She stroked the little one's head and pressed the tiny body hard against her hot breast. The milk had dried to small curds like pebbles in the creek out back of the house. The lumps, if they could pass, would tear right through her nipples. Tears ran from her eyes and splashed against the baby's whitened face. She heard a mew of protest from the little blanched lips. It should have been an indignant bellow. “Sarah Jane,” Elizabeth cried out. The little girl slipped from her place by the stove and stood over her mother, stocking doll held tightly to her puny chest. “Sarah,” Elizabeth gasped with shortened breaths, unable to smile at her beautiful child. “Run out to the barn and bring along the smallest pail of milk you can find. Hurry fast now.” Sarah Jane turned and ran, printed flour sack dress grabbing at her ankles, cracked leather boots striking the wooden floor making it creak and groan in that sad, old-time rhythm. “Here's the milk, Mama,” Sarah Jane said, jolting Elizabeth out of her stupor. Glancing at the baby nestled to her breast, she watched it breathe--rapid, fitful, grabbing at life with little limbs. “Put the pail here, child, next to the pallet. Closer now,” Elizabeth instructed as the youngster struggled with the weight of a bucket almost half her size, “so I can reach it.” A goodly portion of the milk had been lost on the way from the barn, but Elizabeth only bit her blistered lip. Never mind, she told herself as the black weakness overtook her again with a dizziness that made the room spin wildly out of control. “Now, child, go to the cabinet, in the corner there, and get out one of those clean rags, the cleanest now--take one from the middle of the stack,” this all given in broken breaths. Sarah moved with the awkwardness of a child shod in shoes purchased to last two winters. “That's a good girl,” Elizabeth whispered, holding back the bile that sat at the back of her throat. Losing the battle to press it down, she wretched in the pail positioned close to her head on the floor by the pallet. Weakened, she fell back on to the old blanket folded for a pillow. Abraham just wouldn't countenance the fine feather pillows used on the floor.
Moments passed before she could grasp the rag Sarah Jane laid on her stomach. Wrenching to her side, she dropped the rag in the milk and looked away as it soaked up the watery liquid. Saturated now, she wrung out the excess and pressed the moist cloth against the baby's listless mouth. Drop by little drop she aimed the milk at the tiny, flaccid lips. The baby mewed again and Elizabeth caught a sob deep down in her fiery throat, before it could rise as a groan. In desperation she squeezed the baby's mouth into a small bow and pressed the milk onto its fissured tongue. It ran out of the corners and rested in the delicate folds of flesh that circled the baby's neck. Pulling the little one closer, she tried to pass life through the heat of her burning body into the child's cold flesh. The stupor enveloped her again and she fell back on the blankets welcoming an escape from pain.
She awakened with a start. The griping was gone from deep in her belly. All was strangely calm for the first time in days. She didn't dare wish not to be shamed, crawling along the floor, inch by inch, hoping to make it to the porch, begging the Almighty to let her reach it before the violence blasted from her, leaving her fouled and humiliated, unable to get to the outhouse. Instinctively she stroked the baby's furry little head, cold now against her fevered hand. “It's the heat. It never leaves me; the baby always feels like ice to my hot touch. That's not new. That's how it's been for days now.” She whispered this to herself, not wanting the Almighty to hear. If He knew the child lived... well, He mustn't be allowed to find out. She heard Sarah Jane's little girl song as she crooned to her rag doll--somewhere south of the house. The slant of the afternoon sun broke into blades of light as it struck the far end of her pallet on the floor in front of the stove. “I will rise,” she told her body as though commanding a belligerent child. “We will stand up now and put the baby in the cradle and make the noonday meal. We can do this, you and I,” she ordered her wobbly limbs. Another surge of bile pushed at the back of her throat but this time she willed it down and won. She didn't look at the baby as she pressed the limp body close to her breast and half crawled, half scooted to the cradle placed at the foot of her makeshift bed. She lay the little one safe inside and rocked the cradle to hush the silent child. The softness of her broken lullaby eased the pain in her heart as she pushed herself to her knees.
