BellaOnline Literary Review
The Stairway by Debi Gardiner


The Lost Child

Rebecca Graf

The bell on the door jingled and broke Edith’s deep concentration from the numbers in front of her. She glanced up from the ledger. Her meager amount of education meant that adding up all the figures took a lot of time and focus. Any interruption was enough cause to put this unpleasant task off for another day. Despite her attempts, it proved impossible to see who had entered the store through the few items that were on the shelves.

Edith closed the ledger and placed it, along with the cash, on the lower shelf behind the counter as an apparently exhausted Mrs. McPherson walked in with her three small children. Like most of the women from the Appalachians, her clothes had that worn-out look. The original color may have been bright red or blue, but years of working in it and the subsequent washings had turned it a dull grey. There was nothing dirty about the dress, it was just old and neatly patched so the woman could wear it with dignity. The same could be said about any of the clothes worn by these mountain folk. They made good use of what they had and wore it until it could be worn no more.

The store was the place where families of the coal miners could pick up items that they weren’t able to make themselves. Soap wasn’t sold here, that could be made at home. Milk wan’t to be found here, either. That is one of the reasons the families owned cows. The store’s items included fine bolts of cloth, baking powder, baking soda, and a few pieces of candy that were bought for special occasions. Furniture and other items could be specially ordered, but there wasn’t usually money for such things. Furniture was handed down, passed around, made by hand, or done without.

Edith met the woman halfway across the store. “Good morning, Mrs. McPherson. What can I do for you today?”

The exhaustion written across her face and emanating from her eyes spoke volumes before the woman could open her mouth. “I just need a few pins for my sewing and to see if Mr. McPherson’s gloves have arrived yet.” Most of the men who worked in the coal mines had to get their own supplies. If a man didn’t have good gloves, there was a chance he could lose his hands in the deep, dark recesses of the earth. Rocks, tools, carts, and chains were constantly being pulled by them. They even found themselves pulling each other out from under overturned wagons and rockslides.

It didn’t take Mrs. McPherson long to get the few things she needed. Edith knew the location of these items so well that she could have found them just as fast blindfolded. As her total was calculated, Mrs. McPherson held her breath. She didn’t have very much money right now. Her oldest son had gone to work in the mines with his father, but he just hadn’t been experienced enough to get out when the warning sounded. His loss and the loss of the money he brought home hurt the family terribly. They now had to survive on her husband’s income alone and that just wasn’t enough for such a large family.

Edith looked up and smiled as she told the woman her total was twenty cents. Mrs. McPherson desperately searched for the proper amount in the small money pouch she pulled out of her dress pocket. A huge sigh of relief escaped her lips. “Thank you, Lord. There’s enough left to get us through another week,” she muttered under her breath as she counted out the correct amount.

Now that the apprehension of complete poverty was out of the way, Mrs. McPherson seemed to see Edith for the first time. “How is the new baby doing? I apologize for not asking sooner and for not coming by to see him. The children have all been sick and there has been so much to do this spring as the vegetables have come in.”

Edith smiled in response. “He’s doing very well. Growing every day it seems. He should be holdn’ himself up soon.” She really meant the smile which did not come that often. This was her third child and the first boy that she had given her husband. Little Charles was a blessing to them. He was already showing signs of being spoiled rotten. Everyone, including his two older sisters, was giving him as much attention as he wanted.

The women chatted a little longer about children and husbands before Edith was left alone again. In a way she was thankful. Idle chatter was not something she was used to. She spent a lot of time in the store alone. The most traffic that came was right after the coal miners got their pay from the coal companies. It was not a lot of money, but they were frugal and saved so they could eventually find a better life outside the mountains and away from all the coal.

She started coughing and struggled to get to the pump out back for water. After several attempts at pumping the lever, water shot out and filled the dipper in her hand. Drinking it quickly, she hoped it would stifle the cough. If it didn’t work, she was going to have to dip into her husband’s stash of whiskey and she really hated doing that. The stuff tasted awful, but that was the only way her husband could cope with the things he saw each day.

The cough had been going on for a few months and seemed to be getting worse. Doctors were expensive and only came around every so often. There were a few local men and women who knew things about herbs and patching people up, but Edith hated going to anyone. She knew that this persistent cough was going to force her to visit the fancy city doctor that came through once a month. The doctor would be through in just a few days if he could make it over the roads after the rains that all arthritis joints were proclaiming. Tonight she would count what money they had saved and see if she could spare enough to tend to the cough. Until then, she would drink the whiskey.

As she left the church building where the doctor set up shop when he was in town, Edith felt tears welling up in her eyes. She was not one to cry or show emotion. Now was not a time she wanted to change that. The apron she still had on from baking bread was used to wipe her face. There were still chores to get done, even though the store had been closed today for the doctor’s visit.

