Her Harlequin Baby
By Angela Meadon
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Genna held the sleeping baby to her chest and pressed her eyes shut. She could love him as long as she didn’t look at him. She could ignore the shocked faces of the horrified nurses. She could love him.
Holding him against her, she could almost believe that he looked like the other babies in the maternity ward. But then she would hear someone gasp, and the image would come tearing back into her mind. How could this happen to her?
Why, after three years of trying to conceive, had she been given a baby like this? She opened her eyes and peeked out at his misshapen features. Only his tiny face was visible, the rest of him swaddled in a pastel-blue receiving blanket. Her throat constricted as she looked at the angry red wounds where his eyes should have been. She repressed the urge to cry out when she saw, again, his tightly stretched lips.
There was a gentle knock on the door, and Genna looked up to see Doctor Livani, her obstetrician, whose face did not disguise her concern.
“How is he?” Dr. Livani asked.
“He’s sleeping,” Genna wanted to leave it at that, but opening her mouth had released the flood gates and a huge sob heaved in her chest. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “What am I going to do? Where is Tom?”
“We will have a specialist here in the morning,” Dr. Livani said. “Someone who has experience with cases like this. He’s already flying in from Johannesburg. Until he gets here, we will do our best to keep the baby comfortable.”
“Thank you, doctor.” Genna wiped the tears from her cheeks and tried to smile at the woman who had helped her give birth to this creature. “Should I nurse him?”
“Breast milk would be best for him, but I don’t think he will be able to latch on. We will bring in a pump if you would like to express, or we could feed him formula.”
The doctor examined Genna and left, promising to send a nurse with the pump. Genna put the baby in the bassinet next to her bed and watched his tiny chest rising and falling in the bundle of blankets.
She had dreamed about inspecting her baby’s tiny body from the day she’d found out she was pregnant. She had longed to count his fingers and toes, to run her hands along his smooth skin and sing him lullabies while he nursed at her breast.
But that would never be.
His skin was hard, and instead of bending to his shape, it tore whenever he moved. Raw wounds marked his body in angry red lines like stripes on a tiger. The risk of him catching a deadly infection was so high that she could not run her fingers over her own child’s body.
Where the hell was Tom?
He would know what to do — or at least be able to console her while she looked down at their broken baby. What god would allow a child to be born like this? Genna shook her head to try and clear the anguish from her racing mind.
A nurse brushed the curtain aside and deposited a large box on the nightstand. It had wires and plastic tubes coming out of it and suggestive cups attached to it.
“The pump,” the nurse said. She shot a terrified look at the sleeping infant, crossed herself, and fled the room.
Anger swelled in Genna’s chest. What is wrong with people? He’s only a baby. She threw her pillow across the room and it thumped against the wall outside.
A high-pitched wail tore through the room, and it took Genna a moment to realise that it was coming from the baby… her baby.
He sounds like he is in terrible pain, she thought to herself. Of course he was in pain. Every movement tore his skin open. She picked him up and held him to her again, gently rocking and singing to him. But he didn’t calm down; his cries only became more frantic and insistent.
He’s hungry, Genna thought. The pump lay on the table beside her bed, like something out of a dairy farm, and Genna decided then that she wouldn’t be able to express. She stood, clutching the wailing infant to herself, battling to control the rebellion in her knees and fighting back the wave of nausea. She hobbled out into the corridor and down to the nurses’ station.
The maternity ward was dark, most of the mothers and their new babies were sleeping soundly. Only Genna and her baby moved. She found a nurse at the duty station. The woman held a book of crossword puzzles in front of herself like a shield.
“Do you need something?”
“My baby is hungry, but I can’t feed him. The doctor said you could give him formula through a tube?”
Panic flashed behind the woman’s eyes and she stumbled away from the desk. “Yes, I will get someone to help you.” She walked a little too quickly toward the kitchen.
