Alice would reply to my letter. There would be others to follow as well, however her first would arrive several days after Mae’s baby was born. When she wrote, she would tell of Abbie’s anger, of how Alice had saved my books, and of how John Westley had set out searching for us one day without telling Abbie the nature of his quest.
Abbie had only been able to take on one new whore to replace us, and remarked that at least that was better than two of me. The words in Alice’s letter may have been different slightly from those. Lilly refused to take Judge again on account of him keeping with me after the events of Leon’s hanging. Judge stopped visiting the Velvet Inn entirely. Perhaps Mrs. Millen acquired a tolerance for the reading of his poetry.
The Deshotels estate would become my inheritance, though a record of marriage between Walter Fairbank and Marie Deshotels would never be discovered. That, as well, would not occur until a time after Mae delivered her baby. It would involve particulars both complicated and unimportant in nature. Mostly it would happen on account of there was no one to contest the actions of Hebert Jarreau regarding the matters of my grandfather’s entrust. I would take the property under the name Katherine Deshotels, as I was fond of neither the C-A-T spelling, nor any surname belonging to Walter.
On 3 May, 1897, just a few days earlier than expected, Mae’s baby came into this world. Contrary to Dr. Sullivan’s assurances, the morning brought with it cause for worry in good plenty.
A sense of disturbance woke me from my bed at the first light of dawn, much as the unrest drew me downstairs the day Leon left. The sound of a horse followed, galloping up the drive toward the highway. I jumped from the warmth of my covers, and drew the curtains to see Matthieu, as he rode off to solicit Dr. Sullivan’s immediate request. My head was filled with the knowing I must have slept through Mae crying out. I ran to her room, and found Josephine at her side.
Mae’s covers were thrown aside and her gown was stained with a frightening amount of her blood, enough to remind me of waking in my own bed after Walter first tore me inside. There was uncertainty in Mae’s eyes, however she seemed light of spirit, and it was Josephine who looked truly frightened. Mae held out her hand, and I went to her side and took hold of it. She was cold and shivering.
“Fetch her the covers from my bed, Josephine,” I said. “They’ll be warm yet.”
Josephine welcomed her moment of freedom and did as I asked.
“I’m sorry, Kate,” Mae said.
“It’s alright, I expect,” I comforted best I knew how. “Women are supposed to bleed.”
She gave me a peculiar look. “I’m losing my baby, Kate. I’m losing Robert.”
I thought back to my resolve on the night we left the Velvet Inn, and I forced myself to laugh calmly as I had then. “Mae, shush yourself now. You know you were meant to give this baby birth.”
Mae smiled. She was neither downstairs Mae, nor upstairs Mae. For the first time since my shock at her arrival, she was just plain Mae. “It’s Helen, you know,” she said.
“My name. Mae’s just a nickname.” Her face tightened up again even more peculiar than before.
No one had ever spoken to me of a nickname before and I stared at her in confusion.
Mae was accustomed to my ignorance. “That’s an instead of name,” she explained. “Like Kate being short for Katherine.”
“How’s Mae short for Helen?” I asked.
Mae laughed. It might have been her first genuine laugh in all the time I knew her. “Mae’s short for Mabel,” she said. “That’s my middle name.”
The naming of people was more complicated than I’d imagined to that point. I mostly knew people by one name, some, like Henri LaRue, by two. Most my whole life, my name was just Kate, and I never knew Walter even had a name until he wasn’t around to call him by it. I was pondering that when Josephine returned with my blankets and put them around Mae’s shoulders. The stain on her gown seemed to be worsening.
“Matthieu can reach Doc Sullivan’s in four minutes.” It was Hebert Jr.’s voice from the door. He was stood hidden from view out of respect. “It won’t be long now.”
Josephine got up again and hurried to the door to consult with him.
“I don’t have a middle name,” I said, however Mae’s mind had wandered on.
“My family will never forgive me,” she said. It was in a dreamy voice, like she didn’t truly care and it was amusing to her. “They won’t likely ever admit it happened, you know.”
“Mae? What happened?”
“I was standing there when they dropped him,” she mused. “I can still see his face…”
“Mae?” She looked lost now, like she was searching for something in her head. “Who’s face?” I begged.
“They’re coming for me, you know.”
I was so confused I was beside myself and then I remembered her story at the top of the stair the day the gentleman getting married showed his photograph around. “The Port Authority?” I asked.
Mae’s face tightened up again.
Josephine, having dismissed Hebert Jr., was back in the room. “You laborin’ now, Miss Mae?” she asked, regarding the expression on Mae’s face.
