Authors: J.C. Conaway
For Tom who does and for Megan who doesn't
and for Nick who has yet to find out.
Quarrel with the Moon
"Like wolves, you undertake
A quarrel with the moon, and waste your anger."
- James Shirley
November 9, 1949: The Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia
The moon at last made its appearance. Full and bloated, it drained the countryside of color, causing everything to turn a dull, tarnished silver. The rain which had swept through the mountains was over. In its wake the air smelled wet and rotten. It smelled of decay and dead things. The forest was quiet. No insect, bird or animal stirred. It was as if the entire world was holding its breath.
The silence was suddenly broken by an unearthly howl which sent animals scurrying through the wet undergrowth, and birds flying from their places of safety. A woman hurrying through the night responded to the cry and began to run faster. Her footfalls made soft, moist sounds, and the prints of her heavy shoes quickly filled up with water. The forest became dense as she reached an area known as "the Thicket." The trees lining the path grew close together, knitting themselves above it, ribbing the dark tunnel with their black boughs. The pathway, sodden with leaves, unwound before her like a wet ribbon.
A whitish fog came floating toward her, dampening both her clothes and skin. In the distance the lights of her daughter's cabin seemed to pulse. The terrible cry was repeated. It resounded throughout the mountains, then returned to its place of origin. Avarilla Chastain cursed herself for having left her daughter's side, but who knew that the baby would be three weeks early? She shouldn't have made the ten-mile trip to Jericho Falls. But what was she to do? It was her duty. Her brother's wife was due to be delivered. Avarilla, being the most trusted midwife in the entire country, certainly had to attend her sister-in-law in her time of need. It had been a tragic trip. Earlier that week Leoma had taken a fall. The baby became lodged in her side and had to be turned before it could be born. The poor woman suffered for a long time. It seemed like the baby wouldn't be born at all. And then when it finally came, it was dead. Not that Harley or Leoma held Avarilla responsible. They didn't. Still, it was the first time in her entire midwiving experience that she had lost a child.
Avarilla's face was creased with concern, not only for the child that had been born dead to her brother and sister-in-law, but now for her own daughter. It wasn't good for a woman to go into labor early. That always meant problems. And in Sissy's case there were other considerations. She was a frail young woman of seventeen who had the mentality of a twelve year old. Add to that the fact that Ben, her husband, had been dead for over a year. It was an enigma which troubled Avarilla. Sissy denied having intercourse with anyone but her husband and even refused to acknowledge her own pregnancy. But, as everyone said, Sissy was none too bright.
As she trudged forward, Avarilla turned the list of paternal suspects over in her mind. L.B. Cannon, Lester Brooks, Ketchy Addis. Not one of them would have shied away from marrying Sissy, for despite her strange, awkward ways, she was an oddly beautiful girl. A vapid, ephemeral being with preternaturally bright, empty, blue eyes and blond hair like spun meringue. Each of the men had denied being the father of Sissy's child and Avarilla believed them.
Avarilla Chastain was a muscular, handsome woman of thirty-eight years with a brisk, no-nonsense manner. Her face had a worn patina and her hair was prematurely gray. Her eyes, usually hard and uncompromising, were now full of anxiety. She stopped to catch her breath, leaned against a tree and clutched her heaving chest. If only the road hadn't been washed out, she wouldn't have had to take the long way around and would have been back in time. Upon arriving home Avarilla discovered a note pinned to her screen door. The note read: "Avvie, come quick to Sissy's place. Her water's broke an' she's went into labor - Jewell." At first Avarilla hadn't been worried. She knew that Jewell Runion had a nervous temperament and a tendency to overdramatize. But then she heard Sissy's piercing cry and she knew in her heart of hearts that the delivery was not going to be easy.
A bat, shrieking, flew by and spun away, silhouetted against the metallic sky like a tiny pterodactyl. Avarilla was jolted back to movement. When she reached the porch of Sissy's cabin she discovered Reuben hiding in the shadows. Reuben was twelve and Ben's younger brother. Since both parents were dead he had come to live with Ben and Sissy when they were married. And now that Ben was also dead, the boy, having no other place to go, stayed on.
