TW: infant death
As soon as I see the antique cradle, I know I have to have it.
“Look, honey,” I say excitedly to my husband, pointing to the laptop screen. “Won’t this be perfect for the baby?”
“Local estate sales,” he reads out loud. “Sweetheart, I thought we agreed we were going to go with a bassinet. My mom’s already picked out one she wants to buy for us.”
“But this one’s so pretty,” I argue. “It’s solid oak and it dates back to the 1880s. And think how much the baby will love the rocking motion.”
I can tell by his face that he’s not convinced, but John agrees to drive me to the sale the following day so we can both look at the cradle.
When we reach the venue, I catch my breath. It’s a beautiful Italianate mansion with a wraparound porch, and inside there are three marble fireplaces on the first floor and an original cut-crystal gasolier in the parlor. The building is exquisite – and it’s also for sale. John and I have been looking to move ever since he made partner in the law firm he’s been with for the past six years and we could actually afford this place on his salary: it’s silly money to compensate for the long hours.
“What do you think?” he murmurs, catching my eye, and I know that he loves the house as much as I do.
Within minutes, he’s on his cell phone, talking to the agent we hired a couple of months ago when we first realized I was pregnant. If anyone can close the deal and get us moved in before the birth, Will can – although I’m already into my second trimester. John’s smiling and nodding as he talks to Will and my stomach flutters with anticipation at the thought that I might soon be living in this gorgeous building.
I’d to look at everything in more detail; but I’m already beginning to feel a little claustrophobic due to the crush of bodies in these downstairs rooms, so I begin mounting the stairs towards the second floor.
Upstairs, I begin to feel as if I can breathe again as the crowd thins out enough for me to see the paintings and portraits that still adorn the faded wallpaper. I walk into one bedroom after another, gazing at intricately wrought iron bedsteads and other Victorian-era furniture, although there’s only one thing I’m interested in purchasing today. Reaching the last door, my heart skips a beat: this must be the nursery.
I enter the room hurriedly, peering round for the cradle of my dreams, and it’s every bit as beautiful as it looked in the online photo. I stroke the smooth, polished wood almost reverentially, wondering how my baby will look when I place her inside, but I can’t ignore the irrational feeling that although I’m carrying this baby, I won’t be allowed to keep her.
Startled, I pull my hand away and the thought vanishes. It’s because seeing the cradle makes it all seem so real, I tell myself, still incredulous that I’m about to become a mom. An icy feeling ripples across my belly and I turn to John. “Is there a window open?” I ask. “I feel chilled right through.”
He looks confused. “Sarah, it’s the middle of August,” he says gently; but his reassurance doesn’t make me feel any warmer.
Driving home with our bargain cradle – a real antique for only fifty dollars – I lean back in the passenger seat and let John’s voice drift over me as I close my eyes. It seems a shame to remove the cradle when we’re hoping to buy the house, but even if our offer’s accepted, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be in before the baby arrives. The warmth of the day and the motion of the car combine to lull me to sleep. How long I doze for, I’m not sure: all I know is that when I open my eyes again, I’m no longer in my husband’s Lexus but standing in a room that seems vaguely familiar, listening to an angry yet refined female tone berating me for some misdemeanor.
“You know I cannot let you keep the child,” the voice says coldly.
My hand flies to my bump, relieved to discover it’s still there.
“My husband’s misconduct was inexcusable,” the voice continues, “but he is a man and thus beset by uncontrollable passion. You, on the other hand...”
My eyes glance up from their lowered position. The woman addressing me would be pretty if her lips were not so thin and unforgiving. She regards me coldly before she delivers my sentence.
“You will continue to hide your ‘condition’...” Beneath my long, flowing gown there is no visible evidence that I am pregnant. “...And when the time comes for you to be delivered, you will do so in my chamber – under the pretext that you are attending me in my own confinement. You will then leave the house and a wet-nurse will be engaged in your stead.”
Tears begin to roll down my cheeks at the thought of what I am to lose. My child was not conceived in love; yet ever since I felt the first tremulous flutterings inside me, I knew that I needed to protect her – no matter how difficult that would be.
“Sarah? Wake up – we’re home.”
My husband’s voice brings me back to the present and I shiver once more, although this time not from feeling cold.
