Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Paternity

THE CLINIC

You have been trying to start a family. And failing. The problem, it will turn out, is with you. This is what they tell you at the fertility clinic at the medical center. The first thing, discovered during a physical exam, is that your testicles are smaller and softer than average. At the time of this revelation, your wife actually says to the urologist, in a tone of maternal defensiveness: “That’s strange, because I would say his penis is a little too big.” At which the doctor smiles and explains that the penis is not in question. He gives you a glass vial. Lock yourself in a room where Playboy magazines are tastefully fanned out on tabletops and framed prints of Georgia O’Keeffe flowers hang on the walls. You will have abstained from ejaculation (according to doctor’s instructions) for at least two days, but not more than five days, prior to this sample collection. Your apparently undersized balls have been blue. Now, in this weird setting, you’ll be damned if you can get an erection. But if you look across the room you will notice a large book: a monograph of erotic art through the centuries. Page through it until you get to a painting called Naked Young Witch with Fiend in Shape of Dragon from the year 1515. The dragon is using a long phallic tongue to penetrate a woman from behind. For some reason, this image will turn you on.

SEXUAL DEFICIENCY IN EARLY AMERICA

Nathaniel Pritchard was a husbandman who, like you, had much trouble impregnating his new wife. Other similarities will become evident. But let us note some differences. Firstly, he was younger than you. Twenty-one at the time of the difficulties, which occurred in the Connecticut Colony of New England in December of 1691. Secondly, he was a farmer: principally of corn, though he also worked a field of rye. As for his wife, Bridget, what her society expected her to be, she was: a weaver, a seamstress, a keeper of chickens. And with her long black hair and pearly skin and eyes the virginal green of an unopened flower, she was all a man from any time could hope to see.

Before the marriage, they bundled.

For twenty-eight nights, in Bridget’s girlhood bedchamber, they slept, according to Puritan custom, in separate sheets. Touching only hands and face. Kissing only lips. Nights when desire flourished so powerfully, Nathaniel felt as if floodwaters were threatening to break a dam built at the mouth of his manhood. The barrier did not hold. One morning, he woke in the wee hours, stunned for a few moments that Bridget had unwrapped the blankets and accepted him inside her, before realizing that she was asleep (as he, also, had been asleep) and that his crotch and breeches were wet with ejaculate. Only a dream. Of what the minister would call ‘lewd fornication.’ He lay awake, the spill between his legs hardening like glue. There was nothing lewd about his love for Bridget—but to have this filthy accident right beside her! Later, bidding her farewell in the crisp outdoors, surrounded by hills of trees whose leaves were blushing and burning with autumn, he said:

‘Other young couples in the township do not wait.’

‘Ungodly ones,’ she replied.

‘Godly ones, too. What think you, my love?’

‘Methinks you have lost your wits. ’Tis a sin, Nathaniel. You would fain see me whipped at the post?’

‘Nay, but—’

She kissed him to stop his mouth. ‘Think of me softly,’ she said. ‘We will know each other soon enough.’

At last, the long-awaited day arrived. They were married by Reverend Moody in a plain service followed by simple refreshments: bride-cake; wine and beer; apples and peaches. No dancing, no music. The affair concluded by five of the clock. The late-year sun was nearly down when the newlyweds climbed onto the seat of the horse-drawn wagon, and Ezekiel drew them to the cottage at the northern edge of the settlement, where they started a fire in the hearth and ate a dinner of bread and meat—and suddenly, like people awaking from a swoon, found themselves in the bedchamber, Bridget removing her dress and shift and Nathaniel his shirt and breeches, commencing to touch, to embrace, to treat one another by loving mouth. But even as Nathaniel felt the lust that had tormented him all through the harvest season being transmuted into a divine rapture, something strange and frightful began to happen. Or, rather: strangely and frightfully, something failed to happen. ‘My love is such,’ whispered his wife, as if reciting a psalm she could not fully remember. ‘Communion with thee.’ And so lay back, and, draping one arm across her forehead while the other wilted over the bedside, opened her legs. The tallow candle burned: its flame a tiny heart in whose beating Nathaniel could see, about her groin, a down of hair, a sheenful coat of soft fur. ‘In the name of heaven,’ thought Nathaniel. But no matter how he chafed his member it would not erect. As surely as Christ had died for him, Goodman Pritchard was limp.

