Alice - age two


 by Eva Stern


            The first time it was merely a thought. 

            He had no choice but to change her soiled cloths.  That damn girl was supposed to take care of it. And now there was this - this situation.  It wasn't a man's job, damn it.  He'd never even been in the same room when she took care of the child.  He didn't have a clue where to begin.  The kitchen table?   Where would she store the cloths?  The child was screaming now, a sound he couldn't bear.  It was their job to keep such annoyances from him.  

            It occurred to him there was a closet where she kept the linens and such.  He could use the wash basin in his own room.  That would be the place to start.

            The toddler's screaming was now an exhausted whimper.  He entered the nursery, not aware of the creaking of the floorboards or the flickering candle as he created his own stir of wind. 

            Emma was standing, sleepy-eyed next to the crib, barely able to see baby Alice by the meager moonlight that had found a way to enter around the gaps in the window curtains.  Emma was bare-foot and shivering, a miniature in long flannel, trying to reach her arm between the bars to comfort - almost in tears herself. 

            Borden might have seen the frightened look in his seven-year-old’s face, were he not impervious to such observations. 

            An odor reached his nostrils quite suddenly and shocked him momentarily by its sweetness. It was a vaguely familiar smell but he couldn't place it.  He hadn't expected that.  It smelled nothing like the privy.  Or his own slop pot. 

            Not a man to waste his thoughts on such matters, he attempted to dismiss his reaction to the odor, but found himself unable.  The odor had shaken loose a memory, the scent of something cooking once, a taste in his mouth he never got to sample -- but perhaps he had, he couldn't know.  These thoughts were so fleeting, so unlike himself that they went through his mind without registration, without the orderly filing that was his custom.  He was left uncomfortably stirred, a slight fluttering of the pulse, a barely perceptible momentary speeding of his heart beat - all of it happening at a level of thought more dream state than conscious, sensations almost never indulged.

            "She wants to be cleaned, Father," his seven year-old stated, then said it again, in a voice both impatient and unsure.  He noticed only that the child was repeating herself, impervious still to her upturned eyes that were wide and timid as a doe's, but nonetheless tinted with the glow of determination in them. 

            "She's got the runs again.  It hurts her, Maggie says." 

            That was a new piece of information. He rolled it over in his mind, wondering how one knew such things.  He supposed it was what women taught each other, much as he knew how to calculate the value of merchandise offered in lieu of rent when a tenant couldn't pay.  Perhaps it was more like knowing about a broody hen, what methods would produce the most eggs. 

            Yes, he thought, it had to be like learning about nature and husbandry, scientific rules to yield the insect-free crop, the leanest meat, the highest yield in eggs.  A bit of trial-and-error.  No mystery there, after all. 

            But there was still the problem of what to do.  He had no experience with the creature in the crib.  He'd held her so seldom, and then only when she was wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes, smelling of powder and freshly washed linen, presented to him as a brief ceremonial package. No public affection required or permitted, merely puffed-up paternal pride.  See what I've produced, even if it is only a girl -- my offspring, nonetheless.  He'd barely seen either child, for that matter, and never before been alone with them, what with handling the daily businesses. Staying away was to be expected, in view of the extra ventures he'd begun. 

            A modulated surge of anger welled up at the inconvenience of his wife's absence, and that Maggie - that damn girl - was gone from the house. He cursed at the unlucky coincidence that called his wife to the bedside of her sick mother just on the one day a month  Maggie had been given her day off.

            He permitted himself this momentary emotion, then turned his mind again to the problem at hand.

            Perhaps the child had seen what Maggie does and might remember? 

            "Emma," he said in his crackly dry voice, pitched slightly higher than was his wont, due to a nervousness he barely ever felt.  "What does Maggie do here?"

*   *   *


            Emma looked up at her father, looming mountainously, holding the candle so far above that she could see him only as folds and shadows of dressing gown, not even his beard jutting out. 

            She pondered the meaning of this adult question, one she had never encountered before, always being the recipient of orders, never questions.  The concept of a grown-up person asking a real question - this was something she needed to savor in order to grasp its import, so that she could actually deliver the correct response, in case this rare encounter with Father should end badly.  He was such a huge presence. Never before had she been standing in the same room alone with him, without one of the women dividing the space between them.