Somehow, Will manages to do the impossible so that John and I find ourselves moving into the house of my dreams only three months later. I’m definitely in my nesting stage by now, trying to turn the once grand and imposing mansion into a warm and welcoming family home. I carpet the floor of what used to be the parlor, thinking it will make a lovely playroom when the baby’s older and fill the room with stuffed animals and soft, squashy pillows.
As my last few weeks crawl past, I find myself dreaming more and more frequently of the harridan who wants to take my baby. No, not my baby: past-Sarah’s. Strange how I somehow instinctively know we share the same name. In my dreams, I’m sometimes standing in the chilly parlor as it must have been over a hundred years ago with its marble fireplace and crystal gasolier; at others, I’m in a tiny attic room with bare floorboards, lying on a narrow, metal bedstead beneath a threadbare blanket, listening to someone trying to break open my bedroom door. I don’t know who’s trying to force his way in: all I know is that the chair I’ve wedged against the door won’t keep him out forever. When I have these particular dreams, I usually wake up sweating with fear.
I don’t tell John about any of this: he’d think I was mad. When I tentatively broach the subject with my midwife – “disturbing dreams” is what I tell her – she smiles sympathetically and suggests herbal tea to help me sleep.
To take my mind off things, I concentrate on making sure all is ready for the baby. I polish and re-polish the cradle, admiring its curved rockers and elaborate carving, wondering why something made from wood feels unexpectedly chilly to the touch. Perhaps being moved from one house to another and back again has affected it in some way, I ponder as I rearrange everything John’s mom has placed in the nursery: the tiny, first-size clothes, the white lace-trimmed coverlet, the pretty hamper that hides a stack of disposable diapers. In all of this, I feel someone’s eyes watching me; but when I turn around, there is never anyone there.
With only a week until my expected due date, my dreams are becoming more graphic than ever. One night, the attic door bursts open to reveal a handsome yet dishevelled man with tight-fitting breeches and a predatory gleam in his eye. I know what he intends to do and yet I am unable to move as he advances towards me. Clamping a hand over my mouth to prevent me from calling for help, he bunches my nightgown out of the way and then lowers his weight on top of me. As he begins to thrust, I feel something tear inside me. I wriggle in terror, but he is far too strong. Something damp begins to trickle down my thigh as he pulls himself away. I scream, and the sound wakes John.
“Sarah! What’s wrong?”
I’m almost hysterical, shaking with fear, unable to articulate what I feel. He cradles me gently then pulls away sharply. “What’s that on your leg?”
I move my hand down to find the sheet is saturated. “I think my waters have broken,” I say in a small voice.
“You could have waited until a more convenient time!” he groans. Nevertheless, within minutes, he is dressed and hunting for his car keys, leaving me to dab myself ineffectually with towels before trying to find my hospital bag.
I’m quiet in the car, my mind busily trying to piece together all the recent fragments of dreams into one coherent whole. Everything always seems so real at the time of dreaming that I’m convinced I am this Sarah and not myself. As the dreams have become more frequent, reality has taken on a hazy shape so that my waking and sleeping moments somehow blend into each other, the distinction blurring a little more each day.
It’s just tiredness, I tell myself. You’re too hyped up by the idea of becoming a mommy and so you’re not sleeping properly; but I still can’t shake off the feeling of unease.
We arrive at the hospital at around 4am but it’s a hive of activity despite the unsociable hour. Within minutes, I have been whisked into a private room and a midwife is taking my temperature and fussing over my blood pressure. Straight after this, I’m hooked up to an internal monitor and discover, to my surprise, that I’ve been having contractions for several hours – they’re so mild, I hadn’t even realised what the slight cramping was.
An obstetrician arrives a little later and confirms that I am only two centimeters dilated; I won’t be going to the delivery room for ages yet. Glancing at my notes, she comments that she used to live in the same town.
“You must know our house then!” I blurt out. “We moved in a few months ago.”
Her mouth opens then closes again – as if she’d been going to say something but then changed her mind.
“You must know something about it,” I press, “if you used to live nearby”
She hesitates again. “My parents called it the old Fordham mansion?” she says at last, adding, “but my Gram-Gram and Pop-Pop always used to call it the haunted house when I was little – seems like a girl died there in tragic circumstances way back in the late 1800s. Now, what was her name? She was some sort of servant, I think.”
My mind flashes back to the vivid dreams I’ve been having, to the cold-faced woman and the rattling at the attic door. “She was pregnant, wasn’t she?” It’s not really a question: I somehow know that my namesake in the dreams is the girl the doctor’s talking about.
