A Remote Area of Northern California in 1960
ClaireLee shivered in the snowy night, regretting she had only a cotton gown and thin robe between her and the cold. She leaned against the porch rail near the cabin’s open front door. Daddy had forbid her to stay any longer at Mama’s side. “Not enough room,” he’d said.
She didn’t believe his excuse.
But, then again, ClaireLee was somewhat relieved to not watch Mama twist about in pain.
Yelling louder, Mama had twisted about in more pain than with sister Lolly’s birth. Why is the baby taking too long?
ClaireLee stuck a fingernail in her mouth. She bit and pulled. It ripped with her skin and stung. I should be holding Mama’s hand.
Outside, in the back-drop of the wilderness, the Rushing River rumbled and at first muffled Mama’s groans. Her cries intensified again, and ClaireLee’s neck prickled. Mama’s not doing good. At three-year-old Lolly’s birth, ClaireLee had witnessed Mama’s short labor and delivery. ClaireLee now peeked inside the cabin to see if Lolly was okay under all the excitement. She and their two brothers huddled together in a corner of the bed in the small living room.
Sucking on the tender fingernail, she no longer cared whether or not the baby would be a sister rather than a brother. She clasped her hands under her chin. Please, God, help my mother. Keep her and the baby safe.
At the end of her prayer, the wind blew softly.
Fiddling with her bathrobe, ClaireLee rewrapped it snug to her body and tightened the ties. Socks and boots would have been nice, but she couldn’t bear to get any closer to Mama and her cries.
It seemed like days ago when ClaireLee and her family left their home in Oregon yesterday morning. Daddy’s new job took them to the wilderness of Gallagher Springs in Northern California. A place with a few rustic buildings built many decades ago along the Rushing River. If only Daddy would have asked her opinion about the move. She would have told him, “Not during the winter, and not when Mama was about to give birth.”
A baby wailed, breaking into ClaireLee’s remembering.
Shaking, ClaireLee’s hands lingered on her bathrobe tie which she made into a bow. With an intake of air, she whooped her excitement. “Thank you, God.” Soon, she’d hold the brand-new baby. Who would it favor? Daddy? Mama? Mama promised to teach ClaireLee how to bathe it. She giggled. What a delicate job it was, baby washing.
Long, forever moments passed. Then, ClaireLee’s across-the-street neighbor, a bachelor named Big Red, came out of her parents’ bedroom, where Daddy stayed behind with Mama. Stopping at the entry of the front door, Big Red’s firm squeeze to her arm said more than his words. “Got to get the car warmed.”
Her throat tightened; she gulped down her initial fear as it rose in her throat.
She stepped into the snow and followed him. “But why?” Hesitating for a moment, her bare feet sank deeper and burned, and she hurried onto the porch.
The car engine started.
ClaireLee cupped a hand around her mouth and hollered, “Big Red, what’s going on?” He didn’t answer and fiddled with the heater switch.
Is Mama going to the hospital? She nibbled on another nail but stopped, not wanting a repeat of pain. “I’ve got to see my mama.”
Before she lifted her foot on the threshold, Daddy staggered at his open bedroom door. He was carrying Mama; her neck and arms were limp.
Now Mama groaned and ClaireLee stiffened, pressing herself to the porch railing.
Gulping, she blinked to clear her tears. “What’s wrong?” She pressed her trembling fingers to her mouth. “Is something happening to Mama?”
Daddy continued on by ClaireLee to the steps, wobbling from the extra weight. Strands of Mama’s hair touched ClaireLee’s cheek, light as a feather. Daddy mumbled. “Slippery.” His boots sloshed on the snow-covered planks.
ClaireLee moved to the top step, also. “Do you need help, Daddy?”
Another groan, much deeper, came from poor Mama.
Finally, his boots touching solid ground, Daddy swayed with his burden.
Several inches of what ClaireLee believed was a rope slipped from Mama’s body. ClaireLee gasped. Shutting her eyes, she squished them tight. No, no, doesn’t seem right.
Over the Rushing River’s fury, she hollered, “Daddy, what can I do?”
With a gust of wind, the tree branches rattled like snakes. Goose bumps slithered over ClaireLee’s flesh. She curled inward and whimpered, Oh, Mama, Mama, don’t die.
Big Red opened the side-swing tailgate of ClaireLee’s family station wagon and waited. Mama and Daddy descended into the shadows, where their images combined to form a cross. Finally, Daddy reached the end of the car, tucked Mama inside, and climbed in after. Big Red slammed the tailgate shut and hurried toward the cabin.
“You’re taking my mama to the hospital, aren’t you?” ClaireLee stood on the porch, blocking his path.
He stared at her from where he stood on the ground. “Yes.”
All three of ClaireLee’s siblings called to her, concern etched in their voices. She leaned near the door. “I’m finding out about Mama, so you kids hush.”
Big Red reached her, and she clung to his shirt sleeve. “Is Mama going to die?”
