by Jared Kubokawa
The girl sat on the edge of her bed reading while the baby lay in the crib on the other side of the room reaching and kicking at a mobile of paper football helmets. From just outside the threshold to the children’s room shadows of the man and woman moved and posed against the posters of animals and the girl’s drawings of colored birds the walls.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with the baby,” said the woman. “He won’t respond to my voice.”
“Course there is,” said the man. “It’s deaf, Diane. Deaf as some…well, famous person who’s deaf.”
“I don’t think that’s right.”
“Don’t you understand? He can’t hear a thing. We’ve gotta take it back—back to the agency. We’ve been duped. We’ve been had.”
The sound of their voices bounced against the walls of the children’s room. The girl looked up from a book and listened as she pushed her dark hair behind her ears. Through a small circular window, a snow squall could be seen blowing and accumulating on a birch tree just outside.
“Maybe we should get him to a doctor instead.”
“He’s gotta go, Diane.”
“You don’t just get to change your mind.”
“Sure, I do. The agency didn’t even tell us,” he said.
“You can’t take him back because he’s deaf. They don’t allow that. I don’t care what you say. I’m keeping this baby.” The woman’s shadow put her hands on her hips. “Vic, are you listening—”
“Course, I am. I’m not deaf.” The man’s shadow gestured towards the woman and then to himself. “I paid over ten-thousand dollars for it. He’ll have enough problems at school being Korean. You know this community is growing but…well, we should keep trying anyway.”
“Jenna hasn’t had any problems being Korean.”
“It’s different for boys, you don’t know what it’s like. I grew up here.”
“He’s not going back. And call him Roger. We named him after your—”
“I know what my father’s name is. And don’t call him that. It hasn’t been that long, you know, since he’s passed.”
Suddenly, the man stepped into the children’s room and looked at the baby. He began to pick white flecks of concrete off his muscled arms. “Jen, honey,” the man said to the girl without removing his eyes from the baby. “Why’re you still awake?”
“I was reading my book about birds,” said the girl.
“You’re a good little reader. Okay, off to bed now. Go. Go.”
The girl closed the book and walked on her tiptoes to the small bookshelf in the corner of the room; her pale-yellow nightgown touched the floor and she lifted it slightly at the knee. She brushed her hand across the strings of a small guitar that sat on a stand in the corner of the room. The man still did not remove his eyes from the baby. His jaw flexed, stretching a thin dark beard from side to side.
The girl walked over to the man, put her arms around his denim work jeans and stood with both feet on his steel-toed boots. He gently put his calloused fingers into her hair.
The girl looked up at the man with hazel eyes and blinked three times. He peered down at her and moved a thin black strand of hair from out of the corner of her mouth. “Why’re you and Momma yelling ‘bout Roger?”
“We’re not yelling.”
“He’s sick, Jenna. Real sick.”
“I won’t get sick.” She paused. “See, he’s in my room now and I’m not sick.” Grinning, she held out her arms for a moment, but her feet began to slip off his boots, and she quickly wrapped her arms back around the man’s legs, causing a bit of cement dust to billow into the air.
“I know you’re not, but he’s not that kind of sick.” The man took one big step forward towards the bed. He braced himself against the wall with one hand. His wedding band clicked against a paper drawing of something that looked like many dark-colored birds.
“What does Roger have?”
“Don’t call him that, Jen.”
“Can I call him Ma Man-Su? That’s his Korean name.”
“Sure, you can call him that.”
“He can call me Oh Gee-Sook.”
“That’s right, but you’re Jenna, too.”
“Does Ma Man-Su got a cold?”
“No, he’s got a bad disease. Now climb into bed. I’ll tuck you in and your mother will kiss you good night.”
The girl let go of the man’s leg and let herself fall onto the bed. She sat back and straightened her legs, twirling her ankles in small circles and adjusting the folds of the nightgown over her feet to create a taut little tent. The man pulled the comforter up to her waist, careful not to disturb her nightgown. He sat on the bed and they did not speak for a moment. The man looked at the girl then turned his head towards the window and watched the snow fall.
“Daddy, don’t take Roger away.”
“We’re gonna get you a new brother.”
“But I don’t want a new brother. I want Roger,” the girl said and stuck out her bottom lip.
“It’ll be okay, Jenna.” The man gave a tired smile and ran his fingers through her hair.
Just then, the woman came into the room and shuffled to the baby. She put her finger on the baby’s stomach and cooed. The baby responded to her touch by kicking his legs into the air and opening its mouth. The man rose from the bed and stood next to the woman—a full head taller than her. The girl leaned against the headboard and purposefully bounced the back of her head against it.
