by Rita Larom
Jessie had had a slight sore throat, that was all.
Elsie adjusted her petticoat, smoothed her black dress and put on a crisply ironed white apron. She heard her daughter singing to herself as the child lay in her cot recovering from diphtheria. Though relieved that Jessie was well enough she could leave her alone, queasiness rocked Elsie as she rehearsed the words she must use today. She was almost ready to leave her house. The cracked looking glass reflected Elsie’s face, splintered in half. Blue-gray eyes peered back at her, one slightly higher than the other in the shifted sections of mirror. As she tied a beaded collar around her neck, her reflection showed one portion of her clearly, a strong image. The broken section of glass distorted the remaining part of her. That is the half of me full of excuse, clouded, frightened, Elsie thought.
It was only one week ago that eleven-year-old Jessie played with the neighboring farm children. Elsie had let her do so reluctantly. “My throat’s only a little sore, Mama,” her child said. The girl was lonely. She had worked beside her mother all summer. Elsie wanted her to have an afternoon of play with her friends.
The next day, Jessie’s skin burned to the touch. Elsie felt a hard knot in the child’s neck and saw the terrifying white spots of diphtheria in the back of her throat. She made a bed for Jessie in a corner of the pantry where she could watch her closely and keep the boys away from their sister. Her daughter cried in pain. She sat by the child day and night. She prayed. Gingerly, she swabbed the lining of her daughter’s throat. She sprinkled salt on layers of hot damp toweling and placed it on Jessie’s neck and chest. With enough heat, the illness could be driven from a sick body. The child’s fever finally broke and she spit out strips of the suffocating membrane.
Jessie had played at the home of the family’s longtime friends, Jane and John McCamm. Golden-haired Annie McCamm had just turned three on that afternoon of fun. Annie died earlier this week from diphtheria. Elsie began hearing that other children were ill. It was not the first time the grim disease had ravaged the valley. Hearty pioneers settled here. Elsie’s family had traveled with some of them in 1865 on the Oregon Trail. After twelve years of creating homes and communities in relative peace, the illness came. Two years later, families still lost child after child as epidemics smoldered and flamed. People suspected that it passed from person to person. Elsie knew the dangers.
She should have kept Jessie home.
Elsie must call on the McCamm family today. Excuses boiled in her and seared her throat with a nauseating burn.
She had awakened in the early cool of this morning and had gone promptly about her work. Wood heat from the kitchen stove mixed with summer temperature and streams of sweat dripped from Elsie’s hair and brow. I didn’t know, I didn’t know, she murmured as she kneaded and turned newly made bread dough, and then punched it again until it turned smooth and elastic under her hands. She mixed and rolled out pie crusts and filled them with the last of her dried apples.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry ripped through the sound of the hatchet as Elsie neatly chopped the heads off chickens and watched bright red drops of blood speckle their white feathers. She plunged them into scalding water and plucked them. Her nose stung from the smell as she singed remaining feathers over a quick flame, scrubbed the chickens clean, dressed them out and stuck them into boiling water in her soup pot. As they simmered away, she hurried to the garden.
For a moment she breathed the fresh air of morning and forgot the dreaded task of the day. She pulled carrots, picked beans, cut some dill, plucked sorrel. Fat bulbs of onions topped her bucket. Sun was beginning to beat the earth as she returned to the house. It wasn’t until she was scrubbing the carrots that she felt herself overcome again with pain.
I should have done something, I should have known better, crowded her mind. She murmured a remembered Bible reading and began to push the thoughts away with “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” This day, she would not pursue an argument with the long gone author and an elusive God. I will accept. I will accept. Vegetables went in with the chicken.
She placed a pot of dark brown beans on the stove to reheat for her family’s noontime dinner and shoved the rising loaves of bread into the oven to bake. She would leave some for them. The house was sweltering but filled with mingling aromas of fresh-made food.
She glanced in the mirror one final time as her husband entered the kitchen and told her the buggy was ready. Todd had harnessed Gypsy for her and hooked the horse to the buggy. She checked on Jessie who was sleeping now, her cheeks a healthy pink, her breathing easy. Elsie wrapped pies and bread in cotton towels and stuffed them into baskets. She filled lard cans with soup and plucked a few hollyhocks near the fence. Elsie pulled her tiny frame up straight, smoothed her hair back in its bun, untied Gypsy, and climbed aboard the buggy. She waved to Todd who had returned to the field.
