“The baby's not coming home.”
“What do you mean, not coming home?”
“The baby was born sick, and he needs to stay at the hospital.”
“For how long?”
“We don't know, honey.”
The Priest was there, in our living room. I looked at him, and at the other strange people from the church that had been coming and going for days. I figured this is what happened when a new baby was born. There were people from the church who tended to these things. They were like the neighborhood welcome people that brought us a basket to the door when we moved here from Georgia, only their job was new babies. At least the baby people usually seemed to be finding busy-work to do. But the Priest, he was always staring me down. He only had one leg. He had two legs but one was a wood leg. Momma said he had gotten the other one shot off in Vietnam. She said he got the wood leg when he came back. She said it wasn't just his leg that he lost, but she never really told me what she was talking about.
He looked at me, all worried like. “That's enough questions, at least for now, Bertie,” he said. I couldn't figure on why he thought I had reached my question limit or why he thought he got to decide either. I looked at Mama and she said, “Go to your room and find something to do, sweetheart.” She looked so tired, her eyes weren't right, and she had stopped wearing her make-up and going out clothes.
I did like I was told. I went into my room and turned on my small AM radio and foostered with the dial and the antenna until the one station that played my music was more clear than the static and I lay on my back on my bed with the radio on my legs and I watched the ceiling. I hadn't been able to go swimming at all since it had gotten hot, so I thought about blue swimming pools and the way chlorine made my hair feel.
The baby came home after being in the hospital a while longer. I was glad, too. I was getting worn out from all the people in my house. I wanted my mama and my daddy home. I wanted the smell of my daddy's cologne that I used to think I hated, and I really wanted my mama to be singing to herself while she made her silk flower arrangements, or even just sitting in her chair and telling me to leave her alone while she did her crossword puzzle on top of her stomach like it was a big round desk.
I was over at my friend Annie's house when they brought the baby back from the hospital. I waited for a little bit after seeing them pull into the driveway before I went home. I was all torn up with nerves for some reason. When I came in, my daddy called me into the kitchen and told me to sit down at the table. It smelled like coffee. The strangers always made coffee when they got there.
“Honey,” my daddy said, “I need to tell you about the baby.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Our little man has been chosen by God to be an angel, so we aren't going to have much time with him here on earth.”
“What do you mean?”
“He'll only be with us for a little while, and then God is going to take him to heaven.”
“But isn't he taking us all to heaven?”
“Yes, but your baby brother is special, and God needs special babies in heaven to be angels, and he chose our baby.”
I didn't understand. I didn't understand at all. But I felt like I was meant to understand, and I didn't want to seem stupid or too much like the neighbor's little girl that was always asking why to every single thing. I wanted to know why, but instead I just said all I knew to say at that very moment, “Okay,” I said.
“Now I want you to come in and see him.”
The priest and Mama were in the room already when we came in. They looked at me kinda like I was doing something wrong. The baby was on his stomach on a pale blue blanket with a white pad underneath his belly. He had a plastic bracelet that seemed like it took up his whole arm. He wasn't moving so I thought he was asleep. But when got up close and looked at his face I could tell he was awake. His eyes were open but he wasn't moving.
You don't think anything about a grown up just lying there, but when you see a baby without any wiggling it don't seem right. His face was kind of red, like his blood was close up to his skin, like all his life was there but the rest of him looked more pale, except this place on his back that looked like raw bacon. When I got real close I could see it was like a hole in his back and I could see something that looked like bone, and like the veins I could see under his skin on his face. And the hole looked like it was covered with a clear thin skin. And there was a yellow-orange stuff that looked like some kind of cream. Maybe that's what smelled so funny. Maybe that's what was making me feel sick. Or maybe it was that hole in his back and how his face was alive and the rest of him didn't seem to be, but it all made me feel curious and sick at the same time.
“That's the hole in his back,” my mama said. “That's his spine under there, his back didn't grow to cover up his spine like it's supposed to.”
“Why not,” I said. “Mama, why didn't the baby's back grow like it was supposed to,” and there it was. Just when I thought I had been brave and grown-up I went and asked why.
“Sometimes things happen,” Mama said as she took her arms and wrapped them around her like she was trying to hug herself into feeling better.
“But…” I had barely said, “But…” when the priest looked right at me with bullets for eyes and said, “It's not up to us to ask why. That's not our place, Bertie. It is God's choice and we shouldn't question his wisdom. This baby is blessed, he is chosen by God.”
“Well I don't like his choice and I don't think it's fair that my little brother won't get to live like other babies and I don't understand why God would choose to make it so all he could do is just stay there like that without being able to do the things babies ought to be able to do!”
“Bertie!” Daddy hollered at me.
