Fiction

Foundling

The tree is an acacia, though the boy will never know it. He pulls himself through the winter evening, across the still river and into Bundey’s Paddock. Chasing a hornet, or a butterfly. Kicking a stick along the grass.

It is the movement he notices first, in the shadows cast by that tree. A white cloth bag shifting. A cat? Or a wild possum? The boy thinks about calling to his brother, but he is braver than that. He is brave enough to lose the hornet to the cooling air and go towards the rags.

He is brave enough, too, to lift the baby from the grass, though it seems to be made from nothing more than skin and ash. He pulls the cloth from its face and looks into it, noticing the sallow cheeks and blue-rimmed lips. The boy is brave enough to fold that shroud back into place and walk a mile, with the breathing bundle of sticks, to the police station.

The constable looks under the cloth and flinches. He says, “You’ve done a good deed, boy,” but his eyes resent it. His dinner is warm at home. Now, in the dark, he will have to walk to the asylum, wasting his evening on an infant nobody wants.

The boy slips through the door, his own shadow.

In the street, the constable’s shoes clap. A cab crosses the intersection without a pause. A woman calls out from a high window and men skitter.

The small stone buildings of the asylum breathe its sins. Shrieks come from behind the walls. From a balcony, the mangled speech of a tame cockatoo. At the gate, the wardsman extends his hand. “What’s this about, then?” he says.

The bundle under the constable’s coat is so small he had almost forgotten it. “A boy found it in the park. A waif from the Walkerville home left it there, no doubt.”

The warden pulls back the cloth. The baby sucks its lips into its mouth.

“We don’t take babies in here,” he says. “The State Children’s Department is the proper place.”

The constable tries to look past the wardsman. “You’ve got someone in there to organise it, surely?”

The girl fetched is small and wears an apron too thin for the cold night.

“Laundress can take it,” says the wardsman. “Go on then, Annie.” The cockatoo says, Aye, watch yerself!

Annie slips her hand into the bag. The baby’s toes are soft and cold. She runs her fingernail along the sole and the baby twitches. When Annie slides the cloth away from its face, she sees that its eyes are almost visible behind translucent lids. She tucks the bag into her elbow and rushes down the road.

The sight of the department takes the wind out of her, the children’s crooked bones and blank faces. They watch her from their cots. All their ringed eyes.

An attendant takes the bundle from Annie’s arms. She rests her large hands across the baby’s body. It has on a cloth napkin but is otherwise naked. Its skin ripples with goosebumps. Its fingers curl into fists. The woman’s hands envelop it, as though it might disappear into them completely.

“Look at its head,” she says. “This big scratch.” Blood has dried around the wound but a glossy red slick remains. “The skin on its head moves clean off the bone.” She puts her ear to the baby’s chest. She holds its feet in her palms, notes the near-invisible toenails. “The cord’s been severed with a kitchen knife. Call for the doctor. Now, girl!”

Annie pounds her way across town to the hospital. She can hear the baby’s breath as she runs. She hears it as she bangs on the door, shouting, “We need a doctor!” She shouts until the door opens.

“Girl?” The man cannot hear, as she can, the collapsing breaths from the department.

“We have a foundling,” she says. “The police brought it.”

The doctor looks past her into the cold night. He gets his bag and hat.

“It’s really in a bad way.” Annie’s heart pounds and the baby’s heart pounds. The doctor hastens into a jog and they go that way together, into the department building and past the hollow-eyed children. He listens to the baby’s heart, though it is clearly visible. He lifts the bloodied cloth; briefly winces.

The attendant says, “Can it go to the hospital?”

“The hospital is not an institution for foundlings,” he says.

“But its head,” Annie says, pointing to where the wound weeps.

The doctor moves the skin across the baby’s scalp. Its onion-skin eyelids flutter. Its lips are dry and skin so tight it is like wax. He touches the bruises across its collarbones. “It needs surgical attention.” He wraps the cloth around it once more. Darkness inks the windows. Annie wants to take the baby from the table and hold it warm against her body.

“You will take it to the hospital, then?” says the attendant.

The doctor is already packing his bag. “It won’t live 12 hours.”

The attendant finds a small blanket. She pulls it under the cloth, and around, and over, folding until the baby is swaddled like Moses. “It is our duty to try,” she says.

The doctor is angry now. “Look at its head,” he says. “These marks. Boys throwing stones. Did one of them bring it in?”

“We don’t know.”

“It is not even seven months gone.” The metal lock of his bag clicks shut. “Either it will die of its injuries now, or it will be left feeble and die in state care later.”

“It needs to be in hospital,” says the attendant.

“What it needs,” says the doctor, “is a pastor.”

The baby breathes its cracking breath. It remembers the blue smudge that was the boy in the park, and it remembers the rough fingers of the woman as she lowered her arms. It breathes and it moves its eyes under their lids. The people in the room argue about who is responsible. The wardsman shouldn’t have sent the laundry girl to do a policeman’s job. The attendant should have called for the matron, not a doctor. The boy in the park should have known better than to mess with things.

Annie listens for the dull tap of rain on the street, and the river rising up with it. She listens for the steady breath of her own child, in bed at home.

And the little ash baby falls motionless on the slab of pine.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Foundling".

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