Our Red Thread
You need to understand, I did it for her. For my wife. Carla.
And now, she reads to our daughter, Margaret, as if nothing happened. Like Margaret was the one, the meant-to-be one. Our Red Thread baby. Whole thing erased.
Carla was jetlagged so tired not at all capable of handling a glitch in the plan. Always been fragile like that. We were exhausted. Flown sixteen hours. Never been to China. But, we were so eager. Everything we read about it said simple. All the books, pamphlets, eyewitness accounts, promised.
We showed up five days before the adoption. The Middle Kingdom. Her birth country. Smell it, taste it. My buddies warned dog meat! The jokes. But, Carla slept through the first three days. Said the food made her ill. It’s rice, I said, and dumplings, who can’t love that? Another husband might have been annoyed but I ordered up room service. Wonton soup she wouldn’t touch. The black curled mushrooms, right? Sure to be tapeworms.
Early in the morning dawn cuts up the damp fog. Old ladies hunch over sweeping sidewalks, with bent broom husks. They show things off over there: lakes and caves, the mountains—all lit up with red blue green spotlights. I’m an early riser. Carla, dead to the world, missed the park. Get this: under the trees, cages hanging from branches. Songbirds—dozens. You can’t believe the music. Old men standing squatting clutching steaming swirling jars of tea. Fathers. I stopped. Just stood around waiting for one of them to notice me. So I could show them my picture. Of Meifeng. Our baby. One we’d waited for. One first matched to us.
Got it right here, in my wallet. See? Wait. Isn’t her. I mean. This photo is Margaret. The one we brought home. She’s beautiful. Right? The orphanage director said, see those cheeks so plump. She’s a healthy girl. Double eyelid, double luck.
Meifeng. Beautiful Wind they named her. I kept the original photo they sent us. No one knows I got this. Carla’d say, let it go. That child wasn’t meant for us isn’t about us, she’s in good hands now, is what she’d say.
You know, I did it for her. No guidebook on how to handle this kind of thing. We’re somewhere in China. Jetlagged hungry for a decent cup of coffee a glass of real milk a goddamn MacDonald’s cheeseburger. Fourteen families at the Jing Ling Joint Venture hotel. They told us how to make the bottles. Like we never had babies before, Carla whispered to me. But I listened. You bet—I heard every translated word. You could say I didn’t pay much attention our first time around. I mean we were only eighteen.
It’s big thing, you can’t imagine. A different kind of stork. Oohs and ahhs and babies crying. Shouting out names. Our daughters’ names. In Chinese that none of us could even pronounce—Carla didn’t see them when we said, Meifeng. The guides—they were looking at each other, like something was up. Later, when I told her, she said I’d made it up.
So they called out: Meifeng! and we both reached out—Carla and me. I don’t know how she ended up in my hands but, man—she added no weight. Anyway, I lifted her toward Carla but the head lolled and legs just dangled. Carla said, I have to pee and walked off. In all the excitement she forgot to go. Sure. That’s what she says now.
And I took this baby to an empty corner. Thinking maybe she’s just freaked out, right? Give her a chance. The room is so packed and loud. I set her down soft as I could on the rough carpet. Meifeng’s head and hands like tiny sticks from a butterball turkey but that wasn’t her body, just layer after layer of split-pant pajamas, a sweat suit with a Gap label, padded pants and thick quilt jacket with round panda faces. Her eyes didn’t seem to focus. There was no crying, no smile, no nothing.
By then Carla is back and she says, I heard that sometimes they give the babies something to calm them down, make them less fussy for the new parents. Maybe that’s what’s going on.
Once, I scraped a dead bird off our sidewalk. Its wing was broken, and brittle claws all clenched up. The beak had dropped open, unhinged. You could see its bird tongue. Eyes still wide. I didn’t say it to Carla, but it went through my head. It’s true what they say—some people just can’t think straight when they haven’t slept.
Back in our room Carla says, all these layers no wonder. Poor thing. Carla starts peeling. Meifeng blinking. We’ve got like two-dozen new outfits with tags taken off all folded and stacked up in the new black suitcase. Striped tights and polka dot dresses a thick flowered coat and black shiny shoes. Carla pulled out this one in dark red velvet with a white collar and three fat buttons up the back. Size six months, she said. But Meifeng was ten months. No way. Wait, I said, maybe we shouldn’t. But, you think she listened to me? Went and propped her up sitting position and held our baby’s string of arm as she worked the dress over that black-stubble head.
She let go—just for a second—Meifeng tipped.
I knew then.
Carla, she just crouched down in a corner, face buried.
Those walls, so thin. Baby naked on the bedspread. That beautiful dress still dangling from its neck, her—her. Meifeng. Matched to us. We had waited two years for this day.
The guy, our adoption agency guide, said, a delicate matter a rare situation but there is always a solution. For a fee, you understand. Don’t worry, he said. We’ll take care of the documents. Will handle that. And the orphanage director was contacted. Carla had shut herself in the bathroom wouldn’t even answer my questions.
So, of course, yeah—I took off that dress. Carefully zipped and snapped and buttoned back all the original clothes. My hands were too big. Meifeng, I said it real quiet at first. Then, Meifeng. And I swear she looked at me but maybe not.
I tried to think of her in the nursery I’d painted yellow. Tiny dragonflies pink purple blue balancing from wire on an invisible string bouncing around in the breeze from the open window and how much could it cost for proper medical care? Slipped my pinky finger through Meifeng’s limp fist. I told myself, if she squeezed, even a little, I’d do anything, everything—I don’t care if Carla never came out of the bathroom. Come on baby. Squeeze.
We were promised a healthy baby—not damaged. It’s like what I told them, we didn’t sign up for the special needs program. Not that … I mean … we could have. Maybe. If we were prepared. I don’t know. Carla. Look, they promised a healthy one. What? Costs, crushing … they gauge you. Anyway, too much unknown. They say sleep deprivation, thinking…
The orphanage director—he was very apologetic. He actually blushed. I took that as sign we were doing the right thing. Like he felt responsible, like he knew there’d been a mistake, but Carla says we made him lose face. You have to know the culture—she says that now. Right? I don’t know about all that but sure as hell when it all went down she was out of commission locked in the bathroom with some fan turned on, toilet flushing. Wouldn’t talk to me or go to Meifeng. I could see the future.
I handed her over. They took Meifeng away. I told Carla everything through the door.
Yeah—so, Margaret now. The next morning they knocked on our door and she was heavy in my arms, heaviest iron dumbbell. Here she is all gurgles and smiles sucking the hell out of a rice cracker. I can barely lift her! But every dress, they fit. Like tailor-made. There she is, clapping when we sing to her—feathers still on my hands.
Bio: Kim Frank is a fiction writer and the editor of SVPN, a lifestyle, arts, and property magazine in Sun Valley, Idaho. She is a 2014 Idaho Literature Fellow with an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. A 2013 UCross Artist Residency Fellow, Kim’s work is published in Blackbird, Drunken Boat, Every Day a Century, Colorado Review, and monthly in SVPN. She was co-writer and editor for the short film, “Goddess of the Yangtze,” a Columbia Gorge International Film Festival documentary pick. “Our Red Thread” is an excerpt from Kim’s novel-in-progress.