Right then I knew I had really done it. I was in all kinds of trouble. I was gonna get my tail whipped with a switch off the willow tree like I used to when I was littler. “I'm sorry, Daddy, I'm just upset and I don't like God's choice not one bit.”
The Priest looked over at me and looked at Mama and Daddy and then he did something I did not expect and his mouth turned up in what looked like some kind of kind smile and he said, “It's alright, Bertie, I know it is hard for a child to understand why things like this happen.”
“It is hard, for a child, to understand,” Mama said.
Daddy looked around and took a step toward Mama and leaned over and kissed her on her forehead. “That's enough for now, Bertie. We need to let the baby rest, and you need to go outdoors and get some fresh air. Now go on out and play. And I did, I tore out of there like a demon was coming after me.
I went outside into the backyard. It smelled like creek. It was August and the whole world was a fog of white haze that would choke you if you let it. There was big Oak tree with big branches that were wilted with heat and weighted down with moss, like they just wanted to give up and lay down on the ground. The sun came pouring through it all and it made jigsaw puzzle shapes of green and light across the yard. I called the big Oak the kissing tree cause my friend Annie and me once caught her big sister pretend kissing Shaun Cassidy up there. Everybody loved the kissing tree. It was easy to get up near the top of it and it seemed like every branch was a good seat.
I used to climb up into its world and once I was up there I would feel like I was in charge of everything and I would think about how I was going to convince Mama to let me do something or another or I would pretend I was in a world where fairies were in charge and I could do what I pleased anyway. But sometimes I would also plot against the nun at school. Sister Victor, who had one crossed eye and who was the meanest nun in the whole school.
For some reason Sister Victor couldn't understand why I had no mind to learn how to speak stupid French that wasn't even real French but was Cajun French which would not be needed since I was going to be getting out of here the very first minute I could. You do not need to speak Cajun-French in California. You can just speak American and no one punishes you by making you count pennies that other people have gone and donated for the poor.
Annie came in the yard through the gate in the chain-linked fence. She lived across the street. We liked to hang out in the kissing tree together. Annie had kinda wild hair that got all tangled up sometimes. She had big gaps in between her teeth. And she always stood with her hands on her hips, elbows back, like she was trying to poke her chest out just as far as she could.
She looked up at me and said, “Hey, what are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“I heard about your brother.”
It was weird hearing that word, brother. “You mean you heard that he's sick?”
“Yeah, my daddy said he got spinal bilfilda.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said acting like I also knew that his sickness had a name.
I didn't feel like yelling was the right thing to do, it felt like telling the whole world about how there was a dying baby in my house, so I started climbing down the tree. “Hold on,” I said, “I'm coming down.”
I put my foot on the branch below me and it didn't feel as strong as it usually did, and just that little bit of extra thinking made me make a mistake and I caught my arm on one of the branches and I felt it sting and I knew I had broken the skin but what I didn't want was for Annie to know because she already had that look on her face that she sometimes got when she out of nowhere got the notion to be mean. Usually didn't matter to who, she just needed to be mean to somebody. I didn't mind on most days, but on this day I was wanting to make it all go away and that seemed to include her.
I jumped from a branch higher than I usually did and when I hit the ground with a thud I felt an earthquake in my jaw and like my insides got shaken too. “What happened,” she asked me, like I was supposed to know why my baby brother was born with a hole in his back.
“God picked him. He is chosen. He's going to heaven to be an angel.”
“Why?” she asked me.
I felt so dang mad all the sudden. How come she got to ask it so easy? How come I felt like a toad when I asked but when she said why it sounded like just some normal question.
“I don't know!” I hollered. “Do I look like Sister Victor to you? Do I look like I should know why God picked him to put a dang hole in his back and then to make him die just so he could go to stupid heaven? You think I understand why he bothered putting that baby here in the first place? Why not take it straight on to heaven instead of causing all this!”
Annie looked strange. But I felt less strange than I had since Mama and Daddy told me the baby wasn't coming home when it was supposed to. I felt like someone was going to finally listen to me whether they liked it or not.
“Well I reckon you should know cause it's your own brother!” she yelled back at me.
“Well guess what, nobody tells me anything around here!” I shot it back at her like I wanted my words to push her down onto the ground.
Annie got meaner looking and her eyes went all squinty and she said all calm like, “Well whose dumb fault is that, Bertie?”
Sometimes Daddy says he's serious as a heart attack when he wants people to know he means business and so I said to Annie, “You stay right here. And I am serious as a heart attack.” And I turned tail into the house until I found Daddy in the kitchen wiping down the counter and I said, “Daddy, what is wrong with the baby? What is the name of the thing that is wrong with the baby?”
Daddy stopped wiping and turned around to look at me square in the eye. He thought for a minute and then he said, “Spina Bifida.”
