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The Cry

pogingen tot impactGeplaatst door Joost Vandecasteele za, oktober 13, 2018 09:38:04

At night it was his turn, always at precisely three o’clock. Then it was Paul who would have to drag himself from the double bed to go and feed the baby. The hungry howling never came one minute earlier or later, as if his son had been born with an built-in atomic clock. The thought once crossed Paul’s mind that this could explain the baby’s somewhat larger than normal head.

It’s true they had never actually discussed this division of labor. Once it was clear that nothing could wake Laura up at that time of night, it simply happened. Laura never reacted, no matter how long and piercingly her own child cried. Once Paul even put him in bed beside her, bawling at the top of his voice, but not a peep came from her. Or perhaps she was very good at pretending.

But he didn’t mind at all because he genuinely enjoyed these intimate moments between father and son, particularly because such moments were rare. He worked long hours away from his family while Laura stayed at home and combined motherhood with freelance work. She did this even though it exhausted her and he earned enough to support them. But her pride wouldn’t let her live off him, and having nothing else to do except change diapers and warm the baby’s milk would have driven her crazy. Paul always felt that this was the most important reason he had committed himself to her so many years ago, this reluctance to be defined simply as someone’s wife or mother. These nightly feeding sessions, moreover, gave him an opportunity to surf the web on his smartphone.

The baby’s window was open because of the lingering, drowsy heat of late summer, but it was wonderfully quiet outside apart from the sound of an occasional motorbike or a passing siren, even though their house wasn’t far from the center of town. In a comfortable chair, with his son on his lap and a gentle summer breeze wrapping itself around them, Paul felt truly blessed. As if this was exactly how things were meant to be.

Except . . .

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The first time Paul heard the cry, he immediately thought of a cat outside somewhere, resisting copulation. The second time, on the following night, the sound was nothing at all like a pussycat even though there was no real difference in tone. On the third night, it sounded like the cry of someone in need, a drunken street beggar maybe, caught up in a one-sided brawl. On the fourth night, the cry was far too shrill to have been produced by a human being, but he didn’t have the faintest idea what sort of creature could shriek like that.

The sound was always too brief to identify, and the only thing Paul knew for sure was that it wasn’t far away. A street or two at the most. There was never a second cry, never any reaction, just a screech that chilled him to the bone.

After a few weeks, the cry had become an unappeasable obsession. He had to find its source. He tried everything, from recording it on his phone and listening to it over and over again, to leaving for work earlier than usual and searching the neighborhood for possible clues. Sometimes he’d patrol the area for more than an hour, even though he knew he’d get to work hopelessly late. He had to find out what it was. Being left in limbo was eating away at him. But he found nothing at all, not one single clue. And he couldn’t work out any possible explanation. Yet he had to keep trying or the thoughts churning around in his head would destroy him.

The sound was always too brief to identify, and there was never a second cry, never any reaction, just a screech that chilled him to the bone.

He decided to do it on a Tuesday night when he’d run the least risk of being spotted outside, as opposed to the end of the week, when students sense the coming weekend and have the urge to seek each other out. He spent the whole day at the office, considering the best strategy, working out precisely how long he’d need to get dressed, prepare the bottle, and take the baby out of his crib, and how far away from home he could get before the milk got cold. He worked it out down to the last second and felt more pride in these calculations than in any project he was actually paid for. If only his colleagues knew why he didn’t have lunch with them that day and why he kept to himself all day long. If they had known, they’d have laughed in his face. Or worse, asked the boss to sack him.

That night Paul settled down in bed with his wife, his phone under the pillow. It would start vibrating at exactly 2:28. But he didn’t think he’d even be able to get to sleep with all the tension he was feeling.

Yet several hours later a buzzing close to his right ear made him start awake. For a while the vibrations seemed part of a nightmare until he regained enough clarity to remember his plan. He bolted upright, shocked by the loss of those valuable seconds, and made a grab for his shirt, which was draped over a chair by the bed.

