Once upon a time, there was a woman who wanted to have a baby. Or rather, this woman, named Jane, didn’t particularly care whether she had a baby at the time this story takes place, but her husband, a good, solid man named Jack, felt it was time for the two of them to have a baby, and since she often felt his wishes ought to be hers as well, she also thought it must be time.
Every Sunday, the two of them would trudge from their tiny little apartment to church, where they would each light a candle and pray for a baby. Sometimes during the winter, when it was especially cold outside, the woman felt as though she was lighting the candle more to keep her hand briefly warm than for ceremony, but she would close her eyes and move her lips as if in prayer just the same, her hand cupped for as long as possible over the tiny plume of heat that poured from the mouth of the glass votive candle. The little flame would make the glass so hot that one could burn themselves if they touched it, which was also part of the experience—sometimes she would burn herself on purpose in the hopes that it made her prayer seem more important.
This went on for much longer than anyone had thought it would.Jane was uncomfortably aware that people who knew they wanted a child looked at her with more pity than friendship on their faces. Jack grew dark and moody and more and more insistent in bed, determined that there must be some magical way to mount her that would guarantee a child, many of which ended up being painful and completely unsatisfactory to Jane. On these nights, she would lie in bed, face to the wall, praying not to God, but to the hairline crack in the wall next to the bed that stretched from ceiling to floor, forked into multiple cracks halfway up the wall, like the branches of a tree. Sometimes, she imagined that the long, thin crack was a thin, unsubstantial sapling that grew from the space between the bed and the wall, sprouting from an errant seed that had drifted in through the window, unaware that it had set roots in the cheap green shag carpeting of their apartment instead of the rich soil of a forest. Sometimes, in these reveries, she imagined she could hear sparrows chirping in the branches of the wall-tree, and dreamed about giving birth to a nest of tiny, featherless birds that required very little care and left her months after being born.
One night, as she lay in bed after a particularly rough and frustrating night of lovemaking, Jane lay in bed and watched the crack wobble and twitch through the veil of tears she had grown accustomed to seeing her world through. It was as though a gentle wind buffeted the tiny sapling, threatening the nest of tiny birds she had grown to love in its upper branches, invisible in the shadows of the ceiling. She closed her eyes and could almost hear the tiny peeps of the birds overhead, calling for a mother she had still yet not imagined. The chirps and clucks grew louder and louder until she really could hear them, impossibly close by and as real as the snoring of her husband beside her.
Even so, she didn’t open her eyes until she felt tiny claws on her shoulder, followed by a warm, soft, feather-covered breast against her bare flesh. Jane opened her eyes to find a very small bird sitting on her shoulder, its feathers a beautiful, sky-colored blue, its breast as red as the lipstick she wore when she was still single. The bird stared at her with sharp, black eyes and fluffed its feathers up, its head cocked to one side, making quiet, clucking sounds to itself with its perfect triangle of a beak.
“Hello,” said Jane. She lay very still, not wanting the bird to fly away. Past the bird, she could see that her crack in the wall had become a real tree, surrounded by a forest of white-barked birch trees, and that warm, golden sunlight was pouring into a clearing somewhere not far away.
“I don’t have much time,” said the bird. It scratched at its beak with one tiny orange foot and stretched its wings out. “I just wanted to let you know that you’re pregnant, and you will have the most wonderful baby boy in the world. Everything your child wishes for will come true, and he will have a fantastic life.”
“You’re talking in your sleep,” murmured Jack, throwing his arm around her waist, and again, she was facing only wall. There was no improbable bird on her shoulder, no forest escape from her bedroom. There was only the heavy breathing of her husband filling the emptiness.
The next morning, when Jack grabbed at her breasts roughly in an attempt of seduction, Jane pushed him away and said, “Be careful! You might hurt the baby!” He looked at her blankly before rapturous joy spread across his face.
“The baby?” he yelped. “Are you sure? How do you know?”
