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That Only a Mother

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This story was written in 1948 by Judith Merril and I take no credit for it. I am simply uploading my favorite short story to share with you.

The Story

Margaret reached over to the other side of the bed where Hank should have been. Her hand patted the empty pillow, and then she came altogether awake, wondering that the old habit should remain after so many months. She tried to curl up, cat-style, to hoard her own warmth, found she couldn’t do it anymore, and climbed out of bed with a pleased awareness of her increasingly clumsy bulkiness.

Morning motions were automatic. On the way through the kitchenette, she pressed the button that would start breakfast cooking – the doctor had said to eat as much breakfast as she could – and tore the paper out of the facsimile machine. She folded the long sheet carefully to the “National News” section, and propped it on the bathroom shelf to scan while she brushed her teeth.

No accidents. No direct hits. At least none that had been officially released for publication. Now, Maggie, don’t get started on that. No accidents. No hits. Take the nice newspaper’s word for it.

The three clear chimes from the kitchen announced that breakfast was ready. She set a bright napkin and cheerful colored dishes on the table in a futile attempt to appeal to a faulty morning appetite. Then, when there was nothing more to prepare, she went for the mail, allowing herself the full pleasure of prolonged anticipation, because today there would surely be a letter.

There was. There were. Two bills and a worried note from her mother: “Darling. Why didn’t you write and tell me sooner? I’m thrilled, of course, but, well, one hates to mention these things, but are you certain the doctor was right? Hank’s been around all that uranium and thorium or whatever it is all these years, and I know you say he’s a designer, not a technician, and he doesn’t get near anything that might be dangerous, but you know he used to, back at Oak Ridge. Don’t you think… well, of course, I’m just being a foolish old woman, and I don’t want you to get upset. You know much more about it than I do, and I’m sure your doctor was right. He should know…”

Margaret made a face over the excellent coffee, and caught herself refolding the paper to the medical news.

Stop it, Maggie, stop it! The radiologist said that Hank’s job couldn’t have exposed him. And the bombed area we drove past… No, no. Stop it, now! Read the social notes or the recipes, Maggie girl.

A well-known geneticist, in the medical news, said that it was possible to tell with absolute certainty, at five months, whether the child would be normal, or at least whether the mutation was likely to produce anything freakish. The worst cases, at any rate, could be prevented. Minor mutations, of course, displacements in facial features, or changes in brain structure could not be detected. And there had been some cases recently, of normal embryos with atrophied limbs that did not develop beyond the seven or eight month. But, the doctor concluded cheerfully, the worst cases could be predicted and prevented.

“Predicted and prevented.” We predicted it, didn’t we? Hank and the others, they predicted it. But we didn’t prevent it. We could have stopped it in ’46 and ’47. Now…

Margaret decided against the breakfast. Coffee had been enough for her in the morning for ten years; it would have to do for today. She buttoned herself into the interminable folds of material that, the salesgirl had assured her, was the only comfortable thing to wear during the last few months. With a surge of pure pleasure, the letter and newspaper forgotten, she realized that she was on the next to last button. It wouldn’t be long now.

The city in the early morning had always been a special kind of excitement for her. Last night it had rained, and the sidewalks were still damp-gray instead of dusty. The air smelled fresher, to a city-bred woman, for the occasional pungency of acrid factory smoke. She walked the six blocks to work, watching the lights go out in the all-night hamburger joints, where the plate-glass walls were already catching the sun, and the lights go on in the dim interiors of cigar stores and dry-cleaning establishments.

The office was in a new Government building. In the rolovator, on the way up, she felt, as always, like a frankfurter roll in the ascending half of an old-style rotary toasting machine. She abandoned the air-foam cushioning gratefully at the fourteenth floor, and settled down behind her desk, at the rear of a long row of identical desks.

Each morning the pile of papers that greeted her was a little higher. These were, as everyone knew, the decisive months. The war might be won or lost on these calculations as well as any others. The manpower office had switched her here when her old expediter’s job got to be too strenuous. The computer was easy to operate, and the work was absorbing, if not as exciting as the old job. But you didn’t just stop working these days. Everyone who could do anything at all was needed.

And – she remembered the interview with the psychologist – I’m probably the unstable type. Wonder what sort of neurosis I’d get sitting home reading that sensational paper…

She plunged into work without pursuing the thought.

February 18

Hank darling,

Just a note – from the hospital, no less. I had a dizzy spell at work, and the doctor took it to heart. Blessed if I know what I’ll do with myself lying in bed for weeks, just waiting – but Dr. Boyer seems to think it may not be so long.

There are too many newspapers around here. More infanticides all the time, and they can’t seem to get a jury to convict any of them. It’s the fathers who do it. Lucky think you’re not around, in case –

Oh darling, that wasn’t a very funny joke, was it? Write as often as you can, will you? I have too much time to think. But there really isn’t anything wrong, and nothing to worry about.

Write often, and remember I love you.



