The Cradle

A Novel


By Patrick Somerville

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Early one summer morning, Matthew Bishop kisses his still-sleeping wife Marissa, gets dressed and eases his truck through Milwaukee, bound for the highway. His wife, pregnant with their first child, has asked him to find the antique cradle taken years before by her mother Caroline when she abandoned Marissa, never to contact her daughter again. Soon to be a mother herself, Marissa now dreams of nothing else but bringing her baby home to the cradle she herself slept in. His wife does not know — does not want to know — where her mother lives, but Matt has an address for Caroline’s sister near by and with any luck, he will be home in time for dinner.

Only as Matt tries to track down his wife’s mother, he discovers that Caroline, upon leaving Marissa, has led a life increasingly plagued by impulse and irrationality, a mysterious life that grows more inexplicable with each new lead Matt gains, and door he enters. As hours turn into days and Caroline’s trail takes Matt from Wisconsin to Minnesota, Illinois, and beyond in search of the cradle, Matt makes a discovery that will forever change Marissa’s life, and faces a decision that will challenge everything he has ever known.

Elegant and astonishing, Patrick Somerville tells the story of one man’s journey into the heart of marriage, parenthood, and what it means to be a family. Confirming the arrival of an exuberantly talented writer, The Cradle is an uniquely imaginative debut novel that radiates with wisdom and wonder.


Copyright © 2009 by Patrick Somerville

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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First eBook Edition: March 2009

Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

ISBN: 978-0-316-07263-2


Trouble: Stories


Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander'd alone



Marissa could not be comforted, and wouldn't have it any other way. The cradle for the coming baby had to be the cradle she'd been rocked in as a child; not only the cradle she'd been rocked in but the cradle that was upstairs in her bedroom when she was fifteen and her mother came home one night from the grocery store, slammed her keys down on the countertop, slammed the brown crinkled bag onto the table, looked down at the floor, looked at Marissa, took the keys, and walked out the door, this time permanently. Ten days later there'd been a robbery at the house. Wouldn't you know it, many of Mrs. Caroline Francis's favorite things had been stolen and not very many of anyone else's favorite things had been stolen, so Marissa and her father had always assumed the robbery had been Mrs. Caroline Francis's transparent version of getting what she wanted for the start of her new life without having to walk in and see anyone or do a painful thing like say good-bye. The cradle was taken that night.

They said the cradle came from the Civil War. Matt had never believed that, no matter how many times he'd heard the story. What poor family living outside Milwaukee had Civil War relics in their home, and furthermore, who used such things, if they even existed, for actual children? Also, what exactly did a Civil War cradle look like? Did it have guns on it? Were there Confederate and Union flags carved into the headboard? What antique dealer had ever confirmed its origin? Had it been to Gettysburg? And whose baby was in it back then? Ulysses S. Grant's? Or the child of some Wisconsin soldier from the prairie who'd gone south to fight and never come back? There was no story attached to it and no good reason why the Francis family should have been so caught up with it.

But they were, and Marissa wouldn't have it any other way. She told this to him eight months into her pregnancy, her belly taut and round like a globe. It was June 1997, hot, and Matt was killing himself at work. He'd been taking whatever double shifts anyone at the plant dangled in front of him just to store up enough money for the baby. He had no idea what it meant for the kid to come and no idea what it was going to feel like once it came, so the one thing it made sense for him to do, he figured, was put his head down and get money in the bank and leave the understanding to Marissa or her father, two people who seemed to know quite a lot on the subject.

They were drinking lemonade on the back porch when she told him that the baby would be requiring the cradle.

She said it with her hand on the glass, staring at Matt straight in the eyes.

He said, "Well, how am I supposed to get it?"

"It's not like she broke it up into firewood. She's still got it."

"That doesn't matter much if we don't know where she is," he said.

