Even with Gerald’s attentiveness, the increasingly-shorter winter days begin to seem very long to Suzanna. As her belly expands, housework becomes more uncomfortable. She can barely manage to even sew. And she’s prepared everything she needs to for the child. There’s really nothing to do but sit and wait, feeling as if the child will never arrive. It’s almost a relief when her pains begin.
Then time stretches again, into a black tunnel of contraction and fear, Gerald’s hand gripping hers, his brown face fighting to remain calm, but his gray eyes dark with anxiety. Suzanna focuses instead on the comfort of his hands on hers, then Ramón’s solid grip as Gerald does what is needed between her bent knees.
They’ve brought her a piece of buckskin to bite down on when the pain becomes too intense. The gamy taste of it mixes with the salt on her lips, the saliva in her mouth. The taste seems to get stronger as the pain intensifies, nausea sweeps over her in waves, in time with the contractions. Then Gerald cries “I see it!” as a searing pain cuts across her belly.
“Push now!” Ramón says in her ear. He reaches across her and grips her other hand. “Push!”
“Here it comes!” Gerald says. “There’s the head!”
Suzanna gulps back her terror, grinds her teeth into the now-slimy leather, and pushes into her hips as hard as she can. Ramón’s palms are tight under her fingernails and there’s an enormous pressure between her legs. A buzzing haze fills her head.
“Push!” Ramón says again. “That’s it, push!”
Then the dam between her legs seems to burst and the pressure is gone. Gerald laughs exultantly. Suzanna lowers her shaking thighs and Ramón’s hands flex slightly under her fingers.
Suzanna turns her head to look up at him and Ramón chuckles. “You have a strong grip.”
She makes an apologetic sound and releases his hands. He flexes them gingerly and grins at her. “Next time I will give you a piece of wood to hold,” he jokes.
“Ramón, I need the scissors,” Gerald says anxiously, and Ramón drops Suzanna’s hand.
As the two men cut the umbilical cord and clean the baby, Suzanna lets herself sink into the pillow. She’s so tired.
Then Gerald appears, and she forces hers eyes open. He’s holding a small cloth-covered bundle awkwardly in his hands. “It’s a girl,” he says as he slips the baby into Suzanna’s arms. When he straightens, he gives her a smile that’s both proud and relieved. “Our little girl.”
That afternoon, Ramón goes out to look after the cattle, leaving the new parents alone with their new infant. “Look at this!” Suzanna says as the baby nuzzles her breast. “She has a heart-shaped freckle!”
Gerald moves closer. The baby’s face is splotched with dark freckles that seem large on her tiny brown face.
Suzanna points to her tiny left cheek. “See here?”
Gerald chuckles. “I think it’s more heart-shaped from where you’re looking.”
Suzanna smiles contentedly as the tiny fingers wrap around her own and the baby burrows its face into her breast. “Alma Encarnación Locke,” she says wonderingly. She looks up. “Have you told Ramón?”
The outer door opens and Ramón appears, carrying a pail of fresh milk. “There will be another storm in the next several days,” he says. “I can feel it in the wind.” He turns to close the door behind him, then looks at Suzanna. “How is la nena?”
She smiles at him. “She is well.” She looks at Gerald. “We have decided on her name.”
Gerald hesitates, then looks at Ramón. “She will be called Alma Encarnación Locke,” he says. He glances at Suzanna apologetically, then turns back to Ramón. “That is, if you agree.”
The milk in the pail sloshes slightly as Gerald speaks. Ramón leans to place the bucket on the floor. When he straightens, there are tears in his eyes. “I agree,” he says softly. “You do Encarnación a great honor.”
Suzanna smiles at the baby still latched to her breast. “She will be honored to bear the name of such a woman.” She looks up at Ramón. “If she becomes half the woman Encarnación was—” She swallows hard, then starts again. “If she is like Encarnación in any way, then I will be satisfied.”
“Do you know what ‘alma’ means en español?” Ramón asks.
Suzanna shakes her head.
“It means ‘soul.’”
Her eyes widen and they stare at each other for a long moment. Then Suzanna closes her eyes and tightens her grip on her child. “My soul,” she whispers.
Gerald crosses the room to Ramón, touches his forearm, and reaches for the pail of milk as Suzanna lifts the baby away from her breast and covers herself. She looks up at Ramón. “Come and say hello to her,” she says. “See her freckles?”
Gerald carries the milk into the kitchen as Ramón crosses to the bed. Two tiny black eyes open and gaze at him solemnly. “She is so tiny,” he says. “Smaller than you were, I think.” He reaches to touch the baby’s cheek. “Hola, nita.”
“Little sister?” Suzanna asks in amusement. “Hopefully, she will be a big sister someday.”
