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By Sandra Brown
Warner BooksCopyright © 1999 Sandra Brown
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhy has God made it so painful to die? the young woman wondered.
She gripped her distended abdomen as another pain tore through her lower body and shimmied down her thighs. When it was over, she panted laboriously, like a wounded animal, trying to garner strength for the next assault, which she knew would seize her within minutes. Undoubtedly it would come, because she didn't think she would be allowed to die before the baby was born.
She shivered convulsively. The rain was cold, each drop a tiny needle that pricked her skin, and it had soaked through the tattered dress and the few undergarments she had managed to hold together with clumsy knots. The rags clung to her like a damp shroud, a cloying weight that anchored her to the marshy ground as securely as did the relentless pain. She was chilled to the bone, but perspiration had clammily glazed her skin after endless hours of painful labor.
When had it begun? Last night just after sunset. Through the night, the ache in the lower part of her back had intensified until it crawled farther around her middle to twist her womb between angry fists. Cloud-obscured skies made it difficult to determine the time of day, but she guessed it to be midmorning by now.
She concentrated on the leafy pattern of the tree limbs against the gray sky overhead as the next contraction wrung her insides. The rainy clouds scuttled by, heedless of the woman barely twenty years old lying alone in the Tennessee wilderness, sing birth to a being she didn't want to think of as a baby, even as human.
She turned her cheek sideways into her bed of sodden, rotted leaves, remnants of last fall, and let her tears mingle with the rain. Her baby had been conceived out of shame and humiliation and deserved no happier occasion than this to be born.
"Sweet Jesus, let me die now," she prayed as she felt another abdominal upheaval rolling through her. Like the summer thunder, it rumbled inside her, gaining impetus before crashing against the walls of her body, just as the thunder seemed to collide with the mountainsides. The pain echoed through her as the thunderclap reverberated through the foothills.
Last evening she had tried to ignore the pains and had kept walking. When water had gushed between her thighs, she had been forced to lie down. She hadn't wanted to stop. Each day meant another few miles' distance between her and the body that surely had been discovered by now. She hoped it would decay and never be found, but really didn't expect such a piece of luck.
This merciless pain she was suffering now was no doubt Gods punishment for being glad to see one of His creatures die. That, and her wanting no part of the life she had carried in her womb for nine months. Despite the sinfulness of it, she prayed that she would never see the life struggling so hard to be expelled from her body. She prayed that she would die first.
The next seizure was the most vicious of all and brought her to a half-sitting position. Last night, when her bloomers had been ruined by the pinkish flood, she had taken them off and cast them aside. Now she picked the garment up and mopped her rain- and sweat-soaked face with it. She trembled uncontrollably, as much out of fear as pain. She had felt herself tearing with that last rebellion of her body. Gathering the frayed hem of her dress and the cobwebby remains of her petticoat up over her raised knees, she tentatively lowered her hand between her legs and touched the spot.
"Ohhh ..." she whimpered, and began to weep. She was open, stretched wide. Her fingertips had touched the babe's head. Her hand came away covered with blood and slime. Her mouth opened with terror, but the sound that issued out was a piercing wail of agony as her body strained and squeezed, trying to eliminate the being that had become foreign matter after being snugly harbored for nine months.
She levered herself up on her elbows, spread her thighs wide, and bore down with the pressure. Blood pounded against her eardrums and behind eyes that were squeezed shut. Her jaws ached from clenching them, her lips were peeled back into a gruesome mask. During a brief respite, she huffed precious air in and out of her lungs. Then the pain came again. And again.
She screamed, expending the last of her energy on one final thrust, funneling all her body's weight to that one narrow place that rent in two.
And then she was free of it.
She fell back exhausted, gulping air and grateful now for the raindrops that coolly bathed her face. There was no sound in the thick forest save for the bellowslike heaving of her lungs and the rain dripping heavily. The absence of sound was eerie, startling, strange. There had been no bursting cry of life from the baby she had just birthed, no movement.
Disregarding her earlier prayer, she struggled to sit up again and moved her long skirt aside. Animal sounds of grief and misery tripped over her bruised lips when she saw the infant, little more than a ball of bluish flesh, Iyin, e dead between her thighs without ever having known life. The cord that had nourished it had been its instrument of death. The ropy tissue was wound tightly around the baby's throat. Its face was pinched. It had taken a suicidal plunge into the world. The girl wondered if it had chosen to die, instinctively knowing that it would be despised even by its mother, preferring death to a life of degradation.
