By Kathryn H. Ross
Ara William was born with an expiration date on the sole of his left foot, his mother was sure of it.
She wept hysterically, insisting a jumbled group of veins spelled it out clear as day—a date some ten years in the future. The doctor calmly waved it off, saying she’d seen many children with strange birthmarks all over their bodies, and that the idea of an “expiration date” on a human being was simply absurd.
Ara’s mother cried louder than he did when he came spilling out, covered in blood and slime and tissue, his glistening skin the color of the ocean at night. His father sat in a chair beside his cradle, unable to look him clear in the face after he’d been taken and cleaned because the clump of veins—what he had insisted was just mess from the birth—could not be wiped away.
“You said it was nothing,” Ara’s mother sobbed to her husband, and the man, helpless, merely held her as she cried.
In the end, a psychiatrist had to be brought in to speak with her. Three days and a prescription later, the little family was packed in their car headed home, Ara nestled beside his mother as they drove slowly away from the hospital.
As they pulled into their driveway, the next-door neighbors could be seen watching from their window. In moments they came running out, flowers in hand and spilling congratulations. Ara’s mother stayed silent as they cooed over the baby, exclaiming at the beauty of his large, soulful eyes, his thick dark hair, and his skin so black and smooth he might’ve been a stone plucked from the seafloor.
Ara’s father thanked them for their generosity as he led his family into the house. With the door closed behind them and the sitting room filled with blazing evening light, the new parents looked at each other and then at their son. His feet covered with clean white booties, he was looking around, intrigued by his surroundings. His mother’s eyes began to fill with tears as she watched him, and his father wrapped an arm around her.
“That’s enough,” he whispered. “No more of this, okay? We should be happy.”
His wife did not answer. She held the baby close to her, her lips pressed against his soft forehead.
Ara’s nursery was dark and small, with one window overlooking the backyard. Each night Ara was placed in a bassinet and lulled to sleep by his mother’s gentle voice. As he slept, she would remove his socks in the dark and hold his feet in her hands. She rubbed them, tracing her thumbs across the soles, lingering on his left and feeling the raised skin of his birthmark. Birthmark. The psychiatrist had called it that in a firm, clear voice, over and over again until she had repeated the words.
“You’ve absolutely nothing to worry about. When you’re feeling more yourself, just think about all this. It’ll seem silly in just a matter of time, I promise you.”
“What does it look like to you?” she’d asked.
The psychiatrist opened his mouth and then closed it, frowning. “It doesn’t matter what I think,” he said at last.
Ara William stirred, and his mother came out of her reverie. She was squeezing his heels tightly in her hands. He whimpered in his sleep and tried to pull himself out of her reach. She could feel him close to waking, ready to cry, and snatched her fingers away. His face smoothed. He stretched and flexed for a moment, his legs extending out and then curling up again. She watched him, just a tiny thing, no longer than a loaf of bread.
When he finally stilled, she ran her hands gently along his feet again and then lifted his left foot. His white sole glowed in the moonlight beyond the window, and there along the surface was the birthmark. A great, thick blot against his smooth skin, clear numbers etched in an eerily perfect hand.
“God,” she whispered to herself, a lump in her throat. Ara slept on, his expression serene. She pressed her thumb against the mark again, biting her lip.
“He’s hot,” Ara’s father said.
“He’s fine,” his mother replied.
“Let’s just take them off for a little while, okay? It’s ninety degrees out.”
A stifling silence settled between them, as thick and close as the heat. Ara William sat in a highchair as his father spooned strained peas into his mouth, his skin shining with perspiration. He was completely naked save for his diaper and a pair of thick socks. He had grown considerably in the last several months, fat and round and soft. His hair—delicate as silk and dark as coal—grew out in thick curls, and his eyes—large, dark, and long-lashed—were expressive and deep. Everyone agreed he was a beautiful child. Each doctor’s visit was marked by compliments and exclamations of his health given with such emphasis that his mother often left the room in a sudden fit of tears.
