The Caulbearer
Keija Parssinen

because if you do not believe that dark is a hue
there is no dark—

—Frannie Lindsay, “To a Young Woman Moving Alone Through Light”


The late May thunderstorm that nearly drowned Benjy Snow broke open over the Texas hill country with such sudden violence that it drenched sunbathers at the community pool and gardeners mowing lawns into neat stripes, women sipping sweet tea in the scant shade of live oaks, children riding bikes down heat-bubbled streets. It had been months since the last rainfall, and the drought-parched land could not remember how to accept the gift of water, which raged through gutters and into drainage ditches, frothing into small, dirty waves that bore along bits of suburban detritus: a patio umbrella, a canvas hat, a child’s tricycle.

That afternoon, Benjy was playing basketball when thunder echoed off the limestone cliff that curved along the empty bed of Hurst Creek, which had dried up sometime back in March. The noise rattled his heart in a not unpleasant way, and he paused to watch the sky blacken with quick-moving clouds. He liked the feeling of approaching danger, that tingling in the stomach like when he played Night Crawlers with the neighborhood kids, waiting for someone to leap out at him in the dark. There was no lightning yet—his mother had warned him about lightning—so he lingered at the hoop, chugging in for a few more lay-ups.

Then the rain started in earnest, and Benjy stood in the middle of his driveway, tilting his head to the sky, opening his mouth for the warm, salty water that plashed against his face and soaked his clothes. He felt the giddiness that accompanies a change in the weather; he breathed in the smell of unsettled dust and storm-bathed asphalt. Even though he couldn’t see the rim of the basket through the downpour, he chucked the ball toward the goal. When it didn’t rebound back to him, he scampered to the edge of the driveway and looked down into the drainage ditch. There, the orange ball bobbed in a torrent of rainwater, snagged at the lip of the drainpipe by a jutting bit of metal.

Carefully, Benjy slid down the embankment to collect the ball. But he miscalculated how deep the water was, how strong the current, and it took him out at the knees. Quickly, his head was submerged, his body whisked through the drainpipe beneath the driveway. He fought to keep his face above the churn, but when he opened his mouth to yell for help, it filled with muddy water. Several times, his hand broke through to the air and groped for something to hold on to, a branch or root. But with the blind tumbling, his eight year-old limbs grew tired; he was dizzy from the lack of oxygen in his brain. Small for his age, delicate almost, he was no match for the current, which swept his thin body along, down the street’s gradual slope toward the empty bed of Hurst Creek, which now raged with water. The world became a series of quick colors, flashes of sound: gray sky aaaahhh green trees whhhooo brown water shhhhhhh. Nobody saw him swept away.


Inside the house, a white Spanish style with a proud façade, Benjy’s mother, Charlotte, threw a ceramic bread basket against the wall and kneeled down as if to hide from her own histrionics— Just love me, adore me, goddammit, she moaned into her knees, but the words were muffled so that Andrew didn’t hear them. He wanted to lay a hand on her back and say, What? so that she would repeat what she had said, loud enough for him to make out, but he was afraid to approach her. This was the worst it had been, and she seemed like a bear in a trap, ready to tear ragged seams in him if he got too close.

Overhead, a crash of thunder that rattled the paintings on the walls, and Charlotte remembered Benjy, whom they had sent outside as soon as the kitchen had gone airless with tension over some remark Andrew had made, a fumbled joke that came out as snide instead of humorous. Charlotte unfolded herself off the floor and shrugged past Andrew, walking out into the warm rain, shouting her son’s name through the storm’s thrash. After the last hour inside the house, she felt glad of her soaked shirt, the way the storm-cooled air moved against her wet skin, prickling it with goose flesh. Already, she felt saner, though she was not sure if she would ever recover her dignity.

Her hands shook. Their marriage was a downhill ski race in which she was always slightly out of control. She worried about death via sudden, explosive crash. Andrew the tree, growing there guiltlessly, stolid, her blood smeared across his rough bark. It would be her fault.

