Carrying the baby horizontally across my chest like a football usually calms him, and often puts him to sleep. But not tonight. He’s still crying, cycling through his whole repertoire: the screechy fear cry; the lower, throaty demand cry; the pitiable gasping interspersed with slobbery whimpers. Kapa nursed him an hour ago at midnight, so he isn’t hungry. Teething — always a suspect — doesn’t seem to be the problem tonight: he isn’t drooling much, nor is he clawing at his ears. I may give him a dropperful of Tylenol anyway, to help me relax.
I’ve already sung through my own repertoire of lullabies, gospel hymns, and ballads, and I’m getting hoarse. Singing, like acetaminophen, is an analgesic, but the anxiety I’m trying to ward off leaks out in blue lyrics about lost sailors, hanged thieves, worlds of woe. I recall Rosalie Sorrels’s rendition of the classic antilullaby “The Baby Tree”:
And when the stormy winds wail And the breezes blow high in the gale There’s the funniest hoppin’ and floppin’ and droppin’ And fat little babies just hail.
Sorrels, in the voice of the run-down mother reciting her griefs, tells us, “Every culture’s got to have one, a hostile baby-rocking song.”
Today is the day We give babies away With a half a pound of cheese. . . .
My little loaf has fallen into a softer, hiccupy moaning now. How long we’ve been walking I can’t say. Two hours? Probably less, but not much. I think he may drift off with another dozen turns around the carpet. I anticipate returning to bed, spooning up to Kapa’s backside, absorbing her warmth.
Suddenly he’s wailing again, and from the pit of my stomach comes a fleeting urge to hoist him over the railing and drop him down the stairwell.
The screaming escalates, its decibel level climbing, his pitch rising. This time I rise with him, singing loud as a church choir, harmonizing with his harsh cries. To hell with him if he’s scared; I’m scared, too.
Sometimes I feel Like a motherless child A long way from home, A long way from home.
I remember my amazement in the first few weeks of his life when I discovered that he’d arrived with an entourage. The angels he watched in the corners of the ceiling were no surprise to me. I could see them — see something, anyway — as flitting smudges of light reflected at the edges of my glasses. It was the monsters and murderers he brought with him that I didn’t anticipate. Images of disaster poured through my mind those first weeks. By day I envisioned the house burning, our car overturned. At night I dreamed of soldiers bayoneting babies, swinging them by the heels into telephone poles. I had to quit listening to the radio news for a while. With the doors securely locked at night, I nevertheless heard footsteps in the kitchen more than once: my child’s badass cronies, his friends from the underworld, punks, shades.
And worst, day or night I would see myself slumped over the crib, my baby son face down and motionless there, not a drop of air in the room.
We’re talking about a healthy, good-natured baby. A real sweetheart. A bright-eyed fudgsicle. A Buddha. No colic; no chronic ailments. Just good lungs and a fierce resistance to sleep. This child had his eyes open from the get go. He watched the midwife pull the looped umbilical cord over his head so he could slither his lower half out. Placed in his mother’s arms, he cased the joint before he nursed.
At the time, I presumed our most strenuous parental efforts would be aimed toward bringing him to consciousness, introducing him to the great waking world, but he needs no further propulsion in that direction from us. Instead we work at getting him to sleep and holding him somewhat rooted in the nether world he’s just escaped. It is, of course, our need for sleep that drives us, just as his need for waking causes him to fight every drowse. Each evening he wrestles the sandman up to and over the brink of exhaustion, punching himself in the eyes all the way.
Nine months old now, he occasionally sleeps through a half night, waking just once for a midnight nursing. The anxiety that used to creep up on Kapa and me each evening toward his bedtime is mostly an uneasy memory. But, as when we look back on an extended visit by a difficult relative, we know the unwelcome visitor may return.
Our neighbors burn a sulfurous security light over the clutter of their front yard. Its eerie glow seeps in around the drawn drapes of our upstairs study, the room most distant from our bedroom, where Kapa is trying to sleep. The baby’s also asleep, finally. After carrying him around the room, walking a mile or more while he screamed inconsolably, I resorted to hypnosis. I swayed back and forth so the yard light coming through the slit between curtain and wall fell across his face. Shadow to shadow I rocked, and the light played over his eyes like a copy machine. I xeroxed him to sleep.
There’s a world map on the wall here. I tacked it up months ago to look at during his daytime crying. On one occasion, as he whimpered and fidgeted in my arms and I memorized the newly independent states of the Caucasus, he suddenly calmed and, reaching out, placed a careful finger on the west coast of the island of Java.
Tonight I stand awhile before the map, waiting for his breathing to deepen, for the spasm of calm that always shakes his legs once he’s sound asleep. But the yellow light is too watery and dim. I can’t make out any national boundaries, only the pale expanse of the oceans and the darker blotches of continents.
I try to rescue the crying hours by learning the constellations. It’s winter, and the windows of our solarium look out upon the paths of Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades. When the baby cries, I take him to those windows and let him hurl his complaints at the stars while I tell him in a sleepy — and hopefully sleep-inducing — monotone the snippets of Greek myths I’ve been reading at odd moments of the day. I point out Cassiopeia and tell him how she boasted of her beauty so outrageously that the sea nymphs complained to Neptune, who sent the sea beast Cetus (there he is, lower down, almost in the limbs of our cherry tree) to ravage the shores of Cassiopeia’s country. Her husband, King Cepheus, consulted an oracle and learned that only by sacrificing their daughter, Andromeda, to the sea beast could he save his country. (There’s Andromeda in chains at her mother’s feet.) Someday I’ll tell him how Perseus rescued her, how he slew Medusa, and how Pegasus, the winged horse, sprang from the Gorgon’s snaky hair.
