing with her baby. It just goes to show, Tamara thinks, that you never can tell. Who would have guessed that the teenage unwed mother, the girl who’d done everything wrong, could be so happy, while Tamara, who’d done only one single wrong thing (the illicit sex thing), would be so miserable?
What is love? Tamara thinks as she stares at little Ravi, crying again, hungry for more. She parks the stroller by a bench and unbuttons her blouse. Well, this is love, she thinks—sitting there in the park, filling his hunger, holding down his pulsing wings; watching the ducks and the clouds and the other mothers (it certainly seems like there are a lot of newborns this summer) and thinking, I would die to protect you; I would kill anyone who would hurt you. Then wondering, Where did that come from?
But it was true.
The mothers were lying. They told each other and their loved ones about wellness visits, but none of the mothers actually took their son to a doctor. Because of the wings. Both pediatricians at St. John’s were under the impression that they were losing patients to the other, and each harbored suspicions concerning the guerilla tactics being employed. The lying mothers became obsessed with their sons’ health. Each cough or sneeze or runny nose was the source of much guilt. Nobody wanted to kill her child. That was the point, the reason they had stayed away from doctors: it wasn’t about putting the babies at risk, it was about keeping them safe.
Friends and relatives concluded that the mothers were protective, coddling, suspicious, and overly secretive. The mothers even concluded this about each other, never suspecting they harbored the same secret.
“This is impossible,” Theresa Ratcher murmurs to herself the first time she sees little Matthew’s wings blossoming, like some sort of water flower, while she is bathing him in the sink. She touches one tip; feels the searing proof of hot pain; and the next thing she knows, she is standing in the cornfield. She runs to the house as though it is on fire, tumbles into the kitchen, where Elli sits feeding little Timmy. “Where’s Matthew?” Theresa asks. Elli looks at her like she’s nuts. Theresa glances at the sink, which is empty and dry.
“Did you lose him?” Elli asks. “How could you lose him?”
“Matthew!” Theresa runs upstairs. He is there, asleep in the crib. She pats his back, gently. It feels flat. Normal.
“What’s wrong?” Elli stands in the door, Timmy in her arms. “Mom? Are you all right?”
“I had a bad dream.”
“Outside? You fell asleep outside?” Elli asks. “Are you sick?”
Matthew cries. “I’m not sick,” Theresa says, unbuttoning her blouse. “Before I forget: When is your doctor’s appointment? Did you make that yet? I can’t be keeping track of all this anymore.”
“Don’t worry about it, then,” Elli says, walking down the hall to her room; but when she gets there, it smells like diapers, and flies buzz around the window. Still holding Timmy, Elli walks downstairs and onto the porch.
Her dad is in the cornfield with the boys he hired for the summer. They aren’t boys Elli knows. They’re from Caldore or Wauseega, her dad can’t remember which. They come to the house for lunch most days and ignore her. Elli knows why. She walks over to the apple tree and spreads Timmy’s blanket on the ground, which is littered with blossoms. She sets him down, then stares at the cornfield, trying to force herself to see it as a field, and not a cemetery. Was her dad nuts? Why’d he bury it out there? Did he really think she’d be able to eat the corn this year? Elli shakes her head. She looks at Timmy, who lies there grinning. “What’s so funny?” she says, meanly, and then feels bad for it. It is just so hot, and she is so tired. Between the baby eating all the time, and the bad dreams she has of the other one flying into her room and hovering over her bed, she’s exhausted.
She wakes with a dark shadow standing over her. Elli turns to the empty blanket; then, in a panic, looks up at Theresa, who is standing there, holding Timmy. “You can’t do things like this anymore, Elli,” she says. “You can’t just forget about him. He’s a baby.”
“I didn’t forget about him.”
“Look.” Theresa turns Timmy so that Elli can see his pink face. “He got sunburned.” Elli looks down at her knees. She doesn’t want to cry. Theresa leans down to hand Timmy to her. “I know this is hard, but—”
“Mom, there’s something I have to tell you.”
Theresa is not in the mood for teenage confessions. Why is Elli doing this now?
“There was another one, Mom.”
“What do you mean? Another boy? Is that why you won’t say who the father is?”
“No. Mom, I mean, another baby. I had two. Dad doesn’t want me to say, ’cause, well, he was a freak, and he died. Dad buried him in the cornfield.”
“What do you mean he was a freak?”
“Please don’t tell anyone.”
“He had wings, okay?”
“Who had wings?”
“The other one. The one that died. Do you think it was something I did?”
Theresa cannot form a logical connection between her daughter’s revelation and her own son’s wings. Several things occur to her, but not even for a second does she consider that she might have shared a lover with her fifteen-year-old daughter. (That notion comes later, with disastrous results.) Instead, she thinks of the paper mill, or some kind of terrorist attack on their well, things like that.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Theresa says, “except have unprotected sex.” (Feeling like a hypocrite for saying it.) “And if every woman who did that was punished with a dead baby, there wouldn’t be anyone living at all.”
“But it wasn’t just dead, Mom. It had wings.”
Theresa glances at the house, where she’d left Matthew resting in his crib. “How do we know that wasn’t some kind of miracle? How do we know it was a sign of something bad happening, rather than something good?”
Elli sighs. “It’s just a feeling I get. Remember ‘We are the stuff that dreams are made on?’”
“What about it?” Theresa says, feeling tense at the topic hovering too close to the library, and Jeffrey.
“I don’t know,” Elli says. “It’s just something I think of sometimes.”
Theresa knows she’s been distracted lately, perhaps not as supportive of Elli as she would have liked. She glances at the house again, trying to decide if Matthew could be flying through the rooms, banging into walls and ceilings. She doesn’t know anything about raising a child with wings, except that it is hard enough to raise one without them.
“Try to think of it as a good thing, okay?”
“Will you at least try?”
For three days, Elli tries to convince herself that her first baby was not a freak or a punishment for something she’d done, but a sign of something good. She almost convinces herself of it. But on the third day, while she has Timmy on the changing table, she watches in horror as dark wings sprout from his back.
That’s when she knows. The stranger she had sex with was the devil. That explains everything. It even explains why she did it with him. She looks into Timmy’s beautiful blue eyes. For once, he isn’t crying. In fact, he is smiling.
Evil, Elli thinks, can trick you. She works the saliva in her mouth and spits. Timmy’s face goes through a metamorphosis of expressions, as if trying to decide which one to employ—a slight smile, raised eyebrows, trembling lips—all while closely watching Elli. She begins to cry. He opens his mouth wide and joins her, the glop of phlegm dripping down his forehead. Elli wipes it with the blanket. “Oh, baby, I’m so sorry,” she says, picking him up.
That’s when Theresa walks into the room.
Elli, still crying, looks over the small dark points of her baby’s wings at her mother, who puts her hand over her mouth and—turning on her heels—spins out of the room.
Theresa wheels down the hall like a drunken woman, and opens the door to her own room. Matthew lays there, damp curls matted at his forehead, his pretty pink lips pursed near his tiny fist. Gently, she rubs his back and feels the delicate bones there.
“Mom?” Elli stands in the doorway. “You said it could be good.” Then she sobs and runs out of the room.
Matthew wakes with a wail. Theresa soothes him the best she can as she walks to the rocking chair. Sitting there, Theresa can see all the way out to the three figures working in the field. Matthew sucks at her breast while she stares at the blue sky and gently rocks, asking herself, “What does it mean? What does it mean? What does any of it mean?”
Of all the lying and confused families that summer, perhaps the Ratchers—with their strange convergence of mother, daughter, son, brother, grandson, grandmother, sister, husband, father, and grandfather, all embodied in one small family—were the most confused, with the biggest web of secrets.
Pete Ratcher came home from his Saturday dart game at Skelley’s Bar one hot night, with the news that Maddy Melvern, a year ahead of Elli in school, had given birth and also wasn’t divulging the father’s name. “What hot shot are these girls protecting?” he asked his wife, who tried to make all the right noises while she fed the little monster (that’s how Pete thought of him, though he tried not to) who seemed to be hungry all the time.
Theresa tried to talk to Elli about it. “You know, Maddy Melvern had a baby too,” she said. Elli rolled her eyes, the baby latching on her breast again as her mother stood there, again bothering her with ridiculous information (What did she care about Maddy Melvern?), when all she wanted was to be free, instead of trapped here with this baby and horrible dreams about that other one rising from the cornfield and flying over the house; trying to find her, to punish her for burying him out there, no better than one of the cats—though, really, it wasn’t her fault. It was her dad who did it.
Meanwhile, Pete Ratcher spent more and more nights at Skelley’s, because what was he supposed to stay home for? To watch his wife and daughter endlessly feed and rock the crying babies, which neither would let him hold? Like they didn’t trust him or something? Christ, what was that about?
The regulars at Skelley’s grew used to Pete Ratcher’s complaints. The bartenders could wipe the counter, serve drinks, watch TV, and say, “Women these days,” at just the right moment in Pete’s lament; that’s how predictable it was. The regulars were so tired of it they were careful not to sit next to him. That’s how, on the night Raj came into Skelley’s, blinking against the smoke, he happened to sit right next to Pete, who finally found a sympathetic listener.
Raj nodded and said, “I know, I know. He’s my son, too. I want to be a part of his life. I want to change diapers and take him for walks. I don’t understand why she won’t let me do those things.”
Tamara knew Raj was drinking. Frankly, she was shocked: it was not something she’d imagined he’d fall into. But only a week into this new bad habit of his, he ran into their bedroom to tell her he’d just seen the baby flying. She was able to convince him that he was so drunk he’d been hallucinating. “No, no. I don’t drink that much,” he said.
Tamara went into the nursery, and sure enough, Ravi was floating above the crib, hovering like a giant hummingbird. She had just plucked him to her chest when Raj returned to the room.
“And you get angry at me for not letting you hold him more? Look at you. How can I trust that he’d be safe with a father who drinks so much he thinks he sees flying babies?”
“I don’t drink that much,” Raj said. “And all this was happening before I was drinking.”
“The baby was flying before you started drinking? Do you really expect me to believe this nonsense?”
“No, no. I mean us. We were already fighting about you not letting me near him.”
Tamara, who, just a year ago, would never have believed she could hurt her husband, and, only five minutes ago, would have sworn that she’d never hurt her baby for any reason, now pinched Ravi’s arm, hard, so that he broke into a loud cry. She turned to attend to his tears as Raj watched, helpless and confused. It was like watching a movie or television: his wife and son in a separate world, with no need of him at all.
The next night, when he came home from Skelley’s, his pajamas and a pillow and blankets were on the couch, and the baby was sleeping with Tamara. Raj remembered hearing once about a woman who rolled onto her baby in her sleep and suffocated the newborn. He considered waking Tamara to warn her, but instead, took off his shoes. He didn’t bother changing into his pajamas before he lay down on the couch, vowing that tomorrow he wouldn’t go to Skelley’s. Tomorrow he would meditate and fast. Maybe he would even return to his yoga practice. How had he lost both himself and his marriage so swiftly?
Tamara heard him come home. She heard his breathing when he stood in the bedroom door and watched her. She was only pretending to be asleep. She heard him walk away, heard his shoes drop to the floor. Maybe she should tell him, she thought—but was this how he responded to stress? How would he respond to having a baby with wings? No, Tamara decided, she couldn’t risk it. She was sure it was the right decision, but nonetheless fell asleep with tears in her eyes.
The tears were still in her eyes when she was awoken by the baby’s crying. She brought him to her breast, which silenced him immediately. She fell asleep, but woke up throughout the night to feel the baby suckling. In the morning, she decided it had been her imagination—it was impossible that Ravi had been feeding all night long.
Elli could feel the way her mother was watching her. It was obvious that she did not think Timmy’s wings were a sign of something good. Elli’s dad (oblivious) tried to talk to her. He even bought up the subject of the beams. “Don’t go in the barn anymore,” he said. “Not until I do something about them.”
