Part three of three…
When I stepped into the house after returning the handsaw, a bolt of pain stabbed my lower belly. I crammed the hurt into that dark, crowded place deep inside that Mama couldn’t see, and tended to Sissy. I stripped the smelly clothes from her body, washed her as best I could, then pulled her favorite pink nightgown over her head, all the while talking slowly and softly. I knew she heard me. She stood when I told her to, held up her hands when I said so, but not one word passed her white lips.
Meanwhile, Mama fed thin slats of wood into the cookstove until the thing danced with heat. Sweat ran down her face and soaked the white collar of her dress, turning it pink.
“Put your sister to bed,” she said over her shoulder. “Then come get yourself cleaned up.”
I led Sissy into the little room off the kitchen, and tucked her into the bed we shared. “I’ll be back soon.” No answer from my sister. She rolled over and faced the wall, and I knew if I had looked, her eyes would still be open. “Everything’s gonna be all right. You’re just having a bad dream, and when you wake up in the morning, you won’t even remember it. Just a dream, that’s all.”
“Clara!” Mama yelled.
I wanted nothing more than to crawl into the bed next to Sissy and sleep for days. I was worn out, and my belly hurt real bad. Instead, I patted her shoulder and walked back out into the nightmare.
Mama had me take off my clothes and poke them inside the hungry stove. And while I washed, she shucked her garments and laid them atop the flames. I’d never seen Mama in her under-things before. She was all spots and sags and wrinkles, uglier than old Beulah.
The pain in my belly became one continuous hurt, a big fist up in my privates pushing down to get out. Then, with a relieved gush, it was out, a bloody, goopy mess that slid down my legs and plopped onto the floor.
“Oh my…” Mama said.
We both looked down at the lumps and clots on the boards between my feet. I thought I saw something pale in the biggest, blood-streaked lump, like a tiny…arm? I bent over for a closer look, and the floor rushed up to meet my face. Then there was only black.
The next day Mama told me I’d lost my baby. But Sissy’s belly stayed big, and as the weeks went by, it got even bigger. Sometimes, I’d see her rubbing her growing belly and humming, a little smile curving her lips.
Maybe when the baby gets here, she’ll talk again.
Sissy’s water broke while we were eating supper.
“Get her undressed and in the bed,” Mama told me. “The baby’s coming.”
Mama bustled around the kitchen, gathering towels and rags and such, while I peeled off Sissy’s wet clothes and settled her into the bed.
Daylight bled away into night. Sissy’s belly got all hard from time to time, and when it did, her face flushed, and she held her breath. But not one word, not one whimper or moan, passed her lips.
Every so often, Mama came into the room, pushed Sissy’s knees apart, and felt around her privates. Sissy shut her eyes and turned her face to the wall. “Not ready yet,” Mama said every time.
The clock ticked down toward midnight. Sissy’s belly got to where it stayed as hard as a rock.
“Push!” Mama said, and Sissy pushed hard, again and again. But no baby.
“Ought to be coming any time now,” Mama said, looking up underneath Sissy’s gown.
Another hour went by. Still no baby.
I was getting worried. Sissy was tuckered out from all the hours of hurting and pushing, and I didn’t think she could push much longer. “Maybe we ought to get Doc Miller,” I said.
Mama leveled a cold stare on me. “We’ll do no such thing. No one knows about your sister’s sin, and no one’s gonna know. We’ll handle it ourselves.”
I glanced at Sissy. Her face was as white as milk, her lips blue-ringed, her hair a wet, matted mess. And she’d quit pushing.
I forced the words up past the lump in my throat. “What if she dies?”
Mama didn’t answer. Instead, she leaned over the bed and grabbed Sissy’s chin. “Open your eyes, gal.” When she didn’t get a response, her fingers dug into Sissy’s pale skin. “I said open your eyes.”
Sissy’s eyes opened, focused on a spot somewhere over Mama’s left shoulder. I reckoned that was good enough.
“Now you listen,” Mama said. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll push and keep on pushing till that baby’s out. You hear me?”
Sissy took a deep breath and pushed, her face growing beet red with the effort.
Mama pressed Sissy’s legs apart and her knees up, exposing her privates. A puddle of blood-streaked fluid stained the sheets beneath the sparse, pale hair.
“Push!” Mama commanded.
Sissy sucked in another deep breath and bore down again. Mama forced her legs wide, and I saw the top of the baby’s head, lots of pale-blonde hair, then a face. A short pause, then a wet, slippery-looking, tiny body followed. Sissy’s head fell back against the pillow. Her face relaxed, and her eyes closed. She’d passed out.
