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A Miracle of Degree
part 9
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *
A Window Facing Upwards
* * * * * * * * * * *

One night away from Ithaca we get a room in a Best Western that we saw advertised along the highway. I would have liked to have made more progress today, had the weather, which had, up until that point, miraculously held out over the course of the trip, not finally decided to turn nasty on us. As the first big raindrops began splattering across the road, we decided to call it quits for the day in an unspoken mutual agreement. Eppie's been a little bit short with me today, and I think it's because she's getting anxious about meeting Murph. Her dad. I still can't quite come to grips with it, but when I finally see the both of them together I'm sure that everything will fall into place. I'm anxious as well. It's been years since I've seen Ithaca and my Alma Mater, Saint Ignacius U. Where this whole story began, so long ago.

My muscles are finally at the "seriously complaining" point, and I have to admit that the fact that the hotel in question advertised a hot tub and sauna in big letters on their billboard proved to be a major selling point. Thankfully, the check-in guy proved to be a remarkably enlightened fellow, and we didn't have to waste much time trying to convince him that we should be allowed to use the pool area despite our mutually-held "communicable" disease. Still, I'm sure there were complaints about it in the morning, and even though it wasn't technically a very busy night at the hotel, both of us found it rather sad that none of the other guests ever joined us for a swim that night.

So, after splurging on supper from the hotel restaurant, Eppie and I find ourselves alone on the pool deck. I'm sitting on one of the obligatory poolside chaise lounges, reading my paperback, and pointedly _not_ using the Jacuzzi. I'd forgotten in selecting the hotel that people with heart conditions shouldn't indulge in hot tubs. I'm kind of pissed off, and eventually I'm probably going to throw caution to the wind and do it anyway, but for now, I'm choosing to be reasonable. Eppie's back-floating in the pool nearby, staring up at the rain-washed skylight above her, listening to the rhythmic patter of rain on plexiglass. She's thinking again, and I think I know what about.

"Bix?" She says, inevitably.

"Mm hm?" I say, setting down my paperback on a nearby table, preparing for what is to come.

"You said we're almost to Ithaca?"

"Should be there tomorrow afternoon, if the rain lets up."

There is silence for a little while. Eppie idly takes a mouthful of water and squirts it up towards the ceiling. I wait.

"You're not done with the story yet." She finally points out.

"I know." Good lord, she's just like her father. I never could stand up to either of them for long.

"So, this is, like, the last time we're really going to be able to talk before I meet him, right?"

"Right, Ep."

She swims over to the side of the pool and folds her arms over the side. "So, shouldn't you finish it before I meet him, or something?"

I nod, slowly. "You really want to hear it, don't you."

"You started the story. You _gotta_ finish it, now."

"You're right, Ep," I say, quietly. Stories have to be finished."

And, with a brief mental bucking-up in preparation of what will be the most difficult part for me as well, I begin to finish the story.


* * * * * * * * * * *
Irina and Murphy, IV
* * * * * * * * * * *

I... suppose there's little left to write here, except to tie up some loose ends.

That's not true. I don't know why I just wrote that. I don't know why I just wrote that at all.

I remember

I remember standing in Irina's bedroom. That is when I first start to recall. There are tubs of swiftly cooling hot water everywhere. And the noise is...

The noise is of an infant. A small, pink thing with a head still misshapen from its rigorous birth. It is... crying. Loud. Lustily. The books said it was a healthy baby's cry, that cry. A healthy baby. A healthy baby. A perfectly healthy baby

I am standing there and I don't know what to do. Books are laying all around me haphazardly, their spines broken from laying open, leaves down, on any flat surface that would support them. I would... never have done such a thing to books. I must have really _needed_ to have those pages open for quick reference. I must have needed to sacrifice the strength of their backs for some... important reason...

I notice that the baby's... cord has been cut. I suppose that I must have done that. I'm not sure what it was connecting it to, though. One end was on the baby, and the other goes into this big dark red area where there is nothing but silence and not even the noise of breathing or anything like that to break the silence that there is.

There are lots and lots of books around Big books, small ones, lying on tables and nearby on the bed and the ones on the bed are covered in something that leaked out of the dark red splotch that I cannot see past

The baby is crying. Wailing. It hurts my ears. Hurts them.

I leave it where it lies, still crying. There was something I was supposed to do with powdered milk and a bottle or something but I don't remember what it was. Maybe one of the books will tell me.

Here's one.

No. This one is just a book about seagulls and other birds. I wonder why this one is here. It doesn't seem to fit in with the other books.

It should go back where it belongs. I pick it up and bring it back downstairs to the shuttered, closed, darkened shop and place it carefully, exactly, where it belongs.

There! Done!

I walk back upstairs. The baby is still crying. Crying and crying and crying and crying and crying and crying and


there are a LOT more books lying around here! This isn't the way to keep books!

I pick up a book and smooth its pages out where they got crumpled from laying face down on the little bedside table. There.

I pick up another, and another. This one is creased here, this one's spine is all out of whack with the rest of the pages... so... and this one's got a rip in it, gotta make a note of that on... this piece of paper here, to tape that sucker up.

An armload goes downstairs and all members are placed where they go. The baby is still crying. It's still crying. Goddamn it, it's still crying. Why is it crying? Maybe... it has to do with the milk sort of thing that I don't remember what it was supposed to be.

No matter. Must put the books away.

Load after load after load. This one is torn here. This one is folded here. This one is... soaked... with the blackish-red stuff, because it was the one nearest the point where the blackish-red thing is. No matter. Can't get that out, can we. Oh well. Make a note of it. Put it back on the shelf.

Load after load after...


The baby is still crying. I don't understand why the baby is still crying. The _books_ are all put away, now. It shouldn't be... sad...

