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Dear God, let it be healthy!
The young woman clawed at her distended stomach, lurching forward as the contraction gripped her entire body, jerking her as if she were a marionette manipulated by some invisible master.
Dear God, please!
And the pressure from the push she could not resist held her; her wrists went limp from exhaustion; from her pelvic area down she felt nothing except the energy-draining thrust of the living thing within her.
At the height of the contraction, she cried out.
Something in the cool shadows of the wine cellar shifted, but of that movement she was unaware, every ounce of her concentration given over to the inexorable drive of Nature.
She eased her sweat-soaked back and shoulders onto the horsehair blanket; her tattered and blood-stained dress rode up immodestly from her knees to her waist. But this was no time for ladylike pretensions. She panted, breath coming like stabs in the chest. Sweat trickled into her disease-swollen eyes. She shivered, and her shoulders trembled involuntarily from the dankness of the womblike pocket of the cellar where she had come during the night, knowing that the waiting was over.
Her mouth formed a frozen circle which she fought against. She struggled to bring the lips together and shape a word, to call for help or assurance from the woman who hunkered near her, holding a torch.
She twisted her head toward the looming presence, mindful that another soul-wrenching assault would be launched at any moment. But she needed to see her companion. Weakly she lifted a hand and spider-walked her fingers, hoping to touch warmth and thestrength of another human being.
"Portisha, will it be healthy?"
She searched the shadows for the old midwife, but saw only an amber smudge within a black matrix. Disease and the violence of giving birth had contorted the young woman's face as if it were made of clay; a few of the brightest flickers of torchlight seeped through the slits of her eyes. Nothing more.
The old woman beside her studied the grotesque face, the bloated skin, the running sores; and, even in the meager light, she could detect the scarlet-colored patches dappling the young woman's cheek and chin and forehead. Those marks announced to the world that a horrible sickness--a red death--had seized another victim.
Pity in her eyes, the old woman rose and crept to a far wall where tiny rivulets of a chalybeate spring needled into the cellar from some underground source. Into the mineral water she dipped a rag torn from the young woman's dress. Then she returned and laid it onto the stricken woman's forehead.
"Save your strength for the child," the midwife whispered.
"Will it be healthy? Dear God, I wish it to be."
"Sh-h-h. Only a little longer. A little longer."
Again, the young woman surged forward, caught in the thralls of something which completely controlled her. And again she cried out.
The midwife watched. And prayed that the rapidly emerging child would not survive the experience.
The birthing cries filled the cellar.
Near a large wine barrel, an echoing moan was issued; a sleeping form mixed whiskey dreams with the young woman's pain. The drummer, weary from too many miles of travel and oblivious from too many bottles of strong drink, tossed and turned. In a reflexive gesture, he reached to one side, making contact with his livelihood--a bulging sack of pots and pans and assorted wooden toys.
His day had been profitable. The long journey to Alabama had been worth his while, for the wealthy Southerners who had gathered for the opening of the magnificent Blackwinter Inn spent freely. He had celebrated, and the kitchen servants had offered him refuge in the cellar for the night.
"Push," the midwife commanded. "Push, dear girl."
And the young woman could hear her own bones and joints pop. Her loins shuddered. One violent surge and a burning emptiness. Warm, steamy tendrils embraced the insides of her thighs.
The drummer squinted at the scene, dismissed it as an odd dream, and returned to the land of the homewinds.
It was a weak and helpless exclamation.
The old midwife lifted free the wet bundle of flesh and placed it upon the young woman's stomach.
"Portisha, tell me this only," she gasped, sucking in gouts of the damp air. "Is it healthy? Dear God, I wish it to be."
And she wished more in her secret heart. She longed for a handsome boy and dreamed of the child stamping his impression upon mankind. Perhaps, she imagined, he would become a politician. Governor of Alabama one day? Or wealthy. As wealthy as Jacob Manley Blackwinter, builder of Blackwinter Inn and progenitor of the lakeside, bustling town also named after him.
She trembled with joy at the warmth squirming upon her.
"It is a boy," said the midwife. "Here. Touch its man parts."
But the young woman could not move her hands. Shadow-strewn light swirled above her. She was bleeding much too heavily from the birth. Consciousness dimmed. And the disease, worsened by her weak condition, redoubled its attack. Blood pulsed from her nostrils, ears, and mouth. She managed to speak, though her words threatened to drown in the blood.
"Call him Joshua. The conqueror."
She swallowed and prepared to speak again.
The midwife leaned close to her hideous face and nodded.
"Portisha, is he healthy? Why doesn't he cry?"
"He is healthy, dearest girl. He is. I will let you hear his heart beat."
The young woman coughed; her chest suddenly heaved; her body stiffened.
