Lost and Found Babies
Mei-Lin (or May Lynn, the inexplicably anglicized version of her name on the traveling papers) was walking back to the village, the weight of the water sloshing around in the pails, pulling at her shoulders, when she first heard the sound. At first, she thought it was a bird. There were many strange birds in the jungle. Birds she had never seen in her life, with long, blood-red beaks and dark beady eyes. Some were impossibly small, little bee-sized birds, fluorescent and deadly. There was a bird that chirped like a lost lamb, another whose call sounded robotic, not of flesh and bone.
Setting down the pails, she paused, waiting for it again. A mosquito bit her calf and she obliterated it with her palm, wiping the bug’s guts on her shorts. And then she heard it again. This time, it was distinct and unmistakable. A baby’s cry. Slowly, she began to follow the noise, a distinct frequency that made her ears vibrate ever so slightly. Mei-Lin had been born with exceptional hearing, almost like that of a supernatural bat. It made up for her foggy vision, but not the burden of having worn impossibly thick glasses since she was an infant, well before she could crawl. As she neared the sound, there was an echo of the first baby’s cry. Louder and more urgent.
She began to sprint toward the cries, as she feared it was in danger–perhaps a wild beast had planned on eating it for dinner, or worse, was already gnawing off its arms and legs. Her mind easily went there, for this place still had a savageness to it. The village elders gave her the impression that everyone here was slightly mad. The suppressive heat, the impossible humidity, stripped people of civilities and made them careless. Mei-Lin made a mental note that besides working on getting clean drinking water pumped through the newly drilled well, she or one of the other volunteers needed to invent the battery-powered air conditioning unit so that cooler heads could prevail.
When she reached the edge of the jungle, she halted abruptly lest she fall head first and plunge to the rocks below. She gasped when she saw the hand. It was a smooth and pudgy little baby’s hand, clinging to the edge of the cliff. Mei-Lin leaned over and peered down. Sure enough, a naked baby–no, Mei-Lin squinted harder, a string of babies, maybe seven or eight in total, their arms and legs linked together in a chain–clung to the cliff. Their eyes were clenched shut, their mouths open wide.
Kneeling down by the first baby’s hand, she cooed to them, “Shhhh, shhhh, don’t be scared.”
A sudden force, like wind but more deliberate, bowled her over, flattening her body to the ground, knocking over the pails. The water pooled around her, and the cool mud clung to her hot skin like a pair of hands, holding her in place. She offered her hand. The baby looked afraid and shook his head no. Looking into his eyes, she thought she’d sing him a lullaby, something her mother used to sing to her in Taiwanese, but found that she couldn’t remember the words, so she hummed the melody. It seemed to soften the fear in his eyes, so she continued, slowly stretching her fingers toward his until she grazed his knuckles.
She was whispering now, as the babies had all gone silent. The first baby let her plow her hands under the mud ever so delicately, until she could grasp his forearms. “I’ve got you,” she mouthed. The baby seemed to understand, and his tiny fists released their grip on the earth and clung to her. Mei-Lin didn’t dare move, but chanced a quick glance down at the other babies. They all relaxed somewhat and each stuck a thumb or set of fingers into their mouths and begun sucking them. Seeing this, Mei-Lin felt a dull ache in her breasts thinking, the poor things must be hungry. But no milk came. Her eyes flooded over with tears and they spilled over the ledge. Tongues hanging out of their mouths, the babies lapped at the salty water eagerly. How strange, Mei-Lin thought, to be able to quench their thirst when she had been unable to do so for her own child.
It wasn’t as if the hospital nurses had been cruel. They had been particularly accomodating through the labor and the birth when they realized that Mei-Lin was alone. And none of them had looked at Mei-Lin’s small chest with any obvious judgment as they each tried repeatedly to smush the baby’s mouth onto Mei-Lin’s nipple. But seeing how the child had continued to squeal like he was in agony, one of the nurses had suggested that he needed to eat something. Mei-Lin felt that the implication was that she was starving the poor child out of her need to provide something that her body would not allow. Full of guilt, she reluctantly acquiesced and they plucked the babe out of her arms, replacing him with two cold plastic cups attached to tubes that were hooked into a medieval-looking milking machine.