“A little bird told me,” she said, blushing immediately, because it sounded so trite and flippant. But Jack just smiled and laughed the first real laugh he had had for what seemed like forever, and hugged her, and she felt happier than she had for ages. Her body felt full of sunshine and light, and it felt wonderful, as though she had had been empty for years and never realized it. Of course, she took a pregnancy test the next morning, just to be sure, but it only confirmed what she already knew.
Months passed—almost exactly nine—and a baby was born to Jane and Jack, a beautiful baby boy, just as the bird had said. Jane could tell the boy was magical from the moment the doctor put his soft, warm body in her arms, in that he was a baby and he was hers. She had no idea if he was magic magic or not, but she didn’t care, so long as she never had to put him down again. They named the little boy Paul after her father-in-law, even though Jane would have liked to have named the boy Stephen after her own deceased father, but Paul seemed to fit okay, too, and it made Jack happy.
As the baby older and older, and began to roll himself down the hallway after toys, and fuss and fight over which toys he preferred, Jane wondered if she should tell Jack about her dream, about the bird saying their baby could have anything he wished for just by asking, but it all sounded so silly and ridiculous when she said it out loud that she never did. Finally, when the boy began to speak his very first words, she confided in the old woman next door, who seemed wise and mysterious and perhaps able to translate the meaning of prenatal dreams, and asked for her opinion.
“Really?” said the woman, curious. “Anything he wishes for?” She crinkled up her nose and stared at Paul so seriously that Jane had to laugh.
“It was just a dream,” she finally said. “You’re right. Maybe I’ll wait until he’s all grown up before I say anything to Jack.” Jane hugged her little boy tightly and murmured nonsense into the soft, reddish-gold clouds of fluff that passed for his hair.
Every morning, Jane put Paul in his little stroller and walked him to the park. Before she had had a baby, she hated this park. It had only just recently been converted from an industrial site, and grass still struggled to poke thin green stalks through the oily dirt and crumbly polymer-based gravel that made up the grounds. There were often people passed out on the benches early in the morning, their faces red and dry as though they had been bombarded by frosty winds the night before, which often, they were. Even though the park was new, the swing set and slide that they’d dumped on the site had been moved there from a park that had been reclaimed and built over by the city, and was already old and rusty and covered by repetitious layers of graffiti and monochrome paint.
Now that she had Paul, Jane loved the park. Where she used to see broken concrete blocks and crushed beer cans, she now saw only snowdrops and tulips struggling to make their place in the early days of spring, followed by daffodils and hyacinths. Tiny sparrows hopped along after newly-thawed gnats and flies darting in the bright, morning sunshine, and the skies were noisy with geese and ducks honking and quacking in great flocks overhead. Jane took Paul to the rusty swing set almost every day to slip him inside the pink plastic cage of a baby swing, where she would gently push him back and forth until he would throw his head back and squeal in delight and abandon, his tiny feet kicking back and forth in the air. Jane knew that that was the perfect time to take him out of the swing, because almost immediately after he started squealing and laughing, he would start crying. After the swing set, she would put him in his stroller and walk around the park a little longer, pointing out birds and butterflies and the occasional single mitten or shoe that lay across their path.
As much as she treasured these mornings, however, they were not mean to last. After the novelty of having a child began to wear on Jack, he began insisting that Jane start looking for a job so that things might be more comfortable for the two of them in the future. Jane had the feeling that the real reason she was supposed to go back to work was because Jack was jealous of her and Paul’s time together, but she could never decide if he was jealous of Paul for getting so much of her attention, or if he was jealous of her for getting to spend so much time with their baby.
When she mentioned this to the old woman next door, however, the woman—Francis—clucked her tongue and smiled. “I could take care of the little one for you,” she said without hesitation. “I just love babies. You wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. I could take him to the park with me every single day, just like you do, while you go out and look for a job, and then afterwards, when you have a job. I’ll give you my phone number and you can call me and check in whenever you want.”
