Carving Babies by Rupert Thomson

BOMB 56 Summer 1996
Issue 56 056  Summer 1996

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Not long afterwards—in May, or maybe June—she went south with the Salenko boy. I never knew exactly where.

There was nothing memorable about Jan Salenko—nothing, that is, except his memory: he won a village competition when he was eight, and all the children used to tease him about it. I’d noticed him watching Karin for years, his eyes full of her as we crossed the street or drove by in the car, but he wasn’t the only one, and he was shy, too, so I didn’t think it would come to anything. I suppose she must have become aware of how he felt and then realized he could be of use to her—especially when she found out that he wasn’t frightened off by the mysterious arrival of a child. There’s not much a man won’t do when he’s besotted. Nobody suspected an elopement, though, not even me.

Strangely, it was Mazey who felt the loss most keenly. In fact, he seemed to be expressing it for all of us. Like a lightning conductor, he drew all the bad feelings down upon himself. He wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t sleep. He wouldn’t even listen to his wind-chimes any more. There were nights when he walked through the hotel opening every door to every room, every cupboard, every drawer. In the morning it always looked as if we’d been broken into. I asked him what was wrong, but he wouldn’t speak to me at all. Not one word.

My father came to visit me one evening. It was rare to see him in the village, even rarer to see him upset. He stood in front of me with his face lowered and the muscles shifting in his jaw. He told me that he’d been working in the barn as usual, building a linen chest for the Minkels family, when he heard sounds coming from the house. Thinking it might be someone who was up to no good, he took his gun off the wall and went to have a look. The whole place had been turned upside-down. Cupboards had been opened, drawers pulled out and tipped on to the floor, curtains torn off their rails. It looked as though a hurricane had just passed through. A movement in the window caught his eye. Something outside, in the yard.

“Mazey,” I said.

My father’s long jaw swung towards me. I’d startled him. Yes, it was Mazey. He called to the boy, who was moving in the shadows at the edge of the clearing where he could not be seen. He called again. Mazey stepped out into the sunlight, blinking.

He walked up to Mazey, and Mazey just watched him coming with that empty face of his. Mazey was sweating, and there was blood trickling from a cut on his wrist.

My father pointed at the house. “Was it you?”

Mazey took a step backwards. The shade on his face like a birthmark, the blood sliding silently between his knuckles.

“Why did you do it?”

He held Mazey’s gaze until he felt the edges of his vision blackening. But Mazey was the first to turn away. He walked into the trees, the light and shadow dappling his back, and my father noticed once again how Mazey moved in straight lines, ignoring paths and bridleways. As the crow flies, he remembered thinking to himself. He watched Mazey fade into the gloom of the wood and found that he was breathing more easily.

“Sometimes I look into that boy’s eyes,” my father said, “and I feel like I’m in quicksand and I’m—”

“It’s the baby,” I said.

“The baby?”

“Nina.”

Later that night, when Mazey came home, I took him into the kitchen and sat him down at the table. I reached for the first-aid tin. The cut wasn’t serious, but I wanted an excuse to keep him close to me while I talked to him. I had to explain that Nina was gone and wouldn’t be coming back, and I had to do this in a way that didn’t make it seem as if it was his fault. I had to find an explanation that would break the bond between them, that would persuade him to let her go. I poured a few drops of iodine on to a ball of cotton-wool and began to clean the cut with it. His arm flinched and I heard the air being drawn in through his teeth, but his face didn’t register any pain.

“The baby,” I said.

He nodded. “Hiding.”

“No. She’s not hiding. She’s gone.”

He looked at me.

As I dried the skin around the cut, I told him that Karin had taken Nina away. He wanted to know where to. I explained that, when a woman had a baby, the baby came from inside her. From here, I said, and placed one hand over my stomach. He bent down and put his face close to my hand, watching it, as though it was about to change into something else. I wondered how to go on. I decided it would be simpler not to mention fathers. When a woman had a baby, I said, the baby belonged to her. She could take her baby away with her, if she wanted to. She could take her baby anywhere she wanted. It was her baby. He didn’t say anything. I tore off a piece of gauze and taped it over the cut. Nina had come from inside Karin, I said. Nina was Karin’s baby. And Karin had taken Nina away with her. They were gone, maybe forever. “That’s what’s happened,” I said. “That’s why you can’t find them.”

