There Is No Baby in This Story

Chelsea Sutton

 

But there is an antique high chair, some wooden thing left over from the Victorian era— dark, high-back with intricate carvings of lions among trees and vines of roses weaving themselves around its stiles and spindles. The high chair has a permanent home at the kitchen table, always— and unnervingly— empty, and it had, in fact, never been used, not, at least, since its Victorian days when it presumably held some Victorian baby as it splattered Victorian food all over the Victorian floors.

Auggie’s mother loved antiques. The smell of history, she called it. The feel of things built by hand, built to last. They don’t make things like this anymore, she told Auggie. Which made Auggie, at the age of six, wonder how they built things these days, built to crumble under your weight, like everything around her might be teetering on the brink of a sudden catastrophe. She took easy, slow steps, slow so that the floor boards might not crash through, that the sidewalk might not crack. When Auggie thought of sitting on the couch, she imagined it puffing up around her in a cloud of disintegrated fabric, catching in her dark hair like snow, coating her skin to a deep white, so she almost looked like that one princess in the one story, the one with the dwarves and the poison apple, and the glass coffin where the girl had to wait until a prince came along and claimed her as his own. Auggie hated that story.

Only once did Auggie try to sit in the high chair— the only solid structure in the universe, as far as Auggie was concerned, and so the one place that seemed like she would be safe, the one thing that would not fall apart around her, where she could breathe easy for a moment.  But the size of her six-year-old hips in the tiny old high chair sent a corner of the arm rest snapping and flying across the room, and sent Auggie’s mother careening through the house, lifting Auggie up and out of the chair, screaming at Auggie and then apologizing, and then going outside and taking a breath, leaving Auggie on the floor, not wanting to breathe or move or cry, instead imagining that the witch from that terrible story had taken her mother over for a moment, only a moment, that she had eaten a poison apple and that it would wear off. Just give it a moment.

Auggie’s mother had planned to use the chair for her own children one day, but when it came down to it— when she saw firsthand how slimy and messy and poop-filled Auggie was when brand new, and how delicate her little head and little hands— she realized how cruel Victorian parents must have been, sitting their children in these splinter-filled fragile things, a fragile thing inside a fragile thing, so she opted for a plastic high chair, easier to clean, had cushions for Auggie’s little head.

After the arm rest of the high chair was mended, Auggie would not touch the chair for many years, but would gaze at it from across the table where she could observe the high chair, sitting lonely, as if waiting for a child to appear. Perhaps the spirits of Victorian children came to sit in it during the night or during dinner, Auggie thought, and that’s why her mother was so protective of it. Ghosts in movies always tended to be wearing Victorian dresses— long and flowing and lacy, things Auggie hated wearing. Auggie imagined a line of Victorian ghost kids waiting for their turn, each one sitting in the high chair, smiling from their vantage point over the night’s potatoes and dry chicken breast.

On lazy afternoons, Auggie would crawl beneath the kitchen table and lie there, stomach to the floor, her whole small body not even reaching the full length of the table, and watch her mother rub orange oil over the delicate carvings of the high chair, the citrus tickling Auggie’s nose as her mother hummed Baby Mine and made the old wood shine like new, even the face of a carved lion at the base of the high chair, a lion that had been struck by something, sometime, so half his face was chipped and crushed and distorted. Auggie was learning about old gods in school at this time— different from the real God at church, it seemed, which is something she was having trouble with, but, whatever— and she imagined that the distorted little lion was actually the God of Lions and that this was indeed his throne. Gods were naturally small in stature, the perfect size for a high chair, but the God of Wolves had banished him to the foot of the chair. So as the orange oil made the air heavy with fruit, Auggie imagined the God of Wolves hovering in the corner, laughing and laughing, and drinking a sip of God of Wolves’ soda (he had his own brand of soft drinks in his down time) and then laughing some more.

Four years later, Auggie’s father was going through a cryptozoology phase and enjoyed sharing photos of fantastic creatures to Auggie and her friend Piper as they sat at the kitchen counter, painting their nails a middle-school glitter-blue. He shared a photo of Big Foot one night, as their nails dried, and they couldn’t escape. Auggie’s father called the Big Foot a she and Piper asked how he knew it was a girl. Because of the breasts, he said, you can see them here, as she swings her arms back behind her. Across the room Auggie’s mother burst into laughter and lifted her eyebrows at Auggie’s father and he stopped and grew red and hurried to the garage, where he stayed until Piper left an hour or two later. And Auggie, for the first time, imagined out loud to Piper that maybe the antique high chair belonged to Big Foot— it lived in the woods, after all, which would explain the vines and the trees, and maybe it kept lions for pets. Piper didn’t skip a beat, offering that maybe Big Foot never had a child but always wanted one, and when it seemed all was lost, dropped the high chair at the local antique store, hoping someone else could use it.