AZOOSPERMIA

What the test shows is that you’re screwed. Because you have no sperm in your semen. The condition is called azoospermia. You possess a normal libido; you exhibit normal sexual function; and your ejaculate looks like that of any other male. Only it isn’t. But there is hope. Because oftentimes men like you do have a “tiny focus” of sperm production in their testicles; and these non-moving sperm can be removed, during a testicular biopsy, via an ultra-micropipette. A single retrieved sperm can then be injected into the woman’s egg with a forty-six percent chance of successful fertilization.

Approaching the car after the appointment, your wife will say in a sympathetic tone: “Why don’t you let me drive.” As if you have been deemed, on top of all else, unfit to operate a motor vehicle.

Don’t respond.

Drive the highway and stare through the windshield at the looming skyscrapers of Boston—you who cannot inseminate a female of your species, who just whacked off in a urologist’s office to an image that rivals, in its pornographic derangement, anything accessible on the Internet.

“Honey,” she will say.

“What.”

“It’ll work. There’s a sperm in there. The Little Zoa That Could.”

“What if he can’t?”

“Look, I know you’re scared of the needle.”

“It’s not the needle. It’s— It’s the whole thing. Having a baby that way.”

“What.”

“I don’t know. It’s not natural.”

“It grows in me,” she’ll say. “They put the egg back in me and the baby grows natural as can be.”

That night, lie in the dark and think about how you and your wife have been mating like animals for a year with never a snowball’s chance in hell of her getting pregnant; and how you agreed, back when you were dating—before the wedding day, before the engagement, before the proposal—that you would have children.

Soon.

In the morning, make the appointment. Schedule a time to get a needle stuck into your nut sack.

THE DISAPPEARANCE

And so it went for a fortnight. For two week did Nathaniel lie with Bridget and try to erect himself, and she to erect him with all manner of allurements to venery. But night after night, Goodman Pritchard suffered the same dreadful weakness—until, on the morning after the fourteenth failure, something more than weirdish, something unnatural and unspeakable befell him.

A cold winter morning.

He rose before his wife, whom he could not see at all in the shuttered darkness of the bedchamber, though he could see the phantoms of his own breath, and could, in his mind, judge the way and distance to the door. In the common room of the cottage, a few embers were still glowing in the hearth. (He’d been up in the night to tend the fire.) Now he laid some kindling on the hot remains of cedar wood. Then pulled on a cloak and stepped into his boots and went outdoors. To urinate. The air was bitter; stars were spread like a hoarfrost on heaven; and as Nathaniel walked over the icy ground toward the privy, he thought of the night before—of how, once again, he had tried to do his duty as a husband, and had failed, and finally had buried his face shamefully in his wife’s bosom and wept.

Now he opened the door of the privy. Stepped in. Unbuttoned his breeches and reached inside the flap. And felt . . .

Nothing.

For a long moment, Goodman Pritchard did not understand, experiencing, like a man at market feeling in vain for the coins which are never not in the pocket of his coat, more perplexity than panic. Then, all at once, a feverish heat flamed over him; and with shaking hands, he pushed down his underclothes and touched all about the crux of himself—and touched nothing but an absence. His mind capsized. ‘In God’s name,’ he choked out. Going to his knees. To pray to the Saviour, one might think. Though one would be mistaken. For to the poor husbandman, dizzy now with terror, it seemed not impossible that the things he was missing might have simply fallen to the floor.

‘Nathaniel?’

It was the sweet voice of his new wife, who through the fortnight of his impotence had been nothing if not gentle and kind. But this. How could Bridget fathom this? How could he explain—

And then: the cold blast of a different question that turned the goodman’s blood to ice:

Am I witched?

Aye, it stands clear. Someone in unholy covenant with the powers of the dark hath stolen your member.

INTRA CYTOPLASMIC SPERM INJECTION

Of course they numb the scrotum; and as the anesthesia takes effect, you will have a sense that your testes are fading out of existence—although, like an amputee who claims to feel the phantom of a missing limb, you think you can feel the needle go in. From your wife, several ripe eggs, clustered like caviar in the ovaries, have already been harvested, and are waiting in a lab room for your sperm. A few of which are found. Hiding in the seminal depths. Girl-afraid introverts who can’t swim, and who hold for dear life onto the apron strings of your little nuts while the fluidic riptide of the needle rages all around them. In the laboratory—which you imagine to be white and rectilinear and devoid of sound, a set from a movie about a future world in which, beneath the flawless exterior of scientific advancement, lurks a terrible secret—the reproductive endocrinologist will microinject a single sperm into each of the four oocytes. A day later: good news. Fertilization and cell division are underway. Return to the clinic. In a white silent room, hold your wife’s hand while she opens her legs and a catheter is inserted into her vagina.