She gives me a strange look. “How did you know? She smothered her new-born baby and then she took her own life. It’s not something you want to think about when you’re about to give birth!”
Once she’s gone, John looks at me curiously. “I didn’t know you were so interested in local history,” he comments.
“I’m not,” I protest. “It’s just our house, you know? I keep wondering what stories it has to tell”
He shakes his head and returns to texting his mother, even though we’re surrounded by notices forbidding cell phones. Meanwhile, I find my mind obsessing over poor, dead Sarah. Did she kill her baby to stop that horrible woman taking it? I wonder. The thought of having your baby taken away from you would be enough to drive anyone over the edge.
Maybe it’s thinking about that awful story the doctor told me, or perhaps the baby just doesn’t want to hang around, but I suddenly find my contractions are growing much stronger – so much so that I almost pass out with the pain. I press the buzzer by the side of my bed, hoping that a midwife will bring me some sort of pain relief medication. By the time I’ve had my first shot of opioids, I’m beginning to feel more relaxed than I have in weeks: it’s as if I’m cocooned in the glow of motherhood already.
The next twelve hours pass in a blur as the analgesic is replaced by an epidural and I finally push our six pounds and twelve ounces little girl into the world. Cradling her against my skin, I forget all about the other Sarah, lost in the heady feeling of holding my new-born daughter whilst John takes photo after photo for his mom.
No one has warned me how tired I will feel after giving birth. Once Emily’s asleep, I doze too; and for once, I am undisturbed by dreams. All this Sarah nonsense was obviously a by-product of being in the last trimester of pregnancy, I decide as I wake, feeling refreshed.
I’ve been kept in overnight, which is normal for a first-time mom, but when John arrives with the baby car-seat, ready to take us both home, I can’t stop smiling. I love the thought of showing Emily her pretty nursery with the gorgeous antique cradle. She’ll look so cute when I put her to sleep inside it.
A familiar car is waiting outside as we reach home. I turn to John in annoyance. “What’s your mom doing here?”
“I expect she thought you’d need some help,” he says easily as he carries Emily inside. “She can show you the right way to do things.”
We’ve been home for a couple of minutes and it already feels as if his mom is taking over. The warmth of the September sun is flooding the whole house, but I can sense the frostiness of his mother’s disapproval as she tells me the baby’s not properly swaddled.
As I enter the nursery, I stop suddenly. “Why is it so cold in here?” I demand.
John gives me a puzzled look. “The temperature’s perfect,” he says, pointing to the thermometer on the wall.
Perhaps I’ve got a chill from being in a hospital gown for so long yesterday, but I’m starting to feel uneasy again and I don’t know why.
As Emily starts fussing, I know I need to feed her. I arrange myself in the nursing chair and unbutton my blouse. She latches on straight away and I feel a sense of relief, even though I know my milk won’t come in properly for another day or two.
John watches me for a couple of minutes, then heads towards the door. “While you’re busy, Mom and I will have coffee,” he says. “She’ll show you how to burp Emily properly when you’ve finished.”
I can’t help feeling resentful. It’s my baby, so why is his mom trying to take charge?
I’m still feeding Emily when I feel a chill pass right through me. Looking up, I become aware of a shadowy figure standing by the cradle. I blink and it vanishes. Just a trick of the light, I tell myself, but my uneasiness grows.
Emily’s fallen asleep at my breast. I gently detach the nipple from her mouth then stand up gently. I should change her diaper, but I don’t want to wake her. Walking over to the cradle, I gently lower her inside and pull the lace trimmed coverlet over her tiny form.
“You know what you have to do.”
I look up, startled by the sound of an unknown voice. The shadowy figure I thought I saw earlier takes on a more corporeal existence: she’s a girl of about nineteen, dressed in old fashioned clothes with a maid’s cap and apron.
“You mustn’t let that woman take your baby,” she continues, reaching into the cradle and placing the pillow over Emily’s face.
I know I should stop Sarah, but I feel rooted to the spot. Besides, a part of me thinks she’s right: once John’s mom gets her hands on Emily, she’ll take over completely.
As if in a dream, I press down on the pillow, determined to protect my baby from the woman who wants to take her from me. Sarah smiles approvingly. Then the enormity of what I’m doing hits me, and I start screaming – only this time, I know I won’t wake up from the nightmare.