            Unable to see his face and thus without an additional hint as to the meaning of his question, Emma took stock, as best her young mind was capable, of the information she had within her grasp.  Alice was now only whimpering, but her breathy sobs were rapidly threatening to mount into full-scale screaming again.  Emma could almost feel her sister’s distress rising like an untended pot of milk on the boil.

            It was clear that Alice had soiled herself and her bottom probably hurt.  Father asked what Maggie does here.  Emma crooked her head downward in thought, her eyes moving from side to side as she calculated the problem before her.  Father never had come into this room before -- so perhaps he really didn't know what Bridget does.  Perhaps Father doesn't actually see and know everything in the world.

            As rapidly as she could, she worked her thoughts around these revolutionary ideas, not quite sure whether the direction in which she was heading had any chance of being correct. 

            The problem was Alice.  That was clear. 

            Father had never been in this room before.  That too was fairly sure. 

            Now Father wanted to know what Maggie does - no, not does, in general, like cleaning and cooking and shopping, but does here, right here. 

            Yes, that's it! 

            Emma began to feel some surety now of what Father's strange question meant. 

            "Well," Emma said, cautiously at first, then getting stronger, as she heard no interruption.  "First, you have to unwrap the cloth." 

            She watched as Father placed the candle in her hand and bent over to pick up Alice. 

            "You can lay her on my bed." 

            There was a towel by her washstand that Emma remembered suddenly and hastened to place on the bed before Father put Alice down on it.  Alice was so light and small, the mattress springs did not protest in the least as they always did whenever she climbed on.

            "Now you unwrap this," she said, pointing to the stained cloth, not wanting to touch it herself.  She watched, with growing awareness of the moment, as her forbidding, mountainous father was reduced to picking off the smelly, sticky fabric, his fingers recoiling in protest, but forced to touch all this - this, messy - stuff.  Some part of her brain recognized how completely strange this moment was, and she tucked away the memory of this mighty being, brought low, to ponder, maybe even smile over, later -when all danger was past.  Her young brain was in command now, fully cognizant of what was required, and - and of what was at stake here. 

            She brought Father her own wash cloth, folded neatly over the washbasin, still damp from her own bedtime preparations. The candle she had placed carefully on the marble shelf gave her the light she needed to soak her cloth in the basin.  The ewer had been heavy and difficult to lift and pour, something Maggie had always done for her, but now a task she must do.  She managed it with grim pride, knowing instinctively that Father would not admire her achievement in this, but would be angry were she to fail. 

            Father took the damp washcloth from her, saying nothing. Now she could see his eyes, and she recognized that he needed her further instruction, sensing he could not bring himself to ask.  For a fraction of time she grasped -- without the words to express it - that his helplessness gave her a power over him.  But instantly this frightened her, for without anyone having actually told her, she had somehow learned that within her little universe, she, a child, especially a female child, could never be permitted power over a man.  There would be a fearsome price to pay for that moment were it ever to come to light, to recognition.  But she understood little of these complexities; these were inchoate, fleeting sensations rolling over her, lessons to be learned many times, with no language yet to express them, no encyclopedia of rules to follow - just warning signals for which she already had antennae on alert.


*   *   *


            Andrew Borden was oblivious to his daughter's worries.  His mind was focused, as in all he did, on the task at hand.  He had long since forgotten Emma's presence, no longer needed once the information had been given.  From here, logic took over. 

            There was cleaning to be done.  In the unwrapping of the cloth he would find the route to wrap the child up again.  His memory was superb.  Just as he knew the exact sum, down to the penny, owed by each of his tenants, the name of each family, so that he needed no notebook to record his incomes, he would remember exactly the order by which he unwrapped the infant and thus reverse the sequence.  Here was a task of banal simplicity.

            He had a fresh diaper cloth at the ready, placed next to Alice. That much Emma had provided for him, he acknowledged, approving – but didn’t say as much.  The diaper was clean and white and much softer than any of the fabrics he ever wore.  Not even his best shirt was this supple and soft to the touch.  He wondered if this was a necessary thing, or some example of the way women pampered their children.

            Once again he was assailed by an unexpected intrusion to his sensorium.  That not unpleasant smell again.  He picked up his infant by the legs, raising her bottom high in the air, and inspected the hardened yellow feces glued to her back, which had spread even above the waist.  Everything that had clung to Alice was stained, partially dried, partially moist.  Her skin, where he wiped, was bright red, and parts had little white spots.  There were two areas which looked almost bloody, as if they'd been scraped with sandpaper. 

