ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteA VERY COMPASSIONATE BABY

Gerard finds he cannot take his baby anywhere. Once, when they walked into the Dairy Queen on McPherson, a teenager passed them on the way out and dropped his strawberry ice cream on the pavement. The baby watched the pink scoop fall woefully to the ground, then exploded into such unmanageable tears that Gerard and his wife had to bring him back to the car. Another time, when they took the baby to the park on a sun-filled spring day, the park crew was out mowing the grounds, and the baby leaned out of his stroller, saw the grass flying, weeds razed, dandelion spores whipping up and away on currents of violent air, and he cried with such deep sorrow that the sun couldn’t cheer him, nor the baby ducks swimming through the pond, nor the tulips blooming in the fields. They turned the stroller around and took him home.

And now, Gerard knows it for sure—that to take the baby anywhere is to risk perils like this, the startling onset of tears without warning, howls like alarms that alert everyone around them that something is terribly, terribly wrong.

When he takes the baby for a nine-month physical—after other similar incidents involving smashed ants, a broken jar of pickles, and a stuffed penguin, lost under the baby’s crib for two days—he thinks to ask the pediatrician about the baby’s behavior, in a way that won’t sound strange.

“Dr. Mullens?”

She’s bent away from him, weighing the baby on the child scale, but when he asks she turns, her face as blank as paper. The baby punches the air behind her, his tiny fists like clementines.

“What does it mean? If your baby cries a lot?”

She looks back at the baby, smiling and grabbing his feet.

“He doesn’t seem overly tearful.”

“Well, he isn’t now. But I bet if you dropped something, like your stethoscope, he’d start crying. Probably immediately.”

“You mean he’s sensitive to loud sound?”

“No. That’s not what I mean.”

“Then what do you mean, Mr. Davenport?”

“I mean he cries, all the time, when anything happens that seems remotely sad.”

“Babies mimic sometimes. Is that what you mean?”

Gerard sighs, looks around the room. He searches for anything, a demonstration, a way to show the pediatrician what he means. Finally he sees it—the wall of pamphlets, take-home brochures with titles like Healthy Child Development and Could Your Baby Have Hearing Loss? He takes one from the shelf, a leaflet about breastfeeding, with a woman cradling a child drawn across the front, and he waves it in front of the baby so he will look. Once he does, Gerard tears the pamphlet in half.

The baby stares. Then he bursts into tears, great heaving sobs, the halves of the leaflet limp in Gerard’s hands.

Gerard looks at Dr. Mullens, who looks back at him and smiles.

“Well, Mr. Davenport,” she says, rubbing the baby’s belly, until his choking cries slowly disintegrate into sniffles, “it looks like you have a very compassionate baby on your hands.”

She laughs, picks the baby up, puts him back on the examination table where he lies like a sack of potatoes, sniffles receding to sighs. Gerard looks on, feeling the awkwardness of dismissal, and wondering why, why in this room of all places, why is this funny, why would this ever be funny at all.

 

Just after the baby’s first birthday, after a small party that Gerard and his wife consider a triumph, since the baby wept only a little when his lone candle was blown out, Gerard finds that the more the baby can toddle, the more he gravitates toward the backyard, toward its trees, the wide-open grassland they are lucky to have behind their home. As Gerard watches him meander through the grass, he imagines the baby must appreciate its solace, its expansive foliage, the way it rolls out like soft green carpet. And though Gerard has not said so to his wife, he imagines they both notice the baby’s calm in the yard, how he laughs and plays, and how, despite the occasional tear over a torn blade of grass or a wilting wildflower, he is serene in a way that no longer seems possible elsewhere.

Because the baby is so peaceful, Gerard and his wife find that over time they develop a new habit of reading on the back patio, sometimes with iced tea or a bowl of mixed nuts, while the baby pokes around in the grass. Gerard knows when the baby wants to play, as he knew the first time, when he’d found the baby standing upright against the sliding door, tiny hands splayed against the glass, his solemn eyes fixed on the trees, the grass, the purple irises Gerard and his wife planted the year before. And now, each time the baby crawls toward the window, Gerard knows they can stand to read awhile, sitting on the back patio as the sun dips behind the trees.

One Saturday, Gerard sits on the patio eating a turkey sandwich when he notices the baby has stopped moving, lying motionless in the grass facedown, not crawling or poking his way through the lawn in the way he usually does. Gerard stands so quickly the sandwich tumbles in parts to the ground and he runs to the baby, imagining SIDS, imagining a once-pink face turned blue, all the quiet terrors a parent holds restrained until a single moment lets them explode.

But when he reaches the baby and turns him over, the baby smiles and giggles, hands clasped in what looks like prayer. Beneath him in the grass is a strange flower Gerard has never seen, something not unlike a dandelion sphere but more solid, substantial, something not easily blown away. When Gerard releases the baby from his grasp, the baby flips himself over, crawls slowly back, and lies motionless in the grass once again, eyes focused on the small, lone flower.

