I’m trapped in a world of powdered sugar, gingerbread and icing today while my 4 year old and I make Christmas cookies, but I wanted to post a piece of my work in progress for review and a good beating in time for Monday Blogs. This chapter of my story is rough, many revisions and fact checks will be needed, but thank God for good friends who have already made some suggestions that have improved it in it’s third draft. Below, you will find it in its second.
As always, I’m honored that any of you spend your time reading my stories. It means more than you can imagine.
It was cold that morning. Before we’d left the house mama bundled me in my coat and an old wool hat that belonged to daddy. “It’s freezing out this morning Clara.” She said the words not looking at me. Too concerned with my baby brother Benny’s crying, she looked over my head at the basket he laid in. When I turned I could hardly move from the weight and bulk of all the clothes. I saw Benny’s hands and feet waving above the sides of the big bassinet sitting on the kitchen table and I looked at mama and my stomach flopped. She was singing Sweet Afton, to the baby, but her voice shook as they brought the notes forth into the early morning and our cold little house. Mama moved from one side of the room to the other without looking at either the baby or me and I stood still waiting for her to tell me what to do. I thought she was looking for something the way she paced from the stove to her and daddy’s room. She came out with nothing she hadn’t gone in with, her hair loose around her waist. I held one of her socks and she wore the other. When I asked what she was looking for she stopped singing, took the sock from my mittened hands and smiled down at me. “I’m sorry for runnin’ Clara” she apologized, putting the sock and her boots on standing, looking from me to the now sleeping baby. “We’ve got t’ get to Aunt Holly’s house.”
Holly was Mama’s youngest sister and with three older before them dead giving birth to their first babies, and Holly ready to have hers, she could hardly be consoled. Mama who had two of us without much trouble, was terrified for her last living sister, but tried not to let it show. She told Holly that she’d be alright and there wasn’t anything to having a baby but pushing and holding on. Mama made me leave the room whenever talk of babies started, since I was only 5, but I heard them talking on the walk home from church one Sunday when they thought I was lagging behind.
Holly’s husband, my Uncle John, and Daddy had gone into town and got caught in a snowstorm that no one saw coming. As the hours went by it only got worse and all night Mama stayed awake worrying about Holly alone on the farm except for Martha, a neighbor girl that knew nothing more about bringing babies into the world than she did about making them, and who was only there to help with housework until the baby came.
Mama paced the floor of our small house in her thick wool stockings, biting her nails and twisting the ends of her hair the way she always did when she was thinking. If it weren’t for us, she would have saddled one of the horses and ridden the 3 miles over to her sister’s farm, but Benny was sick with the croup and I was only a little girl so she resolved to wait until morning and hope that the blizzard passed. Just before the sun rose, its light hidden by grey clouds, there was a banging on the door that woke me in my bed. At first it sounded like nothing but the wind that had been hammering the thin walls of our house and waking me every few hours throughout the night. When Mama opened the door it was Martha, screaming and crying. She said she’d fallen off of Holly’s mare on the way over and had to walk more than a mile not knowing where she was going. She was hysterical and near frozen. When Mama got her settled down enough to talk, Martha said that Holly was getting ready to have her baby, and had been in pain throughout the night. “There’s blood!” Martha cried into her arms folded on the kitchen table. I saw Mama’s face and never again saw it empty of color so quickly. She sent me to my room to get dressed in the 2 warmest dresses I could find and told me to triple up on my stockings. I nodded and walked away listening to her trying to calm the hysterical girl enough to agree to watch Benny and I. I stopped at the doorway and looked at Mama with one of her hands braced on the table top and the other holding her head. Her eyes were closed, but her lips moved enough for me to know that she was praying. “Hurry, Clara.” She said, opening her eyes. “Hurry.”
Martha laid her head down on the table and sobbed in soft quick spurts in between long quiet stretches as Mama fed me a bowl of grits full to the rim, and made me drink two glasses of milk, asking me to try and drink a little faster while she changed the baby, putting warm layers on him then wrapping me up in my own.
“With this weather so bad, it’ll feel we’re goin’ a long ways sugar.” She rubbed Martha’s back for a moment as she passed her by.
Mama never spoke to me like I was a little girl, except for adding Sugar to the end of what she said and I nodded like she was asking my permission even though I knew she wasn’t.
She wrapped Benny in one last blanket and tied him to her chest with a long piece of fabric, draping it behind her back and bringing it forward again until the little boy was hugged tight to her dress, his face against the warmth of her breast. While Mama made sure Benny wasn’t so tight that he couldn’t breathe, she told Martha to get up and go lay in my bed while we were gone. Martha listened to her without speaking and Mama shook her head as the girl walked away then turned to me and pulled my hat down over my ears, covering my eyes..
“Mama, I can’t see.”
She laughed and pulled the hat up an inch higher, “Alright sugar, but just until we get you on the horse. It’s cold out there.” She looked at the front door fighting to open and close, then again at me.
Later, Daddy would be furious knowing she took us out but would say that he knew, sitting at the hotel in town, while wind so fierce you could see it beat the windows, that Mama wouldn’t let her sister sit alone and have a baby. Mama said she knew before Martha came running that storms called babies out of their mothers and that her sister would be enduring the great struggle alone or with her, and that no woman should have to give birth alone.
Mama put on her coat so that it’s back was to her front, covering Benny and her back lay exposed to the elements. I told her she should get daddy’s old coat, but the scarf she’d wrapped around my neck muffled the words and there was no time before she opened the door and it swung hard out of her hand and against the wall. “Stay close!” She yelled to me.
