There lives a woman who keeps her baby in a box.
She works as a letter sorter at the post office and keeps the box at her feet. Her parents died when she was young, leaving her with nothing but debt, and after a solitary upbringing she finds solace in her work and in her baby. Not one to gossip or flirt, she is able to sort the mail with one hand and tickle the baby’s chin, or check her diaper, with the other. Even when her mind is occupied with distribution routes and sorting codes, her hands remember what needs to be done. “A machine,” her supervisor says with a shake of his head. The baby is of a calm disposition and amuses herself until the end of the day. Then the woman checks the mailbags for stray letters, scoops up her child, swaddles her, and takes her home.
The holidays are approaching and the woman has been given the task of sorting illegibly addressed letters, work that no one else cares to do. She enjoys the constancy of the mail; she takes pride in correcting errors and directing letters to their rightful destination. But on the Friday before Christmas, she arrives at the post office late. The baby has a cold, and on top of that is cutting a tooth, and the woman paced the floor of her apartment all night, patting the baby’s back and giving her cold cloths to suck. She sees the newspaper on her desk as she puts away her coat. The headline disturbs her. It seems to confirm the rumors she’s heard whispered around the post office for weeks: “GOVERNMENT TO AUTOMATE ALL POSTAL FUNCTIONS; THOUSANDS OF LAYOFFS EXPECTED.” She puts the newspaper in the wastebasket.
She unwraps the baby as usual, but the child is irritable, and every time the woman tries to settle her in the box, the baby cries and clutches at her sleeves. At first the woman makes soothing sounds, then tries to distract her with a rattle. Finally, she loses patience and begins to speak sternly, as if to a subordinate, “Your behavior is unacceptable! Mama needs to work. Do you understand?”
The janitress, an old woman so arthritic she sometimes spends entire days cleaning one corner of the building, laughs gleefully. She has been sweeping behind the sorting room door.
“That kind of talk ain’t worth a groat, ha ha ha! You’re better off talking to a houseplant!” She has never approved of the woman having a baby alone, with no parents, no man in the picture, and takes every opportunity to say so (though she herself is considered odd by many). Now she stops to shake her broom at the woman. “What could the likes of you know about mothering?”
Normally the woman ignores these comments. She pities the janitress who, like herself, has no family or friends. This morning, however, she snaps, “Be quiet! I know what I’m doing, for God’s sake. Go back to your work.”
The janitress turns back to her sweeping. Shuffling away, she mutters, “Pride goes before a fall, that’s what I always say.”
The woman rummages through her purse and finds a piece of chocolate. The child takes it, whimpering, and the woman picks up a batch of letters and begins separating them into piles. Despite her weariness, the woman’s hands move rapidly, grabbing letters, tossing them into a pigeonholed mail sorter. But the baby doesn’t sleep. She has a cough that wakes her immediately every time she closes her eyes, and after a while, this makes the baby cry. Each time she cries, the woman holds her to her breast with one hand and continues sorting mail with the other.
Her supervisor walks over as she starts on the second mailbag. He leans an elbow on her desk and pretends not to notice the baby.
“I’ve never seen so much mail,” he says. “With the world going down the tubes, people seem to think the only thing they can count on is the mail delivery.”
He is a peacock of a man, and he likes to think his female coworkers are secretly in love with him. Every so often he tries to discover the identity of the baby’s father but is never successful.
“I’m sure you're right,” she says. She does not look up nor do her hands stop their constant motion, flying back and forth like a pair of nesting birds. In truth, she despises the supervisor. But jobs are scarce, and she is careful to hide her feelings. She considers asking whether he knows anything about the layoffs, but she does not want to encourage his conversation. She decides against it.
The supervisor takes her reserve for receptiveness and compliments her hair. He speaks of a French restaurant in town, how he is certain she would enjoy its air of refinement, and he proposes that she dine with him that evening. One has not lived, he declares, one has not experienced all that life has to offer, until one has tasted ris de veaux. The woman finds his self-regard insufferable. She’s excused herself from his advances on other occasions, and now she pleads fatigue. She is coming down with a cold, she says, and would not want him to catch it.
“Ha, ha, it would be an honor to catch any cold of yours!” the supervisor says with false gallantry. He thinks she is being coy.
The baby fusses, and the woman stops to pat her. She sees that the second mailbag is still almost full—she is falling behind. With more firmness now, she refuses the supervisor again. “It’s very nice of you to think of me, but I’m not able join you. Thanks anyway.” But he does not leave her desk though she pointedly turns back to her work. He continues to press her until he is summoned by a phone call.
