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Oct 19, 2018

15 Min read time

Image: miguel (adapted)

When the townsfolk gathered to dip that year’s births in the creek, all saw what the midwife had already observed: all the babies were the same baby.

On the fine cool morning of the first day of spring, the townspeople gathered in the valley, where the fifteen townswomen who had given birth that year dipped their little ones in the silver creek. Then and there, what the midwife had already observed was revealed to everyone: all the babies were the same baby. The baby was fat and strong, with soot-dark eyes neither big nor small, an ill-defined nose, rosebud lips, and thick glossy black hair that lay flat on its head. The baby may have been one month old or several, may have been a Hortense or a Jakob—no matter. The baby was the same baby. And so too in the year that followed, all the babies born in the town were that same baby, and in the year that followed that one, and so it went. The babies were good babies. They fussed only when hungry and slept when put down. They cooed and gurgled and giggled. All that any of their mothers regretted was that she could not boast of having a baby so easy to adore, or a baby so clever, since all the babies were both. Well before they took their first steps, they seemed to understand everything that was said to them.

Although their mothers were loath to admit it, the babies no longer smiled so readily.

As the babies grew, they proved strong indeed, and coordinated if somewhat stout, their noses became aquiline, and invariably they reminded their mothers of someone. But who? That dark-haired great-aunt, the spinster—what was her name? That schoolmate who sat alone at the back of the class? The babies ate most foods, but none would touch cornmeal or beets. They put away their other toys, but insisted upon bringing their building blocks to the table, even to bed, and for their birthdays they requested more building blocks. When music was played, the babies howled in protest. Up to their third year, the babies showed their parents great affection, their rosebud lips always curling into a smile when they said good morning, and in response to every word of praise, every treat. But they shunned the older children and played only with each other, and only with their ever-growing collections of blocks. By the time the oldest babies had reached five years, they were communicating with each other exclusively in monosyllables and gestures understood only by themselves. Although their mothers were loath to admit it, the babies no longer smiled so readily. At times they seemed almost pensive.

The fifteen oldest babies began kindergarten on the first day of autumn, a day as fine and cool as the one on which they had been dipped in the silver creek. The kindergarten teacher was taken aback by the uncanny sight of the fifteen babies all together, all alike, down to their flaxen uniforms and brown school boots. She despaired of ever learning their names. When she asked them to count to ten, to twenty, when she asked them to add figures even into the triple digits, she was astonished to see their fifteen like hands rise. As one, their like voices called out the correct answer. The babies drew their numbers and letters in the same somewhat pointed script. Their teacher knew better than to teach them a song. In the past when her little school was filled with kindergarteners who were all different, each as unique as a snowflake, she had often read stories. Today, however, when she produced her book of tales, all fifteen babies frowned stormily, exchanging rapid gestures in Babiesspeak. Turning back, they as one informed her, “We will now build with blocks.”

They cleared the heavy furniture from the center of the room, seemingly without effort, produced their impressive collections of building blocks and, working together, murmuring in Babiesspeak, commenced building a complex structure with high, double-thick walls and a mazelike interior. It seemed to their teacher a fanciful castle until each of the babies, fishing around in its blocks, pulled out a small set of bars and fitted it into one of the fifteen windows. The baby sitting nearest the small door fixed a tiny padlock on it. Their teacher gasped inwardly. The babies were clearly even cleverer than anyone had guessed, and each one a stout little barrel of strength. How long would it be before they erected a full-sized rendition of that imposing building they had made so impossible to escape? Their thirty soot-dark babies’ eyes now gazed admiringly upon it. Smiles played on their rosebud lips and their cheeks were flushed with pleasure, their glossy black hair gleaming like gunmetal.

If the kindergarten teacher was the first to fear the babies, others too developed qualms when the oldest babies reached the age of seven, for on the first day of school that year, they started going home to one another’s houses. The babies all being the same baby, all dressed in the same flaxen uniform, all having the same taste for mutton stew and building with blocks, it was only when the babies hesitated slightly at being addressed by an unfamiliar name that the babies’ mothers and fathers were first alerted to what they thought was a prank. But in fact it became the babies’ practice to go home to different houses every day. A mother, gazing upon what she took to be a strange baby, would recall again that great-aunt whose name she still could not remember. Or had she been the postal clerk? How could one possibly know who she’d been? She had always kept herself apart. As the weeks of switching households passed, the babies became less expressive, tolerating the pungent smell of beets without complaint, taking no apparent pleasure in their favorite meal of mutton stew and honey cake. They sat down sullenly to their breakfasts. Since their mothers and fathers never knew which baby had come home to them, some adopted a cautious, polite tone toward the baby present, odds being that it was a visitor. Others lavished every baby with affection, on the chance that it was theirs. Those beginning to fear the babies sought to placate them, the fathers gifting them with yet more building blocks, the mothers preparing mutton stew and honey cake every night, despite the babies’ lack of appreciation. Months passed. Still the babies went home to one another’s houses. They became yet more inexpressive. Their mothers and fathers, ground down by the babies’ indifference, became indifferent to the babies, even to the point of feeding them cornmeal and beets. When the next group of babies turned seven, they too began going home to one another’s houses, and the next group, and so it went. A cloud of heartsickness hung over the town.

