No Others Before Me
Just after I strike the match to light the oven, I see it. First, the sickle of my own reflection, baggy-eyed and unshaven, and then the glass jar. The villagers are packed inside it, shouting and pounding their tiny fists. They’ve messed their clothes and hair. Poor little tykes, is my first thought, followed by a long internal groan as I picture cleaning up all two dozen of them alone.
“Hey, little guys,” I say, stalling to ponder the mysteries of the motherly species. Laura’s obviously put them here, stuffed to the lid and right in the way of my morning business, but why? And where is she? Our bed was empty when I woke.
I blow out the match and flip another light switch to see better. A big-jawed blond in a gingham dress waves at me and scrawls a message in lipstick on the clear round wall. It is miniscule and backwards, and it takes me a moment to read it.
Let us go, Father.
Her simple appeal makes my heart sink. Despite the girl’s likeness to me, I still don’t feel like a father. The villagers are really Laura’s progeny, not mine. Sure, I contributed my sperm to the in-vitro enterprise and I spent a few months dreaming about passing on the knowledge of yeast and cheese to a pint-sized replica of me, but after the first ultrasound, I started to detach.
It was supposed to be a “special” experience. A fluttering heart. A sea of singular life. But when the doctor rubbed the wand over Laura’s growing belly, the first thing I saw on the screen was the high rugged wheel of a bulldozer.
“Is that the baby?” I said.
The doctor frowned and moved his wand. The whole bulldozer came into view, then its miniature driver, and behind them—a tidy village green, clapboard houses, people gardening. A bored teenager was mowing a lawn. A woman was hanging sheets on a line.
“Well,” said the doctor. “The drugs worked much better than we thought.” He sounded like he was stranded between regret and unbridled glee.
Laura edged forward to see better, her pale knees buckling. The plastic sheet crackled.
“That one’s a lousy mower,” she said with a glance at me.
“I didn’t have anything to do with this.” I backed away, knocking into a heap of black and expensive equipment.
Laura gave a hopeful sigh. It contained all our months of anxious attempts, the hours we had lain side by side in the dark, sleepless, dry-mouthed, wishing for a child to materialize. I refused to go through that again. But I didn’t like to see anyone besides me laying claim to the deep recesses inside my wife.
“They’re ours.” She reached up to touch her freckled cheek.
The equipment teetered behind me, ready to crash.
“Just look at those adorable hydrants,” she added, pointing. “They must have a fire department. That’s pretty advanced, isn’t it?” she asked the doctor.
“Very advanced,” he said, but then assured us that the villagers would not be “fully mature,” that they would need our love and guidance as much as any child. “They’ll want to please you,” he said, “and they’ll make very cute mistakes doing it.”
Laura was beaming. I backed away from smashing something I was powerless to fix and went through the rest of the pregnancy nodding and agreeing.
Laura’s labor was long and difficult, not because it was hard to squeeze the villagers out, but because several of them tried to climb back in. After their town finally collapsed into a mud of placental fluid around them, they sat in the muck, rubbing their skinny arms. They submitted to being prodded by the doctors and lay listlessly on the mattress while Laura and I cooed at them.
“Give them as much body contact as possible,” advised the nurse. So we spread them out like Christmas ornaments all over Laura’s naked belly and thighs. They curled. They sighed. Then finally one fellow reared his head and pronounced his new world cold and inhospitable. He told the others that they were being punished for exploiting their paradise in the womb.
“It’s okay, little guy,” Laura said, in a voice I had never heard before. It was gentle and singsong and full of authority. She guided the man toward her breasts. “It’s okay.”
After a good feed, he revised his opinion and called out to his brethren about a land of milk and honey. Laura pulled the others to her and they waited their turn in a cranky huddle.
“See?” she said to me, her eyes glistening with tears.
I nodded. I saw. They needed her. All that tugging and sucking. All those itty-bitty sounds. This was what my beautiful wife had wanted: to be everything to them. And my job was to make it possible for her.
I drove them home in three car-seats, each with eight snug pockets where the villagers rode and tossed their arms at their mama.
