March

The low whistle of the northbound train broke a silence made of the shovel’s grating, of birdsong, of the rasp of Eva’s breath. Maud frowned at her daughter, then stepped again on the shoulder of the shovel, forcing the blade into the March soil. This plot of ground, heeled in against a patch of woods, had been worked for garden at one time. Plenty of good soil and sunlight, enough for another rose. Maud had to marvel that her own child had been buried here thirteen years. It seemed more recent than that she’d planted the rose bush to mark the place.

Eva hiccupped a dry sob. Maud didn’t pause, hating to grant the girl so much of her attention as that, the moment it would take to lift her chin and shift her eyes to look.

The ground was damp, and though Maud’s boots were as watertight as they’d ever been, the cold crawled through them. She jabbed the shovel in, knocking loose a hard clump of earth. Then, the dimensions right for a small grave, she dug deeper.

At the next hiccup, Maud said, “Eva, you’ll catch your death, standing out here. Go on to the house.”

“I want to see where it lies,” Eva said.

Maud made no reply. Kids got over things quicker if you let them have their grief. But now she let herself look at Eva, fixing her gaze on her daughter’s face—cold-reddened cheeks and nose, hair straggling down from the loose bun she’d fastened at the back of her neck. A slight figure lost in a linsey-woolsey skirt and her pa’s old work shirt pulled over that, a red wool sweater faded near brown. Her costume all winter. No one had been able to see her shape changing under it. No one but Maud.

Shovel frozen an instant in mid-air, Maud said, “I was married when I was your age. Had John born within a year and you on the way.” She chucked the wet brown earth aside and shoveled up another.

“Tate’d married me—if he knew. If you’d a let me tell.”

“No use plowin’ that ground no more,” Maud said. She hated the harsh sound of her own words, hated seeing Eva shrink back from her. She felt a tightening across her chest. Fear. That’s all it is, she thought. Fear in us both.

“I was stouter’n you, anyways,” she went on. “I can just see it—you working to keep house and feed that boy, your own laundry to do, and diaper cloths, no doubt a baby ever’ year like I did at first.” She didn’t look at Eva at all, not anymore, but kept the shovel in motion. The blade clanged against a buried rock.

A swamp robin shot through the garden and into the woods. With each upward movement of the shovel, Maud caught sight beyond Eva of a wild rhododendron among the bare trees and brush, flower buds pursed against a tangle of dark branches. She chewed her lips as she worked the shovel. If she’d done things right, told Eva’s pa, gone to the McCabe’s, yes, Tate would have married Eva. There would have been a wedding. No doubt at all. A wedding and then a funeral, a church funeral for this one here with a lot of weeping and carrying on, if she knew the McCabes. And in another year’s time, a funeral for Eva. No doubt.

No doubt. Maud feared she’d spoken aloud.

“Doubt” seemed to hang like a clear bell of sound in the air. What she’d done—it was the right thing. It was.

Keeping the girl home. Eva was not a girl for marrying. Maybe when she was older, she’d be stronger. The only thing Maud regretted was not being able to spill her anger at that boy and his whole family. Eva had had to take it all.

Maud scooped out a final shovel load and threw it down. She was still nursing anger at her daughter, at all this. But with the grief, Eva’s and her own, the anger had weakened, slipped sideways out of her.

“Don’t cry over spilt milk. That’s what folks always say. What’s done’s done.” She smoothed the wall of the hole with the shovel blade. “Big enough for roots and a little more,” she said. “Let’s have it.” She stabbed the shovel into the ground to make it stand.

A ground fog was creeping in with the late afternoon. Eva offered her bundle as if it were a living baby she’d been cradling. Maud folded her lips together and took it in both hands, irreverently, as if it were a feed sack, which it also was, and she settled it into the hole. The sack was a tea-stained color with yellow letters stamped on it, a picture of a sheaf of harvested grain. The color floated in the dark soil. Eva had wanted to wrap it in a quilt, but Maud said no. A rose bush wouldn’t know the difference between a quilt and a feed sack. And neither would God. That was Maud’s God, a dumb force. A God as blindsided by life as the rest of them.

“Couldn’t we say some words? I could name it.”

Maud looked away, then back. “So name it.”

“I think I’ll call it March,” Eva said. “Weren’t expected in March. I don’t guess. From what you said, I mean. But it come in March. It’s a cold month.”

“It’s a strong name.” Maud collected her thoughts. “Lord’s prayer says, ‘Give us our bread. Forgive us our debts. To God be the glory.’ That’s about all I know of Bible words.” She took up the shovel again. “Amen.”

Eva was weeping, silently, without sobs, her face blurred by tears. “Never had no chance, did it, Ma? Mama?”