            This could not be good, he thought -- not an acknowledgment of pain within his tiny daughter's body, but an awareness of a process which spoke of something not healthy, which if persisted would cause, if not disease, at the very least, damage to the skin.  This had to be dealt with.  He'd spent time with the cows.  He'd done his share of tending to their teats with that farmer's stuff they rubbed on when the blubbery masses became raw and inflamed.  This seemed to be a problem of similar dimensions. 

            He looked around the room.  On the chest of drawers, a marble-topped mahogany-carved Eastlake production his wife had made him purchase - not satisfied with the wooden pieces made in his own company - there sat exactly what he had in mind: a jar, filled, he had no doubt, with some lanolin emollient of similar properties to that he'd rubbed so long ago on old Bessie's teats.  He smiled inwardly at the connections, thinking this a humorous moment in an otherwise bleakly annoying day. 

            Once he'd cleared Alice's skin of all the matter, he set about to spread the emollient on the raw, inflamed flesh. She had stopped crying, and emitted a weak sound at each wipe of the cloth.  He rolled Alice over onto her belly and systematically covered her back and the soft round cheeks. 

            All at once, he paused, uncertain whether to penetrate between the child’s crack with his lanolin-covered finger. His finger was very long in comparison with the space to probe. He had cleaned that space with the cloth, but this was a different matter, not quite the same at all. 

            His mind didn't even want to consider the issue with inner words; he simply stopped at the point where he would have had to part the cheeks and make his finger penetrate.

            He turned his head toward the candle, still perched on the marble shelf of the chest.  He found himself wondering why he was looking in that direction.  Without moving his head, his eyes scanned the wall behind the candle, passing over the wallpaper of red flowers with green spidery leaves, and the multi-colored fairies darting between. Not registering the play of light, not perceiving the movement of the candle’s darting flame, unable to absorb the hypnotic beauty that fire can impress upon more receptive minds. 

            Lost for that brief time, Andrew Borden turned his head back to look at his hands, suddenly conscious of the weight he was still preventing from rolling off the bed, and realized he had to complete the job.  Now he noticed Emma, rubbing her eyes, swaying slightly as exhaustion pressed over her tiny body.  He saw that she had to go back to her bed and that he needed to finish up with Alice. He did not ponder where his thoughts had gone, having already forgotten his brief departure from the here and now, but set his mind once again to the task.

            Emma had to get back to bed.  The baby had to be oiled in front and back, then wrapped up tightly in the fresh diaper, one that would prevent her skin from further damage. Perhaps the softness was necessary due to the tenderness of baby’s skin.  Alice’s skin was very different from the cow’s teats he had touched, a very different kind of softness, special.  Very different.

            He dipped his finger into the jar of emollient once again, having turned Alice onto her back.  Now he used the tip of his finger to smear the lanolin over her chubby little mounds. 

            This time he actually noticed his own thoughts. 

            Even with his body casting a long shadow over the infant's body, he could suddenly see the roundness, the fullness of the little flesh, and it appeared to him to be the largest part of the infant, startling in its pink fullness and size, provocative, insistent, vulgar in its existence, rude, naked, obscene. 

            A softness he had never encountered before.

            He felt - without any premonition - a screaming urge to tear into this rounded swollen protuberance with his full open mouth while the pain in his groin swelled to a burst.



About the author:

Eva Stern was born in England 2 years before the end of WW2. Educated in a Catholic convent in London & Paris, then moved to America at age ten, leaving England the day Queen Elizabeth was crowned. Connected with her Jewish roots here. 

Studied Fashion Design at FIT; unhappy in that profession so she went to London to study acting.  Performed in two productions one in London, the other in Paris.



Studied acting at the Stella Adler Studio until she met my husband who encouraged her to further her education.  Graduated with a BA in Psychology (Marymount College), and an MA in Clinical Psychology (LIU).  Worked thirty plus years diagnosing children with Neuro-Psychological & Educational Disorders, in several hospitals & private practice.  Worked 24 years as the School Psychology Consultant at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY. When she retired, began a career in Real Estate.  Been writing since she was  14 year old. 

She has won two writing awards:  Writer’s Digest, 2nd prize nationwide essay.  Best English Student in the State of Connecticut, at high school graduation.



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