"Reuben, what are you doin' there? You'll catch your death."
The boy screwed up his face. "Too noisy inside. I was thinkin' of takin' me an' Tooker," he indicated a small pup at his feet, "to the barn to bed down for the night."
Avarilla nodded in agreement. She never liked having children about when babies were being born. "Now that's a fine idea. You had your supper?" The boy nodded. "Bury yourself in the hay to keep warm. Then come back at dawn an' I'll make you a chompin' good breakfast."
Reuben lifted his plain face. His eyes were wet with unchecked tears. "That's not my brother's baby," he said in a broken voice. "I hope she dies." Then he bounded off the porch and ran toward the barn. The fat little pup followed. A sad sound escaped from Avarilla's lips before she went inside.
Two of the area's "granny women" were in attendance. Jewell Runion was a thin, dark-skinned woman, brittle and knobbly as a dead branch whose sap had run dry. In direct contrast was Faye Brooks, a small doughy woman with arms as fat as loaves of bread. Both looked up. Jewell spoke first in a high, staccato voice. "Thank heavens you're here, Avvie. Sissy's havin' a hard time of it. I took the precautionary of callin' in the preacher."
"She was like out of her mind with the pain," added Faye. "But we give her some sulphur an' wine of cordia. That'll work her female organs all together, an' the baby should be born without any trouble." Avarilla grunted. She did not hold with giving "concoctions" to expectant mothers. "We had to," Faye went on nervously. "She was just crazy." She bit down on her lip. "With the pain an' all."
"An' thrashin' about so much we had to tie her to the bed," said Jewell. "Not about to let her hurt the baby."
Avarilla tilted her head to one side and heard her daughter's soft but constant moans coming from the bedroom. "Where's the preacher?"
"Inside with Sissy," answered Jewell. "He's prayin' over her."
Avarilla pursed her lips and nodded. She shouldn't allow herself to become irritated with the granny women. They had come to her daughter's aid and had done what they believed was right. They had brought a laundry basket made of white oak splits for the baby and their bags containing scissors, thread, cloverine salve, "disinfect", clean white aprons and sheets. "When did her water break?" she asked in a softer voice.
"'Bout eight tonight," said Faye. "You might as well have a nice cup of peppermint tea, Avvie. That baby ain't gonna come until midnight for sure."
"I'll look in first, then I'll join you," Avarilla replied.
Avarilla entered the bedroom. The air was stale with the sour smell of sweat, pain and frustration. Reverend Hooper, kneeling next to the four-poster bed, looked up. He smiled wearily and got to his feet. The preacher was a tall man in his middle years, broad shouldered and roughly handsome. His auburn hair lay about his head in soft, corrugated waves, and his eyes were as blue as cornflowers. His voice, usually gentle, sounded as if it had been strained through a coarse piece of material. "I was afeared you wouldn't make it back, Avvie. The roads an' all."
"I had to come the long way, Rev'rend. Bless you for comin'. How's Sissy?"
Without replying, the preacher stepped aside. Avarilla moved next to the bed.
Sissy's gauzy hair was as dank as the hair of a drowned woman and her skin, startlingly white and beaded with perspiration, looked artificial. Her stomach was swollen all out of proportion to her frail body. Strips of sheeting wound around her thin wrists and ankles were attached to the four posters of the bed and kept the girl immobile.
Avarilla touched her daughter's fevered forehead. "Sissy. Sissy, I'm here. Your ma's here." The young woman's lashes flickered open. Her eyes were glazed and shiny but when Avarilla bent to kiss her, Sissy managed an almost indiscernible smile. Avarilla loosened Sissy's restraints and brushed the matted hair from her face. Then she turned to the preacher and said, "Rev'rend, why don't you go an' have some tea? I'll keep watch."
"I'll do that, Avvie. Call if you need us."
Avarilla sat down next to the bed and held her daughter's bound hand.
