Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Chapter 8 Poppies

— Chapter 8 — Alan woke the next morning with a hop in his step and a whistle on his lips. He had done it--he could now give Jobeth the life she deserved! He washed his face in a warm pot of water Jobeth had heated for him. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed her narrow back and grimaced. She was so very thin. But still, he thought, she was very well groomed with her hair piled up in the latest twist. “Here you go,” Jobeth smiled, handing Alan his lunch wrapped up in a burlap bag. They had been using it to carry their food in when they had been on the road. “It’s leftovers from last night.” “Thanks,” Alan said, drying his face with an old towel. Jobeth stood uncomfortably before him, trying not to meet his gaze. She cleared her throat and started busying herself by tidying up the main room. There was a smaller room off to the side where Shawna and Jonah slept on the floor in blankets. Above was a loft the length of the house. “Are you nervous?” Jobeth asked while dusting the only chair in the room with a rag. She couldn’t look at Alan’s round, flat face. “Not really. I’m used to carpentry work,” Alan returned. This was the first time he had ever been totally alone with Jobeth and he felt at a loss for words. Each time he opened his mouth his tongue felt thick and heavy. “Well,” Jobeth said, having no choice but to look at him. He stood awkwardly with his lunch clasped in his hands. “You don’t want to be late for your first day.” “No,” Alan said, wide-eyed. He grabbed his hat off the chair where he had left it the night before and started for the door. “Jobeth?” He paused, keeping his back to the girl behind him. “Yes?” she asked with her hands clasped together. Her heart began to pound anxiously. Had Alan noticed her condition now that she was not layered down with clothes? “Uh,” the boy faltered not knowing how to tell Jobeth what he needed to say. He pressed his lips tightly together. It had to be done. It was the best for everyone. The blood drained from Jobeth’s face. Alan had to know. She would be out in the cold once again. Maybe he would let her stay the winter, please God. “No one knows you and Jonah are here. I didn’t think they should know.” Alan said looking embarrassed. This was the fly in the ointment. The one thing he could not give Jobeth still. “Why not?” Jobeth asked, surprised and a little relieved. “What about Shawna?” Alan stood in the doorway feeling like a failure once again. Just when he thought he might succeed in her eyes, another obstacle was put in his way. “These people . . . listen, we have been on the road for two months. Finally we can live in a real house that ain’t about to fall in on us, and it’s ours. Not some shack we steal into in the night and sneak out of during the day. I am paying for it monthly at the bank in town. I set it up with this Mr. Myers, he is some big shot at the bank. He said this place was for sale. With my job we could get a horse, maybe even a buggy. Shawna can go to school and be educated like them other proper girls. We can have real food--not these meager bits of scrap we been living on. But if you and Jonah are found out . . .” he stuttered, feeling ashamed. Could he ask so much of Jonah and Jobeth? “Why?” Jobeth protested, her hands gripping the back of the chair. She wanted to lead a normal life again. The baby kicked her hard, a reminder of her present situation and she blushed, shutting her mouth tightly. She had no right to a normal life any longer, let alone to be seen in public. “Because,” Alan said, annoyed by Jobeth’s red face. He just could not stop disappointing her. He breathed hard, running his hand up the side of the rough wooden wall and gazed down at the floor. “They don’t like blacks in this town, Jobeth. Blacks are considered the lowest humans around here.” Remembering the events of the day before, he continued, “I was in town at the lumber yard where I got my job. I was talking to the owner of the shop when this black man walked by. The owner called him ‘boy’ and asked him what he was doing walking by his shop. The black man had fear in his eyes. The type of fear that has seen too much trouble and knows what could happen if he just walks in the wrong place.” His eyes darted from the sight of Jobeth’s gaping mouth. “I told them I had a small sister, Shawna, who would be attending the school. Tonight after work I am gonna sign her up and later I am going to the