The following is an excerpt from the story A Very Compassionate Baby by Anne Valente, appearing in Annalemma Issue Six. Image by Chrissy Lau.
Gerard finds that he cannot take his baby anywhere. Once, when they walked into the Dairy Queen on McPherson, a teenager passed them on the way out and dropped his strawberry ice cream cone on the pavement. The baby watched the pink scoop fall woefully to the ground, then exploded into such unmanageable tears that Gerard and his wife simply brought him back to the car. Another time, when they took the baby to the park on a sun-filled spring day, the park crew was out mowing the grounds, and the baby leaned out his stroller and saw the grass flying, weeds razed, dandelion spores floating up and away on currents of violent air, and he cried with such heavy sorrow that the sun couldn’t cheer him, nor the baby ducks swimming through the pond, nor the tulips blooming in the fields. They turned the stroller around and took him home.
And now, Gerard knows it for sure – that to take the baby anywhere is to risk perils like this, the startling onset of tears without warning, howls like sirens that alert everyone around them that something is terribly, terribly wrong.
When he takes the baby for a physical – after other similar incidents involving smashed ants, a broken jar of pickles, and a stuffed penguin, lost under the baby’s crib for two days – he thinks to ask the pediatrician about the baby’s behavior, in a way that won’t sound strange.
She’s turned away from him, weighing the baby on the child scale, but when he asks she turns and looks at him, her face as blank as paper. The baby punches the air behind her, his tiny fists like clementines.
“What does it mean? If your baby cries a lot?”
She looks back at the baby, smiling and grabbing his feet.
“He doesn’t seem overly tearful.”
“Well, he isn’t now. But I bet if you dropped something, like your stethoscope, he’d start crying. Probably immediately.”
Dr. Mullens’ forehead creases. “You mean he’s sensitive to loud sound?”
“No. No, that’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean, Mr. Davenport?”
“I mean he cries, all the time, when anything happens that seems remotely sad.”
“Babies mimic sometimes. Is that what you mean?”
Gerard sighs, looks around the room. He searches for anything, as demonstration, as way to show the pediatrician what he means. Finally he sees it, the wall of pamphlets, take-home brochures with titles like Healthy Child Development and Could Your Baby Have Hearing Loss? He takes one from the shelf, a leaflet about breastfeeding, with a woman cradling a child drawn across the front, and he waves it before the baby so he will look. Once he does, Gerard tears the pamphlet in half.
The baby stares, eyes round as plates. Then he bursts swiftly into tears, great heaving sobs, the halves of the leaflet limp in Gerard’s hands.
Gerard looks at Dr. Mullens, who looks back at him and smiles.
“Well, Mr. Davenport,” she says, rubbing the baby’s belly, until his choking cries slowly disintegrate into sniffles, “it looks like you have a very compassionate baby on your hands.”
She laughs, she picks the baby up, she puts him back on the examination table where he lies like a sack of potatoes, sniffles receding to sighs. Gerard looks on, feeling the awkwardness of dismissal, and wondering why, why in this room of all places, why is this funny, why would this ever be funny at all.
To read the rest of this story click here to purchase Issue Six, which ships April 12th.
Anne Valente’s work appears or is forthcoming in Keyhole, Monkeybicycle, Knee-Jerk, JMWW and Necessary Fiction, among others. Her stories have been nominated for a 2009 Pushcart Prize and the 2010 AWP Intro Journals Award. She is the assistant editor of Storyglossia and lives in Ohio.
Chrissy Lau is originally from England but now lives in Sydney, Australia. She absolutely loves to draw quirky, endearing and intriguing things with lots of lines and patterns.