That night, she will drape her body in white lingerie that gives her the look of an angel about to fall from grace.

Ask: “What are you doing?”

“Sexing up.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What if we break it?”

She laughs. “What do you think it is, a dinner plate? I read about this in a book. Make love when they transfer them.”

So, do it—but be warned: The transaction will be a strange one, because you will feel like actors attempting to convince an audience that you’re doing something you’re actually not doing; and yet the whole thing will make both of you uncommonly hot, as if this pretense of knocking someone up is a fantasy you get off on, though of course it’s nothing but a fantasy—the implications of which will make you angry and spark the kind of erotic fracas that characterized your early fucks, complete with forcible restraint, slapping, and sexual slurs, until finally, sobbing with want, she will get on all fours. Offering her back parts. The position reminds you of the painting from the book in the urologist’s office. The witch and the demon. When the orgasm finally comes, she presses her face to the bed and screams.

DRINKING AS COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR

The truth is that, for quite some time, for weeks before his sudden and unbelievable castration, Goodman Pritchard had been a frequent, almost nightly, patron at the Anchor, an ‘ordinary’ kept by a friend, Jacob Armitage. A penny for an ale-quart of beer. Which Nathaniel would drink by the fire while staring into the flames and listening to the sound of vapours escaping from the burning fuel: a sinister hiss.

In those days, a man was forbidden to continue tippling above the space of half an hour; but on the night of the day on which he lost his manhood, Nathaniel Pritchard had been in the taproom of the Anchor for nearly an hour already when he said: ‘Pray, another ale.’ To which Goodman Armitage, the keeper of the tavern on that road that joined Boston to Stamford, replied: ‘’Tis past nine of the clock.’ But Nathaniel professed not to care about the commandments of, or the punishments threatened by, the General Court of Connecticut. Cannot a man quench a thirst without he pay a fine. Et cetera. To quiet him, the innkeeper brought him another beer, and stood by while Nathaniel drank a long draught. The fire cracked and hissed. The two were alone in the taproom.

‘Nathaniel, what ails you?’

‘I know not.’

‘And I believe you not.’

Goodman Armitage seated himself. Nathaniel drank another draught and looked into the fire. His brain was bobbing on drink like a cork on water. In the glowing coals he perceived an impression of hell. Fear outweighed shame. He confessed to his friend everything: about the nights of bundling and the episode of nocturnal pollution; about the night of his wedding and the weakness in his penis that had lasted ever since; and how, finally, just this morning, he had waked and gone out to the privy and found—found that it wasn’t there at all . . .

‘The privy?’ said Jacob.

‘No.’

‘Man, surely you can’t mean . . .’

‘Aye, I do.’ Tears dripped down Nathaniel Pritchard’s cheeks, hot as wax down the shaft of a candle molded by the hand of his newlywed wife. ‘What think you, Jacob?’

‘Be it— Be it there now?’

Sniffling, wiping his face on his sleeve, Nathaniel shook his head. Looked his friend at last in the eye, hoping . . .

He knew not what.

Goodman Armitage said: ‘Show me.’

‘I’d as lief not.’

‘Nathaniel, mark me. I think you be somewhat bewildered. If your claim be true, we shall go straightaway to the reverend, for conjuration be the only conclusion. But I pray you, let us touch the bottom of this.’

Goodman Pritchard stood up. Stood before Goodman Armitage in the taproom of that tavern at the crossroads. He loosed his trousers and let them fall. Then he summoned all the will in his person and pushed down his breeches.

‘What see you?’

‘What see I? I see your yard, man. Plain as day.’

When Goodman Pritchard put a hand between his legs, he could feel none of himself. ‘It is not there.’

‘Nathaniel. It will take no prize, but it sufficeth. Now, I pray you,’ the innkeeper said, confiscating the tankard, ‘get you home to your wife—and use your member for that which God gave it you.’

YOUR LESBIAN FRIEND

Fast-forward to the winter of the year. By which time the sperm injection procedure will have failed. Twice. Leaving two frozen embryos. The doctors defrost them: One does not survive the warming. Have the last transferred to your wife’s uterus. A week later, the blood will come. Examine the stain together. Like a pattern left by tea leaves. Not difficult to read the meaning. You know what is coming next. The idea frightens you and twists your stomach into jealous knots. Still, as your wife drops the underwear into the trash and sits on the toilet in an attitude of unconditional surrender, there will be an urge to speak of it, to agree to it . . .

