The Disappearance

Ken Poyner

We had not seen these things, and so had to be convinced of their utility. All mothers stagger their babies on their hips, or wear them cradled in front, sometimes cradled in back. But these things—a seat with wheels, and long handles so the mother is always impudently upright—we did not know what they might do, what gain they could give us for the loss of our accustomed intimacy, mother to child.

A government worker, the same one who brought us make-up in sticks and jars and talked about how a woman could say no to her husband, brought them with her in the back of a government pickup truck. With all the banging and leaps of a truck crossing open plain, the devices must be sturdy. We would have suspected that, as with most of what the government people bring us, in a few miles the official gifts would have been piles of wheels and slashed canvass and bent poles. But some thoughtful man stacked these correctly long before he let the woman drive them here. She passed them hand to hand off the truck one at a time, and we stepped up to the tailgate, each taking the offered contraption, even the women who had no children: poor pasty wives—they had no more idea at first than did we for what they might need these curious conveyances.

They are not hard to learn. The baby goes in the seat. The safety strap goes around the baby and buckles. The wheels turn, or slide in the dirt once they are jammed, and it all goes forward with the mother pushing from behind. It could not be simpler. The baby and the mother are now a separate thing. The mother looks down to see the captured baby; the baby looks forward at an onrushing world, and there is no mother.

In time we did see the good side to these. Balancing a baby requires the surrender of one hand. A baby in a sling pulls at the contortions of the back, or simply gets in the way of necessary work, and idle play. With the child strapped into the carrier, a woman can use both hands, can keep her hips under her, can go about the workday as though she has no child at all. More often than not, the power of the device is in parking the baby. The mother pushes the baby far enough from home that she does not feel she has to make it comfortable, then leaves it strapped into the mothering device while nearby she might have hands and hips and full motion to apply to whatever desire is at view.

Not a few men have been cuckolded while their children slept bent double in the government stroller, and the wife made comparisons with another woman’s husband. With a little technology, there is often a new liberation.

Once the devices were accepted, they began to have their own niche in our elastic culture. People who had no children would put their pets in the strollers and parade about the village, no less proud than a mother of triplets. Some would pile their clothes into the carriers, take them down to the one washing machine available in the village. Some were even pushed empty. At times there would be more women with empty conveyances than filled, each in their finest whoring clothes pushing their cargo of air with an exaggeration that would set the men to howl, these bat-eyed women saying, See? You can fill this.

Then, one woman lashed two carriages together and made a wider one. Somehow she tied them at the frame, kept the wheels independent, made three upright handles out of four. She carried a child on one side, the child’s moon bear doll on the other. When she came through the narrower village streets, people would have to pass her single-file. Barely could her double stroller share the road with an opposing single stroller. People looked ahead to see her coming and plotted how to resolve the bristling encounter. She pushed like a musk ox in rut and her smile, close lipped and predatory, warbled of privilege.

Such an effrontery does not last for long. Within the week, a long, thin, reed of a woman with no children at all, and a husband who would travel regularly to other women’s beds almost as though servicing a route, lashed three of the devices together. In one seat she would keep her spare sandals; in another she would place a water jug; in the third were the part of her husband’s clothes he was not just then wearing. She had to run a stick through the six gregarious handles, and when pushing she could not well keep a straight line. But no matter; she took up the width of most streets, and in the larger thoroughfares stood out as something that simply had to be gotten around.

Other women began to fashion these combined carriages. Some would stop at two, unable to trick more from the government representative. Others would buy the strollers from villagers who were too thick yet to master the need for them, and preferred to balance a child on the hip or in a sling. Oh yes, as though the strategy of strollers were about children. They would quietly bid out the device given them by the government representative, and amongst a small amen group come to the best price and pass ownership, with no thought to the status they were betraying.

For a while, having one was poverty, two strung together was the norm, and three lashed into a unit was the height of fashion. Woman would push the devices at one another, chase men off the road. Their backs would groan as they would plot a line directly through the ambient traffic and then try to hold it as they drove with their legs, steered with the grandeur of their arms, leaned left and right and squatted to bring the best of the rump into the gathering momentum.

But one day, a woman in some unfathomably magical way lashed four together. The consortium was wider than she was tall, heavier than a boy just beyond puberty. Haltingly, she made one round through the main square, the only place a child hauler four carriers wide would fit. She puffed and twisted and could not control the trajectory of her device for the most part, but it moved. It moved. And everyone got out of the way.

From the houses surrounding the square and from the street itself other women watched, some unselfconsciously bending and cackling, trying to get a look at how it was done, how the four devices were effectively held together. There was little control in the driving, and only a monster of a woman could push such a behemoth, but it was astounding, a device that could not make it down most of the village’s small paths, that could go round and round the square for as long as a robust winter woman had the strength to push it.

Certainly it was magnificent, but at the same time it was a socializing mystery: how had it been constructed? What was the secret of its unanimity? No one admits to being able to discern it that day. People would describe what they had seen, draw crude engineering guesses in the dust behind their houses. They would turn their own carriages up and down and lay them sideways on their floors and look for strengths that were not there, construction tolerances that did not seem to exist. Soon, they would simply fall to describing again to each other how the woman huffed and threw out her arms and how her huge legs quivered and spoke. They would imagine what she revealed to her husband as she labored on the new species of device, and how he might have busied himself as she measured and fashioned and tested her secret patents in the dark.

She has not been seen since that day. Her glorious hours came and went and no one remembers what she did when she had finished this once-only parade. She became, in those short turns of her contraption, mythical. Everyone knows everyone else in this village, cousins marry cousins, and we share one blood, but we do not speak the name of the woman. The government representative can tell us nothing; but remembers the woman as a beast of burden, one who could push four carriages where perhaps none other could. Her husband would have no trouble picking her out in a crowd. He has been seen, alone, snarling at flies thinking to conquer his porch. But he has not seen his wife, or he is not admitting to it. Girls not yet of marrying age, but growing close, parade wiggling by his house, and he looks at them with the snake slit eyes of a man who has not felt the inside of a woman for some time, with the eyes of a mathematician of family lines.

I suspect we shall not see this woman for a while. And I think that soon enough we will find loose wheels and torn canvas and bent tubes that once were handles lashed into a foursome, all in a pile, with the righteous fingerprints of many citizens crawling proudly over the wreckage. The rains will rust it and the winds rip it, and in a generation it will be covered in rot and even the woman’s daughter one day will push her own limb-poor daughter in a fashionable, for that day, stroller past the unrecognized rubbish mound. The granddaughter, stumbling indulgently unbuckled from her engulfing stroller and playing on drowsy legs hide-and-seek with her imaginary playmates, might pull at an unintentionally found, scarred, deep-bitten carriage wheel of a style long left to rumored ancestors and ask over her shoulder, “Mother, what is this?”

And the mother, bending down to be all face and dread, will say, “Why, child, this was your grandmother’s. She plowed behind it like an ox on a tether. And either it killed her, or we did.”

Author Portrait

Ken’s latest collection of short, wiry fiction, Constant Animals, and his latest collection of surprising poetry, Victims of a Failed Civics, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press, Amazon, or from Sundial Books. He often serves as strange, bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s power lifting affairs. His poetry of late has been sunning in Analog, Asimov’s, Poet Lore, and The Kentucky Review; his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp, Red Truck, Café Irreal, and Bellows American Review.  

View the website of Ken Poyner