The machine made an embarrassingly loud droning sound, like dying ducks. It was as if to broadcast to the world, now here is a mother who is defective; we must send her back to the repair shop and get her fixed straight away. The tiniest flame of rage sparked in Mei-Lin when the baby’s cries were quickly replaced with the eager sounds of suckling from the bottle. She looked down as her breasts were rhythmically sucked into oblong cones and spit out. She had been ambivalent about motherhood, but it had surprised her how humiliated she had felt at not being able to even feed a machine.
The sun seemed to be fading quickly as the cooler air of dusk descended. Mei-Lin’s back began to hurt. Numbness traveled up the length of her forearms and she panicked, thinking she’d loosened her grip; she could no longer feel her hands. But she saw the little fingers pressing into her skin and let out a breath, relieved. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been there, but she began to feel the heaviness of the babies. Parched, the insides of her mouth felt like they were lined with sandpaper. Her stomach growled so loudly, she was certain that it had come from a jungle creature behind her. When nothing tore her legs away, her body softened a bit and she began to dream of noodles and rice, pizza and fries. These starchy dishes all seemed so far removed from the jungle, where she’d eaten nothing but nuts, berries, leaves, and what looked to be twigs, but were actually–through rough translation–some type of high protein bug.
Wiggling and squirming on the babies’ part seemed to be tugging her closer to the overhang. She whistled sharply through her teeth. The babies looked up, curious and innocent. “Hey, hey, hey,” she warned. She peeked down at the bottommost baby, the one in the most imminent peril. He was the source of the movement. He had decided to climb up on the back of the baby in front of him and gotten stuck. Now, his one foot slung over her shoulder, the other dangled straight down. His hand gripped the silky fluff of hair at the crown of her head. Mei-Lin knew it didn’t look good.
“Hold on, I’m going to try and pull everyone up!” Her feet tried to find a solid place to plant themselves to get some traction, but they kept slipping behind her in the mud. She bent her elbows back, trying to imagine that her arms were made of long strong rope. The first baby began to slip and he screamed in horror, which set off the second baby, and so on down the line like dominoes. It was futile. Mei-Ling froze, but the screams didn’t stop; it was as if they were projected directly into her ear canal, and the noise rattled her resolve. “Shut up! Shut up, all of you! Can’t you see I’m trying my best?” A bead of sweat coursed its way down her face, hot like lava. It rolled down her neck, over her shoulder, down her arm, and onto the first baby’s hand. He wailed in pain as it left a red welt on his soft smooth skin.
When Mei-Lin looked down again, she saw the baby on the end let go, his tiny body drifting down into the darkness, hitting the rocks before blurring out of her sight. It sounded like a sack of wet clothes being beaten against a brick wall repeatedly. Mei-Lin watched in horror as the sound of the babies’ howling grew more panicked, reflecting her own fear and desperation. She dropped her forehead to the ground and closed her eyes, transporting herself to an empty space where nothing existed, as she often did in times of duress. And she thought, if I could only rest here a minute. I’m just so tired.
Late nights had been the worst. Mei-Lin’s mind had dulled exponentially from the lack of sleep after bringing the baby home. She often felt as if she was dreaming while awake. The repetition of walking back and forth in a single line, trying to soothe him while he shrieked endlessly, lulled her into a state of hypnosis. With each passing minute, she felt as if it had all been a big mistake, that there was no way she could handle another second of feeling so utterly inadequate. It was as if he knew her thoughts, and was demanding to be returned to the womb, where he had been safe, warm, and oblivious to this life.
She’d pass by the same pictures on the walls, photos of herself throughout childhood. Pudgy knees and deep dimples of infancy, a toothy smile and scraped knees of youth, awkward bangs and makeup of adolescence, and then the graduation cap and gown, her defiant, pursed lips, her eyes full of uncertainty. Being confronted with a visual timeline of her life as she paced the hall, she had been forced to notice that the pictures had stopped abruptly after she left home. An absence on the walls, equal to the silence she had exchanged with her mother without cause. Mei-Lin’s transition to adulthood had made them strangers. Or perhaps it was that she began to truly see her mother with all her faults and vulnerabilities; the realization that her mother was a person, just like her, created a hairline fracture in her foundation that left her uneasy.
