by Tim Frank
The baby spoke to his mother one night, kicking against her belly in morse code, sounding like bongos under water. It started with soft bumps then worked up to fierce thuds. He said he understood things but wanted to learn more. “Feed me with words,” he said, “describe things and let me see.”
“How do you know so much?” the mother wondered. Who knew watching the Puzzle channel on TV could lead to this?
So, they drove around and the mother showed him the nice parts of the city. They went to royal parks and designer shopping centres. At a farmer’s market she described the truffles and sniffed fresh basil leaves.
“Smells like rainwater,” said the baby.
“The world is a beautiful place,” said the mother.
But when she heard an argument in a car park the mother quickly searched for a more serene environment. She ended up in a secluded second-hand bookshop and she took time to thumb through pages of adventure stories she hadn’t read since she was a teen. She recited passages to the child in a dusty corner of the store and made sure to censor descriptions of threatening imagery. The need to edit reality was compulsive.
The relative calm was disturbed by the father when he confronted the mother in the kitchen one afternoon, as she sat on a low stool unloading the dishwasher.
“You’re unwell and I think you need help,” he said, “I hear you – in the laundry room, in the bedroom as you apply your makeup, as you sit in the garden. I hear you discuss the sky and the trees as if the baby can hear you, as if you’re having a conversation.”
“Tell him,” said the baby, “tell him the truth and we can all have fun.”
The mother ignored the baby. She said to the father, “You needn’t be so suspicious, I simply want to express myself. Sometimes I feel so isolated. I would never imagine the baby is talking to me.”
“Good. After all, remember what happened to aunt Marie.”
“Why are you lying to him?” said the baby to the mother. “He has a right to know, doesn’t he?”
The mother stood and unloaded cutlery into a drawer. She remained quiet as the baby’s kicks became violent. She continued to ignore him.
The father watched her as she wiped the kitchen surfaces clean and she winced from the pain in her stomach.
Later she locked the door to the bathroom and turned the shower on so she couldn’t be heard.
“Forgive your father, he just wants what is best for us.” she said.
“I don’t get it, why not tell him the truth?”
“Some things only grownups understand.”
“What happened to aunt Marie?” said the baby.
“She was unwell in the mind. She was confused.”
“Maybe you’re confused.”
“Don’t be silly, that’s not possible.”
“Then tell him about me, tell the world.”
“I’m sorry, I have to keep you a secret for now. Please try and wait until the time is right.”
That night the mother fell asleep in front of the television and woke up drenched in blood. The TV was playing news reports – bombs in the Middle East, starvation in African villages. She called to the father and he rushed her to the hospital.
On the way the baby finally spoke, saying, “What’s war? What’s poverty?”
“Oh, thank god, you’re okay,” she said, holding her stomach.
“Who are you talking to?” snapped the father.
The mother said to the father, “Listen to me, you need to talk to your child, help him through this.”
“Listen to yourself,” said the father, “you’ve lost your mind.”
“Something bad is happening,” said the baby as the mother felt contractions. “Please make it stop.”
The baby was born a few weeks premature. It refused to kick, refused to cry.
As she held the child, everything seemed distorted and unreal. The doctor said the baby was fine but as she carried him in her arms he just felt like a bundle of rocks, nothing more.
It didn’t take long for the baby’s eyes to crack open and drink in the room. There was no barrier between him and his mother now and yet the intimacy between them had gone. He would have to relate to the world, unfiltered, seeing things with an independent mind, reliant only upon himself.
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Tim Frank’s short stories have been published over sixty times in journals including Able Muse, Bourbon Penn, Intrinsick, Menacing Hedge, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and The Fiction Pool. Tim Frank has been nominated for The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2020. Tim Frank is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.