The wind keens outside, but I have, by now, tracked and stopped most draughts. The stove draws well. I kneel before it on the rag rug, working away on the current task in hand. Sarah is snug, in the rocking chair I made. She has been reading aloud, but interrupts herself to say, “I should add Morgiana to the other figures.”
“For Pete’s sake, Sarah,” I protest, half joking – but only half, “…I’m struggling to finish what you’ve already drawn! Are you planning to keep the baby in a drawer for the first six months, while I spend every spare hour working on this?”
I place the cooling iron skewer, with which I am ‘poker’ etching, into the stove to reheat. In its place, I take up one now glowing red-hot. The smooth oak hisses at its touch. It is because of the book in Sarah’s lap that I am etching by the light of all the oil lamps we own. I have been decorating this crib – on and off – most of the winter. Sarah took a fancy to improve the simple scrolls, with which I decorated the cradle destined for our first born, with her own drawings, inspired by ‘The Thousand and One Nights’.
“You don’t seem to appreciate,” I grumble, “… that what takes YOU half an hour to sketch and another half hour to trace onto the wood – means a solid ten hours or so of work for ME! AND…” I show her my right forefinger, “…I reckon I’ve discovered a new medical condition – ‘etcher’s groove’!”
A stockinged foot looses its slipper, reaches to gently prod my ribs.
“Alex,” Sarah says, “…How long is it since you promised me the sun, moon and stars – if it would make me happy?”
“I’ve FINISHED the sun, moon and stars,” I point at them, “…it’s this fully laden elephant and all the turbaned sailors I’m having second thoughts over!”
The foot lingers – but drops to my thigh, where it rubs, softly.
“Shall I forget Morgiana then?” she asks, wistfully.
I meet my wife’s eyes and – because I adore her and WOULD do anything in my power to make her happy, I sigh, “No. Draw her. After all – I don’t need sleep! It’s nothing but a bad habit.”
“Exactly,” agrees Sarah, with a smile. “After spending a pleasant, relaxing day in the fields…”
“…Well, you’ve broken most of the sod, so – you can hardly pretend it’s hard work NOW, can you Alex?” she teases.
I roll my eyes, then rise up on my knees, lean over and kiss the ‘bump’. “Please ask your mother…” I say, “…to tell Morgiana, NOT to bring any friends? Because, otherwise…” I explain, seriously, “…you’ll be grown up, married and raising babies of your own before your crib is ready.” My hand lingers on my wife’s stomach. I drop another kiss.
“Point out to your father,” says Sarah, “…if he spent less time talking and more time working – that elephant would have four legs instead of only two!”
I get back to work.
“Carry on…” I say, “…the wily slave girl, is dancing to distract the chief of the thieves. Hopefully – dancing alone and wearing something simple.” The first stroke of the third leg belonging to the Caliph’s elephant singes into the wood.
“Morgiana began the dance of the seven veils,” starts Sarah. “Her lissom young body swayed closer and closer to the thief. The sheen of her skin glowed through the filmy layers of gossamer. As the first veil traced an arc around her slender waist, before slipping – oh so slowly – to the marble floor, he glimpsed the naked flesh of the girl’s inner thigh. Surely its moon white curve was softer even than the silk caressing it? He longed to trace its length gently with his tongue.”
I blink, as I return another skewer to the stove. The Ali Baba story is taking an – an interesting turn.
“The thief leant forward to grip the edge of the second veil. Morgiana’s eyes held his, as she moved back leaving another shimmering covering in his grasp. He saw both challenge and – invitation – in her gaze and swore to himself, ‘I must enjoy her – or die.'”
Sarah’s foot once again rests on my leg. I stop etching.
“As Morgiana bent backwards in the dance, the graceful curve of her breasts parted the insubstantial silk. The thief felt himself harden – his hand yearned towards her – but – sinuous as a serpent, she evaded his touch.”
My wife’s foot moves upward. She has my – undivided attention.
“The music whirled and rose, drawing closer and closer to the inevitable climax. The beating rhythm of drums quickened as Morgiana swirled aside another flimsy garment. She threw back her head and allowed her fingers to run enticingly down the exquisite lines of her body, on which a fine dew of moisture now …”
“It does NOT say that!” I protest. I reach over and take the book. Sarah loses her straight face, as I check the text. It does not say ANY of that!
