The first time I saw Sylvia, she was coming up the path to our clinic carrying her baby, four children following behind. The best diagnostic tool, Dr. Vernon had told us during our clinic orientation, was outward appearance. Undernourished bodies, open sores, dulled eyes, all spoke loudly. From a distance, this family appeared to be in good health. None of them coughed or limped their way up the steep slope. A closer inspection would be needed. I watched their heads bob, arms swinging as they approached.
“Lack of resources, that’s the kicker,” the doctor noted. Her husband, Ike, nodded his agreement. Most of the treatment consisted of hygienic advice and, randomly, penicillin donated by organizations with well-intentioned, but limited, resources. Our clients helped finance their own care with payments of venison and cabbage.
When Sylvia and the children reached the clinic yard, it took only a glance from her for them to drop down in the shade, at ease. Their clothing, all hand-me-down, was the norm. The land was tired and jobs were scarce, hardscrabble made harder by the Great Depression.
But here was a sturdy clan and these children had no sense of want among them. The oldest child unscrewed the lid of a dented canteen and passed it to the youngest, a boy of three or four. He drank, wiped the spout with his sleeve, then passed the canteen up the line. The oldest daughter extended the water toward her mother. In a regional tone, with a curious cadence unfamiliar to me, Sylvia said, “No thank you, honey.” Then she looked across all of her seated children and said, “Settle in now.”
Most of the people in this remote backcountry would have kept their children standing in the sun, languishing, out of what they saw as respect for the doctor. “Behave more like prisoners of war than worthy citizens of The United States of America,” Dr. Vernon would say at the end of a grueling week, as the jug of bartered homebrewed bourbon made its way around the small parlor she shared with her volunteer staff. Her husband, Ike, nodded in agreement.
I would pour a little bourbon into a cup so as not to stand out. I rarely drank it, though. It tasted like sweetened rubbing alcohol. My own husband, Leo, back at our comfortable home on Cape Ann, hundreds of miles away, coveted malt whiskey. I was in agreement with him on the matter of alcohol. As I always tended to find myself in agreement with him. That perspective was shifting, now I was experiencing my tenure at the clinic. Here, I could hike to an outcrop of rock and stand with one foot in Pennsylvania and one in West Virginia. Boundaries blurred and space took on richer personality, one that seemed to be affecting my own.
Sylvia had come on behalf of her six-week-old baby, Emma. Emma was not thriving. In her eyes, there was neither despair nor hope, simply observation. She did not cry or demand. I had already seen two such babies, their eyes wide, as if they were eating not with their mouth, but with their sight. Hill people said they were born old. Many respected them and believed that, if they managed to survive, the universe shared its secrets. And, as a reward for their physical troubles, these babies lived to a ripe old age.
Intrigued by this notion, I had shared it in one of my first letters to Leo. In his reply, he wrote, “Superstition is the norm for uneducated people with no chance of advancement. It creates a barrier to achievement.”
This view might make sense in the cosseted northern town we called home, a train ride from the great learning centers of Boston. I reread the letter and let self-righteousness seize me. I had to wonder whose achievement Leo referred to. His or mine?
Here, in the hills, rhythms and rules were different. The rhythm of the clinic day was becoming familiar to me as I moved into my second month. Dr. Vernon laid Emma on the examination table, “She ain’t growing right, not like the others.” Sylvia touched Emma’s palm, rubbing her finger in circles, comforting them both.
“There is no easy answer,” Dr. Vernon told her, honestly.
“She can’t die.” While Sylvia’s jaw clenched, a tear formed.
“The hospital has more resources.”
The look that passed between them was an entire history lesson on poverty, “My man’s off working a government project. I got these ones and three boys at home. ‘Sides, hospitals is where you go to die.”
Dr. Vernon sighed a smile. “All right, Mama. There’s something I’ve seen work. Let’s give it a try. You won’t be getting much sleep, though.”
“Sleep can wait.”
“Give us a few minutes to get some supplies together.”