But he was too noisy, apparently. When he’d barely gotten one leg into his pants, he became aware of a soft groaning from the bed. Paul froze in position and watched Laura turn over. Her eyes were still shut, but her sleep had clearly been interrupted. A howling baby didn’t disturb her in the least but a few thuds in the bedroom did, he thought. Yet he did think he should still grab the chance. Time was pressing. There were only twenty minutes left. He just had to slip on his shoes and the plan was still doable.

“Where are you going?” Laura groaned, opening one eye.

“…Giving the baby his bottle.”

“But he isn’t crying.”

“Not yet. But he’ll want his milk soon.”

“I’d like to do it,” she said, flinging the sheet back.

“No, stay where you are. You were so deeply asleep.”

“Not anymore.”

Paul knew she was far too stubborn to change her mind, so he had to stand and watch her get into her long T-shirt. A little later he heard the baby howling and in the other room his wife’s soothing voice as she fed their child. But he felt no tenderness for that intimate moment. Instead, for the first time since the birth, he felt a sickening contempt for her. How dare she sabotage his perfect plan?

The next day his scorn for his wife hadn’t subsided, and in the evening he responded curtly and with annoyance to all Laura’s questions. After a tiff about nothing, she went to bed and he stayed up watching television until well after midnight. In the end he drifted into a restless sleep in his armchair. Then, at precisely three o’clock, their child started bawling and Laura once more slept through it, completely unaffected.

He heard the cry out in night, but it seemed different now, like his feelings for his wife. Even though Paul wouldn’t have been able to explain this interpretation, it really did seem to be calling to him from the darkness. There were no words and it didn’t even call his name, but he knew he was expected, that he had to go out and find it. And the cry kept echoing in his head, all day long.

He had to think of a new plan, one that didn’t run the risk of waking his wife. He again chose a Tuesday night and the same time scheme. But that afternoon he left the office and went looking for a drugstore, having spent the earlier part of the afternoon doing research online.

Of course he didn’t slip too many pills in her wine. Of course he was concerned when she said she felt queasy. Of course he checked that she was breathing regularly once she was sleeping. But when she didn’t wake up, no matter how loudly he clapped his hands close to her ear, Paul felt immense relief. He set his alarm to wake him even earlier and immediately fell asleep, deeper than ever.

The vibrating phone woke him immediately and Paul shot into action. He slipped out of bed while Laura continued to lie on her side, motionless, her back turned toward him. He quickly left the room and then, with no one to hinder him, carefully swaddled his sleeping son in the baby sling. Then he left the house with an extra-hot bottle of milk, so it would cool to exactly the right temperature during the foray.

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Everything went to plan. Paul turned the corner, and at exactly three o’clock the baby woke up hungry. But the bottle was thrust into its mouth before it could even start yelling. Paul prowled through the neighborhood, intent on discovering the source of the cry, feeding his son as he moved through the night.

Nevertheless, he was startled when he heard it: loud, piercing, and very close. Once again the sound seemed different, almost grateful this time. Surely he wasn’t the only one who could hear it? But no lights went on and no dog barked. Paul turned around. The bottle was almost empty. If he waited a while, his son would fall asleep again. But there was no time to lose.

He broke into a run and raced to the next street, the bottle still stuffed into the tiny mouth. The baby lost his grip on the teat and burst into angry sobs. Paul pushed the bottle down without pausing to look, until the wailing stopped.
By the time he reached the right street the child had dozed off again, snug in the baby sling. Paul scanned his surroundings for any sign of life. But all he saw were houses hardly different from his own, with families who were hardly different either. He cautiously proceeded further, opening the flaps of door mail slots, peering into garbage cans. But nothing struck him as being unusual. So there he was, his baby pressed against his body, feeling deeply disappointed. He walked past all the houses one more time, and then slunk off.

Paul was almost back at his own front door when he saw it, half-hidden in the shadow of the foliage. What first caught his attention was the twinkling of the streetlamp reflected off the metal. When he got closer he realized that an envelope had been pinned to the tree with a long knitting needle. The force needed to jab it in so deep made Paul suspect some kind of superhuman strength. He wrenched the envelope from the needle and went inside the house to put his son back in his crib, then snuggled down in the chair beside him.