“It breathed a mite. That was all.” Not really breathing. Maud had held it, waiting for it to cry. Stood there. Horrified. Thrilled, too, for the secret-keeping to be at an end. She held her breath and her heart clattered against her ribs. But Eva’s baby only shuddered a little, as if it were troubled or in pain. So strange to see it, so puny, barely human. Burdened already with such a soul. She knew a family in Duston had an early baby. They stashed it behind the stove in the kindling box so it’d be warm all the time. It didn’t suckle, so the woman squeezed milk into its mouth, drop by drop. Maud’s middle boys, Shadrack and Beg, had tried to raise a bird like that just this past summer, dipping their fingers into a pan of milk and dribbling it down the bird’s throat. It died in no time. The baby—that other family’s early baby—had lived, though anyone could see he weren’t right. The family made a fuss over him. She’d likely have done the same for one of her own.

Eva’s baby, though—it wasn’t the same at all. Maud wouldn’t have it nursed along only to uproar two families and die anyways when Eva was hung up on it from all that caring. Had the baby stayed in the womb its full allotment of days and come out with a lusty yell, Maud’s course would have been directed. But it hadn’t yelled. And that was a direction, too. Maud had to believe it.

Eva’s voice broke in on her thoughts. “Shortest verse in the Bible is ‘Jesus Wept.’ I learned that in Sunday School when I went with Mary.”

“Then say that,” Maud told the girl. “For what good church-going ever done a body, especially Mary Collier.”

Eva stared into the grave. “Jesus wept,” she said.

“There. That’s done.” Maud scooped up a shovelful of dirt. “You get on back to the house.”

“I want to stay.”

Weariness settled over Maud. Eva stood, her shoulders slumped, her eyes cast down, red-rimmed. “You’re not to hang around out here,” Maud told her. “I won’t have it. You’ll just give it all away. And what’s the use?”

“I’ll go in,” Eva said. “I’ll go in when you go.”

Maud scattered the dirt in the hole and scooped up another shovelful. Eva had shown more grit in the night than she’d got up in years. Such a sickly girl, always cold, always groaning about this hurt or that. Maud shoveled earth into the hole until the feed sack was covered, then took up the bare canes of the rose.

“Hold it straight then,” she said, and Eva obeyed.

The image of Eva’s baby rushed back at her. Couldn’t have been five months in the womb, its little coppery body traced with blue veins, eyes shut like a kitten’s. She finished filling the hole and tamped the soil tight. Her grandchild. The thought hit her hard, right below her heart.

“Now he’s next my baby,” she managed to say. “The one ‘tween you and Florry. And no one will be the wiser that this rose and the old one mark both places. Just you and me, Eva. We’ll know.”

She’d been brooding all day on that other baby, her thirdborn, a boy Henry had named Jeremiah. Unlike Eva’s poor get, he’d been a big baby, easy to feed, easy to please, a pleasure after Eva herself, who was even then a fretting little thing, always running at the nose, always a worry. He was a few months old when Maud found him beside her in the bed one morning, likely smothered. It had been a bad winter for colds and ailments of all sorts. Henry had felled a tree on his leg and slept bad. Weren’t his fault, nor hers. Just was.

Her brother Tom had dug that grave, only a year or so before he drowned in the river. Oh, Lord, it was no time ago and a hundred years, too. Maud had held herself different then, girlish—though not a twig like Eva—standing here on this very ground thirteen years agone on a winter day, burying a baby. Tom had dug the hole deeper. Straighter. And when Henry could get around on his busted leg a little better, he’d put a wooden cross over the grave. Where’d that got to? The boys probably took it. They packed off everything that wasn’t nailed down. She could replace it if she wanted.

An impulse came over her to hug Eva, but it went against her nature, and so she shrugged the feeling away. She put the shovel over her shoulder and, turning toward the house, said gruffly, “Come on then.”

Henry was home early from work. One more worry to nettle them. They found him poking a chunk of pine into the cookstove. Heat rose up as they opened the kitchen door and hit Maud in the face. A sensation good and bad, like waking in the morning before first light and slipping from the warm covers into the cold air. She looked to the sink and saw that he’d slung a mess of catfish there.

“What’s going on?” he grumbled. “Kids running loose. Fire near out. No supper on the stove.”

Eva said something to her pa, something Maud couldn’t hear before she disappeared into her back room. Maud’s fawn-like girl. Not like the others. Couldn’t beat how sturdy the others were. Maud turned toward Henry.

“It ain’t that bad,” she said. “I wanted to plant that rose your ma give me. Eva—” But with their daughter’s name in her mouth, Maud stopped, not knowing what to add. “Eva helped,” she said finally. “She’s been poor. Cheered her some.”

“You got that girl plumb spoiled.” He turned and gave her his back, walked to the door. “Shouldn’t a pulled her out of school. She’s no help to you, I can see.”

Maud shut her mouth. They’d been over this ground. What good had school ever done Eva? The girl was already too much the dreamer.

