The baby woke up early. Earlier than usual, which is roughly five-forty-seven in the morning, and 23 seconds. The internal clock, a family heirloom. Anomalies like this make a new parent nervous. Make this new parent nervous. Most other parents with an 18-month old might not still refer to themselves as “new.” But, much like war, you go into parenthood as the person you are, not as the person you might want or wish to be at a later time.
I ran my usual diagnostics—temperature, weight, autonomic responses, digit inventory, color consistency visual overview, swiveling of all joints, and confirmed no blockages or foreign bodies among the orifices. She’s a demanding child, taking payments in undivided attention and collecting with a regularity the mob might envy.
It was still dark outside, but Douglas had already left for work. He was nearing the end of his project here in China. Three intense months of site visits, negotiations, and revised project plans—this was the final push. Eighteen-hour days for him. Just a few more and then we’d return to “headquarters” (he grimaces every time I refer to our home that way) for a brief visit until our next extended project abroad. We tried making a go of it separately at first, but who wants a relationship where you’re apart more than you’re together? Not me. Plus, my work needs only a digital gypsy’s basics: phone and internet access.
Despite all systems checking out, I grew more nervous. The child had been in her vibrating seat for more than seventeen whole minutes without so much as a chirp, much less demanding collection on our agreement. Something was wrong. I could feel it in my throat.
We dressed against the chill and went out for a walk. We had grown quite fond of the Mingzhu Flower Garden during our stay here, but not so much in the dark. And so we meandered toward the Huangpu River. I focused on my breathing, trying to keep it steady, matching the length and force of the inhale to the length and force of the exhale. With the moon still visible, Mia bounced gently against my ribcage riding in one of those baby carriers that fit me like a reverse backpack.
Her utter calm felt like it was growing. Invisibly. Like a tumor. The industrial river almost appeared charming as the moonlight reflected with its movement. Without the sun to reveal its drab brownness or the details of the trash and debris along its shore, one almost felt that mystical sense that natural waterways sometimes inspire. We found a dock very close to the surface. For a second, I thought the child had stopped breathing, but she was fixated on the water. Just as a cloud pulled away from the moon, the spot in front of us was illumined brightly. Amidst the floating wood and bamboo shoots, a pale, fleshy body hovered just beneath the surface. A cloven hoof clearly at one end. A spiritless eye at the other, staring up at the moon. The exact moment I registered what it was, I heard yesterday’s version of me interacting with the child over a picture book: “What sound does the pig make?”
I turned but not before Mia had seen the marbled, porcine corpse. She began to howl as if she’d been seriously injured. The visceral transformation of pure pain to sound. The lump in my throat vanished. The tension in my shoulders backed off. I carefully moved us off the dock, back onto to dry land. We headed back to our hotel room. She had tears of agony and mine were of joy.