Before summer’s end they would be parents of a dead child. While pregnant Laura had sculpted gigantic pink breast jars and she trimmed their lids into smooth, shallow domes with nipple-like knobs and exhibited them in the dining room. Robert interpreted Laura’s art pieces as a guidebook to his wife essence, as the fragments of her psyche. She had thrown tall ceramic cylinders on the potter’s wheel, the exotic phallic trees towering over their living room. She cooked like a painter: eggplant for purple, fresh basil for green, cold tomato soup for red, butter squash stew for yellow, honeydew melon for orange. She constructed ceiling-high transparent cocoons of homemade paper. They were her secret rooms for transformation, and she hung them in the basement by the washer and enveloped herself with their rustling. She ripened last summer in fifteen-minute cycles while she washed her maternity dresses on DELICATE. He had sometimes detected the scents of June or July on the sun-dried dresses she wore in August. She had decorated the nursery: whitewashed walls, white cotton sheets, a cloud-mobile made of lamb’s-wool. The dream room.
Robert took a leave of absence from his teaching job to work on a book, but mostly puttered around the house retracing Laura’s footsteps, looking at her scattered things: drawings, letters, art exhibit fliers, photos, her ceramic coffee cup, diary. He never touched anything, just investigated their nature, shape, or location and classified them in his head as one would museum pieces.
Now and then Laura would scribble him a note.
Hi Robert – home between 4:30 & 5.
Robert would look at the letters in black ink and study their square shapes, he would rub the paper between his fingers to hear its crackling sound. He collected odds and ends of their commonplace existence. And that’s how he remembered that summer, only those months before baby’s death. He remained permanently in the time before it happened, and when the winter came their house seemed even more empty under the bright winter light pouring in.
They had left for Laura’s parents’ house far north in Wisconsin two days before Christmas. During their visit, Robert and his father-in-law had gone on long walks, read the newspaper and napped every afternoon. The naps had been followed by the peppermint tea and liqueur in front of the fireplace, a chess game and the Five o’clock News. It became second nature for the men to sit in two floral upholstered armchairs and talk pleasantly about the winter weather.
“All this snow…it must be hard on the wildlife,” Laura’s father said one day, lifting his teacup and looking out the window at the snowy fields. They had both looked down and sipped their peppermint tea as the air in the room became heavy with significance, and the conversation returned to casual talk about weather and politics. The snow continued to fall. Laura and her mother cooked complicated meals or looked through garden catalogs. Her parents acted as their chaperons in bereavement, protecting them from each other, until they were out of danger. It seemed to Robert that he had aged during this process, while Laura, after several days of talking with her mother, cross-legged on the quilt in her childhood bedroom, had regressed back in time. Robert too adopted the parental role, and occupied himself with their physical comfort, instead of questions, evidence, and spoken sympathy. Sometimes the house cat rubbed against his leg, or looked at him across the room as if comparing their rank, the quality of their mutual detachment.
At first, he assumed they would talk about the baby later, after they had settled in, but as the days progressed they got carried away with daily rituals, sightseeing, dining, the endless sleepover spirit. Eventually, it became almost ungracious to mention their loss again, not now, after all the trouble Laura’s parents had gone through to make them feel better. Robert resumed working on his translation revisions and Laura started a new art project. Christmas turned out fine after all.
One night after dinner Robert offered to drive to the local supermarket to get some milk and eggs for breakfast. The road went up and down through the rolling hills. He passed by the dark silhouettes of the farms, their windows already black. He thought of Laura, who at that moment must be sitting in bed and reading, now and then writing notes to herself on back of a bookmark, and that image filled him with warmth despite the wounded glances she cast at him. The extended visit at her parents’ house gave Laura certain immunity, a temporary discharge from their relationship. They carefully avoided being alone together, like two guests not particularly interested in getting acquainted.
Just then a stocky shape moved on the road and Robert braked. A badger stood in the middle of the road looking at the headlights, its eyes resentful and fierce, but also harrowed. It was a beautiful animal, with a white head stripe and a long elegant snout like a greyhound. It stared at Robert sideways, with one eye. Just a few feet behind the animal Robert saw a yellow diamond road sign with squiggly arrow. He stopped the engine and got out of the car, but the badger was already trudging through deep snow without looking back.
The night before they had left her childhood home, Laura had locked herself into the pink bathroom on the second floor, amid cracked tiles, worn pink towels, and an unlimited supply of fine carnation soap. She cut her hair, and tossed her favorite childhood doll, Molly, into the trash. Robert found her standing in the doorway with her hands outstretched at her sides. He only saw the curves of Laura’s body through her nightgown, the gossamer of light and transparent cloth, the long twisting strands of Laura’s hair that formed a rug underneath her feet. How do I look? she had asked. He carried her to bed, and tucked her in between flannel sheets. But he could not speak to her. He was in a dark tunnel where he had grown accustomed to the silence.
“Yes, we should be all right,” Laura had reassured her parents as she packed for departure, throwing her sketch notebooks and pencils into a wicker basket on the back seat. The trunk was already packed with her workshop materials: pieces of wire, string, rubber and clay, boxes with pebbles, fur, sponge, vinyl, a bag of lollipops, an old cut-up bicycle tire, empty jars, two birds’ nests. Robert could tell that his mother-in-law was already planning to mail them a cheerful little package: maybe cookies he had praised, a recipe for bread, a special brand of herbal tea, or gourmet cheese. He pictured the contents of that package sitting on their kitchen table, like instructions on how to go on with their lives.