Charlotte took a great, deep breath, scanning up and down the street for Benjy, but she could not see past the mailbox for the rain. Where had he gone off to? She started for the street but a purple streak of lightning divided the sky so close she felt the flash of light on her face. She raced for the nearby studio door, found the Hide-a-Key, and let herself in. Surely Benjy was safely ensconced in a neighbor boy’s house, eating Hot Pockets or watching an R-rated movie, things he wasn’t allowed to do at home. She would find him as soon as the rain stopped.

All the rules she and Andrew made for Benjy, to protect him. What was the point, when Andrew hissed things like, You are a fucking cunt sometimes and she bellowed back, And you are an unfeeling asshole! All within earshot of their downy-headed Benj. They simply could not help themselves; in the last year, something had shifted in the marriage, and now they savaged each other with the ferocity of two people who no longer needed anything from each other.

From its perch on an easel, her latest project stared back at her, a broad canvas covered in coat after coat of lugubrious blue-black paint. She’d been working on it for a month now and had absolutely no idea where it was going. It wasn’t that she was bored or stumped; she just couldn’t stop layering on the paint in large whorls. Already, she knew no one would buy it; it was too bleak. Her customers wanted dazzling pieces they could hang above their fireplaces, canvases shining with crushed pearl and gold leaf and gemstones, the opulent material she started working with once she could afford to. She made a good living peddling beauty, but she had started to feel more like an interior decorator than an artist. In school, her creative work left her levitating. Now when she made her beautiful trifles, she felt cynical. Once, she caught herself thinking about one of her paintings in terms of the white leather couch it would buy her.

Perhaps that was why, day after day over the last several weeks, she reached for her midnight palette, resuming this visual equivalent of a Camus novel. She tacked light-absorbing black curtains over the windows, turned on the weird electronica that left her feeling like some sexy space alien, then lost herself in the repeated, circular brush strokes. It wasn’t exactly art school—she would never be that young and rapture-prone again—but it was better than measuring her art’s worth in furniture. After hours at work, she emerged from the studio feeling like maybe she didn’t exist at all, like she had worked her body and ego into the whorls that now stood like miniature train tracks atop the canvas. What was she making? If she never finished it, she wouldn’t care, so long as she could return every day and paint herself into oblivion.

Charlotte knew she couldn’t paint just then; her hands still shook from the argument, and now she was starting to shiver in her soaked clothes. But she didn’t want to return to the house. Instead, she walked to the stainless steel kitchen island that housed many of her supplies and started organizing them. She rinsed brushes in water and put them back in the old coffee cans, restocked mason jars with tongue depressors and painter’s tape and sea sponges and string, put the Xacto knives back in their bin.

The rain roared against the studio’s tin roof. The lights flickered but stayed on. She moved purposefully through her space, placing tubes and jars of acrylic paint label-out on shelves, dampening a washcloth in the industrial sink and wiping down the steel countertops. She liked an orderly space, perhaps because she felt so very messy inside. Andrew had loved that messiness, in the beginning; he had loved the art she made from that complexity. Now, he liked that her sold-out shows paid for their twice-yearly vacations, but he cast an indifferent eye on her work. What was the point of critiquing a piece that would hang in someone’s foyer, above the umbrella stand?

Last week, after Andrew had complained when she was short with him coming off a long day in the studio, she had made a list of her attributes and put it on his pillow before bed.

I make good curries.

I stay fit.

I actually like anal.

And giving blow jobs.

I know who the president of South Africa is (Jacob Zuma, FYI).

I pay in the max on our Roth IRAs.

I kill at parties.

I’m big in Poland.

I love you.

But before he returned from brushing his teeth, she crumpled the list and tossed it into the trashcan under her night table. It was too embarrassing, having to sell herself to her husband.

Charlotte slipped out of the studio and locked the door, returning the key to its hiding spot. The lightning had stopped, but rain still came down in sheets. The sun peeked through the cloud cover in places, causing it to smolder at the edges like a lit cigarette. Benjy was safe and dry somewhere, she was certain; when she and Andrew started arguing, he had probably fled to the Atkins’ house, a place that always smelled of cinnamon candles, where the hardest hitting curse word was dadgummit.

