A Devil’s Midwife – Chapter One – Healing Touch
A Devil’s Midwife
Lucasville, OH - 1996
Cassie Turner shrugged at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She stepped from the peeling linoleum floor down to the cold concrete of the laundry room. Her skin cooled from the hot shower, and small goose-bumps tightened over her. She clenched her robe against the morning air that forced its way through the old wooden doorframe of the farmhouse.
When Cassie rounded the corner into the kitchen, there on the large wooden table her mother lay still. A white sheet covered her to the shoulders, with crisp starched folds tucked under her arms. The water on Cassie’s long black hair dripped cold down the small of her back when she saw this strange image before her. She blinked over and over to make the scene disappear like the others, but something was different.
Cassie sniffed the air and smelled flowers this time, not the usual burnt corn. Her heart beat at regular intervals and the panic that accompanied the other visions didn’t register. Most of all the darkness inside her head hadn’t clouded her thoughts dimming the very light of the room. Her mother truly lay on the kitchen table.
“Faye?” Cassie gasped. She remained still in the kitchen doorway. Various bottles of amber liquid with sticks protruding from their uncorked tops surrounded her silent mother. A single plume of silky, watery smoke rose from a burning stick of incense amidst the other squat bottles. Cassie focused on the minute orange ring at the base of the ash. The air was so still the smoke traveled upwards in a straight line until it dissipated into random curls and disappeared.
Cassie focused on the orange ring as an anchor.
The premonitions never announced themselves. All throughout the summer she trained to find a single focal point to make it through their duration. If she didn’t see the details she could stop them from coming true. Keeping away from other people reduced their frequency, but the farm this summer made it impossible to avoid locals that rented tracks of her family’s land. When Samuel lost a finger in the thresher Cassie coiled further into herself from the guilt of not warning him. She isolated herself now for the sake of others.
“Hello, sister.” Someone beside Cassie whispered. In the shadows near the door to the sewing room, a large woman spoke in a gentle, earthy purr. Cassie turned and disturbed the air; she glimpsed the line of smoke from the incense break and furl about.
Cassie didn’t know the woman standing in the doorway of the sewing room. She wore her hair in a long braid that traveled like a snake down one side of her body where it curled below her belly. She had on a denim dress that went to the floor and her bare feet on the kitchen tile looked gnarled and cracked.
“Faye?” Cassie asked the body on the table.
“Yes, honey? And don’t call me that.” Her mother’s eyes remained closed, but at least she spoke. After a small pause she turned her head to look directly at Cassie. “Oh, I’m sorry sweetie, this is Paula, from a few houses down.” Paula crossed to Cassie who shivered from the cold and the tiny tingles of ice running from her wet black hair down her back.
“Hello, sister.” Paula placed both her warm palms on Cassie’s shoulders, closed her eyes and began to hum. Cassie tightened her fist around the knot of robe at her chest. Paula pulled Cassie into her sway. The roughness of her palms was earthy, and Cassie imagined them digging through plants in a haphazard garden. Paula then leaned in and pressed her forehead directly onto Cassie’s. The hum vibrated her skull. When she stopped humming she stepped back placing her rough hands on both Cassie’s cheeks.
“Dear, your eyes are such a beautiful crystal blue, clear yes, but behind them I see such a storm. Are you troubled?” Cassie didn’t know what to say. She looked from Paula’s gray cow’s eyes to her mother who turned only her head on the table to look with mock concern.
“She’s sixteen Paula, of course there is a storm.” Paula laughed and Cassie smirked. They both stepped back from each other. Paula busied herself again with some oils she pulled from an open tackle box.
“Cassie, hun, Paula lives close by, she does healing touch. Isn’t she wonderful?” Faye beamed at Paula who now stood above her on a kitchen chair.
“Sure,” Cassie managed.
“Hmm, yes, touch is such a beautiful way to relieve the stress of the body and mind my dear.” She waived her hands a few inches from Faye’s body. Cassie watched in a semi-state of shock until a single drop of water came down on the top of her foot. It startled her. She rolled her eyes and rushed to the steps up to her room. Her foot burned.
