Heileen - Ch. 9
My relationship with Paul had strengthened over the months. After the forced chastity following Robert’s birth, we rediscovered our bodies with renewed passion. Sometimes I felt bemused: at the time nobody talked to young girls – or boys for that matter – about sex. You got the impression that it was a necessity brought about by marriage, and that you had to accept it and live with it as best as you could. It was a man’s need, and nobody had ever told me I would enjoy it. Of course we all loved to read romances, or watch those wonderful movies where love was paramount and won over everything, but that was not real life. Men and women married and had children and that was that – what else? Well, I found out with utter joy that there was so much more to it, and that that “much” could be well enjoyed! It was a pleasure to see him come in from the door after work, and a delight to sit with him and little Robert on the couch before sleep. I couldn’t wait for the chance to spend some moments during the day alone with him – to exchange a kiss in the field or the barn, or simply to feel his touch on my shoulder in passing. And of course to sleep with him. It was a fortune Robert was nursing vigorously, or I would probably have gotten pregnant again already! As it was, we were very happy to take pleasure in each other.
We were also making plans for the future. As promised, Frank was paying Paul for the work done on the farm. It amounted to only about two hundred dollars a month, to which you had to add the money earned during the winter. It was not a lot, but we didn’t need to spend it and could well save it. We wanted to have a house of our own. We hadn’t even started to look for one, of course, but we had our own views about it. For instance, we would have liked to remain outside of town. That was probably going to be more expensive, though, unless we could build a house of our own, or refurbish an old one. The more we thought about it, the more it seemed feasible: why not extend and renovate the cabin in the wood to make it fit our needs? It was the property of Paul’s family already, and had a special meaning to us. We could work on it at our own pace, and it wouldn’t matter if it took a long time. We had all the time in the world. This line of thought kept us dreaming for many days. We would meet in the barn or somewhere else around the farm and talk about the number of rooms we needed, or where exactly the kitchen should be. At night, we would lie in bed after having made love, and the discussion would go on to window orientation, or the color of the curtains. We would talk ourselves to sleep without having made any progress, but happy about having a project of our own to work on.
Our first anniversary was drawing near, and we wanted to do something special. Mostly, we felt the need to be on our own. Not that we minded the presence of others generally, and it would be very ungrateful of me to say I wanted to do without Ann and Frank’s company. They were doing so much for us! It’s just that we felt the need to stress the existence of our family in itself, and that meant just the three of us. The choice of where to go lay in front of us, and was clear from the very beginning. There was still a while to go, and so we planned our retreat to the wood carefully. Our base would be the cabin, of course. We did not want to camp out with little Robert. Conditions in the cabin were primitive enough – without running water and electricity. Besides it would be a great occasion to be on the spot and asses the location for the works we were planning to do on it. From there, then, we could roam the wood on horseback during the day, and come back to the cabin at night. Since the weather would be cool in mid-August, though, we planned an earlier visit – say around the end of July – in order to enjoy the best the season had to offer. Besides, we did not doubt our parents were planning something for the occasion, too. We didn’t want to make them feel let down. It was only right that they be included in the festivities.
The work on the farm was proceeding well, and was employing three other laborers, besides the members of the family. It was with some difficulty, thus, that Paul could take four whole days off, around the last weekend of the month of July. A mild June had given way to a warm July. July is the warmest month of the year in the area, and this is one more reason why we chose to leave then. The wood would lessen the heat of midday, but the temperatures should remain high enough during the night. We would take the horses – Champ and Pearl – and Bobby would ride with me. Ann had sewn a baby sling, made of different patches of cloth; I had tried hanging it from my shoulders on the front, so that Robert would be comfortably cradled on my belly. It was not very common at the time, and I was very happy we had had the idea, which I found very convenient. Some days before, then, Paul had taken some supplies and the baby carriage to the cabin, so that Robert could have a place to sleep in. The carriage had actually already become a little too small for him to be comfortable, but we thought it would do for another few days. When we were in town, we would use the stroller to carry him around, but it was difficult to use it on the farm, where I generally used to carry him on my arms. He was growing heavy, though, and I couldn’t wait for him to finally start walking, so that I wouldn’t have to carry him so much. I wondered whether the idea of the sling could also work for our strolls around the farm, since I would not be sitting on a horse. I promised myself I would try.
