THE FIRST TIME
Alice - age two
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
won two writing awards: Writer’s Digest, 2nd prize nationwide
essay. Best English Student in the State of Connecticut, at high