Image by Jenn Rhubright
I know the sun was shining that day or I wouldn’t have been hanging sheets on the line to dry.
I know it was hot, or I wouldn’t have put him in his playpen bare as birth to take the sun and ward off diaper rash the way my mother said I should. And I know a light breeze blew because my hair, fresh washed and lemon rinsed trailed across my face so that even now the smell of lemon calls up memories I’d rather lock away.
It’s all there, much as it is today though years have passed. The house in need of paint, still or again, the back steps sagging toward the middle. But remembering, it’s like I’m looking through smoked glass, the kind people use to watch an eclipse. And nothing moves. The lithographed tree in the center of the yard pins the sky in place so that the earth can push the horizon to its furthest limit. The laundry on the line hangs straight and smooth, as if tethered to the ground by invisible wires. No color in anything, from the baby’s toy lying in the stiff grass to the sullen sky.
And I’m there. One hand inside my apron pocket clasping a clothespin, the other tethering a pillowcase to the line as I turn to check on the baby. His hands are folded over the rail to pull up. He’s laughing. But I can’t hear his laugh. Nor see the child who’s running towards us from across the street.
I’m back to pinning clothes on the line when I hear the blow, the sound of a hard object striking something solid but softer. I’m back to pinning clothes on the line when I hear the blow and the sharp cry, then silence. A silence that flows outward from that moment to this, a silence that has lasted for all these years as I see myself slowly turning from my task that day. The picture, like the silence, never changes. The child beside the playpen, one step back from it, the baseball bat resting on his shoulder, his gaze directed downward, into the place where my baby lay. And then color appears for the first time, the only time in that picture. A crimson pool spreading out beneath my baby’s head. Those are the last sharp pictures for a while.
After that it’s all sound and motion and touch. A scream I know is my scream, a rush of movement that I know is the child with the bat leaving, the flow of air past my own face that I know is from me running and running, the warmth that is my baby held against my breast, his face pressed into the curve of my neck like so many times before but this time the dampness at my breast is not my milk.
They flew me and my baby to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. Just me and him, my husband unable to get away. He held his business to his breast while I clasped our baby to mine. I held him as closely as I could, him strapped to a board, umbilicled by needles and tubes. When he died, minutes after we got to the hospital, I made them take him off that board and give him back to me. I wouldn’t let them put him in a box. I carried him home on another airplane, in my arms. I’m not sure why they let me, but they did.
When I got to the airport back home, I found a taxi and gave the driver my address. Things were clear to me then. Clearer than before or since. The sky was bleached again by an invisible sun. It was dinnertime, when husbands came home from work to take the noon meal with their families, when children were called in from play to wash their hands, say grace, and fill their empty plates. I didn’t knock.
I walked into their house, crossed through their living room and into the dining room without hesitation. They looked up at me, surprised I could tell. The child pushed his chair away from the table as if he knew he needed to be ready. I walked straight to him and laid my dead baby in his waiting arms. I drew the blanket back so that he could see my son’s gray, pinched face. The mother gasped, the father lurched to his feet, the crashing of his chair an explosion in that still room.
The mother said, “He didn’t know what he was doing.”
And I said, “He knows now.”
When I took my baby back, I went across the street to my own house where I waited in the rocker by the window until my husband came and called the funeral home. I let him go, knowing even then that I would be pressed backward into this memory more times than I would find the strength to resist.
The child’s family moved away soon after, an act of mercy. We stayed on, my husband’s view being that strength comes from confronting fears and loss. My husband’s view being that to turn away from anything unpleasant is to admit a lack of courage. I am not courageous. I struggle to achieve an inner blindness, an ability to turn my inner gaze away while outwardly I seem to look straight on. I fail, time and again.
Behind me now my husband sits at the table, stirs his tea with lemon freshly squeezed.
“What do you see out there?” he asks.
I turn to look at him. His eyes and hands are busy with his plate and fork, his buttered roll. His glance flickers in my direction but doesn’t quite reach. I watch him rearrange the napkin in his lap, open the newspaper that he likes to fold a certain way so that it fits the space beside his plate. There is just enough room.
“The neighbors’ dogs have gotten at the garbage cans again,” I say.
I think I hear him sigh as he adjusts the folds on his newspaper, chews each bite carefully. I push the screen door open and hear it slap shut behind me. I wonder if he notices, if it occurs to him that I might not be coming back.
Sylvia Hoffmire earned her undergraduate degree in theatre and creative writing. She founded Youtheatre, a children’s theatre organization and has published with Baker Plays, staging and producing many performances. She received numerous grants to support writing projects, most notably an NBC Writing Residency grant, one of only sixteen awarded nationwide. She has also received grant support from the North Carolina Humanities and Arts Councils for a variety of projects, including a collection of short stories based on oral histories she collected in the Piedmont region titled Thoughts of Another Day. She is a graduate of the Queens University of CharIotte MFA program and serves on the faculty at Pfeiffer University teaching Creative Writing and directing their Cultural Program.
Read our interview with Sylvia here.