David Ryan ~ Barcarole

You wor­ry about the eye, the micro­phone in it that gath­ers and trans­mits daugh­ter sounds. Her infant coos, the soft rus­tle, cry, unre­cov­er­able gasp—the dread deep still­ness. Every day with her in your new life is a scratch of light in some future impen­e­tra­ble dark­ness. You and this lit­tle plas­tic receiv­er down­stairs, the mon­i­tor the size and shape of a bar of soap, nav­i­gat­ing invis­i­ble extremes, soak­ing up the impuls­es of her room. As if this will pre­vent any­thing bad from hap­pen­ing.

You wipe the baby mon­i­tor off with a wet cloth, you turn the vol­ume of her sounds up or down a lit­tle. You want to throw it away, but you don’t dare.

Okay, so you and Charlotte start­ed late. You prob­a­bly won’t have anoth­er child, won’t try. The lit­tle girl, even before they told you she was a girl, she’d screened well in all the tests, the pro­teins in the blood, the DNA strands, all the months lead­ing up. Whole, promis­ing. The test­ing told you just enough to see that it told you too lit­tle. It promised only the next step of unknowns. Doctors kept remind­ing you of risks, their tone mild­ly punitive—you’d start­ed so late. Risks that leave you igno­rant, risks mys­te­ri­ous and risks mis­un­der­stood, strands of mat­ter that have no pre­mo­ni­tion, blind­sided, fuzzy mat­ter which a micro­scope can’t pos­si­bly clar­i­fy. The geneticist’s sta­tis­tics, her mousy lit­tle blood tubes and pro­tein swabs, the vast open dark­ness beyond her dots and dash­es, per­centiles, and ratios. Life extend­ed beyond spread­sheets and pie graphs, beyond age based prob­a­bil­i­ty curves. Your life ends. Everyone knows everyone’s life ends. But how life begins, and how life continues—you are in your for­ties. The freight of a few decades. And it has a curve, via­bil­i­ty. Risks. This is what the geneti­cist said. Not in so many words. What did she know about you?

You have the eye, the lit­tle micro­phone.

 

It’s one of the new­er ones: the video screen switch­es from col­or in the day­light to an under­wa­ter infra-green when the room is dark. Charlotte is due, a week they say. She’s a lit­tle late. The room remains emp­ty. Upstairs, the eye draws the bedroom’s for­eign agents into its lit­tle opti­cal chip, the clicks and scrapes and ambi­ent smudges. What’s there before the baby. The eye hears the world beyond the win­dow, push­ing through the win­dow glass: cars pass, trees bristle—they some­times seem to whis­per words you can make out, their non­sense all the more life­like. A branch ticks with a fre­quen­cy deter­mined by gusts against the glass, birds chirp when the sun ris­es and some­times scream lat­er in the after­noon, the same pass­ing siren, the same pass­ing shout, the same pass­ing shud­der of a truck, the unname­able passing—what the tiny mon­i­tor speak­er dupli­cates, its dop­pel­gänger trans­mit­ted down­stairs through the win­dow beside you. The nat­ur­al and arti­fi­cial world, as one, fused with your infant daughter’s emp­ty room. At night, or very ear­ly in the morning—sitting there awake down­stairs in the dark—you have to resist believ­ing the screen is a pro­jec­tion of the after­life.

And then she’s born. Charlotte and the infant pass through the birth, 8 hours of uncer­tain­ty, though it moves steadi­ly and with­out sur­pris­es, and they’re okay, it’s all okay. Two days’ rest in the hos­pi­tal and you pack her up and bring her home. To her room. You and Charlotte have many books which promise to help guide you, help you under­stand. You’ve learned, for exam­ple, that she can­not yet pro­duce tears. Tears come lat­er. Your daugh­ter is unusu­al­ly qui­et the first few weeks, and despite the books and assur­ances from the pedi­a­tri­cian, you wor­ry. The only truth is the voice inside your soul, a uni­ver­sal father-wor­ry, an instinc­tu­al ache. The silence keeps you up at night, wait­ing for her to cry, to need a chang­ing, a feed­ing. And then soon when the sounds do come, they sat­is­fy this min­i­mum father­ly thresh­old of con­cern, so good, fine. And then she’s mak­ing a lot of sounds, the squeak­ing and gur­gling and the occa­sions when she laughs. Your daugh­ter fills your sleep­ing and wak­ing lives, she pop­u­lates the dark mat­ter of your uncon­scious world as much as lit ocu­lars and sat­u­rat­ed col­ors of your con­scious life. Weeks pass. She devel­ops tears. Months pass, and one day Charlotte says, What if we tried?

Tried? you say.

To have anoth­er baby, she says.

