THE BADGER BABY

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This 1857 painting, by T.H. Badger, is for sale on eBay right now. It haunts me. I had to write a story about it. After eBay listed it, it sent me repeat reminders: “Are you still looking?” “Are you still interested?” all illustrated with this scary baby face. It costs $399. If you want it. If you need it. It waits for you.

This story is free.

 

***

 

THE BADGER BABY

 

I bought the baby because it begged, not because I wanted it. The man I thought I was in love with strenuously protested my acquisition, but I couldn’t help myself.

“I don’t know,” Peter said. “It’s pretty awful. The longer I look at it, the less I want it coming into my house.”

My house,” I said. “I mean, ours. But you’re not there yet, so.”

He’d been in the process of moving in for a while. All he had was a chair leftover from an ex who’d had taste. He claimed he was a minimalist, and the baby wasn’t minimal. The baby was replete. I could see why he didn’t like it. I didn’t like it either.

The baby was life-size, delicately rendered in oil, and framed in a gilded oval of carved wood. It had a round face, with deep pink cheeks, and a fishbelly pale forehead, which took up half its face. It had black hair, parted perfectly in the middle. This hair was out of focus, blurred at the edges, but the baby’s face was finely rendered, as though pushing through a fog which had encompassed the rest of it. The baby’s eyes were also dark, with very little white around the irises. The baby frowned, with lips unnaturally red. The baby was naked but for a fine, lacy froth about the shoulders, where its skin met the water.

This was the other oddity. The baby had been painted in a lake, not in a baptismal way, but in a way that suggested the water was its habitat. It drifted unanchored, surrounded by mist. The portrait depicted only the baby’s upper chest, shoulders, and head. Its arms were at its sides in the lake, which was rendered in lavender and slate, shading to navy at the edges of the oval, a bit of yellow, some grayish pink where the baby’s body presumably was. The baby looked directly out at the viewer, with black-eyed certainty. From certain angles, the baby seemed inhabited by something other than a baby.

I felt nauseated, but it might have been too much coffee, no breakfast. Peter didn’t believe in carbohydrates. He was ginger-haired, and had been bullied.

“Don’t,” said Peter, shuddering as I fumbled for my wallet, and I put my wallet back and said, “I know, I know, I never would, right?”

“Painted by T.H. Badger. Nov. 1857,” the back was marked, in careful indigo block print. The T and the H were outlined, in order to make the letters empty boxes, and 1857 was underlined twice.

I examined the Badger baby for a while, trying not to buy it. Its varnish was severely crazed. That was a reason. Maybe it was damaged. Maybe it had gotten wet. We were at an antique market outside Boston, and there was nothing else terrible there. The usual assortment of figural mugs shaped like revolutionaries, minor etchings. I turned the baby so that it faced the back of the stall. The teenage vendor, daughter of the stall owner sipped wanly at a lemonade, and as I turned, I saw her spike it with vodka.

“You got questions about ‘im?” she asked.

“No,” Peter said.

 “Who is it?” I asked. “Is it a him? I can’t tell. It’s wearing lace.”

“Dunno,” she said, and shrugged. “It’s a baby. My mom’ll give it to you cheap, you wanna.”

“We don’t though,” said Peter, and took my hand, trying to draw me out into the sun.

But as I stepped out into the light, I heard a baby crying. I whipped round, looked at the girl. She was sucking on her straw.

I bought the Badger baby for two hundred dollars while Peter was searching for the bathrooms. I had the girl tie it up in brown paper, and I wrapped a too-expensive log cabin quilt I didn’t want around it, feeling like I was keeping the baby warm. I put it in the back of my pickup, and I said nothing to Peter.

The baby had cried for milk. I felt it in my breasts still, and not only in my breasts. I felt it in the back of my skull. 

On the way home, it started raining, and I pulled over, got out, and brought the baby into the cab. Peter stared at me. 

“I knew it,” he said. “I knew it. You couldn’t leave it there. That’s creepy, you know.” 

“I like creepy,” I said. 

“It’s morbid. I bet it got painted after that baby died or something. That’s what I bet.” Peter downed the rest of his coffee, and shivered. “I’m fucking freezing. It was supposed to be nice today.”

“It is nice,” I said, looking out. “Isn’t this nice?” I could see a rainbow. The baby in my arms was heavy and damp, and I unwrapped it from the quilt and brought it out into the light.

Peter drove us to his apartment, and got out.

“You’re not coming with me?”

 He’d been supposed to stay over, eat dinner, do our usual weekend things. I wasn’t sure I loved him anymore. I’d woken up in his arms that morning, and felt caged.

“It’s him or me,” Peter said, and didn’t succeed in smiling.

