End of September – 1851
Alex leans on his spade – looks at me and frowns. “Is that enough, huh?”
I frown too – looking at the tiny graves curving around my bare feet.
“No gaps!” I blurt. “No gaps!” I begin to panic – does he not see? “You need to dig enough to close the circle!” I am clutching his shirtfront. Shaking him. Shouting up into his face. He does not understand. He shrugs, smiles – that smile. “No gaps! Please, please Alex!” I scream. “Please!”
But…my voice makes no sound. He pulls off his bandana – mops his hot face. Then, he wipes my face. The cloth feels – wet, cool… I shake him – harder and harder, my hands paw at the cotton…
“Try and relax, Mrs. Heyes. Try and lie still.” Whoever is speaking wipes my brow. The cloth feels – wet, cool. My hands paw at the cotton sheet covering me.
I curl up – almost into a ball. Try to curl away from the throbbing pain. Someone – someone is whimpering.
Alex is talking to me.
“He’s so beautiful, Sarah! Perfect…”
Tears leak over my cheeks. I remember when my first baby, Alexander, died. I never saw him. Not once. Not one glimpse. Alex did. He told me how beautiful and perfect our son was. And – how he told Alexander all about me. Alex told our son how much I loved him. How much I wanted him.
I wonder if this third baby breathed, before he… before he…?
“Try and look, Sarah…Try…”
I cannot. Cannot. I want to make Alex a father even more than I want to be a mother. I cannot look at him. Not yet. I squeeze my eyes shut even tighter – until colours swirl behind my lids.
“Sorry,” I whimper, so low even I hardly hear it. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry…”
My legs begin to kick – weakly – with the beat of the words. It changes the pain from a dull throb to a series of sharp stabs.
“Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry…”
Mrs. Heyes – not ME – the other Mrs. Heyes is standing in our farmhouse. She looks around with a sneer.
“Is this…” her eyes linger disdainfully first on the rag-rug, then on the table. I have not cleared yet, from supper. “…is this REALLY what Alex wanted?”
I put up my chin, defiantly.
“Yes!” I say, firmly. “It is!”
It may only be a rag-rug – but I designed it so a cheerful scarlet spirals through the material. The supper remains may only be hash – but a jug of wildflowers make the table pretty and – and the book we are reading aloud together in the evenings, rests against the chubby teapot. It IS what Alex wants. I – I AM what Alex wants.
She is pointing, now, at the crib. When did it get so dusty? So – so covered in cobwebs. It is so – empty. The whole room is empty – save for that empty, empty cradle.
“Is THAT what Alex wanted?” she asks. I do not answer. “Is it? IS IT?” I am only wearing my shawl. I try and cover myself as she stares. “You do know Alex realises now – what a mistake marrying you was?” she says. Alex is standing beside her. He does not say anything. “You do realise – he’d be better off without you?” asks Mrs. Heyes. Alex STILL does not say anything. He runs a hand over the dusty crib – looks at the dust on his fingertip. “Sarah?” Mrs. Heyes voice is almost – kind. “You DO realise that, don’t you?”
A hot tear falls on my naked foot as I – I nod. My knuckles shine white as I pull the shawl tighter and tighter…
“Let go, Mrs. Heyes,” A gentle – but firm voice – reaches me. “Let go.” I feel my fingers being eased away from the material. “We just want to get you in a clean nightgown – and change the sheets. Won’t take a minute. Then – we’ll make you as comfortable as we can.”
I flinch away. My voice is tiny – pathetic.
“It – it hurts!”
I have been awake – how long? Not sure. I do not move. I do not even open my eyes, but I let the lids relax. My eyes – almost – open. I can – nearly – see. They flicker.
Elizabeth sits beside me. She is feeding the baby. Beth. No, not Beth. Beth was born after I lost… the second baby.
This must be – Esther.
I do not want to see this. I cringe inside at how – how mean that makes me. I WILL want to see Esther again. One day. Not yet though. Please not yet.
Elizabeth tickles the baby’s cheek. She gives a soft chuckle.
“No need to scowl! I know you’re busy! Nothing breaks your concentration, does it?”
I feel my throat tighten. I turn my head to the wall.
“Sarah,” Elizabeth sounds surprised. “Sarah, are you awake?”
I squeeze my eyes shut, but I nod.
“I have the baby here,” she says.
No. No. No.
“…Would you like to see him?”
No. No. No. No. No.
“… I could, maybe, lay him by you?”
NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!
I shake my head. Squeeze my eyes tighter. Try and bring up my hands to cover my ears, so I do not have to listen to her talking about her baby.
The movement hurts. I feel – sore. And – hot. As I try to roll further away, my head spins.
“No!” I whimper. “Please…no!”