Alone in her independence, she experimented freely with whatever came her way. Men were neither a necessity nor a distraction. She happened upon them as she would have happened upon a new way of wearing her hair. She didn’t have any illusions that he had loved her; rather, she had been reckless on purpose, letting her detachment dictate the direction her life would take. Still, she was struck with a pang of bewilderment when her period was late, as if she was being awakened from a lazy slumber. With nowhere else to go, she had turned to her mother for help, like a boomerang that always went back to where it came from. Begrudgingly, her mother had opened her door.
The night it happened, her mother was sleeping off a migraine, leaving her alone with the baby for the first time. Mei-Lin barely realized it when he stopped breathing because in her mind, he was still wailing, his hot breath reverberating in her ear. She didn’t see that his lips had begun to turn purple, his cheeks had become drained of their natural flush. It was only when she realized too late, that the screams found their way out of her throat. Her mother dashed out of her room in her nightgown, her glasses askew. She had pressed her ear to his tiny heart, but heard nothing.
It wasn’t the rainy season in the jungle, yet dark clouds drifted through the skies heavily. The babies were crying again now, and Mei-Lin felt increasingly unable to comfort them. The bottom two now were both clamoring over one another, and she pleaded with them to stay still. They were stubborn and would do no such thing, ending up twisted around a third baby, their crotches wrapped around either side of his head. Miraculously, the skies opened up, letting loose a sudden downpour. The sound of the rain made the babies need to pee, and so they did. Showering each other with urine and feces, it was no wonder the babies at the end of the line wanted to move up.
“Who put you here, little ones? Or did you wander out here by yourselves?” she pondered aloud. Pausing as if she expected them to speak back, the babies only looked back at her, a mixture of blankness and confusion in their eyes. She laughed at herself incredulously. The jungle did make everyone mad. It was true.
She felt the first baby’s hands slipping from the rain, so she held on tighter. Her hair fell into her eyes, but it was no matter. The rain pelted her face fiercely, blurring everything. When the knotted trio of babies all let go, she felt as if her insides had been emptied out and the sharp pain both startled and comforted her. Pain like that, she understood and carried with her, even to this remote and strange place.
Many years had passed before Mei-Lin even allowed herself to think about babies again. But life marched on resolutely, and the past seemed to fade alarmingly quickly into increasingly foggier images. When time aligned itself with her intentions, she met a guy who was nice enough and with whom she began deliberately building a future. He would hold doors open for others, say hello to strangers. His hands were soft and his eyes were clear and gentle. All in all, he was comforting and familiar, like a mug of warm cocoa. The pregnancy felt different this time, less of a question. She allowed herself to relax a little more, a small exhale that she hadn’t realized she had been holding in. Over the weeks, she imagined that when the baby’s kicks came, perhaps she would be able to delight in them this time.
She never got to that point again, though. The first time it happened, she was afraid. A blob of tissue, no bigger than the length of her thumb had slid out of her. It looked like it could be a baby gerbil, but that didn’t make any sense. There was no blood, but she knew. She felt a sharp and tiny twinge, as if something was releasing itself from her uterus. Gingerly, she took the fetus and wrapped it in a bed of saran wrap and then a shell of tin foil and stuck it in her fridge. She wanted to take it to the doctor, to make sure. He told her there was no need to come in, and that the bleeding would likely start soon. He was right. She felt silly about the thing in her fridge then, so she unwrapped it and flushed it down the toilet. That night, she drank two bottles of wine before reciting the doctor’s words verbatim to her boyfriend, taking him by surprise.
Subsequent times, she felt as if a cosmic trick was being played, and she was the punchline. Her boyfriend had told her that it didn’t matter, that they could stop trying, that she was enough. He even took the blame upon himself, but they both knew he didn’t really believe the words coming out of his mouth. She hadn’t told him anything of her past, so she couldn’t explain why she needed to rectify the loss. It always seemed like a bad time to bring it up.
