After Reading the News Story of a Woman Who Attempted to Carry Her Dead Baby onto an Airplane

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Able Muse Write Prize for Fiction, 2015 ▪ Winner

Andrea Witzke Slot

After Reading the News Story of a Woman Who Attempted to Carry Her Dead Baby onto an Airplane

 

 

Not long a mother, young and unsure of just what that meant, I threaded the aisle of the 747, ready to return to London, to my son, to my daughter, small and eager, asking on the phone, How much longer, Mommy? and How long is that?
  Settling into my seat, I exchanged hellos with the man beside me and glanced down at the headlines of the newspaper on his knee: Woman Arrested after Attempting to Carry Dead Baby onto Plane at JFK.
  I pulled my seat belt around me and felt my stomach drop as if we were already moving into flight.
  Would you mind? I asked, daring to look down at the paper again.
  No problem, he said, handing the paper to me.
  Children in the plane cried as parents readied themselves for the journey ahead, bottles and toys and messes in laps, as others continued to file past, finding seats.
  I smoothed the paper out on my lap.
  I read.
  I reread.
  I closed the paper and handed it back to the man beside me.
  Shocking, he said as he tucked the paper in the seat pocket in front of him, the words Carry Dead Baby just visible. Shocking, he said again, adding, Unbelievable what some people are capable of.
  We talked quietly about the why of such a feat, not to mention the how, as the flight attendants made their dutiful announcements.
  How could she not have known?
  How could others not have known?
  That night, as we sped through the dark clouds of time, flashes of this woman’s life came to me in the glowing underlights of the airplane cabin.
  There, on the floor of her New York hotel bathroom, she bore the hours of pain, and then the writhing and the struggle of something wrong, something horribly wrong, but something vital, something unstoppable, the heaving of her stomach, the clutching of the sink, so sure this could not happen, was not happening.
  She had never felt pregnant.
  She felt weird and large and strangely full but never pregnant.
  The floor was cold beneath the porcelain sink of that dank hotel room as she pushed and strained, and felt her body trembling in pain. She pushed and she strained until all convulsions ceased, all movement and sound hushed, as if she were dropping into a wide, cool ocean that embraced every inch of her bare and blood-smeared skin, releasing her of all hurt, all fury and illness, all she did wrong, all she did right.
  She looked down to see a tiny body, wet and lifeless but moveable and pink, a tiny face of sleep. Her fingers gingerly felt his small patch of hair and smoothed his wet skin, and for a few seconds, he reminded her of a plastic doll from her childhood.
  She knew then that everything would change. But she had to do what was right, right? Had to take care of him. Had to carry him back to her mother, carry him back to England, where she would make it all okay again, where she would right all that she had wronged.
  She tried to cry and held him tighter, his body curled and becoming more and more rigid as she pressed him near her bare skin. She looked for something to make him comfortable, warm. She pulled a damp towel down from the rail above, and she gently wrapped it around him, and she knew she could not cry, that the baby could not cry, that he would never cry.
  She sat on the bathroom floor for hours that seemed like days, months, maybe years, until, finally, she pulled herself upright, stumbling a little as she stood.
  How did it feel to wrap his body in the blanket pulled from the unmade bed, to see him lying there as you dressed and readied yourself to leave the hotel, this city, this mess, as you moved from the hotel doors to the busy streets, as you carried him near your chest in the jolting cab, along the long roads, and then to the ticket counter at the airport?
  How did it feel to bring him through security, tightly wrapped and tightly held, as other parents messed with their bottles and diapers and toys and crying children?
  At the gate, the airline staff suspected something was wrong with the unmoving bundle that the woman pressed against her chest.
  Discreet phone calls were made, authorities alerted.
  Police officers appeared.
  You have the right to remain silent, they said, standing in front of her, in back of her.
  And she did. And the baby did. And she did not cry as they pried him from her arms, when once he had slithered out, wet and lifeless but moveable and pink, a tiny face of sleep.
  As the sky grew pink and the bustle of breakfast began, drowsy passengers rubbed their eyes, while children continued to sleep, weighted dolls of limp hands and small lips drawing breath in the unconscious knowledge that others will hold them, feed them, rock them to sleep, rock them awake, carry them home.
  As the captain announced, Twenty minutes to go, folks, the man beside me asked, So what made her do it?
  I shook my head. Insanity? Guilt? Maybe sadness?
  I looked at my dry breakfast. Maybe love?
  Mmm, the man said, taking a bite of his hard croissant, I’m not so sure there was any love there. Can’t call it love if it’s murder.
  I felt the eager expectation of my children’s small hands, and asked, But how could they know it was murder? Maybe she’s more victim than perpetrator?
  The passenger tapped the newsprint with his finger, folded back to the crossword. Got to trust the authorities on this one. They’ve already charged her. First degree.
  But how could they know? I asked again.
  I guess they feel if a woman is crazy enough to carry a dead baby on a plane, she’s crazy enough to commit murder.
  And yet if she—and the baby—had made it to England, she’d be in a hospital and not a prison. The British doctors are saying she’s in desperate need of care. Under a great deal of psychological stress.
  That’s what they’re saying. But who’s to say who’s right? One thing’s for certain: the US authorities aren’t going to let her go anywhere until they know for sure.
  He sighed and went back to his crossword, filling squares with capital letters, nodding with satisfaction at the word unrequited as he took bites of a hard croissant.
  But I knew that word didn’t fit.
  I leaned back in my seat as the plane began to descend, and I thought about my waiting children.
  I thought about how their cries of hello would sound as I moved past passport control, past customs, past the opening doors into the long corridor of waiting faces, the corridor of friends and family who will be there, standing, smiling, eagerly anticipating the arrival of loved ones, and I knew which ones would be warm, real, mine.
  I thought about how my children’s warm bodies would feel as they burrowed themselves into my arms, as they took my hands in theirs, one on each side, as we moved together beyond Heathrow’s terminal, past the glass doors, into a jolting cab, along the many humming roads leading toward home.

 

 

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  “The first line of this story presents a character, setting and situation with a rare and satisfying command of storytelling. Using perfect details balanced against rapid pacing, the voice of this writing has an air of stern and simple elegance, and reveals how the narrator’s experience of a newspaper story becomes a parallel challenge to her own ambivalence about motherhood and love. In the way that great stories open larger questions, within its brief time frame this story questions culture and society, and how we are so quick and sure to judge the tragedies of others, yet with less capacity to examine the perils in our own judgments.”—Eugenia Kim, Final Judge, 2015 Able Muse Write Prize (for fiction) on this winning story, “After Reading the News Story of a Woman Who Attempted to Carry Her Dead Baby onto an Airplane” by Andrea Witzke Slot.