"I think you'll be able to find her," she said. "I don't want to find her. I don't want to see her. I don't want to know how you do it or where she is. But you can, if you look hard enough. You can find anything. You're Matt. What about my keys? I look for six hours, then you get home and you find them in five minutes." Marissa aimed her dark countenance at him and waited. Her eyes were a deep chocolate black, like her hair, back now in a loose ponytail. She had a little birthmark that hugged her right nostril, and freckles up beneath her eyes. In the last month or so her skin had taken on a new tone—not exactly a new color, but rather a new timbre, infused with a ruddier health and light. She was not smiling.

"That's not the same thing. I'm sorry."

"I just want you to get it and bring it back."

Matt kept looking at her face. He was pleased to go to the grocery store to get her pickles in the middle of the night. He did suspect she was making it up half the time, of course, that half the time she wasn't really feeling any food cravings but was just acting out something about pregnant women she'd seen on TV. But he rolled out of bed and did it every time and never said one word. Fine. Going off to find her mother or an ancient cradle was different.

He looked up at Glen, his father-in-law, who was manning the grill about fifteen feet away and who was too deaf to overhear the conversation. "What will your father think?" he asked.

"I haven't said anything to him," said Marissa. "I don't know what he'll think. Maybe you should say something. He might have things he wants you to get back, too."

"Baby," he said, shaking his head at her grin, "I can't tell if you're joking right now or not."

"Just because I'm laughing doesn't mean I'm joking," she said. "That's rarely the case. You know me, Matt. The baby needs it."


"Because it matters, that's why," said Marissa. "Because every time I think about him in the world, I think about him inside of it. I don't want him growing up in some white plastic piece of trash that we order out of a catalog. That came halfway around the world. What lesson do you think we would be teaching by doing that? I was in that cradle, Matt."

"That's it," Matt said. "No one else. It's not as though your family's had the thing since the damned Civil War. Your grandma bought it at a yard sale."

"Right there, then. There's another link. Her hauling it home that day. Where it first came from doesn't matter. It's what it's done since then. I want it back. You of all people should understand this."


"You're an orphan." To her, the whole truth of the connection was obvious.

"How exactly does this relate?" Matt said, because it wasn't to him.

"There are two kinds of people in the world," Marissa said. "There are people who understand that everything matters and people who don't understand that everything matters."

How Marissa it was to say that. Matt smiled at her halfheartedly, leaned back into his chair. She was keen on breaking the world into its parts; she wanted its pieces on the table in front of her. Matt didn't know where this habit came from, this analytic aspect of her world. It certainly wasn't her father's way. Her father was all gray and compromise. Maybe Caroline had that to her. Or maybe it happened to you when you had a mother and then suddenly did not. Your mind, shifting miracle that it was, went all the way and compensated with certainty. You lose one of the two people whose duty it is to provide the truth and you replace her with your own vision of the truth. It has to be strong. You look out at the world and say, yes, it must be this or this. On or off. Better that than nothingness and blur. Matters. What matters?

"And you think I'm one of the people who understands that everything matters."

She nodded.

"When have I ever said that to you?"

"I married you, didn't I?" she said.

"If we get a new one," he said, "then we can just start again and invest the damn thing with our own new memories. If that's so important."

"But why do that if there's something better out there already? It's not as though the cradle's gonna fill up with too many memories. I want it."

Matt saw his father-in-law turn with the four hamburgers on a wooden tray and start walking toward them, looking down at the patties. Two of them had cheese. "I don't think you're gonna get it back," Matt said. "I'm sorry. It's gone, sweetheart."

"You don't seem to be understanding," Marissa said, leaning forward as her father set the tray on the table.

She had one hand down on her belly. She was wearing a black maternity top that he'd watched her buy last week. It cost forty-five dollars and Matt spent fifteen minutes standing beside her in the store, trying to talk her out of buying it. She looked beautiful now. Her black shining hair had grown out in the past year since she'd gotten pregnant. Even in the ponytail, the bangs were evident. They were the bangs that were in style with even younger girls, those Matt had seen at the UWM campus, those that Marissa probably saw when she was at work. Something about all those young girls on their way to a different life made her take their haircuts. When he met her, it was cut short. She had been playing croquet in the middle of the park for some crazy reason, and he'd been sitting on a bench, smoking.

