Common as Dirt

“If I never see another baby born again, it will still be too soon,” Dana thought. “It’s all mess and fuss and pain, then more mess. Why any woman has more than one child, I will never know. I sure hope Mother is not counting on any grandchildren from me, because I have no intention of putting myself through that. Ever.” Kneeling on the sand at the river’s edge, she scrubbed at the bloodstains on the bedclothes. Her fingers ached in the icy water and she cursed herself twice – once for leaving her scrub board in the carriage, and again for not bringing a lantern with her.

The moonlight was bright enough to turn Dana’s breath to white clouds and show the larger blotches on the linens, but not enough to tell when they were completely gone. She could have hauled water up to the cabin and worked on the sheets there, but she couldn’t stand the thought of spending another minute in the too-warm, too-small building, crowded as it was with Clarice Bennett, her new baby, her husband Albert, their other four children and Dana’s mother, the midwife.

She heard footsteps approaching and suppressed a smile of relief. It would be Jenny, Dana knew, carrying both the cursed items. Jenny always knew where her help was needed and showed up like a guardian angel, though Dana had never heard of a twelve-year-old, freckle-faced guardian angel, especially not one who climbed trees and tore her skirts jumping fences.

“I could hear you grousing from a mile away,” Jenny said, hanging the lantern from a low tree branch on the riverbank. She dropped to her knees next to Dana, handed over the washboard and brushed her older sister’s light brown hair back from her face.

Dana started to argue that she had not said a word, but she knew she would never win the debate. Jenny could hear without her ears, speak without her mouth. She was a Mindspeaker, the only child in Far Falls to have the gift in two decades.

Dana frowned. “Well, I’m terribly sorry if my private thoughts disturbed you,” she said, emphasizing ‘private.’ Trying to turn the tables on her sister, she added primly, “I thought Mother told you not to eavesdrop.”

Jenny shot a look over her shoulder, up the sloped clearing to the cabin where the girls’ mother was packing away her gear and keeping an eye on Clarice and her newborn. “You won’t tell, will you?” Jenny asked, flushed with guilt. “Last time she found out, I had to do both our chores for a week. Please don’t tell. I won’t do it again, promise.”

Dana said nothing, watching Jenny with one eyebrow raised, letting her squirm. Finally she inclined her head slightly, as though conferring a blessing on the girl. “Very well, then. But don’t let it become a habit,” she said with all the dignity she could muster.

“Why are you so grumpy anyway?” Jenny asked, scrubbing a section of the bedsheets. “If my fifteenth birthday were tomorrow, I would be beside myself with happiness.”

Dana froze, staring blindly into the dark water. Her throat constricted and she thought she might be sick.

“Just think, after tomorrow, you’ll no longer be a child. You’ll be a woman, tested and approved by the Women’s Circle. Why, you’ll be able to put your hair up, let your skirts down, dance after nine o’clock with real men, not just those silly farmboys from school. I can’t wait until I’m fifteen!” Jenny prattled on. “I don’t know how you could be gloomy at a time like – oh.” She broke off in midsentence. Her eyes grew large and frightened, and she put one hand to her stomach. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. After a moment, she turned and looked at her sister.

“Dana? What is it? What are you so afraid of?” Jenny grabbed her sister’s hand and looked into the dark trees for the source of Dana’s fear. “There’s nothing there, nothing I can feel. We’re safe, Dana. It’s all right.”

A look of weariness settled on Dana’s face. “I’m just tired. It was nothing. Really.”

Jenny studied Dana for a few seconds, then she let the subject drop. She picked up a wet sheet and went back to work. Dana pushed thoughts of her birthday out of her mind, breathed a shaky sigh and bent to help her.

“Girls, get those sheets washed and come get something hot to eat.” Regina Ward, the girls’ mother, was at the cabin’s back door. Her clear, soft voice carried to the river’s edge and bridged the awkward silence between them.

Without a word, they fell into the rhythm they’d developed over the two years they had accompanied their mother on her birthing rounds. Twenty minutes later, they hung the sodden sheets over a clothesline and walked in silence up to the cabin, where hot cider and stew waited.

Regina Ward was the only midwife in the county. She nursed and nurtured the four hundred townsfolk and about half that number again on the farms and ranches surrounding Far Falls. In the two years since they moved to the southern Illinois town, she had created a niche for her family. And she hadn’t given up hope the Women’s Circle might be able to heal Charles, her husband.

