The baby was balanced on its head on top of the coffee-maker. Elise, who’d never been good first thing in the morning, gave the baby the side eye, and then ignored it as she pulled the old filter out and shoved a new one into the machine. The baby waved its hands companionably and put its fingers between its wet lips as Elise leaned against the counter waiting for her coffee to brew.
Elise was on the sixth week of her residency when the baby had appeared to her. She’d simply looked up one day from the floor where she was working on a collage and found the baby up in one of the ceiling corners sucking on its toes contentedly. There was no one to inform. She was alone in the Arkansas woods in the cabin, just her, her art supplies, and her ideas. That was the appeal of the residency, after all. No one but you, your ideas, and the time to see them through for once.
The closest town was five miles away, if you could call it a town. Once a week, Elise would buy herself an order of fried pickles from the Slim Chickens there and allow herself to enjoy it in a way she never could have in the city where she was surrounded by all the bad choices available to a city person. She’d watch the pick-up trucks and horse-trailers on the six-block strip that passed for a commercial district in that part of the world, then she would return to her collages in her little cabin surrounded by pine and skittish deer.
She understood immediately that it was her baby. The one she hadn’t had when she was twenty-three. She was surprised this didn’t upset or frighten her. But there was nothing accusatory or mean-spirited about the baby. When she had first become aware of it, she’d been in that dreamy state that doing a repetitive task causes, and Elise had noted the baby with the smile that women always had for a baby doing something cute, and then returned to pasting.
On another day, she watched the baby wriggling under a blanket that she had left on the sofa and thought to wonder why the baby had turned up now. Elise was now twice the age she’d been when she hadn’t had the baby, and there had been babies since then who had been left to grow up and were now staying with her ex-husband while she went into the Arkansas woods to pursue her art unencumbered by that family life. She felt no guilt about not having let this baby grow up. She didn’t believe this was her guilt come to haunt her. But it did beg the question, she thought, eyeing the baby as it slapped its pudgy little hands against its naked thighs.
Not that she was troubled by its presence. If anything, Elise found the presence of the baby comforting after so many weeks alone. It radiated nothing but good will, even with the disgusting drool that sometimes hung, pendulous, off its chubby chin. It wasn’t particularly intrusive and hadn’t interfered with her art at all. She sometimes got the feeling that the baby was trying to make her laugh with its cuteness, like when it crawled across the outside of the screen door, its adorable little toothless mouth open in delight at this trick.
There was always the possibility that she was going crazy, like that boy who’d gone to Alaska by himself and eaten some potato seeds that killed him and probably made him crazy before that. Maybe the solitude was making her a bit daft and the baby was her mind’s way of pointing out she had passed the mark of a sensible stay out here. But she didn’t feel lonely at all. She was reveling in being by herself. She stayed up working all night. She had no need to brush her hair or to eat something sensible. She probably looked like Baba Yaga, but who cared? There was no one to observe her. Except the baby.
Most importantly, the work was happening. Perhaps the baby was her muse. Elise had been filled to bursting with ideas since being here, generating sketch after sketch that then bloomed into three-dimensional off-kilter papier-mache structures, or collages bursting with riotous colors and dissonant images.
As she sat on the raised porch one afternoon, dust motes swirling in the sunbeams, she wondered whether Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel and Snow White were really just meant to be fables about women who waited too long to bear children. The fairy tales didn’t say; they never told the story of the women after they’d been awakened by the men. Maybe those German happily-ever-afters were just a euphemistic version of Calvinist sermons, a lesson you were supposed to take away. She took a sip of her afternoon coffee and eyed the baby cynically. It was hanging upside down by its toes from the deck railing and peeking at her through the balusters while chewing on some curdled leaf it had found. She poured the remainder of the mug over the side of the deck and went inside with a shrug. Did it matter? It wasn’t her story.
But the question stuck with her. She found herself collecting hawthorn branches on her morning hikes. She epoxied them and left them on the deck to harden. She gathered the thorny branches together into a tall pile, a thicket of her own construction. She constructed a small tower out of cardboard toilet paper rolls and cut a single tiny window into it. She dumped her box of tampons out on the floor, tearing them apart to gather the strings from them, spending hours wrapping the cardboard roll in them and using her soldering iron to burn the string clear of the tiny window. The singed edges of the window bid the viewer to gaze inside, and she fashioned a tiny seated baby sucking contentedly on a braid that was connected to something beyond where the eye could follow.
She pulled her birth control pill packet apart at the seams, realizing for the first time that the solid-colored wallet obscured the pills inside as if they were something to be hidden or ashamed of. She cut and pasted the plastic container back together in the shape of a coffin, three by three inches, and over the top, she used the see-through top of the pill pack itself with its indented holes for pills that were no longer there. Inside, she placed a tiny sleeping infant, its thumb tucked into its mouth.
