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Authors: Jodi Daynard

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7

ABIGAIL’S WORDS TURNED out to be quite
prescient, for the very next day, at around seven in the evening, I was called upon by a frantic servant of the Brown household.

The boy who stood at my door panted for breath. His freckled little face looked imploringly up at me. Susanna Brown, he announced, was “very sick.”

I told him to wait and excused myself to get my shawl and sack. I was sewing a sheet of linen I had woven to make Jeb a new shirt; now, I sewed myself a petticoat instead. I set the work aside and moved quickly to find my medical sack. I checked its contents to be certain all was there: razor, stitching quill, twine, clean rags, ties, clouts, a jar of soft soap, scissors, and several packets of medicinal tea. It was a goodly weight.

As we left, I asked, “Is this Mrs. Brown’s first child?”

“Oh, no, ma’am, her third. It was Dr. Crosby delivered the others, but he has gone to join the army.”

“Her third? Then we must hurry.”

I set off with great haste up through the dunes, the heavy bag knocking against my shoulder. But the boy called me back.

“Miss Boylston! Miss Boylston! This a’ way!” He pointed in the opposite direction.

“What can you mean, pointing there?” I ran back to him with my cumbersome load.

“She’s not at home. She’s on Grape Island. We must go on horseback to the launch at Hough’s Neck.”

“Grape Island? What on earth is she doing there?”

Grape Island had been the scene of a recent skirmish in which one of our boys had been killed.

“She received word that her husband was there and wished to see him, but when she arrived, he had already joined his regiment.”

“It’s a long way off.” I sighed. “And it grows dark.”

I looked about me. The sun had descended in the sky; it nearly touched the sea. The water looked black, foreboding. I had never liked boats. I liked nothing about the irregular rocking feeling, or the wind, or the salt on my clothes. No crisis would have induced me to go with this boy, save a woman alone and in travail. Neither had I any great desire to witness a woman and her babe just then. My own grief was too close, too pressing. I feared breaking down. But if I neglected to save this woman, how long might I be welcome in this town? Long enough to pack my things and join the Boylstons.

“All right,” I finally said.

He helped me onto his horse, and together we set off to Hough’s Neck, where a little boat, hardly more than a dinghy, awaited us. The wind was strong; my hair was swept out of its pins. The beach was empty save for a pair of young lovers who’d escaped the eyes of their relations. They pressed against each other, oblivious to the wind. When they heard us, the man disengaged himself; they then strode hand in hand down the beach in the other direction.

The boy got down first, then helped me off his horse. He steadied the boat, which rocked to and fro in the water. I set my sack in first, then lifted my skirts and stepped in. The boy took a running push and jumped in after me, soaking his poorly shod feet. Off we went through rough waves toward Grape Island. I thought I might faint, and I did something I don’t often do: I prayed.

The boy, small though he was, was a skillful rower. We arrived only slightly the worse for wear about forty minutes later. By then it was dark, and the boy had brought no torches, so we had to grope our way toward a shack in the moonlight. We heard faint moans. Within, we found Mrs. Brown and a Negro servant-girl alone in the gloom.

“Is there no fire?” I called to the girl.

“I’ve had no time to tend it, ma’am,” she said, tears in her voice. “Her illness came on so sudden.”

“Well, then, go now. Take—”

“Peter,” the boy offered, for in my distraction I had entirely forgotten to ask him his name.

“Yes, well, go. Fetch wood. Anything dry will do.”

They left the shack in haste. I heard the wind scream as they opened the door. The island felt abandoned. During the skirmish between our troops, a munitions building had been set afire, and one could still pick up blackened bits of wood. Now we were all alone with naught but screaming wind and crashing waves. What desolate music to accompany a birth!

I approached my patient. Her waters had broken and her sickness was full upon her. She lay on a bed of straw by a cold fire. No anxious husband paced the hall; no women sat chatting.

I bent down and took Mrs. Brown’s hand. “It shall be brighter in here presently,” I said.

“I care little about the ambience,” she replied.

I merely smiled at her foul mood. I was inured to foul moods in laboring women.

“Well, you may not, but I do. I can hardly be expected to work in the dark.”

The door banged open, and Peter entered with an armful of branches. When the fire was going again, I handed the girl a pouch of snakeweed and bade her make some tea of it. My mother had learned about the herb from an Indian woman of her acquaintance.

Turning back to the mother, I asked gently, “How long have you been having pains?”

“Near three hours, but they have not been regular. They don’t feel right to me. I don’t suppose you’ll be much use, light or no. They say you’re a witch. I’m like to die here with my babe.”

Here another pain came upon her. She cried out, and I shooed Peter out of the shack.

“I am not a witch. I’m a midwife,” I said smartly. “Allow me to touch you. It will relieve you to know how long you have to bear this suffering. It cannot be long now.”

I placed a cloth beneath her and felt. A moment later, I drew back with fright.

This babe was breech. I looked up into the darkness in silent entreaty. Oh, Lord, why didst thou seek to test me so?

Endeavoring to sound calm, I said, “The babe is breech. We must find a way to turn him about.”

I had never delivered a breech baby, but had seen my mother do so several times. She had spoken to me about it. But what had she said? I strained to recall that conversation now.

“Peter!” I called. “Peter!”

The boy reentered the shack at a run, his hands full of wood.

“Roll up this pallet and find a second. Quickly, please.”

To Mrs. Brown, I said, “We must use gravity to let this baby fall. I shall guide it as best I am able. Now, if you would stand over here.” I pointed to the foot of the bed.