Elli thought her dad was nuts. What did she care about the stupid barn beams when she had this baby with wings to take care of, and another one hunting her? She stared at her dad with his stick-out ears and the creases around his upraised eyebrows. He suddenly seemed like some kind of strange, mutant child himself. Elli shook her head and turned her attention to Timmy, without saying a word.
Theresa, sitting on the couch facing the TV and holding Matthew, observed all this: the way her husband tried to speak to Elli; the way she looked at him, appalled; then turned away as though she could not bear to speak to him. Theresa observed all this and she knew.
“I’m going out,” Pete said. Neither Elli nor Theresa responded. When did I become the enemy? Pete wondered. Sometimes women were like this in the first months after giving birth. He’d heard about that. Pete remembered Raj saying, “Sometimes I feel so angry, but then I remember that I love her.” Pete stood in the living room and tried to remember how much he loved them. It was actually sort of hard to do. It was hard to feel it.
June in Voorhisville. The leaves of oaks and elms and the famous chestnut tree on Main Street grow until the Voorhisville sun filters through a green canopy. Everything, from faces, to flowers, to food, appears tinged with a shade usually associated with alien masks or Halloween witches.
The mothers of Voorhisville are too busy to notice. There are diapers to change, endless feedings, tiny clothes to wash, and constant surveillance.
Cathy Vecker would like nothing better than to hire a nanny or let her mother and grandmother feed the baby, but she can’t risk it.
“He’s growing so fast,” her mother says. “Are you sure he’s normal?”
Cathy resists the urge to roll her eyes. “Look at Sylvia Lansmorth’s baby,” she says. “He was born around the same time as Raven. They’re both the same size.”
“Well, they say Americans are getting bigger. Are you sure the doctor doesn’t want you to put him on a diet?”
As the tiny bumps on Raven’s back sprout and flutter, the wings pushing against her hands like they have a will of their own, Cathy runs out the front door, ignoring her mother. “You have to stop,” she whispers, though she doesn’t expect him to understand. With a thrust as powerful as a man’s hands, Raven’s wings push against her, tearing through the train-patterned fabric of his little sleeper.
The next thing Cathy knows, she is standing in Sylvia Lansmorth’s garden and Sylvia, dressed in something purple and flowing, is glaring at her. “You’re standing on my roses,” Sylvia says.
“Have you seen my baby?” Cathy looks around, desperately, as though she expects to find Raven perched on a rose petal. Well, who knows? Who knows what will happen next?
“Your baby?” Sylvia asks. “How old is he?”
“Don’t you know me?”
Sylvia shakes her head.
“I’ve known you my whole life,” Cathy says.
Sylvia assumes she is talking to a mentally ill person. It’s the only explanation. “Is there someone I can call?”
“We have to call the police.” Cathy can’t believe how calm she sounds. “I have to tell them everything.”
Sylvia doesn’t like the sound of that. “I’ll call,” she says. “You wait here.”
Cathy takes a deep breath and almost passes out from the sweet rose scent. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Is this about your baby?”
“I tried to do the right thing. I did.”
“Wait here,” Sylvia says, glancing back at the house.
“I didn’t mean to lose him.”
“Of course you didn’t.”
“He flew right out of my hands.”
“You think I’m crazy.”
Sylvia shakes her head.
“Of course you do. That’s what I would think. Nobody’s going to believe me. Unless they see the wings, and if that happens they’ll call him a freak. The worst part is”—Cathy begins to cry—“I don’t know where he is.”
Sylvia puts her arm around Cathy’s shoulder. “I believe you,” she says. “Did you touch them?” She takes Cathy’s hands in her own. “Look, you’re all cut up. How did this happen?”
Cathy sniffs loudly. “The wings ripped right through his clothes and cut me when I was trying to hold on to him.”
“Well, when this happens with my baby,” Sylvia says, “I usually find him in his crib, sound asleep.”
“You’re just trying to make me feel better.”
“No, it’s true. But if you tell anyone, I’ll deny it. Listen to me, honey: before you get all panicky, what you need to do is go home.”
“Yes. Go home and see if he’s in his room.”
“My mom and grandmother are there.”
“Well, then you better hurry. You don’t want them to find him floating over his crib or something, do you?”
Cathy has a stitch in her side by the time she gets home. She runs to the nursery, rushing into the room so loudly that the baby wakes. Cathy picks him up and holds him close. “Oh, I love you, I love you, I love you,” she says, over and over again; thinking, There’s another one, there’s another baby with wings, you aren’t alone in the world, and neither am I.
She takes off his tattered sleeper, shredded as if by some beast, and tosses it into the trash. The she places a gauze pad on his small back and binds it there with first aid tape.
The mothers of Voorhisville were using gauze and tape, plastic wrap (which caused sweating and a rash), thick layers of clothing, and bubble wrap. What to do about a child with wings? How to cope with the unpredictable thrust of them, the sear of pain, the strange disappearing babies? The flying! How to cope with that? Several mothers (and they are not proud of this) took to devising elaborate rope restraints. It is rumored that at least one mother suffered tragic results from this decision, reported as a crib death, but she is not here with us, so that remains speculation.
Many of the mothers describe the isolation of this time as having its own weight. “I felt tied down,” Elli Ratcher says. “Knowing that my mom had the same problem didn’t really help. I mean she was my mom, okay? What did she know about my life?”
Many of the mothers, when they hear Elli say this, walk towards her, intending to administer a motherly hug or at least pat her on the back, but something in Elli’s expression causes them to stop, as though she is radioactive.
Theresa felt alone in the world. All that June she knew what Pete did, and tried to convince herself she did not. But it was the only explanation. She knew, and she had to do something about it.
Finally, one hot afternoon, she left Matthew with Elli, who said, “Well, okay, but you better hurry back. It’s hard enough watching Timmy every second,” and walked out to the cornfield, where Pete was working with the boys.
“Is something wrong?” he said. “Is Elli—”
“I know,” Theresa said, loudly, angrily, as though she had only just figured it out.
“You know what?” Pete asked, looking at the boys, a quizzical women-are-going-to-confuse-you look on his face.
“I know what you did.”
“Did to who?”
Pete shook his head. “I don’t know what . . .” His voice trailed off as he considered the baby lost in the cornfield. “Do you mean the other one? Is that what you’re talking about? It was a freak, Theresa. It had wings, for God’s sake.”
Theresa dove at Pete with her fists. He ducked and weaved, and finally grabbed her wrists.
“How could you? How could you do such a thing? How could you fuck your own daughter?”
Pete dropped her wrists, stepped back as if struck. He gaped at Theresa, turned to the boys, who gaped at him, then stepped towards his wife. “I never—”
“I want you out! Don’t you dare come near us again. I’ll kill you. Do you understand me?”
Pete stood there, speechless.
“I don’t care if you understand me or not,” Theresa said. “You come anywhere near us, and I’ll kill you. I don’t fucking care if you understand, you monster.”
Pete watched Theresa walk away from him, the awkward sway of her hips as she walked over the uneven ground. He turned to the boys, thinking to offer them an explanation of the mental illness some women suffer after childbirth, but neither one looked at him. He stood there until Theresa slammed the door behind her, then followed in her path, stepping slowly through the field, leaving the boys believing they were about to witness a murder.
Pete was a little worried about that as well. But there was no way around it. He had the keys to the Chevy in his pocket, and the Chevy was in the driveway. She didn’t expect him to walk, did she?
How had this happened? Had Elli accused him of such a thing? Why? Standing by the car, he considered his options. He could go inside and try to straighten this out, or he could leave. The problem was the gun, which they kept in the basement and had only used for shooting squirrels when they infested the attic after all those traps had proven ineffective. It was an old gun. He didn’t think Theresa knew how to use it, but maybe she did.
He arrived at Skelley’s a great deal earlier than usual, and stayed until closing, at which point he realized he didn’t have his wallet.
Doug, the bartender, told him he could pay the next time he came. “But no more drinks until then.”
“You don’t know of a place I could stay?” Pete asked.
Doug shrugged. “What about that friend of yours, that towelhead? Why don’t you stay with him?”
In Pete’s state, this seemed a perfectly reasonable suggestion. He reached for his keys, but Doug deftly scooped them up. “I’ll take you,” he said. “You can get your car in the morning.”
Pete had no idea where Raj and Tamara lived, but Doug did. “Everyone in town knows,” he said.
Pete slurred his thanks, then weaved up to the house, where he leaned on the bell until Raj opened the door. Tamara stood behind him, wearing a red robe and holding a crying baby.
“My wife kicked me out.”
“I wonder why,” Tamara said, then turned and walked down the dark hall.
“I don’t mean to cause problems.”
Raj put his hand on Pete’s shoulder. “You look like you could use a drink, my friend.”
Over tea, Pete told Raj what Theresa had accused him of.
“You need a lawyer,” Raj said.
But by that time, Pete was crying. “I need my family.”
Tamara woke up to the baby’s crying. It seemed like he had only just gone to sleep. Then it stopped. She closed her eyes, but they popped right back open. That’s when Raj burst into the room, holding the baby in front of him, extended at arm’s length, the baby’s wings rising and falling as gentle as breath, the strange man who had arrived in the night right behind Raj.
“He was flying! He was flying!” Raj said.
Tamara looked at her husband. “You’re drunk.”
“Tamara,” Raj said, “I am not drunk. And neither are you.” He opened his arms. Ravi rose into the air, his wings fully extended. He hovered, then flew higher and higher.
“Catch him,” Tamara shouted.
“Ravi Singh, you come down here this instant,” Tamara shouted.
Laughing, dangerously close to the ceiling fan.
Tamara screamed. Raj leapt onto the bed and jumped, trying to catch Ravi by the foot. Instead, Raj grazed the baby’s heel. That set him into a cartwheel, which luckily landed on the bed. Ravi lay crying, a strange bend to his shoulder, but Tamara kept screaming at the men not to touch him. They watched the dark wings shrivel until they were gone. Only then did Tamara scoop Ravi up, holding him close to her chest.
“I think we need to call the hospital,” Raj said. “I think maybe his shoulder is broken.”
“Oh, right,” Tamara said. “And then what do we do? Tell them he fell from the sky?”
“That’s what happened, Tamara. That’s the truth.”
Tamara looked from Raj to the man beside him. “Who are you?”
“From the farm out by the old mill?”
“If you tell anybody what you saw, I’ll kill you.”
“Tamara!” Raj turned to Pete. “She doesn’t mean it. She’s hysterical.”
Tamara didn’t look hysterical. She looked like she meant it. It was the second murder threat Pete had received in twenty-four hours, and he felt he was becoming something of an expert.
“I’ll call the doctor,” Raj said.
“No,” Tamara said. “I’m taking him in. I’ll take him.”
“I’ll come with you,” Raj said. “It’s going to be all right. We can handle this, honey.”
“Just stay here with your friend.” She nodded towards Pete. “We’ll talk when I get home. You stay here, okay?”
This was the kindest Tamara had been to Raj in so long that he agreed. “I’ll call the doctor and let her know you’re coming.”
“Please,” Tamara said. “She doesn’t know you. She knows me. I’ll call from the car.”
Again, Raj agreed. He even helped pack the baby’s bag, not thinking to wonder why Tamara needed so many diapers, so many sleepers, so much stuff. He was distracted, he would later tell the television reporter. It never even occurred to him that she was lying.
When Tamara left the house, she turned right out of the driveway, but circled around Caster Lane, heading west. Ravi, in his car seat, had stopped crying and looked at her with his beautiful blue eyes, while chewing on a teething ring. Of course he was way too young for teeth, but they were coming in. She’d seen them, and she’d felt them too, when he bit down on her nipple. “Okay, baby. We’re going on a road trip, but first we’re going to make a little stop at Mr. Ratcher’s house. I hear they have a new baby there. Let’s see if we can make sure Mr. Ratcher has good reason never to tell anyone our secret.”