A valve, or something, far, far down in my mind closes _shut_. And... ever so gradually...

I begin to see...

Blood and feathers... everywhere...

The baby is crying.

The baby is crying.

The perfect, red-blue-pink baby is crying. The _Perfect_ baby. Perfect in every little way. Down to its little toesy-woesies. Whole. Beautiful.

It's crying. Louder. And Louder. And Louder.

And the reddish-black part of my vision begins to resolve itself... into a shape...

A perfect baby. An imperfect... mother. A grossly, vastly imperfect mother. Something's wrong.

It's crying. and crying and crying and crying and CRYING and... and...

Slowly, I walk over to the small, low table upon which the baby is sitting.

The anger builds in me.

Perfect baby. Imperfect mother.


I take the child up in my large, weathered hands.

I lift it.

And I bring it down.

I hear that something is broken.

Good. Now there is no problem. Now, at least...

_they match._

Casually, I leave the baby where it lies, screaming its anger and rage and pain, its left leg bent and twisted in a way that no leg should ever, ever be.

And I go downstairs to my telephone and thoughtlessly dial the emergency number only after taking a few minutes to remember what the emergency number is.

It rings, and someone picks up.

"Hello." I say. "You're already too late."

* * *

I've... looked what I have just written. And much as I'd like to crumple this whole thing up and start over now, I think I'm going to leave it as is. To... prove to myself that I can.

_Now_ there's little more to tell.

Irina's body was shipped back to Moscow for burial there. Not... much else to say there. Her parents didn't... press charges. They weren't that kind of people.

And the baby was given to an American adoption agency. Irina's mother and father weren't _that_ kind of people either. I do not know where she is or what she is currently doing or whether she would even forgive me if she knew what it was I had done to her, and I suppose that, for all practical purposes, I will never, never know.

The child's name is Hepzibah. A bureaucrat at the agency ignorant of the entire situation once phoned, to settle final issues, asked me what the child's name was.

And that was my one, wild moment of hope. Suddenly it all became oddly _clear_ to me that the one thing I had to offer this child was her _name._ 'Irina' was her mother's name. A good strong Chekhovian name. To me, in that one strange moment, that one fact explained it all. Chekhovian plays _never_ turn out right. Someone, at the end-all, is always getting shot or committing suicide or getting killed in the war or somesuch. The hand of destiny. Working your life from the moment of your birth.

The only thing I could offer my daughter was the happiest name I could possibly think of.

Hepzibah. From _Silas Marner_. The book that had brought her mother to me. The one book whose sickeningly sweet ending had been turning the stomachs of restless literature students for decades upon decades.

But for my daughter, I wanted nothing less than the _best_.

I started to laugh, then. There was nothing else to do, nothing else I could possibly, ever, do. There were no more tears that could be shed. I was fresh out.

"'Hepzibah.'" I said, finally. "It's a Christian name. But you can call her 'Eppie' for short."

The bureaucrat barely acknowledged my words before hanging up. I think he sensed that there was something wrong and wanted to terminate our correspondence as quickly as possible. I do not know if he even got the right name down. But I'd like to believe that he did.

One year. My one year's anniversary. For a marriage that never even was and a tryst that almost certainly should not have been.

Irina is gone from me, never to return. And the daughter whose birth took her from me is also gone. And, so. I am sitting here alone in my fortress of words, of paper and leather and ink, and the emptiness gathers and clots around me and threatens to crush me with its magnificent depth.

It hurts me.

And I'm not sure which pains me the worse.

The fact that my love has now, finally, come to a place where no-one may ever again touch her...

Or the fact that my infant daughter, whom I never knew but to hurt, has passed to a place where I _alone_ may never again touch her...




* * * * * * * * * * *
A Window Facing Upwards (II)
* * * * * * * * * * *

"So. That's it." I say, trembling slightly. "He named you Eppie, and I guess the Agency people kept it as that on your record. It's stayed with you ever since. That's how I recognized you from the narrative." That and the limp. But I don't say that right now.

Eppie is silent. Poor, poor kid. And I thought the telling of it was bad.

Wordlessly, she goes over to one of the ladders leading out of the pool. She struggles with it for a bit. Her feet aren't quite the right shape for the rungs, and her slight limp is hindering her again. Maybe it's just my imagination, but I think she might be favoring that leg a little more than usual. Most of the time, she's not thinking about it. She is tonight.

She approaches my chair.

"Y'wanna go in the hot tub?"

"Can't." I say, tersely. "Heart, remember?"

She nods. "You look really tired."

"Yeah." I say.


"It'd be fun." She says.

"Oh, for Pete's sake, Ep. You've got your heart set on it now, dontcha."

She nods, in her horsey fashion, and then looks at me intently. There's something you must know, on the off-chance that I haven't made it abundantly clear to you already, about the way that Eppie 'begs' for something. There is nothing cute about it. No puppy-dog eyes, no drawn out 'Please'es, nothing like that. She just stares at you with this gaze filled with the simple, solid conviction that, eventually, she _is_ going to get what she wants, and while you _may_ hold out for a time, it will, in the end, be a losing battle on your behalf. My resistance is already crumbling.

"I don't know how you do it, kid," I say. Shaking my head all the way, I rise from the chair and accompany my surrogate daughter over to the Jacuzzi.

And then, as I peer into the swirling water, I say, "If I die here, it'll be all your fault." My voice sounds more exhausted than I believe it has ever sounded.

She looks at me. "Would it be worth it?"


A deep breath.

"I think so, tonight."

And as the rain from the steel-colored sky patters on the overhead glass, Eppie and I lower ourselves into the hot, swirling water, and, as we chat quietly about anything and everything at all, the collected weariness of the long road behind us, just for the moment, disappears without a trace.

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