FEBRUARY 21, 1953

22:04 LK37G


X47-016 GCNY





February 25

Hank dear,

So you didn’t see the baby either? You’d think a place this size would at least have visiplates on the incubators, so the fathers could get a look, even if the poor benighted mommas can’t. They tell me I won’t see her for another week, or maybe more – but of course, mother always warned me that if I didn’t slow my pace, I’d probably even have my babies too fast. Why must she always be right?

Did you meet that battle-ax of a nurse they put on here? I imagine they save her for people who’ve already had theirs, and don’t let her get too near the prospectives – but a woman like that simply shouldn’t be allowed in a maternity ward. She’s obsessed with mutations, can’t seem to talk about anything else. Oh, well, ours is all right, even if it was in an unholy hurry.

I’m tired. They warned me not to sit up so soon, but I had to write you. All my love, darling,


February 29


I finally got to see her! It’s all true, what they say about new babies and the face that only a mother could love – but it’s all there, darling, eyes, ears, and noses – no, only one! – all in the right places. We’re so lucky, Hank.

I’m afraid I’ve been a rambunctious patient. I kept telling that hatchet-faced female with the mutation mania that I wanted to see the baby. Finally the doctor came in to “explain” everything to me, and talked a lot of nonsense, most of which I’m sure no one could have understood, any more than I did. The only thing I got out of it was that she didn’t actually have to stay in the incubator; they just thought it was “wiser”.

I think I got a little hysterical at that point. Guess I was more worried than I was willing to admit, but I threw a small fit about it. The whole business wound up with one of those hushed medical conferences outside the door, and finally the Woman in White said: “Well, we might as well. Maybe it’ll work out better that way.”

I’d heard about the way doctors and nurses in these places develop a God complex, and believe me it is as true figuratively as it is literally that a mother hasn’t got a leg to stand on around here.

I am awfully weak, still. I’ll write again soon. Love,


March 8

Dearest Hank,

Well, the nurse was wrong if she told you that. She’s an idiot anyhow. It’s a girl. It’s easier to tell with babies than with cats, and I know. How about Henrietta?

I’m home again, and busier than a betatron. They got everything mixed up at the hospital, and I had to teach myself how to bathe her and do just about everything else. She’s getting prettier, too. When can you get a leave, a real leave?



May 26

Hank dear,

You should see her now – and you shall. I’m sending you along a reel of color movie. My mother sent her those nighties with drawstrings all over. I put one on, and right now she looks like a snow-white potato sack with that beautiful, beautiful flower-face blooming on top. Is that me talking? Am I a doting mother? But wait till you see her!

July 10

… Believe it or not, as you like, but your daughter can talk, and I don’t mean baby talk. Alice discovered it – she’s a dental assistant in the WACs, you know – and when she heard the baby giving out what I thought was a string of gibberish, she said the kid knew words and sentences, but couldn’t say them clearly because she has no teeth yet. I’m taking her to a speech specialist.

September 13

… We have a prodigy for real! Now that all her front teeth are in, her speech is perfectly clear and – a new talent now – she can sing! I mean really carry a tune! At seven months! Darling my world would be perfect if you could only get home.

November 19

… at last. The little goon was so busy being clever, it took her all this time to learn to crawl. The doctor says development in these cases is always erratic…


DECEMBER 1, 1953

08:47 LK59F


X47-016 GCNY


APT. K-17

504 E. 19 ST.

N.Y. N.Y


Margaret let the water run out of the bathinette until only a few inches were left, and then loosed her hold on the wriggling baby.

“I think it was better when you were retarded, young woman,” she informed her daughter happily. “You can’t crawl in a bathinette, you know.”

“Then why can’t I go in the bathtub?” Margaret was used to her child’s volubility by now, but every now and then it caught her unawares. She swooped the resistant mass of pink flesh into a towel, and began to rub.

“Because you’re too little, and your head is very soft, and bathtubs are very hard.”

“Oh. Then when can I go in the bathtub?”

“When the outside of your head is as hard as the inside, brainchild.” She reached toward a pile of fresh clothing. “I cannot understand,” she added, pinning a square of cloth through the nightgown, “why a child of your intelligence can’t learn to keep a diaper on the way other babies do. They’ve been used for centuries, you know, with perfectly satisfactory results.”

The child disdained to reply; she heard it too often. She waited patiently until she had been tucked, clean and sweet-smelling, into a white-painted crib. Then she favored her mother with a smile that inevitably made Margaret think of the first golden edge of the sun bursting into a rosy predawn. She remembered Hank’s reaction to the color pictures of his beautiful daughter, and with the thought, realized how late it was.

“Go to sleep, puss. When you wake up, you know, your daddy will be here.”

“Why?” asked the four-year-old mind, waging a losing battle to keep the ten-month-old body awake.

Margaret went into the kitchenette and set the timer for the roast. She examined the table, and got her clothes from the closet, new dress, new shoes, new slip, new everything, bought weeks before and saved for the day Hank’s telegram came. She stopped to pull a paper from the facsimile, and, with clothes and news, went into the bathroom, and lowered herself gingerly into the steaming luxury of a scented tub.