Tamara would never hurt Pete Ratcher’s baby. But he didn’t know that. All she wanted to do was scare him. All she wanted to do was make sure he didn’t hurt her baby. In a way, you could say her intentions were good.
It is just a little after 4:00 a.m. when Tamara Singh approaches the Ratcher driveway. She turns off the headlights, cuts the engine, and coasts in. What she’s doing isn’t dangerous—it’s more on par with a high school prank—but Tamara thinks that maybe she now understands, just a little bit, what motivates a criminal. Beyond everything else there is this thrill.
When she unbuckles Ravi from the car seat, he is sound asleep; even touching his shoulder doesn’t wake him. Tamara concludes they must have overreacted. She breathes a sigh of relief.
The air is heavy with the odor of manure, dirt, tomato plants, grass, and green corn stalks. Tamara walks across the gravel on tiptoe, but the noise breaks through the dark. In the distance, a dog barks. She walks to the back door, opens it, and enters the house. The Ratchers, like most of the residents of Voorhisville, do not lock their doors. Who can be bothered with keys, in this world that no one wants? Tamara wishes she had a sheet of paper so she could write that thought down.
The kitchen is lit by the stove light. The window over the sink is open, and the white curtains flutter slightly. Ravi stirs in her arms. Tamara leans her face close to his. “Shhh, baby,” she whispers. Miraculously, he does. Tamara concludes that all the excitement must have worn him out. Suddenly she’s aware of how tired she is. She tiptoes through the kitchen and into the living room.
The couch, plaid and sagging, faces a TV set with a small cactus on it. Between the couch and the TV, there is a coffee table littered with a parenting magazine, a paperback, unused diapers, a box of tissues, a half-filled glass of water, and an empty plate. On the TV wall stands the only nice piece of furniture in the room, an antique sideboard with a lace runner and two white taper candles in glass holders. Tamara lies down on the couch. As she falls asleep, she can hear the faint twittering of birds and—from upstairs—a baby’s cry; the sound of footsteps.
When Pete woke up, feeling like he slept on rocks instead of a pullout couch, he found Raj sitting at the kitchen table, making designs with Cheerios. Pete didn’t really have the energy to comfort Raj—after all, his wife accused him of molesting their daughter; he had serious problems of his own. The phone rang, but Raj continued rearranging Cheerios. “Should I get that?” Pete asked. He walked over to the phone. “Hello?”
“Is this Raj Singh?”
“Pete? What are you doing there?”
“Theresa, I never—”
“I need to talk to Raj Singh. Is he there?”
“Theresa, you have to believe me.”
“I don’t have time for this right now. Tamara Singh is here, and their baby is dead. Are you going to tell him, or should I?”
Pete watched Raj carefully place a Cheerio in-between two others. “But what should I say? How should I say it?”
“Tell him his wife, for some reason, came here last night and fell asleep on the couch with the baby, and when she woke up, he was dead. Tell him not to call the doctor or the undertaker. His wife wants to bury him right here. Nothing formal. Just him and us. Tell him that’s what she wants, so we’re going to do it that way. Tell him the baby’s wings are still out, and if anyone else sees them they’ll probably want to take him, run tests and stuff. Tell him his wife could never live through that. Make sure he understands.”
“That’s what it was like with Elli’s baby. The other one—the one that died.”
“Tell him you’ll bring him with you when you come home.”
“Theresa? You don’t still think—”
“I screwed up. Okay? I’m sorry, Pete. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. What can I say? I’m sorry.”
“But you know, right? You know I would never?”
“Are you going to tell him?”
“But how? I mean, how did it happen?”
“She said something about a fall, but I think she suffocated him by mistake. Just get here, okay? Don’t let Raj call anyone.”
“Theresa, did Elli say I did that to her?”
“No, it wasn’t Elli. It was me. What do you want? I already apologized. It was a mistake, okay? Can we just move on, here? There’s other stuff to deal with. Do you want to tell him, or do you want me to?”
“I’ll tell him,” Pete said, so loudly that Raj looked up from his Cheerios. Pete hung up the phone. “I have bad news,” he said.
Raj nodded, as if—of course, naturally—it was just as he expected.
“Your baby’s dead.”
Raj collapsed across the kitchen table, scattering the Cheerios. Pete placed a hand on Raj’s back, kept it there for a moment, and then walked out of the kitchen, through the living room, and out the front door.
Pete stood on the front porch, his head pounding. Crazy; it was just crazy that his wife thought he’d do such a thing. How could she ever have loved him if she thought he was capable of such evil? Pete knew that this was not the time to get angry at her, not when she realized her mistake, but he’d gotten drunk last night, and then there was all that business with the baby, and he’d been too distracted to feel it before.
The door popped open. Raj stood there with red eyes. “Tamara?”
“She’s at my house. She stopped by to visit my wife, I guess.”
“I have to make some calls—”
“No.” Pete explained how Raj wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, because of the wings, and how Tamara wanted the baby buried at the farm.
“I don’t think that’s legal.”
Pete shrugged. “Theresa—and I guess your wife too—they think that if anyone finds out about the wings, they’ll take the baby, and you know, run tests and stuff on him.”
Raj considered this. “Okay. Give me a minute. And then you can drive me to your house?”
“We have to take your car. Mine is—”
Raj shut the door before Pete could finish.
Nobody knew that Raj had developed such a deep fondness for his yoga teacher, Shreve. Not even Shreve knew, until Raj called that morning, and, in a choked voice, explained that his baby had died. He wanted her to come and read from the Upanishads at the funeral out on the Ratcher farm.
“But don’t tell anyone else, please,” Raj said. “My wife is very worried because our baby had wings and she thinks it will cause problems if people find out.”
“Your baby had wings?”
“I only just found out recently, myself.”
After Shreve finished speaking to Raj, she called Emily and told her what happened. “Apparently he had wings.”
“Yep. What do you think about that?”
“I think maybe something like that might freak some people out,” said Emily, choosing her words carefully, “but people are afraid of new things, you know? I mean who’s to say . . . like, remember what we were talking about a while back? Who’s to say it wasn’t an angel?”
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Shreve said. “I’m nervous about doing this alone, anyway. Do you think you could come with me to the Ratchers?”
Emily watched Gabriel doing a slow figure-eight pattern overhead, a sign that he was getting tired. “Actually, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you as well,” she said.
Mrs. Vecker, Cathy’s mother, is in the grocery store when she overhears Emily Carr and Shreve Mahar having an animated conversation about what would be appropriate to bring to the Ratcher farm “at a time like this.” She tells Cathy later that day. “It’s all over town. Tracy Ragan’s daughter’s husband’s best friend works with someone who is the father of a boy who was helping on the Ratcher farm, and he says Pete Ratcher is a child molester. You remember his daughter; that pretty red-haired girl? Well, she had a baby with wings—that’s how Theresa Ratcher figured it out. Incest, you know, can create all sorts of problems. Theresa Ratcher kicked him out, and I guess the women are going there to see what they can do to help.”
Sylvia and Jan Morris had just spent a couple hours together, talking poetry and mothering, when there was a knock at the door. Sylvia was happy to answer it, thinking it might be just the interruption needed to send Jan on her way. It was nice to have company for a while, but Sylvia was ready for a nap. She opened the door.
“Did you hear about the Ratchers?” Cathy asked in a rush, half into the room before she stopped. “Oh, I didn’t know you had company. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” she said, feeling oddly jealous.
“What about the Ratchers?” Jan asked.
“Pete Ratcher molested their daughter. She had a baby. They say it has wings.”
“What do wings have to do with anything?” Jan asked.
“We have to help,” Sylvia said.
It was decided that Cathy and Sylvia would drive in Cathy’s BMW. They would meet Jan at the Ratchers’. Cathy and Sylvia stood by the roses and waved as she drove away.
“It doesn’t mean he wasn’t molesting her,” Sylvia said.
“But . . . another baby with wings,” said Cathy. “Don’t you think this is getting kind of strange?”
Sylvia laughed. “Getting strange?”
As Pete Ratcher drove up to his house, he glanced at Raj. Pete felt bad for Raj, but Pete’s overwhelming feeling was anger at Theresa. How could she accuse him of such a thing? How could she believe him capable of such an act?
“We should probably go in,” Pete said.
“I did not know that your wife and my wife even knew each other.”
Welcome to the club, Pete thought. I didn’t know that my wife thought I was some kind of monster. The two men sat in the car, staring at the house.
Theresa watched from the kitchen window. She glanced at Tamara, who sat at the table, staring into space. “They’re here,” she said. “Your husband is here.”
Theresa thought Tamara might have sighed, but the sound was so faint, she couldn’t be sure.
When they came inside, Theresa gave Raj a hug. In just that brief encounter, she felt the weight of his sorrow. Raj walked over to Tamara and tried to hug her, but she just sat there. He turned to Theresa and said, “Where’s my son? Can I see him?”
Tamara stood up so suddenly that the chair toppled. “I’ll show you,” she said and led him out of the kitchen to the living room, where Theresa had laid the baby on the sideboard with blankets all around him, the unlit candles at either end, like he was some kind of weird centerpiece.
Shreve and Emily park in front of the house, the engine off, the windows rolled down for air. “I’m glad we finally told each other,” Emily says.
Shreve nods. “We have to figure out exactly what we need to know.”
Emily twists in her seat to look at the two babies in the back. “We have to find out how he died—if it had anything to do with the wings.”
“Or if it had something to do with Jeffrey, or the water, or something she ate.”
“But how could Jeffrey have anything to do with Tamara Singh’s baby?”
Shreve just smirks.
“Oh, come on,” Emily says. “Us? And Tamara? I don’t think so.”
Shreve shrugs. “Remember, we’re here to help bury a baby. We have to be discreet.”
The thought of Tamara’s dead baby casts a solemn shadow over them. Both women glance back at their children.
Elli watches from her bedroom window. It takes the mothers forever to unload the two babies, their diaper bags, a bouquet of flowers, and what looks like some kind of casserole or pie. Though both Timmy and Matthew are sleeping peacefully in the hot crib together, Elli keeps having a thought she doesn’t want to have. She keeps thinking, Why couldn’t it have been Timmy?, then hates herself for having this thought. She doesn’t even want this thought, so she doesn’t understand why it keeps popping into her head. She looks at the sleeping Timmy. I would die if anything happened to you. (Why couldn’t it have been you?) It makes no sense. Elli watches the women walk to the back door. She hears the bell ring. The mind, Elli thinks, is its own battleground (like there’s a war going on up there and she’s just a spectator). The bell rings again. Jesus Christ, would someone just answer it? But it’s too late; the babies wake up, crying.
What’s she supposed to do? Pick both of them up? She picks up Timmy; pats him on the back, jiggling him. The next thing she knows, Matthew is flying out of the crib and heading for the open window. There’s a screen on it, so naturally she thinks that at the worst he’s going to get a little banged up, but when he hits the screen, he hits it hard; it falls right off the window, and Matthew flies out.
“Mom!” Elli screams.
Shreve rings the doorbell, waits for a while, and then rings again. Emily carries Gabriel’s car seat in one hand and a plate of chocolate croissants in the other, the heavy diaper bag hanging from her shoulder. Shreve, who is similarly burdened, has to ring with the hand carrying the flowers, careful not to squash them. Inside, someone is screaming. “Sounds like they’re taking it hard,” she says.
A shadow passes overhead.
The door opens. Theresa stands there, her expression aghast.
“I’m Shreve Mahar,” she begins, but Theresa runs right past her, brushing her shoulder, so that Shreve has to spin a half turn to maintain balance.
“Where? Where?” Theresa cries, staring up at the sky.
Shreve and Emily exchange a look. Elli Ratcher comes running out of the house, holding a screaming baby. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she cries. “I’m sorry!”