“Thank you,” I said. “And by the way, I don't think it is right that Annie knew that before I did.”
“Okay, Bertie, you are right. We should have told you so you didn't have to hear things from other people. And I know you aren't a baby anymore, and I know how smart you are. I'm sorry for not telling you.”
I felt so full of love in that moment, all I wanted to do was to let Daddy know I wasn't mad. I walked over and wrapped my arms around his waist and gave him a bear hug, and he leaned down into me and gave me a kiss on the head and hugged me back, and I believe he might have hugged me tighter than he ever had before. “Daddy,” I said, “What makes this happen to a baby?”
“Sometimes, things just go wrong when babies are developing, Bertie, and no one knows exactly why. Sometimes, things just happen that we can't control,” he said, still holding me tight.
After talking to Daddy, I marched back out to deal with Annie. She was using a stick to draw her name in some dirt. I walked over and put my hands on my hips, like she always did, and I said, “They don't know why. Sometimes, there are things we don't know.”
“I wasn't trying to make you mad,” she said. “I don't really care.”
“I am sorry for yelling at you,” I said.
“Me, too,” she said throwing the stick across the yard.
“It's okay. So what do you want to do now?”
“I don't know, what do you want to do?”
“We could make a fort and look at magazines.”
“Okay, we can do that,” she said as we walked away from the kissing tree.
And we walked over toward her house, where we could make a fort under her table, and where we could take our flashlights and the only thing we could see was each other and our magazines.
One afternoon when it was raining, Daddy and me were driving in his car. It was a Volkswagon Bug that was something like a navy blue color and it made a lot of noise. We were going to pick up something from the grocery store and when he was leaving I begged him to let me go. I hated how much I sometimes didn't want to be in the house with the baby.
“Hey Bertie, let's get some bananas and Nilla Wafers and make some banana pudding. The house seems full of potato salad and pot roast, and cookies I guess, but no one has brought any banana pudding by and I think I'd like to have some with you.”
“That sounds good, Daddy. I can help you make it. Mama taught me how to layer it before my birthday. Can I help you make it?”
“Of course, Bertie.”
“Daddy, what's the baby's name?” I asked him.
“Honey, why don't we talk about something else for a while?” He was looking at the road and not at me.
“But don't you reckon the baby should get its own name?”
“It's not that, Bertie, it's just that I haven't heard anything about you lately. I miss your stories and knowing what is going on in your day,” my daddy said and I believed he meant it.
“Okay,” I felt excited to tell him about Sister Victor and what she had done to me. I would always feel less alone in my being scared of her when I could talk to someone about it. So we drove to the store, and I talked my daddy's ear off.
Some of the days started to feel normal while the baby was home. But then something would happen that made it feel terrible again, like one day when I came inside from playing with Annie and I could hear my mama and daddy yelling at each other. Mama told him she was done with people telling her it was God's will. She said if one more person dared to tell her one more word about this being God's plan she was gonna punch them in the mouth. Daddy asked her what the hell she wanted them to say. Mama called him a name. She called him a real bad name. And after some stomping around, out the front door he went.
Mama was sitting on her bed when I went into her room. She was real wet, her hair from the shower, and it seemed like she was wet with tears and sweat and she even had wet coming from her nose.
“It's okay, Mama,” I said. “Me and Daddy and Father and the baby, we all love you so much. And when the baby goes to be with God, we'll all be okay,” I said. “I promise, Mama, you'll be okay,” I just kept saying over and over and over.
But she kept right on crying and I wanted so bad to make her stop. She always told me a tear was the pain's way of getting out and leaving you to get healed, but it didn't feel that way to me. It felt more like the whole world had gone wrong. Like I would cut off my own arms, or take a hole in my back, to make her stop crying.
Mama liked to make flower arrangements with those plastic flowers. She had a whole space for doing it, with all kinds of different colored flowers all stuck in a green spongey thing. But since the baby came, she hadn't gone near them, so I thought it would be a good idea to go and make her up a bouquet of flowers. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I managed to put three or four flowers in a bunch that I thought ought to go together, and I went over to the kitchen drawer where she kept the tie-ties for the trash bags and took one of them and rung it around the bendy stems so they were all tight together. And I took it into her bedroom where she was quiet and lying down on the bed kinda staring at nothing and I sat down and handed it to her.
I'll be darned if it didn't start her up crying again.
I could have spit I was so mad at myself. “I'm sorry, Mama,” I said.
“Thank you, Bertie. I love you, so much. And these are beautiful.”
She said that, but I had still made her cry. And right then I hated that baby more than anything else I had ever hated in my whole dang life.