Charles was sickly, confined to his bed most days, although he occasionally ventured to the divan in the sitting room. He refused to see visitors and never went outside the house itself, not even to the outhouse. He sought the company of his military-strategy books and accounts of the battles won and lost by the Confederacy in the recent aggression by the northern states.

Before the war, Charles had complained about Regina’s hours. He fretted she was wearing herself out for near strangers when her own family needed her at home. He teased her, calling her “Doc Regina” and feigning a sprained ankle or sore throat while their daughters giggled at his antics.

Now he hardly noticed if she was home. He had withdrawn into the past. He spent hours drawing up battle plans, still trying to win the war that cost him his health and his peace of mind. He had been a sergeant in the Confederate army; all but three in his brigade died in a nameless battle early in the war. Reassigned to another unit, Charles had contracted dysentery. He’d lost 40 pounds in three weeks and begun hallucinating. The army sent him home.

Regina had nursed him through the dysentery, but she couldn’t heal his soul. He had seemed deviled by the cries of his men, calling out for help, for water, for Charles to put them out of their misery. He had said he was afraid to sleep, and he rarely ate. When Regina had found him cowering in the clothespress, a loaded gun in his hand, she’d packed the family up and moved to Far Falls.

It was the place Regina’s mother had called home, though Regina had not lived there since she was a small girl. She had been lured back by the picture her mother painted of a community where women ruled in wisdom, where inner gifts were sought and treasured, where faith alone could heal. There was something special about that part of the country; Far Falls and the three surrounding towns were blessed with a connection to Mother Earth, a connection that went back in legend to the time of the first tribe of Indians who lived there.

Regina’s mother had watched her carefully, seeking signs of Regina’s gift. She apprenticed her to a midwife when the girl showed talent in that area, knowing instinctively when a woman was with child and when the child would arrive. At home, she taught her only daughter what she called “women’s ways,” training her to take a place in the Women’s Circle, if she should ever move back there. She had been back once, on her fifteenth birthday.

In the two years they’d lived in the town, the Ward females had flourished. Now it was only a matter of time until Charles was cured, Regina wrote to his family in her monthly missives.

Regina smiled, watching her daughters warm themselves in the Bennett kitchen. They were good girls, she thought, knocking on wood. Dear Jenny, with her red hair and wide grin, was destined for greatness in Far Falls. When they’d been in town for about six months, Jenny had amazed her mother and sister by telling them exactly what they were thinking about the morning’s porridge. Within another month, she could speak to them with her mind. Regina dragged Jenny to the Women’s Circle to be cured. Instead, her gift was named and celebrated.

On Jenny’s fifteenth birthday, she would move in with Old Joy, the town’s current Mindspeaker and head of the Women’s Circle, and begin to train in earnest. Already she spent Saturdays at Old Joy’s house, learning to control her talent and to shield her mind. Unprotected, she would never be alone in her own thoughts. When her study was over, she would be the town Mindspeaker, the voice of truth and justice in the community. She would know what lay in the hearts and minds of all, and she would guide and protect the village by sharing the truths she found there.

Regina considered Dana a late-bloomer. When Deborah Hill or Kate Beckford bragged of their daughters’ artistic or teaching gifts, she smiled and walked away. When Ann Johnson had dared suggest Dana might be a commoner, without gifts or talents, she had pasted an enigmatic look on her face and ignored the jibe. Still, she’d begun to train Dana as a midwife, dragging both girls with her and hoping Dana never guessed her true intention, to give her oldest daughter a trade to fall back on.

The arrangement worked well. Regina now had two extra sets of hands to tend to the laboring mothers. Jenny could tell her mother if the babe was in danger; she would put her hand on the mother’s belly and listen to the baby as it struggled to leave the womb. Twice now, she was able to warn her mother when a baby was turned feet-first, and once she felt a baby choking as it descended, its cord looped around its little neck. Jenny asked a thousand questions about every aspect of the deliveries and cried with joy each time a newborn took its first breath.

Dana, on the other hand, did exactly what was asked of her, no more. She was thorough and careful, but she assisted her mother as if it were an unpleasant chore, like mucking the horse’s stall. Still, the mothers responded to her quiet calm, letting her bathe their faces and whisper songs into their ears.