Her therapist said she was experiencing a bout of postpartum depression, fixated no doubt on the strange but altogether harmless mark. No one else had seen Ara’s feet since he was born save for doctors, and soon she was advised to stop bringing the child to bemused dermatologists who could suggest nothing more than some sort of cosmetic surgery to ease her worries—a notion his father adamantly refused.
On the house laptop Ara’s father often found searches inquiring about the inception of expiration dates, cosmetic surgeries for blemish removal, and strange birthmarks and their meanings:
Some believe birthmarks are born from injuries we experienced in a past life, read one site. They could be scars transcending time, indicators of some previous fatal wound.
He stopped short, his heart hammering slightly. She was thinking of past lives and reincarnations, new age stuff he didn’t believe in. He pushed back his chair and walked silently to Ara’s room, hovering in the doorway. The baby slept in his crib, his feet, for once, uncovered. Ara’s father shook his head and returned to the laptop to delete the history, hopeful Ara’s mother would not find the site again. She would move on from this soon enough, he was sure, and see that their child was as healthy and perfect as could be.
“He’s like me,” Ara’s father said after a moment, his voice gentle and placating, “doesn’t like anything on his feet in the summer.”
“No,” Ara’s mother replied.
Ara’s father opened his mouth and then closed it, watching his wife as she sat on the couch with a book. Their blue curtains were drawn, giving the room a soft glow like they were underwater, an effect that did not match the hot, muggy air.
After a moment, Ara’s father scooped him up and crossed the room in a few long strides. “I’m going to give him a bath,” he said as he passed his wife. “Cool him down.”
She said nothing but watched them go, her eyes on the baby’s legs curled against his father’s back.
In time she could hear Ara giggling and splashing in the tub, his squeals of glee commingling with his father’s low, laughing voice.
Time continued to rush by, and Ara grew. It was true what everyone said: it went by fast. It seemed only moments ago Ara had been born, a tiny thing with a frowning face, body washed in blood, and now he was almost a year old. Standing in his crib in the mornings, he would greet his mother and father with his hands on the railing, smiling wide. He looked like his father in miniature with his mother’s eyes staring out of his dark face. He was beginning to speak, calling for his parents or pointing at objects until one of them would name it. He’d then try pushing the broken word past his sweet pink gums.
His father began to suspect they were past the worst of it. The baby crawled and explored and gurgled and babbled, and Ara’s mother began to laugh and smile again. She would hold Ara in her arms and move around the sitting room, humming and swaying to music that wasn’t there. She let him move about the house barefoot, the birthmark still like a wound that drew their eyes, but she didn’t mention it anymore. Ara’s father even thought it might be fading.
Near the end of the summer, they took Ara William to the beach, and his mother held his dark hand in hers as they walked him to the edge of the water. His feet had grown long, and his toes curled when the water touched them. He smiled at first as the water receded and returned like a playful dog. Ara took a step closer, his eyes on the ocean and his mother’s eyes on him as she held firmly to his hand. Suddenly a large wave crashed over their feet, rising to Ara’s knobby knees and pushing him back until he fell, hard, in the spray. His mark was stark in the sun, like a bruise that went down to the bone. He began to cry. Ara’s mother looked around at the other children, the other families. A woman turned to look at them, alarmed by the harshness of Ara’s cry. His mother scooped him in her arms and held him close, clasping his feet in her hands.
“Is he all right?” Ara’s father asked from beside them, reaching for Ara’s trembling body. His mother did not answer. “Here,” his father said after a moment, “let me hold him.” But as he reached for his child, his wife turned from him, pulling Ara away.
“No,” she said. “We need to take him home.”
“Is he hurt?” Ara’s father asked, his hands stretched toward his family. “Did he get hurt?” Ara still wailed, and his mother held him, his feet cupped in her palm. She massaged them in her hand, running her fingers along the soles and shushing Ara as he took great shuddering breaths.
Back at home, Ara’s mother fixed dinner while his father gave him a bath and washed the beach from him. He had stopped crying in the car, quieting enough to doze as they drove down the highway that lined the sea. “Are you okay?” Ara’s father had asked his wife as the sun slipped past their windows, interrupted by the shadows of palm trees. Ara’s mother gave a small nod but did not speak, her eyes on Ara’s reflection in the rearview.
