An Excerpt from "A Birth on the River," (December 24/25, 1962). To be published in The Ghost of Billy Masterson and Other Thousand Islands Tales, available now at Square Circle Press and on December 6 at www.amazon.com, or by request from your local bookstore.
The knock on the door comes first, and startles me, perhaps more than it should.
I am back at home after a lovely Christmas Eve service. Christmas Eve is about the hymns, sometimes, including this year, practically all of them that can be found in the most recent version of the Methodist Hymnal. We sing about peace, even though peace is as far away as it has ever been. We sing about angels, even though for many in the congregation angels exist only in the imagination. We sing about the Christ child’s birth as if it were happening tonight rather than tomorrow.
But as my late husband used to say, “it’s tomorrow somewhere, dearie.”
I am sitting in my chair beside a fire, singing “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” when the knock comes at the door. I am annoyed at the interruption because the hymn's rhythm helps me maintain the rhythm of my tatting. I have yards upon yards of it to finish for the border of a quilt we’re supposed to have ready for the Epiphany bazaar. The knock continues, louder and quicker. The knock causes me to stop singing just as the chiefs arrived with their gifts. I lose track of the hymn and thus lose track of my pattern.
Next comes the chiming of the clock. It’s an elaborate Edwardian piece handed down through my late husband’s family, the Symingtons. It’s much too big and ostentatious for my modest river cabin, but I keep it not only for sentimental reasons but also because I love the sonorous tone of its Big Ben chime. And I hear it now at full length because the clock is striking midnight, heralding the arrival of Christmas Day. Tomorrow is here. The hymns, sung now, are accurate.
It is also much too late for a visitor.
I get up from my chair and place my tatting on a side table. I stoke the fire and let the knocker knock, hoping that he or she will become just as annoyed as I am. I go to the door. I put my hand on the knob. The knocker almost puts his fist through the door with this final, furious series of poundings. I open the door and see the last man I expect to see a few seconds after Christmas Eve, his hand drawn back as he prepares, perhaps, to knock the door down.
“Mr. Ostend,” I say, quickly embarrassed that I hesitated so long to answer the door for such an important person.
“My mother sent me,” he says, producing a folded sheet of stationary and almost stuffing it into my hand, as forceful with his correspondences as he is with his knocks.
I look at him, Gabriel Ostend, the river recluse. His top hat is pulled down low on the brow. The collar of his long coat is turned up to protect him from the sleet. His face is etched with a pain planted long ago. He looks like a man born a hundred years too late. I wonder why he is not in Puerto Rico like he usually is after the family’s annual party in early November. I don’t ask. I take the letter from Lady Ostend and open it. I read it. I close it. I try to look Mr. Ostend in the eye, but he looks away.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Grindstone. Just upriver from McRay Point. I have the Archangel.”
“Good. Let me get my kit.” And as an afterthought, “You’d better come in from the cold.”
He steps inside, just far enough to close the door behind him.
I breathe slowly as I check my bag for the necessary supplies. It’s a large canvas bag, stuffed to the seams with sheets, towels, gauze packs, hemostats, forceps, a stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff, a speculum, and a DeLee suction set. I take from my office cabinet enough syringes, sutures and needles to get us through even the most difficult birth. I take from my locked medicine cabinet ampules of methergine and pitocin and bottles of lidocaine, Betadine scrub and triple dye. I clearly remember sterilizing my supplies and equipment just a few days ago, but I check my notebook just to make sure I’m not confused amidst all the holiday hubbub. “22 December 1962” the entry reads. All is well.
As I put away the notebook I see the note Mr. Ostend delivered, sitting on my desk. I pick it up again and read its one simple sentence and equally simple question.
My Dear Mrs. Symington,
A child will be born to us this day. Would you be so kind as to bring him into the world?
With Holiday Blessings,
“If I had time to write a reply,” I say to myself, “it would certainly contain a few more questions than that.”
But there is no time for either writing or philosophizing if a child is to be born. I put my kit in an outer bag, also made of canvas, as additional protection against the wet weather. I return to the foyer. I can hear the sleet tapping at the door as insistently as Mr. Ostend’s knock had been. I set down my bag and put on a jumper for extra warmth and, over that, my Mackintosh. When I turn to pick up my midwife’s kit I see that Mr. Ostend already has it. He wordlessly follows me into the early morning Christmas darkness and closes the door behind him.
