January 1875 Stopgap, Arkansas
I sent Jaspar out early, before the next snowfall began. I hoped to discover why I felt an unwelcome urge to be hospitable. When he returned, dripping from sleet from the high altitude he’d flown, I took his slender neck between my fingers and shook out his eyes. He protested, of course, but I was used to that.
"Hush up, Jaspar," I told him. "You know I'll give them back. I always do." I popped them in my mouth.
His eyes, hard and round beneath my tongue, showed me my cabin from above. The vision entered my blood. I absorbed crow sight and memory of flying over the cabin and the mountain. Far below, on the road from Stopgap, walked a woman. She was pregnant, and very far along for it to be visible from this height. She only carried a small bag, and her clothes were not warm enough for the weather. I could tell even from that distance that she was poor. Jaspar’s feeling was simply: Trouble.
I was inclined to agree.
The winter weather wasn't slowing the woman down. She trudged on through the snow, like one of the sturdy farm ponies used all around Stopgap to plow and pull and carry till they dropped.
I spat out the eyes and popped them back into Jaspar's head. He cawed in protest. I fed him one of the fresh live worms I kept in a jar of soil in the kitchen for this purpose. He ate it, but he oozed resentment about being sent out in the cold to spy for me.
"Be grateful I don’t use more spells on you from the book," I told him. "Besides, now your eyes are clean."
I didn’t speak much crow language, but I could tell that his string of cackles and chirps were mostly threats and swear words.
The bed needed to be made, since my blankets were still bundled into the nest I liked to make for myself at night. The two shelves, crammed with my prized book collection, were in need of dusting. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been reading, but I didn’t care for cleaning. Dust somehow built up, despite the fact that I spent most nights with Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante. My mother and stepfather had believed that reading was the road to enlightenment. Not that enlightenment or education does you much good in the Ozarks, but it was a nice thought. My visitors usually thought my books better evidence of witchcraft than my herbs.
I never show visitors the crow trick.
When Jaspar calmed down, aided by the judicious feeding of two more worms, I told him to go watch for the woman. She might make it to the house by afternoon at the rate she walked. He flew off without much comment. Then I finished tidying up the cabin. I didn’t put my back into it. I didn’t like to strain myself to impress people, especially people from Stopgap.
"I'm not ready for visitors, Ra," I told the cat.
Trouble's your visitor, was what Ra’s eyes said. I nodded at her as I put away the eggs and goat’s milk I’d collected earlier. It doesn't do any good to let a cat know you're worried.
I tried to read while I waited. Paradise Lost proved too disquieting, so I put it aside after a space and made my lunch. This consisted of eggs and dried dandelions fried in a pan. I put another log on the fire in the wood stove. I was grateful that Fred and Jaime Smyth had come by and chopped some wood for me last Saturday. They’d completely filled the lean-to and the north wall of my cabin too. I had plenty of wood to see me through till spring, unless this current snow turned into a blizzard. I reminded myself to send their mother, Juanita, something to pay them. I’d have to find out what she needed.
In the late afternoon, the pregnant woman arrived soaked, sagging, and weary to her bones. A new snow had begun to fall. I put some ginger tea on for her when I heard Jaspar announce her. It was steeped by the time she'd reached my front porch.
I recognized her. It was Maggie Pickman, a farmer's wife like most of the other wives living in the country around Stopgap. I’d seen her in church, which I sporadically attended when the weather was good enough. She'd never come to see me before, and I hadn't been called out to her house. She'd had her first two children before she and her husband had come to Stopgap a year or so back.
"You shouldn't be out in this," I told her before she'd opened her mouth to me. "Not in your condition." I handed her the tea, sweetened with lots of honey to strengthen her, and let her into my cabin. She made straight for the fire.
"I'm right sorry to put you out like this, Miss Higgins," she said.
"It's no trouble. I'm not the one who had to walk uphill through a snowstorm. I don't see how you did it." Or why, I thought to myself. She must be desperate. If she wanted a midwife's help she'd know I'd come to her. Every woman in Stopgap knew that. Maggie hadn't come because of her pregnancy. Witchery then, was what she wanted.