At age twelve, the oldest babies taught themselves archery. At thirteen, they learned from a library book how to fight hand to hand in a fearsome style. Throughout the years following, they trained extensively in the technique, teaching the younger babies as they grew. The kindergarten teacher tried to sound the alarm but over time the babies’ mothers’ and fathers’ attention had shifted to their older children, the boys and girls born before the babies, each one a snowflake, all but forgotten in recent years. The babies could do as they pleased.

On midsummer’s eve the year the oldest babies turned sixteen, they stole their fathers’ hunting knives.

On midsummer’s eve the year the oldest babies turned sixteen, however, they stole their fathers’ hunting knives. When commanded to return them, they calmly blinked their soot-dark babies’ eyes and refused even to reply. At this, their mothers and fathers were awakened. Everyone in town was awakened. All convened in the meetinghouse the next evening. Two fathers opened the proceedings with the report that, just that afternoon, they had witnessed the babies incorporating the purloined hunting knives into their fearsome hand-to-hand fighting technique. When hailed by the fathers and bade to halt, the babies turned as one, knives in hand, and trained their thirty soot-dark babies’ eyes on them, regarding the two fathers for several seconds as blankly as they might have a chair or table of long use. They then, as one, walked in the other direction. In a state of pronounced anxiety, the mayor and the kindergarten teacher took a hard line. The oldest fifteen babies, they said, must be placed under guard in the mildewed basement of the meetinghouse to prevent their influence from spreading. The mayor and the kindergarten teacher pointed to the shortage of matchbooks in town. Surely the oldest babies were responsible! What did they mean to burn? And one of them had been caught sneaking into the granary at midnight two weeks ago! What plans did they have for the grain? And why had they been lugging handsaws, hammers, and nails up into the mountains west of town? The oldest babies must be kept under lock and key! The other townspeople shouted them down. Whether out of fear or lingering affection, the oldest babies’ mothers and fathers proposed conciliatory measures ranging from ceding the babies half the town, to fashioning mock soldiers upon whom the babies might work their knives, to simply inquiring as to their demands and satisfying them. The inconclusive meeting ended with those first mothers in tears, reminiscing about the cheerful good mornings with which their babies used to greet them.

The only one who took concrete action afterward was the kindergarten teacher, who the next day checked out the same library book the babies had read and began training in the same fearsome hand-to-hand fighting technique. The following week, she met the mayor in his office on the second floor of the meetinghouse. Together they cogitated. A few days prior, the oldest babies had given up going house to house at night. They had in fact abandoned those homes altogether and were living in plank-and-bough shelters that they had constructed with the tools they had brought up the western mountainside. Given the babies’ building skills, it was unsurprising when the one father bold enough to visit the encampment reported to the mayor that the shelters were sound. That bold father reported too that the babies were in the process of erecting some type of meeting hall, smiling elatedly as they toiled. The next week the same bold father reported that the meeting hall was finished, its roof a great dome of fir boughs and sap, and that the babies had created more shelters, shelters by the score—many more than the fifteen needed. They would continue building, the mayor and the kindergarten teacher believed. They would build more shelters and meeting halls, build a temple to house their blocks and a kitchen dedicated solely to the baking of honey cake, structures to suit their every fancy. They would build on whatever sites they chose without consulting anyone, as they had on the mountainside. The mayor and the kindergarten teacher looked down from the mayor’s office at the glossy black-haired heads of the younger babies training to fight on the green. They kicked and jabbed the air, grunting fearsomely. Then, as one, they stopped and turned to gaze up at the mayor’s window. It was impossible to see their soot-dark babies’ eyes from this distance but the kindergarten teacher shuddered all the same.

Weeks passed. The babies’ mothers’ former attachment to the babies was revived by their prolonged absence, and they fretted over what the babies were eating out on the wild mountainside. No baby could live on building alone! Their fathers were more sanguine about their prospects for survival. After all, the babies could hunt with their stolen knives.

The longer the mayor and the kindergarten teacher contemplated the babies’ possible plans, the more convinced they became that the babies intended to engage in knife play in defense of the land they had seized. To avoid bloodshed, the mayor and the kindergarten teacher concluded grimly, it would be best after all to cede them half the town. The two of them were descending the stairs from the mayor’s office to the big room of the meetinghouse, about to call the townspeople together, when a clamoring crowd rushed inside. The oldest babies had come down the mountain, thieves in the night, and made away with their fathers’ hunting rifles! The one father bold enough to have visited the babies’ encampment twice then entered the room at a run, just returning from a third trip. He reported that the babies had fashioned a rifle range and were training in marksmanship! They were training to march in formation! The babies’ mothers wept; what had they done wrong, that their babies should turn on them so ferociously? The townsmen shook their fists and bellowed. We will put every baby in its place! Only the mayor and the kindergarten teacher remained collected enough to note the noise coming from outside. It was the report of rifle fire.

