I remember the day she came to me like it was yesterday. I was sniffing the milk in the fridge when I looked up and saw her standing in the doorway with her big grey dog. She walked over to me quietly, reached upwards with her small hands, pulled down the carton, and peered inside. She handed it back to me.
“Why are you sniffing?” she asked. “They’re lumps.”
I still cannot fathom where she came from except to say she came from the day itself. It had been grey and raining, but the kind of grey that was almost white, and a rain that was sharp and cold and straight, and didn’t take up more room than itself. I can remember because I had been wearing a trench coat, a long black one, and tough leather boots, in a way that was practical, but intentionally spoke to the past, in which I knew I was faking possessing some knowledge I clearly did not.
I had walked through the rain that morning, wishing for a hood, sat through a lecture in a sweater that had stayed dry, and walked back to the apartment of which the rent money was not entirely my own, threw down my bag, and paused to drip in front of the fridge and think about nothing: because papers needed grading, and philosophy was hard, and I would be kind, although part of me knew this was ultimately a betrayal. So I stood, and dripped, and eventually opened the fridge and pulled out the milk in an attempt to make some onward motion.
Upon seeing her, part of me knew I was looking at something that was at once a part of me, yet impossibly. And as she reached up with her small fingers to take the carton, I saw a beautiful girlhood version of myself: an idealized mystical twin—the dark fairytale princess of myself, as a child: perhaps the version a highly aesthetically powered god would have drawn up as an illustration of the most beautiful child part of myself. She contained more knowledge of whatever reality from which she came than possible for any human child, and in this way, she was the physicalization of an ultimate subjective truth.
She blinked up at me. Her skin was white, her eyes, black—the exact shade as her hair, cut in the same bob I had worn at age five. She even sported the same beret I had worn daily. But she was not me—could not have been me. Her hair was too smooth, a complexion unearthly universal, and her eyes, lacking an iris, shone gorgeously full—all human eyes were stitched together in comparison.
The dog trotted forward, his paws clicking on the uneven wooden floor, and sat at my feet. A giant grey mastiff, or maybe something closer to a wolf, it was something from the moors, or the woods, or possibly both. From somewhere I had never seen. Its pink tongue hung out of its mouth—something I could recognize.
The little girl quietly took the milk container, folded it back, and placed in the fridge. She looked up at me with her black, marble eyes.
“I know you don’t know who I am, but I’m your daughter.”
At this I immediately reached down and took her tiny hand in my own. It was soft, but cold. She smiled a little and drew closer.
“I’m happy you’re so beautiful,” she said, and at this, her eyes began to brim with tears. The dog let out a sound halfway between a howl and a moan. “I love you very much” she said, and wrapped her arms around me.
As she held me in her embrace I could hear the rain falling on the roof and hear cars rushing by on the damp street outside, and although I knew nothing was real, I held her because she was my child, and yet, absolutely not. I could not help loving such a beautiful thing. She let go and stared up at me. “I know I’m probably very confusing for you, and I’m sorry about that,” she said. I had nothing to say to this, which she knew. “Would you like to go on a walk?” she asked. I nodded.
The rain had stopped but the sky was still grey and the air had turned cold. It was the kind of post rain that makes everything feel like it’s rising. The girl walked a few paces in front of me, resting the palm of her hand on the dog’s swaying back, who panted at her side. I followed the two a few steps behind, glancing back and forth between her and the passers by on the sidewalk.
For the most part they seemed to ignore her presence. They walked by her, as opposed to through her, treating her more as if she were a fire hydrant than a mystical fairy. She walked with confidence and interest, and although she stopped to look both ways before crossing the street, I had the distinct feeling it was more out of curiosity for what lay at either end of her field of vision, (which, for all I knew, was infinite) than to avoid actually being hit by a moving vehicle. I spent most of this walk in the strangest state of anxiety, until at one point she turned around, and upon perceiving my discomfort, gave me a smile of perfect little pearls that melted my entire heart and soul and elicited a burst of golden love that obliterated everything but my own love for her. My child. My sort-of child.
