I just finished Ray Bradbury’s The October Country. It’s a collection of macabre short stories, that Adrienne gave me for All Hallow’s Read, about “the horrors and demons that lurk within all of us.” I’ve been on a Bradbury kick lately and if you’ve never read his work before, this would be an excellent introduction.
My favorite, which you can probably tell by the title of this post, was “The Small Assassin” (close second was “The Scythe“). It’s about a woman who becomes convinced that her newborn baby is out to kill her. I kept asking myself, “Is the baby possessed? Is she crazy?” The atmosphere is dripping with anxiety, doubt, and terror. It’s a wickedly delightful tale.
I highly recommend purchasing this collection and if you want to wet your whistle before hand, you can read “The Small Assassin” below.
“The Small Assassin” by Ray Bradbury
Just when the idea occurred to her that she was being murdered she could not tell. There had been little subtle signs, little suspicions for the past month; things as deep as sea tides in her, like looking at a perfectly calm stretch of tropic water, wanting to bathe in it and finding, just as the tide takes your body, that monsters dwell just under the surface, things unseen, bloated, many-armed, sharp-finned, malignant and inescapable.
A room floated around her in an effluvium of hysteria. Sharp instruments hovered and there were voices, and people in sterile white masks.
My name, she thought, what is it?
Alice Leiber. It came to her. David Leiber’s wife. But it gave her no comfort. She was alone with these silent, whispering white people and there was great pain and nausea and death-fear in her.
I am being murdered before their eyes. These doctors, these nurses don’t realize what hidden thing has happened to me. David doesn’t know. Nobody knows except me and–the killer, the little murderer, the small assassin.
I am dying and I can’t tell them now. They’d laugh and call me one in delirium. They’ll see the murderer and hold him and never think him responsible for my death. But here I am, in front of God and man, dying, no one to believe my story, everyone to doubt me, comfort me with lies, bury me in ignorance, mourn me and salvage my destroyer.
Where is David? she wondered. In the waiting room, smoking one cigarette after another, listening to the long tickings of the very slow clock?
Sweat exploded from all of her body at once, and with it an agonized cry. Now. Now! Try and kill me, she screamed. Try, try, but I won’t die! I won’t!
There was a hollowness. A vacuum. Suddenly the pain fell away. Exhaustion, and dusk came around. It was over. Oh, God! She plummeted down and struck a black nothingness which gave way to nothingness and nothingness and another and still another. . . .
Footsteps. Gentle, approaching footsteps.
Far away, a voice said, “She’s asleep. Don’t disturb her.”
An odor of tweeds, a pipe, a certain shaving lotion. David was standing over her. And beyond him the immaculate smell of Dr. J effers.
She did not open her eyes. “I’m awake,” she said, quietly. It was a surprise, a relief to be able to speak, to not be dead.
“Alice,” someone said, and it was David beyond her closed eyes, holding her tired hands.
Would you like to meet the murderer, David? she thought. I hear your voice asking to see him, so there’s nothing but for me to point him out to you.
David stood over her. She opened her eyes. The room came into focus. Moving a weak hand, she pulled aside a coverlet.
The murderer looked up at David Leiber with a small, redfaced, blue-eyed calm. Its eyes were deep and sparkling.
“Why!” cried David Leiber, smiling. “He’s a _fine_ baby!”
Dr. Jeffers was waiting for David Leiber the day he came to take his wife and new child home. He motioned Leiber to a chair in his office, gave him a cigar, lit one for himself, sat on the edge of his desk, puffing solemnly for a long moment. Then he cleared his throat, looked David Leiber straight on and said, “Your wife doesn’t like her child, Dave.”