We left on a Tuesday morning, riding eastward from the farm. The weather was sunny and the air of the morning was already warm. Ann waved us goodbye from the door; Frank and the others were already in the field, and we waved to them in passing. Broomstick was with us, of course, trotting alongside the horses. I felt elated; I rode for the first half hour as in a dream, trying to take in all the sights and sounds I had so much missed. Paul had to put a hand on my shoulder in passing to draw my attention. It was so beautiful! After that we rode in comradely silence for quite a while. The horses were walking slowly, and we’d let them pick the way for us, steering them only in a general direction. Both of us knew the wood well enough not to get lost. Little Robert had fallen asleep a few minutes after leaving the farm. He seemed to have accepted his new means of conveyance, which looked very comfortable to me. And it was so for me, too. I could feel his warm, soft and soothing weight on my belly.
Around the middle of the morning we stopped by the stream. The baby needed to nurse, and it was a good occasion for us to rest a little and let the horses drink. So we slid down from the saddle, and I made myself comfortable in the shadow of a tree. Paul sat next to me, enjoying the particular moment of intimacy when a baby feeds at his mother’s breast. The look in his face made it clear he wished to be there in his place, or – at least – in mine. There were so many things he would never be able to experience personally, as far as having a baby is concerned. Later in the years he wouldn’t be so curious, but with his first son it was as if he needed to know how it felt like, and I was at a loss for words; the best I could do was to let him watch. Once, when Robert was a few days old, I had held Paul to my breast, and he had sucked some milk. He had told me later that he had felt a little guilty, but that it had been a wonderful sensation – as if he had gone back in time and had been for an moment the child at his mother’s breast. He stroked little Robert’s head now, and the child opened his eyes for a second, to close them immediately in the abandon of feeding. He then kissed me gently on the lips and smiled. We rose to go some minutes later. I had changed the baby and washed the clothes summarily in the water of the stream: I would wash them properly at the cabin.
We rode on until midday, when the heat of summer made us look for the shelter of a thicket. We dismounted and Paul set about to building a fire. We had brought sandwiches for ourselves, but Robert had started to eat solid food, and I needed to prepare some rice meal for him. He didn’t like this change in his diet very much and would have wanted to go on breast-feeding, but I was planning to switch to cow milk soon, and he needed solid food, anyway. In general it took me a long time to feed him with the spoon. Today, though, he was so taken by the new surroundings that he seemed not to notice; he just kept opening and closing his mouth at intervals. After this welcome change of attitude we settled comfortably on the blanket we had brought, eating our sandwiches, chatting, and holding each other. Robert fell asleep very soon on my lap, and I laid him on the blanket next to us. Broomstick spent the time running around and chasing birds and little animals; I wondered where he could find so much energy, after having walked beside the horses all morning. Thus we enjoyed our first day in the wood. We did not ride further, but lay lazily in the shadow, until it was time for us to ride back.
The horses recognized the place, and were content enough to be tied to their posts and be able to eat and drink. After Paul had lighted the fire and collected water, I set about to cooking a warm meal and washing the baby’s clothes. It’s incredible how much work there was to do before disposable baby diapers came in use. The baby’s nappies had to be changed and washed frequently, and they tended to leak a lot, making it necessary to wash also the other clothes the baby was wearing. I had settled Bobby on the bed, and he was looking at me intently, while holding his favorite toy – a rag dog his cousin Mary Ann had given him. I had been a little sad to see that he had not even taken Windy into consideration: I had been so fond of it (and still was) that I had taken it for granted he would love it from the beginning. He was now trying to pick up his toy; he would hold it and then let go, admiring his hands in the process. Babies could be very funny sometimes. He used to spend a lot of time admiring little “common” things, like the movement of his hands, the rays of the sun coming in from the window, or a particular reflection in the mirror. And he bore such an intent expression; I could barely keep myself from laughing. After dinner we went to bed – little Robert in his crib – and fell asleep quickly, wishing to enjoy – with Bobby’s help – all the rest we could get.