I took photos of them as they grabbed their toy tools and chopped down most of the bonsai forest. Their faces were pink now, and their limbs no longer looked like sticks with sacks hanging from them. They fussed as they built capes and colonials, a post office and grocery store, and Laura hovered over them, shushing and patting. Finally, the town was done and they settled down into contentment. At night we heard them chuckling to themselves.
We were contented, too. Suddenly we had so much to talk about, every day a series of discoveries as the villagers planted rock gardens and wrote a Constitution.
I try to summon those times as I pick up the oven matches and light the fire again. Twelve pizzas need to be baked and ready by 7 A.M. or I don’t get paid.
Little shouts peep through the jar, but I don’t look the villagers’ way.
It’s been hard lately between Laura and me.
“That’s Ezra,” she corrected me yesterday, when I called one of our kids by the wrong name. Her tone was icy. “When are you ever going to get it?”
“When I have a chance,” I snapped. “I’m the support squad, remember? I get us fed and pay our bills, so you can spend all your time with them.”
She sighed and looked over the steep roofs of their houses. She shook her head. There were gray smudges under her eyes and her nails were ragged.
“Right,” she muttered.
The villagers were holding a town meeting, but it was naptime so most of them were snoozing in their chairs.
“Thanks,” she added bitterly.
I leaned over the town hall and whispered. “Look, I would have been happy with one kid.”
One of our girls woke up and peered out the window, up at me, her eyes just like my eyes, her cheeks and chin like Laura’s. Her gaze was so trusting.
“I didn’t mean that,” I said.
“No, you didn’t,” Laura said, covering the roof of the town hall with her hand.
Something mutinous filled me. “You’re right. I always wanted twenty-four.”
Laura rose and stormed off to the bathroom. I sat alone on the couch, watching the villagers appoint a historical society and vote for its first exhibition: Hand Me the Remote: The Land, the Habits, the Lives of Our Natives Prior to Birth and Settlement.
The tiny fists grow louder. I see another message on the glass: We can explain.
“Hang on,” I say, still avoiding their eyes. I pull out the dough from the fridge. “Why don’t you tell Father where you want to build your vacation homes.”
The villagers like space to grow. Two weeks ago, I found Laura sobbing beside our living room window because a party had set out on an expedition seeking gold and had almost fallen to their deaths from the cliff-like ledge of our third-story apartment.
“Why didn’t they just ask me?” she sobbed when they were safely tucked away. “I could have given them my jewelry box to play with.”
My pulse was still pounding from having to inch out on the ledge and grab them. I took a breath. “Maybe we give them too much,” I said and picked at the dried dough on my knuckles.
She sniffed. “It’s not easy, is it?”
“Never was,” I said, remembering how my father had rescued me when I’d broken my arm diving into a kiddie pool. I also vaguely remember that he’d been the one who’d dared me to jump.
That night I bolted all the windows shut and had a private talk with their mayor, the one who’d first found Laura’s breast. He’s a natural leader, but he has this thing for feathered hats. I can’t stand it and it makes me want to bully him.
I told him that for now Laura needed the villagers to need her, and nothing else. I got worked up like a preacher. I made him repeat it three times. We love Mama. We shall have no others before her. The mayor obligingly organized a glamorous and endless Maternal Celebration Parade, but the twirling batons did little to comfort my wife. She kept weeping for two nights straight and then made the villagers listen to her read her favorite poems aloud so they would truly understand their mother. Unfortunately, some of the men started pinching the women during “Ariel” and soon a massive, flirtatious fight erupted. Laura slammed the book, and then the door.
“Mama,” shouts one of the villagers now. “Where’s Mama?” It’s the mayor, hat lost, tie rumpled.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I guess she needed a day off. Did you guys play too hard last night?”
I expect them to chuckle, since the villagers never play, but they all fall silent. My stomach sinks. I dread and hope for the age my children learn to lie to me. In the meantime, the truth binds us like a rope.
“We didn’t mean to hurt her feelings,” says the mayor.
“What did you do?”
“You’re the one who told us about needing to need her.” His voice is shrill. “‘No others before her,’ you said.”
“I say a lot of things.” I want to sound grave and fatherly, but I can’t help smirking at how the mayor cocks his head. It’s what I do when I am feeling my most guilty.
