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A Hundred Babies

Nebula-award winning author Nina Kiriki Hoffman has published more than 300 stories. In addition to publishing throughout the cream of the science fiction and fantasy world, she has appeared in the pixels of Daily Science Fiction several times before.
When Father Robert stepped outside the rectory Monday morning to visit the pauper's grave where he prayed every day, he found the cemetery playing host to scores of babies.
They were all different races, most wrapped in brightly hued gowns that, he hoped, kept out the chill of morning mist; fog lay in the low grounds of the cemetery, with baby parts emerging from it, baby parts he hoped were attached to whole babies rather than being dismemberments. The babies were quiet and self-absorbed, none laughing, crying, or speaking--none that he could see in obvious distress. All seemed older than infants, though not by much.
Sun struck through the mist, outlining the old oak trees with gold as the sky lightened. Father Robert blinked several times, but the babies did not vanish.
He stood on the threshold of his dwelling and prayed God would give him direction. He had never spent time with babies or children, other than Sunday school instruction he'd tried once to give to a roomful of six-year-olds who did not choose to pay attention to him. Now he left the instruction of the young ones to Elaine and Dicey, grandmothers with strong faith backgrounds and lots of experience with children, women who did not back away from little hands and unanswerable questions.
Where did these babies come from? Why send them to me? Father Robert wondered.
The Bible verse "Take care of my sheep" came to him. An answer?
Father Robert went to the nearest grave and knelt in the wet grass near a baby in a purple gown. It sat up, looking around. It sucked its thumb. It stared up at him.
"Maybe I should take you inside and call for help," Father Robert said.
The child popped its thumb out of its mouth and held its arms out to Father Robert. He drew in a breath, then lifted the baby off the grave of Hilda Ravensong, dead these thirty-odd years. He held it at arms' length, supporting it under its arms, and stared into its face, paralyzed by indecision. The baby reached out to him. Hesitating, he brought it closer. It hugged him around the neck. It smelled sour and wild, and it felt warm.
"You are distressed," he said, even though the baby did not seem upset.
Spontaneous acts of affection were not in Father Robert's repertoire. Everyone watched priests for misbehavior these days; better to touch no one at all.
Should he pull the infant away from him? What if someone walked by outside the cemetery's low wall and saw? He closed his eyes and asked God for help.
God said, "Embrace the child."
Father Robert's arms crept up and wrapped around the baby. A cascade of memories and dreams flooded his mind: his father's hug when Father Robert was a boy and had fallen from the oak tree by the barn; the shock of the fall, the remedy of his father's arms; his father's leather, Old Spice, and sweat scent, the heat of life; his father's power to make everything better.
Another memory came, from later in his life, when he heard God's call and chose the priesthood after a long night of thinking about all the possibilities his choice would take away from him: the chance to love someone other than Jesus, the chance to marry and father his own children and take care of them. He had made himself picture that alternative life--wife, two children, a cozy house in the suburbs with green lawn and fruit trees in the back yard. He lived there in his imagination, then asked himself if the call to God was stronger. And, considering everything, it was.
The families he had counseled through their complicated conflicts flashed through his mind.
And then he thought nothing, just felt the warm child in his embrace, heard the child's breathing near his ear, smelled the slightly sour milky scent of its breath and body.
The child pushed away and gurgled something at him. He set it on its feet. It laughed and fell on its bottom, still looking into his eyes.
The mist had melted, revealing babies on graves. Old graves, fresh graves, graves of people he had known and people who had died before he came to this church. Graves people cared for, and graves of people no one remembered. Every grave in this small cemetery had a baby on it.
All the babies had noticed him now. All crawled toward him, gurgling and babbling to each other as they converged. They held arms up to him. He hugged them one by one. When he had embraced them, they crawled off.
He did not keep count. As he circled them with his arms, thought left him; all he had was this mission, giving each child affection and warmth. The sun strengthened. He was hot in his black cassock, and he felt the heat on the bald spot on his head where a tonsure might be were he a monk.
"Father Robert!"
The child in his arms loosened her hold on his neck, and he gently set her down and looked up, dazed, wondering how many more babies waited for a hug. The leader of the church altar guild, Karen Sanderson, an elderly, silver-haired, trim woman clad in a dark blue dress and silver tennis shoes, stared down at him, her large tapestry handbag clutched to her chest.
"Ga," said a baby. Father Robert looked down at the final child in front of him, a brown-skinned cherub with black curls and a wide smile. She wore a yellow gown. He smiled at her and picked her up, his arms forming into a now-practiced embrace, holding her firmly but not too tight, supporting her. She pressed her ear to his chest, gripped his clerical collar, and closed her eyes.
"What are you doing?" Karen asked.
He let out a long, contented sigh. The child stretched up and kissed his neck, then pushed away from him. He set her down, then looked around.
The babies had vanished, all except the one he had just finished hugging. She crawled toward the oak trees. He got to his feet, brushing off his cassock, and watched her, wondering if he should go after her or let her go.
"Father Robert!"
He glanced at Karen, eyebrows up. When he looked back, the last child was gone.
"What on Earth is going on here?" Karen said.
He didn't think he could explain anything that had just happened. His arms were tired, and his chest was awash in warm contentment.
"What was--?" Karen looked around. "Where did they go?"
"I had a vision," Father Robert said. "God gave me a gift." He opened his arms.
Karen frowned at him, set her handbag on the ground, and stiffly walked into a hug. He held her gently, with the strength and skill of a hundred hugs.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 24th, 2017

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