“Matthew! Matthew!” Theresa Ratcher hollers.
Jan pulls into the driveway and surveys the scene before her. A barefoot woman stands, shouting, in the yard, her face craned to the sky. Beside her stands the young red-haired girl, carrying a baby. On the porch is the dark-haired yoga teacher with a diaper bag, flowers, and a baby in a carrier. Standing at the foot of the stairs is a short woman who Jan thinks might be named Emma or Emily. Jan cranes her neck and looks up at the sky. She thinks they must have lost a pet bird, though the hysterical woman and the crying girl seem to be overreacting.
Jan is tempted to stay in the car, in the air-conditioning. She doesn’t know any of these people. She should have come with Sylvia and Cathy. She realizes that the two women who are not looking at the sky are staring at her. She turns off the ignition. When she opens the door, she is hit by the heat and screams.
“Mom! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Elli screams, over and over again.
Theresa stands with her hand shielding her eyes, shouting Matthew’s name.
Jan thinks she should get back in the car and turn around, but Jack gurgles at her from his car seat. She can’t leave until she finds out whatever she can about the wings.
Theresa shouts for Matthew over and over again. She doesn’t know what else to do.
Elli cries, holding Timmy against her chest. Why couldn’t it have been you, she thinks.
Pete Ratcher comes out to the steps. Shreve begins to introduce herself, but Pete runs into the yard, grabs Theresa by the shoulders, and shakes her. Elli lunges to push him away with one hand, and Pete pushes her back. Not hard, they would later agree, but enough to cause Elli to lose her balance. As she tumbles, she opens her arms. All the women scream as Timmy falls, but the screams are abruptly cut short when dark wings sprout through the baby’s little white T-shirt and he flies out of Elli’s reach, over all of their heads.
“I thought he died,” says Emily.
“Don’t touch the wings,” Jan shouts.
Shreve and Emily look at her and then at each other. “How does she know that?”
Little Timmy, laughing, flies in lazy circles and frightening dives, just out of reach of Elli and Theresa Ratcher, who jump at him as he passes. Pete Ratcher just stands there with his mouth hanging open. I have been drinking too much, he thinks. This can’t be happening.
Even now, we the mothers find ourselves saying this can’t be happening. This isn’t real. Why, in the face of great proof otherwise, do we insist on the dream of a life few of us have ever known? The dream of happiness? The dream of love? Why, we wonder, did we believe in those dreams and not the truth? We are monsters. Why did we ever think we were anything else? Why do we think, for even a moment, that this is all a horrible mistake, instead of what it is: our lives?
When Sylvia Lansmorth and Cathy Vecker drive up, they see Jan, Shreve, and Emily with their baby carriers, diaper bags, flowers, and foiled plate, Theresa and Elli Ratcher, screaming, and Pete Ratcher, standing there, shaking his head.
“Is that him?” Sylvia asks. “He looks like a child molester.”
Cathy points at the flying babies, swooping across the sky. “I told you things were getting strange.”
“Matthew! Timmy! You come down here this instant!” Theresa shouts.
Pete turns and walks back to the house.
Emily sets her baby carrier gently on the ground and places the foiled plate beside it, then shrugs out of the diaper bag. She checks the straps on her baby’s carrier, making sure they are tight before she walks over to Theresa Ratcher. “Try your breast.” She has to say it a few times before Theresa hears her.
“When I have this problem, I just take off my shirt. He always comes down for my breast.”
Theresa hesitates only a second, trying to process the strange revelation of this woman she’s never met acting as though losing a winged baby is a common concern. She pulls off her tank top and lets it drop to the ground.
“You have to take off your bra,” Emily says. She turns to Elli. “Watch your mother. Do what she does.”
Sylvia and Cathy sit in the car and watch in amazement as Theresa and Elli Ratcher take off their tops and unfasten their bras.
“Maybe we should come back later,” Sylvia says, but another car pulls in behind them and they are blocked in the driveway.
Lara Bravemeen heard about the winged baby from the mailman, who heard about it from the senior Mrs. Vecker. When Lara drives up and sees the two women disrobing, the babies frolicking in the sky, she thinks she has found nirvana. She shuts off her engine, jumps out of the car, peels off her T-shirt, and unbuckles her bra.
“What the fuck is going on?” Cathy asks.
Theresa and Elli Ratcher stand with their arms spread, tilting their faces and breasts towards the sky. The babies begin a lazy glide towards them.
That’s when the shot rings out.
Shreve jumps about a foot at the noise; turns and sees Pete Ratcher, standing there with a gun.
Emily looks from him to her baby, sitting in his carrier on the ground.
Theresa and Elli both turn, their mouths open in horror.
Pete Ratcher shoots again.
Shreve drops the flowers and runs with her baby.
The small body of Timmy Ratcher falls like a stone. Elli tries to catch him, but he crashes to the ground at her feet, and she falls over him, screaming. Matthew Ratcher stops his gentle glide and, wings beating furiously, shoots towards the sun.
Theresa Ratcher makes an inhuman sound. She runs at her husband, her fists raised.
Pete Ratcher watches her coming with his arms at his side, the gun hanging from his hand. Theresa dives at him and they both crash back into the house.
Tamara and Raj turn from their baby’s corpse at the noise. They’d heard the screams and the gunshots, but were so absorbed by their grief they hadn’t tried to process any of it. Now they see Theresa Ratcher, bare-breasted, straddling her husband, pounding him with her fists.
That’s when Emily comes in, picks up the gun, and rests the muzzle against Pete Ratcher’s head.
Raj steps towards them. Emily says, “Come any closer and I’ll kill him.” She turns to Theresa. “Got any rope?”
“It’s in the barn,” Pete says.
“Shut up.” Emily presses the muzzle to his forehead.
Pete glances at Raj, who is standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. Behind him stands his wife, but she doesn’t look like she cares much about what is happening. Over her shoulder, Pete can see the dead baby; his small gray wings folded around his tiny shoulders.
Theresa comes back into the kitchen with a coil of rope. Several women with babies follow her. Cars pull into the driveway, the sound of crunching gravel audible even through Elli’s screams.
“Who are all these—”
“Shut up,” Emily says. “You”—she glances at Raj—“tie his wrists and ankles.”
Raj opens his mouth to protest.
“Do it,” says Emily, “or I’ll shoot.”
Emily is amazed anyone believes her. Pete Ratcher continues to lie there, though he is at least twice her size and actually knows how to use a gun.
“No,” Emily says as Raj begins to wrap the rope around Pete’s wrists, “tie them behind his back. Roll over. Slowly.”
Pete makes a sound that might be a chuckle, but he rolls over, slowly.
The mothers heard it from their mothers, friends, even strangers. Lucy, of Lucy’s Diner, heard about it from Brian Holandeigler, who’d heard it from Francis Kennedy, who’d heard it from Fred Wheeler, who said it was all over the canning factory. “Did I tell you we had a call there?” Francis said. “I knew something odd was going on in that house.” Maddy Melvern heard about if from Mrs. Baylor, who had come over to talk to Mrs. Melvern about Melinda Baylor in Iraq. “At least my Mindy ain’t gotta contend with no asshole like Pete Ratcher, who molested his daughter and gave her a baby with wings,” she said. (Maddy made her repeat it twice.) Roddy Tyler heard it from Mrs. Vecker and Mrs. Vecker Senior, and when he walked to the post office that afternoon (in his duct-taped shoes), he told everyone about it. Maddy found Leanne and Stooker outside the drugstore, and after they oohed and ahhed at JoJo, she told them she needed a ride to the Ratchers’. “I didn’t know you were friends with her,” Leanne said. Vin Freedman heard it from Stooker’s older brother, Tinny, and he told Mickey, who called up Elli, but nobody answered the phone there.
Everyone was talking about it. When one of the mothers heard, she could not pretend she hadn’t. The Ratcher girl had a baby with wings. How could any one of them resist this revelation? The mothers packed diaper bags, left work, left home without explanation or offered a poor one, a scribbled note on the kitchen table, or attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. “Went out. Be back soon.”
What they found was a bloodied, bare-breasted Elli Ratcher, kneeling in the dirt, holding her dead baby with his broken wings (right out there for anyone to see) and screaming, “No! No! I didn’t mean it! No!”
The mothers were confused. How long had she been doing this? When had this baby died? And what was all that blood about, anyway?
The mothers, holding their own sons, approached Elli with caution. They circled her and said, “There, there,” or “Everything’s going to be all right.” Some of them got close enough to pat her hot shoulder and get a good look at the baby. Definitely dead. Definitely wings.
When Theresa Ratcher came out of the house, the mothers—thinking she’d come for her daughter—parted. But Theresa only looked at Elli with a confused expression, then spread her arms and arched her back, her skin freckled at the throat but pure white on her breasts, which hung loosely towards her stomach. She stood there, her face upturned to the crows and the clouds and her eyes closed, until a shadow crossed the sun and came diving down. It was a baby, its gray wings pulled back, diving right for Theresa Ratcher, landing on her with arms spread like a hug. With a sob, Theresa’s arms wrapped around him as he repositioned himself and began suckling. The mothers sighed. Theresa Ratcher, slowly, carefully, sank to the ground, kneeling in the dirt, smiling, and running her hand over her baby’s hair, just five yards away from Elli, who keened over hers.
Everyone was at the funeral. Even Pete Ratcher, his wrists and ankles tied, though none of us are sure how he got there. We suspect Raj Singh helped him, though Raj should have been helping Tamara. Tamara has no memory of that day. From the time she fell asleep on the Ratchers’ couch, until after the trial, Tamara walked with open eyes, but remained in some kind of slumber. Perhaps Pete just hopped out there by himself—he hadn’t been tied to anything, so it wouldn’t have been impossible. We suppose that could have happened without any of us noticing. We were busy. There were two babies to bury, Ravi Singh and little Timmy Ratcher, plus all our own babies to attend to.
At that point we were still hiding the secret of the wings, which (we did not yet know) we shared, though several of us considered how much we should reveal about our own babies. If Theresa based her belief in Pete Ratcher’s incestuous culpability solely on the evidence of wings, how much responsibility did we have for clarifying that wings weren’t proof of incest? Still, we mothers—thoughtful, contemplative, responsible women—were not inclined to share our secret, even if it could save a family. Why save one family, if it would ruin our own?
Carla Owens and Melinda Stevens fashioned caskets out of wooden crates they found in the barn, cutting the lids out of planks of wood Pete Ratcher had been using to shore up the beams.
Bridget Myer, who was such a fan of Martha Stewart that she cried when the homemaking diva went to prison, assembled a group of women who traipsed through the Ratchers’ massive yard, picking dandelions, daisies, wild lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, lilacs, and green stalks of corn for the altar—a card table covered by a white cloth and two white candles in the fake crystal candlesticks on either end.
It was just after noon. Elli Ratcher had washed off the blood and changed into a white sundress. Theresa Ratcher didn’t change her clothes, though she’d put her shirt back on.
The crates were so small there was no need for pallbearers. Carla carried one to the front, set it on the altar, and Melinda carried the other. The lids were off at that point. The babies, cleaned and dressed by Shelly Tanning, Victoria Simmington, Gladiola Homely, and Margaret Satter, looked real sweet, surrounded by flowers.
Brenda Skyler, Audrey Newman, and Hannah Vorwinkski sang the opening song. They walked to the front and signaled when to start with little nods towards each other, but still didn’t get it exactly right. They sang “Silent Night,” because it’s hard to find funeral songs with babies in them. They hasten to point out, in defense of their controversial choice, that there is no mention of the word Christmas in the entire carol. Also, instead of singing the word virgin, they hummed.
“I’d like any of you guys to think of a better song for a baby’s funeral,” Audrey says, if any of us mocks the choice. “And I don’t count that Eric Clapton song. We ain’t professionals, you know.”
