When the baby’s cries awakened her, she had no concept of what time had passed. Minutes? Hours? The cries were a familiar sound–of early morning restlessness, pain, and hunger–but one that was startling nonetheless. Clara had read that the cries of an infant have that effect on a woman: raises the blood pressure, induces stress hormones, ignites a drive to make-it-stop. Though many years had passed since then, the cries brought her back to the sleepless nights after her first one’s birth and that damned demanding cry, the one that went on and on and on in her head even years after he had grown, the one that changed her from selfish child to grown woman wearied from empathy.
Who would bring a baby to the jail at this hour?
Clara had heard mothers say that they could tell a difference in their infant’s cries—a cry of hunger distinct from a dirty diaper and so on. For Clara this had proven true even for children that were not her own. She heard their cries deeply and specifically, like a language: each wail a syllable, each whimper and moan intoning the source of pain.
Babies, it turns out, are in a lot of pain.
She listened to this one’s cries and first thought it was just hurting but, no. Hunger was more like it—hunger so extreme, so prolonged that it had become pain. It was a bull-headed hunger—an angry, not-going-down-without-a-fight hunger.
Why wasn’t somebody taking care of this baby?
Clara wanted to go to him. She knew there was nowhere to go, but she got up with urgency just the same. She looked around, frantic—as if there were a route of escape she might have missed. When none was found, she dropped to the bench, defeated. She had to help that baby.
Even alongside the infant’s cries, Clara Mae could hear the fly that had joined her in her cell–buzzing so loud it could have been a swarm, buzzing so loud it sounded like it was coming from the inside of her own ear.
Buzzing so loud her own thoughts seemed spoken in fluent housefly.
Buzz! Buzzz buzz buzzzz.
The baby’s duress continued, and Clara got up to try to see what she could through the little, blurry door-window. She could see nothing on the outside, but inside the fly was there, buzzing frustrated against her side of the glass. She had the thought to kill it. Swat it. Palm quickly slapping against glass—it wouldn’t see her coming. But before she could, the baby stopped crying, and the fly dropped to the sill, dead.
Deader than a doornail, she thought, with some deja vu, as she looked at its little dead bug legs in the window light.
That’s when Clara’s eye noticed the second stream of light: a sliver of beam now unbroken by the seal of the door.
The door was unlocked. Ajar.
She knew she was going to open it. She didn’t give it much consideration, really. To Clara it was like she was watching someone else, like she was floating just a little bit above it all as she opened the door to the hallway. She was half-expecting to find the sheriff and some late night bookings, last call drunk drivers, street walkers and their johns. But as the door opened, the light revealed a hallway empty.
Empty, except for a tiny chubby baby covered in blood.
Clara Mae ran to him. She gathered his little shivering appendages up in her arms, giving no mind to the sticky darkening of the drying blood or the eerie emptiness of the hallway. Still strangely quiet, the baby looked at her in the eyes, and behind his Clara thought she could see the other side. She had often thought that of infants–after all, they had just come from there–but of this one, more so. Clara wondered with all of its injuries if that was because it was returning–a silent, eyes-wide precursor to death. Panicked, her thoughts went to rescue procedures she only knew from TV. But before she could attempt, the child erupted in a bloody, coughing wail.
Wiping the baby’s mouth-spray from her face (relieved) was the first time Clara had a real awareness of the volume of blood. Suddenly it was clear that the smell was everywhere: a heavy, organic, metallic smell–the odor of pennies, of raw meat, of menstruation. She pulled the blood-sputtering baby to her bosom in hopes of bringing comfort, all the while inspecting for the source of wounds. There was nothing she could readily see; some areas were still damp and fluid, while others clotted together into thick scabby streaks. As he cried with wide-open mouth she could see clumps of tissue dangling inside, and though she knew that the child was too young for teeth it looked like he’d once had them but they had been destroyed–rows of exposed nerves dangling from shattered teeth casings, nerves that shined their fresh fire-pain with every slight movement of the air.
Through her vain attempts to comfort the baby, she looked around for the sheriff. Where was he?
Probably just stepped out for a late night smoke, Clara tried to convince herself, unsettled by the unlocking of her cell and the pervasive quiet behind the cries. In her arms the child continued to cry that distinct cry of hunger, and with clarity Clara understood him to communicate urgency. He must have it NOW.
Clara got up from the hallway floor and carried the young one toward the employee break room. The stained pot of a coffee maker was illuminated in dimmed night-shift lighting, and it gave her direction though the chaos like a faint, unwashed North Star. She rocked the child in the crook of her arm, the rhythmic bounce that had worked with all of hers and of others, but it brought no quiet to these cries. Clara couldn’t tell if this was a true cry of starvation, or (as she had seen in her own) the desperation to eat that followed bodily trauma. Either way, she rifled through the shared employee fridge (PLEASE THROW AWAY OLD FOOD! its handwritten sign admonished) to find only Cokes, beer, and a squeeze bottle of mustard.
Two fat cardboard cylinders sat next to the coffee maker alongside a sea of pink packets. “NON-DAIRY CREAMER” one of them proclaimed generically beside its companion cylinder, “SUGAR.” Clara steeled herself against all she had learned in the ’90s and poured the hydrogenated powder into a Styrofoam cup, filled it with tap water, and whisked it with a half dozen coffee straws until it came together thin and bleach-white. It would have to do.
She was unsure if the baby would even take to it, so she tested it in the method that she once had with formula: dipping pointer-knuckle into the fluid and bringing it to the child’s lips in hopes that it would suckle. Clara had thought that perhaps the mouth wounds would prevent him from taking nourishment–or perhaps they were the cause of the hunger outright?–but she quickly realized she needn’t have worried. His cries silented as he took the knuckle in deeply, and Clara was surprised to find the suckle rough and then pain, oh, pain. She tried to withdraw but too late, it was vacuum-stuck between his lips, and the moment of surprise at the strength of his tiny infant mouth turned to comical alarm. She laughed at the pain, the oh so very real pain, with the laugh not of funny but of physical surprise, vulnerability, embarrassment–like a response to an attack of unwanted tickle. That laugh faded to realization of stupidity, of I-put-it-in-there-now-I-ain’t-getting-it-back reality, and suddenly she was no longer cradling the child but using her arms with all their collective might to pry him off.
When he finally released, he cried even harder than before, and Clara Mae looked at what was left of her finger, knuckle-skin gone, flesh gone, through to bone and down to shredded tendon, and as wobbly bone met bone at halfway joint Clara thought that it might separate through right there and leave her with a bloody nub still flecked with chunks of partially dissolved creamer.
Her first thought was to throw the baby. Not to injure him per se, but dammit what is the matter with this thing? She wanted to want to separate herself from him, but even in suffering she couldn’t bring herself to shut off the caretaker piece of her brain and continued the rocking, the rhythmic, gentle bouncing that had worked on so many others but not on this one, no not on this one. In his cry she could hear that he did not know of her injury, he did not know of wrong. It was the purest cry of need, of requirement without judgment or context, of demand without a view of consequence–past or future. As he cried she could she tissue—her tissue—dangling from what she now knew was not teeth but gums ridged with bone, razor-sharp bone, and what she had first thought was dangling nerves was in actuality previously gnashed flesh.
Clara Mae found herself, like so many mothers who had gone before, unable to deny. This is the way of the world: the young partaking of the old, the former without thought to suffering of the latter, the latter with martyred masochism for the generations before that they had once devoured.
So Clara, without ceremony, offered the child another finger.