Faltering only once before locking her legs in place with the force of her will, she leaned heavily against the chair next to the stove. The fire had burned low and Abraham would have to stoke it up when he got in, though he wouldn't like it. “The home's your job, Lizzie, not mine,” he always reminded her. But there's surely enough flame to heat the stew and the biscuits left from breakfast. She stood stiff, sure her bowels would fall out in bloody piles on the pallet at her feet. But she wouldn't look, just in case they had for if it was true she didn't have the strength to scoop them up. She bent sharply at the waist as she worked slowly over the stove hoping to spare the energy it took to breathe. She hadn't the strength to yell for Sarah Jane to come lay the table. Abraham will just have to do it, like it or not. She heard him before she saw him, the clomp of his booted feet rocked the floorboards with a demanding cadence. “Elizabeth,” he yelled as he shoved the door open. He always started yelling before he looked. Straightening her back, she tried to stand taller to face him; it was never a good idea to be weak in front of Abraham. The man always smelled like hot iron smelting his filings deep into lacerated flesh. From the day she first met him she was convinced he pulled metal right out of the earth with his bare hands to create those horse shoes he molded and the heavy pots he sold on his preachin' trips. “Elizabeth,” he roared against her stiffened back. She turned in time to see him place the cradle under his bulky arm. “No,” she gasped with the heat of her fevered breath, reaching for the babe that was now out of sight, hidden in the shadow of Abraham's arm. “The little one's gone, you gotta face it now! Been gone a goodly time now, too.” He shouted at her in exasperation.
“Leave him, Abraham. You can't take this one to your vengeful God! I won't let you!”
“Enough! You won't blaspheme the Lord in this house, not in my house, woman!” He bellowed so loud, the crockery rattled on the dusty shelves mounted on the kitchen walls. Elizabeth reached for the baby again as Abraham twisted the cradle from her view. “Your second son now rests in your graveyard west of the house.” She heard the accusation in the stomp of his boots against the rough slats of the porch. It was the one concession he would give her in all this loss.
“Place the graveyard on the west-side, Abraham, please.” He didn't even scold and demand penance for her selfish request as she thought he might. Now her bedroom window would look out on the headstones of two instead of one.
Before she got the fever, she'd awaken during the night and stand gazing out on the baby's little grave; the first she had lost. Then Abraham would grab for her and she lamented that her movements had awakened him in the night. Sarah Jane tripped along behind her giant father returning from the burial, barely noticed by him, as he stomped back into the house. Sensing the gloom through the inner wisdom of the child, Sarah Jane never smiled but held her doll close to her breast and whispered the secret, soothing words Mama had taught her, words that breathed life into lifeless things. “It's God's will!” Abraham pronounced to his wife's taut back. “Do you hear me woman? God's will!” I won't answer you she yelled out to him inside her mind. I won't look at you with your hair all on fire and your face ablaze with the righteousness of your self-ordained words. They stood like that--the big man and the thin woman, still pounding with the fever in her veins. “Take me, too,” she whispered, then glanced at Sarah Jane, begging the child's forgiveness with her mind. Abraham crossed the wooden floor in one stride, rolled the pallet from in front of the stove with a kick of his booted foot and picked his frail wife up in his muscular arms. Holding her like a wounded child, she sobbed against his rough shirt. “There, there Lizzie girl. Don't sob so. You can't afford the run-off, girl. We have our little Sarah Jane--you see her there. And the fever's gonna leave your body but you gotta help the Lord. He can't do it all you know!” Your Lord takes from me, he doesn't give, she thought bitterly as her shuddering subsided more from weakness than from spent emotion. “Why, I'll sit you down in this chair and serve you myself today. Indeed I will. How'll that be?”
“Sarah Jane,” he bellowed noisily, “come sit by your Mother now. She longs to see the life in you child.” Sarah dragged her stool close to her mother's legs and perched herself on it while Elizabeth leaned back weakly and stroked the little girl's thick, black curls. Elizabeth rested her hand possessively on her only living child's back and watched the big man fumble with bowls and spoons. His God had even taken that from her, the love she'd once held for him. “You eat now, Lizzie,” he said as he scooted a bowl of stew filled to the brim in front of her. Scowling at the hard darkness of the twice-warmed biscuits, he dropped two into her stew bowl and began to eat with both his hands from what he'd served up for himself. Abraham never talked when he ate and it was just as well; she could no longer stand to look at him anyway.
