When I hear the baby, I think it’s a cat that’s been left outside in the rain, that’s stuck in a tree, that’s weaved its weak body into an open pipe and can’t find its way out.
When I hear the baby, I think it’s a tiny jay fallen from a tall branch, its busy bird-mom out running errands. Or maybe it’s a sick squirrel, writhing in pain, like the one I once discovered beneath a bench in Mexico when I was, myself, practically a baby. Not old enough to know any better. I tried to pick it up, the poor thing, help it, only to have it turn on me, its teeth quick and sharp. Afraid of disease, my parents rushed me to the nearest hospital where no one spoke English, where people with gunshot wounds wailed in the waiting room, where I stood gripping my barely-scratched finger, screaming bloody murder. Dad’s been telling that story for years, as a way to highlight not my love of animals, but my bleeding heart liberalism. My poor decision-making skills. What she didn’t know, my dad likes to add, is that we had to kill the squirrel and put it in a cooler and drive it back to the States to have it tested for rabies.
Liberals, he says, laughing at my endless well of stupidity, at least on these matters.
When I hear the baby, I think it’s my own stomach growling, internalized anger turned to insatiable hunger, turned to a wailing deep in my core.
When I hear the baby, I think it’s anything other than an actual human baby, because otherwise I am reminded that I should do something special for the new mom next door, separated only by windows and walls, the one I’ve found crying in the afternoon, along with her newborn, in her adjacent yard, a tight concrete space with only a Weber Grill and two folding lounge chairs, whereas ours is green with trees, lush with spring blooms, littered with yard toys and outgrown fairy garden ephemera, because we are long past the mewling newborn stage, have outgrown the princess dress-up stage, are now hurtling through Little League and theater camps, doing her own hair, thank you very much, using her own allowance, shedding teeth, collecting dead carpenter bees, sucking oysters from half-shells.
When I hear the baby, I think it’s the past, reminding me of where I’ve been, the pain I’ve felt, the squirrels I’ve killed.
When I hear the baby, I think I should bring the new mom fresh-baked gingersnaps and trashy magazines to read during prolonged feedings. I should offer foot rubs or to watch the newborn so the new mom can nap. I should deliver lasagna to her doorstep, tell her breastfeeding isn’t for everyone, tell her it all gets easier, knowing it doesn’t, really, it just gets different. I should tell her. But then I hear the baby again, and I think, maybe it is just a lost cat. An injured jay. A sick little squirrel. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s to keep my hands to myself.
Kelle Schillaci Clarke is a Seattle-based writer whose stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Penn Review, The Los Angeles Review, LEON Literary Review, Fictive Dream, and other journals. Her stories have been nominated for Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net awards, and she was recently awarded the Pen Parentis Fellowship for 2021-2022. She can be found on Twitter @kelle224 and at her website: www.kelleclarkecreative.com.
“When I Hear the Baby” placed 3rd in our 2021 CNF Flash Contest, judged by Heather Christle.