Lashes shimmering with moisture, he patted her head on his way inside. “I’ll get your mother there as fast as I can.” Big Red disappeared into her parents’ bedroom, where the baby still cried.
More out of fear than from the cold, ClaireLee’s teeth chattered. Daddy was hovering above Mama inside the station wagon. Did he cover Mama with a blanket?
Appearing before ClaireLee, Big Red brought a kicking and screaming newborn. Her heart leaped. Its skin color was more like a shade of purple than the healthy pink she noted at Lolly’s birth. The baby kicked its feet right out of the blanket, toes spread wide.
Big Red tucked the baby between his own chest and his Mackinaw jacket. “You’ve got a brother.”
ClaireLee peered at the baby. Her breath caught at such a perfect round nose and his full lips. She touched the baby’s dark, damp locks. This one’s a fighter. Heart swelling, fresh tears of joy surfaced.
With careful steps, Big Red walked on. At the station wagon, he passed the newborn to Daddy through an open window.
Daddy rolled up the glass, and ClaireLee ran to the car, forgetting about cold feet. She banged her fist on the windowpane. “The guardian angel is watching Mama, right, Daddy?”
“We’ll be back as soon as possible, Claire Bear.” He was opening the window a crack. “Take care of the kids.” From where Mama lay inside the car, she lifted her head. Face still pale, the color of snow, her eyes squinted with what ClaireLee knew was pain. And, Mama flattened a palm against the glass.
Sorrowing for her mama, ClaireLee whimpered. She dismissed the baby nickname Daddy had given her. Claire Bear. And days ago, when she turned thirteen, she asked Daddy to call her just Claire. None of this mattered now as she kissed her own fingers and blew. With a quaking voice, she whispered, “Catch my love, Mama.”
At this moment, Big Red gunned the gas pedal, and the tires pelted snow and gravel.
“Please be okay, Mama.” ClaireLee ran to the porch, shaking with her cries. Laddie, her German shepherd, crawled out from under the cabin. He hurried to her side and licked her elbow, and she smothered her sobs in the comfort of his fur.
From indoors, her three siblings fussed and whined, again.
Intent on doing as Daddy instructed, she straightened and wiped her tears on a sleeve. “Come, boy.” Up the steps and through the doorway, Laddie’s toenails clicked, and she followed close behind.
Shoving her weight against the front door, ClaireLee shut it with a clunk. From the bed in the living room, meant to sleep all four children, nine-year-old Liam said, “Where’s Daddy going with Mama?”
ClaireLee’s chest heaved. No words formed on her tongue to reassure her siblings. At their places on the bed, Liam and Grayson sat at the foot and Lolly at the head. ClaireLee longed to snuggle next to Lolly and sleep, to forget she, alone, was responsible for their care. The kitchen counter was piled with dirty dishes, displaying the process of baking chocolate chip cookies for tomorrow’s lunches and first day at the new school. All was forgotten in the chaos.
On a second glance, though. Oh no. Her siblings had eaten the dough, every gooey drop. Except at Lolly’s place on the table, where she left a spoonful for Mama like she said she would. Good, it’s still there.
“Why aren’t you talking?” Liam scooted off the bed and moved closer to ClaireLee. “Is Daddy taking Mama to the hospital, or not?”
Lips quivering, ClaireLee grew more aware of their isolation from their own home, family, and friends. People they had left back home in Oregon. What will happen to us? The children’s faces grew pasty over the last few hours, and their eyes drooped from lack of sleep.
Once again, Liam broke into her thoughts. “The blood on Mama—”
An icy draft swooshed from under the door, traveling up the length of ClaireLee’s nightgown.
Shivering, she moved to the middle of the room, closer to the wood stove. Her feet warmed and then stung.
“Well?” Liam pulled a face.
“This happens, Liam, when babies are born. I saw blood at Lolly’s birthing.” The truth? There hadn’t been as much blood then, but ClaireLee had seen some; she knew how it went.
“Come on.” ClaireLee wiggled her finger at her brothers. “Let’s clean the kitchen. We don’t want Mama to see such a mess.”
“I’ll wash. Lolly, you dry.” She twisted on the faucet. “Liam, you clean off the table, and Grayson will put away the dried dishes.” Quietly, the boys and Lolly scooted off the bed and followed ClaireLee.
Standing next to ClaireLee at the sink, Liam narrowed his sleep-deprived eyes. “It was a lot of blood.” His expression collapsed to what ClaireLee thought of as a sorrowful hound. “Is Mama dying?”
Acting bigger than his seven years, Grayson puffed out his chest. “Nope. Hospitals save people—huh, ClaireLee?”
“I”— she paused—“believe Mama will get there in time.” More sobs heaved in her chest.
Her brothers said nothing, their brown eyes as wide as a hoot owl’s. I’ve got to think of words to comfort these guys. But, none came, and everyone did their work in silence.
