He had been warned that there would be blood.
Caleb’s mother had told him in their daily lessons, “No one is actually hurt. Blood doesn’t necessarily mean pain.” She showed him a drawing of a baby floating in space, connected to the placenta. “The baby may be bloody when it comes out, but it isn’t bleeding. We’ll wash him off, wash the sheets and towels, and you won’t even remember it.” Since his parents had decided that Caleb, six years old, would assist with the birth, he found an unending list of questions for his mother to consider. When he asked if there had been a lot of blood when he was born, his mother shook her head. “You were easy,” she said. “You were so easy.”
His father whittled a block of wood into a duck for the unborn baby before he took his penknife and dug it into the tip of his thumb. When the blood rose to the surface of the skin and trickled down his father’s hand, Caleb looked away, nauseated. His father swung him around, softly, and held up the sliced thumb. “It’s just blood,” he said. “It gets out sometimes and that’s not the worst thing in the world.” Caleb held out his hand, and his father made a quick slice into the boy’s own thumb. When the blood bubbled up, Caleb and his father laughed. “Blood’s nothing to worry about,” his father said, and Caleb felt safe, another lesson learned. His father regarded the half-whittled duck, now streaked with brown-red blood, and threw it into the woods surrounding their cabin, the expanse of trees so dense for miles in every direction that it seemed to Caleb that no one else in the world existed. “Don’t show your mother what we’ve done,” his father said, and Caleb nodded. He wondered how long he would have to wait until he could retrieve the duck for himself.
This was how Caleb was taught, by what was around, the things closest to him, which did not include other children or adults. When the potatoes had come into harvest, his mother had shown him how to use one to power a clock. She did not explain the principle behind this, seemed bored in fact by the particulars, and was intent only on showing Caleb the strangeness of the world. She sliced worms in half, and they watched for weeks as one of the halves grew into a new worm.
“Does this work with people?” he asked.
“No, never,” she said quickly.
“Sometimes, actually,” retorted his father, who then smiled, pleased to have the chance to make trouble.
“That’s not true,” said his mother, and then thought about it for a few seconds. “No,” she said again, assured of her answer.
Caleb placed his finger on the worm and watched the animal bend and curl from his touch.
He was learning to read, slowly, without much progress, though his mother seemed pleased. “The Browning Method of Typographical Comprehension and Reading,” she would proudly say as she held the pamphlet for Caleb to see. She would show him a letter from the deck of flashcards; they were up to L in the alphabet, a ninety-degree angle, a thumb and index finger extended. Once he had the letter, he was given a book, something random from a garage sale or one of her old college texts. He was to search the book for that single letter and circle it each time it appeared. He would scan the lines of each page for the shape of the letter, the space it occupied within a word. He had noticed how an E looked slightly different next to a C than it did to a D, the open mouth of the C inviting the E closer, while the D bowed out, pushing the E into the next letter. She never showed him a word, never touched a line of letters and made the sound of their joining. “When will I be able to read, though?” he would ask her, his hands smeared with ink. “Soon enough,” she would say. He did not believe her, but he had no choice. He needed her to tell him the things he would know.
Now there was the baby involved, about to arrive. His mother’s stomach was huge. The unmistakable bulge seemed to suggest that she was growing shorter each week. Her belly was a thing she always cradled with both hands while she walked, as if she were afraid of injuring something with it instead of the other way around. She would weigh herself and then laugh, stepping off the scale as the arrow zipped back to zero, before Caleb could read the weight.
“You didn’t tell me your weight,” he complained, but she would walk away, giggling.
“It’s broken,” she would say. “It’s certainly not working correctly.”
One night, when the baby shifted and pressed against his mother’s spine, she cried out and then instantly tried to pretend that she had been singing a song.
“Maybe we could go to the doctor,” his father said. “Just a little preliminary visit.”
“The baby is going to be big,” she said. “Why pay a doctor to solve that mystery for us?”
When his father mentioned the hospital a second time, his mother frowned. “We decided, Felix. We decided that we would make a world apart from the world. We can’t give up on that every single time things seem difficult.”
Caleb put his hand on her stomach and felt the baby kick twice, his mother wincing each time.
When she had first explained to Caleb about the baby, the fact of it, she had sat down beside him on the floor and swept the math sticks, individually carved blocks the length and width of a finger which he used to add and subtract, out of the way. “We’re going to put math on hold for a while,” she said. “For the next few months, we’ll focus on science. Biology. Caleb?” He had picked up one of the math sticks and was rubbing his thumb across the smooth grain of the wood, but he put it back down. She smiled. He was learning. “We’re going to have another baby,” she said. “You’re going to be a brother.”
“What?” he said, still trying to understand.
“A baby. A little boy or girl.”
“When?” he asked.
“Soon,” she said. “Six or seven months.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because your father and I thought we would all be happier with another person in the house, someone else to be a part of our family.”
“Where?” he asked, moving along the questions he had been taught to ask when he did not know exactly what was happening.
“Right here,” his mother answered. “Right here in the house.”
Photo: Emery Way
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