He had a wrinkled monkey-face, all contorted, purple from exertion, but cute. I saw my father in his face. My husband, too. I saw my own eyes, whenever his would open. Jacob, we called him. He was on the big side, for babies, eleven pounds. That runs in our family. Big, but also, when you think about it, so small.
As I cradled my son, my husband reached to touch him. For a second, Jacob stopped crying, and the feeling of something electric passed over us all; like a jolt of static shock. I swear I saw a kind of blue fire dance down Jacob’s back, then disappear.
I still love him, my boy. It wasn’t his fault, nor ours. I love him, because I’m his mother. After everything he—they—did, I understand. I wonder if you possibly could.
Back when we still used to talk about it, my husband would take his glasses off, put them back on, then take them off again. He’d rub naked eyes, put the glasses back on a final time, then say nothing. It’s a nervous affectation. If he didn’t do that, he’d bite his nails.
I wanted a natural birth, a home birth, especially for my first. But after a talk with mother, I embraced my practical side, and to the hospital, when the time came, it was. I held on to the pain as long as I could, then called out for the epidural. Someone might think less of me for taking the easy way from the pain—so much of life is already so unnatural.
It’d be so easy to blame the epidural, or vaccines. Others certainly did. All the data in the world wouldn’t convince them. They ignored the scientists all along, except when conclusions propped up their preconceptions. In the end, the scientists were right about nearly everything. No, vaccines and such are the few things we know to be safe at all.
My best friend Sally had a natural birth about a week before Jacob was born. It was at her home in a blow-up tub with midwives. Sally was a trial, for sure, everything had to be a big production, but she’d been there for me when my husband and I were going through our own issues. I got so mad at her about the vaccines—she wouldn’t have them for Henry.
We sat in the kitchen with our mugs of tea while the babies babbled on in their netted pen in the living room, toothlessly gumming their harmless, plastic toys.
“Henry is so big,” Sally said. “Jacob, too. It must be good nutrition.”
“It’s not nutrition,” I said. “It’s bio-identical hormones in our water supply. Plastic leaching in the sun, idiots flushing expired prescriptions. There’s really nothing to be done.”
Sally turned her head to the window, the late-morning light bursting through and said, “And whatever your husband uses to keep the lawn so lush and green.”
I laughed and raised my palm up in front of my eyes.
“See no evil, hear no evil,” I said. I’m no tree-hugger, but the things people do give me pause.
I’d read the baby books—Dr. Spock and the like—in hard copy: I still believe in holding things in your hand. It keeps you from that frantic feeling of over-information when most of it is useless anyway. Our babies were healthy and normal, and there was nothing to worry about.
And that’s what our pediatrician said.
Do you think there’s a god, you know, a consciousness who metes out punishment where it’s due? Each sin in life recompensed with a corresponding ill? I wonder sometimes. You know, that feeling. This happened because I have done something wrong.
Our pediatrician said, “Your child’s in the 120th percentile; he’s very big. But it’s nothing to worry about.” Noticing the way he stroked his salt-and-pepper goatee, and looked at me as he said it, I wondered if he had heard something about me from one of his colleagues.
I’m not sure I remember the chronology exactly. It all happened very fast. A few weeks after the next visit, our pediatrician called.
“Someone from the NIH is here,” he said. “They want to see Jacob’s records. They’d like to interview you, too.”
Not long after he hung up, Sally called. “Did you get a call from Doctor Bob, too?” she asked. She was always on a first name basis with everybody. “What’s the NIH?”
“The National Institutes of Health,” I said.
“Are you worried?”
“There’s nothing wrong with my baby,” I said. “He’s healthy.”
My baby, in his walker, gurgled, and slapped at the air. He barely fit. In fact, he swelled out of it like the top of a muffin. He wasn’t fat—he was big. I touched my chin. There was nothing wrong with him.
Before I had even gotten a chance to talk to the NIH men, it was all over the news: “prize-winning babies,” like blue-ribbon calves from the fair. My parents were kids in the ’50s, when we strove to super-size everything, and to beat “the Commies.” Children were stuffed full of glistening corn, heart conditions were treated with steak and butter, and animal feed suffused with antibiotics was found to grow chickens, pigs, and cows faster and fatter.
The NIH men, in mismatched suits with white coats from the hospital and visitors tags, sat with me while Jacob slapped blocks together because I couldn’t get a sitter.