 

The cof­fee is set on a timer, fin­ish­ing its final clucks and gasps just as you come down­stairs each morn­ing. You can hear it as you pass your daughter’s room, step into the door­way and peek in at her sleep­ing nat­ur­al shape, then leave the door­way and descend the stairs. You write, you are a writer, it’s a peace­ful time, this time of the morn­ing. Even before the kid, this was the peace­ful time. Even in the sum­mer, when the morn­ing light comes much ear­li­er, you wake in the yet dark. The birds are still sleep­ing. You glance over, your daugh­ter asleep and green in the night vision of the cam­era, her tiny body a shad­ow cast in a wash of gray-turquoise as if under­wa­ter, as seen through some bathy­scaphe with a lim­it­ed hold for oxy­gen. She’ll stir and a sound will come from the speak­er, a height­ened sort of murk and sta­t­ic and you’ll check the screen: the green shape twists and set­tles. And when the infant begins to cry, you hear Charlotte rise from bed upstairs—you hear her. You hear her feet on the floor above padding into the infant’s bed­room. And on the green screen, two shad­ow arms reach down and lift the glow­ing shape of your daugh­ter away from the screen, and all that is left is that impos­si­bly emp­ty clut­ter of space. Only the sound of your wife now, coo­ing, com­fort­ing in the sta­t­ic of the eye. You sud­den­ly under­stand every ani­mal.

 

An ear­ly morn­ing. Downstairs, at the kitchen table in the dark, same as any oth­er morn­ing. The light out­side begins to flush out the sky. You feel the qui­et, the lack. The sug­ges­tion that some­thing is wrong. But you have this feel­ing. It’s just the silence. In the screen, a glow­ing angel­ic green framed in the dark light. You return to your work. The usu­al birds wake and sing, their song trans­mit­ted in the monitor’s tin­ny uni­son with the win­dow beside you.

You’ll recall this lat­er, the qui­et just before the scream, jet burst of infant. The lit­tle body framed in green begins not to stir so much as fall into a throt­tle of cries and gasps. Charlotte’s feet above on the ceil­ing pad into the room. You wait for the usu­al qui­et­ing, glance at the baby mon­i­tor. Your wife’s arms extend into the frame and the baby is lift­ed, and now there is only that preg­nant space. At that moment the screen switch­es from infra-green to a faint col­or. You hear your wife pac­ing in the room. The scream­ing doesn’t stop. You turn down the vol­ume of the baby mon­i­tor. You get up and pour anoth­er cof­fee. The scream­ing grows con­vul­sive. You con­tin­ue to reas­sure your­self. You’re a father; this is uncer­tain­ty. Then you hear her, your wife, say in a dead and dis­tract­ed moan: Oh God; and it’s the voice a stranger, as if a stranger has entered the room.

 

Upstairs, the dry light in the room glares at you. It’s as if you’ve nev­er seen this room before. What room is this? A room where blood is on your wife’s hands, all over the t-shirt she’d been sleep­ing in, on the floor. Your wife holds your daugh­ter, blood flow­ing from her nose, wash­ing her face. Call them, she says, and you don’t know why you say who, call who? and she says, are you fuck­ing kid­ding? She hands you your daugh­ter and you hold her while she dials the pediatrician’s office. An answer­ing ser­vice answers. It is too ear­ly. The per­son on the phone for­wards the mes­sage to a physi­cian, who calls back quick­ly, per­haps, though every sec­ond has expand­ed some­thing inside you. Your wife is describ­ing the moment. She’s talk­ing, lis­ten­ing, repeat­ing what the phone is telling her. You set the infant in the bassinet and lean over her, watch­ing the rise and fall of the scream­ing, and then you lift her and she goes qui­et in your hands. Your wife speak­ing, medi­at­ing space: she repeats what you can bare­ly hear from the lit­tle voice-coil in the phone: nose­bleed, noth­ing to be con­cerned, gen­er­al­ly, dry air, the sea­son. Fever cap­il­lar­ies in her nose. More sen­si­tive. And you’re hold­ing your daugh­ter.

What? you say. What? —now she’s just lis­ten­ing.

Your daugh­ter is silent and now the bleed­ing has stopped. Then, quite sud­den­ly, she begins con­vuls­ing. Charlotte sees this. She throws the phone on the floor, a piece of the plas­tic spat out from the receiv­er like a lip from the voice scratch­ing now against the floor. You notice the eye. It’s still star­ing at the bed. Your daugh­ter, in your hands. You want to smash the plas­tic eye. But your daugh­ter, she’s in your hands.

 

At the hos­pi­tal her fever drops, ris­es a bit, then drops and stead­ies. The doc­tor says it’s just a fever. The doc­tor explains a nose­bleed, as the physi­cian on call had on the phone. The seizures too, these hap­pen, she says. It is just the fever, a cer­tain pre­dis­po­si­tion, but it hap­pens all the time. Really, it does. We’ll wait until she sta­bi­lizes, then send you home. They’ll keep an eye on her. The doc­tor admits, noth­ing is one-hun­dred per­cent. But this is com­mon, there’s so lit­tle wor­ry about.

