~ THE BABY’S NOT CRYING ~
A Short Story by Elizabeth Ann Johnson-Murphree
On a cold March day, in a cold damp room, soft moans came from the young woman lying on the bed; a live skeleton covered with pale flesh, beneath her a cornhusk mattress covered with a collection of old newspapers and a worn out sheets made from bleached flour sacks. She had no choice but to wait for the reality of giving birth to an unwanted child. Her strength gone, she looked out the window at the moon; it appeared to be hanging on an invisible thread in the early morning darkness. She prayed to who she thought may be holding the moon in place; another invisible person like herself…GOD. In the waning March moonlight tears fell from the corner of her eyes as the unbearable pain finally ended. She looked toward the motionless baby at the foot of the rusty iron bed; maybe it was dead, she heard no crying.
“Miss Ruth you has a baby girl.” Allimay Schumaker was a neighbor and a mid-wife she whispered softly as she tried to place the baby in her mother’s arms.
“Get it away from me,” the sound came between clenched teeth, like a caged animal yet it was only a whisper.
Mrs. Schumaker tried again to place the baby in her mothers’ arms, “She so tiny Miss Ruth, I doubt she will live don’t you want to hold her”?
“Get it away from me”!
Ruth Viola White married in early May seven years before, she was a socially inexperience girl of nineteen who had never been out of Morgan County, Alabama. Raised on a farm she knew that sex brought on babies. It was her first time, and she became pregnant. She sat up on the back seat of Aubrey Drivers old car that Roy a man that she had known for a few weeks. I was her first time, she was nineteen and her parents were going to kill her. She insisted on getting married, the next morning in fear she rode with this handsome stranger and his friend Aubrey to Somerville, Alabama where they married, May 7, 1932. There would be no argument from the twenty-nine year old whiskey runner; he had been shot at enough in his lifetime. He came to Morgan County to hide from the law who wanted him all the way from Birmingham, Alabama to Chicago, Illinois.
Eight and half months later, Ruth had a healthy baby girl, she called her Billie Wayne; a name that no one had heard of, maybe someone she really loved. Ruth settled into the life of a farm helper’s wife, the little girl that ran beside her all day was beautiful, intelligent and the love of Ruth’s life. She hand sewed her clothes from printed flour sacks and lace given to her by neighbors; with a perfect child she did not want other children, she had hopes and dreams and they could not be accomplished with more than one child. In fact she did not want the husband that she did not know, but this was the South, in 1932, you married for life.
Ruth came from wealth that was gone by the time that she became the oldest of nine children. She knew what having money meant, and she knew that her husband would never provide it for her plowing fields and planting cotton. Ruth swore that she would one day have the respect that money could buy. She would hold onto the dream that would never materialize for her and her child? She held her new husband away as much as she could, he was a shy individual and his respect for women kept him at bay.
In July of 1938, Ruth found herself pregnant again; the hate was so severe that bile rose in her throat. How could this happen to her, the dreams for a future began to fade. Taking a dollar from their money jar she left Billie with a neighbor, Mrs. Schumaker and walked the rocky path down Burleson Mountain to where the old lady Ruby Ragsdale lived. Everyone thought she was a “witch”. The talk was that this old woman could mix a drink of bitter herbs that would do away with a pregnancy. Ruth was unyielding in her need to continue get rid of the baby and she would continue to drink it after she lost the baby making certain, no more babies, Billie was the only child she had ever wanted and she would be the only child she would ever have.
After a few weeks when Ruth found herself still pregnant she continued to drink the poison bitter herbs hoping it would get rid of it, she ate enough to survive and take care of Billie and the old log house they lived in. Her thoughts were, if she starved herself, she would starve the thing inside of her.
Ruth, still in pain felt the tiny blob slide out of her. She did not know if the baby was early or not, it was here and it was breathing. She vowed that she would not care for it and she would not be a mother to it. Ruth heard Mrs. Schumaker leave the room, she turned over and let the horror she had been through take over her mind. She did not know if she was praying to God or the Devil she hoped it would be possible that her prayer s would be heard, and this thing on the bed would die?