Even when she wasn't sick, the nausea would edge its way up to her throat if she even glanced his way: stuffing and spewing his food in noisy gulps and satisfied grunts. “We still got some of that peach pie you made last week?” He spat as pieces of biscuit flew in her face. He gulped down half a mug of coffee as he reached for the pie tin she had nodded at. Popping the lid, he grabbed the last piece with one giant paw and stuffed most of it in his mouth at once. “Typhoid's hit the Parker house, too, I heard. Shod Jeb Donovan's horse for him this mornin' and he said the Parkers all got it, too.” He never took his eyes off Elizabeth, watching her for some tell-tale sign. “Course them Parkers are drinkin' folks, so don't surprise me none.” Abraham leaned back in his chair and rolled his bright blue eyes to the ceiling. Elizabeth knew what was coming next and she tensed her weakened body as stiff as she could. “You been havin' men in this house, Lizzie, while I'm off workin' at the shed? Thad it, Lizzie?” Without looking at him she knew his eyes bulged now and red was creeping across the bridge of his nose like a brush fire.
“Abraham, please!” she whispered, “not now--not in front of the child.”
“Somethin's caused it woman--somethin' you've done for sure.” Pushing the wooden chair back with a hard thud against the wall, the big man rose quickly, despite the bulk of his body. He stood over Elizabeth and scowled, clinching his fists at her refusal to confess. “Gotta go,” he said colder than he'd ever been. “Sarah Jane, help your Mama get things cleaned up.” The door closed with a short, hard bang while the few tears Elizabeth had left ran in trickles down her dry face. The anger inside gave way to a grief that collapsed her in hollow sobs on the table's edge. Spent, she dropped to the floor and crawled to her pallet. The last words she remembered saying were to Sarah Jane:
“Take your stool to the wash basin now and clean up those bowls like Mama showed you how to do.”
* * *
Elizabeth wakened with a start. The kitchen was filled with the smell of ginger tea steeping on the stove top. She inhaled deeply, hoping the fumes would heal her poisoned body without her taking a sip. Her eyes flew open. Who's making the ginger tea? Not Abraham. Not Sarah Jane. Her anxious gaze fell on Sarah Jane first, standing by her pallet, thin little hand gripping a fat molasses cookie, sweet face looking scrubbed clean and smelling of oatmeal soap. Sarah Jane said nothing but lifted a tiny finger and pointed as she looked into her mother's eyes. Elizabeth turned and shrank back on her rumpled blankets. “Who... who are you?” She asked with words coming out in clumps like caleche, the black mud that soaked the lawn and turned to iron when you stepped in it. She glanced quickly at Sarah Jane to check that she was really all right and give her a warning look: When I signal with my eyelids, you turn and run as fast as you can like Mama taught you. But Sarah Jane just smiled and chomped on her cookie. The old woman peered down at her from her perch on Sarah Jane's stool.
“Nothin' to fear frum me, gentle child. You've more to worry about with the one thad put you here!” She tsked and scowled deeply. “Puttin' you on this pallet and you sick as a dog. What kind of man is thad, I ask you now?”
“Man of God,” Elizabeth whispered.
“No God I ever met would let this pass without slippin' it on the retribution ring, thad's for sure.”
“Retribu... retribution ring?”
“Never mind thad now. We'll talk some more 'bout all them things later. I needs to get this tea into you quick-like now an' heal them inflamed bowels of yerns.”
“Who sent you?” Elizabeth asked, still not believing this whole thing was real. “If I touch you, you'll disappear.” The old woman smiled and her mutable face moved in the shadows of the late afternoon light. Elizabeth knew she should be terrified by this strange visitor but a peaceful calm pervaded, not just in her body but in the whole room.
“Why sick child, who else but your own Mama?”
“My Mother? But, but... she's been dead--almost two years now.”
“And you think the dead don't talk, is thad it?” The old woman cackled and her face glowed. She stood, sliding the teapot off the stove. Why, she looks like she's just twenty, Elizabeth thought, too weak again to ask another question.