 “It’s not a him,” I said, trying to seem funny. “It’s by a painter who’s in books. It might make me thousands of dollars. Have you ever seen those shows?”

Peter kissed me stiffly on the cheek, and went into his apartment to sit, I suspected in his lonely chair. I put the baby in the passenger seat, and drove home, hammered a nail into my entryway, and hung it there for an hour, until I started thinking it needed to go upstairs, to the guestroom. I put it there, and then moved it again, to my bedroom, where the Badger baby stayed, echoing against the wallpaper I’d paid too much for. I’d paid too much for everything, I decided.

 I boiled milk and then poured it down the drain. I had never wanted a baby before. I didn’t want this one. I poured bourbon instead, and sat on my porch.

I heard someone crying from far away, an astonished and ravaged sob, the sob of someone who’d woken alone in the dark. Find me, said the sob.

Clearly I’d lost it. This was what people meant by biological clock, this is what they meant by one day everything will change. I had blue hair. I was not meant to be a mother. It had taken work to achieve, bleach and repeat applications. Peter was an aberration. Why had I bought a baby? I could have properly had a baby, with a nice woman, and instead I’d ferretted a baby from a stack of landscapes. I tugged at my earrings, trying to disavow my purchase.

From upstairs, the Badger baby cried again, and my neighbor’s corgi barked a bark of short legs and slow heft. The baby was too old to cry like that. It had hair. It could probably talk in sentences. It was a baby from 1857. I took a slug of bourbon and it cried more. I felt a lullaby roiling inside me. I wanted to give the baby my finger to suckle. I wanted to immerse myself in the lake and walk on the bottom. I wanted to try to breath beneath the water. I thought about the baby floating in its own light, out in the center of the lake, its arms frozen at its sides, its body an unknown shape and size.

I fell asleep on the uncomfortable Eames knock-off couch. The baby didn’t go with my house either. Maybe babies never matched décor. The gilt frame and the Badger baby waited upstairs til morning, when I had to pass them on my wincing way to the shower. By then, I’d come to my senses. I loaded the baby into my truck and drove to Peter’s place, where I rang the bell and left the baby on the stoop. 

Milk, the baby shouted as I ran down the stairs, and I ignored the pangs. Milk, the baby shouted. Flood. But I was in my truck, driving as fast away as anyone could drive.

 “I’m not your mother,” I said to myself, talking to the radio which sang out ‘hey, I just met you,’ and the passenger seat said nothing, but on Peter’s stoop, the Badger baby waited. I imagined him falling over it as he opened his door. A ginger man, a black-eyed baby not his own. The baby wasn’t mine either. It had only begged me. Not the begging of something vulnerable, but the begging of the kind of busker who might stab you later, in a darker part of the night.

 My phone buzzed.

 I can’t believe you, said the message.

 I don’t want this stupid baby, said the next message.

This isn’t funny, said the last one.

 A couple days later, I was at work, and my phone rang with a number I didn’t know, and someone said they were going to pick me up at my office.

“Who is this?” I asked. My body had gone back to normal. I no longer felt swollen, nor did I feel protective. Remember how you loved him, said my body, a couple of times, but I didn’t choose to remember. My hair was bluer than it had been. I’d tried a new product and now the color crackled through a gleaming varnish, a kind of gel that stiffened everything into a beautiful Chinese pottery sheen.

 The person who picked me up came in a police car, and still I didn’t feel terribly concerned. I was thinking about the way I felt bruised and blue on the inside, like something in me had indigoed, the way I felt made of egg yolk and pigment. At home I’d had to strip the wallpaper, but that was okay. I hadn’t liked it anyway. Now the plaster beneath it was clawed by the tiger tool. I’d looked at myself in the bathroom mirror after showering that morning, seen myself emerging from the steam, my face too pale.

“We’re taking you around to the station,” he said.

 Peter was dead, I thought, and I wondered about myself, at the way that thought could echo inside me, banging around in my head like a bumblebee caught in a basement. I thought of the Badger baby. 1857. Double underline. Now it was a hundred and fifty some years later. I’d done some internet research. TH Badger had painted some other portraits. They came up for auction occasionally, not for high prices. There was one of Longfellow in which the poet looked bulgy-eyed and consumptive, and a set of paintings of a couple in which the woman’s smile lit out from the brushstrokes with a kind of devilish shine, but nothing was like the Badger baby, which was not, it seemed, documented anywhere.

 Peter was at the station. He wasn’t dead. He was pacing, skinny and ginger-bearded in the station waiting room, and when I arrived, he pointed at me.

 “Yes,” he said.

 “Yes, what, Peter?” I said. I’d been fully prepared to identify his body.