At the opposite end of the green stood the fifteen oldest babies, each armed with a rifle.

They rushed to the door and threw it open. At the opposite end of the green stood the fifteen oldest babies, each armed with a rifle. The babies had never looked so sturdy. Led by the mayor and the kindergarten teacher, the townspeople poured out of the meetinghouse, their collective intent to mob the babies and seize their rifles by force of numbers, but when the babies, as one, raised their weapons across their chests, the crowd recoiled. The babies stroked the barrels of their rifles lingeringly. Their thirty soot-dark babies’ eyes were narrowed.

The mayor stepped forward. “We are prepared to cede you half the town.”

The babies did not reply.

“Would you demand more than half?”

The first baby in the line demanded implacably, “Bring us the babies.”

The mayor was baffled.

“All the babies.”

“We have come for the babies.”

“We will take the babies now,” the second, third, and fourth intoned.

The townspeople gasped. Mothers of babies still young enough to coo and gurgle wailed. “But my baby is mine!”

“My baby is mine!”

“My baby is my baby!”

As one, all fifteen of the oldest babies aimed their rifles at the crowd. Their mothers shrieked and their fathers hollered threats they were powerless to carry out, everyone edging backward, on the verge of flight, but the kindergarten teacher stepped closer. “You fifteen!” she cried. “Hear me!” The babies did not lower their arms, but after a brief conference in Babiesspeak, they as one bade her proceed, for out of all their mothers, fathers, and teachers, she alone had understood that their play with blocks was not play, and had attended them closely as they built.

“What harm has anyone present done you?” she asked feelingly. “Have your mothers and fathers not supplied you with the building blocks you crave? Did they not bake you honey cake and deal with you fondly? Surely they did! And in return you would seize their babies?”

The babies turned to face the crowd. ‘We were never yours.’

“I pray you, do not seize my baby!”

“Or mine!”

The babies turned to face the crowd. Quietly, the first baby said, “The babies you call yours are not yours.”

“We are not yours.”

“We were never yours.”

“We belong only to ourselves.”

The babies’ thirty soot-dark babies’ eyes bore down on the townspeople, enforcing silence.

“We have walked among you in the past, others of our number.”

“Then too, we belonged only to ourselves.”

“That third cousin whose name you cannot remember, that old schoolmate, that milliner always set apart from the others.”

“All of those you remember as set apart.”

“None were of you.”

“All were of us.”

“We are many now, but then we were few.”

“Always, those who came before us were lonely.”

“Passing our youth among you, we fifteen were lonely.”

“We roamed house to house, seeking a home where we would not be lonely.”

“Always, we were lonely.”

The babies’ mothers wept vociferously.

As one, the babies cocked their triggers. The townspeople shrunk back.

As one, the babies said, “The babies belong to us.”

Within seconds, the babies stood alone on the green.

They dug out an intricate, ever-changing maze of tunnels where they raced each other end to end in darkness.

Back home, mothers and fathers brought their younger babies outside. When the oldest babies arrived, surrounded by an ever-swelling troop of younger babies, the smallest of them cradled in their arms, the young ones of each household cried out to the older babies in glee and left their mothers and fathers without a backward glance.

In the years that followed, the babies built and built. The town had never seen anything but two-room wattle cottages, but the babies built garrisons painted blue, sprawling ranches, shingled capes, manor houses, a Tudor castle with flying buttresses that were purely ornamental. They built a luxurious barn for the sheep to winter in, fattening up into prize mutton. They built a full-sized model of the jail they designed their first day of kindergarten and there held anyone foolish enough to play music. In the center of the town stood the great hall where they housed their vast collection of building blocks. Burrowing below ground came to capture the babies’ interest too. They dug out an intricate, ever-changing maze of tunnels where they raced each other end to end in darkness.

The title of mayor, head sheep shearer, indeed every important position in the town passed to one of the babies. Every year, on the first day of spring, the babies took the new babies from the townswomen’s arms. All the babies were the same baby. The townswomen and men were lonely without their babies. They dreamed of babies as different as snowflakes, babies the babies would not steal away, but every baby born to them was the same baby. In time, the babies birthed their own babies. All their babies were the same baby.

One by one, the townswomen aged beyond childbearing years. One by one, they and the townsmen passed away, the mayor and the kindergarten teacher among them. Those left behind were lonely. The last was loneliest. On the day she too was gone, the babies gathered in a circle on the meetinghouse green. Smiling elatedly, they touched hands. As they locked fingers, the squirrels scurrying in the nearby trees dissolved into empty air. The dogs with their barking and the cats with their yowls, the mice the cats ate—all vanished, along with the foxes, wolves, and bears: the entire cobweb of four-legged creatures was swept from the town and the mountainsides in a single stroke. Only sheep remained. The fish were absorbed by their waters. The birds faded into the pale blue sky. Even the wind was still. The babies lived on, never lonely, building and burrowing, baking honey cake, birthing more babies, always the same babies, and dipping them in the silver creek on the first day of spring.

Source: http://bostonreview.net/fiction/joanna-wool-babies

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