Out of the Badlands: Part 11:
I found myself retreating to the master bedroom to get a break from Wanda. The poor kid had been orphaned young and treated badly by life since then, but I had limits, and she wouldn’t go near Faustus. I felt bad about that, but I could only do what I could do. Faustus wasn’t usually in there, but that wasn’t important: it was his space, so she wouldn’t set foot there.
The first time he found me in his room—sitting on his bed, no less, trying to read a paperback novel in the light coming in the window, his brow furrowed in consternation. “Uhm. This is new. Is there something going on, or did you get lost on your way somewhere else?”
“I’m sorry. I just need a break. It’s the only place I can go that she doesn’t follow me. I swear she’s like Velcro.”
He glanced toward the door. “I’ve noticed. Still. Imagine how she must feel.”
“I know, but what can I do for her? One of these days she’s going to have that baby, and if she’s lucky she’ll survive, and if we’re even more lucky she’ll be able to feed it. If she can’t—can babies drink sheep milk?”
He shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out.”
I twisted my hands together. “I wish the baby would just be born already and get the anticipation over with.”
He smiled a little. “Babies come when they’re ready. Just think: it could be worse. It could be you. Or does this make you want a baby of your own?”
“No!” Okay, that came out too emphatic, considering the man had found me in his bedroom—and that we had expressed an awkward sort of liking for each other. Well, and that we were the only two adults we knew of, a kind of Adam and Eve, living together in platonic semi-harmony. I tried to soften it. “I don’t mean it like that. I mean it’s scary. She might not survive.”
“I know.” His voice was very soft, but his gaze was intent. “And that’s why I don’t suggest the idea from time to time. I’m so used to you now—I don’t know what I’d do without you. I can hardly remember what my life was like before.”
I swallowed. “I think it mostly involved killing snakes and lizards, and eating them.”
He moved away from the door. “I’m not blocking you in, just so you know.”
The thought had crossed my mind. I put down the book and got off the bed. “I’ll go back out now. I just needed some space.”
“You don’t have to leave, Tanya. You’re welcome to use this room as a retreat. I’m sorry she doesn’t like me, but maybe that has a hidden benefit.”
“No, I’ll go out. I need to go milk a couple of the ewes anyway. I would like you to build something, if you can figure out how.”
“Something like a stanchion. Not like cows use—more like they used to put cows in to give them shots and stuff.”
“Yes. The ewes don’t have that much milk. If they kick or jump, I can lose the whole little cupful, and then she doesn’t get any. Her teeth—“
“The old wives’ wisdom used to say a woman would lose one tooth per baby. The baby sucks calcium out of her body. In her case, more than that, probably. Have you found any multivitamins in the kitchen anywhere?”
“Chewable kiddie ones. They taste awful. I think they were sweetened with saccharine. She can’t chew them, anyway. They’re all dried out and hard.”
“Grind them. Use a couple of rocks, if you have to.”
“Yeah.” I felt a little awkward, now. Smiling awkwardly, I said, “I’ll get on that right now.” I slipped past him and escaped, out of one frying pan and into another, no fire necessary. Wanda glommed onto me, sticking to my side until I put her to work poking bits of wood—split by her brother, and carried to the porch by me—into the hobo stove to heat water for the next meal.
It wasn’t Wanda who woke me when the time came. Like any wild animal, she huddled in on herself, hiding away in the bedroom the two kids had taken together. I knew something was different because for once she wasn’t at my elbow every minute, but I welcomed the breathing room, and I didn’t put two and two together. I even managed to go to bed without having to chivy the two kids, and was awakened in the middle of the night by a hand impatiently slapping the bed, hitting my foot haphazardly. Understand, we had no night lights, so the bedroom was dark as a cave. I had no idea what was going on.
“Wha? Who is it?”
“Ubuh! Guh! Guh!” The unseen hand scrabbled for my ankle through the bedclothes and grabbed it, tugging.
“Iggy? What’s the matter?” Like he could tell me.
I heard her groaning, then, a deep and guttural thing. I threw the blankets back and got up in the pitch darkness. “Faustus,” I called as I felt my way to the door and out into the hallway.
“Wake up. Wanda needs us.”
There wasn’t anything we could do to help her, of course. What I knew about childbirth had mostly been gleaned from comedians, back when it had been something to laugh about, and what Faustus knew about it apparently boiled down to, ‘hope for the best, and if that doesn’t work, make sure your knife is really, really sharp.’ Also, it was completely dark.
I went out to the front porch first, checking to see if so much as a single coal remained from the fire in the hobo stove. We had gotten very good at banking it—starting a fire with a friction bow was a huge amount of work—and I managed to unearth one and breathe it to life. By its flicker of light, I lit an oil lamp, fueled with lanolin soaked out of the wool I’d cut from the ewes. It wasn’t a perfect solution to the problem, and I’d have given a great deal for a flashlight or better yet, a white-gas mantle lamp, but we didn’t have any that worked. Meanwhile, an extremely anxious Iggy danced from foot to foot, hooting at me and grabbing the sleeve of my bathrobe. This didn’t help me get the lamp going any faster.
Finally, with the lamp held aloft to shed light down the length of the hallway, I made my way to Wanda’s bedroom.
Faustus was already there. The fact that she didn’t object to his presence was testimony to how far along she was in the process. She was aware of us, more or less, but she was mostly inside herself. Between noisy, groaning contractions, which came at short intervals, she seemed to fall asleep, and
Faustus left me to go boil some water. I’m not sure why, except that it’s what you do.
Time stretched out. The lamp cast its dull light. Iggy fell asleep in a corner. I’m not sure how he managed it—I know I couldn’t have slept if my life had depended on it. Sometime after the first hints of dawn began filtering in through the window, something changed. I heard her starting to hold her breath during contractions. Was I supposed to tell her to push, push, push, like I’d seen on TV dramas? She didn’t seem to need the encouragement, and I wasn’t entirely sure she could hear me. I dabbed sweat from her face. She was getting tired. I told her she could do it, mostly because I was terrified of what would happen if she couldn’t.
Faustus came in, just in time to see the baby born. After all our fear and worries, the baby was born after all. It was a boy. It looked wrinkled and unfinished, and there was something odd about its face that we couldn’t see quite right in the shadowy room, but it cried like any other baby. We wiped him as clean and dry as we could in the circumstances, cut his cord, swaddled him, settled him to try to nurse at her breast, waited for the afterbirth to pass, and then stumbled off to get a few hours of exhausted sleep.