“Go get the slop bucket for the afterbirth, Clara.”
“Yes, Mama.” I hurried to the kitchen and returned with the old tin bucket that held the kitchen garbage. As I stepped through the doorway, the baby let out a loud cry.
I barely noticed when Mama took the bucket from my hand and set it on the floor beside the bed; I was too interested in the mad little person who was wailing and kicking and waving her arms. Warmth bloomed in my chest. Sissy had a daughter, and I had a niece.
Mama bent over the baby, snipped the umbilical cord, and neatly tied it off. Then she wrapped the bawling infant in an old towel, scooped it up and settled it in the crook of her arm, and turned away.
“Can I hold her, Mama?” I asked her back.
The baby’s cries suddenly stopped.
“Mama…” I circled around to where I could see the baby girl again, and, oh dear Lord, Mama had her hand over its face, palm pushing down on its mouth, thumb and forefinger holding its nostrils shut. “Mama!”
Her eyes met mine, as cold and dark as a well. I backed up a step. And I watched, did nothing, as the baby’s legs stopped kicking, its tiny arms stopped flailing, watched as it died in Mama’s arms.
She dropped the little body into the bucket. I cringed at the solid thump, took another step backward.
Mama rubbed and pushed on Sissy’s belly, who slept on, unaware of what Mama had done. But I knew what she’d done, knew she’d killed Sissy’s baby girl. And I hadn’t done a thing to stop her. As I watched the afterbirth gush out of Sissy, I knew that I was as guilty as if it’d been my own hand covering the baby’s face. I was no better than Mama.
Mama plopped the afterbirth on top of the baby. She held out the bucket to me. “Go dump this in the pigsty. But not in the trough. On the ground.”
I took the bucket from Mama’s hand, but I didn’t look inside. I didn’t want to think about what was in it, told myself that the heavy bucket contained only table scraps, nothing more. But as I made my way out of the house and across the yard, the meaty odor that rose up out of the bucket walked with me, turning make-believe into a lie. I tried breathing through my mouth, but that was even worse. The smell became a solid thing, lodging in my throat and choking me.
Was that how the baby had felt?
I passed through the back gate into the barn lot and crossed the packed dirt to the pigsty. The pigs were sort of milling around, restless. Probably hungry. No one had fed them.
And I was fixing to feed them Sissy’s baby girl.
A scream tore past my lips, exploding into the cool, dark night. I clamped my palm over my mouth, sure that Mama’d heard me. Muffled by my hand, a few more screams escaped before I was able to stuff the awful sounds back inside and swallow them down.
I placed my foot upon the first board of the fence. In the short time between that step and the next, I thought of burying the baby instead of dumping it into the pigsty; but in the next instant, I saw Mama’s face, all mad and mean and crazy. I raised the bucket over the top board and dumped the contents onto the mucky ground.
The pigs grunted and squealed, pushing against each other to get to their meal. But after snuffing the baby and afterbirth, each one turned away—as they had when offered Dewey’s bloody parts and pieces—except for Beulah. Her enormous head lowered over the baby’s still, moon-washed body. I turned away.
As I stumbled back through the barn lot, I thought I heard the snapping of tiny bones, and maybe, just maybe, a faint wail…
I opened the back door and heard Sissy screaming. I ran to the bedroom. Sissy was trying to get up, her legs and arms flying in all directions, and Mama was holding her down.
“Where’s my baby?” Sissy yelled. “I want my baby!”
Mama tried to get a grip on her. “Hold still, gal.”
Sissy’s eyes lit on me. Her body stilled. “Where’s my baby, Clara?”
I couldn’t answer. Wouldn’t answer.
“It’s dead,” Mama said.
“But I heard it cry,” Sissy said.
“No, you didn’t,” Mama said. “It was born dead.”
“Oh…” The life drained out of Sissy’s eyes. “I was gonna name it Pearl. If it was a girl, I was gonna name her Pearl…”
Four months later, Beulah gave birth to a litter of eleven piglets…babies…I didn’t rightly know what they were. Some had hair; one had a person’s face and a pig’s body; one had a person’s body and a pig’s head; all were a strange mix of person and pig. Mama didn’t see what I saw, said they were perfectly ordinary piglets.
I killed them all last night, chopped them into itty-bitty pieces. Except one. She has people arms, legs ending in hooves, a little curly tail, big blue eyes, and straw-blonde hair.
I think I’m gonna name her Pearl.