An excerpt from “Memories of Birth”
Old Grosspapa used to say that my sisters and I were Papa’s living punishment for all his sins--starting with marrying Grosspapa’s only daughter.
“Granddotters, Granddotters, Gottamit!” he’d shout at us, waving his knobs of fists. “Get away from me, allayou!”
Our mother had lost five boychildren in birth--two sets of twins and one singlet. All three of the girls survived, however, survived easily I’m told, reaching quick for the teat and sucking our way into brimming life. The Katzenjammers, as we called them, were the only male children to finally endure; they came out of the womb at the same time--I still remember watching, age five-- their arms and legs wrapped around each other, glaring as if a private conversation had been interrupted.
They screamed their way through babyhood. They’d signal each other by some telepathic communication, screwing up their tiny bodies, hard and red as turnips, the skin of their faces mottled purple, their little mouths opened wide. Their screams were what the sinner might expect from the deepest chambers of hell, cries of rage and torment.
They rejected the midwife, their aunts and cousins, their sisters; they writhed furiously in their mother’s arms and spat out her teats. Finally, Grosspapa kidnapped them one night while they were sleeping--which was odd because I’d noticed the twins had always slept in relays--while the one slept, the other held sentry, watching the world through crib bars, eyes wide open, read to sound the alarm at any false step.
According to Grosspapa, he scooped them up and they opened their mouths, taking breath, when Grosspapa squeezed off a few eye droppers full of schnappes into their
“The true German blood will shine through. Damn the imposters, these boys are mine, true Krinklesteins!” Grosspapa said. He claimed that night the schnappes cut right through their meaty screams and lulled them to sleep. Every night after that, till they were too big to fit, the three of them slept propped together, smelling of schnappes, in Grosspapa’s oak rocker.
In the day time, Grosspapa dragged the cane rocker onto the porch, and there was a sight-- one big, bald head flanked by two little ones. The three sets of glaring eyes, sharp as the bird’s on the dollar bill. A three-headed guard. Mama would stroke the milk from her breasts into bottles and Grosspapa took credit for the formula, tipping the rubber nipples to their mouths.
No one knew the sex of the last baby Mama tried to bear because it came months too early and did not stay. There was so much blood and pain, she finally let us take her to the hospital. The nurses swept the stillbirth into an iron pan and told Mama the sooner she forgot about it the better off she’d be. But Papa was red-eyed and angry and said that since Grosspapa had the twins, and Mama had her girls, this latest baby had been meant for him.
Grosspapa and the Katzenjammers got out on the cane rocker that night and Grosspapa told them wave bye bye to the dead baby. Papa stayed late at the Singer plant, so Mama had to come home on the same night and see to baby Mary, still in diapers, not two years old.
I think Lorna and I, ages 7 and 8 are the only ones to note this small loss. In our room, we burn some beeswax candles over Mary’s crib, over the space where the new baby would have slept. We sing Ave Maria softly and Mary wakes but she doesn’t cry. Instead, she stares sleepy- eyed at the candle flame as if she sees the dead baby’s soul in the orange glowing and is, like us, wishing it farewell. When we finally blow out our candles, the stars pop right through our windows, each glowing with the same light as if the angels have flown from cloud to cloud lighting all of God’s tapers.
That night I dream of a little blonde girl in a field of white and yellow wildflowers. Somewhere in the midst of this dream, as wildbuds are spilling from her apron, a pressure on my hand wakes me and it is Lorna close beside me. “Emmy listen!” she hisses. And softly, softly, coming from the hall outside our room, I hear the sound of a little girl laughing and the sound of tiny footsteps running up and down. I am awake for the rest of the night, even after the sound fades, not daring to return to that field of sleeping daisies.
Neither I nor Lorna breathe a word of our night-long vigil to Mama the following day. Mama looks exhausted, her eyes sunken in her face. After fixing us porridge and scrubbing the dishes, Mama takes to her bed. Minutes later, Grosspapa and the Katzenjammers are out on the porch, all three fast asleep. Lorna and I search the hall, hoping for some trace of the nightchild, perhaps footprints, pets, an old ball. There is nothing but the pebbly green currents our hall runner has gotten in its grain from years of our family’s comings and goings.
Lorna and I go to the horsehair couch in the den. It is Saturday morning and we are uncertain about what to do with all the silence in the house. Papa is at the factory, Mary is asleep in her crib. I pick up my knitting and Lorna her needlework, and I don’t remember getting through even one row. My sister and I are fast asleep on the horsehair couch. Our family stays like that, a house of sleepers, drifting on the tide of our breath, a boat down a stream. The whole of Elizabeth streaming up and down the sidewalks and not a one guesses at the dreaming journeys inside.
We stay like that till the Saturday dinner whistle blows at the factory and Papa comes in, holding his steel lunch box, throwing his safety goggles to the floor. “Gottam it! What da hell is going on here. I can hear youse all snoring all the way down Robson Ave!” He stamps his foot until Mama has his supper on the table.
That night, of course, when we are supposed to be fast asleep, Lorna and I lay with eyes bolt open. We can hear Mama’s knitting needles clicking through the evening and this comforts me. Even Grosspapa’s old drinking songs, as they seep through the attic floorboards, are soft and gentling as an old quilt. Mary stares at us through her crib bars, making noises like question marks. She hasn’t started talking yet, whereas the Katzenjammers--so Grosspapa claimed--were able to speak German, already able to say “Papi” (meaning him) and “schnappes.” He said Mary must be slow, a dumkopf. So every night, Lorna and I stand over her crib, coaching, coaxing her with what we thought were pretty words, “nasturtiams, teakettle, nightengale, Aloysius, pyjamas.” Sometimes reading--slowly and painfully-- from the dictionary so she’d have a good vocabulary, “apoplexy, inchoate, trans-mor-gri-fy.”