"At Least, little one, you didn't have to suffer life," she whispered.
She fell back onto the spongy ground and stared sightlessly at the weeping sky, knowing that she was fevered and probably delirious, and that thoughts about babies killing themselves in the womb were crazy. But it made her feel better to think that her baby hadn't wanted to live any more than she had wanted it to, that it had wanted to die just as she did now.
She should pray for forgiveness at being glad for her own infant's death, but she was too tired. Surely God would understand. It had been He, after all, who had afflicted her with such pain. Didn't she deserve to rest now?
Her eyes closed against the rain that poured over her face like a healing balm. She couldn't remember a time when she had known this kind of peace. She welcomed it.
Now she could die.
"You reckon she's dead?" the young voice croaked hoarsely.
"I don't know," a slightly older voice whispered back. Poke her and see."
"I ain't a'gonna poke her. You poke her."
The tall, rangy boy knelt on bony knees next to the prone, soil figure. Carefully, as he had been taught by his pa, he propped his rifie, barrel up, against the tree trunk. His hands twitched nervously as he stretched them toward the girl.
"You're scared, ain'tcha?" the younger boy challenged.
"No, I ain't scared," the older hissed back. Having to prove it, he extended his index finger and placed it next to the girl's upper lip, not quite touching her. "She's breathing, he said in relief. "She ain't dead."
"What do you reckon ... godamighty, Bubba, there's blood a'coming from under her dress."
Reflexively Bubba jumped back. His brother Luke was right. A trickle of blood was forming a crimson pool beneath the hem of her dress, which barely covered her knees. She wasn't wearing stockings and the leather of her shoes was cracked and peeling. The laces had been knotted together after numerous breaks.
"You figure she's been gunshot or something? Maybe we ought to look-"
"I know, I know," Bubba said impatiently. "Keep your damn trap shut."
"I'm gonna tell Ma you're cussin-"
"Shut up!" Bubba whirled around to stare down his younger brother. "I'll tell her you peed in old lady Watkin's wash water after she got on to you 'bout makin' too much noise around the camp." Luke was properly cowed, and Bubba turned back to the girl. Gingerly, and disbelieving he had actually wanted to go hunting that morning, he lifted the hem of her ratty brown dress. "Hellfire," he shrieked, dropping the skirt and jumping to his feet. Unfortunately, the soiled cloth didn't fall back to cover the lifeless form lying between the girl's slender thighs. Both boys stared in horror at the dead infant. Luke made a strange sound in his throat.
"You gonna puke?" Bubba asked.
"No." Luke swallowed hard. "I don't think," he said with less assurance.
"Go get Ma. Pa, too. He'll have to carry her back to the wagon. Can you find your way back?"
"'Course," Luke said scornfully.
"Then get going She could still die, ya know."
Luke cocked his head to one side and studied the young woman's pale face. "She's right fetchin' to look at. You gonna touch her any more while I'm gone?"
"Get goin'!" Bubba yelled, facing his brother with a threatening stance.
Luke thrashed his way noisily through the trees until he could safely call back a taunt. "I'll know if you look at somethin you ain't supposed to. And I'll tell Ma."
Bubba Langston picked up a pinecone and hurled it at his brother, younger by two years. It fell short of its mark and Luke scampered away. When he was out of sight Bubba knelt down beside the girl. He gnawed his lower lip before looking at the dead baby once again. Then, using only the tips of his index finger and thumb, he lifted the hem of her skirt and moved it to cover up the baby.
Sweat beaded his forehead, but he felt better when he couldn't see the baby anymore. "Lady," he whispered softly.
"Hey, lady, can you hear me?" Fearfully he nudged her shoulder. She moaned and tossed her head to one side, then back again.
He had never seen such a head of hair on a person before. Even littered with twigs and leaves and damp with rain it was right pretty curly and sort of wild looking. The color wasn't like any he had ever seen before either. Not quite red and not quite brown, but somewhere in between.
He took off the canteen suspended around his neck by a leather thong and uncapped it. "Lady, you want a drink?" Bravely, he pressed the metal spout to her flaccid lips and poured a small amount over them. Her tongue came out to lick up the moisture.