"Why don't you sit and rest for a while. You need to warm up."
"I thank you, ma'am," she said, and she sighed as she drank the hot, sweet tea.
She took a while to tell me what was on her mind. She expected me to pull her talk out of her, but I don't go in for that. I waited her out, half-listening to Jaspar carry on outside about the snow. He was warm and safe in the birdhouse I’d made for him. It had a protected opening to the outside and a window opening into my warm kitchen, so I wasn’t worried about him.
"I need a love charm," she said, finally.
I was disappointed, which I admit was perverse of me, but she could make a love charm herself. The lore was common knowledge. I took a breath for patience. There must be more going on.
"That's a simple thing. You put a piece of yourself into something you bake, and you feed it to the man. Put in your eyelash, he'll love you for your eyes. Put in a fingernail, ground fine so he won't suspect, and he'll love you for your hands. You can put all sorts of things in a cake and have him love everything about you from head to toe. Of course, that can be a little overpowering for you.”
She shook her head.
"I need a love charm for me. To make me love my husband." She wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Are you in need of something to make you…enjoy the marriage bed more?” I said. I had some dried cattail in my pantry, set aside to help women rekindle the fire in their marriage. But very pregnant women usually didn’t come asking for such a thing.
“I need something that will make me love him like I used to, in spite of things…you might say.”
Now that was a trick. It isn't easy to enchant yourself, especially if it means going against what you already feel and know. It wouldn't work if you had good reason not to love.
"I have to have something, Miss Higgins," she said, watching my face intently. "I don't know what else to do."
"If you don't mind my familiarity, you seem to love your husband well enough." I indicated her swollen stomach.
She looked wildly around the room and then down at her stomach. She kept looking down till a little patch of tears appeared on her skirt.
I got up and refilled her teacup, stirring in more honey as she wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Her eyes were a beautiful deep brown, with long spidery lashes, even though they were reddened by crying. They were the only pretty thing about her, though I imagined she’d been very pretty when she was younger. She was worn down from the sun and wind and harder-than-hell work of a farm wife.
"I don't love my husband anymore. I can’t make myself do it.” She picked at a thread on her gown with one worn reddish finger. The sunlight filtering through the real glass windows caught a bruise on her wrist. This told me why she was having such a hard time conjuring up some conjugal love.
"He beats you, does he?"
She didn't look up. "Only when he drinks too much." she muttered.
"That's too often," I said. She didn't reply.
"Is that his child you’re carrying?" I asked, deciding to give in to my hunch about it and be blunt.
She shook her head.
"Does he know?"
She shook her head again.
"And who is the father?"
"It doesn't matter," she replied. "He's gone."
"And he left you with a cuckoo in your nest," I remarked.
Her eyes flashed sparks of anger at me. She loved the natural father, regardless of his abandonment.
“He didn’t leave me,” she said. “He died.”
“You’re sure of this," I said, because she had uncertainty in her look. She shook her head.
“He lived in Mississippi. He was my cousin, He died three months ago. His sister wrote to me and said that he got a fever and they couldn’t help him. Lucas wouldn’t let me go to his funeral. It’s a long way off, I know. But…I’m afraid he might have guessed something about me and Cousin Art, but he hasn’t said a word.”
She cried harder then. I put my arms around her and held her for a piece. She was too upset to be scared of me anymore. She leaned against me and cried like a spigot, soaking my clothes with her tears. Ra appeared on the kitchen table and purred, trying to help.
When she had cried herself out, I handed her a cloth to dry her eyes. I got another one for myself. She was bringing up some bad memories for me that I didn’t care to go into. And I couldn’t help leaking some tears with her for her own sake too.
I fixed us some eggs and some goat’s milk cheese. We ate in silence. She didn’t seem inclined to talk, so, I didn’t press her. I thought she might fall asleep there in the chair, but after she’d eaten she stared at me, making up her mind.
She’d sobbed her heart out on me. We were intimates now. She would trust me.
"I want to be a good wife for my husband,” she finally said. “If I loved him better, he might be a better man. And a better father."
