"He's just a defenseless baby," Marianne tells me. It's the third time she's said it since we left the hospital.When it came to having a baby, I thought the actual labor would be the hardest part, which I (fortuitously) could do little about except hold my wife's hand and tell her she was doing a great job. But I was wrong. While the manuals and birthing classes emphasized methods of delivery and pain-management options, they never prepared us for how to deal with the bone-deep weariness that accompanied our new little bundle of need. Sleep became both a luxury and a necessity as our son cried all hours of the day and night. He cried because he was hungry. He cried because he was dirty. He cried because he wanted his mother's touch or to be endlessly walked or for more inscrutable reasons, like perhaps out of a desire to play Parcheesi in Braille while watching the series finale of Twin Peaks. We couldn't really tell. And despite our best efforts, he usually kept on crying, unleashing a remarkable menagerie of howls, wails, sobs and whines.
I nod, keeping my eyes on the winding country rod. By any rational estimation, newborns are some of the most helpless things on the planet. But after forty-five minutes in a car with one, forty-five minutes of ceaseless cacophony, every scream and shriek a new expression of infantile anger or need, you could be excused for thinking it's exercising some sort of sonic defense mechanism.
Marianne, though, sees it differently: "It's his way of communicating. If he wants something, he has to call until someone comes."
"At ninety decibels." I crack the window, which both lets some of the late-October air in and some of the screeching out.
"Shut that right now," Marianne snaps. "You'll give him a chill."
I obey. Like always.
Eventually, we started talking about the topic of child abuse, how we'd never really understood why someone would physically harm such a small, defenseless thing. It seemed like such a monstrous evil. But we imagined how if you stripped away the support structures of family and friends, put a mother or father under great external strain, then coupled all of it with the exhaustion and an infant's endless supplications ... Well, it was still monstrous. But we had an inkling about how it might happen.
One night, we awoke to sound of barking. Not of dogs. Human barking. A series of yips, high-pitched and plangent. We flicked on the lights. Our baby was lying flat on his back, looking up at the ceiling. We stared at him, bewildered that such a sound had come out of that tiny body. Then as we watched, he barked one more time and went silent. He almost seemed to be waiting for a reply.
"Bark," supernatural horror in the vein of M.R. James, was born soon after. You can read it in the Literary Lab's Genre Wars anthology.
Or you can win a free copy! Be the first person to email me at ISawLightningFall [at] gmail [dot] com with the approximate distance at which a newborn's eyes can focus, and you'll snag it.