When we stood on the porch looking down the steps I could only see the first two. The world before us looked white, as if there was nothing beyond the void. Mama shut the door behind us, held my hand in her own and squeezed it tight then kneeled and brought her face to my own. Above the scarf wrapped around her mouth and nose I saw her eyes crinkle in the familiar sign of her smile. She held my hand all the way to the barn that was only a few hundred yards off, but felt like much more. I didn’t see it at all until Mama’s hand was on the handle. We waddled slow, me because of the snow and the weight of my layers and her because of Benny all wrapped warm and tight on her chest. Mama closed the barn door behind us and for a moment the storm subsided.
“Wow!” I heard her say from under her scarf. I was scared and wanted Daddy to be there. A storm this awful wouldn’t be allowed to hurt us if he weren’t gone. I looked for him, knowing he wasn’t there while Mama saddled Chester, Daddy’s favorite working horse.
“We are gonna’ have us an adventure!” Mama said, bringing the horse out of its stall. I couldn’t bring my arm up to pet his neck and for some reason, that made me want to cry. Mama knelt down, trying to keep herself steady with her front being so much heavier than it normally was. She looked me in the eyes, pulled her scarf down a little and with her gloved hand rubbed what cheek was visible below my eye. “I know it’s scary darlin’, but everything is gonna’ be alright’.” I nodded and she nodded back then stood, kissed my head and holding my hand lead the horse out of the stall, into the storm, closing the doors of safety behind us. Normally when Daddy closed the barn door I ran away and covered my ears from the crash, but standing beside it that morning I heard nothing but screaming wind.
I’m not sure how she did it, with Benny taking up all her front and making her movements so awkward and the snow pushing against her uncovered back, stinging her face, but she got me up on the horse in one swift motion, and herself and Benny right after. I heard Benny snoring, his sweet soft snorts made quieter by the jacket and blankets. When Mama turned me to face her, so I sat backwards on Chester, she pressed me to her front and grabbed the reigns and I felt Benny wiggle then settle down and not move again for most of the journey to Aunt Holly’s.
My eyes were closed all three miles there and in the hours that it took us to make the trip it became more of an effort. Mama sang songs that I only heard through the vibrations of her voice with my cheek pressed against Benny whose soft face was burrowed into her. I could feel the soft rises and falls of his breath and often Mama’s hand would leave one of the reigns and pat my back for a few minutes before taking them up again.
Mama had grown up in Giles and knew the roads between the farm she grew up on and the one she now lived better than anyone in the world. Our farm was where Daddy grew up and the two of them spent their childhood wearing down the back wood paths from one farm to the other. Riding in the woods during a blizzard was dangerous, even a Tennessee farm girl who had never lived through any blizzards knew that. But Mama could walk through the back woods blindfolded, she often reminded Daddy who told her he didn’t like her using that way after dark. But that was the way we went that morning. Chester walked slow but the hard snowfall didn’t fell him and when Mama pointed him in the direction of the woods, he followed the command much easier than the riding horses would have, though he wasn’t used to being ridden by a woman and a child. He knew Mama, so he went.
By 5 I knew the path between the farms well too, and when Mama stopped singing and I felt Chester slow, and Mama’s hand steady against my back, I knew we were almost at Aunt Holly and Uncle John’s, and that we were going down the small slope that lead to a wooden bridge over a creek.
The storm seemed to calm then, and I could hear every movement in the frozen forest around us. Chester whined as Mama spurred him on and I heard her breath catch in her throat when he slipped then a soft curse after he steadied himself. There were no other noises but Chester and Mama’s heavy breathing, the slow clack of hooves on slick wood and trees fighting against the frost. In our path, as Chester made his way across the bridge and I heard his hooves hit dirt, something loud snapped and the horse jumped. It sounded like Daddy’s gun going off and I held tighter to Benny and Mama. She patted my back and I heard her tell me, “It’s just a branch honey.” But there in sight of her old home through the woods, Mama got off Chester’s back and told me to stay put. I opened my eyes and watched Mama as she guided the scared beast around a huge tree limb. Her hands shook when she pulled at Chester’s reins. My face, now subjected to the storm began to ache as it hadn’t when pressed against Mama and Benny. Those last few hundred yards might have been 3 more miles and by the time Mama pulled me off Chester and carried me inside Benny had woken up and was wailing against Mama’s chest as I was against her shoulder.
Holding us both to her, she pushed against Aunt Holly’s unlocked door, closed it behind her and for the first time since leaving home shut out the cold and snow and wind.
Mama took my top two layers off, kissed my cheeks and told me to sit by the fire. It was then, when my skin remembered what heat felt like, that I realized how cold I was. Mama’s lips were so cold against my face that I had to shut my eyes against the pain of them. Snowflakes peppered her eyelashes and turned to water. Her head and hair that had, at some point in the journey, lost its wool cap was soaked with melting snow. It scared me to look at her pale face, a face normally so full of life, now looked as if it had been taken over by one of the ghosts’ grandma always told me lived on the mountain on the other side of town.
I went and stood by the fire, never wondering where Holly was. I settled in the rocking chair and waited for Mama to bring me some biscuits and something warm to drink.
Instead she handed Benny to me and told me to keep him quiet if I could. She’d never asked me to do that before and as soon as she left him he started crying, I felt angry at her for making me take care of him after I’d had such a long trip over. I knew he was only hungry and that there was nothing I could do for him. I cried too, though not loud like Benny, the hot fire dried most of my tears and put us both to sleep.
When I woke up I had a new cousin, and my aunt was dead.
Callie Armstrong © 2013
The conclusion to A walk into the unknown, can be found here: https://calliedeanne.com/2014/01/12/a-walk-into-the-unknown-pt-2/