THE HOLY FAMILY
Our son was born with teeth. Three of them—two canines and a molar.
My wife and I were worried. The doctor reassured us. Natal teeth, she said, were perfectly normal. They were rare—only one in five thousand babies had them—but harmless.
“He’s just a little ahead of the curve,” said the doctor.
It was strange, at first. I nearly dropped him in the delivery room—I was shocked to see such big teeth in such tiny gums. For the first few days, my stomach sunk every time he opened his mouth.
But he was our son. He had come from us. He was the product of our love, and we loved him. So we loved his teeth.
Soon, it was the other babies in the playgroup who made my stomach sink. Their pink gums seemed too smooth, and their toothless mouths seemed empty. They gummed at their pacifiers—our son grinned and laughed and bit and chewed. My wife and I were very happy. Our son was one in five thousand.
We changed our Facebook pictures to pictures of him. Mine was a close-up of his huge three-toothed smile—my wife’s showed him in his bath, splashing me with water, laughing. I had never understood why parents did this, but now I did.
All parents think that their child is special. But we were lucky: we knew it.
One Friday night, we had another couple over for dinner—my wife’s college roommate and her husband. We were all very good friends.
They also had a little boy, Atticus. He was a few months older than our son, although the two were about the same size. There was nothing wrong with that, of course: our son was a big and healthy, and Atticus was just a little small for his age. But he was a perfectly fine boy, and his parents loved him very much.
I put the playpen in the dining room, and we sat at the table, ate our pasta, and watched the boys play. They were learning to stand: they grabbed the walls of the playpen, pulled themselves up, stood there, shaking, and fell backwards onto their bottoms.
We agreed: they were amazing.
After dinner, my wife’s college roommate told an anecdote about breastfeeding. Atticus, she said, always fell asleep as he was nursing. We all laughed. “Do you have this problem too?” she asked my wife.
“We decided to bottle-feed him,” said my wife.
“Because of, you know, all the teeth,” I said.
My wife’s college roommate nodded and stuck out her bottom lip. She was very sympathetic. She was sorry, she said, for my wife and my son. Breastfeeding was such a wonderful connection between a mother and her child.
“We get it in other ways,” said my wife. “We have a very good connection.”
Her college roommate nodded a few times. We all looked at the boys pulling themselves up on the walls of the playpen.
“Do you give him any formula?” I said.
“Sometimes,” said her college roommate’s husband. “Rarely.”
“Ah,” said my wife.
“Why?” said her college roommate.
“I’ve heard doctors recommend it even to women who breastfeed,” said my wife. “If their milk doesn’t have enough—you know—nutrition. It might explain why Atticus is a little small for his age.”
“He’s within the normal range,” said my wife’s college roommate. “For height and weight.”
My wife said she was glad to hear it: she had been worried about the little guy. We all watched the boys again. Atticus pulled himself up and held the playpen tight.
My wife’s college roommate’s husband announced that they were planning a trip to Paris. It would be Atticus’s first time abroad.
“Aren’t you worried,” I said, “about taking a baby on that long of a flight?”
“Oh no,” said my wife’s college roommate. Her eyes got very big. “Atticus is a good boy. He hardly ever cries.”
“Even if he did,” said her husband, “we’d still take him. It’s important for kids to have experiences like that. Good for their development, to be exposed to different cultures.”
“Their brains are like sponges at this age,” said my wife’s college roommate. “They soak up everything.”
“Of course,” I said. We watched the boys again. I raised an eyebrow at my wife, and she frowned. We had never considered going abroad. We had failed our son.
“It’s interesting,” said my wife, “that you chose Paris.”
“Why?” said her college roommate. “Paris is wonderful.”
“Oh no, of course. It’s perfectly nice. It’s just—you know.”
My wife’s college roommate’s eyes got big again. “No,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“It’s wonderful, of course. But for our trip, we were hoping for something more creative.”
“You know—the whole ‘Americans going to Paris for culture’ thing. It’s been done. We’re going to take our son abroad too, obviously, but we’ve been waiting for the right place. We want it to be really special.”
I had never loved my wife more than I did at that moment. I was ashamed that I had only given her one beautiful son.
“Well, of course,” said her college roommate. “We’ve been to plenty of special places.” She and her husband started to tell us about them—a semester in Naples, a summer building low-emission wood-burning stoves in Costa Rica. They were interrupted by crying. The boys had tried to pull themselves up on the same part of the playpen, but it was only wide enough for one little hand. They slapped at each other and swayed, and our son held the fence. Atticus fell backward, hit the carpet, opened his little toothless mouth, and wailed.
