By Ruth Edgett
My baby brother may die today, but my parents say there are still chores to attend and customs to be kept.
Mother is making butter, because Monday is always the day she makes butter. She is at the churn next to the kitchen stove, which has been moved from the summer kitchen to the dining room for the winter. She has just begun to work the dash and I can hear its faint squish-and-shush from my seat nearby at the big table where we take our meals. I am in Mother’s chair facing the window. I can see Father outdoors at the wood pile moving snow, lifting logs, heaving the axe, and puffing great clouds of steam into the bright morning air. I don’t know if we need that much kindling.
We are barely three weeks into 1933 and bound to our lighthouse island by the ice and winds over St. George’s Bay. We children cannot attend school on the mainland in winter, so we are being educated according to the Nova Scotia Correspondence Program for Outposts. I, Grace Mitchell, am twelve and in grade seven. My next sister, Rose, is ten-and-a-half. Colin is eight, Elizabeth is six and James, if he makes it, will be two next month.
The sound of James wheezing carries from the parlour to the dining room where Rose, Colin, Elizabeth and I are hunched over our lessons. We are well ahead in our work, but we are keeping occupied all the same. Sometimes we are allowed story books, and I have one open now alongside my writing paper.
Off to my left, Nurse Chisholm—Chizzey to us—is jiggling James in her arms, pacing from his crib in the parlour, just through the dining room door and back into the parlour again. She has been doing this for days. Every time she crosses the threshold the floor boards creak, Mother looks up from her churning and I look up from my book.
Father brought Chizzey to the island by horse and sleigh last week, only a few hours before the big Nor’easter that buried the wood pile and shoved ice around so violently that we still cannot see the bay. There are tall hummocks of broken ice all along our shoreline that can only be seen past from the light tower, and we children are not allowed up there.
We are lucky that Chizzey came when she did, for there will be no more commerce with the mainland until the ice turns solid in the bay once again and Father sets out a trail of spruce saplings to mark a route from shore to shore. He would have preferred to bring the midwife who delivered each of us, but Dr. MacDonald sent Chizzey, a Registered Nurse, instead and she took charge almost as soon as she set foot in the house.
“Good, ventilation is always the best cure for a chest complaint,” I heard her say as she showed Father and Mother how to air the parlour.
Every day, Chizzey measures out quinine for James’ fever, records his temperature, listens carefully to his breathing and follows the beating of his heart with her stethoscope. She has the three of them arranged into shifts around the clock. “Vigilance” is a word she has been using. I must say I admire her backbone. My parents aren’t nearly as docile as they seem.
We children have been forbidden from the parlour since our brother was moved in last Wednesday, but I know it is cold in there. Usually at this time of year, the squat black base burner is too hot to touch, and its square mica windows are glowing red. Today they are cool and grey, as they have been since Chizzey arrived.
“All the better to clear out the lungs,” she has said.
Right now, Chizzey’s pacing makes me think of how I nursed a little piglet ages ago when I was just a child of five.
“It’s the runt of the litter,” Father told me one winter night as he placed an old crate on the open oven door. I peeked inside at a tiny, naked thing not even as long as a ruler. It was curled into itself and shivering from being shut out of its mother’s warmth in the barn. “We’ll have to keep it inside for a while if it’s to have any chance at all.”
I watched that evening as Mother heated milk and poured it into a bottle, the way I’d seen her do for Colin and Elizabeth sometimes in the early days after they’d outgrown her own breasts. I saw her nudge the little pig’s nose with the rubber nipple until finally it understood and began to suckle.
When the runt had taken all he could, Mother wrapped him in an old dish towel and let me take him in my arms. I loved his warm body against my chest, the feel of his small sides heaving with life, yet the delicacy of him as he squinted from barely-opened eyes. He made little snoring sounds through his funny, flattened snout. Tiny silver hairs covered his body and they felt like silk. I paced the floor with him, stroking him, imagining him as my child.
The next morning I was at the oven door before daylight, even before Father came down from extinguishing the light in the tower. I wanted to stroke the baby again and feel his heart beating against mine. But when I reached into the box, his skin was cool and his body did not give softly to my touch the way it had the night before. When Father came upon us I was pacing the room, stroking my piglet, hugging him to me, wishing the warm life to come back.
Father poked a large finger into my bundle, paused awhile and nodded. “He’s dead,” he said. “Give him here,” and he held out just one hand.
