Whether it was waiting for a calf to be born, watching pigs, or waiting on a new baby, we played our fence games until Pa came to tell us it was time to come in. We tried to see who could stay on the fence the longest, who could sit the straightest, who could balance with one leg and arm out straight, or lean back the farthest. Jesse, the youngest boy, was the first to fall off, but would never admit he was the weakest. He bragged he could stay on the longest, then blame his fall on his leg going to sleep or some other cockamamie excuse. Truth was, he had no balance. The same was true that awful night, the night we lost Mama.
That night we waited on the fence for Pa too. He’d gone to town to look for someone to help Mama deliver the new baby, the eighth child, but the midwife could not be found. He returned empty-handed and looked mighty worried. He slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car, then gave an anxious look toward us kids on the fence. He lifted Gracie off the fence and was about to put her down when we heard Mama scream in pain like a wounded wolf. Pa ran into the shack with three-year-old Gracie running after him crying.
“Get back out there Gracie,” he yelled. “Dolly, come take care of your sista’. Ya’ll don’t belong in here now.”
Dolly ran into the house to snatch Gracie and carried her back out by the rest of us.
“Hush now, little one. Pa said we need to wait until Mama has the baby. Then we can go in.” She cuddled the toddler and smoothed her hair until Gracie stopped crying.
“Mama’s in trouble,” Dolly whispered to Guy and me out of earshot of the rest. “I saw her, Guy. The bed was all bloody. Looks like she’s dying. Pa’s face was all white. He looks scared. He didn’t find anyone to help. He doesn’t know anything about babies.”
“He will tell us when it’s all right to come in; he always does,” said Guy.
Our attention was drawn to Jesse’s cries. He’d fallen off the fence again, for the third time. We laughed at him for making a huge scene, acting like he was hurt.“I broke it! I know I broke it!” he cried. He did all he could to get a laugh. We knew that fake cry. He used it too many times already. Still he tried to convince us he had broken his leg. Then we saw Pa at the door, still as a statue, with a blank look in his eyes. His shirt was covered in blood.
Josie jumped off the fence and ran towards Pa. “Brother or a sister?” she blurted out.
He pushed her aside, as if he hadn’t seen nor heard her. Pa’s face was ashen, rolled into a scowl. His eyes were red and puffy. I sensed something was very wrong.
“Pa?” Josie looked up at him with sad eyes of a kicked puppy. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong, Pa?” Dolly asked. “Is Mama okay? What about the baby?”
Pa wouldn’t – couldn’t – speak. Just motioned woodenly toward the shack and stared past us; then he turned around and went back inside. We knew now wasn’t the time for questions, and headed for our bunks. No arguments. We were cold and glad for a warm bed. Plus, we were afraid to ask.
Funny, I thought. Can’t hear a baby crying. Probably asleep already. I’ll find out if I have a brother or sister in the morning. I drifted off to sleep.
Next morning I rushed to Mama’s bed to see the new baby, but all I found were blood-soaked sheets. Couldn’t remember hearing a baby cry during the night either, come to think of it. The house had been way too quiet. Now, we couldn’t find Mama anywhere and the baby’s crib was empty.
I caught sight of Pa through the window. He still wore the bloody shirt and he had not combed his hair. His overalls were dirt-crusted and mud covered his hands. He had the saddest look I’d ever seen. He was heading back from behind the barn with a shovel in hand.
The awful realization hit me hard when I looked from where he’d come. There were two small crosses pushed into mounds of freshly-shoveled dirt. I knew then why we couldn’t find Mama – and why I never heard a baby crying. They were both gone. Forever.