“It’s been a hard thing for her. She’ll need a lot of love this next year. I didn’t say much at the time, but she was hysterical in the delivery room. The strange things she said–I won’t repeat them. All I’ll say is that she feels alien to the child. Now, this may simply be a thing we can clear up with one or two questions.” He sucked on his cigar another moment, then said, “Is this child a ‘wanted’ child, Dave?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Yes. Yes, it is a ‘wanted’ child. We planned it together. Alice was so happy, a year ago, when–“
“Mmmm–that makes it more difficult. Because if the child was unplanned, it would be a simple case of a woman hating the idea of motherhood. That doesn’t fit Alice.” Dr. Jeffers took his cigar from his lips, rubbed his hand across his jaw. “It must be something else, then. Perhaps something buried in her childhood that’s coming out now. Or it might be the simple temporary doubt and distrust of any mother who’s gone through the unusual pain and near-death that Alice has. If so, then a little time should heal that. I thought I’d tell you, though, Dave. It’ll help you be easy and tolerant with her if she says anything about–well–about wishing the child had been born dead. And if things don’t go well, the three of you drop in on me. I’m always glad to see old friends, eh? Here, take another cigar along for–ah–for the baby.”
It was a bright spring afternoon. Their car hummed along wide, tree-lined boulevards. Blue sky, flowers, a warm wind. Dave talked a lot, lit his cigar, talked some more. Alice answered directly, softly, relaxing a bit more as the trip progressed. But she held the baby not tightly or warmly or motherly enough to satisfy the queer ache in Dave’s mind. She seemed to be merely carrying a porcelain figurine.
“Well,” he said, at last, smiling. “What’ll we name him?”
Alice Leiber watched green trees slide by. “Let’s not decide yet. I’d rather wait until we get an exceptional name for him. Don’t blow smoke in his face.” Her sentences ran together with no change of tone. The last statement held no motherly reproof, no interest, no irritation. She just mouthed it and it was said.
The husband, disquieted, dropped the cigar from the window. “Sorry,” he said.
The baby rested in the crook of his mother’s arm, shadows of sun and tree changing his face. His blue eyes opened like fresh blue spring flowers. Moist noises came from the tiny, pink, elastic mouth.
Alice gave her baby a quick glance. Her husband felt her shiver against him.
“Cold?” he asked.
“A chill. Better raise the window, David.”
It was more than a chill. He rolled the window slowly up.
Dave had brought the child from the nursery, propped him at a tiny, bewildered angle, supported by many pillows, in a newly purchased high chair.
Alice watched her knife and fork move. “He’s not high-chair size,” she said.
“Fun having him here, anyway,” said Dave, feeling fine. “Everything’s fun. At the office, too. Orders up to my nose. If I don’t watch myself I’ll make another fifteen thousand this year. Hey, look at Junior, will you? Drooling all down his chin!” He reached over to wipe the baby’s mouth with his napkin. From the corner of his eye he realized that Alice wasn’t even watching. He finished the job.
“I guess it wasn’t very interesting,” he said, back again at his food. “But one would think a mother’d take some interest in her own child!”
Alice jerked her chin up. “Don’t speak that way! Not in front of him! Later, if you must.”
“Later?” he cried. “In front of, in back of, what’s the difference?” He quieted suddenly, swallowed, was sorry. “All right. Okay. I know how it is.”
After dinner she let him carry the baby upstairs. She didn’t tell him to; she _let_ him.
Coming down, he found her standing by the radio, listening to music she didn’t hear. Her eyes were closed, her whole attitude one of wondering, self-questioning. She started when he appeared.
Suddenly, she was at him, against him, soft, quick; the same. Her lips found him, kept him. He was stunned. Now that the baby was gone, upstairs, out of the room, she began to breathe again, live again. She was free. She was whispering, rapidly, endlessly.
“Thank you, thank you, darling. For being yourself, always. Dependable, so very dependable!”
He had to laugh. “My father told me, ‘Son, provide for your family!’
Wearily, she rested her dark, shining hair against his neck. “You’ve overdone it. Sometimes I wish we were just the way we were when we were first married. No responsibilities, nothing but ourselves. No–no babies.”
She crushed his hand in hers, a supernatural whiteness in her face.