Already the sliced tomatoes, onions, ketchup, and mustard were out on a paper plate. The buns were still in their plastic bag. "Understanding what?" Glen asked softly. He looked at his daughter, then at Matt. "A man goes off to cook hamburgers and suddenly there are secrets?"

Marissa kept looking at Matt, and he understood her look to mean it was up to him to choose whether or not to tell Glen about the request. But this was silly to Matt; either telling him or not would mean he had agreed to the conceit of what his wife suddenly wanted him to do. Out of the blue. As though it were a legitimate request to make. As though she were after pickles. He didn't say anything. He took one of the patties without cheese and made a burger for Marissa with many onions, then squirted ketchup and mustard onto it, all under her watchful eye. After he passed it to her, he took two for himself, one with cheese, one without. As he was making his own, Glen said, "Tornado touched down near La Crosse last night."

"Great, Daddy," said Marissa. "If we lived three hundred miles from here, we might have been sucked away into Oz."

"I'm relating a piece of news about the weather, darling."

She smiled mischievously, bit into her hamburger. This had been happening. Since she was pregnant, she thought she was allowed to do anything and say anything to anybody. It gave Matt a sense of what she must have been like at fifteen, how difficult for Glen to handle on his own. As she was chewing, she again turned her gaze to Matt. He watched her. Eventually he shook his head and she smiled just a little bit. She had mustard on her lip.

"Sorry, Daddy," she said, turning to him. "I'm cranky."

"Well," said Glen, raising his eyebrows, holding his burger in front of his mouth, looking at the fence at the edge of the yard, "that is not exactly new." He smiled, then looked to her, then looked to Matt, making sure that his idea of a very funny joke did not cause anybody pain.

Matt felt out of sorts as he did the dishes. Marissa had gone upstairs to lie down and Glen was in the living room on the sofa, watching television and sipping a beer. Matt had his own beer on the countertop beside the dish caddy, and between rounds he set the scrub brush down in the sink and raised the beer to his lips. She was plainly not joking. And he knew she would not forget about it. Other people he knew would forget about it. Other people he knew—all the people he knew—got ideas in their heads from time to time about doing something that mattered. A chance came to do something that fit well into the story of your life, and you either had the choice to take it or not take it. He even had that feeling, once in a while, but he let go, too. The difference was that ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent of the other people let that feeling go after about fifteen minutes. His wife would not.

The best example of it happening to him was a moment when he'd suddenly decided it was important for him to find his parents. He was twenty-two, and he had been grinding away at work at Delco for three solid years. He'd never thought much about finding them before. Sometime around age seven or eight he just told himself he had no natural parents, and until that moment playing pool with Eric Granderson and the Reilly brothers, he had continued to believe it, as though it were a truth akin to gravity. They just didn't exist. He was delivered by a stork. But that night, as he leaned down with the cue resting on his fingers, sizing up a split at the other end of the table, the whole invisible big idea blocking his way vanished, and before he even took the shot—he missed—he realized he had to find them. There were too many questions. There was too much history and too much pain caused by their whispering departure to let them escape so easily. He spent a week calling foster homes and then an adoption agency. At times it felt like it was going to work, and his enthusiasm kept moving forward. As did his fear. Then he hit a wall: an answering machine. The sound of a woman's voice saying she was away from her desk, but please leave a message. He did. Many times. Over and over again. Ma'am, hello, my name is Matthew Bishop, I'm calling to inquire about some time I spent in a few different foster homes and I'd also like any information you might have about who might have given me up for adoption originally. Far more formal than how he ever talked—he'd even written the speech down on a slip of paper before the third call. But no answer came. So he'd backtracked and called the others again, and they'd given him this woman's number again. Betsy something. Betsy Middlebrook? He left more messages. Maybe four. Ma'am, hello, my name is Matthew Bishop.

Then one morning he woke up and decided he was done, all of the energy to pursue his parents was out of his system. It had left him like the heat of a fire leaving a chimney, entering the cold. He'd tried, and besides, he didn't need them. He had worked long enough and made enough to be comfortable inside a world with huge gaps of not knowing. It had been a crazy idea. A foolish idea. A child's. He went back to living his life.

