P eggy Raider’s fingers pumped on the baby’s sternum. “One and two and three and four and . . .” Her other hand reached through the isolette and squeezed the ambu-bag after every fifth beat. Puffs of air pushed into tiny lungs.
“Hurry!” She looked furtively at the nurses in the room. “I can’t get the heart started!” No one tried to help her. The floppy body beneath her hands failed to respond.
“It’s okay,” A resident rested a hand on her shoulder. “The baby’s gone. Let it go.”
Peggy shrugged off her hand and continued the compressions.
“Come on,” she pleaded softly. The closed space of the incubator made it difficult to keep going, but she couldn’t let the baby go. She was a nurse. She couldn’t give up. She’d keep going until Dr. Sparks arrived. He’d know what to do.
When the physician came in, the scent of sandalwood and cedar filled the air. It smelled like nature had enfolded the NICU in a sweet embrace. Dr. Sparks reached over and gently pulled Peggy’s hand from the body. His warmth was calming. Reassuring.
Peggy’s eyes stung. The tears blurred her vision. It was embarrassing to cry. She tried to place her hand back inside the isolette, but he held it firmly.
“She’s dead, Peg. You knew this moment was coming.”
Yes, she had known. Yesterday. The Maternal-Fetal Medicine department brought the infant’s case to the medical ethics board four weeks after the girl’s birth. Her head was enlarged and purplish, a condition called hydrocephaly. It was doubly tragic that she was born without a brain, or anencephalic. Even if she hadn’t expired during the night, the infant would have been removed from life support the next day.
Both parents had separated from each other two weeks after their daughter was born. They abandoned their baby when they realized that only the brain stem kept their daughter alive. The thin tendril of new life was the only thing that kept their marriage stitched together. Once they understood their daughter’s imperfection, they cut the string and pulled out the thread.
No child should go unwanted. Peggy wiped the tears from her eyes.
The other staff hesitated, suspended in a vortex of silence. The electronic pulse of monitors in the NICU whirred and beeped.
Peggy bowed her head, her heart fluttering at the thought of meeting the doctor’s gray eyes.
“She was my patient. I’ll fill out her paperwork and take her to the morgue.” Peggy looked up into his face. That gave her strength. “Then I’ll call her parents.”
There was serenity in the morgue most of the time. Peggy compared it to sipping a glass of merlot, full-bodied with hints of oak and plum. The dead never complained, and visitors were sparse. She liked coming here. Except for the rare occasions she heard terrifying cries of infants echo against the walls. Sometimes they’d wail so loud, she’d pull her hair or smack her ears to make the noise go away. When that didn’t work, she’d hold her breath and just before she gasped for air, the screaming would stop.
Yes, she was drawn to this haven of death. Sometimes she just sat on a stool and stared at the bodies. She was one of the few allowed to know the code of the cipher lock on the door. Rarely, if ever, did she run into anyone on the night shift.
She laid the baby on a stainless steel table and swaddled her so that only her face peeked out from the blanket. She kissed the baby’s forehead and held her close for a moment, stroking her cheek. “Don’t worry. Be patient. You’ll be up and running around in no time. Patience is a virtue,” she whispered.
Patience. That was the name she’d given her first baby sister the day her parents brought the girl to Peggy’s room in the basement. She was only six then. Her mother pressed the baby into her arms and had given her a pillow. She never forgot the words whispered in her ear, “If you want, you can stop it from crying.” Her parents had climbed back up the stairs and shut the door.
And her sister had cried, oh God, how she’d cried. Peggy rocked her, tried to keep her warm, but the room was so cold. Hours went by. The baby’s wailing faded. She’d rocked the girl until her very last breath.
Her father shook her shoulder the next morning. She lay curled up on the mattress next to her sister’s stiff body. She hadn’t heard the door open, or his heavy footsteps on the basement stairs.
He handed her a shovel and took her outside. “Bury it,” he said, “but not too close to the house.”
She had asked herself many times during her childhood, “Why me?” Why did her parents allow her to live and leave her sisters to die? She was a girl. Not the gender they wanted. It was sick, it was twisted. But, maybe they wanted someone to help them until they had a boy. Then what?
Peggy felt fear rip at her chest each time her mother’s abdomen started to swell. She had perverse nightmares where dead babies squirmed from beneath the muddy ground, crawled up her and suckled at her tiny breasts with razor sharp teeth. The worst part was the waiting, knowing the basement door would eventually open and she’d hear those words again, “If you want, you can stop it from crying.”