When the supervisor has gone, the woman puts the baby back in the box. Almost at once the child begins to cry. A clerk from the front office pokes her head through the doorway. The crying, she says, is disturbing the customers—mightn’t the woman find a way to control her child? The woman nods, but when the clerk disappears, she lets out an oath. She picks up the baby and begins to pace the room, bouncing her up and down like a pony ride at the fair. Every once in a while she stops to sort a few letters. It is taking longer than usual to determine the course of each letter; she requires extra disconcerting seconds to tell the difference between a 1 and a 7, or a D and an O. Her arms begin to ache from holding the baby on one side and sorting mail with the other.
The baby continues to fuss and the woman carries her into the hallway. She passes two men, both letter carriers, leaning against the wall smoking, and overhears one say to the other, “I gotta get out of this place. But I’m still paying for my wife’s new teeth. Only got three molars left to go.”
She walks into the break room. The supervisor is drinking coffee and eating a Turkish Delight. “Ah, we have to stop meeting like this!” he says when he sees her, smiling so widely he shows his gums.
“Yes, we must,” she says. She spins abruptly on her heel and leaves. She shifts the baby from one arm to the other. She remembers a fishmonger in her village who had a tumor growing from her side. It started out as an extra envelope of flesh, no bigger than three fingers, but it continued to grow and eventually it reached the size of a melon. The fishmonger used to carry the tumor in a sling when she brought her fish to market.
Back at her desk, the woman looks around. She never leaves for the day until she has completed every task. Piles of letters cover the surface of her desk; bags of mail ring the room. She gives the baby a final pat on the back, puts her in the box, scoops a pile of mail from the bag, and begins to sort. If she isn’t brought any additional bags, she ought to be able to get through it all.
The janitress walks by pushing a broom. She smiles slyly at the woman. Seeing her, the woman quickly picks the baby up again. She rocks her. She pats the baby’s back—gently at first, then with more force, as if to startle her into silence—but the cries only come faster, a rolling avalanche of woe.
The phone rings. It is the delivery coordinator, calling to see if she has finished the second mailbag. The trucks are preparing their routes, he says, and he wants to get as many letters out for delivery as possible. The woman tells him not yet. She has to shout over the noise of the baby crying and isn’t sure if he can hear her. He says, “Oh, and one more thing. The boss wants to know if you’ve reconsidered dinner tonight…” She places the phone back in the cradle.
The woman closes her eyes. She remembers a tomcat that used to roam her neighborhood when she was a child, a monstrous black and white animal that yowled from dusk to dawn. She remembers how quiet it became after someone left out a dish of poisoned tuna. Carrying the baby, she stands at the window. She holds the child to the glass and looks at the people on the sidewalk, holiday shoppers laden with purchases, too far away to hear the sound of crying inside the post office. She pats the baby. She makes little hushing sounds. She gives the baby a little shake. “Be quiet! Why can’t you just be quiet?” She puts the baby back in the box and resolves to let her cry, no matter what.
The child screams. Her face grows swollen, her legs kick the air with angry, jerky motions. The woman pushes the box under her desk as far as it will go and picks up a handful of mail. She finds it difficult to work at first. The sound of crying is a surging sea pounding at her brain. It threatens to swallow her. Her hands keep moving, back and forth, back and forth, and after some time she is able to find a rhythm beneath the noise. She slips into an unthinking flow. Her hands take on a mind of their own and letters fly through the air like magician’s knives. Mailbags open and close, carts roll from one side of the room to the other. The baby’s crying recedes. It is as if the woman has retreated to a room inside her mind; she is sitting at her desk but far away, really so very far away. When she reaches the bottom of the last mailbag, it is evening.
The woman’s breasts ache and she notices a damp trickle down her front. How long has it been since she fed the baby? She looks under her desk, but the baby and the box are gone. She stares for a moment in disbelief, kneels down to look more closely. The baby is not yet crawling—she can’t have gone far. Peering into the corner, she sees only her lunch box and a pair of worn slippers.
Panicked, she throws open her desk drawers. She dumps packages out of bins, plunges her hands into mail cubbies, overturns boxes of bulk mail. She sees a group of co-workers by the door. Pushing herself into the middle of their chatter, she pulls at their sleeves—have they had seen her baby? They have always considered her standoffish, the subject of gossip and judgment. Now they step back in alarm, as if stumbling upon a crime scene. Some shake their heads. A few suggest calling the police. No one has seen anything.
