The Wounds of Childhood

We are the last to arrive. Jonathan parks on the gravel shoulder and is halfway out of the car before he remembers to help with Ellie. “Go,” I say, though I will cash in on his choice later. Jonathan is shouting greetings to his buddies who are lobbing sacks at the cornhole boards while I crate Ellie across the lawn to a picnic table covered in gingham. Here are the remains of the adults’ dinners, empty glasses and crumpled napkins, though the women, Peggy and Andrea, are still spooning puréed foods into their babies’ mouths. I leave Ellie in her carseat on the grass and reach for the open bottle of rosé.

            “You made it,” Peggy says, deadpan.

            “Barely,” I say. I’m allowed one glass of wine because I am nursing, so I must drink it slowly. “Why didn’t we stay in Duck again? This place took so long to get to.”

            “It’s better up here. Quieter,” Peggy says. She looks tired. The skin under her eyes bags down like an old basset hound’s.

            Andrea plays her part, like she did in college, smoothing things over between us. She reassures Peggy that the house is cute and super nice, ignoring what I can see from here, even in the dwindling daylight: this rental is a downgrade, old and unwanted. Its siding is worn and salt-baked. Spiderwebs glaze the floodlights while weeds eat through the driveway. I can already feel how damp the bedrooms will be, with loud ceiling fans that can’t compete with the humidity.

            As Andrea praises Peggy for getting the house on such short notice—we hadn’t coordinated our schedules until late April, when most houses were already booked—her son sucks his thumb and stares at me. He is a dull, lifeless weight on Andrea’s knees. He wears a blue helmet that is reshaping his skull, which was mushed on its journey through Andrea’s birth canal. With his helmet and dulled expression, he looks like a stoned NATO peacekeeper.

            “What’s so funny?” Peggy asks me.

            Instead of sharing my thought, I say, “Remember the house we got after graduation? It had seven bedrooms and a hot tub. Remember that hot tub, Peggy?”

            Peggy reddens and glances across the street, toward the sound of waves crashing on a shore that we can’t see. In her firm but forbearing, good-mother voice, Peggy says, “No thank you, Tommy,” to the child in her lap, who is trying to rip the buttons off of her shirt.

            Peggy’s dutiful husband, Seth, appears then and picks up Tommy, throwing him in the air so that he squeals. Peggy is gearing up to lecture me, the last of them to get married, get pregnant, accept my fate.

            “We’re not twenty-two anymore,” Peggy says, as if I could forget. “We don’t need to be close to the bars. We need a place that’s family-friendly. This house is small, sure, but there aren’t stairs for the kids to fall down or, heaven forbid, hot tubs to drown in. If you really feel cramped though, there is an extra bedroom between our rooms you could use. It’s got a crib.”

            “Great,” I say. “I absolutely will. Ellie hasn’t slept in our room for three months.”

            While Jonathan plays one last lawn game, I find our bedroom, which contains a musty double bed and a particleboard dresser. Ellie is fussing, as usual—she is always fussing—and the spit bubble between her lips and the blushing skin under her eyebrows tells me she’s hungry, again. The mattress sags and the frame creaks as I lower myself onto it, wincing at the scrape of Ellie’s single tooth on my nipple.

            While she nurses, I take in the room. There are coarse wood planks, nailed diagonally across all four walls. I squint at one and notice black outlines, here and there, peppering the planks. At first, I mistake these half-circle outlines, upturned at both edges like crescent moons, for irregularities in the wood. Rotted whorls, maybe, or carpentry mistakes, but then I lean over and touch one and my finger is coated in ash.

            When Ellie’s eyelids sink, I scoot to the edge of the bed and lug myself up, then walk through the door that leads into the extra bedroom, which is so tiny that a crib and rocking chair crowd each other like commuters waiting for a train. The odd planks cover these walls too, only here, the blackened crescent moons appear in uniform rows up and down the planks.

            The room is cramped, but the crib looks clean enough, and Ellie, exhausted from the drive, is snuffed out like a match.

When I hear Ellie’s throaty cries just two hours later, I nudge Jonathan. He groans and rolls away from me, but I won’t let him win this. I had her all evening. He can deal with her at night.