“Now gentle child, I'm gonna spoon this past those blistered lips of yerns--then I'll salve them up for ya. This tea'll sting some now but don't ya be scart none. It's a good burn, not a bad 'un.” Elizabeth examined the old woman as she knelt close to her now, bowl filled to the brim with the tea, ladling it into her parched mouth with the tenacity of a terrified mother. Why, she must be near seventy, Elizabeth thought, with that old face lying in thick folds and deep valleys, squinting her eyes at the spoon and Elizabeth's mouth. The crevices around the old woman's lips deepened as she whispered a string of words Elizabeth couldn't place. How could I have thought she was twenty? Silly with this sickness, I guess. A chuckle rumbled in her throat, finally escaping her lips between the spoonings. My Heavens above, what's in that tea? She hadn't laughed for months and her body felt light as a feather. Gone was the dead weight that dragged her down and made her wish the earth would open up and swallow her in one fast gulp. Death would be a blessed relief and she didn't give a-tinkers-damn about what that heartless God of Abraham's thought. “I see by the smile curling your lips, gentle child, thad it's workin' as it should. Now, don't be scart none, you'll sleep again shortly and when you waken, we'll get you washed up.”
Elizabeth dreamed that she stepped out of her body and passed right through a fluffy cloud all gilded with gold and pink around its stiffly whipped layers. On the other side was the old woman's face shining like the noon day sun. “Now you cain't go no further,” she said, “but you call your Mama from here and she'll cum, you'll see.” Elizabeth opened her mouth but the words wouldn't come. Panicked, she looked at the old woman. “Don't fret none now--you just call 'er in your mind. Thad's how it's done over here. No need for speakin'.” At the thought, her mother said: “Lizzie, my sweet little Lizzie. What's been done to you baby girl?”
“I'm all right, Mama, don't worry none now.”
“You're thin as a rail and as sad lookin' as a twice-rode sway back horse.”
“I wanna come with you, Mama,” Elizabeth cried out, sounding like a ten-year-old.
“Not now, child. There's Sarah Jane, and, well, what you've begun, you must finish.”
“Come, gentle child, come on back now,” the old woman said, as though she saw her dream. Elizabeth opened her eyes and smiled at the wizened woman kneeling next to her. “The tub's filled with warm water and rosemary and it's time for that bath now.” Rising more easily than she had in weeks, with only a little of the old woman's help, she walked to the tub sitting out under the shadow of the back porch. “While you soak some, I'm gonna bring you the tonic; looks like yer ready for thad now.” Elizabeth sipped at the concoction with its strange layers of tastes: first apple, then lemon and finally herbs that she couldn't describe. But each sip shot a tingling sensation through her body and right down her spine. Watching the sun drop in quick dips behind the trees, Elizabeth called out for the old woman. Strange that she thought she couldn't leave the tub without her permission. Who was this woman? Splashing the warm water in cascades over her lumpy breasts, she dared to ask:
“What's your name, I mean, what should I call you?” She remembered the stories her mama had told her when she was just a child. “Don't ask the spirits to give their names lessen you wanna drive 'em away.”
“Why, I guess you can call me Belle, child. Thad's what most folks has called me.” Elizabeth felt the old panic rise in her chest:
“I need to get dressed--it's almost time for Abraham to be home, and where's Sarah Jane?”
“Don't fret none, child. Save your strength. Herd tell that man of yours got called out on a preachin' trip. And Sarah Jane, well, she's been fed and is sleepin' soundly in that little bed of hers. Plum tuckered out that child was--worryin' about her Mama.” Tears sprang to Elizabeth's eyes.
“I... I didn't do this! I didn't want it!”
“Now you listen to old Belle...” Old Belle, Elizabeth thought. In the soft evening light Belle looked even younger than before. Face all aglow and plumped-up full with what Elizabeth called pure glory. She'd seen it many times on those faces stricken by it in church. She could always tell the fakes from the real lovers of Christ; the ones who really loved Him had a face fairly filled with God's glory. “You listen to old Belle now. You ain't done nothin' wrong to get this sickness. It's just the way of the world.”