“Oh, I could never ask you to do that,” said Jane. “It’s just too much to ask. He’s old enough for day care. I can just—”
“Why would you put your wonderful little boy with strangers when I’d be delighted to watch him for free?” interrupted Francis. “Talk to your husband about it, if you’d like, but I think you know he’d be happiest here with me. He already knows me!” She clucked her tongue again, and jiggled Paul’s tiny feet in their tiny striped socks, and he laughed until he got hiccups.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea!” said Jack when Jane told him that night, along with her misgivings about leaving Paul alone with the old woman for so long. “She’s such a nice lady, so much like a grandmother. She’s probably lonely, too, and desperate for the company. Plus, think of all the money we’ll save! I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
“I don’t know,” said Jane. “If we put him in daycare, he might make friends his own age. Isn’t that one of the reasons people put their children in daycare?”
“He’s a baby!” said Jack. “He’s not going to make any friends. Besides, for now, it’s just going to be a couple of hours a day while you go out and look for a job, and after that, who knows? You might even get a job at a place with a daycare in the building! Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Then you could see him every day during your lunch break, and if there was an emergency, you could be there in minutes!” He just kept talking about it, saying the same thing over and over in as many different ways possible, until she finally agreed.
The next morning, Jane brought Paul and his little stroller to Francis’ door, her heart steeled against walking away from her baby for the first time since she brought him home from the hospital. Francis opened the door of her apartment and crowed excitedly as she took Paul from Jane’s arms, bouncing him against her hip and cooing to him nonsensically.
“I’ll be back by noon,” said Jane as she handed the diaper bag to Francis, who set it down on an overstuffed floral-patterned armchair in the corner of the tiny apartment. “I should have enough bottles in the bag, but if he’s still hungry, there are some crackers in the bag for him as well.”
“I know how to take care of a baby,” said Francis, nodding her head. “You don’t have to worry about a thing. I’ll probably take him to the park in a bit, just like you do. It’ll be just a normal day for him, except I’ll be pushing the stroller instead.”
“Well, make sure he doesn’t get too much sun,” said Jane, but she was already shut out of the conversation of babbling of cooing unfolding between Francis and Paul. She kissed Paul on the top of his little head and stepped out of the apartment, wondering how she would make it through the next couple of hours without her son.
As soon as Jane had left, Francis carefully set Paul down in the overstuffed chair next to the diaper bag and grabbed her purse and coat of the closet. “How about going to the park with your granny Francis?” The little boy looked at her with big, wondering eyes, blue as the sky over the sea. “We can do anything you’d like while we’re there. You just have to ask.”
The baby wiggled and twitched until he had almost slid off the chair. Francis waited and watched until the little boy had almost wiggled his way to the edge of the chair before reaching over and picking him up in both arms. “I guess we’ll just go to the park then, won’t we?” she cooed into his soft little head, briefly enjoying the warmth of the tiny body against hers, remembering how her own infant daughter had felt against her so many years before.
She strapped Paul into his stroller and carefully made her way down the hallway. She could hear all of the people in their apartments getting ready for work as she passed, the snap of jackets being zipped and cups and plates slamming into the sink, people arguing with their children and spouses to hurry up. She smiled at doors opening on either side of her, enjoying the looks of surprise at her being with a baby that was so obviously not hers. She knew after this, Jane and Jack wouldn’t be the only parents in the building stopping by her place to ask if she was available to babysit.
The sunlight was warm and sweet as she stepped out of the musty apartment building and onto the sidewalk. Paul cooed and babbled and blinked in the bright light, his cheeks pinking in happy baby excitement. Francis pointed out flowers and butterflies to him as they walked towards the park, carefully sounding out their names as she used to with her own daughter, and later, her own grandchildren. She could get used to this again, she thought as Paul made little “baba” sounds of babytalk and contentment. Motherhood had been such a time of stress and torment for her that she hadn’t gotten to truly enjoy having a baby. Her daughter had grown up and moved across the country, so she had only seen her grandchildren as babies once or twice before they were too old to want to be held and sang to anymore. She had thought about getting a dog or a cat to endure her occasional needs to shower affection on something, but her apartment didn’t allow her to keep anything more complicated than a goldfish or a caged bird, and that really wasn’t the same.
