THE COVER VERSION: WATERY STAR
I saw the strangest sight tonight.
I was on my way home, the night hot and heavy, the way it gets here this time of year so that your skin is shiny and your shirt is never dry. I’d been playing piano in the bar I play in, and nobody wanted to leave, so I was later than I like to be. My son said he’d come by in the car but he never came.
I was on my way home, maybe two in the morning, a cold bottle of beer heating up in my hand. Not supposed to drink on the streets, I know, but what the hell, after a man’s been working nine hours straight, serving shots when the bar’s quiet, playing piano when it gets busy. Folks drink more when there’s live music, and that’s a fact.
I was on my way home when the weather broke in two and the rain came down like ice—it was ice—hailstones the size of golf balls and hard as a ball of elastic. The street had all the heat of the day, of the week, of the month, of the season. When the hail hit the ground, it was like throwing ice cubes into a fat fryer. It was like the weather was coming up from the street instead of down from the sky. I was running through a riddle of low-fire shrapnel, dodging doorway to doorway, couldn’t see my feet through the hiss and steam. On the steps of the church I got above the bubbling froth for a minute or two. I was soaked. The money in my pocket was stuck together and my hair was stuck to my head. I wiped the rain out of my eyes. Tears of rain. My wife’s been dead a year now. No use in sheltering. Might as well get home.
So I took the shortcut. I don’t like to take the shortcut because of the BabyHatch.
The hospital installed it a year ago. I watched the builders day by day while I was visiting my wife. I saw how they poured the concrete shell, fixed the steel box inside the shell, fitted the seal-shut window, wired the heat and light and the alarm. One of the builders didn’t want to do it, thought it was wrong; immoral, I guess. A sign of the times. But the times has so many signs that if we read them all we’d die of heartbreak.
The hatch is safe and warm. Once the baby is inside and the hatch is closed, a bell rings in the hospital and it doesn’t take long for a nurse to come down, just long enough for the mother to walk away—there’s a street corner right there. She’s gone.
I saw it happen once. I ran after her. I called out, “Lady!” She turned round. She looked at me. There was a second, the kind that holds a whole world—and then the second hand moved on and she was gone.
I went back. The hatch was empty. A few days later my wife died. So I don’t walk home that way.
There’s a history to the BabyHatches. Isn’t there always a history to the story? You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow.
I did some research. In Europe, in the Middle Ages, whenever that was, they had BabyHatches back then. They called them Foundling Wheels; a round window in a convent or a monastery, and you could pass a baby inside and hope that God would take care of it.
Or you could leave it wrapped up in the woods for the dogs and wolves to raise. Leave it without a name but with something to begin the story.
* * * *
A car skids past me too fast. The water from the gutter douses me like I’m not wet enough already. Asshole. The car pulls up—it’s my son, Clo. I get in. He passes me a towel and I wipe my face, grateful and suddenly tired out.
We drive a few blocks with the radio on. The freak-weather report. A supermoon. Giant waves at sea, the river over its banks. Don’t travel. Stay indoors. It’s not Hurricane Katrina but it’s not a night out either. The cars parked either side of the road are halfway up their wheels in water.
Then we see it.
Up ahead there’s a black BMW 6 Series smashed full frontal into the wall. The doors are open both sides. Some small junky car is rammed into the back. Two hoods are beating a guy into the ground. My son leans on the horn, drives straight at them, window down, shout- ing, “WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK!” His car slews in as one of the men fires a shot at us to take out the front tyre. My son spins the wheel, thuds the car into the kerb. The hoods jump in the BMW, scraping it the length of the wall, shunting the junky car across the street. The beaten-up guy is on the ground. He’s wearing a good suit. He’s maybe sixty. He’s bleeding. The blood is washing down his face under the rain. He says something. I kneel next to him. His eyes are open. He’s dead.
My son looks at me—I’m his father—what do we do? Then we hear the sirens start up from somewhere far off like another planet.
“Don’t touch him,” I say to my son. “Reverse the car.”
“We should wait for the cops.”
I shake my head.
* * * *
We bounce the busted tyre back round the corner and drive slowly down the road that passes the hospital. An ambulance is leaving the emergency garage.
“I need to change the wheel.”
“Pull into the hospital lot.”
“We should tell the cops what we saw.”
* * * *
My son stops the car and goes to get the gear to change the wheel. For a moment I sit sodden and still on the soaked car seat. The lights of the hospital slice through the windows; I hate this hospital. I sat in the car like this after my wife died. Staring out of the windscreen seeing nothing. The whole day passed and then it was night and nothing had changed because everything had changed.
I get out of the car. My son jacks the back and together we lift off the wheel. He’s already rolled the spare from the trunk. I put my fingers into the ripped rubber of the dead tyre and pull out the bullet. Whatever we need we don’t need this. I take it to drop it down a deep drain at the edge of the kerb.
