Every week they went into Watervliet to buy our groceries at Dufranes Market. While the clerk was making up the order, theyd go across the street to Sherlocks Grill. Once theyd left, I noticed the pains were coming closer. Mamie, I said, this baby is going places. I stopped scrubbing the floor and began scouring buckets and bowls. I pumped water for boiling and placed torn strips of cloth in the oven to bake clean. A woman in labor should have plenty fixed for others to eat, yet I was caught short. I could only put a big plate of bread and butter on the table.
In our bedroom off the parlor, I set out the spotless containers along with a bar of carbolic. I tied a twisted towel around the headboard rails and fastened two more, like reins, at the foot. Then I covered the room and the bed with old issues of the Troy Record. Some expectant mothers put their own laying-out clothes in a bottom drawer, but my warm hopes would not allow this. I was thinking of the here and now, not the always was and will be. If you go to bed, the infant sleeps and you have to start again. So I kept pacing.
After the third birth, things get riskier. I tried to keep my mind on the happy deliveries and forget the poor devils I had seen. I would not think of the abnormal presentations, hemorrhages, obstructions, retained afterbirths, blood poisonings, convulsions, milk legs, and childbed fevers. Working for Doc Muswell, Id seen prolapsed women full of ironmongery, pessaries to hold their insides in. Childbirth left them wearing these threshing machines only hoop skirts could hide. Such trials swept through my mind in Kinetoscopic flashes. Yet those poor devils did not have Sisters remedy. This I knew.
The children were outside playing pirate, and I called Edna in. Youre a young miss now, I told her. She was all of nine. You can be your mothers helper. I asked her to go upstairs and alert Kitty, who soon appeared and settled herself on the divan like a brooding hen. When a pain came, I shushed, and when it let up, I started bossing the job again. All along I was trying to gauge the labors progress, whether I was at the dime, nickel, quarter, half-dollar, or teacup stage. At the teacup stage, I would be fully delighted, as Doc Muswell said. I figured I was halfway there.
It was twilight, and I was lying down to catch my breath, when Kitty began hollering from the yard. Mamie Come Running! she said. The team is back! Rushing out, I saw the wagon and lathered horses but no sign of Joe or Bill. By the ropes of green froth dribbling from their bits, I could see Ned and Susie had grabbed a bite to eat. Well have to unhitch the horses, I told her. They are such great brutes, Mamie. Do lets leave them as they are. But what of William and Joe? Do you suppose they were thrown and are even now lying in some dark spot?
Joe and Bill are skillful whips, I said. If they got thrown, then they must foot it. I knew those brothers were not brawling or visiting sweethearts. Nothing ventured, nothing lost, that was the Garrahan motto.
I watered and unharnessed the horses without coming to harm, and when I returned, Kitty was strewn across my newspapered bed in an attitude of weeping. Perhaps the dainty waist and deep full inspirations of some Watervliet wanton have commanded Williams admiration, she said. I could hear Edna trying to convince my Joseph and baby Dorothy it was bedtime. Charlotte was singing them a little song. I scrubbed the horse dirt off and lit the oil lamps. Then I lay down on the divan. Now that the pain was mustering, I wondered out loud if Id have enough of Sisters remedy.
Mother, if you needed more, we could have made it ourselves, Edna piped up. Having settled the little ones, she and Charlotte were giving me big looks. I only half listened as she prattled about Papaver somniferum and lancing the pods so sticky flower milk oozed out. She spoke of scraping, drying, beating, molding, boiling, skimming, and straining, but it wasnt till she mentioned covering the cakes with white poppy petals that I sat up and attended. The word poppy had roused me.
Reprinted from The Nightingales of Troy by Alice Fulton. Copyright (c) 2008. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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No Man's Land
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