On the first day of Live Oak Daycare, all the children are given shovels and a small bag of dirt. “We encourage the children—even the babies, especially the babies—to work hard, imaginatively.” Miss Birdy, my son’s teacher, winks. She sits my baby boy in the middle of the floor with his shovel and dirt. He is not even a year old. I look around. The babies are happy. I have never seen such happy babies. Chewing on their shovels. Spreading around their dirt. Miss Birdy gives me a hug. I wave goodbye to my boy, but he doesn’t see me. “Go, go,” says Miss Birdy. “He’s in good hands.” She shows me her hands. They remind me, for some reason, of my hands.
Three hours later, I come to pick up my boy. He is wearing a bright orange poncho that does not belong to him. He crawls towards me, like a searchlight.
“Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a phenomenon.” I blush. “Oh, thank you. We too think he is very special,” I say. I want to ask about the poncho, but Miss Birdy goes on. “I mean, your child is a mana mana,” says Miss Birdy. “What I mean to say is that your child is a real man.” Miss Birdy softly pinches her tongue and pulls out a long white hair. “Oh, that’s better,” she says. “I mean, a ma.” She makes little, tiny spits. “I mean, a no one. Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a real no one. No, no. That’s not it either.” Miss Birdy smoothes her stiff cotton skirt. It’s pink with tiny red cherries on it. “What I mean to say, most of all,” says Miss Birdy, “is that I love not being dead.” “Me too,” I say. “Oh, good! says Miss Birdy. Here’s his bottle. He drank all his milk and then cried and cried and cried for more.
In the hallway, I pass a mother covered in daughters. I count approximately five. I hold up my bundled son, like a form of identification. Like he will provide me safe passage across the border. “No daughters?” she asks. “No,” I say. “No daughters.” “How come?” she asks. She seems to be blaming me, unfairly. “By the time they arrived,” I explain, “the daughters had turned.” “Rotten?” she asks. “Not exactly rotten but gigantic.” I hand her my boy so I can spread my arms wide. To show her how big. I take my boy back. “Gigantic,” I repeat. “And mealy. I sent the whole bin back. The whole bin of daughters back. The brave thing would’ve been to keep them, I know, but they seemed so impossible to name.” The mother nods. She still seems to disapprove, but before I can be certain her daughters lift her up, hungrily, and carry her away.
The strange thing about being a mother is how often I’m interrupted. Like something is happening and then something else is happening. It is difficult to get a good grasp on things.
The next day Miss Birdy is peeling vegetables. The babies are watching, transfixed. I have come early to pick up my boy, but I don’t see my boy. Miss Birdy points to a child the color of chicken broth. “Yours?” she asks. “Definitely not mine,” I say. She points to another and another, as if I lost my ticket for the coat check. I don’t see my boy. It is becoming difficult to breathe and I am suddenly freezing cold. The floor opens up beneath me and just as I begin to fall through my boy crawls out from underneath a bassinet. In his fist is a tiny book. On the cover is a picture of a plain brown mouse. He holds it up. “MOUSE,” he says. This is his first real word. “MY MOUSE,” he says. I am amazed. I am relieved. His pronunciation is perfect. I want to pick him up. Reward him with kisses. Hold him and never let him go. But Miss Birdy stops me. “No, no,” she says. She softly wags a finger at my boy. “That’s not your mouse. That’s no one’s mouse.” Her voice slows. “That mouse.” Miss Birdy coughs. “That mouse,” she says, “is alone in this world, and barely…” Miss Birdy stops. “What was that?” she asks. “What was what?” I say. “That sound,” says Miss Birdy. “I don’t know,” I say. “What did it sound like?” “It was a sound that sounded like a sound,” says Miss Birdy. “Like a sound a sound would make. Never mind. Where was I?” “You were with the mouse.” “Oh, the mouse! Do you know him?” “No,” I say. “Unless you mean…” “Neither do I,” says Miss Birdy. “And this is my point. That mouse…” Miss Birdy is now looking at my boy. “That mouse is alone in this world and barely…” Miss Birdy sucks in one long, beautiful breath. “Exists,” says Miss Birdy, triumphantly. “That mouse is not unlike you.” She is still looking at my boy. “When I call out for that mouse in the dark does the mouse come? No, the mouse does not. Do you? So far not even once.” My baby puts his whole hand in Miss Birdy’s mouth, and leaves it there for what seems like days.
On Monday Miss Birdy’s bright pink blouse is fluttering with excitement. “Your boy wrote his name today all by himself!” She hands me a piece of construction paper. Someone, not my baby, has written on it S H R E D S. I hand the paper back. “That is not his name.” “Oh,” says Miss Birdy. She looks at the paper and her face crumples. “I am sorry,” says Miss Birdy. “I don’t know how this happened.” “I don’t know how anything happens,” I say. We hold hands. “I’m so lonely,” says Miss Birdy. “I’m so lonely too,” I say. “I thought you were my hiding place,” says Miss Birdy. I picture her skull. “I thought you were mine,” I say. Miss Birdy ties a yellow scarf around her head. “Stop picturing my skull,” says Miss Birdy. She is clearly upset. Her lips are cracked, and begin to bleed a little. She looks at the construction paper, and traces each letter with her thumb. “If this isn’t his name, then whose name is it?” She sorts through the other babies. She pats me down as if searching for something. She touches me on the thigh. She feels like she’s about to snow.
The next day, there’s a message from Miss Birdy. “We cannot give your boy his bottle. The milk you left was wild. Please bring better milk.”
I rush to Live Oak. I have no better milk. This is the only milk I have. I point to each breast. Miss Birdy is holding my baby. He is shivering and hungry. Miss Birdy is snowing. Hard. I try to walk towards her but there is a great wind and I can barely see through the big, white flakes. “THIS IS THE ONLY MILK I HAVE.” I am calling to Miss Birdy and my boy through the snowstorm. My arms are outstretched. “Come to mama,” I cry. I say my baby’s name. It sounds smaller and flatter than I ever imagined it. I can’t get to him. Miss Birdy is a blizzard that could last all winter. “I AM SORRY.” I am shouting. Miss Birdy has my baby and she is snowing. It is all my fault. I should never have left him. I AM SORRY I AM SORRY I AM SORRY. I am punching at the snow. I am fighting against nature when I know I have no choice but to wait until spring. The mother covered in daughters kneels beside me. This time I count approximately fifteen. “Climb on,” she says. “I am so sorry,” I say. “It is the only milk I have.” “Of course it is,” she says. “Is there room?” I ask. “Around my neck,” she says. I climb around it, loosely. The mother covered in daughters is warm and I am so tired. “Go to sleep,” says the mother. “I will wake you up when it’s time to go.” But the mother never does wake me up. Which is how you know this story is true.