Susan Neville



When the leaves turned yellow and the cold October rains began, children in the elementary school were given egg babies to care for. They spent recess making cribs out of shoeboxes, and some of the children made cunning little onesies out of cloth cut from the legs and arms of old clothes purchased from the five cent box at yard sales.
     Those who were interested in design (and there were several) put shoeboxes together to make a sort of house, often with back yards, and playground equipment made from spoons and straws smuggled in from the lunch room. The most elaborate of these were displayed on the craft table to show the grandparents who showed up on Parents Day.
     Some of the children wrapped construction paper around the shoeboxes and drew on windows and doors and made dividers for the inside of the box. When the teacher said the box was supposed to be a crib, these children scoffed because the box was way too big for one baby and besides, the baby would never grow any larger. They made a smaller space inside one corner of the box for the baby and picked grass and then crunched leaves for the baby to sleep on. Then they made paper dolls or brought in little plastic or rag people the size of grown-ups' thumbs, usually toys from fast food meals or discards from larger sets of army men or Playmobil or Fisher Price.  They put the little people in the boxes with the babies and said they were the mothers or fathers or brothers or sisters or cousins. There were no boyfriends or girlfriends or step anything because the children decided that adults would only be known by their blood relation to the baby.
     During the day, the children would take the little people out of the box, leaving the babies alone in their mangers. They made the little people hop from desk to desk looking for something to do while the children were supposedly filling out work sheets, preparing for their futures.  Sometimes a child would sneak a mother or a sister inside a desk with a plastic soldier or miniature man and they'd do what older people do in the dark. The man would leave after and maybe go into another desk and the mother or sister he left behind would come out with a dusty penny or piece of hard candy and then go back into the box with the baby and fall into a sleep so hard you had to shake them to wake them back up. It could have been a girl soldier with a father or brother of course, but that's not a scenario any of the children had seen. Usually the fathers and brothers died in cars or basements or wars and the mothers and sisters were left with the babies, though lately a lot of them had been dying too. Everyone, it seemed, waited for the grandparents and great-grandparents who, at least a few of them, could sometimes be counted on, if only to grieve.
     The children were supposed to take the babies home with them each night. They had to walk home with the babies without dropping them on the street. Some of the babies didn't make it, and a child had to watch its baby's skull crack, the yellow brains ooze out. It was not a contest, but the children felt the one who kept its baby safe the longest would win nonetheless. One child lost so many babies at night and even during the day at recess that his desk was covered with death and birth certificates, because of course you couldn't have one child doing nothing in a classroom while the other children were caring for their babies. So the child's baby was given a funeral and a certificate of dying before being composted, and then the child was given a new one. Clumsy child, though. The new baby was usually gone before the day was out and a replacement brought from the refrigerator.
     The compost heap was in the back of the playground near the wildflower garden, right next to the exhibit of native prairie grass. In early fall, explosions of stinging yellow jackets flew out of the ground by the compost, and the children adopted a zigzag pattern of running to get away from them. The teacher kept an Epipen in her pocket, cocked and loaded, because she didn't want to move the graveyard away from the gardens. She'd read on Facebook that both compost and bees were good for flowers and she was a young enough teacher that she hoped to save the world.  She added table scraps from the lunchroom and coffee grounds from the teacher's break room, and along with the dead babies, she was making some rich loam where before there had been nothing. Little wasps. Now fall was here and the workers were all dying off, leaving one fat satiated queen and these babies raising their own fragile babies and so on.
     The babies had been the teacher's idea from the beginning. She learned it at college, so it wasn't an original idea in the larger world, just one new to this community. It had started years ago as a way to remind children, when the hormones started in a few years, what it meant to care for a baby. It's fragile! You can't get rid of it!  Of course none of them remembered that lesson any more than they remembered their multiplication tables. She knew this because she'd been in school with some of their parents and now here they were, the offspring.
     The fragile shells in the shoe boxes were porcelain and brown and spotted and some of them shades of aqua, but inside all of them was the same goo. Perhaps that was the real lesson.
     Wouldn't it be easier if we boiled them, one of the children always asked her, as though he'd been the first one to ever think of it.
     You could, she told the child, but then the baby would be dead, wouldn't it?
     Oh yes, the children said, but we'd be off the hook. We could throw them to each other on the playground, have them sit next to us on the buses without worrying that if they fell on the floor and rolled away, they'd die. They might crack, of course, but inside they'd be all soft and sweet, like a puffball, ready to be born.
     Not entirely, the teacher said, because the smell of rot would not be pleasant.
     I would eat mine before it rotted, one of the children always said and then the ones with active imaginations would turn to the child who said that and hiss cannibal.
     One of the children said she realized you couldn't put the goo back inside when it came out, but she wanted to start a hospital for the slightly injured and the teacher said sure, why not. They decided to put the hospital underneath the stage in the cafetorium.
     The child who ran the hospital had a mother who was an LPN, so she had been around hospitals. She chose as her assistant a boy whose older brother had left the house in an ambulance, his body covered by canvas, even his face, so the boy knew about emergency vehicles. It was his job to run sick or cracked babies down to the cafetorium in the watch box that the teacher's Christmas present watch had come in.
