Fiction

Brainworm

My boy glees, his face rounding and his hair feathery and fair. He stares at the TV from his high chair, his gums sweet and his eyes large. He is a bundle of soft, folded skin. He raises his arms in the air and brings them down strongly like a baby bird thrashing its wings, his fat fingers winding tight around my own. I kiss the tips of his nails. The man on the news has his face blurred. They say he killed a girl in Brunswick. My son looks past me, watches the TV with a fuzzy sense of familiarity, his eyes wet like a fish’s. I recognise the street, I think. I think I was walking down that street last week. In response, my baby blows a raspberry, his lips falling into a gentle smile. I wonder if I should change the station. Don’t worry about it, his father says, he doesn’t understand it anyway.

He rolls around on the floor, never quite lifting his back off the carpet. He is darling and wide faced, grabbing his hands into the air like he is catching stars. His father comes in angry and swinging and in flight. He turns on the news. The man from the gardening show is being charged for groping the woman from the crafts show. The screen is red and blue, flashing so fast and bright it makes my eyes water. My boy makes a high-pitched noise, and his father ponders why the crafts lady never spoke up before. I cup my hand over the baby’s crown and rock him from side to side.

A woman sits outside our house where the worms bury, camped on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign leant against the fence. It reads: will work, or God save us, or spare some change. My son watches from the window, eyes open and glazed, wet as he takes her in. She wears tattered pyjamas and looks down, face ruddied. My boy babbles, lips whirring and spit flying. We watch his father walk up the path, stopping to face the woman. What’s Daddy doing? I ask my boy. We watch him spit at the woman as he walks up the path. I reach reflexively to cover my son’s eyes. He cries out and throws his food to the floor. His cheeks grow red.

The light comes through and my boy is lying in his crib. There’s a worm by the edge of his mattress. It is black and translucent and fat so I can see its soft skin convulsing even from here, by the far side of the corridor. It inches upwards and upwards and upwards. Crawling, it pulls itself around the side of his head, pulling and slinking forwards and hoisting itself, like a flood victim to a helicopter, into his ear. I see it from across the room, I see it happen and I do nothing. It disappears inside his head. He looks so peaceful. I think I should have grabbed that worm.

My son is biting my arm, digging his gums into me. If he had teeth he would break flesh – he’s hurting me. He’s never hurt me before. I pull him away from my chest. I sit him in his high chair. He begins to throw things, flinging around his warm milk and smacking his hands roughly down against the tray. I think it’s the worm that’s making him this way. He’s not an angry boy. I fish my finger inside his ear, hooked and searching. He begins to smack me now. I need to get that worm out of his ear.

The man on the news is in black and white and kicking a woman in an alleyway. The camera is fuzzy and mosaicked in monochrome. I could be that woman and his father could be that man. They provide a number to call if you’ve seen this man. He looks like every man. He is dangerous. I wonder where my husband’s been, or if I would call if I had seen that man. I like to think I would. I bend a pipe-cleaner and stick it in the baby’s ear. I wonder if he could be that man.

My boy is screaming, is kicking his feet up and staring at me like I am the enemy. I try to hold him down but instead he kicks harder, sinks his gums into my skin. I flinch away, can almost feel bone. I tell his father I think it is the worm that’s making him this way. He turns the TV louder. I hold my son’s head still so I can see inside his ear. The baby screams louder, scratches at me with his infant fingernails. They score me. His father turns the TV louder again. I ask him why he isn’t worried about the worm in our son’s head. He says, I mean, it never did us any harm, did it?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Brainworm".

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Helena Pantsis is a writer from Naarm.

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