The infant was made of paper, the gray-white sheaves that wasps spin for nests. Rachel found her between the toes of the old oak tree that stood in the yard. Thistledown covered the baby’s head, and when Rachel lifted her from the earth, tissue-thin lids crinkled open to reveal eyes of river rock, slate-gray and lusterless.
The baby opened her mouth and cried, a powerful squalling that sent the crows flapping from the rooftops.
Not knowing what else to do, Rachel bundled her inside.
She dribbled porridge into the baby’s open mouth, but that did nothing to quiet the racket. Cow’s milk provoked shrieks. Rachel wrapped the child in a quilt she fetched off the sofa, murmured soft things in her ear, rocked her back and forth. When the baby started nuzzling at her shoulder, Rachel felt a tingle in her breasts, and soon the cloying smell of honeysuckles rose from damp spots on her shirt.
She put the baby to her breast, and decided she’d gone crazy. Her first pregnancy had ended with an early miscarriage. Her second produced a stillbirth at five months. She was on friendly terms but separated from her husband. And now she’d lost it, imagining that the wasp’s nest fallen from the tree in the last storm was the child she’d never have.
Rachel didn’t care.
She moved to the rocker in the formal parlor, a room dominated by the big bay window. Lace curtains hid her from the street, but she could still watch cars drive by, rendered ghostly by the fabric. The parlor was stuffed full with antiques handed down from great-aunts, spinsters the lot of them. Out of seven sisters, only Rachel’s grandmother managed to have a baby.
When the infant—Rachel decided to call her Eliza—finished nursing, Rachel leaned her over a shoulder and patted her back. Eliza burped, a rustling sound like leaves in a breeze.
An old bassinet held porcelain-headed dolls and needlepoint cushions. With the baby cradled in the crook of one arm, Rachel lifted these out and lined them up along the baseboard. She nestled the now-sleeping Eliza down into the basket and tucked a blanket under her chin.
Rachel returned to the chair. Humming to keep the baby resting quietly, she rocked until she dozed off.
Caterwauling punctuated by sharp shushing woke her. Rachel opened her eyes to see Aunt Bess next to the window, rocking from foot to foot with the baby held to her shoulder. Aunt Bess died during Rachel’s teens. Rachel had missed the funeral because of a school trip.
“Look, baby,” Aunt Bess cooed, turning her face to the infant, “Mama’s awake.”
Aunt Bess looked over Rachel’s shoulder and smiled at someone. Heels clicked on the hardwood, and another elderly woman breezed into the room. Aunt Alice, Rachel guessed, navigating by a dim memory of a sunken-cheeked head ensconced on hospital pillows.
“Much better. She’ll much prefer Mommy’s nectar to this.” Aunt Alice set a baby’s bottle atop one of the many doily-armored end tables.
Aunt Bess settled baby Eliza into Rachel’s arms. Rachel looked at her aunt. “I am crazy, right?”
“Shush, shush. No thinking about that now. Your baby needs you.”
Indeed, the baby was rooting around Rachel’s bosom, mewling and snuffling. Rachel set her to nursing and stroked her papery cheek.
The grandfather clock struck three in the afternoon, a short melody followed by three sonorous bongs. Aunt Bess smiled, her powdered skin folding like velvet. “I’m glad you’ve taken care of my clock,” she said.
“Of course,” Rachel mumbled.
Rachel looked down at the child and ran a fingertip down the baby’s arm. Like pastry dough, Eliza’s skin was many-layered. It crackled ever so softly under Rachel’s finger. Out of curiosity, Rachel snagged a fingernail under one of the edges and pried. A flake lifted, strands of cobweb stretching between the layers. The baby clamped down before tearing her mouth from Rachel’s breast to wail like a cat trapped by its tail.
“Oh, no, no!” Aunt Alice rushed to Rachel’s side. “You must never, never. She’s far too fragile.”
Tears filled Rachel’s eyes. “I’m so sorry! Sorry, baby, sorry.” She tucked Eliza to her chest, held her close and rocked her until the cries turned to whimpers and then silence. Eventually, the baby began to feed again.
“I have work tomorrow,” Rachel said to her dead aunts. “I’ll have to call in sick.” She paused, thinking of the impossibility of daycare. “I’ll have to quit.”
The old women sat down on a hand-carved walnut loveseat with red silk upholstery, an heirloom so old that it had been sent around the tip of South America to reach the West Coast. Aunt Alice tilted her head to the side, a hint of a smile touching her lips. “You can keep your job. Eliza will be cared for. That’s why we’re here.”
Rachel wound through the cubicle maze. She imagined eyes following her, noses scenting out the crazy that clung to her like smoke from a campfire.
Her bag contained the breast pump she bought on the way to work. She feared looking down during the morning meeting to see circles of nectar staining her blouse. Hallucination or not, she wouldn’t be able to control her reaction. Better to sneak into the handicapped stall every few hours and pump.
Plus, her aunts said she should save her nectar. The sugar water they’d otherwise be forced to feed Eliza didn’t really have the right nutrition.
Rachel slumped into her computer chair and held her face in her hands. A sliver of her mind told her she ought to get a handle on this. See a shrink. Take a vacation. But she didn’t want to. All she really wanted to do was get through the day without screwing up any spreadsheets so that she could leave work on time and get back to Eliza. Her baby needed her.
Baby Eliza was too young to sleep through the night. She needed to feed every few hours to keep putting on new layers. The aunts each took a shift giving her a bottle, but Rachel woke every time the baby fussed whether she had to nurse her or not.
After two weeks of this, Rachel began to stumble through her days. She missed stop signs and zoned out at green lights until the cars behind her laid on the horn. At work, she submitted incomplete documents to her supervisor. Other new mothers took maternity leave. Those with paper babies had to just cope.
