I was feeling like I thought a prisoner on death row might as the dainty woman beside me power-pulled me along like a Roman centurion. She kept the pleasant look on her face like she was laughing at some secret joke but her hand on my arm might has well have been a steel bracelet. We were half way up the steps to the porch when we were all startled by Kerry pelting over and pulling at me.
“Riss! Tie my shoes!”
I looked at him and said, “Excuse me?”
“Jonah says you know how to tie ‘em so they don’t come undone.” I gave him quite a look before he begged, “Please?”
“Oh for Heaven’s sake, what a fuss.” I bent down and sat on the step and picked up his booted foot. “Look here, see the rabbit ears? You do ‘em like this and … what on earth? You must have five pounds of dirt in these shoes already. I woulda thought such a load would have slowed you down for sure.” He laughed then took off proving the dirt held no power over him.
I brushed my overalls off and levered myself up with a gentle hand from Dino then looked around to find everyone standing there staring at me. “Whut?” I asked thinking I must have something nasty on my face.
A blonde girl standing on the porch whispered, in awe, “Like, oh my gosh … he said please.”
I looked at Dino and said, “Is that why you almost choked on your coffee this morning?”
He grinned bashfully. “Well, you know he’s a handful.”
“Of course he is,” I said indignantly. “I’ve never met a healthy little boy that isn’t. You still don’t have to look at him like his nose has fallen off just ‘cause he says please.”
“It’s not his nose they’re looking for but his horns and tail,” laughed a familiar voice behind me.
I turned sharple to find Jace Aberdeen, one of Harry’s best mates standing there and Harry with him. I didn’t much care for Jace and he knew it yet there they both stood grinning like idiots. Knowing them both I told them, “You two better not mess with my boys or I’ll knock you tip over tail.”
Harry and Jace sing-songed “Yes Miss Riss” before sauntering off like they owned the world.
Dino said in an odd voice, “You know Jace?”
“Know him?” I asked still irritated. “I dumped him in Little River three times before he learned to stop messing with my boys out on the playground. Harry finally took him under his wing and taught him caution or I swear I would have tossed him off Lover’s Leap next.”
“Oh? Really?” he asked in a different sort of voice.
“Yes really. I swear that boy has more hair than wit. If someone gave him a haircut all his brains would be gone til it grew back.” Jace had managed to irritate my pride back in place and I looked up to see the older version of the young blonde girl and told her, “You must be Cheryl.” At her hesitant nod I said, “How do you do? I’m Riss and I beg your pardon for the noise but my mouth sometimes runs on a bit.”
A strangled sound from Dino had me turning to look at him but he was all innocence. Cheryl wasn’t sure what to make of me but the man that came over to her side seemed to have no such problem. He stuck out his hand to shake mine and asked, “You wouldn’t happened to be the Riss that taught the boys how to make whistles out of crookneck squash stems would you?”
“Uh … I might be?” But then added quickly, “But only if they minded me and took the ones that didn’t actually have squash growing on them.”
He laughed and it was an older version of Dino’s laugh. “It’s all right, they minded you.”
Relieved I said, “Then sure, that’s me.”
I was introduced around to Alec and Cheryl’s children and then waved in at a frazzled looking girl holding a howling baby. “Wow, now that’s a pair of lungs,” I said to no one in particular. Suddenly the young woman started bawling as much as the baby was and I felt bad thinking maybe what I had said had done it.
“Oh wow, don’t cry please. I didn’t mean anything bad by it.” I walked into the house uninvited and went to the girl and just sort of stood there. The girl was crying and the baby was crying and I noticed it was drawing up its knees.
Cheryl came into the house right as I was taking the baby from the young mother and it stopped crying for all of two seconds before it started up again. “Is it colic?” I asked.
“My baby’s dying, I just know she is. I can’t bear it,” the girl cried and then broke down even more before running from the room.
In alarm I looked at Cheryl who said, “She’s still going through a hard time.”