At the park, she unstrapped Paul and put him on his hands and knees on the thin grass struggling through the rocks. He immediately lurched forward onto his stomach, burying his face into the ground.
“That’s not how you crawl, you silly goose.” Francis reached over and picked him up as he cried, his perfect pink lips covered in tiny rocks and oily dirt. He looked up at her suspiciously with giant, tear-filled eyes, and she began to sing, because it was the only thing she could think to do to get him to stop looking at her that way. She sang about the butterflies they had passed on the way to the park, about the bird that said he could have anything he wished for, about castles and clouds and all the things that loved him.
As she sang, things unfolded and unfurled all around them. A bright blue butterfly as large as a raven popped out of the air and fluttered onto her shoulder. Tiny flowers cascaded in a rainbow of colors over the two of them, while soft, green grass erupted from the oily, dead soil of the park.
Francis stopped singing and gently shook off the butterfly, who fluttered heavily to the new patch of grass to sit and pump its wings open and shut as though it had only just emerged from an enormous cocoon.
“Are you doing all of this?” she asked the baby, whose eyes glowed bright and clear in the early morning sunlight. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a quarter. “Can you make another one of these?” she asked, waving it back and forth in front of Paul’s eyes, and smiled as something hard pelted the back of her neck, followed by another, and another, until a whole pile of round metal circles with indistinguishable faces on them surrounded her and the baby on the sidewalk. “We’ll work on it,” said, and scooped up the metal slugs anyway. Who knows? They might still fit in the coin-operated laundry machines in the basement of her apartment complex.
Every day, for the rest of the week, Jane brought Paul to Francis’s tiny apartment, and every morning, Francis took Paul from his mother without a word about the wonderful things he could do. Even though the front room of the old woman’s apartment remained conspicuously plain and empty, her bedroom was filled to the ceiling with teddy bears and snowglobes, tiny clattering robots and soft, comfortable blankets that the old woman had pointed out to the little boy in the windows of the stores they passed by on their walks. Each day, before returning home from the park, Francis and Paul would stop at the bank to dump loose change into the coin counter at the bank—most of which looked more and more like real quarters—and Francis would stand in the line to get her money back from the cashier with her receipt to get her change turned into a crisp pile of twenties. These, she tucked into first one, then several boxes under her bed, as it wouldn’t do to deposit so much unexpected money into her bank account without arousing suspicion.
Before long, Jane noticed that Paul seemed more excited to see Francis in the morning than he did to see her when she came home from work, and a great well of sadness opened up in her chest. She didn’t mind going to work, and she did enjoy having a little time to herself, but there was something fundamentally wrong about having your child prefer the company of someone else so much.
“I can’t believe you’re jealous of that poor old woman,” scoffed Jack when Jane told him her concerns. “She obviously loves Paul as much as if he were her own grandchild, and Paul loves her, too! What else do you think that poor old woman has to do with her time? Besides, we can’t really afford to live on just my income anymore. Babies are expensive, and we’re pretty lucky to have free childcare living right next door.”
Jane knew Jack had made up his mind on the matter, but she had also made up her own mind. From that day forward, she became the worst employee she could be at work. She broke the office coffeepot and refused to contribute to the office pool to buy another one; she stopped taking messages when the office manager stepped out of the office; she came in late, took extra long lunches, and left early. It wasn’t long before her boss called her in to tell her he was going to have to let her go.
“I think maybe you’re just one of those people who can’t balance parenthood and working very well,” said her boss, not unkindly. “It’s too bad, because if you weren’t still working here on a probationary basis, you could just take some extra unpaid leave and come back when you felt ready to work again. But since you just started here . . .”
