FoundlingReview

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Where had the baby come from?

         Careful,” said Aunt Lillian, twenty-one years ago, passing me the glass box. Floating in the center was a white blob that made me think of glow-worms.

         “Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked.

         “Neither,” said Lillian. “We call her Silvia.”

         I lifted it for a closer look, and the lambent little monster bobbed.

         “Why?”

         Who is Silvia, what is she,” sang Lillian, implying: no more questions, please.

         “Why is she here?” I persisted. No one at home ever said what they really meant, and it was very tedious. “Why isn’t she buried?”

         “Well, she was a baby no one wanted. A baby who died.”

         “That’s sad,” I said. Silvia’s face seemed undecided.

         “Your Uncle Peter used her to teach his students. Do you remember what I told you, about him being a doctor? Silvia helped people understand how everything works.”

         “She’s like the mummies,” I said. “In the museum. They’re not alive. I’ve seen them lying there.”

         For my tenth birthday, mum and I had gone to London. My head jangled with new sights: ancient coins, dinosaurs, crown jewels, huge gift-shops. The sooty Underground below, and the Planetarium constellations above. In Trafalgar Square, a yellow-mohawked punk had spat gum in my hair, and my mother didn’t dare say anything. Life exploded, so strange and interesting and dangerous. After this, dead Doctor-Uncle Peter in a lecture hall with Silvia -- this pickled bioluminescence -- could hardly seem remarkable.

         “A little bit like the mummies,” said Lillian. “But, you know, that’s just superstition. About the afterlife, and such. Silvia has been preserved for science. For education.”

         Aunt Lillian thought education was important. She always gave me a pound or some sweets for a sterling school report. It was good to be a clever girl, these days. It hadn't mattered so much when she was young. Why? Oh, girls became ladies when they got married, she said, and ladies didn't worry about jobs.

 

“I don’t think you want this to work,” says my husband, while I pack my suitcase on a day marked OVULATION. It’s right there on the calendar, and I’m shirking my commitments. Last month, OVULATION clashed with CONFERENCE, and the month before that -- well, I don’t know. Maybe my egg had a more pressing engagement. Maybe it didn’t care for this Californian climate, where the sky is too open and blue. It's not my native weather.

         “I have to go home,” I tell him. “It’s not just the funeral. There’s that whole house to sort out, and I can’t leave mum to do it all. You know Lillian didn’t have kids of her own.”

         “Bullshit,” says my husband, in his forthright, let's-talk-about-this way, which I used to find novel and refreshing. Now I see it’s troublesome. “Your mom can manage. How much junk does one old lady have? There’s no need to fly out to England.”

         “I have to go home,” I say, thinking: when we have a child, she’ll call me mom, not mum. She’ll be an American, like him; won’t understand where I come from.

         “Sometimes I think you don’t even want a baby,” he observes.  

         Sometimes I don’t, but I refrain from saying so. It’s the kind of statement which can haunt a long time after. As a punishment for my even thinking it, a toddler kicks the back of my plane seat all the way from LAX to London Heathrow. His parents keep apologizing, and I say it’s fine, and it can’t be helped, and please don’t worry. Thinking: dreadful little monster.

 

Silvia hasn’t changed, although her box is smaller in my hand. I hold it up to the window -- we’ve thrown away the curtains -- and she bobs a few times, then settles. She’s the color of albumen and altar candles, with a nimbus of curdled smoke, like when a egg cracks in boiling water. What am I supposed to do with her?

         I ask my mother, but she's no help; the whole issue makes her uncomfortable. She looks much older. Or maybe it’s just England, where the light is too pale and lunar. Am I pining for the brazen Golden State, now? What do I want?

         I make an awkward phone-call to the local hospital. Hello. There’s this, uh, baby, left to me by an elderly relation. No, not- I mean, a kind of specimen. My uncle was a doctor of obstetrics, or something. We’re going through my aunt’s estate, and we found the b- this item. What should I do?

         The administrator says I have to bring Silvia in for incineration. It’s tricky, with these older articles. You can’t keep unlabeled limbs, lobes or embryos any more. Did I remember the scandal at Bristol, with all those hearts in the basement? Even the nameless dead and their parts need signed forms of consent. They must be accounted for.

 

Auntie Lillian’s funeral is at the new crematorium, where the abstract stained glass windows shine with tactless cheer. The coffin seems out of place, as incongruous as a sarcophagus amidst the stackable pine furniture.   

         “Was it Pete who couldn’t have kids?” I ask, in the chilly car park. “Or was it Lillian?”

         “I never asked,” says my mother, reproachfully. “That’s a very private thing.”

         I feel embarrassed, as if I’ve forgotten all the proper rules since I went away. No more questions, please.

        

A week later, Lillian’s house is empty. The windows reflect moonlight, blank as a White Lady’s glare. My aunt told me about these English ghosts: milky-eyed and bonneted, they silently augured a family death. When I heard about La Llorona, in Mexico, she reminded me of them; except, of course, La Llorona has messy hair and screams mis hijos. The White Ladies just stand there. Lillian didn’t believe in superstitions, but she knew plenty about their arbitrary providence. A smashed egg was lucky, a cracked egg wasn’t. Never turn your mattress on a Friday. (Fine by me; I never turn my mattress at all.) Thirty-one is the dangerous age for a woman.

         My flight is tomorrow. I should repack my suitcase -- it's nearly midnight -- but I walk the frosty lawn instead. We might have forgotten something. Didn’t there used to be a sundial? I find the FOR SALE sign, then sit on the back step. Silvia is gone. I light a cigarette, and see her burn up like a star, so bright, final, and alone. I should repack my suitcase, but I stay there in the cold. Ashes scatter in the dark. The students Silvia taught are doctors, or dead, and they still don't understand how everything works. And I won't ever know where she came from.




      
Emma Ozeren lives in Los Angeles.




It sounds like a routine disclaimer: notions of what's acceptable may vary, depending on your age, generation, or location. Somehow, I still get surprised by other countries, by my family, and by my own inconsistent views. 'Silvia' is about all this uncertainty. The original Silvia belonged to my Great-Aunt, who was a nurse until she got married. When I was a kid, Silvia seemed magical; now, remembering her makes me uneasy.

 


 




  


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