She gazed at me then, so hopeful. I couldn't tell her that I didn't have magic enough to do what she wanted. She couldn't will herself to love, especially when the man didn’t deserve it. Especially when she still loved a dead man.
But if I helped her now, she would keep trusting me. And if she trusted me, I could help her get away from the abusive drunkard she’d married. I knew something about escaping from violent men.
"I'll help you," I said. "Let me get the necessary herbs."
I gave her a packet of rosemary and chamomile to use as a daily tea, and I told her the usual things about apples. Put a peel in your husband's pillow one night, and then put it in yours the next night and your hearts will unite. I told her a few more tales about how to fall in love, without once consulting my Grimmoire. I knew it wouldn’t hold any better advice.
“I don’t have any money with me,” she said, folding the bag into a pocket in her apron. “But I can pay you with a dozen chicks come spring. Maybe you’d like the eggs.”
"That’ll be fine," I told her. I didn’t point out that I had plenty of chickens and eggs already. She needed to pay me as a matter of pride. She rose to leave and I laid a hand on her unbruised wrist. "But you better stay the night."
She was worried that her husband would miss her. And maybe take it out on their kids, I could read it in her eyes.
"He'll know you had the sense to stay with a friend," I reassured her. "You shouldn't be going out in this weather."
She left anyway. I guess she was afraid I’d magic her in her sleep if she stayed. Maybe I should have.
I had Jaspar follow her for a while till she got closer to town. He saw she got inside the Smythes’ house before the snow made the road impassable. She almost didn’t make it. The snow was coming down in frigid blasts that made my eyes water even sitting by my fire. I made Jaspar lead her the final hundred yards or so. He flew at her and pecked her to the door till Edwin Smythe peeked out and pulled her in over the threshold. I knew Juanita would take care of her then, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Jaspar flew off before Maggie could tell anyone to shoot the “crow that was pestering her.” I could read her lips through Jaspar’s eyes, though he was almost blinded by the snow himself. It looked like her teeth were chattering too badly to get the words out. I hoped Juanita got her into bed immediately.
When he got home, Jaspar scolded me ‘till I wrapped him up in an old quilt with a cup of corn by his side. He hated flying in the snow. I couldn’t blame him. It wasn’t natural for him, but then again, he wasn’t precisely natural anymore.
I dreamed that night that I was with Mama, sitting in our Boston house with my stepfather, Uncle Nat. We were all reading by the ample lamplight in the library. Mama and Uncle Nat each sat in large armchairs. Aunt Maisie was playing a tune on the piano, something by Chopin, it sounded like. I could smell the fire in the fireplace and feel the softness of my nightgown and robe. I was being allowed to stay up late and read, which only happened on holidays. It felt like Christmas, though I saw no sign of the fresh pine and holly we usually brought into the house at that time of year. I tasted chocolate on my tongue, from my Mother’s box of bonbons.
I was perched on a cushioned bench in the window, reading something romantic and inappropriate in Latin. It looked like Ovid. Mama didn’t care what I read as long as I was reading. Uncle Nat liked that I was reading in Latin. The eroticism of Ovid’s Metamorphosis enthralled and amazed me. I was reading about Pygmalion moving his hands over the statue he’d made. With Venus's help, he thrillingly brought her to life with a lover’s caress.
I didn’t have the nerve to ask my parents if they actually had read it themselves before approving it for me. Well to be honest, they hadn’t exactly approved it, but they weren’t ripping it out of my hands on sight either. Probably they hadn’t noticed. My mother was engrossed in a book that I had never actually seen her hold. It was The Grimmoire. Or a grimmoire anyway. I knew Grandmere had taught her, but Mama had never had time to make a grimmoire of her own. The fact that this couldn’t have happened made me pay closer attention. This seemed to be a speaking dream.
