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Hush, Little Baby: A Novelby Katharine Davies
Spring was coming. Eira saw it in the way the wind ran through the plane tree outside her window. She watched the dark twigs catching at the air. Then she left for the museum. The front gardens of the houses trembled as they filled with light. She wanted his love to be like this light.
All day, Henry Lux talked about museum business and seemed to take no notice of the world outside. Henry Lux reminded her of the handsome mallards at the edge of the lake, when all the little globes of water ran off their backs like mercury. After the museum closed, Eira trailed home along avenues and groves where it was already night. She smelled a viburnum through the darkness. From an upstairs window she heard children’s voices.
When she was a child, she saw her reflection once and she said to her mother, who was making the bed somewhere in the depths of the mirror, “I have such a long neck, don’t you think?” She pulled herself up tall for it to be admired.
“A long tongue is what you’ve got, Eira,” said her mother, and it was true—she was always talking in those days. Now, there was Henry to talk to, but she only listened and made small replies that anyone could have made. She didn’t know if he imagined anything about her beyond the limits of these words.
The museum was in a park. It had once been a manor house and once a convent, the park being the old estate of both. Eira did not feel that she should ever have been someone who worked in a museum. She found herself thinking of the nuns. She looked out from the museum at the nuns’ ghosts gathering, like pigeons, in the cedar trees, and she considered the lives of all the spinsters of the park, how they had measured out its history, pacing between the flower beds, thinking their red thoughts.
The museum had been the same since the day it opened. Its small collection was displayed in mahogany and glass cabinets. There were stuffed animals in a woodland tableau—a badger, a fox, and a tawny owl. There was a smattering of coins, some crossed muskets, and hundreds of dead butterflies and moths in frames on the walls, and there were paintings of old men in stovepipe hats. Nothing you could touch. Many people who visited the museum thought that the most interesting thing was the beehive attached to an outside wall that had a glass window so that you could look inside. The bees would not stir until the summer months. Until last year, there had been a baby clinic on the first floor that had been there since the First World War. It had been an unusual place for a baby clinic, so people always said. Now, it was locked and silent; the grand staircase was no longer used, and no babies were ever carried past the seventeenth-century murals, or looked at the painted cherubs as if they were one of themselves.
At the heart of the park, a great and smelly stirring began among the waterfowl: Canada geese, coots, gulls, moorhens, ducks, and swans—all their noisy languages blaring over the lake—and small birds burst from shrubs and flew across Eira’s path. The oak trees waited fatly for their leaves on the empty grass plains that had once been the great forests of Middlesex. “Once,” Henry said, “the Virgin Queen hunted there.” But this was impossible to imagine. The snowdrops appeared, and after that the crocuses, and any snow that fell now died as it touched the ground. At last, the clocks sprang forward but the change of light only made Eira feel overexposed. Then the magnolias came out, creamy as brides. One day, she saw a man kiss a girl in the bandstand and a blackness came into her mind that would not go away.
Every day, she walked down Sylvan Avenue toward the park. The net of branches above the wrought-iron gates began to blur with leaves. On her lunch hours she circuited the park, past the greening willows, the smell of green, the smell of the damp, black earth. The tips of the horse chestnut trees pushed through the moist air. Daffodils trumpeted their way around the circumference of the park at the foot of the railings. Mr. Whippy chimed his chimes.
The park had everything you could wish for. As well as the museum, there was an aviary, a soccer pitch, a floodlit tennis court, a playground, a café that not only had ketchup holders in the shape of tomatoes but also served knickerbocker glory sundaes, a greenhouse with a banana tree inside, an herb garden, a sundial, a rose garden, a crazy golf course, and a bowling green. When the sun shone, a man came to launch model boats onto the lake with a long wooden pole. When the wind blew, there were kites.
Eira knew her own spring had passed. She thought of herself as the faded moth, Old Lady, pinned through her thorax into her frame in the Long Gallery. The old lady is one of the larger moths, attracted to the light in houses, especially in the country. She had typed out these words. But she knew that one day Henry Lux would spread out the wings of her salt-and-pepper hair on a pillow and say, “No. You were like a piece of light to me then, Eira.” She waited for this day. She prayed that the obstacle of Daisy Lux would be magically removed.
At night, she lay in her octagonal room at the top of a small tower that jutted out into Elmfield Crescent, telling herself a story of the sad death of her friend Daisy Lux. The tower had a pointed roof with a spike at the tip, fairy-tale sharp. The glass in the windowpanes was old and changed the shapes of things that came and went in the crescent. There were two other women who flapped about on the landing, whose smiles she brushed past on the stairs. Eira said to herself: “We are the women of the bedsit tower, and we are out of tune with the spring.”
Every corner house had a tower. The houses in the streets that led away from the park were Edwardian flights of fancy with snow-fruit friezes under their eaves. Their top halves were white and their bottoms were red. They had flowery stained-glass front doors with faded names above them that harked of the woodlands and fields that had not been so far away when they were built. Now, there was the North Circular Road, sirens, too much traffic, and the taste of toxic air if you ventured away from the park’s quiet streets with their ornamental cherry trees and ceanothus and darting birds.
One morning, Eira entered the park by the gardeners’ gate, the first of the gates to be unlocked. There were whiffs of petrol from the lawn mowers and sweet, clean birdcalls in the air. Farther in, the smell of night rain and dank lake water merged. Eira thought she was the first person to enter the park, but she could not have been the first. She was thinking how it is hard to know why we do certain things, that their importance is only later known, when she saw from a distance something at the top of the steps that led up to the museum door. She saw its whiteness against the dark stone. When she got nearer, she saw that it was a box.
it could have been a boxed doll, an anonymous donation to the small party of cracked and battered infants who lived in a glass case inside the museum. But it was not.
It was a baby.
A softly breathing baby, with skin the color of tea, and sparse, black hair. Eira kneeled down, her face, her ear, up close. The baby was fast asleep inside the box. It did not seem to be a newborn baby. It smelled of its own skin. A yellow blanket was tucked around it, and there was a murky bottle of milk wedged in the foot of the box. Eira looked up and saw the wind move the green waters of the lake. She heard branches high above creak like spinsters’ corset stays. She looked back at the sealed-up face in the box. It was her turn to unlock the museum. But here was a baby in a box, sleeping, out in the open. A sleeping baby. The lake water lapped between the rushes. A heron flew overhead, very near. Something else was being unlocked.
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 2006 by Katharine Davies
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