J O R G E C A S U S O
Sophia, a single mother who gave birth to her baby late in life, realizes that several of the children of her anonymous sperm donor have met untimely deaths. Her efforts to determine if the deaths are random accidents or premeditated killings lead her to question her faith, the identity of her baby and the nature of chance and fate.
MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS
It was not the first time something had moved in Gabriel’s presence. Sophia had placed the baby bottle in the usual spot at the center of the table next to her baby’s crib, yet when she came back into the room, it was at the edge, and the formula, which had been half finished, was gone.
Her first reaction was to panic. Could someone else be in the house? She had been down the hall in the laundry room folding diapers--she only allowed organic cotton to touch her baby's skin--and had not heard anyone enter. As always, she had made sure all the doors and windows were locked. Besides, why would anyone break into a house to give a baby his milk? Unless it was the anonymous sperm donor she'd been trying to track down who had come to check on his infant son. That, Sophia thought, was as preposterous as the notion that Gabriel, an eleven-month-old infant with a lame leg, could have risen from the crib and taken the milk himself.
Sophia checked the window. It was still closed. It was raining harder, and there were no cars on the narrow road shrouded by trees that led to the small coral house in Coconut Grove, a bygone hippie haven where plants still grew wild. Sophia and Gabriel were alone. Yet, the bottle had moved. There was no question.
Sophia took the empty bottle and stared at the sleeping infant. He was a strange child, something it had taken months for her to come to terms with, as long as it had taken her to find a word to describe him that did not make her feel ashamed.
It was a miracle her baby was alive. He had been six weeks premature and, at first, Sophia had secretly wished he had never been born. It was a difficult birth, and Sophia had slept well into the stormy night when she heard a ghastly cry amid the thunder. It was a sound she knew she would never forget.
Then came the voices, nervous worried voices that only fed her alarm when she realized her newborn baby had not been brought to her. She nudged herself up and fumbled for the call button lost in the tangled sheets. Before she could find it, the doctor was by the bed, his face straining to avoid expression. Sophia had felt a stab of pain. Something was terribly wrong.
The wind picked up, and Sophia could hear the palm leaves brushing against the bedroom window. She had always loved the rain, the sounds it made tapping on the glass or sweeping through the trees. But after Gabriel was born, the rain and thunder only reminded her of the first time she brought him home.
That night, she'd thought she heard something crying outside, only the sound was too thin and shrill to be a baby, and soon it was joined by others, along with tiny barks, as if minuscule infants and dogs had surrounded the house. Through the rain, she could hear the sounds swelling into a chorus, and when croaks and groans joined in the cacophony, she realized that it was the sound of frogs that had gathered, as if nature in all its strangeness had conspired to sing the praises of her son.
Sophia figured the frogs would go away, that come winter, they would burrow under the leaves during cold spells and all would be quiet again. But it had been a year, winter was here and the frogs continued to gather even on a cold December night like this.
The room burst in light, and his eyes opened to the thunder, searching. Sophia told herself not to be afraid, that the worst was over, that Gabriel’s transformation had been miraculous.
When she first saw him, Sophia had looked away and cried. He had been born with his upper lip fused to his septum, and his three middle fingers were joined by flaps of tissue. He suffered from Bronchopulmunary Dysplasia, a lung condition that did not allow him to breathe on his own. Sophia had watched his frail tiny body hooked up to tubes, then a mask and, finally, a ventilation machine that pumped loud bursts of air into his silent lungs. When he gained sufficient strength to finally breathe on his own, Sophia brought him home to the colorful surroundings she had fashioned for him, with the mobile of whales and fishes above the crib that sent shadows swimming playfully along the blue walls. She would try not to cry or become angry, knowing that her emotions would be imprinted, that her infant’s large wide-set eyes, so strangely alert, were registering her every move.
During the first few months, before the defects had been corrected with a series of painful surgeries, she would look at her baby lying in the crib and have to look away. She could not bear to watch his tiny webbed hands trying to clutch the baby bottle, or his mouth, which in profile resembled a beak, desperately trying to nurse.
A series of surgeries had successfully separated the baby’s nose and lip, leaving only a small scar, and removed the tissue from between his fingers. But other features still set Gabriel apart. His skin was pale, almost translucent, and after a year of anxious waiting, his hair had failed to grow. Sophia had bought hats to cover his bald head, different styles for different occasions that never came about. His favorite was a small red cowboy hat he would wear with sunglasses to protect his large sensitive eyes from the light and from the glare of strangers.
She told herself that she was no longer ashamed of her son, that his features had changed. Still, she grew more possessive--and defensive--of the child, making sure to cover his eyes and head in public and staying out only as little as possible. Her shopping and errands were all done from home. Their days spent alone, especially when it stormed, were gloomy and secret.
Sophia brought the baby bottle back into the kitchen. She had sliced a mango on the counter, and its sweet, pungent fragrance filled the room. Outside, the rain had died, and the chorus of frogs had dwindled into a trio of chirps and moans. Sophia poured a cup of formula into a sterilized pot and placed it on the stove. The empty bottle she had cleansed sat waiting. Could Gabriel really have moved it? It was true that he had been a precocious infant, more than just alert. He never cried but seemed to bend her to his will, making her aware of his every need.
And the baby bottle was only the latest occurrence. There had been other small instances -- a flower in a vase that had shifted to face his crib, a blind Sophia was sure she had closed, only to find it now cracked slightly open. They were changes so minute, so seemingly insignificant, she didn't need to explain them away, and they passed, by and large, without much notice.
The sign that came next, however, would be impossible to dismiss. The formula bottle having been filled, Sophia quickly returned after thinking she had heard, or perhaps merely sensed, the baby stirring.
She entered, and the sound of the bottle falling from her hand filled the room. The mobile above the crib was slowly turning, the whales swimming and diving through the air. Outside, the chorus was deafening although the rain had stopped. Sophia rushed to check the window. It was closed, as she had left it. And still the whales kept swimming, the baby's dark eyes staring intently in their direction.
When they saw her approach, the impossibly large eyes turned their gaze, the whales slowly diving into stillness. Gabriel stared at his mother but betrayed no emotion.
“Ick tu,” the baby seemed to say, “ick tu.” Nearly a year old, and it was the only sound he seemed to make.
Sophia's mind couldn't grasp what her eyes had seen. Could Gabriel, a tiny, bedridden infant, have taken the bottle from the table, drank from it and somehow put it back? And could he have spun the mobile she had placed too high for him to reach?
She stared at her son lying in the crib and listened to the final mournful song of the frogs. A chasm had opened, and for a few seconds she had glimpsed a reality too impossible to comprehend. All Sophia Gallagher could do was cry.
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