Mr. Henry, whose wife is probably home either asleep or crocheting her share of the Epiphany quilt’s squares, drives us to the public dock in Gananoque. Although the river is not yet frozen and will not be for another month, a thin layer of sleet and snow coats the water like a half-cooked crust. Mr. Ostend gets out of the car and opens the door for me, again taking possession of my kit like the proper gentleman he was raised to be. The wind hits me hard as I step into the slush. We walk hurriedly to the dock.
“Be careful,” Mr. Henry warns over the roar of his Buick’s engine.
I look at Mr. Ostend and ask him, “Is he talking to you or me?”
“To me in getting you there. To you for once we get there,” he answers.
The Archangel is idling at the dock. Not surprisingly, it is the only boat there. It is a large boat, at least eighty feet in length, and with its strong keel and heavy ballast it should keep us safe as we ply the stormy waters through the Admiralty Group and across the Canadian Middle Channel to Grindstone Island. It is also a comfortable boat, I find as I climb aboard, with cedar and chrome and leather everywhere. After stowing my kit in the aft cabin, which is quite warm, Mr. Ostend apologises that I should stay outside on the forward deck with him.
“Why?” I ask, preferring the warmth of the heated cabin to his silent company and wanting to centre myself before assisting with the birth.
“Safer this way,” he says, and offers no further explanation.
I decide to hold my tongue and let him concentrate on piloting us away from the marina and into open water. It takes me a moment to find my sea legs amidst all the rolling and pitching. I pull my hood tight over my knit hat and stuff my gloved hands into my pockets.
“Where are we?” I ask a few moments later, seeing the vague outline of an island in the mist to the starboard. I also noticed that the motion of the boat has smoothed out somewhat.
“That’s Forsythe Island to our right,” Mr. Ostend says. “Hay Island will be coming up on our left. Hang on. Our ride is about to get rough again.”
Conditions deteriorate quickly when we lose the leeward protection of Forsythe Island. The Archangel rolls and pitches more than it had earlier. The beam from the boat’s headlight barely reaches the water. I tighten my hood and turn my face against the wind, which now drives the sleet and snow almost horizontally. The sleet and snow are also sticking to the boat, which, I recall from my husband’s years on the river, causes significant changes in the boat’s weight and centre of gravity, among other problems that I would rather not think about. To my relief, Mr. Ostend seems to be compensating for these dangers, as I can discern no significant change in our motion beyond what the roughness of the open water brings. He is a steady man, with the ability to keep the Archangel steady even in the most unforgiving conditions.
We are moving surprisingly fast through the swelling open water. I know that Mr. Ostend’s intention is to keep us as far away as possible from the smaller islands and shoals that we simply cannot see. He does an admirable job of it, and in a few minutes we are making a wide turn into the Canadian Middle Channel. I feel better with the wind at our backs as we move downriver for the final leg of our journey, in part because the sleet and snow are no longer blowing into my face. Soon I can see land straight ahead of us.
Mr. Ostend glances at me and says, “There it is. McRay Point.”
The sight of our destination causes my heart to race because, having been unable to centre myself, I do not feel prepared to be completely present for the mother. A calm birth is a good birth, and a midwife must remove all negative stimuli in order to create an environment where a calm birth can happen. Since knowledge also provides confidence, I decide to prepare myself in this way.
“Do you know the family?” I ask.
Mr. Ostend glances at me and turns his eyes back to the river. “Do you really want to know?”
“I should know as much as possible about the family. Usually I would learn all I need to know at the pre-natal examinations. This situation is quite different.”
We are nearing the lone dock on McRay Point now. I see a car’s headlights just beyond the dock. I smile at the courtesy of people on both sides of the river who have gone out of their way to assist me on this stormy Christmas morning. At the same time, I am annoyed at having to wait for Mr. Ostend's reply.
“Who’s the mother?” I ask more directly.