"Dearest girl," whispered the midwife. "Rest in peace from the pain you have known."
She cleaned the child's body and wrapped it in a blanket. Then she positioned the torchlight so that she could view its face. She held her breath, anticipating her own revulsion.
But what she momentarily saw brought a sigh of relief. A firm, handsome face, centerpieced by dark, intelligent eyes, greeted her.
"Joshua," she murmured.
In a flickering of torchlight the face changed.
And the child began to cry. It was not, however, the high-pitched wail of a healthy baby, rather something deeper, something raspy like exhalations of fire. Scarlet splotches appeared, pocked here and there with angry sores. The right eye suddenly swelled shut as if an invisible fist had smashed the cheekbone; and the left eye opened wider, dominating the center of the face, a large, liquid eye--like that of a vulture--which stared, never blinking, up at the midwife.
She reeled back and screamed.
Several feet away, the drummer stirred awake and wiped escaping strands of whiskey-flavored saliva from the corners of his mouth.
The midwife clutched at her throat. Summoning courage, she lowered herself near the squirming child as it lay upon the corpse of its mother.
"Dragon's voice and demon's eye," she whispered. "You will carry the red death in your touch. God forgive me. You must not live."
Calming herself, she methodically tore a long strip from the young woman's dress and began to wind it around the child's neck. She kept the blanket between her hands and the infant's skin.
"God forgive me. I must do this."
In the torchlight, she hesitated.
The child twisted to one side and cried its hoarse cry.
And the midwife tightened the strip of cloth.
"Stop, woman! Hosts of angels, stop!"
The drummer clasped the woman's wrists; surprised, yet resolute, she struggled free.
"Let me do this!" she hissed.
"Merciful heaven, why?"
"Demon's eye," she pointed. "This child, Joshua, carries the strain of the red death. It must not live."
Surveying the child's face, the drummer dismissed the woman's explanation.
"No. No, you must be wrong. The Almighty wouldn't visit such a thing upon a wee baby. It's more likely it had a hard birth that reddened and bruised the face."
The midwife gritted her teeth.
"The mother died from giving life to this little beast. She carried the scarlet killer, and now this child will if it's let to live. It must not."
The drummer pushed the old woman aside. He stared at the child. Then smiled.
"All my days I've prayed for a son. Back home in New Orleans, I have a wife and four daughters. Pretty daughters. But no son to join me on the road and lug my heavy sacks. I'm growing older. I'll take the child if no one claims him. Joshua. Joshua will comfort and aid me in the years to come."
The drummer reined his horse to a halt at the top of a pine-clad rise. Behind him, wheels creaked and another horse snuffled loudly as a boy guided the animal up next to the drummer, then climbed down and unhitched a knife sharpener's cart.
"Joshua. Son, come see it. Our destination. Come here where you can see."
The boy, very tall and slender for his age, clambered to the man's side.
"Weeks ago, Joshua, when we crossed the Mississippi, I promised you we would see it. Your birthplace. Blackwinter Inn. See it? Wouldn't you like to live there?"
Something of surprise and awe registered in the boy's red-splotched, misshapen face. Below him, the dark, coffee-colored water of a lake shimmered, and in the midst of it an island jutted forth as if defying the presence of the lake. And atop the island, surrounded by a high, rock wall and giant pines stood Blackwinter Inn, bathed in stately grandeur, capped with a stunning bell tower. The edifice commanded the scene as if it were a medieval castle.
"Ain't it a grand piece of work?" the drummer prodded. "Oh, my boy, if you could talk I know you would spout praises of it all the way to its very gates. I know you would. What a grand place to live it would be."
The man smiled broadly and arched and then relaxed his shoulders, shaking his head in wonder. In return, the boy fashioned a smile, and when the drummer gestured for him to sit, he obeyed.
"A rich and powerful man operates that grand thing. Jacob Manley Blackwinter. Oh, a man he is who can stand on the very shoulders of the earth. The very shoulders."
He paused a moment, and from one of his trinket sacks he retrieved a small blanket obviously wrapped around some object or objects.
"Mr. Blackwinter will allow us to sleep in his wine cellar. That cellar--there's a story there, but ... but our journey here has a special design, Joshua. Special design."
Edging closer to the boy, he gathered himself for solemn words.
"When I look upon your face, Joshua, I do not see the ugliness others see. I, Silas Butera the drummer ... I see a son who has kept me fine company on the road. I see a handsome face shadowed there below your affliction. And, yes, I know ... in the streets of New Orleans, you are feared and hated. You used to cry when we had to hide you from those who wanted to kill you."
Rubbing his fingers nervously over the blanket, the drummer shook off images from the past and mustered a fatherly determination to speak directly to the boy.