When Gerard’s wife returns from her knitting club, Gerard is still sitting on the back patio, watching the baby lie rapt in the grass.

“He hasn’t moved for two hours.”

Gerard’s wife sits down in the patio chair next to him.

“And he hasn’t cried, either.”

They watch the baby for a moment, neither of them speaking.

“Well, I think it’s about time for his nap,” she finally says, and walks over to the baby and picks him up. But when she does, he cries and waves his arms, and doesn’t stop crying until she’s settled him snugly in his crib, until the weight of drowsiness makes him forget.

They think it must be a fluke, one the baby won’t remember, but later in the day, not long after he has awoken from his nap, he crawls toward the sliding door and looks somberly out on the lawn, his tiny brow wrinkled. Gerard looks at his wife. She looks back at him. They each grab their books without a word and take the baby out to the yard.

When Gerard’s wife sets the baby in the grass, he laughs a little. As both of them watch, the baby stops and looks across the lawn, then crawls back to the flower, where, once he finds the right spot, he lies motionless in the grass like before.

“What do you think it is?” Gerard says, one Sunday as the baby lies in the grass, as he does almost every day with the flower, the only one of its kind in the yard, a spot the baby knows as birds know migration routes.

His wife looks over, then turns back to the morning business section, flips the page.

“What do I think what is?”

“The flower, honey. What else would I be talking about?”

His wife glances at the baby, lying on his stomach in the grass, feet kicked to the sky.

“You mean what kind? Oh, I don’t know. It looks a little like an allium.”

“No, not what kind. I mean what is it?”

“What is what?” she says, annoyed.

“What is it that’s so special about that goddamn flower?”

His wife looks out across the lawn again, her face as even as porcelain.

“Maybe he likes it,” she says. “Who cares? At least he’s not crying.”

She turns back to her paper and Gerard feels sheepish, a flush blooming across his face. But what he thinks, and what he wishes he didn’t, is that maybe the crying was better.

The baby still cries sometimes, in odd moments when something goes awry, like when their server dropped a fork the other night at dinner, or when his wife accidentally washed a red sock with the whites and they all came out slightly pink. But for the most part the baby is serene, and Gerard wonders if it really is this flower, this strange, unanticipated bulb, that has quieted their baby with simple fascination, or if it might be something more.

Two weeks later, the baby is lying still and quiet in the grass when Gerard hears him shout something, a short burst that carries across the lawn.

“Riley!”

Gerard looks up, blinks toward the baby.

“Riley!” the baby shouts again, and Gerard pushes back his chair, yells through the screen door for his wife to come outside.

When she does, Gerard is kneeling in the grass, hunched over the baby, the round flower small but still visible, even from the patio.

“What is it, sweetheart?”

Gerard looks back at her and smiles, but something else colors his face too, something hazy and confused.

“I think he just said his first word.”

Gerard’s wife clasps her hands, runs out onto the lawn.

“Oh, really! What did he say?” Her smile is large, so large her lips part and her teeth peek out.

“I’m not really sure,” Gerard says, and before his wife asks him what he means, the baby shouts again, over and over, Riley! Riley! Riley!

Gerard looks at his wife, and she looks back at him.

“What does that mean?” she asks, and Gerard shrugs. They both sit in the grass with the baby, with the flower, with this strange new word.

Later, after they’ve put the baby to bed and hear his rhythmic breathing through the monitor, Gerard rolls toward his wife, unsure if she’s asleep, and curls himself into the curve of her back, sighs so she’ll hear.

“Do you think he named the flower?”

“What?” She sounds groggy, like maybe she really was asleep.

“Do you think that’s its name?”

“Oh God, Gerard, who knows?”

“Does it make you a little sad?”

His wife is quiet then rolls over, her forehead almost touching his.

“Sad how?”

Gerard’s face reddens, though he doesn’t know if she can see it in the half-darkened room.

“Sad like his first word wasn’t mom. Or dad.”

“Not really,” she says. “Well, maybe.”

Gerard stares at her, the panic in his chest creeping onto his face. “Oh, honey, don’t worry about it.” She puts her arms around him, pulls him close. “He’ll talk to us soon enough. And besides, maybe he didn’t even name the stupid flower. Maybe Riley lives on that flower, for all we know.”

She laughs, kisses his face, and rolls away, but her words strike a new terror deep into Gerard’s heart, the terror of maybe, of what if, the possibility she could be right.

 

For the next several days Gerard watches the baby, watches him lie in the grass as he has been, shouting Riley! every so often and clapping his hands, and though this is the only change, Gerard monitors it all with new suspicion, with mounting concern that maybe this Riley business needs to end.