At last, with the pallets rolled, I had the mother straddle them in a sort of crouching stand. I was obliged to kneel down on the floor at her feet. I knew that once I saw the umbilicus, I had but little time to get the baby out, as it would be pressing upon the cord and could die within moments. The mother wept silently, and when she looked down at me, it was not suspicion or anger I saw but genuine fear.

“Have you children?” she asked me suddenly, but her pains came too quickly for me to form a reply. Then, all at once, I saw the babe’s bottom. “Now, push!” I said, and with a heroic cry from the mother, the babe came into this world.

I rose from my kneeling position with the babe, a tiny girl with a mass of dark red hair. I cleared her mouth and blew on her chest gently. She took a gulp of Grape Island air and let out another loud cry. I tied and cut the cord, then quickly cleaned her, head to little writhing toes—all present and accounted for—with my soft soap and a little butter. I applied a belly-band across the umbilicus and bundled the babe. Then I placed her directly into Mrs. Brown’s arms.

“A beautiful girl she is,” I said, willing back tears.

At the sight of her daughter seemingly alive and well, Susanna Brown burst into tears. She reached for me and touched my arm. Her eyes glistened.

“Where did she get her beautiful hair?” I asked.

“Her father has red hair. He is with Prescott’s regiment in Cambridge.”

I merely nodded.

“He’s a good man.” I saw her smile at her babe, who had found her mother’s breast as I waited for the placenta. I called for the servant, whose name was Janie, to bring me a dish of pennyroyal tea, and I gave it to my patient. Soon she delivered the placenta quite whole. I made her comfortable and sent Janie to find Peter, who was no doubt just beyond the door, attempting to clear his senses of the bloody scene of birthing.

Mrs. Brown suddenly realized she had not introduced herself. “I’m Susanna, by the way.” She smiled. “I’m not always so awfully rude. I’m sorry. I was so frightened—”

“It’s all right,” I assured her.

“No, please. Allow me to apologize. I’m sincerely sorry. Forgive me.”

She took my hand and I nodded silently. Then she gazed at the babe sleeping upon her breast. “She has the look of vigorous life about her. I’ll name her Anna, for my husband’s mother.”

I nodded my agreement. Often, parents held off naming their children—for days or even, sometimes, months—for fear of growing too attached to them.

“And you are Mrs. Boylston?” she asked shyly.

“Elizabeth. But you can call me Lizzie.”

“People say you’re related to our Mrs. Adams. Is it true?”

“Only distantly,” I said, “through my husband.”

“And is your husband in Braintree or has he gone off like all the others?”

“He has—” I began but struggled to continue. “He is dead. On Breed’s Hill. Three weeks ago.”

“Oh.” Her wan face looked stricken. “I have been doubly cruel, then.”

“You may rest easy for your man,” I said. “Washington is there now.” I smiled as reassuringly as I could, willing the tears to stay at bay a little longer. But grief has a will of its own, and the tears came. I sobbed, a hand over my face.

“Dear girl,” she said, placing her hand on my back. “Rest yourself. You must be exhausted, too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Please, sit yourself down. We shall both rest.”

Indeed, there was no question of leaving my patient so soon, and in any case my strength had left me. When Peter returned and had tended the fire, I bade him fetch some straw to make us pallets.

We—Peter, Janie, and I—slept in the shack alongside mother and babe. There were no more blankets, though Susanna offered me one of hers, which I refused. I was cold all night and slept very ill.

I awoke the next morning to find Susanna up and around, the baby in her arms. She was not a new mother and was accustomed to getting on her feet after the birth of a child. I would have preferred she remain in bed, but she seemed eager to be active.

When she saw I was awake, she smiled warmly and said, “Here. Have something. Do.”

I thanked her and took a morsel of biscuit and a dish of tea.

“Who minds your household?” I asked.

“My mother. She will be in a panic by now, I’m sure.”

“Oh, you are right,” I said. “We shall tell her directly.”

“I admit it would ease my mind greatly, though I have no great desire for you to leave, Elizabeth.”

Oh, the way she looked at me then—it was worth every moment of my previous terror!

Susanna would have liked to leave with us, but I told her she should heal another day before endeavoring to travel. I would send Peter back with the boat to fetch her. In bidding her good-bye, I let her go no farther than the shack door, as there was a fierce wind. But she embraced me tenderly; her reserve and suspicion had vanished. Her precious child dozed in her arms. I gently touched Anna’s cheek, which was soft as corn silk.

“I will pray for your husband,” I said. “I’m sure he cannot be long from you. And I will visit you at home in two days’ time.”

“Oh, do. Please.” She grasped my hand. Her gray eyes looked at me with earnest entreaty. “I should love to see you, Lizzie. And you shall meet my other children. They’re spirited, but not wholly bad.”

“I’m sure they’re not.” I smiled.

“And you shall meet some neighbors, too. It is high time. Our women are busy, but not cold. Rough, but not heartless. I imagine they shall even invite you to quilt with them.”

Here Susanna rolled her eyes, telling me she shared my dread of quilting and the hours of vicious gossip such parties often entailed. Then she burst into giggles, showing two missing teeth, which in part explained why she had not smiled previously.

I walked down to the shore, where Peter held the little boat for me in the strong wind. I threw my sack in first, then lifted my dirty petticoats and stepped in. I felt damp and chilled, but my spirit was light as I nestled myself in my shawl. I had done some good in the world and felt myself no longer quite so entirely alone.

BOOK: The Midwife's Revolt
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