Another intense chapter for you. Links to previous chapters and the amazon link to purchase the novel follow the excerpt. Thank you for your interest!
It was becoming dark and I was tired to the bone. I was sitting on one of the water barrels watching the sun seep down under the wide endless prairie. The festive autumn leaves were losing their dazzling brilliance and being replaced by shadows. I pulled my cloak tighter around myself but couldn’t quite wrap it closed because of my extended belly. I sighed. My breath entered the air in front of me as a tiny puff of smoke. My fingers reached for Polly’s locket around my throat and caressed it. Tears stung my eyes. How I missed my little sister. My hands traveled to my unborn child. Maybe if it was a girl Joshua would allow me to name her after Polly. But I would really call her Elizabeth. Or maybe Beth. I winced as my raw hands caught on the rough fabric of my cloak. The cold and the repeated scrubbing of the iron cooking pots was shredding the skin on my once delicate hands. One of the women traveling with us had offered me some sort of salve to apply to my hands, but I couldn’t stand the way it smelled so I would not use it. She had called me ungrateful and wasn’t currently speaking to me. I didn’t care. Though I was ashamed of myself that I didn’t. I wasn’t brought up to be impolite and sullen. I was just so tired and uncomfortable with this baby and the endless traveling. I wasn’t used to feeling drained and unmotivated. I had anticipated myself as being energetic and ambitious on this challenging journey. I felt that I had been cooperative and pleasant for the first few weeks of the trip, but then I had become so ill with my unexpected pregnancy. Several of the women in our party had plenty of advice to give, but much of it could not be applied to our current living conditions. I had told myself that I had made every attempt to be friendly and obliging to my fellow traveling women, but I just did not feel particularly connected with any of them. There were several family groups who already knew each other previous to our trip. Joshua was familiar with one of the men from a former business relation, but his wife was a peevish, high minded sort. At this point I was homesick, ill, sleepless and unable to perform almost any task without difficulty. I felt that if I could have a real bath, a real bed, completely clean clothes and Polly for just a few hours I would swoon with happiness. I sighed again and reached over to the wagon ledge where I had set my tin cup of coffee. I wrapped my fingers around it and felt that it was almost cold. I took a long drink of the acrid beverage and felt its warmth descend inside of me. The baby kicked suddenly and made me gasp in surprise. I readjusted my sitting position and tried to push the child’s limbs back into a less uncomfortable location. My belly felt unusually stiff to my touch and a painful cramping began low and moved upwards. I breathed unevenly until the sensation passed. The other women had told me that this was normal as one neared the end of a pregnancy. Their best guess was that I had one and a half months left until I bore the child. Joshua was quite determined that we reach our destination before the birth. I could tell that recently he had begun to doubt this outcome, but we did not speak of it. Our journey had been fraught with forced stops to repair wagons and detours to avoid particularly angry groups of Indians. In a couple of months winter would be upon us. I shivered and drained the last of the coffee. I wanted to write Polly again, but it was getting too dark.
Joshua appeared from the shadows.
“Come, Alice. Let us rest.”
His face was drawn and he looked almost as weary as I felt. He had been struggling with influenza and had spent most of the evening trying to fortify the spokes on one of our wheels. It had not been performing properly and Joshua was an advocate of prevention measures. He extended me his hand to help me ease off of the barrel. He then offered me the crook of his elbow. I placed my hand there gratefully and took a few awkward steps before suddenly doubling over from a sharp pain that laced its’ way across my abdomen.
“Oh!” I squeaked.
“Alice!” Joshua instantly placed his hands on both of shoulders to steady me. “You can’t be…is the pain strong?”
“I…uh…” I had to stop speaking for a moment to breathe. “It is painful…but…now it is ceasing.”
Joshua put one arm around my shoulders and held my hand with his other. “You must rest, Alice. It is not time.” The light was too dim to see his expression, but I could hear the poorly veiled nervousness in his voice. Joshua was one that needed to have order and planfulness in his existence. He was finding that there were precious few of these qualities on a venture such as this.
One of our neighbors queried Joshua about whether all was well. He answered politely in the affirmative. He carefully assisted me into the back of the wagon and made preparations for bed. I was so exhausted that I elected not to change into my nightclothes. Instead, I immediately settled into the straw mattress and pulled the blankets around me snugly. Joshua silently performed his pre sleep rituals and then lay beside me. He placed one hand protectively on my arm.
“How do you feel?” he asked, trying to keep the apprehension out of his voice.
“All is well,” I answered sleepily.
He allowed himself a sigh and turned to face away from me so as not to expose me to his cold.
“Good night, Alice.”
“Good night, Joshua.”