“Alex,” I say, “Alex – the baby’s crying. I can hear him.” I struggle out of bed, but cannot stand up. With growing panic, I see the crib is not where it should be. It has gone!
Alex gets up. He lifts my legs back into bed, covers me.
“There’s no crying, Sarah. It’s just the wind,” he says.
“I can hear him,” I protest. “Listen, listen!” I hear it so clearly! So clearly!
“He – Alexander – died, Beloved,” he says.
What? Our baby – died? No! NO! Why is Alex saying that? I can HEAR him!
“No!” I say. “NO!”
Alex shushes me. He turns his head away. He pushes the heel of his hand into first one eye, then the other. He – my wonderful, strong, brave husband – is crying.
“I’m so sorry, Sarah,” he says. “Try and remember. Alexander died. I – we – we buried him. I wrapped you up, carried you out – you put flowers on the grave. Do you remember?”
Suddenly…suddenly, I do remember. My baby died. I did this last night. And the night before. And the night before that. I do this every night. I hear crying – and I wake Alex up. Alexander – died. I remember. I remember and – grief overwhelms me, so I can hardly breathe. I cannot bear it!
“No!” I say again. I cling hard to Alex; feel his heart thumping away under my ear. He cradles me, so gently. “Don’t let go,” I whimper. He holds me close and soothes me – we soothe each other – until I cry myself to sleep.
Starting awake, my breath comes hard – fast. I was dreaming about the weeks after I lost my first baby. It was so REAL! For a moment, the grief sweeps in – fresh as if it happened yesterday. Then, I remember this baby. The third baby I have lost. I am – buffeted – by misery.
However, I realise I am feeling… Not – better. Better is the wrong word. I am sick – and sore – and miserable to the very core. I suppose I realise that I WILL, eventually, feel better. I may – just may – feel happy again. That is harder to credit. But, Alex and I WERE able to feel happy again, eventually, last time and the time before. We had each other. And friends. And friends’ children. The sun shone warm. Flowers smelt sweet. Every day had its own little triumphs or small amusements to enjoy.
No. I cannot believe I will ever be happy again. However, the very fact I can think it through suggests – I might.
The very fact I can think it through is at least – something. My head is not – not so fogged as before. I know for sure I am awake now. I know for sure I was dreaming five minutes ago. That certainty is more than I have had for – for how long?
Then, just as I try to take a tiny pleasure in being – ‘in my right mind’ – I hear it. From the other side of the bedroom door. Out in the main room the sound of a baby crying. I try to pretend I only hear the wind. I try to pretend I hear nothing. But I do. Clear as I hear my heart pounding as I turn my face to the wall.
Please, I think. Not this. Not this again. Please.
Mrs. Myers is with me. She has been with me – several times. I am vague over how many. Mrs. Williams too. Both so kind, helping nurse me. Not that I am grateful. I should be – but I am not. I am – nothing.
I am nothing at all.
I do not tell them when I hear the crying. I do not tell Alex.
I am nothing. I hear nothing. I will not listen. I want to hear – nothing.
Once Elizabeth came – bringing the baby again. Once, when I opened my eyes, I saw Alex holding Esther. Both times, I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears until they left.
It was not today. Nor – I think – yesterday.
“I think you could talk to us, Mrs. Heyes, if you tried,” says Mrs. Myers. “I think you’ve been back with us for a day or two.” Her voice is – kind, but with an edge of firmness. “Drink this,” she orders, propping me up competently and holding a cup of milk to my lips. Firmer, “Come on! You know you have to take plenty of fluid. No arguing.” I drink. She refills the cup. “One more,” she commands. I obey. “You are – back with us – aren’t you Mrs. Heyes?”
I think about my answer for a long time. Then, I nod.
“Is there anything you want?” she asks.
Another long think. I nod. I speak. She cannot hear, but brings her head close to my mouth for me to have another try.
“Where’s Alex?” I whisper.
“He’s out working,” she says. She lays a cool hand on my brow. “I’ll make a deal with you,” she offers. “I’ve some chicken broth on the stove. If you eat half a bowlful, I’ll go call Mr. Heyes.” She smiles, “How’s that?”
I cannot manage to smile back. I cannot even manage to – to want to. But I want to want to. Does that make sense?
I do my best with my broth. And, Mrs. Myers is so kind. It is a small bowl. I am well propped up. All I have to do is swallow. So I try. I swallow spoonful after spoonful. My throat tightens up though – as I think about this third dead son. Wondering if he breathed. Trying to remember if I glimpsed him through all that pain – or if I am just imagining it. I am sure I remember – hearing him cry.
I gulp – turn my head away. No more. No more broth. No more – hearing things.
“Good girl,” praises Mrs. Myers. “You did well.”