store and get some credit so she can have dresses. I won’t have the other kids laughing at her because she is dressed in rags. She ain’t going to be ashamed of where she comes from.” Jobeth nodded and wrapped her arms around herself protectively. “We won’t be noticed.” “Good.” Alan turned back to the door again, “You’re a good kid, Jobeth.” And he left, leaving Jobeth standing in the doorway watching after him. She placed a hand on her budding tummy, feeling the occupant inside twisting and turning, and wondered what she was going to do. Life settled down as the winter hit full force. Shawna started school dressed like an angel in her new clothes that Jobeth and Jonah made. Alan had even splurged on a store-bought dress for Shawna. Jobeth was disappointed with his extravagance and said so one morning. “Why waste money on store-bought dresses when I can make the exact same dress for half the price?” Jobeth scowled at the humbled Alan. “Besides, the other children will think she is too high-class for them.” She stomped off to the room she shared with Shawna and threw herself onto the straw bed Jonah had built for them. Alan, confused at Jobeth’s outburst, turned red and clumsily left the house. He walked a few feet from the house and began kicking stones around. He bought the dress to make up to Jobeth for forcing her to stay hidden from the rest of the world. He felt terrible that she could not lead a normal life, a life he felt she deserved. Again he had failed. Alan looked toward town and contemplated leaving early for work. He did not want to see Jobeth’s disappointed face. Shrugging his shoulders, defeated, he began walking down the worn path. A hand on his shoulder stopped him in his tracks and he turned to face Jobeth’s crestfallen image. “I will return the dress. I wasn’t thinking right in the head.” Alan fumbled, his hands jammed into his pockets. “No, Alan.” Jobeth shook her head. He looked at her, wide-eyed, fearing he had done yet another thing wrong. “I am the one who should be apologizing. I acted horribly and for no reason. Please forgive me. The dress was a beautiful idea and Shawna loves it. She will be the envy of her schoolmates.” Alan became red in the face, completely confused. As long as he lived, he would never understand women. “I...I know things ain’t been fair for you and Jonah, with being hidden up here,” Alan said. Jobeth lifted a pale hand in protest. “Alan, please. You have been trying so hard to give us a proper life. Jonah and I don’t mind just staying around here. At least we have each other for company, and there is plenty of work around here to keep us busy.” Jobeth winced, clamping her hand down upon her stomach. The familiar cramping across her middle ripped through her. She wondered if it was normal and wished she could talk to someone about the changes occurring in her body. Alan couldn’t help but notice Jobeth’s pained expression. He went to her and placed an arm protectively around her shoulders. Her face became very pale and her hand gripped her small swollen belly, harder. “You’re not well,” Alan said. Jobeth scanned Alan, liking the way his strong jaw was set firmly with concern. “Something I ate,” she cringed, pain rippling through her. It was stronger and harder. She needed to lie down and said so, panting. “Of course, of course,” Alan supported her back with his hand as they walked into the warm house. Jonah and Shawna were sitting at the newly built table and chairs. Jonah, it turned out, was an excellent carpenter. His handiwork was showing up everywhere in the dwelling, making the small home very cozy. He and Shawna both directed their attention to the door when Alan came bursting through it practically carrying Jobeth. Jonah bounced up, knowing full well what was wrong with her. She must be further along then I first thought, Jonah thought to himself. He bolted to Alan, grabbing the other side of Jobeth. She grasped his hand painfully, her hazel eyes saturated with panic. “Get Alan and Shawna off. I don’t want them to be late,” she whispered to Jonah. He nodded in complete understanding. Jobeth did not want Alan and Shawna to witness the birth of her child. “Must have been that cabbage we ate, Jobeth. I gots the same bellyache.” Alan looked at Jonah, questioningly. He did not look sick. “Me and Jobeth done ate a cabbage we weren’t sure of was good or bad. Guess it weren’t.” Jonah put his hand on his own belly and groaned. Alan looked suspicious at the two crumpled forms beside