“That’s fine,” said Jane. She stood up and slipped her purse over her shoulder and left.
Instead of going straight home, she decided to go to the park to surprise Francis and Paul. She got there just in time to see a shower of coins rain out of the sky directly over Francis’s head. Paul sat on the sidewalk beside her, a bright gold coin held in his chubby fist, his eyes glowing in excitement at his toy.
“You’re such a clever boy!” she heard Francis coo as she quickly scooped up the coins to shove them into her waiting purse. “My father gave me that when I wasn’t too much older than you. There have been many times when I thought I should just sell it, but now I’m so glad I held onto it!”
“So it’s true!” gasped Jane. She took the coin from Paul’s little hand. She didn’t know anything about coins, but it looked very old, covered in writing she didn’t recognize.
“Why aren’t you at work?” asked Francis, startled. “What are you doing here?”
“I got fired,” said Jane. “Now I can stay at home with Paul again.” She smiled at her little boy, who looked at her curiously before responding with his own toothless grin.
“That doesn’t seem like a good idea at all,” said Francis. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of folded paper. “Hey, Paul,” she said, unfolding the paper and spreading it out for the little boy to see. “Pauly Pauly, look at me.”
The paper was a page ripped out of a magazine, a scene of a beautiful lake covered in ducks and white swans. “Time to go, Pauly.” Francis tapped at the paper. “Just you and me, like last time. Time to go here.”
“Time to go home,” said Jane. She reached out for Paul but her hands felt nothing. There wasn’t a flash or a noise or anything. One moment, her little boy and Francis were there, and the next, they weren’t. The sidewalk in front of her was completely empty. The only evidence that they had been there at all was the gold coin clenched in Jane’s hand. “Paul!” she screamed as loud as she could, in case he was close by, maybe invisible or just hiding in the playground equipment. She ran around the park, looking inside tube slides and under animal-shaped climbing equipment. There was nobody there. Nobody ever came to this park except Paul and her, or Paul and Francis, and today was no exception. She ran home and banged on Francis’ door until the hallway behind her was full of people, presumably her neighbors, most of which were strangers to her. Someone called the police, and they took her into her own apartment and listened while she told her fantastic story that started with her getting fired from work.
“So where did you say this coin came from?” asked the police officer again, turning the bright, golden coin over in his large, grubby hands. He finally handed it over to Jack, who sit at the other end of the couch and did not look at Jane. “It looks like it’s worth a lot of money. Did someone give that coin to you?”
“It was just lying on the ground behind Paul,” said Jane. “There were piles of them, all around him and Francis, and she was putting them in her purse when I got to the park. There must have been hundreds of them.”
“Hm,” said the police officer. “Sometimes people buy things with gold because you can trace cash, but you can’t trace rare coins, especially old ones,” he said. This time, he looked only at Jack while he spoke, as if Jane were invisible. “Only things that can’t be bought any other way get paid for with that kind of currency.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Jane, but it was too late, there was a conversation going on between the men that didn’t include her at all. That night, when she climbed into bed with Jack, he turned his back to her with the certainty of brick, as cold and hard and as far away from her as possible without falling off the side of the bed. She turned towards the wall and looked for solace in the crack that had once been a tree, but found only a grimy wall smudged with fingerprints, split by perfectly ordinary water stains and cracked plaster that contained neither forests nor birds.
The next night she slept on the couch in the living room, away from Jack and his silence. He treated her as though she was invisible, convinced of her guilt and distancing himself from it. A few weeks later, the police returned the gold coin to Jack and said that until they could officially link the crime with the coin, they couldn’t legally hold onto something that valuable, and that they might as well hold onto it themselves. Jack took the coin somewhere downtown and quickly sold it to a collector, and Jane put on her coat and her shoes, opened the door, and started walking. She didn’t know where she was going, but knew she couldn’t stay in an apartment with no baby and a husband that suspected her of awful things.