The woman runs into the central processing room. She finds the supervisor at his desk picking his teeth. “Have you seen my baby?” she demands.
He is surprised by her question. She has never approached him so directly. Her appearance alarms him—eyes wide, mouth frozen in a stiff, open expression. The hair he complimented earlier flies wildly about her face. “Now, now,” he says. “You need to calm down. Have you seen yourself? You look frightful.”
“Didn’t you hear me? My baby is missing. Someone needs to do something!”
“Try the Lost and Found. The post office is not in the habit of losing things.”
“You must be joking.”
“Huh! Well, no need to worry, she’ll turn up eventually. Children are often wandering off.” He begins to pack up his briefcase. “I’m sure you’ll be more careful next time.”
In her state of mind, the woman finds his condescension intolerable. A thought suddenly occurs to her. “Was it you? Did you think you could get me to go to dinner with you by getting rid of her? Tell me where she is!”
He looks at her coldly. “That’s ridiculous. There is no shortage of women who want to spend time with me. Rest assured I have found another companion for dinner this evening.” He puts on his overcoat and leaves.
The woman runs through the building, checking every room—administrative offices, closets, even the basement incinerator, where she pauses for a moment to listen to the moaning of the flames. It occurs to her that the janitress might have seen something. The old woman is always lurking in corners, listening to every conversation, watching every movement. The woman finds her behind the supervisor’s door, sweeping dirt from one side of the floor to the other.
“My baby’s gone. Have you seen her?”
“What’s that?” The old woman turns to her slowly. She really should have retired long ago, but she is poor and has no other income. Besides, she enjoys coming to work every day and observing the rivalries, the little workplace dramas. There, too, is the fact that, after working at the post office for so many years, she has collected enough secrets to make everyone afraid of her.
“Listen, I know you spy on everyone all day long! You must know where my baby is. Don’t pretend.”
The janitress sniffs. “What kind of mother loses her child? I’m not going to tell you anything. Remember how you told me to be quiet? Well, why should I talk now, just because you say so?” She smacks her lips, enjoying herself.
The woman is frantic. She clasps her hands and begs, “Please. If you know anything, you must tell me. I need your help.”
“Remember how you said you knew what you were doing? Ha, ha, that was pretty funny! Maybe you’re not better than everyone else.” The janitress points a bony finger squarely at the woman’s forehead. “Maybe you’re careless and sloppy.”
The woman recoils. In that moment, she hates the janitress. She wonders if the old woman is a witch—if she has placed some kind of curse upon her. But is any curse worse than losing your child? She shakes her head. She grabs the janitress by the wrist and presses her nails into her skin. “I’ve had enough of your games, you wicked old crone! Tell me where my baby is, or else!”
The janitress shrinks. She tries to yank her wrist back, but the woman holds fast. “Hey there, leave me alone,” she whines. “I was just having some fun with you. I don’t know anything. How should I know where your baby is?”
Seeing the janitress cower before her, the woman feels only fury. A door inside of her, clamped shut all her life, now swings open. She shoves the janitress in the chest. “You nasty, nasty hag. No one can stand you. That’s the reason you’re alone in the world.” She puts her face close to the janitress, so close she can see every pockmark and smell her whiskey breath. She sees fear darting in the old woman’s eyes like a lamprey. She slaps her. “You disgust me. You smell like rotten meat.”
The janitress cries, “Stop! Stop! You’re hurting me.”
But the woman ignores her cries. She rains blow after blow upon the old woman until the janitress falls to the floor. Then she kneels over her. “Go home, or don’t. It doesn’t matter. There’s no one who cares whether you live or die.”
The woman leaves the post office quickly. She visits the police station, where she fills out a report. She checks the hospitals to see if anyone has brought in an unidentified baby. Then she goes home and collapses in her bed. Her knuckles are bruised, and she cradles her hand against her chest. Where before her baby’s face appeared every time she closed her eyes, she now sees only the janitress, face twisted unrecognizably.
Early the next morning, the woman’s mail arrives. Among the holiday cards and coupon flyers is a familiar-looking box, addressed in what appears to be her handwriting. She tears open the box. Inside is her baby, pale and still. She sways in disbelief and quickly scoops up her child. She pats the baby’s cheeks, puts breast milk in her mouth. She holds her close until she feels the child move, finally, against her body.