“It worked though!” she crows. “Alexander Heyes Junior,” she addresses the bump, “…your father’s putty in my hands!”
“That was NOT a hand,” I point out, “…THAT – was a foot!” I lean over. “Hermione Hero Helena Heyes, your mother can’t tell hands from feet. If you find a diaper round your shoulders – you’ll know why.”
“He’s a boy,” she insists. We have a running joke – each pretending certainty of the sex of the coming child.
“Take no notice, Hermione,” I tell the bump, with another kiss, “You’ll be beautiful as your mother. AND,” I throw a teasing glance upwards as I hug as much of Sarah as I can without pulling her from the chair, “…unlike her, you’ll be a wonderful cook – and enjoy nothing better than fussing over your poor old father.”
“You won’t be told will you?” smiles Sarah. “By this time next month, I intend to have been brought to bed of a fair son!”
“A FAIR son?” I check. “Who’s he taking after then?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean,” she says, with dignity. My cheek by now rests gently against the swell of her belly. She strokes my hair. “This time next month,” she repeats, softly. “He’ll be here!”
I hear anxiety in her voice. I kneel upright so I can kiss her, tenderly. She sees my concern and smiles.
“Elizabeth has promised to help,” she points out. “Well, unless I’m weeks and weeks late AND she’s weeks and weeks early. I mean…she’s gone through it once herself. And… and…”
I know what she means. We are lucky indeed, to have such good neighbours as Elizabeth and Nathanial Curry. If Mrs. Curry – pregnant herself – is well enough to be with Sarah, I can think of no one I trust more.
My forefinger strokes Sarah’s face. Maybe my ‘first time father’ misgivings still show, because she goes on, “AND – there’s a Doctor within reach. If – if we needed him.”
“I wish…” I stop. I want to say, ‘I wish I could have the pain – not you.’ But, if I were facing childbirth, I am not sure I would welcome such an easily said – but pointless – remark, from a man.
Of course, Sarah knows what I think without words.
“You wish you could share the birth pangs?” she checks. A mischievous look chases the apprehension from her eyes. “Beloved,” she coos, “…you can! I read somewhere about the Huichol Indians. Whenever a woman goes into labour, a cord is tied around her husband’s…” though we are alone, she whispers, “… whenever the pain is too much – she tugs on them. To – share!”
I flinch back.
“Sheesh! Is that true?”
“Oh! Alexander Junior,” she addresses the bump, “…your father is all talk. SAYS he wants to bear some of the pain – but – when a perfectly serious offer is made…”
“Hermione,” I protest, “…explain to your mother, my reluctance springs only from concern Mrs. Curry might trip over the cord. That…” I grin, “…and feeling a touch bashful explaining exactly why I have rope dangling from my pants and tears in my eyes!”
“All talk!” she repeats. Then, hand stroking down from my hair to my throat, she asks, huskily, “Did that image undo all my good work with the dance of the seven veils?”
“Pretty much,” I admit. “But, far as I recall, Morgiana only slithered out of three veils. Feel free to elaborate on the remaining four. I’m sure you can revive my – interest.” Her fingers slip inside my shirt. “Of course,” I tease, “…I should finish the elephant first.” I glance at the crib. “Shouldn’t take more than…” I suck in my breath in pretended calculation, “…say – an hour!”
“I’m not waiting an hour!” says Sarah, bluntly. “In a LOT less than an hour I intend to be deep in a fast – and fully satisfied – sleep!” She smiles, “No pressure, darling! YOU…” she adds, “…can work on that afterwards! Don’t worry…” her tone is exaggeratedly kind, “…I won’t forget to kick you out of bed.”
“How could any man…” I say, “…resist an invitation couched in such romantic terms?” I stand and hold out a hand.
She looks at me with mock outrage.
“You USED to sweep me up in your arms!”
“You USED to weigh less than me!”
“You told me my new shape was glorious and you loved every inch and curve!”
“I do,” I grin. “I’m not complaining about the inches! I ADORE the inches. It’s the POUNDS that are a touch hard on the back!”
“Alexander Junior, tell your father – a manly show of physical strength is …”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” I sweep Sarah – carefully – into my arms. “Since your mother is SO flattering as to name you after me – I suppose the least I can do is carry you both!”
“What makes you think…” laughs Sarah, “… ‘Alexander’ is named for you? I wish to honour the Macedonian – a great military leader!”