"Joshua, you never need be feared or hated again. Ever. Beneath Blackwinter Inn there flow mineral springs--healing springs, Joshua. People--wealthy people from up north, from everywhere--come here to drink this, this magic water, to bathe in it and be cured of whatever ails them."
Then he raised a hand as if to temper the boy's sudden excitement.
"Yes, it may cure you, Joshua. It may even give you a voice. But I can't promise it. Can't promise it."
The wind skipping off the lake soughed in the pinetops, a chill winter wind, and it drew man and boy into a warm knot.
"I have something for you," said the drummer. "A gift. When we present ourselves and display our wares tonight, you will use this gift."
He unfolded the blanket and handed a fine pair of leather gloves to the boy. A merry tinkling filled the scene. The boy appeared pleased.
"Those tiny bells on the knuckles of each glove will help me to know where you are if we should happen to get separated. Wear them, Joshua. Wear the gloves, and no one will fear your touch."
The wind continued to sough softly in the pines.
Drummer Silas and the boy gazed longingly at Blackwinter Inn.
The festive license of the night held sway.
Costumed phantasms waltzed, flooding the gaily decorated ballroom with color and breathtaking movement. The heart of life beat to the strains of beautiful music. And at intervals an ebony clock chimed and the dancing ceased and the conversation of the masked ladies and gentlemen created a music all its own.
Cloaked by a heavy curtain, Joshua viewed the spectacle. His eyes followed the swirl of gowns, his ears captured every sweet note, and his nose found perfume in every molecule of air.
The hour having grown late and the drummer having confided in wine, the boy had been drawn to the sights and sounds. He would not stay long, he told himself, for the drummer might awaken and become alarmed at not discovering him near.
In the excitement of stealing away from the wine cellar, Joshua had forgotten his fine new gloves. But no matter, he reasoned. The tiny bells could not truly signal his location, could not be heard above the magnificent music, or the conversation and laughter, or the resonant clamor of the clock. And so he watched on, drinking in the gilded bustle of Blackwinter Inn as if it were a life-preserving elixir.
"What are you doing here? You! Your face is the face of an ugly brute! Be gone from here!"
Joshua turned to the sudden challenge of a handsomely bedecked gentleman.
"What are you doing here? Answer me at once," the gentleman persisted.
But the boy could only emit a hoarse cry.
The moment kaleidoscoped when the gentleman clasped Joshua's hand and pulled him from behind the curtain. The scene blurred as almost immediately the man collapsed. A woman looking on screamed. Voices of concerned and curious and startled men chorused. And the boy stood, shocked, in utter disbelief that events had so transpired.
"God in heaven, see to the gentleman!" someone shouted.
There was, however, no agent on earth powerful enough to assist him. Stunned observers could only stare in horrified fascination at the gentleman's transformation: the scarlet splotches leeching across his pale face, the erupting sores, the eager streaming of blood from his ears and nose and mouth.
"Seize the boy! He did this! I saw him!"
Amidst the continued screaming of the women and the haranguing of the men, Joshua was wrestled to the floor, then roughly dragged from the room.
It may have been Jacob Manley Blackwinter himself who directed a half dozen men to remove the boy to the wine cellar where they covered him with a burlap sack and bound it tightly with rope.
A moment of private history repeated itself when the drummer shook free of his stupor to witness Joshua's life threatened. But this time he was knocked unconscious before he could defend the boy.
"Put him on the next rail north," a silk-suited gentleman called out. Others agreed, seconding the suggestion angrily.
Despite his tall and meager frame, Joshua fought them like a wild animal. Blinded by the burlap sack, he stumbled deeper into the cool depths of the cellar.
"Don't let him escape!"
Suddenly the cellar echoed the sharp report of a revolver. A bitter puff of smoke drifted over the small mob. The silk-suited gentleman's aim was deadly.
Struck in the back of the head, Joshua lunged forward, crying out in agony only once.
The cellar gradually lapsed into silence.
The men, after pronouncing the boy justifiably a corpse, returned to the ballroom to recount an episode of a civilized legal code in action.
In the morning, the grief-stricken drummer, aided by a Negro kitchen servant, dug a shallow grave for the boy in the most remote corner of the wine cellar.
Try as he might, Silas Butera could generate no words of parting.
Trickles of the mineral water have pooled for hours on end at the point of the recently hollowed-out gravesite. Through the moist earth, a hand breaks free. Fingers curl. The hand flexes. Animated, the corpse of Joshua Butera struggles from the darkness of its repose.
The face of the boy is handsome. The eyes are dark and intelligent.
He clears his throat.
And though no one else hears him, he speaks.
"I am here," he exclaims. "I am here."