Burning the Baby
Someone struck a match and the baby went up in flames. Members of the family choked on the sickening smell. The father was afraid to look at the mother: surely she would not have done this to her own child. Yet he remembered when his son, sixteen, slapped her in the face and she screamed at him, Edward, hit him, hit him. He could not bring himself to hit his son and she never forgave him for that. The mother looked at the father quickly, then looked down at the floor. He would not have done such a thing, would he? But the baby was burnt, there was no question about that. Sweet little babe, now blackened and flaking, now something like a tiny Christmas tree charred by lightning. The older brother made measurements, seeking to determine how much shorter the baby was post-burning. The baby’s legs, roly-poly and chubby, were burnt off at the knees, which meant it could not even crawl. Of course, being dead meant that too. The sister tried to comb the baby’s burnt hair but it fell out in bunches. The sister began to cry. The baby wouldn’t crawl or play with her. Had the sister done something wrong? What had she done? What? She tickled the baby but it still refused to laugh or squeal. She was in trouble, she knew. She was supposed to watch out for her baby sister, keep her happy, make sure no harm came to her. No harm! She wanted to die. She thought her parents probably wanted her to die. She didn’t dare look at them. They would be so angry with her.
Water is leaving us. It’s disappearing from water tanks, reservoirs, lakes and rivers. The water table is dropping. Plants are dying. The sequoias known as California redwoods, having flourished well over a millennium, are dying. In California, water is rationed. Bath water. Water for lawns. Water intended to accompany food. Jerry Brown, the governor, is not just worried; one can hear fear in his voice. His voice climbs just slightly higher when he talks about the drought in his state but the higher is enough to clue us in. What calamities will occur if the drought continues?
Will Californians continue to stay in their state? What if the forests catch on fire? But they already do. They are likely to do so again. Also likely is that at some point, as rationing increases, and water becomes more difficult to obtain barring the return of a rainy season, residents will leave for more congenial locales. Some, anyway, and no doubt later, more. Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada will not be among the places to which they move. Those who move will favor areas with sufficient precipitation. That is bound to mean the North, with its snow and rain. It’s true that there are storms in the South but there are also hurricanes and tornadoes in the South, and people looking to escape from one disaster won’t want to have to deal with another.
Animals also head north but thousands of them die along the way, especially the pets who were abandoned when people fled. The dogs and cats, especially the small ones, the turtles and the goldfish will not make it to the Far North. (The goldfish will be turned out of their fishbowls without ceremony, and before any of the goldfish realize what is happening.)
So the people move north and the population of Northern cities multiplies. People are crowding one another. There’s not enough room to breathe. Some people are angry about this. They buy guns or get out the guns they already have. Road rage is rampant. The homeless, packed in parks, sleep folded up in lobbies and thresholds and raid garbage cans for food but there is never enough food for all the homeless. Some jump fences, racing to flag outgoing planes but airline workers shove them back. Some ride boxcars, and a few of them make it to Anchorage or Fairbanks.
When they get there, they discover that Russians and Japanese are there, too. They will have come over the Bering Strait. They will wear shorts and tee-shirts. Snowpacks are melting. Snow is melting. Igloos are melting—and the Inuit designed them never to melt. To the Russians and the Japanese, it seems as if they themselves are melting.
South Americans, on the other hand, have followed the Andes mountains to the Drake Passage, hoping to get to Antarctica. But we will stick to what most concerns us.
All over the world, people head for the mountains. From the worn-out Appalachians to the Himalayans of Uttarakhand to the Kamchatka Peninsula. It does no good. Once, mountaintops were cooled by crosswinds, and people and animals were invigorated, refreshed; now the hot tongues of sunshine flick and lick until people and animals are fatigued, too fatigued to climb farther, and they look in vain for even an inch of shade before they crawl behind a boulder to die.
The constant sun enervates. Yes, night still arrives, but one’s skin is burnt so bad that sores appear on arms, legs, and bald heads. People give up on clothes, abandon their garments, for it is too painful to wear them. Everyone gives up.
Which makes everyone else want to give up. And why not? Humans cannot live without water. Yes, there have been attempts to desalinate seawater. And some have worked. Briefly. Recycled wastewater is also promising. The problem is, neither works well enough to produce the quantities of fresh water that we need at the rate at which we need it.
Which is why these days you (who are you?) will find us dying, always in places that used to promise water. Just before we die, we often hallucinate. Images of waterfalls, running rivers, water fountains, and rain rain rain leave our tongues hanging out, our eyes popping, our throats dry as martinis or deserts. Dry as calcification. Dry as a ponderous pedagogue. Dry as a basement of vampires with no fresh throats to suck.
We hankered for salt. Could anything be more ironic?
Renal failure was common. It led to cardiac problems.
We were too exhausted to lick our own lips.
She named him Derek. It was the name that came to her, for no reason she could think of, and it had all the more urgency for having no reason. The name seemed to fit him. His mother had abandoned him. Mother bats often leave their babies behind; something frightens them and they save themselves before they stop to think about the baby. (There’s usually only one baby at a time; occasionally there are twins.) Or she may have died, perhaps in a heat wave, which can kill off huge numbers of bats.