Shreve Mahar stepped to the front of the crowd. She glanced at Elli Ratcher, who looked like a bored but polite schoolgirl at assembly, and at Tamara Singh, who wept into her open hands. Theresa Ratcher rocked her baby in her arms, humming softly. Pete Ratcher, still tied at the wrists and ankles, leaned against the apple tree, close enough to follow the proceedings but not so close as to be a part of them.
Shreve opened the book to the previously marked page and read from the Upanishads.
In the center of the castle of Brahman, our own body, there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus-flower, and within can be found a small space. We should find who dwells there, and we should want to know her.
Shreve read the passage into a stunning silence, as if even the babies were listening. When she finished, Raj Singh stepped to the front.
“We are here today,” he started, his voice breaking. He looked down at his feet, cleared his throat. “We are here. Today.” Again, his voice broke. He took a deep breath. “We are here.” He shook his head, raised his hands in a gesture of apology, and shuffled back to stand beside his weeping wife.
He did not notice how Elli Ratcher had snapped awake at his words. In the confused seconds after Raj’s departure, she stepped forward, turned, and faced the mothers, glowing in the sun. “We are here today!” she said, in an excited voice. “That’s it, isn’t it? We are here! We are here!” She was quite giddy, as if she had only just discovered herself in her life. Eventually, Shreve escorted her back to stand beside Theresa. There was an uncomfortable period of uncertainty before everyone realized the funeral was over. Several mothers noticed flies gathering near the babies in their little wooden crates on the card table, and Shreve brushed them away.
Raj Singh spoke quietly to Theresa, then walked to Pete Ratcher and began to untie him. The mothers protested, but Theresa said, “He’s not going to hurt anyone. They’re going to dig the graves.” Raj and Pete went into the barn together and came out with shovels. They walked over to the apple tree and began digging, as the mothers drifted back to the house.
We came to the Ratcher farm because of the rumors about a winged baby. We were determined not to leave that strange and unhappy place without some information. Tamara Singh was a wreck, and nobody could get anything out of her. She lay upstairs in Elli’s bedroom while her husband and Pete Ratcher dug two tiny graves beneath the apple tree.
Elli was also of little use. “We are here,” she kept repeating, her eyes wide.
“Grieving,” some of us said. “Nuts,” said others.
We did not mean it as judgment. We held our babies close and shuddered to guess how we would behave, should something so terrible happen to us.
“Her baby didn’t just die,” Emily said. “He was murdered by her own father.”
It was a long day. We drifted in and out of conversations and emotions while the two men continued digging. We felt horrible for the mothers of the dead babies. We really did. But, also, we were there on a mission.
When it was revealed that Elli and Theresa Ratcher’s babies had been seen flying, the mothers (after dismissing Elli, with her “We are here” glassy-eyed uselessness) turned to Theresa. “Yes. So what?” she said to anyone who dared ask outright, did her baby fly? By Theresa’s reasoning, this was no longer the point.
The mothers, most of whom had carried their heavy secrets for months, confided in Theresa Ratcher. By seven o’clock, the house was a riot of noisy babies; the plumbing just barely keeping up with the women’s needs; the hot kitchen cluttered with fresh-baked casseroles, frozen pizza, and dishes in a constant state of being washed.
Finally, Theresa Ratcher called for everyone’s attention. The mothers hushed the ornery babies, who, irritated from confinement, would not be hushed, and tried to listen to what Theresa was saying.
“You are all telling me the same thing. All the babies have wings.”
At first, the mothers were horrified. Misunderstanding, they thought Theresa was not revealing a universal truth, but the deep secret they had confided in her. It was only after a few moments that someone realized what she’d said. “All the babies have wings?”
The mothers looked at each other. Nodding. Slowly smiling. Yes, it was true. There was a murmur, which quickly escalated into a babble of excitement, not funereal at all.
Theresa Ratcher opened her arms and Matthew broke free, diving and swooping overhead.
Soon babies were flying throughout the rooms, gleefully darting around each other. Some of the mothers, cut by babies’ wings, drifted in a confused stupor, “awakening” (for lack of a better term) to the shock of a houseful of flying babies, but other mothers had grown so adept at avoiding the wings that they were able to explain what had occurred.
“All of them?” the stunned mothers asked.
Pete Ratcher and Raj Singh dug beneath the apple tree, the white blossoms only recently swallowed into tiny, bitter apples. They worked, accompanied by the buzzing of flies and bees, in mutual silence, until, just as the sun was leaning on the horizon, babies began flying out of the house. Both Pete and Raj stopped digging. “What can it mean?” Raj asked.
“It means the devil’s come to Voorhisville,” Pete replied, though Theresa and Elli both later said he was not a religious man.
Inside the house, Theresa once more quieted the women. “We have to make some decisions about how we’re going to proceed,” she said. “I mean, all of us sharing this secret.”
Elli finally broke her spell of repeating “We are here” to cry, “My dad killed my baby!”
“We’ll call the police.” Cathy reached for her cell phone.
“Wait!” Shreve said. “What’s going to happen if we call the police? They’re going to want to see the body, right? And if they see the body, they’re going to see the wings.”
“But that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to guess about our babies,” Maddy said.
Emily, who had slung the gun bandolier fashion across her chest (using one of Theresa’s flowered scarves), sauntered to the front of the room. “I think probably all of us have had some close calls with our babies flying at inappropriate times, but right now nobody’s exactly looking for babies with wings. If word gets out about the possibility, we might as fuckenwell call up People magazine ourselves, because someone is going to discover us. Sooner or later, someone is going to catch one of our babies flying, and then all hell is going to break loose. We need to take care of this, ourselves. Also, for those of you who’ve been asking, I wrote down the recipe for the chocolate croissants. It’s on the refrigerator.”
Jan Morris stood up and introduced herself as a realtor-poet. “I notice,” she said, “that I am a bit older than most of you. I learned in my first marriage, which was a disaster, that you can tell how things are going to go by looking at how things went. We have two dead babies here. I don’t think we have to look any further to see what chances our babies have in the world. We have all the information we need.”
“It’s like a painting,” Lara said, “you know? That little bit of red in the corner, that little dot of color. You might not necessarily notice, but it’s there and it affects everything. If you cover it up, it changes everything, but it’s still there.”
The mothers were silent, processing this, some more successfully than others.
“If we don’t call the police, what do we do about him?” Cathy Vecker asked.
“Where is he, anyway?” Maddy said.
Sylvia stood up, so suddenly she knocked over her cup of tea. “He’s out there! With our babies!”
Suddenly the mothers were frightened again, thinking of their babies flying over Pete Ratcher, who was untied and essentially free to commit murder again. The mothers ran outside, shouting. Upstairs in Elli’s room, Tamara Singh wrapped a pillow around her head to try to muffle the noise.
Raj Singh stopped digging, but Pete Ratcher, after glancing up to see what all the fuss was about, continued.
Theresa took off her shirt. Emily did the same. Strangely, Elli did too, though of course Timmy was dead.
Matthew Ratcher flew to his mother’s breasts, and Gabriel Carr flew to Emily’s. The mothers, observing this, stopped shouting; took off their shirts, blouses, and bras; and offered their breasts to a darkening sky dotted with bats and babies, who dove to their mothers with delighted gurgles. It wasn’t long at all before the yard and house were filled with mothers in the madonna position. Elli remained in the yard for a long time, bare-breasted and with empty arms. Nobody noticed when she returned to the house.
Raj stepped into the freshly dug holes, and Pete Ratcher handed the crates to him, then helped hoist him up. Pete immediately began refilling the holes with dirt. Raj tried to help, but was incapacitated by grief, so Pete Ratcher did this part alone. When he was finished, he left Raj standing there, beneath the apple tree, weeping.
Pete Ratcher walked back to his house, weaving around the nursing women, guided by the fireflies’ tiny lanterns. Theresa looked up from her adoration of Matthew and said, “Get away from me, you monster.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Pete Ratcher said, loud enough to get everyone’s attention. “I’m his father. I’m Elli’s father. And I’m your husband.”
Theresa shrugged. “Well, you got two out of three right.”
Pete Ratcher stood there, stunned. The women took advantage of his state to tie him up again, while Emily pointed the gun at his dirty forehead.
“You’re under arrest,” she said.
“Says who? You’re no policeman.”
But it didn’t matter. We were the mothers.
“We used to have animals on this farm. Cows. Chickens. An old rooster. This was when I was a boy. We even had a horse for a while there. Here’s the thing: you gotta kill the ones born bad. I know, it’s not easy to do. Nobody ever said it was easy. You think I wanted to kill my own grandson? You think I’m happy about that? But somebody had to do something. These aren’t babies that can grow up to be regular men. You mothers are losing sight of that. Sure, they’re cute right now, most of them, but what’s going to happen over time? You can’t carry them around forever. They’re growing, and they’re growing unusually fast. Can’t you see that? Come on, be realistic now. Just try to step back for a while and consider what’s happening. What do you think’s going to happen when they’re grown? We have to take care of this now, before it becomes a real problem. Think of it like Afghanistan or Iraq. I know you ladies voted to fight the wars there, right? Well, Voorhisville is our Iraq. Don’t you see? We have a responsibility. We have to take care of this mess. Here. Now. We can do this. We should do this. Tonight. In the barn. I’ll do it. Just say your goodbyes and I’ll take care of the rest. I’m not saying it’ll be easy—they do sort of look like regular babies, but that’s their trick. They’re counting on us to feel that way until they get strong enough to do God knows what. We have a responsibility to the world. Do you think they’re going to stay all cute and cuddly, flapping around like sparrows? You have to ask yourselves the hard questions. You have to ask yourselves what they will become. You have to ask yourselves, seriously, what you are raising here. You might as well get it into your heads: I’m not going to be the only one who feels like this. You’re the mothers, so it’s only natural you want to protect them, but there are going to be others who feel the same as me. Lots of others. What are you going to do about them? You’re not going to be able to keep ignoring this. You’re not going to be able to tie everyone up. All I’m saying is that the world will not accept them. That’s a given. All you have to decide is, do you make the hard choice now and get on with your lives, or do you just prolong their suffering because you can’t cope with your own?”
Afterwards—before they started playing “Maggie May” 24/7, and before we were down to our meager rations of pickles and jelly, but after the windows had been boarded up with old barn wood—we had a little quiet time to think about what Pete Ratcher had said and came to the conclusion that he was probably right, but that didn’t change anything.
We took him to the barn, and, though he was tied up, he seemed under the impression that we were taking his advice. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You ladies won’t hear a thing. Well, maybe the shots, but no crying or anything. Timmy didn’t cry but for thirty seconds at the most.”
Elli went to her room, where she found Tamara and Raj Singh curled up in her bed, both still fully clothed but sleeping soundly. She eased in beside them, pressing against Raj the way he was pressed against Tamara.
I remember being in my bed with Tamara and Raj Singh. All three of us suffering like we were, it didn’t even feel like we were three people, but more like one. The way I felt inside, I was Elli Ratcher, fifteen and on summer break, and I was a mommy with leaking breasts, and I was the monster who thought I wanted my baby to die, and I was a hundred years old like one of those women they show on TV in the black cape and hood, screaming over my dead baby, and I was the girl with the beautiful bones wrapped around the man with skin that smelled like dirt and I was the man who smelled like dirt and I was his wife dreaming the dead.
That saying kept going through my head. We are such stuff as dreams are made on. When I heard screaming, I thought it was a dream, and I thought I was a dream, peeling the girl I was away from the man laying there beside me. I walked my dream feet over to the window and the man got up and stood beside the girl and said, “What is that horrible noise?” I turned to that part of me, while the other part continued to sleep, and said, “It sounds like my father.” That’s when we noticed the babies flying out of the barn, swooping through the night sky. We watched the mothers, in a disarray of tangled hair and naked breasts. We heard their screams of blood as they ran into the house. I said, “This is not happening,” and went back to bed. I heard the man saying, “Tamara, wake up, we must leave this place. Tamara, wake up,” but as far as I know she didn’t wake up until the morning.