They drove in silence all the way home. The WRONG WAY sign flashed before Robert on the other side of I-74. A Ford Mustang painted with purple roses sped past them, and a dirty bumper sticker, DREAMS HAPPEN, plastered in green lettering on the rear of the car, disappeared in the falling snow. As the winter landscape briefly burst with the speeding Mustang’s colors, Robert sensed the alarming presence of summer around them, of last summer when their baby died, and next summer, and every other summer yet to come. Laura, in the passenger seat, hugged against her chest a plastic bag filled with her razor-cut hair. Robert’s hands and forehead were damp. The seat belt constricted him. He wished he had something to say to her. He wanted to step out into the cold, and gesture at the bare land, “Look, Laura,” as if the empty fields were in themselves a statement, a page with hidden messages. The heat of their bodies in wool sweaters, the moisture of their breath and Laura’s tears steamed up the windows, transforming their car into a traveling greenhouse. Laura’s bagged ash-blond hair grew into a colorless flower in Robert’s mind.
He remembered the rush in the noon traffic last August, the heat, the storm clouds moving, the scent of rain like ripe watermelons, the long wait in the hospital cafeteria, the sign: ALL OF OUR COFFEES CAN BE ICED – JUST ASK!, their 2-pound, 4-ounce daughter in the incubator, displayed on the thermal-regulated bed in the intensive care unit decorated in primary colors of blue, yellow and red, the nurse who pulled the tubes out and offered to take pictures, do footprints, let them hold their dead baby girl. They kept her in the room with them the whole day.
“Please, don’t take her away,” Laura told the night nurse, “It’s the only time we get to be with her.”
The nurse let out a sigh. “We understand, but her body went cold, honey. Why don’t we warm her up and bring her back to you, okay?”
Robert wrapped his arms around Laura and they waited.
The night nurse returned with their baby, tucked in a warm, fluffy blanket.
“She’s perfect,” Laura whispered.
And later that week after the funeral arrangements were made, the rain again on the ride home, the smell of wet dogs, stale white bread and decay, Laura’s wet summer dress dripping on the clothesline, the silence descending between them. Laura. Silence. Robert. Only the beeping of the microwave oven, the recycling bin filling up with flattened boxes of Healthy Choice one-serving meals, the door closing behind Laura on her way to the therapist, the yoga class, the self-defense class, the art workshop, the Empty Cradle support group. He was left in the empty house, guardian of an art gallery after closing time.
Once during his regular house tour he thought he heard the patter of rain. It turned out that the sound originated from the nursery, individual droplets falling down at different intervals from Laura’s white nightgown. It hung on the wall, pierced with safety pins. Dozen of skin-like latex balloons were fastened to it, filled with skim milk leaking into an old, enamel wash tub. The milk felt icy cold when he touched it.
And now, they were back. ILLINOIS WELCOMES YOU. PLEASE BUCKLE UP. Their white house glowed under the full moon. The moonbeams shone on the frozen earth, making the snow sparkle. Buckle up, he thought, here we are. In Laura’s studio, an adult-size cradle she had made after the baby died, was waiting for her. White pine. Six feet long.
“Don’t be upset,” she had told him back then. “The Amish used to nurse their ill and elderly in cradles like mine. I want to be a baby again. Would you take care of me?” she had asked.
Now, Robert looked up anxiously at her, wondering if she would sleep in the cradle again.
“I’m glad to be back,” she said. “I missed our house. It seemed like an apparition while we were gone.”
Alone in bed that winter night, he imagined her sitting by the cradle, slowly tucking in the small pillow
she had stitched during their last night at her parents’ home. It should be a perfect fit for the cradle and the silky words MAMA MAMA MAMA would appear, embroidered with her hair. Something washed over him, the tenderness for their white, empty house and Laura. He listened for Laura to make a sound. Would she pull the covers over her head and rock herself to sleep in the cradle again? He waited, and couldn’t tell whether the muffled sound he had heard was a cry or a lullaby. “How do I look? How do I look?” Laura’s voice echoed in his head. Laura. Beautiful, like a lonely antique chair against the white wall, in an empty room.
Lying awake that night, Robert’s thoughts dispersed in all directions, like the startled birds that fled their backyard, escaping from the feeder along their separate paths, here and there. He thought of a badger marching through the snow, the white mark on its forehead moving through the darkness, a living creature, striding through the snowdrifts, leaving tracks in a frozen world. He found comfort in it, and at last, slipped into soundless dream.
The next morning it began snowing again. Laura was gone to the store. The house was quiet. Robert climbed to his study. On his desk Laura had left a pile of clear, plastic boxes, the kind that kids use for their card collections. Inside each one, on a cotton square, a single, locked word or sentence was on display:
Who is to blame?
Each word protected, tightly sealed, and screaming in a small, soundproof prison chamber. Robert opened the boxes, one by one. He took each paper strip out, and held it on the palm of his hand. He measured them; he felt the weight of each one before he dropped them on the hardwood floor to break the silence.
Outside, on the white snow, their house was like a daydream. On the clothesline hung Laura’s frozen summer dress, left since last August, the faded, wrinkled cotton fabric starched in ice. He heard Laura pull in the driveway at the back of the house and went out to help her with the groceries.
“We should take the dress down today, my love,” he said. “It scares off the winter birds.”
He removed the clothespins and tried to get the dress off the line. The dress was stiff, unmoving. Laura helped him to get it down.
They carried the dress between them toward the house. The uncluttered empty farm fields around them were soothing. The bare landscape was as simple as the truth. The dress whispered like rice paper.