Loud children. She started to hear them everywhere. Through the wall of the apartment next door a baby keened—_aa-haa, aa-haa—_at the same time every evening and again in the morning before the delivery vans grumbled along the street below. The cries kept up the same climbing, falling rhythm for a long while, then dropped to a low forlorn mewling.
She knew the parents to see them, meeting each of them on the stairs at different times of the day. They’d glance at her, and away. Both of them wore heavy army-surplus boots, and their steps clipped the metal treads warningly. He wore grubby vests, yellow and grey stains splotching the cotton like tie-dyed designs. Sometimes he wore t-shirts with the sleeves hacked off: the style she’d heard described as a “wife-beater.” His hair fell to his shoulders in oily brown skeins.
The baby’s mother was a scrawny young thing, mismatched with her temporarily large milk-heavy breasts sacked inside cheesecloth blouses. Sometimes she wore his t-shirts. The skin below her eyes was stained a Coca-Cola colour.
These are my neighbours, she thought. She felt disgusted. Guilty by association with their dishevelment, the frowsy smell of feet and stale things they dragged after them like a dog.
She met them coming and going, carrying grocery bags with one or two things in them. Bearing dirty laundry in their arms instead of a bag or a basket, wafting sourness down the five flights of stairs. A salty sea-smell, as if the sheets were sails dropped into their arms from the mast of a ship.
She met them together a couple of times, and wondered if the baby was left by itself. If they were different people, she might have offered to baby-sit for them.
Someday, she thought, they would be on television making a plea into a camera because some stranger had taken the hand of their child when they had let it go.
“Please, if anyone saw anything, if anyone knows anything . . .”
And people watching would not give all of their sympathy. A cold shard would stap them, momentarily hardening them against this couple, making them think those’re the kind of people these things happen to.
Loud children were all over the city during the summer. She saw them on the train, hanging out of their parents or nannies, all the time demanding attention. She could have taken a job as a child-minder, but she just couldn’t bear the thought of having to deal with their wheedling, their mulish refusals.
Smathering food across their cheeks. Making patties of scour in their nappies. Shit like green curry caulked into the crevices of their fat thighs, impossible to fully clean. She’d done enough of that when her twin brothers were babies, and she was a six-year old trying to envelope them in white cotton nappies. Making sure not to drive the safety pins through their little caterpillar willies.
She recognized nannies by their faces: red as sunburn, sweaty, worn out.
The loud children were protected by a force field that let them stare and point and say things.
“Mommy, why is that woman so fat?”
“Mom, what happened to that man’s hand?”
She had seen a girl walk right up to a young man whose skin was piebalded pink-brown by vitiligo. She herself had found it mesmerizing – tanned arms, neck and face inlaid with rose petals – but forced herself to look away. The little girl stood in front of him and considered him, her face scrunched up like a cross old woman’s.
“Why is your face like that?”
He smiled weakly and looked back at his magazine. The girl’s mother extended her arm and called her daughter back. Her face showed a mixture of embarrassment and some strange pride in her intrepid child.
Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.
Out of their mouths come everybody else’s meanness and cruelty.
Of herself, she heard klaxoned around the train carriage as loud as an announcement for the next station stop:
“I think that woman is going to cry. Is she going to cry, mom?”
She got pregnant by someone she met at a house party. The couple she thought of as her “intelligentsia friends” hosted a motley group of people at their summer place, among them a fella from someplace ending in –gua.
The couple had befriended her, she was sure, because she made a good rough diamond. Someone to add to their collection. They ate at the restaurant where she was a waitress. They got talking with her one night. They devoured her accounts of the travails of a young woman working illegally, trying to make enough to cover the rent on her East Side bedsit. The intelligentsia friends both worked in education. They tutted and shook their heads when she told them that she couldn’t go home for a visit, because she wouldn’t get back into the country. They talked angrily about the Patriot Act, firing criticisms across the table. She stood beside them, like an exhibit piece. Proof of all their theories.
They invited her to come out to their beach house. Told her the train times, and assured her that one of them would collect her from the station. When she went there for a Sunday dinner, she felt like she was on a cruise ship. Water so close to the window it could have been lapping against the side of the house. Linen on the table, linen napkins enfolding the cutlery. Outside, the bitter whirring cry of gulls.
At their big end-of-summer party, she met people of other nationalities. It was like an aviary, all these brightly dressed people with exotic voices.
She went down to the beach late in the evening with the fella she’d been drinking with, beer for beer, all afternoon. Her head was light and fizzing. His mouth was bitter and yeasty, and she supposed hers was too, so it didn’t matter. He kissed not like anyone she’d kissed before: his tongue swept carefully round inside her mouth, it felt as big as the tongue of that man on television who she saw balance a pint glass on his tongue, huge broad flap of a thing, the tongue of a man’s boot, a tongue from a tin.