“See, look at this.” The man put his hands on either side of the baby’s head.
“Don’t do that. What are you doing?”
“Watch, it won’t respond.”
“No, stop that. Vic, no—”
The man snapped his fingers hard three times. “See? Nothing.” He snapped again and again but the baby did not respond.
“Leave him alone.” The woman lifted the baby out of the crib and held him next to her face. She took a small blanket from the crib and wrapped it around him, bouncing her chest up and down while she walked around the room, soothing the baby. The baby nuzzled his face and grisled into the woman’s neck.
“Bring him here, Momma,” said the girl.
“Don’t get too attached,” said the man. He looked at the woman and moved towards the doorway. “Good night, you two.”
“Good night, Daddy.”
The woman did not respond.
“You’ll be in soon, Di?” The man lifted his eyebrows and scratched at his beard. Outside, snow filled the birch tree cut out against the dark sky. “Come to bed, I’ll wait up.”
The woman pulled the blanket tighter around the baby and sat on the girl’s bed. She did not look at the man as he left the room.
“Why’s Roger sick, Momma? What’s he got?”
“We think he’s deaf, sweetie.”
“He can’t hear.”
“So, Daddy wants to take him back. Like where I came from, the adoption agency. Could he take me back?”
“Oh no, no, no. He wouldn’t. We’d never ever do that.”
“But Roger’s going back—”
“Your father’s just upset. Listen sweetie, do you want to hold the baby?”
“Okay, sit up more.”
The girl scooted backwards and moved her back straight against the headboard. She pulled the covers down to her knees and held out her arms.
“Now be careful and hold his head.”
“Okay, gimme him now. I’m ready.”
The woman kept her hand on the back of the baby’s head and handed him to the girl. “Careful, Jenna. Take his head. Are you sure you can do this?”
“I got him.”
The girl held the baby sideways in her arms, but the woman did not remove her hand from the back of the baby’s head. The baby looked up at the girl with black watery eyes. He made a little fist and the woman tucked her index finger inside the grip of his tiny fingers.
The woman sighed, “There, isn’t he nice?”
“He’s very nice. You’re a sweet baby. Baby Roger. I mean, Ma Man-Su. I have two names too, baby.”
“He can’t hear your voice, but he can feel it when you hold him. You can make sounds for him.” The woman and the girl stayed in that position and did not talk more except to make cooing sounds at the baby. Through the window the birch tree’s boughs were beginning to bend as the snow covered everything in a silent blanket.
“We’re gonna have to dig my car out tomorrow. Are you gonna help, Jen? I can’t be late for work again or something bad will happen. This lake effect snow never ends.”
“Even if Roger can’t hear, you can’t let Daddy take him back,” said the girl. “Promise me you won’t. There’s a girl at school who can’t hear and she uses her hands to talk. I could do that for Roger.”
“I know you could, sweetie. That’s very nice of you—”
“We don’t need to take him back. He’s from Korea like me. At the Korean camp they said it’s okay to have two cultures. I wore a hanbok. I have two names.”
“Don’t get worked up. No one’s going anywhere.” The woman switched her hands on the back of the baby’s head, but the baby started to fuss. “Look Jen, he’s agitated. Give him back to me.”
“No, I wanna keep him.”
“I know, but we can’t let him cry. Jenna, hand him to me.”
“No, I won’t. I want him. Promise me, promise me now.”
The baby’s cries grew louder. “Everything’s fine. He just needs his Momma.” The baby wriggled in the girl’s arms while turning his head from side to side. “Give him to me now.” The baby’s cries became frantic as his arms jerked up and down.
The woman took the baby from the girl. The girl began to cry and covered her eyes with the backs of her wrists. The baby was also crying in harsh cackles. The woman stood, rising from the bed to gently bounce the baby on her chest again. The man appeared in the doorway.
“What’s going on? You know what time I work in the morning.”
“We’re fine. Go back to bed,” said the woman. “You’re only making things worse.”
The man threw one hand in the air and held a towel around his waist with the other. “Just make it stop. I love kids, but both of them crying is just, well, I have to work.” He walked over to the girl and gently patted her arm, saying, “Jenna, stop crying, okay? Pull the covers up and lie down. I thought your mom was going to kiss you good night.”
The girl wiped her face and slunk down under the covers. A large portion of snow slipped and fell from one of the boughs of the birch tree.
“What’s going on? Talk to me Diane.”
“You just want to go to bed, so go,” the woman said but did not look at the man when she spoke.
