Out of the Badlands: Part 12:
None of us got much sleep. The baby made sure of that. Later, by daylight, we had a better look at his face. There was still something odd about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. He didn’t seem to be nursing well, and Wanda didn’t seem to care. She let me put him in her arms, but she didn’t fuss over him the way I thought she should, and though he was obviously hungry, she didn’t know how to settle him to nurse. None of the rest of us did, either—by which I mean ‘me’, because there was no point asking Iggy, and Wanda had gone back to cringing from Faustus’s presence. I had a vague idea that even if he could survive on sheep’s milk, he needed the first milk only his mother could provide.
Wanda seemed impassive, disconnected. She knew the baby was hers, but she didn’t seem to care whether he lived or died. She even let Iggy take him from her arms and pull on his various limbs until drawn by the newborn’s shrieks, I intervened, storming into the room, sweeping the babe out of the older boy’s arms, and sending him fleeing outside to the sheep.
“Why did you do that?” I demanded of the girl, while the baby continued to squall as only newborns can.
“Something wrong with it,” she said dully.
“It’s not an it. He’s a baby. He’s yours. Take care of him.” I jostled the infant, trying to calm him, but he didn’t want me. He wanted food.
She brought the babe to her bare, swollen chest, and he turned his face and tried to latch on to his only source of food. She hissed in a breath and tried to push it away.
“You let that baby eat!” I took a threatening step toward her.
Her gaze shuttered. She tolerated the baby’s suckling, and I thought I heard little gulping swallows, so that was something. I stood there for a while, until she seemed to relax enough that I didn’t think she’d push him away again, and then I went out to try to put together a meal.
Faustus had brought in meat: today it was lizards, a snake, and a wallaby. It ought to be a very interesting meal, I thought as I started to clean them.
Wanda fed the baby, but that was all she was willing to do. I found myself playing the role of foster-mother, doing ‘kangaroo care’ to a baby whose face reminded me, somehow, of a kangaroo. Or a dog. Or a monkey. I couldn’t tell. I only can tell you that his face was more of a muzzle, more elongated than anyone could call normal. I had never spent much time around babies back when they’d been all around me, in grocery stores and in carrier packs and in strollers—why would I? They weren’t part of my life experience. Even so, I was pretty sure the baby was different. If I hadn’t known that humans can’t breed with other primate species and create mule offspring, the way some other species can—the various horse types, for instance, and dog types, and cat types—I’d have said his father was a baboon. The fact that there are no baboons in Australia also factored into my certainty. And yet—that was what he looked like.
It surprised me how quickly I came to love that face. He smelled good, like buttered popcorn. I missed popcorn. He had a faint downy covering of hair on his whole body, which Faustus called ‘lanugo’ as if he actually knew. Under duress, Wanda named him Bobby. I had a sneaking suspicion she was actually saying ‘babby’, but any name was better than none: Bobby he became.
When Bobby was about a week old, I woke in the morning after a night of repeatedly waking to take the screaming baby in and settle him with Wanda because she wouldn’t wake to tend him herself, to find both Wanda and Iggy gone. I searched and called with increasing alarm, while Bobby shrieked in my arms and tried to suckle at my breast through my clothes.
The commotion brought Faustus hustling across the dooryard. “What’s the matter?”
“They’re gone. Is Iggy out with the sheep?”
“No, he’s not. They’re penned up. I thought that was odd. He usually takes them out by himself, these days.”
“But Wanda’s gone too, and Bobby’s hungry!” That last didn’t really have to be said, since we were both almost having to shout over his cries of distress.
“I’ll go milk one of the sheep. Is there anything like a bottle around here?”
“There’s a sippy cup, will that do?”
“It may have to.” He turned and hurried back toward the sheep pen, and I jiggled Bobby, trying to soothe him with a fingertip in his mouth. It didn’t work for long, and my mind raced and reeled. Where were they? What had happened to them?
When Faustus returned with a little cup of rich, creamy milk a few frantic minutes later, I showed him where the sippy cup was, in the dusty cupboard with other dishes we rarely used. Bobby didn’t want to suck on the hard plastic nozzle, but after choking a few times on milk that trickled into his mouth, he kind of got the idea. Most of the milk went into him, anyway, and then he was quiet, somnolent against my shoulder.
Faustus stood by me the whole time, visibly preventing himself from helping as I wrestled with Bobby. Finally, when all was quiet, he said, “I wondered if this would happen.”
I blinked at him. “You did? Why?”
“It was obvious she didn’t want that baby. She didn’t want to feed him. If we hadn’t been here, or if we hadn’t taken them in and fed them, she’d probably have given birth in the bush, then walked away and left him to die.”
“But how could she do that? That’s awful.”
“Is it so bad? Look at his face, Tanya. I have a bad feeling he’s the future of humanity, if there is ever going to be a future. Look at him.”
I looked, and I saw it. Not human anymore. My throat tightened. I turned to look at Faustus’s familiar features and whispered, “Is this what the Terrible Day has done to us? What did they do?”
He shrugged. “Toxins. Radiation. Something else that causes genetic changes. Turn a gene off, turn another gene on. Beats me.”
“Could they do that? It sounds like something out of a fantasy novel.”
“I saw, years ago, where a scientist had made a chick embryo grow teeth and a long tail. The genes are there. All of them are there, going back to when our ancestors crawled out of the primordial soup and got a sun tan. They’re just…disabled.”
“Look, what do I know? We have to decide what we’re going to do. But I’ll tell you this up front: I’m not going to go search for Wanda and drag her back here. I’m certainly not going to go look for Iggy. If you want to keep that baby, we’ll do our best by him, but I don’t feel any obligation toward those other two. They came here by choice, and they left by choice.”
I couldn’t argue with him. I was suddenly and irrevocably an adoptive mother. The kids had survived, albeit not very well, before they had come to us. I supposed they would continue to survive. If nothing else, a least they had clothes and shoes now
“I’ll pull the lambs off that ewe with twins,” Faustus said. “They nibble grass now. She has more milk than the rest. As long as we keep milking her, she should keep up. I’ll give her a bit of the grain, too.”
I’d thought I was overwhelmed before. I’d had no idea.