Auggie and Piper were just learning in sex-ed in school what the breasts were for and the vaginas and the uteri and the pubic hair starting to sprout and they giggled at the thought of Big Foot’s breasts and her unused uterus and wondered how you could tell if she had pubic hair anyway, and Auggie’s mother piped in— unless it was all pubic hair, all over, everywhere— and they all laughed harder.

Later, two years from being adults, Piper and Auggie and Piper’s mom and Auggie’s mom rode together to an abortion clinic, Piper’s mom blasting Piper’s favorite band, the Wendigo Girls, as Piper whispered to Auggie about her first time having sex and how it hadn’t hurt that bad like they say and she didn’t bleed or anything and it was over real quick, and she didn’t know a baby could be made so fast, in such a weird, boring, awkward, smelling-like-a-gym-bag way. But it’s not a baby yet, Auggie whispered back. You don’t know what it is. That’s right, Auggie’s mother said (and Auggie wondered at her mother’s super human hearing)— she had had a dozen miscarriages before giving birth to Auggie. They were just a passing by moment, her mom said, filled with bits and pieces but nothing that’s a baby.

One of the miscarriages, Auggie explained, wasn’t really a miscarriage, my mom just absorbed the bits back into her body. Like she ate them up.

Something like that, her mom said.

My mom told me I had a twin in the womb, Piper told Auggie, but I absorbed him.

You ate him up, Auggie said.

Something like that, Piper’s mom said.

My mom ate some of her placenta after I was born, Piper said.

We’ve all got a cannibalistic tendency, Auggie explained. And she thought of giants, because giants in the old stories she’d heard were always threatening to eat the heroes, and perhaps that was the purpose of that old antique high chair and its intricate design— meant to hold down little babies as giants prepared to consume them. Like an egg cup for children.

Auggie held Piper’s hand in the waiting room of the clinic, until Piper was called back by a nurse in purple scrubs. For the next half hour, Auggie sat alone, watching her mom and Piper’s mom argue with some protestors that surrounded the building, and imagined each of the protestors stuck in their own antique high chair, waiting for a giant to pluck them up.

Later, much much later, the night before Auggie left for college, her mother was on the floor, rubbing the oil into the high chair, and Auggie lay on the floor beside her, her stomach flat against the cool tile, thinking how the oil smelled more like an orange tree than ever before.

Why do you like this thing so much, Auggie asked her mother.

And her mother stopped rubbing the oil and sighed. It reminds me of something, she said. Something too important for words.

Much much later, Auggie was nearly thirty and still did not have children, a fact talked about in depth, at length, over every dinner at the kitchen table, as Auggie stared at the empty antique high chair and imagined nothing fantastical this time. Only a rich Victorian woman who spent a lot of money on a piece of wood for a child she’d never have, and perhaps never wanted. But she had to pretend to want it— she must want it, if she had a high chair such as this. At night, when others thought she cried out of loneliness, she smiled instead. Auggie, though, did not pretend to want children, and said as much over many a dinner, though it was always met with a commanding you’ll change your mind from her mother or father. You’ll see.

Later, much much later, after Auggie inherits the house and all the stuff in it, it’s the high chair she moves first. She half expects her mother to scream from the grave, to rise as a spirit in Victorian lace and send the fifty year old Auggie crashing to the now dusty tile. But the ghost does not appear, because ghosts weren’t real after all, Auggie supposes. So she brings it out to the yard, near the old lemon tree, and places a potted Jasmine vine on the high chair seat. The Jasmine vine will grow and weave itself around the spindles and legs, eventually, making it look more like a bush or a tree than what it really is. Auggie imagines the mother tree reaching out for its child, all carved up with images of itself, and pulling it back into the earth by its roots, the mother reclaiming its child once again. She imagines her own mother, planting herself beside the lemon tree, becoming a berry plant, perhaps, if only to stake claim over the high chair, if only to have its own vines to reach out and take hold. Auggie imagines sitting under the shade of the lemon tree, smelling the aroma of the blossoming high chair, eating berries from her mother’s ears and feeling the softness of her mother’s hair-turned-leaves. Auggie imagines the lions on the high chair peeling themselves away and trotting off to another existence, even the one with the disfigured face, even the ones that are still perfect, after all these years.

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Chelsea Sutton is a fiction writer, playwright, and screenwriter, and a 2016 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow. Her plays have been finalists for the O’Neill Playwrights and PlayPenn Conferences, among others. She was a creative writing artist in residence at Willapa Bay AiR and Tin House Writers Conference in 2017 and a 2018 Sewanee Writers Conference Playwright Fellow. She is currently working on a short story collection, Curious Monsters, which was a Runner-Up for the 2018 Madeline P. Plonsker Emerging Writers Residency Prize, and her first novel. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside. Chelseasutton.com