Kevin Sparks inhaled the stale scent of layered old paint and hardwood floors. The odor of lemon oil lingered but today they seemed dry and dusty. He thought about the church grounds, and how beautiful they’d looked this morning. A fine dusting of snow glittered on the Virginia earth. Gray stones in the cemetery glistened with ice.
Inside the church, the baby’s mother and father sat on opposite sides of large oak pews. The atmosphere was lackluster and bone-numbing cold. Not even the warm flickers of candlelight drove away the gloom.
A chilly draft poured in from the back of the church when Peggy arrived. The gust of air caused Kevin to turn his gaze and he watched her slide meekly into a seat in a far corner of the room. He almost motioned for her to come sit with him, but he didn’t. He felt awkward and embarrassed at his hesitation. What would he say to her?
Near the pulpit, sat a small white coffin on a wooden table. “We don’t want her embalmed,” the mother explained to Kevin. “There’s something unnatural about it.” And even though the parents were separated, they both wanted their daughter buried in sacred ground.
The minister strode into the room a little past 3 PM and stepped up to the pulpit. He was clad in a checked shirt, blue jeans and a pair of farmer’s work-boots. The only décor behind him was a large wooden cross and a stained glass window marred by a jagged round hole. Last summer, one of the Wickham boys threw a rock through the head of the white dove, but its wings still stretched out across an azure sky. Sometimes sunlight streamed through the hole, which made the dove look holy, but not today. The sermon took only minutes, and at the end the minister praised the parent’s decision to have their daughter baptized before she died.
Kevin kicked some rough pieces of stone across the ground as he trudged back to his car. He opened his BMW, and caught sight of Peggy following the family to the cemetery. Was she going to stay for the burial? Perhaps viewing the small body being placed in the ground would bring her some closure. He really hoped so.
It was a lovely night for digging. The burial plot was fresh, which made it easier to shovel. Peggy breathed a sigh of relief as the earth gave way. She was proud of her expertise at extracting newborns. All it really took was time and patience.
They gave up so soon! Her body shook as she dug, but not because of the cold. Instead, she was filled with excitement because she alone understood. She had the ability to make them live again. She alone knew how.
Satisfaction swelled inside her. She dug around the space, and used her hands to scrape away enough dirt so she could open the box. The condition of the infant tugged at her heart. The baby’s swollen head had begun to deflate. It looked blue and gelatinous beneath the gibbous moon. She’d fix that tonight.
She pulled the swaddled body from the coffin, and placed it inside a grocery sack. Then she closed the lid and filled the hole back in.
Surviving the fire was a challenge. Homeschooling, trips to the library and a few moments alone gave her all the information she needed. The trick was to make it look like an accident. Her mother and father guzzled beer and whiskey most nights, and the clouds of cigarette smoke, not to mention the charred scars on the living room carpet where her father had fallen asleep and sometimes dropped a butt before it burned his finger, only helped with her plan. She’d read in the paper that people and pets survived fires in the basement, though once the flames got going she dashed below and prayed to God she wouldn’t die.
When the deed was done, newspapers reported her survival a miracle, though certain parts of the house were badly burned while others remained unscathed. Peggy only cared about one thing. At the age of thirteen, she was free.
The couple who adopted her, two months later, were very kind. The man was a banker. She called him “Paps,” and though she was in her teens, he read fantasies and science fiction to her each night.
Marmee was a doll maker, and taught Peggy the art of crafting fine figures. Sculpting, firing, painting fairies, designing wood nymphs, making Victorian women’s faces . . . nothing felt as natural in Peggy’s hands as cool clay between her palms. Pressing polymers with her fingertips, she’d learned to sculpt mouths with grins or pouts, and perfected the technique of making hands and feet. Hours in the craft room were bliss.
When Peggy turned eighteen, Paps and Marmee paid her tuition to nursing school. She chose the nursing profession because she loved helping people, and though she enjoyed making dolls she didn’t want her craft to ever feel like work. At the University of Virginia she studied anatomy, pharmacology, psychology and four years later she graduated with honors.
At her graduation dinner, accented with white candles on the table, her parents cheered, “Congratulations!” and presented her with a large manila envelope. She opened it and was astonished to discover a check for ten thousand dollars and the deed to her deceased mother and father’s land.
“You were your parent’s sole heir,” Marmee explained, “and though it’s not really a gift, because it was yours to begin with, we thought you might want it now. River land is expensive, and it might help you in the future.”