“Now, we's all knows about thad Abraham--you cain't tell us a thing we's don't know about him.”
“We...” Elizabeth asked looking past the old woman for the rest.
“Don't you fret none now--we's all knows.” Belle held the towel freshly heated from the oven while Elizabeth stepped out on the newly scrubbed porch. “Now, then, the bed's all turned down and I have the sleeping tea ready for you.” Pulling the freshly laundered gown over her head, Elizabeth crawled in between the sheets smelling musky and warm like wood betony from out back. Before she finished the tea, valerian root tea, Belle had said with a satisfied nod, Elizabeth was stepping through the gilded clouds.
* * *
The chatter of the voices got louder and some were even laced with rising anger. Elizabeth awakened with a jolt as though her body had said: “That's enough! You've had enough!” Trying to shake off the other realm, she focused her eyes on a large blur near the edge of her bed. She pushed herself up to look more closely and felt something moist and warm fall off one breast. She slipped her hand in the opening between the buttons of her nightgown and pulled out a cabbage leaf. Cabbage leaves on my breasts, she thought, pulling the other one out. She felt her breasts and found the lumps were all gone and some of the suppleness was returning to them. And they no longer ached and throbbed as they had constantly since the baby was born. The blur was Sarah Jane--smiling from her perch on her little stool and patting the porcelain head of a shiny new doll. “Where'd you get that?” Elizabeth asked the beaming child.
“Nanna Belle gave it to me--said it was mine all along.”
“Nanna Belle?” Elizabeth asked.
“Nanna Belle said that was a good enough way to call her, Mama. She's nice to me, Mama.”
“Sarah Jane... is she... does she look old to you?”
“Sometimes, and sometimes she shines Mama. She looks real pretty then.” This all said with the willing acceptance of a child. All the world's a wonder to them, Elizabeth thought, so the strangeness of this woman wasn't strange at all. Elizabeth sighed. To see the world again through those enchanted eyes--what a joy it would be. Belle walked in as straight as a young spruce.
“New cross-overs,” she said matter-of-factly looking at the child. “They haven't been here long enough to believe the lies. Now hand me them leaves there off-a yer chest. Gotta bury them out back by that long-legged pine. It's sure to take them poisons up and blow 'em into heavenly breath.” Elizabeth smiled, comforted by the convictions of this old woman.
“Can I keep the doll, Mama?” Sarah Jane asked as Belle moved swiftly out of the house.
“Of course you can, baby girl. But...” she hesitated for the right way to say it. She didn't want the child to carry the burden of meanness that Abraham harbored. She wouldn't let that hate pass from him to her. “But,” she continued, “we'll have to plan special times for you to play with her, because she's such an uncommon doll, now isn't she? And we'll even find a safe and secret place for her to sleep, too, when you can't play with her.” Sarah Jane smiled and the dimples deepened under her cheekbones and at the edges of her now rosy lips. Why hadn't I noticed her waning, Elizabeth accused herself harshly. The child was just withering and I didn't see it. What kind of mother are you, she asked herself, and felt the whip of guilt on her heart. Belle stood back at her bedside and examined Elizabeth, her face now quiet in the morning light. Sometimes that woman moved as stealthily as a cat and at others she strode like bolts of lightning hitting hard dirt. This time she was a cat who'd crept quietly to Elizabeth's side.
“What did they say to you?” Belle asked.
“Who?” Elizabeth said quickly just before her mind was flooded with the memory of the chattering voices. “Belle, I don't know. I mean, I remember that they announced all at once that they were The Hosts, almost sang it, but I couldn't make out their words--or if I did I don't remember.” The old woman nodded with a sharp jerk to her head as though Elizabeth had answered true and she was satisfied.