I got up from the crushed red velvet of the cushion and made my way over to Mama. I nestled in next to her in the spacious armchair. She didn’t object when I looked over her shoulder at what she was reading. The Grimmoire was open to a page with love spells. When I tried to read it, it seemed to also be the tale of Pygmalion, but the writing swam in front of my eyes. I couldn’t read it very well, and looked at Mama, who smiled at me in her gentle way. “That one made me fall in love with your Uncle Nat, you know.”
“I didn’t know that you needed help for that, Lydia,” said Uncle Nat, looking over his glasses at both of us. He looked hurt.
“I didn’t,” she said. “But if I had needed it, this would have been the one I used.” She winked at me then.
I woke up. Ra was purring in the crook of my arm and didn’t want to move. I extracted myself from bed, hissing at the cold floor as it stabbed through the holes in my socks. I fetched The Grimmoire from the shelf, and lit a lamp to read it.
The words swam in front of me, as they had in the dream. I was more tired than I’d realized and couldn’t make any sense out of it. I flipped the pages, trying to find the one Mama had been reading in the dream. It was a love spell for oneself that would work even if one didn't want to love. After a time I gave up. Sometimes The Grimmoire didn’t want to be read. And sometimes I didn’t want to read it.
The book fell open to a very familiar passage. Unlike the rest of the book, it was easy to read:
Every spell you cast takes energy, clarity and trust. If you are lacking any of these, it will steal years of your life away. You can lose all the years of your life in a minute. If you cast against an innocent, it will rebound on you many times over.
This was good advice. I wasn’t clear, I had little energy, and I wasn’t feeling trustful of anyone or anything, least of all myself. I’d made too many mistakes in that department already in life. I figured I’d already squandered most of the years I had left from the mistakes I’d made using The Grimmoire already.
“Quit scolding me, you bossy thing,” I said to The Grimmoire.
I put the book away and went back to bed. I tossed and turned, much to Ra’s disgust, since she was trying to sleep curled up on my legs. She finally settled behind my knees. She purred there persuasively until I fell asleep and didn’t dream anymore.
February, 1875 Stopgap, Arkansas
A fortnight later around midnight, I was awakened by frenzied knocking at my door. When I opened it, Edwin Smythe and his boys were there.
“Maggie Pickman’s got a real need for your help, Miss Higgins,” he said. “They sent one of their hired men your way but he came to us instead. I told him I’d bring you on Duke.”
His big horse, Duke, was the fastest in the country, by far. I noticed he’d brought another horse for himself. He meant to let me ride by myself to speed things along. I felt a small jolt in my heart at the trust that implied. Then I shook off the sentimentality and gathered my herbs and supplies. I had plenty of a root and bark decoction of Juneberry to help aid recovery from childbirth. I had laid by a large quantity of decoction of blueberry root and leaf as well, which would aid in delivery itself. This only worked if the laboring mother could sip enough to keep it down. I had already packed forceps, needle and thread, and a generous supply of laudanum.
I threw on my dress, coat and hat and was ready to go within five minutes of the knock on my door.
Edwin and his boys rode with me all the way to the Pickmans, which was kind of them. I suppose they didn’t want me falling off Duke and dying somewhere in the wilderness. It wouldn't be good for me and might lame him in the bargain. I did my best to keep my seat, though Duke was not as gentle gaited as my slower horse, Damascus. I was glad the Smythes were there to wipe me up if I spilled. I didn’t like travelling by myself after dark, though I’d done it many times, doctoring and midwifing as I did.
The Pickman house was larger than mine, with a high pitched roof to keep off snow, and a fine barn and small shed next to it. There was a garden plot at the front of the house that looked unkempt in the lantern light. There was an air of desertion about the place that didn’t seem fitting. A family of four was supposed to be living there. They were soon to be a family of five, I supposed.
My lantern revealed a small, glass window at the front of the house. This was an extravagance I appreciated in my own house as well, but rare in these parts. I wondered if Maggie had gotten it from her husband as a wedding present.
The house looked large enough to have three rooms in it. Pickman might be a violent drunk, but at least he kept his family under a good roof. That might be enough for some folk. He most likely thought it was.
