Top Of The Hour
The top of the hour is nine minutes from now. You straighten your back in your cracked wooden chair. You can’t feel your feet anymore, but you’re used to that by now. This has happened so many times before; you have the tricks to overcome this. Just like you have the strength to make it to the top of the hour once again.
The baby rests its head on your lap. Drool slips from the child’s lips and adds to the dark spot on your skirt. You jiggle your knees to get some blood flowing, but you stop when the baby stirs. Don’t wake the baby. This is against the rules.
A massive clock hangs directly across the room from you. The second hand stopped long ago, but you’ve become attuned to the position of the minute hand. The clock is nearly as wide across as you are tall. You know this because it was just a little too big for you to wrestle it from the wall. You tried doing that once. Only once. They heard you try, and you haven’t tried since.
You still have time. Nearly eight minutes now.
Blood seeps into your feet. You feel the painful prickle as your veins open up ever so slightly now. You twist your ankles and bare feet, breathing through the pain with as little sound as you can. The baby swings its arm up over its eyes but doesn’t wake. You need to be able to move soon.
There are others in the room with you. Maybe three other women sit around the room, though you cannot be sure. You do not speak to them, and they are spread all across the room. The rules are the same for you all, which makes the task more difficult. You each have to be so quiet, and you each have the same challenge to complete at the same time.
When you were little, you played games with your brothers. Daniel was so much older than you and Clay that he almost always pitted you against one another. One of you complained. The other whined. Daniel smacked you both, and soon enough, the two of you complied. You know what it’s like to be given orders. You know what it’s like when you don’t follow them.
Now, you do what you’re told, and you do not complain, and you do not whine.
You do not speak when they come into the room. You do not complain or whine, and you do not ask the question you’ve wanted to ask for so many weeks. You know it’s the same question for all of the women in the room.
When will this end?
Seven minutes left. You can’t see anyone else well, but you’re quite sure they’ve already moved the children. You alone have seven minutes to move the child and be in position to complete the task before the door opens again.
This child is heavy on your lap. Its clothes are impeccable—no tears or stains. In the first days, you imagined what their lives were like outside the door. Or rather, how their lives would be once they were old enough and no longer needed your services. In those first days, you misunderstood. You thought this was going to be a brief punishment. You believed your assignment would be one child for a few weeks until its mother was able to mother.
Now you have no space in your mind for such thoughts. You have six minutes left to move the child to its crib without waking it and then assume the position. You no longer wonder about the child and what it will do when it is done with you. You no longer wonder about much at all.
You gauge the pain in your feet by pressing them one at a time against the floorboards. The child sleeps, and you wedge your arms under its neck and knees. Your hips are too far back in the seat – you have to scoot yourself and the child to a point where you can stand up straight. Your skirts press and pull against you as you shift from hip to hip, moving to the edge of the creaky chair. The child’s belly rises and falls with sleeping breaths. You focus on this; you know better than to look at its face. You know better than to look at its eyes. They’re the eyes of a child that is not yours and will never be.
You watch its belly, and you push yourself to stand on aching feet.
You have five minutes.
The child rustles. It smacks its lips.
You halt, standing between the chair and the crib, still as the clock’s broken second hand.
The child settles, but you know better than to think it’s asleep.
You should not have let the child stay in your lap this long. You should have moved sooner.
You should have done your exercises and kept the blood flowing. You know better than this.
And now you have so little time before they come.
Yet you hug the child to your tired chest and lay it down on its side, as instructed. It reaches a tiny hand to its face and slaps at its nose and mouth. It settles.
Your bones creak, and your breath catches because, for a moment, you wonder whether the child will hear. But the child does not, and you straighten. You turn toward the clock and see you have one minute. You see the ghostly grays of the others around the room, finding their position. Now is the time to be ready.
The first days were meaner than the days are now. Your instructions were clear and simple, and you understood this was your punishment. Your son was old enough now to be cared for by your parents. He was a toddler, running and laughing, playing with the other children in the courtyard. You said your final goodbye to him with a kiss on his head as he tumbled away from you, fat fingers tickling at grass by the hem of your mother’s skirt. She watched with arms crossed as they stowed you away. She said nothing.
To have your son by a man who was not appointed to you was one of the worst crimes someone like you could commit.
The squeak of a cry came from someone else’s crib. You hear a collective gasp. You shoot your eyes toward your crib and see no movement. But this is bad for all of you. When one cries, they could all cry. And if that happens, if they come to the door and hear the children awake, you fail.
You’ve never been punished, at least not yet. You’ve never failed. There have been a few times where your assigned baby had colic or a cold. You remember the second – or maybe the third? – child assigned to you who refused your milk. It was a girl. It was tiny, sickly, pale. You could tell this was a child who would struggle later. Once it left you. This child snuffled and twisted its blueish lips around your bloody nipples, latching for moments at a time. You cried a lot in those first days, especially with this child. But in those days, you had a hope in you that gave you purpose and ease. You always found a way to rock the child or hum at just the right pitch. Even when your voice caught in pain as baby teeth or gums yanked on your flesh. You were always successful at nursing and getting your assigned child to sleep. Three times a day – morning, afternoon, and night. You try to lose count of your assignments. You estimate you’re on your sixth or seventh now. You’ve never failed at getting them to sleep, but you’ve seen others who have. They left at the top of the hour. You never saw them again.
The child in the other crib cries and bats its little hands against the sidebars. You hear in her breath the panic rise from the assigned wet nurse. You can’t see for sure, but you know that she won’t turn back toward the crib. All is lost for her now; there is no time to comfort the child and be in position when the door opens at the top of the hour. You hope the child – only a few weeks old, by the sound of its cries – is quiet enough not to wake the others.
You stand on your hurting feet erect before the crib. You see, the minute hand lifts to 12. They will open the door. They are never late.
Light slams through the room as the door swings open. Four women tumble in. You watch as one of them reaches in for the crying baby and snuggles it into her arms. The woman hugs the child to her chest. She strokes the baby’s head, settling the child. The woman rocks side to side, cooing and shushing the baby.
The child’s assigned wet nurse – the one who failed and who nearly failed the whole room in turn – starts to cry herself. It’s a sniffling shudder. You see the woman who holds the baby now shake her head at the wet nurse. The nurse crumples. She wraps her hands around her own neck. The mother with her child hurries the nurse out of the room, now afraid the grown woman’s cries will wake the other children.
Now the other three mothers approach the rest of the cribs. The mother of your assignment does not look you in the eye. She never does. You prefer this to the effusive mothers that you’ve had in the past. The way they rushed to take the child from the crib where you so diligently worked to lay it to sleep, as though you were not a reminder of her failure to provide for the child a breast or a place to sleep.
And so, this mother bends to pick up your assigned child. She wriggles it into her arms, and now it is a child with promise and character and identity, perhaps even a name. The child’s eyes open, but only for a moment before the mother flees the haunted room.
The remaining wet nurses shiver along with you when the door closes, and the cold room once again swallows the sunlight. The top of the hour has come and gone. You watch the minute hand. You did not fail your task. You fed the baby. You did get the baby to nap in its crib. The baby slept. You ate the recommended foods and the correct amount of water to keep up your supply.
You did not learn its name. You did not meet its mother. You did not speak to her or to anyone else.
You did not confuse the child with yours. You no longer contemplate your son at home. You are forgetting what it’s like to be a mother.
You have performed well.
Photo by Dejan Krsmanovic via Flickr