Why, just tonight, Clarice had been screeching as if her hair were on fire with every contraction, even though the pains were still five minutes apart, Regina recalled. She was wearing herself out and fraying everybody’s nerves. Her panic seemed to feed on itself and Regina feared she would have no energy left when the time came to push.

“Go brush her hair and sing to her, Dana,” she’d directed, while Jenny made tea and fetched clean towels for her mother. It was their usual arrangement, although few women carried on so loudly at this early stage of childbirth.

Dana had obeyed her mother, settling herself at the head of the bed and drawing Clarice’s head into her lap. She’d brushed the woman’s long black hair and made up a silly tune with nonsense syllables instead of words. Dana always said she had no idea what she sang and that she couldn’t have repeated the ditty if her life depended on it. The sounds popped into her head and rolled off her tongue in the same instant. Whatever their source, Regina was glad for them, because Clarice had stopped screaming. She’d hummed along with Dana between pains and followed Regina’s instructions when the waves gripped her again and again.

Regina had no illusions that Dana wanted to become the next village midwife, though the girl may not have much choice in the matter. Dana always paled at the sight of her mother examining the afterbirth, even after Regina explained how important it was to be sure the whole thing had come out. She grimaced when her mother cleared a newborn’s mouth and nose. She flatly refused to cut the cord. But she kept the mothers quiet and she helped clean up after the babies were born, and Regina was accustomed to Dana’s assistance.

Tomorrow, Regina knew, everything would change.

It was after one o’clock in the morning when Dana, Jenny and their mother left the Bennett house and began the long ride home in their open carriage. Mr. Bennett insisted on driving them; his horse was hitched to the back of the carriage and would carry him home after he delivered the Ward females to their house on the outskirts of Far Falls. Jenny lay her head in her mother’s lap and fell asleep almost before the horse cleared the fence at the edge of the Bennett property.

Regina watched Dana turn and settle her head against the cushioned seat of the carriage. Dana’s eyes closed and her breathing slowed and deepened. Regina smiled tenderly and let her own eyes shut. The clop-clop of the horses’ hooves and the soft jingle of the harness lulled her to a light doze; fatigue from the night’s efforts pulled her into a deeper sleep.

Dana waited to open her eyes until she heard her mother’s gentle snore. She couldn’t sleep, but that was no reason for her mother to worry about her all night.

She tried to imagine what tomorrow’s testing process would be like, but Regina had told her only that it was different for each girl, save the opening ceremony. She would be perfectly safe, her mother said. The women wouldn’t hurt or embarrass her. All Dana had to do was open her heart and mind to the group; they would do the rest.

“What happens when they discover I’m not gifted, after all?” Dana wondered. “I’m not special like Mother and Jenny. I’m just an ordinary girl. I can cook and sew well enough. I can run a house. I can tend a garden. I can comfort a crying child. I can read and write and speak intelligently. Why can’t that be enough?”

The thoughts spun faster and darker in her head. She felt fear welling again, the fear of humiliating her family before the whole town, the fear they wouldn’t want her with them after the truth was known. Tears spilled down her cheeks from her green eyes and Dana bit her lip to keep from sobbing.

Jenny jerked in her sleep. A cry of despair broke from her lips and she reached without waking to take Dana’s hand. Her touch broke the older girl’s dark reverie and at last Dana was able to rest.

The sun had barely broken the horizon when Regina woke Dana. The girl was not allowed breakfast, which was just as well, as she would certainly not be able to eat a bite. Her stomach was a mass of knots tied by a thousand butterflies. She washed her face, brushed her teeth and dressed in silence. Jenny was still asleep in the room they shared and Dana was glad. She didn’t think she could stand to see the excitement she knew would be in Jenny’s eyes on this long-dreaded morning. Jenny didn’t understand her older sister’s reluctance. “Well, if I knew I would be the next Mindspeaker, I wouldn’t be worried about the testing either,” Dana thought.

Old Joy herself was waiting in the kitchen. She had come to collect Dana, to take her to the women’s temple and prepare her for the day’s events. They climbed into Old Joy’s wagon and rode without speaking. Dana stared blankly at her hands, clenched in her lap.