We went to the storage cupboard. Dr. Vernon rummaged until she found a large slatted crate. She smirked. “Government surplus. No aspirin, no iron pills, but we have twelve dozen eye droppers. I wonder if they’ve gone brittle?” Dr. Vernon lifted out a container of twelve, then squeezed a few to test them. “Still alive and kicking.” She let her forearms rest briefly on the crate. “Well, let’s hope this little one makes it. Her spirits are good, but she is weak.” Dr. Vernon held up the eye droppers and said, “This can work. But she has to be fed constantly. Has to. Naomi, you remember the demonstration?”
“Yes, I do.” I set a small pan of water on the stovetop to boil.
“Then I trust you’ll do a good job here,” the doctor said; “I’m putting you in charge of the children. And this is a matter of life and death, yes?”
She put her hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes, “Do your best by this family. Guide those children. I’ll work directly with Sylvia. She’ll catch on fast. And when that lesson is done, she’s going to meet her new best friend. The diaphragm.
Sylvia handed Emma to me and went with Dr. Vernon into her small office. Lying in my arms, Emma seemed capable of floating. I wanted to clutch her as protection, but more than anything, I wanted her to eat. I smiled down at a child on the verge of wasting away. In my arms, that possibility was tangible. As nervous as a new school teacher, my heart thudded, and it took me a minute to get my breath. Talking was not my strong point, thinking was. But I had been a good test-taker all through college, memorizing text after text. I remembered verbatim all Dr. Vernon had taught. I laughed and started to relax when I remembered her first response to my application to volunteer at her clinic. “If you are a bleeding heart, out to save the world, you are not needed here.”
One-handed, I plucked an eye dropper from the pan of boiling water with a set of tongs. Then I asked for, and got, the attention of all the children. Jeannine, Ralph, Eddie, Constance. I gave each of them a slice from a tootsie roll. For this, I received a thank you four times, “Listen carefully now. Emma is very weak. Kind of like when you have a runt in a litter. Did you ever bring in a runty little piglet, lay it by the stove and give it a bottle? Keep it warm?”
“Uh-huh,” Jeannine said. “I mean, yes, ma’am.”
I gave her a nod and then I poured goat’s milk into a small bowl and drew some up into the retrieved eye dropper, “So, here’s what you do.” I held Emma at a tilt, as if she were going to be nursed, then put a drop of milk on her lips. And another drop. Then another. The first few slid down across her cheek, but they were starting to get her attention. I dropped another, and this time, Emma stuck her tongue out and licked the milk. All the children giggled and I did, too.
After half a dozen drops more, Emma’s mouth was ready, round and open, like a baby bird. I handed the dropper to Jeannine and watched while she dropped milk, her aim excellent. Emma didn’t suck the milk so much as scrub her tongue across the roof of her mouth. But that forced a swallow so at least some of the milk was going down. When Emma’s eyes finally closed with exhaustion, I put her up on my shoulder and heard, to my relief, an almost imperceptible burp, “Always hold her up like I am, even if she only eats a little. What goes down needs to stay down.
“Now, for her to get enough, your whole family needs to help. Whenever Emma is awake, somebody has to be there with an eyedropper. Always. Your mother can’t do it alone, can she? Jeannine, your older brothers can take their turn at night to let your mother get some sleep. The whole family will go on this way for just a week or so. Once she’s strong enough to suck, she should take to the bottle. You can help her with that, too. For now…” I looked across at four very serious young children, “For now, this is what Emma needs. Come over here and I’ll show you what to do with the dropper after you’ve fed your little bird.”
That night, I could not keep my excitement to myself. I wrote an enthusiastic letter to Leo. My stay had stretched far beyond the two-week mission commitment I’d made through our church. Now I was asking his permission to stay longer. I felt so useful, I told him. I wanted to at least see Emma’s case through. His position at the university left him free to write. Everything he needed for work, his books and papers, his notes, were transportable. Could he come to me for a time? We would return home before winter isolated us in the hills.
As my hand drew the words from my pen, I felt a creeping disloyalty. This was not what women from my social and familial circle did. Because of, or in spite of, these strictures, I was compelled to plead my case.
