Incandescence

by Tom Weller

There is some evidence that a carbide filament bulb burning in the Fire Department, Livermore, South Alameda County, California, has been burning since 1901. — Guinness Book of World Records, 1978 

 

The first one came to the firehouse hot on the heels of the black cables that suddenly ran across South Alameda County skies and sagged under the bulk of curious crows. The cables tied home to pole, home to pole, home to pole, one after another, knit the whole town together. Electricity was new and exciting then. The air still crackled with the promise of a future brighter than ever imagined the night the first moonlight baby arrived. 

*

The first one wasn’t the first one. Not exactly. There had been one baby earlier, a flesh baby, left on the firehouse steps the night before the electricity came on. The old timers say that baby was tow-headed with eyes the blue of cornflowers. They say she had chubby cheeks, a dimple in her chin. The old timers say the note pinned to her blanket just said  “Pauline,” but the pink ribbon around her wrist carried a promise spelled out in wavering, hand-embroidered letters: I am going away, but I remain close

The first moonlight baby arrived the night after the electricity came on. Nobody saw how it got in, but there it was, belly down, elbows out, legs kicking as it pulled itself through the air, circling and circling the single glowing bulb hanging from the ceiling just inside the firehouse front door. The floating baby shone silver white, the color of moonlight on fresh snow, and when Chief Bob Gillespie followed its flight he could look right through the baby and study rookie firefighter Glenn McKibben, his face bathed in silvery light, eyes wide, mouth open, as he stood across the room from Gillespie.

And then the light left McKibben’s face and the baby was gone. Vanished. Just like that. Just like flipping a switch.

McKibben stared at Gillespie for a second before they each turned away from the other and exited the room in opposite directions, each feeling as if the room they were leaving was brighter, warmer than the room they had entered. 

*

They grappled with flames, breathed heat and smoke, and they never flinched. But that very first baby, the flesh baby, brought them all to their knees. That’s how the old timers always start when asked what the firefighters had done with Pauline.

There were six on duty that night, all sworn to protect, to put their own lives at risk to save others in need. They made a bassinet out of a washtub and a couple of wool blankets. They put baby in tub, put the tub in the center of the big round table where they shared meals between fire runs and games of cribbage.

Gathered around the table, hovering over baby, they considered their options.

“No sense in looking for the mother. Not tonight. Maybe not ever.”

“Could call the doc, but it’s late, and what can he really do for her tonight?”

“Could take her to the hospital. She’d be safe there, cared for.”

“She’s safe here, cared for. It’s just one night. Let her rest, for now.”

They stayed up that night to watch the baby, all six of them, together. Each man felt a loosening of his muscles, a growing warmth in his chest with each breath the sleeping baby took.

They cared for her the whole night. They cared for her until she was gone. They cared for her even after she was gone. 

They didn’t call it crib death then, the old timers say. They just called it gone. 

*

Not even the old timers can say when exactly the moonlight babies’ visits became a regular occurrence. Now the moonlight babies come like fireflies in July. They appear every night. Sometimes only two or three arrive. Other nights there are so many, moonlight babies rollicking like a pile of pups, a swirling fog of silvery legs and tiny hands and shinning faces, moonlight babies impossible to count circling that simple firehouse bulb.

The firefighters let the old timers come and watch. They bring their own lawn chairs, pull them up against the walls. Better to not be too close to the light. Better to give the moonlight babies space to play.

*

The fate of the moonlight babies is a topic of much discussion. Each moonlight baby vanishes minutes after it appears. Some spectators say they hear a pop, a sound like a cork coming out of a bottle each time a moonlight baby disappears. Some say the sound is more like the flipping of a switch. 

On the question of to where the babies vanish, there is no consensus.

Some say the moonlight babies just burn themselves out like fireworks, glow fierce and beautiful for one moment and are gone forever the next. 

Others say that’s nonsense. Others say look at the way the way the moonlight babies circle the bulb. They are light returning to light. The moonlight babies never disappear. They just join the light. 

*

Every night the moonlight babies come to the firehouse, all sorts of them. Some roll; some crawl; a few toddle up on their toes, elbows in, hands flapping. Some hardly move at all, arrive flat on their backs, hands occasionally grasping, reaching toward the firehouse light. Some moonlight babies share gummy smiles. Some moonlight babies flash rows of tiny teeth slick as pearls. Some of the babies are big and plump, thighs and arms like stacks of dinner rolls. Too many of the babies are too thin. 

But every moonlight baby arrives wearing a pink ribbon around its wrist. And every pink ribbon carries the same embroidered promise: I am going away, but I remain close.

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