It appeared in the middle of Sunday market, leveling a crate of lemons with a massive left foot. Its outstretched palm smashed a stand of encyclopedias. Its elbow quartered a map of the Red Sea. At its crown hung two torn linen tents, which swung from its forehead like a veil. Spoiled sweets and broken ceramics littered its clean white feet. Matter replaced matter. The townspeople scattered. Some argued that the baby had fallen from the sky, while some insisted it had risen from the earth. Possibly it had materialized from the air itself. No one had looked during the crucial moment.
It was clear from its first moment of thinghood that the baby asserted permanence on the desert colony. Minutes passed before any help arrived. The townspeople waited, squinting in the shade. West of the city gates, the sandy hills eroded unto each other, changing course with the wind. But the baby was immune to time or weather. It would never lose its reflective glare or the dumb protrusion of its thumbs. Its exterior, bone-white and gleaming, possessed the marbled austerity of a Greek god. No marks indicated an origin or material. Its monolithic size could hide a tugboat or a time machine. Speculating, the market people idled near the balconies and shop fronts until the bomb squad arrived to detonate it.
Engulfed in green ventilation suits, the team first poked the baby with a long stick. Its surface was reported to be hard and offered no residue. When the stick yielded no response, they approached in a group of three, each from a different angle. Lieutenant Sergeant Juds held a megaphone.
“WHY HAVE YOU COME HERE,” he said in a neutral voice. He took great care to emphasize his diction in case the baby was new to their language. The city waited. A desert bird circled the baby in sweeping oblongs.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT,” he asked, but again the baby was silent under the shop tents. Like a man walking on the moon, the Lieutenant drew closer. After an unreturned display of secret gestures, military codes, and peace offerings, he gave his crew the signal.
“WE ARE NOW GOING TO UNDRESS YOU,” he announced. The people on the balconies hid their faces with fright. The men in the suits set their jaws in hard lines. Raising two mechanical claws, the squad snatched the tents from the baby’s face. They fell like drop cloths from a painting.
A high, alien sound pervaded the city. It was the collective voices of the mothers. They were bickering over the baby. Maria Louisa climbed a turret and testified to the people assembled below that the baby was in fact her Dario, lost to bird flu last January. Her husband set up a phonograph next to the baby’s foot that played young Dario’s favorite piece of music in former life, Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” Henrietta Whitehurst, however, claimed that the baby was currently in her womb, and that it had erected a prenatal monument to announce its sacred arrival.
“Feel it,” she demanded, brandishing her midsection. “It is buzzing with the life-force.” A queue formed behind her, one palm after another.
Across the square, Maria Louisa had instructed her husband to fetch every existing photograph they had of young Dario, pre- and post-mortem. These were put behind glass for public viewing near the baby. The colonists looked from photograph to baby, scrutinizing the curve of the eyebrows and the broad, cherubic forehead. While they did not openly reject Maria’s theory, most allowed that the baby resembled someone else they knew. Helena Cleary said it looked just like her great-great grandfather Elhan, who had died in the Franco-Prussian War. Shania Tombigbee said it favored her own baby pictures. The mothers congregated in the square with locks of hair and daguerreotypes. They were beginning to form factions. Several exhibited violent aggressions with wooden spoons and hairpins. At the end of the first day the young chancellor appeared on the royal balcony to deliver an official statement:
“THE PERCEIVED MONUMENT IS NOT OF LIVING ORIGIN. IT APPEARS TO BE MADE OF A NON-HARMFUL MINERAL SUBSTANCE. WE ARE CURRENTLY WORKING WITH OUR CORRESPONDENTS ON THE MATTER. THAT IS ALL.”
A chill overtook the desert colony that night. The wind howled through the empty streets, ushering along milk bottles and pieces of ribbon. Entire dunes were leveled outside the city gates, only to emerge miles away. The desolation of the clean green city, its prepackaged presence in a desert the size of an ocean, settled on its inhabitants. They had come from overcrowded cities all over the world to form a modern community with no common history or religion. But pre-settlement traces had been recovered in domesticated locations. The long tooth of a mososaur disinterred from a cellar wall. A piece of yellow pottery in the shell of a new swimming pool. Three skulls and a spoon dug up in a vegetable garden. These artifacts were hurriedly stowed by their discoverers in attics and storage closets without interpretation.
The city was designed to look seven hundred years old but was constructed with modern technology in seven weeks. The architecture, people, and culture were all imported. The brochures told the immigrants that they would settle a new-found land, the last place on earth man had never been before. But things had appeared within the gates that existed beyond their interference. The artifacts, and now the baby, threatened the city’s intelligence. The land pushed up from the cobblestones, unknowable to the townspeople.
The intellectuals scoured their books for signs and symbols to explain the baby’s presence. A gang of university students identified the baby as Bambino after the Italian Renaissance on account of its broad forehead and mannish body. Its right hand was extended, as if the baby were poised at a lectern. An extremist or a god must have erected it. A religious monument had no license to teach anything to their new city, the students proclaimed in their moldy dugout. It could be teaching anything, and that was the problem.
