Patricia Grady Cox
2017 Winner - Best Short Story
Society of Southwestern Authors
Adeline ignored the tightness in her back. Water needs hauling. Goats need milking. Children need breakfast.
She held her bucket under the spring and sat for a moment in the shade. Two trees grew in the oasis within the stark landscape of sand and scrub brush bounded by distant rock-covered hills. The land sustained nothing except their half-dozen, half-wild Spanish goats.
Adeline’s husband had the wanderlust. A sheep herd and mine were excuses that allowed him to leave her alone in this barren outpost. Six-year-old Sally running along the spring-fed creek, and three-year-old Dennis, crouching to play in the mud, were her only companions.
A tent served as their house. Its sides flapped in the breeze, reminding her she no longer had solid walls, wooden floors, nor tile roof. Sheep stench permeated the canvas. Only when she’d become pregnant and complained of the smell making her sick had Joseph moved the herd to a camp in the hills. He usually came home each evening, but it had been three days. To avoid the image of her husband’s bones baking in the desert sun, sheep tramping over his dead body, she turned to her chores.
“He doesn’t care what happens to us,” she said to the goat as she milked. “Off he goes, and here we are. I will not have this child until he gets back.”
The goat replied with a scream that sounded human, like the scream she would unleash herself if not for fear of scaring the children.
She hauled the milk bucket to the spring house, threw flakes of hay into the corral for the horse, gathered eggs from the chickens, got more water. The growing tightness in her back spread across to her sides and, worse yet, came and went at regular intervals.
Joseph really could be dead. At least that would be a damn good excuse for not being here. She put down the bucket of water in the middle of the yard and wept.
“Mama?” Sally stared with big eyes. “Why are you sad?”
“I’m not. I’m just tired. Can you carry this pail to the house?”
The little girl struggled but she did it, looking back at her mother each time water sloshed onto the ground. She came back with a damp rag. “Mama, wipe your face. I always feel better when you wipe mine.”
She wiped her face. “You are the best little girl in the world.”
“That’s what Pa always says. Wish he’d come home.”
Adeline wished the contractions would stop. For a minute or two, she believed she had stopped the inevitable. Until the strongest yet doubled her over.
Damn you, Joseph!
Always off somewhere, tending sheep or digging at his gold mine in the hills. Never here. Leaving everything for her and two little children to do. Came home and avoided her eyes, ate the food she put in front of him, and said, “It’ll be better next year.”
He’d said they were going to Millville, a town near Flagstaff, in northern Arizona. This tent on the border of California and southern Arizona was nowhere near the Mormon settlement of Millville and its illusive meadows, grass, pine trees, and cool summers. He said, for now, they needed to grow the flock and their cash. They would go next year.
Three next years so far.
She pictured him crushed under rocks in his mine. Lying by the trail, his horse dead of snakebite and him soon to follow. Shivering from fever by a campfire.
Or having dinner in a nice hotel, telling some stranger about his wife dead of childbirth, his children starved to death before he managed to get home.
She cleaned the breakfast dishes, hauled more water from the spring, and piled wood by the fire ring in the yard. Then she pulled her monthly rags from the trunk and put them by the bed. She got the sharp knife and put that by the bed too. An empty bucket. Towels. Twine.
Keep busy. They might live in a tent but it should be clean for the new baby. She swept the canvas floor with broom bristles held low so as not to churn up dust.
Another contraction hit. She held onto the tent flap and yelled for Sally.
The old wagon by the corral listed to one side, its broken wheel resting in the dirt where Joseph had left it. The horse looked at her and whinnied, and she wondered if she should saddle it, have it ready in case Sally had to take her little brother and try to find the way back to Yuma. How could she make Sally understand when that would be necessary?
Sally, listen, if Mama doesn’t wake up . . .
The next contraction crumpled her to the floor. She abandoned thoughts of tacking up the horse or explaining her imminent death to a child. She’d born two already; no reason to think she wouldn’t survive a third.
The children came inside. Adeline smiled at the little girl and littler boy. She pulled herself to her feet and sat them at the table. Lifting her apron, she wiped sweat from her face and neck. “Sally, do you remember how I taught you to milk the goats?”
