Straw

He left the baby in a clay basket tucked just under the overhang of the roof. A tuft of straw drifted down and she stirred sleepily before clenching it tightly in her fist and settling back under her blanket, which he tucked around her to make sure she’d stay warm long enough for one of Them to find her. He’d heard stories about what happened there, but no one really knew. Somehow it seemed important that she be flushed with life when the door creaked open after he rang the bell and withdrew.

The creatures, or maybe people, or possibly things, that lived inside were never seen in the city, or if they were, no one realised it. Some people said they were an elite guard, or maybe spies, or perhaps just servants who worked deep in the palace, in the secret places where no one was allowed to go without an escort. Others said they raised merchants and farmers, sent children out to work as apprentices and gave them new lives, as part of some strange religious order. Some said, darkly, that the children were just sacrifices, and frowned down their noses when they passed the low-roofed structure with the clay baskets in front.

Those people said that people who left their babies there were just killing them, as good as, and they said only the most wicked of people would do something like that. Or that the prize for giving up your children must be truly great indeed. Those people didn’t seem to notice that it was mostly the poor who gave their children up at the low-roofed building, mostly the destitute who tucked their babies into the clay baskets, and that nothing about their situation seemed to improve once they had stolen away under the cover of night.

Few people left babies during the day. He couldn’t think of any time it had ever happened, honestly. It was shameful enough to be giving up a child to Them, instead of fostering it out or finding some other way, but some people didn’t have much choice. They’d talked it over, him and her, it was the only way, he reassured himself as he stepped away from the basket. It had to be the right thing to do, because they’d thought on it hard and just didn’t see any other choice. And although he knew no one ever heard directly from Them, never knew what happened to the children, he had left the girl with not a single thing of her own, making her impossible to identify in the future.

He hesitated for a moment next to the bell pull, wondering if he’d see her again and never even know it. If they’d bump into each other in the marketplace, or she’d pass him a loaf of bread at the baker’s stall, telling him how much it cost in a high, chiming voice. Or maybe she’d be one of the mounted guards that clattered through the city, straight-backed and armor-clad on a prancing horse, and she’d look down on him in a crowd through the slits of her visor, narrowing her eyes against the light, wondering if perhaps she saw a flash of her own face, her hair, her eyes there.

Finally he shook his head firmly to put the ideas out of his head and rang the bell, slipping away down the cobbles of the street and into the night. His sandals whisked and clacked against the stone, covering up the creak of the door as it opened and someone, or possibly some thing, emerged from inside and picked up the baby, leaving the basket where it was and making sure the blanket was firmly wrapped around her, protecting each tiny brown finger and toe from the cold of the night. The baby was confused but pleased at having been picked up again, and stretched her arms under the blanket but didn’t fuss, instead looking up calmly with quiet eyes, waiting to see what would happen next.

Children are infinitely adaptable and in a world where everything is new and surprising, everything is, in a way, expected. One never knows what might lie around the next corner, behind the next mirror, through the next doorway, let alone what might move, or explode, or taste good but make your stomach feel bad later. The world is one big place of continual and endless discovery, like mirrors within mirrors of new things. The baby had no grounds for comparison when she looked up, and she wouldn’t have any grounds for comparison for what happened later, either. Everything would make perfect sense to her, and everything would seem as it should be; how else could it be?

By the time he’d reached the end of the block, the door had quietly shut again, and the deed was done. He crept along alleyways and byways until he reached the park and crossed the green, not wanting to be seen out at night; any man in a family with a new baby out at night would be viewed with suspicion, especially if there was no baby in the morning. He finally reached the house and slipped through the front door, lowering the latch as gently as he could. She slumped at the front table drinking a tankard of beer and they looked at each other, a wordless exchange that carried volumes, possibly years, and then the two of them went up to bed, waiting for morning and the inevitable questions.