A short story by Madeline Walker
Ainslie Birchoff had a son, and then she had another one two years later. A week before the second birth, the bigger boy, Rinaldo, was moved into his own bedroom, with his own bed. The chocolate brown curtains had pink embroidered pigs on them, by Ainslie’s own small talented hands, and there was a sturdy box of wooden blocks in the corner. Ainslie’s husband Tom had tried to get Rinaldo used to the room for a few nights before the birth—lying down with him and singing the boy to sleep on the cosy little toddler-sized bed made up with soft flannel sheets and topped with a bright yellow duvet.
The first night at home from the hospital, Ainslie nursed her new son to sleep in the big bed. They had named him Colin after her grandfather, and after an easy birth he was an easy baby. Rinaldo had fallen asleep finally, after fussing and crying with his father for what had seemed like hours. The little family was finally at rest. Ainslie, Colin, and Tom lay together in one room, while Rinaldo slept in the room next to them. The big clock on the wall in the kitchen tick-tocked, and their German shepherd Portia twitched her flanks in sleep.
Come 3 a.m. and Ainslie roused herself to nurse Colin. There were the usual lip smackings and slurpings of the sucking newborn, but then something else. An uneven patter in the hall. Ainslie carefully slid Colin off of her breast and sidled out of bed, moving very slowly so as not to wake her partner and her infant. In the hallway, lit only by the golden glow of the night-light, Rinaldo was walking up and down—more like staggering—dressed in only his pajama top. The white cotton nightshirt covered his protruding taut belly and just skimmed his tiny wagging penis.
“Rinaldo, darling, back to bed. Come with me lovey,” She leaned over to scoop up the little boy, when he turned and looked at her, startled.
His face began to crumble into the beginnings of a wail. “I want my real mommy,” he screamed, then with a long trembling intake of breath he began to sob. Ainslie felt scared. “But darling boy, I am your real mommy,” she tried again to gather him up, but he backed off. His face contorted in distress and he continued to cry piteously. Ainslie was unable to catch him—he fled and hid under the couch, flattening his little body onto the floor. Colin heard the fuss and started to cry from the bedroom, and then so did Ainslie. Finally, Tom was able to extract his son. He rocked the quivering sobbing boy to sleep.
Tom and Ainslie were shaken. They took Rinaldo to their pediatrician the next day, and he examined the boy. “Strong as a pony. Nothing wrong with this kid,” he pronounced, giving the two-year old a high five. “My professional opinion is that is was an isolated case of night terrors or sleep walking. Ignore it.” And he sent them off to his receptionist to collect a “prize” for Rinaldo from a plastic tub of dollar store items such as kazoos and small stuffed toys.
There weren’t any more instances like the night waking terror, but starting at around age four, Rinaldo started to say a very precocious and oddly hurtful thing: “I was born into the wrong family.” You may think it impossible that a four year old could say something like that as it seems to presuppose a level of self-awareness that a child that age simply does not have. But that’s because you’re thinking that the statement is metaphorical. Four-year old (and five-year old, and six-year old) Rinaldo was not speaking metaphorically. He was stating a fact, it seemed, when he pronounced this. And pronounce it he did. Not terribly often, but at interesting moments, with a kind of faraway look in his eyes. The statement and the look, together, made Ainslie’s gut drop, made her feel like she was on a broken elevator, shooting down, down.
Rinaldo’s parents weren’t Italian—the Burchoff name was originally from Tom’s paternal grandfather who was German. So Rinaldo was christened Rinaldo because his father liked the name. He had come across it in a novel he was reading, turned it around in his mouth a few times, and asked his wife, Ainslie, “what do you think of Rinaldo for a boy?”
“It’s different, I like it!” she shouted from the kitchen where she attempted to chop vegetables with her arms extended, as her enormous girth kept her well back from the counter. Later on, she had done some research and found that Rinaldo, an Italian form of Reynold, meant “wise power.” Nice, she thought.