“You might have to milk them tomorrow morning. Can you do it?”
“Why ain’t you gonna do it, Mama?”
“I might be busy birthing your new brother or sister. I think it’ll come by dawn.”
The girl smiled, clenched her fists and gave a little hop in her chair. “We’re gonna have us a baby!”
“Dennis, will you help her? Chase Mr. Billy and the kids away?”
The little boy stuck his thumb in his mouth. He mumbled around it. “When’s Pa comin’ home?”
“I don’t know. We can manage on our own.” Like we always do, she thought.
The boy stroked the soft, worn material of his overalls. “I’m hungry.”
“There’s left-over biscuits. You can put honey on them.”
They ran to the sideboard. Sally fixed a plate and brought it to the table. Adeline tasted sweet honey, soft flakiness against her tongue, but then she gagged and rushed to vomit into a bucket. Another contraction. And another. Seeing the children’s frightened faces, she tried to smile as she lowered herself onto the bed. She turned on her side, pulled her legs up. She would not moan or cry out or do anything that would frighten them.
“Go outside and play when you’ve finished eating.”
“Yes, Mama,” Sally said.
The morning passed. She held her breath with each new contraction, and prayed thanks to God when it subsided.
The open wagon rocked and bumped along as the horses pulled her family and all their belongings along a barely existent trail. Somber Joseph, sad Adeline with their infant son in her arms, and between them little Sally, chatting and twisting to look at a strange cloud, an antelope raising its head in a tawny meadow, a vulture circling overhead.
Awaking with a gasp, she lay rigid and waited for the spasm to pass. The bed was wet. She felt for the dampness in the dark. She held a match to the lamp and lay back down. It was night, her children sleeping.
“Sally!” She surprised herself with how shrill she sounded.
The little girl crawled from her pallet and stuck her face up next to the bed.
“Mama! What’s wrong?”
“I need you to get a clean blanket from the trunk.” When the girl returned, she thought to ask, “Did you have supper?”
“Yes, Mama. The stew from the pot outside. It was good.”
“Wasn’t it cold?”
“Nope. Some of the wood was still red.”
Adeline exhaled as the memory of her dream faded and the memory of the past day returned. “Thank you for looking after Dennis. Go back to sleep now.”
She sat on the edge of the bed. She could make out the two children on their pallet in the shadows. The tent was almost as big as their adobe house had been. But adobe didn’t flap and bang in the wind. Adobe didn’t allow bugs and lizards to crawl through the gap at the floor. Tears stung. She wanted a house. She wanted a home. She wanted what Joseph had promised. Now.
Not next year.
She pulled the wet bedding off the tick mattress and threw the blanket over the wet spot. Remembering how the local curandera had helped with Dennis’ birth, she found a length of rope and tied the ends to the footboard. Something to pull on when the pains grew intense and demanded pushing. She wished she had that magical brew the curandera had provided, which cut the pain so much better than putting a knife under the pillow.
She lowered the wick on the lamp and reclined, supporting her aching back with a pillow. The tent became oppressive, and she sought the coolness of the night. Slipping outside, she held her sweat-soaked shift away from her body. Restless goats, gathered near the corral, turned their pointed faces toward her, a breeze wafting through their coats and beards. The acacia tree rustled. Frogs chirped. The gibbous moon illuminated the starkness of their camp. Far off in the hills a pack of coyotes barked and yapped. When a long, undulating howl filled the night, silence fell.
She waited in the wagon while he spoke with the brown-skinned sheepherder. They’d stopped for water at this spring and suddenly the sheepherder clutched Joseph’s hard-saved dollars in his gnarled fist, and the men were shaking hands. Sheep milled around the wagon. The stranger disappeared into the tent, came out with a sack over his shoulder, and walked away. Joseph’s eyes were bright. How lucky they were. What a great bargain he had made. We’ll grow the herd and then move on to Flagstaff.
Next year. The frogs sang. Next year. Next year. Next year.
An agonizing pain forced her to the ground. Gasping for air, she crawled into the tent, to the bed. She held the rope loosely, waiting, and it was not a long wait. She bent her knees, braced her feet, pulled the rope taut. Still a shriek escaped her clenched teeth. Sally ran to her, a small ghostly visage by the bed.