Don’t.

This is no time to be rushing into such a thing. You have to get your head straight. You need advice.

Next day, show up at a local pub. Sit at the bar and order a beer with a high alcohol content. Wait for your friend, whom you think is the ideal confidante. She is a beer connoisseur, she’s married, and she’s the parent of a child, a two-year-old girl, conceived with donated sperm. Here she comes, in the usual attire: a collared shirt tucked into trousers. At her wedding, she wore a tuxedo.

Say, after some small talk: “Did you guys ever consider adoption?”

“Yes.”

“But you wanted . . .”

“Kara wanted,” she says, bringing her glass to her lips. She is a woman of words so few and precise that you sometimes feel, in conversation with her, that you’re talking to a well-coached witness. Tell her, straight up, that you currently find yourself in a position she will understand. Don’t embarrass her with the details. Suffice to say, your wife’s only hope of growing a baby in her womb rests with the semen of a third party . . .

Lull in the bar.

As if the words have been transmitted, on some drunken frequency, to the ears of all patrons.

Your friend will say: “I don’t understand these women.”

Nod in assent.

“It’s like temporary insanity,” she says. “They become convinced they have to experience the thing. If they don’t, life is . . . meaningless. So what’s marriage? Is marriage just a presupposition?”

“But you agreed.”

“True.”

“And . . .”

“And it’s over and I love Eli. He’s half Kara and that’s all I think about now. It’s all I care about.”

On the way home, think only of your wife. Filter out all thoughts of him, who in a way is no one, who will be nothing more than a list of physical traits and genetic data: neither enemy nor friend; never to be seen or heard from; all but nonexistent. It is nearly ten of the clock when you open the door. Call out a hello. You will find her on the bed with a glass of wine and a book. Swallow your heart. Tell her. You’ll do whatever is necessary. There’s no option you won’t consider.

CONTRACT WITH SATAN

And so did Goodman Pritchard find himself in a great strait. Unable to tell anyone else of his affliction, for he knew they would seem to see what most assuredly had vanished; and unable even to attempt communion with his wife, for how could he enter her if he had no means? He did not return to the tavern those next three night, but sat by the hearth in his home, feeding the fire, watching flame consume wood.

‘Nathaniel,’ said Bridget on the third night.

‘Aye.’

‘’Tis past ten of the clock. Will you not come to bed?’

He did not answer, expecting her, as she had done two nights past, to withdraw passively into the bedchamber.

She did not.

But stood in the doorway for a long time while he gazed into the fire. Finally, she said: ‘I think you like me not, Nathaniel. To tell you true, I am entirely amazed. Wherefore marry me, if only to keep such cold company?’

He couldn’t speak. The fire burned. And still, Goodwife Pritchard stood on the threshold of the bedchamber.

‘Hear me now, Nathaniel. Do you hear me?’

‘Aye.’

‘I want not a pretended husband.’

It was much later, toward midnight, when he quit the cottage and hitched the horse to the cart.

The land of Goodman Pritchard, one hundred acres of it, lay by the northern border of the village, not far from the road that led to Boston. Very near the wilderness—and very soon was he in the wilderness. In a sea of trees that seemed endless. In whose infinitude lurked wild animals, and savages more wild than animals, and, aye, agents of the Devil. On that winter night, as he steered his wagon farther and farther from the village, deeper and deeper into the forest, Nathaniel was affrighted by all such danger and evil. But more affrighted was he by the spectre of a shame to which the embarrassments of the last month would pale in comparison. For in those days, it was well-known—suggested both in books of advice and by the laws of the colonial courts—that a man’s domestical duty was to make his wife’s womb skip with joy. So, Nathaniel was terrified now: not only of the real possibility of being called before the reverend and the village elders to answer for his failures but also of the prospect of losing Bridget, in whose bosom his heart had long taken up its lodging, and of a future in which he would be all alone, with no woman and no children . . .

He pulled on the reins.

The horse slowed and stopped. The goodman had reached a very dark place. Where the road was scarcely visible. Where the trees, though stripped naked by the season, blocked the light of the waxing moon, for the upper branches had come to intertwist—and when Nathaniel looked up, he believed the boughs overhead to be writhing like serpents in a nest. And how cold it was! Scarcely did a tear drop from his eye before it turned to ice. He wiped the crystal from his cheek. And then, in the frozen silence of that place, where no sound had yet come to Nathaniel’s ears but that of his own heart—and certainly he had heard no footfalls—a voice said from very near:

‘Hello, friend. You have some few queer questions. Come down and walk with me, and we will speak on it.’

