SPOTLIGHT: an excerpt from Raising St. Elisabeth, a novella by Leah Holbrook Sackett

Kate Campbell opened her mouth and inhaled the sour smell of fermentation. It was like a kiss from her grandmother. Using a wooden spoon, she mixed sugar, water, oil, and flour with the starter from the Mother. Then she floured the worn wood grain of the kitchen table. Little clouds of flour settled on her rolled-up sleeves and disappeared into her ivory linen apron with the large pockets on the hips of the pleated skirt. Mrs. Campbell kneaded and pound the dough into a pliable texture. Her arms sinewed from years of bread making. Graying and red curls escaped from her bun, loose on the back of her head. Even now, in later years, her hair was too thick to bind down, too tangled to control. She worked in the full sunlight, filtered through the large window that took in a view of their apple orchard. With one fist knuckled into the dough, Mrs. Campbell used her free hand to brush back the strayed curls from her face and inadvertently floured her hair. She rested and gazed out over the tangled limbs of the apple trees, the crooked rows of verdant green under a bright sky of unadulterated blue. Then she covered the bowl with a towel, patted it lovingly, and left the dough to rise.

The white porcelain crockery that held the Mother was stored on a shelf in the cupboard. Here it was out of harms way but handy for weekly use. It was common, nondescript save for the pockmark on the container’s lip. It was scarred from a fall when she had kept the Mother out on the counter. She was chastised by guilt every time she looked at it. Kate had been distracted, consumed with envy over Mrs. Lovejoy’s apple pie. Mr. Campbell had said, “Why this is the best apple pie in Yakima County,” as he lifted a hefty forkful towards his mouth, gluttonous for another bite. She had turned rough and blind, armed with a rolling pin, and swept the heavy crockery off the counter. Thankfully, it had not broken into shards and damaged the Mother inside.

Kate had guarded this Mother from Ohio to Yakima County, Washington, just as her grandmother had carried it from Ireland to America in 1818. Her grandmother claimed this Mother was over a hundred years old. And that was when Kate herself was just a snub-nosed child back in 1845 peeking over the counter to get a whiff of the sourdough as it was worked into formation under the gnarled fingers of her grandmother.

Kate returned to the pantry and piled 10 small beets into her apron’s pockets when she heard wagon wheels fast approaching the house. It was not a good sound. It was urgent. Mr. Campbell never rode the team of horses like that; he was a calm, steady man. She hurried out of the front of the house to meet him.

“What is it, Michael?” she called out to Mr. Campbell.

Michael had left that morning to meet his tenant Henry Johnston and work on a blocked irrigation channel. Henry and Marie Johnston were tenants on the Campbell Orchard and farm. Henry was Michael’s, right-hand man. He was younger than Michael with more brawn. But Michael had years of experience, even if time was starting to rub the physicality off of Michael like a well-worn shoe. Henry was a little shorter than Michael, but twice the muscle, which was evident under the red cotton weave shirt that opened wide at the neck showing Henry’s bare chest. Only a few ladies visited Kate at the orchard, but all of them noticed when Henry walked by, which his wife Marie seemed to be blissfully ignorant. Her attention of late had turned to her unborn child.

On the outskirts of the newest section of the Orchard, Henry had been digging in a ditch trying to remove a tree root that was obstructing the water flow. With the final upheaval of the ax-battered root, a surge of water rushed through, sweeping Henry off his feet.

“He must have hit his head,” said Michael with his hands on his hips. Michael always stood in a wide stance, looking up into the sky with hands-on-hips when he tried to fight back a display of emotion.

“I just don’t understand where all that water come from,” he had said to a blank-faced Kate.

Henry was in the back of the wagon: glistening, waxen and cold. His red shirt hung heavy with water on his body. The Campbells made their way across a narrow road of grayish-brown soil. The road was deteriorated with ruts. The juts made the stiffening Henry bump and thud in the back of the wagon. They were rushing to tell a pregnant woman she was a widow. Kate started to lose the sense of urgency. She looked back on Henry grey-faced and mud-caked. She wondered at how quickly death claims a man. With their arrival at the Johnston homestead, just the next farm over, death brought a sense of responsibility. In a flurry, Kate entered the Johnston home. The bun loosened from the back of her head and her face flushed from the rough, fast-paced ride. Death brought a sense of impotence to the Campbells, a hardworking, purposeful people. They met this feeling with a sense of urgent duty. But as Kate stood in the empty, smoky front room of the house, she became momentarily disoriented.