Protected by the tile awning over the front door of the house, she hesitated for a moment, placing her hands on the house’s rough stones, breathing in their chalky scent. She pressed her forehead hard into the edge of a stone until the pain became too much, then licked the salty water from the rock. It tasted pure. She wanted to call to Andrew right then, force him to come outside and devour the house with her, make their tender intestines digest the whole of it, every book, picture frame, paid bill, so that they would remember how long it had taken to make it into a home.

Back inside, she stamped excess water from her shoes, pulled her sopping T-shirt over her head and hooked it to the door handle. She took the stairs two at a time, plugged the tub, and drew a steaming bath. As she lowered herself into the tub, she savored the sensation of the water enveloping her piece by piece—feet, then calves, thighs, ass, belly, breasts—the pressure of the scalding water like a body against hers, fingers of heat between her legs. She closed her eyes and tried to remember what it was like to be touched by a man who loved her.


Once the rain broke, Charlotte toweled off, dressed, and left in search of Benjy, slamming the door behind her, while Andrew sulked in his study, phone off the hook. From that spot, Andrew heard the distant siren of an ambulance, though he barely remarked it, that signal of someone else’s problems. The word divorce inserted itself into his thoughts, as it had so many times before, only this time, he didn’t shoo it away.

Sitting at his desk, he eyed the photo of him and Charlotte from their honeymoon, the elaborate leaded glass frame a wedding present that practically shouted, This was an important moment, look. In the photo, Andrew and Charlotte are sunburnt and beaming, their faces slightly smug, as if they have solved the heart’s Rubik’s cube.

He proposed to Charlotte after only a month. At thirty-five, he had started to believe he’d experienced the full range of human emotion, that nothing new was left him. He supposed, looking back, that he had been depressed at the realization, so that when Charlotte entered his life and so disturbed his equanimity, he felt an existential delight at the surge of new feelings coursing beneath his skin: the shock of Charlotte’s coarse whisperings as they had sex; the delicious confliction of knowing that his wife was smarter than him; the feeling, staring at her across the dinner table, that the soul was truly a mirrored hall that extended back and back to infinity, capacious enough to contain the whole world. He felt a bittersweet joy at knowing he could never ask enough questions, or listen hard enough, to know what mysteries, wonders, tragedies and secret shames Charlotte contained. Love was the trying, the desire to try.

Lately, though, Andrew doubted he had any notion of love at all. They had been married nine years, most of their days an accumulation of hectoring and small disappointments. He didn’t know if good marriages were the product of the people, or the attitude, or just good luck. They called each other harsh names, and it felt irrevocable, as if they had reached some kind of threshold and crossed over. He had romanticized her mood swings, thinking them the necessary fuel of artistic creation; he had not realized how important peace was for day-to-day happiness. Now, he just wanted his equanimity back. He was an engineer. He needed things to function. He had started to think of the logistics—where he would live once he moved out, how often he would see Benjy, wondering if Charlotte would handle it with grace, or if she would turn shrewish.

He recalled reading that if you move a beehive a few feet away from its original spot, the bees are unable to adjust, and so die of starvation. Even if Andrew moved next door, it would disrupt Benjy’s notion of home. People loved to say kids are adaptable, but that seemed like the kind of bullshit that grown-ups said to make their fuck-ups seem less consequential.

From downstairs, the doorbell. He descended the steps, opened the door to a stout policeman telling him that something had happened to his son, and to come along to the hospital, hurry, a distant neighbor found Benjy unconscious in the mud of the creek bed behind his house. In Andrew, a flash of irrational guilt, as if through his flirtations with that word, divorce, he had brought this pain down on his son.

Peeling out of the driveway for the hospital, he nearly hit Charlotte. He waved her inside so they could go together to be with their son. When they arrived, the doctor showed them X-rays of Benjy’s chest so they could see for themselves the amount of water he had taken into his lungs. He showed signs of hypoxia (lowered levels of oxygen in the blood) and ischemia (loss of blood flow to the extremities), but there were no indications of the neurological damage that typically accompanied those side-effects of near-drowning.