“You've met them then. And gentle child, you do knows what they said--it's all just hidden way down deep inside and takin' roots in your mind like brand new seeds. It'll sprout soon.” Elizabeth was about to ask how when Belle said abruptly: “Let's get you dressed now. We'll bind those breasts up to ease the ache when you stand. It's time to start the learnin' now and you need to get those limbs a-movin'. Not safe to let the sap lie still like that for long.” Elizabeth sat on Sarah Jane's stool drinking the first cup of chicory coffee she'd been able to swallow for more than a month. Sarah Jane played contentedly with her new doll, rubbing its furry head though made hard from molded china. Elizabeth glanced at the checkered cloth Sarah Jane sat on. It wasn't one of her own but it did look familiar, though she couldn't place it. She was about to ask Belle about it when the old woman announced: “Now, gentle child, listen carefully cause I'm not given to writin' it down. This here's wood betony--you knows it, don't you, child?” “Yes, I smelled it in my bed the other night. Where'd you put it?” “Under yer pillaw--keeps the bad dreams away, chases off despair. Use it for those who've been sick for a time--like yerself. Opens up clogged places--like the heart.” Elizabeth looked more closely at the little woman as she ran through the names and uses of the herbs she held in her hand: “White willow bark--for pain; devils bones--good for belly cramps but most of all it stops them babies from bein' made.” Their eyes met and Belle seemed to know what she was thinking. “Now then, thad's enough for today. Let's take these here in and we'll make you up some soup with carrots and onions and maybe a fat potato, too!”
Elizabeth had lost track of the days but felt sure that Abraham would be coming home soon. Maybe he'll never come back, she thought, then shamed herself. Belle stood at her side as though she'd been eavesdropping on Elizabeth's thoughts. “It's time, gentle child. He's on his way. You knows it, too. Does you go or stay?”
“But where... where would we go? Sarah Jane and I?” The old woman smiled as though that was a senseless worry.
“Well now, I reckon your Mama sent me--so you belong with us.” Belle let that settle for a moment. “My donkey's tethered up out there in them woods and my shanty's a fur piece from here. Impossible to find back in those blue ridges lessin' you know where yer goin'. You'd be safe there, with me.”
“He'd track me down for sure,” Elizabeth said, shuddering with the fears she'd denied for years, about that possessive man. “His pride couldn't take what the town folk would say--run off with some travelin' man, they'd say.” Old Belle laughed and her face glowed eighteen again.
“He couldn't find you lessen you wanted to be found. That's how it works, gentle child. You have to give your power away--cain't be taken.”
“You said you all knew Abraham. What'd you mean, Belle? It's a puzzle to me.”
“Why child, why do you think all those male babies died in your arms? You think it 'twas you sucked the life right outta them?” Belle waited, her mutable face still for now.
“It was my milk... and the fever.”
“No child. It was that fire breathin' man. Stole the life from you and the little ones--with all that vengeance.” Elizabeth shuddered and looked at Belle with disbelief. “Look at your Sarah Jane now. Hear her croon? See the rosy color on her cheeks? Why do ya suppose the life's come back to her?”
“She didn't die,” Elizabeth said, surprised at her defense of the man she'd come to hate.
“She couldn't child--she had to save you. She knews her mission.”
“But Abraham is a man of God--isn't he, Belle? He speaks the Word.”
“He uses the Word like a knife; I reckon the Hosts in Heaven would have somethin' to say about thad.”
“What? What would they say?”
“Why gentle child, you've been invited. Invited into the heavenly realm while still walkin' about in this one. You don't get that gift by vengeance.”
“Do I have to die, Belle, to cross over?”
“Why no--the two of you are one now. You've crossed back from the gilded clouds, don't you see? You brought the heavens on back with you, child. You surely have. The Hosts are with you now.”
* * *
Elizabeth stood in the doorway looking at the pallet freshly rolled out in front of the stove. Sarah Jane's plump little hand nestled contentedly in her mother's palm. A strong vibration that Elizabeth had never felt before passed between the two of them. She looked at the little one to be sure it wasn't paining her. Sarah Jane beamed back up at her mother, blue eyes flashing gold from their centers. “Now you can finish me, Mama, in the way I've begun.” Elizabeth smiled back: “Thank you Mama,” she whispered as they followed Belle out the door.
Bio: Dr. Judith Sutherland has a Ph.D. in Research from the University of Texas at Austin and is a counselor who works with abused and troubled women. A professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Texas, Dr. Sutherland is the author of the historical novel, Mary Magdalene Disciple of Christ.