Neglecting to register the birth of her child was, though strictly speaking a crime, not an unheard-of occurrence. Like many a woman, Sarah didn’t leave the house for the first weeks, and her husband was so busy in the fields till the darkness damped down the wheat with its sheet of black felt every night that he had not the energy to do more than fix her supper. In town, no-one would have remarked much on the new arrival, let alone the hiccup with the paperwork. ‘Jeremiah. Jeremiah Lemuel.’ That’s what his pa would say if folk stopped in the street to ask how Sarah had got on. Then he’d say, ‘She’s fine. Just fine.’ And as an afterthought, ‘And the boy’s fine too.’

            Months passed, and still Silas and Sarah rarely ventured beyond the farm gate. From the outside, things looked much the same: the thirsty garden showed its gratitude for Sarah’s attention by blooming white and and violent red. The woodwork was more slickly painted than any of the other houses round about, and people said it was a wonder, with the new baby and all. But the walls were holding in a darkness, a shadow that might, if the couple weren’t careful, leak out and blacken the brilliant whitewash, cast a pall over the gorgeous parade of flowers.

              ‘I tell you, he needs a doctor,’ Silas said. ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’

            ‘The Lord helps those who have faith in him and who pray to Him for help and who do not demand what He in his wisdom has decided not to grant,’ Sarah would chant in response. And so the argument would go on, and Jeremiah Lemuel would stare blindly into the darkness he had hauled into the world with him, blinking and cooing and listening to the voices that rang off the bare walls and perhaps landed in his heart.

            ‘He ain’t been right since the minute he come out and you know that, Sarah. And folks are talking about why he ain’t christened yet and I don’t know what to tell’em.’

            ‘Tell them nothing,’ she shrugged, almost flippant. ‘Tell them I love him too much to take him into town and let those prying eyes roam all over him.’ And she thought again of the puzzle of seeing, like it stole something from the person seen. Her baby took nothing from her – left her whole and intact and un-attacked by vision.

            But this child wasn’t just sight-blind. He was world-blind. He couldn’t read the world like a normal baby could. A bulging out at the back of his skull gave him a strange shape that her fingers had come to fear, for she knew it was changing, day by day.

         ‘Jeremiah,’ she would sing, ‘Exultation of the Lord, Jeremiah, son of Sarah, child of Silas, child of God.’ She would make up little scraps of tune, little coded appeals to see if they drew a smile, or even a tear. But there was never any expression, just a distracted gaze, as though he were listening intently to another song in another world.

            When the child was a year old, Silas said, ‘Sarah, I know. I know and I forgive you.’

           She looked at him, all dusty in his dungarees, hands raw with calluses and face leathered from the sun. He had asked her to come outside, into the drenching light, where she so rarely set foot these days. He had led her by the hand and drawn her away from their sleepy cot-dwelling son. ‘I forgive you, but we can’t go on.’

            ‘Forgive me what?’ she asked, non-committal, almost dreamy. ‘What is it you think you know, Silas?’

        ‘I know all this while you’ve been waiting for him to die. I know that underneath your prayers you’ve been asking the Lord to take him back, since the day he came out.’

            Her eyes widened in alarm.

           ‘Now ain’t that the truth I’m saying? Knowing I forgive you and that the Lord forgives you, ain’t that the truth of it?’

            And she looked at the parched ground and felt something drain away, through her and soak deep into the earth, and she knew that the thing that had left her was hope. Silas put a hand on her shoulder and said, ‘But we can’t go on. Today: right now today I’ll hook up the wagon and we’ll go into town, and we’ll take our son, shape that he is, way that he is. We’ll take our son to town.’

                From the doctor there to the infirmary in the next town, to the little hospital twenty miles away, all the way to the big city hospital four storeys high and smelling of formaldehyde, people weren’t unkind. ‘Although there is little we can do, we will try our best to help you,’ they said, and did not blame, as Sarah had feared, and did not lecture. All the while Jeremiah went on listening intently to that conversation in another world, until a needle or a stethoscope or a flashlight in his eyes made him stare wide open out of fear or indignation or something much more simple.

                The doctor in the city with the frayed white coat said, ‘There are some things might make your days easier, I guess.  He isn’t suffering. He swallows well enough, and that’s the main thing. Doesn’t seem distressed. Could live for years. You’ve got yourself a mystery child, that’s all there is to it. A mystery child.’

                And though Silas knew he shouldn’t and though he tried to fight the words coming out of his mouth he asked the question, ‘And if we’d brung him sooner? Would it have – ’

            The doctor twilled a thread on the sleeve of his coat as he took in the faces of the woman with her dry-straw hair and the man all red-faced and screwed-up hands. He said, ‘A mystery child. That’s what the Lord’s sent you.’ And Silas wondered whether it was mercy or contempt he saw in the doctor’s eyes. When Sarah didn’t respond, the doctor went on, ‘There are provisions, sometimes, through benefactors and persons of that nature… where there isn’t provision in the family, where there aren’t sufficient means. You could leave the child with us. There is a ward, an asylum of sorts. I could arrange for that, if you don’t feel able to care for – ’ there was a sliver of a pause, ‘ – Jeremiah Lemuel,’ he read from the letter on his desk.

            Blood coursed through Sarah’s veins, rushed to her cheeks and set her breath fluttering. She wanted to reach out a hand to Silas. She wanted to signal to him silently, but her arms were around the passive bundle that was Jeremiah, and she could feel simultaneously the sensation of thrusting him at the doctor and the sensation of rushing with the baby from the room. Caught in this double moment – she was not sure what was real and what was her imagined action. Every second was an ocean of time in which she was suddenly aware of the tiniest inner sensation, the mixing of the logical and the wrong, like eating a cat, bone by bone.

            The doctor cleared his throat. Silas looked at her with a begging in his eyes she’d never seen before. And Jeremiah put a tiny, blind hand to her burning face, bringing a patch of cooling softness, a tenderness not born of words or thought.

M.L. Stedman lives in London. Her stories have been published in various anthologies and on-line magazines. She recently finished her first novel.

This story sprang from a couple of short, random phrases I was given as prompts. It grew on that trellis, in maybe an hour from start to finish. Its world felt so familiar, though it was actually completely new and foreign to me.



Copyright 2009