This story is by Allison Blaze and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It wasn’t long before one of us tried to save her.
Upon hearing a horrifying noise in the night, Hermione Cogle ran across the fields toward the dim firelight of the Wicker homestead while the screams rippled over the cove.
She clambered up the cabin steps and cried, “Gracie! It’s Hermione Cogle! Has your child come-”
Suddenly the door flew open, knocking her backward. Hermione crumpled on the hard-packed mud and gasped. She blinked at the fresh tears and struggled to her knees.
“Gracie,” she coughed. “I’m here to help….”
“You stay out,” came a raspy reply.
She squinted into the dark frame of the doorway. Gracie’s husband, Ezra Wicker, stood before her, a rifle in his bony fingers.
“Mr. Wicker,” Hermione said, still struggling to breathe, “Is Gracie in labor?”
“She fine,” Ezra spat. “Leave us be.”
Hermione peered into the space behind Ezra’s lanky form. A woman wheezed on the floor, her face streaked with sweat and tears. Her ankles were crimson, awash with blood.
“I’ve delivered over a dozen little’uns,” Hermione began to say. “All of ‘em healthy as baby Jesus-”
Ezra pulled the door shut and the entire cabin rattled.
The next morning no child could be heard crying, nor a mother singing lullabies. Instead, the only sound was the sickening thud of a pickaxe as Ezra pulled open the jaws of the earth, one sweaty blow at a time.
The next day, Hermione felt compelled to offer some kindness to the grieving couple. After all, it was more than customary to bring fresh bread, salted meats, and ripe berries upon the death of a loved one. Besides, she and her husband Isaiah had struggled to bear children themselves, and she found herself grieving as if the loss were her own.
So Hermione and Isaiah crossed the field under a high sun and melodious birdsong. When they reached the homestead, Ezra was not to be seen. Isaiah marched to the door, knocking loudly.
“Isaiah Cogle here,” he proclaimed.
For a moment, the place was silent. Then the wooden aperture opened with a creak. Gracie stood in the entryway, her face white as quartz. Whatever carnage she had endured the night before, she was clean now, her ankles spotless below a well-washed dress. Yet Hermione couldn’t help but notice a broad, blue bruise fading into the flesh of her eye.
“What d’you want?” Gracie whispered.
Hermione stepped toward her with the basket of gifts. “We wanted to give you this,” she said.
Hermione frowned. “Because,” she said, “ you lost your….”
“We ain’t lost nothin’,” Gracie said.
A horrified sensation surged through Hermione’s body.
Why’s she lying?
Hermione swallowed, then said, “It’s okay. You don’t have to talk about it.”
The woman’s lip trembled like a flag in the wind. “Talk about what?”
“Nothing,” Hermione said. “Here.”
She set the basket on the steps before Gracie.
“We don’t want it,” Gracie said.
Then a tear dripped from her darkened eye socket down her cheek, wetting the gingham cloth in the basket.
“It’s just a gift,” Hermione said. “A gift for you and Ezra.”
“I said, We don’t want it!” Gracie snapped.
Then the woman slammed the door, just like her husband had done.
Many of us remembered the somber August afternoon when Ezra brought his new bride into the cove. The wagon clattered over the dried stream beds as Ezra cussed the weary mules in several languages. Gracie just watched him in silence, gawking fearfully at the alien wilderness she had married into.
Never once did we see her smile.
In less than a year, the screams of Gracie Wicker were heard again, and then the same interim after. And just as before, the sun rose on that furious scarecrow of a man pulling open a new grave, and we all sighed in sadness.
Then cold, cruel December rolled in, and the time came for another grim episode in the Wicker family tragedy. Hermione awoke one night with a start as a loud hammering came from their cabin door. She opened it and found Gracie huddled on the porch, and as the door inched open, the woman bounded through the opening and collapsed by the dying fire.
“Gracie?” Hermione said. “What’s wrong?”
The woman sobbed, holding her protruding belly.