The baby is happy, and didn’t even cry the other night when he dropped a spoonful of peas on the floor, but Gerard can’t ignore what his wife said. While they are sitting on the patio one afternoon, he looks over to see she’s fallen asleep, eyes closed behind her sunglasses, and then he creeps over to the baby and hunches in the grass.

The baby barely stirs, doesn’t notice anything beyond the flower, so Gerard leans far over the baby and peers down into the blossom, looks for any sign that things aren’t quite right.

What he sees is nothing out of the ordinary, just petals, small filaments budding out in a sphere, stamens and pistils like any other flower. Though the species is one Gerard has never seen, its shape more like a globe, its stem thick and heavy, he looks down at the baby and sees the wide-eyed wonder painting his face and something within him relaxes, like piano strings loosened. He sits back on his knees and rubs the baby’s tiny shoulders.

But just as Gerard pushes himself back, readying to stand, he catches sight of a small flash, something darting across the edge of his vision—something small and purple, quick like a flashbulb, scurrying through the flower’s small filaments.

“Riley!” the baby shouts, and Gerard’s panic is a broken dam pooling in the center of his chest.

“Honey, come over here!” he yells.

Within seconds his wife is standing over him, sunglasses still on.

“What? What is it?”

Gerard looks at her and can’t think what to say, for its absurdity, for its blatant sabotage, for the way she will look at him when he tells her what he saw.

“I think something’s living on this flower.”

His wife’s face goes blank. She doesn’t reply.

“There’s a Riley on this flower, like you said.”

“Like I said?”

“The other night, when you said maybe something lives on it.”

Her face tightens, like she’s about to yell, but instead a smile spreads across her mouth, and she drops her head back and laughs.

“I was joking,” she says. “Of course I was joking.”

“But I saw something. There was something here!”

“Like what?” she asks. The baby giggles in the grass.

Gerard looks down at the flower.

“It was purple and small. I saw it, dashing around on that flower.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Gerard.” She runs a hand through his hair. “It was probably just a bug.”

“I’m not crazy!” he shouts, pushing her away, suddenly angry, surprising himself with how angry he is. “Something lives on that flower!”

She stares at him, laughter gone. “Okay, relax. It’s really not a big deal.”

“A weird flower invades our yard, and suddenly our baby forgets who we are—that’s not a big deal?”

She turns around, walks back toward the house.

“We can talk about this when you’re calm,” she says over her shoulder.

When she’s gone Gerard stands there, the baby cooing and clapping at his feet, and wonders why, of all the lawns, of all the grassy backyards in their neighborhood, why of all homes did this flower take root in theirs.

 

When the baby begins to sniffle, a little summer cold, Gerard tells his wife it’s nothing, but she gives him the look, the look that says maybe it is, and they strap the baby into his car seat and take him to the doctor. The baby is in good spirits, waving his arms and punching the air, but the farther the car moves from their home, the more rapidly his smile dissolves, until Gerard accidentally spills his travel mug on the car floor and the baby starts to cry.

At the doctor’s office, the baby’s weight, glands, pulse, his eyes and mouth are all checked. Gerard and his wife sit quietly out of the way on two stools while Dr. Mullens inspects the baby, checks his lungs and heart.

“Well, I think you’re right,” she says, examining the baby’s nasal passages. “It looks like a cold to me, nothing serious.”

“Is there anything we should do?” Gerard’s wife asks.

Dr. Mullens clicks off her pen flashlight and tucks it into her front pocket.

“Just make sure he rests, gets plenty of fluids. If he’s congested, use a rubber suction bulb to draw any mucus from his nose.”

Gerard’s wife looks at him, then back at Dr. Mullens. “Can he still play outside?”

“Like what kind of play?”

“You know, crawling. Toddling around. Just in the grass.”

“That should be fine,” Dr. Mullens says, her pen scratching against the baby’s chart.

“And can he still play with the wood sprites and elves?”

Gerard’s wife looks at him sharply, then looks away, embarrassed. Dr. Mullens glances up and blinks at Gerard.

“What are you talking about, Mr. Davenport?”

“Gerard, please,” his wife says.

“I mean, Dr. Mullens, that our child has a new friend in the yard. It may even be why he’s sick.”

Gerard’s wife sighs. “That’s not at all why he’s sick. My husband’s just upset that our baby has befriended a flower.”

Dr. Mullens blinks at them. “It’s okay for children to play. Lots of babies have imaginary friends.”

When he hears this, what Gerard wants to say is that no, it’s not imaginary, that he’s seen this “friend” with his own lucid eyes. But he smiles instead, a thin, reedy smile, and says, yes, of course it’s okay for children to have make-believe friends.

Everyone is silent on the car ride home, including the baby who, despite one brief tantrum over a stop sign he sees out the window, dilapidated and half-bent to the ground, sleeps soundly until the car whirs softly back into the garage.