He ripped the envelope open. The only thing inside it was a key, almost identical to the one to his own front door. There was nothing to say to which house the key belonged. But his broad smile betrayed his pride in his discovery.

He ripped the envelope open. The only thing inside it was a key, almost identical to the one to his own front door. There was nothing to say to which house the key belonged. But his broad smile betrayed his pride in his discovery.

The next morning Laura complained about a terrible, throbbing headache. Paul tried to sound genuinely worried and promised he would come home especially early.

“Listen. I’ll go to the store and do the cooking tonight. Then you can get some rest today,” he said.

“That’s sweet of you.”

He kissed her tenderly on the forehead. Before he left for work, he hid the bottle of sleeping pills in his backpack, just in case she started to nose around.

The day dragged on, with a number of meetings and the usual vicious gossip by the coffee machine. The key never left the palm of his left hand, which was clenched in a permanent fist.

At the supermarket, Paul did everything with his right hand, from pushing the cart to filling his shopping bag. He noticed the woman at the checkout frowning at the white knuckles of his tensed hand.

“Tennis elbow problems,” he muttered.

When he got home, he was met by a chirpy child and a good-humored Laura. With a smile on his face, he listened to her telling him what a lovely time they’d had together that day and how happy she was to see him home again.
“Maybe we could go to bed a little earlier than usual after supper,” she whispered sexily in his ear.

“That’s definitely something to look forward to,” Paul responded, then went to the kitchen to start cooking. The curry he made was spicy enough to disguise any taste of sleeping pills in her serving.

After putting their son to bed, Laura lit some candles and opened an expensive bottle of red wine, saved for a special occasion. For the first time in months they were conversing about something other than practical matters. Laura took him by the hand and led him to the bedroom where she undressed herself for him. She was down to her panties when the desire in her eyes changed to agitation.

“What’s wrong?” Paul asked.

“… I feel sick again. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. Should I call the doctor?”

“No. I think I’m probably just tired,” Laura replied.

“Then you need to sleep.”

“But I really wanted to have sex with you,” she said, crestfallen.

“I wanted it too. But it’s okay. There’ll be plenty of other opportunities.”

Laura said a last sorry before falling asleep, leaving him free to prepare himself once more for the nightly foray.

It all went according to plan again, and there was Paul, waiting on the same street as on the previous night, his son in the baby sling, bottle at the ready, and ears pricked. The child gave a pitiful little mew, asking for milk, and immediately got what it wanted. He would not interfere with his father’s plans.

This time there was no doubt about the source of the cry, and he strode resolutely to the house a few meters to his right. From the outside it was as nondescript as all the other houses. But Paul was convinced this was the right address and inserted the key in the lock.

The front door swung open to reveal a totally empty living room. There was nothing to indicate that any human had ever been there. The room felt oppressive, as if all the oxygen had been pumped out of it. And for the first time a second cry sounded, softer, almost pleading. It came from upstairs.

Paul cautiously climbed the stairs, his heart thudding. His son was sleeping peacefully again, pressed against Paul’s stomach, and he could feel the warmth of the delicate little body through the thin material of his shirt.

On the first floor the only door that wasn’t locked was the one to the bathroom. Paul went in and saw that the bottom of the bathtub was covered in a layer of soil. The dripping faucet had turned it to mud, and there was a faded kitchen towel on top of it, like a little blanket.

The cry came again, echoing in the tiled room, unbearably loud. The noise was so intense it almost forced Paul to his knees. He knew what was expected of him. But he did feel some resistance, an immense desire to walk away. The cry was roaring now, like a furious beast, making the mirror above the sink rattle until cracks appeared.

Very carefully, Paul took his child out of the sling and placed him in the bathtub. To make sure his son wouldn’t start awake from the cold, he covered him with the towel. The poor little thing trembled a little, but he was still deep asleep. Paul quietly took a few steps backwards and left the room. He went down the stairs just as quietly. When he got outside, he dropped the key down a grating. Feeling blissfully fulfilled, Paul turned back toward home.



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