Zachary J. Donnenberg
He rested on his back, no blanket. Just like me. Caterpillar fingers barely clasped his pacifier. His onesie hid his larva toes. It was two in the morning and this baby was calm, playful, happy. He was in a room of newborn blue and Bob Ross clouds, hypnotized by the nine — no, eight — planets. A rocket soared between the Earth and Mars of his mobile. With a flick of my wrist it spun — heliocentric, but not to scale. With a flick of my wrist the boy laughed, wide-eyed, toothless. The pacifier fell from his mouth; I shushed him silent.
In the light of the moon, the real moon, this boy, infant: mint condition, had no story, no memories — nameless. His eyes followed the rotating rings of Saturn, but he couldn’t possibly know that the real deal was seven hundred fifty million miles away. Out of reach, an idea validated by the telescope, something he had never used. The horizon was the universe, the universe horizon. When I opened the opaque curtains and let loose the world, the trees to him must have seemed like nebulas to me. I wondered if the window’s draft was his first experience with cold.
The infant turned his gaze from the mobile to me, lazy eyelids matching a wet thumb. We stared at each other, a battle of wits, or determination, or stubbornness. I hardened my brow, pursed my lips, crossed my eyes. He shivered. I recoiled. Was I not funny, entertaining, silly? Did this baby not have a baby’s sense of humor? Was he elevated prematurely to some sort of higher thought, some transcended conscience that steered clear of the “funny face equals laughter” formula of infantile comedy? Was my face so ugly, so repulsive, so grotesque, that even an unconditioned baby could have the capacity to reject me?
He shivered again. He shivered. He was cold.
It wasn’t instinct that picked up the child. It wasn’t paternity that pressed his head against my lungs. His hand curled against my collarbone, his feet dangled freely and kicked my abdomen. He struggled to get comfortable in my novice grip, a golden mole let loose from the sand. He grunted. He squeaked. He had volume.
I laid him on the carpet. French vanilla. I hesitated.
I did not stand up; I did not loom over the baby as if I were his master or his superior. Instead, I stretched amongst the Stanley Steamer grass on my side as a breathing, sweating buffer between him and the window. I shielded him from the voices of the wind, the light of the tree bark, the darkness of the two a.m. We were equals, mutually subordinate to each other’s whim, congruent in our vulnerabilities and our flaws. He was incapable of speaking to me, and yet I was incapable of speaking to him. Words meaningless to his ears, expressions fruitless in his eyes. I raised my brow, expecting to be ignored in another failed attempt to entertain him, knowing that the result would be vapid.
Instead, he looked at me. He smiled. I smiled. Open mouth, teeth, no cavities. He smiled at my face, my dumb face. He acknowledged me. He was human, and so was I. My body curled, a concave billboard, an oaken plank flexed for his ship’s bow. His smile grew. It was bashful, self-aware; his fists covered his mouth, then his nose, then his mouth again. I giggled. It was audible, vocal, incoherent to me yet coherent to him.
I raised my hand above us, my fingers dancing like jellyfish in the current. They fluttered, prudent yet free. He was fascinated, curious, enthralled. He was an arbiter elegantium, curating my every move. And so, my fingers danced. They were lilies in a stream, edelweiss with an Alpine wind, snow brushed from a hillside. Subtle, tactful, faking coordination. The infant stared at my fingers as if they were unnatural, yet his stare seemed so natural.
He extended his arm upward, pudgy and amorphous. It took strength to reach, perseverance to stretch. I could see it in his face. He wanted something. Mere inches from my hand, he swiped and lunged at the air between us. I lowered myself. His fingers wrapped around mine. Five caterpillars tightened around one branch. The dancing stopped. The current ebbed and the jellyfish ceased. There was no stream, no mountains, no snow. There were only fingers, and moon light, and his laughter.
How can one dare to silence the light that gleams from innocent eyes? As I lay beside him, his hand around my finger, his laughter echoing off the newborn blue walls, and his playful peeps getting more and more frequent, I couldn’t bring myself to stop him. I could see his happiness and his ignorance. He tightened his grip and waved my hand with the sort of sporadic intention that only unadulterated joy could have. This infant, this child, this living creature both complex and simple was playing with my finger, smiling and laughing and squealing in ways that only we were experiencing. This moment was idyllic, singular, and conjoined. We were one, this baby and I. We were one moment, one memory, one single two a.m. of unfunny faces and tiny fingers that culminated into laughter, and to happiness.
And yet, this all was temporary. It was fleeting. This laughter, this happiness, this slow-motion panorama of joy and innocence was nothing more than chalk. The infant could never remember this night. He was too young, his slate too blank. His mind could not yet comprehend that which he could not see — memory, of course, being vision without sight. He could never recall the friendly man with the ski mask on his head.
The infant stripped from me all my caution and attention. In my ignorance, I never turned off the baby monitor that sat on the nightstand just beside his crib. I neither closed his bedroom door, nor walked downstairs, to the expensive television in the living room. In my trance, I ignored the sound of his mother’s footsteps. Surely she had wondered why her newborn son was laughing at two a.m.; surely she had wondered why a man with a ski mask was lying beside him on the floor.
ZACHARY DONNENBERG is a writer of lucid poetry, quirky prose, and horizon-spanning fiction from northwestern New Jersey. His work has previously been published in Nebo: A Literary Journal. He currently attends the Creative Writing BFA and English BA programs at Arkansas Tech University.