Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
Bread and Milk
Eileen Gibbons Kump
[p.37]Amy looked at herself in the glass over the washbowl and saw Eve. She couldn’t help it. Caught up in her miracle, she would have been offended to remember that her own mother was a bride who had once kept the same astonishing secret.
Amy took the mirror from the wall, stood it against a jar of souring cream, and sat and looked at herself the whole time it takes mutton stew to simmer done. She touched her cheek, her throat, her sleeve. She reached for the sunlight by the window but it was out of reach, warmth on the wood floor. She pretended she dare not go get it. After all, she said to her image, we are going to be a mother.
She said it with her eyes because she could not yet say it with her voice, except to Israel in the darkest, quietest part of night, in a whisper. Even then her voice had been hesitant, and shy. And later, when she thought him asleep, Israel had said, “I saw it, Amy. I knew!”
She had stared toward him through the dark.
“I knew yesterday, by the way you talked. As if—as if you were afraid to breathe. It was like—”
Amy did not hear him finish. Her body numb, she could only lie there betrayed and relive one incredible, enchanted moment. No more than an hour before, uncertain how to tell a thing so fragile, so private, she had considered for one instant never sharing her secret with anyone. Her secret! With morning, intuition could be everywhere!
After Israel was asleep, Amy crept out of bed, tiptoed into the cool room, and shut the door behind her. While she dug a wooden spoon full of firm honey, then let it melt on her tongue, she talked. She told herself that baby having was everyday, like bread and milk. She listened to Papa again: It is the pattern of all life in a world made out of [p.38]joy and pains.
But could such a thing really be discerned in a voice? And if so, what was a bride to do? Her duty to a husband Amy had understood and accomplished. But to make it known without even meaning to do so, or worse, to acknowledge it by announcing her condition! It seemed as impossible as talking about an unanswered prayer.
The cool room began to chill her. A decision had to be made. Well, if folks knew already, she would try to forgive them. If they didn’t, they would not learn it from her. She would tell nobody, and she would remember to breathe when she talked.
Israel said he understood. “But we ought at least to tell your ma,” he said more than once in the weeks that followed. They did not. Amy had forgiven him his presumptive eye in exchange for a promise.
And she was happy. To be alive was to be content. Every morning before breakfast, she went with her sweetheart along the trap line to look for red foxes, coyotes, and skunks. She got to weeping over the dead animals, but the strange weeping only increased her happiness.
“Your condition has made you foolish,” Israel whispered one morning as they knelt over the trap and its victim. “I ought to leave you home.”
But he never did. They drank from the bubbling springs fringed with watercress, they watched the sunrise as they climbed over the hills and through the brush. Evenings they trapped quail, dressed it, and hung it on a string before the hot coals of the fireplace to roast. Over parched corn, roasted apples, and potatoes, they feasted and read and sang and told love stories. And all the time a secret thrived, twice protected; in Israel’s heart it was a squirming captive, in Amy’s, a friend, cushioned in light.
Lamps burn low, and go out. One Sunday morning Amy could not button her best bodice without a tug. Rushing to the mirror, she saw herself at last. She was not Eve. She was simply pregnant, and it would take a drunk Navee not to see it. Quickly she finished dressing, wrapped a shawl about her, and in her mind resolved to spend the rest of her life in the wood closet. Instead, she sat down and waited for Israel to finish hitching up the wagon. During Sunday school she would think what to do. She would keep her shawl around her and she would think [p.39]and by evening services, when she stood to lead the singing, she would have an answer.
“Go without me, Israel,” she said as he came into the house. But she still wore her shawl and her plea sounded empty even to herself.
“Please.” Israel took her hands and led her through the door. “This afternoon I’ll take you to see your ma.”
As they walked into the chapel, he took her hand. “Keep your shawl on, now.”
Harriet Taylor put her arms around her daughter and held her.
“Bless you,” she said. “God bless you both, and now I have a surprise too.” She disappeared up the stairs and was back with full arms.
“I will hold it up so you can see.”
The mother hubbard was pale yellow, with an endless pattern of tiny black flowers. And it had full sleeves, the fullest Amy had ever seen.
“I was extravagant, Amy, but I couldn’t help the sleeves.”
Amy looked at it and away. “But Mama—”
“Amy. My dear Amy. Do I need to be told my daughter is going to have a baby? Forgive us. We tried to wait.”
“Before I could tell Papa, he told me.”
“I think it was the way you walked, as if you were on fall leaves you didn’t want to crush. Papa said you kept touching your cheek.”
Amy sighed then, sank into a chair to cry, and would not let anyone touch her. Brand new in the world, like a newborn infant herself. That was what she was. And useless. How could she have forgotten that her own mother had had babies, maybe would again? And how could she keep up in a world where people did not need to be told the most secret of all secrets? Worse—oh, far worse—how could she await this baby, then bear it, with everyone watching, and later, helping? She stood up, dried her eyes, and walked to where the mother hubbard lay, a mound of sunlight. She wanted to understand.
“Everybody knows then, don’t they. The Roskelleys and the Smiths and the—”
“They don’t know, Amy, but they think they do because they expect it. Folks have been waiting.”
[p.40]“You have been married five months, you know.”
Could it have been that long? Or had it been forever? Well, it did not matter.
“Mama, look at me. How can I stand up tonight in meeting and lead the singing before people who are waiting? How can I stand up there with my arms raised, my middle big, and—”
“I will look like a washboard!”
“Don’t be vain, Amy. Remember—all women have babies.”
Amy could not explain nor discard her foolishness, how the thing she could not do was to help.
“I will have to stand up there and be weighed like a sack of grist.”
“Yes, child, you will.”
Amy stood clutching her shawl about her shoulders with one hand, the baton with the other. All eyes held her. How she had pleaded and coaxed on other Sundays: “Sit up straight, look high, keep up with the baton! Look at me.” Tonight not one face was toward the songbook in the lap. And everywhere she saw not friends and neighbors but only sinister curiosity. Israel was watching her too, but he was not singing. His favorite hymn and he was forgetting to sing. She clutched her shawl less tightly.
Amy made herself look into the faces, the intent, interested faces, and as she did she smiled. She could not help herself. In fact, if she did not do something right now, she would laugh.
She breathed deep as she tapped the podium with her baton. The music stopped. The voices faded. “Brothers and sisters.” The shawl fell to the floor. So they would watch her, would they! So these blessed souls would wait for her to be with child, would they! “Brothers and sisters, you are forgetting that a song is a prayer.”
She turned sideways, walked over to the window, and pointed into the black square of outside. “Do you hear the quail? Do you hear its cry? It is lonely. Now for goodness sake, sing as if you are lonely, lonely for the Father.”
She walked slowly back to where she had stood, raised both arms high, and began to sing. Her father’s face was a flush, her mother’s a glow. All she could see of Israel was the top of his head.