Fiction

Raising St. Elisabeth – Leah Holbrook Sackett

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Mrs. Campbell opened her mouth and inhaled the sour smell of fermentation. It was like a kiss from her grandmother. Using a wooden spoon, she mixed sugar, water, oil, and flour with the starter from the Mother. Then she floured the worn wood grain of the kitchen table. Little clouds of flour settled on her rolled up sleeves and disappeared into her ivory linen apron with the large pockets on the hips of the pleated skirt. Mrs. Campbell kneaded and pound the dough into a pliable texture. Her arms sinewed from years of bread making. Graying and red curls escaped from her bun, loose on the back of her head. Her hair, even now in later years, was too thick to bind down, too tangled to control. She worked in the full sunlight, filtered through the large window that took in a view of their apple orchard. With one fist knuckled into the dough, Mrs. Campbell used her free hand to brush back the strayed curls from her face and inadvertently floured her hair. She rested and gazed out over the tangled limbs of the apple trees, the crooked rows of verdant green under a bright sky of unadulterated blue. Then she covered the bowl with a towel, patted it lovingly, and left the dough to rise.

The white porcelain crockery that held the Mother was stored on a shelf in the cupboard. Here it was out of harm’s way, but handy for weekly use. It was common, non-descript save for the pock mark on the lip of the container. It was scarred from a fall that occurred when she had kept the Mother out on the counter. She was chastised by guilt every time she looked at it. Mrs. Campbell had been distracted, consumed with envy over Mrs. Lovejoy’s apple pie. Mr. Campbell had said, “Why this is the best apple pie in Yakima County,” as he lifted a hefty forkful towards his mouth, gluttonous for another bite. She had turned rough and blind, armed with a rolling pin, and swept the heavy crockery off the counter. Thankfully, it had not broken into shards and damaged the Mother inside.

Mrs. Campbell had guarded this Mother from Ohio to Yakima County, Washington just as her grandmother had carried it from Ireland to America. Her grandmother claimed this Mother was over a hundred years old. And that was when Mrs. Campbell herself was just a snub nosed child peeking over the counter to get a whiff of the sourdough as it was worked into formation under the gnarled fingers of her grandmother.

Mrs. Campbell returned to the pantry and piled 10 small beets into the pockets of her apron, when she heard wagon wheels fast approaching the house. It was not a good sound. It was urgent. Mr. Campbell never rode the team of horses like that; he was a clam, steady man. She hurried out of the front of the house to meet him.

“What is it?” she called out to Mr. Campbell.

Mr. Campbell had left that morning to meet his tenant Henry Johnston and work on a blocked irrigation channel. Henry had been digging in the ditch trying to remove a tree root that was obstructing the water flow. With the final upheaval of the ax-battered root, a surge of water rushed through, sweeping Henry off his feet.

“He must of hit his head,” said Mr. Campbell with his hands on hips. Mr. Campbell always stood in a wide stance looking up into the sky with hands on hips when he was trying to fight back a display of emotion.

“I just don’t understand where all that water come from,” he had said to a blank-faced Mrs. Campbell. Henry was in the back of the wagon: glistening, waxen and cold.

In a flurry, Mrs. Campbell entered the Johnston home. The bun loosened from the back of her head and her face flushed from the rough, fast-paced ride. Death brought a sense of impotence to the Campbells, who were a hardworking, purposeful people. They met this feeling with a sense of urgent duty. But as Mrs. Campbell stood in the empty, smoky front room of the house she became momentarily disoriented.

“Henry! Here, I’m in here,” Mrs. Johnston called out in undisguised panic.

Mrs. Campbell bust into the bedroom that was adjacent to the front room, and froze taking in the sight of Marie with her legs and skirts hiked-up.

“Thank God, you’ve come,” Marie said, breaking into a sob.

Mrs. Campbell shrewdly swallowed her desperate news, tightened the bun on her head, and asked Marie when the pains had started. She had not expected to find Marie like this. Mrs. Campbell had never witnessed a birth nor given birth, but her sewing circles were rich with women’s war stories – the births of children and the scars they left behind. She tried to recall the facts she would need now. Her mind was frenetic, her movements staid. Marie reached her arms out to Mrs. Campbell like a child. Mrs. Campbell positioned Marie’s body, without resistance from Marie, in a state of repose and tucked her in with the bedclothes. Marie gave over to Mrs. Campbell’s direction and allowed her body to rest between erratic labor pains. Smoke drifted lazily into the room curling around the carved caryatids on the four posts of the bed. Marie buried her head in the feather pillow to block the stench of burnt stew from infiltrating her nostrils.

“Marie, what’s been burning?”

“I was afraid the whole house would burn. I’d been cooking when the pains started. I came in here to lie down, just for a bit. But the pains grew worse. And I was all alone,” Marie cried.