Adeline forced her eyes to focus on her daughter. Then Dennis appeared, red-faced, crying.
“It’s all right, it’s all right.” She pressed her lips together and endured the next wave of agony silently. Light seeped in under the canvas walls. Dawn.
“Sally, milk the goats. Take Dennis.” She forced the words out on each labored exhalation. “Then stay by the spring. You might hear me—scream again—don’t be scared—women scream—when they—birth babies.”
She pulled the rope taut, turning her face away from the frightened children. “Oh God. Sally, please go. Go! I’m sorry! Be a big girl.”
She opened her eyes to an empty tent. Again and again the contractions struck. She pulled the blanket to her mouth, biting to muffle her screams. Panting, she crawled onto the floor, squatted, holding onto the rope. The pushing brought relief, and she lowered herself to the floor, resting her head against the mattress until she again needed to push. Push. PUSH! The rope went slack as she fell backwards, reaching for the flailing infant. She crawled to the pile of rags and wiped the newborn’s skin. The afterbirth suddenly gushed, and she thanked God she had put the twine and the knife nearby. After freeing the baby from the umbilical cord, she wrapped her in towels and again rested against the bed. The baby’s mewling noises erupted into full-throated wailing.
Sunlight flooded in. Sally and Dennis stared from the open tent flap. “Come in. Come and meet your sister.” The children approached shyly. “Her name is Willow.”
She sent the children away again and, when she felt stronger and the baby slept, she cleaned up the bloody mess as best she could, and carried a bucket of rags that also held the placenta out past the spring. The curandera had buried the afterbirth when Dennis was born. Adeline scraped a shallow hole, emptied the bucket, and kicked sand over it all.
They’d left California just days after Dennis was born. Their lives had hardened, same as the adobe bricks of soft mud and golden hay that built their home. Turned rigid and dry and now empty.
She kissed little Willow and lay her in the cradle Joseph had built for Dennis.
Sally looked down at her new sister, then ran outside, returning in a few minutes with a handful of violet-colored blossoms and arranged them around the baby.
“What is that tree, with the lovely flowers?”
“Desert Willow,” Joseph said.
“Why did the sheepherder sell his home and all the sheep for so little.”
“His wife died. In childbirth.”
She’d followed his gaze to the three crosses marking three mounds of rocks.
“His other child died of the fever.”
She’d sat by the spring, nursing Dennis, while Sally picked violet flowers from the low branches of the Desert Willow tree.
“Look, Mama. Pretty.”
She’d thought, this place could not be cursed and grow a tree that holds such beauty.
The baby, surrounded by flowers, lay peacefully in her cradle. This place could not be cursed. That night Adeline took the baby to her bed. In the morning, when she put Willow in the cradle, the flowers had wilted into colorless wisps.
After morning chores, the sun rose to the zenith and turned the sky white. Adeline made the children come inside and lie on their pallets. On her bed, she cuddled the infant, her back turned to the tent flap.
Half asleep, she thought she dreamed Joseph spoke her name.
Joseph’s quiet voice held tenderness she had not heard since the day they left California. A hand touched her shoulder. “Addie?”
She did not turn to him. She whispered so as not to wake the baby or the children. “I thought you were dead.”
“I sold the sheep.”
At that she sat up, and he saw for the first time his daughter.
“Can’t you speak?” she asked.
Joseph’s lips pressed tight. He touched the baby’s head.
“It’s a girl. Her name is Willow.”
His hand dropped, and he looked away. “I’m sorry.”
Sorry? That he had another daughter instead of another son? Sorry that he had any children at all? Sorry he hadn’t stayed away longer? Perhaps she was sorry, too.
He took papers from his vest pocket and handed them to her. A bill of sale for the sheep—all of them. Another for the mine. A bank draft. “I wanted to surprise you.” A smile came to his lips, slow and lopsided. “Instead you surprised me.” He bent to kiss her cheek. “Let me know when you can travel.”
“We’ll go north whenever you say.” He smiled again, more easily. “This year, Addie. This year.”
Patricia Grady Cox