Inside, Gerard’s wife cleans out the baby’s nose, then hands him to Gerard and retreats to their bedroom. She hasn’t spoken since they left the doctor’s office, and Gerard wonders if she intends for him to take the baby outside, or if the baby should rest and nap. But the baby crawls to the window, stands on shaky legs and murmurs toward the yard, and Gerard sighs, thinks no, for all they know the flower has in fact caused the cold, so he pulls the baby back, curls him into his arms, and sits looking down into his small face.

“Not today, little man,” he says, and the baby shouts, then howls, sobs growing louder like an ambulance siren approaching. Gerard rocks him and bounces him on his knee, but he just keeps screaming, eyes squeezed shut, nose running, until Gerard’s wife yells from the bedroom, just take him outside, just let him see his flower.

Gerard exhales, stands. He opens the sliding-glass door.

The baby finds his spot quickly and lies motionless in the grass, sobs subsiding into coos. Gerard stands watching him, hands at his sides, then turns back to the patio and glimpses for a second his wife in the window, peeking out from behind their bedroom curtains.

Gerard situates himself in a patio chair, no book, no magazine for distraction. He closes his eyes, lets the late-afternoon sun warm the tops of his eyelids while the baby’s giggles drift past him on a light wind. He breathes out and lies back, knowing his wife is probably watching. But then he hears it, the baby’s shout, not Riley now but something else, something new, something that jolts Gerard from his chair.

“Rufus!” the baby shouts. “Rufus! Riley!”

Gerard sits up, stares across the lawn where the baby is laughing and kicking his arms and legs, almost like he’s swimming across the grass. Gerard pushes his chair back and runs and when he reaches the baby, he kneels down. And what he sees, there in the center of the flower, is a sight like a shockwave through the currents of his heart, not one but two purple orbs, flashes like heat lightning darting across the bulb’s surface.

“Oh, no,” he says softly, then louder as the tiny sparks keep moving. “Oh, no, no, no! Absolutely not!”

“Rufus!” the baby shouts.

Gerard looks at the baby, then back at the flower, then over his shoulder at the house. And before he can temper the impulse with reasoned thought, his hands grab the flower’s thick stem and he rips, pulls, he screams as he tears the bulb from the ground.

The force throws Gerard onto his back in the grass and then there is quiet, no sound, a calm breeze passing over Gerard’s face as he stares at the pale sky, the flower clenched in his fists like some weed. It’s so peaceful that for a second Gerard thinks it’s a dream, that maybe he didn’t pull the flower out by its roots, that maybe the baby is lying in the grass with him, asleep, that maybe they are napping to fight off his cold.

But then it starts, a low moan, which grows and swells until the baby is screaming like Gerard has never heard, like every travel mug and every ice cream cone and every stop sign in the world has been demolished. Gerard rolls onto his side and cradles the baby against his chest but the baby keeps screaming, until at last Gerard’s wife runs out to the yard and looks from Gerard to the baby, to the flower, and back to Gerard.

“What’s this?” she asks. She looks like she could cry.

Gerard looks away, then back up at her, knowing how pointless it would be to lie.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” she says, and though her voice is even and still, Gerard recognizes an undulating blaze beneath it, rolling water on the verge of boiling.

She picks the baby up and walks away, back into the house, his wails as deep and desolate as foghorn blasts, and Gerard understands the sound now as familiar, resurrected, as it will be when the baby sees their neighbor trip on the way to the mailbox, or when his wife accidentally drops an ornament as she carries it to their Christmas tree, or when their garage sale sends old dishes and broken appliances, discarded and unwanted, to other people’s homes far away.

“I did it for him!” Gerard shouts after her. “I did it for his own good!”

But when he looks down at the flower, lying askew in the grass like carnage, he wonders if this is true, if it were ever true, and if the baby will remember this at all once he’s grown, with no flower to recall and only a world of sadness before him, its sorrows to keep like gemstones, to enfold in the pockets of his small, vast heart.

 

______________________

photoANNE VALENTE‘s fiction appears in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, The Journal and Redivider, among others, and her essays appear in The Washington Post and The Believer. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics (Origami Zoo Press, 2013). Winner of Copper Nickel’s 2012 Fiction Prize, her work was listed as notable in Best American Non-Required Reading 2011. Originally from St. Louis, she currently lives in the Midwest.

Adapted from By Light We Knew Our Names, by Anne Valente, Copyright © 2014 by Anne Valente. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books. Originally appeared in Annalemma (2010); Named as notable in Best American Non-Required Reading 2011

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One response to “Excerpt of By Light We Knew Our Names, by Anne Valente”

  1. Shelley says:

    As a writer, this story reminds me of Sherman Alexie’s “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation.”

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