Incubator Baby World’s Fair, 1939

Meagan Ciesla

JuŻ? The father said when his wife went from lighting the Sabbath candle to hunching over the mattress, water trickling down her stockinged leg. Already?

He was alarmed to see his wife in labor so soon—barely two months in America and he had not yet saved enough money for a crib. He ran down the hall, saw the bathroom door closed, and banged on it. The Hungarian neighbor woman answered, irritated, knee-highs slouched around her ankles.

The baby came as the wife left, and the neighbor woman wrapped her—tiny but heavy as coal—in the cleanest blanket she could find. It was frayed at the edges and stained at the corner with the wife’s blood. The rest of soiled sheets remained on the bed, tangled up and crusting over.

The neighbor woman told him what she had seen on the Midway. She explained that they would do there what hospitals would not. Put newborns in incubators under lights and heat them to grow. Like cabbages. Or tomatoes. A live garden of tiny things.

When he arrived the child was already three hours old and the nurses scooped her out of his arms and laughed at her heft, You Poles are made of lead!, they said, then placed her in a row alongside the others. Seven of them together, a softheaded litter, wishing to return to warm, dark wombs.

The nurses unwrapped their sandwiches and drank tea with whiskey. They paid no mind to their small plot of garden—to the breath of the infants or the temperature of the water tanks. Instead they fetched lemonade, clucked gossip in a circle, gnawed their way through fat roasted chicken thighs.

For days the father pressed his nose against the incubator wall and listened to the sway of rollercoaster rails, the steady call of the barker next door. Rubes would pay admission to look at the infants. They would come up close to the glass and pick a favorite, one whose health to gamble on. They would come back later to check its progress, to tally scores and collect their winnings. They would oooo and ahhhh at the tininess of the babies’ toes.

Seeing his daughter on display, so small and confined, made his heart ache. Fleshy and pink, she reminded him of swinia, a piglet, sleeping soundly after feeding. She would be luckier a pig, he thought, nestled close to a mother’s belly.

The nurses allowed him to reach inside the incubator and pat her belly. He was not large, but his hand fit the whole of her stomach and whenever he reached in, he worried he might cause her to wilt.

Her hands uncurled from their small fists and he saw for the first time her palms and the soft new lines that ran across them. He wondered if the maps of her skin were the same as his, or if she would develop her own patterns over time, lines growing longer and deeper with each passing year.

The baby’s stomach was distended but her legs were no larger than chicken bones, as if neither belly nor thigh were a match. The nurses weighed her and called her a fat little Jew, could not understand how a little thing could be so heavy, then rested her back into glass and continued on.

Her face was splotchy, her lungs weak, the air hesitating as it entered her lungs. The father leaned over her and sang in Polish, trying to draw out the heaviness of history from her, trying to let her breath deepen, her ribs expand with fresh new wind.

He sang pieces of old songs from the old world. Lullabies and working songs. Songs wishing her one hundred years of good health.

His songs pulled stones from her belly—chunks of amber that made their way at last through the shriveled root of her mother’s old chord.

Only days old and already she carried centuries of grief.

He collected the amber and held it up, squinted to catch it in light. It was nearly translucent—as clear as orange pulp—except for a scattering of abdomens and legs—ancient bodies caught in sap. Stories stuck in resin. His daughter, born on the cusp of war, a motherless child, would collect her own heft—of that he was sure. She did not need the heaviness of her dead mother, or her mother’s mother, and so on.

The father slipped the amber in his pockets until the cloth lining sagged at the seams. He worried the stones in his hands, felt them cool and smooth between his fingertips.

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