The old woman smiled, but not unkindly. “Now, girlie, don’t you worry none,” she said. “You girls never sleep well before testing day, what with the nerves and the wondering and all. It’ll be all over soon and you’ll wonder what you got all in a tizzy for.”

Dana heard the kindness under the words, but didn’t react. She knew it was different this time. She hadn’t demonstrated a gift at all.

It was common knowledge that most girls manifested an ability or aptitude shortly after they started having their monthlies. Not Dana. Maybe it was because she hadn’t come to Far Falls until after her monthlies began, and all her years in the common world might have retarded her gift’s appearance.

Dana sighed. If a talent wasn’t discovered today, it might never be. No woman in the village had ever been gifted after she turned fifteen.

The temple was a clearing in the woods. A circle of low cushions provided seats for the seven women who would test Dana. She recognized them all. There was Old Joy, of course, and Jan Roden, the doctor’s wife. Christine Golden, who ran a boarding house, was seated next to Beth Charter, whose husband ran the town’s livery stable. Melissa Edwards, the schoolmarm, and Gertie Black, the best seamstress in Far Falls, flanked Ellen Grubbs, a farmer’s wife Dana’s mother had tended in childbirth six months earlier.

The women didn’t look particularly wise or special, Dana thought. They looked more like a quilting bee than a judge and jury. She felt some of her apprehension fade as they asked after her mother and the Bennett’s new baby. The women and their conversation was so normal, it made the day’s purpose seem unreal.

After a few minutes of small talk, Old Joy led Dana behind a stand of bushes, instructed her to remove her clothes and put on the white tunic folded on a tree stump there. Dana took her time, her fear returning with each piece of clothing she took off. The white tunic left her feeling naked, though it covered her from neck to ankles. She took a deep breath before rejoining the women at the circle.

The women had also changed into white tunics, Dana saw. They sat on the cushions, eyes closed, except Old Joy, who smiled at Dana and pointed to the center of the circle. Dana walked to the middle and sat when the old woman gestured that she should. Without a word, the woman rose, brought a wooden cup to Dana and indicated she should drink its contents.

The sweet stuff was thick, like honeyed wine, and it warmed her tongue. The heat soon spread through her body, lifting her spirits and giving her a sense of wellbeing. She suddenly knew the women – no, the whole world and everyone in it– were part of her. She sensed a connection between them. As the moments passed, she could almost see it, a golden shimmer linking them to each other and to her. The light was visible only peripherally. It teased her, vanishing when she looked directly at it. After a few minutes, she found her eyelids becoming heavy. She couldn’t keep them open. She didn’t want to.

Old Joy began speaking to her, but not in the raspy voice of an old woman. She sounded young and vibrant. Dana realized she was hearing the woman directly in her head. The voice was that of Old Joy’s ageless spirit. Lost in the warm tones, Dana understood nothing of what the woman said. She realized this must be the opening ceremony and the words a ritual chant in a tongue older than the English language.

She let the voice carry her, like a leaf on a river, content to drift, safe and carefree. She trusted these women to take her to her destiny. They wouldn’t fail her and she couldn’t fail them, she sensed. With a deep sigh, she surrendered.

It was nearly dark when Dana woke. Old Joy was shaking her shoulder, calling her name and urging her to drink some water. They were alone in the temple space. The other women must have left, she thought. Doubt crept back into her. Why had they gone? What had happened? Did they find her gift? Did she have one? What would happen next? Dana choked on the water as fear tightened her throat.

“Now, girl, hush your fretting and drink all this water,” Old Joy’s raspy voice broke the silence in the clearing. “When you finish it and another one just like it, we’ll get you dressed and home. I imagine your ma will have supper waiting for you.”

The Mindspeaker waited while Dana emptied the glass twice and dressed. Dana was afraid to ask what happened. She tried to force the question out, but her tongue and throat wouldn’t cooperate. Old Joy didn’t volunteer any information either. She just clucked and soothed the girl like a mother hen with a straggling chick.

Dana climbed into the wagon and rode in silence, her heart sinking with the sun.

“Why can’t we drive on past the house,” she thought, “past the village? Can’t we keep going until we reach a place where no one will know how common I am?” She swallowed a sob as she made herself think the word. “Common. I’m common. Common as air. Common as pond water. Common as dirt.”

