They are long forgotten by anyone living. I remember, we say. But we are so often wrong. We know something from the archive of photographs and script and type. We get fragments of the stories from largely unreliable narrators, narrators drawn to the comforting, the comical, the heartbreaking, or the scandalous, according to their own needs.
Anna Baird Ferguson left behind a single photo taken at the ice cream social in the summer of 1910. She is standing against her schoolhouse door, wearing the white muslin with the wide shawl collar; her watch pinned above her heart, dark hair pulled up and away from the summer heat. A moment ago she sat in quiet comfort, enjoying the lull in routines and conversations. Cletus Pearson comes by with his new camera. Anna prefers the solitude, but kindly stands and poses, a faint shadow of annoyance in her eyes.
As the pan warmed and the bacon released its first smoky smell, a flutter of nausea passed over Anna, light but unmistakable. She willed it away; any reason but that to explain the brackish taste at the back of her throat.
It would be a long day.
"Take these off our hands," the neighbor said, handing over the apples with a brusque charity that Anna both welcomed and resented. Her trees lost most of their blossoms to frost, leaving a meager season, and a bushel was nothing to refuse. Her husband and the oldest boys were in the oat field, and they would be gone until sunset. The twins would help with the fruit while their younger brother kept an eye on the babies. Anna had washed the jars yesterday. She did not like to keep the girls away from their lessons and wanted this chore done before the new term began next week. She ate toast with honey to settle her stomach. Her coffee sat untouched as she started the girls on peeling and coring the fruit.
"What will I do?" The question intruded across the day in spite of Anna's efforts to brush it back and pretend that she felt no different than the day before.
If, if, if. … It all came down to that single speculation. If it rains at the right time and stays dry at the right time. If the hail, grasshoppers, prairie fires, and mosquitoes stay away. If there is no influenza or diphtheria or burst appendix. If there are no lightning strikes on the barn, the haystacks, the house. If winter and loneliness and failure don't drive you mad. If they hang on for another stretched-thin year. If there are no more babies squalling, sucking, demanding—always demanding.
Anna sat alone at the table, awake in the deep night. A full moon cast an eerie light and she had not bothered with a lamp. It was windy and the tarpaper covering the outer walls flapped insistently where it had come loose. She sat still, her face drawn. She was not crying, for tears changed nothing.
The flutter of queasiness she felt last month had become raptor-like, pulling out her guts each morning. It swooped in whenever she came close to certain smells: raw or frying meat, pee-soaked sheets, soiled diapers, chicken coop. If she was indoors she tried to step outside and around the corner of the house. But Andrew could tell without her saying a word; her pale, damp face and the way she hurried through cooking to eat only toast and tea herself. It was all too familiar to him as well.
What she would give for the sticky inconvenience of blood. For a few days Anna tried to persuade herself that she had miscounted. If only this time it would end itself early, quietly. She envied those women who could scarcely carry it two months. That had never been her good fortune.
She had heard of women who tried to accomplish the act, but was unsure of where to go or how to proceed or whether she would have the will, money, or courage. How much lye to drink or boiling water to sit in or falling or poking before it's gone or you're gone?
She calculated the span of years that she had been pregnant: married at eighteen after two years of teaching school in Linden Grove; Chester born before her nineteenth birthday; Harlan two years later, then a blessed break of almost four before the twins; then the rest. Sixteen years, six times. Each time it had taken longer for her spirits to recover and since the last one she'd been constantly exhausted. When the doctor diagnosed anemia she was instructed to consume raw liver in whatever form she could get it down. She learned to swallow thin pieces whole, quickly, before the taste or texture registered on her tongue.
Anna worried over the resentment she already felt, particularly at the younger children, though certainly it was not their fault. She felt closest to Chester and Harlan, born when everything was new and exciting. Her marriage, motherhood, building the farm; it was all fresh. She possessed a stamina and hope that drove her through the days with energy left for Friday night dances. By the time the girls arrived it was a more tarnished confidence. Crop failures, lost livestock, and illness had worn away their fortunes like acid on a rock. The foursquare frame house that she and Andrew had imagined over their first winter together never replaced the two-room homestead. She burned the plans when she needed paper to start a fire in the stove.
In one measure of good fortune, the twins were easy babies and now capable girls who largely took care of themselves. Too often the youngest ones were a blur of faces. She could become instantly furious over their ordinary needs and was likely to pinch or slap. More and more she used the older children as a buffer, shifting the minding, clothing, diapering, washing, and feeding of their younger siblings to them.
Anna did not blame Andrew. Once they had delighted in the prospect of a big, boisterous household. But that was when they expected a well-turned-out farm and a steady income. He's a good enough man, she thought. He just can't get out from under the thumb of bad luck. In the morning she would have to confirm his suspicion about the latest run.
Anna had been vomiting four to five times a day since September. Repulsed by food she lost rather than gained weight, although her belly had grown rounder. She saw no point in traveling to the doctor since she was well familiar with what lay ahead.