After they had the kitchen cleaned, ClaireLee ushered them to bed. She sat on the edge of the mattress and, with her nerves at their peak, hid her trembling fingers between her knees. “Okay, kids.” ClaireLee cleared the shakes from her throat. “Mama’s guardian angel will protect her, and the hospital does the rest.” Willing them to agree, she nodded and glanced at the clock. “Now let’s get some sleep. It’s three in the morning.”
Sliding down, Grayson squirmed underneath the covers. He laid his arms on top and pressed them at his sides.
“This is dumb.” Liam crawled off the bed. “We can’t go to a new school without Mama here.” Entering the kitchen, his hands moved as he spoke. “Shoulda never moved with the new baby coming.”
Was Liam right? Did moving into the cabin yesterday cause Mama to begin labor?
Her bottom lip disappeared between her teeth. The fleshly cord she had mistaken for a rope was attached to the afterbirth. This means it’s stuck in Mama. The children did not need to know such things.
Grayson’s eyes searched hers for answers she couldn’t give.
Eyeballing the spoonful of cookie dough, Liam grabbed for it. “What’s this for?”
From where she sat in her spot on the bed, Lolly reached out her arms. “You don’t touch. It’s Mama’s.”
ClaireLee shook her head back and forth. “Stop, Liam.”
“Mama’s not here.” He set it down. “Why don’t you eat it?”
“It’s for when she comes back.” Lolly crossed her arms. “So there.”
“So there, yourself.” Liam took the spoon and stuck the dough near his mouth. “Watch it disappear.”
“You.” Pushing herself off the bed, ClaireLee rushed at him. She jerked it from his hand and pointed the spoon at him. “Go to bed.”
The dough hit the floor with a plop.
“No. No.” Wiggling her fingers, Lolly wailed, and she raised her nose to the ceiling. “Now. It’s. Dirty.”
“I’ll fix it.” ClaireLee blew on the dough, wrapped it in wax paper, and stored it in the refrigerator. “See? It’s okay.”
When Liam climbed into bed a second time, Lolly kicked him. “You bad boy.” Her disheveled hair and clenched teeth made her appear more like a wild rat. “Bad, bad boy.”
“This is enough, Lolly.” ClaireLee stood before her sister and pushed away her legs. “I want you both to hush. I can’t think with this racket.”
Grabbing his part of the blankets, Liam covered up to his chin. He stroked the patchwork quilt of old clothes made to keep them warm. “These squares were cut by you, ClaireLee—sewn by Mama.”
ClaireLee frowned at Liam and wondered if he was calming down, or would he act out once again.
Wind forced its way through the cracked chinks between the rough-hewn logs, and whistled. Something else to attend to. After unrolling toilet paper, ClaireLee tore it into pieces, and stuffed it in the gaps. Standing back, she decided the wads would hold.
“This place is horibibel.” Lolly sniffed from her side of the bed. “I need to go home, Sissy Pie.”
Sitting down next to her sister, ClaireLee opened her arms for a hug. Lolly scrambled onto ClaireLee’s lap and laid her head on her shoulder.
“I need Mama.” Grayson’s lips quivered.
Those words wrenched at her heart, and ClaireLee clung tighter to Lolly. “Mama’ll be here before we go to school in the morning. I just know it.” Rocking Lolly in a gentle sway, soon her baby sister’s lashes fluttered and rested. ClaireLee tucked her in bed and kissed her cheeks.
Easing into the rocker, she slipped her feet beneath her. The boys followed Lolly into what ClaireLee hoped were good dreams for them all. A melody flowed through her mind, as it often did when she was happy, sad, or scared. She conjured the words. Do not fear, little ones, guardian angels float above.
Noises jolted ClaireLee from sleep, and she bolted upright. Laddie was whining and sniffing on Mama’s bedroom doorjamb. Rising to investigate, she peered closer. Brownish stains, which smelled metallic. Her stomach lurched. Mama’s blood?
Soft cries escaped from her lips, and Laddie continued to whine at her side. “When’s this awful night going to end?”
After dampening a towel, she got on her knees and crawled and mopped the dried fluid. In her parents’ room, she flipped on the light. Oh, Mama. Resolving to finish, she stripped the stained sheets and threw them in the dirty clothes at the foot of Mama’s bed. She wanted Nana there to help. Nana and Old Papa would come, but they were home in Oregon, and the cabin was too many miles from them. Not even a telephone. Why did Daddy move us here?
As she washed and dried her shaky hands at the kitchen sink, the wind howled and the cabin creaked. Dark corners played mean tricks on her imagination, and she pressed on her stomach. The knots there grew into boulders, and she took a deep breath. Glancing at the woodstove, she moved to check it.
Upon inspection, ClaireLee found the fire needed feeding. Only bark chips and debris lay scattered in an empty wood box. Venturing outside in search for the log pile was not the answer. Not in the dark. Not by herself. Not without Mama. A shiver slid from her neck and spread through her back. The river and wind teamed together in a frenzy, sounding like a beast ready to gulp them—cabin and all.
Read the rest of the story of ClaireLee when you purchase your copy of Just Claire, available from Amazon and Ruby’s Reading Corner