Cassie gently made her way up the old steps. She didn’t want to wake Jackson in the guest bedroom. The last thing she needed after Paula in the kitchen was to stand before him with her robe on. She softly padded into her room and shut the door with a faint click, and a turn of the wrist to lock it. She stood there for a full minute catching her breath. She leaned on the door listening for sounds outside on the landing. Nothing. All she heard was the October wind outside the old farmhouse bringing winter close behind it.
She sighed, Paula was another strange person that still came and went over the summer and early fall. Their numbers dwindled when school started and most of the crop had been harvested, but it was unlike her mother not to have the house full of strangers. Cassie barely had time to talk with her mother at night without a living room full of people chatting about organic plants or crystals. She thought they were all crazy, and didn’t hurry join to their ranks by talking about her visions.
Cassie’s room faced the west side of the old farm. From her window she looked out across the open acres that met the dense tree-line separating the property from the river. The fog from the forest hung thick over the cornfield. Leaves were changing and their colors stood out against the gray of the sky. They dotted the broken asphalt of the front drive that wound its way from the house to the main road.
She sat at her dresser and enjoyed the quiet blue of her bedroom as long as she could before she flipped her light on. The room reflected backwards in her window. In it she saw herself standing with the robe still wrapped around her bony chest. Her hair began to dry on her forehead and the soft black curls looked frizzy. Behind her the bed was unmade, and her purple comforter bunched up where she’d left it.
On her closet door hung two outfits she’d set out the night before. Neither looked like anything she wanted to wear today. To the side of her closet was a picture of her family. Her father in back, dressed in a brown sport-coat, wrested his hand on her mother’s shoulder. Cassie sat in front on her knees. She wore a dark blue dress that buttoned up to her neck. Both her shoulders were covered by her mother’s strong hands. They all looked forward and smiled for the last family picture they’d ever take. In the reflection of the window the picture shone backwards. Cassie stared at it this way lost in memories.
Watching her father leave the house that night had been her first vision. He glanced back at her window before getting in the car. Looking away she focused on the fresh corn in the field. She slowed her breathing, and smelled the burnt husks for the first time. She broke her stare to see his taillights reflect off the picket fence at the end of the lane that separated the farm from the road. The white points reflected the red glow until the car sped off leaving them in darkness. A month later he was gone.
She still missed her father a year later. Everyday she questioned what made him leave, and if her visions had something to do with his absence. She’d walk down the drive after school and expect to see him driving the tractor, or fixing something in the old barn behind the house. When she didn’t she sometimes walked out into the middle of the flat cornfields to look up to the sky for a sign. She never knew what to look for, but when nothing happened she became frustrated. She had to imagine her mother did something to make him leave. Faye had a way of pushing away those closest to her. By all evidence she preferred the company of strangers, even to her daughter.
If Faye hadn’t made him leave then what did? Cassie considered the orange ring again as the question lingered then furled about and disappeared.
Cassie pictured her mother on the kitchen table again. When she’d rounded the corner from the shower and saw her there it was shocking, but the very next thought, that flickered so briefly, was relief. It had been such a hard summer secluded away on the small farm with Faye and the other farmers, yards away from the rest of the world, but so closed off from it.
To escape, Cassie acted out fantasies inside her head. She dreamed she lived on a movie set, and one day hoped to live on a real set far away from the farm. The closest she’d come to the fantasy had to be backstage before the curtain went up for the school play. A production had such energy before it all started. The stage darkened, the sets looked fake and all the scurrying in the wings anticipated something about to become alive.
Cassie lost herself looking at the family photo on the wall in the reflection of the window. More light came through, the fog started to clear, and the day crossed over into full-fledged morning. She looked at herself in the mirror and sighed. Her shoulders slumped forward and her face fell. In the reflection she saw ugliness. A pimple grew on her chin and she reached a hand up to her face. She fussed with it, making it worse, before putting on her makeup. It felt sore and she knew it would grow throughout the day, probably caused by the stress of the play and the start of the school year. Almost three weeks in and she still received strange looks from the older girls in drama club.
She stood up and examined her stomach and hips. She pinched her thin sides and grabbed her stomach, making a jiggling sound with her lips as she pooched out her belly. She looked at her butt and tried to tighten it feeling despondent that it wasn’t firmer. Looking to her closet door and the two cute outfits she pushed them aside and grabbed sweatpants and a black sweater from the side cubby hole. She didn’t feel like looking cute today, not that anyone would notice. She could at least be comfortable.