“Oh, Dave, once it was just you and me. We protected each other, and now we protect the baby, but get no protection from it. Do you understand? Lying in the hospital I had time to think a lot of things. The world is evil–“
“Yes. It is. But laws protect us from it. And when there aren’t laws, then love does the protecting. You’re protected from my hurting you, by my love. You’re vulnerable to me, of all people, hut love shields you. I feel no fear of you, because love cushions all your irritations, unnatural instincts, hatreds and immaturities. But–what about the baby? It’s too young to know love, or a law of love, or anything, until we teach it. And in the meantime be vulnerable to it.”
“Vulnerable to a baby?” He held her away and laughed gently.
“Does a baby know the difference between right and wrong?” she asked.
“No. But it’ll learn.”
“But a baby is so new, so amoral, so conscience-free.” She stopped. Her arms dropped from him and she turned swiftly. “That noise? What was it?”
Leiber looked around the room. “I didn’t hear–“
She stared at the library door. “In there,” she said, slowly.
Leiber crossed the room, opened the door and switched the library lights on and off. “Not a thing.” He came back to her. “You’re worn out. To bed with you–right now.”
Turning out the lights together, they walked slowly up the soundless hall stairs, not speaking. At the top she apologized. “My wild talk, darling. Forgive me. I’m exhausted.”
He understood, and said so.
She paused, undecided, by the nursery door. Then she fingered the brass knob sharply, walked in. He watched her approach the crib much too carefully, look down, and stiffen as if she’d been struck in the face. “David!”
Leiber stepped forward, reached the crib.
The baby’s face was bright red and very moist; his small pink mouth opened and shut, opened and shut; his eyes were a fiery blue. His hands leapt about on the air.
“Oh,” said Dave, “he’s just been crying.”
“Has he?” Alice Leiber seized the crib-railing to balance herself. “I didn’t hear him.”
“The door was closed.”
“Is that why he breathes so hard, why his face is red?”
“Sure. Poor little guy. Crying all alone in the dark. He can sleep in our room tonight, just in case he cries.”
“You’ll spoil him,” his wife said.
Leiber felt her eyes follow as he rolled the crib into their bedroom. He undressed silently, sat on the edge of the bed. Suddenly he lifted his head, swore under his breath, snapped his fingers. “Damn it! Forgot to tell you. I must fly to Chicago Friday.”
“Oh, David.” Her voice was lost in the room.
“I’ve put this trip off for two months, and now it’s so critical I just _have_ to go.”
“I’m afraid to be alone.”
“We’ll have the new cook by Friday. She’ll be here all the time. I’ll only be gone a few days.”
“I’m afraid. I don’t know of what. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I guess I’m crazy.”
He was in bed now. She darkened the room; he heard her walk around the bed, throw back the cover, slide in. He smelled the warm woman-smell of her next to him. He said, “If you want me to wait a few days, perhaps I could–“
“No,” she said, unconvinced. “You go. I know it’s important. It’s just that I keep thinking about what I told you. Laws and love and protection. Love protects you from me. But, thebaby–” She took a breath. “What protects you from him, David?”
Before he could answer, before he could tell her how silly it was, speaking of infants, she switched on the bed light, abruptly.
“Look,” she said, pointing.
The baby lay wide-awake in its crib, staring straight at him, with deep, sharp blue eyes.
The lights went out again. She trembled against him.
“It’s not nice being afraid of the thing you birthed.” Her whisper lowered, became harsh, fierce, swift. “He tried to kill me! He lies there, listens to us talking, waiting for you to go away so he can try to kill me again! I swear it!” Sobs broke from her.
“Please,” he kept saying, soothing her. “Stop it, stop it. Please.”
She cried in the dark for a long time. Very late she relaxed, shakingly, against him. Her breathing came soft, warm, regular, her body twitched its worn reflexes and she slept.
And just before his eyes lidded wearily down, sinking him into deeper and yet deeper tides, he heard a strange little sound of awareness and awakeness in the room.
The sound of small, moist, pinkly elastic lips.
In the morning, the sun blazed. Alice smiled.
David Leiber dangled his watch over the crib. “See, baby? Something bright. Something pretty. Sure. Sure. Something bright. Something pretty.”