To his credit, he’d try to touch her and give her comfort, but she’d pull back and away to a place he couldn’t reach. So like most weak-willed people torn to different places by loss, he gave up and left. And she let him. She was tired of the farce, of her belly swelling and growing, producing nothing. It was only when she heard the final creak of the front door shutting behind him, that she had been able to cry about it.
Mei-Lin’s breasts ached unbearably now, but her back and shoulders felt less and less strain as one by one, the babies let go. After the initial shock wore off, she began to recognize the inevitable, but something in her wouldn’t give up. The rain had gone away just as suddenly as it had appeared, like a mirage in the desert.
She had told her mother before she boarded the plane, that maybe she could do some good elsewhere in the world. Her mother lightheartedly agreed; all things, her daughter and herself especially, could do with a fresh start. A history of unspoken hurts passed between them in their brief hug goodbye. Both women knew that impossible as it was, maybe the trip would change Mei-Lin’s insides somehow. Maybe it would scramble and rearrange her molecules, putting everything in its rightful place, alter her and make her more amenable to carrying life. They clung to this idea as if it were the answer to everything.
“I’m sorry, you have to let go.”
Mei-Lin head whipped up in disbelief at the young man’s voice. No longer a baby–when did that happen? she thought to herself–he couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen, a faint shadow of a moustache on his lip.
“No,” she murmured, “I won’t.”
He looked at her then, with great empathy. And then one by one, finger by finger, he did it for her.
The milk gushed from her then, flowing over the cliff in a waterfall mixed with her snot and tears. She looked in vain for his outline, his shadow, but her eyes failed her yet again.
Back at the village, Mei-Lin stumbled forth, covered in muck, dropping the two full buckets at her feet with a heavy sigh. The villagers clamored to ladle the water into their cups. A cheer of approval rippled through the crowd. Any lingering mistrust in their eyes began to fade now that they saw the well worked. A little girl looked at her quizzically, as she gulped down the fresh water. Mei-Lin managed a weak smile at her, and the girl returned it. She filled her cup again, handing it to Mei-Lin this time.
As Mei-Lin drank, the cool water cleansed her mouth of the grit, soothing her throat and filling her belly. There was only thirst, only hunger, water, and relief. The little girl kept refilling her cup, and Mei-Lin could only think how absurd it all was, to drink the water that was supposed to be for the child. But she couldn’t stop. The girl’s skin was ruddy and smooth, possessing the glow of youth. She wore her hair pulled back like a dancer’s, her neck long and graceful. Mei-Lin leaned in so close, she could almost kiss her forehead. The girl cautiously and gently touched Mei-Lin’s freshly shaved head, rubbing it like a Buddha’s belly for luck.
It was then that Mei-Lin remembered the last line of the lullaby, that endless tune her mother had sang to her, her voice off-key but sweet and pure. Her mother, singing, lost in a reverie. She smelled like mothballs and incense, Tiger Balm and sour sweat. The rhythmic rocking and swaying, a fan buzzing in vain against the oppressive heat. Both their skins sticky, like they were glued to each other; Mei-Lin was a part of her and she was a part of Mei-Lin. They were inseparable in those days, best friends. A hum in Mei-Lin’s ear played like a refrain in her head now; the words took shape and formed, a memory recalled, like it had never been lost, “And then I will release you, and then I will release you.”
Elissa C. Huang received her M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she was awarded the John Golden Playwriting Prize and the Goldberg Prize in Playwriting. Her screenplay, “My Brother, John,” was in the top 6% (of 7,251 entries) for the Academy Nicholl Fellowships and advanced to the second rounds for the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab as well as the Austin Film Festival Screenplay & Television Competition (top 10% of 8,600 entries) in 2013. Her novella, “A Troubadour’s Tale and Other Sad Siren Songs,” was a short list finalist in the 2014 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and her short story, “West Nothing (and the Birds),” was a semi-finalist for the 2016 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. Her screenplay, “The Dragon and the Lotus: The Anna May Wong Story,” recently advanced to the second round for the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab 2017. She currently resides in Hoboken, NJ with her daughter.