Bitterness on the Tongue
More coffee, Doc? His eyes continued to dart toward the bedroom door, waiting for it to open, hoping that it would, hoping that it would not.
Doc Higgins held the ceramic cup in both hands. It was cool to the touch and the coffee it held seemed even colder than the room itself, and it had baked to the color of tar. Yes, Jim—thanks, just a splash.
Taking the cup to the kitchen and pouring more of the terrible coffee would afford Jim Heartwood a break from watching the bedroom door, perhaps even from thinking for a moment or two about Barbara and the baby. All right: about Barbara. The baby was beyond thought, beyond worry, already becoming grief. And grief wasn’t a thought. Grief was a place . . . a place where one lived—in Grief—perhaps forevermore. Thanks, Jim.
Jim’s overalls were draped across his frame as if upon a scarecrow in his field. In fact his body seemed like old wood nailed together, moving cracked and splintered beneath his loose clothes as he creaked across the living room into the kitchen to put more of the hours-old coffee in Doc’s cup. Doc half expected a murder of crows to alight blackflapping on the furniture at Jim’s departure.
In a moment Jim returned. Doc took the cup with another thank-you, and there was nothing more he could think to say. It felt like the word-making part of his brain was utterly exhausted. Jim meanwhile arranged his wooden bones into a chair that was too small for his scarecrow frame and his arms angled wearily, looking like broken wings.
Doc brought the bitter coffee to his lips and moistened them. He hoped the smell of scorched coffee would enliven him so that he could speak—any words, leave be ones of wisdom or comfort.
With relief he heard the earliest birdsong begin in the predawn blackness. The long terrible night was nearly over. Time was inching onward, and it alone could accomplish what was beyond his science and his art.
A cooling breeze entered through the windows, pulled in from the night by a box fan in the kitchen window, but with the arrival of morning summer’s oppression would return, seeming full on by eight o’clock. The birds would cease their singing for the duration of the long hot day.
Doc moistened his lips again with the brew, as bitter as wormwood.
Jim bolted standing as if anticipating the opening of the bedroom door a moment before it actually did. It swung out slowly and Sarah Goodpath, the midwife, stepped into the hall. She was carrying a wash basin of liquid (bloody water, Doc imagined). Sarah closed the door with her shoulder and foot. The starch was fading from her dress, which was sycamore-bark brown, as dark as her tightly fixed hair, though a few filaments of white had come unpinned.
Doc had never seen her looking so weary. He knew that in part she was weary from prayer—a great internal weariness from trying to bend God’s will. Doc, who’d been the village’s physician for more than thirty years, well understood weariness of that sort. He’d been wanting to call Pastor Phillips for a few hours but Barbara wouldn’t hear of it and Jim was in no state to override her. Nor was Doc.
Sarah, still by the closed door, shook her head.
Is she holding out hope? Doc realized his hands were trembling and he tried to steady them.
I don’t believe it’s so much holding out hope, Sarah said quietly, then blew a strand of hair from her ashen face.
Sarah stepped away from the door and looked at Jim, who had sat again and was balanced unsteadily on the edge of his small chair. I don’t know if she understands about the child. She talks to it, coos to it—like you would.
She must be in shock. Doc placed his cup on an end table—there was a picture of Jim and Barbara in a yellow frame, likely their engagement portrait. They probably believed then that the house would soon be overrun with little ones. Their radiant faces showed no hint of the years of waiting, of the years’ effects.
There are cases, right? said Jim, wavering on his chair’s edge as if blown by a breeze. It’s happened before, and not just in the Book . . . isn’t that right, Doc?
Well, I suppose, Jim—yes, there are cases . . . but they’re extremely rare.
So it’s possible . . . maybe Barbie knows something you and Sarah don’t—a mother’s intuition, something like that.
Doc and Sarah looked to each other. Her exhausted eyes, exhausted to a depth not possible within the skull, seemed to warn Doc against giving false hope, warn against a weight that would crush Jim Heartwood.
Well, I suppose, Jim.
Sarah . . . would you come here?
Sarah lowered her eyes and reentered the bedroom, still holding the basin she’d meant to empty. The door clicked shut—a sound that separated two very different worlds. A scent escaped the room, something both antiseptic and sweet, like iodine and lilac.
Doc scratched his ear and looked at Jim, who now seemed his adversary in a way. They occupied different truths, and somehow Barbara must find her way to Doc and Sarah’s truth. He’d been counting on Jim to be her guide but now that wasn’t possible. He thought of the ancient Greeks’ ferryman transporting souls from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. An imperfect metaphor yet the image lingered.
So much so that when Doc heard a scraping sound of wood on wood, he at first heard it as the ferryman’s pole against the side of his shadowed bark, a sounding from the depths of Doc’s dreaming imagination. He snapped alert as he realized it was Jim’s chair legs upon the oaken floor.
I need to check the garden, make sure the rabbits haven’t burrowed beneath the wire in the night.