She walked until she reached a part of town where most of the buildings were abandoned and overgrown with lichen and mold and the cracked asphalt street sprouted tiny trees and flowerbeds. When she was young, there had been a candy store that still operated here that she and her friends would make their way to, past the gaping, empty storefront windows to this bright spot in the dereliction. She found the old candy store, its windows broken, the smooth, white counters inside that once held jars of sugar-magic covered with drifts of dead, brown leaves. Jane carefully pushed at the door, its lock long broken, and stepped inside. Everything she loved was gone.
She made her way behind the counter, where the nameless man who ran the store used to give Jane and her friends free samples of chocolates and little cups of soda so that they’d stay longer and talk to him. She wondered what had become of him when the store finally closed. When her legs grew tired, she sat down in the tight space behind the counter and watched the sun move across the sky through the broken storefront window until it had disappeared completely. When her head grew tired, she lay back into the dark and rested her head gingerly on a cushion of old leaves, discarded cigarette butts, and loose floor tiles, closed her eyes and imagined all the ways she might die. She wondered if Jack had even noticed she had left yet, and knew that her disappearance would be, to him, an admission of her guilt.
Somewhere far away, in a place warm and green and bright with butterflies and birds, Francine and Paul stood in front of a wonderful castle, a castle built entirely out of wishes and gentle prompts. But Jane didn’t know this: try as she might, she could not remember what had been pictured on the crumpled paper Francine had unfolded and shown Paul before they had disappeared. Sometimes, she imagined it was a page from a children’s book, something with puppies and kittens splashed across the page next to some clumsy nursery rhyme. Other times, she thought it had perhaps been a travel brochure for some tropical clime, a place of beaches and sandcastles, surrounded by a warm, soft ocean full of excitement and promise.
Days passed, and she stayed tucked into the dark space behind the candy shop counter, drifting in and out of uncomfortable sleep. During the night, the long cracks in the walls around her unfolded and blossomed into great trees, their branches stretching even higher than the buildings that made up the dilapidated street. Birds flew down from the trees, berries and dewdrops cradled in their tiny beaks, and fed Jane tiny mouthful by tiny mouthful while she slept. Eventually, though, even their careful ministering couldn’t save her, and the woman eventually faded into a pile of cold, brittle sheets of newsprint that rustled and flapped down the street, joining a cloud of debris intent on finding so many things that had been lost.
Far away, and many years later, a little boy sat on a beach underneath a warm, bright sun, building a sandcastle. He carefully decorated its sides with tiny pink shells and surrounded the bottom of it with a moat of tiny blue shells. Any color of shell that the boy needed to use for his castle just happened to be there, right under his small, grasping hand. In fact, the entire beach was covered with magnificent, intricate little castles of every hue you can imagine, each of which seemed completely impervious to the waves that crept up along the beach every morning and evening.
He put the last shell in place and stepped back to admire his work. As he did, he felt something gently brushing against his shoulder, and again at the side of his face. Something soft and white wrapped him in its embrace, like a single wide birdwing, thin and fragile enough to let the sunlight shine through.
“Got you!” He reached out and clutched at the large sheet of paper with his chubby little fist. The paper was stiff and stained from the salt air and the salt of the sea, bleached unevenly from ages of being under the sun. The wind tugged and pulled at the paper and made it struggle and flutter in its grasp.
The boy had never seen a piece of paper so big before, as his grandmother, whom he lived with in the big, bright castle at the edge of the sand, only carried a small notebook in her purse with which to draw beautiful pictures of things she wanted from him. Excitedly, he began to carefully fold the sheet of paper into a boat, as he had seen other children do in his storybooks. It was easier than he had imagined, and soon, the newspaper was a beautiful white sailboat, almost big enough for him to sit in. He set the newspaper boat in the water and watched as the tide carried it away, out into the ocean, until it was nothing but a small white triangle in the distance, and then it was gone.
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