“What do you hear if you’re deaf, Daddy?” asked the girl.
The man looked at the girl and said, “You can’t hear anything, that’s what deaf is.” His eyes went back to the woman walking in circles, soothing the baby. “What’re you saying to her? Are you saying we’re not taking him back?”
“I know what deaf is,” said the girl. “But you have to hear something.”
“No, honey, if someone is deaf, they can’t hear,” said the man. “That’s what it is. Totally silent.”
“But even when it’s quiet I can hear some things.”
“I know you can, but a deaf person hears nothing, nada, zilch.”
“That’s what I mean.” The girl laid down and covered her ears with her hands. “Like you said, they hear nothing.”
“Yes, they hear nothing,” said the man. “Talk to me Di, dammit.”
“So that’s what they hear,” said the girl loudly. “Nothing. Like when it’s totally silent I still hear something. And that’s nothing. Hearing the nothing.”
“Yeah, it’s a Paul Simon song. We used to play it a lot.” The man smiled and looked right at the girl. He held his towel with one hand and paused. Suddenly, he put his other hand in the air as if to gesture to a crowd. With a soft tenor he sang, “The sound of siiiilllencccce.”
Giggling, the girl removed her hands from her ears and sat up, “Yeah, that’s what I mean. Sing the rest, Daddy.”
“Hello darkness my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again,” he sang.
“Not now,” said the woman. “Another time.”
“People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening.”
“Vic, stop,” said the woman.
“Oh, so now you’re talking to me. What a great thing. Are you coming to bed?”
The man stood right next to the woman who held the baby at her chest. “I heard what you said. You can hear everything in this paper-mache house. You said it’s better than the old apartment, but it’s smaller and more expensive. You know, we’re just not equipped for something like this. Money and time. How can we give it what it needs? We can’t afford to send it to a special school or anything and we have Jenna to think of. A deaf child would drain our resources, and we’d have to learn sign language.”
“We could learn. Jenna wants to learn. We could do it as a family.”
“But I’ll need to work extra hours or get a second job.”
“We could sell the house and go back to the apartment. You said you wanted to.”
“I did say that,” the man sighed. “I mean, I guess we could. So, Jenna wants to learn sign language. But do you think we could handle it?”
“You’ve never backed down from a fight before. And your father never did either.”
“Please don’t talk about Dad.”
“I know, but he’s a part of this. I just know that big Roger would’ve wanted him—no matter what.”
“Well, I’m not my father.”
“But you didn’t want to adopt before either. Now we have Jenna and your relationship with her is amazing.
“She’s good stuff. A-okay. A real team player.”
“See, Jenna,” the woman said and turned towards the girl. “You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying right here with us.”
“Yes, she is.” The man paused. He rubbed his forehead with his thumb and forefinger. “It’s just so messed up. The only way we could get a boy was if something was wrong with it. That’s probably why the biological parents gave him up in the first place. I can’t believe the agency didn’t tell us. It’s not right. They tricked us, Di.” The man was looking out the window. “My dad wouldn’t have stood for that.”
“Is that the problem? You feel tricked? If I had him myself and he turned out to be deaf, would you feel I had tricked you? I know it’s not the same, but we have him now. Look, I’ve got you a baby boy right here,” the woman said and held the baby up to the man. The man turned his head towards the woman and the baby.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said. “Your father would’ve wanted that.”
“Maybe.” The man dropped his head. “Maybe.”
“What are you afraid of, Vic?”
“I’m just tired. Tired of it all.” He shook his head. How you wouldn’t go through with the artificial, how we’ve been trying to get a boy since before Jen, about my small urethra.”
“Don’t start that again, please.”
“I just don’t think I can do this.”
The woman moved next to the man, but his eyes were intent on the snow outside. “What if he was your blood?” she looked up at him. “Your biological child. What if he was deaf? Would you send him back?”
“Course not, but that isn’t the point,” he turned. “This is not my biological child. It’s—”
“He, Vic. Not, it. He, Roger. Little Roger is your child, your responsibility, our responsibility.” The woman held rage in her voice. “Maybe he’s not your blood, but he’s still your son.”
“We just don’t have the resources for a deaf child. I mean, it’s false advertising. Wouldn’t you take back a TV if—”
“But this isn’t a TV—he’s a child.”
“Yes, I know, I know,” he sighed again. “And I know his name.”
“Well, it’s not my job to convince you anymore.”
The man looked into the woman’s eyes but did not respond. The wind lashed against the window. The man looked at the girl. “Night Jen, love you.” He turned and walked out the room.