That’s more or less how we spent the following day. We left in the morning heading east again. This time we were more to the south than the day before, and we kept going east for the whole morning. The day was great and it felt wonderful to be in the sun. It was not too hot – just perfect. We stopped in the middle of the morning, and then again for lunch. This time we found yet another stream, and Paul sat by it after lunch. He was able to catch three fish, and we decided to carry them home. We came back in the evening, when the sun was setting. We ate the fish for dinner, and then lay long on the bed holding each other in silence. At the end we made love, the fire burning low in the fireplace, and little Robert snoring softly in the carriage by the bed. We hadn’t had time to think of the works on the cabin we had so much dreamt about, and we resolved to leave the last day – a Sunday – for that. We had thus one more day in the wood.
The next morning we decided to ride northeast. This was the part of the wood I knew less, but Paul had been there more than once on hunting expeditions with his father and brothers. There was no particular difference, nor did I expect any. Thickets gave way to clearings, and vice-versa, with no discernible pattern. The ground was sloping down as I had expected, and I was curious to see whether we would reach a developed area soon – we were, after all, in the general direction of the urban area. The morning was hot and humid, and we tried to keep to the thickets, so as to find some coolness. There was none to be had, though, so we rode along in silence. I could feel little Robert twitching in the sling, and I felt clammy where his weight rested. At midmorning we stopped at a pond for the usual break. It was a relief for both of us to take the baby out of the sling and away from my belly. We sat longer then usual, even after he had finished feeding, and moved on later in the day. Around midday we saw some clouds forming in the north, and we welcomed them heartily. At the next thicket we stopped and laid our blanket. This time the fire Paul had built would serve also for the food we had brought along. I prepared Robert’s meal while the fish was cooking on a stick, and didn’t have trouble feeding him again. I mentally resolved to find a way to distract him also at the farm (maybe I could move the chair outside?) until he got used to eating from the spoon. After lunch we lay on the blanket, and went to sleep. After disposing of the leftovers from the fish, also Broomstick curled at our side. It was a little cooler in the shade, but I had to admit the clouds were not doing much to mitigate the humidity. After a while we all fell asleep.
I was awakened much later by a loud thunder. It had started to rain, and we were thoroughly wet. I quickly checked Robert, who was screaming, and changed him in the shelter of the blanket that Paul was holding over our heads. Since there was no way to escape the thunderstorm, we resolved to go back to the cabin as quickly as possible. The weather was cooling considerably (my prayers had been answered somewhat too enthusiastically!), and Robert was at present the only dry one among us. Paul helped me to mount, and wrapped the blanket around us, to keep us warm. So we rode back as quickly as we could. There was a terrible noise from the storm, and Bobby could not keep still and kept screaming. There was not much I could do for him, though. Also the horses seemed frightened, and we had to hold on to the reins and spur them on. Broomstick was leading the way. He seemed the only one to know exactly were he was going, and we relied on him to lead us home. Visibility had dropped, and it was pouring. It was hard to follow him, and he had to stop at intervals, barking and retracing his steps until we could spot him again. It looked to me we were not making any progress. How far had we gotten before stopping at the thicket? It couldn’t have been very far, since we had rested longer at midday, and had stopped early. I had no way to judge the time, and did not dare look at the watch for fear of falling down the horse. I did fall down eventually; I fell on the side, and quickly turned on my back in order not to hurt Robert. He was not hurt at all, fortunately, but he had gotten wet, and I had no spare clothes anymore. Moreover, my leg hurt badly, and it was with difficulty that I sat on the horse again.
We arrived at the cabin late in the afternoon. The sky was utterly dark, and it was still raining hard. Paul helped me down and into the house, and I lay on the bed, quickly taking care of little Robert, while he was seeing to the fire and fetching water to be heated. The baby looked exhausted; he had stopped screaming some time before, and he was now hiccupping. His face was pale, and he was cold to the touch. I quickly undressed him and – moving awkwardly because of the pain in the leg – dried him as well as I could; I then wrapped him in a blanket and laid him down on the bed. It was time to take care of myself; my teeth were chattering, and I was shivering with cold. I too undressed quickly and got into bed, pulling Bobby close to me. He was still cold, so I held him tight to my bosom and offered him my breast. He had to be hungry, because he had missed his afternoon meal. Instead of suckling, though, he remained motionless and simply kept looking at me. After a little while he fell asleep.