She glanced through the paper with indifferent interest. Today at least there was no need to read the national news. There was an article by a geneticist. The same geneticist. Mutations, he said, were increasing disproportionately. It was too soon for recessives; even the first mutants, born near Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1946 and 1947 were not old enough yet to breed. But my baby’s all right. Apparently, there was some degree of free radiation from atomic explosions causing the trouble. My baby’s fine. Precocious, but normal. If more attention had been paid to the first Japanese mutations, he said…

There was that little notice in the paper in the spring of ’47. That was when Hank quit at Oak Ridge. “Only 2 or 3 percent of those guilty of infanticide are being caught and punished in Japan today…” But MY BABY’S all right.

She was dressed, combed, and ready to the last light brush-on of lip paste, when the door chime sounded. She dashed off for the door, and heard for the first time in eighteen months the almost-forgotten sound of a key turning in the lock before the chime had quite died away.



And then there was nothing to say. So many days, so many months, of small news piling up, so many things to tell him, and now she just stood there, staring at a khaki uniform and a stranger’s pale face. She traced the features with the finger of memory. The same high-bridged nose, wide-set eyes, fine feathery brows; the same long jaw, the hair a little farther back now on the high forehead, the same tilted curve to his mouth. Pale… Of course he’d been underground all this time. And strange, stranger because of lost familiarity than any newcomer’s face could be.

She had time to think all that before his hand reached out to touch her, and spanned the gap of eighteen months. Now, again, there was nothing to say, because there was no need. They were together, and for the moment that was enough.

“Where’s the baby?”

“Sleeping. She’ll be up any minute.”

No urgency. Their voices were as casual as though it were a daily exchange, as though war and separation did not exist. Margaret picked up the coat he’d thrown down on the chair near the door, and hung it carefully in the hall closet. She went to check the roast, leaving him to wander through the rooms himself, remembering and coming back. She found him, finally, standing over the baby’s crib.

She couldn’t see his face, but she had no need to.

“I think we can wake her just this once.” Margaret pulled the covers down and lifted the white bundle from the bed. Sleepy lids pulled back heavily from smoky brown eyes.

“Hello.” Hank’s voice was tentative.

“Hello.” The baby’s assurance was more pronounced.

He had heard about it, of course, but that wasn’t the same as hearing it. He turned eagerly to Margaret. “She really can-?”

“Of course she can, darling. But what’s more important, she can even do nice normal things like other babies do, even stupid ones. Watch her crawl!” Margaret set the baby on the big bed.

For a moment young Henrietta lay and eyed her parents dubiously.

“Crawl?” she asked.

“That’s the idea. Your daddy is new around here, you know. He wants to see you show off.”

“Then put me on my tummy.”

“Oh, of course.” Margaret obligingly rolled the baby over.

“What’s the matter?” Hank’s voice was still casual, but an undercurrent in it began to charge the air of the room. “I thought they turned over first.”

“This baby” – Margaret would not notice the tension – “This baby does things when she wants to.”

The baby’s father watched with softening eyes while the head advanced and the body hunched up propelling itself across the bed.

“Why, the little rascal.” He burst into relieved laughter. “She looks like one of those potato-sack racers they used to have on picnics. Got her arms pulled out of the sleeves already.” He reached over and grabbed the knot at the bottom of the long nightie.

“I’ll do it, darling.” Margaret tried to get there first.

“Don’t be silly, Maggie. This may be your first baby, but I had five kid brothers.” He laughed her away, and reached with his other hand for the string that closed one sleeve. He opened the sleeve bow, and groped for an arm.

“The way you wriggle,” he addressed his child sternly, as his hand touched a moving knob of flesh at the shoulder, “anyone might think you are a worm, using your tummy to crawl on, instead of your hands and feet.”

Margaret stood and watched, smiling. “Wait till you hear her sing, darling – “

His right hand traveled down from shoulder the shoulder to where he thought an arm would be, traveled down, and straight down, over firm small muscles that writhed in an attempt to move against the pressure of his hand. He let his fingers drift up again to the shoulder. With infinite care he opened the knot at the bottom of the nightgown. His wife was standing by the bed, saying, “She can do ‘Jingle Bells,’ and – “

His left hand felt along the soft knitted fabric of the gown, up toward the diaper that folded, flat and smooth, across the bottom end of his child. No wrinkles. No kicking. No…

“Maggie.” He tried to pull his hands from the neat fold in the diaper, from the wriggling body.

“Maggie.” His throat was dry; words came hard, low, and grating. He spoke very slowly, thinking the sound of each word to make himself say it. His head was spinning, but he had to know before he let it go.

“Maggie, why… didn’t you… tell me?”

“Tell you what, darling?” Margaret’s poise was the immemorial patience of a woman confronted with the man’s childish impetuosity. Her sudden laugh sounded fantastically easy and natural in that room; it was all clear to her now. “Is she wet? I didn’t know.”

She didn’t know. His hands, beyond control, ran up and down the soft-skinned baby body, the sinuous, limbless body. Oh God, dear God – his head shook and his muscles contracted in a bitter spasm of hysteria. His fingers tightened on his child – Oh God, she didn’t know…

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