After several hours under observation, hooked up to fluids and machines that measured his vitals, Benjy was recovered enough to go home. A nurse said she’d never seen anything like it. As the family checked out, the doctor approached them.

—Something truly inexplicable has happened, he said. —I want to study Benjy further, with your permission.

They demurred: Andrew because he thought, Divorce, and he didn’t want anything more to infringe on his son’s life; Charlotte because when the doctor said, Your child should have drowned, she remembered something the midwife said at Benjy’s birth—If you believe the stories, this child will never drown—and Charlotte was ready to believe in something stronger than art.

On the way home, Benjy fell asleep with his head in her lap. She watched his rib cage rise and fall with the gentle rhythm of his breath. Though she was not a religious person, Charlotte thought, Children are a gift from god. Out the car window, the full moon followed them. She wondered why it had taken her until now to consider the possibility of mystery in the world when for years she had looked upon this child, this luminous moon suspended in the night sky.


Benjy was born a month early, while Andrew was on a business trip. A frightening silence followed Charlotte’s final push.

—Why isn’t he crying? she asked, too tired to lift her head off the sheets to see for herself.

—A mermaid birth, the midwife said. —Look.

There was Benjy, afloat inside the still intact amniotic sac, looking peaceful, as if he hadn’t been born at all. The midwife broke the sac, the waters splashed to the floor. Then, the robust screaming of a child tasting air for the first time.

—Born in caul, the midwife said.—These babies are known as caulbearers. They are very special.

She clipped the umbilical cord, wrapped the baby in a blanket, and handed him to Charlotte. Part of the broken sac still covered his face, but when Charlotte went to peel it back, the midwife exclaimed, —Don’t! Then rummaged in her bag and produced a white paper bag. Carefully, with a gloved hand, she peeled back the sac and spread it on top of the bag. —If you believe the stories, this child will never drown.

—Hmm, said Charlotte, the words washing over her. In her exhaustion, she could only admire Benjy’s dark hair, his large dark eyes. He looked just like Andrew. Beautiful Andrew.

—I believe that the way a baby is born sets the tone for his life. Your boy was born in total peace. And he brought something of the other world with him. She held up the caul. —You’ll want to keep this. Give it to him when he’s old enough to understand.

—Understand what? Charlotte asked, eyes still fixed on Benjy. But the midwife didn’t answer. She was busy tidying the room. Though Charlotte had been upset at first, now she was glad that Andrew hadn’t been able to get back from his trip in time—that she was alone with this creature whose heart had beat inside of her for the past many months.

When Andrew arrived later that day, Charlotte told him what the midwife had said, a smile in her voice. But Andrew barely registered the words. Here was this red, squalling thing that shared his name. Charlotte hadn’t taken Andrew’s name, and though he pooh-poohed her apologies as unnecessary—he was progressive, after all—he was surprised to realize that it had bothered him. It felt as if they were somehow less of a family. Neither of them believed in God, and without a shared name, marriage seemed a most fragile office.

—Look, she said, holding out the white paper bag with the caul on it.

He glanced up to see a very unassuming bit of brown, something resembling a sausage casing. In the weeks following the birth, Charlotte became absorbed in Benjy’s routine, and the midwife’s words slipped from memory, just another line of flattery received by a new mother. The caul remained out on the kitchen counter until one day Charlotte, tired of looking at it, stuffed it into a freezer bag and put it away in one of the closets.


When the family arrived home from the hospital on the day Benjy should have drowned, they dressed him in fleece pajamas because the doctor had advised them to keep him warm. They took turns kissing the boy’s cheek, then left him to dreams.

—I think we still have half a bottle of Cab in the cupboard, Charlotte whispered as she pulled Benjy’s door closed. She buried her face in Andrew’s neck and kissed him, wrapping her arms around his waist. She wanted to pour a glass of red and sit on the back deck, watch the moonlight wash the limestone cliffs silver, recover from the day’s events together. She wanted to talk about what the midwife had said those many years ago, find the caul, and then go upstairs and collapse into each other, make love slow and hard and fall asleep dreaming of their child who had conquered water, who would not be consumed.