There were lamps lit in the cabin, but no one came to the door to greet me. Once I’d opened the door, Edwin and his boys turned back immediately for home. Edwin promised to send Juanita to me later to check on us. I thanked him and went into the house, where I heard sobbing. This was coming from a young girl of maybe fourteen. She was kneeling outside the door of the bedroom her parents must have occupied.
“There’s blood,” she cried when saw me. “There’s too much blood!”
“All right then, Honey,” I said, with an assurance that I didn’t feel, but that they always needed to hear. “I’m going to do my best, and your Mama needs you to be brave and do your best too.”
I told her to start boiling water and gather up what clean cloths there were in the house. Then I walked into the bedroom.
There was blood all over the bed. The cold metallic scent of it was there, warning me that death was not far. Maggie was still alive in the middle of it, alone in the room and gripped in unavoidable pain, unable to speak.
I went to the bed, offering my hand for her to grip. I doubted she could see me, but she held on hard. I wiped the matted hair from her forehead.
I couldn’t help her. I already knew it, and yet I had to try anyway.
I pulled the bloody sheets from the bed. It was still bitterly cold and the room was drafty. I covered her with a good clean quilt from the hope chest at the foot of the bed. It looked like a wedding quilt. Her blood would ruin it, but I didn’t care
I tried to give her the Juneberry tonic, using a cloth to squeeze it into her mouth in small drops. She still couldn’t keep it down, but I tried anyway. Some of it might still get into her and help.
Then I said the spells of safe passage to the baby, hoping to save it, but I didn’t have much hope of that. I placed my hand on her heaving belly, trying to calm her. I reached inside her with my mind, searching for the baby’s life force. It was leaving. I could feel the gate closing.
“Is the baby all right?” she gasped, right when I found this out. She could read in my eyes that it wasn’t, but I lied. Of course I lied.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” I said. “You have to try to relax and push.”
The baby girl came out, pure and perfect and already cold as the night air. She was followed by quite a lot more blood. I put the baby down. I would need to wash her before I wrapped her in the shroud that had been prepared for her. I saw the one Maggie had sewn for herself. It was draped across the oak chest of drawers in the corner of the otherwise barren room.
I soaked up the blood as best I could with the sheets I’d discarded, then called for the girl to bring me more cloths. She didn’t answer. I pushed on Ruthie’s belly, which made her deliver the afterbirth. Sometimes that will stop the bleeding, but this didn’t. She had torn, so I set to sewing her up. I cussed over the slipperiness of the blood, the poor light of the lantern, and the reality that I wasn’t doing her any damn good. I had to do it anyway.
I didn’t stop to wonder why no one was here to help. I was often the only one to help with any kind of doctoring, and I never turned anyone down who asked for it. But I did wonder what had happened to Maggie’s husband.
“Where is your father, child?” I asked the girl, when she finally crept in with another sheet. She was too scared to look at her dead baby sister and her dying mother. I had sewn Maggie up as best I could, but it wouldn’t be long.
“He went to look for my brother Obie,” she said. “He ran off when it happened.” She looked at her mother, who was struggling to breathe. I propped her up on what pillows I could find, and then settled by her bed. I knelt since there was no chair, and held her hand “When the labor started?” I said, nodding at the girl to kneel on the other side of the bed, where she took her mother’s other hand.
“When Papa hit her and started it,” she said, staring at me and biting the words out. “He said the baby wasn’t his and then he hit her in the stomach real hard.”
I felt even sicker than I already did. A wave of guilt washed over me that I’d not talked Maggie into running away from her brutal husband when I’d had the chance.
“Don’t tell anyone, ma’am,” said the girl. “They’ll hang him, and we’ll not have a father.”
I looked at her, seeing that she was serious. Maggie coughed then, and tried to say something.
“Ruthie,” she said, looking at the girl.
Ruthie leaned in closer to hear her.
“Tell the truth,” Maggie whispered. I could barely hear it.
But Ruthie heard. She bent her head for a moment, as if in prayer. Maggie raised her hand and put it on her daughter’s as if in a final blessing. Then she began a series of long shuddering breaths. Ruthie jumped up and ran from the room. She didn’t want to see her mother die.