Mr. Ostend slows the boat for our approach. I’m grateful we’re here because the wind is blowing harder and the sleet has turned to heavy snow.
“Valerie Masterson,” he says.
I reflexively bring my hand to my mouth, but not before a loud, high pitched “oh!” slips out.
Anyone who’s been on the river long enough knows all that needs to be known about this particular branch of the Masterson family tree. Gordon, the youngest of four boys, enjoys a River Rat’s luck to such a degree that he eliminated the word caution from his vocabulary. As a child he fell off his outboard motorboat and survived a hit to the head by the propeller. As a teenager he “borrowed” a small tour boat from the Canadian side and survived its sinking on a shoal in the American Narrows. As an adult he twice survived breaking through the winter ice, once on a horse, which also made it out of the water, and once on an airboat, which didn’t. His fishing exploits are legendary and include wrestling a sturgeon all the way up to an island shore where the dinner he was cooking for his clients burned on the flames of the campfire. Some people say that Gordon Masterson is cursed. Others say that the river respects him so much that it refuses to take his life no matter how recklessly he tries to give it away. One thing everyone agrees on: Gordon Masterson lives on borrowed time.
Much less is known about Valerie. She stays indoors when she’s not rowing her skiff on the river. She keeps to herself on the rare occasions she comes out into public. I didn’t even know she was pregnant, and one way or another I usually know when any woman on the river is pregnant. Rumour has it that Valerie Masterson is half, or more, of Iroquois descent. To many that might explain the silence and the skiff. To me it matters not a bit because she, and her soon-to-be-born baby, are both children of God.
It’s the depletion of Gordon’s good luck I worry about. As we pull up to the dock I see that the man getting out of the car, our welcoming party, is Gordon himself.
“About time, Gabe,” he says by way of greeting. “Get in. Val’s not doin’ so hot.”
Gordon Masterson is a tall, skinny man with thin yellow hair. Haggard, I might call him if it were summer and he wore the usual undershirt and dirty cotton work trousers. But he’s in an old army coat now and wears a hand-knit wool hat that has seen one too many island winters. He looks exhausted, which is not uncommon for a father-to-be. He also looks scared, an emotion he is trying to hide under his gruffness.
He smokes as he drives us to his house just under a mile from the dock. I notice that his left hand, which holds the cigarette, is shaking hard and that his right hand, bone white, is clenched to the steering wheel like a vise.
I lean forward from the backseat and get a face full of smoke. “Mr. Masterson, when was the last time your wife saw a doctor?” I ask.
“Took her over to A-Bay a few weeks ago,” Gordon Masterson says.
“What did the doctor say?”
“Val said he checked her out all over. She looked good, ’cept for the baby was sideways.”
“Did he turn the baby around?” I ask, trying to hide my anxiety.
Gordon Masterson nods. I sit back and breathe easier because I won’t have to deal with the complication of a transverse lie—or so I think.
He takes a long drag from his cigarette, throws the butt out the window, lights another one, inhales from that and says, “Little guy’s stubborn, though.” He looks at me in the mirror. “Turned right back around a few days later.”
I shoot forward. “The baby turned sideways again?”
“Sure did. Felt it myself. His head was right up ’longside her belly.”
I ask as we pull up to the family’s cabin, a shack really, “Mr. Masterson, is your wife spotting blood? Is she complaining of muscle tightness? Has she had trouble sleeping?”
“Yes, yes and yes,” he says as he puts the car in park. My heart races. Gordon Masterson turns around and smirks. “Know what happened the next day? The little imp turned right back around to where the doctor put him.” He takes an extra deep puff from his cigarette. “Kid’s a playful one, ain’t he?”
I’m opening the door and picking up my bag, quite annoyed, when Mr. Ostend asks, “How do you know it’s a boy, Gordon?”
“Had a dream,” he says while looking intently across the front seat. “Saw him down there in the river, under the water, swimmin’ with a sturgeon.”
Valerie Masterson stands in the doorway, one arm resting on the outer jamb, the other clutching the doorknob. She has a blanket around her shoulders that reaches down to her boots and ripples in the wind. On the snow-covered sill, back-lit by the bulb hanging from the kitchen ceiling, is the unmistakable red stain of fresh blood.