Andrew held her but didn’t kiss her head, as he would normally have done. Strange, he thought, that even after all the years, even after a child, love could relinquish its grip on you, and quickly. But what did he expect of an emotion that essentially required two people to stare at a Rorschach test together and spontaneously, eternally see the same shapes? At that moment, he felt no great emotion, only exhaustion. He wanted to be alone in bed.

Sensing his hesitation, Charlotte pulled back. Before today, she might have pouted, but after what happened to Benjy, the many small injuries of her marriage didn’t matter quite so much. She told Andrew to get some rest, that they could all use some rest, then took his hand and kissed the knob of his thumb. Andrew watched as she retreated down the stairs. He had made up his mind; he planned to tell her by the end of the week, after they’d had time to move beyond Benjy’s accident.


After ransacking the downstairs closets, Charlotte found the caul. It was stuffed in a box alongside a pair of baby overalls, an unused blue “baby diary,” and several envelopes of photos, mostly of Benjy making those classic method-acting baby faces that were probably just caused by gas.

She worried that, upon touching air, the caul would turn to powder and blow away; she held her breath as she pulled it gently from the Ziploc bag. She brought it to her nose and sniffed, then touched it, gingerly. Thank you, she thought. Thank you.

Over the next several hours, she drained one and a half bottles of St. Supery and clicked through all of the links that came up when she typed in caulbearer, ten pages’ worth. She learned that only one in 800,000 babies were born caulbearers, though another site claimed the number was one in 80,000. She learned that Alexander the Great was one; that in medieval times, women sold the caul to sailors because it was thought to bring good luck; that babies born behind the veil had psychic powers, or at least acute intuition; that caulbearers were sometimes killed in infancy because they were viewed as “natural born rulers” who threatened succession to the throne.

She was drunk by the time she got to, with its pentagrams and intrusive music, some requiem or another, all sturm and drang. The headline on the homepage stated: Caulbearers must serve Mankind and help men and women understand the world in which we live. She pored over the section titled Bringing up the Caulbearer Child, as if Benjy were now a stranger to her:

The caulbearer is more sensitive than the average person, so they are more prone to extreme feelings, and may try to deal with the pain with drugs, or take their own life because of it. They pay a high price for their gifts because the truth of the world is too painful for them. Be on the lookout for the suffering of your caulbearer. Sometimes a painful experience in life will activate their gifts, or cause those gifts to turn on them.

The cabernet churned in her stomach, sending tiny acidic belches up her dry throat. As she scanned the rest of the site, she felt dizzy. Charlotte looked at Benjy’s caul on the counter next to her computer, shriveled and brown like the skin of a date. She lurched to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet, then rinsed her mouth over the sink. It was time to go to bed. These were just stories, and she was drunk. Benjy was fine. He was a good boy, maybe unusually smart or unusually quiet, but otherwise normal. He had survived an ordeal, but maybe it had just been a stroke of good luck.

After making her way upstairs to the bedroom, she noticed Andrew wasn’t in the bed. Feeling sorry for herself, she tiptoed back downstairs and climbed into Benjy’s racecar twin, placing her head close enough to his on the pillow that she could smell his skin. Perhaps it was her overtired, drunken brain, but he smelled briny as the sea.


They decided to keep Benjy home from school for a day, even though the doctor said he would be strong enough to return immediately. The morning unfolded peacefully, like a holiday, a pot of split pea soup bubbling on the stove, Dave Brubeck on the stereo. Benjy watched old movies on TBS, leaning against Charlotte on the couch while she read a book, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which Andrew had been trying to get her to read for years. Yesterday’s thunderstorm had broken the heat. A breeze moved through the neighborhood, which had a workday hush about it, the street empty save for the occasional dog walker.

From time to time, Charlotte looked over to the kitchen, catching Andrew’s eye and smiling dreamily. If Andrew didn’t know better, he would think she was a woman in love. As if she did not realize it was already too late for them. As if she did not want to be happy, but to remain in this strange arrangement of bitter arguments and good sex.

