I don’t have long to find out. Mrs. Wade, Lilly Bittman’s mother, hurries out the front door.

“Miss Becky, thank God. Come in! Come in! Dr. Blum with you? That’s fine. Chester, sit with him out here on the porch. No, walk him around town. Just make yourself scarce. . . . Come in. Come in,” she repeats, dragging me up the steps and down a long hall to the door of a bedroom. Before I enter, I take hold of her fleshy arm. “What’s happened? The screams are horrible! Chester didn’t tell me anything, didn’t say a word.”

“You’ve seen babies born, right?”

My heart does a flip-flop and I immediately feel rather faint. “You tried to find Patience?”

“Yes. Yes. Chester already called at her house, but Mr. Hester said she’s down in Oneida attending a woman in labor and she’s been there two days. He said to get you. You’re like a midwife, aren’t you? Almost a midwife?”

“My experience is limited.”

“Well, that fine, dear. We just need someone. It’s Peaches Goody,” the woman continues. “She’s only twelve. Says she didn’t know she was pregnant, then her water broke in church and there was blood all over the place. I almost believe her, that she didn’t know she was pregnant, though it sounds incredible.”

A hundred questions flood my mind: Who’s the father? How big is the baby? How big is the girl? What’s the presenting part? Is the baby likely to be full term? How long has she been in labor? I’d like to run right home, but that isn’t possible, so I take a big breath and open the bedroom door.

What I expect to see is a young woman thrashing around on the bed, but instead find two older women hovering in front of a huge oak wardrobe, one tall and thin, one short and round, neither pregnant. They turn toward me with big eyes.

“Oh, thank the Lord, you’ve come, Miss Becky!” says the tall one, whom I now recognize as the teacher, Marion Archer. Her hair is pinned back from her face and it’s a lot grayer than when I saw her five years ago.

“Thank the Lord!” echoes the other, Mrs. Goody, the round one, the Saved by Faith preacher’s wife.

“Eiiiiiiiiiii! Eiiiiiiiiii!” The wails come again, the sound of a wild animal caught in a trap, and I locate the source, the freestanding closet.

Before I even put down my bag, the round lady addresses the young woman hiding inside. “Honey babe. Peaches? Honey, please come out now. Do it for Mama. Please. The midwife is here. She’ll help you.”

I’d like to clarify the situation, tell them again that I’m a registered nurse, not a midwife or a physician, but it doesn’t seem the right time, so instead I pull Mrs. Goody across the room. She’s dressed in a tasteful plum calf-length Sunday dress.

“What’s going on?” I inquire. “Why is she hiding?”

The lady gives a long sigh. “It’s Peaches, my twelve-year-old, just a sixth grader and apparently in the family way. . . . I swear we had no idea. She’s a little chubby like me, and as far as I knew, hadn’t even started her monthlies yet. If she did, she didn’t tell me.”

Mrs. Goody wipes her tearstained red face. “I don’t know how this happened. She was outside running and playing kick the can with the other girls until a few weeks ago. Then this morning, right at the beginning of my husband’s Sunday sermon, her baby bag burst and water and blood spilled all over the place.”

“We rushed her out of the church and over here,” Mrs. Wade interjects importantly, “because I’ve attended several home deliveries, and the pastor was having after-church tea at their house.” (I’m hardly listening, still trying to picture an overweight pregnant child playing kick the can.)

“So why is she hiding?”

“She’s in pain. I don’t think she even knows where babies come from . . . and she’s afraid.”

“Can’t you force her to come out?”

“No. She’s got a wire hanger hooked to something inside that’s holding the doors closed. I thought of getting her father to come tear the closet apart, but before we do that, can you try? Maybe she’ll listen to you.”

A preacher’s daughter, wouldn’t you know it! And the poor child now pregnant. Apparently she’d at least ovulated one time or she wouldn’t be in this state. The Reverend Goody, tall and balding, with eyes so dark they seem almost black, is familiar to me. He’s of the fire-and-brimstone variety, and Peaches must be terrified of what he’ll have to say about her pregnancy.

Blum was called to his church once, when a rattlesnake bit a visiting faith healer named Sampson Lick. He would have died for sure if Dr. Blum hadn’t pulled the poison out with his mouth; then the two of us took turns nursing the man all night. Even after he almost met his maker, we heard Mr. Lick went back to serpent handling. Dr. Blum was pissed as hell.

“Eiiiiiiii. Eiiiiiiii.” The trapped animal cries again. When she stops, the house is so still you could probably hear a spider weaving its web.

Red Velvet

I take a long breath to fortify myself. This is not what I thought I was here for. I pictured a medical emergency, a sick baby, a man with a broken arm, or maybe a case of pneumonia. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll give it a try. Can you ladies step out of the room? You could call the midwife again.”

“Maybe we should remain,” says Mrs. Wade.

“No, I’d really rather try by myself.” The women look miffed, but they do what I say, and now it’s just me and the screamer.

“Peaches,” I whisper, sitting on the floor, next to the wardrobe. “Peaches. This is Becky Myers. I’m a nurse, a doctor’s nurse.” I don’t know why I say doctor’s nurse. Maybe I think it sounds more official.

“They called me to see if I could help. Are you in terrible pain?”

A muffled “yes” comes from inside the cabinet.

“If you open the door, I can try to figure out what’s wrong. Are you bleeding?”

Very quietly, she says, “There’s water or pee still coming out of me, but it’s dark in here, I can’t see. Also, my back hurts so bad. I don’t mean to scream, but it’s killing me. I think I might die. I don’t want to die.”

“Honey. Honey. You are not going to die. You are going to have a baby.”

There’s no answer for a minute, then, “I can’t have a baby. I’m a girl, not a mommy.”


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