Alice smiled. She told him to go ahead, fly to Chicago, she’d be very brave, no need to worry. She’d take care of baby. Oh, yes, she’d take care of him, all right.
The airplane went east. There was a lot of sky, a lot of sun and clouds and Chicago running over the horizon. Dave was dropped into the rush of ordering, planning, banqueting, telephoning, arguing in conference. But he wrote letters each day and sent telegrams to Alice and the baby.
On the evening of his sixth day away from home he received the long-distance phone call. Los Angeles.
“No, Dave. This is Jeff ers speaking.”
“Hold onto yourself, son. Alice is sick. You’d better get the next plane home. It’s pneumonia. I’ll do everything I can, boy. If only it wasn’t so soon after the baby. She needs strength.”
Leiber dropped the phone into its cradle. He got up, with no feet under him, and no hands and no body. The hotel room blurred and fell apart.
“Alice,” he said, blindly, starting for the door.
The propellers spun about, whirled, fluttered, stopped; time and space were put behind. Under his hand, David felt the doorknob turn; under his feet the floor assumed reality, around him flowed the walls of a bedroom, and in the late-afternoon sunlight Dr. Jeffers stood, turning from a window, as Alice lay waiting in her bed, something carved from a fall of winter snow. Then Dr. Jeffers was talking, talking continuously, gently, the sound rising and falling through the lamplight, a soft flutter, a white murmur of voice.
“Your wife’s too good a mother, Dave. She worried more about the baby than herself. . . .”
Somewhere in the paleness of Alice’s face, there was a sudden constriction which smoothed itself out before it was realized. Then, slowly, half-smiling, she began to talk and she talked as a mother should about this, that and the other thing, the telling detail, the minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour report of a mother concerned with a dollhouse world and the miniature life of that world. But she could not stop; the spring was wound tight, and her voice rushed on to anger, fear and the faintest touch of revulsion, which did not change Dr. Jeffers’ expression, but caused Dave’s heart to match the rhythm of this talk that quickened and could not stop:
“The baby wouldn’t sleep. I thought he was sick. He just lay, staring, in his crib, and late at night he’d cry. So loud, he’d cry, and he’d cry all night and all night. I couldn’t quiet him, and I couldn’t rest.”
Dr. Jeffers’ head nodded slowly, slowly. “Tired herself right into pneumonia. But she’s full of sulfa now and on the safe side of the whole damn thing.”
David felt ill. “The baby, what about the baby?”
“Fit as a fiddle; cock of the walk!”
The doctor walked off away and down the stairs, opened the front door faintly, and was gone.
He turned to her frightened whisper.
“It was the baby again.” She clutched his hand. “I try to lie to myself and say that I’m a fool, but the baby knew I was weak from the hospital, so he cried all night every night, and when he wasn’t crying he’d be much too quiet. I knew if I switched on the light he’d be there, staring up at me.”
David felt his body close in on itself like a fist. He remembered seeing the baby, feeling the baby, awake in the dark, awake very late at night when babies should be asleep. Awake and lying there, silent as thought, not crying, but watching from its crib. He thrust the thought aside. It was insane.
Alice went on. “I was going to kill the baby. Yes, I was. When you’d been gone only a day on your trip I went to his room and put my hands about his neck; and I stood there, for a long time, thinking, afraid. Then I put the covers up over his face and turned him over on his face and pressed him down and left him that way and ran out of the room.”
He tried to stop her.
“No, let me finish,” she said, hoarsely, looking at the wall. “When I left his room I thought, It’s simple. Babies smother every day. No one’ll ever know. But when I came back to see him dead, David, he was alive! Yes, alive, turned over on his back, alive and smiling and breathing. And I couldn’t touch him again after that. I left him there and I didn’t come back, not to feed him or look at him or do anything. Perhaps the cook tended to him. I don’t know. All I know is that his crying kept me awake, and I thought all through the night, and walked around the rooms and now I’m sick.” She was almost finished now. “The baby lies there and thinks of ways to kill me. Simple ways. Because he knows I know so much about him. I have no love for him; there is no protection between us; there never will be.”