There are certain mornings in Voorhisville when the butterflies flit about like flower seraphs and the air is bright. Tamara woke up to just such a morning, taking several deep breaths scented with manure and the faintest hint of roses, all the way from town. Sweet, she thought, before she rolled over and saw the empty crib, which brought her back to the nightmare of her son’s death and the other baby murdered by his own grandfather. It did not seem possible that such a reality could exist in this room, papered with tiny yellow flowers.
Tamara sat at the edge of the bed listening to the breathing of the girl who still slept there and the murmur of voices below, raised in argument, then hushed. She had to go to the bathroom. It did not seem possible that such a simple bodily function would take precedence over her sorrow, but it did. She shuffled to the door, the chair she had used to discourage visitors shoved to the side. She remembered Raj, pushing at the door, asking her to let him in. Vaguely, she remembered doing so. But where had he gone? She suddenly missed her husband, as if he had taken part of her with him, as if she suffered the ghost pain of a severed limb. She stepped into the hall, which was dim and hot.
The words “police,” “reporters,” “prison,” “murder,” “self-defense,” “justice,” “love,” “fear,” “danger,” and “coffee” drifted up the stairs. Tamara stood in the hot hallway and listened.
I got to the Ratcher farm right at the end of the funeral, which is okay, ’cause I’m not sure—even as solemn of a event as it was—that I could of kept a straight face through “Silent Night.” Stooker dropped me off out by the road ’cause there was so many cars parked in the driveway and on the lawn.
“Looks like some kind of thing going on,” he said. “You sure you wanna get out here, Maddy? We could go to the graveyard.”
The graveyard, case you were confused by Elli Ratcher’s spaced-out words (But what do you expect from a girl who tried to hang herself; I mean, it only makes sense there would be some brain damage, right?)—the graveyard is where kids in Voorhisville hang out, and if that don’t give you the right idea about this shithole town, nothing will. Anyway, I got out of the car, and, like I said, got there right at the end part, where Elli was going, “We are here,” like she was high or something. For all I know, maybe she was.
JoJo and me were there when Mr. Ratcher tried to convince us to let him kill our babies, like that was the reasonable thing to do, and I was one of them that voted to tie him up in the barn. That’s as far as we got, I swear on my own brother’s grave. So we all went out there, or I guess most of us did, and tied him to the center pole. He kept saying we were nuts. Back at the house, a bunch of the mothers called up husbands and kids and shit and said how they were at the Ratchers’ and going to spend the night. I called my mom and told her me and JoJo was staying with Elli Ratcher. My mom goes, “Well, I suppose it would make sense you two girls would become friends.”
We laid down on the floors in the living room and kitchen. I slept in the yard and some other mothers were out there too. We had our babies with us. Nobody slept upstairs ’cause nobody wanted to make Tamara or Raj or Elli have to hear the sound of a living baby. I would say that proves we were not evil, like some people say.
Mr. Ratcher was sort of upset. He kept saying he had to take a piss, so Mrs. Ratcher stayed behind to unzip him and hold him so he wouldn’t wet himself. I was half-asleep when she came back up to the house with Matthew. I didn’t see no blood on her and that’s something I would of remembered if I did, but it was dark. I told the mothers this. I told them the screams came later, after I saw Mrs. Ratcher come back to the house. The screams woke me up. I reached for JoJo, but he ain’t anywhere around, and I think somehow that monster, Mr. Ratcher, got a hold of my baby, so I run out to the barn.
After my brother got killed in Afghanistan, I was amazed to find out that some people—and I am not just talking teenagers here—wanted to know details, like, was he shot or blown up, and what body parts did they send us?
Anyway, my point is, I ain’t going to get into details about what happened in the barn for all you sick fucks that like to say you gotta know out of some sense of clearity, like that reporter said, and not because, let’s face it, you get off on it somehow. But I will say this: I screamed really loud, and I am not someone who screams at scary movies and shit.
All of them were in the barn. Even the ones that had been in carriers. Somehow, they figured out how to unbuckle straps and shit. Just like that, they were no longer babies. We no longer had control over them. Some of the mothers say we probably never did, that they just fooled us for a while.
So the mothers come out and they see blood on the babies and they start undressing and the babies come swooping down and the mothers are screaming and everyone runs into the house and starts washing their babies—wiping the blood off, you know, to see where the actual wound is. I’m trying to tell them; I’m saying, “Mr. Ratcher is dead,” but nobody pays attention. Some of them are screaming that they’re going to kill him.
Then Mrs. Ratcher comes in and she’s crying and screaming, “Who killed my husband?” and that’s when she sees all the mothers wiping blood off their babies. She’s all covered in blood herself, which she says was from trying to get him untied. “Give me a knife,” she says. “I gotta get him untied.”
Someone goes, “Theresa, you are better off. He was a child molester and a murderer and you are better off without him.”
Mrs. Ratcher says, “He’s no child molester—we had a misunderstanding, is all. And he’s no murderer, either. Not usually.”
The whole thing was so horrible I guess none of us could believe it. I mean, even now, after all this time, I still sort of expect to see Billy sitting on the couch, eating pistachios. I know how crazy a person’s mind can get when something so terrible happens that you can’t even believe it.
Mrs. Ratcher said, “Where’s Elli? He didn’t molest her. She can straighten this whole thing out.”
But Elli was upstairs in bed—mourning, we assumed, her life and murdered child.
“My mother did the same thing,” Evelyn Missenhoff said. “When I told her about my dad she said I was lying.”
Mrs. Ratcher stood there, holding Matthew tight. In spite of all that day had brung—her grandson and husband both dead, not to mention the surprise of finding Tamara Singh asleep on her couch just that morning with her own dead baby—Mrs. Ratcher had a pretty face. She made a point of looking at each of us, shaking her head until that dirt colored hair of hers brushed her freckled cheeks. “We have to call the police,” she said.
A mother’s love is a powerful thing. It can direct a person to behave in ways they never would of thought possible. When Billy got sent to Afghanistan, I overheard my mother telling him he didn’t have to go.
“Yeah I do,” he said.
“You could quit. You know Roddy Tyler? He got a honorable discharge from Vietnam. Why don’t you do that?”
“Ma, I wanna go.”
“Well, if you want to.”
I heard it in her voice, but didn’t really understand until I had my own child. Being a mother, I figure, is like going a little bit crazy all the time.
The mothers want you to understand. We are not bad people, we are mothers. When Mrs. Ratcher insisted we call the police, we saw it as a threat, and did the only thing we knew to do: we took Matthew out of her arms and tied her up to a pole in the barn—facing away from her husband, ’cause we’re not evil.
“Someone murdered Pete,” she said. “And whoever did it is still among you.”
Did she know? It’s hard to believe she didn’t. But it’s probably just as difficult to understand how it is that we knew and didn’t know at the same time. Who could believe such a thing?
Later, when we heard the screams again, we tried to ignore them. We rolled over. Closed our eyes. We tried to believe it was a dream. We tried to believe we weren’t even awake, but the screams pulled us back, and we fell to the earth. And when we went to the barn, we saw all our babies there, and Mrs. Ratcher, dead.
They flew out of the barn into the sky, up to the bright stars. We weren’t sure if we should call them back or not. We stood there, our mouths hanging open, tears falling on our tongues.
Later, they came back, lunging at our breasts and drinking with selfish, insistent sucks and tiny bites, until they finally fell asleep, and we realized we had a problem.
I wake up on my birthday thinking about how I dreamt I had a baby. With wings! And my mom did too! I dreamt almost all the mothers came to our house for a funeral. I dreamt my dad killed my baby and the mothers tied my dad up in the barn. What’s that saying? We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
When I open my eyes, the first thing I see is the empty crib. This nightmare is my life.
“Mom?” I call. “Mom?” She doesn’t come. She’s probably busy with Matthew. When I look at the crib, my breasts drip milk. What does it mean, anyway? “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Does he mean the dreams of sleep, or the dreams of hope? And how are they made onus? Are we, like, scaffolding? I can’t figure it out. I can’t figure anything out. “Mom?” My breasts hurt. My arms hurt too. My whole body hurts. Maybe this is what happens to old people. Maybe it starts to take its toll, holding up all those dreams.
But I’m not old! Today is my sixteenth birthday! When I open the bedroom door, I can hear the voices of the mothers downstairs. Why aren’t they gone? I can’t decide how I feel about them tying my dad up in the barn, even though he killed Timmy. “Mom?” The voices go quiet. “Mom, could you come up here?” I don’t want to see the mothers. I hate them. I don’t want to see the babies, either. I hate them too.
“Elli?” someone says.
“Could you tell my mom I want to talk to her?”
There is all kinds of whispering, but I can’t make out the words, before one of them hollers, “She’s not here right now.”
That figures, right? This is how my mom has been ever since Matthew was born. But then I think maybe she’s out getting my presents, or something. I feel better for about two seconds, until I remember Timmy is dead. I can’t celebrate today. What is she thinking? “Could you get my dad for me then?” The whispering starts again. The mothers are really starting to get on my nerves.
I go downstairs. There are mothers everywhere—in the living room, in the kitchen. When I look out the window, I even see some in the yard. Babies are flying everywhere, too. One almost hits me in the head, and I have to clench my fists and hold my arms stiff so I don’t hit it. The mothers sitting at the kitchen table look shocked to see me. “Your dad can’t come right now, either,” one of them says.
I don’t know why, but I feel like I shouldn’t let on that I know how strange this all is. I shrug like, okay, no big deal; and say, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” This gets them looking at each other and raising eyebrows. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to say. I walk to the refrigerator and take out the orange juice. I open the cupboard, but all the glasses are gone. Then I see the dishes drying on the counter. I try to find my favorite glass—the one with SpongeBob SquarePants on it—but I don’t see it anywhere. I finally take my mom’s glass, the one with the painted flowers. I pour myself a tall orange juice. When I turn around, all the mothers are staring. I take a big drink. The mothers act like they aren’t watching, but I can tell they are. When I put the glass down, they all pretend, real quick, to look at something else. “I think I’m going to go to Timmy’s grave,” I say. They look up at me, and then down, or at each other. They look away as if I am embarrassing. I shrug. I have to be careful, because I can tell that this shrugging thing could become a tick. Martha Allry, who is a year behind me in school, has a tick where she blinks her right eye a lot. People call her Winking Martha.
“Would you like me to come with you?” one of the mothers says.
She is a complete stranger. Even so, I hate her. She’s one of the ones that tied up my dad in the barn. She’s here when my mom is not. I say, “Thanks, but I’d rather be alone.”
The mothers nod. They nod quite a bit, actually. I walk out of the kitchen. I don’t have on shoes and I’m still wearing my nightgown. This is how we do things on the farm.
It’s a beautiful morning. The birds are singing and some babies fly by, which is totally weird.
One of the mothers comes up to me and says, “Where are you going?” She sort of looks sideways at the barn when she thinks I’m not looking.
Right away I know my dad is still tied up. The mothers are not my friends.
“I’m going to Timmy’s grave.”
The mother’s face turns into a bunch of Os—her eyes, her mouth, her whole face goes all round and sorry. I walk past her, already planning how I have to get into the barn and rescue my dad. I think I’m going to rescue him. I can’t decide for sure. He’s my dad, but he’s also my baby’s murderer. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he was just trying to scare everyone. Maybe I hate him. I don’t know what I feel, but I should have some say in this; it’s my baby he killed.
I walk down to the apple tree where there are two mounds of dirt. No cross or anything. Nothing to tell me which one is Timmy. This makes me angry. It’s like I get hit on the back of my shoulders, that’s how it feels, and I just drop to my knees and start crying, right there in the dirt. I can’t believe Timmy is dead. Nobody knows my horrible secret about how many times I wanted him to die. Nobody knows how evil I am. I am a very evil person. Nothing can change this. I wanted him to die and he did. That’s the whole story. It doesn’t matter that I’m sorry.