Marissa wasn't the same way. Marissa just kept going when she wanted something. Just like the black shirt. She waited him out and won the argument, not because Matt decided he thought it was a good idea but because he realized the total cost of resisting the shirt was greater than forty-five dollars.

Finished with the dishes, Matt stood in the kitchen near the stairwell and picked his battle. Either upstairs to Marissa, where her cradle-plan urgings would probably continue, or into the living room to watch TV with his father-in-law. He didn't recall inviting Glen to stay and watch TV. That sort of invitation was never required with Glen, actually. But Matt had a special place for Glen because of the way he made himself at home. He was now fifty-seven years old and worked in the administrative offices of a soap factory in the middle of Milwaukee. He'd been on the floor when he was younger but had worked his way up through the years, and then, when he'd gotten arthritis in his knees, he'd worked his way across, into the administrative offices.

Matt went into the room and sat down on the sofa with him. "Great burgers, Dad," he said to Glen. "You know how to work that thing."

"Thank you," Glen said softly, still watching the television.

Matt noticed how low the volume was on the TV.

Glen had some kind of cop show on. The volume was so low that the voices were like whispers. This was not normal. Matt looked over at Glen. Glen said, "She had a sister, you know."


"Caroline," Glen said, turning to him. "She had a sister. Marissa doesn't know this. If you want to find Caroline, or the cradle, the best I can do is point you toward her sister. She lives in Sturgeon Bay."

Matt kept staring at Glen.

He was not about to deny the conversation he'd had outside, but he was having trouble understanding how Glen had heard it at all.

"You become a superhero since the last time I saw you?" Matt asked him.

Glen smiled. "I've still got my tricks," he said.

He set the remote control down on the coffee table, then very gingerly reached up to his ear, dug around for a moment, and withdrew his finger. Matt leaned over and peered at the insectlike object Glen held out for him. It was a tiny flesh-colored hearing aid, so small that neither Marissa nor he had noticed it all evening.

"You know, they actually fit these things right into each person's particular ear hole?" Glen said.

"No," Matt said. "I didn't."

"Well, they do. I got this one on Wednesday. I've been having a little trouble with it, however."

"How so?"

"Volume seems to be set too high," Glen said, and he started laughing. "I spent all Thursday blowing my head up every time I tapped the damned computer keyboard. It was like a war was starting."

"Isn't that something," Matt said.

Glen nodded, then sighed, replacing the hearing aid.

"Her sister," he said again, "lives in Sturgeon Bay. It's her half sister, actually. You can find something out there about the cradle, I would guess. Maybe even Caroline's there, too."

"And you never went looking for her yourself? Knowing this?"


"How do you know she's even alive?"

"I don't. I don't care if she's alive." He stayed still for a long time, and Matt, despite the urge to do it, felt it would not be right to say anything else. Glen looked lost inside of something big and deep, a cavern Matt could not accompany him through, so he turned back to the television and watched cops talking to one another. He couldn't hear them.

"Matt," said Glen finally.

Matt turned. His father-in-law was looking at the magazines on the table. The cop show was invisible.

"If you do go—and I'm not saying you should go or not go—but if you do go, and if somehow you find her, please do me one favor."


Glen turned his head from the magazines and finally looked at Matt directly. "Please tell Caroline I say hello."

Upstairs, twenty minutes after Glen waved good-bye to his daughter, just one hand through the crack in the bedroom door, Matt sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at his wife. She had taken a bowl of ice cream with her, which she'd finished and set on the bedside table. He looked at the remains of the vanilla and a curl of something else, maybe caramel, at the bottom of the bowl. The spoon was propped up inside. Marissa was watching television, one of the evening talk shows, and Matt watched it with her quietly for a few minutes. When a commercial came on, he said, "Are you serious?"

"I am serious," she said, not moving her neck but flicking her eyes to him and watching him carefully. There was still some ice cream around her mouth. She'd changed into her pajamas but was outside the covers.

He looked down at her feet, and while he looked at them, she wiggled her toes.