I looked up. Mazey had placed his right hand on his stomach and he was staring down at it.

“There’s no point looking in cupboards,” I went on, “or in drawers. You won’t find her there. Do you understand?”

But he didn’t answer. He was still staring at his hand.

 

During the autumn of that year, stories began to circulate. At first people thought there was a bear on the rampage, despite the fact that no bears had been seen in our part of the world for more than a hundred years. Next they thought it was a pack of wolves. Then somebody remembered the circus that had passed through the region that summer. They remembered trailers with no windows, their side walls painted with ferocious beasts and scenes of carnage and mutilation. Supposing one of the animals had escaped from its cage and was now roaming the countryside? It had to be some kind of wild animal, something exotic. Because dogs and chickens were being killed. Not just killed either, but torn apart. But not eaten. Just ripped open and left there, gaping, on the ground. Nobody had seen anything, of course. The stories took a darker twist. There was talk of pagan rituals and devil worship. An article appeared in the local paper: WHO COULD DO SUCH A THING? For a while, suspicion fell on a young couple who had moved into a woodsman’s cottage on a lonely stretch of river north-west of the village. They had dark eyes and dark hair, and the girl wore unusual jewelery. It was enough to keep the fires of rumor stoked up high.

I noticed that Mazey had become restless, as if the talk had affected him as well. I didn’t want to chain him up again, but at the same time I was worried about him wandering too far. After all, what if there was some truth to the rumors? What if he tangled with a wild animal or fell into the clutches of a Satanic cult? I couldn’t warn him; he wouldn’t be able to understand the kind of danger I was talking about. Maybe I could follow him, though. Then, if he got into trouble, I could help. It was an idea. And hadn’t I always been curious about where he went?

I waited on the porch, sitting in a rocking-chair and smoking cigarettes to pass the time. I had a small knapsack on my lap. It had some food in it, and a box of cartridges. Kroner’s rifle leaned against the wall behind me. There was a wind that night, and the trees on the far side of the road roared like a furnace with the door open. I could see the silhouette of Miss Poppel’s house, still uninhabited. I could hear the dull clank of the exhaust-pipes as they swung from the crab-apple tree. I thought of the birthday present I’d given Mazey. It was a tape of his wind-chimes. I’d recorded them one day when he was out. He kept the tape in his pocket at all times, along with his pen-knife; they were his prized possessions. We always played it if we drove somewhere together in the car.

I’d been sitting there for almost an hour when I heard footsteps in the house behind me. We didn’t have any guests that night. With Karin gone and Kroner confined to a wheelchair, it could only mean one thing. I put my cigarette out under my shoe, then I sat back and kept quite still.

The front door opened and Mazey appeared on the porch. He was wearing a long coat; his head was bare. He closed the door quietly, one hand on the handle, the other flat against the wood, so he could feel the lock catch. It was surprising to see what care he put into it. I watched him move down the steps and over the grass. He was heading away from the village, making for the bridge. I waited until he was hidden by the trees before I rose out of my chair. When I reached the road I could see him on the bend in front of me, a tall figure, stoop-shouldered, with hair that was so pale, it was hard to tell if it was fair or grey. He seemed at one with the night and the empty road and the fast clouds high above. He seemed at home.

At the bridge I felt exposed: only one lane each way and thin metal railings on either side. I hid behind an upright while he crossed ahead of me. Thick, silver water below. I watched a duck land and blacken it. Mazey turned his head at the noise, but it was just a reflex; he didn’t stop to look. Once he was over the river, I had to break into a run to catch up. Me, a 45-year-old woman, running …

I chose to walk in the grass at the edge of the road, close to the tree-line. Then, if he did happen to turn round, he wouldn’t see me. But I was struck by his purpose, his concentration. He didn’t look behind him, not even once. He didn’t hesitate at all, or dawdle, or meander. Sometimes his head moved from side to side, but I presumed he was just checking his bearings. He had the air of someone who knew exactly where he was going. I was reminded of something Eva had said once, before the sulfur got into her brain and ate everything intelligent. He looks like he could walk all day and all night, too. Like he could walk forever. Then she’d thought for a moment. He looks like he could walk from this world right into the next.

