Baby Thea lay on her stomach, wearing only a singlet and nappy in the warm afternoon. Looking at her big cheeks, her tiny lips, and her lowered eyelashes flooded me with pleasure, as always. The valley between her shoulder blades, her little shoulders, were miniature echoes backwards in time of her strength and size to come. My baby.
I knew that sleeping on the stomach was a risk for a baby, making it easier for their little mouth to get covered by bedding, their tiny windpipe to be constricted, all so quietly, without a sound to warn anyone. I knew that, but it was so peaceful just watching her sleep.
Resting my head on the railing of her cot, my sight blurred until only Thea was in focus, and then…
I jolted awake with fear spiking my blood, alarm shaking the inner muscles of my body. My heart and brain were braced, racing, ready, even as I stayed so still the cot didn’t even shake. Thea didn’t stir. Only my pulse roared while the quiet in the air remained, a reproach.
Deliberately, carefully, I stood and bent to listen for Thea’s breathing. My ear was just a couple of centimetres from her face. I pulled my hair back so it wouldn’t tickle her. I held my breath. Finally, I caught a faint, whispery inhalation but then…nothing.
Had I imagined the breath? Maybe it was enough. At some point I had to decide it was enough. But what if…? I imagined later, knowing I had been so lazy and selfish that I didn’t bother to make sure, and all the while my baby was…
I bent a little closer and a stray hair must have tickled Thea’s face because she snorted softly and clenched her little hands twice, and made a crying-like face that threatened to turn into full screaming wakefulness, but then relaxed back into sleep.
Resting my head back down, I had a feeling that all of this had already happened. Down the street I could hear another baby crying, then silence, and birds calling. My eyelids dropped again, heavy as honey. Heavy as honey as sweet as sleep.
I jolted awake once more. Dribble wetted my hand where I had been resting my head. Thea was lying on her stomach. How could I have left her in that position? But she was sleeping so beautifully now; if I woke her, she might not go back to sleep. Maybe I could just watch her, make sure she was alright, and then at least it would be quiet and still, and she would be well-rested and happier in the evening, and I would have some peace for a while, even if I could not let myself sleep.
No. I would not delude myself this way. There would be no peace for me without knowing Thea was safe. My sense of duty clunked woodenly into place: graceless, grinding, inevitable.
I reached into the cot and carefully worked my fingers under Thea’s arms, gently wriggling my hands down into the mattress foam to avoid pressing on her flesh. Smoothly, quickly, I turned the baby onto her back, hoping against hope that she would stay asleep so I could nap. Instantly, though, she flung her little arms up, rigid, and opened her mouth. It made a pink-black square, in which a cry gathered. The cry gathered, and gathered, and then blasted forth, wailing, outraged, the opposite of sleep.
Walking down the hallway, I noticed a bird landing on the skylight above me. Its claws clattered, and it flew off. I caught only a glimpse of its shadow. As I passed the sunroom, I saw a starling pacing on the outside sill, its feathers slick and its breast plump. In the kitchen it waited for me at the open window.
“Having a hard time of it, eh?” the bird said.
I had heard about the birds that gathered at houses where there was a new baby. They bothered people for a while and then left after a few weeks. I hadn’t heard about them being talkative.
I tried ignoring the bird. It hopped back and forth irritably, trying to bounce up into my line of sight and get my attention.
“Why is it just you and the baby?”
The starling’s voice trilled and scratched, pulling at my last sleepless nerve.
“Where is your mother? And where is the baby’s father, hm? His mum? His dad?”
The bird scrawched a chuckle at this last idea. I caught the hint of an oily rainbow in its feathers.
Before I could answer, the bird said:
“I just saw your husband at Domino’s Cafe. Business meeting. Lovely big piece of cake.”
This was annoying. In the morning when I was making my husband’s lunch, I had offered to pack a piece of the birthday cake I made for him yesterday. He said no, he was trying not to eat too many sweets.
“Your mother-in-law is busy-busy too! Work, work! I did see your mother out walking. Do you think she’s on her way here?”
I did not.
“Oh well,” the bird chirped, “I suppose they all think you’re managing admirably.”
It left a meaningful pause.
“I have something that might help you, actually. A…method.”
The bird fluffed up its feathers and then shook to smooth them down again.
“You get a cup of water, look at your reflection in it, then you close your eyes and say:
Sip away my trouble
Make me split and double
Then you take a sip of the water. If you’ve done it right, you’ll separate, so part of you stays with the baby and the other part can go and rest.”