If she had gone to a proper private hospital in the city they wouldn’t have to deal with the superstitious country-nurses. They’d also have had a specialist see their baby immediately. Maybe Tom wouldn’t have left. Where the fuck is Tom?
Genna screamed, a wordless wail that contrasted and amplified the baby’s squalls. She noted with some satisfaction that other babies in the ward started an answering chorus. She waited in the hall, listening to the women calm their babies, for a long time. Nobody appeared with milk for her baby though.
She stalked to the kitchen and threw open the door. Inside she saw the three on-duty nurses, huddled together on the floor and praying in hushed voices.
Would people always react like this to her baby? Would they always fear him? He did look terrifying, Genna had to admit. But he was only a baby. These women, these nurses couldn’t even bring themselves to feed him. Should I?
She wandered back to her room in a daze, the infant in her arms still mewling with hunger, but the strength was leaving his body now. How long would it take for the specialist to arrive? Would he know what to do?
She closed the door and sank, crying, into her bed. She pressed the tiny body to her chest and closed her eyes. She remembered the first time she’d felt him move within her. The jabs and pokes and rumbles as he turned and stretched in her womb. Had each of those movements hurt him? Torn at his skin?
She had felt such joy at the thought of bringing a baby into the world, but now that he was here she felt only pain. Her pain couldn’t compare to his. She pressed his face into her chest and held it there until he stopped crying.
She placed his tiny body in the bassinet and watched him. His chest no longer rising and falling. His suffering was finally over.
She had loved him.
“Have you fed the baby yet?” Doctor Livani’s voice penetrated the fog of grief that held Genna in its unforgiving grip.
“No, I couldn’t,” she pulled the blanket up around her shoulders. The doctor would soon realise that the baby was dead, they would blame her, Genna knew. She shivered and held her breath for the accusations that were sure to come.
“I don’t know wh…what did you say?”
“His skin seems to be healing. Look at his lips.”
Why would a doctor lie to me? Genna knew the baby was dead, she’d smothered him herself. She’d watched his body turn cold and blue before succumbing to the grief.
“Look at him Genna!” The doctor put her warm hand on Genna’s shoulder and rolled her over to face the basinet.
Morning sunlight filtered in through the lace curtain on the window. In the gentle glow the baby did actually look like his skin was healing. The wounds were pinker, the skin itself looked more elastic.
Maybe it’s because he’s dead, Genna thought. Maybe the muscles relaxed or something.
Doctor Livani reached her hand out toward the baby. Her long fingers hovered just above his skin. She’s going to touch him and know I killed him!
“Don’t, don’t touch him!”
The doctor looked at her for a moment, the look in her eyes going from puzzled to understanding. “Of course,” her lips parted in a warm smile. “He’s your baby, why don’t you hold him so that I can check him?”
Genna’s heart trip-hammered in her chest as she watched the doctor slide her hands under the bundle in the basinet. As she did, the baby stirred in his blanket. His mouth opened as he yawned a greeting to the day.
“His improvement is remarkable.” The doctor handed the baby to Genna. “Look at how his eyelids have grown closed. He might not lose his vision! This is a miracle!”
Genna was too stunned to speak. A few hours ago she had smothered this infant, now he lay in her arms nuzzling at her breast.
“You should try and feed him. His lips look like they have healed enough to latch now.”
“But, this isn’t right, last night he…I…”
“New born babies are remarkably resilient, we’ll still ask Doctor Pohl to look at him, but he seems to be recovering.”
The doctor walked out of the ward and drew the door shut behind her.
What happened? Genna asked herself over and over again as she fed the baby. She’d killed him, she was sure of that. She’d felt him stop fighting her. She’d watched him lie, dead in the basinet. Was she imagining it? Had she dreamed it?
I must have dreamed it.
When the baby finished feeding, Genna laid him on her bed and slowly removed his blanket. His arms and legs were like the antennae of a stick insect protruding from his body. She couldn’t deny the improvement though.
But there was something strange about his fingers. The bones seemed fused together, curved in a rigid, claw-like grasp.