She found Derek when she was digging out weeds next to the barn. She called a wildlife shelter to ask what to do. “Don’t touch it. Bring it in,” they said, and she did, but she had already touched it. In the shelter was a long row of bat babies, each one swaddled in a knitted scarf or dish cloth. Their wings were under these wraps. The darling creatures looked like little bat burritos—that is what they are called. To see a bat fly out of a chimney or across the moon can be scary: the bats are swift and their wings relatively huge. But tucked into their scarves, with their wings folded and only the little heads peeking out, they look like sweet, snuggly, sleepy babies.
She held Derek, wrapped up, in her hands, presenting him to the shelter workers.
“Derek?” they said. “Is he male?”
She didn’t know. It hadn’t occurred to her that he might be female.
They lifted him up for examination.
“He’s no Debbie,” they said, “so you’re in luck.”
A shelter worker was rubbing Derek gently on his stomach, though such a tiny stomach could only be a tummy. Then the worker picked up an eyedropper and squeezed some milk into his mouth. “You know they can carry rabies?” the worker asked.
“Yes,” she said, thinking, Derek doesn’t have rabies.
“Derek doesn’t have rabies,” said the worker, then added, “They’re called pups.”
“The babies, not the rabies, I assume.” She smiled.
The worker looked at her as if she might be mentally challenged.
“He’s falling asleep.”
“Pups do that. Especially when they’ve sipped enough milk. They are, after all, mammals.”
I knew that, she wanted to say. “Why are some of the others squeaking?”
“All bat pups have to practice echolocation. They have different calls and have to figure out which are theirs. They also have to learn to fly, just as birds do.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me?” She hadn’t known that bats had different methods of echolocation.
“Ever seen a microbat?”
She shrugged, not knowing whether she had or hadn’t.
“There’s a bumblebee bat.”
“That’s very alliterative.”
“Allit—? Sure. The bumblebee bat is maybe the size of a jellybean.” The worker glanced away from Derek and looked straight into her eyes. “It weighs about as much as a penny weighs. Actually, it weighs a little less than that.”
She stared back at the worker. “May I take Derek home now?”
“He’s probably better off here.”
“But I found him.”
“And you brought him here, where you knew he would be better off.”
“But he belongs to me.”
“Bats are wildlife. They don’t belong to anybody. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“It’s not a question of understanding. The fact is that Derek is mine. I found him.”
“Maybe I’d better get my boss. She can explain it to you better than—”
“There’s nothing to explain. Just give me back my bat.”
She swooped Derek up and put him in her shirt pocket. A little guano didn’t worry her.
The worker ran after her, shouting Stop! Stop!
Why would she stop? Derek was her baby. Nobody could tell her otherwise.
It was a nice day so I joined my kids on the playground. Shadows made the small cotton-ball clouds look scruffy, as if they were children with dirt on their faces. They needed to be scrubbed with a damp washrag. Children, children, I said twice, clapping smartly each time. They circled me. They surrounded me. I was shaken to see that they were drawing the circle tighter and I had become their prisoner. How had this happened? I was going to clap a third time but one of the children shushed me with a finger over her lips. I felt, I felt—outraged. Who were they to dictate to me? The teacher was I. The leader was I. They were the helpless children. Surely that’s right. Surely that’s how it’s always been. Is this a trick? A prank? Children have a habit of playing pranks, don’t they. A prank, then. A silly—
“Mrs. Morgan,” the girl who dared to shush me said.
“Yes. What is happening here?”
“What is going on here?”
They came closer and closer, the circle closing, their shoes scuffing mine, their sweetish breath—breaths—making my heart beat faster, making it hard for me to breathe.
One-love, two-love, three-love, four.
See the teacher on the floor.
One of them had tripped me, and though I wasn’t on the floor I was indeed lying on the ground, one of my shoes beside my hip.
Five-love, six-love, seven-love, eight.
See the teacher take the bait.
What the hell did that mean? Their chanting made me frantic. I stood up, holding the shoe that came off. With one shoe on and one off I had to shift from side to side.
Nine-love, ten-love, eleven-love, twelve.
Here’s a book you really should shelve.
They are telling me I should go shelve a book! Who do they think they are?
One-love, two-love, three-love, four.
Take yourself thence and come no more.
Because I had one foot in a shoe and the other in only a sock, I had to bob up on one leg and sink down on the other. They had stripped me of my dignity. “What do you want?” I asked.
“Take yourself thence and come no more,” they said as one.
At my desk in the schoolroom I wrote a letter of resignation and signed it with my good ballpoint. I handed in grades—all A’s, because I was afraid they might retaliate if I failed them. I cleaned out my desk drawers. I did feel a bit sad when I did that but the sadness didn’t last long.
Kelly Cherry is the author of 25 books, 10 chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. She is the former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Also: Emeritus Member, Poets Corner, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, NYC. NEA, USIA, Rockefeller, inaugural recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, Bradley Lifetime Award, Phillabaum Award, Weinstein Award, others. Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin Madison. Eminent Scholar, UAH, 2001-2005. Her new book Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem is forthcoming imminently.