     When a baby's child thought she'd heard her baby crying like she was sick or hurt but didn't have any outward signs of cracks or pain, the doctor who ran the hospital would simply keep it for a day or two in a dark place and let the child come in to rock it at recess. The doctor knew that sometimes it was the child that needed the quiet dark space for just a while and not necessarily the baby who was ill. The doctor would get the child to talk about what was wrong with the baby and sometimes the stories of what the little people had done to the baby were so horrific that the doctor would think of closing down the hospital so she wouldn't hear the stories anymore. She was such a good doctor that sometimes a child would bring a little person who had stopped moving into the hospital, hoping for a miracle. He's dead isn't he? a child would ask and the doctor would nod her head gravely and say she was afraid there was nothing she could do. They would cry together then and when the child was done crying he would go back to the classroom where another child would help him write an obituary. The teacher was pleased at how the children worked together and all the life skills they were learning.
     Once or twice the doctor herself, or her assistant, would accidentally drop a baby and the teacher would sneak a replacement down to the hospital, and the baby's child would usually never know the difference. There was in fact only one hyper-observant child who had held her baby up to the light once and was able to identify the tiniest bit of gray transparency in one spot on the baby, and so wasn't fooled.
     All of this went on through October. The first week in November the skies turned the leaden gray they would remain until April and the little people in the boxes went into a kind of funk. More and more of them began disappearing together into a shoebox owned by a child who was spending a few weeks with his father. The teacher always kept his desk just like it was when he left so there would be some consistency in the child's life when he returned. But when the owner was away, no one was taking care of the shoebox and it became a place with an unsavory reputation. The children told their teacher about it, and she asked the principal if a social worker might be persuaded to come to her classroom, but he reminded her that there were only two in the entire county and their plates were full. The only child temperamentally suited to take on a social worker's role was the doctor, so as was usually the case, the children did without one.
     So the little people kept going into the abandoned shoebox and some of them stumbled back to their own shoeboxes and some were covered with canvas and sent by watch box down to the hospital. When they didn't return, no one knows what happened to them except for the doctor and perhaps the teacher. They were too toxic to put in the compost heap. A couple of them were in the back of the hospital with IVs and breathing tubes made from the same lunchroom straws they used to make playground equipment. It was rumored that the rest were thrown in the trash.
     No matter. The doctor's main concern was the babies of course, keeping them alive. But some of the babies seemed to be showing signs of abrasions and if you looked at them long, the baby's child said, you could see them jerk like they were having seizures and inside their poor little hearts were beating irregularly and you could sometimes see the heartbeat through the fragile skin.
     By the end of the first week in November, the doctor was overwhelmed and sad. She had permission to stay late after school and she sat underneath the stage listening to the AYS kids doing their homework and eating their snacks. It was all a distant sound, and it sounded a little bit like music to her as she sat in the semi-dark surrounded by babies. There were ten in the neonatal unit this week, lying there so still. She took the vital signs of each one, and there were, as far as she could tell, no vital signs, or only very faint ones. What would she tell her classmates? Her teacher couldn't keep supplying babies. Soon it would be the holidays and she would have other things to think about. And what purpose did it serve to keep replacing them? They would grow up to be the little people who hopped from desk to desk or spent the day sprawled out on the floor of the absent boy's shoebox.
     The doctor's mother had sent her to school that day with a safety pin holding up the hem of the pants she was wearing. Her mother, the LPN, was not doing particularly well and the doctor was feeling a kind of despair she wasn't used to feeling. Most days she woke up feeling that she was a real doctor and she believed despite everything that someday she would be one or a teacher like her teacher. But some days, like today, she didn't know how she could make that happen.
     She looked around her at the babies lying in the soft flannel nests she'd made from one of her mother's old nightgowns. She could still smell her mother's scent on those nightgowns. Maybe she was meant for something different in this life or maybe she wasn't meant for anything at all. It was in this mood that she took the safety pin from her hem and picked up one of the babies. She placed some tape over the places she would pierce and then she carefully pressed the pin into the skull of the baby and then into the baby's bottom. She put the baby's fontanel into her mouth and she blew everything the baby had inside it, every last bit of potential, into a bowl. She did it with all ten of them and took the bowl of goo back to the compost heap and said a prayer.
     She was careful to wash the babies after that and she put them for a few seconds into the microwave in the teacher's lounge to kill any lingering bacteria and then she brought them back to the infirmary where they would spend the weekend being cured.
     On Monday morning she came in early and the teacher let her go down to the cafetorium with some poster paints and glitter. The doctor had some of her mother's clear nail polish in the pocket of her white lab coat, an old shirt that had belonged to her mother. It took her about an hour to paint each one of the babies, each a glorious rich gem or Easter color with dots of glitter and glue. She covered them with nail polish to make them stronger. They were empty inside but they were so very beautiful now. She carried them back to the classroom and distributed the marvels to their parents. Don't cry, she told them. See how light they are? Their spirits have gone to heaven with the others. They're angels now, and nothing will hurt them, she lied. They're watching over you and loving you, she lied. What you're holding is just the beautiful reminder of where the life used to be. There's no more suffering for them, so please don't cry. See how they sparkle?  Even if you crush them, they'll be beautiful.