By Dierdre Wolownick
“Number One’s rolling!”
My son’s finger shakes in anticipation. I follow his stare and see one perfect white egg roll onto its other side. All around us, people gasp.
Kids of every size and ebullience level fill the museum; we’ve been jostled and stepped on all morning, elbowing our way through airplanes and plumbing, the human body and impossible machines. Science-in-art. Hands-on things to push, pull and measure. But nothing has so captivated as this little warm pyramid of glass with sixteen eggs in various stages of hatching.
Nothing to push, pull or touch, no moving parts, absolute silence. It doesn’t seem like an exhibit that we wouldn’t be able to tear our little movers and shakers away from.
Yet here we stand, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, motionless. I never knew my son or daughter could stop moving for that long.
A tiny speck of beak pokes out through a hole in Egg Number One. People cheer. I don’t, but I feel like it. Everything gets blurry. Has it really been so many years since I was part of this mystery? For a fleeting, foolish moment I want to do it again. I want to be that chalice of life, and create something glorious, something that will make people teary-eyed. There’s no glory in fame, prestige, money. Renown is fleeting. This alone is glory.
The top of Number One cracks almost all around. Now there’s no more room near the exhibit. Looking through the glass, I see faces of every age pressed as close as they can get. I hear whispers only; even the tiniest children respect the sanctity of this moment.
What hard work! The chicks that have already hatched lie exhausted, laboring just to breathe. I remember the exhaustion. Will I never feel that way again?
Both my kids squeeze even closer to the glass. Number Two has rolled over, in the bumpy, unsure way of an egg. But then there are more gasps, and children point and whisper-shout and pull on sleeves or arms. Number One is out!
Everything is blurry again. I get angry with myself for a moment, but then a ball of red and yellow goo flops onto the metal mesh, out of Egg Number One, and everything else is forgotten.
How ugly it looks! — eyes almost as big as its head, beak covered with red and yellow fluid, down plastered to its tiny, quivering body. None of that diminishes the excitement buzzing around the glass pyramid. The parents are all smiling. You can tell some of them have forgotten where they are. They, like myself, have gone back in time.
The kids are all in the here-and-now. Most of their comments consist of “Look at that!” or “Mommy! Daddy! Look!” The exclamation points are audible. This is a moment to be shared, and remembered. My own are bursting to tell Aunt Diane, who stood before this very exhibit so many years ago — in another lifetime — but never actually got to see one hatch.
Some of the onlookers whisper things like, “Come on, move!” or “Go ahead, do something!” But it just lies there, its little body bouncing rhythmically, breathing for the first time.
I discover I’m holding my breath, and let it out. Did I expect to hear a cry? For an unexpected moment I feel again the unbearable anguish of silence between what we’d thought of for nine months as “the end,” and the cry that marked the beginning. The beginning of those million little anguishes. Of fears we didn’t know we had.
Will I never feel them again? That prospect fills me with bleakness. Never a great ogler of babies, I’m amazed to find myself wanting another.
My husband and I decided, so many years ago, that two was enough. And I’m too old. If we’d married earlier, if I’d had the first two younger, maybe…. But now, at our ages, it would ruin everything. We’d both be exhausted again, have no time for each other again. And the two we have are so good together. No, we made the right decision.
Another chick, hatched a few minutes before we got here, stumbles over and pecks at “our” chick, once, twice. People gasp. “Don’t do that!” chides a small voice.
I try to remain detached. Do they eat the amniotic fluid from the others? But it isn’t working. Doesn’t it hurt them to cut the cord? I wince as they place my warm newborn on a cold, metal scale.
We have to leave. There are other places to see, we can’t spend our only day in the museum watching chicks hatch. It’s over. I’ll never feel that way again.
Author’s note: The toughest decision of all: To create — or not — another human being! The awesomeness of that choice has resonated with me forever; before I was even old enough to have children, I remember wondering, “how do you know how many to have?” This incident gave me at least one answer.
Dierdre Wolownick lives and writes in northern California. Her work has appeared in parenting and children’s magazines, as well as other types of publications, in many countries, and her short fiction has won First Prize from the National Writer’s Association. She has lived and worked on several continents, and geography is one of the main ‘characters’ of her novels.