Pretty Story


Amy Hempel

No one has ever told me that I am good with children. A short time ago, I went to a dinner party. The hostess was setting the table—there were eight of us that night—when her daughter, barefoot seven-year-old, demanded we play the game.

I had not played the game before. You had to build a tower out of narrow cross-placed pieces of wood, then pull away the pieces one at a time without making the tower collapse.

I am not good at games, and the girl was sure of her moves. Yet somehow I was good at this, and when the girl removed the piece that made the tower fall, she ran to her mother screaming, “I didn’t lose!”

A psychic has told me I will have two children. This makes me shake my head. Picture it: I know you are not supposed to leave a baby alone. Not even for a minute. But after a while I would think, What could happen to a baby in the time it would take for me to run to the corner for a cappucino to go? So I do it, I run to the corner and get the cappucino. And then think how close the store is that is having the sale on leather gloves.

Really, I think, it is only a couple of blocks. So I go to the store and I buy the gloves. And it hits me—how long it has been since I have gone to a movie. A matinee! So I do that, too. I go to a movie. And when I come out of the theatre, it occurs to me that it has been years since I have been to Paris. Years. So I go to Paris, and come back three months later and find a skeleton in the crib.

The appetite of a baby is a frightening thing to me. I watch a mother spoon food into her baby’s mouth, then spoon back in what the baby spits out; to me, it is the job of spackling. If I had a baby, I would change overnight from a woman who worries about the calories in the glue of an envelope to someone who goes to the corner for coffee, a nightgown showing beneath my coat, the hem of that gown clawed to shreds by a cat.

A friend of mine tried to get pregnant and found out she could not. I said, “The world doesn’t need more babies,” and she said she wasn’t going to do it for the world.

I brave shower after shower in which the stacks of gifts divide clearly into gifts from moms and gifts from non-moms. The moms give practical items with safety as a theme: a net to keep a crawling child from slipping through the railing of a deck, a mirror that affixes to the dashboard of a car so the driver can see the infant in the car seat behind, a dozen earnest gadgets to “babyproof” a house. Whereas I will have chosen a mobile to hang above the crib, baby animals painted on china discs—a breath sends them swinging against one another with a sound to wake a baby down the block.

Here’s a good baby story: it happened in the Caribbean sea. A woman went into labor after her husband’s small fishing boat sank, and the current pulled them apart. He would later be rescued and reunited with his wife, but there was no sign of him yet when the woman’s life preserver was not enough to hold her above the water. She panicked, scanning the horizon where she thought she saw a squall, the water churning with storm.

It moved towards her, closing in till she could make out leaping forms; it looked to her like hundreds of leaping fish. She bobbed in the waves, enduring contractions, and the school of dolphins moved into formation around her. Later she would learn that they can locate a BB with their sonar, so it was no trouble for them to detect her daughter, about to be born.

The woman screamed when a phalanx of dolphins dove and then surfaced beneath her, lifting her above the level of the sea. But as she pushed her baby out she saw that they were there to help her, and because the dolphins were there, her daughter didn’t drown.

The dolphins held their position, a buoyant grid beneath her, and kept the mother and daughter safe until human help arrived. Had help not come so soon, might the nursing mother dolphin have offered her richly fatted milk to the baby?

“They were sent to me by the Holy Father,” the woman would tell her husband. “He wanted our baby to live.”

“The dolphins chattered like little children,” the woman said. “When my baby was born, the dolphins went wild. They bobbed up and down; their smiles were so beautiful!”

In gratitude, the woman named her daughter Dolphina Maria. The dolphins slipped away through the waves, intercessors supporting humankind on the sea, allowing them to return to land cleansed of sin. Deep inside their bodies float the few bones left from the hind legs they once had on land.

It is such a pretty story told to me by a Cuban woman I met in a bar at the beach. She left the bar before I did; a drunken man took her place. He leaned into me and said, “I see in your dark eyes that you have suffered, and you have compassion, and I have suffered, and I have compassion, and I see in your eyes that I can say things to you—”

“My eyes are blue,” I said.

The only time the word “baby” doesn’t scare me is the time that it should, when it is what a man calls me.