Peggy’s house, once owned by a miller in the 1800’s, was perched high on the banks of the James, in a forgotten part of the Virginia forest. The Kanawha canal, which ran alongside the river, was used by locals to haul flour, produce and tobacco to Richmond. Flat-bottomed boats returned with manufactured items such as clothing, dishes and furniture. That was, until the railroad came along.
The small towns along the riverbanks dried up and the mill went out of business. But the train lived on. Peggy both welcomed and dreaded the rumble of the locomotive. Old memories and new rolled through her mind whenever its horn blew.
The cats were salivating when she stepped through the screen door and pushed past the paint-chipped doorway. Five of the furry darlings swirled around her feet, mewling and purring. Another six kitties stampeded toward the kitchen. Peggy chuckled softly and laid the bag that held the infant’s body next to a group of curly-headed dolls arranged on the counter.
She put a large pot of water on the gas stove to boil. Once it was roiling, she pulled the baby from the sack, unwrapped it and lowered its naked body into the pot. After several minutes, she could see the flesh peeling away from the skeleton.
Absolutely gorgeous! Well, except for the head. Since it had no skull or brain, she’d have to hand-fashion a skull. Haven’t had to do that in a very long time.
When the flesh finally fell from the bones, she used a strainer to scoop out chunks of skin and muscle from the oily, foamy water. Once the meat cooled enough, she set the freshly cooked food onto little porcelain dishes and placed them on the floor. Her kitties made quick work of the tender morsels. They were seldom finicky.
The remaining liquid, she simply flushed down the toilet. Skin fragments, cartilage and other inedibles would decompose in the septic tank. Living in the country made her artwork easy.
A large pine-board chifferobe, a gift from Marmee, was stuffed with various kinds of clay. Cernit, Fima, Sculpy and several odds and ends such as buttons, wool and homemade yarn. There were glass eyes, beads, feathers and doll’s hair packed on the shelves, as well as fabric for making quilts and clothes.
Peggy stood in front of the hand-hewn closet and regarded the clays; Cernit was best. Yes, she deserved Cernit. She pulled the clay from the chifferobe and closed the doors. The baby’s bones would dry in the sunlight, which streamed in through her upstairs window. The following night, she’d create.
Her first visit to the house had been hard. Paps and Marmee had replaced the burned bedrooms, the scorched den and the side porch. The air smelled stale, and the odor of the fire still lingered, particularly in the basement.
‘After all these years’, she mused as she toured the rooms. She glanced through a window at the back yard, and shuddered.
“You could sell it if you like,” Marmee suggested, her round jolly body dancing through the rooms, “ . . . but it has such a beautiful view.” Paps seemed quite pleased with the restoration results as he strolled through the living room past the fireplace that Peggy never remembered as warm.
“No. It’s perfect, really,” she murmured. “Thank you.”
She moved into the house and took a job at a hospital in Charlottesville. On her off days she always managed too keep busy. Busy digging.
“How’s my Peggy?” Kevin gazed at the woman’s face. She sat in front of a computer charting on one of her patients. A new preemie lay in an isolette right next to her.
“Fine. Just fine. Thank you for asking.” Peggy’s smile seemed genuine. He observed the happy crinkles that formed at the corners of her eyes and the faint blush of pink that rose to her cheeks. The dark semi-circles prompted a question.
“Working on a new project?” A conspiring glint in her eye made him realize he’d guessed right. She was proud of her hobby.
“How did you know?”
“Your eyes. They have that obsessive glaze.” He grinned at her and admired the long line of her neck as well as the snug fit of her soft blue scrubs against her breasts.
“I’ve got a new one in the works.” She pulled out her iPhone to show him a photo.
He took it and scrolled through the pictures. “Amazing.” Each photo showed a well-sculpted arm or leg. There were several versions of a head that seemed not quite in proportion to the tiny body. “You talk about them so much, I’d love to see them sometime. I mean . . . in person. Maybe breakfast after our shift?”
She shifted in her seat and clasped her hands in her lap. Her discomfort with his question showed in the telltale bite of her lower lip. The preemie’s oxygen monitor started to alarm. She swiveled from her seat, opened the incubator and made sure the baby’s nasal canula was in place. It soon stopped ringing. The thirty-weeker was pink.
Her silence seemed as if a cue to exit. He turned away.
“Kevin?” His heart lept when she said his name.
He looked back at her sweet face, her large brown eyes, like those of a doe, and his heart pumped in pain.
“I’d like that,” she murmured, and the alarm beeped again. She went back to work, but he was floating on oxygen. One hundred percent.