A barrel in the yard filled with burning wood shot flames into the morning air. The soiled bedcovers and the baby’s lifeline to its mother crackled as it fell upon the sizzling wood. Stirring the barrel with an old poking stick Mrs. Schumaker walked toward the breezeway separating the sleeping room from the room used for cooking. The house set in the middle of a cotton field located on top of Burleson Mountain, the logs were gray from age, built in the early-eighteen hundreds. Fieldstone fireplaces in the rooms were used for heat and cooking. However, Mrs. Schumacher admired Miss Ruth for turning the old place into a home for her child and Mr. Roy too.
Mrs. Schumaker returned, picked up the baby paused for a moment pulling back the cover from her face; two dark blue eyes stared back at her, curly dark hair curled around the baby’s shoulders; it was time to meet her daddy. Giving a heavy sigh she crossed the breezeway and walked through the door.
Roy Brown-Hawk sat on a handmade chair in front of the fireplace in the cooking room. He worried about his wife, and his new baby; his biggest fear, losing one or both of them. He had sat there for hours, he heard no moaning or cries of pain, the silence between the two rooms was still like an unmoving fog. Perhaps both his baby and his wife were dead.
Quietly Mrs. Schumaker came into the room, so softly that not one board creaked from the weight of her colossal body, she smiled, holding out the tiny bundle.
“Mr. Roy, you have a baby girl, dark hair just like you” she gently laid the baby in his rough work worn hands. He had rubbed lard into them all morning trying to make them softer knowing he might hold the baby. He laughed as he pulled back the covers from the tiny bundle so small she fit in one hand. Her little feet fell to his wrist and her neck rest on the tips of his fingers. She was the tiniest baby he had ever seen.
“Mr. Roy you need to get ready to maybe lose this little one, she is so small, I am worried about her and Miss Ruth she got no milk, and she don’t want her”. Mrs. Schumaker stood wringing her hands together dabbing at her eyes with the edge of her white apron. While Roy held the baby Mrs. Schumaker told him how to make a “sugar tit”,” I see you got clean white rags in a box in the other room, cut a small piece, wet it and put a spoon full of sugar in the middle; twist it until the end looks like a nipple on a tit”.
“I’m telling you Mr. Roy, I am sorry but I doubt she will live, her little lungs are not ready for breathing; I’m afraid she will die before she can feel her mama’s touch, it is so sad not wanting your own baby”. She looked at the baby, silently praying while her thoughts wondered.
Allimay Schumaker knew all of the White family, they were all pretty uppity, thought they were better than most people. Old Massa Robert White Miss Ruth’s grand pappy was a Captain in the Confederate States of America. He bought land all over Morgan County before and after the War; he owned the Mercantile Store in Hartselle, Alabama and a large Plantation not too far from town. His land holdings below Burleson Mountain was about two-thousand acres stretched from Rural Grove Road south under the Bluff, north to the Pool Bottoms that edged the Tennessee River backwaters and west to Flint Creek, of this land he deeded five-hundred acres over to his daughter Ira Mae and her husband Prentiss White when they got married. He built them a big house because he wanted lots of grandchildren. He lived long enough to regret his decision.
Miss Ruth’s daddy Prentiss White was the son of Robert and Annie Weston; Robert served in the War as well. He was comfortable after the war, but never acquired the wealth of the Whites. Ruth many times referred to her daddy as a whoremonger. Prentiss drank chased women and sold off the five-hundred acres of prime land to grow cotton bit-by-bit, he was too lazy to work and this would provide him with an income; by the time Miss Ruth married he had about five acres for corn, a ten acre pasture where he rented out for beef cattle to the owner of a tire dealership in Decatur, Alabama, E.G, Hamilton; he had the barn and the house on Rural Grove Road. A big garden, chickens, pigs and milk cows to help feed the family. They made a living off the land they had but no more.
