The Loudest Lullaby
Ellena puts her striped baby to sleep. Despite the dimness of the room, she can still make out the tiger skin. Her friends have always treated the boy just like any other, but she can’t stop dividing the child into twins. She blinks, and there they are again: two sons that are somehow adjacent, yet never touching. Her color is there, running across a nose, but so are the streaks of blue that are almost grey.
She looks at all the stacks of paper she keeps in the bedroom. Most of them are tall and leaning like the accordion buildings from her dreams. It’s a silly habit to hoard so much, but at least she can remember what a city resembles, what a letter is. At least she has some kind of memory.
The window shows her the rest. The outside seems nearly smudged out. It shows her the pages of an old fairy tale book her grandmother would skip over because she was too young to understand. Is there a mythic hero that will come to finally trace the origins? When did her city’s calligraphy stop, and how did all the dark ink begin to bleed out into the sky?
The city and the colors, those she can stack on top of each other without even squinting. They would always rise up in defiance and she’d avoid them like the precarious pillars around her.
But there is nothing else she can see in the air. The birds had gone when she was a girl. All that is left is the sound of the word on her tongue and how quickly it falls from her mouth. She has almost forgotten what wings are for. There are no other living creatures except for the snakes that burn through the forests.
Ellena turns back to her son. Even if the city were still a cradle, the people would see the skin. They would cut him up with their eyes: how the brown-orange is hers and how the blue-grey is his.
They lay together once. But he’s gone now.
Learner is his name and she still laughs about that, even more than she used to. He was here when they could call it a cradle, where the babies could sleep when the day was winding down like a music box and the parents provided a circle. The skin colors were mostly solid like the other cities, but there was a presence of dots, splashes, and crescents. Nothing so divided as her baby, but brown-red and orange-red fingers intertwined, at least. There were young couples getting married where the sun could see them, the braided streamers like horsetails, all the swirled pudding and ice cream to celebrate the colors they had in common. And of course, there was more to the air.
But with everything bright enough to taste, there were less smudges to notice. She makes a confession: Maybe she read her grandmother’s skipped pages too early. The story arc was complete before Ellena was, and she would catch herself seeing eyes in the windows and walls. The circles made her turn and turn.
“It’s just your imagination,” Learner told her. “Have you been drinking all that tea again? You haven’t slept, have you? You’re seeing things. How much have you had today?”
There’s a pounding at the door and she jumps. It wakes the baby and he starts to cry.
Is he trying to bring back more of his color? She confesses something else, again: Learner still lingers in her bed. What more is necessary? Ellena sees him when she sleeps, dropping blue tar syrup on her eyelids. Heavy and slow, licking at her cracked lips. Turning into fresh streets that bridge the towns.
She dances around the buildings of paper and leaves the room. No more tripping, no more colors in her dreams. She promises.
But it’s only Chryssa at the door. All brown-orange like Ellena, save for a freckle of grey by the nose. Tiny as tear, but just enough to have to talk over the laughs from the courtyard when they were schoolgirls. The hushed curses from both of their mothers.
Today, the wrinkles are smiles around her eyes.
“A bomb hasn’t dropped in a week,” Chryssa says, and they embrace. She closes the door and her friend kisses the boy’s forehead.
“But there are fires burning everywhere,” Ellena says. “Can’t you smell it?”
“They’re going, they’re going. Forget that old smell. You can feel it.” Chryssa shakes Ellena’s arm like she’s trying to jolt her from death. “Let’s have something sweet.”
With that, the boy stops crying as if he understands. Ellena carries him around the house, shooshing and cooing.
“How about some chocolate?” Chryssa asks. “Some tea with honey?”
“I’m not sure we have any of that.”
Her friend searches the cupboards anyway and Ellena looks out the bedroom window again. She has already decided she would stop cleaning the sill. No matter what she does, the ashes from the fires carry to the house. She can’t stop it. Sawdust, beige, or bone-white?
No. Why does the specific name for its color even matter?
“There’s plenty of tea here!” Chryssa laughs. “Boxes and boxes. I think you may just have more than the rest of this godforsaken country.”
Ellena sets the boy back down while Chryssa makes the tea. She thinks she can smell it from the kitchen. How faint it is though. So soft and quiet, so unlike everything else that surrounds it. She wants to hold it close like the other son she’s always splitting.