My breasts are dripping right through my nightgown. The apple tree is buzzing with bees. A plane flies overhead. My whole body hurts. It hurts to breathe. I can’t stop crying. Will I ever stop crying?
Then, just like that, I stop crying.
The mothers are calling their babies. They are taking their tops off and spreading their arms and the babies are diving for their breasts. They go into the house. Some of them glance at me, and then, real quick, look away.
The yard is empty except for a couple of crows. I don’t see anyone looking out the windows. The mothers have forgotten about me. I stand up, check the house again, and then walk, real fast, to the barn.
At first I can’t really see, ’cause it’s dark there. Not like middle-of-a-moonless-night dark, but shady, you know, and there’s a strange smell. I can sort of see my dad, tied up to the pole; I can see the shape of him. “Dad?” I say, but he is totally quiet. I can’t believe he fell asleep. I get a little closer. That’s when I see what they did to him.
The mothers are evil; worse than me. He doesn’t even look like my dad anymore. There are flies buzzing all over him. I try to shoo them away, but they are evil too.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on. I can’t carry the dreams anymore. I can’t hold them up. I am sinking under the weight. I can’t look at him anymore. The mothers are monsters. I need my mom. She’ll know what to do. She’ll make the mothers go away.
I look at the beams my dad was always talking about. I look at the holes in the roof, showing bits of blue sky. I look at the tools by the door, the shovels, the hoe, the axe, nails, rope, Dad’s old shirt, and Mom’s gardening hat; I am spinning in a little circle waiting for Mom to find me, and that’s when I find her: tied to the other pole, her back to my dad, but chewed up just like him.
I get the rope and the ladder. I make a noose in the rope and try to throw it over the beam that goes in between both of them, but it doesn’t work until I weigh down one end with an old trowel my mom uses for tulip bulbs. A couple years ago I helped her plant red tulips all around the house. Afterwards, we sat on the porch and drank root beer floats. We used to get along better.
I finally get the rope over the beam and twist the rope around it a few times. I have to be careful, ’cause that trowel swings back towards me. I know it doesn’t make sense to be careful, considering, but the point is that I didn’t want to feel pain. By the time I stand on the ladder and check the rope, my arms are really tired.
I pull on the rope and it holds tight. I put the noose around my neck and I don’t like how it feels, but then I step off the ladder and kick it with my feet and I can feel the breath getting sucked right out of me, and there is this horrible noise like a bomb, and the next thing I know, I am free. Then I feel the weight of the world on me, and by the time I climb out of the wreckage, I know I have failed. The rope is around my neck, the barn collapsed, and all the mothers are staring at me, until the one with the gun says, “Well, all right; we can use this wood to board up the windows and doors.”
We do not know how Tamara’s husband snuck away. For a while he was quite a regular on the local news. He insisted we were not a cult. (We are not a cult.) He also denied allegations that we were some sort of militia group, though he did say he had no idea how many weapons we had. (We only have one gun.) We thought he was our friend until he started calling us monsters. “Tamara, honey,” he said, looking right out of the TV screen at us, “I’m sorry I left you. I thought I’d get back in time. Please be careful. I’m here, waiting for you. You’re not in trouble. I told the sheriff and the FBI and Homeland Security about your situation. They understand that you are being held against your will . . .” And on and on. We did not know that Raj, who had been so silent around all of us, could talk so much.
The mothers do not completely trust Tamara, and suspect she offered to be chronicler only to get our secrets. After all, she has nothing to lose. Her baby is already dead. We feel bad that we are reduced to such cold calculation, but our life now depends on calculating. We also do not trust Elli Ratcher. We’ve been medicating her with various mood modifiers and enhancers that we pooled from our own supply. Though we started with a rather amazing amount of medication, the stash is dwindling at a suspicious rate. Several of us suspect Maddy Melvern of pilfering it for recreational purposes.
We cannot say we blame her. We pace about the house like restless animals in a cage. We are restless animals in a cage. We have played all the Ratcher games: checkers, Monopoly, Life, Candy Land.
We miss our babies terribly. We miss them with every breath; we miss them in our blood. For a long time we missed them with our leaking breasts. But we know we did the right thing. We think we did. We must have. We hope.
We were watching the morning news the first time we saw Raj, his dark eyes wide, his black hair like a rooster’s, ranting about flying babies and murdering mothers. We hoped nobody would take him seriously, though it was unlikely that he would be completely ignored. “We need to fortify, and protect ourselves,” Emily said.
That’s when the barn came crashing down. We found Elli Ratcher climbing out of the rubble in her nightgown, a rope tied around her neck. She tried to run into the cornfield, but we brought her back to the house. We think that was the right thing to do. What was she going to do out there? Where was she going to run? This is her home, after all. Of course she objected, but that’s how teenagers are. We try to take good care of Elli—and Maddy, of course—but they resist us. Perhaps we are overprotective, after what happened with our own children.
The hardest thing any of us ever had to do was release our babies.
We were not even finished nailing all the wood over the windows and doors when the first cars arrived. Pete Ratcher apparently had only one hammer; so there was that to contend with. We resorted to using books and shoes and other tools. We have to admit that not all of us pursued this task with equal vigor. Many of us weren’t completely certain that Emily Carr hadn’t also gone nuts. But we had bonded over the Ratcher deaths, as well as the revelation that all our babies had wings.
We had not yet figured out we were a family. It was only later, after Jan and Sylvia got in a fight over Scrabble and began throwing letter tiles at each other, when we had the discussion that eventually resulted in the remarkable revelation: Jeffrey had fucked us all.
The first car was full of high school kids. They drove by with their windows down, screaming nonsense. We continued to hammer wood over the windows and doors. The car stopped and the kids inside were silent. Then it made a squealing U-turn back towards town.
The next car was Mrs. Vecker’s Ford Explorer, with its skylight and fancy hubcaps. It pulled over by the side of the road. Roddy Tyler stepped out, shading his eyes with his hand and squinting at the house. He walked over to the barn wreckage (in his duct-taped shoes) and started poking through the rubble. We are not sure what he was looking for, but he jerked back as though bitten by a black widow. He looked at the house again and then ran to the Ford, jumped in, and made a squealing U-turn, driving too fast.
We continued nailing. Perhaps with a bit more resolve.
There is a certain scent in the Ratcher farmhouse now that its windows are boarded and the doors nailed shut. It is the scent of sweat and skin; and the sickly odor of bodies wasting away on a diet of jelly and pickles; and the pungent scent of pickles on breath made sour by slow starvation and the toothpaste long since eaten. Sometimes a vague perfume wafts in through the cracks and bullet holes. Elli Ratcher has been discovered many times standing with her little freckled nose right in one of those holes, hogging that sweet air.
On just such an evening, Sylvia sat barefoot at the table, weeping. This was not the life she had imagined for herself: trapped in a farmhouse listening to Rod Stewart’s scratchy voice over loudspeakers, eating grape and strawberry jelly while Homeland Security and FBI agents, reporters, and curious onlookers camped outside with bulletproof vests and guns and cameras. Once, before they shut the power off, she’d even seen on one of the news channels that someone was selling food from one of those trucks on the road in front of the house—hot dogs and nachos. She really didn’t want to think about it.
Lara Bravemeen watched Sylvia, as she had many times before, and finally did the thing she had always wanted to do. She walked over to the weeping beauty, placed a hand on her shoulder, and, when Sylvia looked at her, leaned down and kissed her on the mouth—which, yes, was sour and pickled, raw with hunger, but also flavored with the vague taste of roses. Sylvia stopped crying, and Lara, desperate to paint, took a jar of jelly and began smearing it across the wall, though she knew she risked her life to do so—that’s how serious the penalty was for wasting food.
Shreve Mahar told her to stop, but Lara just laughed. Shreve thought of her fiancé, who died before the world changed; and she thought of her little boy—released, as they all were, when the mothers realized what was coming; and she thought about Jeffrey. “Maybe we should just tell them that the babies are gone,” she said.
That’s when Jan Morris walked into the kitchen, with the petite body she had always wanted and the satisfaction that she had been right all along; it really did take starvation to achieve. “We’re not telling them anything,” she said. “What the fuck is she doing? Hey, is that our jelly?”
“It’s like a poem,” Sylvia said, “with color.”
“Poems have words.” Jan smirked.
“Not necessarily,” said Shreve.
“Well, you better tell her to stop it or you-know-who is going to shoot her.”
Sylvia and Shreve considered their options—tackling Lara to the ground or letting her continue her jelly painting, a death sentence for sure—and each of them, separately and without consultation, decided not to interrupt.
What was it about him? The mothers still cannot agree. Was it his blue eyes? The shape of his hands? The way he moved? Or was it something closer to what Elli said, something holy? Was it something evil? We simply do not know.
Once, Tamara answered the house phone and spoke to a reporter.
“My name is Fort Todd. I wonder if you care to comment on some information I’ve uncovered about someone you might be interested in. He’s a wanted man, you know.”
“Who? My husband?”
“No, no, not him. Oxenhash. Jeffrey.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Tamara said.
“I’ve uncovered a great deal of information about these winged creatures.”
“What winged creatures?”
“People mistake them for angels, but they aren’t. Apparently this is one of the ages.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“They’re coming into fruition. There have always been some, but we live in a time where there are going to be thousands.”
“What do they want?”
“I thought if we could talk—”
Tamara hung up, which she sometimes regrets. She often thinks of turning herself in. What does she have to lose? Her baby is dead, and her husband has abandoned her, saying things like, “Just walk out, honey; nobody will hurt you.” How can he, despiteall that has happened, remain so naïve? So she stays with the other mothers who share the secret the authorities have not yet figured out: the babies are gone.
Tamara stays with the mothers out of choice. She’s given up her freedom, though not for them. It’s for the children.
On this, all the mothers agree. As long as the authorities think the babies are in here with us, well, the babies are safe. We hope.
(If you see one, his small wings mashed against his back, perhaps sleeping in your vegetable garden, or flying past your window, please consider raising him. We worry what will happen if they go wild. You don’t need to be afraid. They are good babies, for the most part.)
Emily paces throughout the house with the gun slung between her breasts. Perhaps Shreve was right all along, Emily thinks, though their friendship has been strained lately. Maybe it is all an illusion. Certainly the men and women pointing guns at the house are under the impression that there are babies inside. Emily is convinced that that’s the only reason why any of them are alive. “There ain’t gonna be another Waco here, that’s for sure,” the sheriff said, when he was interviewed on Channel Six.
One night there was a special report about the standoff at Waco, Texas. The mothers sat and watched, for once not arguing about whose head was in the way, or who didn’t put the lid back on the peanut butter jar, or who left the toilet paper roll almost empty and didn’t bother to change it. (Thinking about this now, Tamara smiles at the quaint memory of toilet paper. Wouldn’t that be nice, she thinks.)
When it got to the part where they showed the charred bodies—the tiny little bones of children’s hands and feet, the blackened remains—the mothers wept and blew their noses. Some swore. Others prayed. It was up to Emily to point out what it meant. “They are not going to make that mistake again. As long as they think we still have the babies, we are safe. And so are our babies.”
Before that night, Maddy didn’t know a thing about Waco, Texas, and she’s still not sure how it’s connected to the mothers. But the mothers are convinced that they must stay locked behind boarded-up windows and doors; that this is the best thing they can do for the babies. Maddy isn’t even convinced that the babies all got away, but she hopes they did. She walks through the house, trying to stay behind Emily, since she has the gun, keeping out of the way of Elli Ratcher, who sort of haunts the place—though she’s not dead, of course.