Leo’s response came in an envelope large enough to hold several pages. The analysis and logic contained on the first page alone was so at odds with my requests and desires, that I saw no room for compromise. If I had thought there could be common ground, my hopes were now shattered. To love, honor, and obey. How could I have said those words?
I realized I was risking everything, not just my marriage. Everyone in our social and familial circle would support him. The response, when I had first shared the news I would be volunteering, had been unanimous, “You can’t do that, Naomi. Go without your husband? Travel unaccompanied, and then live among strangers?” My mother had been hysterical, overwrought by what people would think. People would talk. My mother’s views were rock solid. And so, I realized, were Leo’s.
I thumbed through the pages of Leo’s letter, so I could glance at the bottom of the last page. He had closed not ‘with love’, but instead, ‘Your husband, Leo’. The line in the sand was implacable. I placed the letter in the bottom drawer, deciding I had read enough.
A cooling breeze spread relief to every living thing on a morning in late September. The weather’s pulse encouraged me as I stretched to soothe my muscles. All of my days began with a residue of dream worries and aches, then transformed somehow into energy and drive. On this day, I would make home visits. Some to mothers who had recently given birth, some to those who, sick and pregnant, still avoided coming for medical care.
For all the promise of the morning, it turned into a brutal day. The old Plymouth station wagon struggled down rutted roads, from one shanty to the next. I still had four families to see before I finished that day, so I probably would not get back to the clinic until well after eight. I was weary and hungry, with just a wizened apple left. I always brought my own food. It was too much of a hardship for these families to share a meal with me.
My last call was for Emma. Sylvia’s gardens welcomed me, vegetables and flowers living together in glorious chaos. Green bean vines wrapped around, but did not strangle, zinnias and cleome. Tomato plants, laden with their red fruit, were so tall they had flopped over a makeshift wooden trellis, and interspersed with bright blue morning glories, asleep till the next day’s sun. This playing of plants, like a school yard filled with cooperative children, gave the same mystical feel I had experienced as a child in my Grandmother’s gardens.
Defying all odds, Emma was thriving. As I placed her on my scale, I could tell she held a remembrance of me from her early dark days. In the recesses of her eyes, she still held her tenuous past. But then, she let out a laugh, which I met with my own. I scribbled notes, “Good news. She’s gaining.”
Sylvia picked up her daughter, rightfully proud, “She is a fortunate baby, Sylvia.”
“Her wits will never be quick,” Sylvia predicted; “Slow and deep instead. A family needs somebody like that.”
“I do believe you have saved her life.”
“And you, Mrs. Wilkinson. We’re grateful for your help.”
She called Jeannine to come take Emma; “Naomi, then.” There was a lull and my pent-up body eased a little.
“If you got time, there’s something I want to show you,” I heard her say; “It might help settle you.” A sound came out from my throat to assure her I was all ready settled.
“I believe you are at odds, Mrs…Naomi.” Her gaze was soft and curious, as if my response was foreign to her; “No offense intended.”
Embarrassed, I started to look at my watch, but instead told her, “Of course I have time.”
Without another word, she took down a lantern, though we didn’t need it yet, and then held the screen door open for me.
“Be in charge, Roy,” she called to her oldest son, who was busy spreading worn sheets over the tomatoes, as there would likely be a frost in the morning. After few minutes of walking down a narrow path, Sylvia stopped and pointed, “There.”
I could see an opening in the side of a hillock, boulders on either side. I laughed to try and hide my fear, “We’re going in?”
“We are,” Sylvia said it, as if I had no choice. We travelled on hands and knees in the low entrance. Its narrowness made turning around impossible. If I decided not to follow Sylvia, I would have to back out. An overwhelming sense of crawling through my own coffin seized me. The ceiling lowered slightly, so that I felt a scrape on my head. My mind screamed; “Not far now,” Sylvia coaxed, as if she’d sensed my terror. Next I heard her say, “All right. You can stand up.” She had not lit the lantern. I trembled, and my stomach wanted to heave. I thought my legs might give way. Sylvia took my hand in her thin, dry one to boost me up.
“Later. Maybe.” Hysterical fantasies of abandonment rooted me. Sylvia tugged, “Come on. A little bit more, a little more.”
