by Phillip Sterling

Hannah found the baby in January, on a day when the farm report predicted temperatures would not reach twenty degrees. She heard a mewing in the loft and wondered if one of the barn cats had gotten sick. The infant had been swaddled in a horse blanket and tucked between two bales of musty first-cutting, hay that had been such a disappointment she’d considered—briefly—buying second from someone else.

Fortunately, second cutting was better. Not to mention that she and Rob Parsons, whose hay fields butted her woodlot like baby goats, had been doing business for—what?—something like six seasons. Twice he’d gotten his firewood from her fall downs in the sugar bush. Come Christmas, he’d gifted her venison steaks and thick strips of jerky.

She’d thrown a bale into the feeder of the smaller paddock and let out the horses. The water trough was solid ice, too thick for the sledge, and she had no intention of injuring herself again.  She returned to the barn, unwound the extension cord for the heat-float, and was plugging it in when she heard the mew. The small muffled cry made her right breast clench sharply, as if she’d been pinched. (Later, she would wonder if she’d actually heard something, or if she’d simply sensed the tiny creature lodged mutely between bales.)

There was no sign of the girl she’d given a ride to a few days before: the young, flush-faced, pregnant girl, dressed in an oversized camo hoodie, baggy gray athletic pants ribbed with white, and hiking boots (no laces). The girl said exactly five words in the ten miles or so they’d ridden together. East, when Hannah asked where the girl was going; Here’s fine, when they’d reached the highway; Thank you, as she got out, thrusting the passenger door to its closed and secure position like a period at the end of a sentence.

Today the farm report was predicting that daytime temperatures would not reach twenty degrees.

Young, but not underage. The girl had looked old enough to manage on her own, and Hannah—from past experience—knew when to keep to herself. Busybodies cause more harm than good, her mother used to say. Be willing, but not pushy. She thought of it as on-call neighborly, a gene Hannah seemed to have gotten from her mother.

The baby was dark-faced, purple-ish even, with short white hairs where eyebrows would eventually grow. Packed as snugly as it was in the horse blanket, Hannah couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl. But it was breathing, at least.

In all the time that the baby was in Hannah’s possession, it did not cry.

Biblical, Hannah thought, as she extracted the infant from the horse blanket—somewhat clumsily, to be sure, careful to separate the inner swaddling from the clutchy wool without undue exposure—and snuggled it against the stained (and probably pungent) barn jacket she’d worn for years. Biblical, she’d summarize in the years to come when she’d recount the story of her finding a baby in the hayloft on a day when the farm report predicted temperatures would not reach twenty degrees. At the time, she was not thinking A Baby in a Manger, or even A Basket in the Reeds. She was not thinking Old Testament or New. She was thinking Miraculous. A baby that doesn’t cry. The Bible was full of such miracles.

She’d heard what she thought was mewing, perhaps one of the cats had gotten sick, as they more typically tended not to mew so much as meow. Feed me! Pay me some attention! But there were no cats in the hayloft that morning.

The horse blanket, in any case, was a good choice. Thick and warm. She’d purchased it in New Mexico, from a woman that for all practical purposes looked to be Native American. The price the woman was asking was ridiculous, too small for such craftwork—hand-woven, from the looks of it, in earthy shades of rust and brown and blue, jagged with ornamentation—as if a child’s drawing of trees and lightning. Had it been stolen? The blanket far surpassed in quality any of the other items the black-haired and fringe-jacketed woman was offering. Hannah paid more than the asking price. It became her favorite blanket.

She kept it in the tack room that Ben had cleaned out before he left. The girl must have found the blanket there.

When the baby stirred, Hannah unzipped and opened her horse-damp Carhartts and tucked the infant inside, against the softer, warmer flannel of her shirt. A sharp twitch cut through Hannah’s left breast. She took a deep breath, just to see if she still could.