Soon we came upon a park, at which point the dog left the little girl’s side and bounded into the wet grass. The little girl bent down and threw a stick. He chased after it.
“Who is that?” I asked. It seemed the most appropriate question to ask, somehow.
“That’s Tia,” she said. “He’s my wonder pet.”
“Oh,” I said, as if I had understood, and stared down at the ground, digging the tip of my boot into the mud. I looked up as the dog bounded towards us. Somehow I couldn’t shake the impression that he was smiling. Instead of walking over to the girl, he approached me, his four limbs striding with perfect elegance, and gently placed the stick at my feet. I bent down and threw it as far as I could. He flashed a smile before running after it.
“I rode him here,” she said. “He makes it faster to go places.”
“You rode him?”
“Yes. On his back.”
It suddenly occurred to me that the sizing wouldn’t have been unreasonable.
She took my hand and leaned against my leg, her small forehead resting against my waist, and I suddenly felt as if someone had slapped me across the face—it was as if part of my being was rushing towards her.
“You had a beautiful great grandmother as well,” she said.
“Perhaps I did,” I said. “I never met her.”
“She was much more golden and silver though,” she continued to muse. “Less like the earth.” She looked up at me. “Less like you.”
“Is lineage really so important?” I asked.
“Yes and no,” she said. “It’s important for certain things—pieces of things.” She stared out across the bay that abutted the far end of the park. Again, I could not tell whether or not her vision stopped, or continued infinitely. “But they’re often the strongest.”
I suddenly felt a strange fiery heat well inside me—a burning to blurt out and ask who had made her. But I swallowed it like hot bile. Somehow knew it would scorch her—precisely how, I could not say. For I feared that with her, words were actions, and actions words, and I held my tongue, tiptoeing around her, for fear of creating a chemical reaction of expressed thought that would disintegrate her. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t let that happen. In that moment, all I could do was cling to her for dear life.
Tia bounded towards us.
“Can we get Tia some coffee?” the little girl asked. I blinked. She blinked back at me.
“Is Starbucks okay?” I asked. She nodded.
“He isn’t picky.”
As the three of us left the park we came upon a mother in yoga pants talking on a cellphone. She sat on a damp wooden bench, pushing a pink and purple baby stroller back and forth in front of her. I stopped and stared at the mother for no apparent reason, other than perhaps that she was so much unlike me in being blond and athletic sneakered, yet so much like me in being frazzled and tired and youngish. Together the little girl and the dog stopped and stared with me, and for some reason I didn’t mind. It felt like a bigger version of myself was staring at the mother on the bench, rather than the strange consortium of a wolf-like dog, a black-haired nymph, and a trench-coated graduate student. The mother ignored us and became more absorbed in her conversation, ceasing to push the stroller. I continued to stare, transfixed by the intricate machine that composed mother and child. I didn’t even notice as the little girl silently approached the stroller.
I watched, perceiving although perhaps not fully acknowledging, the little girl reach her arms underneath the human baby and pick her up, and cradle her slowly upwards in her arms. The mother remained unfazed, ignoring the little girl entirely. The little girl walked towards me, holding the baby in her arms. It was dressed in all white, as if it had come straight from its christening, which made its skin appear especially red and orange in contrast. Its eyes glistened, like glass over an infinitely blue sky, and it suddenly occurred to me that the baby was the most organic thing I had ever seen. Nothing had even been so fresh and clean and raw. And it repulsed me—like eating only frosting and no cake.
The baby gurgled and kicked its feet as the little girl looked down at her in the strangest of role reversals: a porcelain doll holding a child, instead of a child holding a porcelain doll. She smiled down at the baby and extended it towards me.
“Why are you so scared?” she asked. “You’re clearly going to have a child.”
But how could I tell her? How could I tell her that she was my child without a father? That her father had never existed. That he would never exist. That he was noting.