The doc­tor leaves you there star­ing through a win­dow at your daugh­ter. There she is, inside a tiny plas­tic bassinet—a trans­par­ent shell cov­er­ing it like a pill, a line run­ning down from a half deflat­ed bag of saline, pass­ing through the pill, taped to her rud­dy arm. Everything in minia­ture. She’s wrapped in a warm­ing blan­ket that recalls the same blan­ket they’d wrapped her in after she was born. You stand with your wife and watch. You take her into your mind now like the eye would. You feel no impulse to ever move again.

That evening Charlotte sug­gests you go home for a while. A cou­ple of hours, she says: You go first. Let’s take shifts. Maybe take a nap, sleep for a while. But real­ly, just get out a bit. You first; we’ll be okay.

On the way home you pull into the lot of a con­ve­nient store. The light in the store shines into the car, the flo­res­cence frag­ile and brit­tle, tick­ing.

You quit smok­ing so many years ago that you’d almost for­got­ten you ever had a habit. But here you are, ask­ing for a pack of smokes, the old kind, the Luckies. You glance up at the secu­ri­ty cam­era, then see, behind the clerk, your own fish-eyed image on an old grey tele­vi­sion mon­i­tor. In it you are a stranger, you look old, some­how child­less. You take a free pack of match­es, then buy a lighter for its reas­sur­ance. You step out­side and stand in the lot, star­ing into the dark beyond the light of the store. You light the cig­a­rette and inhale, smoke pass­ing into your throat and lungs like a ghost, its taste your throat. You move from the light, to a dark­er patch in the lot, beside a propane cage and a row of weed bush­es. Above, attached to the over­hang of the roof of the con­ve­nient store, there is a cam­era point­ing down at the park­ing lot. The smoke ris­es around your head a blue grey: now sev­er­al ghosts cir­cu­late inside you, a series of mem­o­ries trig­gered by some mnemon­ic of sen­so­ry re-intro­duc­tion, frag­ments of your past: a drunk­en argu­ment with a stranger out­side a bar in New Orleans, a failed sex­u­al encounter, sand singing as it’s com­pressed under­foot at a Hamptons beach, the moment at a high school dance when you leaned over and tast­ed the per­fume on the neck of the girl beside you. All of the cells that com­pose you begin to shift and mud­dle and dizzy, rear­rang­ing your blood and oxy­gen and mem­o­ry. You smoke the cig­a­rette half down and feel a lit­tle sick. So you toss the cig­a­rette onto the side­walk and scrape it under your shoe. You stand there, dizzy. You’ve for­got­ten where you are and why, and here in for­get­ful­ness your daugh­ter and wife are at home, safe, and you feel guilty for smok­ing. The cam­era above, watch­ing. Then the fear remem­bers you, draws you back to the moment. You pass through the parked cars, cross the lot to your own car, open the door, climb inside. You sit for a moment and smell the cig­a­rette lin­ger­ing in the silence. Then you turn the key and pull out of the lot.

Nothing on the dri­ve home looks the way it was. The wind­shield, as if viewed through the baby mon­i­tor. You mis­trust your eyes, the famil­iar things about your neigh­bor­hood as if they’re new: these sycamores, maples, and oaks are dim and for­eign, the yield and stop signs, the turnoff, the shops, and even the hous­es. You pull into the dri­ve­way and the house has been emp­ty for months while you and your wife were away, vaca­tion­ing.

You take a show­er, avoid­ing the baby’s room as you pass it upstairs. You recall the blood. The show­er pass­es through your skin, and then you turn the water off, dry your­self and dress, and come down­stairs. You toast some bread and fry an egg, then sit down at the kitchen table and eat. You don’t feel tired, not at all, and this sends a pang of guilt through you. You light anoth­er cig­a­rette, tap the ash on the emp­ty mess of the plate. Outside it is dark still. You glance over at the time on the lit­tle dig­i­tal dis­play of the cof­fee mak­er, then turn away before tak­ing it in. The kitchen is silent and then you con­cen­trate on the silence and the refrig­er­a­tor begins to hum, and you think you hear water flow­ing, the ther­mo­stat ticks, and the hot water boil­er rum­bles alive below you in the base­ment.

