‘Til Death Do Us Part
Western Pennsylvania, 1905
Olive, a curly blonde-haired girl with pale blue eyes, climbed onto the bed and wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck.
Polly Westchester coughed at the touch of her child. She lay motionless, waiting for the pain of her next contraction. Her children circled the iron bed, watching Polly struggle to breathe. Polly’s pale face had assumed a shade of gray. Her eyes reflected the purple and yellow wallpaper deliberately darkened by drawn draperies. Shining on the ceiling, a single dot of light refracted from the daisy-filled crystal vase.
Ben, Olive’s oldest brother, grabbed the child around the waist. “Come, sweetie. Leave Mama be.”
After carrying her out of the bedroom, Ben deposited Olive in the corner landing of the back staircase, leading to the kitchen. Olive immediately began a backward descent on her hands and knees.
“Do not play on the steps alone, Olive,” said Ben, gently. “Stay here and wait for me.”
Olive sat on the plank floor, drawing circles with her finger in the sticky, warm, red liquid that covered her legs. A bitter taste filled her mouth as she sucked on her fingers. She gagged.
“Mama,” the tiny voice repeated, sobbing.
Her father, Henderson, rushed in from the barn, pushing her aside on his way up the stairs.
“When did labor start? Why wasn’t I called sooner? Levi, fetch the doctor. Hurry. Ride hard,” Henderson barked at his third son as his calloused hands caressed his wife. “Polly, stay with me. You’ve done this seven times before. Look at me. Stay with me.”
Henderson lowered his head to hear his wife speak. “Where’s Olive?” A tear dropped onto her cheek.
“Don’t worry about the child. You need to save your energy.” Henderson squeezed Polly’s hand. Knowing it would take at least ten minutes for Levi to gallop four miles into Campbellsville and another twenty minutes for the doctor’s buggy to arrive, he asked anyway, “Where’s the damn doctor?”
“Tell the children I love them. Henderson, I love…” As Henderson moved closer to Polly, he stepped in front of the gap in the drapery, blocking the sun’s ray; the room went dark. With an expulsion of air, Polly’s voice stopped.
“No. Don’t. No! You mustn’t leave me!” Henderson buried his head in the pillow. He commanded a muffled, “Everyone, leave the room now. I need to be alone with her.”
The girls clutched each other while the older boys remained straight-faced and stoic. Salty tears dripped down Fred’s face, Polly and Henderson’s youngest boy. Reluctantly, all complied, leaving their father alone with their mother. Engrossed in their grief, no one saw Olive sneak past them and back into the bedroom.
The farmer stroked his wife’s sweat-drenched, curly blonde hair, his fingers catching in the tangles. His face streaked with tears, absorbed in grief as he gently closed her eyelids. They were married twenty-six years. She bore him seven healthy children—Ben, the oldest, was already twenty-five. The thought caused Henderson to bolt upright. The baby. What of the baby?
The quilt under which Polly lay was drenched in blood. Henderson carefully lifted back the bed coverings. He was met with the stench of excrement. The foulness penetrated his nose and mouth. Polly seemed to float in a pool of dark red jelly, polluted with black globules. The expelled fetus lay, lifeless, a mangled blob of flesh and slime, the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. Henderson grabbed for his mouth, nearly vomiting at the sight. The infant was a boy.
Henderson, feeling a tug at his trouser, looked down to see two tiny, outstretched hands, pleading for attention. Olive was too small to see the horrors he was subject to. His reddened face twitched at the child. Olive was supposed to be another boy. Instead, the boy lay motionless on the bed.
“Matilda, come get your sister.”
Nineteen-year-old Matilda wiped her nose on her sleeve before jumping at her father’s order. The remaining Westchester siblings waited outside their mother’s bedroom door, hugging, crying, and consoling each other.
“Yes, Father. Come, Olive, we have to leave.” Hurrying into the room, she reached for the child’s hand. Olive slapped at her sister, refusing to go.
“Papa, Mama!” Olive rubbed her eyes. Tears streaked her blood-stained face. She clutched at Henderson’s leg. “Papa, please. Up.” She begged with an urgency not understood by her young mind.
Henderson shook his leg in dismissal. Olive slid across the room in bewilderment. Stopping in the corner, she faded into the shadows and sobbed.
Ben’s wife, Bessie, reentered Polly’s bedroom and picked up Olive, smearing blood over her clean frock. Carrying Olive out into the hallway, she patted the girl’s back. “Now, now, honey. You come stay with Ben and Bessie tonight. Your Papa is busy. You can play with Nellie and Benny.”
Olive, kicking and wiggling, managed to escape from Bessie’s arms. Clomping forward, determined to reach her mother, she cried, “Mama!”
Her lip quivered as she ran toward the bedroom. Twelve-year-old brother Fred’s quick reflex foiled her re-entry. Clutching the child by the pinafore, he managed to divert her attention.
“Come on, Olive.” This time, she accepted Fred’s hand. Looking up into her brother’s face, she listened as he said, “Let’s go pick some wildflowers. Mama needs them.”
Shedding tears of his own, Fred led Olive down the flowing front staircase, across the expansive foyer, through the double doors, onto the porch, and outside to the flower garden.
“Freddy, why does Mama need flowers?” The tiny voice was barely audible.
Fred halted at the garden’s edge. His knees buckled as he fell to the ground. Grabbing Olive around the waist, he held tightly. Fred swallowed to wet his throat, but the words still cracked.
“Mama is now a beautiful angel. We’ll pick flowers for her to give to God as a present when she enters heaven.”
Pharmacy to Fiction.
Writing as a second career. S. Lee Fisher, aka Dr. “P.”, clinical pharmacist was born and raised in ‘small town’ Pennsylvania. After moving to Pittsburgh, she enjoyed a successful corporate career managing retrospective clinical programs for the PBM side of a Fortune 20 company.
Fisher began writing fiction as a means of channeling the pain and grief of her father’s passing. In the process, she discovered that she enjoys the creativity of telling stories.
Now a full-time novelist, Fisher lives on the gulf coast of Florida with her husband of 37 years, Ralph. When she’s not writing, she enjoys painting watercolors, ballroom dancing, and swimming.