She didn’t know she was crying until she felt Old Joy squeeze her hand. She jerked as if she’d been burned. Scrubbing tears from her face, she croaked, “Don’t feel sorry for me.” Her face was hot as she thought of the looks of sympathy she would get from the village women and girls. But worse was knowing they would pity her mother and sister for having a commoner in the family. It was almost more than she could bear.

At home at last, Dana left Old Joy talking in low tones with Regina over the hitching post. She went into the house and stood over the water pail, drinking dippers of the tepid stuff. She wondered how the Mindspeaker would tell Regina about her failure. What would her mother say?

Dana thought of the special ready-made dress her mother bought for her to wear to a party the next weekend, when the entire village should have been celebrating Dana’s new position in the community. Would her mother save it for Jenny to wear in two years when her testing was complete? “The color’s all wrong for Jenny,” Dana thought dully.

Regina came in after a few minutes. She made Dana eat half a plateful of chicken and rice. Dana chewed methodically and stared at the lamp on the table, while her mother watched, perhaps waiting for her daughter to speak. When Dana pushed her plate away, still not talking, Regina broke the silence.

“Old Joy says she’s sending for the Mindspeaker and Namesayer in Drayton to come see you this weekend,” Regina said quickly in a soothing tone. “She says they can test you better than our women’s circle could, seeing as how we don’t have a Namesayer now. She says you mustn’t worry about it. She says you really gave them a start, singing those songs of yours at the top of your voice. They didn’t know what to do, but they’re sure the Drayton women can sort it all out. They’ll arrive Friday evening, but you won’t see them until Saturday.”

Dana stared at her, confusion in her wide eyes.

“Namesayer?” she asked.

“Let’s not talk about that now,” Regina changed the subject. “Your father and sister are waiting in the sitting room to share some birthday cake and give you the gifts they made for you. Let’s not keep them waiting any longer.”

Dana pictured them singing to her, giving her their gifts, the only gifts she would get this year, none of them the one gift that mattered. Her stomach heaved and she ran outside. She vomited her supper on the grass, then collapsed and lay weeping next to the mess. She heard her mother call her name, ask her if she needed help. “None you can give,” she whispered through her tears. “No one can help me now.”

It was Jenny who brought water to wash the sour taste from her mouth. “Come on, drink it, just a little sip.” Jenny spoke directly to Dana’s heart.

For once, Dana didn’t mind the intrusion. She let the younger girl lead her upstairs and cover her with the quilt her grandmother had made for her when she was ten years old. Jenny washed her sister’s face and neck with a wet cloth and kept a constant, silent stream of chatter going. Dana felt safe with Jenny in her head and after a few minutes, she went to sleep, finally ending the worst birthday of her life.

The next morning, Regina woke the girls at dawn to do their chores. She acted as if it were merely another day in the Ward household. Dana went along with the charade. If it made her mother feel better to pretend the whole world hadn’t changed, Dana wouldn’t spoil it for her.

After breakfast, Regina said she had to go to the general store for some muslin sheeting. “Come along, Jenny,” she said. “Dana, can you change the linens and look in on your father while we’re gone? He didn’t sleep well last night and I fear he will be agitated today.”

Dana listened to the carriage roll down the drive and took a deep, shuddering breath. It was the first real breath she’d taken since her mother mentioned going into town. “Better to be a drudge at home than a laughingstock in town,” she thought.

She got busy, stripping the sheets off the beds in her room. She took the dirty linen to the laundry shed and hung the quilts on the clothesline to freshen in the sun and breeze. Finally she put fresh sheets on the beds, tucking and smoothing them the way her mother taught her. She found peace in the familiar routine. She repeated the process in her mother’s room, careful not to leave any wrinkles in the sheets. She wanted it to be perfect for her mother, as perfect as she was not.

She went last to her father’s room. The door was closed and Dana knocked lightly. “Father?” she called. “I’ve come to change your bed.” She heard a muttered reply and opened the door.

Dana couldn’t see her father when she stepped into the room. The drapes were closed, and he had not lit his lamp. At last she made him out, sitting in a wing chair by the cold hearth. She went to the window and drew back the curtains, letting light flood the room.

She saw her father draw back from the brightness, shading his eyes against it. His gray hair was unkempt and he needed a shave, Dana noted absently as her eyes adjusted to the light. When she got a good look at him, she spun around and covered her face, flushing with mortification.