Ramón laughs. “You are already prepared for another?”
“Well, perhaps not quite yet!”
He sobers. “Today is Sunday,” he observes.
“Is it? I’ve lost track of the days.”
“It is a good sign, to be born on a Sunday. A good omen.”
She gives him a quizzical look. “I didn’t think you believed in omens.”
He chuckles and shrugs. “I do when it is convenient.” He reaches out again to touch Alma’s cheek. “To be born on a Sunday and to be named Encarnación. La nita is doubly blessed.” A shadow crosses his face, then he gives his head a little shake and turns abruptly toward the kitchen door. “I must strain the milk.”
Two days after Alma’s birth, the storm Ramón predicted arrives with a vengeance. Snow and wind beat across the valley, obscuring the mountain peaks in both directions and making travel to or from Don Fernando impossible.
In spite of the weather, Suzanna continues to hope her father will somehow arrive in time for at least part of the holiday, but the year changes and he still doesn’t come.
With the disappointment comes an overwhelming exhaustion compounded by the demands of motherhood. The baby seems to tug at her constantly. Suzanna’s attitude toward her veers between tenderness, exasperation, and sheer exhaustion. Motherhood seems to consist of sleeping in fits and starts, waking in a gray haze to let the ever-hungry mouth latch onto her breast, and listlessly sitting up just enough to feed herself. The men slip in and out of the house as if afraid to disturb her, as if her only function is to feed and clean the child.
She’s a beautiful baby, Suzanna tells herself. Yet, all she really wants to do is push Alma to the other side of the big wooden bed in the cabin’s main room and curl into an oblivious ball. Exhaustion weighs her down like a pile of heavy blankets. She feels Chonita’s loss even more now. And guilt for feeling that way. For wishing for the other woman’s presence most when it would be beneficial to herself. But Suzanna is too tired to sort out her emotions. All she wants to do is sleep.
Except at night. Gerald, thinking it will help Suzanna recover, has taken to sleeping in the loft so that she and the baby can rest undisturbed. But after he climbs the ladder each night, Suzanna finds herself wide awake, staring at the dying fire. Her mind wanders to Taos and her father, then back to the baby beside her. She should be happy. But she feels only a blankness that borders on despair.
During the daylight hours—what she can see of them, given the limited light from the mica-covered windows—Suzanna finds it impossible to stay awake, except when Alma’s fussing at her. Then she comes unwillingly out of her daze.
If the baby isn’t hungry again, she smells like an outhouse. When this happens, Suzanna rolls away, breathing through her mouth, trying to block the stench. Eventually, footsteps will cross the floor from the kitchen and she’ll hear Ramón murmur “Pobre nita!” and feel him lift the infant from the other side of the bed.
As he crosses back to the kitchen, baby in his arms, Suzanna is crushed with guilt. She’s a bad mother. She can’t even bring herself to care that her child is dirty. A man who isn’t even related to her is caring for her infant. Suzanna turns her head and sobs into her pillow, but she still can’t work up the desire to rise and take care of Alma’s needs herself. If only her Chonita were here. Or her father.
Though why her father’s presence would make her feel better, Suzanna doesn’t know. The thought of him fills her with terror. There’s been no word from Taos. No one passes through the valley when the snow is this deep and the weather so uncertain. Perhaps he also is dead. Whoever killed Encarnación has come for him, too. And this person Chonita hired to be his housekeeper. Does she know how to provide the meals her father likes? To keep his clothes well aired? To make sure he drinks strawberry-leaf tea to ward off his winter cough? Can she talk to him about the books he’s reading or his conversations with Padre Martínez? Suzanna is filled with longing for the warm fireside of her father’s book-filled parlor.
“I should be there, not here.” She struggles to sit up and pushes her disheveled hair from her face. “Taking care of my father and studying with him, not chained to a child who constantly demands to be fed and cleaned. Who I can’t even bring myself to feel pity for, much less affection. Even Ramón cares for her more than I do.”
She leans back against her pillows and the tears come again. She’s so far from everything here. Her father. Other women. How she misses Encarnación’s warm kitchen and the camaraderie there.
She wipes at her tear-stained cheeks with the back of her hand. It would have been better if she’d never married, never come to these mountains, never had a child. She should have stayed in Don Fernando with her father and been nice to Ceran St. Vrain. He wouldn’t have dragged her into these god-forsaken hills. She closes her eyes, her body limp against the pillows.
There’s a rustle of sound in the kitchen doorway. Suzanna opens her eyes. Ramón is in the door, Alma in his arms. He gazes at Suzanna sympathetically. “It is bad, the pain?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “There is no pain.” She looks at the window. “That is, there’s no physical pain.”