“They were like ice,” she said at last. “And everyone could see it. Would have started asking questions.”
Ara’s father frowned. “What was like ice?”
“His feet,” she replied. “Cold like a corpse.”
“You didn’t feel them.”
“You didn’t really let me.”
The retort was out of his mouth before Ara’s father could stop it. They looked at each other, expressions softening. “I’m sorry,” Ara’s mother whispered.
“No, it’s okay. I didn’t—”
“I just need to protect him,” she interrupted, trembling slightly.
“Protect him from what?”
After Ara’s bath, the little family sat around the dining table together. A small television sat on the opposite counter, its crystal clear images drawing Ara’s eyes so that he remained quite still while his father fed him. After each bite, his father would wipe Ara’s mouth gently, staring steadily into his face, and Ara would smile vaguely as if he had just noticed his father was there. The child’s skin looked smooth and soft, smelling of cocoa butter and shining beneath the fluorescent lights like freshly polished marble. Ara’s mother watched him, her eyes drawn to her son the same way his were drawn to the television. She ate slowly, said nothing. All was quiet save for the ancient laughter and muffled dialogue from a show over a decade old. The screen darkened and a string of commercials followed: a woman danced across the screen on tiptoe with a cup of yogurt in hand; a man lifted a box of cat litter with ease; a couple smiled down at their naked baby, a box of wipes taking up half the screen; a young boy stared up at a wall of backpacks, followed by a chipper message about preparing for the new school year.
Outside, the sky grew dark, and the air was warmer than it had been all day. Little taps at the window signaled flying bugs crashing into the screens; dogs from several streets over could be heard howling in the heat, whimpering to be let in.
Ara’s mother took her dishes to the kitchen and did not return. His father left alone, cleaned the kitchen, and put Ara to bed, laying him gently at the base of his crib. He ran a hand down Ara’s face, then his small body, until he came to his little legs, his feet. He held them in his own large hands, both of them, cradling them like they were made of gold. Ara’s skin was warm and damp from perspiration, his body like a black hole at the center of the bed. His father wanted to lift him, hold him close, but Ara was already dozing, his eyes fluttering with sleep.
Ara’s father gently lowered his feet, careful not to look at the soles. He leaned forward and kissed the child on the forehead; his lips came back coated with sweat.
In the early morning, a piercing wail rent the house. Ara’s father woke with a start and looked around wildly in the dark. The wail went on and on—a terrifying, keening sound that seemed to reach a pitch before going completely silent. A moment’s pause, and then a fresh scream, high and pitiful and strong. Ara’s father turned to wake his wife, his hands reaching into the space beside him, but she wasn’t there.
“Hey,” he called. “Hey!” He jumped out of bed and ran into Ara’s room to see the boy screaming, his face streaked with tears and his tiny body thrashing about in his crib.
“Ara! Ara!” he cried, hurrying forward and clutching the bars. Extending from Ara’s waist was a deep stain that ran to the edges of the crib, soaking the wooden frame. Ara’s father stared. A sob made him jump—a small sound that clashed with the wailing of his child. He turned to see his wife kneeling on the floor, her face pressed against the wall. She looked as though she was gasping for breath, gripping the sides of the crib so tightly that her knuckles shown white in the darkness.
Ara’s father reached for the lamp beside the bookshelf and turned it on, flooding the room with soft yellow light. He gasped: the small bed was drenched with blood so dark and wet it almost looked black. Ara’s mother sobbed again, shutting her eyes against the light and bowing her head, her shoulders trembling with each ragged breath she took.
“What’s happened? What’s happened? What’s wrong?” Ara’s father cried over the baby’s screams. He looked from his wife to Ara, then stooped to scoop up his son. “Where does it hurt?” he asked wildly. “What’s happened to him?”
Still, Ara’s mother would not speak; she merely cried from the floor, her fingers coated in blood. At the edge of the crib, something glinted. Ara’s father pressed the boy into his chest, trying to stifle his screams, and looked from the object to his wife and back again.