“Oh, Father!” she said. “Where’s your dressing gown? I’ll come back when you’ve dressed.”

She hurried out the door, praying her mother would return soon. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t pretend the man wasn’t stark naked. She couldn’t dress him herself. How could she face him? Didn’t he know he wasn’t decent?

Dana checked the big clock in the sitting room and figured her mother and sister would return within a half-hour. She went into the kitchen and busied herself with cleaning the breakfast dishes. She was spreading the dishtowel to dry when the carriage came into sight.

After she related to her mother what had happened, she realized she’d not thought of her own problem for the last hour. Her father’s nudity and the decline it implied had knocked everything else right out of her mind. Now that her mother had taken charge of the situation, rushing upstairs to dress Charles in his gown and put him back to bed, Dana felt the weight of her dilemma return.

“I won’t be another burden Mother has to bear,” Dana told Jenny when they were pulling weeds in the garden. Jenny started to protest, but Dana overrode her. “Don’t tell me she would never think of me as a burden. Don’t tell me how much she loves me. I know she loves me and that’s why I’ve decided to go away.” She paused with a dandelion stem in her hand to meet Jenny’s wide-open eyes.

“I’m going to see if I can stay with Grandmother Ward in Alabama.” The plan occurred to her as she spoke. “I’ll take the stage east to the train station, then I’ll go by train to join her in Birmingham. If there’s not a train, I’ll take a riverboat or steal a horse! I don’t care how I get there, I just can’t stand to stay here like this.” She took Jenny’s shocked silence for agreement, jumped to her feet and stalked toward the house.

The rest of the week passed quietly. Dana stayed at the house, avoiding her father by working in the garden for hours at a time while Jenny and Regina went on her mother’s midwifery rounds. That evening, her mother joked that weeds didn’t stand a chance of flourishing, with Dana yanking them up before they even took root. Only Jenny laughed, a short, hollow sound that died away almost as soon as it started.

On Friday evening, when Regina tried to discuss the two women from Drayton, Dana bolted to her feet and excused herself, saying she needed to go to the outhouse. She stayed as long as she could stand the fetid air, then headed off to the henhouse, cutting off her mother’s second attempt to raise the subject. When Regina tried a third time, Dana pleaded a headache and went to get a cool cloth. She heard her mother pointedly and loudly ask Jenny to tell Dana there would be no formal testing the next morning; the women would simply talk to Dana in the sitting room after breakfast, but she acted as if she had not.

When they were lying in their beds later that evening, Jenny shared the details with Dana, then rolled over to sleep. Dana listened to Jenny’s slow, regular breathing and wondered if she would dream that night about what life would be like without Dana in the house. Dana lay awake for hours, tears trickling into her hair, then fell asleep wondering what life would be like once she settled in at Grandmother Ward’s house.

Dana started awake when Regina shook both girls awake in the early morning light.

“Jenny, you’d better come with me,” Regina said. “Cynthia Driscoll’s labor has started and I’ll need your help.” Her tone left no room for disagreement. “Dana, you wash and dress and come eat your breakfast. Then you make some tea for Old Joy and the Drayton women. They’ll be here in an hour or so. Step it up, Jenny. We’re leaving as soon as you’re dressed.”

Like a mechanical doll, Dana did as her mother ordered. Her nerves were so taut, she couldn’t decide if time had stopped or was flying past. After an age, or a moment, while she was setting teacups on the silver serving tray, she heard Old Joy’s wagon creak into the yard.

The two women from Drayton were sisters. Elsbeth Morgan was the older of the two and the Mindspeaker. She was heavy and dark and she smiled too much, Dana thought. Patience Morgan looked about the same age as Regina, but she wore wire-rimmed glasses on her thin face.

“She doesn’t look like anything special,” Dana whispered to Old Joy, after the introductions had been made and the ladies led to the sitting room. “She looks like a shopkeeper. What does she do?”

Old Joy patted her hand and gave her a smile, but didn’t answer.

Leaving the three women in the sitting room, Dana went into the kitchen. She poured boiling water into the porcelain teapot her mother had left on the table for the morning meeting. Her hands were remarkably still, Dana thought, considering how her stomach was jumping around. She was putting the kettle back on the stove when she heard a cry from her father’s room upstairs.