Still, he would miss this, the moments of quiet domesticity. Seeing the look on Charlotte’s face, he understood that she did not expect him to say divorce, and he felt suddenly the excruciating pressure of his announcement, because now it was a secret, not something they both felt to be inevitable.

He removed the Dutch oven from the heat, added a few shakes of white pepper to the soup and stirred. His fingers smelled of smoked ham hock. He ladled out a portion for Benjy and walked it over to him on the couch.

—Eat up, champ.

—Sit. Benjy gestured at the empty spot next to him.

Andrew sat down. At his arrival, Charlotte closed the book and set it on the ottoman. They sat stiffly on either side of their son as he slurped his soup. A bit of green dribbled down Benjy’s chin and he swiped at it with the back of his hand, an unbearably childlike gesture that seized Andrew’s heart. Sweet, oblivious boy, he thought. He felt his body big with the secret it housed; it was like a freight train barreling down on his son, who could do nothing, not even brace for the impact. Poor children, products of their parents’ entanglements.

Andrew decided he would tell Charlotte tomorrow. Better not to get too comfortable; better not to mistake relief for love.


The next day, they sent Benjy off to school on the bus, and Andrew told Charlotte he wanted a divorce. She stopped what she was doing—spinning salad for lunch in studio—but the plastic contraption continued to whir. She brought a hand down, hard, to stop it.

—Why? she asked.

—Because every day shouldn’t be a battle. He pinched his forehead between his thumb and forefinger. —Because I proposed too soon. We didn’t know each other.

Charlotte folded her hands in front of her, digging nails into the backs of her hands to keep from crying. —You said you knew. You said you never felt that way about anyone before.

—And I hadn’t. That carried us, for a while.

—What about Benjy?

—Kids are resilient, he said, hating himself for the words. He saw the Hawking book on the kitchen counter by her keys and gestured toward it. —Hawking would say that the universe is simply unfolding as it is, and we’re just part of that unfolding. There’s comfort in that, I guess.

—For whom? She shook her head and stared beyond him, through the window that looked out on Hurst Creek. Quietly, she collected the book and her keys from the counter. She then rummaged in the hall closet for the Ziploc bag containing the caul and left the house for her studio. Once there, she pulled the black-out curtains, started the music, and grabbed a tube of blue-black paint. She thought back to the day Benjy was born. She had been so glad that he had been spared the trauma of birth, protected in his little liquid bubble as he pushed through the bony chamber of her pelvis. It had seemed auspicious, as if suffering would pass him by. She wanted so badly to believe that.

She squeezed a line of paint into the center of the largest whorl. Then she took Benjy’s caul out of its baggie, placed it carefully atop the wet streak, and proceeded to paint around and around and around. Finally, she realized what she was doing.


After two days, Andrew jimmied the lock on the studio door and pushed his way in. Charlotte’s cheeks were hollow, her eyes underscored by dark circles. Midnight blue paint coated her hands and arms; some had even gotten in her hair.

—Look, she said. —Look what I made.

The whorls on the canvas had grown so deep that they appeared like the rim of a volcano. She had brushed a stroke of silver over the caul.

—I’m worried about you, Charlotte.

She waved Hawking’s book at Andrew. —This is bullshit, she said. —This is your problem, that you read this bullshit.

She pointed to a passage. Andrew took the book and read: If there really is a complete unified theory that governs everything, it presumably also determines your actions. But it does so in a way that is impossible to calculate for an organism that is as complicated as a human being. The reason we say that humans have free will is because we can’t predict what they will do.

—See? She pointed to the caul. —It was fate, you and me. Our child is a caulbearer! If that isn’t proof of some kind of plan…You should have seen him, the way he floated inside, like a little merman, like a sea king…She paused, suddenly panicked. —How is he? How is Benj?

—He’s fine, Charlotte. He’s doing fine. I told him yesterday, and he handled it about as well as could be expected. He didn’t cry, even. He came home from school early today, though, some kind of stomach bug. He paused. —Why don’t you come inside and eat something? Lie down for a while.

—No, she said. —We have to help Benj, he could be hurting. He could hurt himself. They feel everything, these babies, they’re just like big sponges for the world. You shouldn’t have left him alone.