At home, though, things were wonderful. Baby Eliza grew more alert with each passing day, swiveling pupil-less river rocks toward motion, cooing as much as she cried. The aunts guessed they’d see her first real smile before month’s end. Two days ago, Aunt Alice had met Rachel at the door, a grin splitting her face and a nubbin of wood in her hand. “Her cord fell off,” Alice declared.
The good times couldn’t last.
“I’m thinking of heading back soon,” Aunt Bess said over dinner. The aunts had been switching off on the cooking, giving Rachel a chance to interact with her daughter right after work.
“But doesn’t that put too much burden on Aunt Alice?” Rachel asked.
Aunt Alice dabbed the corners of her mouth and laid her napkin in her lap. “My time’s getting short too, dear.”
Rachel’s fork fell to her plate with a clatter. Her pulse sounded like crashing surf in her ears. “But who will take care of Eliza?”
“Well, honey, it’s not easy, but other single mothers make do. There are plenty of daycare centers that will take her at six weeks old, or you could consider a nanny.”
“You realize that’s impossible, right?” Rachel stared at each of her aunts in turn. “Babies aren’t made out of wasp’s nest and they don’t drink nectar. They come from their mamas, not from the dirt under the oak tree.”
Aunt Bess tittered. “Are you trying to tell us about the birds and the bees, child? We lived a long, long time, the each of us. I assure you, sweetie, we know how it works between men and women.”
“And for that matter,” Rachel said, “you’re both dead and buried. I can’t explain any of this to a daycare, nor can I walk in with an imaginary child in my arms and ask them to change her diapers. I need you. I can’t keep Eliza without you.”
She bunched handfuls of tablecloth in her fists. Aunt Alice gave her a stern look, and without thought, Rachel smoothed the cloth and said she was sorry.
Aunt Alice nodded, took a sip of water. But Rachel knew that good table manners wouldn’t keep them here. She bowed her head and cried quietly.
“Shush, honey.” One of the aunts laid a hand on Rachel’s back. “It’s not easy being a mama. You’ve got a little time to work this out. We won’t be gone for a few days yet.”
Rachel sat in the parlor and pushed her toe against the floor to keep the rocker moving. Eliza slept, cooing deep in her throat. Aunt Bess sat in a ladder-backed chair by the window.
“I remember when your mama was just a baby,” Aunt Bess said. “She was a sweet little thing. Your grandma was so proud. We all used to sit around sewing little outfits for her, just talking and listening to her breathe.”
Rachel smoothed her daughter’s downy hair. It had grown, and now felt more like the fluff that blows off cottonwoods in the spring.
“Did your mama ever talk much about your daddy?” Aunt Bess asked.
“Not that I remember.”
“Hmm. Can’t say I remember him either. Nor your granddad. We seem to get along pretty well without those fellows. That’s something to ponder, isn’t it?”
Aunt Bess turned in her chair and regarded Rachel for a moment before chuckling. “Sometimes I’ve got to wonder if they were ever there at all.”
Rachel nodded absentmindedly.
“Please, just another day!” Rachel pleaded. “Just one more day and I’ll see a psychiatrist. I just can’t lose her yet.” She clutched Eliza to her chest. Tears streamed down her face and dripped onto the shirt that Eliza was busy nuzzling.
“We can’t stay, honey. You have to start taking care of her yourself now.”
Both aunts stood in the hallway, suitcases at their sides, felt hats pushed down over gray curls.
“But I can’t. I’m crazy, remember?”
“Rachel,” Aunt Alice said, “that’s why we have to go. It’s time for you to take charge. A shrink isn’t going to help you. Not with this.”
“But, my baby,” Rachel cried, sinking to the floor. She wrapped both arms around her daughter, clutched her as tight as she could without crushing her fragile body.
Aunt Bess stooped down next to her. “Rachel,” she whispered, “you aren’t crazy. Crazy doesn’t feel like you do.” She stroked Rachel’s hair. “Love is not always something you find. Sometimes, love is what you choose to do.”
Rachel heard the clunk when the deadbolt slid from its housing, the quiet snick as the door opened, the final click when her aunts pulled it shut behind them.
Rachel repeated her aunt’s last words over and over to herself. Love is what you choose to do. Love is what you choose to do . . . . I make it real.
She looked in the rearview mirror at the back of the rear-facing car seat. Unable to see her daughter, and unable to resist touching her, she contorted her shoulder to drop a hand over the car seat’s back. A tiny, papery hand closed round the tip of her finger.
Working the steering wheel with one hand, she turned the car into the daycare’s parking lot.
Eliza fussed a little bit when Rachel pulled her out into the chill winter air. Rachel tutted and clucked and balanced the baby on her knee while she worked tiny arms and legs through insulated winter clothing.
She glanced at the building. A square-cut hedge stood beneath a row of windows. Brick walls propped up a heavy brow of a roof. So ordinary. Not the sort of place to bring a child with rocks for eyes and ten tiny fingernails made of snail’s shell. Her resolve faltered.
No. She wouldn’t turn away now. She wouldn’t hide her baby any longer. Rachel straightened her shoulders.
She tucked her child into the crook of her arm and walked up the salted sidewalk to the front door. Construction paper art, only slightly faded, had been taped to the outside with the names of children and their ages written in the corner.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, opened the door, and went inside.
“May I help you?” A college-aged girl quickly stood from where she’d been helping a toddler fit plastic blocks together.
“Ohh! What a beautiful baby! What’s her name?”
Rachel looked down to see Eliza’s deep blue eyes looking up at her from a face pink with the cold.
“This is my daughter, Eliza,” Rachel said. “I love her more than I’ve ever loved anything.”