Peggy never had guests, for many reasons. She spent most of her time driving to the hospital, working the night shift, then returning home. Sometimes she attended antique shows. For the most part, she preferred her privacy, unwilling to suffer meaningless conversations or the crude judgments of others.
She scurried around her home plucking up clothing from chairs and tables. A shawl here, a dress there, pieces of jewelry and three straw hats with brightly colored ribbons. These she pushed snugly into her tiny closet.
She emptied five litter boxes and took out four bags of trash, then fired up some incense. The wisps of sandalwood billowed through the air. The smoke curled and dispersed in a number of directions.
Peggy walked into the kitchen, moistened a sponge and wiped down the counters. She rarely used the stove, except to heat the room. Her refrigerator was nearly empty and the freezer was half full of microwavable meals. This morning she’d thrown out a half-quart of soured milk and four cups of yogurt that were two weeks past their expiration date. All that was left was a jar of sweet pickles, some Sally-Lunn bread and a jar of strawberry preserves.
She walked through the bedroom on the way to the bath.
Don’t worry. He’ll bring food. Peggy smiled at Prudence. The girl was always optimistic.
It took five minutes for the shower water to get hot. She climbed in to the stall and let the water drizzle over her while she scrubbed her skin with lavender soap. Above her, two hand-sculpted mermaids swam, suspended in the air from fishing line. Their red hair cascaded past shell-covered breasts.
In the bedroom, she went through a dozen dresses and finally decided on a blue and yellow floral with long flared sleeves and a low neckline. It was heavy enough to keep out the cold but still looked elegant. Gazing at the face of the silver-backed mirror, its edges adorned with handmade pixies, she felt she was staring at another woman living inside an enchanted world. She gathered her hair, twisted it into a bun and secured the tresses with cherry-wood hair-sticks. She added a touch of pink to her lips, sprayed Anais Anais into the air and let the perfume settle softly on her skin.
Penelope, Prudence and Pearl were propped against lacey pillows on the mahogany bed. They were such dears, with their cherubic smiles and handmade christening gowns. The first of her sculpted sisters.
Goddess, the house is cold. She went into the living room and looked over at the fireplace. It was too late to start a fire before Kevin arrived. The grandfather clock in the living room chimed nine. Gravel crunched in the driveway.
He’s punctual. That’s good. Peggy glanced at Patience. The doll sat with her back against the fire screen. It was nice she approved.
She looked around her home once more. Everything was in place. The plants were watered. Each doll was dusted, arranged in dutiful welcoming. The basement was locked. The craft room latch was secured. She inhaled, pushed her shoulders back and instructed the girls. “Behave now, each of you.” Then she opened the door.
Sunlight washed over her, and her eyes stung a little. He was crossing the frozen grasses of her brown front yard, which looked more like a rogue hayfield than a lawn. She noticed the groceries under his arms. Any anxiety she had fluttered away.
Kevin wasn’t aware Peggy made such a long commute every day. When he passed through the town of Fluvana, Google maps and MapQuest failed him. She’d laughed while drawing him a map to her house, and explained that it was “off the grid.” After an hour of driving, he finally found it. The white dollhouse mailbox couldn’t be missed. Flowers scrolled across it, little green shutters framed the windows, and a red rooster sat atop a miniature weather vane. The dirt road caused him to grit his teeth each time his tires bumped over a hole.
It was a mile before he reached the house. It overlooked the river and was partially obscured by tall shrubs. There was a long screened porch, with a roof that dipped slightly in the center.
Probably from years of sun and a few heavy snows, he thought. It was one of the most charming homes he’d seen in a long time, despite the obvious need for some handyman work.
It wasn’t until he’d pulled the groceries from the back seat and started toward the house that he saw her. One of the sacks under his arm slipped from his grip and tumbled to the ground. Peggy Raider was striking. Standing there looking at him in the morning light, with her dress flowing over her body like a floral waterfall, she was literally breathtaking.
Digging . . . she refused to stop digging. There were seven sisters in all and she was determined to rescue each one. It worried her that the bones might crack from the oven heat, but with some wire and foil she managed to revive them all. After a summer of searching they were all reunited, brought together in the wake of blood, sweat and tears. Prudence, Penelope, Petunia, Polly, Patricia, Portia and the most difficult to find, the most precious of the lot, Patience.
Once she’d completed them, their voices urged her on. “Don’t stop with us. There are more who need your love.” And she’d found the others in obituaries or at her job in the NICU. Since she’d started working at the hospital, twelve precious lives were rescued. Thirteen now. Thirteen new sisters.