him. “Yup, what we need to do is lay down till it passes. Gonna end up in the outhouse all day. No work gonna be done today. No, not today. You and Shawna be no help to us sick ones. Better get yourselves off to your business. Nothing can be done for us with you here,” Jonah shook his head scooting the bewildered Alan and Shawna out the door. “Jobeth, I told you, you shouldn’t have eaten so much of that old cabbage,” Jonah eyed Alan. “See, Jobeth ate most of it. I guess that’s why it is getting back at her worse than me.” Hunched over in agony, Jobeth couldn’t understand why Jonah was lying for her, but she was grateful. The pain began to subside. “Alan, please get to work. You and Shawna are already late. I will be fine. I already feel a little better. I just need to lie down for a bit.” She straightened her rail thin frame and walked, alone, to the bedroom. “If you think so…” Alan hesitated. Jobeth suddenly seemed better. Again, he shrugged, not knowing what to do. He couldn’t miss any work. If he did, he would lose a day’s wages, wages that were needed. He could see Jonah helping Jobeth to her room. The two boys now slept in the upstairs loft together. “Come on, Shawna,” Alan said to the mystified child. She obediently grabbed hold of his hand. ”Is Jobeth gonna be all right?” Shawna asked in her tiny voice. ”Yes. She just ate something that didn’t agree with her. Jonah will take good care of her.” Alan stood in the doorway ready to leave, where Jobeth lay. ”I’m leaving!” He yelled. From the bedroom he could hear Jonah saying goodbye and a strained farewell from Jobeth. Suddenly he felt he should stay. There seemed more to the situation than met the eye. Alan’s free hand raked through his brown hair: a habit he had when he was nervous and confused. Jonah did not really seem sick and Jobeth would be in good hands. There was no reason for him to stay behind. It was just a feeling in his gut. But then again, Jobeth had seemed in a hurry for them to leave. Not knowing what to do, he turned away from the warm room with Shawna in tow and closed the door gently behind him. Jobeth did not seem to want him around anyway. She seemed quite happy to have Jonah with her. Jonah sat anxiously beside Jobeth. She writhed on the bed in pain, clutching her extended abdomen. There was a silent click from outside as Alan shut the door. The coast was clear and Jonah looked into Jobeth’s twisted pale face. “It looks like your baby is gonna come, Jobeth,” Jonah said tenderly, smoothing the hair from her sweaty brow. Jobeth’s eyes darted, surprised. “Does Alan know?” Fear mingled with her pain as she clutched her belly. “Naw, he don’t know, but he gonna have to know soon,” Jonah said, rubbing her arm. Jobeth moaned, menstrual-like cramps boring through her again. “It’s gonna be all right, Jobeth. I am figuring the reason yah don’t tell us about the baby is because you married a bad man. Makes sense you take yourself away from those bad types,” Jonah soothed patiently, trying to reassure her. Jobeth started to cry. How could she tell Jonah she was not married? “Now don’t cry. It’ll be all right,” Jonah comforted, glancing at Jobeth’s hard belly. “You sure is small for your time to come.” “That’s because I’m not at my time. I’m only a little over six months along.” Jobeth wheezed through clenched teeth. Her body felt possessed as though it wanted to turn inside out. Hard as she tried to stop it, her body was doing its own thing. It was awful. The worst pain she had ever experienced. When another contraction seized her, she let out a loud wail. Jonah began to worry. Six months was too early for the child to come. How would it survive? He frowned on the whimpering Jobeth, who howled while holding tightly to her belly. “I’m gonna get some blankets to wrap the babe in and some water to wash him.” Jonah stood from the bed, his head hanging sadly. Jobeth’s baby could not possibly survive. “Jonah, don’t leave me,” Jobeth sobbed reaching out and grabbing the sleeve of his shirt. “I know it’s too soon. Please stay.” Jonah closed his eyes and squeezed his full lips together. He nodded and held Jobeth’s hand tight. “Aaaah!” Jobeth gasped, her contractions becoming one constant pain. “Talk to me Jonah. Please!” she panted. Sweat started to run down her face and she held her breath and strained as the urge to push consumed her body. “Maybe you should bear down if you have the urge,” Jonah said, wiping Jobeth’s face with a corner of the quilt she lay on. There was a basin