Toward midnight the spasms were coming nearly every five minutes. Despite the drug, Sissy wailed in misery and helplessness. Avarilla untied Sissy's ankles. Then she and the other granny women held her knees so that Sissy couldn't kick her feet out. The baby began to appear. Sissy shrieked with agony as it made its entrance into the world. It was a boy but he wasn't breathing. Avarilla snatched him up and began to blow in his mouth. After several minutes, the infant's chest began heaving, and Avarilla knew he was all right. She cut the cord and tied it with a string. Meanwhile Jewell had scorched a piece of cloth by putting it on a shovel and holding it over the fire in the kitchen till the cloth was brown. Avarilla put that next to the baby's navel, cut a hole in it and pulled the navel cord through. The cloth was greased with mutton tallow and would remain on the child for five or six days till it disintegrated.
Sissy was still writhing in torment. The afterbirth had not yet come out. Avarilla laid the baby in the padded laundry basket and rushed to the foot of the bed. Sissy's body suddenly convulsed and a scream of terror rent the air. Another baby was being born. Sissy managed to tear one hand free and began clawing at her face. A froth of yellow spittle oozed from her lips.
"Make it come out!" Sissy begged. "Make it come out!"
The baby's head, covered with a mist of black hair, appeared. Avarilla's outstretched arms began shaking and she gave a start so violent that it seemed as if a hand with frozen fingers had squeezed her heart. "Lord God in Heaven!" she cried as the infant continued to emerge.
It was completely covered with the fine black hair and at the end of each of its grasping hands were thick, curved nails, now dripping with its own mother's blood. Jewell and Faye fell to their knees and began praying to fight the bile rising in their throat. Avarilla, her mind numbed with shock, nonetheless did what had to be done. Automatically she severed the umbilical cord and put the greased cloth into place. She stood holding the writhing infant, not knowing what to do with it. Sissy raised her head and when she saw what had come out of her body she began banging her head against the wall and screaming anew. Something within her that had always been fragile had finally shattered. It was her sanity.
The preacher, aroused by the commotion, rushed into the bedroom. When he saw what Avarilla was holding in her hands, he gasped and drew back in horror and revulsion. Summoning all his strength, he denounced the child as "the spawn of Satan" and commanded that it had to be destroyed. Jewell and Faye nodded in silent agreement. He made the granny women swear before God never to reveal the circumstances of that blasphemous night and then he sent them home. They hurried away from the cabin with relief.
Avarilla tried to close her mind to the preacher's words which assailed her like hurrying nightmares. He coaxed, cajoled, and argued, until at last she spat out the terrible words ... "No, no, I'll do it, Rev'rend. It's my ... it's my own blood." Their eyes met briefly, flickered with terror, then were swiftly averted.
"I'll dig the grave," offered the preacher. "It has to be here, you know. It can't be buried in the churchyard." He took one last look at the male infant, shuddered and said, "Let God's will be done."
For a long time Avarilla held the strange child in her arms, trying to avoid its piercing yet inquiring eyes. When she heard the sound of the shovel striking the earth outside the house she was prompted to action. She carried it into the kitchen and laid it on the table. A bar of moonlight made a wavering silver band down the full length of its body.
Avarilla went to the cabinet drawer and withdrew a butcher knife. She held it high and looked at it. Light from the hanging lantern glanced off the blade and struck her eyes. A sudden pounding filled the room. Then she realized it was the beating of her own heart. Scarcely daring to breathe, she crossed to where the child lay waiting and forced herself to look down.
The color drained from her face and the knife clattered to the floor. She slammed her fist against her mouth to keep from crying out. The hair was fast disappearing from the infant's skin. It was as if it was being pulled beneath the surface from within. Blinking and unblinking, Avvie stared at the phenomenon which was taking place before her eyes. The hair continued receding until the child's flesh was soft and amorphous, like an underexposed print. Even the nails had disappeared. The child looked normal, as normal as its twin who lay in the laundry basket in the bedroom. Was she hallucinating? She looked out the window and saw the preacher silhouetted in the harsh light of the moon. He was there and he was digging a grave beneath the willow tree.