“Figures,” I say. “Actually,” I say, rather shyly, as I lay her down, gently, on our bed “…IF Hermione does let me down and come out a boy…”
“Yes?” Sarah asks, hands beginning to unbutton my shirt.
“Working on the elephant made me think,” I explain, “…still on the ‘great military leaders’ theme…what about ‘Hannibal Heyes’?”
“Hannibal?” she repeats.
“I know it’s not a – usual – name. But, it has a ring.” I grin, sheepishly, “It’s pleasingly alliterative.”
Her turn to look sheepish.
“I DID want to name him after you, Alex,” she murmurs. “As – as the first born.”
“Shall we flip for it?” I tease. She smiles and nods. I dig into my pocket and draw out a dime. “Call it!”
She calls. I look at the coin – smile – first to myself, then at Sarah. She does NOT look.
“I trust you,” she says.
My throat contracts at the love shining from her eyes.
Elizabeth Curry has been here all afternoon. With a baby of her own, she cannot stay round the clock. Another neighbour – Mrs. Myers, also helps. This morning, Mrs. Myers made my blood run cold by suggesting I ride to the Fort – to summon the doctor. The colour drained from my face.
“Nothing to fret over,” she tried to reassure me, “I‘m sure it‘ll be fine. But – as he’s close – and Sarah’s having a pretty hard time.”
Riding for the doctor was at least something I could DO. Home again, I feel completely useless. My pacing risks wearing a groove in the dirt floor.
The doctor promised to be here in plenty of time – but had other patients to see. Plenty of time! My wife’s pains started in earnest, I check my watch, this time yesterday! The screams from the bedroom – harrow me.
The door opens! I pounce on Mrs. Curry.
“Is it …is she …?”
“Not yet,” she pushes back a damp strand of hair. “Mr. Heyes,” she asks, “…could you make some coffee? Maybe even sandwiches?”
“For Mrs. Myers and me,” she says.
“Sure!” I nod. I only wish she would demand something – HARD. “Sorry…I never thought.” I grab her before she disappears. “Sorry, sorry,” I blurt, as I let go. She is my age – but I get a motherly smile to signify ‘no offence’. “Why’s it taking so LONG? Is Sarah…is she…?”
“First babies are slow,” she soothes. Another scream. I flinch. Mrs. Curry squeezes my shoulder. “Try not to fret…”
A knock. I race to let in the doctor.
He walks past me with a simple, “Heyes,” and approaches Mrs. Curry. “How’s she doing?”
“It’s been over a day!” I gabble. I try to resist the urge to tug his arm like a child. “She’s in AGONY! AND…” I fail – I do tug him around, “…like I said, it’s a touch early! She’s…”
He removes my hand, pats it kindly and turns back to Mrs. Curry.
“You were saying?” he prompts.
“Mrs. Heyes is such a little thing,” she says, “… and having a rough time. Nothing Mrs. Myers hasn‘t seen before, but…” she gives a tired smile, “…we’re glad you’re here, doctor.”
“Is there anything I can do?” I plead. Mrs. Curry looks meaningfully at the coffee pot. I nod, eagerly. “Sure,” I say, “…Anything else.”
“I’d appreciate you taking care of my horse,” says the doctor.
“Uh huh,” I am still nodding.
“And, Heyes…” he says, earnestly.
“Uh huh?” I am – coiled – for instruction.
“Try and relax,” he smiles. “I’ve not lost a father, yet.”
I start awake in my chair. How long have I slept? Guiltily, I check my watch. Less than ten minutes.
I pace back to the closed door. It has now been over three days. The screams stopped yesterday. Last night, when I put my ear to the crack I heard sobbing whimpers of uncomprehending pain. Now, I only hear the low, tired voices of the doctor and Mrs. Curry.
They no longer tell me to relax, or give me indulgent smiles. Mrs. Curry is tight lipped with anxiety and, when she looks at me her eyes brim with compassion.
“Where there’s life, there’s hope,” she tells me. “Don’t give up.”
“Please, please…” the words go round and round my head, like a squirrel in a trap, “…please Sarah, don’t leave me. Please. I need you. Please, please stay with me. My first one. Light of my life. Please.”
What will I do if she dies? There is no point even thinking the question – I have no possible answer.