Lately, Maddy has gotten so hungry she’s begun eating the house. She pulls off little slivers of wood and chews them until they turn into pulp. She has to be careful to peel the slivers off just right. She’s cut her tongue and lips several times. Maddy thinks she never would have guessed she’d start eating a house, but she never would have guessed she’d give birth to a baby with wings, either. When Maddy thinks about JoJo, she stops peeling a sliver of gray wood from the upstairs hallway and stares at the yellow flowers in the wallpaper, trying to remember his face. “Please,” she whispers.
“It won’t do any good to pray,” Elli says.
Maddy jumps. Of all the people to find her talking to herself, why’d it have to be Elli Ratcher?
“I ain’t praying,” she says.
“That’s good. ’Cause it won’t help.”
Elli stands there, staring at Maddy until she finally says, “What are you looking at?”
“Did you know I had two babies?”
Elli nods. “My dad killed one of them. And the other is in my closet.”
“Well, it’s been great to have you visiting us on Planet Earth for a while, but I got some stuff I gotta do.”
“You better be careful. If Emily finds out you’re eating the house, she’s going to kill you.”
“I ain’t eating the house,” Maddy says. “Besides, you’re the one who should be careful. The mothers know you keep stealing the notebook.”
Maddy rolls her eyes.
If Emily knew how afraid everyone was of her, she would be insulted. Even Shreve is nervous around Emily now. She didn’t know, she honestly didn’t know: if Emily found them in the kitchen, would she shoot all of them, or just Lara and Jan, who were the ones wasting the jelly? “Maybe you should put that away,” Shreve said, but they ignored her. It’s like I’m not even real, she thought. It’s like I’m the illusion. Shreve wondered if this was what was meant by being enlightened. She looked at her surroundings: the dark little kitchen with the boarded-up windows and door, the bullet holes, Sylvia sitting in the straight-backed chair, Lara painting with jelly, and Jan Morris licking the wall in her wake, pausing once to say, “This is true art.”
Maybe I have never been here, Shreve thought. Maybe my entire life was an illusion: the death of my fiancé, the birth of my winged child, the couple who died in the barn, the babies, everything. Maybe everything is nothing at all, including me. Maybe I never existed. She felt like she was being swallowed, but not by something dark and frightening, not by a beast, but more like something with wings, something innocent she’d always been a part of but only now recognized. She wanted to tell the others what she was feeling, but she worried that speaking would break the spell. Instead, she closed her eyes, until Cathy Vecker came into the room and said, “Have you all gone crazy? What do you think Emily’s going to do when she finds out?”
When Emily walked past the kitchen, she quickly looked the other way. She hoped the mothers would get their act together and clean up the mess. The last thing she wanted was to have to confront the issue. If she did, they might wonder why she didn’t shoot anyone, and that might cause them to become suspicious that there were no more bullets. She heard Cathy say, “We have to clean this up before Emily finds out. Do you want to die?” That got their attention. They all started talking at once about how, since the day Elli threw their babies out the window, they didn’t really care if they lived or not.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on. That’s what I whispered to each one, as though I was a fairy godmother, as I pushed them out the window, the mothers standing behind me, crying.
“You do it,” they said. “Please. We can’t.”
“Why don’t you ask Tamara? She’s got a dead baby, too.”
“She’s writing about all this and interviewing everyone. She doesn’t have time to actually do anything; she’s too busy chronicling us.”
“But I hate all of you.”
“That’s why it has to be you,” they said, using their crazy mother-logic on me. “You won’t let your emotions get in the way.”
They were wrong. All those babies with Timmy’s dimples, and Timmy’s little round body, and Timmy’s eyes looking at me. I saw him in every one of them, and I felt the strangest emotion of all: a combination of love, hate, envy, joy, and sorrow. The more I dropped Timmies out the window, watching them sprout wings and dart across the starry sky, the more I felt my own wings—small, fluttering, just a tremor at first—sprouting from my back. I kept waiting for the mothers to notice, but they were too busy holding their babies tight, kissing them all over, crying on them. More than once, the baby was soaked and slippery by the time he was handed to me. Even though I wore my mother’s old winter gloves, there were several babies I did not toss, but dropped. They did not get to hear my blessing, though I whispered it into the air.
The mothers handed me their babies, sighing, weeping, blowing kisses; or the mothers had their babies ripped from their arms as they screamed or threw themselves to the floor or—in one case—down the stairs.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on. I whispered it into tiny pink ears shaped like peony blossoms. I whispered it into wailing wide-open mouths (with sharp white teeth, already formed), and I whispered it into the night. It was amazing how they seemed to understand; even those who were crying, even those who plummeted towards the earth before unfolding their wings and darting over the cornfield, following their brothers.
I breathed the dark air scented with apple, grass, and dirt, and I felt the air on my arms and face, and I was happy and sad and angry and loving and hateful, and I thought, as I tossed Timmies out the window, We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
Emily, with the gun hanging from the scarf my dad bought mom last Christmas, handed her baby to me and said, “Maybe later we can bake cookies.”
Sylvia handed her baby to me and said, “I hope he goes somewhere wonderful, like Alaska, don’t you?”
Lara was one of the mothers who would not release her son. She stood there, crying and holding him, as the mothers reminded her how they had all agreed this was the best thing; the babies’ best chance of survival. So far, this seemed to be true. No shots were heard. Even though Rod Stewart continued his singing, somehow the officials out there slept, or at least were not watching the sky at the back of the house. This was our chance. It was everything that had already been said and agreed on. But they still had to rip the baby from Lara’s arms. She ran from the room, crying, and I thought, Well, now you know how I feel.
At least their Timmies had a chance. Mine had had none.
The last Timmy was Maddy’s. She was hiding in the closet, actually. The mothers had to pull her out, and she was doing some serious screaming, let me tell you. She was also cussing everyone out. “I never agreed to this!” she yelled. “I hate all of you!” She held her baby so tight that he was screaming, too. You know, baby screams. Maddy looked right at me and said, “Don’t do it. Please don’t do it.” Even though the mothers told her it’s not like the babies were dying or anything; hopefully they were flying somewhere safe. I didn’t answer her. That wasn’t my job. Besides, I was sort of distracted by my wings. I couldn’t believe no one had noticed them.
Maddy was the worst. They had to hold her shoulders and her legs, and then two other mothers had to pull on her arms to open them, and another mother was standing there to grab her Timmy. By the time she handed him to me, everyone was freaking. I held Maddy’s Timmy out to the sky, like I did with all the others, and I opened my mouth to say, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” but he tore away from me and flew straight to the cornfield. Just in time, because right then there was a shout and all the police guys came around to the window, screaming and pointing. I shouted and waved to distract them. The mothers pulled me away from the window, then put the boards up and nailed them shut.
Later, when I go to my room, I undress in front of the mirror. My body looks different now. My nipples are dark, I have a little sag in my belly, and my hips are huge. But the biggest change has got to be the wings. When I take my clothes off, they come out of their secret hiding place and spread behind me—not gray like the babies’, but white and glowing. Unfortunately, they seem to be for cosmetic purposes only. I jump off my bed and try to think of myself as flying, but it doesn’t work.
The mothers are crying. Rod Stewart sings louder, trying to get the eternally sleeping Maggie to wake up. Some man on the loudspeaker begs us to come out, and promises that they won’t hurt our babies.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
I sit at the edge of my bed and think about how things have been going lately; my parents both dead, and my baby too.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
I lie back on the bed, which is sort of uncomfortable because of the wings, and stare at the pimply ceiling. I am having a strange déjà vu feeling, like I’ve figured this all out once before, but forgot. I hope I remember this time.
The worst days of our suffering were reports of winged children being captured and shot. We crowded into the dark living room and wept in front of the TV set; turned it on full volume, so we could hear the gloating of marksmen and hunters over Rod Stewart’s singing.
Oh, our babies! Our little boys, shot down like pheasants, tracked like deer, hunted like Saddam Hussein.
The worst of these worst days were when the camera panned over the little corpses, lingered on the dark wings, always at some distance. Artful, you might say, but torture all the same, for us, the mothers.
We could not identify them. There was solace and madness in this fact. Sometimes a mother became certain that the baby was hers. For some, this happened many times. There are mothers here who have been absolutely sure on several occasions that their babies have just been killed. They walk about the house, weeping and breaking dishes. Other mothers haven’t suffered a single fatality. These mothers are positive their sons have escaped, alive. They are the ones who insist we maintain this charade, though, frankly, the jig is almost up.
After the film of murdered babies and hunters grinning broadly beneath green caps, the news anchors raise neatly manicured eyebrows, smile with bright white teeth, joke, and shake their heads.
“What do you think, Lydia, about the standoff in Voorhisville? Do you think it’s time for authorities to move in?”
“Well, Marv, I think this has gone on long enough. It’s clear these mothers have been taking advantage of decent folks’ good intentions. Who knows, perhaps they’re even sending their babies out to be shot, hoping to generate more sympathy, though I would say their plan is backfiring. It seems to me that the authorities have taken every precaution to safeguard innocent civilians from being harmed. The fact is, even if there are children in that house, they are not innocent. We’ve seen the bodies with their dangerous wings. Homeland Security has taken several into custody. My understanding is that they are holding them on an island off of Georgia. My point being, these are not your average little babies, and we have a right to protect ourselves. The authorities need to go in there and deal with this mess before it drags on into Christmas. It would be nice if they could do it without anyone getting hurt, but that just might not be possible.”
The house is getting smaller. Maddy Melvern is eating it. She thinks no one has noticed, but we have. Sylvia Lansmorth and Lara Bravemeen are having an affair. Cathy Vecker paces through the rooms, weeping and quoting Ophelia. Some of the mothers think she is trying to seduce Elli Ratcher, but the rest think not. At any rate, Elli does not seem to care about Cathy, or anyone.
We have noticed a strange smell coming from Elli’s room. There are rumors that she nurses the decomposing corpse of her firstborn baby there.
We have let Elli keep her old bedroom all to herself. This is a tremendous act of generosity, given how the rest of us crowd into the small rooms of this old house, but we thought it was the least we could do, considering what happened to her family. None of us want to investigate the odor. It is getting worse. We know that soon we will have to deal with it. But for now, we simply hold our breath when we are upstairs; and, frankly, we go up there less and less.
They have shut the power off. We no longer know what anyone is saying about us. Those of us with husbands or lovers no longer get to watch them being interviewed and saying incredible things about how much they love us, or how they never loved us, or how they’ve had to get on with their lives.
We have lost track of the calendar. It is cold in the house all the time now. The apple tree, which can be viewed through the bullet holes in the left panel of wood over the kitchen window, is bare. Jan thinks she saw a snowflake yesterday, but she isn’t sure.
We will not last the winter. We may not last the week. This could very well be our final day. We don’t know if we’ve done enough. We hope we have. We hope it’s enough, but doubt it is. We are disappointed in ourselves. We are proud of ourselves. We are in despair. We are exultant.
What we want for our babies is the same thing all mothers want. We want them to be happy, safe, and loved. We want them to have the opportunity to be the best selves they can be.
Rod Stewart no longer sings. The silence is torture. They are coming for us. We will die here. But if any babies, even one baby—and all of us hope that the one left is our own—was saved, it is . . . well, not enough, but at least something.
We do not know what our children will grow into. No mother can know that. But we know what we saw in them; something sweet and loving and innocent, no matter what the reporters say, no matter what happened to the Ratchers. We saw something in our children that we, the mothers, agree might even have been holy. After all, isn’t there a little monster in everyone?
WE WANT TO WARN THE WORLD! Be careful what you do to them. They are growing (those who have not been murdered, at least). And, whether you like to think about it or not, they are being raised by you. Every child must be reined in, given direction, taught right from wrong. Loved.
If you are reading this, then the worst has already happened, and we can do no more.
They are your responsibility now.
“The Mothers of Voorhisville” copyright © 2014 by Mary Rickert
Art copyright © 2014 by Wesley Allsbrook