Rest. That sounded good.
The bird seemed to get distracted, pulling at a strand of wool that was caught on a splinter of the windowsill. I thought it had forgotten me, but after a while it dropped the wool and perked up once more with its grating little voice.
“It’s genius,” the bird gossiped, “I saw Karina from four doors down doing it. But I don’t think she invented it.”
The other birds hopped a few jumps forward, fossicking out tiny seeds and insects from the flooring of the deck. The spokesbird tilted its head to focus on me, waiting for me to speak.
“Will I…will she, the other part of me, will she take proper care of Thea?” I asked.
“Trust yourself!” the bird chirped. “Just like the midwives said.”
“Well, got to go. Make of it what you will! Good luck!”
It plucked again at the wool, finally prising it out from the wood, and flew away with it.
Obviously I couldn’t trust the bird, but I desperately needed to rest, so I decided it was worth a try.
I filled a cup with water and took it to the bedroom. Sitting beside Thea, who continued to grizzle, I looked into the cup. There it was, my haggard reflection.
I was about to start the rhyme when I had a thought. What if I overslept? I didn’t want to leave my double in charge for too long. So I pulled an old mechanical alarm clock from a drawer and set the alarm for one hour.
I looked back into the cup and saw my face, wavering. Already I could imagine the relief of resting, truly resting, in the comfort of knowing that Thea was being cared for, by me.
“Sip away my trouble
Make me split and double”
I took the sip of cool water, and looked again into the cup. My reflection blurred and disintegrated. I felt my mind swelling inside my skull, swelling and buzzing as if there was not enough room, and then there was a kind of suction and release and…there I was, standing in the doorway, looking back at the cot, at the woman sitting there: myself.
It was eerie, seeing myself from behind, my tired stoop, the back of my greasy, unwashed head, my hair pressed into odd parts and swirls.
I looked less maternal than I’d expected. My physical appearance did not match the feelings I tried to create for Thea: warm, whole, safe. Instead, I looked frail, lumpen. Above all, tired.
Gradually, though, I began to notice the stoic angle of her neck, the generosity and purpose in her fingers as they stroked the baby’s back, so softly, without waking her. I realised it didn’t matter that her appearance lacked those qualities of ease and wholeness; they were there in her mind and in the baby’s mind. The fact that these qualities were not in my mind, looking at the two of them, only served to confirm that I was released, not needed, free to be elsewhere, to rest, to ignore, to wander.
I stepped quietly out of the room, into the hall, and then into the sunroom. I lay down in a sunny spot and let the warmth cover me. I slept.
I woke to silence. Not calm, sunlit silence. Stone silence. Empty silence. Dead silence. The light had moved across the sunroom and the shade was cold, as if the sun had turned its shoulder against me, as if I had disappointed it and was banished.
As I hurried back down the hall, the silence got louder and my knees weakened. How could I have thought it would be safe to leave Thea with her? I had tricked myself. I had allowed myself to believe something I knew wasn’t true, just to have a rest. And now, and now…
I approached the cot, the empty chair beside it. From across the room I could see the blanket that I’d left tucked tightly over the lower half of Thea’s body, now heaped and crumpled at the other end, over the place where her head should have been.
Heart pounding, I was drawn to the cot. It felt like my blood had drained downward, leaving my head light, empty, shivering, my legs heavy and numb.
The stifling woollen cloth was perfectly still. I looked for the movement that would indicate her breath. Nothing.
I tried to pull back the blanket, but I found that my hands had no force. I could place them near the blanket but I could not touch it, could not move it. The heap of bedding remained motionless, deathly still.
Then I thought, grasping at hope: wouldn’t the pile be bigger if Thea’s body was under it? Perhaps my double had taken her to another room? My spirit lifted, just the tiniest bit.
Calling Thea’s name, I strode down the hallway. Despite the volume of my voice in my own ears, I could tell it was not reaching my surroundings. It was as if I was encased in an invisible bubble. The sound of my voice bounced back to me, grating.
As I passed the doorway to the kitchen, I glanced in. It was infested with birds: starlings, parrots, wrens, noisy miners, wattlebirds. A magpie was tearing open a packet of biscuits; three galahs were scrabbling on the slick metal of the stovetop, pecking at crumbs. As I watched, a currawong pooped on the knitted tea cosy and launched away, tumbling the teapot off the tray.
“Thea!” I yelled.