Portia the dog died when the kids were in their teens—it was surprising she lasted so many years. At the end, they had to carry her from one part of the house to the other because she slid on the hardwood floors. Tom got killed in a car accident when the boys were 29 and 27, and precisely one year later, Ainslie was diagnosed with an aggressive variety of inflammatory breast cancer. Colin was married with a new baby, and Rinaldo was single, living on his own in a cramped bachelor apartment across town. He was barely making ends meet with his blog “Outersphere,” about metaphysics and people and places that operated on different, higher energy levels than other folk. The advertising revenue from the blog kept him just solvent. Soon after his mother’s diagnosis, he gave his notice at the apartment and moved back into the family home, back into his boyhood bedroom. At a point late in his mother’s cancer, after every treatment had failed and she was back at home to live her last days, Rinaldo taped a sign to the front door of the 1920’s character house, carefully lettered with a black sharpie on lined paper: “My mother is dying in this house. Please respect this sacred space. Remove your shoes. Speak softly. Don’t bring negativity here, only love. Let us make her passage to the other side one of peace.”
One day he sat beside her bed, holding her hand, rhythmically pressing down the raised blue veins with his huge thumb, crying quietly. She looked at him—so different from staid Colin, his wild brown curls tucked behind big ears, his beard scraggly and rough. His hazel eyes were red-rimmed from so much crying.
“Do you remember, Rinaldo, the night you had the bad dream, just after Colin was born?”
“No, tell me.”
“Well you were wandering around the house in just a nightshirt, and when I tried to take you back to your bed, you looked up at me so scared, and said ‘I want my real mommy!’ Oh my, that hurt me so much. I still feel a stab in my heart, even now” she said with a grimace.
“You know, I finally found my real Mother,” he said to her, looking into her eyes.
She looked confused. She was expecting some reassurance from her son. She was dying here, a youngish widow, the tragedy was compound, the air was thick with the sadness of it all. And here he was saying she was actually not his mother?
“I’m your real mother,” she said sharply. I should know, I spend nine months with you in utero. I birthed you. I should know.”
“Oh, I know all that. But that’s not what’s important. Of course you are my biological mother, but my spirit Mother is somebody who has been right under my nose, all along, and I only found out last year.”
Ainslie, though very weak, pulled her thin body up in the bed. Her sharpness continued. “What the hell are you talking about?” This tone was uncharacteristic for her. She had been such a soft, giving soul all of her life. Those uncanny times when Rinaldo had said he was born in the wrong family, those tore her heart to shreds, but she had suffered silently. And now, this? She had thought when he moved back home after her diagnosis that there would be only closeness, only intimacy, only mother-son love. Now this?
Rinaldo did not draw back, nor did he release her hand. His big hand was very warm, enclosing hers, and though he had tears streaming down his face, he was very composed, very calm. “Mom, it’s okay, it’s okay. I know it’s upsetting. But my spirit Mother is no rival to you. You have been a wonderful mum—always there for me, always loving. But my spirit Mother—well She is the one who guides me, who has been guiding me, in spirit matters all my life. The story about my night wandering at two is very telling. I have been looking for Her, and She is right here.”
“Right where?” murmured Ainslie. Her eyes were closed now, as she felt a sharp pain in her chest, where her breasts had once been.
Rinaldo unbuttoned the top two buttons of his madras shirt, lifted her small hand, and leaning over the bed, placed it on his bare chest, atop the layer of curly, sweaty hair. “Here, Mum, right here.” Ainslie’s thin arm was fully extended, the hand had disappeared into her son’s open shirt. His large hand covered hers, pinning it to his heart, the chest hair protruding from around the hand sandwich. He leaned over her, his other arm steadying his big leaning body so he wouldn’t fall into the bed. On this hot July day, he was wearing cargo shorts and his trunk-like thighs, also covered with thick dark hair, were pressed up against the wooden rail at the side of the bed. Ainslie opened her eyes, surprised but not alarmed by this new position she was in. Mother and son did not speak, but the room was not silent. The sound of Rinaldo’s heart seemed to fill the space, BA-doom, BA-doom, BA-doom. Ainslie felt the reverberations through her body.
“In there, my Mother is in there.” He paused. “And your own spirit Mother is in here.” He slowly moved her hand out of his shirt and placed it on her own flat chest, where two radical mastectomies had razed her body. His hand, warm and firm, held her own fluttery one down flat on that scarred place, separated from her skin by only a thin layer of violet cotton. They both felt her heart beating rapidly, a bird’s beat in comparison to his. A thought flashed through Ainslie’s mind. I’m not embarrassed. I wonder why? But then her attention was back on the hands, her son’s and her own. The place under those hands grew warm as her rapid heart began to slow down. Now it sounded like a little pony going from a canter to a trot. A palomino pony trotting across a green meadow, wild yet serene. Free.