“Symptoms and Remedies”

I try to interpret the signs of my own body, and think back to a medieval literature class I took in which we discussed how, when Joan of Arc was captured, her enemies studied her body looking for signs of something—the devil, being a man, anything that would explain what they failed to understand about her. Anything except a miracle. They didn’t want to find one of those. My breasts seem the same as usual, but I think I have cramping—deep in my uterus, has the fertilized egg taken hold? I have a headache and I’m nauseous, and maybe I can smell the garbage more than usual.

There is banging on the bathroom door and I hear Benny’s wail and see his little fingers straining toward me from underneath. When I open the door, Benny clings to my leg, crying, “Mama, mama,” as if I’ve come back from the dead. I saw a show on TV once about children who were born with memories of their past lives. They had terrible nightmares and drew pictures of plane crashes and war. That’s not exactly how it is with Benny, but I do wonder if there’s something to those ideas about reincarnation. When Benny’s not trying to get to me, he is trying to escape, and I can’t think of another explanation.

We have two other children, and I know people think that’s why my youngest is wild, but it isn’t. Benny learned early how to climb out of his crib. He runs faster than the others ever did. He climbed up the bookcase and out the little window of our basement apartment in the middle of January, naked, and the crusty snow supported his rapid little boy body so that he flew across the surface like a bird. I struggled to catch up to him, sinking into the snow with every step. He can undo the straps of his car seat, and Gavin or Molly has to sit next to him to make sure he stays buckled in if we go somewhere. When we took him to the beach the first time, he learned to swim as if he were a fish I was setting free in the water. He wriggled out of my hands and splashed away from the beach, out toward the open ocean.

He can leave me, but I can’t leave him; that is how he works. Even going to the bathroom alone is too much, so sometimes I let him come in with me, but sometimes, I need that moment alone, even if it comes with Benny’s wails of despair in the background. I feel guilty for the pain I cause him, so I think I deserve the nightmares.

I have nightmares of turning around in the supermarket and finding Benny gone. That’s happened in real life, and I’ve had to wander the aisles with increasing panic. I have other nightmares of Benny at the top of a cliff, looking at me, but prepared to jump, not listening to anything I say. I have nightmares of Benny, even as he is now, three years old, and behind the wheel of the car, driving it out into traffic.

I try to ask him, “Why are you running?” or “Why didn’t you listen to Mama?” but he just says, “I’s running, Mama,” or “Sorry, Mama.”

People talk about your heart being outside your body when your kids are born, and though I get that, it always feels cheesy when people say it. While my heart is still in my own chest, pounding, I do wonder if all my fear is connected by a chain to this one child. He holds me in terror, a hostage to impulses even he doesn’t understand, and I pray that I will be able to keep him alive long enough for him to outgrow this or at least tell me why he needs to escape, and from what, and if he can take me with him.

After a frenzy of getting ready, I carry Benny out to the car, with Gavin and Molly walking ahead of me, and we go over to Maya’s house. Her one child walks calmly from toy to toy, inspecting things like a little Sherlock Holmes while Benny and Gavin run around everywhere. I try to talk to Maya while preventing them from destroying the house. Molly has disappeared with her book. She knows I don’t have time to make her stop and be sociable, and I worry that while Benny is my greatest fear, Molly will be the one who comes to me later and asks me why I was a bad mother. Or maybe it will be Gavin, because I don’t spend as much time worrying about him as I do about the other two.

And then, in this house that is so baby-proofed, but not proof against my children, Gavin finds the metal baseball bat they keep behind the couch for intruders, and he takes a swing and only nearly misses the table lamp, and I’m apologizing as I lunge for him, and Maya is apologizing, which only makes me feel worse. I yell at Gavin, more than I should, because I’m so embarrassed, and I realize I’ve taken my eyes off of Benny.

“Benny?” I go quickly through all the rooms, scanning, and I don’t see him. Molly is under the dining table with A Swiftly Tilting Planet. “Molly, where’s your brother?”

“I don’t know,” she says, starting to scramble out.

“Couldn’t you keep the reading for later? We’re guests! You should be watching Benny.” I know as I say this that I shouldn’t say it, but I can’t find Benny.

There’s a baby gate at the bottom of the stairs, and I struggle to unhook it, and Maya is saying, “there’s no way he’s upstairs,” but she doesn’t know Benny. I’m looking through Maya’s and Luís’s bedroom, and their daughter’s, both much too neat, and finally, I find him in the bathroom. He’s gone through all their drawers and emptied the trash out on the bathroom rug, but he’s alive. I reach down to hold him, but stop myself short, turn, and throw up into the toilet. A sign. I don’t think it’s just nerves about Benny because my body should be used to those. I call down to Maya, wash my mouth out in the sink, and bring Benny downstairs on my hip, feeling exhausted.

That night, when all the kids are asleep, even Benny (I can see him on the monitor), I think about when Benny was inside me, and I knew where he was all the time. What a brief time of safety. Even then, he was born early—the only one of my children to come so quickly. Why is he always trying to leave me? I know he loves me. He gives me these heart-wrenching, monkey-clinging hugs out of the blue, and I cling back, because it always feels like he’s saying goodbye. If there is a baby growing inside me right now, creating cell after cell and growing legs for running, I’m not sure how I’ll keep everyone safe.

Marco wants an endless paper chain of children, but he doesn’t feel the burden of keeping them alive. He dips his toe in the chaos when he comes home from work, and seems invigorated by it, but he doesn’t live neck-deep in it.

I know I’ve done this to myself, if it is done, and no one forced me, but I’m not sure I can handle it. I want to climb up the bookcase and squeeze out the window and run away, silent, on top of the snow. If I run fast enough, maybe I’ll jump into the wind and become an owl in the night, and I can use my large eyes to watch for Benny. I’ll see him the moment he escapes, and I can shadow him wherever he goes, on silent wings, and I can dig my talons into his shoulder so he’ll never be able to run away from me. And this baby inside me (if it is inside me) can be a little owl chick, and wait, chirping in a nest in a hollow tree, for me to return from hunting, and when it is old enough, it will fly behind me, silent and strong, predator, but not prey, and I won’t have to worry.

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About Emily Livingstone

Emily Livingstone is a Massachusetts writer, tutor, mom, and English teacher on hiatus. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Syntax & Salt, Cleaver Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, and others.