Kansas 1958. In a tired wooden prairie farmhouse, Martha Boone was struggling with childbirth on a wild November night, as the wind howled outside, rattling the flaking casements. The old timber house creaked and groaned, screen door flapping, as though trying to drown out Martha’s screaming and hollering.
Only married a week, she thought, and now this to show. Wed in Lawrence the past Saturday. Herself, her spouse Kyle William Boone and two bewildered anonymous witnesses dragged from Rocco’s ice cream parlour over the road. In a quarter of an hour, Martha Pound was Martha Boone. No organ music, no preacher’s blessing, no fine ten dollar words. No pretty dress with bows and buttons and fancy ties. And no more rows with Louisa Mayberry Pound, her mother and haughty pillar of the Blood Butte Episcopalian Church. Long as her daughter was married, Louisa Mayberry could hold her head high. No more sniggering and whispering at the back of her Sunday bible class. No more rumours and poison gossip about her daughter. Her daughter was married now and respectable. And that was an end to it.
Married indeed. Even had a ring to prove it. Looked no more than a curtain ring, all worn thin, scratched and old. Her husband’s great-great-grandmother Isabella had found it, all bloody brown, near Hazelton Creek in the fly-buzzing summer of 1864. She met her husband-to-be bathing in the creek the same day. Ezra Temperance Boone, though barely nineteen a weary veteran of the 33rd Virginians, had fought with Stonewall at Manassas Junction and lost two toes at Chancellorsville. How could a Southerner have such dark blue eyes, she wondered that afternoon. They courted for scarcely a month, and were married for nigh six decades, squabbling for most. Like nettles and dock she said, never saying which was which. Still she bore him seven strong sons to till the land and build the farm. Coyotes howled among the cottonwoods the night she died. In the same bed where Martha was squealing like a stuck pig.
While the wind howled outside, and Martha howled from the bedroom, Ezra’s great-great-grandson paced the carpet bare outside, waiting, cigar in hand, for a baby’s cry. An hour went by. And another as Martha and the storm grew more shrill. Upstairs, a window pane blew in, shattering on the floor. All the while, Injun Ida from the Iroquois reservation mopped, talked and soothed his wife through labour. Kyle William waited and fretted, walking holes in his work shoes. As the storm raged, Injun Ida poked her head round the door. Holding her hand up to stay Kyle’s unasked question she spoke softly “Havin’ a tough time of it – better get the doc”. Ida’s hands and dress were bloody.
In moments Kyle William was in the pickup, gunning the engine and crunching the failing gearbox into first. The truck spit-spluttered along Telegraph Road, dodging storm debris and weaving between rain-filled potholes.
Hammering breathlessly on Doc’s door, Kyle William felt the rain and sweat running in salty rivulets down his brow. Doc tried to slow the gush of words. “Can’t help quick till you start to speak slow” he said “now count to ten”. Kyle William paused and panted. “Martha’s baby’s stuck, Doc” he blurted “Injun Ida says she’s gonna die”. Kyle William couldn’t remember if Ida had said that or if he had muddled it with his fears. “Turn the truck round” said Doc “I’ll get my bag of tricks”
There was only one light on in the house, alone on the prairie, picked out by the lightning. Ida met them on the porch. “She’s slipping away” she said “baby won’t turn”. There were no sounds from the bedroom as Doc entered, followed by Ida. Kyle William stood uncertain in the doorway. “Best come in if you got any words you wanna say” said Ida. ”No” said Doc “we have work to do. We’ll call you when we’re done” and closed the door firmly.
Kyle William cleared up the broken glass on the landing, busying himself with small tasks and listening, half hopeful half desperate, with one ear for Martha’s wailing. Hoping for reassurance. Some sign that God was merciful. He promised to be a good husband, a better son, to go to church even. Anything that would keep Martha from dying. As the night wore on, he promised everything he had and didn’t have as the silence from the bedroom deepened, draining his hopes away.
He woke with a start. Somehow in the long night of pleas, promises and bargains, he had fallen asleep curled up on the landing. The night was over and the still grey daylight had woken Ma Lawrence’s rooster. The storm had passed. One of the cottonwoods had fallen. For a moment, Kyle William thought of the animals in the barn. The thoughts of a single man still, after a week, unfamiliar with marriage. Looking out of the window, he saw his pickup and the events of the night came tumbling back like autumn leaves.
Doc was seated motionless on Isabella’s prayer stool outside the bedroom, bloodied sleeves rolled up and head in his hands. The bedroom door was firmly closed and the room was silent. As Kyle William tiptoed toward him, Doc stirred and rubbed his stubbled chin. Neither met the other’s gaze. “Doc?” said Kyle William. There was a long pause. “Kyle William” said Doc, lighting a cigarette and holding out the silver case. Kyle William shook his head. “It’s morning, Doc” he said. Doc rubbed his eyes “Been a long night” he said “you were sleeping”. Kyle William stood, aware of his heartbeat, afraid to ask the question, as though Martha was still alive as long as he did not speak. He opened his mouth but no words came. “Go in” said Doc, expressionless, gesturing with his cigarette toward the door.
Injun Ida opened the door. She pointed to the bed, then turned to open the shutters. Martha was still, all colour drained, her arms by her side. Strange, thought Kyle William, that death should be so calm. No terrors pursued her into the next world. The face of sleep. Kyle William knelt beside the bed, his shoulders heaving as he fought back the tears.
Injun Ida turned. “Why the tears?” Kyle William looked up. “She’s sleeping. Hard time, but she’ll make it”. As she said so, Martha stirred. Eyes half open, she smiled slowly. The prettiest smile Kyle William had ever seen. He grasped her hand and sobbed. “That’s no good“ whispered Martha “your daughter doesn’t want to see tears”. From a crib by the window, Ida lifted a tiny bundle. “Kyle William Boone” said Martha “meet Annabel Mayberry Boone”.
As he held his daughter to his chest, the sun broke through the clouds and the baby opened her eyes. “Annabel Mayberry Boone” he repeated. And for that brief moment, Martha, Kyle and Annabel were the only people in the world.
“But that’s her baptism name before God” said Martha “not for us”.
“For us, she’ll be Annie Mae” said Martha.
“Angel Annie” whispered Kyle William Boone “Angel Annie”.