Her real son is already fast asleep. It’s a miracle. There have been so many blasts so close to home and it’s never any trouble for him. Ellena had cried so many nights while he snored so innocently. But somehow, a knock on the door managed to wake him.
If he has to have a childhood, it will be sleeping to the music of explosions. He won’t have the words like she had, the paper, the pillars, the cradle. He’ll probably only need to know the names of his own colors.
Look at all the blue-greyness in there, she thinks. Statue colors. If they aren’t both killed by the wordless men, surely her baby will grow up torn by what is on him or the growing distances between the rubble left over.
Ellena lets out a loud cough while her friend talks to her from the kitchen.
“Perfect!” Chryssa says, her spoon clinking against the cups. “It’s just what we need.”
The boy doesn’t even have a name yet. There was never any ceremony to anoint him.
“It’s so white with all the ashes. But it’s perfect.”
She’ll name him Lethe, she decides.
“The fire is long gone though. No worries.”
Learner knows where they are. Maybe he’ll come and take them away. There has to be a place where they could sleep in the same bed again, their baby snoring softly between their colors.
Or maybe he’ll come back to kill them, his mask muffling any sound he lets out by accident. He’s one of the wordless already. Who knows what that could mean for them? She saw the collar and tattoos when he last returned, the only symbols left to replace all of the lost language.
Chryssa is still talking cradle-talk. “Just perfect,” she mumbles.
Ellena has already broken her promise though. The dreams are following her when she is awake too, and she accidentally bumps into one of the paper pillars. It collapses with a clap and the reams roll out like a river.
“Why are you keeping all that paper in here?” Learner would ask. “It’s useless to have it now. Except maybe for making fire.”
She never hallucinated, she didn’t drink too much of anything. She always had the right amount of sleep.
Learner is gone and she doesn’t know. He ran his thumb down Lethe’s lines and she doesn’t know. He may have sacrificed his own tongue to form an allegiance, to erect stronger pillars than her flimsy fortress. Or maybe the stripes tore him to pieces and he fled to save his own skin. But she doesn’t know because he never wrote. Before he lost his language, the last thing he mentioned was the paper. It stays with her now and won’t go because it is also the only thing left that stacks and reaches and acts as her own circle.
Looking around at the mess, Ellena has an urge to write. Even just her baby’s new name. If only she could suck all the blue-greyness out of him and use it like ink. She presses her cheek to the pages she picks up.
But she moves too quickly and cuts herself on what collects. Her blood dots the top page in her hands. There is no time, she thinks.
Taking what she has, she writes what she can.
Chryssa comes into the room with the cups of tea and watches Ellena kneel on the floor. “Oh!” she says.
Ellena stares at the first part of the boy’s smeared name—let—on the sheet of paper, and she knows it. The blood isn’t what matters. It isn’t the sounds that spit from her mouth or the real red words that fall to the page. This basic biology will always spill out.
It’s her baby’s pattern, the dip into language and symbols. She’ll always see the two boys pulling from each other and trace them with her fingers. From the eyes to the toes, they’re written and sewn.
She stands up and drops everything in her arms. She picks up Lethe again and hands him to Chryssa. She walks to the front door.
Ellena believes in O’s. She still believes in the circles, in the snakes that eat their own tails. The type that will fight against the others that burn through the forests. The type that held the parents together with their babies sleeping and told stories that didn’t make her turn and turn and dream with eyes pressed to the window.
The fight between the snakes will happen before either side has a chance to turn into dragons and swallow her baby like rodent meat. It will happen before the white-sawdust-beige flakes become a snowstorm and cover her house. It will happen before the wordless men break in and find her naming her son on the paper herself.
When it’s all done, a bird will return to roost and ruffle the ashes out of its feathers. It will be Learner’s greeting, Lethe’s yawn. They’ll sit together on the sill, wordless or not, and their ink will spill into each other and paint the house with the colors of their skins.
Ellena grabs the speckled handle and shoves the door like a shoulder, expecting the air to ring with her screaming. Screaming for the cradle and the city. Screaming for color or some ink.
But there isn’t enough time for that. Already there is a wailing that kisses all the ears left in the house, a prayer that tucks them all in like a blanket.
Joseph Dante is a writer residing in South Florida and a graduate from Florida International University. His work has been featured in Monkeybicycle, Paste, Foxing Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is an ongoing reader for Hobart. He hopes you have enough words and colors to recognize the stripes and won’t ever have to cut anyone up because of them.