By the time Dr Pohl arrived, every nurse in the ward had come to inspect the baby. They were alarmed, and relieved, by his progress.
“You say this baby had a severe case of Harlequin Ichthyosis?” Dr Pohl asked as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his wide nose and peered at the marks on the baby’s body.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dr Livani replied. “This is what he looked like at birth.” She held up a smartphone and showed him pictures she had taken.
“Remarkable. Yet now he has a mild case.”
The two doctors spent the better part of an hour inspecting every part of the baby’s body and eventually they decided on a course of treatment.
Genna watched this in silence. She couldn’t shake the feeling that they would discover what she had done to the baby. There might be a bruise or a scar that would reveal her deeds. Had she even done anything to him?
I must have dreamed it. Babies don’t die and then come back to life. This is the real world, not a horror story. She chided herself.
The doctors were so positive about the baby’s progress that, when they left, Genna decided that it was time to give him a name. She and Tom had agreed to call him Bryce, but with Tom having abandoned them she couldn’t honour his wishes. She decided to call him William, after her father.
Genna felt herself relaxing. The nightmare about him dying faded from her mind and was replaced with his soft skin and milky breath. By the time she fell asleep with William in the crook of her arm, she knew that she would love her baby more than anything.
Genna awoke to a sharp, pricking sensation in her left breast accompanied by something hot and wet running down her ribs. William was still snuggled up against her.
His diaper must have leaked. Genna rubbed her eyes to clear the sleep from them. Her hand was covered in fluid and it left a sticky mark on her cheek.
“Ah!” Genna cried softly as she felt a sharp pain in her breast. The room was dark, the sun had already set and little light filtered in below the door. That must have been why the pool of liquid spreading across her gown looked so much like blood.
Genna flicked the light switch and this time her scream was so loud that William started crying. She threw the baby onto the bed, drops of blood splashed across the white linen and soaked into it.
His wailing grew louder, but Genna ignored him as she pulled the ties open behind her and dropped the blood-soaked gown to the floor.
“What the hell?”
Genna lifted her arm and looked in the mirror above the washbasin. There, in the crease below her milk-swollen breast was an oval wound. Are those tooth-marks?
Genna pulled a wad of paper towel from the dispenser and pressed it against the seeping bite. She crossed to the bed where William lay screaming, waving his arms in protest at the way she’d treated him. His mouth was ringed with blood, the fluid covered his chin and stained his clothes. Within that mouth Genna saw dozens of needlepoint teeth.
“Oh, Jesus, help me,” she whispered. She reached out and gently slid her finger into William’s mouth and pressed the tip to one of the teeth. His jaws clamped down and she felt the tiny points piercing her flesh.
“Let go, you little bastard!” She used her free hand to pry his mouth open and wrenched her finger out. He started wailing in protest. Genna could do nothing more than stare at him, dumbfounded.
I must be dreaming again. This can’t be happening. Day-old babies don’t grow cats’ teeth.
William’s cries grew louder and Genna’s breathing quickened. He sounded like a kitten she realised. His cries filled the room like a mewling cat. Even his hands, scrabbling frantically at the air, looked like claws.
Genna pulled her robe back on. She picked William up, holding him so that his mouth was turned away from her, and rocked him until he stopped crying.
Should I call the nurses?
The baby wasn’t hurt, and her wound had stopped bleeding. They would probably think she had hurt the baby. What will they think of his teeth?
Genna took the baby into the small washroom and filled the basin with warm water. She bathed him carefully, keeping clear of his teeth. Once he was clean she put him in the basinet and took care of her own wound.
This is not right. This can’t be right. She winced as she wiped the dried blood from the wound. Something evil had brought William back from the dead. That something was still inside him.
Genna knew that there was only one thing she could do. Before the doctors saw him and thought he was a curious medical oddity that they must study. Before his…whatever was wrong with him got worse.
