We baptize our children. It is the word of god and not torture, they say. We nod like we agree and watch them dunk the baby again. Sputtering, wailing, passed around. The infirm and the soon-to-be-dead try to get their history to spill onto the child, one tear or drop of spittle at a time. But they are parched. So I say, hang on a minute. I take their arms – frail and tender, and I twist them in my hands. At first they cry out in pain and then they understand I am wringing them out. To make water for the babies. And for the babies, they are willing to do anything. After, they hold their bruised arm like a baby itself. For a moment, in their minds, they think it is gurgling at them, and they smile and coo at the thing they are holding. But when a real infant is pushed into their arms, they don’t think they remember how to hold it, though they’d had three. It’s heavier than they thought it would be and chide themselves for thinking what they held just moments before could have been a real baby.
My mother would like this, they think. My father. They get this beatific look on their etched faces. They momentarily forget their parents are long dead. Someone says their name and they must pass on the infant.
My grandmother looks down at her empty arms and startles that she is cradling nothing. “Want anything to eat?” I say.
“Do you remember that young man, what was his name?” she says. She thinks I’m one of her Army Nurse Corps friends from Hawaii, from the war.
“I don’t –”
“With his skin, that skin was all loose and he wasn’t in his right mind and said he loved you and you kissed him. Sue, you’re a better woman.”
She absently pets the baby’s head in my brother’s arms beside her. The child’s eyes flutter and then close, falling asleep with the repetitive soothing motion.
I pinch my lips in. “I remember.” I say. I want to tell her that it was her. It was her and not her friend. Not me. Not Sue. It was her the whole time.
She blinks quickly for a whole minute and then turns away. She is silent through it all; as if she doesn’t want to wake the baby.
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in The Washington Post, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. Twitter: @writesforlife. Website: www.jenniferflisscreative.com.