But I hugged the pig all the harder and rocked him, still hoping for breath to return. “Nothing you do is going to bring him alive,” Father said, shaking his head. “Let me have him.” He was crouching near me, still holding out his hand.
By this time, Mother had come downstairs. “Your father’s right, Grace. We can’t keep a dead animal in the house.”
Later, I looked outside and saw Father walking toward the manure pile holding the pig by one hind leg. It was hanging stiffly from his hand, snout down. When he reached a particular distance away from the mound he halted, drew his arm in a backwards arc, then swept it sharply forward. At the top of his swing, Father let go and my little runt pig flew through the air, all the way to the peak of that mountain.
I checked a few times through the day, and at every peeking there seemed to be a few more scavenger birds and a little less pig. By the time daylight dimmed, I could no longer distinguish my piglet. There were only a few crows fighting for spots at the summit to show me that there had even been a little pig at all.
As I watch Father today at the wood pile, I need to squeeze my eyes tight against a picture of him holding James by one ankle and swinging. But that is silly, so I will push the thought hard from my mind and go back to my reading. I am old enough to be strong, and I do not need to be told that today is the day to prove it. I am the example for the younger ones and have an idea that if I should break, we all will.
Not Father, though.
I’ve heard Mother and Aunt Minnie say that the Great War made him the way he is—hard, I think they mean. Father is not unkind, though. He has expectations of us, of course, and not much time for weakness. He’s made me his “sergeant”, and it is my job to keep the others in order. Most of the time I live up to my rank, but I have to admit that on a day like today, I would get a lift from a short bounce on Father’s knee, or the feel of his hand on my shoulder.
There is the clock on the mantle. As it ticks by the minutes, and as Mother’s dash calls the butter into being, I mark another sound: Through the walls and windows of our little outpost seeps the constant sigh of the sea. This swelling and receding far out beyond the coastal ice is so much a part of our lives that in ordinary times I barely notice. But, today, as James struggles and we sit quietly waiting, the water’s rhythm comes to the fore. It is the sound of our whole world breathing, holding its breath, then breathing again.
I know I am wasting paper, but I have allowed myself to begin aimless doodling. I am making ovals interconnected with circles, giving them straight stick legs, round snouts and curly tails. I draw five in stair-step sizes and give each a name: Grace, Rose, Colin, Elizabeth, James. But the creaking floor makes me look up. Chizzey has laid James in his crib and is padding toward Mother by the stove.
“You should go to your baby now, Mrs. Mitchell.”
“But the butter is nearly set…” Momma says in a voice that I would not recognize if I were not looking directly at her.
Chizzey grasps the handle of the churn, leans in and enunciates: “Mrs. Mitchell, go to your child. I will finish the butter.”
Mother stands, whirls around with the towel from this morning’s dishes still over her shoulder, and walks straight through the dining room, past all of us, into the parlour and straight for James’ crib near the front window. She reaches down quickly, almost too roughly, then checks herself and picks James up ever-so-gently. She bends her face to his and presses an ear to his chest. I am the only one of us children who can see far enough inside the room to watch what our mother is doing. Before she swings around and sees me looking, I turn my eyes back to the pages of my story book, and to the words on the pages, but there is nothing in them that I comprehend.
Now Mother takes up the pacing like Chizzey before her—and me before that with my little pig. I press my palms together, tight like a prayer, and squeeze them between my knees.
Elizabeth, who sits to my left with her back to everything, is practicing her name with the coloured pencils that Aunt Minnie sent in the Christmas mail. Colin is on the opposite side to Elizabeth toward the far end of the table. He is pressing hard on his pencil and chewing the inside of his cheek as he works on his sums. Rose is on the same side as Colin but closer to me, and her place allows her to see some distance into the parlour. Just now, though, she has put her elbows on the table so that she can rest her face on her hands and push the heels of them hard into her eyes.
I fix my attention on the top of my sister’s head willing her to be strong for I know she is our weakest link. If she should begin to sob, Elizabeth opposite her will follow suit and we will have a calamity. Colin will do his best to imitate Father, but I have seen his lip tremble in previous difficulties, so we cannot count on him being sturdy enough. I stare at Rose for what seems like a long time but she doesn’t raise her head or show that she notices me. Any spoken word might trigger a flood, so I will say nothing and hope that my own quiet will be enough of a steadying force.