She keeps her word. She goes to fetch Alex. It seems ages. Then – the sound of running. No – not just running – sprinting. Across the yard – boots clattering on the porch – the main door banging shut. It goes through me, but…still. There is a tiny – fleeting – warmth inside me. I am glad he ran.
He bursts into the bedroom.
“You – you…” gasping for breath, “She – Mrs. Myers – she said you…” breath slowing, he kneels by the bed, “…you wanted me?”
Does he still love me? After I have let him down yet again? Does he? I love him so much. He waits. Waits to see if I speak.
“Did you want to say something, Sarah?” He turns his head, brings it close to my mouth – to catch anything I do say. I stare at his ear. How many times have I kissed it? Traced the shape…? I say – nothing. He moves away, faces me.
My fingers reach out to push back his hair – touch his brow. Except – they do not. They slide across the sheet toward him – but my hand will not lift. So I just look at him – watch him talking.
“…real well. Thriving. Putting on weight. He’s…”
This is real. I am not dreaming. So, if he says he still loves me, now, that will be – real.
“…all the squawking! And, if Hannibal does settle…Esther starts up…”
He takes my hand – very gently. He does not raise it, just slips his underneath and lowers his lips to brush my fingers.
” …Hannibal. I could fetch him… Could run all the way there. Now? Would you…”
My fingers curl round his. I am staring at our two hands. I try and listen. No – that is a lie. I think I SHOULD listen. Listening is so hard. I am ‘in my right mind’ but – that mind will not settle. It is watching my fingers curl. Looking at Alex’s strong hand under my trembling one. He is telling me something about – our son. He did this before. When Alexander died. Alex told me everything he could about – how our son looked. How he did not – did not suffer.
“Shall I go now…?”
I would like to visit the…
What? What did he just say? Go? No. No. NO!
I shake my head, although it may not show.
“I could be real quick…He’s so…”
“Don’t go!” My lips DID move. I did not hear it – but they DID move.
He sees. My beloved’s head comes close to my mouth again.
“Please stay. Please. Please.” The last is just a whimper. A tear rolls over my cheek. And another.
“Don’t cry, Sarah! Please don’t cry! I only thought…Please don’t cry! Of course I’ll stay – if that’s what you want.”
What I want? Does he not want to stay with me anymore? Have I – worn out his love. Sinking, once again, into sickness – and misery – and weeping?
“How long has it been?” I whisper.
“How long since the birth?” he says, “A fortnight. But the Doctor tells us you’re doing fine now. We just need to take real good care of you – to keep it that way.” He strokes my hair very gently. “You’re going to get well again, Light of my Life.” He smiles – that smile.
Am I? Am I going to get well? I suppose I am. I cannot imagine being – well – again. But I got well last time. Will Alex still love me – when I am well again? Does he love me now?
“…stay with Elizabeth for a while. But – maybe by Christmas – he’ll be home with…”
Two weeks. I had no idea how long it had been. The – the pain seems closer than that. The ordinary life – before – further away.
“…Is there anything you want?”
I am still staring at our linked hands on the sheet. I would like to visit the grave. But – not just now. Just now, I am so tired. Is there anything I do want? Yes. I want…
“I love you, Sarah,” Alex says, “I love you so much.” Again, his lips kiss my fingers. Then – very, very gently – because he knows I still ache all over, he kisses my brow. His free hand tenderly strokes my hair. I settle under that stroking hand. My eyes flicker shut.
How long did I sleep? It is still daylight. I feel – again, better would be an overstatement; but – refreshed. I force myself to acknowledge and count a blessing – a peaceful, dreamless sleep. My main blessing – Alex – is seated beside the bed; as I move, he looks round, smiles.
“Good sleep, Beloved?”
I manage a nod. About to attempt a return smile – I hear it. A baby is crying next door. Fresh misery floods through me. Not this. Please not this. I do NOT tell Alex. He has to put up with a wife barren as a blasted tree. This time, I will spare him the voices.
“Can I get you anything?” he asks.
Still flinching from the crying only I hear, I shake my head. Then – yes. Yes. My fingers reach toward Alex.
“Would you…” my voice is still weak, but no longer so faint I cannot be heard, “…would you carry me out to the grave now? Please, Alex?” I swallow, “…Hannibal’s grave – with his brothers? Could I – go say ‘good-bye’?”
Alex blinks at me. I try and concentrate on his face and ignore the crying – though it gets louder and louder.
“Hannibal’s next door,” says Alex. “Who do you think that is – making enough noise to shatter glass and frighten the horses?”
NO! I thought I was awake. Am I dreaming?
“You’d seemed so much more your old self – once you were fast asleep, I hitched up the wagon and fetched him over. Elizabeth’s here too – and young Esther. In case we had to wait a long time for you to wake up.”
NO! I do not – will not let myself – believe this.
He strokes my cheek.
“You haven’t been having a nightmare – dreaming Hannibal died, have you, Sarah?” he asks, eyes dark with concern.