That night, my wife and I stayed up late. We lay next to each other in bed, looking at our phones, searching for our special place.
We read lists—“Top 10 Undiscovered Gems!” “12 Places You Won’t Even Believe Exist!” “Seventeen Most Unique Destinations to See Before You Die!” We clicked through slideshows, and saw pictures of Iceland and Laos and Patagonia.
None of them were right. My boss had gone to Iceland a few years ago. My wife’s cousin had worked for a development NGO in Laos. One of my uncles had taken a Patagonian cruise. No—we needed something special.
We found Werdenburg.
It was number eight on “Not Your Parents’ Europe! Nine Amazing Places Off the Beaten Path.” My wife and I had never heard of it. We started to get excited.
Werdenburg, said the article, was once a jewel of central Europe—the third great city of the Habsburg empire. Mozart debuted some of his early symphonies in Werdenburg, and Rilke had written a long poem called The Werdenburg Requiem. The world wars and communism left the city in ruins, but since the 90s, it had been rebuilding. Werdenburg Castle had been restored, the Springbrunnen palace had reopened to tourists, and the city’s looted art was returned and placed in a new ultramodern museum. The cathedral bell once again rang in the morning, and baroque masterpieces hung in Werdenburg for the first time in decades.
Atticus and his parents could stand with the other Americans in front of the Mona Lisa. We had Werdenburg.
We went at the end of June. Our son was walking now, with hardly any help. His molar and two canines had been joined by a full set of teeth, and he showed them off whenever he could. He was a very happy boy, and he had very happy parents.
As we waited for the plane to take off, we took some pictures. I got a good one of my son wearing the in-flight headphones and grinning. I posted it on Facebook—“His first international flight!” I wrote. Dozens of my friends liked it—how could you not?—but my wife and I couldn’t help noticing that Atticus’s parents didn’t. It was too bad: we had liked all of their Eiffel Tower selfies.
The flight attendant asked us if we needed anything for the baby. She said we were brave to take such a little one on such a long flight. My wife and I shook our heads. We weren’t brave—we were just doing our duty.
We walked up and down the taxi line at the Werdenburg airport: none of the drivers had a car seat. “It’s okay,” said one. “I’m very careful.”
We piled into his backseat, and I held my son against my chest. After a while, my wife told me to loosen my grip—his face was getting a little purple.
The taxi got onto the highway and drove toward Werdenburg. We passed miles of apartment buildings—long white blocks of communist concrete. Soon we were in the city itself, bouncing over the cobblestones and dodging the trams. We had driven, it seemed, into the eighteenth century: the buildings were painted light blue and lemon and rose-pink, complicated crests hung over the windows and the tall wooden doors. My wife told me to hold our son up to the window so he could see. That was, after all, why were here.
I pulled him closer to my chest and leaned toward the window. We looked out at the city, and he pounded the window with his little fist. I smiled at my wife. He was so strong, and he was ready.
That afternoon, we went to the Springbrunnen Palace. Tripadvisor said it was one of the highlights of Werdenburg—a pristine example of late baroque architecture, even more sumptuous than Versailles.
We walked up and down the long gilded galleries, beneath a ceiling painted to look like the sky. We looked into the bedroom of Maximilian VI, and we took a picture in front of the bronze statue of Apollo.
In each room were laminated cards that described the objects and architecture. We picked them up and learned about the cornices and chairs. My son was in his carrier, strapped to my chest, facing outward so he could see the palace. We read the cards to him.
“Look,” I said. We were in the Hall of Mirrors, leaning over the empress’s own harpsichord. A double-headed eagle was painted in gold on the lid. “Do you see that? That’s the symbol of the Austro-Hungarian empire.”
He wriggled in his carrier.
“Their brains are like sponges at this age,” said my wife.
After lunch, we went outside, into the gardens. They had been restored to their original glory—the neat, elaborate hedges, the sundial made of flowers, the white peacocks, the bronze statues of nymphs and fauns. My wife and I agreed: definitely more sumptuous than Versailles.
Our son got antsy (he had kicked me in the stomach a few times), so we let him out of his carrier. He tottered through the gardens, chasing the peacocks. We took pictures and videos.
I had never been happier. I was always happy, of course: I loved him, and I knew how special he was. But it made me especially happy to be with him here, in a place that was as special as he was.
That night, back at the hotel, my wife and I watched our videos and compared our pictures. She had taken a good one: he had caught a peacock and was tugging at its tail-feathers.
I made it my Facebook picture.