I slept fitfully. The portable bedding that we slept upon would be uncomfortable even if you did not have a large, protruding belly. I tossed and turned and tried to ignore the fact that I had a pressing urge to urinate. I could finally contain this need no longer. I extracted myself from my bed and stood slowly and carefully. I tiptoed to the edge of the wagon so as not to awaken Joshua. Poor man needed his rest. He was snoring unusually loudly due to the influenza symptoms. I shivered and wrapped an extra cloak around my shoulders before attempting the arduous task of descending out of the wagon. As I alighted, I took a moment to smell the October air. I loved the distinct scent of fall. I adjusted the awkwardly positioned cloaks before starting the short trek to the line of trees on the edge of our camp. I was thankful that I had been too lazy to even remove my boots last night. Donning and lacing up my boots had become quite a difficult task as my girth had grown. I smiled to myself thinking about how appalled my former self would have been to know that months later I would actually be sleeping in my clothes and boots. I looked up at the stars and reminded myself to appreciate their beauty. Morning was extending her fingers over the horizon. Then the endless travel would begin again. I emitted a sigh as I entered the fringe of trees and prepared to relieve myself. I would never become accustomed to doing this in the grass. Upon the conclusion of my business, I stood up awkwardly and felt something catch in my side and heard a faint simultaneous popping sound. Liquid gushed down between my legs and created an instant puddle at my feet. I froze in shock. Disbelief pushed everything out of my mind. How could? Why? Then realization dawned on me and a flutter of anxiety immediately after that. My waters had broken. The baby was coming. My mind raced as I tried to place my cloaks in a way that hid my very damp state. I could still feel a slow trickle and my belly felt extremely tight. Mary Franklin would be the one to go to. She seemed to have the most experience and knowledge about birthing babies. She had been quite helpful to another woman that had given birth on the trail. However, we had been on the outskirts of a town when this woman had begun her labor. This was not the case at the moment. We were far from any sort of town. Of course the first thing that I needed to do was wake Joshua. He would be distressed that the baby was early and would be born without the comforts and facilities that a town would provide. I stifled my growing fear for the welfare of my child. No. I was determined that this child would thrive. I would do all in my power and then more. As if on cue, I saw Joshua’s sleep tousled mane of blonde hair emerge from the back of the wagon. He immediately looked in my direction anticipating the reason for my absence. I was too far to see his expression, but I was sure that it pictured stern disapproval. He always insisted that I let him accompany me for safety purposes if I had to venture outside camp for such reasons. But I was rather stubborn about this particular subject. I felt very uncomfortable performing this need while he waited nearby. Joshua jumped lithely out of the wagon and took a total of two steps in my direction before stopping dead in his tracks. I was puzzled for the merest fraction of a moment. I heard it before I saw it. It pierced my mind and soul before I even knew the origin. A blood curdling wave of high pitched voices combined as one. I had lifted my skirts and had been about to step into the brush to head back to camp, but dropped them and my foot abruptly upon hearing this unearthly wail. My legs almost buckled in fear. I watched in pure horror as a deluge of brightly painted Indians descended upon our sleeping camp. This area was not known to be defended by Indians. Joshua gestured wildly for me to go to the woods behind me. Then he jumped back to the wagon and reappeared with his rifle. I didn’t move. I felt paralyzed watching the scene playing out in front of me. Joshua fired off three shots before he was shot himself and overtaken by several of the mob. Then the terrified screams of women, children and men began. The sound built and rose until it was as loud as and intertwined with the war cries. I covered my ears and pushed hard trying to force the horrifying sound out of my head. Some of the families had started to come out of their wagons to defend or flee. Some never even made it out. The Indians were fierce and efficient. Suddenly, I was knocked to the ground by the force of a bullet lodging itself into my left shoulder. This seemed to awaken my sense. It gave me the adrenaline and gumption to jump into action. I scrambled desperately to my feet despite the searing pain in my shoulder. I half stumbled, half ran into the forest. I began to sob uncontrollably. I hurtled myself into the unknown. Where would I go? This thought seemed almost beside the point. The sheer instinct to survive pushed my feet forward amazingly swiftly for a woman in my condition. I don’t know how far I ran before I was abruptly grappled by intense abdominal pain. It brought me instantly to my knees. I emitted a low guttural cry before clamping my hands over my mouth. Quiet! I must be quiet! The burning pain in my shoulder blended with the unbearable cramping that squeezed my belly. I bit down hard on my own palm to prevent myself from screaming. The baby was coming! Could not be coming! My body pushed without thought of timing or circumstances. I lay on the ground panting and writhing in agony. I drew blood from my own hands in an effort to remain silent. I began to feel light headed and had to remove my hands to gulp in more air. The baby was coming. I hastily ripped my pantalets away and lay back on the damp musty leaves. Their scent filled my nose as I clenched my teeth and focused fiercely on the brilliantly colored foliage above me. I dug my fingers into the dirt and leaves beside me and pushed with everything that I had. The baby slid out onto the blanket of leaves. I immediately struggled to a sitting position and frantically pushed my filthy skirts away. A small groan of surprise and dismay escaped my lips and I felt additional panic rising upon my already agitated state. I was not expecting my baby to be coated with blood and slime. A boy. But he was not moving.