As soon as she had finished her chores a few hours later, she walked down the hill and crossed over a creek. Crossing a few more creeks brought her to the Shelley house. She hesitated before going in. This was not something she wanted to do, but it needed to be done quickly.

Edith was not in the house more than half an hour before she was back on the path to home. Charles was fussy, and she didn’t want to leave him in the care of his sisters for too much longer. They were very young, but they took good care of him. Edith just couldn’t bear to be away from her baby for long periods of time.

Tonight was one of the few nights that her husband would be home to eat dinner with them. Usually, the kids were tucked into their corner bed together when their dad, covered in black from head to toe, walked through the door. Only the whites of his eyes distinguished him from the inky dark of midnight. If he happened to smile, his teeth helped prove him to be a human being.

Edith had the basin of water ready so he could make some semblance of cleaning off the coal dust. It was almost impossible, but the layer that accumulated on his body in the last hour usually managed to turn the basin of a clear bowl of water into a black goo. Daniel was a man that used to like being clean when he ate. He hadn’t been that way in a long time.

Edith was delighted to have her whole family together. Charles was only three months old and Daniel usually only saw his infant son long after he had fallen asleep. The meal, even though it wasn’t much of a meal, was eaten with more joy than usual. There was some ham from a hog the Jones men had killed and cured last year. Edith had traded some domestic duties for it during the winter when Mrs. Jones took ill. She had used her stash of lard to make Johnny bread. Because Daniel was home, she had pulled out some beans that had been canned last year. She was not sure she would get anything this year from her garden. Things had changed today.

After the meal was finished, the dishes washed and dried and everyone tucked into bed, Edith turned to Daniel. “Now that everything is done, why don’t we spend some time on the porch and listen to the crickets? We don’t get to do that much anymore.” Daniel quietly nodded and reached for his pipe as they headed out the door. The porch leaned a little to the left due to some shifting of the ground which could make sitting properly difficult. Instead of sitting on the slanted chairs, they both sat on the three steps that bridged the gap between the rocky soil and the porch.

Not much was said. Daniel was enjoying the twinkling of the stars up above them in the dark, crystal clear sky. As he marveled at their beauty, Edith was pleating her dress with her fingers and noting how faded the floors were. She found a small tear that would need mending later tonight. She only owned three dresses. Two were for daily wear that she changed out when the washing was done. The other was for fancy occasions that came up occasionally with wedding celebrations, the travelling minister, and the all-too frequent funerals.

She knew it had to be said. The Shelley woman had already been over twice today. The children were bound to notice sooner or later, as well as Daniel. She took a deep breath and began to speak. He listened without changing his expression. Edith actually wondered if he was listening. After a few minutes, he nodded as he comprehended the gravity of the situation. He stayed silent a little longer.

Edith didn’t know what she expected him to say. It was not what came out of his mouth. “Maybe you should take Charles and the girls up to my folks in Ohio. The air is better there and you might find everything will heal itself.” Maybe that could help her. She began to protest, but once Daniel made up his mind, even God would have a hard time changing it.

Two days later, Edith and the three children got on the train to Ohio along with Mrs. Shelley. She was only going to ride there with them because Edith needed help with the children, then she would return home. All Edith could see was the savings they had accumulated on his small pay disappear with the train ticket expense.

Once she arrived at the home of her in-laws, Daniel’s mother took over caring for them. She hired a woman who met their needs and began looking after Edith’s health. It didn’t take long for Edith to begin improving. Daniel’s mother felt that she should see a doctor in Ohio, but Edith was determined to let the Almighty do the work. It was not until Charles began to act funny that Edith changed her mind, but only to see what was wrong with her baby.

He was crying all the time. His coloring was off and he began to cough. She prayed that this was not her fault. It had to be something that was nothing in the end. Then he began to lay limp when picked up and would not react to her voice. Edith panicked and rushed him to the local hospital. As the doctor examined him, he began to question why they were in Ohio. This caused him to look closer at Edith, which led to more questions. When all was over, he shook his head and walked out as Edith held Charles close.

The funeral was two days later. Edith held her tears at bay as she left the burial site and took her girls straight to the train. Daniel met them at the train with a smile on his face. He was able to get off work to see them which was highly unusual. When he noticed one less family member walking toward him, his face fell. He only asked where with his eyes.

Edith looked him right in the face and said, “I never had TB. The doctor was wrong. There was no need for me to give Charles to a nursemaid. I didn’t have to stop feeding him. He would still be alive if the milk he took in Ohio wasn’t tainted.” As the last of the words left her mouth, Edith fell at his feet and finally let the tears flow for her lost child.

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Spring Equinox 2012 Table of Contents