I took the baby in my arms. “Let’s go,” she said, and with that, the four of us walked on, past the mother on the bench who continued to push the now empty stroller. As the baby gurgled and cooed in my arms, I couldn’t help but feel that I was holding a maggot.
Starbucks was crowded and everyone knew I had stolen the baby. She was in a white christening gown and I was covered in mud. She was round and fleshy and alive and I was pale and bony and dead—in need of coffee. She was in need of nothing—whatever she was sustaining off of, it wasn’t material. Furthermore, she was blond. She was too young to have a lot in the way of hair, but she as very evidently blond. And my child could never, ever, be blond. The bright blue eyes didn’t help much either. I kept my own downcast, hoping to make the distinction less noticeable. I desperately wanted nothing more than to take the hand of my little nymph, who still remained at my side—to feel her hand in my own, to feel that burst of golden love—to stroke her shiny black hair and kiss the top of her head. But I couldn’t. I was holding a baby.
When we got to the front of the line, I wasn’t sure what to do with the baby, so I just put her on the counter. I ordered a Grande iced coffee for myself, and a Venti vanilla latte for Tia. The girl had said he wasn’t picky, and the mental image of him drinking the latte was so enduring, I couldn’t help but order it. I paid and picked up the baby, who had been resting her back against the gift card display on the counter, and walked over to the waiting area. Tia and the girl followed.
I kept my eyes downcast as we waited, again attempting to make the stolen nature of the baby somewhat less obvious, but inevitably I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“How old is she?” asked a woman with a canvas bag.
“I don’t know,” I said, completely honestly. The woman nodded knowingly.
“Well, she’s very beautiful.” I nodded mechanically. “You’re very lucky to have such a beautiful child.” I looked down at the smiling, twinkling baby. Part of me wished she would cry, but I knew she wouldn’t.
“She takes after her daughter…I mean father,” I corrected myself quickly. The woman smiled.
“Mine was the same way.” I saw our drinks slide out onto the counter. I grabbed them, and, deciding to make use of Tia as a cup holder, placed them on his back. I nodded curtly to the woman, and walked quickly out of the coffee shop with my head down, pausing only to hold the door for the little girl and the dog, who trotted out amiably, balancing the two cups on his back, smiling.
We stopped at a bench a few blocks away and sat down. I took the lid off the latte and placed it on the ground for Tia. He used both his front paws to hold it steady while he ravenously licked down the foam. I turned to look at the little girl who sat next to me. She watched the faces of passersby with the utmost curiosity and loving tenderness that it nearly stopped my breathing. She turned to me and smiled.
“Who is my father?” she asked.
And I thought. And I tried. I tried to think of who he was, but instead all I could think of was my pathetic human materiality. I sighed, looking down at the cooing baby in my lap.
“I don’t know,” I said. The little girl returned to studying the faces of passersby, now with an expression of deep thought and concentration.
“But you have to know,” she said. I shook my head.
“I don’t, and I can’t.”
“But I came all the way here to ask you,” she said, getting upset. “You have to know—you’re the only person who can know.” Her voice broke and I turned to see her lips beginning to quiver. She was silent for a few moments. Then, very quietly, she said. “I thought you were supposed to love me.”
Tears were rolling down her cheeks and she made no effort to brush them away. A bus sped by, blowing her hair off her forehead, and I watched as it slowly fell perfectly back into place. I suddenly felt Tia’s warm snout on my knee. He looked up at me pitifully. I clutched the baby to my chest, looking straight ahead, and took a deep breath. I got up, still holding the baby, and stood in front of the bench, looking at the beautiful little girl. She looked at me with love and hope—imploring me to do: something. Nothing.
I took a few steps towards her, placed the cooing baby in her lap, bent over, and kissed the top of her fairy-princess head. Then I straightened my spine, and walked away.
Alison McCarthy is a junior at Brown University, where she studies Philosophy and Creative Writing.