In Search Of Mercy

In Search Of Mercy

by Gail Harbour


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440153716
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/20/2009
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.73(d)

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In Search of Mercy

By Gail Harbour

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 Gail Harbour
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4401-5371-6

Chapter One

Sephrina filled her cheeks with air and through pursed lips forcefully exhaled until her shoulders and head nearly folded into her breasts. She repeated this twice more in the exact manner she'd been taught to chase away "life's bitters." That was Dr. Nathan Benson's phrase for evil-spirited sensations of all sorts, including - but not limited to - anger, frustration and, in general, that sense of ill temper that mysteriously "plagues everyone from time to time." This tension reliever was one of the earliest childhood lessons he had taught her and it had become second nature. Her "life's bitters" triggered the cheek-filling, lip-pursing, shoulder-slumping action as naturally as joy triggered smiling; but this was the first time in her young life that Sephrina had confronted an overwhelming sense of personal failure – and a very serious one.

So, Uncle Nathan, you've saved the day yet again, but your stupid little breathing trick isn't doing a thing to save me. She proceeded to kick the hard dirt and pound a fist into the weathered wall of the small wood-frame New England farmhouse. Feeling some relief, she uncurled her fingers to give the unyielding building one last slap. She studied the dark, thin lines of blood hardened on her delicate oval nails. The sight of it eased her into a disconnected reverie. I thought I'd washed them clean. Stupid hands. What would Aunt Lettie say if she could see them now? Well, she never will. Not now, not ever like this. 'Aloe and glycerin the treatment for beautiful ladies with beautiful hands.' Aunt Lettie will never share my bloody hands. In all of our years together the most we will ever share is her secret mixture of aloe and glycerin. Maybe I should stick to having beautiful hands as my ultimate goal in life, she thought as a wave of self-contempt washed over her.

The mewling sounds of the newborn snapped her back from her moment's indulgence in self-pity. She spun to the open door with a quick prayer that Uncle Nathan hadn't seen her silly display.

Phew! Seph turned to the nearby bucket to wash and clean what were probably the most delicate and smooth hands in the whole county. The cold water sent a chill through her body, as did the words she whispered to herself, "I almost lost a mother."

If Uncle Nathan hadn't the perfect timing to arrive when he did, Bertha would have bled to death. "You stay in bed for at least two days, Bertha Alden, and I don't want any excuses."

She heard the command through the screen - Uncle Nathan's voice of authority. Sephrina had practiced speaking in deeper tones, though she doubted her ability to ever completely mimic her uncle's talent of snagging the undivided attention of their stubborn New England patients.

"Come on in, my girl," he boomed, as his six-foot frame bent slightly to accommodate the screen door that he held open for her. "Aunt Lettie will be waiting in the window, and we'll be eating another cold supper." His broad smile showed that he had little concern for the food temperature as he ushered her into the small room. Seph clucked over the babe and hugged the new mother, perhaps a bit too tightly.

Sephrina climbed into the carriage and took up the reins. Uncle Nathan grinned as she automatically assumed the role of driver. He had no qualms about her ability to handle the horse. He had no doubts about anything she took on. He threw his well-worn bag into the back and double-checked the tether that secured his own gray to the rear. He'd barely gotten seated before Seph nudged the roan into motion. His grin faded a bit as he looked to the taut, perfect profile of the young woman beside him.

"Lovely babe, wouldn't you say, Seph?" he prodded as he settled into the cushioned seat. The soft leather was a well-deserved luxury that he had provided for Seph and himself.

"A real beauty." Her closed lips widened into a horizontal slash that he assumed was meant to be a smile. He shook his head in confusion, having expected her to be radiant with her first solo attendance at a birthing.

The silence was discomforting. He initiated his very own humming version of "Yankee Doodle." It had long been his habit to fill the silence this way. His deep subconscious knowledge of the tune allowed him to continue with totally unrelated thoughts, even as the melody filled the air.

Time and space. Whatever's bothering you will come into focus when you're ready, so there's not much for me to say now. How many years? Nineteen - no twenty. For that long, I've watched you grow from babe to woman. From tree climber to near-doctor. My daughter, my niece, no matter. My own or not - no father, uncle, mother or other could have loved or tended you more dearly. Who wouldn't? Just look at you. The vision of an angel."

The muted tones of the sunset reflected off the gold in her brown hair, creating a glow about her head that would have influenced even a stranger to draw the comparison to an angel.

After a mile or so of quiet, broken only by the plodding noises of the horses and the gentle on-and-off humming of Uncle Nathan, Sephrina snorted out a sort of sigh that seemed to unleash the whirlwind of thoughts that had been spinning round in her head. "Blessed hell, Uncle Nathan. Say what you're thinking. It's what I'm thinking. Bertha almost died. She would have if I was the only person she had to depend upon. I never should have gone alone. She was so tired from all that pushing. The blood just kept oozing. I didn't know what to do. She was growing weaker right before my eyes, and I didn't know what to do. Thank God you came along. I should've waited for you. What would all those children do without a mother? And me soothing her with silly words and not having a clue as to how to stop the bleeding. It was awful. Who did I think I was to imagine I could have done it alone? Never, ever again," she sighed long and softly.

