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The Birthmark

Their daughter is born healthy but a little underweight. Five pounds six ounces, the father proudly repeats in his emails and reports to relatives on the phone. On the second day, before they leave the hospital, the mother notices a small red speck no bigger than the tip of a ballpoint pen on top of the baby’s scalp. The nurse says it’s probably just bruising from the birth. But the mark doesn’t go away. Instead, it gets bigger. The mother worries that she’s imagining it; after all, she isn’t thinking clearly, hasn’t slept in days. But the father has noticed it too.

By the time they take the baby in for her first appointment with the pediatrician the mark has grown in circumference to the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” the doctor says. “Just a strawberry birthmark. It may keep getting bigger, but it’s completely benign. Eventually it will go away on its own.”

The mother watches day by day as the mark grows larger. Sure enough, it begins to pull up from the skin of her daughter’s scalp, bright red and slightly mottled, not unlike a strawberry. At the next doctor’s appointment it is the size of a quarter and raised a half-inch. When the mother visits with her other mother friends she finds herself looking enviously at their children’s smooth, unblemished heads. Her daughter is completely bald and the birthmark stands out very clearly. She buys hats and headbands and people compliment her on her taste.

“I don’t want to be superficial,” the mother frets to her husband. “I don’t want to teach her that appearances are all that matters.” But some mornings she finds herself given over to dark thoughts, looking at the birthmark, thinking it has grown larger during the night. But it must be normal to worry; it’s her first child and she isn’t thinking clearly, hasn’t slept in weeks.

“Are you sure we don’t need to see a specialist?” the mother asks at the next doctor’s appointment.

The pediatrician shrugs. “If you want,” she says, “but there’s very little they can do. It will go away eventually on its own.”

Now the birthmark is not a strawberry but a large red portabella mushroom cap sprouting atop her daughter’s head. If she takes her out without a hat on people stare. Strangers smile when they see the stroller but then stop speaking and stammer mid-sentence, “What a, um, beautiful child,” as if in apology for noticing the birthmark.

“Mommy, what’s wrong with that baby?” a small boy asks at the grocery store checkout line, tugging on his mother’s coat, pointing to her child.

“What’s wrong with the baby?”

The mother decides that at the next doctor’s appointment she will demand to see a specialist.

“Oh my,” the pediatrician baulks. “Why didn’t you say something? I really think it’s time to see a specialist, don’t you?”

The mother wants to scream. Instead, she grits her teeth and nods.

“Funny,” the specialist says a few weeks later, scrawling a prescription on a pad, “how some people will wait so long before they decide to do something.”

“But it will go away eventually?” she asks. “There won’t be a scar?”

“Well, now, I can’t guarantee that,” the specialist says. “In a case like this I can’t guarantee there won’t be scarring, loose skin, or other complications. Possibly a bald spot.”

The mother wants to scratch out the specialist’s eyes with her nails. Instead, she clenches her fingers into tight fists at her sides. She’s not thinking clearly, hasn’t slept in months. When she researches her daughter’s condition on the Internet she finds a horrorscape of images: little boys’ eyes eclipsed by bulbous red spots, little girls with noses red as Rudolph’s, tumors that grow out of infants’ mouths as large and round as apples.

The mother and the father console themselves with at leasts. At least it’s not covering her eyes. Or her nose. Or her mouth. At least she’s too young to know. At least we live in the age of plastic surgery. At least it’s not cancer.

“We didn’t know,” she explains to friends and strangers, anyone who will listen. “The doctor said it was nothing to worry about.” She twists her hands. People look uncomfortable.

Now the birthmark is a flat, deflated red disk of loose skin on top of her daughter’s skull. It looks almost like a beret, and from a distance, in a rush, some people mistake it for such and compliment the mother on her sense of style.

“Actually,” she says, “it’s a birthmark.”

It’s a birthmark, not a hat. It’s a birthmark and it will go away eventually. It’s a birthmark but it’s not cancer. It’s a birthmark and we don’t care too much about appearances.

“It’s benign,” the mother assures everyone. “Completely benign.”

 

Kat Solomon’s fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Juked, and Cosmonauts Avenue. She has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis.

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