“What did you do?” he said. He placed a hand over Ara’s head as the boy screamed into his chest, his legs writhing. At that moment Ara’s father realized his own pajama bottoms were soaked red. He grabbed his son’s feet; his hands came back slick with blood.
“What did you do?” he asked again, his eyes darting from Ara’s mother to the crib, his hands. “What’s wrong with him?”
“I had to,” Ara’s mother choked at last. “I had to—”
Ara’s father dropped to his knees and lowered Ara to the ground. He looked his son over, but dawning comprehension struck him. He looked at his wife and back at their child, the blood, the object still throwing light from the lamp around the room. Ara’s father took the boy’s left leg in his hand where the mess was the worst; he might have been born again. He lifted Ara’s leg gently. Ara continued to scream. Along the sole of Ara’s foot was a gash that ran from the edge of his heel to the middle, the exact length of his birthmark. The skin where it had been was torn apart, a deep hole inflamed and raw, gaping so that bone could be seen amidst the streaming blood.
Ara’s father stared, disgusted, horrified. He turned to his wife. “How could you? How could you?”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she buried her head in her hands and let out a wail to match Ara’s. Ara’s father picked him up again, wrapped his feet in his nightshirt to staunch the bleeding, and ran from the room. In the distance sirens could be hard, and there was a sudden hammering at the door.
“Is everything all right?” a voice called. Ara’s father skidded to a halt. The neighbors. The sirens sounded again. “Are you alright in there? We heard screaming! Is everyone okay? Hello?”
Ara’s father froze in the foyer. He listened to the neighbors’ increasingly frantic cries, Ara’s wails, the sudden silence coming from the baby’s room. Would she run away? Would she leave them here like this? Would she hurt herself?
In a split-second, Ara’s father ran to the front door and wrenched it open. He collapsed into the neighbors, pressing the crying Ara to their chest. He hadn’t noticed, but he was crying too, an uncontrollable deluge of tears streaming down his face. He heard the neighbors’ gasps at the blood, at the chaos, and Ara was suddenly quieting down, whimpering as he clung to the neighbors’ necks.
“Hey!” One of them cried after a moment, shaking Ara’s father. “I think he’s fainted!”
Ara’s mother awoke to a bright white room. She turned her head into her pillows, trying to block the light from her eyes. She blinked. Ara’s father was sitting on a chair beside her, wrapped in a blanket.
“Where’s Ara?” she said, looking around. She made to lift her hands but couldn’t; restraints were wrapped tightly about her wrists and ankles. Ara’s father said nothing.
“Where’s Ara? Where is he?” she said again, her voice rising.
Ara’s father bowed his head. “He’s in surgery.”
She looked at her husband with wide eyes and opened her mouth, but he spoke before she could. “How could you hurt him?”
“I didn’t have a choice,” she whispered.
Ara’s father looked at her. They stared at one another, and then: “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I had to,” she said placatingly, and she twitched her fingers as though reaching for him. “You saw it. You knew, even if you didn’t want to. I had to.”
Ara’s father stood up; the blanket fell from his shoulders. He crossed the room and grabbed the door handle.
“Where are you going?” Ara’s mother called after him. He looked back at her, his eyes red.
“The doctors are saying he won’t—he can’t—”
Ara’s mother smiled a wide, peaceful smile. “But he’s okay.”
Ara’s father whipped around. “Okay?” he said. “Our child won’t be able to walk, his nerves are totally destroyed, and you—”
“Oh, God,” Ara’s mother said, still smiling. Her eyes filled with tears. “He can’t go now. It’s gone; he’s going to be okay. Oh, God.”
Ara’s father stared.
“He won’t go now,” Ara’s mother repeated. “He can’t. He’s going to be okay.” She turned her eyes to the ceiling, still smiling, and tears fell into her hair. Ara’s father wrenched open the door and ran through it. It shut behind him with a snap, and in a moment muffled voices could be heard just outside. Shadows moved beyond the windows. Ara’s mother pressed her head into her pillow, still smiling.