Yet when Dr. Harris stopped by unannounced one afternoon on his way through the district, she told him about the pregnancy and how she had been far sicker for far longer than with any of the others. She needed rest, he said, adding that she should try and find something she could keep down.
The rain and hail stayed away this time and the oat harvest left them with spare cash and plenty of feed. Winter would not be so uncertain after all. Anna planned the sewing and hoped that the cinnamon and vanilla scent of December would be appealing.
Anna was awake again for much of the night. She stoked the fire and wrapped herself in layers of wool—stockings, nightshirt, sweater, blanket—but found marginal relief. A blizzard drove its icy wires through the walls and floorboards and straight into her core. It made her afraid. She was afraid to fall asleep and lose the fire. She was afraid of losing her way to the barn. She was afraid to send the girls out in her place. She, who'd once been the bold one, the first to try, the laughing young teacher who stood on a chair to put the head on the towering snowman, was afraid of winter and afraid of her life and all it demanded of her.
Andrew left the week before Christmas for a job at the Lethbridge sawmill. On December 10th, Chester went to the Huntington ranch; Harlan to Mackenzie's three days later. Anna would not see any of them until spring. What good was it to hire out and then spend money on train fare home?
The winter they planned—almost welcomed—had burned away under the wickedness of a thunderstorm and a lightning strike on December 1st. Instead of the dark, wild clouds bringing snow, they brought a freakish rain and arcs and arrows of electricity crackling and sparking across the sky. The bolt that reached down over Andrew and Anna Ferguson's farm hit the straw stack. The fire raced upward, dancing and spinning until it had gathered up the corral, granaries, and tool shed. It spared the house and the barn. There was no insurance.
Anna has been alone—alone with the winter, the children, and the farm. The twins and their younger brother did the best they could with their familiar chores, but they are only nine and seven. Lost in her thoughts most days, Anna hasn't recognized that the children don't have the required strength or skill to run the house and farm without her.
The home's usual tidiness was gone, the sour smell of unwashed surfaces and skin dominant. As Anna's morning sickness eased, she became oblivious to odors that would have sent her retching outside in October had they been allowed to appear in the first place. The bathtub the children ordinarily occupied once a week remained in its corner. The twins knew to wash their faces and hands each morning and make sure that the others do likewise, but they have not mastered the task of building the right kind of fire and hauling and moving enough water to bathe all five children. They have become resourceful little mothers, filling in the gaps between Anna's diminishing attention and the household's growing needs. They managed to get themselves to school most days, where coal smoke and cold masked their increasing dishevelment. The cows were in their own disordered state, as Anna has not directed a thorough mucking out for weeks.
Ordinarily, with Andrew and the oldest children away, neighbors would have stopped by. But the storms came just frequently enough to keep likely visitors away. Uneasiness over influenza and measles discouraged the rest.
It was his rounds to check the progress of various winter epidemics that brought Dr. Harris to the farm in late March. He had not seen Anna since November, in spite of his urging that she stop by the surgery when she came to town. Walter Harris knew the look of women who were ready to give up and retreat into their dreams or find a rope in the barn or the bottle of strychnine. He also knew of those pulled away from that cliff, often by the hand of another woman.
Anna was still here, though how firmly was uncertain. He could see awareness of her precarious hold in how she apologized for the state of her home. Had she entirely given up she would not care what the visiting doctor saw. He promised to send Irene Curtis around in a day or two. Anna did not refuse.
Andrew returned a week to the day after Irene's visit, unaware of the industry it had taken to clean and order the house and barn; unaware of how tenuous his wife's hold on ordinary routines had grown. He planned on staying at the mill through April, but concern over spring planting overtook his concern about money. With three of them hired out they had made enough to cover winter expenses and with luck avoid buying all of the seed on credit. He'd be short of bodies this spring, though. Chester was staying on at Huntington's, moving into his own life. They'd likely not see much of him from now on, though he might send part of his wages back (at least for a while, so he promised). That left Harlan and the twins with enough age and size to be useful.
Sharpening tools and picking up the seed order was one reason for an early return. Anna was the other. Andrew was gone almost four months. At first they wrote to each other once a week. Anna's letters brought news of the younger children and visiting neighbors; Andrew returned descriptions of the mill and the fellows he met. By the end of January her letters came less often, the words terse and each one reading much like the others: "Nothing new here."
A bright, diamond-like day cast its glittery power over the farm. Anna woke with energy she hadn't felt in months and an eagerness for customary routines. Andrew whistled as he carried water to fill the reservoir alongside the stove. They would manage.
With husband and son back, Anna had almost kept up from where Irene left off on "Salvation Day," as she called it in the privacy of her thoughts. She told Andrew little about the months that he was away. What point was there in dwelling on it? The baby would come soon she could tell, probably within the week. She would use this warm, vivid day to get the cradle from the shed and wash the blankets and clothing.
Anna had resigned herself to her tasks, her life. She contemplated names, with no feel of whether to concentrate on girl or boy. Only please: no more twins. She had not resigned herself to that possibility.