“It is a pain of the heart.” He moves toward the bed, then veers off and settles himself onto the brightly-painted storage chest by the fire, Alma still in his arms. He looks down at the infant and croons something in Spanish. “She is a good baby.” He looks up at Suzanna. “She does not cry like some I have heard.”
“She cries enough.” Suzanna bites her lips against the petulant sound of her voice and looks away. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she mutters.
Suzanna lifts her hand as if to brush her words away. Her throat tightens, making it difficult to speak. “I want to be a good mother,” she croaks.
“But you are a good mother,” Ramón says.
Suzanna closes her eyes. “I don’t feel very good.”
His eyes widen in alarm. “You are unwell?”
She shakes her head. “I suppose I am well enough physically. But not inside myself. I feel—” She frowns, trying to define the turmoil inside her. “I feel sad, I suppose.”
“Because your father isn’t here?”
She nods unwillingly.
“But there is more.”
She nods again.
She raises a limp hand. “That is always with me. This is more, if that’s possible.”
“It is natural, I think,” Ramón says. Alma grunts and he moves slightly, shifting her in his arms. “Among my sisters and cousins, there have been women who suffer from a great sadness after a child is born.” His brow wrinkles. “Sometimes it can lead to madness.”
Suzanna’s head twists toward him. “Madness!”
He dips his head. “I have never known it to lead to such a thing. It is only something I have heard spoken of.”
Suzanna stares at him. “What happens to a woman who goes mad after a child is born?”
He looks at her reluctantly, then shifts Alma again, snuggling her into his chest. “La madre weeps uncontrollably. She becomes restless and angry with her child. Sometimes she injures the child.”
Suzanna stiffens, then wets her lips with her tongue. “And is there a way to prevent this madness?”
He stares into the fire. “They say that too much rest can be harmful,” he says reluctantly.
“Gerald thinks I should rest as much as possible.”
Ramón nods unhappily. “It is only what they say. I don’t know that it is true.”
Something that Suzanna recognizes as amusement glimmers inside her. “I thought you believed the old sayings.”
He chuckles and pats the baby’s back. “Only when it is convenient.”
Suzanna frowns. “Perhaps I should try to be more active.”
He shrugs without looking at her.
“I can try,” she says doubtfully. “I certainly don’t enjoy feeling like this.”
The door to the porch opens and Gerald comes in. He gives her a delighted smile. “You’re sitting up!” he says. “How are you feeling?”
She feels a sudden stab of anger. Of course she’s sitting up. She has to sit up to feed the ever-hungry child, doesn’t she? But she pushes the fierceness away and smiles at him instead. “I think that staying in bed isn’t really helping me feel better,” she says. “Could you bring me my shawl?”
A few days later, she’s kneeling beside the pallet Gerald has made for himself in the loft, straightening the bedding. It really needs to be aired. But heavy gray clouds are hanging once again over the peaks to the west. More snow is about to descend on the valley, on top of the eighteen inches already on the ground. It’s clearly not a good time to try to air blankets.
Her back twinges as she sits back on her heels and pulls the pallet blankets straight. She grimaces and twists, trying to stretch the tightness. She’s not sore as much as she is tense. A good walk in a spring meadow would do her a world of good. But that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not in this weather. She eases grimly into a standing position in the center of the room and moves toward the ladder.
As she reaches to brace herself for the climb down, Gerald and Ramón come through the front door. “I swear I saw someone,” Gerald says. She can hear the frown in his voice. “Just by the corner of the barn.” His voice drops and Suzanna hears a low rumble, then “Jones.”
Ramón makes a noncommittal grunt. A boot thuds on the wood planks.
“But you didn’t see anything?”
“Nada,” Ramón says.
“I must have imagined it.” Gerald’s voice drops into a stubborn growl. “Jones is dead. I’m sure of it.”
In the loft, Suzanna shakes her head. And the knife that was found by Encarnación’s body? What of it? She isn’t sure why, but she doesn’t lean forward to let the men know she’s there or to question Gerald’s assertion.
“It is probably nothing,” Ramón says.
“Or it’s a lone trapper, trying to decide whether or not to ask for shelter.” Gerald’s voice lifts, his relief palpable. “But we should check the barn, just to be on the safe side. If there is someone out there, they’ll need more protection than the barn can offer in this weather. I’ll go. You already have your boots off.”
Above them, Suzanna crouches by the ladder and listens to Ramón cross in his stocking feet to the kitchen. Behind him, Alma begins to fuss in her cradle. Suzanna moves her aching legs into position on the ladder rungs and slips into the room below. She lifts the baby into her arms and goes to sit pensively by the fire. The image of a man on the ridge south of the cabin rises unbidden and she shivers and hugs Alma closer to her chest.
You’ve just read the thirteenth chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.