She was through. She collapsed inward on herself and finally slept. David Leiber stood for a long time over her, not able to move. His blood was frozen in his body, not a cell stirred anywhere, anywhere at all.
The next morning there was only one thing to do. He did it. He walked into Dr. Jeff ers’ office and told him the whole thing, and listened to Jeff ers’ tolerant replies:
“Let’s take this thing slowly, son. It’s quite natural for mothers to hate their children, sometimes. We have a label for it–ambivalence. The ability to hate, while loving. Lovers hate each other, frequently. Children detest their mothers–“
Leiber interrupted. “I never hated my mother.”
“You won’t admit it, naturally. People don’t enjoy admitting hatred for their loved ones.”
“So Alice hates her baby.”
“Better say she has an obsession. She’s gone a step further than plain, ordinary ambivalence. A Caesarian operation brought the child into the world and almost took Alice out of it. She blames the child for her near-death and her pneumonia. She’s projecting her troubles, blaming them on the handiest object she can use as a source of blame. We _all_ do it. We stumble into a chair and curse the furniture, not our own clumsiness. We miss a golf-stroke and damn the turf or our club, or the make of ball. If our business fails we blame the gods, the weather, our luck. All I can tell you is what I told you before. Love her. Finest medicine in the world. Find little ways of showing your affection, give her security. Find ways of showing her how harmless and innocent the child is. Make her feel that the baby was worth the risk. After awhile, she’ll settle down, forget about death, and begin to love the child. If she doesn’t come around in the next month or so, ask me. I’ll recommend a good psychiatrist. Go on along now, and take that look off your face.”
When summer came, things seemed to settle, become easier. Dave worked, immersed himself in office detail, but found much time for his wife. She, in turn, took long walks, gained strength, played an occasional light game of badminton. She rarely burst out any more. She seemed to have rid herself of her fears.
Except on one certain midnight when a sudden summer wind swept around the house, warm and swift, shaking the trees like so many shining tambourines. Alice wakened, trembling, and slid over into her husband’s arms, and let him console her, and ask her what was wrong.
She said, “Something’s here in the room, watching us.”
He switched on the light. “Dreaming again,” he said. “You’re better, though. Haven’t been troubled for a long time.”
She sighed as he clicked off the light again, and suddenly she slept. He held her, considering what a sweet, weird creature she was, for about half an hour.
He heard the bedroom door sway open a few inches.
There was nobody at the door. No reason for it to come open. The wind had died.
He waited. It seemed like an hour he lay silently, in the dark.
Then, far away, wailing like some small meteor dying in the vast inky gulf of space, the baby began to cry in his nursery.
It was a small, lonely sound in the middle of the stars and the dark and the breathing of this woman in his arms and the wind beginning to sweep through the trees again.
Leiber counted to one hundred, slowly. The crying continued.
Carefully disengaging Alice’s arm he slipped from bed, put on his slippers, robe, and moved quietly from the room.
He’d go downstairs, he thought, fix some warm milk, bring it up, and–.
The blackness dropped out from under him. His foot slipped and plunged. Slipped on something soft. Plunged into nothingness.
He thrust his hands out, caught frantically at the railing. His body stopped falling. He held. He cursed.
The “something soft” that had caused his feet to slip, rustled and thumped down a few steps. His head rang. His heart hammered at the base of his throat, thick and shot with pain.
Why do careless people leave things strewn about a house? He groped carefully with his fingers for the object that had almost spilled him headlong down the stairs.
His hand froze, startled. His breath went in. His heart held one or two beats.
The thing he held in his hand was a toy. A large cumbersome, patchwork doll he had bought as a joke, for–.
_For the baby_.
Alice drove him to work the next day.
She slowed the car halfway downtown; pulled to the curb and stopped it. Then she turned on the seat and looked at her husband.