“Love you, Daddy!”
The woman let out a deep breath and began walking in circles, bouncing the baby up and down. She spoke to the girl, “it’s time for bed now, sweetie.”
“So, what about Roger? Is he going back?”
“No one’s going back.”
“But Daddy said—”
“Don’t listen to Daddy. Nothing is happening to Roger.”
“Okay, then sing it, Momma.”
“Please sing it, Daddy’s song.”
“Will you go to sleep if I do?”
“Okay, turn off the light, sweetie.”
“Jalja, Oh Gee-Sook. Love you.”
The lamp clicked off and the children’s room was dark except for sections of moonlight split by the birch tree. The girl hid her nose under the sheet and watched the woman walk around the room. The woman was humming the melody very deeply and holding the baby tight to her chest. Soon the girl’s eyes began to close. Once they did, the woman walked over to the crib and set the sleeping baby down. She kissed the baby on the forehead and stared at him for a long moment. The woman walked out of the room and around a corner out of sight.
. . .
The twilight was beginning now and the snow had stopped. The man crept into the children’s room wearing his work boots, jeans and a sweatshirt. He turned towards the baby. A number of blankets were piled in the corner and he began wrapping the baby around and around with each blanket—over and over—lifting him from the crib. The baby made a soft coughing noise.
Holding the baby, the man turned to look out the window and froze. Outside, pillars of light appeared on either side of the sun as it glinted through the snow-covered birch tree. A halo formed a circular rainbow of colors around the sun—shimmering with morning light. The man squinted against the light but he did not turn away. He reached up and placed his hand on the cold glass, leaving a palmprint of warmth.
“Daddy?” the girl said coming out of sleep. “What’re you—”
“Morning, Jen. I’m just…I’ve got to…change the baby. Go back to sleep. Everything’s fine. Don’t worry, I promise.”
But the girl seemed upset and couldn’t fall back asleep. She kicked at the covers. “Daddy!” the girl whined.
“Shhhh,” said the man. “Quiet, or you’ll wake the baby.”
The girl sat up and pushed against the back of the bed and began banging her head hard against the headboard.
The man set the baby down and ran to the girl. “Stop, Jenna.”
He lifted the girl up into his arms and stroked her head. After a minute the girl calmed down. The woman entered the room grimacing and rubbed her forehead with her knuckles. She caressed the top of the girl’s head for a moment. Just then the baby began crying in deep gasps from under the blankets. The woman moved quickly to the crib and began unwrapping the baby.
“Why is he—what’s Roger all covered up for?”
“I just…” stumbled the man.
“What are you trying to do, kill him?”
“I’m keeping him,” said the man.
“What? Why now?”
“I saw these halos of light, these what are they called…sun dogs…this morning and…I just wanted to play guitar with him, like I used to do with Dad. But he won’t be able to hear it.”
“Oh, Vic. I’ve heard you. I want to talk. After last night—”
“You know, Dad was so important to me, even if we didn’t show it.”
“He can still appreciate the guitar,” said the woman. “It doesn’t matter if he can’t hear the music. He will feel the vibrations. He will hear in his way.”
“Are you talking about Dad, or the baby?”
“Both, I guess,” said the woman. “Look, I don’t understand why you’ve changed your mind. Last night—”
“Around the sun, there was this halo of light because of the frost or something. It looked like a second sun. It was Dad. It was big Roger, telling me to keep little Roger. You’re right, it doesn’t matter if he can’t hear the music.”
“But Vic, nothing has changed, and last night you—”
“I know, but I don’t care what I said last night. I’m keeping him. We’re keeping him. We’re keeping the baby—baby Roger.”
The man kissed the top of the sleeping girl’s head and gently laid her back down on the bed. He walked out of the room and out of the house—the woman listened for the front door to close. When the baby was asleep, the woman set him into the crib and sat on the edge of the girl’s bed watching the children as they slept. The morning sky was awash with beams of light that came through the window and onto the walls of the children’s room.
“I’m keeping you. You’re not an it,” the woman whispered to the baby. “You are Ma Man-Su, and she is Oh Gee-Sook.” The woman paused and looked out the window at the man, “Last night, I heard the real you, Vic. Because you’ve seen a sign—you don’t just get to change your mind.”
Outside the window, the woman watched a small constellation of starlings land on the birch tree. Their bickering sent tiny avalanches tumbling onto the drifts below. She could see the man attempting to brush piles of snow off the windshield of his truck. He paused and gazed up at the children’s window while his breathing puffed in steamy clouds before dissipating into the morning air.