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Mother isn’t careful but she’s fast, and she manages not to cut herself even while keeping one eye on her child. She has to watch. She doesn’t want him to hurt himself. When he stops his slow cutting and studies the knife she lowers her head, but she can see him turn around to look at her. Oh, I forgot something, she says, and gets up. She heads toward the bathroom but stops just outside the kitchen. Mom? she hears him ask. Mother counts thirty seconds and peeks around the corner. She can see him only from the back, but it’s clear he’s still holding the knife and that his other hand is raised to chest level. He looks around once more, and she ducks back into the hallway. She can feel her pulse all over her body.
Child wants to do it. He’s scared, but he’s going to do it. He wants to know if skin is like celery, if it resists and yields and snaps, if it feels good to cut it up and make it into a pile. He positions the tip beneath his pointer finger and pulls down diagonally. It doesn’t hurt.
Mother steps back into the kitchen. He hears her and wheels around, his palm out with a gash across it, dripping blood into his sleeve. He wants to show her he isn’t crying, and for the smallest moment she thinks he means the lesion as an offering. For an even smaller moment her stomach turns, but then he does cry and she rushes to him. It hurts now, and he shouts at her: You did it! She takes his hand and pulls him over to the sink. You did it! When the water hits his wound he tries to pull away, but she holds him. It’s okay, it’s okay, baby, she says, shh, it’s okay.
A clean towel is lying on the counter and she presses it to his palm and wraps it around his hand. She picks him up and he clings to her, sobbing. You did it! You did it!
Every Sunday Mother goes to church. She wears her blue dress or her beige one and sits in the back. She stands up with the people and sits down with them and holds the hymnal while they sing, and even shakes hands when the preacher says it’s time. Good morning, she says. Peace of Christ, she says. But while the people have their service, Mother listens only to God.
God makes noises and Mother translates. Sometimes he tells her about colors or sounds. Green and yellow, God says. Black and red. Birdsong and lawnmowers and dripping water. Car horns. And sometimes he gives her reminders: hair teeth feet, underpants shirt shoes, refrigerator pillow front door.
The people smile at the strange skinny woman who sits in the back, but mostly they’ve stopped asking her to Bible studies and potlucks. She always says no, and sometimes she doesn’t answer at all, just smiles back at them and shakes her head, as though she doesn’t know their language. Some people thought she was an Eastern European refugee at first, with her shadowed eyes and teeth and that wolf baby, her son, who makes their children uneasy.
This morning Mother is wearing her beige dress. The preacher is praying, and Mother prays too. Dear God, she says, dear God dear God dear God dear God. God waits a minute and Mother waits too and then God says something and it means: take the money.
When the collection basket gets to her, Mother puts in her five dollars. She spots a twenty and touches it. She pretends to fold the twenty into her palm and passes the basket to the next person, who believes he has just seen the woman wrestle with Satan and win. He is proud of her, but after the service he will warn the preacher.
Mother sits with her fist in her lap, but God stops talking—he knows she didn’t take it. She wants to cry, but no one cries in church, so she bites the insides of her cheeks to stop the tears.
After church she goes into the hall and drinks coffee because everyone has to. A man stands next to Mother and drinks his coffee and says Good morning, how are you? He is being Christian; there but for the grace of God go I, he thinks. Mother means to say Good morning, how are you? but she’s still upset and so she says Peace of Christ instead. The man laughs and pats her on the shoulder and Mother knows she’s turning red inside her beige dress. I mean, she says, and the man pats her again and shouts across the hall to another man and leaves her to empty her foam cup alone.
The coffee is very hot and it takes her a long time to finish. When she finally does she can go get her boy from the nursery. She hopes he’ll still be there. She hopes God hasn’t already taken him.
Child is the only big kid in the nursery today. He tells his mother he hates that, but secretly he’s glad. He likes to be the tallest and the oldest, and he likes to be left alone by the teachers, who will be too busy with the babies and toddlers to bother him.
Child sets himself up in a corner with the tub of painted blocks. For most of the hour he builds towers and looks out for encroachments from three toddlers who chase each other in circles. Child puts a leg out as a barrier, and the children tighten their orbit. Sometimes when their parents drop them off in the nursery and he’s there, they don’t want to be left. He’s a big kid, they know, but they don’t want to be big like him.
Besides the toddlers, there are three babies asleep in cribs against the far wall, and the teacher holds two other babies. Child doesn’t know the word ratio, but he understands the concept: the lady is outnumbered. There should be another lady here.
Two of the toddlers miscalculate a turn and smack heads. They scream, and the third toddler screams, and then some of the babies wake up and scream. The teacher puts the babies she’s holding in two empty cribs and tries to comfort the crying toddlers. The lady looks to Child as though she will start crying too, so he gets up and walks to the cribs, which are stacked like tiny bunk beds. He can’t see over the top bunks, but he reaches with his good hand—the one without the bandage, the one that didn’t get cut when he was making soup—into one of the bottom ones and caresses the baby inside on the arm. He tickles her hand and she grasps his finger, but she doesn’t stop crying. He jiggles his finger a little inside her grip. Hey, hey, he says. It’s all right. Don’t cry. Baby, don’t cry. Shh, it’s all right.
The two babies the lady put down are also crying, but there’s another one who’s stayed quiet. Sitting up in his crib, the quiet baby stares at Child.
Rockabye baby inthe treetop, he sings to the little girl holding his finger. Whenthe wind blowsthe cradlewill rock. He extricates the finger and pats her on the tummy, gently, in time with his singing. Anddown willcome baby, cradleandall.