by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Most nights I'd lie nestled against my wife's body a little longer, my nose pressed into the collar of her silk pajamas, my hand cradling her belly. To see whether my daughter will roll over and go back to sleep on her own.
Tonight, though, I've sat up and have my feet tucked in my slippers before she finishes the word. I'm shuffling down the hallway before she calls again, and then I whisper-call, "Ssh, Squiggle, I'm coming."
I'm thinking I'll just take Rachel back to our bed, but she's sitting bolt upright, her bottle clutched in both hands. She has these fancy pigtail braids that stick up and out from the sides of her head like antennae. Miss Fatima does them at preschool.
I can't take her back in there wide awake. She'll wake up Miriam and little Max, and if he starts crying we'll be up an hour from now. A normal night, Miriam said. Like a normal night, with all of us asleep.
I sit down next to her.
"Is a lion coming?" she says.
"No, Squiggle," I say. I lie down, and she plops down too, burrows down under my shoulder with hers. "No lion is coming."
"Can we say the poem?"
I know which poem. Rachel has been thinking a lot about death lately. Even before the rest of us. I should say, ssh, no, go back to sleep, but I don't. We say it together.
"Mother, mother, I am ill.
Call the doctor on the hill.
Doctor, doctor, will I die?
Yes, my dear; and so will I."
I brace myself for her to ask the next question - "when will I die, Daddy?" The right answer is "only when you're very old, I hope." I don't know if I can make myself say it.
Instead there's the soft hiss of her drawing on the bottle. I turn my head a little. I can see her drooping eyes clearly, in what's probably still just moonlight.
I watch her tiny perfect face, the round lids of her eyes, the tiny curve of her nose. For the moment, it's enough. Contentment is the last thing I expect to feel tonight. But I am just a camera, framing the image of Rachel's face, and contentment overwhelms me.
The bottle pops out of her mouth and her eyes open. "Daddy, what's a disasteroid?"
"An asteroid is a big rock that goes around the sun in outer space. Bigger than a comet, not as big as a planet." I smooth the hair around her braids with my fingers.
"Is a disasteroid coming to my house?"
I use the Stern Daddy Voice. "Squiggle, it's the middle of the night. It's time for sleeping."
"Can I have some milk?"
"No. Ssh. Sleep."
"But it's light outside."
"No, it's the middle of the night. Ssh."
"Can you tell me a story about Rachel and Katie?"
"Can we go to mommy?"
I can't refuse her that. "Do you promise to be super quiet and not wake your brother?"
"Can I touch Max?"
"No. Max is asleep. Otherwise we stay here."
"No okay okay I'll be super quiet."
I scoop her up. One hand under her knees, the other at her back. She's so much bigger than she was a year ago. She wraps her arms around my neck. The plastic nipple of the bottle is clamped between her teeth.
I maneuver her through the doors. Miriam pulls the covers aside for us. Max is at the wall, sleeping with his arms held straight up, like stalks. He grinned at me today. I remember exactly how it looked. Exactly.
I put Rachel down and she scoots over to Miriam. I get in next to her.
"Is a lion coming, Mommy?" she asks sleepily.
"No," Miriam says, her voice a little hoarse. "No lion."
Rachel reaches out one hand and sticks in down my sleeve. She drags her fingers across the hairs of my forearm, rubs her wrist against mine. Eventually she sleeps.
I turn my head to look at the clock.
"What time is it?" Miriam whispers.
"3:15," I say. An hour and five minutes to go. I sink back onto the bed. Through the bedroom window, the leaves of the trees are limned with silver.
She reaches across Rachel and lays her hand on my cheek. I kiss it. Miriam's eyes are bright with tears.
"We did a good job," she says.
"Yes," I say.
Outside, the light is getting brighter.
Copyright © 2004 Benjamin Rosenbaum
Originally published in Flytrap, November 2004.
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