THE WEBSITE

Open an account. Decide upon a password. Confirm it. Choose a lost-password question. You can now begin to search for donors by selecting attributes. Ethnicity; height; education level; ancestry. The fathers-to-be have no proper names, only numbers. Donor 11936. Making you think of some science-fictional dystopia in which all procreation is controlled by an evil cryobanking corporation that exploits a genetically engineered workforce of breeders. Pay for a Level III subscription and gain access for ninety days to extended profiles, facial feature reports, and childhood photos.

Here is the plan:

You and your wife will search the profiles separately, choose ten donors, and see if you make any choices in common.

Late one night, fifth of bourbon in reach, visit the website. Thinking, while the home page invites you to narrow the search: Christ, even this online. Select the skin, hair, and eye colors corresponding to your own. Then ask yourself: Why the same colors? What is the goal here? To blur the line between you and the genetic father and so secure a future unfraught with suspicions and questions? Click on a profile. Picture of a four- or five-year-old with thick shiny hair and a winning smile, a boy destined to grow up and get paid to shoot his load into a glass tube that can now be purchased for a price between 119 and 479 dollars (US) depending on motility—i.e., number of sperm with normal forward movement that will soon be in your wife’s fallopian tube and storming the plasma membrane of her ovum, each carrying within itself a familial history of health/physique/intelligence that will (assuming one of them breaks through) merge and blend with that of your wife to form a new human destiny with zero chromosomal input from you.

In the end, reach a kind of agreement. Green eyes. Average build. Education: Bachelor’s degree with departmental honors. Musical instrument: Trumpet. Paternal grandmother: Artist. Favorite color: Cerulean. Number of mobile spermatozoa per milliliter after thawing: Twenty million.

CONCEPTION

And the word of the evil one did prove good. For Nathaniel, on his return from the forest, passed neither cart nor rider; and upon emerging from the trees and coming in view of his frozen fields, saw no wood smoke rising heavenward from the chimney of his cottage. He stabled the horse. Entered the house. Indeed, his wife was still asleep. He laid a log on the embers in the hearth; and with a few breaths directed at the bed of glowing coals, brought the fire to life. He removed greatcoat, then boots. And touched there. Aye. The bargain he had struck in the forest was no dream. Not only was his member returned to its rightful place—it was erected, and as solid as the rock upon which the Lord had built His Church.

On that morning—and many time more through the grey and cold winter of 1692—did Nathaniel fulfill his nuptial duty (on one blessèd occasion inspiring in Bridget’s privy parts three successive pangs of pleasure) until at last, three month later, just before the thaw . . .

‘My husband.’

‘Aye?’

They were at table, enjoying a supper of pork and turnips with cups of fermented cider. A tallow candle burning between them.

‘I wonder if you have suspicioned anything of late.’

‘I know not.’

Even in the dim light, the bloom in her cheeks was unmistakable. ‘When we last . . . conversed. Noticed you no change in me?’

‘Let me think on it,’ he replied.

But sure he knew. It had happened, as he knew it would. As the Infernal Chymist had guaranteed. His wife was with child. By Nathaniel’s reckoning, she would be delivered somewhere about summer’s end—on which day a kind of hourglass would be turned, and sand begin to trickle through the neck. A fortnight. Such were the terms of the hellish compact. Signed in his own blood. Within a fortnight of the birth day must Nathaniel Pritchard return to the forest. Not alone: with his newborn child. He wasn’t sure which amazed him more. That he was soon to be a father. Or that he had sworn to do a thing that no Gospel Christian would ever dream of.

EARLY DECISIONS ABOUT OPENNESS

See how similarities continue to accrue. Each of you has done something you don’t want the world to know about. (Of course, if you confide in someone, that person is unlikely to set in motion a series of events resulting in your being publicly burned to death. But this is a question for historians.) What you have to do is sit down with your wife, whose belly, entering into this second trimester of pregnancy, is in a state of erotic distension—filled, you cannot stop yourself from thinking, by him—and make a list of people open-minded and discreet enough to be candidates for membership in an “inner circle.” Listen to her nominations, which will include parents, siblings, pals from college, childhood BFFs—and realize there is not a single living soul to vote for. Not one. If she says you’re being unreasonable, she does have a point. However, reason is only part of the picture. Other forces in operation here include: will, emotion, imagination. If you are going to be a father—a real father—you must believe you are one, and must lose yourself in a story of fatherhood, to a point maybe where you almost forget the thing that began the story, in the sense that it becomes so irrelevant over time that, for all intents and purposes, it never happened.

