My son was a beautiful child, fat and round, soft and sweet smelling. He was always smiling and laughing. I would lift him to my face and kiss his full cheeks and blow on his belly, and he would squeal, clutching my hair with little dimpled fists. His hair fell in perfect golden swathes around that sweet face, framing large blue eyes. He was curious about everything, ever pointing, “That? That?”
He would hold my hand on the short walk from our door to the garden, and play in the yard while I worked. Even after he was weaned, he would lay in my arms and gaze up into my eyes while I rocked him to sleep. His father said I spoiled him, but always with a certain pride, for this was his son as well. He played roughly with other children even then, but boys were meant to be rough. Eventually he had few friends. His father said it was the others who couldn’t keep up with him, and there always were those few who clustered around him.
When my girl was born she was not like her brother. She was small and scrawny, and not a pretty baby. She screamed. The months seemed like years. If she was awake she was screaming.
“Do we have to keep her?” my son asked once, and I sympathized. I loved my girl. Of course I did. But she took so much. More than I felt I had to give, and she would never, ever be comforted by me. Their father left us alone most days, and sometimes into the night.
Sometimes I would leave her, wrapped in swaddling on the bed in a nest of blankets, and my son and I would go outside. I would take his hand, and we would walk into the meadow where we couldn’t hear the noise anymore. In those moments I would suck the fresh air into my lungs and take in the sounds of wind and birdsong and, further distant, the stream. My son would run, usually having grabbed up a stick within moments, and would lob the tops off of the tall grasses and wild flowers. I would stand and take in deep breaths while he ran in circles around me. Then I would sit, and sometimes lay down and stare up at the clouds rolling overhead. My little son would come beside me, and lay his head on my chest. I would stroke his hair while he pulled the petals off of flowers or the legs off of bugs. I didn’t care much what he did, so long as it was quiet, so blessedly quiet.
We would have to return. I would rouse myself, driven by guilt at my neglect of my girl, at my preference for my son, at my own selfishness to leave her there alone. Screaming. I would feel the weight return to my heart with every step back to the house, and fight my own tears when I could faintly hear the sound of her cries again. Or, if she was quiet, I would race back in a terror that somehow something had happened to her. That she had screamed herself blue, or spit up and choked, or somehow rolled free of her nest of blankets, or had been taken. Sometimes I felt a small, hard, ugly piece of me glow with hope at these thoughts. In those moments of fear, when I would find her sleeping, in the flood of relief and guilt that followed, sometimes mixed with the twinge of what I did not even acknowledge to myself was regret, I would see her for what she was; small, and helpless, and alone.
In time the screaming stopped. She started to walk and talk, though she did that rarely. It was as though the fire had been screamed out of her, and she was left dull and hollow, a dingy brown little wren next to her brother’s vibrant beauty. I ached for her, and also for myself, for I felt no affinity with her. She seemed so alien.