The Ordered Child by Ledia Xhoga
Aesthetically speaking, Svetlana was imperfect due to a sudden defect in the molding machine. Her lower lip was missing, or not actually missing, it just seemed stuck to the inside of her upper lip, which stretched towards her chin like a long tongue. But otherwise she was a perfectly functional model and, considering their concerns with costs, the Quality Control had been lenient year after year, allowing her to give birth instead of discarding her to the bin. So now, there she was-- Svetlana Guremonski, a birth model, plugged in to a monitor and staring at the ceiling with her liquid and expressive eyes.
8 minutes and 12 seconds more until the baby’s arrival. Nurse Alexei moved closer to Svetlana. After two sleepless nights, he needed a rest, but his body posture betrayed an inclination to assist and serve. He was capable of nothing else in fact. He had always been a shoulder to lean on, regardless of what misery he might be stewing in. And, tonight, misery it was. He was once again thinking about the son they had just ordered at the very clinic where he worked. His wife was terribly excited about it. She anticipated one of those fantastic babies who spoke several languages by age two and wrote dissertations by eleven, like her nephew Vladislav, who discussed political and environmental affairs with unprecedented passion at ten years old. Alexei feared that he might not love a child like that. He had known plenty of young geniuses and had concluded that they were all narcissists who often took refuge in ideas other than people. He had often felt humiliated by Vladislav and his piercing intelligence which seemed to highlight his own inadequacies, especially his lack of culture. Still a sore point was a dinner party where Vladislav had tried to engage him in a conversation with confusing questions and then, faced with Alexei’s silence, had rolled his eyes and sighed in disappointment before turning to another guest.
“But of what use would Plato and Archimedes be to a nurse?” Alexei’s wife had said afterwards. Alexei had blushed and had avoided Vladislav from that day on.
He checked the monitor and focused on Svetlana’s Japanese kimono of a midnight blue and in a pattern of fat, pink roses that were now crushed under her body. Once again, he had the sensation that the roses were real and so was she. This strange condition had persisted for a while and he found it difficult to chase away his thoughts even though they had long ceased to fascinate him. He was also tired of those ridiculous mental games that he had concocted and played by himself, like when he would allow his thoughts to persist, a kind of pretend-indifference, a mock-indulgence if you will. He was, in essence, hoping to work around himself, act standoffish towards his own thoughts, since he was able to alienate them quicker that way than through his conscious attempts to do so. It was a trick they had taught him in therapy a few years back, right after their son Alyosha got sick. A more straight-forward strategy for dealing with his current problem was asking to be assigned to Svetlana every night, presuming that her bruised knee, crushed toes, and irregular face would dispel the illusion that she was real. This latter strategy had backfired; he had ended up feeling an absurd kind pity for her. He would wipe her brow or caress her forehead occasionally, praying that nobody was noticing. Today, however, his pity didn’t bother him as it distracted him from thinking about their baby who had a good chance of turning out exactly like Vladislav, which is to say without any real needs, unless he got sick. And how often could you count on Vladislav to catch a cold? He was always in his room reading and writing, wearing that ridiculous scarf around his neck. He had no desire to play outside. Whenever someone invited him to a birthday party, he disclosed to his parents a calculated ratio of his projected enjoyment versus the probable one.
The prospect of having a child who would tirelessly analyze emotions until they seemed like old clothes terrified Alexei. He would have much preferred to have a child the usual way, come what may, but they were too old already. Earlier that year, they’d seen so many commercials of beautiful, ordered children, with glowing faces and startling talents, so, naturally, they had been tempted by machine birth. Plus, Alexei worked at the clinic himself. He had seen how happy the parents were, his wife had said, hadn’t he? The truth was they needed someone. Nearly a decade had passed, but Alexei and his wife still missed their Alyosha. Little Alyosha, only five years old, basking in the sun, his overall straps mistakenly crisscrossed in front instead of in the back, or laughing on the porch, his head and body leaning back as if just about to fall.
Alexei turned away from Svetlana and glanced at the delivery room. The room was extremely long and sparse, a seemingly infinite corridor. The checkered yellow floors, the scattered-about engineers, the white walls with the attached, glassy monitors diminished gradually in the distance until they appeared as a single speck. In close enough proximity, Dr. Minaous and Eng. Youol were observing and discussing the data of the impending delivery. “Engineered conformational pathologies.” “Specific cyclin-dependent temperatures.” “DNA-dependent pituitary radicals.” The precision of their phrases sobered him up as usual. He tried to look at Svetlana anew-- she was a simple device, after all, unlike him and the doctors and the babies to come. And yet, how often he had thought of Svetlana when he wasn’t at work, how often he had told her things. “It might be a mistake ordering a child. A philosopher, rather! I’ll be useless to him.”
Perhaps it was just nerves, like at the beginning of a trip, always right at the start, even though he might have been excited by it beforehand, and then that secret desire to stay in and go to work instead. But how could he not be nervous? The delivery of their baby was taking place in the adjacent hall. It was decided that they would receive one of Anna’s babies. Anna was the brand new model, only one year old, but she took half of Pavilion 778 with her gigantic body. When they first brought her in, they had settled her on a special birth bed so high off the ground that he had to raise his arms and stand on his toes just so he could touch her wrist. Eventually the management had built an escalator and a new platform just so that the nurses could stand in between her legs. It had been worth it. The revenues had surpassed the costs already. Anna gave birth to four babies a day and there wasn’t even a need for maintenance after each delivery, unlike with Svetlana. Like a self-cleaning oven, someone had joked.