“Religion enslaves!” shouted a bald man, bouncing up and down on a derelict sofa.
“Down with the cherub!” The committee yelled back.
They crept into the square after the last bar had closed. All of them wore black face masks. First they tried to push the baby on its side, but it was firmly affixed to the cobblestones. They took sledge hammers and hacked at the baby’s arms in the name of the Individual and the Mind. But the baby could have been made of solid diamond. Even the heftiest of the philosophy majors was unable to make a dent. As a last resort, a shy, nasally dropout pulled out a can of spray paint.
“You do it,” he told a girl whose face gave the impression of a hard, straight line.
When she reached for the can, the wind blew her hood from her neck, exposing the raised red welts. The students gasped. The effect of knotted scars on young pale skin. She was undergoing bodily scarification, like the punk models back in Europe. Everyone knew it was an ancient process, but like most things they adopted, the origin was unclear or forgotten. Now it meant ownership over beauty, over virginity, and the girl’s authority silenced her companions as she replaced her hood, leaving an alien feeling, as if they had been hushed by a mother. The students held the library ladder as she ascended on level with the baby’s head. The wind tunneled through the alleys and stirred the trash from the gutters, bright bits of aluminum animated like things charmed. Three quick strokes blacked out the baby’s eyes and made a stroke through the full lips. She stood back, admiring the vulgar transformation. Staring blindly back at them, the baby smiled.
The next morning, the art community gathered in the glass-fronted museum. Across the square, the baby’s 100-watt grin gleamed in the sun.
“I’m sensing an inorganic representation here,” snapped Dr. Bandicoot, a performance artist in a robe of solid white. He peeled an orange with murderous fingers.
“The body as a stage. The body as defacement. These are the themes,” he said. Fleshy chunks of fruit showed in his mouth. “The figure is a vessel for the essential unreality of the mind. It combines medieval imagery with the tensions of contemporary midlife subculture. To make a statement or not make a statement? We have no choice. The statement has been made. I say we leave it.” The Board wrote this down on their clipboards.
“That’s preposterous,” announced an egg-tempera painter wearing an iridescent helmet.
“This figure challenges the appropriation of metaphysical skeletons in a world of individual pursuit and shared experience. The subject matter of this piece capitalizes on the in-between spaces of our evolutionary timeline. Cognizant of the alchemy between sculpture and space, the figure asserts a powerful conception of purity and chastity in the never-ceasing flux of our postmodern continuum.” Throughout this speech, the painter’s chest began to heave. She was clearly having an asthma attack.
“As citizens of a newly-formed space, branding is a priority. We can afford to leave nothing up to nature,” she wheezed.
“So the only way to claim the figure is to deface it further,” Dr. Bandicoot said.
“To know something is to destroy it,” she gasped, as four unpaid interns lifted her by the limbs and carried her out of the door.
“But what about the smiley face?” asked a fat man with a monocle.
“How could you be so literal,” Bandicoot snapped. He took a cocktail from a tray and sipped it delicately. “The preexisting alteration to the figure only suggests that a more effective and stylized adjustment take place.” This statement inspired a collective grumbling from all who were assembled. After much simpering, massaging, name-dropping, and drinking, it was agreed that the students’ graffiti was not intentional enough.
“We need something representative. Something universal,” Bandicoot announced.
That afternoon, under the cover of an enormous black sheet, the artists installed upon the baby’s skull a headdress of the solar system with independently moving parts. A banner across its feet read, “Revolutions of Reason.” Red Jupiter twirled in the wind.
In the desert colony bottles of Pellegrino rained down from the sky. Three daily imports arrived at the helicopter hangar. Giant carp wrapped in butcher paper. Green olives and sashimi. Boxes and boxes of luxury underwear for the desert colonists. Gradually, the market people began to set up their tents around the Solar Baby. They sold organic toothpaste and apple butter, dream-catchers and kiwis. Women strolled by with bulldogs on velvet leashes. The colony’s main export was fashion. The click of a shutter closing behind a streetlamp materialized in the oily pages of foreign magazines. The Solar Baby appeared in brochures throughout the overcrowded metropolises to the east and west, symbolizing “Individualism, Spatial Freedom, and Free Tap Water on a Dying Planet.” Everyone abroad wanted a photograph of the Solar Baby. When the wind blew, its stars and comets shimmered. The show was even more splendid at night. Children brought bouquets of moonflowers to lay at the baby’s feet.
It was a good time to capitalize on tourism, for the world was running out of rain. The oceans were closing in, and the cities could hardly keep up with the growing need for housing. Old-timers were cashing in and flying out, hoping that they would be less likely to be caught by the heat wave if they were on the move. The desert colony boasted lush, new money, and an antique feel. Travel agencies toted posters with the Solar Baby front and center. The new installation garnered so much attention that the city officials decided to open their gates to sightseers for a specialized fee. A green carpet of AstroTurf led the way through the main street to the square, where it stopped at a cart entitled “INFO BOOTH.” For 8 euros a tourist could listen to an audio tour detailing the Solar Baby’s history, how it was drug up from the ancient riverbed, restored by an elite artist of cubism, and altered to represent man’s knowledge of the infinite. But the tourism scheme failed to amass revenue. The desert was isolated by miles of dunes. A yodel into the distance retrieved no hungry travellers. The Info Booth was repurposed into a gyro stand, and the colonists soon forgot their own accounts of the baby’s appearance. They had all heard the audio tour.