I didn’t try to stop her. I couldn’t let go of Maggie’s hand. She had mine in a vise, much stronger than I would have suspected she could muster. Her eyes were already glazed. She still struggled for her last breaths, but she was almost gone.
I took a deep breath and began to sing her the death song. Grandmere had taught it to me, back in Louisiana many years before, on similar sad occasions. I had sung many others to death with it.
I hadn’t sung it often in the years since I’d moved to Stopgap. That wasn’t because I hadn’t seen death there, working as an herb woman and midwife. In Stopgap, someone else would usually be saying a prayer for the dying one’s soul. And I knew they wouldn’t take kindly to what they'd think was a pagan rite. I supposed it was a pagan rite, but the death song was a prayer of sorts. And there was no one else here to pray for Maggie and her baby to help them find their way home.
I sang to Maggie and her baby until she stopped breathing. I hoped the singing helped her. I pulled the quilt over her head. I would need to clean both bodies and prepare them for burial, but first I had to let Ruthie know that her mother was gone.
When I came out of the bedroom, Ruthie was sitting at the kitchen table. She’d lit a fire in the stove, and it was warmer next to it. I sat down by her, wondering if I could get her to make me some tea, or if I should do it. Before I could ask, she looked up at me with challenging eyes. She had been crying.
“You can’t tell anyone what Pa did,” she said. “He didn’t mean it. Please.”
“Child, you’re not safe here,” I said. “If he can’t keep his temper and hits her, he’ll hit you too. And your brother.”
“He hasn’t ever hit us,” she said. “And he didn’t mean to hit her. He’d been drinking.”
“That’s not an excuse,” I said.
“Please,” she said. “You know how folks are around here. They’ll hang him, and then they'll put us in an orphanage. Or worse. You can’t tell.”
“Didn’t you hear your mother?” I said, feeling exhausted. “It was her last wish that you tell the truth, child.”
“She wasn’t thinking right,” she said. “She’d told me all the time not to tell anyone if he hit her. That he’d get better. Now he doesn’t have her to hit anymore, he won’t be so angry.”
“He will hit you, or your brother instead,” I said.
“You don’t know,” she spat back. “You don’t know him at all.”
“I know enough,” I said. “You shouldn’t stay here with him after this. You or your brother.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “This is my home, and he’s my Pa. He may be a bad Pa, but he’s what I’ve got. So you’ve got to promise you won’t tell anyone.” She reached over and dug her nails into my arm then, threatening me. I shook off her grip and stood up. My chair dropped to the floor with a loud thump. It was heavier than I’d realized. She jumped at the sound, looking like she was afraid I’d hit her.
“I’ll keep your secret, Ruthie.” I was reluctant to promise such a thing, but she was wild with fear and grief. “I’ll keep it for a while anyway. But if he hurts you or your brother, you come get me and I’ll help.”
“I don’t want any more of your help,” she said, looking back to the room where the bodies lay. “You aren’t as much help as you think you are.”
I was so tired by then, I couldn’t speak. I nodded.
She got up and walked out the front door, not shutting it behind her. So I got up to watch her go. She walked far out into the fields, which were barren and hard and icy under the waning moon. I closed the door and went to stand by the stove for a little while, to get warm enough to use my hands again.
Then I went back into the bedroom to get Maggie and the baby ready for burial. I wondered then if she’d had a name for the baby, but there was no one to ask.
About an hour later, I heard hoof beats, and when I went out, Juanita was finally there, as the sun was coming up. She helped me finish getting the bodies ready for burial.
When we were done, we cleaned the room. We got water from the well and used it to clean the bloody sheets and linens. Then we left them to dry on the kitchen chairs as best we could. It was still too cold to put them outside.
We waited for a while for Lucas Pickman or either of his surviving children to come home, but they never showed. Edwin finally came by with horses for us. He said he’d told the minister and the sheriff what had happened, and that he would take us home. I had to leave it in the hands of the sheriff, who would hopefully look in on the family and round them all up. I hoped that the children weren’t lost. I didn’t give a damn if Lucas Pickman was.