“Oh,” I said as understanding took hold. I knew some women had the baby blues worse than others and that stress could add trouble on top of trouble for some women. “But the baby …?”
“Getting better now that we found out she was allergic to just about any kind of milk but mother’s milk.”
I asked, “Have you tried goat’s milk? That’s what they had to use with me.” And it was true. It just about drained my parents’ bank account dry trying to pay for the expensive formula that the doctor recommended because I was born early and puny until my grandmother came to help and started me on a homemade goat’s milk formula recipe she’d gotten somewhere.
Cheryl nodded, “But she can only have it in small doses. That’s what is causing the colic.”
“Can’t little momma … uh … wet nurse?” I asked in a whisper.
Cheryl looked troubled but answered me. “It seems to upset her that the baby just cries and cries and doesn’t seem to get enough. But she keeps at it.”
I nodded my understanding. Doctors were expensive and few and far between. Canned formula was hard to come by even at the best of times and expensive when you could get it. Wet nurses weren’t cheap either which was why sisters and cousins, even mothers and daughters lately, would sometimes spell each other if they were nursing at the same time. It must have taken a pretty penny for them to take the baby and then get whatever medicine they needed from the city. But all the medical intervention in the world wouldn’t help if the little momma couldn’t provide enough output. Racking my brains for something to help as the baby cried and squirmed in my arms I said, “Look, this might help and it might not but … do you know old Mrs. Chamberlin? The one that’s frail and sits in a wheelchair?”
Cheryl hesitantly nodded, “Not well, but I know who you are speaking of.”
“She was a friend of my grandmother’s. Her body may be crippled and her memory for what she had for breakfast may be shot but if you ask her questions about birthing and babies and fixing people without a doctor’s help and she’s probably the wisest woman I’ve ever met. I went to her when … when … I needed some help taking care of someone.” I was going to have to get over the hurt if I wanted to go on but I kept tripping over it. “She didn’t have any girl children or any that married into the family inclined so she was happy to pass along to me her receipt books and notes and recipes and formulas and such. She didn’t need them anymore ‘cause they are all in her head anyway. When I figured out I was … you know … in trouble, I started reading along those lines and found out that some herbs can help a woman what’s got trouble making milk. They are called this plum awful word galactagogues. There are also some herbs that will stop a woman up what is making too much milk.”
At Cheryl’s suspicious look I admitted, “I know it sounds passing strange but a lot of the older folks around here swear by homemade remedies. And even if the little momma only thinks something is going to help her maybe that will relax her just enough for her body and brain to do what really needs to be done.”
At the end of her rope looking for ways to make things better for her family she asked, “What are they?”
Closing my eyes to picture the pages of the book I’d read it all in I told her, “The ones that help make milk are blessed thistle, fenugreek, fennel, anise seed, cumin, borage, and caraway. A good raspberry leaf tea will boost those herbs and so will alfalfa and nettle. The ones that are supposed to help stop the milk from flowing are parsley, cabbage soup, chickweed, black walnut, yarrow, sorrel, and oregano.”
Cheryl looked stunned and then slapped her forehead, “Oh no … we’ve been eating cabbage soup two or three times a week and Tina has been eating black walnuts like they’re the only thing left on the planet that tastes good.”
She took off leaving me standing there with the squalling baby that just my luck would choose that moment to blatt a stinky mess in her diaper. I was looking for a nappie to change her into when I heard Cheryl say, “Oh Lord, I’ve left her holding the baby.”
A young man walked into the room right after her words. I knew he couldn’t be much older than me but he walked like a tired old man. He straightened up when he saw me and said, “I’ll take her.”
“Only after I know who you are,” I told him back.
His eyebrows went up, screwed down, and then leveled out as the thoughts flitted through his mind about who I was to talk to him like that. Then a tired smile tried to reach his lips but could quite make it. “I’m Ajax and if that doesn’t mean anything to you that’s my baby you’re holding.”
