Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (2 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child
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A stoop shouldered woman with skin splotched and rutted by time and hardship pulled open the door. “Stop hollering,” she said, “babies come in their own sweet time.”

“This time it’s different. Livonia is swelled up to the size of a cow and she’s started to bleed. You’ve got to come and stay with her ‘till this baby is birthed.” The midwife refused to leave before she finished her chores, so William waited as she fed the chickens and two tiger-striped cats. She then sat at the table and penned a note for her brother, who was in the woods cutting timber. It seemed an eternity until the old woman tucked a package of herbs and potions inside the worn saddlebag and climbed astride an aging mule to follow him back down the mountainside.

It was almost dark when they reached the Lannigan farm but Livonia was still sitting in the rocker, kneading her stomach with circular strokes and singing a lullaby she remembered from childhood. 

“Child, you need to come inside and lie down in the bed. Ruby’s here now, you’re gonna be just fine.” A bony hand took hold of Livonia’s arm and she rose from the rocker. “In no time at all, you’ll have yourself a fine new baby.”

The baby did not come that night, or the next day. Ruby brewed a tincture of loganberry tea and had Livonia drink three cups; then she sat her into a tub of warm water and rubbed juniper oil and mustard powder on the swollen stomach to ease the pain. On three separate occasions Ruby felt the rise and fall of movement within Livonia and said, “There’s more than one baby inside of you.” The old woman even put her ear to Livonia’s stomach and listened for the baby’s heartbeat. “Two,” she said. “Two heartbeats, two babies.” But for three days there was no baby, only pain.

On the fourth day, a sudden rush of warm water ran down Livonia’s legs and she called out for Ruby. 

“This is it, honey,” Ruby grinned an almost toothless smile. “That baby’s coming; before noontime he’ll be suckling at your breast.” But hour after passed and it was almost dinnertime before the first baby arrived—a boy, small in size but healthy and squalling. The sky had turned to an ominous black before the second baby was born—this one a girl, smaller than the boy, but healthy. 

Ruby called out to the barn for William to come. “You got yourself a healthy boy,” she said handing him the first baby. “Matter of fact, you got two babies.”

“Both boys?”

“No. The second one’s a girl—a mite small, but healthy enough.”

“Oh,” William answered, then walked away with the boy in his arms and did not turn back to see the second baby. “William,” he said aloud. “I’ll name him William after myself and my father, and his father before him. William Lannigan. The young master of what will one day be the finest farm in the Shenandoah Valley.”

From her bed Livonia could see William holding the boy baby in his arms. She cuddled the girl closer to her breast and whispered, “It’s okay, sweetheart, don’t worry.  Your Papa’s gonna love you too, he just needs time.”

Livonia wanted to believe her own words, but thoughts of William’s behavior kept her from sleep. Late that night, after both babies had been tucked into the same cradle, she heard someone moving about the parlor. She knew who it was by the shuffle of heavy boots. The footsteps stopped for a moment then a flicker of light came from the doorway. The lamp had been lit. William never liked to sit in the parlor, so why would he do it in the middle of the night? Curious, Livonia climbed from the bed and tiptoed into the hallway; she remained back in the shadows where she could see but not be seen. She watched as William took a key from the top ledge of his grandfather’s secretary; unlocked the cabinet door and removed a large black book. He then lowered the writing shelf and took a pen in his hand. For a long moment he sat there leafing through the pages and shaking his head in the most sorrowful way. He paused for a moment, wiped his hand across his eyes, and then started to write. After only a few strokes of his pen, he replaced the book and closed the cabinet door. Livonia slipped back into bed before she was discovered.

The next morning William rode off to the fields as he did every day and Ruby readied herself to leave. “You take care of that little girl,” the old woman told Livonia.  “The mister will see to the boy, but that sweet little thing is gonna have a hard time of it. I can feel it in my bones.”

“He’ll come to love her too,” Livonia answered.  “He just needs time.”

“Mind my words, Missy, that little girl needs to know she’s loved cause she’s gonna walk a mighty rocky road. I
know
these things. I got a sense of the future; I see things most people won’t never see.” Ruby pulled a tiny leather pouch from her pocket; it was cracked and weathered, but wound tight with a yellow tie. “You put this under her pillow every night. She’ll grow strong, able to get by no matter what meanness comes her way.”  She placed the gift in the palm of Livonia’s hand. “Don’t undo the tie and don’t tell nobody you got it.”

“What’s inside?”

“Courage; it came from the heart of a she-wolf.” Ruby hoisted herself astride the mule and started down the road. Only once did she stop and call back, “Mind my words, missy, mind my words.”  The old woman with her scrawny legs hooked around the belly of a gray mule then disappeared around the bend. For a few minutes Livonia stood there letting Ruby’s words take root in her heart; then before the trail of red dust settled, she started down the road after the old woman.

“Wait, Ruby!” she called out; but by time she reached the bend, the old woman was gone. “Please, please don’t go …” Livonia sobbed but her words were swallowed by the mountain mist and she was left with only the sound of a frail echo.

Livonia returned to the house and lifted the smallest baby from the cradle. “You’re our precious baby girl,” she cooed. “Of course your Papa’s gonna love you. He just had his mind set on a boy. Give him time, honey, just give him time.”

