And then came the morning when he didn't run to her, the morning when he walked, slowly, and when he got to the kitchen just sat in a corner and watched in silence, his plump cheeks rosy and hot when she touched them. When she lifted him his body was slack, like he was already asleep, and when she carried him he rested his head in the nook of her shoulder and abandoned himself to her, legs splayed across her hips, arms hanging at his sides. "Bread with jam?" she said to him, a test, the treat he loved most in the world. But he just looked at her, glassyeyed, like he'd gotten older and wiser overnight and had moved beyond the excitement of bread and jam. As if the boy who loved bread and jam was another boy entirely, and this was a new boy, a more serious boy, a boy who knew as much as any adult. For a few minutes, as she swayed with him in the kitchen and listed all the things he loved to eat, she pretended to herself that she didn't know.
"Tobias isn't feeling well," Mary told the nanny, and the nanny told Mrs. Kirkenbauer. The three women convened in the parlor, where Tobias had fallen asleep on a pillow.
"Too much sun yesterday," his mother said, as she put her hand to his face. "And he had all that pie after dinner last night." "Should I ask the doctor to come?"
"No," Mrs. Kirkenbauer said. "Sleep will cure him. He'll be better by supper. Leave him where he is."
But he did not get better; he got worse, and after four days of the doctor coming by to tell them that there was nothing to be done except draw the cool bath and try to get him to eat, and on the same day as Mary served Mr. Kirkenbauer milk that had gone thick and sour overnight, Mrs. Kirkenbauer began to feel low, and then the nanny, and then the butler, and then the gardener, who came only twice a week, always taking lunch with them when he was there. After Tobias they all seemed to get sick at the same time, in the same hour, and God forgive her but she ignored the others until she got that baby into the tub. "Tub," he said, a whisper, when she put him in the water, keeping a hand under his arm so he wouldn't slip. She floated chunks of ice she'd hammered from the block and told him they were icebergs, and he a sea captain, and it was his job to make sure the ship didn't run aground. He didn't object to the cold. He didn't demand a toy. He didn't ask for his mother. He didn't cry. After the bath, after his fingers had gone to raisins and she was afraid to leave him in there any longer, she wrapped him in a clean sheet and told him stories while he curled up in a ball like he was still a newborn, his knees tucked up to his chest. He looked more like a baby in the sheet, his curls damp, his cheeks so pink that a portrait of him at that moment might have made him look like a healthy child, the healthiest, like he'd just spent an hour running outside on a chilly winter's day.
And then, on the seventh night of his illness, after a few hours of rocking, while the others called for her from distant rooms, his little body went limp, felt heavier in her arms. His head against her shoulder was a ton weight, his legs like anchors across her thighs. The hot flutter of his breath that had tickled her neck for the past several hours had disappeared. Mary rocked him faster, telling herself he'd be better after he'd had a good sleep for himself. He hadn't had a proper rest in a week and now he was just having a sleep. Just sleep. A good, sound sleep.
After a while, she laid him in his crib and went to tell Mr. Kirkenbauer, the only other member of the household who was not sick. "He's gone, sir," she said, and put her hand on his shoulder before she realized what she'd done. The doctor said Mrs. Kirkenbauer should not be told if she was to have any chance of recovery, and so Mary tried to keep the news from her face when she went in to nurse her. But, one week later, Mrs. Kirkenbauer died as silently as her son, and the butler the day after that. The nanny and the gardener recovered.
Excerpted from Fever by Mary Beth Keane. Copyright © 2013 by Mary Beth Keane. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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