“Oh! Well, now that you mention it you two do bare a resemblance … I don’t mean you’re crying or nothing I …” A laugh behind me and I turned to see Dino there. He looked to be ready to start off on some smart aleck comment but I forestalled him by asking, “You wanna change this diaper?”
That got Ajax to really smile but then Tina … the little momma … showed back up and took the baby and scooted out of the room. Dino asked me, “You ready to ride?”
“I’m just waiting on you to finish your business and … What?” The question was because Dino’s face had taken on a cautious look.
“Harry ‘explained things’ to Jace and apparently it was overheard by some others. I’ve seen quite a few putting their heads together and looking this way.”
All the old hurt tried to boil to the surface but I refused to let it. Unclinching my fists and taking a breath I said, “Well it was bound to happen so let ‘em get a good look. It’s not like I expected any different.”
I was two steps ahead of him and on the porch when a steel toned voice stopped me. “Is it true? Did Sol Bly abandon you at the alter?”
I sighed and told Dino’s Aunt Adona, “Sol and I never got the chance to make it to the alter ma’am. I arrived with Mrs. Bly and her kids to find out he’d already let his uncle arrange for him to be there with someone else ahead of me. And if you don’t mind that is really all I care to say on the subject.” My hands were clinched again and it was all I could do to maintain my composure as I walked to the wagon. I know someone gave me a hand climbing up but for the life of me I don’t know who it was.
I do know that I was settling myself when Kerry ran over making a fuss about being left behind. I leaned over the side and told him, “If you keep making all that noise it is going to sour me on the idea of making a peach tart for supper tonight.”
He stopped in mid-squawk and said, “You ain’t gonna make no peach tarp … you’re just telling me that to make me go away.”
“It’s peach tart not peach tarp and what I’m telling you is I won’t if you don’t stop making a fuss. On the other hand if you mind your Aunt Adona I’ll give it serious consideration barring any complications like the house falling down or the creek rising and carrying me off.”
Harry went down on bended knee acting the fool and said, “Aw Kerry, come on … my stomach is already hollow and I’m just dying for peach tart. Mind your manners so I can have some.”
Kerry wasn’t convinced however until Dino growled, “Boy, you make me miss a peach tart because you can’t behave yourself and you and I are going to have something more than words.” Yep, that did it.
Kerry was soon off with the other boys and playing like he’d never made any noise to begin with and I was back to ignoring everything going on around me as the wagon left the yard and turned on to the main road. I was in a dark mood and just sat there trying not to think too hard about anything … about whether or not my stuff would still be there, if it was what kind of shape would it be in, but most of all not about all the feelings that were running through me what had caused them.
I did take notice that it was only Dino and Harry. Part of me wanted to comment on it and part of me didn’t. I’d tried to warn him but he, being a nice man, hadn’t wanted to listen. We were all being quiet in our thoughts when two horses came lickety-split up the road. “Hey! Dino!”
I come out of my funk enough to note two dark headed boys a few years younger than Harry and I were sitting on spirited animals that looked like they wanted to run some more despite the heat. “Dad said it’d be all right if we came with you if you don’t mind. Ajax is kinda tied up with Tina and the baby.” I recognized them from the school yard but didn’t really know them since they had been several grades behind even before Harry, Hannah, and I graduated out.
As we road along I still didn’t feel much like talking so I mostly listened. The younger, darker of the two was named Steven and the older was named Chris (short for Christof). They were twelve and thirteen. Their words just kind of ebbed and flowed around me but they didn’t really mean anything to me.
I must have dozed without realizing it because it was hitting an old familiar rut in the road that woke me with a bang to the back of my head against the wagon seat.
Dino stopped the wagon and asked, “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, it’s my own stupid fault for not paying attention,” I told him quietly, embarrassed to have drawn that kind of attention. I noted Harry looking around in disgust and then woke up to the mess around me.