If you were born in Kettle Creek or hereabouts on our part of the Tygart River Valley, your name was written in the ledgers that lined our shelves. They were tall black leather books, shiny and thin like the ones Greeley MacIntosher used over at the store in Philippi. With a good birth we came home and wrote the baby’s full name, the mama’s name, the daddy’s, and the date. All those lists of names should tell you that our family was good at what we do.
We never talked about the ledgers to anyone but ourselves. Not that we were ashamed–these were just names after all, but on account of the babies who didn’t come through–and the pain that such knowledge brought. Most babies like that didn’t even have names given them, and when Mama thought me old enough to know, she showed me the lists of Baby Girl Teller, or Baby Boy Switzer, if the woman was far enough along to tell. No matter what, we recorded the names and anything else we could recall about the birthing itself.
“Write it down,” Mama told me. “Everything.” She was the first to do this, marking little things about the birth that weren’t so important in and of themselves, but might be later, when you needed to see the history of the family. Granny Whitely and Granny Denniker had kept most everything in their heads–all but the names and dates. “A written record is more reliable,” Mama taught me. And she was right. Kettle Valley is full of Teller, Meroe, and Switzer families, and writing things down kept names and families straight. For a midwife, confusing a family history was one of the worst things you could do, as confusion might make a bad situation worse if you needed to choose the right tonic, or know just when to make a cut.
I learned to read looking at those ledgers. Mama taught me herself, using the family Bible once the black books were mastered. Given the number of Hezekiahs and Micahs and Ruths and Mordecais I read about, it was often difficult to remember which ones were biblical wonders and which lived along the Philippi road. Sometimes, even when I read the scriptures now, I can’t be sure I didn’t once hear that King David’s wife Abigail had given birth to a little girl weighing more than twelve pounds. Fortunately, around the turn of the century, fashionable names changed–Henry, Otis, Maurice.
Mama didn’t tell me about the little red book, which she kept hidden until I was seventeen and had been attending births for more than three years. I suppose she thought I wasn’t ready for it, and that was truth, for I wasn’t. Don’t know when I might of been ready, natural-like, but I found out about it because Sarah Meroe went into labor right at the same time as Old Lady Whipple. Old Man Whipple was a justice of the peace and was known for making things rough for people who didn’t please him, so when he came, Mama went with him, leaving me to handle Sarah’s birthing all alone.
“Ain’t like Old Lady Whipple needs the help,” I muttered to Mama as she gathered her things and helped me prepare my bag. I’d never had a bag packed just for me before. I was scared to be attending Sarah, who was a little bitty thing known for her snorty laugh and big brown eyes–eyes that had nearly swelled shut during her confinement.
“Hush, Elizabeth,” Mama told me. Her face looked white, the deep red of her hair shockingly dark against her skin. I wondered what Mama knew about Old Lady Whipple that I didn’t. That high-and-mighty woman had brought out fifteen children, and I couldn’t see that one more would make much difference.
“You’ll have to make do,” Mama told me. Then she smiled, reached out, and smoothed my hair. “You’re a fine midwife,” she said. Already her voice had that birthing tone–as strong and sure as a bell ringing in winter. With that voice she called to women through the fiery pain of childbearing when there was nothing more she could do with her hands in their bellies. I coveted my mama’s voice more than anything she owned.
“I’ll try,” I said, my own voice weak as well water.
So I did, and everything went fine. I came home, my steps almost dancing on the path before me. My body hummed and stirred like one who has witnessed a great joy–and I had, as Sarah’s baby had been a big boy who looked just like his daddy. A good dose of black cherry tea had calmed what trouble Sarah had suffered towards the end, and I was feeling proud and happy. I could hear the sound of Kettle Creek bubbling over rocks as I went into the house.
Mama was already home, sitting in her chair, staring into the fireplace where she’d built a roaring fire. She didn’t greet me when I arrived, but I didn’t pay her any mind, so busy was I writing down Ernest Meroe’s name in the black ledger. The first I had ever recorded in my own handwriting.
I noticed then that Mama had written nothing from her own birthing. “Didn’t it go well?” I asked.
“Well enough, I guess,” Mama said, her voice flat and wearied.
“Didn’t they name it yet?” Sometimes families couldn’t agree upon a name, but usually this was only over the first baby, when the father was still interested, or if the mother-in-law was living with them. I’d seen families squabble about a name for weeks. “Did they just run out of names?” I asked with a laugh. “After sixteen babies, surely no one cares.”
But Mama didn’t laugh with me, and this bothered me, seeing as she was a great one for laughing, even when no one else could see the joke. “Come sit down, Elizabeth,” she said. She was clutching a red book, her knuckles so white around the edges that I wondered that they didn’t snap. There were traces of blood and afterbirth rimmed around her fingernails.
“What is it?” I asked, curious now.
She reached out and handed me the little book, but she did not look at me. I turned the strange book over. The red leather cover was dusty and hard. When I opened it I saw a list of names, most familiar to me–names of folks living in Kettle Valley, just like those written in the black ledgers on the desk. There were family names, followed by a letter, a B or a G, sometimes followed by the letter D. I figured B was for boy and G was girl, but I wondered why we didn’t just write the names in the black ledger as we always did. At the very end was the name Whipple, with the letter G. There was no D.