The next morning we went to the Kunstmuseum. I was wearing the carrier on my chest again. I paid for an audio guide, and as we walked through the museum, I listened to facts about the paintings and repeated them to my son.
“Look,” I said. We were in front of a little square painting, framed in gold. “This is an altarpiece from the old Werdenburg Cathedral. That’s the crucifixion there, in the center panel. And there’s the Virgin and Mary Magdalene and St. John.”
I pointed my chest up, toward at the painting, so he could see their little pained faces.
The museum had eight centuries of Werdenburger art. We moved through the rooms, and the flat medieval saints changed into muscular Renaissance men. Soon we were in the seventeenth century—the late baroque masterpieces that the internet had promised us. My wife stopped in front of a little picture of the annunciation. My son and I went to the big canvas on the opposite wall.
It was called The Holy Family. At the center of the picture was the child—a big baby with gold curls and red cheeks. He gazed at heaven and smiled wisely. On either side were his parents. Mary supported the child from behind and offered him her breast—Joseph was on his knees, hands clutching his chest, before his son. Above their heads, heaven burst with doves and cherubs.
The Holy Family, said the audio guide, was the treasure of the Kunstmuseum’s collection. Painted by Matteo Settembrini, an Italian in the service of the Duke of Werdenburg, it had been looted by the Red Army in 1945. After twenty years of negotiations, the painting had been returned from Moscow last year. It was the finest surviving instance of Settembrini’s religious work: his sensitive brushstrokes brought real emotion to a conventional scene.
I repeated all this to my son. It was so true: I didn’t know what made a brushstroke sensitive, but I knew those emotions—the pride, the joy, the wonder, the love. I felt them in every curl of the child’s hair, in every dove’s feather.
I took two steps toward the painting. I could see the grain of the canvas, the cracks of the paint. I put my face very close and stared deep into those sensitive brushstrokes.
And then it happened. I felt my son squirm in his carrier, and heard a little plunk.
Joseph was gone. His face had become a hole. My son waved his fist.
Two museum guards led us through a door marked ZUTRITT VERBOTEN—DO NOT ENTER. We walked down a long white hallway hung with little abstract paintings. At the end was a big office that overlooked the museum courtyard. The guards told us to wait here—the director would see us soon. We sat in some very geometric chairs, and the guards shut the door behind them.
My wife held our son on her lap. She started to speak, but I stopped her. “Their brains are like sponges at this age,” I said. She put her hands over his ears, and we whispered:
“You’re sure it was him?”
“Who else would it be?”
“Maybe it was like that when we got here.”
“You heard it.”
“It’s not like him. He’s a good boy.”
“It’s my fault. He didn’t know. He’s just a baby.”
I said it, but I knew it wasn’t true. He wasn’t just a baby. He was special—he was ours.
“Atticus didn’t punch any Cezannes in Paris,” said my wife.
“That we know of, anyway.”
I stared out into the courtyard. It had started to drizzle, and the abstract sculptures were wet and shiny.
“Maybe it won’t be a big deal.”
“No one has even heard of Werdenburg.”
“The damage wasn’t that bad.”
“It wasn’t like he hit the Christ child. It’s just Joseph.”
“What happens in Werdenburg stays in Werdenburg.”
We both looked at our son. He put his fist into his mouth. I noticed a little blotch of brown on his wrist—a bit of Joseph’s beard.
The director was a small woman with short gray hair. She asked us a few questions, and we answered. My wife kept her hands over our son’s ears.
The director told us that the painting was insured, and that the curators hoped it could be restored. “However,” she said, “this particular painting is quite important to the city. It took twenty-five years of negotiations, and several millions of dollars, to get it back from Russia. And so there must be some consequences.”
My wife pulled our son to her chest. My stomach sank.
“It was an accident,” I said.
“You really shouldn’t let people get so close to the art,” said my wife.
“We are asking,” said the director, “for you to pay some of the cost of the restoration.” She told us how much. It was a lot. The museum would announce that we were paying for the painting, but it would not release our names to public. “We think that this is an appropriate compromise between consequences for your actions and, well, your safety.”
“Some people in Werdenburg will be angry. And there is, of course, the internet.” She told us that people who had damaged art at other museums had been harassed and threatened by trolls.
My wife and I nodded several times. We were very serious. But the muscles at the corners of our mouths burned—we were trying not to smile.
We were happy to pay for the restoration: we already had more debt than we could ever pay—student loans, credit cards, a mortgage—so what difference did a painting make? We would go back to America, send the Kunstmuseum a few dollars a month, and leave the whole thing in Werdenburg.
Everything was fine: The Holy Family would be restored.