“Where there’s life, there’s hope. Please. Where there’s life…Please, Sarah…”
A scream…thin, exhausted…but hers. Alive.
My heart pounds. When the door opens, I am – breathless – with surging hope. Mrs. Curry steps forward, she places a swathed bundle in my arms. I stare down at the crumpled face and tiny, tiny fist clenched beside it. Love floods through me. Tears spill over my cheeks and I am not even ashamed of them.
“Try and keep him warm…” says Mrs. Curry, “But …Alex…”
I do not notice she used my Christian name for the first time. Him. HIM. I have a son. His – my son’s – eyes flicker for a moment. The miniature fist opens. Fingers flex – close again like – like petals. He is beautiful!
“Alex!” her voice sharpens. I tear my eyes away from the wonder in my arms. “I have to get back to Sarah,” she says, evenly.
“Sarah!” I try and see. “Is she…? Is there anything …?”
She forestalls me, “The doctor’s doing everything he can. The best thing YOU can do – is let me get back to help.” Her eyes go to – to my son. “Keep him warm…But…” again the blue eyes speak their concern, “He’s not strong. I don’t think…” A barked summons calls her back to the bedside. She whisks in, shutting the door.
I go sit by the stove, cradling my son. His faint heartbeat flickers against my chest, as my own returns to its normal slow, strong rhythm. I tuck the straying hand inside the coverings and ensure a fold protects the top of his head, as I settle him in the crook of my elbow. He is – perfect. Perfect.
“Mrs. Curry is just very, very tired,” I explain, softly, “…and when, people are tired, sometimes they find it difficult to look on the bright side. That’s why she thinks you don’t look strong.” I stroke one cheek, very gently, with my forefinger. “You and I, son…” I smile, “…we both know she’s wrong. Before long – you’ll be running around with her children. Plotting and scheming all kinds of trouble, huh?” The tiny mouth opens – a breath is drawn in. “Your mother and I have been waiting to see you for so long,” I tell him. “And, now you’re here – we’re going to keep you safe and happy – and love you more than you’ll ever know. Until you have a son of your own, that is.” Another tiny lungful of air is taken. The eyes open. Carefully, I raise my elbow an inch or two. “That’s your crib,” I nod. “Your mother drew all the pictures – she’s real clever.” I lower my head, to whisper, “She’s too good for me – but, we won’t tell her. It’ll be our secret, huh?” He is trying so hard. Fighting. Stubborn. Wanting to live.
“Please…” I think, “Please. One more mouthful of air. One more. Please. I know you can do it. For me. Please.” My own heart beats – and beats.
“Please. Please – breathe.” I turn my head so the tear does not splash onto him. Dare I disturb them – behind the closed door?
I cradle him safe in one arm, tap and open the door just an inch. The doctor turns – not angry – just fully occupied. Sleeves rolled up, hands stained with blood, frowning with concentration, as he turns back to his task. Mrs Curry comes over. She looks at the tiny face, then at me. I know, really, I should not have intruded.
“I’ll – I’ll just keep him warm, shall I?” I ask, “There’s nothing more the doctor could do – just, keep him warm?” She meets my eyes. I was asked to look after my son, so they could strain every nerve to save Sarah without interruption. She is too kind to say anything, but – we understand each other. “I’ll do that, then,” I say.
I lay him, still well wrapped up, on the down filled mattress placed ready in the crib.
“I’m just setting you down, son, because there’s something I need to make. For YOU,” I assure him, “I wouldn’t let you out of my arms else! You stay warm by the stove and I’ll be right here. Not further than a hand’s reach.” I set the skewers to heat. Then reach for the piece of smooth oak destined to be the lid of a box to hold clothes and linen for him. “I never decorated this,” I tell him, “it took me so long to finish the crib. But…” I smile, “your mother always meant me to put your name on it. Once she decided on a name, that is.” The first stroke hisses into the wood.
“We pretended to argue over the name,” I go on, “It was a way of talking about you.” A third and fourth stroke. “You’re pretty much ALL we talked about, recently, son. We looked forward to meeting you so much. We – we both love you…” I talk on and on. Plans I made – fishing together – hunting together. “This box is a fine piece of oak,” I explain. “And… I reckon it’s just – just the perfect size.” I take a deep breath as the final stroke is added to the lid. His name. In the finest script my best pains can produce.
“Alexander Heyes Junior”
“March 1848 R.I.P.”