The One About the (Dead) Baby
Reading Time: 5 minutes
"The One About the (Dead) Baby" originally appeared in Issue 20 of Tahoma Literary Review. This title got my attention, as someone who has written one about a dead baby as well. I loved how the title was a refrain throughout as the narrator navigates being a woman, and a woman writer.
The writer knew the baby had to die. That was the only way the story worked.
The writer had written pages and pages about the way the woman made her husband’s eggs: not too hard, not too soft; just the way his overbearing mother made them. The writer knew that a shift in the characters’ lives needed to happen. The woman was devoted to her husband and threatened by her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law was visiting to check on the wife. The baby was the ostensible reason for the mother-in-law’s visit – the one thing all members of this fictitious family could agree to love. And so the baby had to die. At least, that’s what the writer thought.
The writer had never killed a baby before. Not in fiction. Sure, she had had an abortion. Everyone had had an abortion! Hers had happened when she was in her twenties. Long ago. She had never had any doubt about that decision, nor any remorse. There are too many children in this world, she often thought to herself, when she was walking about town, getting bumped into by errant toddlers. What’s the point of reproducing? She asked. These children will live long enough to see the end of civilization. That was something. They’d live through wars over water and farmland. They’d never get jobs that paid the rent.
And so the baby in her story had to die. With a kind of glee the writer wrote the scene of the mother coming to the baby’s crib. To look in and see – horror! – that the little infant lay motionless, not breathing. A spoiled egg. It was a glorious ending. The writer saved the story on her computer and sent it off to a particularly conservative literary magazine. What fun!
The writer lived alone with her cat in a small one-story house. The house was brown and had two bedrooms. The kitchen was small but serviceable. The floors were a faux wood laminate. Nothing could scratch these floors. It was in the second bedroom that the writer got down to business every day. She had a desk that looked out the south-facing window. Her neighbor was a single man in his mid-thirties. He kept to himself. When the writer walked her cat outside she could hear her neighbor practicing his drum set. He was not a good drummer.
The day after the writer submitted her story, the one about the dead baby, she started hearing sounds in the house. There came a high-pitched, soft cry. Like the swift intake of a tiny breath. Or was it a creak of the floorboard? No. It couldn’t be; the floors were laminate. Nothing could make them creak. But there it was again! The cat looked up from his nap. He had heard it too!
An editor in New York sent her a note congratulating her on her latest essay. The essay had been about her late husband and the way the writer had learned to shoulder her grief through quilting. Everyone loved this essay. The writer had done a particularly good job, the editor said, of weaving the domestic elements into a quilted literary form. He was laying it on thick, this guy. What he didn’t know was that the writer was no quilter. She knew people who knew people who quilted. Kind of like you know people who know people who have been mugged in Brooklyn. It happens. Sometimes. It used to happen more often.
The important thing was that the editor liked the essay.
What was that? The writer thought she heard the muffled coo-ing of an infant. Or was it the HVAC struggling to come on? She looked at the cat, oblivious on the sofa. No. That sound was nothing. The writer leashed the cat and took him out for a walk.
On the second day after the writer submitted her story, the one about the dead baby, she felt a little queasy. Was it the tofu she had made the night before? It had been a week beyond its Best By date. Was she getting her period? If so, it would be coming early. She wasn’t stressed enough to be getting her period early. It was probably nothing. She went to the bathroom vanity and retrieved the antacids. They were tropical fruit flavor, a chalky kind of candy. She ate two, then ate two more.
When she sat on the toilet she had a good think: For how many years had the writer thought about the problems of being a “woman writer”? The quotes are for the box these “woman writers” got put in. “Kick up your heels! Have some fun with it!” her (mostly) male editors would tell her. They wanted self-deprecation. They needed that tone in order to believe her stories. They needed to think that she didn’t take herself, that she didn’t take life, seriously. They all wanted her to write like Nora Ephron. Easy, breezy and reassuringly contained.
When had the writer, who had been so sure about her abortion, started to doubt herself?
Writing like Nora Ephron had its advantages. It was safe, knowable. Men loved it. It sold like hotcakes. It was everywhere! It was like HPV – you never knew where you would pick it up and it just might give you cancer. No, it would be better to stop reading as much as possible. So that she wouldn’t be influenced by this Nora Ephron culture. She wanted ideas to come to her unbidden. She wanted to have no more thoughts at all. No more reading the news. No more reading the mail. No more reading these emails from silly editors.
She got the cat ready for his walk. Out they went into the dusk. They could hear the frantic pow-pow-pow of the neighbor’s drumming. He was not a good drummer. The cat led them to the culvert, away from the din. There were butterflies there, perched on the edges of flowery weeds, fanning themselves with their blue-green wings. The cat loved to stalk butterflies. Many times he pounced and missed. About one out of every four butterflies got caught. The cat would take the creature in his mouth and walk it back to the driveway. There he would play with it until it died. Then he’d eat it. The writer wondered what butterfly tasted like. It probably wasn’t good for the cat’s digestion. She would have to call the vet and ask.
Four days went by in which nothing much happened at all. She heard the floor creak and the HVAC struggle. She ate antacids for breakfast. A shadow crawled across the floor. The neighbor walked to his mailbox. He saw her on the couch. He waved.
Not reading, the writer was free to inhabit her own world. She would wake up and make coffee and not think about the news and the state of the world. She would lounge on the sofa and just be. She could spend hours doing this. It was nice, this emptiness. She liked not being told. Things could come. Things like the shadow. After all, what was that shadow on the floor but an idea waiting to be developed? It looked at her like it knew it belonged to her, like it was a part of her.
The writer sat up. How would she know if her story was accepted? How would she reply to accept the offer? Could she live in this uncertainty indefinitely? Would she be content with this unknowing-ness as a perpetual present? These questions were thoughts, and thoughts were now forbidden. They did no good. There was no way to know. There was no way not to know. And so, she dove in.
Her hair grew long.
She started baking.
Sometime after she submitted the story, the one about the dead baby, the writer will get a phone call. The sound will make her jump. The cat will look at the writer.
No one ever calls.
On the phone will be an editor. He will want to know if the writer will go out to dinner with him when he’s in town next week. He will say he enjoys her company so very much, that when he sees her he expects a kiss lasting longer than three seconds in duration. He will think he is being charming.
The writer will tell him she is working on a collection of stories about dead babies and that she would love to tell him about this exciting project. The editor will think the writer is joking.
The writer will tell the editor that she would never, ever joke about dead babies. She is no longer afraid of her imagination. She will put down the phone. It’s time to walk the cat.
Natalie Axton had this to say about her story:
My MFA thesis was due in a month and I was 30 pages short of the page count, so I started working in a private study room at the Pike County Library every day in an effort to try and FOCUS. One afternoon I sat down there and wrote The One About the (Dead) Baby. It came out in 45 minutes and was a total surprise to me. The repetition of the phrase ‘dead baby’ was the key to the flow. Trying to find your voice as a writer is hard work. You have to give yourself permission to say the things people don’t want you to say.
Natalie Axton is the co-founder of the Appalachia Book Company and the founder of Critical Read. She walks her cat in eastern Kentucky and far west Texas, but not at the same time. You can find her on twitter at www.twitter.com/natalieaxton .