I locked the hotel-room door behind us and drew the chain. My wife put our son on the bed and turned on the TV. She nodded, and I followed her into the bathroom, away from the sponge-brain.
“What do we do?” I said. “Is it safe for us to stay here?”
“What else can we do?”
“And what do we say when people ask us why we left Werdenburg early?”
I filled a glass of water from the sink and looked at it. “We’ll tell them he got sick.”
“He never gets sick.”
That was true: he was a very healthy baby. “We’ll say the food didn’t agree with him.”
“Plenty of babies travel. Of course he can travel.”
I sat on the edge of the tub. “Well, what else can we do? We can’t just stay here.”
She looked at me.
“Can we?” I said.
“Why not? The museum didn’t release our names. We’re not in any danger.”
“So we stay a few more days, and leave at the normal time.”
“And everything’s normal.”
I really did love this woman.
That afternoon, we went to the Werdenburg Cathedral. It was on the east side of St. Joseph’s Square, across from our hotel. We walked up and down the nave, and into all the little chapels, lined with elaborate marble tombs carved with scrolls and skulls. We climbed to the top of the bell-tower and looked down at the bright orange tiles of the city’s roofs. My wife wore the carrier, and I watched our son’s arms. Everything was normal.
We left the cathedral and walked back to our hotel. When we were halfway across the square, we saw a big crowd outside the hotel. Men were standing around, smoking. Some of them had big professional cameras around their necks.
Before we understood, they were on us—surrounding us, taking pictures, shouting about das baby. My wife covered our son’s face with her arms. “Hey!” I shouted at the photographers. “Hey! Stop!”
We took a few steps backwards, and so did they. I turned and ran, and my wife followed. The cathedral rose in front of us.
We sat in one of the chapels, panting. The setting sun came in bright through the stained glass window—our faces were red and yellow and blue.
We were safe, for now: the photographers hadn’t followed us into the church. We looked at the internet on our phones.
Someone had leaked the museum’s security footage. I watched it a few times: I stood there, squinting at The Holy Family, while my son smiled and punched a hole through the canvas.
Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, NPR, CNN, the BBC—everyone had a story about it. Reddit had figured out our names and posted our Facebook profiles. #HoleyFamily was the number one topic on Twitter.
And then there were the memes. People had taken a freeze-frame of the video—our son, at the moment his fist hit the canvas, smiling, showing all his beautiful teeth—and photoshopped it into other pictures. I scrolled through Twitter, and saw my son punch at everything—other famous paintings, Mike Tyson, the Minions. Someone had even put him into 9/11 (his fist was the second plane).
I had hundreds of DMs and notifications. I grabbed at my stomach—that seemed to be the only way to keep it from sinking out of my body and through the floor of the church. I shut off my phone, leaned against one of the marble tombs, and closed my eyes. My son pulled hard at my leg hair. I picked him up and held him very close.
My wife went to the door and came back. The photographers were there, waiting.
“Maybe we can claim sanctuary here,” I said. “Like in that cartoon—The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I rubbed my cheek against the cold marble. “Maybe we never have to leave.”
“No one in this family is a hunchback.” She looked up at the stained glass window. “We shouldn’t have to hide. What did we do to deserve this? Love our son? Try to give him a good experience? To help his development?”
“He did punch the painting.”
“So? Do we love him less?”
I looked down at him. He had my eyes, and her nose—and all those teeth. No—I would never not love him.
Suddenly, I understood. My heart started to beat very fast, and the back of my neck tingled. We had forgotten the most obvious, most important thing.
“Maybe,” I said, “it was a good thing.”
“Think about it. The city wanted to be better known, to have more tourists. Now everyone in the world knows about Werdenburg.”
“People are going to come from all over to see that painting now.”
“All because he punched it.”
“They should be thanking us, really.”
“It’s just like the teeth.”
“We were frightened at first. But then it was alright—it was better, even.”
“No one else has ever had a trip like this.
“No, no—Atticus didn’t punch a Cezanne.”
“Of course he didn’t. He isn’t that special.”
“There’s no other boy in the world who has a mob waiting to take his picture!”
She rushed over to me, and we embraced, our son between us. We buried our faces in his cheeks.
The photographers were still there, outside the big wooden door of the cathedral. As soon as I touched the handle, the cameras began to click.
We walked toward them, slowly, together—me and my wife, holding our son between us. A part of me wanted to run back into the cathedral—the same panic flashed across my wife’s pale face. We looked down at our son. He was waving his fists at the camera flashes, grinning and happy. He was our son, and we loved him. The cameras kept clicking, and we showed the world our big smiles, full of teeth.