“He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead,” I found myself whimpering pitifully. All purpose and hope seemed to leave me and tears streamed down my dirty cheeks as I stared at my still child. I picked him up and gently plucked away the two burgundy leaves that were stuck to his face. I wiped at the viscous fluid that covered his features. He was still warm. I had to keep him warm. I had lost one of my cloaks in my dash across the forest, but I used the other one to carefully clean him. I blocked everything from my mind and concentrated on cleaning and caressing my newborn son. I had heard the women talk of the long tube that connects a child to his mother and that it needed to be severed. With one hand I rummaged in my immediate vicinity for a stick sharp enough for the task. I sawed and poked and pried with the inefficient utensil until it came free. I somehow managed to knot it. My heart ached as I hummed a tuneless, comforting song for my child. And then without warning he gasped in a gurgling breath of air, sputtered, sneezed and began to wail loudly. I almost dropped him in shock and surprise, but I quickly regained my sense and pulled him tightly to my bosom. His cry seemed to echo amongst the beautifully colored trees insisting that he live. That this small life was important in the midst of the turmoil and death that surrounded his birth. I clutched him more firmly and began to rock to calm him. As he quieted, I pulled him back a little to gaze upon my miracle. I was quite startled to observe additional fresh blood smudged on his face. My first panicked thought was to search his small body for a wound, but then I realized that the blood’s source was my own shoulder. Strangely, I had almost forgotten about my shoulder. The pain quickly reregistered in my brain and its’ throbbing intensity became quite excruciating. Once again I ignored it to attend to more important matters. After removing my blood from my son’s face, I held him close to my other breast. I patted his back soothingly and rocked as I sat in a pile of leaves in the middle of an unknown forest. I began to wonder what my next step should be. My thoughts did not get far before I became aware that I was not alone. I had not heard them approach. As if from nowhere, two Indian males stood before me, guns cocked and pointed. There was not a shred of kindness in their eyes. I froze. The only movement seemed to be my heart beating violently in my throat. The only sound was the blood rushing madly in my ears. I felt myself begin to faint, but I forced it away. I needed to protect my baby. The older one motioned to the younger one and uttered two guttural syllables. The younger one slowly lowered his weapon to the ground and then swiftly lunged at me, graceful as a cat. I did not know exactly his intention, but I was certain that it was not good. I covered my child with my body and tried to move away from him. At the touch of his fingertips I screamed deeply, loudly. He yanked me to my feet so roughly that I almost dropped my baby. I tightened my grip. Dizziness and pain from my wound exploded into my head. The two men seemed to swim in my vision and I would have toppled to the ground had not the young Indian been holding me up. They exchanged a few words while I swayed on my feet, desperately trying to focus and concentrate on clutching my child. I noticed vaguely that the entire left side of my bodice was crimson with my own blood. At the conclusion of their conversation the man released my shoulders and quite easily yanked my baby out of my determined grip. I collapsed immediately to the ground empty handed.
“Noooo!” The anguished scream rose from the pit of my being. I flailed amongst the leaves and brush trying desperately to follow as they walked quickly away. I struggled to stay conscious as my vision became smaller and more blurry. The dizziness and the throbbing pain in my shoulder was overwhelming. I was also vaguely aware of additional cramping needling my abdomen. And I kept screaming. A long undiluted wail that would only cease for a few seconds as I gasped another breath to continue screaming. From somewhere out of my sight and comprehension the young Indian returned. He forcibly grabbed my hair with one hand and with vicious skill sliced out my tongue with the other. I immediately fell silent, gurgling and choking as blood filled my mouth. He threw my tongue carelessly into the forest as he swiftly rejoined his companion. I could stay conscious no longer.
I lost sense of time and place. I drifted in and out of reality. In actuality, I don’t even believe that I registered reality at all. There were periods when all that I could acknowledge was pure pain. Other times I was aware only of the cold and the details of the forest. During these moments it seemed as if the forest breathed and that I was merely a part of it as much as the trees, the grass, the insects and the dirt. Sometimes I would also slip into warm and comforting memories of Polly, my childhood, and my budding career as a teacher. The worst periods were when my mind cycled again and again over the events of the torturous day. My soul screamed in silent despair and anguish with no voice or sense of direction.