“I’ll take care of everything,” Mrs. Campbell said patting Marie on the hand. And she went in search of the smoldering fire.

After removing the cast iron pot from the stove, Mrs. Campbell dumped its charred contents in the front yard where Mr. Campbell waited with the tarp covered wagon and a weary look. She gave a quick explanation and dispatched him to construct Henry’s coffin in the barn aside the small three-room, wooden-framed house. Mr. Campbell sawed planks of wood meant to be an addition on the home for the growing family. He sawed the timber, too green that it wept. He labored inside the suffocating heat of the barn under a high noon sun. Cold, stiff Henry was his companion.

Mrs. Campbell returned to the kitchen, filled a fresh pot with water, and put it on the stove. Then she returned to the bedroom to tend to Marie. Mrs. Campbell surveyed the room, over-furnished for such a small house. Marie had arrived in Yakima County like a haggard princess after a long journey. Mrs. Campbell had always been reserved and polite with Marie, but stood in judgment of this silly, younger woman’s pack of luxury items that served her poorly here on the outskirts of society. The bed took up most of the space in the center of the room, and dwarfed the rest of the pieces which looked plain in comparison to it. Matching bedside tables, a small ladies chair finely upholstered in pink velvet, a dresser with mirror, and a cedar hope chest seemed to gather round the bed and Marie like loyal subjects.

Marie whimpered and reached for Mrs. Campbell’s hand. “The pains are worse. They started in my back like a dull ache, but now when they come they grow sharp around me. Please, help,” Marie said. Mrs. Campbell allowed Marie to squeeze her hand and watched the woman buckle under an invisible vice-grip of pain.

“Try to focus on something else,” Mrs. Campbell said with false authority. Marie turned her head and looked to the fine details of her hand-carved oak bed. “What are you looking at?” Mrs. Campbell asked.

“My mother. That is the face of my mother on each of the carved women. My father made this bed for me, after she died.”

“It’s beautiful,” Mrs. Campbell said. And she compared the simple carvings of the headboard and footboard with the four pilasters. The four wooden women certainly displayed craftsmanship of grace and detail under the weight of the canopy.

The day faded away and the baby had not come, yet. Mr. Campbell continued constructing the coffin out back. Mrs. Campbell lit candles and kept water boiling. She took a seat on the cedar chest by the door to rest for a moment, and thought about how she had come to break the news of Henry’s death, to do her duty and comfort Marie in her time of grief, but now found herself in the role of mid-wife to a widow. At least the early birth was delaying the message of Henry’s death, she thought while chewing on the inside of her cheek, an absent-minded habit. Rising from her seat on the hope chest, she selected linens to use during the birth while she phrased and re-phrased, in her mind, how to tell Marie about Henry.

Mrs. Campbell again moved about the room. She listened to the symphony of labor: the repetitive low moans; the swish of her own skirts as she fetched the tools of birth: a knife, scissors, and a wooden spoon; the whispering song of creaking oak, a soft lullaby from a wooden tongue. The contractions gained with steadily shortened intervals.

Marie called to Mrs. Campbell, “Soon, soon.”

“Oh. No, dear. Your water hasn’t even broke yet,” said Mrs. Campbell as she bustled about the room, hummed low and pretended to busy herself with further preparations.

She deliberated what to do with Marie. It was true, the contractions were now only two minutes apart, yet Marie’s water still had not broken. Mrs. Campbell grew distressed at the thought of attending a deathbed rather than a birth. But then she was swept-away with the solace that Marie would soon be joined with Henry in heaven. Crossing herself she whispered a little prayer, thinking of the orphan babe she might be blessed with and the house Mr. Campbell would be saddled with to rent. But that was a small price for a child of her own after forty years of a fruitless marriage.

“Now, now I think it’s coming,” Marie grunted. Mrs. Campbell turned back the bedclothes and checked. There was no change.

“Not yet, but soon,” she said with a smile and continued with her charade of comfort. She settled down comfortably into the pink, velvet chair she’d placed next to the bed. She picked up the worn, leather-bound Johnston family bible from the bedside table. “How would you like me to read to you a little, dear?” She did not wait for a reply, but opened the good book and began reading from the gospel of Luke.

“And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John,” read Mrs. Campbell.

She paused and listened to the rhythmic, heavy breaths of Marie.

“For thy prayer is heard, for thy prayer is heard,” Mrs. Campbell repeated. She continued reading the passage.

“And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men,” she glanced up from the bible, and watched the twitching dance of Marie’s eyes under closed lids.

Mrs. Campbell grew tense and anxious in the chair. She rose to stretch. With the good book in hand, she paced around the bed. Her heavy cotton skirts swayed with each step as she read. Marie groaned low in the embrace of the creaking bed.