“Oh, no,” she thought. “What if he comes downstairs without his clothes on?” She ran for the stairs, just beating the other women to them.

“Please, won’t you have a seat? I’ll just be a moment,” she tried to be polite but firm. “Father doesn’t take kindly to strangers. I know what to do. Please let me handle this. Please.”

She heard the pleading in her voice on the final ‘please,’ but there was nothing she could do about it now.

The three women looked at one another, nodded and returned to the sitting room.

Dana raced up the stairs to her father’s room. She hesitated with her hand on the doorknob.

“Please be all right,” she begged her father silently, closing her eyes and stepping into the room.

When she opened them, she found herself alone in the room.

“Father?” she called out softly, not wanting to frighten him.

She heard a whimper from the wardrobe and realized her father must be inside it. She tiptoed to the door and pulled it half-open. Her heart nearly stopped when she saw the gun he held.

“Father, give me the gun,” she spoke gently and slowly. “It’s Dana, Father. You must give me the gun.”

“Just let me die,” Charles whispered. “I’m no good like this. The men keep beggin’ me to shoot ‘em and I can’t do it again. Not this time. Just let me die.”

He huddled among the hanging clothes and rocked back and forth, pointing the gun at his chest.

Dana reached out to take the weapon, but changed her mind when he jerked his hand away. She was afraid it might go off accidentally if she fought him for it. She searched his eyes and found only pain there.

On sudden inspiration, she began to sing to him, making the song up as she sang it. She let the sounds flow as she climbed into the clothespress with her father and cradled his head on her shoulder. After a few minutes, he lowered the gun and began to sob.

Dana took the weapon and laid it on the floor. She stroked her father’s hair and sang to him, closing her eyes as she rocked him to her.

She opened them when she heard another voice join the song. It was Patience Morgan. She was kneeling on the floor in front of them, singing with a look of surprise and compassion on her face. Her voice was warm and low, an alto counterpoint to Dana’s soft soprano. Patience sang different syllables than Dana, but somehow they fit together. After a few minutes, Charles stopped crying. He took Patience’s hand and let her help him out of the wardrobe and to his bed.

Dana stopped singing then and she heard Old Joy’s voice clearly in her mind, the same way Jenny talked to her. “No, child, don’t stop. Sing to him just a bit more.”

She did as the old woman said, harmonizing with Patience until she saw her father drift off to sleep on his pillow.

Still, they sang. Dana closed her eyes and let the music flow from her soul.  Every time she changed key or tempo, Patience’s lower voice complemented the new tune. Their voices rose and fell, swooped and spun in the air, filling first the room, then the whole house with pure harmony. Dana lost track of time, forgot where – and who – she was in the unexpected rapture of singing with the older woman.

At last, Patience fell silent. She stepped out of the room, motioning for Dana to follow her.

“He’ll sleep now,” she said. “Come downstairs now. We have so much to talk about.”

Dana followed with leaden feet. The woman had seen Charles at his worst. Soon, the whole village would know her father had lost his mind, if the outsider couldn’t keep it to herself. And the two Mindspeakers downstairs had heard the whole thing. Dana could only imagine what they wanted to discuss now: sending her father away to a sanitarium or madhouse, leaving the Ward name permanently stained. How would Jenny ever find a suitable husband, if the taint of insanity was on the family name?

In the sitting room, Dana was surprised to see the three women smiling at her.

“It’s not funny,” she said. “The poor man’s in pain. I can’t believe you would laugh at him.” Her voice grew shrill as she berated them.

“No, no, child, you don’t understand,” Old Joy interrupted her tirade.

Elsbeth Morgan tried to explain, “It’s you. You’re the one we’re smiling about. Don’t you know what you’ve done? Don’t you know what you are?”

Dana looked from one woman to the next, wondering if perhaps she were the one who was mad. She could make no sense of the women’s words.

Patience took Dana’s hand and drew her to the settee. They sat and Patience smoothed the girl’s hair from her face.

“It wasn’t my gift that calmed your father,” she said. “You called your father’s guardian spirits to comfort him, child, with your song. I suspected you had the gift when I heard about the songs you sang on your testing day. I’ll take you back to Drayton with me as soon as you’re packed and ready. We’ll start your training right away.”