There is a long, trembling wheeze. Colin and I glance at each other, then lower our heads. Rose keeps on rubbing her hands into her eyes, and when I look up again Mother is still pacing in the parlour with her ear to James’ chest. Now he makes no sound at all. She is holding him tightly to her and casting around, almost as though she’s ready to run but doesn’t know where to go. I wonder how long Mother will be able to keep James before Father realizes that he’s not breathing.
I suck in my own breath. I don’t want my brother to die. I don’t want to feel his skin cold and stiff. I don’t want us to have to get him out of our house because he’s dead. The back of my hand goes to my eye before I can stop it. I don’t think anyone has seen.
Over by the stove, there is still the soft beating of the butter churn as Chizzey keeps up her bargain with Mother. Then comes another small wheeze from the parlour. Now, no sound. Another wheeze, louder this time. We at the table freeze and stare hard at nothing. Silence again, then a gasp and a cough. Another cough. Then two and three right in a row. A low, snuffy whimper rises from the bundle in Mother’s arms, and she gazes directly into James’ face.
When he has been quiet for some time, she lays him in the crib and stares down at him. Finally, she strokes his chest and lets her hand rest there for a bit. She brings the other hand up to rub the back of her neck, then gropes higher at strands escaping from the roll of hair that she always pins just there. Finally she spins around, marches again past all of us at the dining room table, past Chizzey at the churn and directly through the summer kitchen.
She opens the back door and calls, “George, you’d better come.”
So steady and crisp is her voice that she might be referring to a runt piglet or a sickly calf.
I can feel the icy outside air curl around my ankles as she turns from the open door and starts for the parlour. Shortly, my father barges in without even stopping to remove his boots or shake the snow from his jacket. He strides right past us, trailing winter chill behind him and leaving treadstamped bits of snow on the linoleum. Before he’s reached the crib he has pulled off both mitts. He kneels and reaches toward my baby brother with one unsheathed hand. From behind, it seems as though he has burrowed his fingers inside James’ clothes and is holding them there. He cocks his head toward Mother.
Somehow I am standing, with one hand on the table and one on the back of my chair.
“Please, Momma, don’t hand him over,” I think. “Please.”
Father takes notice of Chizzey, who has followed him into the parlour. He rises and backs away from the crib so that she may kneel in his place. She listens, feels around with her stethoscope, considers for awhile, then meets Mother’s eyes.
“The crisis is past,” she says. “He will get better now.”
At the dining table, we all exhale at once. Mother reaches across the distance of the crib and puts a hand on Chizzey’s arm. She seems about to say something, but all she manages is one or two pats, a nod and a weak sort of knitted-brow smile.
My father still has his back toward me, and I watch him move toward Mother. He raises a hand to her shoulder as they step aside to allow Chizzey more room. The nurse begins moving James gently and listening again with her stethoscope. They turn toward each other. Then—still as statues—my parents watch her remove his sweat-soaked clothing and begin replacing it with dry things.
But there is nothing for them to do. Without a word they turn in opposite directions. Mother picks up a clean blanket, re-folds it, then picks up another. My father retraces his path toward the back door, even before the last of his tread marks have melted.
As he’s passing my chair, he places a bare hand on my shoulder. Warm and full of strength, it closes about my collar bone as it might around a stick of wood. I brace myself, but there is only gentle pressure and a pushing down as though I am, briefly, his rail. As he takes the next step and releases his grip, my father’s stony palm brushes my cheek and, for the smallest of moments, he cups it in his hand.
I lift my eyes to him, but he is looking straight ahead as though he must already be thinking about the wood still to be cut. There is something shiny at the inside corner of one eye, and it could possibly be a melted snowflake, or the remnant of a tear caused by the cold and cutting wind outside. But, maybe, it is neither of these.
I watch him cross the summer kitchen and note that, somehow, his shoulders are rounder than I have thought until now. The snow that dusted their edges when he came inside a few minutes ago is making dark patches on his old khaki jacket and small drops are shaking free. My father opens the door, and the calls of winter gulls returning after the storm carry into the house as he passes unhurriedly toward them.
I turn to the pigs I’ve drawn. With heavy and measured strokes—two for each—I cross out our names.
“We are more than this,” I write underneath. Much more.
Then I quietly tear the page from my notebook and ball it up in my hands. When no one is looking, I will drop it into the stove.
Ruth Edgett is author of A Watch in the Night: The story of Pomquet Island’s last lightkeeping family (Nimbus, 2007), a blend of fact and fiction about her mother’s family who were lightkeepers on a small island off Nova Scotia. Much of Ruth’s fiction is inspired by this book, and by stories she was told while growing up in Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island.