My father wanted me to be an engineer instead of a cook. Every week of my life he still mentions it. But he doesn’t care what the villagers become. He is soppy with grandpa-love when he comes over, clucking and shaking his head at their antics. Now he knows the future will continue with him in it. He’s a lousy mower, too.
I tip the jar, watch the crowd of people falling backwards, shouting, startled looks on their faces.
“Tell me what happened,” I say as I set them back down. I want them to protest their innocence, to theorize along with me why my normally late-sleeping wife left the house today before dawn—because she was tired, because she was craving breakfast at a fancy restaurant, because she wants me to notice my kids more. But they don’t.
The mayor clears his throat.
“We wanted to please her,” he begins again.
“We wanted her to know there would be no traitors among us,” says another. The mayor shushes him.
“You really didn’t see it upstairs?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“I must prepare you not to overreact,” says the mayor.
I finish lighting the oven fire and set down the matches beside them. “I’ll go check on it,” I say, and lower my voice to a growl. “If you were bad, you’re gonna get punished.”
They shout and slap the glass as I walk away without looking back. I just want to scare them. I don’t have the heart to even spank them with my pinky, and I can only imagine what silly thing has set Laura off now. They probably painted a building the wrong color, or hung a sign crooked. She wants them to be so perfect. She waited so long, they must be everything. They must be a whole world.
Every morning, I leave the apartment in the silent dark, fumbling my way downstairs by touch. Every afternoon I come home to the bounce of voices, the patter of small feet running to and fro, and Laura in the middle of it all, looking like she’s spent all day wading up a beautiful, heavy stream. When I reach our floor now, the place is so still. Light streams over the entry table, piled with mail and bills, the kitchen we hardly use, our bedroom, with its wrinkled record of two bodies sleeping. Suddenly I remember her whispering to me a couple nights ago when I was dreaming.
“I think they’re hiding something,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. Should I let them have their secrets?”
“Yes,” I mumbled back. “No. I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?” she asked.
I rolled away and pretended to sleep.
At first, all I see is the empty town, stoplights blinking. Then my eyes fall on the tiny edifice near the post office, two upright Fudgesicle sticks propping one across. Three bodies sway from the top beam, a stick still lightly smudged with chocolate. There is no breeze in the apartment.
The nooses shimmer in the thin daylight. The dental floss is silky on my skin as I untie the figure on the right and lift him in my palm. He is as limp as a flower petal, his neck bruised a dark purple. He wears a cropped blue jacket, striped shorts. The postman.
The next is a woman, also dead, her face cast aside, as if she could not bear to look at the ground. Her brown hair is tucked behind her ears, just like Laura’s when she is reading.
The third is so tiny, at first I think they have hung an ant. Its whole body is a black bruise.
A child. Their baby. It lies in my palm and I cannot brush it away. There was never a baby in the village before.
I hunch beside the gallows until my knees ache.
I want to rise, go downstairs, and try to understand how we came to this, but my stubborn body refuses to move. Minutes pass. I tell myself, Go back, you idiot. Then I hear the smash. It sends me clumsily running, faster than my legs can carry me. I trample the last of the bonsai forest as I bolt downstairs to the pizza kitchen.
The oven door is open, heat spilling out. The ledge beside it is empty. Glass covers the floor, fragments tipped with blood and mangled limbs. The mayor’s skull is bashed in. A girl’s leg is stranded, in its black patent shoe, a yard away from her body.
The stillness makes my eyes burn. I will the kitchen door to open, for Laura to come back, to clean up the mess with her mother’s hands, to breathe life back into them as only she can. The fire roars quietly behind me.
Finally I drop to my heels. My hands sting and bleed as I make a pile of the bodies. There is broken glass embedded in everything: the stiff clothes, the women’s purses, the mayor’s feathered hat. The glass weighs more than the corpses, which are still warm and soft.
I am almost done when I see something wiggle. A small, mustached villager has wrenched awake. He sits up on his elbows, a look of horror constricting his face.
Breath blocks my throat as I ease my palm beneath him. He does not struggle, but it is plain he fears me, his brown eyes, Laura’s eyes, blinking rapidly.
My heart fills with something deep and limitless. “Daddy’s here, son,” I croak, hugging his chest with my bloody thumb. “Daddy’s here.”