Short Story Review – Cheri Lewis – Open Hands (trans. Pamela Carmell)

The babies started arriving that summer.

It starts innocently enough.  Weird, but innocent.  A baby appears.  It’s dirty.  Small.  Perhaps abandoned?  Likely so, though there isn’t any indication of that.  No note, no clue.  But I suppose that is what abandonment means.  The narrator’s sister, who remains nameless throughout – and colourless in terms of personality, which is interesting – attaches herself to the baby and spends the day with him.

But this baby is not the only one to arrive.  There are more, and more again:

A week later, four more babies showed up: three boys and a girl. Sitting at the breakfast table early one morning, we felt a cold breeze. We turned and saw four silhouettes standing in the doorway, sunlight at their backs. Four faceless shadows studying us from outside.

We have entered into the realm of the strange, the weird, the menacing.  The word choice of ‘faceless shadows’ and ‘silhouettes’ is not accidental.  These babies are the harbingers of some doom, or perhaps they are the doom itself.

The family is divided as to what is happening. The sister is quite positive, but the narrator has their reservations.  A plague of babies is not a real thing, and yet here it is, more and more of them.  And there are older babies now, toddlers, really, and they are searching, searching, searching for something, pulling open cupboards and drawers.  Looking.

Mama kept her thoughts to herself as she listened to our arguments. She looked worried. She had lit a cigarette and was standing by the window, smoking and staring outside. “More are on their way,” she told us with conviction, “and that can’t be good.”

The onslaught of babies continues.  Soon the house is full of them, and there are still more to come.  The narrator’s sister remains sympathetic, caring for them, but everyone else is worried.  The tone shifts, the language becomes darker, less pleasant.  Babies are no longer considered loveable.  They approach an evil force.

Curiously, the narrator doesn’t quite extend themselves this far.  The language used changes, but the narrator remains dispassionate, above the fray.  They do not want the babies in the house, but beyond that, their wonder at the actual occurrence of so many new guests is, well, striking.  There’s something to be said for being nonchalant in the face of a surreal situation, but at the same time it lends a certain smallness to the story.  If the narrator is unable to work themselves up too much, then I, as the reader, may as well remove any emotional attachment myself.  This isn’t necessarily very fair to the story, but at the same time, the entire piece hinges on the impending sense of doom generated by the increasingly menacing situation and tone.

And then the story ends.  It ends with the sting of a joke, admittedly not much of one, and also with the sister’s disappearance.  She was, it seems, what the babies were searching for, which is odd given that she bonded with the very first baby, which means that the toddlers really didn’t need to go hunting through cupboards.  And yet they did.

Open Hands strikes me as a story that is more interesting as an idea than the story itself.  It would have worked well, perhaps, as an aside or an anecdote told within a larger piece, but it doesn’t work very well as a story that actually exists.  Having read it, now, I’m convinced that telling someone that I’ve read a story about an inundation of babies is far more interesting and thought-provoking than if they were to then read the story themselves.  There isn’t enough here, unfortunately.

Open Hands is a short story by Panamanian writer Cheri Lewis, and was translated by Pamela Carmell.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Cheri Lewis
Title Open Hands
Translator Pamela Carmell
Nationality Panamanian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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