Entering the living room, I saw my daughter, lying on her back in the middle of the floor. She was pumping her little legs and bringing her arms down and up, smiling.
Thank god, I thought. She’s alright. But then I saw the coloured glass marbles we normally kept as decorations in a wooden bowl on the coffee table. They were strewn all over the carpet with some stray feathers.
We hadn’t thought we needed to put the marbles away yet. Thea hadn’t learnt to crawl, let alone stand. But now I saw her twist her strong little body, rocking, rocking and trying to roll over.
Stupid, stupid. Why hadn’t I put the marbles away? And where was, where am, where is…the other?
I moved quickly to Thea and tried to pick her up, but I could not get a grip on her. There was no purchase to be found on her plump limbs, the soft cotton of her singlet. Again and again, I failed, and still she kept flexing, trying to roll.
She finally did it, and I could only watch in horror: she flopped onto her stomach and lifted her head and shoulders, exploring the view from her new vantage point. Her hands reached out, grabbing towards the pretty glass balls, her little pink tongue poking out in anticipation.
Frantic, yelling (though no-one could hear me), I looked around the room, and that’s when I saw it, her, me, collapsed on the sofa, one leg protruding, messy hair flung over the armrest, face hidden in the pillows, breathing deeply: asleep.
Blood rushed to my face, stiffening my cheeks into an angry mask, narrowing my eyes into blades, to cut, to hurt, to retaliate. How could she?
I shook the woman’s shoulder roughly; I shrieked into her ear. If I could wake her, at least, she could pick Thea up. But I was not really shaking her, and she couldn’t hear me. I had no greater effect on her than I had on my daughter.
Desperate, I chanted the words backwards, trying to reverse the spell. Nothing.
I lay down facing Thea, my head just inches away from her. She looked through me and flapped her arms, reaching. In my mind, I conjured all my care for her; I thought about holding her, breastfeeding her, of her looking into my face, our gazes locked adoringly. I tried to channel all of that love towards her, to reach her. It had no effect.
So, I tried the opposite. I gathered all my fear; I thought of all the spiky, poisonous hazards that could injure her, all the cliffs she could tumble off, the power points and flames and blades, the sharp corners that could dent a falling temple, the hinges that could crush tiny fingers. I didn’t want her to be scared, but if I could make her feel my fear maybe she would stop. But no. All that fear, it stayed inside my bubble.
And the useless lump on the couch kept sleeping: selfish, negligent. The hated qualities I had to exterminate from myself, day after day, were now embodied, in my own body.
Then it happened, what I dreaded. Thea finally reached a green marble, grabbed it and put it in her mouth.
I had a feeling like standing on a cliff and behind me the land falling away, crumbling, until I stood only on the narrowest, collapsing strip of soil. There was nothing to do but to fall.
But just then the alarm went off, filling the house with noise. Even though I was the one who had set it an hour earlier, it startled me, and for a moment I did not know where the clanging was coming from.
Mixed with the racket of the alarm, I heard a flapping of wings and clatter of pans in the kitchen, and spreading into the hall now, a picture smashing to the floor after wings swept it off the wall.
All the noise scared Thea and she opened her mouth wide. She breathed in to cry, and I feared the marble was going to be sucked back into her windpipe but instead it fell forward, wet, over her toothless gums, onto the carpet. Her scream added to the clamour.
The woman on the couch jolted and sat upright. I hit her and hit her, knowing my blows held no force.
“How could you!” I screamed silently.
Thea was still crying and had rolled again, onto her back and was now facing upwards, wailing.
Gradually my blows began to reach the physical world, but weakly. The other me touched her face as if a cobweb had blown onto it, or dandelion fluff. I slowed. Now she put up her arms to shield herself, not urgently, only as if she was being hit by a foam sword or a plush toy. She was saying something, but her voice sounded far away.
I stopped. If my body was solid now, if I could have an impact on objects, I could…I turned and bent, and picked up Thea. I was still weak, only partially in the world, and it took a force of will to hold onto her and not let her fall through my diluted grasp.
I knew I could not go very far, so I sat down on the couch with Thea. The alarm finally stopped and quiet filled the house. There was only an occasional flap of wings and scrabble of claws in the hallway. I held Thea close, safe, cherishing her weight in my arms.
The other me was fading as I watched. Her head hung wearily, but with an effort she bent to pick up some marbles and placed them back in the wooden bowl. The last few marbles fell, not from her dissolving hand but through it. A downy feather drifted, quiet as sleep, to the floor where she stood. And then she was gone.