During a blinding blizzard on Christmas Eve in 1898, a young woman heavy with child pushed her way down a snow covered lane. Her husband trudged along beside her, his head bowed against the shards of ice cutting into his face. Both wore long steely grey woollen coats, and the woman had a black scarf tied over a mound of ginger hair that was braided and pinned at the nape of her neck. They were lost and had been wandering for two hours. And now, the woman’s mittened hands quivered uncontrollably as she traced a peeling white picket fence that could have been any one of a dozen.
“Ain’t never seen nothin’ like this in all me years, maid,” the husband hollered, wind shaving away his words. “Come up like crazy. Can’t see the nose in front of me face. Should’ve stayed to Mudder’s.”
At once the woman stopped, and leaned her full weight against the fence. Her eyes were glossy with fear and rapid blinks scattered the snowflakes that were settling on her lashes. Without speaking, she gripped her husband’s wrists, and brought his palms to her abdomen, hard and smooth like a massive beach rock. She dreaded to let go of him, for she knew if he took a step backwards, just one single step, the swirling storm would swallow him and she would be alone.
Crouching against the fence, she reached up under her skirts with one hand, and tugged down her long underclothes. Tight bands of heat seized her abdomen as she screamed her agony out into the howling sheets of snow. Her husband inched backwards to remove his coat, and she shrieked again, clawed for him, knocked away his fur hat, and clutched his reddened ears.
“Ye got hold to me, maid,” he cried in pain. “Now let me be, for the love of God.”
He pushed his coat underneath her, blanketing the drift of snow where she lay. Reaching behind her, she grabbed the fence. As she birthed the baby, she tore away the two wooden slats she had been holding. Her husband plucked a crimped pin from her hair, clamped the slippery cord with three swift twists, and severed the connection with his shiny pocket knife. Then, he bundled the crying child in his fisherman’s knit sweater and tucked it inside his soiled coat, while his wife squat to discharge the afterbirth.
“C’mon, maid. Lest the wee one catches her death.”
“Her?” The woman’s heart swelled inside her chest.
“Yes,” he said. “Beautiful hazel eyes, she got. Right like her mudder.”
The woman stood slowly, her knees like the tide. She pointed to the placenta, a bloody, gelatinous mound that steamed next to her snow angel impression, and said, “We can’t go leavin’ that.”
“Don’t be so foolish, me duck.”
“We got to bury it.” The woman wavered as blackness pressed in around her eyes and she rolled her palms over the sharp points on the pickets to steady herself. “Where we lives. The lilac tree. Beside our window.”
“What? In this kind of storm?”
“Keep it,” she said. “’Til the earth softens.”
Her husband’s head was bare as his hat had scampered away, and the wind whipped his white shirt into a flag. “Maid…” he said, shaking his head.
Then, in a brief moment of silence when the blizzard inhaled, sheep bleated somewhere off in the distance.
“I knows where we’re to,” he yelped. “Heavenly Fadder has shown us the way. ’Tis good fortune.”
“’Tis?” she asked as she began to weep. “But. But if we leaves it, she’ll go astray. Won’t never know where her home is to. Where she belongs.”
The husband tugged at his wife’s arm and she conceded. She was too weak to persist. As they pressed onwards through the blizzard, the wind grew weary and the night calmed. The woman stole rapid breaths through damp mittens that were pressed over her deadened nose. Surrounding her, the air was blissfully aglow as moonlight bounced off every fat flake. Might be a certain beauty to it, she imagined, if only she could step aside, somehow manage to distance herself and get a decent look. Then again, she pondered as she stopped to rest just outside her saltbox home, the beauty itself might only reside inside this fleeting blindness.
Within moments, three shorthaired dogs, feral and emaciated, happened upon the warm placenta. They tore it apart with throaty growls, gulped down every bite through bloody muzzles, and licked the soiled snow clean. Bellies satiated, they frolicked and danced, rolled around in the drifts, and finally curled into tight balls to sleep. They never whimpered once as the temperature dropped and ice crystals cloaked their bodies.
The morning after the storm, a farmer walking his property line noticed the broken fence and the dead dogs. He hammered the two slats back in place, then loaded the dogs into old flour sacks, and dragged them to the edge of the cliff. With a swing of his strong arm, he tossed them in a great arc up and out towards the famished sea.