It was the next week when Mama and Daddy told me I was going to be spending time with my cousins in Georgia. They said my cousin was coming out to get me and I was going to take the train back with her to Georgia for a while. When I told Annie she looked all jealous. But I didn't want to go on no train, and I didn't want to leave Mama and Daddy. I wanted to be home with them. I didn't care that Mama was so sad, or that I might be there when God came for the baby. “Don't make me go,” I said to everyone.
“But Bertie, you are always talking about going on trips and much you are going to travel the first minute you get the chance, why can't you just look at this like an adventure?” Mama said, looking irritated with me.
“I know.” But this ain't California and it ain't by my choosing,” I said not caring if she was irritated.
“Honey, you'll have a good time with your cousins. Plus, there's that little river with the tire swing right over there near their house.”
“I would rather swim in a pool,” I said.
But there was no changing anybody's mind, no matter how much I begged and before long I felt guilty about my begging and my crying and I knew I had to listen to everybody and I had to be strong for Mama.
The night after they told me I had to go to Georgia, I could not sleep and so I got up and creaked down the hallway to the baby's room. The door was half-open and there was a Winnie the Pooh nightlight in the corner, and that helped me to see Daddy asleep in the rocking chair next to the baby in its little bed thing. I could hear Daddy snoring, too.
On my tiptoes, real light and quiet, I went into the room and walked over to the baby, and he did seem like an angel. I looked down at him and there was just enough light shining in from outside on his face that I could make out how red his cheeks still were. And his lips, too. They made me think of a tiny red rose. And I could hear his breath, even with Daddy over there cutting wood like he always did.
I could hear the baby's breath but it was so quiet, like a noise that wasn't making any noise. I put my face closer to him so I could hear it better, and I got this smell coming at me. It was like a cloud of sweet. And that's just exactly what I had thought an angel would smell like.
I felt so good in there, I didn't want to go back to my bed right then. So I laid down on the floor, on the soft cushion of white carpet and I closed my eyes, and I listened and before long it all sounded just like Mama's heart sounded when I put my head on her chest. The crickets and Daddy and the baby and even the frogs were all one thing and that's the last I remember thinking until I woke up in Daddy's arms cause he was carrying me back down the hallway to my room.
On the night before I had to go on the train, Mama said I had to get packed and did I want her to help me. I did want her to help me, but to tell the truth I was feeling so mad about being sent away, I said I wanted to do it myself. My suitcase was a blue case and it was the hard kind you could sit on if you needed to. I opened it up and put it on my bed and there it sat like an empty clam shell waiting for me to put my clothes in it so I could get on a train and go somewhere I didn't want to go. And how do you pick what you want to take when you don't even know how long you are going for? I ended up just trying to put as much as I could in there. I shoved it all down until I could shut it and lock it closed. I also wanted to take my lunchbox for some reason. But it was red and had Captain Kangaroo and the Dancing Bear on it, and a Mr. Greenjeans thermos, so I was too ashamed to carry it on the train and I knew for sure some of my cousins would have made fun of me still having that kind of lunchbox.
The day came for me to leave. Daddy took us to the train station and Mama stayed with the baby angel. Daddy hugged me and handed me my suitcase, but he didn't wait with me. My cousin and I got on the train and for a while I forgot how sad I was. The train was much nicer than I thought it would be. It was silver and had blue and red stripes on it. It had a dining car and the best part was they made one of the cars with nothing but windows so you could see the whole sky. I liked the noises of it, too. There were different clinks and clanks but they had a rhythm that made me feel better, and I even got used to how much louder it got when we'd go through a town.
The people were nice on the train, too. And I got a seat sitting right next to the window. But I missed everyone. And I couldn't stop thinking about the baby angel. I thought about him way more than I did when I was home. I felt so bad about hating him. I felt bad I didn't pay more attention to him. I thought about how I didn't say anything to him. How I didn't really say anything to anybody. I felt bad I pouted about having to leave, and about being so upset I barely let anyone hug me good-bye. I started thinking about the baby's name, and how Daddy never did tell me what it was. I thought for a minute, and then I put my face closer to the window and opened my mouth and blew my hot breath onto the glass. It threw a spot there, and I did it again and again, huffing quick bursts of fog until I had a big enough space. And then I took my finger tip and into the cloud I carved Ben.
Later on that first night, I woke up and sat up in my little sleeper-bed. It took me a minute to figure out where I was. I looked out the train window and all I could see as far as I could see was water. The moon lit up what looked like miles and miles of small and perfect ripples. A black sky blurred into brown water somewhere out there. The train was going real fast. And I felt sick after a minute. It made me sick the way I couldn't see no land underneath the train. I was just being hurdled so fast with nothing underneath me.
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Over the years there have been a few versions of this posted, but I think this is the one I've settled on. Just wanted to leave it here for safe-keeping.