 “You have to take the baby back,” he said. His forehead looked higher than it had. He looked like he’d receded five years, and he looked bluish in the temples. He pushed the Badger baby at me. It was wrapped in a black plastic garbage sack.

“But it’s ours,” I said, my tongue feeling strange in my mouth.

 Peter looked at me, and his eyes bulged a little.

 The police officer shrugged.

 “You have to take the item back, ma’am,” he said. “He says it’s your painting.”

“It’s not my painting,” I protested. “It was an accidental, mutual purchase. We’re a couple, did he tell you that? We did this together. Maybe we need to return it to the people we bought it from.”

“I tried,” Peter said and scrubbed at his skull as though it itched. “No phone. Not there. Gone.”

In my hands, the Badger baby felt heavy, and the bag it was in felt waterlogged. The new product in my hair crackled and crazed over the blue. The police officer looked at us both like we were crazy, and we might have been. I could feel us becoming unmatched, the way our bodies twisted away from each other like strands of useless rope. Only days before, we’d sat opposite one another, our coffee cups warming our hands. The bag dripped fluid on my feet and I jolted back, choking.

 Milk shouted the baby.

 I gagged and Peter gagged too.

“It’s not just me, right?” I asked.

 “No,” said Peter, and covered his mouth with his hand.

 “Domestic property dispute,” said the officer, to someone we couldn’t see.

 “Neither of us wants it,” Peter said. “Can we leave it here?”

“There’s no protocol for that,” said the officer.

 MILK shouted the Badger baby, and Peter groaned, holding the back of his skull. I held the back of mine too. There was a migraine brewing like a thunderstorm in there.

“Okay,” said Peter, resigned. “Okay.” He walked out of the station beside me.

 “Okay,” I said. “It’ll be okay.” I was trying to convince us both.

 I drove. The Badger baby dripped and shouted between us, and both of us kept the windows rolled down. It smelled like water and the kind of black mold that sometimes grows behind basement furniture. That kind of mold can kill you, but it just smells old.

 Flood whispered the Badger baby from inside the sack and both of us pretended we didn’t hear it. I drove us first to a hardware store, and then to the lake. When I’d moved here, I’d thought of it as a lovely thing, a wonderful weekend activity location, picnics and swimming out beyond the floats, but now it was only desperation that took me there. Peter nodded, looking straight ahead. We’d canoed on one of our wonderful weekends, and gotten drunk on white wine while we paddled. It was a thing like the flea market, like the farmer’s stands, a thing from a life I didn’t know how to want. Nor did Peter. He had one chair.

Milk said the Badger baby, in a voice that was not at all babyish. The sack was full of water now, and it gushed for a moment, all over my legs and Peter’s too. I heard Peter sob, but I wasn’t sobbing.

“No,” I said. I parked the truck on the ramp that led down to the water, and I heaved the baby up. I turned to look at Peter. His hair was gone now, receded all the way back, and his shoulders were covered in ginger threads. His skin had gone the color of half-cooked egg. I had no idea what I looked like. I felt crackled, like my face was fracturing. In the sack, nothing moved. I put it on the ground and opened it. I brought the Badger baby out.

It looked nearly the same as it had. We stood on the end of the dock together, and the baby’s black eyes looked into mine. There was nothing but black there now, though there had been white to begin with. The Badger baby had the eyes of an animal.

Peter gathered stones on the shore. It was raining now in earnest, and he was drenched, his shirt hanging off his shoulder blades in a way that made it clear what he’d look like when he was old.

The Badger baby looked at me, its eyes gleaming. Inside it, there was something, and I did not want to know what it was. I couldn’t see the Badger baby’s teeth, but I’d woken up with marks around my nipples the night it slept in my bedroom, marks like an eel had fastened on. I was bandaged. There’d been blood. 

Peter put the stones in the garbage sack, and I pressed the Badger baby back in among them. I wrapped duct tape around the package, even though, from inside it, I heard

milk

flood

lake

and finally

mama.

Peter and I picked the Badger baby up together and swung it. One, two, three, and release. The package skipped like a stone over ice, floating for a moment, the mist and twilight fog of the early evening surrounding it. It shone like a dead fish, filled with something other than stones and dark, and then it sank.

The lake water looked lavender and grey, just as it did in the painting, and for a moment it filled with twirling yellow shadows, far enough below the surface that I couldn’t tell what they were, all of them writhing like worms or like tubes. Then the water was black again, dark as the baby’s eyes.

My heart felt cobalt, and my hair broke off, each strand an icicle as I walked away from the lake with the man I’d thought I loved.

Together, our foreheads high and white, our lips red, our bodies full of something other than bodies, Peter and I drove back up the ramp, and home for milk.

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6 thoughts on “THE BADGER BABY

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