They asked a laundry list of questions. Where was I born; where had I lived? What did my husband, the father, do? Where was he from? Then more personal questions: Where was Jacob conceived? Any trips or travel? We talked for about an hour, recording everything and scribbled notes. Then they weighed and measured Jacob. The man who lifted him to the scale had to bend his knees.
“Doctor Bob” came in with his clipboard, and sat. I asked about Jacob’s heart.
In circumstances of dwarfism or gigantism—any change from the regular human pattern—the organs are stressed. Somewhere I read that in large land mammals, things are not just scaled up, but every organ and bone has to be adapted to the extra strains from gravity.
He said that Jacob was perfectly ordinary, though larger in every way. It shouldn’t be possible, but there it was, there was absolutely nothing wrong with him, or the others, though we’d have to continue to monitor. He said he’d have to leave the why and how up to the scientists, or—he looked straight at me then—other purveyors of wisdom.
If you squinted your eyes in Jacob’s direction, blurred out the blocks and the other scattering of normal-sized but too-small toys, the legs that seemed thin around him, he looked like any normal child. His lips pursed, then went slack as he concentrated on making the blocks, momentarily, stack. I wanted to hold him to me, smell the back of his neck.
“In the ocean,” the doctor was saying, “crustaceans will grow without ever stopping, you know. They just get larger and larger with every molt. Lobsters grow six, seven feet long, if they live long enough.” His eyes bored into me. “I haven’t seen your husband here with you, lately,” he said. My husband had to work during the day. “Doctor Bob” put his hand on my knee. I slapped his hand away.
“My son’s no lobster!”
It wasn’t long before the triumphalism over the “prize-winning babies” turned into national unease. The optimism of the jumbo-sized America decayed in the unrest of the ’60s and the malaise of the ’70s, metastasizing into diabetes and heart disease in the ’80s and ’90s. Now, it wasn’t just my baby, or Henry, or a crop of babies in town. Suddenly, every baby seemed to be growing at the top end of the chart. In the small towns, in the cities, from the East Coast to the West, up in to Canada. Gradually, on the news, we heard from Mexico, then from Europe. In rural China. Everywhere
Jacob crawled through our house on chubby arms hunched like a giant tortoise. We had to put him in adult diapers. When we drove anywhere, he rode without a car seat because he wouldn’t fit in one. I couldn’t lift him, so we had to put him in a dog harness that was expanded to the last click. I’d coax him this way or that. The stairs were no obstacle to him. We were anxious for, and dreaded, his first steps.
He was babbling his first words: “Dada,” “Mama.” But they came out of his mouth a deep baritone. The effect was odd. The strangeness spread to our sex life. I couldn’t touch my husband; somehow the idea of intimacy now made me sick.
Gigantic growth was all anybody talked about. People called in on the radio, complaining, paranoid. Everyone had theories. Aliens had done it, preparing us for the next “ascension”—of what they wouldn’t say. It had “biblical parallels,” and was hinted at in the apocalypse. I never could quite figure out where. Or, it was because of the gays.
The president came on TV and gave a speech. The best minds were on it. Every week there was a new commission, a new report. It was cosmic rays, climate change, chemicals accumulating over generations, or a hundred thousand other theories.
Every week Jacob grew bigger. A lot of our furniture wound up snapped and put out for the municipal trash. A five-foot toddler bleeds a lot. I held a mint-green towel to his fleshy thigh and watched a crimson rose soak outward from my two hands.
Some people stopped having children—they cost too much to feed. It was apparent that expansion was an irreversible product of modern life. Gradually we stopped talking about it. We couldn’t change it, and there was a feeling that, somehow, people would adapt. The news shows drifted slowly back to the normal nightmares of crime and accident. Of course, everything took on a new twist since houses, furniture, fixtures, and life were not adapted to kindergartners that stood seven feet high.
We made do. We ditched the station wagon for a pickup truck. Not exactly legal, for him to ride in the back, but Jacob was conscientious, extremely well behaved. The school set up classes in the gymnasium. There was talk, if the situation got worse, of circus tents. We sat Jacob down and told him he’d be staying downstairs for the time being, where the ceilings were tall enough for him to stand—for now, my husband said. We contemplated how to tent the backyard.
There was no computer for Jacob when he reached that age. His hands were just too big.