“I want to go away on a vacation. I don’t know if you can make it now, darling, but if not, please let me go alone. We can get someone to take care of the baby, I’m sure. But I just have to get away. I thought I was growing out of this–this _feeling_. But I haven’t. I can’t stand being in the room with him. He looks up at me as if he hates me, too. I can’t put my finger on it; all I know is I want to get away before something happens.”
He got out on his side of the car, came around, motioned to her to move over, got in. “The only thing you’re going to do is see a good psychiatrist. And if he suggests a vacation, well, okay. But this can’t go on; my stomach’s in knots all the time.” He started the car. “I’ll drive the rest of the way.”
Her head was down; she was trying to keep back tears. She looked up when they reached his office building. “All right. Make the appointment. I’ll go talk to anyone you want, David.”
He kissed her. “Now, you’re talking sense, lady. Think you can drive home okay?”
“Of course, silly.”
“See you at supper, then. Drive carefully.”
“Don’t I always? ‘Bye.”
He stood on the curb, watching her drive off, the wind taking hold of her long, dark, shining hair. Upstairs, a minute later, he phoned Jeffers and arranged an appointment with a reliable neuropsychiatrist.
The day’s work went uneasily. Things fogged over; and in the fog he kept seeing Alice lost and calling his name. So much of her fear had come over to him. She actually had him convinced that the child was in some ways not quite natural.
He dictated long, uninspired letters. He checked some shipments downstairs. Assistants had to be questioned, and kept going. At the end of the day he was exhausted, his head throbbed, and he was very glad to go home.
On the way down in the elevator he wondered, What if I told Alice about the top–that patchwork doll–I slipped on on the stairs last night? Lord, wouldn’t _that_ back her off? No, I won’t ever tell her. Accidents are, after all, accidents.
Daylight lingered in the sky as he drove home in a taxi. In front of the house he paid the driver and walked slowly up the cement walk, enjoying the light that was still in the sky and the trees. The white colonial front of the house looked unnaturally silent and uninhabited, and then, quietly, he remembered this was Thursday, and the hired help they were able to obtain from time to time were all gone for the day.
He took a deep breath of air. A bird sang behind the house. Traffic moved on the boulevard a block away. He twisted the key in the door. The knob turned under his fingers, oiled, silent.
The door opened. He stepped in, put his hat on the chair with his briefcase, started to shrug out of his coat, when he looked up.
Late sunlight streamed down the stairwell from the window near the top of the hall. Where the sunlight touched it took on the bright color of the patchwork doll sprawled at the bottom of the stairs.
But he paid no attention to the toy.
He could only look, and not move, and look again at Alice.
Alice lay in a broken, grotesque, pallid gesturing and angling of her thin body, at the bottom of the stairs, like a crumpled doll that doesn’t want to play any more, ever.
Alice was dead.
The house remained quiet, except for the sound of his heart.
She was dead.
He held her head in his hands, he felt her fingers. He held her body. But she wouldn’t live. She wouldn’t even try to live. He said her name, out loud, many times, and he tried, once again, by holding her to him, to give her back some of the warmth she had lost, but that didn’t help.
He stood up. He must have made a phone call. He didn’t remember. He found himself, suddenly, upstairs. He opened the nursery door and walked inside and stared blankly at the crib. His stomach was sick. He couldn’t see very well.
The baby’s eyes were closed, but his face was red, moist with perspiration, as if he’d been crying long and hard.
“She’s dead,” said Leiber to the baby. “She’s dead.”
Then he started laughing low and soft and continuously for a long time until Dr. Jeff ers walked in out of the night and slapped him again and again across his face.
“Snap out of it! Pull yourself together!”
“She fell down the stairs, Doctor. She tripped on a patchwork doll and fell. I almost slipped on it the other night, myself. And now–“
The doctor shook him.
“Doc, Doc, Doc,” said Dave, hazily. “Funny thing. Funny. I–I finally thought of a name for the baby.”
The doctor said nothing.
Leiber put his head back in his trembling hands and spoke the words. “I’m going to have him christened next Sunday. Know what name I’m giving him? I’m going to call him Lucifer.”
It was eleven at night. A lot of strange people had come and gone through the house, taking the essential flame with them–Alice.