A loud gong-like sound announced that it was time. He got closer to Svetlana’s legs that spread apart, divulging the dark space that it always seemed to him so wondrous, especially when that flaming, lava-like substance emerged from it during birth. Standing in between her legs, at that particular moment, reminded him of standing at the edge of the Tosna Canyon just South of Saint Petersburg on a very windy day and taking in all the beauty of the diffused sunlight over the river banks, and of his all too common predilection of standing near the edge and flirting with the idea of death—it would only take a second, no, even less, to discover the big mystery. The big mystery! It had always seemed to him like one of those detective stories he read during his commute, where a complex investigation that had been building up for pages let him down in the end. While glancing towards the window, at the old oaks sprinting alongside the train, he would give a laugh and say “So what?”
In the monitor above his head, shades of maroon flitted by. Then, a fluorescent silver seeped in and he was able to detect the shape of a baby. Svetlana’s body then started to convulse as if some invisible giant had just sat on her chest and was shamelessly doing pushups. Her mouth opened and gasped. Her long lip flapped and her chin touched her chest. A multitude of red lights flashed behind him. Only a few more minutes before he’d hear the baby’s cry.
Alyosha’s face had been so beautiful, resembling those sweet, but serious babies you might see on old prints dating back to the Byzantine Empire. Alexei had fallen in love with him right away. He had a halo that distinguished him from all the other babies. After the accident he had loved him even more. Picturing his son’s deep-set eyes, Alexei shivered the same way as when a door was left open at night and a cold draft sneaked in.
He placed the new baby on the roll-away bed. Distracted, he had worked without paying attention to what he was doing. The beauty of the child took him by surprise. A girl. Her glowing, pink face and erratic hand movements calmed him down. She was crying with her mouth open like a lion cub, but it took him a second to realize that there was no sound at all. The girl was mute. He leaned forward in surprise and placed his hands on his hips. He glanced at her for a few more seconds and then started pacing around the room. The models were thoroughly tested. There had never been anything wrong with any of the babies so far. Was Svetlana getting too old? She was already four. Or, could it be that she had listened to him? Impossible. And, yet, hadn’t she come through for him?
From the corner of his eye, he saw Nurse Dimitri in a cerulean uniform, rolling in a child, a fine baby boy. “Say hello to your son, Alexei.”
Alexei paused for a while before responding. With his eyes focused on the baby, his baby, he then said “Dimitri, I’ll keep this girl instead. It won’t be a problem, will it?”
“It might. You’d have to check with the upper management. You had wanted a son, hadn’t you?”
“I changed my mind. At any rate, we’ll still have to report it. You see, she’s mute.”
Dimitri tilted his head in surprise. “Mute? Why, that’s impossible.”
“Take a look for yourself.”
Dimitri looked in. Then, he turned to Alexei and crossed his arms. “Special schools and doctors. Are you sure?”
Alexei leaned over the bed and took the girl in his arms. “I’ll keep her.”
He was looking forward to showing her to his wife who was probably in the main lobby by now.
Later on that evening, two technicians inspected Svetlana thoroughly and found nothing wrong with her. But they discarded her immediately two days later, when a baby boy was born with six fingers on his left hand. Alexei was assigned to a new model. That same night, Eng. Youou who regularly inspected the videos of all nurses noticed something odd in Alexei’s movements around Svetlana and opened an investigation. The nurses had been trained to perform the tasks in a meticulous order. Alexei hadn’t followed the procedures. He also seemed taken by Svetlana in a disturbing way—wiping her forehead, whispering in her ear. Had he gone mad perhaps? It was only due to his long years of service, that they would let him go for negligence, rather than criminal intent. Eng. Youou was careful and recommended Alexei for early retirement, ensuring that he never worked for another clinic again. When coming across his request for a baby transfer, he denied it quickly, without thinking twice. Alexei had intended to damage the babies, he was convinced. They had been lucky to avoid a major disaster, very lucky.
But that would all happen later on. At that moment, while holding the baby in his arms, Alexei was far from suspecting that his future held in store that particular turn of events. He brought the baby’s face next to his. Her cheek, with her warmth and smoothness, reminded him of the rose petals he’d touched fleetingly while visiting the Botanical Garden with Alyosha on a hot day of July. He closed his eyes and admired the beauty of the girl’s silence. It seemed to him that it brought him closer to something sacred in the world. It seemed to him that it helped him understand the big mystery.
© Ledia Xhoga 2013
Ledia Xhoga grew up in Tirana, Albania, where she studied foreign languages and translating. She now lives in Brooklyn and spends her free time writing fiction, a graphic novel, and renting films from the public library. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Kneejerk, Untoward Magazine and other online publications.
The Ordered Child was read by Katherine Barron for the Invention & Discovery Show on 5th June 2013