I must do this, I must do this, clattered in her head to the rhythm of the horse’s hooves on the roadway. As she pulled into the McCamm yard, the sun was nearly straight overhead. She recognized two of the buggies near the house. Their horses were freed for grazing. One, she knew, belonged to Jenny Holmes. Mrs. Holmes carried her homeopathic kit and traveled far during times of sickness. The other belonged to Dr. Bell. Then she saw a polished black carriage shining in the bright sun at the back of the house. Glistening white letters announced, “Furniture Builder, Casket Maker and Undertaker.” Again, she felt the burning roil of excuses. Perhaps she shouldn’t bother them today. She could come another time. She wanted to run.
Gowns, coverlets, sheeting, and every size of children’s clothing, flung carelessly on lines and stiffened with the remnants of lye soap, marched across the yard. As they hung in the still August heat they cast dark narrow shadows on dying grass.
A scream burst forth from the house, breaking the stillness into sharp pieces of pain. Then she heard the unmistakable cry of a newborn child. Jane’s baby must have arrived. Relieved that the child had let out a healthy greeting, Elsie lifted baskets and lard cans of soup and walked toward the house. She felt like her knees would crumble; her insides quivered. No excuses, no excuses, she thought. She walked on. A neighbor opened the door and greeted her.
“Who?” Elsie needed to know.
“Lizzie and Will,” came the reply. “They died this morning.”
Lizzie was just Jessie’s age and her dearest friend. She was the caretaking older sister of Annie and five-year-old Will. The house was full of busy neighbor women and three more sick McCamm children.
“Her husband is with her,” said a woman. “We made a birthing bed for her in there,” as she motioned toward the closed kitchen door.
Faces swam before Elsie as she tried to make sense of the scene, dizzying heat wrapped around her and then chills of realization hit. The children died. The children died, swirled in her head. Four-year-old Jamie was gasping for breath. Listless, he lay back on his cot in the living area. Elsie steadied herself, knelt beside him and rubbed his back as she whispered, “You’re all right, you’re all right.”
During a pause in the afternoon, she knocked on the kitchen door. John McCamm’s broad shoulders and big hands pulled it open. “What do you want?” he yelled as he saw her standing there. His eyes were dark with anger and blame. She tried to speak.
Jane, with a voice stronger than expected, said, “Let her in.” Elsie walked to the feather tick on the floor where Jane was lying. The women’s eyes met. They reached out together and pulled the other close. “Sorry, so sorry,” and “can’t be helped” came from choked voices.
Each woman, in that moment, moved beyond her own tortured sorrow to reach the other’s pain. Elsie knew the mutual comfort might not last. It could easily slice apart if Jane could not forgive her, if she could not forgive herself. They clutched each other as John stomped out of the house.
Jane sobbed briefly before falling into an exhausted sleep. Elsie moved the sleeping baby in her basket into a quiet corner.
The women moved quickly. Stir honey and vinegar into warm water for gargle, coax Jamie to take a sip of broth, talk with Mrs. Holmes and the doctor about care of the sick, scurry three healthy children away from the house and into the hot sun and sultry barn until relatives and friends could pick them up. Rock feverish toddlers, heat water, wash clothes, scald dishes, give pie and comfort to older children and stay away from Mr. McCamm who was fiercely stacking hay in a nearby field.
Sometime during the blur of activity, the women stopped when they heard an infant cry. “Where is the babe?” one said. When Elsie heard the question she looked for the basket she had stashed. A heap of dry clothes brought in from the line tumbled from the basket. A tiny new life was fighting for attention under the weight of her brothers’ and sisters’ bedclothes. Elsie lifted the red-faced and fussing infant to her shoulder. The women hesitated, laughed and, for a moment, regained a sense of levity in a day that had ripped their lives apart. The new one was searching for a breast and Elsie took her to her waiting mother.
The sun was lying low in the sky when Elsie finally clicked Gypsy into a trot for her trip home. The evening breeze dried her damp hair and cooled her burning cheeks. Todd met her at the gate to their home. Without a word he helped her to the ground, took the reins from her, held her face between his large hands and kissed her forehead. She walked toward her door. Perhaps it was the angle of the sun, or her own exhaustion, but she saw the double panels of glass in the door each reflect her likeness, both striding straight and strong toward her house. By the time she reached for the door knob, there was one clear solid image remaining. She opened the door to greet her own waiting family.
©2005 Rita Larom