The Baby In The Carriage By Lewis Turco
We saw the
young mother coming toward us pushing her carriage up on campus one day, on
the path that followed the road around the swampy puddle the college had
dredged deeper and named Glimmerglass after James Fenimore Cooper’s fictive
lake. We liked to walk there sometimes as a change to strolling down from
our house on West Eighth Street to Breitbeck Park at the bottom of the hill,
right on the shore of Lake Ontario. Both places — the campus and the park —
were excellent spots for a constitutional on a fine summer day.
As we and the young mother approached each other we all three began to smile, my wife and I in anticipation of seeing a baby, the young woman apparently happy to show us her offspring. We drew together, and as we began to pass each other, my wife and I glanced into the carriage and felt our smiles freeze on our faces, freeze solid into what must have appeared to the woman as portraits of horror, for what she was pushing along the path on a lovely summer day was not a baby but a monster.
She saw what was in our eyes as we looked at her child, and her eyes reflected ours — they fell away into great pain, though my wife and I were trying as hard as we could to reveal nothing of what we were thinking, if indeed we were thinking anything at all. None of us said anything as we passed; none of us faltered, or paused, or slowed down. The day was ruined. It was no longer sunlit, for a pall had fallen over it, though nothing physically had changed.
When we got home we discussed it. I asked my wife what she remembered of what she had seen. She couldn’t describe it, but she recalled a face that was not a face, that had no nose, that had eyes at unequal levels; I recalled skin that was not skin but bumps, not exactly scales, eyes that could not blink because there were no lids — the eyes of something that lived in dark water.
Though my wife’s description and mine did not agree, her reaction to what we had seen had been exactly the same as mine, except that above the face that was not a face she recalled a little pink bonnet.
“How can she keep something like that at home?” I asked my wife. “It isn’t human.”
“She must love it.”
I shook my head. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”
The only similar situation I could recall having read about was out of Colonial American history. The day before Anne Hutchinson was to leave Massachusetts Bay to begin her exile, on the 27th of March, 1635, a horrible rumor reached out of Boston and began to spread like an inferno — one of the heretic’s disciples, Mary Dyer, had labored and been delivered of a stillborn monster. The rumors started with Jane Hawkins, another Hutchinson follower — the attending midwife. A church Elder had gotten wind of it and questioned Mrs. Hutchinson as she was preparing to leave the colony. Mrs. Hutchinson admitted the monstrous birth but said she had kept still on the advice of the Rev. Mr. John Cotton, who felt no good could come of the event being made public.
The Elder had informed Gov. Winthrop who had summoned the midwife and examined her. At first all she would admit was that the child had been born deformed, but when she was told that Anne Hutchinson had already told all, the midwife had said that the baby had been a female, two months premature, stillborn. “It came hiplings till I turned it,” she said. “It was of ordinary bigness, had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp, two of them being above one inch long, the other two shorter, the eyes standing out, and the mouth also.
“The nose hooked upward; all over, the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback; the navel and all the belly, with the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been. Behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out. It had arms and legs as other children, but instead of toes it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.”
Winthrop was astonished. When he asked Mr. Cotton why he had told Mrs. Hutchinson to conceal the birth the minister replied that it was because he saw a Providence of God in the fact that, with the women coming and going out of the birthing room, at the time of the delivery only Mrs. Hawkins had been present. He also felt that, if it had been his own case, he would have wanted it kept quiet. Finally, he knew of other monstrous births that had been concealed, and he thought that God might intend such things to be meant for the instruction and chastisement of the parents only.
Winthrop thought otherwise, but he allowed Mrs. Hutchinson to depart the jurisdiction for Rhode Island on March 28th. On the 2nd of April the corpse of the baby was disinterred. Because the winter had been so cold and the spring so late, the body was in a relatively good condition of preservation — enough for the witnesses to confirm the midwife’s description of it as factual, not fantastic. The governor pursued his investigation and discovered the reason why the many women present before the birth had been absent at the time of the delivery. He wrote in his journal, “When it died in the mother’s body, (which was about two hours before the birth), the bed whereon the mother lay did shake, and withal there was such a noisome savor, as most of the women were taken with extreme vomiting and purging, so as they were forced to depart; and others of them their children were taken with convulsions, (which they never had before nor after), and so were sent for home, so as by these occasions it came to be concealed.” The midwife was indicted for witchcraft for her part in the horrible affair, but rather than suffering death, she was banished from the Bay Colony, to Winthrop’s mind a punishment that was more than just, “for,” he wrote in his journal, “it was known that she used to give young women oil of mandrakes” — the mandrake being a cleft root that, because it looked like a man, had entered the pharmacopoeia as much for its magical as for its medicinal properties — “and other stuff to cause conception; and she grew into great suspicion to be a witch, for it was credibly reported that, when she gave any medicines, (for she practiced physic), she would ask the party if she did believe, she could help her, and so forth.”
The difference between the Hutchinson monster baby and ours was that ours had been living, not stillborn.
My wife and I stopped walking on campus for the rest of the summer, but we never saw the young woman again anywhere, even when we went back the next year to resume our constitutionals around Glimmerglass Lagoon. But neither of us could forget our encounter with the baby monster and its mother. I have never been able to write about it before, partly because I don’t know what to say about it, and partly because it was too incredibly like the alien monsters I used to read about in the science fiction magazines when I was a boy. Who would believe it? It’s a cliché.
Yet it happened.
Until now I have been unable to approach the subject directly, but in her story “The Albanian Virgin” Alice Munro came close to expressing my feelings when she wrote, “Sometimes our connection is frayed, it is in danger, it seems almost lost. Views and streets deny knowledge of us, the air grows thin.” The day we saw the monster was such a day. The gulls in the park wove their patterns in the wind above the lake, but nothing came of them. The young lovers stood holding hands or speaking in low voices beneath the trees, but who could tell them what it was they meant, their voices falling into the shadows beneath the leaves? Falling and disappearing.
Perhaps the sun fell as well into the dark column of a cloud. Nor could one be certain of the city that lay about the park, along the lake. Were children there as well, upon the streets, fathers in shirtsleeves working in the warmth of summer, or early fall, or late spring? One felt a sense of danger, a worn place here or there in the afternoon.
A child fell and hurt its knee. No one offered to help it. Perhaps one was merely uneasy, perhaps one was afraid...perhaps one didn't care. Perhaps nothing, no one, mattered any more. As the summers passed one after the other and my wife and I became old, saw no other little monsters large or small in our lives by the lake, I kept my eyes open, but mainly my ears.
Did it grow up, or did it die because it was not viable in this familiar world? Now and again I will hear something that makes me wonder: an echo in the news, a shadow passing over Africa, something a friend saw or heard during a visit to Bulgaria or Tibet. A flood. An earthquake. A tsunami that washes everything away so that everything can begin again, try to get back to normal, whatever that is.
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