Moon of the Sleeping Bear
Beaufort, North Carolina
Clarissa McCain clutched the bed sheets and screamed through her latest contraction. After twelve hours, whatever strength her frail body possessed had fled. She'd die this night, she thought, and so would her babe.
Evrasina Denzer, the midwife, stood at the foot of the four-poster, leaned down and inserted her cold fingers into Clarissa's privates. The woman's brown eyes bore sympathy and another emotion Clarissa refused to dwell on. Concern.
Huddled in a corner of the massive bedchamber at Grand Cove, their bowed heads glistening beneath the soft glow of candle-lanterns, the darkies reminded Clarissa of dusky specters. She knew not one Christian prayer would fall from their lips. When illness came to the strange race, they relied on voodoo and witchcraft to cure what ailed them.
Petrie, the daughter of their cook, Bessie, stepped up to the bed. A precocious girl, she possessed an abundance of curiosity and a loose tongue. Never had the girl infuriated Clarissa more than now.
"My mammy says if'n woman look at a full moon in the last days, the child will die at birth." The whites of Petrie's coal black eyes shone in the candlelit room, boring into Clarissa's as if she'd already gone to her grave. "An' if'n a rabbit crosses her path the child be born with a harelip."
Clarissa struggled to lift her head from the pillow, but unable to draw out a single word, she pinned the girl with a lethal glare. Her hearing wasn't diminished despite the obliterating pain.
"Shush now." Evrasina nodded the girl back into the corner. "There'll be no superstitious nonsense spoken here. The mother's hips are narrow, nothing more."
Satisfied that the girl seemed cowered by the midwife's stern words, Clarissa collapsed against the mattress again. Petrie snuck a sheepish glance at Daphne, overseer of the house staff, before skulking back to the wall. It would serve Petrie right if Daphne took a birch branch to her backside for repeating her mother's inane prattle.
A conversation between Daphne and Bessie surfaced and clouded Clarissa's feverish brain. She hadn't meant to eavesdrop that day but the door to the kitchen stood ajar, the muffled voices from the other side filtering into the hallway.
Bessie had clucked her tongue. "The midwife kaint save the child, no matter what she do."
Daphne's voice. "You ought not to be listening to fool's talk."
"There be dark workins' goin' on when the Missus' time come, an' the oft-told warnins' from the elders ought to be heeded."
"White folks don't take kindly to our beliefs," Daphne had whispered. "The elders have been wrong before."
"Jess the same, there be trouble brewin'."
Clarissa had cleared her throat before entering the kitchen, aware of the hushed silence falling over the room. She wouldn't allow their words to shake her faith. The darkies believed magic and numinous messages from departed ancestors controlled their life, and she'd failed to convince them to surrender their pagan beliefs.
Another hellish spasm crushed her. When it passed, her feeble mind revisited the last months of her lying-in. What had gone wrong? She'd expended countless hours preparing for the birth of their first born, and now, she didn't seem capable of bringing the babe into the world. Could they still send for a physician? She'd hand-picked the midwife after endless hours of research, exhaustive interviews, and taxing discussions with her husband, Drew.
They'd longed for an heir, but the mere thought of childbirth dredged up a cauldron of fear in Clarissa. The women in her family had endured blinding pain and suffering during childbirth. Some had died from complications. Not to mention the numerous stillbirths in her mother's line.
While the elite of Beaufort insisted a physician attend them, Clarissa had balked at the notion. Everything she'd read about childbed fever pointed to physicians carrying virulent infections into the birthing room. Whether true or not, she couldn't afford the risk and Miss Evrasina Denzer had concurred with her research. The woman had assured her those in attendance at the birth, black or white, would be required to wash their hands in strong lye soap before they touched a hair on her head.
The midwife relied on the ancient teachings of her German ancestors, knowledge and skills passed down from mother to daughter for decades. After interviewing the woman, Clarissa had made her decision to commission her services.
For months, Clarissa had studied Evrasina as she milled about the grounds, and on more than one occasion the woman had accompanied her to the slave quarters to tend to the sick and dying. The midwife had earned the respect of Daphne and the other slaves residing at Grand Cove, and with good reason. She performed her duties with infinite knowledge and a self-assured confidence that belied her small stature—all five feet and a scant hundred pounds, fully dressed.
A network of deep furrows crisscrossed the midwife's face, although Clarissa imagined she had yet to reach fifty years. Pulled back from her face, her thick peppered hair formed a neat oval bun at the back of her head. Brown eyes the color of cocoa beans sat below dark eyebrows, and below, a straight nose and sparse lips filled out the remaining features of her face. The midwife's attire appeared neat and clean, yet indicated she lived among the lower class. Clarissa couldn't hold that against the woman.
Panting hard and holding back a compulsion to strike the woman invading her body, Clarissa recalled the resident sorrow in her eyes. Did the midwife have family? When her duties ended, did she return to a cold, dismal abode and while away the lonely hours? A perceptive woman, Clarissa recognized a tortured soul when she saw one, despite the measures Evrasina took to hide her sadness.
She'd been impressed by the woman's expertise. But now, after hours of punishing labor, the child hadn't arrived, and she could no longer hold back her screams. When the next crushing spasm crested, thoughts of Miss Denzer flew from her mind.
Events happened so fast Clarissa couldn't remember the order. The white-hot pain blinded her to all reason, and then, a haunting chant filled the room. The midwife's?
Screeching, similar to a rabbit caught in a snare, thrummed in her head. Hers? A blur of ebony bodies hovered about the foot of the bed, reminding Clarissa of coiled serpents about to unfurl upon command. Mother of God, I'm delusional.
Evrasina settled in between her thighs, and moments later, a joyful shriek echoed in the room. "'Tis a dark-haired female!"
She placed the child on Clarissa's abdomen, turned the tiny being face up, and swept her fingers through the infant's mouth. Clarissa held her breath while the woman turned the babe over in her hands and delivered a slap to her bottom. Through weary eyes, Clarissa watched the scene unfold aware the stagnant air lacked a newborn's blessed cry. Her gaze fell upon the gray, listless babe and her heart wrenched, more so when Daphne stepped forth to take the still child from the midwife's arms.
God in Heaven, is Daphne crying?
Evrasina’s somber voice pierced the dull recesses of her brain. "Submerge her in the basin and rub her body with a cloth. Keep trying."
A muffled groan fell from Clarissa's lips as the fate of her firstborn filled her with numb disbelief. The ancient chant resounded in the room again, sounding like a funeral dirge. Delivered in German, there could be little doubt the woman had called forth spirits for assistance. Whispered words of encouragement fell from Evrasina's lips as she turned toward her thighs again. Icy fingers probed her insides and another tide of excruciating pain coursed through her.
Her nightmare had begun anew.
Unable to summon forth the strength to deliver the second child, Clarissa collapsed into the mattress and fought the dark oblivion threatening to claim her. The blessed squalls of new life reached her ears moments later.
Evrasina passed the infant to Daphne. "Wrap her in warm muslin cloths."
Clarissa closed her eyes and the world faded away.