And then you hear her. In the baby mon­i­tor. In the room upstairs, stir­ring. The soli­tary chirp and tick of a spar­row comes dis­tort­ed inside the speak­er along with her, dis­tant, draw­ing out the space of the room. But you hear her, too, before the room falls silent. You can’t look at the mon­i­tor, as if there’s some kind of curse liv­ing in this, and instead you sit there, stare at the ash and yolk on your plate, and see now that you hadn’t eat­en any­thing. You recall eat­ing this egg, this toast. But there they are, untouched, the yolk and a patch of but­ter pep­pered now with cig­a­rette ash­es. A black­bird laughs in the baby mon­i­tor, and then a twig begins tick­ing against the air con­di­tion­er in her win­dow. And you hear anoth­er stir­ring.

Softer, human.

You hear your daugh­ter. She cries out upstairs, the sound cap­tured in the eye, the micro­phone, passed through the baby mon­i­tor. Her famil­iar cluck, then a gur­gle. Now you look at the green screen, and you see her shape, the imprint of her body on the mat­tress. Just a slight dip, a blank of her pri­or shad­ow, one of her blan­kets twist­ed at the edge of the green frame. The birds, chirp­ing now. Sparrows. The black­bird, far­ther, calls. You hear anoth­er black­bird respond. Laughing at you. The doc­tor said some­thing about one-hun­dred per­cent, that noth­ing was. Your daugh­ter rus­tles again in the crib—no dif­fer­ent­ly than when you’ve sat here any oth­er time, alone in dark, while the morn­ing eas­es forth. She lets out a lit­tle singsong. She’s wak­ing. A truck shud­ders past, here, and there.

The green screen of the intercom’s receiv­er is lying. As if whis­per­ing to you. There in the lit­tle green frame: the imprint of her body, her twist­ed blan­ket.

 

You pause at the top of the stairs, where there’s only a dry silence ahead, down the hall. A few more steps and you pause now out­side her door: she has gone back to sleep, that’s what you think. Her door is half shut. You are caught in a lim­i­nal space. You press it open.

The room is emp­ty. The air is still and smells like noth­ing, smells not even like your daugh­ter. She is gone, her unmis­tak­able scent—which you only now real­ize has ever existed—has left with her. The sheets of the crib, the imprint of her body, the twist of blan­ket. You think to strip the bed to put the sheets in the laun­dry, to do some­thing use­ful. But then you’d lose the imprint of her body. Blood on the floor and on the bassinet. You strip the cloth cov­er of the bassinet, the sheets have dried and held a stiff shape, the blood. You bring these to the laun­dry down the hall, then return to her room. A lit­tle wind picks up. The branch ticks against the win­dow like fin­ger­tips. Once she gets bet­ter you’ll weath­er­ize the glass. Her things, are gath­ered and scat­tered around. Little toys. She’ll out­grow every­thing here. A paci­fi­er has fall­en out of her crib. You pick it up from the floor. A deliv­ery truck shud­ders past out­side.

You return down­stairs hold­ing the paci­fi­er. You put on your shoes, your coat. You open the front door, step out­side and lock the door behind you. You dri­ve back to the hos­pi­tal.

 

Later, when your daugh­ter is released from the hos­pi­tal, the event of her ill­ness will begin the slow process of fad­ing, if not ever leav­ing, mem­o­ry. It will remain just beyond the lim­i­nal space you occu­py. A con­stant, qui­et anx­i­ety, on the oth­er side of clar­i­ty, of imme­di­a­cy. Your anx­i­eties will learn and adapt. The crows laugh as they laugh, and the spar­rows age and die, replen­ished like every­thing, like the sea­sons. Your hair is thin­ning, grey­ing. Her voice on the inter­com grows a morn­ing old­er, every morn­ing. The vow­els and hard edges, then soon, her words find meaning—language soft­ens and turns flu­id. A wife and daugh­ter, you think. A wife and daugh­ter.

Until some time lat­er you don’t think about what you once heard com­ing from the eye, don’t think so much about that ear­ly morn­ing when she was in the hos­pi­tal. When you heard her whether you want­ed to or not. Now, she’s out­grown the crib, and you’ve bought her a bed, and this too she out­grows.

You took down the baby mon­i­tor long ago, donat­ed it to a local char­i­ty. What do you see now? You have a mind’s eye. Sometimes you see her gone off to col­lege, you imag­ine her wed­ding. These haven’t hap­pened, not yet, but you know they will. You imag­ine the house, emp­ty. You watch these iter­a­tions of her leav­ing and the moment before each—this is what you feel, that moment just before when she still was. You see the moment before, each was, as a gift, a pre­mo­ni­tion in which again she is fine, she’s okay.

Everyone has told you to cher­ish these years. The ear­ly ones. The years gone before you know it. And then, soon­er than you believe, every­thing you heard was true.

~

David Ryan is the author of the short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Animals in Motion (Roundabout Press). His fic­tion has appeared in EsquireBOMBTin HouseFenceElectric LiteratureNo Tokens and else­where. You can find out more about him at http://www.davidwryan.com.