“Oh, no. Not Clementine.”
He dropped his head and sobbed. The letter fluttered from his hand to the floor, falling open. The words of the page stared up at him.
“A mere two days after you left, my dearest John. The Diphtheria took her swiftly. I left the others with Beth and went into town in the snow. No doctor available until next month. Paterson told me to mix a concoction of garlic juice and salt, which I did, but to no wise purpose. Our sweet daughter is gone. With no priest at the church, and you away, it took me three days to build a little casket and dig the cold grave. Please come soon. I fear for the other three.
Your loving wife, Becky”
She remembered that some boards were left over from the shed John built three years ago. A quick search located the stack inside the shed itself. In the back, covered by a tarp with few items to hold it down. She moved them: a hammer, a piece of iron chain, a bag of seeds, and a small glass bottle with a label that read “trichloromethane.”
With John’s saw, she cut four long pieces and two short ones. A length of spinning yarn made a good measure for making sure each set matched in size. She knew how to brace the pieces and nail them together from having helped John build the shed. Still, it was slow work. She did not have the strength or experience of her husband.
At noon, she went to the ranch house and made lunch for the girls. The four of them ate in silence at the kitchen table, keenly aware of the empty place and the body in the next room. No one spoke. Gertrude sniffled.
I cannot do this, Becky thought. He should never have left in winter. I cannot protect four girls. She slammed her hand on the table, and the three girls jumped. Three sets of eyes, afraid.
A pain in her heart brought her up. “Oh, my dears. I’m sorry. I am just tired. You keep eating, I’m going back to work. Beth, watch them, please.”
She finished the small casket around sundown, though it was hard to tell the time because of the thick clouds. Leaving the box in the shed, she trudged back to the house. The thick crust of snow crunched like peanuts under her feet.
Little Gertrude and Miriam were fast asleep. She said goodnight to Beth and fell into her bed.
Digging the frozen earth was more difficult than building a small casket. Far more difficult. She knew that six feet of depth was required, though she didn’t know why. Every two hours dropped the shovel and slogged to the house to pull off her gloves and sit by the fire. Once her bones warmed up, she went back out.
At the end of the first day, she was halfway done. Beth met her at the door.
“Miriam’s coughing bad, mama.”
A vise gripped her heart as she ran upstairs. The girl was tucked into bed with a blanket to her neck.
“Miriam, my love, do you have a sore throat?”
She nodded. Her little brown curls were plastered against her forehead. Becky peered inside her mouth. No gray-white patches. Yet.
I can’t watch this again. The waiting is excruciating. It will kill me.
Beth came in with a cold cloth, and Becky placed it on the little girl’s head.
“Thank you, Beth. Please bring me the bottle beside Clementine’s bed.” She paused. “It’s garlic juice.”
“Momma?” Gertrude, from the bed across the room.
“Is Miriam going to die, too?”
The train belched and grew quiet—an ominous silence. John made his way down the aisle and onto the platform. Even under the awning, the snow had piled up , though someone had made an effort to remove it.
He clumped into the station house and to the front desk.
“Greetings, Emily. Do you know if anyone is headed out towards my place?”
“I doubt you’ll find anyone, John. It’s bad out there.”
He nodded and left the station, making for the General Store. It was just after noon, and the windows were shuttered. Paterson never missed a meal.
Pulling his cloak tighter around him, and walked over to the hotel, kicking his way through the snow. The lobby was full of people drinking tea and whiskey warmed by a blazing fire. A warm oasis from the fury of nature.
“John, thought you were in the capitol?” That was William, the owner and clerk.
“I received a letter from Becky that we lost one of our girls to diphtheria.”
“Sorry to hear that.” William shook his head. “It’s such a ravage. James and Bonnie lost their son last winter, if you remember. I heard that Queen Victoria lost two grandchildren just last year to it.”
“I need to get out to my place. You know anyone going that way?”
“No one’s going out. The ford is frozen over and no one’ll risk their horses. No reason to go out if you don’t have to.”
“I have to. Guess I’ll walk it.”
“I’ll get you a skin of hot tea and whiskey to take. It’ll be a cold four miles.”