Dana didn’t understand.

“Why would I move to Drayton with you?” she asked. “I’m going to stay here and learn to be a midwife or something useful…” Her voice trailed off as she tried to piece it together.

Old Joy finally made it clear. “You’ve the gift, dear child. You can call the spirits by name. You can invoke their help. You can do what no one in Far Falls has done since my old ma died so long ago. You’re a Namesayer, child.”

“What’s a Namesayer?” Dana asked, her eyes locked on Patience Morgan’s smiling face.

Patience explained. “A Namesayer calls the soul’s guardian spirits in times of great trouble or pain. She’s called a ‘Namesayer’ because she can call them by name, in their own language. She becomes the spiritual guide of the community, standing beside the Mindspeaker in the Women’s Circle to serve the town.”

Old Joy added, “We didn’t know you had the gift, because there hasn’t been a Namesayer in Far Falls since my ma. We didn’t know what to look for.”

Dana couldn’t take it all in. “I’m a… Namesayer? I’m not common? I have a gift after all?”

The three women chuckled at her. “You couldn’t be less common if you tried,” Elsbeth said.

Finally Dana asked the one question that formed whole in her mind. “And will we be able to help Father?” Her eyes demanded an honest answer from Patience.

“My dear, you’ve already started healing him. Yes, you did it. Not I. I sang only to call your guardian spirits to give you strength to finish the task.” Patience sounded certain. “You have a strong talent, child, one that should develop quickly, once we begin your training. I think a few more sessions together will make him as good as new, perhaps better. We’ll let him sleep tonight and sing over him in the morning. And while you’re living with me, you can come visit him, to chase away any demons that try to come back and torment him again.”

“It’s a new life for all of you, Dana,” Patience smiled and squeezed Dana’s hand warmly. “Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?”

The four women turned toward Regina, who was standing in the door. “Jenny, run upstairs and get my herb bag. I can’t believe I forgot it this morning. You would think after all these years, I’d know…” Her voice trailed off as she registered the grins on the faces of all the women in the room. “Would somebody care to tell me what you’re all so happy about?”

The words seemed to burst out of Dana. “Papa’s going to be fine. We’re curing him, well, I’m curing him, Miss Patience says. And I’m going to go live with her and learn how to call angels and help people and – Oh, Mama, I do have a gift. I’m not common, after all!”

With that, she hugged Regina hard and raced up the stairs, leaving the two older women to explain.

Her voice echoed through the house, bubbling through it like a fresh breeze. “Jenny, I have to pack! I’m going to be a Namesayer!”

At dinner that night, Dana told her mother and Jenny about the morning’s events, answering all the questions they hadn’t been able to ask earlier that day. As Regina had put it when Jenny brought her herb bag to her, “The Driscoll baby won’t hold off being born while we’re getting the story straight, so we’ll just have to wait to hear it after the cleaning-up is done.”

Now, over hot chicken and dumplings – Dana had cooked her mother’s favorite meal while waiting for her and Jenny to return from the Driscoll’s – she told them about the morning’s events. With all the questions and interruptions, the food was almost cold by the time the story was told. Not that Dana or her mother ate much; they were talking too much to put a dent in the meal.
Jenny, who could ask questions and make comments without saying a word, managed to eat two servings.

Dana was finishing her second attempt to explain what happened in her father’s bedroom with Patience Morgan when they heard footsteps on the ceiling above them. Charles was awake and out of bed, walking with slow, heavy steps toward the hall. Regina hurried out of the kitchen to intercept him before he hurt himself or embarrassed the girls.

Dana and Jenny looked at one another across the kitchen table.

“How is he, Jenny?” Dana asked, hoping the old women had told her the truth about her father’s condition.

After a short silence, a smile spread across Jenny’s face. “He’s hungry and wants a shave. And he thinks Mother is about the prettiest thing he’s ever seen. Oh, Dana, his mind is clear! You really did it!” She rushed around the table to hug her sister.

The older girl said a swift, silent prayer of thanks, squeezed Jenny back and got to her feet. “Well, then, let’s fix him a plate,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to tell him.”

The End

____

I wrote this story in 2001, when I was part of an online fiction-writing group. I have tinkered with it over the years (including today), and I can only hope the story has not suffered as a result. I’d love to know what you think.

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