Cassie dressed and put her hair in a ponytail. She turned at the door before leaving her room and saw the photo’s reflection starting to fade in the morning light. She turned off the light and the picture disappeared completely and out the window she could see the open field laying there waiting for her to pass by. Soon her ride to school would be there by the section of peeling white picket fence.
When she turned to leave the room she noticed the red numbers of a clock breaking through the darkness in Jackson’s room. His door was open now. She looked into the room gently shutting the door to her own and the click echoed loudly through the hallway.
“Good morning Cassie,” Jackson said. It was almost a whisper and a tingle ran down her spine.
“Hey, Jackson.” She made a move to go down the steps and the old wood creaked on the landing.
“Have a good day at school,” he answered back from the dark room. She couldn’t see his face. She tried to make out anything besides the lump of his body on the bed. As her eyes adjusted only the clock’s red numbers glowed brighter.
“Thanks.” She turned and rushed down the steps unnerved. She didn’t want to wake him. She felt the day started better when she didn’t see him sleeping there or even know he was in the house. Sometimes when she came home she found Jackson in the field or the barn, and her excitement that it could be her father quickly turned to dread when she saw his face.
Back in the kitchen her mother sat up with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Paula gently hummed to herself as she placed each bottle softly into her bag. The sounds of the storm on the little boom box were gone.
“Oh, Cassie, good, I thought maybe you overslept,” her mother cried.
“No, I’ve been up. I saw you when I got out of the shower.”
“Hmm? Oh, that’s right. Well, did you say hello to Paula?”
“Cassie, it was good to see you,” Paula purred.
“Good to see you, I have to go now or I’ll be late.” Cassie walked past her mother and grabbed her lunch from the fridge. She nodded to Paula, but Paula only stared at her, paused in mid-motion while putting her things away. She watched her cross the kitchen again and go out the back door.
Cassie felt relief outside in the crisp fall air. A breeze kicked up leaves at her feet as she made her way down the drive. She walked away from the house without looking back. She felt that today might turn out okay if she could get to school and forget about her body, Jackson, and Paula’s weird observations. One thought pulled her in two directions: today she would finally get to kiss Jason at play practice. Fear and excitement propelled her forward with a smile.
She picked up her pace and jogged past the open fields beside the drive without paying much mind to the small area near the road that was still planted and soon to be harvested. She could see the picket fence ahead and the large trees swaying all around her in the wind. The leaves swirled and crunched beneath her feet.
She felt out of breath and swore the picket fence wasn’t getting any closer. She panicked to be late and ran faster. Nearing the community garden her mother rented out the bent shape of a woman standing over plants emerged from the last remaining fog. She wore a long gray coat and her silver hair blew across her face. She dug through the earth then looked up at the sound of Cassie crunching leaves. She looked frantically for anything to focus on. A nauseous feeling rose in her stomach. If this morning’s sights hadn’t brought on the panic and the burnt smell perhaps this would. Cassie counted back the weeks since the last one. She was due.
The old woman raised her arm and began to wave a small silver spade that glinted in the gray light.
“Hello, sweetie, good morning!” The woman called. Cassie didn’t recognize the woman until she got closer. It was Mrs. Kershner from the grocery store in town. “Just getting a head start on these carrots!” She continued to work as Cassie passed. With her head down she looked like a vagrant stealing food, which had happened before, but Cassie kept going and made it out to the street. She stopped to catch her breath bending her head down and putting her hands on her knees.
Across the street were little cape cods and the road stretched away down the hill and towards the northern end of town. Cassie snapped up to the roar of an engine and several beeps of a car horn. It excited her to see Lily driving her little beat-up car. She smiled and jumped in as her best friend barely stopped.
“Hey girl, what the fuck is up with this day?” She asked
“You too?” Cassie held on as Lily gunned the car down the road.
“Hell yeah, it’s only seven o’clock and I already had it out with the mother, she is a real bitch, you know?” Cassie nodded and listened to Lily tell her about the fight she’d had with her mother, a regular screaming fight. She had no desire to tell Lily about her morning, not even her best friend knew about the visions. Cassie silently hoped Lily wouldn’t ask, she usually didn’t. She further hoped that her mother and her weird friends wouldn’t be around when she got home from practice.
