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from the August 2018 issue

Open Hands

Panamanian writer Cheri Lewis observes a household inexplicably deluged with infants.

The babies started arriving that summer. I remember the first one so well. I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth when, in the mirror, I spotted the reflection of a shadow making its way down the hall. I leaned out the door and saw a baby, naked and covered in dirt. He crawled right down the center of the living room and headed straight for my sister, who was sitting on the couch, reading a book. He rested against her knees and hugged her. She tenderly lifted him off the floor and, for the rest of the day, they were inseparable. When my mom came by, she immediately treated him like a member of the family. She and my sister set up a makeshift cradle in my sister’s bedroom and that’s where he slept that night.

One morning, a few days later, the twins showed up: a boy and girl. Like the first baby, they arrived naked and dirty. We found them sleeping in the garden. None of us had spotted them entering the garden, so they must’ve slipped in at night or in the early morning while we were sleeping. My sister insisted that the new babies sleep in her room too, so she and my mom got to work settling them in. She said that they kept her entertained and that she’d take care of all three of them. I have to concede that, as babies go, they were almost no trouble. I never heard them cry, or fuss, or laugh. They didn’t topple vases or break anything valuable. They just crawled all over the place, as if they were searching for something. When they were overcome by exhaustion, they went straight into my sister’s arms. She looked after them without a word of protest.

A week later, four more babies showed up: three boys and a girl. Sitting at the breakfast table early one morning, we felt a cold breeze. We turned and saw four silhouettes standing in the doorway, sunlight at their backs. Four faceless shadows studying us from outside. These babies were older, and they entered the house walking upright. They fanned out around us, opened the cabinets, and rummaged through them. My mother picked up the basket of bread and butter sitting on the table and offered it to them along with some oranges. The babies grabbed the oranges with their grubby hands and devoured the fruit in just a few minutes. Their fingernails were long and caked with dirt, so we figured they’d been wandering on their own for quite a while. That night we rearranged the furniture and bedded them down on the living room floor. My mother, sister, and I went upstairs to my room to talk.

“This situation’s getting out of hand,” I told them. “We can’t have all these babies in our house.” 

My sister disagreed. “Since they’ve come to our home, we should make them feel welcome. How can we turn our backs on those innocent children?”

Mama kept her thoughts to herself as she listened to our arguments. She looked worried. She had lit a cigarette and was standing by the window, smoking and staring outside. “More are on their way,” she told us with conviction, “and that can’t be good.”

My sister and I looked at each other with fear in our eyes, but we didn’t say a word. That night the three of us slept upstairs in our mother's room, huddled together in her bed, like we’d done when we were kids: Mama in the middle and my sister and me on either side of her. I didn’t sleep well. I thought the dawn would never come. I felt sick to my stomach, but I didn’t want to get out of bed. I knew that, even if I did get up, the nausea wouldn’t go away.

My eyes were still open when the sky changed color. When I heard noises downstairs, I bolted upright in bed. My mother and sister reacted the same way. I could tell they’d had a bad night, too. As the sun’s first rays were filtering through the curtains, we resolved, with just a look at each other, to get out of bed and go down to the living room.

The house was silent. The only sound was our footsteps creaking on the wood floors. My heart was pounding so loud it drowned out my breathing.

When we reached the staircase, we saw the seven babies we’d put to bed in the living room the night before. They were standing stock still in the front of the room, next to the bookshelf, looking up, waiting for us. Behind them were twenty, thirty, maybe even fifty babies. Too many to count. Through the big picture window that looked out at the garden, we saw even more, their eyes trained on us. The house wasn’t in disarray, but judging by the way the drawers hung open, it was clear the babies had searched through them.

We slowly descended the stairs under the children’s implacable gaze. When we reached the last step, one of the babies approached us. He was the first baby to arrive at our house. I recognized him from the dark birthmark close to his left shoulder. As he walked toward us, I was surprised to see that he wasn’t crawling anymore. He passed between my mother and me, took my sister’s hand, and drew her away from us and over to his group. The other babies immediately encircled her and grabbed hold of her skirt. The girl baby who had been the last to arrive the day before latched onto her other hand. My sister gave us a frightened look. A single tear pooled in her eyes and, without rolling down her cheek, splashed onto the carpet. That was the way my sister cried; it always seemed strange to me. Gradually, the babies started to leave, taking her away with them. I tried to stop them, but when I took my first step, they all stopped, turned their heads and fixed their gaze on me.

My mother grabbed my shirt and yanked me back. “It’s inevitable. There’s nothing we can do.”

“I want to say good-bye to her,” I told her. “Let me say good-bye to her!” I shouted to them, louder and louder, but they pretended not to hear me. My sister left with them without so much as a backward glance. Her shoulders were shaking so I knew she was crying. When they’d all left the house, I broke free of my mother’s grip and ran outside. The last memory I have of my sister was her silhouette fading in the distance, surrounded by those tiny heads.

That was the last time we welcomed anyone into our home.

“Abrir Las Manos” © Cheri Lewis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Pamela Carmell. All rights reserved. 

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