The baby was dead, and there was nothing any of us could do about it.
We had been excited. We had known what his name would be for a long time. Joshua. Another boy; all of us would be brothers. I was going to say to him, My name is Alex, and I'm your eldest brother. I am seven. And then we would introduce ourselves in turn to him. My mother would sit propped up on pillows, glowing cinematically, the air raw with new maternity. And I would kiss his tiny pucker of a forehead.
But this did not happen. When he was born, my mother said later, they knew something was wrong because he did not cry. He was very big, but he did not cry. My mother said she knew before – a mother just knows, son – she said she felt something shift within her a couple of nights before he was born, a new absenting of the soul. As she lay next to my father she felt him leaving. I do not know if she said goodbye.
We said many goodbyes to Joshua. He was an angel now, so we prayed to him every night, our pudgy palms pushed together, urging the prayer upwards. My mother would say, Joshua, my angel. Joshua my darling. Oh Joshua, I do love you so. She would sing it in a voice that belonged part here and part in a far-away world, just beyond our reach. We prayed our goodbyes before bed, and during the night my mother's keening song wafted up like incense to us. Below me, one of my brothers shook the bunkbeds in confused grief, his sobs pulsing contrapuntally with the maternal melody from below.
We said goodbye to Joshua at the chapel of rest. This was the first time I had seen a dead body, but the lighting was so soft and almost dark, so it didn't feel like I was going to see a dead body. It felt like I was going to sink, soon, into a deep and peaceful sleep. He was surrounded by flowers and candles and he was tiny in a white box on a kind of plinth. My mother went to him and picked him up and held him for a long time. She whispered to him and I watched her. I forgot he was dead. She asked me if I would like to hold him. This is your brother, she said, to me and him at the same time. And so she handed me this baby, this dead baby who was my brother, and he felt strong. I looked at his face. He looked like he was sleeping, but his lips were very dark, like a blackened triangle.
Whenever I dreamed of him, I remembered that blackened triangle, that strangeness that marked him out from the living.
We said goodbye to Joshua at his funeral. I stood next to my father in the church and looked down the nave. In the nave at the front of the church was the casket. My father saw me looking at it and he said, It's just a box. He isn't in there. Isn't in there at all. It's just a box. This is what he repeated, and I listened to him. But that late November we drove afterwards in a black river of cars to the cemetery, and I watched as they threaded straps around the white baby box that was just a box. It was a very small box and the hole was very big. Everyone from my life was there, standing around this too-big hole, watching this white thing hovering above the nothingness. I was standing with my father. The straps creaked, the box jerked. It was being lowered into the hole. My father made a strangling sound and began to cry, and he did not stop. He cried with his whole self, his arms slack, and I held his hand and I tried to take his crying away by squeezing his hand.
Mum put up lots of pictures of Joshua after the funeral. There were lots of pictures of a dead baby in our home. She had a box that she had some of his hair in and a tissue that had some of his blood in it. She kept them in the nursery he would never use, and sometimes I would find her crosslegged on the nursery floor, leaning against the cot, holding the tissue to her face, as though trying to breathe her baby back to life. I would go in and I would hold her and let her shake and shake until she could not do it anymore.
Years later, I read about Poroniec from Slavic lore. They were hostile and malicious demons believed to come into existence from stillborn foetuses. I read about this and I imagine Joshua returning as a demon. And it makes as much sense to me as imagining him alive, here and now. He'd be in his late twenties. Sometimes I try to summon up an imagined image of what he'd look like now, but I can't. I'm drawn back to the baby box. It's just a box. And when I dream, I dream of opening the white baby box and finding nothing in there. He is Risen. My father was right. We buried an empty box. Underneath that white stone, shrouded in earth, is nothing, and no-one. Where is he?
He's in my arms as I cradle his head and I tell him I'm his brother.
He’s in the skeins of mother-song.
He's in the glozing of my father's eyes.
And now, he's here, flickering awake in the spaces between the words on this page.
Reader, hold these words in front of your eyes for a few seconds more.
And don't let him go.