“Dreamland: Coney Island, 1904”

Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, Ladies and Gentlemen!
Peas in pods! Living dolls!
The stork was early but we’re open late!
Don't pass the babies by!

The babies know nothing of their advertising, of course. All they know of life is heat. They’ve already forgotten their mothers' skin. They've never grabbed their fathers' thumbs, never suckled breast or bottle. The babies have no idea what they’re missing. How could they? They have neither wish nor reflex; they haven’t grown appetites. The babies sleep in the Bavarian farmhouse on the midway with its watchful plaster stork, lined up in gleaming incubators, defying all expectation. They are frail cherubs; they are mites of humanity. They are 10 cents a ticket.

Their births: a sudden soak of surprise. Their mothers’ ankles puddled with dread, boots washed in unspent weight. The mothers tried to keep them home. They fretted the failed fashioning of wombs: stove-side boxes, hot-water bottles, flannel, hay. They worried the babies' weary eyes and oddly wrinkled foreheads. They are less newborns than dying old men, thought one, a mother of triplets. Now, she kisses their raw, red skin and lets the babies go. Their father, like all the babies' fathers, marvels at how light and spindly they are to lift, like birds’ nests—like something, perhaps, blown away before the hatch of open mouths.

So go the babies, box to box. Down the fairway full of foods the father can't afford, past the breezy bridge where skirts fly high and couples clutch, locked-legged, breast to chest. The father finds the Bavarian farmhouse, a plaster stork perched on the roof. He hands the box to a white-capped nurse; Nurse lifts the lid and summons Doctor. Together—a man, a woman, three babies between them, and none of them in love— they disappear into the back. The father taps his taskless toes. Before him, boxed in glass, are babies, seven in a row. Crowds press forward— somehow the father hadn’t noticed forty people warming the air with whispers. Then Nurse wheels three new glass boxes into place. People cheer. Name cards are affixed: Clara, Cora, Cate.

The father makes it to Midget City before he takes a breath. Tiny men drive tiny fire engines to put out tiny fires. The father waits to feel unburdened. Nothing is as he expects. What is he doing on this bench, watching the world move in garish miniature?

Down the fairway, babies sleep. They sleep as Nurse tips a narrow spoon of breast milk— defatted, calibrated— into their nostrils. They sleep as black-veiled women watch and dab their cheeks with lace. They sleep as men crunch peanuts and boys bump girls and old ladies gossip: which one has grown the most? Each day at noon, Nurse removes her giant diamond ring, lifts a baby’s arm and slides it on his wrist: That's right, Ladies and Gentlemen, a diamond ring around his wrist!

The babies make no protest. Even with their eyelids open, they look asleep, suspended in the state of making, focused on becoming.

Soon, a woman passes through. Her hat is red— chosen for its clarity. She is too shy to part the crowd. She saves her pennies for returns. She’s trying to learn what everyone knows is simple human instinct. Sometimes when Nurse lifts a baby to face the crowd, the woman in the red hat feels a stirring— it might be called concern. But what does she know of motherhood? A silly hat? A weekly visit? This row of bright machines?

The woman in the red hat returns in daylight. She returns in sleep. She dreams the babies fat and smooth; she dreams them roly-poly. She dreams one baby takes Nurse’s diamond ring and cuts a perfect circle. Pop! The baby breaks the glass. She hears the babies crying, laughing, babbling their first words.

Go home, they’re saying. Go home.

Are the babies scolding? Blaming? Pleading? What is she to do? Thousands interpret their cries each day; she should have learned by now. But the fairway is deserted, no one watching but the plaster stork. She can walk away, leave forever. Or she can step right up.

The babies have passed from nurse to nurse. They’ve spent their lives as numbers: science in a box. The woman in the red hat just wants to see the faces of her daughters. Hers. Her Clara, Cora, Cate.

Her daughters cry: Go home? It’s the hardest, simplest thing to answer. But just like that, she gathers them— a wondrous weight that shifts her endless wait to ballast. No one parts a curtain, calling, Touch their dimples! Hold them close and kiss their heads! The space within her arms is theirs: quiet, beyond measure. Something rises in their hearts. Something is taking wing.

Rebecca Meacham

About Rebecca Meacham

Rebecca Meacham is the author the flash fiction collection Morbid Curiosities, which won the 2013 New Delta Review chapbook contest. Her story collection, Let’s Do, won University of North Texas Press’s 2004 Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and the book was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Her prose has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, Wigleaf, West Branch, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, and other journals, and she’s currently a blogger for Ploughshares. She’s an Associate Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where she directs the creative writing program.