Mae looked at her like she spoke in the French I occasionally found in my mother’s journals.
Josephine pulled the apron from her skirt. She wiped some sweat starting to form at Mae’s forehead. “Laborin’ with yo’ chile,” she explained. She touched her hands to the sides of Mae’s swollen belly. “It feel tight in here?
“Baby comin’ fo’ sure,” she said. “Hush yo’ talkin’ now. Saves yo’ strength.”
We sat with Mae, Josephine keeping the sweat from her brow with her apron, until finally the hooves of horses sounded Dr. Sullivan’s arrival. Hurried footsteps were on the stair, and Dr. Sullivan came in with a black carrying bag, while Matthieu waited anxiously at the door to overhear news of Mae’s condition.
Dr. Sullivan pulled a scissors from his bag and cut away Mae’s gown. I could not stop myself from gasping. Blood still trickled slowly from between her legs, and I realized to my horror, the mattress had soaked far more of it than the linens had. My mind was filled with the terrible memory of Leon carrying the wash tub from Alice’s room.
“This much blood, baby’s likely tangled in the cord and torn the placenta from the uterus wall,” he said. His voice was calm and factual, but he produced his stethoscope with an urgency and listened at Mae’s stomach. “Heartbeat’s still strong. Likely only a partial tear, but we can’t risk a wait; we’ll have to cut the baby out. Do you understand?”
I expected Mae to panic, as I had seen many times over smaller things. She looked at Dr. Sullivan and nodded quietly.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” he smiled at her. “It’s a common procedure, called a Caesarian section. We’ll give you a little ether and you won’t feel a thing. All right?”
Mae nodded again and smiled back.
He turned to Josephine and then to me. “Josie, fetch some warm water and some clean clothes. Try not to dally.”
“Yessuh.” Josephine hurried off.
Dr. Sullivan reached up inside Mae, way Judge reached up inside me on occasion. Her hand tightened on mine, but she was quiet. “Contractions are a belated reaction to the tear, I expect. Your water’s not broken yet.”
He took another instrument from his bag, and reached inside her with it. Clear liquid rushed out of her, and he rinsed some of the blood from his fingers as it came. It was frightening to see, however Mae seemed not to be bothered by any more than the occasional contractions as Dr. Sullivan called them.
After Josephine returned, Dr. Sullivan cleaned his hands better and took a bottle and some gauze from his bag. “You’re going to take a little nap, now,” he said to Mae. “Are you ready?”
“Josie, you remember how this works. You hold this gauze in place over her mouth and nose like so. Keep your head turned away. You don’t want to breathe too much of this yourself.”
She did as he said, and he dripped some liquid from the bottle onto the gauze. “You should be feeling very happy now,” he said after Mae took a couple of breaths. I felt her hand go limp in mine, and she was asleep.
“You’re going to want to leave now, Catherine.” His face was very stern. “You can wait for our call in your room.”
Josephine nodded to me. The worry in her eyes was unmistakeable, but I trusted Mae to her care and retired to my room. Hebert Jr. and Matthieu were stood in vigil in the hall. I passed them without words, their faces hung long, watching me as if there was some peace I could bring to their unrest.
It took merely minutes, but for what seemed like hours, I waited in my room. Josephine had given the ether with Dr. Sullivan before, and I was left to wonder again what stories she held inside her for the telling. I sat at my mother’s desk, turning mindlessly the pages of one of the books from the library, without a care for the words that they held. Mae’s peaceful smile would have pushed aside the words had I tried to read them.
And then at last I heard it, a scratchy, guttural, pathetic, little sound, not unlike the cat that had called to me from Trissie’s barn. It cried as air burned its lungs for the first time, and its skin first felt the cold sting of spring, unprotected by the warmth of Mae’s womb. It cried in sudden loneliness. It cried in hunger, another mouth to feed. Such a sound had driven Walter to break that cat’s neck. Inside me, it set every nerve alive with the desire to protect it. And then it stopped.
More minutes that seemed like hours passed, and then Josephine was in my room. She held a little bundle wrapped in a thin blanket. She brought it to me and placed it in my arms. “I’s a li’l girl chile,” she said, beaming wide. “Some thing Miss Mae don’ know, a’ready”.
She was tiny, no more than one of those mangy cats, but the most breath-taking thing I had ever seen. In her first moments of infancy, her mother’s beauty shone from her and I understood what Leon meant when he said he would remember me as long as the sun rose in the morning. I pushed the blanket away from her face and gazed upon her, shaking in wonder and in joy. “When ‘ll Mae wake up from the ether?” I asked.