So what does a person do with a baby she finds in a hayloft on a day when the farm report predicts the temperature would not reach twenty degrees? A baby Hannah didn’t any longer want. A baby she wasn’t about to keep, for goodness’ sake.

And where was its mother?

Hannah’s six-year relationship with Rob Parsons—if one could consider a neighborly business arrangement a “relationship”—was more than twice the length of time she’d known Ben. They’d met at a horse auction in New Mexico. He’d convinced her to buy the gray gelding that at that moment Hannah could hear in the paddock, picking through the hay in the feeder for the better bits, an occasional clang of nudging the metal frame. Kurky, she called him, whose registered name was: Albuquerque Sunrise (out of Midnight Office).

A good horse, despite the name. Ben could pick good horses. He had good horse sense. Though you wouldn’t have known to look at him, in his Aztec Computer baseball cap, the Converse shoes, the sports jacket and band-fan tee shirt, his light skin, freckles, and hair the color of sun-bleached horse shit. Who’d have guessed?

The girl wasn’t hitching yesterday—or the day before—but she was walking somewhat peremptorily along the right side of the road (in the road, to be precise), in a way that suggested she would not refuse an offer of a ride. It wasn’t the first time Hannah had picked up a stranger along that stretch of road. Parsons Road was the lesser traveled of two ways to get to the main highway from North Bank proper, and the more convenient one for Hannah, as it not only entered the city limits near the Farm and Garden but intersected the secondary road that led to her farm, a farm she’d passed without acknowledgement when she’d given the girl a ride. The highway was three miles beyond.

The girl had not been dressed for the cold. Especially considering her obvious pregnancy. But it was none of Hannah’s business. And it had been a day of warming, the calm before the chill, so to speak, temperatures in the low thirties. Still, Hannah had instinctively reached over and turned up the truck’s heat when the girl got in.

East, the girl said, when Hannah asked where she was going.

She occasionally used other names for Kurky as well (depending upon her mood): Kurkson, Kurkster, Kurkly, Kurkman, Kurkinator. They were playful, affectionate names.  Baby talk, she realized suddenly.

The barn cats were strays. Their names were practical and telling, interchangeable: Blacky, Sneakers, Butterscotch, One-Eye, Stub. They’d found their way to Hannah’s on their own, like most other strays. More strays than she could account for in the ten or so years she’d owned the meager farm, its odd attraction to an assortment of abandoned cats and dogs, sickly puppies, one black shearling, a litter of raccoons, the occasional possum, three men. Some had been more domesticated than others. Some were quick to heal and leave. Some had to be shown the door. Some died. Hannah didn’t think her farm was unusual in that respect. But then she’d never thought she’d  find a baby in the hayloft on a day when the temperature was unlikely to reach twenty degrees.

She no longer wanted a baby, now that Ben was gone. She was getting too old, for one thing. Besides, babies needed to be returned to their mothers. Wasn’t that the proper thing to do? Put the baby bird back into the nest? Even if it’s a cowbird fledgling? Isn’t that the Christian thing to do?

Biblical, she’d said aloud, as she warmed the small infant against her flannel shirt, held the baby tighter, pulled up her coat so the cold air wouldn’t penetrate, yet leaving a small opening at the top, so Hannah could still look down upon the child in her arms. What would Ben have thought, to see her like that? She imagined herself on the cover of a Christmas card.

A horse coughed—like a board plank dropped on a wooden floor. Then another, like a shot from a damp gun, followed by a rattled huff. Not Kurky, to be sure, not the Kurkster. But Twain, the gelding Hannah had acquired and broke back in the days when she sought refuge in horse-work, in the barn, as her house was crammed with Joseph and his books—classics mostly—the stray she’d come to learn was a failed academic, a hobo intelligentsia. Abandoned for good reason. Fortunately, it was short term. Unlike Twain’s cough, which was hereditary and chronic, most likely aggravated by the cold air.

Twain’s paper name was Minute-Won (out of Time-to-Kill).