Henry spat over the porch rail, then returned to lean in the doorway. “Kids,” he said.

Maud nodded her head. “Well, we got plenty of ‘em.”

“Maybe we’re done.” With those words, Henry’s voice chinked shut like a stove lid falling into place. He stepped outside again, onto the porch.

Maud made no reply. Edith was going on two years old. She was number seven. Since her, Maud had taken to drinking a potion made of tansy root to keep her blood coming and babies away. A neighbor woman farther up the hill mixed it. She knew ways to get rid of babies once they were on the way, though Maud would never have done that. She’d known women to rid themselves to death on such concoctions. And, anyway, they could take care of one more baby.

She glanced out the door at Henry. He limped more of late. His hair didn’t have a bit of gray in it, though, and the lines around his eyes and mouth came of laughter and not age. The boys were playing some game on the porch steps, and Maud could hear Henry’s voice mix with theirs.

A little sorrow wedged itself inside Maud’s mind, like a sliver in a thumb.

Eva’s baby had come on quick, in the deep of the night. Eva woke Maud, complaining of a bellyache. Then she laid herself down on her bed in that little back room of hers and birthed it, just like that. Maud scarcely had time to light the lamp. She’d expected a living baby, later, bigger. Plenty of time to tell Henry. To tell the McCabes. There would have been no getting around telling. In another month or two, Eva’s shape would have shown she was carrying, and if not that, there was the travail, for Eva was not the sort to be quiet when she was in pain. And wouldn’t the whole household know, soon as the baby opened its mouth to cry?

But it didn’t cry.

Henry never woke. Of the kids, only Beg had heard them. He was only eleven years old, always had been the lightest of sleepers. He’d stumbled to the door and peered in, wanted to know what they were fussing about. Maud told him to go back to bed. She didn’t think he’d seen, and he’d said nothing all day. Maybe he thought it was a dream. As for Henry, he’d snored through it all.

“He don’t suspicion it.” She muttered the words over the stove like an incantation. It was better he didn’t know. That man was worse than a woman any day for telling what didn’t need to be told. Maud had lain awake this last month of nights, aching to talk. To share this secret growing too big to keep inside just her own heart. But her heart had proved big enough.

Henry walked back in from the porch and stood beside her. The morning’s coffee was boiling again on the back of the stove. Had to taste vile, but she figured that’s what he was after, and she poured him a cup. He took it and limped to a chair. The moment passed. Maud reached up and pulled a bowl from the high closet just as Florry came in, baby Edith on her hip. Florry was three times the help that Eva had ever been.

“Get the flour out for biscuits,” Maud said.

Where was Eva? Maud started to ask aloud, then didn’t. She would be in her room, probably sound asleep after the night they’d had.

“Just as mought,” Maud said, echoing a voice so far back in memory it surprised her to hear it in her own mouth. Florry babytalked Edith as she worked, gave her a pinch of dough. Henry slurped at his coffee and set it down, then rocked his chair back, stretching out his bad leg. He closed his eyes.

Maud turned to the sink and looked down on the catfish. They were sorry things, just a dozen or so, hardly enough for supper. Henry claimed their creek was fished out, and the bigger river, the Gauley, not much better. Small game was scarcer every year, the deer fairly gone. He wanted to go out West, like a lot of others had, said it’d be a better place to raise boys. Maud picked up a knife and gutted the first catfish into a pail. She gagged at it, which was not like her, and then she straightened, staring out the small window cut in the wall over the sink. The pane of float glass reflected her own eyes. She thought of the little body again with its fingers thin and blue as a possum’s. Its tiny feet. Its puny, shuddering breath. Her thumb and finger pinched over its mouth and nose.

Beg appeared at her elbow, startling her. His yellowy hair stuck out all over his head, like his pa’s, and the grin that was ever-present on his face was pulled down, sideways and wan.

“Why, what is it?” Maud said, her heart jerking like someone had just pulled it from the creek.

“You gonna tell Pap?” he asked.

She leaned down, her face close to his. “What? What would I tell?”

He narrowed his eyes. “You gonna tell Pap about Eva’s baby in the garden?”

Maud grabbed him to her, hugging his face against her breast. “No, Beg,” she said, her voice strangled in her throat. “We’re not gonna tell. Not nobody.”

Bethany Reid has four books of poems, including Sparrow, which won the 2012 Kenneth and Geraldine Gell Poetry Prize. Her short story, “Corinne, at Floodtime,” was a 2018 finalist for the Margarita Donnelly Prize at Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature for Women and was published in 2020 by Fresh Ink. Another story, “Abednego Thornes,” appeared in Passengers Journal.  Bethany lives in Edmonds, Washington, where she takes long walks, writes poems, and is hard at work on a mystery novel. She blogs about all of it at https://www.bethanyareid.com/.