            “Your turn,” I hiss, before squeezing my eyes shut and trying for sleep. “Dammit, Jonathan, go in there before she wakes up the whole house.”

            But then, the noise stops. Ellie has gone from hungry crying one second to complete silence the next. There is a void of sound, as if Ellie has disappeared.

            I shoot up in bed, deciding that Ellie truly has disappeared: suffocated, fallen out of the crib, that she is suddenly, infantly, dead. I rush through the door between the rooms, and my hands are gripping the crib’s rail. I look down and see Ellie, and see that she is okay. She is so okay, in fact, that she is practically glowing in the moonlight that streams through the window’s wavy panes, her chest rising and falling with each breath.

            I take a few steps back until I am standing in the doorway. I am watching her breathe and marking this night in my mind: the first night Ellie has soothed herself back to sleep.

            Jonathan won’t believe it.

            I have nearly turned away when a flicker of movement catches my eye and I realize that Peggy is here, in the room with Ellie. Peggy is standing in the corner, between crib and window. The black of her high-necked, long-sleeved gown has merged with the wall behind her so that I might not have noticed her at all if it weren’t for her pendant. The pendant hangs on a silver necklace and is big and gaudy, for preppy Peggy, wide as the palm of a hand, but curved like a crescent moon with sharp points. It is creamy white, its edges a garish red.

            “Peggy?” I whisper.

            In the shadow, I can’t see her face, but I see her hand as she lifts it to the pendant. I hear her as she breathes out, “Shhh.”

As soon as Jonathan hands Ellie to me with a grumble about missing tee time, she is clawing at my left breast. I shift her to my other arm and seek out Peggy among the adults in the kitchen. She is pouring coffee and humming softly. I touch her shoulder and say, “Hey, thanks for helping out last night. How did you get Ellie back to sleep so quick? She’s impossible.”

            Peggy looks like a beachy angel in a silky white cover-up, her hair blown out. “What are you talking about?”

            “You took care of Ellie,” I say, but I hesitate at her confused expression. “Remember? I went in to get her, but you were already there. You were wearing black.”

            Peggy blows across the top of her coffee and rolls her eyes. “Who wears black at the beach?”

            By evening, my woman in black is a joke. Around the picnic table, Peggy asks if the woman not only calms babies, but changes their diapers, too. Andrea wonders aloud how much ghosts charge an hour for babysitting. Jonathan shakes the ice in his glass and calls into the dusk that he could use a top-off.

            I spray on more bug repellent and keep my mouth shut. I know what I saw. At least, I think I do, though surrounded by the nursing babies, the ball-busting fathers, the woman in black doesn’t seem so real. Could she have been a product of my sleep deprivation, of post-partum whatever?

            When we all head inside, I change Ellie’s diaper and dress her in her pink pajamas, then pick her up and walk toward the door that links our room to hers.

            “You’re letting the ghost have her again?” Jonathan says to my back, an audible smirk in the question.

            “I don’t believe in ghosts,” I say.

             But hours later, I wake up sweating, the sheets tightened around my knees. I grope for Ellie, then remember that she is not here. She is sleeping in the crib in the little room because I don’t like to sleep with her. I relish the time that I am free of her; Jonathan does, too, though he won’t admit it.

            That, and I don’t believe in ghosts.

            When Jonathan rolls toward me, vapors from his ginny breath mist over my face. I prop up on my elbow and listen for Ellie.

            After a few seconds, I hear the slightest whimper, or maybe it is a coo. Or it could be a whisper.

            In the little room, the rocking chair’s runners creak against the floor as the woman gentles my baby. Ellie’s hand reaches up for the pendant, and the woman accommodates her, letting the necklace fall so that it almost touches the space between Ellie’s collarbones, her pink pajamas burnished in the moonlight. When the woman bends down, her gowned body covers Ellie up, blots her out, swallows Ellie into her shadow until I can see no part of her, not her cloth-covered feet or fisted hands.

            Half of me is panicked, horrified by Ellie’s consumption into this woman’s shade, the other half embarrassed at the sentimental nonsense that is pouring from my mouth. “She’s mine,” I am pleading with the woman, but I am whispering too, because something about her demands that my resistance be quiet, like I’m negotiating with a nun or a grieving great-aunt.

