The night my grandfather died, the wind howled in the trees and shutters rattled angrily. It seemed he was venting his fury at the prospect of death, as he struggled to stay alive. He’d lingered for days. Initially we’d all gathered round his bed, but the work of the farm must go on, so now we took turns to sit with him.
At thirteen, I was old enough to engage in this ritual together with my older brothers Tom and Joshua. Our parents were long dead, and if Tom, the eldest, hadn’t married Sarah, my life might have been a lot worse, in many ways. The timid, shrinking woman Tom had taken as his bride did not take part in the vigil. The fact that she was seven months pregnant didn’t enter into it–since no quarter was ever given in this joyless household–it was simply that she wasn’t considered family, more a useful addition for cooking, cleaning and breeding.
That night, during my watch, Grandfather suddenly stopped breathing. My heart leapt in anticipation. Was it finally over? There’d be no tears shed; we were all terrified of him, though Tom liked to pretend he wasn’t.
I leaned forward to detect any vital signs, but then his claw-like hand grabbed my wrist and his evil eye, the one with a black flash jaggedly dissecting the icy blue iris, flew open, fixing balefully on me. Terrified, I snatched my hand free. He leered at me, then closed his dreadful eye as his breathing resumed a steady rattle. I stationed my chair further from the bed–I would not be fooled again.
I heard a commotion downstairs, voices, slamming of doors and footsteps running from the house. I dared not leave the bedside, and I thought I saw Grandfather smile. Within moments, Joshua came upstairs.
“What’s happened?” I whispered.
“Sarah’s in labor,” he said. “Tom’s gone for the midwife. You’d better go to her.”
I went downstairs, where Sarah lay moaning on a mattress in the corner of the room. She was drenched in sweat, glistening in the flickering light of the flames from the fireplace. I’d helped deliver lambs and the occasional calf, so I knew enough to assist in the delivery but I prayed that Tom would return with the midwife soon.
Eventually he reappeared, letting an icy blast into the airless kitchen. The midwife shook her head, but rolled up her sleeves and shortly after a boy was safely delivered. Sarah passed out at the moment of giving birth and never regained consciousness. She died at midnight.
We’d never been close. The only thing we’d shared was our crippling fear of my grandfather, and she’d greater cause than I to fear him, for reasons of which we never spoke. Nevertheless, I cried as I regarded her face, grey as the calico mattress beneath her.
Tom appeared unmoved. Joshua came downstairs.
“I think Grandfather’s died,” he said, his eyes huge in his pale face. “He just smiled and stopped breathing.”
Tom went upstairs. Joshua joined me beside the crib after glancing furtively at Sarah’s lifeless form in the corner.
“The baby came too soon,” I said, stretching out a finger to touch the tiny pink hand.
Joshua peered into the crib. “He’s very tiny,” he said. “Perhaps he won’t survive.”
The baby gripped my hand tightly and his eyes flew open, glaring at me. I saw, with a start of horror, the familiar black flash in the icy blue iris, and the faintest hint of a smile playing around his lips.
“Oh, he’ll live,” I said, my spirits sinking.