Faye Turner winced at the sound of Lily’s car squealing away from the farm. Once it faded she relaxed again on the kitchen table. Her belly warmed at the heat from Paula’s hands hovering an inch above her abdomen. Paula waved her fingers as if pushing something away and out from Faye’s body. The energy from Paula flowed into her stomach and down her legs. With her eyes closed she saw flashes of yellow and orange pop in and out of the blackness. She slowly released the tension in her shoulders and under her arms where the starched white sheet was tucked a bit too tight.
When Faye opened her eyes she found herself on the porch of her childhood home back in Xenia, Ohio. Before her a great scarred field, with tracks of earth shredded into trenches, sat still. All the houses before her were rubble. Piles of debris sat silent.
Rough splinters pricked her feet, and the ball of her right foot dug into the wooden porch at equal intervals. She was rocking herself on the porch swing. All around her the entire town remained quiet.
Faye swung in shock, looking at the devastation. She remarked how the train-like tornadoes of the early morning had even stolen the wind moments before they touched down. Now the cry of an infant wound its way along the air that hung over the broken homes; she stopped the swing.
Faye walked out into the yard to locate the distant cries of the baby, looking from pile to pile, walls reduced to nothing. When she turned she saw in fierce relief her own home, untouched and erect against the horizon. The immense surrounding flatness nearly made her dizzy. She felt afraid and exposed being the only other upright thing for miles. The baby continued to cry. She called out a desperate greeting across the expanse, but only her own voice echoed back. Where once houses and trees would absorb the sound, and maybe even someone else would hear it, her voice traveled freely enough to come back to her. The baby’s cries stopped, and were replaced by vibrations.
Paula’s humming brought her back to the farmhouse. She lay surrounded by incense and candles in the darkened kitchen. Paula moved near her feet. Those poor soles had seen so much. They walked for over forty years and they showed the wear of a farmer’s wife. Faye once had such high hopes for this old house and the land around it. It had been her escape from the wasteland she glimpsed in her mind a moment before.
She and Thomas moved here twenty years ago. It was a small farm and she assured Thomas they could grow all their own natural food plus have enough to sell and keep the place going. The house itself was built in the 1880’s and she could feel the history of it as soon as they walked in. It had seen better days, but she wanted such a project to feel closer to Thomas, who even a year after they were married felt like he was slipping away from her.
The previous owners of the house hadn’t worked the land, but the soil was still very rich and in the fall when they moved in Thomas began the work outside while Faye made the house livable. The leaves changed, as did the home and the land. It would be ready the next year for planting.
Soon into their third month Faye first heard the cry of a baby echo down the stairwell. She would hear the child, which she imagined was a girl, begin to cry and the sad wail would last for three minutes until the sound of footsteps walked across the bedroom upstairs and the child fell silent. Faye listened to this little ghostly play at the bottom of the steps. She took it as a sign that one day she would bring a baby girl into the house and would continue whatever tradition played out upstairs. Faye had faith that one day she would carry a child to term.
Thomas called bullshit. She would call him from across the field in a panic that he needed to come hear the child’s cry. After five or six times he started to ignore his wife’s calls and continued working. He’d rushed too many times to her side only to find her smiling; all she wanted was for him to hear some ghost baby. He never heard it. He began to stare back at Faye on the porch waving for him to come quickly. The entire field stretched out before him and the little farmhouse steadily grew farther away as he reigned in more of the field for planting.
Faye told anyone who stopped by about the ghost in the house, but they never heard it. The only person to ever admit hearing it was Paula. She felt in tune with these types of things, and according to herself she was something of a medium. These little entities always seemed to find her without help.
Paula told Faye about the feelings she felt coming from the basement. The house had a lot of history. Most of it concentrated in the root cellar.
Faye never went down to the cellar. It flooded during the spring so they didn’t keep much but old boxes of junk down there. God knew what grew in the dark moist corners or the warm oasis near the boiler. But now that her mind turned over memories of the tornadoes and the wide empty fields of her hometown, she felt something down there pulling her. It didn’t frighten her as before, but like the baby’s cries, Faye could sense a message of some sort. There was a sadness to both these presences, coupled with an excitement Faye wasn’t used to.
Once the oils and candles were put away she spoke to Paula, who hummed, lost in her own routine.