Genna walked back into the room and lifted the pillow from her bed. She leaned over the sleeping form of her tiger-striped baby. It was the only thing she could do. The only way to undo the damage she had already done. She had to send her baby back to wherever he had come from. Back to whoever had made him the way he was.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she bent over him and pressed the pillow onto his face. He only struggled a little. When he stopped moving she dropped the pillow onto the floor and wailed wordlessly until she thought the pain would break her in half.
She picked William up, his body limp in her arms. His little head lolled on his shoulders and his mouth fell open to reveal the soft pink gums inside. There were no teeth.
She spun and held him up so that the light shone straight into his mouth. The teeth were gone. Had they ever been there?
What have I done?
Genna slammed the door open with her shoulder and ran toward the duty station. “Help me! My baby isn’t breathing! Help!”
“You did the right thing,” Doctor Livani said. She gently brushed a strand of hair away from Genna’s eyes and smiled at her. There was no irony in her smile. “It takes a while for new born babies to work out how to breathe properly. William is lucky you were so alert.”
Genna looked at the baby, drinking happily from the bottle she held in one hand, while the doctor inspected him.
“And would you look at him? It’s almost as if he’d never had anything wrong with him. I can hardly see a scar on him. Even his eyes are completely healed. This really is remarkable.”
It’s not remarkable, it’s evil. Genna knew that nobody would believe her if she tried to explain why the baby had healed so well. I can’t tell them I killed my own baby twice. They’d lock me up!
“We’re just fortunate, I guess.” The words sounded hollow to her and Genna knew the doctor would hear it to.
“You’ve been through an awful time these past three days, would you like a sedative?”
Genna shook her head. What would the baby do to her if she was knocked out?
“We’ll take care of William,” the doctor pressed the issue. “You need some good rest. We’ll bring him back soon. Don’t worry.”
If the baby wouldn’t be in the room she would be grateful to get some good sleep. “Please make sure they wake me?” She hoped her fear came through as maternal concern.
“Of course, you’ll be amazed by how good you feel after a good sleep.”
Genna accepted the small blue pill when the nurse brought it to her a few minutes later. She swallowed it with a sip of water and settled into the spongy embrace of the hospital bed.
Genna slipped in and out of a deep sleep all through the night. She shuffled groggily to the toilet in the darkness and when she returned the nurse was tucking William into his basinet.
“He’s all right dear,” the old woman said. “You’ll be going home tomorrow.” She patted Genna on the arm and left the room.
William was sound asleep, his perfect skin showed no signs of the hardships he had endured and Genna allowed herself a moment of optimism before she fell asleep again.
Genna awoke again to the pre-dawn light shading her curtains. A weight pressed down on her chest and she blinked the murk from her eyes. A sudden tearing sound turned Genna’s blood to tar in her veins; her heart ached with the effort of pumping it.
Why couldn’t she lift her arms? What was happening?
“Aah!” Genna moaned as sharp teeth dug into the flesh at the base of her neck. Her voice strangled by fear and her parched throat.
Am I still sleeping? Is this a nightmare?
More needles pricked into her arm, breast and stomach while the creature on her chest strained at the mouthful of flesh it held in its teeth. A sickening wet squelch filled her ears as Genna watched dark liquid arch up and splatter against the ceiling. Warm drops fell down and struck her face. The smell of her own blood filled her nostrils like the tangy scent of autumn leaves.
Hot blood poured out of her neck, seeping into the sheet beneath her and tainting the air.
The teeth sank in again, deeper this time. Hot breath chilled her skin as the baby breathed on the wet flesh of her neck. His tongue snaked between his teeth as he bored into her neck.
Dark spots spun on the edges of her vision as Genna strained to look down at the baby on her chest. She could just make out his feline form as he crouched, feeding on her. His skin once again bore the stripes he’d been born with, tiny claws protruded from the ends of his fingers.
But it was the angry red eyes that bore Genna away from the pain and fear. Darkness swallowed her as she stared into those eyes.
I tried to love him.