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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Baby in the Slingbacks
When unpacking her suitcase from their trip to the other continent, the woman finds the toy baby slipped into her new crocodile skin slingbacks. In a pointed toe, pale pink glows against the gold leather insole. She peers closer. A small plastic toy baby, as small as her thumb, like the ones frozen in ice cubes for baby shower games. As she pulls the shoe from her bag, the toy gleams brighter until she spills it radiantly into her hand. When she closes her eyes, she sees an afterimage, luminous and red.
The brightness fades. The toy’s mouth opens, as naked and raw as the mouth of a kitten. She almost drops it in her surprise. The baby lies warm and trembling in her palm. It has no navel. Its penis is an exotic tiny mushroom.
She moves through the house, looking for the man. Her breasts are heavy, sensitive against the gauze of her shirt. The man reads the newspaper in the yard, sitting in the garden chair he always prefers. He’s finished watering the plants and the ground is wet around the beds of overblown peonies. While they were out of the country, the tomato plants grew wild, tendrils escaping from the wire cages, branches heavy with dark red fruit and plump horned worms. She’ll have to can the tomatoes before they rot on the vines.
The woman balances on the edge of the other chair, the baby cupped in her palm. The baby has grown: he’s now the length of her hand and as heavy as the thick gold coins used as currency on the other continent. The legs and arms stir.
She holds out the baby. “What’s this?”
He folds the newspaper and prods the baby with a damp finger. The baby turns his head to the man, eyes still shut. “Looks like a very small baby. What kind of joke is this?”
She has to hold the baby now with both hands, he grows so fast. His mouth is bright red, his cheeks rouged.
“Did you put this in my bag?” she says.
“Why would I do that?”
“You didn’t want me to stop treatment.” The woman cradles the baby against her shoulder. She is careful to support his neck, as her friends instructed her when she held their newborns.
“Maybe all we had to do was to go on vacation to get a baby,” he says. “What everyone told us.”
The woman looks away. The garden walls are thick with vines, the morning glories tight cylinders like the hand-rolled cigars sold in the country they visited. Beyond the walls of their garden, the hills are undeveloped; in the summer heat, the wild grasses have browned, the plants already flowered, and the birds fledged.
The baby has grown to the length of her arm and bobs at her shoulder like a bird pecking. His fingernails are flexible and almost translucent. She traces the arch of his foot; his skin peels between the toes and in the folds of his legs. “When I found him, he was plastic,” she says.
“Are you sure?” The man strokes the baby’s hair. His fingers graze her arm.
“Of course I’m sure.” She holds the baby tighter. He mews in protest against her blouse. “What if he changes back to plastic?”
“Let’s worry about that if it happens,” he says. “With kids, there’s enough worry.”
At her feet, nasturtiums bloom the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe. The flowers will taste bitter in their salad tonight. She thinks: in birth, there is always the promise of death. She closes her eyes and feels herself floating, as if interlocked arms carefully bear her up the slope of the hill to the wildness outside the walls. But when she opens her eyes, she has not moved, and the baby has stopped growing. He roots into her neck, her chest.
She unbuttons her shirt, moves the cup of her bra aside, and puts the baby to her. He takes her nipple in his mouth and a sting as vigorous as an electric shock singes her breast. She focuses on that pain.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California with her husband and two daughters. Her fiction has appeared in The New Orleans Review, Clapboard House, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and elsewhere.