of water beside the bed for Jobeth and Shawna to clean up in the morning. With all the commotion, Jobeth had not had time to change the water. Jonah looked around for a cloth and grabbed a damp towel resting on the floor. He quickly dunked it into the water basin and placed the wet towel on Jobeth’s streaming forehead. “Thank you,” Jobeth breathed and let out a blood-curdling cry. Jonah reached behind her back and helped Jobeth situate herself, her chest pressing forcefully on her bent thighs. Jobeth pushed, her veins pumping furiously from her forehead. A warm gush of fluid poured from between her legs, soaking her and the bed. “Did I wet myself?” she asked, embarrassed. Jonah, who was now supporting her back from behind whispered into Jobeth’s ear. “No, Jobeth, your water broke. The baby is coming.” He sighed. It was too late to go back now. The child would have to be born. Jobeth screamed in agony for two hours as Jonah slowly coaxed her into allowing him to see if the baby was starting to come out. At first she had refused, mortified. But with each contraction the pressure became too much and soon she relented, just wanting it to finally be over. “I see the head,” Jonah cried excitedly, looking up from between Jobeth’s trembling legs and into her fevered face. A tiny head, the size of an apple, all covered in black curly hair, slithered out. Jonah turned the child’s face upward and inserted his pinky finger into its small mouth, clearing the mucous. “One more push, Jobeth. Just one more,” He said holding firmly to the miniature head. Jobeth tightened her grip on her legs and closed her eyes, trying to gather all of her strength. She was exhausted and could not take much more. “You can do it, Jobeth. Please, one more push,” Jonah cried out, noticing how fatigued she was. Jobeth braced herself and, straining with all her might, pushed. Jonah held the incredibly small baby as it slipped out. Infinitesimally small hands and feet flailed weakly. Never had Jonah seen anything so small. Jobeth collapsed onto the bed, exhausted, breathing heavily. It was over. Jonah cut the cord and wrapped the baby in a blanket, wiping the fluids from the birth off him. The baby was a boy and he was alive. “What is it?” Jobeth asked without emotion. A frail meowing noise came from the blanket Jonah held. Almost like a cry of protest over his mother’s rejection. Something pulled at Jobeth’s heart. The child was her baby. It was not his fault how he had been created. “He’s a boy,” Jonah said sadly, noticing the tiny infant struggling for air. His small scrawny chest heaved uncontrollably up and down. “Let me hold my son,” Jobeth said gravely, a tear sliding down her face. Jonah placed the baby into her arms. She quickly uncovered him and undid the buttons of her blouse. Tiny dark eyes looked up at Jobeth lovingly. Her heart melted as she loosened a breast from her stays. She placed a nipple, darkened from pregnancy, into his small gaping mouth. Her breast was nearly the size of the child. The infant tried to suckle but did not have the strength. Jobeth hummed a lullaby and rocked her wee son as he tried to feed from his mother. Jonah, holding himself, looked on with tears in his eyes. The baby’s chest was jumping in spasms. “I am naming him Jonah after you,” Jobeth sobbed, touching the soft curly down on the baby’s head. She was not blind. She could see the irregular movement of the baby’s chest. His lungs just were not developed enough. The child was literally gasping for air. “Oh, that is too kind,” Jonah choked out, unable to contain his emotions as he watched mother and child. The baby, although small, was the most beautiful infant Jonah had ever seen. “You are my best friend, Jonah. It would be an honor to me and my son if you accepted.” Jobeth smiled through her tears. She reached out her hand to him. Jonah received it and bent beside her and the small newborn. He reached out his dark finger and placed it on the infant’s small transparent cheek. His finger took up most of the child’s face. The baby looked at Jonah, as though he recognized his namesake and his little chest stopped rising painfully. Jonah felt his tiny life leave. Jobeth let out a wail, the sound of a wounded animal, as she felt the baby’s lips fall from her breast lifelessly. She clutched the dead child close to her chest wanting to squeeze him back into her body where he was alive and well. “I want my child,” she cried out in pure agony. Jonah, overcome with emotion encircled