And that’s when I see it. The light.
The BabyHatch is lit up.
Somehow, I get a sense this is all connected—the BMW, the junky car, the dead man, the baby.
Because there is a baby.
I walk towards the hatch and my body’s in slow motion. The child’s asleep, sucking its thumb. No one has come yet. Why has no one come yet?
I realise without realising that I’ve got the tyre lever in my hand. I move without moving to prise open the hatch. It is easy. I lift out the baby and she’s as light as a star.
* * * *
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
The congregation is strong this morning. Around two thousand of us filling the church. The floods didn’t put anybody off coming. The pastor says, “‘Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.’”
That’s from the Song of Solomon. We sing what we know.
The Church of God’s Delivery started in a shack, grew to a house and became a small town. Mostly black. Some whites. Whites find it harder to believe in something to believe in. They get stuck on the specifics, like the seven days of Creation and the Resurrection. I don’t worry about any of that. If there is no God I won’t be any worse off when I’m dead. Just dead. If there is a God, well, OK, I get what you’re saying: so where is this God?
I don’t know where God is but I reckon God knows where I am. He got the world’s first global app. Find Shep.
That’s me. Shep.
I live quietly with my son, Clo. He’s twenty. He was born here. His mother came from Canada, her parents came from India. I came here on a slave ship, I guess— OK, not me, but my DNA, still with Africa written in it. Where we are now, New Bohemia, used to be a French colony. Sugar plantations, big colonial homes, beauty and horror all together. The ironwork balustrades the tourists love. The little eighteenth-century buildings painted pink or yellow or blue. The wooden storefronts with their big glass windows curved onto the street. The alleys with dark doorways leading down to the ladies of pleasure.
Then there’s the river. Wide as the future used to be. Then there’s the music—always a woman singing somewhere, an old man playing the banjo. Maybe just a pair of maracas the girl shakes by the cash register. Maybe a violin that reminds you of your mother. Maybe a tune that makes you want to forget. What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?
I read that the body remakes itself every seven years. Every cell. Even the bones rebuild themselves like coral. Why then do we remember what should be long gone? What’s the point of every scar and humiliation? What is the point of remembering the good times when they are gone? I love you. I miss you. You are dead.
“Shep! Shep?” It’s the pastor. Yes, thank you, I am all right. Yes, what a night it was last night. God’s judgement on the million crimes of mankind. Does the pastor believe that? No, he doesn’t. He believes in global warming. God doesn’t need to punish us. We can do that for ourselves. That’s why we need forgiveness. Human beings don’t know about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a word like tiger—there’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is.
I can’t forgive myself for what I did . . .
One night, late, deep night, the dead of night—they call it that for a reason—I smothered my wife in her hospital bed. She was frail. I am strong. She was on oxygen. I lifted the face cone and put my hands over her mouth and nose, and asked Jesus to come and take her. He did.
The monitor was beeping and I knew they’d be in the room soon. I didn’t care what happened to me. But no one came. I had to go and fetch someone—the place had too few nurses and too many patients. They couldn’t be sure who to blame—though I am pretty certain they thought it was me. We covered my wife with a sheet, and when eventually the doctor showed up he wrote “Respiratory Failure.”
I don’t regret it but I can’t forgive it. I did the right thing but it was wrong.
“You did the wrong thing for the right reason,” the pastor said. But that’s where we don’t agree. It may sound like we’re just tossing the words around here, but there is a big difference. He means it is wrong to take a life but that I did it to end her suffering. I believe it was right to take her life. We were married. We were one flesh. But I did it for the wrong reason and I knew that soon enough. I didn’t do it to end my wife’s pain; I did it to end my own.
“Stop thinking about it, Shep,” says the pastor.
After church I went home. My son was watching TV. The baby was awake, very quiet, wide eyes on the ceiling where the light made shadow bars through the slatted blinds. I picked her up and let myself out again and headed for the hospital. The baby was warm and easy to carry. Lighter than my son had been when he was born. My wife and I had just moved to New Bohemia. We believed in everything—the world, the future, God, peace and love, and, most of all, each other.
As I walked down the street carrying the baby I fell into a gap of time, where one time and another become the same time. My body straightened, my step lengthened. I was a young man married to a beautiful girl and suddenly we were parents. “Hold the baby’s head,” she said as I carried him, my hand enfolding his life.
That week after he was born, we couldn’t get out of bed. We slept and ate with our baby lying between us on his back. We spent the whole week just staring at him. We had made him. With no skills and no training, no college diploma and no science dollars, we had made a human being. What is this crazy, reckless world where we can make human beings?
What’s that you say, mister?
I’m sorry, I was daydreaming.
Fine looking baby.
