baby boy

Editor’s Choice Award

By Caitlin Woolley

Here lies the seed of my seed, the blood of my blood, the bone of my body, broken as the way we circle you. Yet here we are, circled, the soles of our feet kissing you goodbye. Our steps are thunder to our beetle friends below.

Soon, we will return home to kitchen counters overflowing with casseroles, tilted heads, stale coffee, the scuffle of anxious shoes. Every voice competes to be the warmest and most hushed. We will say nothing of ourselves, but barely of you. Yes, I loved my grandson. Yes, I’d give anything. It is the first time I can remember the house being wordless. We preserve you as a kindness, held just at the tip of our tongues.

But tongues are troublesome. Especially yours, which seemed somehow infinite. In school, or out your driver’s side window, or to the clerk behind the desk—in these places you talked the most. Who knows what you said? You talked and talked and talked. Talked yourself into this or out of that so many times. It was a kind of gift: you could embody any meaning you wanted, even if only for a short time.

We learned this about you early on. Even at your littlest, your stories were clear and coherent as church bells. You spoke full sentences while other children wiped the drool from their chins. And the way you described the world: fluffy, hazy, sharp, pointed, shiny, mine. Your life then was raw, animalian. A chaos of texture and color and feeling, of shape and slip, a steady beat of need want get need want get. You came to rely on the beat the way a heart beats, the way lungs draw breath.

But it wasn’t just words you wielded. It was all sound. Your wailing grew uncontrollable. We gave anything to make you quiet. It was a warp of rage that unlocked any door, a scream we felt at the base of our spines. Toys, attention, food—whatever you wanted, it was yours. What could the truth matter so long as the wailing stopped?

There were your breathy little stories, too. They seemed ordinary, except for. Too small to notice unless you mapped it out and measured it, but in significant places: you said the rabbit in the woods was dead when you found it, but the neighbor girl recalled it leaping. When you told a truth you told it like you were lying; and when you lied, it sounded honest as psalm. It became impossible to tell the difference.

But there was your laughter, too. It could spin us into complacence faster than anything. It soothed us, eased us, offered blessed equilibrium.

When you were a little boy, you’d come home from a playdate with a backpack overflowing with trinkets. A sugar pack, a yellow block, a pen, a locket with photos of strangers. You figured out how to get away with it before we really knew what you were getting away with. The way you would curl your fists at your sides to keep the riches from clinking, how you’d amble away from your friends’ houses to make them think you didn’t really want to come home.

It took me a while to catch on, but I know now what you were building then: a foundation of misunderstandings, a groundwork of misremembrance, a place where you could bury us without our ever feeling the dirt in our hair.

Later, when your mother vacuumed under your bed, she found your trove of stolen treasures. When she asked you where they came from, you howled hot pink tears and swore up and down your tiny body that your friend gave this to you, this model airplane, this pearl earring. And she would yell, what have I told you about stealing? And you screamed back, it isn’t stealing if it was already mine.

Then your mother sent you to your room where you wept until you fell asleep many hours later, still dressed, sitting rigid on your bed. You wanted her to let you out. You wanted to talk to us. You wanted things that were not yours. You wanted to tell the story. You wanted. You wanted. You wanted. That was how you saw the world: yours. Not to take, not to learn—but a birthright.

It wasn’t until you got older that things got so bad we had to block you out. We used what means were available: headphones, an old ham radio from my college days. Your mother retreated to her desk and worked. Not able to bear what we didn’t know how to talk about, I took circular walks around the neighborhood.

“That boy acting up again?” the house next door asked, seeing me pass for the third time. I’d shake my head, no, just out for a walk, stuff my hands in my pockets, and mosey onward until the moon peeked out from behind the hills. I was an old man then, as I am now, and older with every step.

It was my daughter, your mother, whose heart broke the deepest. She is my only child. And like you, she was always busy, never working fewer than two jobs or sleeping as much as she should have, especially after you were born. She was like a lightning spark, electric and fleeting. I never could catch her. I thought maybe I had after I moved in to help her with the baby, but she’s too good for that.

You had no father, or at least I never knew him. But I never asked. I admit your father was never important to me. Maybe that makes me callous, but there was me and you and her. Briefly, we were a perfect trinity.

The size of the things you wanted grew as you did. A video game. A car. A 7-11. Towards the end it was too much to contain. Your mother spent her days on the phone with everyone and god-knows-who, trying to secure your safe return. I picked you up every time, and you talked the whole way home. It was a routine. It was clockwork. You couldn’t abide the silence; I couldn’t stand the sound of your voice.

Some nights when we had no idea where you were or who you were with, I wondered if you weren’t killing somebody. But my tongue aches to be troublesome too. Here’s the secret I will keep until I’m buried next to you: I hoped you were. You robbed me of the life I wanted for you—so if you robbed someone else of theirs, it would lift the shame of my lovelessness.

Maybe those beetle friends of ours have it easier. Their first pair of wings protects the second, effectively offering the beetle only two chances, and no more.

Not long before you died, I had a vision about your future. I dreamed what you would be like as an adult, as a man, as a crows-feet father. But the details wouldn’t focus.

You worked a day job but I never learned what you did. You had a little boy, but I couldn’t see his face; his features were waxen, rounded, blank. You were kinder to your mother and me, the kind of grandson who brought me cake on my birthday. But the cake was flavorless and we never finished it. We never wanted to.

Even in dreams, I could not lift you piece by piece into my mouth, roll you past my tongue and teeth, topple you down my throat, nourish my body by you. You weren’t mine to devour. You devoured yourself. What we buried was for the bugs.

Tonight, I wish I had the talent for language that you had. I wish I could talk to my daughter; her light is still on across the hall. I wish I had been kinder to her. Maybe I will try. I wish I could get you back for her, but I think you’re better off where you are.

So here is where we must leave each other, seed of my seed, blood of my blood. As a plastic fork, a paper plate, a cracked window. Past participle. Lost property. Half moon. Paved over, grass sod, unpaid ticket, meconium.

Caitlin Woolley is a writer living in Seattle, WA. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but now spends her daylight hours writing copy for a marketing agency. You can find her past work in Fiddleblack, Sweet Tree Review, Blue River Review, and elsewhere.

Image Credit: M


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