At night, I read to my child, fairy tales. I sat beside him, and had to hold the book up, craning my head toward him. The light from the lamp reflected bright off the pages, but began to fade before it reached his face. Only his eyes stood out in the dark. His favorite story was “The Ugly Duckling.” I put my hand on top of his. In retrospect, maybe I should have guarded him more.
All the tech companies were racing to accommodate the needs of our growing children, but it took a few years to get things to market. Transportation was a huge problem. The first and second graders couldn’t fit in the school bus at all. The school rented an open wagon, and a tarp for when it rained. We quickly ran through our savings accommodating to Jacob’s needs, and maxed out our credit, but the biggest expense was food. Jacob would eat, and eat, and eat.
In the suburbs, things were a little easier, but in the cities it was chaos. Subways could hold only a few of the crouched children in each car. The crammed roadways couldn’t take the extra traffic in trucks, so there were always shortages of food.
At ten, my darling boy looked like a normal kid, except he couldn’t reasonably fit inside our house. We tented the yard, which at first was fun, but in the winter, we struggled to keep Jacob warm. By twelve, there were a few books his size, but almost nothing else was large enough for him to read. We bought the biggest TV we could afford, and he’d stare at it listlessly with one hand under his chin, then get up and go for a twenty-mile walk.
We tried. We all tried. Every state had its initiatives. Somebody without children was always going on about budget deficits and inflation.
Things weren’t growing. It seemed like the entire world was getting smaller.
I remember when we bought the house. There were two on the block we’d looked at, and I so wanted this one, with its majestic oak tree out back. That was something grand.
Jacob leaned against it, and the tree creaked.
Air travel was impossible. Existing tracks for trains served for a while but now couldn’t bear the weight. Sometimes Jacob would carry us to the store, sit outside and wait.
“Are you sure,” Jacob boomed down at me one day, “that you’re my parents?”
“You look just like your father,” I yelled.
Just like, and yet, not. Each sneaker was made from five cows. I could fit my thumb into the valley that whorled around one of his fingerprints.
Jacob got bored with school. “They don’t teach us much,” he said.
He was always hungry, no matter how much we heaped up in wheelbarrows for him.
It would have been okay, I think. It really could have been.
“You’re not my parents,” he said. “You can’t be. Look at how small you are.”
He got angry one time and busted every window in the back of the house.
The school principal called me. “I’m trying to talk some sense into the boys,” he said. “They don’t seem to listen. I don’t think they can hear me. They should be thinking about college.”
I laughed like a madwoman.
Then the stock market crashed.
There were supply problems, and it was hard to get enough for Jacob to eat. Some of the kids resorted to taking things, which made it worse. Teenage vandals knocked over power lines. Half the time, a quarter of the town was dark. Most of the houses were already turned inside out. We both lost our jobs.
“I’m going,” said Jacob. “It just sucks here.”
I had a whole speech prepared, and it spilled out of me. It must have sounded like the incoherent ramblings of an ant, if it reached his ears at all. I started out yelling it, then my voice got hoarse, dropped to a whisper, until reduced to silence I began to sob. But he was already gone.
We had plans to make things better. He would have seen. Except we didn’t really. I am his mother. I love him. Nothing else should have mattered. But, in the end, you always have to let go.
Our children had humored us as long as they could.
There were bands of them, taking everything that fit into the crook of their gigantic arms. The government was talking about using the military, but you couldn’t strike everyone, everywhere. After the power grid and vast swaths of the communication networks went down, things were pretty much done. Then some kids grabbed handfuls of parents and roasted them over a house fire for lunch.
My husband and I were out of there then. We took what we could and hiked north, to the Poconos.
In the distance on clear days, from the city, we’d see lots of trailing smoke.
One could adapt to almost anything, I felt, but things changed so fast.
I still love him.
Sometimes, even, when I look at my husband in the light of the fire, his shadow flickering on the wall of the cave, I’ve started to think, what if we had another one—another kid?
Benjamin Harnett (@benharnett) is a senior digital-infrastructure engineer at the New York Times, and publishes a weekly newsletter, “Don’t Read Me.” In 2005, he co-founded the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. His poems and translations have appeared in the Columbia Review, been anthologized by Bright Hill Press, and won an International Merit Award from Atlanta Review. His essay “Ghosts and Empties” can be read in the current issue of Wag’s Revue.