My most lucid moment took place as evening fell. I am unable to say if it was at the end of that horrifying day, or if it was perhaps on another day. Time had no relevance or position. At this moment I was starkly awake. The cold felt harsh and my body pulsated with involuntary shivering. My mind was crazy with physical and emotional pain. All of my senses clicked into their proper places for a short while as I gazed up at two faces peering down at me. Concern and compassion radiated from them. A young girl and her mother. Indians, but with different dress and markings than the first pair I had encountered. Their expressions registered surprise at my awakening. I immediately tried to question them about my son, his whereabouts, his well being. No words formed. Only gagging and choking. I had forgotten that I no longer had a voice. The frustration and despair welled in my eyes, but no tears fell. I had no tears left to cry. How would I find my child if I couldn’t even speak? What if they had harmed him? The thought was more than I could bear. But still I could not cry. The woman lifted my head delicately and turned it to the side to facilitate my breath and expectoration of the clotted blood residing in my mouth. She gently returned my head to its’ former resting position and began to chant. The girl joined her. They placed each of their hands on me and continued in the soothing sing-song tune. Their hands permeated warmth into my being. In my mind’s eye I could almost see the warmth becoming light and twisting and twining within my body. I stared at them soundlessly, blankly. Their edges became blurred and white light seemed to be seeping slowly around them. Wearily, I let my eyes close. All was warm. All was still. Their song echoed in my brain and I drifted into comforting blackness.
I opened my eyes again. I found myself looking up at Anna and the violet eyed woman. They were not chanting, but I could still hear the faintest echo of the song receding into a corner of my mind. For a moment I thought that I could not speak. Then I remembered that I could. But then I did not know what to say. I lay there staring at them dumbly.
“Mama?” Anna ventured. She looked questioningly at the woman next to her.
“Anna, she is fine right now, my dear.”
The absolute absence of pain felt bewildering to me. The dream had felt so real, so wretchedly real. I stifled the urge to check my shoulder, check my tongue, check what I was wearing, check the mirror. I knew what I would find. I strained my inner ear for the Indians’ song and almost thought I heard a note here and there. But then it was gone. I realized that I didn’t even have a headache any longer. But the heartache was intense. The deep sense of loss lingered heavily. Thoughts of you wandered into the mix and it all became a muddle. I finally focused my attention on Anna and the woman. I was quite startled to find them in the same position and with the same expressions as the Indian females in my dream.
“Wow,” I muttered and elevated myself to my elbows. I shook my head slightly and rose to a sitting position. Anna did not jump into my lap as I would have expected. Instead, she studied me with intense compassion. Her small ashen face held an expression meant for adults.
“Mama,” she whispered. “The baby will live.”
I stared at my daughter, struck completely speechless. The silence between us seemed to hold so many words. Then the violet eyed woman spoke.
“Wendy, she can see.”
I switched my gaze to the woman. She looked so familiar and yet I didn’t even know her name.
“What? Why should she see what I dream? That is crazy.” There I said it out loud. The crazy part. And it was directed to her, not at me. I paused, and then added, “And who are you, by the way?”
She somehow managed to smile warmly and mysteriously at the same time. I studied her face and found nothing particularly remarkable except those piercing odd colored eyes. They seemed fathomless and enduring. Her mouth and nose were not too big and not too small, but fit perfectly in her quite ordinary face. Her hair was mousey brown with white at the temples and pulled back into a skillful bun.
“I am Sara Kislin. You have just moved into the apartment directly below mine.”
“Mama,” Anna interjected, “can she babysit me sometimes? I like her.”
Oddly enough, Anna did seem rather snuggled up to her sitting there on the floor. I experienced a pang of jealousy and beckoned Anna to my lap. Anna obliged immediately and wrapped herself within my arms.
“Well, I’m Wendy Parks,” I started, “but, I guess you know that. But how do you know that? Wait. No, never mind.” My brain felt too full at the moment. I wanted to sift it all around before adding more. “Thank you for…” I was abruptly halted by a fragmented vision flashing before my eyes. I saw the Indian woman tirelessly caring for me over an extended period of time. Her face was eerily similar to Sara’s, sans violet eyes. My mind wandered into a different plane and I heard myself saying “…so much to be thankful for.” I blinked and started stuttering “I …uh…” I had lost my train of thought, or perhaps crisscrossed trains.
Sara smiled cheerfully and matter-of-factly helped me to my feet. She touched Anna fondly on the shoulder and exchanged a knowing look with her. “If all is well, I must be off to my rehearsal.” She stated briskly. “I will be seeing you. Have a pleasant evening.” With that, she slipped quickly and quietly out the door. I didn’t realize that I was staring at the door until Anna tugged impatiently at my hand.
“Mama, let’s go to Auntie Leigh’s house. I’m hungry.”