“And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost,” Mrs. Campbell came to an abrupt stop The room stiffened, and neither a breath, nor swish of skirts, nor song of labor was heard till a thick, dull pop. The water had broken. The sheets were saturated a pale green. Marie exhaled deeply. Mrs. Campbell dropped the bible, and rushed to the bed. She grabbed a wooden spoon from the pocket of her apron and put it between Marie’s dry, cracked lips.

“Bite down, Marie. Bite down hard and push,” she said as she positioned herself at the foot of the bed between Marie’s legs.

A fleshy, dark maroon protrusion with a gray sheen glistened and pulsed at the opening of the birth canal. Marie grunted and bore down. A tumultuous chant echoed inside Mrs. Campbell, “thy prayer is heard, thy prayer is heard.”

With the final push, the crimson bubble with the underlying gray luster burst forth. And the air was choked with a metallic, yet pungent smell of excrement and an open wound. Inert with bated breath, Mrs. Campbell clutched in her hands a baby in a wrinkled placenta, perfectly intact. Blood flowed from the pale, wide-eyed Marie. Mrs. Campbell regained her wits, took the carving knife and peeled away the placenta from the babe with the skill of a woman who has spent her life in the kitchen. It was as if every apple she ever peeled was in preparation for this moment. Her adroit motions concluded with the swift slice of the umbilical cord. A soft cry burbled forth. “It’s a girl,” said Mrs. Campbell. With blood stained hands, Mrs. Campbell swaddled the newborn in clumsy motions and backed away from the bed. She cradled the baby girl and mutely watched the color drain from the listless Marie. She’s turning blue, like Henry. The silence splintered with the final axe splitting whispers of Mr. Campbell’s labor. The sound was swelling, deafening inside the room, inside Mrs. Campbell. It was like an unnatural sprouting of branches, growing, reaching, and striking out to claim life. Marie gave a violent shudder, and the silken canopy slipped from the oak frame. Withered apple blossoms and rose petals that had been tucked into the folds of silk rained down upon the flagging Marie.

Mrs. Campbell laid the baby carefully upon the bed. Slowly, uneasily she moved to stop the blood flowing from Marie, twisting the linens and packing them into the wound between Marie’s legs. She worked with firm pressure to stop the flow of blood. Time seemed to stretch and lengthen. The scent of apples and roses burgeoned within the room. It was a sweet, dusty aroma. Mrs. Campbell breathed deep. She was rapt upon her bloody task, and enmity dwindled for this pale woman in her hands. This woman who had just done the one thing Mrs. Campbell never could do. She brought life to this world. She knew this was the closest she would come to experiencing birth, and a compulsion to fight for Marie’s life overcame Mrs. Campbell. She watched Marie’s face, and whispered prayers to St. Elisabeth. Gradually, Marie’s pulse grew under the fervent pressure of Mrs. Campbell’s hands. And Mrs. Campbell knew the fine linens had staunched the bleeding.

With Marie resting amid crushed petals and unchanged bedclothes, Mrs. Campbell held the babe in one arm and cleansed her with the water from the wash basin and her own tears. They were tears given freely in a ceremonious act, a kind of witness to a miracle. Mrs. Campbell knew what she must do. She sprinkled water upon the baby’s forehead, made a sign of the cross, and named her: St. Elisabeth, her own patron saint.

She took the baby to the front room, and presented St.Elisabeth to Mr. Campbell, who had been waiting in the comforting glow of the fireplace. St.Elisabeth was swaddled in fresh blankets. But not before every finger and toe had been counted and kissed, was she so protectively wrapped. Mrs. Campbell dipped the tip of her own pinky finger in heated milk to feed the babe, a makeshift suckling, and her withered nipples tingled with want of use. All grew drowsy under the heavy scent of apples and roses. It permeated their clothes, the fresh linens, and the oak table and chairs. It hung from the rafters. It soaked into the tight-fit floor beams, and clung like paper to the walls. They breathed and swallowed the perfume of apples and roses. And they slept. Mrs. Campbell slept the light, listening sleep of a new mother. She was aware of each gurgle and sigh from the baby in her arms. She was ready to attend to every want and cry. The smell of afterbirth returned to claim the shut off bedroom. The petals ceased to fall from the canopy. Marie was unconscious; her head afire with fever and her arms empty of the life she had bore. The bedroom was frigid. Only the sputtering flame of an uncovered candle stood watch in the night. The front door swung open with a bang. A hulking, bent figure filled the door frame before shuffling inside. It was Henry. Mrs. Campbell jumped up with the baby in her arms and stood behind Mr. Campbell in the fine upholstered chair. Mr. Campbell, never rising from his chair, said “Well, hello there, Henry.” Mrs. Campbell stared at the shivering, wet man. A scream lodged deep inside her. “What happened?” Henry said. “You bumped your head,” Mr. Campbell replied. Mrs. Campbell looked into his face. She knew he kept his answer short, for he had no answer as to how this man was standing before them; speaking to them. She’d been married to Mr. Campbell long enough to know it was shock that gave him a false appearance of calm. He slowly rose from the chair and put his arm round her trembling shoulders.