I’d fallen into a rhythm, I was hypnotized by it, so I almost missed his sudden plunge into the trees. I had to break into a run again. Up the grass bank, across the road, down the bank on the other side, keeping my eyes locked on the place where he had been. I parted the low branches and ducked into the undergrowth. The trees closed over me.

In the forest everything was black and silver. Mostly black, though. I stood still, just inside it, listening. I heard the crack of dead wood, bracken hissing. It had to be him. I began to move forwards, following the noise. Something caught on my cheek and tore the skin.

At last I saw a path.

It was quiet now, except for my own feet in the leaves. I walked on, further into the forest. It was quiet, but not peaceful. Once I saw a man’s head float between two trees. Mazey? But it was too high off the ground, even for him. It must have been a bird. Or a piece of pale bark. Or just the fall of moonlight.

All of a sudden, there was a thrashing in the undergrowth ahead of me and to my right. It sounded like horses being ridden in a stream. It sounded wet. A scream lifted out of the darkness. One high note held for three or four seconds. Then it cut out. Darkness poured back into the space it left. Darkness pushing at me, almost too thick to breathe. The scream wasn’t human. But it was pain. It was definitely pain. I gripped the rifle hard. Shock had dropped me into a kind of crouch and I was panting.

I forced myself to go on again, along the path. Towards the scream. I kept low and I whispered to myself, it didn’t matter what, just words, any words. I felt the ground with my foot each time I took a step. I thought of a mother rolling up her sleeve and dipping her elbow in a tub of water, testing it for temperature. Not my mother, though. Someone else’s. And all the time I scanned the forest that massed in front of me. Trees jumped sideways. Moonlight was fog, then snow, then water. Darkness bellied like a black sail with the wind behind it.

Then I saw him.

He was below me. There was a glade, a shallow bowl among the trees. A steep bank rose on the far side of it, casting a shadow. The earth had eroded there, and I could see a tangle of exposed roots. The path I was on circled the edge of the glade, keeping some distance above it.

I stood still, one hand braced against a tree. He was sitting on his haunches with his back to me and, just for a moment, I had the impression he was washing clothes. I took two silent steps and stopped beside another, larger tree. I could see one side of his face now—half of it, anyway: an ear, part of his cheek, the tip of his nose. In the moonlight his skin shone like bone. He was crouched over something. An animal of some kind. Not a dog or a cat, though. Larger than that. A deer, perhaps. He seemed to have his hands inside it. His arms were black to the elbow. Though in daylight, I realized, they wouldn’t be black.

They’d be red.

That scream, it must have been the animal.

WHO COULD DO SUCH A THING?

Whether I made a noise as I stood there, or whether he just sensed my presence, I couldn’t be sure, but suddenly he was looking over his shoulder, with his head angled in my direction. He didn’t move for at least a minute. I knew he was looking at me, but I didn’t think he knew who I was; I didn’t think he recognized me. And yet I found I couldn’t move. I was hardly even breathing.

At last he stood up. He began to walk towards me. He didn’t hurry, though. His arms didn’t swing at all, or even bend; they just hung at his sides like dead weights. He came up out of the glade in one straight line and for the first time in minutes I was aware of the wind moving in the trees above my head.

He stopped in front of me. I noticed something I’d never noticed before. The color of his eyes wasn’t a color at all, not even grey. It was just empty, drained. Or perhaps this was another trick, something moonlight did.

He was staring at me.

I could see dark patches on his clothes and his arms. I could smell the blood. I wasn’t frightened of him, and yet I knew I had to speak first.

“It’s very late.” I used a strict voice with him. “You should be in bed.”

His face didn’t alter.

“No baby,” he said

Rupert Thomson is the author of Dreams of Leaving (1988), The Five Gates of Hell (1991), and Air & Fire (1994). The Insult will be published by Knopf this August. Thomson lives in London.

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Originally published in

BOMB 56, Summer 1996

Featuring interviews with Martha Plimpton, Irvine Welsh, Jeffrey Vallance, Nick Pappas, Mark Eitzel, Lee Breuer, Ornette Coleman, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Janwillem van de Wetering, and Ada Gay Griffin & Michelle Parkerson on Audre Lorde.

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Issue 56 056  Summer 1996