The girl was maybe twenty, though it was difficult for Hannah to tell with the camo hood covering most of her face. She stared ahead the whole ten miles. Hannah might have tried a little conversation, had the girl not answered the question of Where? so abruptly, so deceptively. East. Better to just leave it be. The blower fan in the truck—on high—made it difficult to talk anyway. Hannah was surprised she even heard the small voice say Here’s fine as they approached the stop at Highway 20.

Had the girl asked, Hannah would have driven her farther. And perhaps the girl had known that, sensed that. Perhaps Hannah’s willingness to do what she could to make life bearable—her willingness to tolerate, to circumvent the mad vagaries of social interaction—was evident somehow, in her actions or demeanor, though she couldn’t believe that anyone could tell something like that in a fifteen minute car ride. Unless there was a smell to it. But perhaps the girl could tell, somehow, and that’s why she returned to Hannah’s barn during the night and left her baby in the hayloft.

The baby was helpless. Hannah knew helpless like an alcoholic knew the geniality of gin.

She didn’t want a baby, not any more. Babies were too fragile. They could be dropped on their small fragile heads. They were not like horses. And human babies—well, many newborns, come to think of it, all hairless and wrinkled and purple, storage-wrapped in caul—were ugly. No question about it. And needy. There was something about outright neediness that made Hannah recoil, something that numbed her more tolerable and helpful nature. Even the baby in her arms she could not call attractive. It’s skin was scabrous and flush (now), the purple-going-red. It’s small dried lips like snakeskin. But at least it wasn’t crying.

She had wanted Ben’s baby, once. Well, she had wanted Ben’s child, when it came down to it. She would have tolerated the baby stage. She had wanted another version of Ben, another chance, a certainty. But she’d lost it. And then she’d lost Ben.

There was no more room for strays at Meadowshine Farm. The girl rode silently where Ben rode. In the truck that might just as well have been Ben’s. He’d convinced her to buy it, when the Ford began to leak oil into its manifold. The truck was a good deal, and she’d be doing a friend of a friend a favor. Recently divorced, the owner could no longer afford the payments. But not to worry. The title was in the woman’s name alone, the asking price ridiculously low for what Hannah would be getting. And low mileage. The woman had only used the truck to haul her horses to shows.

A good truck, Hannah thought. A sturdy, capable, reliable truck. A truck for hauling horses, for loading hay. A truck for giving a ride to a young, silent pregnant girl going East. A truck with a good heater. A well-chosen truck—Ben’s truck, for all practical purposes. Ben knew trucks, for sure. Ben had good truck sense.

So what would Ben do?

What would anyone do? with a baby—a helpless newborn—found in the hayloft on a day when the farm report predicts that temperatures will not reach twenty degrees? What would its mother do?

Surely not leave it behind.

Cold, perhaps, but sunny. The snow beside the open door below her was brightening. She could distinguish in the thin light of the loft how much darker, greener the bales of second-cutting were from the first. The lousy first. But last spring had been difficult, to be sure, with the hateful rain and Ben’s leaving. She couldn’t blame him really. After losing the baby, she had neglected some things. She hadn’t paid attention to the weather. She couldn’t blame Rob Parsons, either. He’d made up for it with the second-cutting. When the baby shuddered, Hannah’s right breast felt as if she’d accidentally brushed against the fencer. It was a sharp poke and sting. Her nipple hardened, began to hurt. Impossible. It had been months since Ben left, weeks before that when her own pregnancy had terminated early. She couldn’t possibly be lactating.

Or could she?

And still the baby did not cry. That seemed unusual, even miraculous, though Hannah had no real experience with human babies, wouldn’t have known for sure. Nor how long the baby had even been there, in the hayloft, on a morning when the farm report forecast was for temperatures under twenty degrees.

Had she plugged in the heat-float already, or was just about to, when she’d heard the mew of a sick cat?