"Because I'll find it for you," he said. "If you are. So help me. Don't start me on things unless you want them to be finished." He turned back to her and smiled. He liked to think of himself this way, as an unstoppable force. Of course, there was the matter of the answering machine.

"I would like that very much."

"This is my last try to talk you out of it."

"Okay," she said. "Go ahead."

"Marissa," he said. "We're going to have a baby. I think that's just about all the meaning I require."

"He's bringing it out in me," she said, her hand going to her belly. Together they looked at it. "He's making me think about her."

"That makes sense," Matt said.

"Yeah. It does."

"If I get it," he said, "and bring it back here, what is that going to show you? It's an object. We're here. We have our home. We have everything we could need. It's going to be fine when he comes. Is that it?"

"Do you know what you want to name him yet?" she asked, not bothering to answer or disguise that she wasn't going to.

"What about Ty?"

"That was my dog's name when I was little."


"Besides," she said, "that's a redneck name. And not even from here. Isn't that from the South? 'Hey, Tyrone.'" She said the last words in her approximation of a Southern accent. Matt smiled and leaned toward her and let his mouth hover near hers.

"That," he said, in his own drawl, "was the worst Southern accent I've ever heard." He knew his was better, even though it still wasn't very good. But the difference in quality was enough to make both of them laugh.

"So," she said, after he kissed her and sat back up, "you'll try?"

"You've given me no other option."

"You could just say no," she said.

"I know I could," he said, "as you are crazy. Any jury of rational minds would side with me."

"Good thing this trial isn't going to court, then."

"Good thing."

He left her with the television on and went downstairs to finish cleaning up. When he was done, he took a beer outside, wandered through his small backyard for a minute or so, then drifted to the grill, which he scrubbed with the steel brush halfheartedly, still sipping at the beer. The sound scraped its way out into the night neighborhood. He sat down in one of the lawn chairs and looked into his neighbor's backyard, then up at the stars. It was a new moon—the sky was crisp and black and the stars were fairly strong, at least in the west. To the east the glow of Milwaukee lit up the lower part of the sky like a spilled glass of lemonade. He looked back down and saw Frank Rosenblum in the kitchen next door, wearing a white T-shirt. He was in his boxer shorts, looking through his refrigerator. It looked like 1947 inside his house. Last winter his wife died of pancreatic cancer. Matt had watched warily from the yard as the illness moved on, had seen snapshots through the window like a magic lantern and stitched them together into a story with reports from Marissa, who often went through the gate after supper to sit with Mrs. Rosenblum and have tea. Matt, for the life of him, could not imagine what those conversations had been, the specific details. As winter moved on and Mrs. Rosenblum faded, he began to understand that his wife was pursuing the answers to dark questions of her own, but again, just as he'd felt with Glen earlier, he knew she'd be the only one able to understand. They had only just moved in and hardly knew their neighbors, but she'd gone, over and over again, all the way up to the night Mrs. Rosenblum died.

A few weeks later, in March, Matt had spoken with Frank across the fence about Frank's plans to trim the apple tree that hung over into their yard. Frank apologized profusely, and Matt told him not to worry about it, they didn't mind at all. Frank thanked him. Then Frank simply cut the entire tree down one rainy evening. Matt stood in the kitchen, watching through the window, as the old man cut through the tree in one slice of the chain saw, then sliced it into smaller pieces, then hauled them around the house to the curb. He remembered the sound of the chain saw's little engine going right alongside the rain on the roof. The stump of the tree, exactly one foot high, was still there.


She awoke and slipped from bed at 5:15 a.m. The house was quiet, empty, dark. As she made the coffee, Renee Owen looked through the window to the frozen black morning in their backyard. The thermometer outside the window, itself caked in ice, read nine degrees.


On Sale
Mar 9, 2009
Page Count
208 pages

Patrick Somerville

About the Author

Patrick Somerville is the author of two novels–This Bright River and The Cradle–and two books of short stories–Trouble and The Universe in Miniature. He is also a writer and producer on HBO’s acclaimed drama series The Leftovers. He lives with his wife three children in Los Angeles.

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