The first time he meets her he is presented with a fluffy crocheted bundle of nerve shattering screams and cries.
Roughly three uncomfortable seconds go by before it is passed back.
They try again. Many times, even. Go on, he’s told, he’s encouraged, a sleepy bundle is placed into his arms and for some blissful minutes the small pink creature dozes dreamily in his arms, but she has to wake eventually. Crankiness itself awakes her and upon finding the Big Scary Man holding her, she only makes her displeasure more known. Upon every attempt she adamantly makes it clear she is not keen to this whole daddy business, and really, he should just knock it off already.
Then duty calls and three months slip by.
First reunion, his hopes are high and the bundle now is an upright bonneted little wobbly doll in a sky blue frock sitting on the floor chewing on the corner of a book.
“Hello princess,” he says happily and sweetly to the adorable little thing. “You remember your daddy, don’t you?”
She screams bloody murder for a minimum of five solid minutes.
It is not just him he’s assured. Oh no, it’s quite common for babies to fear strangers. And that’s what daddies who are not around often are. At first. Babies are worse than the old folks when it comes to remembering. Be patient, they say. The child will come around.
Well, that’s what they say anyway.
And he remembers when he used to be excited about this fatherhood thing.
Turns out nothing is more dejecting than your own child going into hysterics at the mere sight of you. Even if you understand it intellectually, the stab in the heart is no less painful, as you are nothing more to her than the Big Scary Man pawing and looming over her, pushing the boundaries of her intense distrust of everyone not Mother.
So two months later one morning, he’s sitting under a tree ten feet away from his little family in the back of the house, sharpening knives, drawing slowly on a pipe. Grace, his little Gracie who hates him so, lays on her back in the middle of a folded sheet on the cool stone of the kitchen entryway, having an intense conversation with herself while alternating devouring her foot and a noisy brass rattler. Because of the muggy heat, both his girls are sparse to wear, baby in nothing but a diaper and white lacey bonnet, her little chubby legs and arms flailing all about her. Her mother in a chemise, hair swept up under lace, forehead shiny with sweat, sitting on a stool just outside the door while violently pulverizing something in a large stone mortar on the ground between her feet.
“I’ve got to tend the fire,” she says to him, wiping her brow and stretching her back while standing up. “Can you keep an eye on her for me?”
He lowers his hat down and leans down into his work. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Please? I won’t be long.”
He sighs and places his knife and leather strip down.
“Hello princess,” he says softly as he slowly crouches down and approaches her as she starts to roll off her sheet.
Blue eyes lock with his and he gently picks her up under her arms, sitting her up on her bottom in the middle of the sheet. “There we are,” he says, handing her slobbery rattler back out to her, his chest bursting with the pride of success and acceptance so he stupidly pushes his luck and keeps talking to her. “Who’s a good girl now?”
And after a pin-drop moment of silent staring, those blue eyes flood wet, that white and pink face flushes bright red, and she cries for five minutes straight.
“I have an idea,” Anna insists.
So sitting on the bed, she places Gracie between them facing her father and tells him to talk to her. She hands him a cloth doll and keeps the baby on her lap. He hands her to doll and she grasps it tightly in her fist before fiercely throwing it down. Not laughing, not smiling, just blankly staring. He picks it up and gives it back and she immediately throws it back to the floor. Repeat again. And again. So he leaves it. This is not acceptable to her however and begins to fuss terribly.
He begins to understand she doesn’t want to hold it, or have it left on the ground; she simply wants to see him bend on the floor before her retrieving her whims. Testing him perhaps. A form of dominance. Or maybe sadistic childish glee. He tries to tickle her a little and the look of disgust and seriousness on her face makes him laugh because it’s incredibly amusing the way this young little human in miniature is suspiciously and just barely tolerating his proximity.
At least she is not crying. It is a start anyway.
He wonders if perhaps she actually had inherited through blood his quote-unquote “pissy disposition” and “sick humor” as a certain someone had accused during a quarrel once in the emotionally charged past. (Or perhaps she had gotten a touch of her mother’s own inherent displeasure with him.)
How early their little souls show!