Her hands shook, making it hard to read from the prayer book. Beth and Gertrude stood across the grave. She had made Miriam stay in bed.
“Unto Almighty God,” she read, “we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” She faltered as Beth coughed, glancing up and back down. It was not the correct prayer, not the one for a child. But she couldn’t find that one.
I can’t do this. I can’t endure the waiting.
Three days to build a coffin and dig a grave. Three days of work in the chill snow.
“…in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead and the corruptible bodies–”
Gertrude began to cry. How could God ask a mother to watch her children suffer and die a slow death of suffocation?
“…and of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body–”
His hands were numb as he crossed the little creek at the edge of their property. He’d drunk the last of the tea and whiskey at the ford. William had been right—it was frozen. Thick in some places and thin in others.
He cut a sturdy, straight branch from a nearby tree and used it to test the surface as he made his way across. Once, he panicked when the ice cracked beneath his feet. It couldn’t be more than three feet deep, but wet trousers in the cold and snow was a recipe for pneumonia. He backtracked and found another way across thicker ice.
Another ten minutes and he spotted the farmhouse. Threads of smoke from the chimney swirled in the angry wind.
As he drew close, the door to the shed opened, and a figure backed out, pulling something heavy. A wooden box. He ran to her.
She turned and stopped, a frozen figure in a frozen land. A cloud of snow erupted as she dropped the box. She ran to him in awkward leaps, legs splaying out and in through the fresh powder, calling his name. Sheg called his name, her voice frail and small in the wind.
She was his arms, a bundle of furs and cloaks. “Oh, John. Three days it took! Three days to make a coffin and dig a grave. I couldn’t watch.”
Her breath was warm against his neck, coming in ragged sobs.
“It’s okay, Beck. I’m here.”
“No, it’s not…three days while…three days…”
She found that cutting twelve long pieces and eight short ones one after the other was easier than doing four and two at a time. Her piece of yarn had become dirty and ragged from measuring.
Digging, too, seemed easier if she alternated between the different spots. It didn’t lessen the volume of dirt to move, but it made her feel better. When she wasn’t digging, she laid the large tarp over the site to warm the earth underneath and make digging easier.
She worked all day, every day. By the light of a lantern, she could work in the shed before dawn and after dusk. Beth complained, but Becky told her to stay in bed, despite her protests that she did not have a sore throat and felt fine. She even offered to help her mother. Becky would not hear of it.
She had to do it alone. It was her duty. To prepare them. From a corruptible sleep to a glorious body.
Beth would understand. Eventually.
He helped her inside to sit in the big chair beside the fire. He went and shut the door, then stoked the fire. Becky stared at the floor, her mouth moving.
“Becky? What are you saying?”
She looked up, eyes wide like a trapped animal.
“All four John…all four…it took three days to build a coffin and dig a grave. Three days of waiting, John…”
He stepped back. “All four? Where…where are they?”
She pointed towards the west wall.
He took her shoulders, he leaned down. “Becky, look at me.”
Her eyes were empty, as if she no longer saw him.
“By old Brownie.”
“Where we buried old Brownie?”
He pulled his coat around him tight and went out.
Four crude wooden crosses stuck into the ground. Skewed right and left. Four mounds of dirt. Four little girls. Four voids in life.
As he drew closer, he saw that the fourth grave was not filled in. The mound of dirt sat beside it, waiting. John stopped at its foot. Which girl had survived the longest? Where was her body? Surely not in the coffin Becky had been dragging.
He went back inside and found his wife as he’d left her.
She didn’t move.
“Becky, who was the last one? Where is she?”
Without looking up, she whispered. “Gertrude.”
“Where is she?”
Someone coughed upstairs.
John took the stairs two at a time. Gertrude lay in her little bed, drooping eyes. “Daddy.”
He ran to her and hugged her, “Oh, Gerty, my dear girl.” He tried not to cry. She seemed—
“Open your mouth, dear.” She obeyed. He examined her throat. No sign of discoloration or patches. “Gerty, do you have a sore throat?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head.
No answer. He let out a sob and stood, stepping back to look down at a small glass bottle with a label on the floor.