Then suddenly, she was done, as quickly as she'd begun. Nathan had to listen carefully to get the drift of where she was coming from and where she was going. It wasn't like her to ramble, but by the time she stopped, he thought he had the gist of her problem.

"Ah, I see now. Pull the horse up, Seph." His soft bass voice demanded a response.

"What? We're already late for dinner."

"I said, 'pull over.'" And she did.

The hot tears that stung her eyes only made her feel more vulnerable, more furious, more frustrated.

"Look at me, Seph." His own face fell with a little sadness as he cupped her fragile chin in his hand. His free hand pulled out a handkerchief, and he dabbed her eyes.

"I can do it myself." And she took the handkerchief, wiped her eyes and blew her nose loudly enough to stir the nesting birds. Uncle Nate smiled.

"It's not funny. None of this is funny. Bertha almost died because of me. Dammit, Uncle Nathan. Maybe I'm just not right for this work."

His smile faded as she spoke. His eyes shifted above her to the murky sky and he rubbed the back of his neck as he considered the weight of her words. His voice was gruff with emotion, his words carefully chosen and slowly spoken. "If you never listen to another word I say, Seph, please listen to me now. Of all the lessons I've given you on mending bones, delivering babies, sewing up flesh ... I guess I've missed the most important of all - how to survive. Not how our patients survive - how we survive."

"But, Uncle Nate, it isn't anything you did or didn't do. It's what I didn't, couldn't do."

"Seph, you did all that you could do, all that you knew how to do. You kept Bertha quiet and still and at ease. That probably saved her life. All that I'd taught you about how to stop bleeding had to do with tourniquets. You couldn't very well put a tourniquet around her belly, now, could you?" He smiled, but she did not. She shrugged in a helpless, hopeless type of way.

"Oh, Sephrina, my girl. I know there's nothing funny about what almost happened today, but Bertha and her beautiful baby are fine after all. And this moment is about more than what you failed to do or what I failed to teach you, so let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves and move on."

Sephrina stared at the soft leather reins she rubbed between her fingers, but she did not miss a word-soft or stern-that her uncle spoke.

"You had a tough day. All right. I understand. But the only good that ever comes from a tough day is what we learn from it. You're the best student anyone could dream of because you know how to listen. The ability to listen is a gift, you know. It goes a long way toward healing our patients. And sometimes we need to listen to each other to heal our own wounds."

"I am listening to you. I always listen to you. I'm just not sure I understand. Maybe I do, some. I just don't think I could bare it if she'd died."

He shifted a little for comfort and to stall a minute to gather just the right words. The rugged country doctor struggled with his own conflicts around dying as he scanned the surrounding dull purple Berkshire Mountains before he captured her soft green-gray eyes with his own.

"I tried to spare you the death scenes, the losses. I mentioned the deaths, perhaps too casually. It was, I suppose, naïve of me to think that that was enough to prepare you. Friends and neighbors who had only me to depend on have died in my arms." He swallowed as though he were revisiting a particularly painful moment. "It isn't easy to put into words. The scheme of life and the ravages of illness and death - I don't pretend to understand it. I suspect I never will."

Seph reached up and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. He took her long, soft fingers in both hands as he continued and offered her a wisp of a fleeting smile.

"Let's rethink today. What was good and what was not-so-good. Then, we just let it go."

"I'll try. And speaking of going, we'd better get moving." She turned her attention to the horses and urged them back onto the path.

"Let's start at the beginning and end with what really was a very happy ending."

"You are a wise man, Uncle Nathan. You know how I love happy endings."

"Lets get down to business then." He cleared his throat in a mock professorial manner. "You were wrong to say you shouldn't've gone," he went on. "You were wrong to say you should have waited. If you hadn't responded when little Archie came pounding on our door, Bertha may well have lost that little babe and died herself in the process. You saved the baby, no question. Your very presence and calmness probably saved Bertha until I could get there. And you were right to know your limitations and to send me the message." He arched his thick brows and crinkled his forehead, awaiting the acknowledgment of understanding, as he'd done daily for so many years, in so many lessons.

"I suppose."

"You suppose? What part of this don't you understand? You only just 'suppose'? That's not good enough."

She shrugged and sighed.

"How many babies have we delivered together, Seph?"

"Nine. I've assisted with nine."

"If you think about it, it's only in these past two years that I've been able to talk these women into even letting you assist me. It's taken a long time. How many babies have you delivered with just my supervision?"

"Two. Jasper Spencer and Marinda Watson."