his arms around Jobeth and the baby, scooping the two into the safety of his embrace. He rocked her back and forth in his arms as she cried, brokenhearted, for her son. They buried the infant Jonah, in a tiny coffin that the senior Jonah built in haste. He had prepared the wood earlier, planning to surprise Jobeth with a cradle. Tears fell freely as he nailed the lid of the small coffin over the wrapped body of the baby. Jobeth had enshrouded the child tenderly and lovingly in a soft blue and pink quilt that she had made just recently for Shawna. Tears fell silently as she kissed her son’s curly head and handed the child to Jonah to place in the miniscule coffin. Weak as Jobeth was from the terrible ordeal of childbirth, she walked stiffly beside Jonah, out into the backfield. She wore a shawl wrapped around her for warmth and it hung limply, dragging on the icy ground. Jonah stopped at a clearing and looked at Jobeth questioningly. She gazed around slowly, feeling a clean breeze brush her wet cheeks. “This is a good place,” Jobeth said with little emotion. Wild flowers would sway gently in the breeze and the flutter of small wings would bustle out from hiding spots in the tall grass when spring came. She could imagine how it would be alive with nature. The place would be lovely. But for now, because it was winter, the tall grass pictured in her mind was standing yellow poking out of its white winter blanket, waiting for spring and the warmth of summer to be reborn. Jonah placed a quilt on the tightly packed snow. Gently he placed the coffin down and retrieved his shovel. It would be hard work breaking the frozen ground, but Jobeth had insisted that the baby be buried that day. She sat the coffin down beside her and lovingly placed her hand on the smooth surface, rubbing the grain of the wood. Jonah worked with a fever all afternoon, digging the grave for his namesake. Tears refused to stop falling and he could not look at the figure of Jobeth draped protectively over the wooden box. His heart ached to comfort her, but she didn’t want comfort, she wanted the baby buried. So he continued to dig into the frozen ground, blinded by his own tears. When the grave had been dug deep enough, Jonah gently removed Jobeth’s exhausted form that was clenched tightly to the little crate. Jobeth then watched with vacant eyes and a heart as cold as ice, as he placed the coffin into the hole. She struggled to stand up, her strength completely wasted. Jonah went to her and helped her stand, his large hand supporting Jobeth under her arm. She was weak as a newborn fawn and as light as the snow that fell to the ground. Together they walked to the foot of the grave, looking across the white field. Jonah cleared his throat and tried to think of a proper farewell for little Jonah. “Go with the angels, little Jonah. You won’t feel pain ever again. God has got you now. No one is ever gonna hurt yah, little one. You will always be in our hearts and one day we will meet again.” Jonah spoke directly to the sky, as though he truly believed he was speaking to the babe in heaven. Jobeth gazed up into Jonah’s dark wet eyes, her own eyes dry and distant. “I do not want anyone to know about little Jonah.” The words came out icy, in a voice Jonah did not recognize. Not believing his ears, he stared at Jobeth in shock. “Why not?” “I was not married, Jonah. My foster father made me . . . forced me to be with him.” Jobeth stammered on her words. She had never said them out loud before. “I have committed a great sin and God has punished me by taking my son. I didn’t deserve to have little Jonah and I do not deserve to grieve for him aloud. He was conceived in violence and I hated him and his father. I had wished my child never to be born and now I will have to live my life as though he never was.” She turned stiffly from Jonah’s stunned face and headed back toward the house, leaving him to stare after her, baffled. “Oh, girl, you done nothing wrong,” Jonah said out loud to himself. “But you got a lot of wrong done to you. God help yah with the blame you got nestled up inside. It’s gonna eat you alive . . . God help yah.” He shook his head and rubbed his face with his hanky. It had been quite a day. A day he was not likely to forget anytime soon. He scratched his head and began slowly to fill the smallest grave he had ever beheld. He winced, repulsed at the sound of the cold earth thudding sickly onto the coffin.

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