I tell him: Orion lusted after Atlas’s beautiful daughters, the Pleiades, so Atlas bade Taurus come between and keep the hunter at bay.
I tell him: Taurus is your sign, my little bullock. Go to sleep.
Go to sleep.
4 :30 A.M. The baby slept well, only crying out briefly two or three times. I feel rested. For once I rose at the alarm’s first urging. I’m at my desk with several hours of solitude ahead before he and Kapa awaken. Outside in the dark garden, a mild rain is falling with a sound like gentle static, a rough hand stroking long hair.
Coming into my small, crowded study from the relative spaciousness of the living room, I am aware of the abrupt change in atmosphere: the way the book-lined walls drink up sound, the heavy air permanently stained with the smells of my body, of dust and cheap incense, of the holy fragrance of ink on paper. My laboratory, my sanctum.
The baby, ten months old and crawling, is not ordinarily allowed in this room; it isn’t baby-proofed. He is, of course, intensely curious about this off-limits space and will make a beeline for the door whenever I leave it open. When I’m in here, I’ll occasionally let him come in and conduct his own research, let him tug at the tangle of electrical cords under the computer, pluck at the strings of my guitar, pull dogeared books from the bottom shelves, chew on my pens. He can never get enough of the wonders of his father’s workroom, and he must always be carried out against his will, often crying.
In a few short months, this room will be his. It’s the only room in the house suitable for his bedroom. I’ll move my desk upstairs to share space with Kapa’s drafting table, sewing machine, and potted ferns. Her room is in the addition we built together just before we married. It has a beautiful cedar ceiling, windows on all four walls, and plenty of room for my desk and files.
But as I write this, I realize that I don’t want to give up my dark little study, my birthing chamber. I don’t want to write in an open, airy, light-filled room. I want a close, dim space, crowded with books and saturated with the musk of labor. It takes time and effort to make a room smell like this.
He’s standing at the crib rail, screaming. Twice already I’ve laid him down, rubbed his back, pulled the quilt over his shoulders. Both times he’s bounced back up and resumed wailing as soon as I was horizontal. Kapa bailed out an hour ago, heading upstairs to try to get some sleep. I’m “on duty.” I fluff the pillows around my head to muffle the din.
An infant’s relentless crying seems so contrary to survival. I’m thinking not of nocturnal predators — leopards or hyenas drawn to the sounds of small meat — but of the effects of sleep deprivation on parents. What law of nature drives the baby to unravel his caretakers’ sanity? Like a pain that goes beyond its function of signaling damage, what’s the purpose of this excess?
The how-to books are confident that letting baby “cry it out” will have the child sleeping through the night within a week. The principle is sound: don’t reinforce baby’s whims. The timeline, however, is pure fantasy. Three months since we started weaning him from his three-a-night nursings, he’s now down to one, around midnight, and a semiregular hour-long crying jag sometime between two and four. We’ve endured so many of these that we have learned to sleep through them — or, more precisely, to doze within them, as if inside a kind of sonic shell, a domed room with a ceiling made of jagged sound.
I dream that I’m trapped alone in a bombed-out building, all my comrades driven off or killed. I find a trapdoor, retreat down a shaft, and wriggle for hours through a stifling tunnel dark as a rifle bore. Finally the tunnel opens into a small room. The darkness thins to dusty gray, then blooms deep scarlet and blue. A door opens. Three women in combat fatigues cross over to me and hold their hands out together, fingers lacing with mine in a cat’s-cradle handshake.
“Congratulations,” they all say, “you’re going to have a baby.”
He is nine days old. I lie on the bed gazing at him, gloating. The skin of his eyelids is mottled a delicate lavender and rose. Little blotches of skin rash come and go from his cheeks. I believe if I watch carefully enough I might be able to see a patch emerge, bloom, and fade.
I can feel the tug of his attention. Even asleep he’s sucking up sensations from the atmosphere, stretching his psyche, accruing experience. His milky irises may seem like barely congealed eternity, but they are here for specifics. Every day they become clearer and more faceted. He watches angels over my shoulder less often and instead studies my face.
When he cried before dawn I rose from bed and gathered him up. In my haste to comfort him I left my glasses on the night stand and, not wanting to waken weary Kapa, I walked him in a 20/200 blur: gauzy darkness, the furniture bulky and strange, the house itself anxious, tight shouldered, leaning in. I feared the creak of the floorboards would rouse him. I felt my way forward as if out onto the limb of a great tree.
Dry lightning. Another spring storm is passing to the south. The baby, just three weeks old, sleeps in my lap, hot and heavy as a chunk of space debris, a cried-out little asteroid damp with perspiration. I stroke his furry head, marvel over the topography of his soft skull.
Sitting in the rocker before the broad solarium windows, I watch for the next flash of lightning, the next appearance of the back yard. There — so windless and still it seems a tableau — the garden materializes, framed by small trees that Kapa chose and planted: Magnolia stellata by the grape arbor; Styrax japonica here beside the garden path; spirea and forsythia near the south fence; a grove of lilacs beyond the perennial border.
Under those lilacs is where we buried our first child, the thumb-sized fetus miscarried at three months. The baby in my lap would not have been conceived had that child lived. My mother lost her first child, a full-term baby strangled in delivery by the cord. After our child was born, we took the fresh placenta and blotted it on a canvas and saw a broad-headed oak tree. We buried the placenta under the little Japanese maple beside the mailbox.
I rock the baby and watch the sky. The lightning flashes last only a second, and then darkness returns with renewed depth. The garden reappears, ever so briefly, and bleeds back into the night.