            “She’s mine,” I whisper again. “She’s mine.”

            At this third plea, the woman’s torso rears back against the hard dowels of the rocker, and I am tripping over my feet, wrenching Ellie from her, not looking at the woman’s face, this woman who smells of dust and oleander.

            When Jonathan sits up in bed, I am clutching Ellie like she is my purse and someone tried to snatch her. Her chest is so warm that it burns.

            Dinner that evening is steaks on the grill, Peggy’s salad. I don’t help. I don’t pass out forks and knives, or pour the wine. I cuddle Ellie and sniff her hair. Instinct keeps drawing me back to the skin of her chest, which is the vulnerable shade of thawing ice, the blue blood coursing under it like a spring stream.

            Across from me, Peggy is tipsy, urging Jonathan to tell it again.

            As he tells it, I am the lunatic. I am the confused, attic-wandering mommy searching for her baby, one step from the asylum. “So then, she comes running into our room and tells me I have to scare away the ghost,” Jonathan says. “Only when I go in…”

            “…No one was there,” Peggy finishes. “I mean, obviously.”

            “Might explain why no one else had rented this place,” I snap back.

            Peggy groans. The wine has loosened her. She is no longer tolerating me, even though we once shared a kiss, immersed in a rental hot tub. When I put the tip of my tongue on hers, Peggy moaned and reached for me. She liked it more than I did.

            “It’s all in your head, and I’ll prove it,” Peggy says.

            “Oh, yeah? How?”

            “I’ll put Tommy to bed in there tonight.”

            She smiles up at her husband, who is swaying, the yellow liquid in his glass threatening to spill over. “We could use the night off, couldn’t we, babe?”

That night, in the salt air leaking through our bedroom window, I dream of ovals that flatten and bulge and wane to become crescents, of the moon juttering through its phases so quickly that it catches on fire, causing typhoon, mud slide, hurricane. I dream of a naked woman who has captured the moon and held it between her lactating breasts, can hold it there even though it burns. I dream of threes, of fairy tales, of the third night, when the humans fail and the witch wins.

            I wake up gasping, my throat burning. I yank off blankets to search for my asphyxiated baby but find her, soundly asleep, tucked against Jonathan. I breathe out, then ease myself back down, careful not to wake them, but I don’t sleep again, not for hours. Whenever I close my eyes, the phases of the moon whir by, full back to full again.

            Toward sunrise, I think of Peggy’s little boy, quietly asleep in the crib.

            I think of checking on him.

            I think of these things, and perhaps the thinking of them alone pulls me back into sleep, because soon I am drifting on soothing black swells.

The next morning, Peggy looks fresh and free in a purple tank top. She looks like the Peggy of old, who used to grind against strangers at The Wreck, who used to be a wreck herself. I am fuzzy from my dream, which feels silly now, in the dazzling gold of the morning, with Ellie happy in my arms, full of milk and tenderness.

            I am gathering myself to apologize to Peggy for a few things: for giving her crap about this sea-roughened house on the unfashionable end of this barrier island, for bringing her down with a ridiculous ghost story, for mocking her devotion to her son.

            I am about to apologize when Seth rushes into the room, holding Tommy around his belly as the child wails and rubs his chest, keening, mama mama mama, an incantation that starts quietly and expands to coat the walls.

            Peggy is a comet streaking toward them. She barks at Seth to put him down, and he does, holding him on the counter so that Peggy can unstick his pajamas from his body. When the little boy sees his own blood on his mother’s fingertip, he is stunned out of his wails. In the unholy silence that follows, the rest of us take in the blood and the charred, red-rimmed crescent moon now exposed on Tommy’s chest.

            I slap my hand over my mouth and do not say what I am thinking, instead rushing to gather up what Peggy needs, her phone, her insurance card, her shoes. And in the aftermath—through Peggy’s anxious updates from the burn unit, through all of the disappointments about the failed skin grafts and infections, through the questions that the skeptical woman from child protective services asks all of us—I never say what I am thinking.