“Henry! Here, I’m in here,” Mrs. Johnston called out in undisguised panic.
Kate bust into the bedroom adjacent to the front room, and froze taking in the sight of Marie Johnston with her legs and skirts hiked-up lying in the middle of her four-poster bed with the intricate wood carvings.

“Thank God, you’ve come,” Marie said, breaking into a sob.

Kate shrewdly swallowed her desperate news, tightened the bun on her head, and asked Marie when the pains had started. She had not expected to find Marie like this. Kate had never witnessed a birth nor given birth, but her sewing circles were rich with women’s war stories – the births of children and the scars they left behind. She tried to recall the facts she would need now. Her mind was frenetic, her movements staid. Marie reached her arms out to Mrs. Campbell like a child. Kate positioned Marie’s body, without resistance from Marie, in a state of repose and tucked her in with the bedclothes. Marie gave over to Kate’s direction and allowed her body to rest between erratic labor pains. The waves of pain in Marie’s back and pelvis subsided, leaving her bent and bulging like a skeletal shipwreck spewed onto a shore of sheets. Marie was exhausted. The crackle of the fire was hardly audible now. Smoke drifted lazily into the room, curling about the wood carved caryatids’ ankles. Marie watched the malodorous snakes of smoke wrap around the wooden echoes of her MotherMother. She buried her head in the feather pillow to block the stench of burnt stew from infiltrating her nostrils.

“Marie, what’s been burning?”

“I was afraid the whole house would burn. I’d been cooking when the pains started. I came in here to lie down, just for a bit. But the pains grew worse. And I was all alone,” Marie cried.

“I’ll take care of everything,” Kate said, patting Marie on the hand. And she went in search of the smoldering fire.

After removing the cast iron pot from the stove, Kate dumped its charred contents in the front yard where Mr. Campbell waited with a tarp-covered wagon and a weary look. She gave a quick explanation and dispatched him to construct Henry’s coffin in the barn aside from the small three-room, wooden-framed house. Michael sawed planks of wood meant to be an addition to the growing family’s home. He sawed the timber, too green that it wept, and he labored inside the suffocating heat of the barn under a high noon sun. Cold, dead Henry was his companion.

Kate returned to the kitchen, filled a fresh pot with water, and put it on the stove. Then she returned to the bedroom to tend to Marie. Kate surveyed the room, over-furnished for such a small house. Marie had arrived in Yakima County like a haggard princess after a long journey. Kate had always been reserved and polite with Marie but stood in judgment of this silly, younger woman’s pack of luxury items that served her poorly here on the outskirts of society. The bed took up most of the space in the center of the room and dwarfed the rest of the pieces, which looked plain compared to it. Matching bedside tables, a small ladies’ chair finely upholstered in pink velvet, a dresser with mirror, and a cedar hope chest seemed to gather round the bed, and Marie like loyal subjects.
Marie whimpered and reached for Kate’s hand.

“The pains are worse. They started in my back like a dull ache, but now they grow sharp around me when they come. Please, help,” Marie said. Kate allowed Marie to squeeze her hand and watched the woman buckle under an invisible vice-grip of pain.

“Try to focus on something else,” Kate said with false authority. Marie turned her head and looked to the fine details of her hand-carved oak bed. “What are you looking at?” Kate asked.

“My Mother. That is the face of my Mother on each of the carved women. My father made this bed for me after she died.”

“It’s beautiful,” Kate said. And she compared the rest of the furniture’s simple carvings against the bed’s elaborately carved headboard and footboard with the four caryatid pilasters. The four wooden women certainly displayed craftsmanship of grace and detail under the canopy’s weight.
The day faded away, and the baby had not come yet. Michael continued constructing the coffin outback. Kate lit candles and kept water boiling. She took a seat on the cedar chest by the door to rest for a moment and thought about how she had come to break the news of Henry’s death; to do her duty and comfort Marie in her time of grief, but now found herself in the role of mid-wife to a widow. At least the early birth was delaying the message of Henry’s death, she thought while chewing on the inside of her cheek, an absent-minded habit. Rising from her seat on the hope chest, she selected linens to use during the birth while she phrased and re-phrased, in her mind, how to tell Marie about Henry.


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