She repays us with her sparkling eyes and the most cunning little sounds, “enh, enh, ooh,” so all of us feel very happy and that we’d done a good night’s work.
This night, though, Lorna and I forget the game. We are too taken up with wondering if our night-child will return, and, if so, are we meant to go out and play with her?
We lie awake and whisper, it seems like for hours, into an endless night. Then I am being awakened by a sound from the center of my dream, the image of a wide-petalled flower, opening. I open my eyes and this time Lorna is sitting up.
It sounds even louder this time, the footsteps seem to shake the floor. Lorna and I hold still as field animals, listening. Then, after several minutes, we hear a startling boom, boom-- Grosspapa’s cane on the attic floor, his command for quiet. “Vat is dat noise! Stop dat racket down dere!”
The noise fades slowly, as if she were running far, far away, through the wall of the house and down the backlots of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Next breakfast, Grosspapa is red-eyed as the devil, scowling and whiskery. The Katzenjammers cry straight through the meal, loudly, lavishly, wrenching their heads away from milk, pablum, even shiny jello on a spoon. Grosspapa tries to scoot them up and down in his arms, but their faces crumple. Finally he leaves them on the kitchen table and goes off to the porch alone to smoke cigars and snooze.
Before anyone knows it, we are all fast asleep again. Papa never even got out of bed; Mama dozes in the parlor, a dust rag in her hand; Grosspapa sends his snores down the porch steps and all the way to Main and Broad. Lorna, Mary, and I are asleep with our dolls on the bedroom floor. We’re turned inside out, catnapping into the dark lining of day, its black satiny insides, and the sun, all white velvet. For the third night in a row, Lorna and I lay awake, holding hands fast, waiting until all the fireflies were doused in the night outside our window, till the crickets made merry in the grass, and the stars seem to prick all our skin, wrinkling the night sky with the strangeness of very late night to children.
I don’t fall asleep that night, but at some point the memory or vision of a flower comes to me. I see it blooming up from our bedsheet, the petals unfurling, trumpeting open on the ceiling, hundreds of secret flowers. And then the sound begins in the hall, something like a trill, a vibration, we are squeezing each other’s hands and grinning, too. We already like her through our fear, her laugh is crystal, her feet beat the carpet like moth wings. We want to run out and play with her, yet we hold still and silent, like people in the woods watching a deer.
The sounds of her dance against the bedroom wall, shimmy up my legs and down the backs of my hands. Finally, after hours or minutes--I find that I am creeping, slowly, slowly, out of bed, across the floor. I look back for a second and see that Mary has pulled herself upright on the bars of her crib and that her eyes and hair are full and moony so she looks more like a wild creature, an owl standing in the crib, than a baby. Then I am standing at the door. I press my hands and ear against it and I hear several sounds, both laughter and a kind of singing--a little girl singing so quietly that you can barely hear the shape of her words, and then, even quieter, a whispering, something repeated, coming closer and closer to a point outside the door, till I can just make out, Empathy, come out and play with me.
Lorna and I knew on the first night we heard her that this was Mama’s dead baby--that somehow dying had made her older--old enough to run and laugh and keep herself company. Knowing this, I’m not so afraid of hearing her speaking, saying my name. Still, the door feels cool beneath my fingers and ear and the whispering goes on, closer and closer, until it seems to come from the wood itself, and my skin runs chills down to the tops of my feet. Empathy, come out and play....
And then I am reaching for the door knob, saying out loud, “I will,” and the brass knob is so cold, ice-slick in my hand like to freeze my palm to it. The turning is slow, heavy, as if it was trying not to open, and the whole door begins vibrating wildly. I hear Lorna gasp. The wood is trembling like a thousand baby fingers are knocking on it, like all the dead babies in the world are knocking. I am entranced, still turning the impossible knob. Lorna shouts, “Emmy, don’t!”
The door cracks open loud as a gun shot and across the back hall I see Papa has flung open his door at the same time. His face is bathed in a weird, pale light like seawater, his face soft and clear as a jelly fish, tears sparkling like silver scales, he lifts two bright hands as if he were going to swim through the water, and in a voice I’d never have guessed was inside his chest, pleads like a boy, “Sweet baby, come home! Come back to Papa! Please baby, please come back to me!”
The last vowel shakes long and loose down the hall, and then Mama is there in her flannel gown, shaking his shoulders, saying, “No, Papa, let her go.” She turned and shouted down the hall, “Go away now. Go away, there’s nothing here for you now!” And sea light rinses over both their faces, spellbinding greens and blues and tentacles of sea weed, then suddenly darkness and the hall is still as the night sky.
When I returned to bed, Lorna and Mary were both fast asleep, like girls in magic shows--a magician lowered their eyes with the sweep of a palm and sleep fell like a curtain. But I laid awake for a long time, wondering where that place was that my playmate had gone to. I remembered the search lights I’d seen that year from our front porch, two switching columns of light in the sky. I called Mama and Papa out on the porch to see it and Papa said, “Ach, that’s the new picture house in Linden.” But Mama watched with me awhile, the light swishing like a pair of legs walking upside down through the night. The tops of the beams flattened against some kind of night ceiling and circled it. I was thinking that this was the way that we looked for lost souls, shining this giant flashlight into heaven, looking for their sad faces in the evening.
On the night the ghost-baby left, I knelt on my bed, hooked my elbows to the window sills, and watched fireflies to see what mysteries they might be hunting out in their world.