“Paula, sweetie, what do you think is down in the basement?” Faye asked. Paula stopped humming and looked down at Faye, who reclined on the table.
“I had a feeling you would ask me that. I don’t know why, but there was something I felt as I ran my hands along your belly. A warmth there, as if there was some new energy I hadn’t felt before. When it hit me I saw open fields.” Faye sat up straight when Paula said this.
“Oh my, that is exactly what I saw as you moved your hands there.” Paula smiled at this.
“Perhaps we should go down there?” Paula said.
“Yes, we should.” Faye stood up from the table and felt a stitch in her side. She doubled over and winced, letting out a small moan.
“What is it dear?” Paula asked.
“Nothing, I got up too quick.” Paula watched Faye stand upright and walk to the bathroom to change.
Faye looked at her belly and it did seem distended and bloated. She figured she must have eaten something that didn’t agree with her. Mrs. Kershner brought a loaf of bread by earlier, before she went to tend to her vegetables. It tasted awful, but Faye didn’t want to be rude when Mrs. Kershner insisted she eat a whole piece for breakfast. She claimed it was a natural cleanser of toxins in the body and that we all could use a deep cleanse from time to time. Faye imagined the vomit that the taste would induce being cleansing enough, but she took the bread with a smile and wished Mrs. Kershner good health.
Now Faye looked at her belly and her own face in the mirror. Even over forty people still remarked how beautiful she was for her age. Faye had jet black hair and the same crystal blue eyes as Cassie. Where Cassie’s face was soft and pink, Faye saw only wrinkles and dark circles under her own eyes. She criticized her own image and thought back to days when she was as soft and pink as her daughter.
Oh, Cassie, she thought.
The poor girl looked so scared when she saw her on the table that morning. And Paula could make anyone second guess themselves. That’s why she liked Paula so much. She would tell her the truth no matter what, even if it hurt. Faye knew Cassie had no patience to handle someone like that. The girl had become as sullen as her father before he left. She had no idea what to do with her, and she was angry that the girl couldn’t see how much her mother loved her. All she could see was her father leaving in the middle of the night without saying goodbye.
Faye put on her robe and slippers and came out of the bathroom feeling Paula’s healing touch already wearing off. The day would be another lonely slog inside the house making dinner, waiting for Jackson to get out of bed or Cassie to come home, whichever happened first. Even then Cassie would go up to her room or back in the woods, and Jackson would go outside to work. She switched the light off in the bathroom and made her way through the laundry room to the kitchen. Paula sat at the table with her bags packed and her coat on.
“But I thought we were going to check out the basement,” Faye said.
“Oh, I still wish to dear, but I can already feel it will be cold down there. Shouldn’t you bundle up as well?”
“I’m fine, let’s get down there. I’m intrigued, aren’t you?” Faye asked.
“Yes, I am. But please be careful dear. A crying baby may seem sweet, but we don’t know why it is crying yet, do we?” Faye felt chastised a bit by Paula. She felt no ill will towards these kinds of things, she welcomed them.
“Oh, I know, Paula, but don’t you find these kinds of things exciting?”
“I’ve seen things and been places already, Faye.” Faye wasn’t sure what Paula meant, but she didn’t care. She wanted to go down to the basement. In twenty years nothing ever happened, not even the baby cried all the time, but Paula had felt something too, and that had really made Faye expectant.
At the basement door Faye flicked the light switch for the single fluorescent light that the previous owners had installed. She started to walk to the door but felt Paula’s arm hold her back.
“Faye, dear, did I ever tell you that when the baby stops crying there are more footsteps? They come down the stairs, but they are so faint it’s hard to hear.” Faye stopped before her hand hit the doorknob. She tried to think back to all the times she had rushed to find someone to hear the baby crying and the footsteps of what she took to be a mother walking across the room to soothe the child. She couldn’t recall hearing anything more.
She remembered the first time Thomas ignored her out in the fields. She watched him look directly at her, unmoved, and stopped waving for him to come to the house. She felt a chill then and looked behind her, but no one was there. She looked back at Thomas then, but he was already back at work and paying her no mind. So she stopped listening for the baby’s cries. All she’d heard since was a whimper here or there; she busied herself with other things and the sounds went away.
Now Paula could hear and Faye wanted that child to cry again, but what were these steps taken down the stairs once the babe was silent?