“Baby”

Originally published in Hawai‘i Review

copyright (c) 2010 by Anjoli Roy

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The afternoon sun cuts through the kitchen windows and lights the dust particles in the air. The room glows. A vibrant hum, I think. I screech open the screen door, step out of my sandals, toe across cool orange tiles.

My grocery bags are heavy with fruit and veggies, a few choice hunks of meat, and the chicken eggs that Devrani’s sought out and that I couldn’t resist purchasing, though we rarely eat the things. Vijay could make a curry with them, but I’ll probably end up scrambling them for breakfast. I’ll want them eaten up and done with; he’ll take too long to get out the musty spices that prick at our noses.

With each day, Devrani’s imagination grows more fertile. In response, Vijay has taken to furrowing his brow at me over breakfast, perpetually reminding me that “we need to make her more of this world so she can operate better within it.” He wants her to make more friends; is concerned with how the blond-haired girls in her class tease her and say she’s weird. “They call it mud food,” Devrani says, pointing at her lunch, which she’s been too embarrassed to eat, again. I picture those girls scowling at my daughter, scrunching up their noses, and my heart sinks. Vijay stands at the sink in his custom-tailored business suits; waits for me to do something.

Still, she seems determined to flourish. When Vijay finds her outside in the night, lying on her back and drawing with a flashlight beam to connect the stars, or singing a hapless tune to herself, or laughing at what she’s just thought up but is too shy to share, it seems that I’m the one who feels the pain at Vijay’s constant pruning. I’m the one who jumps out of bed to get to her first when we wake to her murmurings in the night. I’ll join her on our damp lawn, enjoy the cool wetness seeping through to my back, listen to her pluck the thin strings of her voice when she sings along with the radio. I know that I am witnessing a fragile thing that needs help to grow.

Devrani’s schoolbook is on the kitchen table, her crayons and markers strewn here and there. I lean across the slick wood to see what she must have just deserted: she’s been tracing letters. Her practice pencil, as thick as a sausage and as long as a sheet of paper, is beside half a W that she has evidently abandoned, mid-U. Just a few days before, she asked, “Mommy, why do they call them double-Us, when my teacher draws them as double-Vs?”

I drop the bags carefully on the floor beside me and massage the dark red grooves carved into my lightly freckled shoulders. I shrug and stretch my tired arms up over my head.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” I call out to the quiet house.

“Mommy! Mommy, you’re home!” Devrani rounds the island in the kitchen and clamps onto my jeans. “You took so long this time at the farmer’s market! And Baba is upstairs watching one of his games.” She pouts in her blue plaid pinafore, her fists on her hips. “Did you get them? Did you get the eggs for me?”

I smile down at her and cup her face in my hands. Her father’s coloring; my cheekbones. How long will she be so small? So happy to see me, still, every time I come home? “Help me with this, Rani,” I say, unpacking the bags, one by one. Into her arms, I pile three purple eggplants, plump and smooth, and watch her carry them to the fridge, reminding me of how she’d once carried kindling to a campfire. We should go to the mountains this weekend, I remind myself. Before the weather turns completely, and summer is lost forever.

At the fridge, she slides open the veggie drawer, just her height. She’s getting taller; I feel a distinct loss in each inch she gains. She closes the refrigerator door. I watch how her knees, as round as apples, joint her stick legs.

I unload the fresh-baked bread on the counter and breathe in its oaty smell. At the fridge, I file the rest of the meat and fruit and veggies that we won’t eat for dinner tonight. Finally, I dash the paper carton of eggs on a high shelf and close the refrigerator door.

She has, of course, seen me.

“I want to make a baby!” she squeals, starting up the conversation we cut short before I left for the market.

I watch how her thick brown curls hang heavily around her full auburn cheeks, downy and as soft as silk. I push back the blondish strands of my hair, permed and crunchy from hairspray, and lean down to see her better.

“I want to make a baby and I need that!” She points an accusatory finger past me to the now closed refrigerator door.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but you cannot make a baby from that.” I use that too-small voice that all children know, and immediately distrust.

“But what do you mean, Mommy? Babies come from eggs—”

“Yes, baby chickens—”

Fine.” She rolls her eyes. “Baby chickens come from eggs, and they have to be kept warm to hatch! I learned that at school! I can keep the egg warm in my room!” She is impatient with my apparent stupidity.

“Not these eggs, my love.” I crouch down, pulling her into the crook of my legs in a quick hug. “You and I, we’ve had this discussion before. Besides, you know how your father doesn’t like to find food in your room,” I say, arching my eyebrows. She smells of the damp earth that’s smudged her tennis shoes.

She melts into me for a moment, too brief, and pushes away, then straightens the pleats in her uniform. She implores with her big ink eyes. “But why, Mommy? Why not these eggs?”

“These ones come from the mother only. The eggs that bring baby chicks come from the hen and the rooster too.”

I do not expect her to understand.

My mind flashes to what I saw in biology class, so long ago. The maturing eggs of the dissected chicken curled inside its body. A graduated string of pearls. All along, each one had developed slowly inside the hen to be fertilized or passed, waiting to be borne.

With her hands probing my growing belly, my midwife had told me of something similar. She’d told me about how my little one was forming eggs of her own. “Already, your grandchildren are growing. Inside this little one who’s forming in you.” Like Russian nested dolls. She’d told me that one day, if my girl had children, I’d be reunited with the babies who had first formed in her, in me.

I remember wondering, like many mothers, what my child would look like. I secretly hoped that she would take after her father. Brown babies are more beautiful, I think again, looking down, now, at mine. I feel a sudden rush of joy whenever I really look at her, and wonder if Vijay ever allows himself this feeling, if he too is amazed at what we have created. He hadn’t wanted to have children. Did I hurt her by bringing her into this world for only me?

Devrani pauses, silent for a moment in thought, then looks up at me, excited, the blackness of her pupils seeming to bleed into the whites of her eyes. She does not notice the tears in mine. “But, Mommy! I can be the rooster! The hen, she’s already done her bit!” She jumps up and down, holding out her cupped hands, proud to trump me.

I smile at her, convinced, at least, that I will not dissuade her. I turn, open the refrigerator door, and select one brown egg from the cardboard box, and place its gritty fragileness into her eager palms. In an instant, she twists away and dashes to her room to find a hiding place.

On my fingers, I count the days to when I’ll have to seek out this treasure from her room. It will be after her steady patience gives way to boredom and then forgetfulness, but it must be before the heavy odor gives away our secret.

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