I am shaking all over. I do not want this kind of dream. It hurts far too much when I wake up. No. NO!
Alex walks out of the room, returns straightaway with Elizabeth. She carries a swathed bundle – which cries, lustily.
“Here he is!” beams Alex. “Squawking fit to raise Cain! I couldn’t believe it when I first heard him! The Doctor reckoned he’s got lungs made out of leather!”
Elizabeth perches on the edge of the bed, pulls back a fold of baby-shawl, so I get a good view of the scarlet, crumpled face.
“He’s hungry,” she excuses. A second baby cry starts up beyond the door. “SHE’S hungry too!” smiles Elizabeth, “…It’s pretty much pandemonium at our house at the moment!”
“I don’t know how we can ever repay you,” says Alex, seriously.
“I’m thinking hard about that!” she answers, “As soon as I come up with something that involves you being deprived of sleep and permanently needing an extra pair of hands, I’ll let you know!”
I stare and stare at the crying baby. It is NOT Esther. I can see it – no HE – is too young to be Esther.
“Alex, why don’t you prop Sarah up?” continues Elizabeth. “I’ll go deal with Madam, next door, leave you three alone for a while. I’m sure waiting his turn won’t hurt Hannibal,” she tickles the scarlet cheek. “What’s that?” Squawking. “You don’t like waiting!” Squawk! Squawk!
“Tut tut!” Alex laughs. His voice is bursting with joyous pride, “SUCH language, huh? Where the Sam Hill d’you learn it, son?”
Alex props me up. He must have done this dozens of times over the last couple of weeks – he is as competent as Mrs. Myers. My eyes stay riveted on – the baby.
I – I FEEL awake. Is this real?
Elizabeth hands over – is that really OUR son – to Alex and leaves the room. The crying outside changes in tone – stops.
This is NOT a dream. I cannot stop the budding happiness, growing and growing. My eyes devour the tiny face. I dare not even blink – I do not want to lose a second.
Alex perches on the spot Elizabeth vacated.
“Hannibal,” he says, seriously, “…I do think you’ve made your point. Any chance of five minutes peace, huh?”
The squawking – if anything – rises in pitch. Miniature fists clench and unclench round the shawl.
“I’ll take that as a – ‘No’ – shall I, son?” Alex smiles.
This is so – extraordinary, yet at the same time – normal. Alex HAS sat beside me with the baby before. I think. I am so – so breathless with elation, I can hardly get the words out.
“May – may I hold him?”
Alex’s face lights up. This IS real. How many times have I squeezed my eyes shut and refused to even look at my – no, OUR son?
My husband – though delighted – hesitates.
“He’s got a strong kick,” he warns, “…I know you’re sore all over.”
“I don’t care if he’s wearing hob-nailed boots and tosses me onto the floor with them!” I blurt. I reach – feebly, but persevering – for the nearest scarlet cheek. Alex moves our son closer and – crooking Hannibal safely in one elbow – lifts my fingers with his freed hand towards the tiny face. My son feels my touch, the eyes open – he LOOKS at me. I do not care if some people think newborns do not recognise faces. He does! He LOOKS at me. I cry – and laugh – and cry. It hurts – but I do not care the snap of my fingers for that any more.
Alex lays Hannibal by me, protects him from rolling away, as I am too weak to hold our son. Not too weak to touch the soft baby hair – dark like Alex’s – all fluffed up on top, though. Not too weak to kiss one of the tiny hands as it stretches toward me.
“He’s – he’s the image of you, Alex!” I exult.
“What – crimson, wrinkled, bawling and balding?” he teases.
“He is NOT bald!” I protest. “He’s beautiful!”
“I’m not arguing with that!” says Alex, dropping a kiss first on my head, then on Hannibal’s.
“He has your dimples! Look!”
“I think that’s a spit bubble, Light of my Life,” smiles Alex.
“It’s a dimple!” I repeat, firmly. “Hello,” I coo, “Hello…Ow, ow! That’s my hair! Oh! You just wanted see if it was attached? That’s alright then.” I try a trick I picked up on the wagon train, offer him my little finger to suck. Make soothing sounds. The squawking subsides. A firm grip is taken on the ruffle around my wrist. The shawl is kicked open and Alex tickles the sole of one pink little foot.
“I can’t get over how tiny his toes are,” he marvels. He laughs, “I suppose every new father in the history of the world says the same, huh?”
A beat. I fondle fingers. Alex strokes toes. Hannibal sucks on my fingertip – gurgles.
“You’ve not lost your knack, Sarah,” Alex smiles. “Crying stopped in less than a minute! It’s a miracle.”
We meet each other’s gaze. My eyes are still wet. Alex’s look – suspiciously bright.
He is right. This is – a miracle.