But he is not one to give up on a girl he inexplicably loves. And after some more play, some desperate attempts at presenting the princess with various toys to find the one of her approval (her rattler it turns out) and using Mother as a third party buffer, instead of angling herself away from him and bursting out into screeching cries, she presents out her spit coated rattler for him and declares something in her little imp language before devouring it again. He picks her up and holds her on his lap tentatively. A test. And to his utmost surprise, she is perfectly fine. Upping the ante, he puts a kiss on each of her round chubby cheeks and leans back to assess her reaction. Guarded acceptance. An observing blank stare. Growing amusement at his face (which she takes a swing at with the rattler), but then an immediate enchanting fascination with his waistcoat buttons takes hold. He adores her as little fingers pull at his clothing all while big blue eyes look between him in concentration and a silent plea for his attention to be directed at his utterly fascinating yet frustratingly stuck on shiny brass discs.
He buries his face in the tiny crook of her stinky little neck and she squeals and pulls her head and shoulder together trying to escape his ticklish kisses. She has that revolting smell of an unwashed babe in the heat: sour milk and wet metal with the slightest soft undertones of sweet sweaty baby buried below.
“A stinky princess, but a princess nonetheless.”
“She needs a bath terribly,” Anna says, squeezing the little girl’s leg. In a playful voice she says to her, “Don’t you? You smelly girl.”
And then he says, “May I?”
A look of pleasant surprise passes over her face. “You think you can handle it?”
“You think me helpless or daft or something?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Do not worry, I had a younger brother,” he says turning his face to the child who is now sticking her gross fingers into his mouth that he pulls out, he continues, “who was much smellier than certain little ladies.”
She helps him take off his jacket and then collects the towels and soap and piles them into a small wire basket. Surely her mind racing ahead of itself, thinking about all the millions of calamities to befall her innocent helpless child at the hands of her negligent ignorant idiot of a father, she nervously asks, “Sure you don’t need my help? Let me finish up and we’ll all go.”
“We’ll be fine,” he says, taking the basket kissing her cheek. “Finish your work here.”
“Be careful,” she says mournfully and pulls down the white bonnet over short blonde curls and puts a kiss on her crown. “You be good for Father now.”
Heading out the door he calls back, “No worries mum, we shall return.”
With babe in the crook of one arm, and basket of supplies in the other, he takes the ten minute walk down to the reed and willow enclosed shallows of the nearby river. Finding a dry patch of grass to lay her down on and strips off the wadding of the child’s thankfully still clean diaper, and then proceeds to strip down to the buff himself and collects all their clothes in a pile and puts them up on a dry bush. He picks her and the bar of soap up and wades out into the cool water, slowly, slowly sinking down. When her feet touch the water, her chubby thighs instinctively pull them up. “It’s alright,” he says and he submerges them down to her waist as the most amazed and uncertain look works over her little features. She looks up to him and to the water and then back and reaches out to touch it, splashing it, but then her face gets wet. A slight distress. Then the curiosity of the sparkling cool water comes back, her hand slapping the surface and then sharp fingers desperately grip into his chest and arm for support as she wipes her face against his shoulder only to repeat the process. A reel of baby blather spills from her as she tells him all about it. “I know it,” he replies.
He dunks his head back, wetting his hair and then tips her back, trying to wet her faint blonde hair, her head curling up when the water hits her neck. While she splashes at the water’s surface with stiff chubby hands, he begins soaping her slippery little body up. He washes himself best as he can with one hand while holding a squirming slick pink creature that cannot stay still between her excitement and curiosity.
“There, now we both smell better, don’t we,” he says, and tosses the square of soap which lands with a clattering bounce off a rock (and it broke he realizes) back to the shore.
“Your father is going to get yelled at now, you watch,” he sighs to her.
“You think that’s funny do you?”
He holds her up on his chest and goes out on his back into the water and lazily kicks around with her clutching his shoulders and more painfully, his chest hair, wide blue eyes looking out at the immense new world of water. Treading in a circle to avoid the standing algae in the stagnant bits of water, he dodges the floating plants and other river delectables curious little hands grab for to eagerly taste.