And she barely registered the cold breeze off the sea whipping through her bared legs. She rose against him, and let him.
When she knew that she was expecting a baby, she wasn’t angry at the fella from that place ending in –gua. She wouldn’t try to find him. He’d given her something for herself.
The intelligentsia friends went back to their home on the West Side. They called her phone several times and invited her over. She could picture them standing in the long hall tiled like a chessboard, one of them pressing the phone to their face, the other listening and raising their eyebrows: can she come? But she always had excuses lined up.
Then they turned up at the restaurant one evening in October. They couldn’t help their eyes traveling over her, two sets of eyes like missile seekers. Nonplussed at her thickening girth beneath the fitted black uniform shirt. She was becoming what her mother might call “broad in the beam.” But they made no inquiry.
And they told her that they were expecting.
“We’re pregnant,” the philosophy professor said. His round spectacles glinted silverly like coins against the low restaurant lighting as he nodded his head up and down. It was as if he was convincing himself. He reached for his wife’s narrow tanned hands. Art historian’s hands; long fingers good for pointing out the details and secrets of paintings. They returned their quizzical gaze to her face, waiting for her to trade them something in return. She flipped over a clean page on her notepad, and asked if they’d decided what to eat.
She strode off towards the back of the restaurant, concentrating on taking light bouncy steps. Showing she wasn’t weighed down. She guessed that they were conferring about her. Tsk-ing, sharing their disappointment in her. They’d had so many hopes for her.
“You know, you could enroll in school here. Take a culinary course.”
“There are so many opportunities open to young capable people like you.”
“What about seeing about more of this country? Go to the west coast. It’s a different world over there. We’d be happy to introduce you to some people we know.”
Their friend, she told herself, their Eliza Doolittle country girl was up the spout. Except they wouldn’t know that expression. Or if they did, they would never use it.
They stopped calling her. They didn’t come to the restaurant again.
“They” were pregnant, and being pregnant, after all, was the work of two people.
She felt sure that they would have a loud baby. A raucous domineering little raw-faced tyrant. And they would cultivate that clamour, seeing it as evidence of genius. Their freaky child would argue about politics at the table, go to some sort of accelerated school for smart little loudmouths.
She remembered a television advertisement from years ago. Something, she thought, to do with fire safety in the home. Making sure that children wore inflammable nightdresses and didn’t play with stuff that could set them on fire. Children and boxes of matches; for some reason, she found herself giggling at the idea. Strike of sulphur, flare, whoosh and a child ablaze. She didn’t know why she was laughing. Then she remembered that the girl in the ad was a small sulky brat. And her mother seemed too old to be her mother.
“Children these days,” said the woman, “so demanding. But sure wouldn’t you die if anything happened to them?”
She was brushing the girl’s hair in long energetic strokes, and more likely herself to cause a fire with the crackling friction she made.
So demanding. The baby inside her was stealthy in its usurpation of her energy. She waited two hours to see a doctor at a low-cost clinic, after five months had gone by. Sitting spread-legged on plastic seats in the waiting-room, she felt herself giving herself up, breath by breath, to the baby slung inside her like her like a heavy fruit. Ripening slowly in the red darkness.
Little Boy. She remembered the name of one of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
Around her babies squalled and butted their heads against their mothers’ breasts. Her baby was demanding, no doubt about it, but at least it was quiet. If it was crying inside her, it would only be heard by itself.
Like a mad person in a padded room.
Like the breaths she heard in her own head when she clamped her hands over her ears to insulate herself against the sounds from next door.
Their child was crying more and more, and they were sometimes shouting.
One of these days, she thinks, she might pound on their door and threaten to call the authorities.
They’ll open the door.
The woman will be shamed by the sight of her round stomach.
The man will tell her to fuck-off-bitch.
Somewhere behind them, their baby will gather sound, swelling like an orchestra and then howling louder than it has ever done before. A last-ditch attempt.
That’s when she’ll feel the dunt inside her. A foot kicked forward, and round again, like a person buried alive trying to kick their way out of a box. And again, and again, until the baby crying in a room she can’t see and the baby gone wild inside her could be one and the same.
Mary O’Donoghue, an Irish writer living in Boston and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is senior fiction editor of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2010. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, The Common, Subtropics, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, The Irish Times, Stinging Fly, Dublin Review, and elsewhere. Her short story collection, The Hour After Happy Hour, is published by Stinging Fly Press in 2023. She has published poetry collections with Salmon Poetry and Dedalus Press, and her translations of Irish-language poetry appear in volumes from Cló Iar-Chonnacht, Bloodaxe Books, and Yale University Press. Her novel, Before the House Burns, was published by Lilliput Press in 2010. Her awards and recognition include two Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowships, residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and an Irish Times prize for short fiction responding to economic crisis. She is professor of English at Babson College in Massachusetts. In 2023 she held the Heimbold Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University. (updated 6/2023)