Mrs. Schumaker knew about life taking a sad and depressing turn for Ruth when she got pregnant; but within eight months she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. She placed all of her time and energy on Billie. She treated Mr. Roy like an outsider and spoke down to him, now after seven years he spoke only when she spoke to him. Mrs. Schumaker wondered if the disgrace of her daddy, their being poor or being a field hand for him and the caretaker of the family made her horrible and mean spirited. The whimper from the tiny bundle in Mr. Roy’s hand brought her back to the present.
“Well Mr. Roy she is all clean and you need to call out Miss Ruth’s Uncle; that Doctor White from Hartselle”. She repeated herself dabbing at her eyes; “Miss Ruth shore don’t want this baby”.
“Well, I have to go, if you need me ring the dinner bell on the porch somebody will hear it. I have to go take care of my family; by the way, I’ll keep Miss Billie for a few days”.
“Thank you Mrs. Schumaker, I’ll be lying in a cord of wood for you helping Ruth”, Roy sat staring at the tiny life he held in his hands no more than twelve inches long and maybe two pounds.
Allimay Schumaker had nine children of her own, one more would not matter; she glanced in one more time on the lifeless woman on the bed.
She closed the door walked slowly up the narrow rutted road that lead to her house. She and her husband William had lived on Burleson land since their birth; both families had lived there for generations. Old Massa bought slaves but never sold them off, the old William was bought from the Schumaker Plantation, he was her husband’s granddaddy and he kept the name of his former owner. Allimay family had been on the Burleson Plantation for a long as she could remember; families born there remain together for a life time. Old Massa was a General in the War Between the States; it was a mystery how the Plantation survived, but his son kept it going, always believing the old South would someday return. Before she knew it, Allimay was surrounded by screaming happy children including Miss Billie. Now, to take care of the Schumaker brood.
Roy shook his head bringing himself back to reality; Ruth had gotten rid of the baby bed years ago, announcing that she did not want any more children. He lay the baby down on the fireplace hearth, going into the other room to search for a box. He found an old boot box, returning to the baby never looking at his wife. Ruth chose starvation trying to lose the baby, it made her weak and her meanness came out. He could not force her to eat, and he believes that her method may have worked as he stood looking down at the result of her starvation.
Ruth lay still on the bed, pretending to be asleep so she would not have to look at Roy, she knew “it” was alive and wished it would die. The watery blue liquid dripping from her breast did not bother her, she remembered the rich milk she had for Billie, but the memory did not soften her thoughts. She closed her eyes and fell into a fretful sleep.
Roy weighed the baby with a two-pound cotton pee and the she could not pull it down to measure, the baby was less than two pounds. Cotton pee, a bell like objects with a hook on it; was made of solid steel. A measuring bar would have a sack of cotton on one end and a pee of various weights put on the other to measure the cottons weight; this time the scale did not budge.
The Bown-Hawk’s and Schumacher’s, they all tried to survive the miserable days following the depression. Roy worked for Mr. Burleson, one of the wealthiest men in Morgan County; the land that their old log house stood on was Burleson land and at one time housed slaves that worked the land. They used the same well, the same chicken house and stanchion for the cow; the only difference in the house floors had been laid in several years ago.
Roy believed that Mr. Burleson respected him, he was a hard worker, and the land he worked yielded more than most who sharecropped. Time had not taken away the horror brought upon those long ago tenants; most people in the south continued to believe that Indians and Negro’s were lower than the animals on the land.
Roy returned to the baby in his hands, he stoked at the fire his thoughts wandered again toward the time when he first met Ruth. She was at a local Roadhouse in Flint, Alabama with her sister Emma Sue. Emma was out on the dance floor having a good time; Ruth sat at a table in the back of the room hoping no one would see her. She and Emma Sue had slipped out after their parents were asleep; Emma Sue had a boyfriend; they would meet at the bottom road below Burleson Mountain. If they were caught, it would be Ruth that got beat. She would be told that she should know better, not Emma Sue. She did not look like she wanted any company. Roy had known of the place for years, it was one of his stops when he was running whisky from South Alabama to Chicago, Illinois. No one could have told him then that he would have a wife and two daughters a few years later on that early March morning.