"C'mon Seph. We both know, that's not a lot of experience."

In other parts of the world, delivering babies was strictly a female occupation, but here in Barnsborough, Massachusetts, it was a task delegated solely the town doctor.

"There's so much to learn. How will I ever get it all?"

"Well, you won't know it all, not ever. And if you wait until you do, you will never practice medicine. Why do you think we call it 'practice'? People make jokes about it, but it's true. It's a practice. You can't let fear stand in your way, keep you from answering calls. Fear of what you don't know. Fear of what you can't do."

"It can't be that simple. Just a 'practice.' It can't be."

"Hell, Seph, were that the case, I'd never make a call. That would be the only failure, not answering the call. Be careful of pride. It's ugly, and it's dangerous. Part of your problem today was pride. You don't know it all, and you never will. People live, and people die. Sometimes we're just there at those life-and-death moments, and our presence is all we have to give."

Nathan paused as a flood of memories washed over him-memories he'd refused to engage, yet never quite managed to altogether bury.

"Sure," he continued quickly, "we develop some skills and techniques that might make their journey a little easier to bear. Sometimes we make things better. But we never, ever save people. We don't save them- and neither do we cause them to die."

He was pleased to see that her sea-green eyes were dry and that the furrow from her brow was gone. "Just one more thing, then, I promise to be done with this philosophical dissertation. I believe, I truly do, that people live and people cease to live by a plan written by a Power we'll never realize. Sure, some of our colleagues will try to convince the world otherwise, but don't be fooled by the proud and the ugly."

When he saw the slight twitch of a smile on her full lips, he faced forward and relaxed. He was confident that his message had been received.

"You're right. Of course, you always are." She shook her head in mock disgust.

"Not so, my dear; but I love that you believe it."

"It was my pride. It stung-not knowing what to do. And it was fear." She clucked at the horses and adjusted her cloak as she shivered in the early evening air. "I thought she might die and I would have to just watch it happen. I do get what you're saying. I've seen you do it. I just never thought about how hard it must be - just 'to be there' when that's all you have left to offer- your presence."

He nodded in agreement but remained silent.

"You really believe I'm strong enough to do this?"

"I know it to be true."

"I don't know, Uncle Nathan. I just don't know."

"I know, and you do too, Seph. You're going to be the best of the best."

"But I still need to know how to stop the bleeding, at least how to try to stop it. You've got to help me with that as soon as possible, right?"

"Absolutely." He put his arm around her shoulder for a quick squeeze. He almost ruffled her hair, but in time he reminded himself that the "child" he hugged had long since become a woman.

"Here's a deal for you. We keep on with your lessons, but you must promise never, ever to blame yourself for the outcome of trying to help someone. Just do the best you can."

She laughed at his attempt to scold and crossed her heart with her right hand.

"I promise."

"I'm serious, Seph. Don't ever blame yourself. We are only human. We all make mistakes."

Her smile faded from her face and from her eyes as she glanced at his solemn face. "I swear. I swear on my mother's grave."

Another nod. Silence between them.

Nathan took the reins from her kid-gloved hands, clicked at the horses and told his niece to rest a bit.

How strange she chose to evoke her mother's name for the promise. Just forget it. Just coincidence. He filled the air around them with full, rich tones of "Yankee Doodle." Nathan's song of patriotism soon dwindled into a mindless hum. He cogitated over the current political mess. Lincoln had been sworn in just last month. Buchanan sat in the White House doing nothing; just waiting out his term while South Carolina had already seceded from the United States of America. Others would follow. Of this he was certain. He cast a quick sideways glance at Seph. She looked content. Deep in thought, but content. He just couldn't bring himself to bridge the conversation with her. He couldn't accept the possibility of a real rebellion, maybe even a war that would affect all of their lives. If I can spare her this anxiety, I will. I will speak of it only when or if I learn that war is inevitable.

Sephrina had nestled into her hooded cloak. She rethought the survival skills she learned today. She envisioned herself in Uncle Nathan's study, surrounded by walls lined with old medical books and current journals. So cozy, so warm.

She thought about Joshua. How did he manage to put up with her? How long would he wait for an answer to his proposal? She knew that she was not ready. She needed so much more time in the study. Josh, she knew, was ready to take a wife. He hadn't been shy about making his needs known to her many times, on many occasions. For the hundredth time, she considered the cost of a compromise-a way to meet each other's needs. I do love him, but ...

The chill of the frosty evening and the smell of fresh mud brought her back to the present. How she loved the smell of rich, dark spring mud. Messy roads to some. But for her, the sweet fragrance held the mysterious promise of earth's new life. With a near-smile, Sephrina relaxed deeper into her woolen wrap with the thought that today, March 30, 1861, was Baby Alden's birthday.


Excerpted from In Search of Mercy by Gail Harbour Copyright © 2009 by Gail Harbour. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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