David Leiber sat across from the doctor in the library.
“Alice wasn’t crazy,” he said, slowly. “She had good reason to fear the baby.”
Jeffers exhaled. “Don’t follow after her! She blamed the child for her sickness, now you blame it for her death. She stumbled on a toy, remember that. You can’t blame the child.”
“You mean Lucifer?”
“Stop calling him that!”
Leiber shook his head. “Alice heard things at night, moving in the halls. You want to know what made those noises, Doctor? They were made by the baby. Four months old, moving in the dark, listening to us talk. Listening to every word!” He held to the sides of the chair. “And if I turned the lights on, a baby is so small. It can hide behind furniture, a door, against a wall–below eye-level.”
“I want you to stop this!” said Jeffers.
“Let me say what I think or I’ll go crazy. When I went to Chicago, who was it kept Alice awake, tiring her into pneumonia? The baby! And when Alice didn’t die, then he tried killing me. It was simple; leave a toy on the stairs, cry in the night until your father goes downstairs to fetch your milk, and stumbles. A crude trick, but effective. It didn’t get me. But it killed Alice dead.”
David Leiber stopped long enough to light a cigarette. “I should have caught on. I’d turn on the lights in the middle of the night, many nights, and the baby’d be lying there, eyes wide. Most babies sleep all the time. Not this one. He stayed awake, thinking.”
“Babies don’t think.”
“He stayed awake doing whatever he _could_ do with his brain, then. What in hell do we know about a baby’s mind? He had every reason to hate Alice; she suspected him for what he was–certainly not a normal child. Something–different. What do you know of babies, Doctor? The general run, yes. You know, of course, how babies kill their mothers at birth. Why? Could it be resentment at being forced into a lousy world like this one?”
Leiber leaned toward the doctor, tiredly. “It all ties up. Suppose that a few babies out of all the millions born are instantaneously able to move, see, hear, think, like many animals and insects can. Insects are born self-sufficient. In a few weeks most mammals and birds adjust. But children take years to speak and learn to stumble around on their weak legs.
“But suppose one child in a billion is–strange? Born perfectly aware, able to think, instinctively. Wouldn’t it be a perfect setup, a perfect blind for anything the baby might want to do? He could pretend to be ordinary, weak, crying, ignorant. With just a _little_ expenditure of energy he could crawl about a darkened house, listening. And how easy to place obstacles at the top of stairs. How easy to cry all night and tire a mother into pneumonia. How easy, right at birth, to be so close to the mother that _a few deft maneuvers might cause peritonitis!_”
“For God’s sake!” Jeffers was on his feet. “That’s a repulsive thing to say!”
“It’s a repulsive thing I’m speaking of. How many mothers have died at the birth of their children? How many have suckled strange little improbabilities who cause death one way or another? Strange, red little creatures with brains that work in a bloody darkness we can’t even guess at. Elemental little brains, as warm with racial memory, hatred, and raw cruelty, with no more thought than selfpreservation. And self-preservation in this case consisted of eliminating a mother who realized what a horror she had birthed. I ask you, doctor, what is there in the world more selfish than a baby? Nothing!”
Jeffers scowled and shook his head, helplessly.
Leiber dropped his cigarette down. “I’m not claiming any great strength for the child. Just enough to crawl around a little, a few months ahead of schedule. Just enough to listen all the time. Just enough to cry late at night. That’s enough, more than enough.”
Jeffers tried ridicule. “Call it murder, then. But murder must be motivated. What motive had the child?”
Leiber was ready with the answer. “What is more at peace, more dreamfully content, at ease, at rest, fed, comforted, unbothered, than an unborn child? Nothing. It floats in a sleepy, timeless wonder of nourishment and silence. Then, suddenly, it is asked to give up its berth, is forced to vacate, rushed out into a noisy, uncaring, selfish world where it is asked to shift for itself, to hunt, to feed from the hunting, to seek after a vanishing love that once was its unquestionable right, to meet confusion instead of inner silence and conservative slumber! And the child _resents_ it! Resents the cold air, the huge spaces, the sudden departure from familiar things. And in the tiny filament of brain the only thing the child knows is selfishness and hatred because the spell has been rudely shattered. Who is responsible for this disenchantment, this rude breaking of the spell? The mother. So here the new child has someone to hate with all its unreasoning mind. The mother has cast it out, rejected it. And the father is no better, kill him, too! He’s responsible in _his_ way!”