—He’s fine, he talked to the school counselor today. He reached for her shoulder. —Come inside, Charlotte. Benjy needs you. He needs to know you’re OK. He paused —Are you?

She pushed her hair behind her ears. —It doesn’t matter how I am, it’s Benjy who’ll suffer.

—I know. We’ll help him.

Inside the house, Benjy sat on the couch wrapped in a blanket, facing away from them. He didn’t turn at the sound of the front door closing. It was dark, the daylight outside grown too wan to illuminate the house.

—Go to him, Andrew said. —He needs you. Then he disappeared into his study.

As Charlotte approached, she noticed that Benjy held in his hand a framed family photo, one from a Hindu wedding they had attended in Montreal years ago, when Benjy was just a baby. She remembered that she wore a ruby sari, danced alongside the groom as he rode to the temple on a white horse. She remembered bursting into tears just before she was supposed to give a speech. What were they about, those tears? Something to do with Andrew. Were they not happy, not even then, married only a year, and with a new baby? She could not remember.

She lowered herself gently onto the couch behind Benjy and went to rub his back, but at the shift caused by her new weight, he slid off the couch and onto the floor, where he lay on his side, motionless, still clutching the photo. It was then she noticed the smell of vomit, the puddle on the couch, the thin, glistening trail of it on his chin and shirt. When she knelt to roll him over, she noticed his eyes moving rapidly beneath closed lids.

Benjy, Benjy, Benjy, she whispered.

She tried to take the photograph out of his hand, but his knuckles were white with the grip; she could not dislodge it. She pressed her face close to his mouth and felt his breath against her cheek. She did not call for Andrew. It was happening. She waited, rocking him, rocking him.

His mother’s pain is the shining blue of an ice lake. He feels it spread in him, freezing his veins, spilling out as icicles from his nostrils. It makes him think of a story he read about a man who freezes to death in the Klondike. The pain slow and easeful but deadly. His mother is cold, though it is August in Montreal. She holds him close. She kisses the back of his head again and again. Now he can smell her tears. To him they smell of the salt sea. She pretends to cry for the bride, but it’s herself she cries for. He feels her cold body against his and he hears the words she has spoken to her friend, not the one who has been married before a sacred fire that almost caught the hem of her dress, but another one, another girl from the college. She says, I don’t think he loves me.

His father’s pain startles him. Not for its existence—he has been initiated, now; he understands this is something people do, have pain. His father’s pain is ugly, a traffic jam, all red, blinking lights and honking horns, slicing words and puffed cheeks. It is hot as the rings of an electric burner that his mother tells him not to touch. But he reaches out a hand toward his father, and he touches him, and he feels his hot skin, the stubble of his face, and he understands, he understands that pain is love and disappointment and regret and doubt and sacrifice and children, yes, even children, even him, he is pain, he is someone else’s pain. Cry, Papa, he instructs his father, but he can’t, he won’t, and his pain becomes a cold, gray thing, a hard, metallic, heavy thing that he swallows whole.

—Mama, Benjy said, coming to.

—Come here, baby, Charlotte said. —Come here.

She wiped his mouth with her shirt hem, but instead of holding him close, which was all he wanted her to do, she said, —Tell me, Benj. Tell me what you see for us. Tell me about next year. This is a mistake, isn’t it?

She took him by the shoulders, and he shook from the force of her grip. Her eyes roved over his face. She did not understand his gift. That what he saw—the map of her pain—she already knew.

—There’s still time, but you have to tell me. Please, Benj. Please, why won’t you say? Say it! Then, she looked alarmed. —Oh, god, she said before pulling him to her and holding on so tight that his breath left him.

He squeezed his eyes shut and tried for a dizzy, airless second to conjure their lives tomorrow, next week, next year. He felt the wetness of her tears on his neck.

—Just say it, she moaned. Please. Please.

But he couldn’t see the future; he saw only the past, its momentary joys, its lingering pains. He clutched close to his mother, felt her solidity, breathed in her scent like laundry. He wished never to have a past or a future, but to live in this eternal present. The three of them together, always.