“Get her back in the house,” I say without hesitation. “Carefully take her inside and lay her down.”
Both men rush out of the car to help her. Her husband, in a trembling voice, yells her name as he runs to her side.
“Val, what happened?” he asks.
Valerie Masterson speaks slowly and quietly. “I was lying down, waiting for you, when I cramped so badly I could barely breathe. Then the water came, with blood…” She doesn’t say anything more. She lets go of the door and allows her husband and Mr. Ostend to hold her underneath her arms. Her aura is predominantly red, grey around the belly, with hints of bright yellow around her heart and head. I look at the hem of the blanket and see that she is indeed bleeding, but not too seriously and with a good amount of water and mucous mixed in.
She says something to the two men and, to my surprise, they move her away from the house instead of back into it. Incredulous, I close the car door and rush over to them.
“Mrs. Masterson,” I say as calmly as I can. “You are most likely in true labour. You must get inside.”
She shakes her head insistently, although with little energy. “No,” she says.
“What is this foolishness?” I ask, trying to control my temper.
“I cannot give birth here.”
“And why not?”
“There’s a prophecy,” she says quietly.
I look at Gordon Masterson. “What is she talking about?” I ask. “What prophecy?”
He lights a cigarette. After inhaling twice he nods his head towards Gabriel Ostend and says, “His mother. Lady Ostend. She foresaw.” He smokes more of his cigarette before continuing. “Val works over there in the summers, you know, washing dishes. One day Lady Ostend calls Val into the big dining room, the one with the chandelier. Know what she tells her? She says our kid’ll be born on the river and die in its waters. It’s foolishness to me too, ma’am, but Val here swears by every word. What is she anyway? A hundred?”
I glance at Gabriel Ostend, who simply nods.
“Tell her the rest,” Valerie Masterson says.
“Gordon?” I prompt when all he does is inhale his smoke. “What else did Lady Ostend say?”
He looks at his wife, more afraid than he had been in the car. “She says if we do this right our boy will live again.”
I reach forward and brush the snow off Valerie Masterson’s hair and face. She’s a beautiful young woman, not much over twenty, dark-skinned and dark-haired. Her large brown eyes, quite dilated, meet mine. As we hold each other’s gaze I can see her aura brighten to a beautiful red interwoven with ribbons of blue and gold light. I also notice that the wintry mix has again turned to heavy snow.
“I will tell you the truth, Mrs. Masterson,” I say carefully, not wanting to upset her. “My opinion as a professional midwife is that you should birth your child safely at home. It is warm and dry in there, and we can proceed without difficulty in the comfort of your own bed.” I pause to let my words take effect. “But I can also see quite clearly that you want, perhaps need, to give birth to your child on the river. I trust your intuition. I trust Lady Ostend’s gift of foresight. Mr. Ostend, does the Archangel have a stove?”
“A teapot we can heat water in without it spilling?”
“Two of them.”
“Then immediately upon getting to the boat, I want you, Mr. Masterson, to heat up as much water as you can. Heat it to a boil and keep it there. I also want you to wash your hands very thoroughly and refrain from smoking cigarettes once you finish that one.” I look at Gabriel Ostend. “How steady can you keep your boat in this storm?”
“Not very,” he says. “But I know a sheltered place, safe from wind, snow and spray.”
I open the car door and motion for the men to place Valerie Masterson inside the back seat. “Take us there,” I say.
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(c) 2014, Thomas Pullyblank. This story is printed with the permission of the author and Square Circle Press LLC.
“A Birth on the River" continues in The Ghost of Billy Masterson and Other Thousand Island Tales, available in time for Christmas from Square Circle Press.
By Thomas Pullyblank
Thomas Pullyblank was born and raised in Caledonia, NY, and received his education at the University of Albany and the Boston University School of Theology. He now lives on a farm outside Cooperstown, NY, and also serves as a United Methodist pastor in Sidney, NY. Pullyblank still vacations in the Thousand Islands, where he and his family traveled every summer of his childhood. He is currently writing Ariel's Gift, a follow-up to Cornflower's Ghost, Napoleon's Gold and The Ghost of Billy Masterson.