Doc looked out the front screendoor, and the first eastern streaks purpled the pieces of sky that could be seen in the Heartwoods’ tree-filled yard. The leafy trees were lavender-black silhouettes against the lilac canvas. He thought of exiting through the screendoor too, of simply walking out of this hard place—he would feel as a man struggling in a river when he pulls himself into the safety of a boat, his anxiety instantly a thing of history, of memory only. But Doc felt a vague yet potent sense of obligation to remain. Watching the lavender sky bleed to palest blue, a fragile blue, he’d heard it called once in a poem, Doc sorted through each member of this confined universe—Jim, Barbara, Sarah . . .—and it became clear that his duty-bound feeling rested with the child. Doc was there in the Heartwoods’ home to tend to mother and child if need be, and tending to Barbara was beyond him. There was still service his oath owed the child.
Doc stood and walked past the bedroom with Barbara, Sarah and the child to the small room that the Heartwoods had prepared as a nursery. It was dimly lit by the still fragile daylight, which lent a semi-stability to the items in the sparsely furnished room, as if they had been nearly realized but were now fading back from whence they came. There was a small bureau with an attached mirror (Doc glanced at his unshaven, haggard reflection, still half in night’s shadow), a hamper, a corner cabinet, and of course the crib, painted white with stenciled star-shapes, stars that wore tails like comets. They were unordered, chaotic. Beneath the window was a child-size desk and chair, both simple and unadorned, probably pine (Randall Houndstooth, the furniture-maker, could fashion such a set of a weekend). Upon the desk were two stacks of books, children’s books no doubt. Doc, suddenly bone tired, went to the little desk, pulled out the chair, which felt of solid construction, and he squatted on its low seat.
Barbara was the village’s librarian and had ways of acquiring even the rarest books. These were clothbound, except for one or two in leather. They seemed old, of the previous century, and not from any library’s collection. These books belonged to the Heartwoods.
Doc opened one gilt-edged volume, a translation of Slavic folktales, and turned to a story titled The Tailor’s Lost Son. There was a haunting illustration at the beginning: a child with overlarge forlorn eyes peering from an oval, ornately framed mirror. The child is wan, its hair hanging unevenly, and beyond the gaunt child the reflected room is dim and sparse, as hopeless as the child’s expression. Doc angled the book’s page to catch the gradually dawning light from the window before him.
The story begins with the tailor taking his young son with him to deliver a new tunic to the viscount. He wants to impress the boy that among his customers is a wealthy and powerful man like the viscount, whose special order has put the tailor behind schedule. To save time he decides to take the shortcut through the woods, even though they can be dangerous. In fact, several villagers have been lost without explanation in the ancient forest . . .
Doc sensed someone behind him in the small room but dismissed it as his imagination.
. . . At first the walk in the woods is quite pleasant. Birds are singing and even though it is autumn there are still colorful flowers peeping out here and there along the forest path. Presently the path forks, which the tailor does not recall, nor of course which is the correct way to the viscount’s castle. As far as one can see both paths are quickly swallowed in gloom. The son looks to his father expecting him to know the way . . .
Again Doc sensed someone behind him. This time he turned. He was surprised by a girl standing just inside the doorway, watching him. Sarah Goodpath had a teenage daughter, Ruth, and at first Doc assumed it was she, standing quietly in the nursery’s semi-gloom, but Ruth was dark and this girl was light; Ruth had the sturdy broadness of Ronnie Goodpath, but this girl was lithe like a willow.
Hello, said Doc.
The girl wore a dark dress that contrasted with her blond hair and pale features. She watched Doc intently but did not respond to him. In fact she was motionless, except, Doc noticed, her long fingers moved at her sides, pressing the air. Perhaps the girl was a relative of the Heartwoods, visiting to help with—
I didn’t go to a foster home, she said, her sudden voice surprising Doc again.
A foster home . . .
I didn’t go.
To a foster home.
I never left the house.
The girl, still pressing the air with her fingers, shifted her gaze. Which one are you reading?
Doc had forgotten he was still holding the book.
The Tailor’s Lost Son.
That’s a good one. But sad.
The father and son have just come to the fork in the path in the forest.
The girl stopped moving her fingers. I have to go.
Go where? Are you visiting the Heartwoods?
The girl turned to leave but stopped and looked back at Doc. It’s a hard thing, a hard, hard thing, but there’s no help for it.
The room had grown light enough that Doc could see the girl had green eyes, eyes as green as McCall’s field in summer. You’re right—there’s no help for it.
The girl stepped lightly out of the nursery. Her blond ponytail was tied with a ribbon of black lace.
Doc closed the book and replaced it to the stack. The yard was becoming lighter and Jim was crossing it with his hands held before him like a penitent’s. In them he carried blackberries or blueberries, an offering for his wife’s breakfast, but small recompense for what Doc must take from her, from them both.
Doc heard the screendoor open and close, then he rose stiffly from the child’s chair and left the nursery. Perhaps a trace of the strange girl’s lilac scent lingered near the doorway. It was pleasant, and contrasted with the coffee’s bitterness that lingered on his tongue.