Jeffers interrupted. “If what you say is true, then every woman in the world would have to look on her baby as something to dread, something to wonder about.”
“And why not? Hasn’t the child a perfect alibi? A thousand years of accepted medical belief protects him. By all natural accounts he is helpless, not responsible. The child is born hating. And things grow worse, instead of better. At first the baby gets a certain amount of attention and mothering. But then as time passes, things change. When very new, a baby has the power to make parents do silly things when it cries or sneezes, jump when it makes a noise. As the years pass, the baby feels even that small power slip rapidly, forever away, never to return. Why shouldn’t it grasp all the power it can have? Why shouldn’t it jockey for position while it has all the advantages? In later years it would be too late to express its hatred. _Now_ would be the time to strike.”
Leiber’s voice was very soft, very low.
“My little boy baby, lying in his crib nights, his face moist and red and out of breath. From crying? No. From climbing slowly out of his crib, from crawling long distances through darkened hallways. My little boy baby. I want to kill him.”
The doctor handed him a water glass and some pills. “You’re not killing anyone. You’re going to sleep for twenty-four hours. Sleep’ll change your mind. Take this.”
Leiber drank down the pills and let himself be led upstairs to his bedroom, crying, and felt himself being put to bed. The doctor waited until he was moving deep into sleep, then left the house.
Leiber, alone, drifted down, down.
He heard a noise. “What’s–what’s _that?_” he demanded, feebly.
Something moved in the hall.
David Leiber slept.
Very early the next morning, Dr. Jeffers drove up to the house. It was a good morning, and he was here to drive Leiber to the country for a rest. Leiber would still be asleep upstairs. Jeffers had given him enough sedative to knock him out for at least fifteen hours.
He rang the doorbell. No answer. The servants were probably not up. Jeffers tried the front door, found it open, stepped in. He put his medical kit on the nearest chair.
Something white moved out of sight at the top of the stairs. Just a suggestion of a movement. Jeff ers hardly noticed it.
The smell of gas was in the house.
Jeffers ran upstairs, crashed into Leiber’s bedroom.
Leiber lay motionless on the bed, and the room billowed with gas, which hissed from a released jet at the base of the wall near the door. Jeffers twisted it off, then forced up all the windows and ran back to Leiber’s body.
The body was cold. It had been dead quite a few hours.
Coughing violently, the doctor hurried from the room, eyes watering. Leiber hadn’t turned on the gas himself. He _couldn’t_ have. Those sedatives had knocked him out, he wouldn’t have wakened until noon. It wasn’t suicide. Or was there the faintest possibility?
Jeffers stood in the hall for five minutes. Then he walked to the door of the nursery. It was shut. He opened it. He walked inside and to the crib.
The crib was empty.
He stood swaying by the crib for half a minute, then he said something to nobody in particular.
“The nursery door blew shut. You couldn’t get back into your crib where it was safe. You didn’t plan on the door blowing shut. A little thing like a slammed door can ruin the best of plans. I’ll find you somewhere in the house, hiding, pretending to be something you are not.” The doctor looked dazed. He put his hand to his head and smiled palely. “Now I’m talking like Alice and David talked. But, I can’t take any chances. I’m not sure of anything, but I can’t take chances.”
He walked downstairs, opened his medical bag on the chair, took something out of it and held it in his hands.
Something rustled down the hall. Something very small and very quiet. Jeffers turned rapidly.
I had to operate to bring you into this world, he thought. Now I guess I can operate to take you out of it.
He took half-a-dozen slow, sure steps forward into the hail. He raised his hand into the sunlight.
“See, baby! Something bright–something pretty!”