Paul had come in and had set the water to boil. He was now mixing hot and cold water in a pail, so that we could wash the baby and ourselves; the fire was burning brightly and sending a welcome heat. The wind outside was strong, and the shutters were banging loudly. I rose and sat close to the fire with a blanket around my shoulders and Bobby in my arms. It was time for Paul to undress and warm up; he looked very pale and was – like me – very cold. The touch of him reminded me of the baby in my arms. He was still cold, so I put his blanket aside and laid him gently in the warm water. He didn’t stir for a little while, and I was starting to seriously worry, when he finally opened his eyes and began screaming again. So I dried him, and I once more offered him my breast. This time he suckled vigorously, making small gurgling noises. He was also warm – finally – and sending off a nice heat. Paul had undressed and was sitting in front of the fire with his feet in the hot water, so I drew near and imitated him. Oh, it felt so good! We sat there for a long time, holding each other’s hand and slowly warming up. The baby had stopped feeding and had fallen asleep again, so I laid him in his carriage with an extra blanket. My leg was still hurting, and my ankle had swollen noticeably. I knew cold water would have helped, but I couldn’t bring myself to using it right now. The damage didn’t look bad, though; it was probably just a sprained ankle. Paul had poured water in the kettle and tea was brewing. We had some vegetables, and I decided to cook some soup. I was not hungry myself; I felt exhausted, and I just wanted to lye down and sleep. I felt as if I had been awake for days. Also Paul didn’t look well. He rose, though, and – putting some clothes on – went to tend to the horses. He had tied them to the post, where they were partially sheltered by the slanting roof of the house, but they needed to eat.
I had forgotten about Broomstick! He was lying on the floor, discreetly close to the fire – head on his paws – and was looking at me. Tears overcame me. It was thanks to him that we had found our way back. He had led us home – never faltering and never leaving us behind. His fur had dried, and he looked none the worse for wear. I stroked his hair gently, and he stretched luxuriously, wagging his tail. I started talking to him, telling him a thousand things and yet nothing in particular. After a while he licked my hand and rose. I fed him, taking care of being particularly generous. Paul had returned in the meantime and had undressed again. We sat companionably sipping tea and waiting for the soup to be ready. We barely kept our eyes open until the end of dinner, and then collapsed on the bed and promptly fell asleep.
I was awakened in the morning by a low crying. The weather was still bad; it had stopped raining, but the wind was strong, and it looked like the rain would soon start again. I rose and walked to the crib. I picked little Robert up, and took him to bed where I could nurse him. He was very hot to the touch, and badly needed to be changed. He had had diarrhea in the night. So I washed him and changed him, rekindling the fire. I woke Paul up, because I was very worried. His eyes were watery, and he was crying lowly – like a kitten, I thought. I held him to my breast, but he drank very little milk. And he was so hot! Paul was worried, too. Bobby had always been in good health. True, he had had diarrhea a couple of times before, but it had been nothing serious, and Ann had been there to give advice. I wished she were here now; she would know what to do. I thought I remembered that children must be kept warm and given a lot to drink, so I tried giving him some water with the spoon. He drank some, but not much. He was restless; he kept moving his arms and legs back and forth, and crying. I held him on my lap, and put cold compresses on his head to bring down the fever. We took turns in holding him, so that we could both dress and have some breakfast. By midmorning the situation was the same – maybe worse – and he still would not nurse. We needed help and fast, but we couldn’t risk taking the baby outside in this weather. It had started raining again, but the wind had let down. So we decided that Paul would take the horse and ride to the farm, from where he could come with the truck to pick us up.
He left soon after, and I sat by the fire holding Bobby – and watching him slowly die.
It was not a quick thing. I kept rocking him and whispering endearments to him, until Paul and Ann arrived. We drove immediately to the hospital, and he was still alive when we got there. He died of pneumonia a little later. I just knew. I don’t know how, but his imminent death had become clear to me, as we were alone in the cabin. He had stopped moving, and then crying, and simply kept looking at me; he had difficulty breathing, but I could not help him. I could just rock him, and tell him that everything would be all right. But it was not all right, and would never be again. He was just six months old; he hadn’t grown his first tooth yet. He would never walk, never talk, and never scamper around the house, like I had envisioned him a thousand times. And I would never see his charming smile again. I kept thinking these things while Paul was talking to me. I must have looked really pale, because the doctors had me sit down and visited me; they also took care of my ankle. Then we went back home.