The girl’s hair was black, raven-like, from what Hannah could tell beneath the camo hoodie. What looked like a dark mane stuck out from the right side of the girl’s face, crossed her cheek, and, possibly, was stuck between the girl’s lips. It was hard to tell from the driver’s seat. But black for sure. Though there was no way to be sure if it was the girl’s actual color or a temporary punk.

Hannah raised the fleece swaddling from the baby’s head with one finger of her right hand. Peach fuzz, white blond. The underside of the swaddling in which the baby was wrapped was printed to look like autumn leaves, in browns and gray and green. Camouflage. Something Hannah had not noticed when she’d lifted the infant from the horse blanket and tucked it into her jacket.

A hay loft on a day when the farm report predicted the temperature would not reach twenty degrees was no place for a baby, a newborn. But there was no place in the cold house either. And how would she drive to town holding a baby? And where would she take it? The hospital? Her last trip to North Bank Medical Center had not turned out so well, the memory as fresh as a newly painted wall, as garish as a poorly chosen color of paint. Painful, even. Not something she wanted to relive.

Her breasts stung.

The infant in her arms twitched, shuddered. But did not cry. Did not mew. For all practical purposes, it seemed to be comfortable: warm and secure and loved.

Oh Ben, thought Hannah.

That’s a good one, he’d said, when the horse she now called Kurky was led into the sale ring. She had thought so too, though had been hemming between the gelding and a somewhat testy roan mare. You think? she’d said. I know, he’d said, and despite the fact that he didn’t look like someone who would know, she was compelled by his confidence, his self-assurance. She found him compelling and treated him to dinner, in appreciation [she said] for his expertise. They hauled Albuquerque Sun back to Michigan together.

The horse had been a good choice, bonding with Twain nearly from the moment he’d unloaded from the trailer. And with Ben, as well, whose way with animals was uncanny. Joseph’s complete opposite. A good choice.

He knew horses. He knew trucks. He knew farm work, the pleasure of chores. But the farm was small, the chores few. He putzed, grew restless. Days stretched into long silences punctuated by talk of New Mexico. Then Hannah was pregnant and the meadow again began to shine.

Biblical, she’d say, when recounting the story of the day she found a baby in the hayloft. A day that the farm report predicted wouldn’t reach twenty degrees. A day when motherhood came back to her like a pinched nerve.

And what happened to the baby? 

It was lost, she’d say. There was no reason for Ben to stay.

Placenta Abruptia, she’d been told, may occur following extreme trauma, such as an automobile accident. But Hannah had never been in an automobile accident that she could recall.

Hannah’s breasts began to leak. She reached beneath the swaddling and unbuttoned her flannel shirt. She turned the baby toward her and it began to suckle, like a newborn foal. Biblical. Miraculous. She’d been blessed.

When the baby seemed to be asleep, Hannah wrapped it again in the horse blanket, climbed down from the loft—somewhat clumsily, to be sure—secured the whole package beneath the seatbelt in the passenger side of the truck, and driven it to the hospital. The nurses took it from there. Nursed it in the nursery. She’d saved the baby’s life.

Or so she’d been told.

Amnesia, she’d been told, may occur in cases of extreme trauma.

And what happened to the baby? It died, she’d say. In her arms. There was nothing she could do. And she’d driven the poor thing to the hospital. Left it there. The garden too frozen to dig a proper hole on a day when the temperature was predicted to fall short of twenty degrees. The nurses would have known what to do.

Or so she was told.

And what happened to the baby?

Miracle of miracles! she’d say. I’d no sooner climbed down from the loft than I saw the dark haired girl I’d given a ride to waiting just outside the barn door, her arms outstretched and welcoming, a thin smile on her young lips—a smile of restitution, of deliverance—. I cuddled the baby into her arms. She thanked me, and, as suddenly, was gone. I never heard from her again.

And not once did the baby utter a cry.

Phillip Sterling is the author of In Which Brief Stories Are Told. His story “Registry” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2017.