Henry was wet. His clothes clung to his stiff body. He moved with difficulty. He shuffled his large mud-caked boots forward across the wooden floor. Mrs. Campbell made a sign of the cross over her and the baby, while she backed away from the fire towards the kitchen and backdoor. Mr. Campbell stepped forward and guided Henry into the chair he recently vacated. He then stoked the fire into a blaze. Henry sat still staring into the fire. Mr. Campbell asked with a tremor in his voice, “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Henry didn’t reply. It was the first time in her life, Mrs. Campbell saw Mr. Campbell in an uncomfortable silence. Mr. Campbell presented a mug of coffee to Henry, who continued to stare into the fire. He pressed the steaming mug into Henry’s hands; slow to pull his own hands away. Mr. Campbell sat down across from Henry.

Deep shadows were cast upon the pearl-blue sheen of Henry’s face from the flames that flickered and jumped under the prodding of the iron poker. Mr. Campbell looked askance at Henry as he absentmindedly poked at the blazing logs. Mrs. Campbell stood at the doorway of the kitchen clutching the baby. Henry reminded her of a snowman in reverse; he seemed to be melting into life. He had already lost his stiff stature, and sat stooped with his head bent over the mug of coffee. His thin lips sipped continually at the mug. Slowly, a tint of pink infused his mouth and cheeks. Despite the coffee, Henry’s lids grew heavy. His wide-set brown eyes no longer seemed to bulge, but recessed more naturally in his face. Henry drifted into a soft slumber, his hands still holding firm to the mug. Mrs. Campbell slipped into the bedroom.

The smell of blood was overpowering. I need to clean this, no man can see this. Mrs. Campbell stuffed an apple harvest basket with a clean blanket and put St. Elisabeth inside. She then began stripping the bed of the stained linens, careful to move Marie gently from one side of the bed to the other. She piled the soiled linens on the floor, and then she began to strip Marie of her clothes and bandages. She wiped off the clammy Marie with the now chilled water from the pot and dressed her in a clean cotton gown with a lace yoke, Marie remained unconscious. Mrs. Campbell then redressed the bed, added a thick quilt, and tied up the bundle of soiled clothing and linens. She stood on the threshold to the front room and called to Mr. Campbell.

“These need to be burned. They’re foul,” she said.

“Where do you want me to burn them?”

“Make a fire out by the barn. We don’t want the smell over here.”

Mr. Campbell glanced back at Henry. “I don’t want to leave you in here with him.”

“Well, take him with you. It’ll be a bigger fire. It will probably do him good.”

Mrs. Campbell closed the door and listened. She held perfectly still till she heard them both step out the front door. Then she opened the door and breathed a sigh of relief. She had tried to hold her breath while cleaning Marie and stripping the bed. But she had to keep stopping and breathing into the skirt of her apron, which she lifted to her face. The room needed to be aired. It wasn’t good for anyone, especially the baby. Marie left the bedroom door open. She opened windows. St.Elisabeth began to stir. Mrs. Campbell felt pressure, fullness in her chest. She needed to get her and the baby out into the fresh morning air. Mrs. Campbell stepped out the back door of the kitchen with the baby in the basket on her arm. The Sun was beginning to light the orchard. She walked down a row of trees and rejoiced in the clean, sweet smell of apples. The baby was waking. Mrs. Campbell kept walking. When she looked back, she couldn’t see the house anymore. There were trees in every direction. Suddenly, the pressure came back in her chest. She had to set the basket down at her feet. She was forced to take shallow breaths. I’ve walked too far. Mr. Campbell would never hear me. Again a full, binding feeling surged inside her. She sat down under the boughs of the apple trees. St.Elisabeth cried. “Please, baby, please, don’t cry,” Mrs. Campbell pleaded, her nipples tingled. The orchard was filled with a hunger. She could feel it. Mrs. Campbell ripped open the front of her dress to release the pressure. She massaged at her heart, afraid, and the pressure increased. She looked over her shoulder, and brought the hungry babe to her breast. Just to feel. Just to know for a moment what it was to be a mother. Past her days of childbearing, Mrs. Campbell nursed another woman’s baby and was released.


Leah Holbrook Sackett. is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, her alma mater where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, She had two short stories published. Her story “A Point of Departure” was published with Connotation Press, and “Somebody Else in Kentucky” was published in Blacktop Passages this past summer. Both publications  can be found online. Finally, in her free time she likes to take on paying work in the form of freelance copy and proposal writing.


 

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