The young chancellor was finishing his 18-hole round at Legacy Trail just outside the city gates. He positioned his snakeskin cleats at the edge of the sand trap and squinted at the flagstick on the other side of the artificial lake. His collared shirt was slick with sun screen.
“Double bogey,” he murmured, taking a few practice strokes. He considered the desert hills to the east, nearly obscured by the green slopes of the course. The red pinprick of the flag. Back and forth to the sugary sand dirtying his new shoes. The more he focused on the flag, the more the dunes behind it lost their shape, contorting into lines that did not exist, an archway, a sphinx, the round dome of an newborn head.
He swung. With a dainty plunk the ball landed in the lake. The caddy hurried forward with a washcloth and a lemonade.
The chancellor turned away from the hills as he loaded his clubs onto the cart. The riverbed was dead. He had culled many artifacts and assembled them under glass in his private chamber. He made sure that nothing was left, back in the early days before his wealth, when the colony was a pipedream business plan and a flat, level plain. An infertile landscape cannot produce a baby, he had told the people from his balcony window. This is not a sign of the end times. But the chancellor sensed that the brand new baby was older than everyone in the colony, and would outlive them, too.
One day, two helicopters arrived instead of three. All afternoon the colonists waited in the hangar for their packages of chocolate-covered cashews and Italian leather sandals. They mailed angry letters to foreign service departments, but their mail was returned unopened. News services announced a shortage of gasoline, resulting in a spike in the cost of jet fuel. The colonists dug into their preserves of cellar vegetables. The water towers to the west emptied halfway, then lower, as the helicopters circuited less and less frequently. The colonists checked airfare back home, but found that their old cities had closed immigration due to overpopulation. Disconsolate, they rationed out macaroons and Asian pears on their dining room tables. A few families decided to strike out into the desert hills, but one look at the endless dunes made them turn back. For the first time, the colony began to feel the enormity of their isolation. They drew close to the city center as if for warmth.
The students set up tents in the city square. “FREE THE COLONISTS,” they wrote on plywood with black magic marker. “DE-POPULATE OR PERISH.” “SHARE THE GOODS.” But no one came to photograph them anymore. Only the most crowded areas received the most supplies. The image of the Solar Baby was forgotten by the media, who recorded scenes of devastation in Tokyo, Dubai, and San Francisco.
The artists made their own shrines to relieve anxiety. They busied themselves with meticulous projects. Dr. Bandicoot separated the sand by texture and color. The egg tempera painter constructed a hollow globe of the world with hair and fingernails. Neither of them noticed the disrepair of the Solar Baby installation, whose crown of the heavens drooped to one side, paint flaking in the wind. The baby itself remained blinding white. In a city falling to squalor, it was the only structure that did not degrade in beauty. It appeared more monolithic than ever, especially at night, when its fat, luminescent body towered over the tents of the students.
In their desperation, the colonist demanded that the baby reveal a sign of the holy or supernatural. Rosaries were made from teeth and broken china. People touched its knee or foot and whispered their darkest secrets. They began to bring the baby their best things. People brought it whole turkeys on hand-painted Christmas platters. They brought it mounted moose heads and antique rifles. When material finery lost its value, they brought it sick children and elderly people on four-poster beds.
The virgin daughters of the city began to question the possible advantages of their station. Drawing on Biblical sources, they gathered in damp basements to discuss the possibilities of immaculate conception. If the baby did not come from the desert, did not come from a god, and did not come from the hands of an artist, perhaps it came from a divine womb. When asked if she possessed a divine womb, all the adolescent girls raised their hands. With utmost secrecy, they made arrangements for their ascensions into heaven.
The scarified virgin waited among lit candles of eucalyptus and thyme, menstruating in a bathtub. Her limp hair, peroxide-dry, fanned out around her like shredded cellophane. To pass the time, she read a movie catalogue from America. She studied clavicles. She studied breasts. From her window she could see the baby, black spray paint peeking out from under the derelict planets, her touch, revealed. Saturn had fallen onto the cobblestones and shattered, revealing a wire skeleton. Venus hung heavy on its fishing line like an overripe fruit. The scarified virgin interrogated the Roman mural on her bathroom ceiling. Fat cherubs taunted man with lyres and wreaths of lilies. Fat cherubs unrolled scrolls. Outside, the baby lectured in a language translated to no living thing. How cheaply it all spoiled in the first assault of wind. First, the water began to quiver around her toes. Then it lashed at the walls of the tub. A crack rent through the back wall of the house as the desert tectonics trembled—she listened for the word of God, and heard only a baby crying.
Sara Kachelman is a Dakin Scholar for Creative Writing at the University of the South. Her work has been published by Pithead Chapel, Hobart, Capra Review, Liminoid Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently writing a thesis on the short fiction of Donald Barthelme. She is from St. Florian, Alabama.