Attempt to explain your position in these terms. She, after giving you a long look teetering on the edge of patience, will close her eyes, shake her head, and, unlocking her phone, proceed to check messages.

INFANT MORTALITY

All through that spring and summer of 1692 were the dreams of Nathaniel Pritchard corrupted. He would return to the cottage after a day of ploughing or sowing to find his sweet wife in the kitchen, belly full of child, humming a hymn tune, and he would eat the evening meal with her, speaking on topics such as the making of a cradle or the choosing of a name—afterwhich, frighted, he would carry these notions into sleep, where they would be made monstrous by the powers of the dark.

Day by day did the baby grow in the womb; in the fields grew the flint corn and rye. Until, one Indian summer morn after the harvest, the pains began. In accord with custom was the father sent away. He took an axe and went as far as he could, all the distance to the northern fence—and while the neighborhood women fed the mother eggs and broth and cheerfully conversed in support of her spirits and held her on the birthing stool as she moaned and pushed, the goodman set to clearing a new acre, swinging the tool against the trees, chopping for hours with all his angry might until at last, near to three of the clock, the midwife’s daughter came stumbling across the fields, calling out: ‘’Tis finished, goodman! ’Tis a girl!’ The news struck hard upon him. If a boy, the task would be terror enough. But a girl. Like a man walking to the gallows, he walked back to the cottage—and he entered the bedroom and saw his sleeping wife and his infant child asleep on her breast, and he sat by them until the sun went down, thinking, as darkness fell over New England: ‘Child. Dear child . . .’

Pray, judge him not. For in those days there was a moving plot in the country and scarce did anything happen but the Devil be in it somewhere. It was merely one child. Who might in the normal course have been lost to any number of ills or accidents. Over the next twelve year, there would be between Nathaniel and Bridget much corporeal communion. Six more children would she bear (two would die before speaking a word), but not a single one without the first had served as payment. It may move you little that Nathaniel Pritchard cried an ocean of salt tears the night he stole his firstborn and took her into the forest. But he did cry an ocean. As he would each year thereafter, on the anniversary of that September day. For always on that day did Nathaniel go into the forest, into that realm of abominations, with a garland of wildflowers to lay upon the spot where he had stood that night in 1692, holding the baby in his arms, smelling her milkbreath, waiting for the bootheel of Lucifer.

DREAMS AS CLUES TO HIDDEN PATTERNS

You are in this dark forest. And you’re naked. Whatever. Ever since your diagnosis, your dreams have pretty much been clothing optional: you’ve been buck naked in the supermarket, at the office, in the church you went to as a kid—and now in a strange forest in the middle of the night. At least this time no one can see you. Whoever was here is going away—in what sounds like a horse-drawn cart. Clopping hooves, circumvolving wheels. Fading, fading, gone. Leaving you completely alone. Or maybe not. Because it suddenly comes into your head that you’re here to help someone . . .

Find her lying at the base of a tree. Swaddled in a blanket of loom-spun wool. Asleep.

Lift her up.

No sooner will her tiny head come to rest on your chest than you will be torn away from that world. Wake up. The baby—the real one—is crying. Squint at the numbers on the clock. Your wife will nudge you in the small of the back. Your turn. As you go to the crib, the dream is forming again, like a wave, in the deep of your mind, now cresting, now crashing. For a few seconds, you are in that forest again. Holding the baby. She isn’t yours. She belongs to someone else. Someone long gone into a darkness outside the scope of your subconscious. But you. You are there for her now. In the dream, it all makes perfect sense. She called out to you. From far off. Across dimensions, with a silent voice you were somehow able to hear. Of all the men in the world, she called for you.

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Greg Hrbek

Greg Hrbek

Greg Hrbek’s Not on Fire, but Burning was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and an NPR Best Book of 2015. His first novel, The Hindenburg Crashes Nightly, won the James Jones First Novel Award. His short stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Tin House, and The Best American Short Stories anthology. A first collection of stories, Destroy All Monsters, was awarded the 2010 Prairie Schooner Prize in Fiction.