“Gracie,” Hermione repeated. “Talk to me, sweetheart.”
But she didn’t answer, just holding the shape of her child and weeping.
Hermione blew on the coals to resurrect their glowing warmth and returned to Gracie’s side. She stroked her burning forehead and took her hand and cradled it.
And in a moment of sudden peace, Gracie seemed to relax every muscle and drift into a tenuous sleep. Hermione smiled at the success of her work, and let go of the woman’s hand. It was only then that she saw the long, jagged scar. It striped the palm of Gracie’s hand like a black lightning bolt. Hermione gasped.
Then her eyes turned to the bulge in Gracie’s dress. It was peppered with ugly, brown blots.
“Oh, no,” she whispered.
Then, as if alerted to Hermione’s discovery, Gracie stirred and her eyes flew open.
“Where am I?” she panted.
“Gracie,” Hermione said, “what happened to your hand?”
She yanked it back. wincing.
“He beatin’ you, ain’t he?”
Gracie shook her head furiously, but her eyes went wide at the word beat.
“Sweetheart,” Hermione whispered, “you have to think of yourself. Of the baby.”
Gracie’s hands flew to her middle, clutching the trembling load.
“Tell me,” Hermione said, sharpening her voice. “Is he hittin’ it?”
The mother quivered, silent.
“Gracie Wicker,” Hermione said, “speak true now. Is he hittin’ the baby?”
The poor woman gazed up at her, her eyes black and empty in the dying firelight.
“I… I should be goin’….”
“Stay,” Hermione said. “We can help you.”
But Gracie was on her feet before the hostess could halt her, and she threw open the door and vanished into the night.
Within a month Gracie felt the pangs of labor come upon her once again.
This time, for whatever reason, she was not content to deliver another doomed child in the presence of Ezra Wicker. So as her husband slept, Gracie packed a bindle of essentials and slipped out. We all lauded her bravery, as that winter was particularly brutal.
By her tracks we knew that she fled west, likely toward the home of one of her sisters. Gracie moved swiftly, considering her motherly burden and the thick drifts of snow, while the cloak of night settled in. A razor wind slashed the sterile landscape. Gracie made her way along the creek before turning up the ridge, then found shelter in the cavernous space left behind from the collapse of a mighty oak. The wind roared and speared her with its icy blades, and she fell to her knees, screaming. Her blood watered the ground and the tiny creature slipped into being, emerging from a warm cocoon into an icy hell. Gracie collected the child and wiped its face with her dress. The eyes blinked, the mouth rooting for milk.
We’d like to think, in that moment, Gracie finally smiled.
But the winds continued to pummel them. Gracie drew the infant to her breast and clutched it there, curling into a ball to protect it from the fury of winter.
Then she waited.
We followed her tracks by the faint orange of sunrise. Gracie did not move as we approached, nor did she resist as we plucked the child from her unmoving arms. The child’s body shivered faintly with life and we hastily tucked it into a nest of blankets. Then we broke the hillside so it could be moved over Gracie’s frozen form, still curled into a protective shell.
She had to have known her mission was doomed. How could anyone have made such a journey so ill-provisioned and poorly timed? Yet departing this life with such dignity must have seemed best, at least compared to another day under Ezra Wicker’s roof.
Before we returned to the valley, we debated returning the child to its father. Hermione wrapped its squirming form in her cloak and rode with us to the gray form of Ezra’s cabin where the man himself stood in the open door. His hollow eyes watched us, and for the sake of polity, we tipped our hats to him. Then all silent, and Hermione’s cloak fluttered and babbled with infant life.
Ezra cleared his throat. Without a word, he spat on the ground. He turned and shut himself back in his empty house, and never mentioned his vanished wife and child again.
The corners of Hermione’s eyes burned with fresh tears. She gave the baby a tender squeeze and spurred her horse on toward home, Isaiah at her side.
None of us uttered a word about the child’s birth. But we all agreed that the arrival of little Isaac — to the aging Mrs. Cogle, at that — was nothing short of a miracle.
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