She loved that he didn’t make fun of her home. He placed the groceries on the kitchen countertop, and played with the kitties. She gave him a tour of the house, and he didn’t ask her about the basement or her craft room.
Later, Kevin cooked them vegetable-cheese omelets and cinnamon rolls. He handed her a plate with sliced strawberries fanned daintily on the edge, and they drank fresh orange juice mixed with chilled champagne.
After breakfast she took him down to the river along a narrow stone pathway that cut through the woods. They balanced on top of the rails at the tracks, and somewhere amid their talking and laughing he caressed the back of her neck, gently grasped her arm and drew her to him. She felt like a meteor shooting to earth, sparkling and flaring bright, plunging to its final destination. And when he pressed his lips to hers, she thought her heart might stop. She floated back to the house, to the bedroom she’d only used for changing clothes. There, in the arms of Kevin Sparks, she became a woman.
Kevin woke. It was night, but dappled moonlight streamed in through the window and outlined Peggy’s jaw and the curve of her breast. He shifted his weight and managed not to wake her on his way to the bathroom. Standing at the toilet, he watched his breath turn to frosty mist and thought about the fireplace. He remembered the cord of wood stowed beside the house.
It took him just a few moments to find his clothes. He put them on, and stepped outside. The pile was easy to find. He filled his arms with dry kindling and a couple chunks of wood, brought the pieces in.
A group of dolls sat propped against the screen, a temporary barrier to the fire grate. Blonde-headed figures with carefully crafted faces and lacy nightgowns. He stared at them and found their life-like faces unnerving. He took a deep breath and gathered them together. A prickling sensation suddenly ran along his spine and he hurried to drop them onto a nearby rocker.
She’s a master craftsman, that’s for sure. He wondered what spurred her passion for sculpting dolls. She seemed obsessive about it.
The kindling burned over wads of crushed newspaper. Soon the room was infused with light and warmth. A small sound in the hallway made him jump, and he thought her heard the pitter-patter of little feet on the floorboards.
A fluffy white cat appeared and sauntered over to rub against him. “That you making noise, fella?” He crouched down to scratch the animal beneath its chin. The fire crackled and a log fell, spewing sparks into the air. Tiny embers landed on the cat, and it jumped up toward his chest. He fell backwards into the rocker and the pile of stacked babies tumbled to the floor. Panic made his stomach lurch. He desperately hoped none of them were broken.
He picked the dolls up, one by one. They seemed unharmed, until he lifted the last one. Pieces of clay rested on the floor. He examined the broken face and saw the skull beneath the clay.
His brain whirled. The funerals Peggy attended after each death in the NICU. Watching her follow the family to the grave. “No. It can’t be,” he whispered.
Despite the fire’s warmth, his body started to shake. Then, something leapt behind him, grabbing his hair. Something else scratched at his feet. When he looked, he saw blood trickling down his ankle. He reached behind to pull off his attacker but the grip was too tight. Eerie echoes of tiny feet padding across the wooden floor made him whirl around with surprise. He screamed Peggy’s name, and kept on screaming until a cold blade slipped across his throat.
Arterial blood sprayed across the room. He fell to his knees and pressed his hands to the cut. Pale faces in white gowns sat in front of him. Their eyes reflected red from the burning fire. He fought against unconsciousness, tried to claw away from drowning. But he was drowning in black.
Peggy plugged the lights into a socket, and stepped back to admire their tree. The last ornaments were in place, and each girl had a package to open Christmas morning. She looked over and smiled. Kevin smiled back.
No woman ever had a better man. She couldn’t remember a holiday so full of joy. Patience and Prudence sat sweetly on his lap. A couple of new kittens played at his feet. She was incredibly lucky they had food for the winter. Kevin made for an excellent provider; and best of all, he’d made sure her freezer was full.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Querus Abuttu, “Q,” is a MFA student in the “Writing Popular Fiction” program at Seton Hill University. She enjoys writing horror, bizarre tales and dark science fiction and loves reading more of the same. Her work has been published in the online magazine, “69 Flavors of Paranoia,” and in an anthology titled, “Hazard Yet Forward.” She has worked as a Certified Nurse Midwife and Forensic Nurse for the Indian Health Services and United States Navy for over twenty years. Querus lives in Ventura, California with her most understanding husband Jim, two resilient teenagers (Kira and Sean), her dog Paris and three cats (Nyha, Maddie and Chi). When she’s not writing; she’s surfing the wild Pacific waves or dabbling in a little local ghost hunting which has yet to result in locating real ghosts. Despite her failure at tracking the paranormal, she still hopes to capture the phantoms one day and make their stories her own.