Josephine shook her head. “I’s but a minute o’ two, once you stops breathin’ it.” Her voice was wrong.
Dr. Sullivan came in, drying his hands on a cloth. He shook his head gently at Josephine and she drew a sharp breath of air. He turned to me with a stern look in his eyes. “You’ll want to get started right away, Catherine.”
“Started?” I smiled down at the tiny person cuddled in my arms.
“A baby needs to eat, Miss,” he said. “You’re young. There’s a very good chance, if she’ll take, but you’ll need to start now.”
He expected me to feed Mae’s baby! My smile turned to one of embarrassment. “I ain’t her nursemaid,” I said. “Mae should be the one to feed her.”
Dr. Sullivan’s face formed a tight-lipped grimace and he shook his head again. “Josephine?”
Josephine looked at him apologetically. “Yo’ all this baby gots now, Miss Kate,” she said. “Miss Mae ain’t wakin’ from the ether.”
When he could see my confusion, Dr. Sullivan added, “Miss Walcott lost too much blood. Her heart stopped during the procedure, I’m afraid. She didn’t make it.”
His words might well have reached inside my chest and torn my heart in two. Tears stung my eyes as I stared wildly back and forth between them. Mae had died. My arms began trembling as I looked down into her daughter’s beautiful face. My knees turned to water and I stumbled backward sitting hard on my bed when I reached it. The disturbance woke the baby and she began to cry.
“It’s important to start right away,” Dr. Sullivan reminded me. “I can hold her while you disrobe.”
I could barely move and Josephine came to my aid. Grateful at once for Abbie’s alterations to my dresses, she loosed it easily and I gazed doubtfully down upon my breasts. “I won’t be much of a meal, I expect.” I said. “I’ve been up every mornin’, same time every day, jus’ like Mr. Duncan said, but no milk comes out of ‘em.”
“You won’t have much to offer at first, but she’ll soon fix you of that,” Dr. Sullivan agreed, His voice was reassuring. “It’s a biological defense. Nature’s way of giving the baby a chance.”
Dr. Sullivan unwrapped the bundle of fragile innocence and placed her naked in my arms, showing me how to hold her so she wouldn’t choke. He pressed her mouth to my teat. Her hot, wet mouth felt good at first in a tickling way and then there was a sharp pain that went away quickly as she latched on. I felt as if she would drain the very life from my body right into her own.
“Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,” I whispered.
“Keats,” Dr. Sullivan smiled.
I gave him a funny stare. I’d forgotten the name of Judge’s poet.
“It’s important not to let her get frustrated before you give yourself a chance to start producing,” he said after a few moments.
He gently pulled her away and her face at once twisted up into pitiful tears. He turned her in my arms showing me again how to hold her and repeated the process at my other breast, slightly more painful than the first. When we pulled her away again, she cried herself back to sleep.
“Every two to four hours, until you’re producing enough she stops on her own,” Dr. Sullivan said. He disappeared into the other room.
I rocked her back and forth, her soft warm skin cuddled against mine, completely unable to come to terms with the events of the morning. Such emotion had never flowed in my body before. Tears washed unchecked down my cheeks at the miracle in my arms and the peaceful memory of her mother’s sleeping face. My first morning at Abbie’s brothel, I had lain crying in my bed, destitute with guilt that I was unable to bear a child. Tragedy had chosen for me what fertility could not, and the tender warmth of maternity tingled in my breasts.
Nature takes back what’s hers. Some things stand a time longer than others, but eventually she takes them all the same. Now she had taken Mae. Someday, she will take us all and to that account I owed my very name. I walked to my bedroom window and looked out. The irises were in bloom.
When Dr. Sullivan returned, it was with the birth record and some other less enjoyable papers on a slate. “I’ll need some more information,” he said. “Did Miss Walcott have a name picked out?”
My mind drifted back to a place where two trees marked a lonely spot at the edge of a meadow. Nearby, my father and I stood watching as the purple glow of the summer flowers lit up the entire meadow in a moment of wonder, miraculous as the little girl asleep against my breast. Fitting that those pretty flowers occasionally bloom where a patch of dirt once reminded me that Nature takes back what’s hers. I felt Walter’s hand on my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around his leg and and we watched together in silence.
“For the record of birth, Catherine. Did she have a name?”
I touched her tender skin, soft, fragile, innocent, and violet still with the first breaths of her new life.
“Iris,” I said, tracing my fingers gently through her tiny newborn hairs. “Her name’s Iris.”
© 2013 Anne Schilde
Thank you all so much for reading about Kate! ♥