Bubba watched, fascinated, as her eyes fluttered open to gaze up at him vaguely. The girl saw a wide-eyed boy of about sixteen bending anxiously over her. His shock of hair was so light it was almost white. Was he an angel? Was she in heaven? If so, it was disappointingly like earth. The same sky, the same trees, the rain-laden forest. The same pain between her thighs. She wasn't dead yet! No, no, boy, go away. I want to die. She closed her eyes again and knew no more.
Afraid for the young woman's life, and feeling helpless, Bubba sank to the damp ground under the tree. His eyes never left her face until he heard the commotion of Ma and Pa pushing through the dense undergrowth in the full, lush bloom of early summer.
"What's all this Luke was blabbing about a girl, son?" Zeke Langston asked his eldest child.
"See, I told you, Ma, Pa," Luke said excitedly, pointing a finger. "There she be."
"Get out of my way, all of you, and let me see to this poor girl." Ma impatiently shoved the men aside and squatted down heavily beside the girl. First she brushed aside the damp hair clinging to the wan cheeks. "Right comely, ain't she? Wonder what in tarnation she's doing out here all alone."
"There's a babe, Ma."
Ma Langston looked up at Bubba, then at her husband, jerking her head in a silent signal that he distract the boys. When their backs were turned, Ma raised the dress to the girl's lap. She had seen worse, but this sight was grim enough. "Lord have mercy," she muttered. "Zeke, give me a hand here. You boys run on back to the wagon and tell Anabeth to fix a pallet up proper. Get a good fire goin and put a kettle to boilin'."
Disappointed that they were going to miss the most interesting part of the adventure, they objected in unison. "But Ma-"
"Git, I said." Rather than incur their mother's wrath, which both had felt at the other end of a strop, they shuffled off toward the wagon train that was taking Sunday off to rest
"She's in a bad way, ain't she?" Zeke asked, crouching down beside his wife.
"Yep. First thing is to get the afterbirth out. She may die of the poison anyway.'
Silently they worked over the unconscious girl. What should I do with this, Ma?" Zeke asked. He had wrapped nature's debris along with the dead infant in a knapsack and had bundled it tightly.
"Bury it. I doubt she'll be in any condition to visit a grave for several days. Mark the spot in case she wants to come back to see it."
"I'll put a boulder over it so the animals wont get to its Zeke said solemnly and began to scoop out a shallow grave with the small spade he had brought with him. "How's the girl?" he asked when he was done, wiping his hands on a bandanna handkerchief.
"Still bleeding, but I've got her packed tight. We've done all we can do here. Can you carry her?"
"If you can help hoist her up."
The girl came to life and protested, flailing her arms weakly when Zeke hooked her under the knees and behind her back and lifted her to his thin chest. Then the slender limbs fell away and she went lifeless again. Her throat arched as her head fell back over his arm.
"Aint her hair funny looking though," Zeke commented, not unkindly.
"Can't say I ever seen any that color before," Ma replied absently as she picked up the things they had brought with them. "We'd best hurry. It's startin' to rain again."
* * *
The place between her thighs burned. Her throat was scratchy and sore She felt hot and achy all over Yet there was a pervading sense of comfort surrounding her. She was dry and warm. Hid she made it to heaven after all? Had the towheaded boy left her alone to die? Was that why she felt so safe and peaceful? But in heaven one wasn't supposed to know pain, and she was hurting.
She pried her eyes open. A white canvas ceiling curved above he; A lantern was burning low on a box near the pallet on which she was lying. She stretched her legs as much as the aching between them would allow, acquainting herself with the soft bed. Her feet and legs were naked, but she had been dressed in a white nightgown. Her hands moved restlessly over her body and she wondered why she felt so strange. Tlen she realized that her stomach was flat.
It all came back to her then in a wave of terrible memories. The fear, the pain, the horror of seeing the dead infant lying blue and cold between her legs. Tears pooled in her eyes.
"There, there, you ain't gonna start that cryin' again are you? You bees cryin' off and on in your sleep for hours."
The fingers that whisked the tears from her cheek were large, work-rough, and red in the soft glow of the lamp, but they felt good or her face. So did the voice that fell, full of gentle concern, in her ears. "Here, you ready for some of this broth? Made it from one of the rabbits the boys got this mornin' before they found you."
Excerpted from Sunset Embrace by Sandra Brown Copyright © 1999 by Sandra Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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