I slipped out from under the sheets, careful not to wake my husband as I padded over to the open window to listen. When I again heard the thin wail of a baby riding on the whispers of wind, I wrapped myself in a faded housecoat and tiptoed out of the room and down the stairs, avoiding the creaky step, and treading as silently as possible as one could in a century-old farmhouse.
My heart thudded with anxiety, praying Matthew wouldn’t catch me this time. Still, I tried to convince myself he’d be delighted if I actually found one. Only when I was out of the backdoor and through the rusty gate of the leaf-covered yard did I venture to run.
The chill of the morning air and cold earth under my feet sent goose bumps down my arms. The Sun was just rising at the horizon, the sky a creeping ladder of magentas and neon oranges that matched the brilliance of the oak tree next to the house.
I followed the sound of the crying into the towering corn fields, wondering if it could be a human baby this time.
It was only a million-in-one defect, the salesman from the seed company had said, a shifty look in his eyes that I instantly distrusted. On the occasions that farmers did find hybrid creatures, half-plant and half-animal, dead among the crops they harvested, they were crushed to death or suffocated when the tractors reaped the genetically modified corn or soy.
It was rare to find one living.
“They aren’t technically human, so it’s all right to throw them out,” the salesman had said, flashing a quick smile. “But they’ll pay a lot of money for those hybrids on the black market in China. I hear they’re a delicacy. Taste just like chicken.” He glanced at our shabby barn and winked at us like we’d sell one of these infants to rich strangers who would eat them.
I wove through a tapestry of cornstalks, stopping and listening for the direction the choked sob came from. It sounded weaker. I picked up the hem of my nightgown and raced past colossal ears of corn on stalks twice as tall as what my grandparents had grown in the days when genetic engineering had begun. We’d created pumpkins the size of Cinderella’s coach using animal and bacteria cells, and engineered apples crossed with the genes of worms for added nutrition. With the aid of a protein coat from a virus, vines of peas and beans had been replaced with towering orchards, much like what I ran through now.
I lost myself deeper in the field, my promises to Matthew as distant as a dream. The burden of six years’ worth of disappointments—six years of doctors—lessened with each step I took. I felt like Jack running through a forest of beanstalks, escaping a giant phantom science had created. I pushed myself so hard that my breath came out as puffs in the bite of the morning air. My heart created a rhythm I forced my feet to keep up with.
My mind was elsewhere, straying to the past, thinking of the doctor who had diagnosed the cancer in my uterus. “It’s probably genetic,” he’d said.
My mother had died of cancer of the uterus, my grandmother of bladder cancer, and my sister was in recovery from cancer of the cervix. I told him my proof that they’d made an error. “But I’m adopted.” It hadn’t yet dawned on me that it could be environmental.
The doctor shook his head as if in disbelief. “What does your family do for a living? Anything that deals with chemicals? Hormones? Pesticides?”
It should have been no surprise when Matthew developed lung cancer despite never having smoked a cigarette in his life. We resided within a lush forest of crops, abundant with fecundity, while our own bodies were doomed to wither and die, poisoned by the pesticides in our own soil. I would not adopt a baby only to bring it into this wasteland and have it suffer the same fate.
But I couldn’t ignore a child being given to me either. And this corn baby was mine.
The choking gurgle of the baby brought me back to the present. A rustling up ahead signaled I was close. When that also died out, I wondered if I was too late. I leaned against a stalk, letting the thundering of my heart in my ears fade away so I could listen for the sounds of the hybrid child. My face was burning and my long hair clung to my neck in sweat-drenched clumps.
I placed my hand on a cob of corn wrapped in its husk. Feeling neither warmth nor movement, I continued past. I felt a larger one, the size of an infant, but nothing. The third one, almost too high to reach, was just as cool to the touch, but it quivered under my hand. Carefully, I stretched on my tiptoes to peel back corn silk and husk to reveal the coughing baby. Like a woman from a folktale blessed by a gift from fairies, I wondered what I’d done to deserve this.
Her hair was made of wavy little strands like the corn silk, only a few shades lighter than mine. Her skin was fairer than her hair, like that of the white corn we grew. Arms free from her swaddling of husks, she waved her fists into the air, letting forth a pathetic cry. She squirmed as I peeled back the husk further, trying to free her. Instead of smooth baby skin, my fingers encountered hard and bumpy pustules that blended into a lower body identical to an ear of corn. She had no lower legs or feet, only rows of kernels.
I yanked my hand back with a start. Without husk or hand to support her, she toppled back, snapping at the base below the ear and falling from the stalk. I lunged for her and caught her, hugging her to my chest as she weakly screeched. As I wrapped her in my housecoat, I could see what I hadn’t noticed before; half of her face was enveloped in rows of kernels, corn silk growing from between pieces. She had no eye on this side, and her mouth stretched into a half-formed slit.
My vision blurred as I gazed at the pathetic little creature. I made my way back to the farmhouse, shivering under the caress of wind against my sweat-soaked nightgown. Despite my discomfort, I determined to walk slowly as not to jostle my corn baby. I cooed and sang to her with all the love a mother might have for her newborn child. All the while, her cries grew weaker and her breathing more labored. I loosened her new swaddling, yet she continued to struggle for breath. I shook my head at my stupidity, loathing myself for not having foreseen what would happen. It had been the manner she’d broken free from the cornstalk. I shouldn’t have peeled it all off. I should have broken it further down. I should have brought out a pair of clippers or a bucket of water to put the stalk in. I should have…I didn’t know what I could have done that would have helped.
She was probably in pain and dying, and it was my fault. If only there was a good fairy who would come to my aid. But this wasn’t a fairytale so instead, I labored on, my arms aching under the weight of the infant as I trudged toward the house. I held her to my chest, sharing my warmth as well as any love I could give in the little time I would have with her.
Matthew was at the door to the backyard, already dressed and a mug of coffee in his hand. It was bright enough now to see the way he frowned at the little lump in my arms.
“You said you weren’t going to do this again, Susan.” He didn’t sound angry, just tired.
“I didn’t go hunting for a corn baby. I heard her calling to me.” I smoothed a finger over her cheek, the human side, soft and white just like my own child’s should have been.
He set down his coffee on a tree stump and reached for the shovel. “Is it dead yet?”
I peeled back the housecoat swaddling a little further, looking for signs of life. She wasn’t breathing and her eyelids were closed instead of scrunched up against the light. I couldn’t feel a heartbeat, but I wasn’t certain such a creature would have one to begin with. Tears burned in my eyes as Matthew wrapped an arm around me. He led me around the corner, calloused fingers warm against my chilled shoulder. We stopped at the square of earth around the corner of the house, the graveyard garden where we had buried the other hybrid babies I’d found; the half-formed broccoli piglet, the canine-looking soybean pod, and other stillborn fetuses that had never opened their eyes.
I held my corn baby more fiercely to my chest. Matthew began to dig.
I kept wishing something would grow from this little barren plot of earth, though nothing ever had. A seed of hope remained in my heart that I might find a baby alive and whole, whether a mistake of science or gift from fairies. Until then, I would continue to cherish the fleeting moments with these motherless babies who had no one else to love them.
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