She fashioned a withered-looking baby out of white modeling clay. She had to put on her reading glasses to sculpt its features, pushing them up brusquely on her nose every now and again when they fell. She stripped her deodorant of its clear bell-shaped top and lowered it over the baby like a rare specimen, constructed a tiny papier-mache dais to support the bell jar that she painted the rich color of menstruation.
At Walmart in town, she bought a pack of lentils, a box of Veet wax, and a Barbie doll. Back at her cabin, Elise dumped the lentils into a pot of simmering water, along with a chopped onion and bell pepper. She tossed salt and cumin and curry in after like some enchantment and left the pot simmering while she carried a handful of uncooked lentils to her work table. She brushed a thin layer of clear adhesive on the postcard she’d painted to look like soot-covered stone and rolled the lentils across the face of it. In among the glued lentils, she stuck tiny honey-colored beads, and she placed the card in front of a tiny fireplace she’d built from the sides of a Kotex box whose garish pink and blue colors clashed with any bucolic fantasies a viewer might harbor.
In the other room, the baby crawled under the bed, its cheerful babble receding under the bed skirt. Elise waited until she heard it reemerging on the far side of the bed, then she turned to the grocery bag on the counter and rooted through it to find the Veet wax. She put a second pot of water on the stove and stood over it while it came to a boil. Placing the plastic pot of wax into the boiling water, she waited for the wax inside to melt, her face growing pink in the steam.
When she saw the liquid-sheen on the wax, she took the doll from its packaging and broke the legs from it. It took more effort than she had anticipated and she cringed at the savagery it took to pry them off from the torso. The baby, sitting in the doorway to the other room, started violently at the sudden plastic crack as the legs gave way and flapped its hands in distress. It stuck three fingers into its mouth and stayed there sucking on them while she glued the legs together at the thighs and dunked them by the feet into the wax, allowing layer after layer to dry on them.
She ate a bowl of lentils and dipped the doll legs until they were only dimly visible through a waxy sheath. She molded a fully-formed fetus, stuck it to the tacky wax of the groin in fetal position, and continued dunking until it was a raised lump, an idea rather than an impression. She worked until sometime around 4 a.m., then she took a break and went to shower while the baby crawled around and around her in the stall, blinking the water from its eyes and gurgling happily. After Elise dried her hair, she playfully directed warm air from the hair dryer at the baby’s bottom, chasing it out of the bathroom as far as the cord would let her. Then she slept. When she woke late in the afternoon, the sky had darkened with clouds the color of angry bruises. She listened to a rerun of “A Prairie Home Companion” on the local public radio station as she finished carving a fish tail from the wax column. Sometimes the knife went too deep and nicked the plastic legs inside the wax.
In the middle of that night, a Blue Norther came through and plunged the temperature thirty degrees. Elise woke curled in a tiny ball with the blanket clutched high over her ears. Shivering, she pulled on two pairs of socks as she sat huddled in a blanket in front of the space heater in the bedroom and waited to get warm.
The bluish autumn shadows that played against the windows made her unaccountably nostalgic. She dug through her abandoned purse for her nearly-dead cell phone and called her ex-husband. Did he remember the Halloween when their daughter had cried as he’d tried to take a photo of the kids in their costumes before they left for trick-or-treating? Elise had such a clear picture in her mind of the four-year-old’s tear-streaked cheeks, her cheap plastic mask pushed up on her head, chubby body swaddled in the white sheet of her ghost costume. Elise said she remembered their son clutching his little sister’s hand defiantly in the flash of the camera, or was she was only remembering the photo her ex had taken? As she talked, she rolled a pair of socks across the floor to the baby who thumped them up and down on the floor. Her ex remembered neither the event, nor the photo, and by the time they reached this point in the conversation, the room was warm enough that she had stretched her naked legs out from under the blanket she’d wrapped around herself. The cell phone battery gave out in the middle of a sentence.
Each finished piece she placed inside the bramble collection. It turned out to be a bloody business, the thorns insisting on payment for allowing her talismans in. When she was done, Elise sat cross-legged on the floor before the sculpture and rubbed at the scratches on her arms. She lowered her head to the floor to stare through the barbed branches. She could see the baby crawling away from her on the floor on the other side, the unlined bottoms of its tender little feet suddenly making her cry.
The baby turned at the sound, curious. It changed directions and began to crawl toward the sculpture from where it thought the sound emanated. Elise sat up quickly, wiping her nose, and her sudden appearance from behind the sculpture startled the baby and it drew back with a wide-mouthed grimace. Elise thought she could see a tooth just beginning to break through the pristine gum line and wondered whether figments of imagination suffered teething pains. Just in case, Elise lifted the sculpture up off the floor so the baby wouldn’t prick herself on the spiny brambles she was reaching out for.
Liz Rosen is a short story writer from New Orleans who now lives in Pennsylvania. Her stories can be found in a variety of journals, some mainstream and some spooky. She is a former children’s television writer and a current reader for Orca Literary Journal. She is the author of a nonfiction book about contemporary apocalyptic story-telling called Apocalyptic Transformation.