He had come to Morgan County because of Ma, his grandmother. His last run was a bad one, his car had been shot up by Tennessee law enforcement, and he had barely got away from them. People hired him to run whiskey, every law throughout five states was paid off except them ole boys in Tennessee, and they did not take bribes! He drove through Tennessee with his speed surpassing the power of any car and put the needle on his dash out of sight. He would laugh every time he told that story. Ma was right he needed to lay low for a while; it had been his dream to return to Birmingham to play baseball for the Birmingham Black Bears, a minor team. No one knew that it was him driving the car, no one knew his name. That was all gone, playing baseball lay dead in his past he had responsibilities now!
Ruth lay on the cornhusk mattress in the other room thinking of Billie, she was the only child that she wanted. Ruth had nine brothers and sisters, she help deliver most of them and raised them until the day her mama kicked her out for marrying Roy. Ruth had hope to stop at giving birth to one child, she was tired of being poor; she wanted to make a better life by going to work. She lay crying thinking that maybe her strength would return so she could take care of herself and Billie, for days she still held onto the idea that this baby would die.
Ruth could not help but think of Roy’s sister Vina, she hated her and the fact that her husband’s half sister lived well made it worse; Vina was a beautician that owned her own shop in Birmingham, Alabama. Her husband Wesley worked for a Birmingham steel mill and brought home good money, Ruth was envious and she did not care who knew it.
Vina had always thought that Ruth had not planned Billie either. Vina believed that Ruth found herself pregnant after a few roadhouse visits with her sister, after meeting Roy. She let it slip one day that once she had sex, and being a virgin, she insisted Roy marry her. Roy was the kind of man that he did just that, and Billie had been born eight months and two weeks after they married. Roy had not planned a child either. His dream did not lie in the cotton fields of Northern Alabama. Nevertheless, he was a decent man, and he thought this was the right thing to do.
Ruth appeared disappointed that the baby had survived such a difficult birth. She was very ill herself, both physically and mentally; unhappy that she had another child, one she did not want. She could not think about it any longer, she rolled over falling into a fretful sleep; maybe when she woke she hoped that she would have a funeral to attend.
Old Doc White, Ruth’s Uncle came after the day after the baby was born; he was her mother’s brother lived and practice medicine in Hartselle, Alabama, and he traveled all over Morgan County attending people who could not get to him. He said the baby was too small but seems healthy enough and Ruth was despondent as many mothers are after delivering a baby. He said only time could help his niece or the baby. He left saying he would register the baby’s birth when he returned to Hartselle. Absent minded as he was, he registered a no name baby girl. His niece had said she would not name a dead baby.
Ruth chose not to have anything to do with the baby; she left it up to Roy to care for her. Their oldest daughter, Billie tried to help but the ability to care for a tiny baby and her mother was possible.
Roy could see that it was impossible to leave Ruth, Billie and a baby to work the fields. He walked a few days later to the Schumacher’s and called his sister Vina. She came that night to stay with him for a few days. Vina had given birth to baby girl born only weeks before, the baby was stillborn. She and her husband Wesley had two boys, Everett and Jimmy, and they hearts could hardly conceive losing her. She was in mourning, but she loved her brother and he needed help. Vina knew that Ruth did not care for her but she always tried to overlook her actions. When she arrived, she found Ruth despondent and Roy worried, both were at odds with each other. Ruth had refused to try nursing or care for her baby. Now she was upset that Vina was there, within days, Roy agreed that the baby could return to Birmingham with Vina. Vina, left with the baby in a boot box stuffed with cotton from the nearby field and covered with several flour sacks for a blanket, Ruth had not prepared any clothes or diapers. It would be several years before Roy would return to his sister’s to bring his baby home, that would also be on a warm March day.
March is a beautiful month in Northern Alabama. The buttercups, lilac and forsythia bushes were blooming around the Two-Pen cabin Roy called home. Kudzu vines would have covered the makeshift chicken house and the “Outhouse”. Beyond, a small barn surrounded by razor sharp Johnson grass bordered acres of freshly plowed ground waiting to nurture the seeds growing into what the south called white gold … cotton.
Author’s work located at Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com