She hoped that Dr. Harris would attend this birth, but had not suggested it. Mrs. Clark, their new neighbor on the next farm over, agreed to assist. She offered to help when she first met Anna. Mrs. Clark was closer at hand at any rate, and said she was a practical nurse before their move from North Dakota. Anna was feeling more relaxed about the coming upheaval since upon Andrew's suggestion they hired a girl from Crow Creek to come for a few days and help out. With so much work waiting on the farm, better their money going there than to a doctor.
Anna disliked Mrs. Clark. She wanted Mrs. Murray, the doctor's nurse, but this chattering, rough-handed woman was what she had. If this was all you needed to know about nursing, six births and seven children was enough education for Anna to call herself a nurse.
Anna kept moving, puttering with bits of cleaning and baking, walking outside then inside, around and around the table, the only place to maneuver in that small space. Anna felt the baby's rump against her rib cage. Mrs. Clark urged her to bed.
Anna was silent while her neighbor gabbled on with stories of deformities and "pain like you wouldn't believe" and women laboring for days. This would not be a birth that the midwife could add to her morbid lore. It was the easiest and quickest of them all, as Anna had known it would be. Mrs. Clark proclaimed him a fine boy.
The Crow Creek girl was useless. First the neighbor, now this poor girl—who in contrast received Anna's sympathy along with her frustration. She knew less than the twins and was so shy she'd scarcely look up when you spoke to her. Living alone with her father, she had no one teaching her anything that would help a household with a new baby. Anna was kind, but Andrew would take the girl back tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, she could rake and pick stones from the garden.
It was warm, so warm. Anna asked a daughter to open the door. She would get up to sit in the rocking chair. But her limbs felt massive, their weight pushing her back against the bed. Anna's head ached and she wanted to sleep. She should nurse the baby first.
Something was off but she couldn't think what it was. Rather like that faint whiff of sour right before the milk or meat goes bad, or the shift in the texture of the air well before a storm roils across the horizon.
Something was not quite right within. She felt it in her joints and behind her hot dry eyes, across her hips. She changed the cotton pad between her legs. Was it redder, brighter than it should be? She couldn't remember. And that odor; was it something more than blood and birth fluids?
Andrew left midday. He'd spent the morning at the plow trying to make up time. Anna almost asked the girl to stay, regardless of her usefulness, but they had to get on with things. The heat, she realized, was not from the stove or the closed space, but within her.
She stayed in her bed. Standing up was too disorienting and Anna felt as though she would tip over. She was alternately motionless and moving, her skin prickling and burning. A core of pain had formed in the birth space, around which every cell in her body was rearranging itself.
She groaned in her dreams, frightening the children, whose blanched faces came in and out of focus. The specters caught her up and sent her spiraling into a void of spinning and falling; she would fall, but never land. Then it was babies: babies who wept blood, babies with nothing but heads or torsos, babies she pushed out over and over and over. Then her own children—she could recognize those faces, at least—were picking, picking, picking at her with minute, hot razors. In her dream Anna fell through a vaporous stinking cloud but never landed. It was all the evil odors, held like a chloroform mask to her face.
Andrew left and returned, then left again and returned with Mrs. Murray, the doctor's nurse. Mrs. Murray of the warm hands, gentle hands, cool hands. Will she stay or go? Now the baby can be born. No, it has been born.
Anna dropped into a narcotic sleep, floating between dreams.
She watched Mrs. Murray, sitting in Anna's own chair, sitting with a baby.
"I'm dying," Anna said, and received no contradiction. "What will he do?" Anna asked, and received no answer.
She talked as a distraction from the fever and as a way to sort out the life she expected to leave. It was the baby that she couldn't put in place as she arranged and rearranged the faces. Chester was on his own, but he'd come back if need be, and Harlan was here to help Andrew. With someone looking in from time to time the twins would learn how to keep things running. This baby was too much to ask of them.
There was commotion in the house. The doctor arrived and Anna was moved and shifted; bed to stretcher, stretcher to ambulance, ambulance to train. The train car clattered and swayed, rocking its way to Red Deer, until Anna Baird Ferguson left behind her words and her world.
She left behind a husband, who dissolved into grief and disappointment and nearly gave up.
She left behind her children, who scattered across the state: to an orphanage, to board at the banker's house, to fields and mines. While the orphan years proved temporary for the twins and their younger brother, the reunion with Andrew was somber and suspicious. The new mother was never mean, but she was never kind. It was hardest on those old enough for memory. All made their way and earned their keep, but all lived with a longing that never quite disappeared.
Anna left behind the infant, who went home with the nurse. This woman warmed her kitchen, cushioned the table, and bathed him, exposing one delicate limb and patch of torso at a time. Cleaned, clothed, and fed, the baby slept, oblivious to his mother's passing and his separation from his father and siblings. He stayed on an embraced, indulged, and only child. By his first birthday there were two studio portraits. One still hangs in the hallway: hand-tinted rosy cheeks frame the smile of a boy who, clad head-to-toe in hand-knit hood and leggings, is years away from any complicated life.