I realized how little I knew of her. How easily I’d let myself be led, forever wanting to oblige. I tried to be rational, but darkness had stolen my reason, “You’re scaring me,” I finally admitted to her, needing to risk what I might hear back. An admission, maybe, that she would leave me there.
“A little fear’s a handy thing. It’ll move you along.” She put both her hands on my shoulders and pushed down.
We sat together, the chill rocks supporting us, Trying to encourage light, I asked, “Don’t people come to caves to see what is in them?”
“They do. That’s just the usual, though.” She huffed out air like she was readying a hand mirror for polishing; “So now we sit, our eyes open, for a while. If you need to talk, whisper.”
She laid her hand over mine, and it was such a comfort I almost cried. With all around me quiet and dark, the only way I could measure time was to say things took a while. And over time, that place and time became all I was. Then, a flicker. To her, I whispered, “My mind is playing tricks on me.”
“It ain’t playin’ tricks. It’s telling you what it sees.”
“It sees nothing.”
“Don’t be so sure. Wait to see what the dark will give you.”
After a while, I heard myself gasp. “I see…it looks like long strands of rain coming down, colored rain. They hit the ground but don’t stay, they bounce back up…”
“It’s spirits,” I heard.
“No, spirits. They’re dancing.” Sylvia started to hum, low and steady, a million perfect voices concentrated in one little woman.
“They like when people come. Now, pick one; “Pick one that seems familiar. Like a long lost friend, maybe.”
I didn’t think I could do what she asked, but as I concentrated, one strand stood out. It was red with gold glowing around its exterior. I felt it was asking for my attention. I described it to Sylvia, “I see it.”
From the vibration in her hand, I could tell she was nodding her head, assenting, “Quiet now.”
I heard humming again and noticed the impact it had on the strand of light. I observed, mesmerized as it travelled toward me, horizontal, like a dragonfly seeking a high perch. It landed on my head, out of my sight, though I did raise my eyes upward. Hoping, I supposed, that my vision might transform in keeping with the strangeness around me.
Sylvia whispered, “Close your eyes. Shhh.” I did, and all that glowing light invited itself in, “Don’t stir.” Another squeeze of my hand focused me. Life melded into before during and after. It became my measure of time passing. With it came an altered sense of myself. A self that embraced who I had been before life’s constraints remolded me.
I sat for an eternity, captivated. That sense didn’t leave, even when Sylvia nudged me. Wordlessly, I got up and moved through deep time to the mouth of the cave. As I stood to stretch my cramped body, the moon dazzled me. Sylvia leaned over to pick up the lantern. She had left it outside the cave. That fact did not scare me anymore, not even a little bit.
“That’s my thanks to you,” Sylvia said. “My daughter owes you her life.” She was right, Emma did. I felt my worth.
“You two got a lot in common,” Sylvia noted while we walked; “You both got a hunger and you got to find a way to feed it. A way that’s different from the usual.”
I smiled at her, then up to the sky, and felt like a newborn filly, wanting to dance and kick. When I returned home, the clinic was dark. But I would never again be able to honestly say that anything on this world is truly dark. I went to the back door and made my way to my room, exhausted beyond reason. I could hear Ike talking softly to Harriet, bodies shifting. The night breeze grew up and become wind. With a catch in my throat, my own breath changed to absorb it.
I crawled into bed, but my eyes didn’t close. They begged to view the bottom drawer, so that I would get up and open it. Take out the letter. But that way of being no longer served a purpose. I rolled onto my right side to see the stars.
The mix of dark and light, and the depth of time in that cave had told me what I knew already, but did not want to face. Oh, I could go back to Cape Ann and struggle to be the person others needed me to be. But no, there would be no reconciliation. Nor would shots be fired in fear or anger. The war inside me vanished that night, in a quiet steady dissolution.
Then, I cried. That is, after all, what people do when they experience the death of a compelling connection. But rising up and weaving through my grief was a dance of unimagined light created from total darkness. My life had been given definition, and I was sated. I drifted, wondering what life was going to be like in the hills when snow began to fall.