“What’s the D for?” I asked, seeing it written after about every third name. The dates went back for more than fifty years, and I saw in the beginning names written in Granny Denniker’s handwriting–names that I had never heard tell of in all of Mama’s stories.
“Mama?” I asked, flipping the pages, filled with B’s and G’s and D’s. “What’s the D for?”
“Deformed,” Mama said. She covered her face with her hands, leaving bloody smudges across her freckled skin. “Means the baby came out and there was something wrong with it.”
I glanced over the pages again. “And if there is no letter D?” I asked.
“Then there was nothing wrong,” Mama answered. The hands left her face and settled again into her lap.
“Meaning?” I asked, but somewhere inside of me I began to understand.
“The baby wasn’t welcomed. Whether it was deformed or not.” Her hands tightened into fists, fanned out, and were still again.
I stood up, shaking, the book falling to the floor. “How?”
“Pillow, normally.” Mama pushed some hair out of her eyes. I couldn’t seem to stop staring at her hands. “You won’t have to do it for a long time,” she told me. “I promise.”
“I ain’t ever gonna do it,” I said. My clothes were damp with sweat–I could smell that childbearing scent dripping through my skin, perfuming the air around me with the iron-hot smell of blood and spices that have been baked inside a woman’s belly.
“It’s called midwife’s mercy,” Mama started to say.
But I was having none of it. “You can’t make me,” I told her, saying words I never would have dreamed I’d say to my own mama. She was suddenly a stranger to me now, this woman who could hold down a pillow on a baby. I thought of the goose-down filling the cracks around the baby’s nose and mouth, the image of the baby’s face pressed into the pillow, pressed by my mother’s hands.
I went out the back door and purged my belly as hard as I could, trying to make myself clean.
When I was done, I looked around me, seeing a place I’d always known, but was now foreign. The darkness seemed so dense and heavy that I could hardly make out the rim of Denniker’s Mountain looming behind the house. I could hear the churning water of Kettle Creek, reminding me that the woman inside was my mother, who carried me in her womb. I covered my ears with my hands and slumped against the steps, waiting until the wind changed and a warm summer rain began to fall.
The house behind me was quiet, as still and dark as the mountain before me. Only then could I go back inside.
When I woke that morning, Mama was gone, leaving only a note saying that she was at Mary Switzer’s. The room felt strange, and I thought at first it was her absence. Then I realized that all of the birthing ledgers were gone.
I rummaged through the kitchen cupboards and even picked up the rugs. I checked the fireplace, but there was no ash in the grate. There soon would be, I thought, and headed for Mama’s room.
The dark-blue-and-white quilt on the bed was pulled so tight that the cotton fabric looked stretched across a quilting frame. The long pine shelf above was crowded with books, but no ledgers, and no red books of any kind. Behind the corner curtain where she kept her clothes, I found her dresses and underthings, hung on hooks or folded neatly. Her extra pair of shoes stood together on the floor.
Above my head, tied to nails driven into the beams of the ceiling, hung bunches of herbs, and the air was spiced with their scent. Horseweed for cramping. Spreading dogbane, the pods hanging from the stems, good for helping a swollen woman pass water. Some I knew, some I did not. Mama’s mortar and pestle sat clean and shiny on a small table, next to an oil lamp.
Then I saw the only place those ledgers could be–the cedar chest, buried, no doubt, among the winter wool quilts. The chest was locked, but the key was sitting right on top. I turned it, lifting the chest just enough to breathe in wood-scent so rich it turned my stomach.
I slammed the chest closed. Wouldn’t do any good to burn the books, for I knew I would always remember the names written in them. I would always know that some had come down their mother’s tube where my mama’s hands were waiting.
I had to leave my mama’s house. I was too young then to think of ways to make peace with such terrible knowledge except by running from it. I went into my room, into my own cedar chest, and started packing. I packed my winter things, not knowing when, if ever, I would return. I made my bed, sliding my hands across the yellow-and-green bow-tie quilt Great-granny Denniker had made for me when I was born, and wondered when I would sleep beneath it again.
I realized how few places I had to go. I had family, with whom I’d never been close. I had some school friends. I could go to Pittsburgh or Baltimore or Wheeling as so many others my age had done. But to leave meant more than leaving Kettle Creek, or even Mama. I’d heard talk that Alvin Denniker was home, living on the mountain that bore his family’s name. Though folks said otherwise in the year he’d been away, I’d always known that he would come back. And though I’d not laid eyes on him yet, just having him so close was enough to hold me fast.
In the end, I went to Granny’s. For most of my life, Mama had been the one catching babies while Granny studied herbs. Herbals were a healing gift, I thought.
Besides, Mama and Granny had never gotten along. By going to stay with Granny, Mama would not only know how upset I was, but she might also feel a little bit of pain, too.
This last thought shames me most.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Midwife's Tale by Gretchen Moran Laskas. Copyright © 2003 by Gretchen Moran Laskas. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.