He never really felt like a father before, as if he hadn’t quite fully committed to the title yet. He was a father in title, but he has no idea what his daughter likes, what makes her laugh, cry (aside himself), what puts her to sleep, what her favorite toy is. He possesses no memories of her in animated life, she only existed as a vague hidden bump in her mother and then a name on paper and currently a screaming strange child that lives in his house he’s seen a few times briefly.
He holds her up in his hands and with an exaggerated swing, plies her in and out of the water, a little squeal of laughter every time he pretends to drop her, making dramatic faces for her amusement, watching as this small stranger transforms before his eyes into his baby, his beautiful daughter he inexplicably loves more than he ever thought possible.
His happiest accident.
With a very serious sounding, “monmmamadfffffppppp,” she fiercely sucks on the tightly balled fingers of her fist and intently stares at her reflection and rippled legs in the water, carrying on the conversation. He places a kiss to each dimple and then on her neck. She giggles and scrunches her head down and making smooching sounds he attacks her little soft nook again.
“Naked and slacking off, I see,” a familiar voice says. “So this is how I find you.”
Turning towards the shore he sees Anna, dressed now in a yellow light cotton frock, standing there holding a stack of folded clothes in her hands in front of her lap, her head cocked to the side smiling. Suffering a little anxiety herself as it has only been fifteen minutes tops. But nature is quite amazing, much like baby's knee jerk reaction for her mother after being separated, her mother's knee jerk reaction was for her baby after the longest separation she had ever experienced which for her translates as anything past twenty minutes. An unbearable amount of time.
“Come join us,” he calls out to her. “It’s quite nice and cool.”
“Maybe next time.”
“Mother is no fun, is she.”
“Mother is busy and has things to do.” Looking down at the ground she cries, “Did you break my new soap?”
“See, what did I tell you,” he murmurs. To Anna he yells, “Sorry mum, but I cannot hear you.”
“I don’t know which one of you is worse,” she sighs, squatting down picking up the shattered pieces of the white bar.
“But look,” he says. “I found this strange water fairy that makes the most delightful sounds if you do this,” he says, as he holds the child up above his head and then quickly dunks her legs in and out of the water, making her squeal in laughter. “Can we keep it?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says in mock concern. “They are a bad omen. Best toss it back to be safe.”
“Well, you heard the master,” he says to the child, and she in return makes her little sounds from behind her drooly fist she’s gnawing on before slapping his chest with it and smiling. “There’s no use pleading for mercy, she’s quite ruthless I’m afraid.”
“Be gone!” he cries, swinging her up out of the water over his head and drops her belly to his mouth and then back up making her shriek and laugh with the most adorable high pitched squeal, finished on the belly tickle with throaty guffawing sounds that make both her parents laugh at the sound of her. “Be gone, little sprite!”
“I don’t think it will leave.”
“I guess we have no choice then do we?”
He swings her a few more times until she takes further notice of the center of her universe standing on the shore and starts to fuss. Taking that as his cue to the end of his baby’ tolerance of him, he slogs back through the water with the wiggling wet sprite, trying her utmost best to wrench herself free of him and will herself into her mother’s awaiting open towel holding arms which he places her into.
They sleep outside that night to escape the heat of the house, to enjoy the slight coolness of the nighttime. Gracie in nothing but a diaper in her soft oblong basket with a length of fine lace draped over it and him and Mother in nothing but their under clothes. He pulls the basket over to him and slips and hand under the lace and finds a little warm arm. He gently strokes it with his fingertips, just lightly, not waking her. He feels an odd sense of peace and contentment in it, staring up at the sky, with his baby girl sleeping alongside him.
He thinks of the future and the terror of it and how everything is different now. More than he ever truly realized before. And he knows, he is now thinking like a father. When the nineteenth century comes, she’ll just be in her twenties. Hopefully a happily married mother with her own little spiteful imps. God willing. And he’ll be a fifty-something grandfather (God willing). The thought overwhelming. Horrifying, but exhilarating at once. In that little lace covered basket under the stars lays not only an entire other person, but an entire universe of possibilities. And it is then, he thinks, that there cannot be anything better that that.