Fiction · 02/12/2014

The Arrowhead

They find the baby on Sunday morning in the ditch beside the road.

They are driving home from the vegetable stand; the salty warmth of boiled peanuts wafts from the backseat. His wife spots the baby first. She perks up and taps a long nail against the smudged window. “Pull over.”

He stops the truck and sees what she sees, an infant on its back, fist in its mouth. “It’s just a doll,” he says.

She climbs out and leaves the truck door open. A dragonfly darts in, pings against the windshield, then zips back out. The air smells swampy, the odor of sitting water and saturated earth.

She returns holding the child, who is red and squirmy but not crying. Mosquito bites freckle its forehead.

“I can’t believe this,” she says, holding the child against her chest. “Like Moses in the reeds.”

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He tries to take them to the hospital, but she insists on feeding the baby first. “Let’s get him cleaned up and fed,” she says. “Who knows how long he’s been out there?”

The man relents. Back at the house, the woman digs through the closet to find a new container of formula and a bottle. He watches from the doorway as she measures the powder and dumps it into the bottle, then fills the bottle with warm water.

“I thought you threw all that stuff away,” he says. His wife does not respond, and he wonders if he really spoke at all.

The baby drains the bottle within minutes and falls sleep. His wife reclines on the couch and lets the baby sleep curled on her chest. She strokes his downy hair.

“I’m calling the cops,” the man says. “Someone’s missing their baby.”

“They’re not missing him,” his wife snaps. The baby gurgles and wiggles in his sleep. “You don’t miss a baby you dump on the side of the road.”

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He does not say anything to her after that. She feeds the baby again when he awakes, gives him a bath, changes his diaper. She has kept everything they’ve accumulated in hope over the years — onesies, blankets, even pacifiers — everything they stockpiled before the doctors told them to stop trying.

As evening approaches and a blue-gold dusk settles over them like a blanket, she takes the baby onto the porch and sings to him a lullaby the man has never heard before. For some reason, watching her there on the porch, the baby swaddled in a soft green blanket, he can’t help but think about the day when they were barely six years old and found an arrowhead in the woods. They were just playing, not doing any harm, really, just pulling bark off an infected oak tree, the half-rotted wood crumbling in their puffy fingers like old scabs, revealing the tree’s skeleton, ashy white like naked bone. She was the one who discovered the arrowhead, black and rough and smelling like tar, embedded in the tree beneath layers of bark, like an Easter egg that had never been found. “Finders keepers,” she told him, grinning.

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At eight o’clock he finally gives in and calls the police. He does not tell the operator they’ve had the baby all day, only that they found the baby beside the road. “Like Moses in the reeds,” he says, then hates himself.

He informs his wife the police are coming. She remains silent for several minutes, staring at the woods behind their house: the starved silhouettes of pine trees, the jagged fingers of saw palmetto, the small brown rabbits dotting the grass. A whippoorwill’s call drifts toward them from deep in the woods.

“We should keep him,” she finally says. “He’s meant for us.” Her voice is quiet and flat, underscored with the same emptiness she spoke with when the doctors told them they couldn’t conceive. “We could always adopt,” he told her after the verdict, his voice high with false hope, to which she responded, her voice wrung of emotion: “With what money?”

He does not know what to say when his wife suggests they keep the baby. She stares at him over the infant snuggled at the base of her neck, her mouth hidden behind the boy’s tuft of auburn hair. Her eyes are glassy and black in the gathering night. The man remains in the doorway, leaning against the frame, the heat from the day pressing into his shoulder. His throat is tight with the need to do something, but, just as in that day in the doctor’s office, he cannot find the words: he has failed her once again.

He and his wife don’t speak again. She resumes singing, not looking at him anymore, her voice soft and waning, strange lyrics about cherries and stones, chickens and bones, rings without end and children who do not cry. The world around them shimmers with dying heat from the summer day. This is just a mirage, the man thinks. This is not real.

His wife finishes the lullaby and falls quiet. The baby whimpers in protest but she doesn’t move. They sit in silence and wait, the dusk deepening to unbroken black, so dark they can’t see anything except for the red and blue lights floating down the street.

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Sarah Prevatt holds an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals, including Vestal Review, The Chaffin Journal, and Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She has taught creative writing at the University of Central Florida and Miami-Dade College and has also served as Director of Maitland Poets & Writers. Her website is sarahprevatt.com.