By Sarah Healy

 

A perpetual pattern of restless wriggles. I am haunted by the fluorescent green glow of the alarm clock, taunted by Robert’s peaceful breathing beside me. The Egyptian cotton sheets are a sandpaper straightjacket and my nightgown persistently tangles in my legs. It is four in the morning and a fog of silence stifles me, makes me disconcertingly aware of my own agitation. For it is not noise that chases away my sleep, but roaring silence, especially from the cot in the room next door. 

The baby rarely cries. Of course, save for that first primal gulp of air, that jolt to the system that heralded her into this world. She trumpeted with all the gusto of a brass band. 

"A fine set of lungs on that one, God bless her," the nurse puffed as she scraped off the congealed film of gore. 

After infinite hours of panting and pushing and pain, it was all too clear why they call it "labour". When I was ceremoniously presented with my prize I felt nothing but dull ache and fatigue. In the gas-fuelled haze I believed I was holding a shrunken, grumpy hag. I blinked away the distortion and saw her alien head was pointed and purple, her raw face, contorted in distress, looked nothing like mine.  Later her head rounded and sprouted golden peach fuzz. Strangers assure me that she has my blue eyes. Five months later, my attempts to recognise any resemblance have been thus far unsuccessful. The fruit of my labour has manifested, and she unnerves me. 

I while away my days pottering around the house, doing nothing and everything. As I flit from room to room her gurgles and squeaks traverse the walls, radiating from the nursery. I imagine I'm pursued by a curious mouse, or perhaps a particularly buoyant spirit. It must be the ventilation pipes, I must remind Robert to examine them. 

Just last week Nana paid her first visit since the baby was born. Upon hearing the disembodied giggles in the hall, she clutched her heart and declared a púca was in our midst. Even I hesitate to indulge her superstition, yet I can't deny the baby is an odd creature. Her cacophony of coos always ceases as soon as I enter the nursery. Other than communicating the occasional hungry whimper, she regards me with mute, uncanny awareness. Her eyes never leave me, glaring with an intensity verging on hostility. Maybe she sleeps so soundly to avoid me. Robert says my imagination is dangerously active. I hope he's right. I should be eternally grateful I'm not jolted awake every hour by a shrill cry, but truly the hush is more unsettling. Instead I'm the one who weeps. Tears well up and flood at the most unexpected times, when I'm changing her or washing her feathery hair. The true cause is a mystery, but she is always there, and only she knows.

Four o'clock has given way to five and I know sleep has evaded me yet another night. Gently, I roll out of bed, swollen as a fattened cow. Painkillers ease the headache but do nothing to abate the heaviness that lingers in my bones. Shuffling down the murky hall, I peek around the nursery door. Snuffling and fluttery breaths greet me as I creep toward the cot and peer in. In a pastel pink sleepsuit with her limbs outstretched, she resembles a slumbering starfish. I smile as I flick through the storybook sprawled on the nursing chair. She hardly needs a bedtime fairy-tale to drift off, but I do. 

I pause to stroke the rich satin of her cheek. I think of my dark circles, fresh cobweb of wrinkles and stubborn stretchmarks. I am the hag, transported from the storybook in my limp hands. I have aged, inside and out. Insomnia has siphoned my vigour and capacity to feel anything but emptiness and incompetence. I'm soaked in uncertainty. The book plummets to the floor. It's all because of her. If only she would just cry, give any sign that she's normal. She's unnatural, too perfect, closer to a porcelain doll than a real baby. Maybe she's not a real baby. Maybe she's not even human. Dear God, what is it!

No no no, I'm just tired. Too tired. My mind is turning to mist, it's like I'm heaving in hospital again, one two three push. She was strange then too. What if I've known all along?

Yes. Yes yes, I know. There is only one thing it can be. Nana told me to hang the iron scissors, but I never believed in the old ways. Until now. It's a changeling, a cuckoo, an imposter, it's not mine. With trembling claws, I seize a pillow from the chair. I will end this fairy mischief myself. I want my real baby back. I'll push the cuckoo from my nest. Shudders radiate from my core while I lower the pillow over its cherubic face. One two three push. 

It cries. I halt. Fling the pillow away. A symphony of feathery gasps, strangled mewls and sonorous wails surge and stream out. She is an orchestra. She is real. I scoop my baby into my arms, oh so gently. We cling to each other so vehemently, that I cannot tell where I end and she begins. My tears rival hers until dawn, when we fall asleep together in the chair.

 

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Sarah Healy was born and bred in Cork and is currently studying English at University College Cork. She was awarded second place in Cork City Libraries' Annual Short Story Competition in 2015. Motley magazine, a UCC student-run publication, recently published an article written by Sarah. Sarah enjoys writing fiction, poetry and opinion pieces.