The woman walks on. I find I am standing in the middle of the busy street holding a sleeping baby and talking to myself. But I’m not talking to myself. I am talking to you. Still. Always. Don’t go.
See what I mean about memory? My wife no longer exists. There is no such person. Her passport has been cancelled. Her bank account is closed. Someone else is wearing her clothes. But my mind is full of her. If she had never lived and my mind was full of her they’d lock me up for being delusional. As it is, I am grieving.
I discover that grief means living with someone who is not there.
Where are you?
Engine roar of a motorcycle. Cars with their windows down and the radio on. Kids on skateboards. A dog barking. The delivery truck unloading. Two women arguing on the sidewalk. Everybody on their cellphone. A guy on a box shouting, EVERYTHING MUST GO.
That’s fine by me. Take it all away. The cars, the people, the goods for sale. Strip it back to the dirt under my feet and the sky over my head. Turn off the sound. Blank the picture. Nothing in between us now. Will I see you walking towards me at the end of the day? The way you did, the way we both did, dead tired, coming home from work? Look up and we see each other, first far away, then near? The energy of you in human form again. The atomic shape of your love.
“It’s nothing,” she said, when she knew she was dying.
Nothing? Then the sky is nothing and the earth is nothing and your body is nothing and our lovemaking is nothing . . .
She shook her head. “Death is the least important thing in my life. What difference will it make? I won’t be here.”
“I will be here,” I said.
“That’s the cruelty,” she said. “If I could live my death for you I would.”
“CLOSING-DOWN SALE. EVERYTHING MUST GO.”
It’s gone already.
I reached the street where the hospital stands. There’s the BabyHatch. Just then the baby I’m carrying wakes up and I feel her move. We look at each other, her unsteady blue eyes finding my dark gaze. She lifts up one tiny hand, small as a flower, and touches the rough stubble of my face.
The cars come and the cars go between me and my crossing the street. The anonymous always-in-motion world. The baby and I stand still, and it’s as if she knows that a choice has to be made.
Or does it? The important things happen by chance. Only the rest gets planned.
I walked round the block thinking I’d think about it, but my legs were heading home, and sometimes you have to accept that your heart knows what to do.
* * * *
When I got back my son was watching the TV news. Last night’s storm update and personal stories. The usual government officials saying the usual things. Then there was another call for witnesses to come forward. The dead man. The man was Anthony Gonzales, Mexican. Passport found on the body. Robbery. Homicide. Nothing unusual about that in this city except for the weather.
But there was something unusual. He left the baby.
“You don’t know that, Dad.”
“I know what I know.”
“We should tell the cops.”
How did I raise a son who trusts the cops? My son trusts everyone. I worry about him. I shake my head. He points at the baby.
“If you’re not calling the cops, what are you gonna do with her?”
* * * *
My son looks at me in disbelief and dismay. I can’t keep a newborn child. It’s illegal. But I don’t care about that. Help of the helpless. Can’t I be that person?
I have fed her and changed her. I bought what I needed from the store on the way home. If my wife were alive, she’d do what I’m doing. We would do this together.
It’s as though I’ve been given a life for the one I took. That feels like forgiveness to me.
There was an attaché case with the child—like preparing her for a career in business. The case is locked. I tell my son that if we can locate her parents, we’ll do that. So we open the case.
Clo’s face looks like a bad actor’s in a budget sitcom. His eyes bulge. His jaw drops.
“Seven days of Creation,” says Clo. “Is that stuff real?”
Crisp, packed, stacked notes like a prop from a gangster movie. Fifty bundles. Ten thousand dollars in every bundle.
Underneath the notes there is a soft velvet bag. Diamonds. A necklace. Not little snips of diamonds—big-cut and generous like the heart of a woman. Time so deep and clear in the facets that it’s like looking into a crystal ball.
Underneath the diamonds there’s a piece of sheet music. Handwritten. The song says “PERDITA.”
So that’s her name. The little lost one.
“You’re made for life,” says Clo. “If you don’t go to jail.”
“She’s ours, Clo. She’s your sister now. I’m her father now.”
“What are you going to do with the money?”
* * * *
We moved to a new neighbourhood where we weren’t known. I sold my apartment and I used that money and the cash in the case to buy a piano bar called the Fleece. It was a Mafia place and they needed to get out so they were fine about the cash. No questions. I put the diamonds in a bank box in her name until she turns eighteen.
I played the song and I taught it to her. She was singing before she could talk.
I am learning to be a father and a mother to her. She asks about her mother and I say we don’t know. I have always told her the truth—or enough of it. And she is white and we are black so she knows she was found.
The story has to start somewhere.
From THE GAP OF TIME: The Winter’s Tale Retold. Used with permission of Hogarth Shakespeare. Copyright © 2015 by Jeanette Winterson.