During the laziest part of the afternoon, after William had eaten his mid-day meal and returned to the fields, after the babies were fed and sound asleep, Livonia’s thoughts returned to the book she had seen William worrying over. She carried a kitchen chair into the parlor, climbed up on it and felt along the top ledge of the secretary. The key was on the back edge. She unlocked the cabinet doors and took a large black book from the top shelf. It was the Lannigan Family Bible. On the first page was the handwritten notation:  William Matthew Lannigan—born September 1824—died January 1879

Married to Hester Louise Dooley—March 1842

Sired three sons:   

William John Lannigan—born August 1856

Joseph John Lannigan—born September 1857—died August 1883

Samuel John Lannigan—born July 1859—died October 1883

This was the Lannigan family bible. Why Livonia wondered, would William feel the need to lock it away? For a moment she was saddened by the thought that both of his brothers had died in the prime of their life. Neither of her babies would ever even know them. Why, Livonia herself was not yet born the year they died. She thanked the Lord God Almighty that her William had been spared then she moved on to the next page.

William John Lannigan—June 1876 married Bertha Abernathy, mother of,

Margaret Louise—born April 1877

Two girl babies—born March 1878—one dead at birth

Two more girl babies—born June 1879

William Matthew—born August 1880, died Christmas Eve 1883

A girl baby—born September 1881

Bertha Abernathy Lannigan died in childbirth—September 1881

Livonia could hardly believe what she read. William had said nothing about this marriage, nor had he ever spoken a word about these children.
Girl Babies. Not even a name for most of them.
Where were they now? What happened after their mother died? Livonia’s hands trembled as she turned to the next page.

William John Lannigan—July 1882 married second wife Lucy Maude Perkins,

William Matthew—born November 1884, died February 1885

William Matthew?
Livonia flipped back to the previous page and traced her finger along the line marked William Matthew. The first boy was dead; now here, a year later, William gave the second boy the exact same name. Good Lord, she thought, how he must have been hurting. She turned back to where she had left off.

Lucy Clare—born January 1886

Girl baby—born July 1888

Lucy Maude Lannigan died January 1, 1900       

Livonia heard one of her babies whimpering and she went to pick it up. How could this be, she asked herself. So many children, so few of them named. Where could they have gone to? She had lived in this house for the past three years and not once seen a trace of these children, no pictures or story books, no packed away baby clothes. Nothing.  Then Livonia remembered how William had gone up into the hay loft and returned with a good sized cradle, a cradle made from the wood of apple trees that had grown right here on the Lannigan farm. She knew that for a fact, because William had told her so. Her own baby girl was sleeping quietly at the lower end of the cradle, where Ruby’s gift was tucked under the quilted pad; it was the baby boy who was fussing. She picked the baby up and held him in her arms as she returned to the open page of the Lannigan Family Bible.

Livonia sat down and counted up the children William had fathered, nine before he married her. Seven girls and two boys. She turned to the next page where there was only a sparse bit of writing at the very top of the page.

William John Lannigan—May 1903 married third wife Bessie Thurston

Bessie died childless August 1909

The remainder of the page was blank.  Livonia’s name was at the top of the following page.

William John Lannigan—April 1910 married fourth wife, Livonia Goodwin,

A baby boy—born August 1911, died at birth

William Matthew—born August 1912

A girl baby—born August 1912 

Livonia tearfully turned her eyes away from the book. It angered her to have her boy child named after those other sons, babies that were no more. He was not a substitute child; he was a special gift from God—a strong and healthy boy. A child who would live to till the land as William did. Livonia knew she could do nothing about young William’s name, but her precious girl deserved to have a name alongside that of the boy. A name written onto this page of their father’s family bible, a girl’s name penned in blue ink as was the boy’s. Livonia picked up William’s pen and dipped it into the inkwell. She scratched a line through the words ‘girl baby’ and wrote Abigail Anne, the name of her own mother. She would allow that the boy be named William Matthew; but the girl would be known as Abigail Anne Lannigan.

Livonia closed the bible and replaced the key on top of the ledge. As she moved William Matthew to her breast, she thought back on Ruby’s words, “The baby girl will walk a rocky road.” No, Livonia vowed, as long as there is breath in my body, no harm will come to either of my precious babies.

William Matthew, she whispered, and sweet Abigail Anne.

 

L
ivonia Lannigan remained true to her vow and as the years passed she learned how to cast each of her eyes in a different direction; one always focused on Abigail as the other watched young Will trailing along behind his father. When the boy was barely three, she’d hear William saying, “You watch this, boy. You got to
know
how to fix a tractor. You listening up, Will?” Of course, the boy wasn’t listening, Livonia could see that. Any fool ought to know a three year old boy just wants to romp and play. Other fools maybe, not William. He’d swing little Will up onto the back of the quarter-horse and never once take notice of how scared the boy was. Will had the thickset bones of his father, but a real timidness when it came to horses. Many a time Livonia heard the poor child crying to get off, but William was so fixed in his ways he’d keep right on circling that horse around and around the pen. “You
got
to learn to ride, boy,” he’d say. “What kind of farmer are you gonna be if you don’t know how to handle a horse?”

Abigail Anne was the one he should have been teaching, she was always hanging after her papa, trudging along behind him like a stray puppy. That child would have done handsprings if she thought she’d get a sliver of attention. Will would be begging to get down off the horse’s back and there she’d be, standing at the gate with those tiny little arms stretched out, “Me, Papa, me,” she’d say, but she got less notice than a gnat buzzing by her daddy’s ear.    

“Abigail Anne is every bit as capable as Will,” Livonia told William time and again— but he’d generally turn off with some sort of sneer or pretend he hadn’t heard a word of what she’d said. When he tired of hearing about how Abigail Anne could keep up with whatever her brother did, William would remind Livonia that running a farm was, and always would be, men’s work.

“Cooking the supper and seeing to a man’s needs,
that’s
woman’s work!” he’d say and usually it was the end of the discussion.

The more William ignored her, the more determined Abigail Anne became. Livonia saw this in the child, so she fussed and badgered until the girl was allowed to ride the gentlest of the horses, Whisper. By the time Abigail Anne was six years old she could ride as well as boys twice her age, even bareback. Little as she was, she’d take hold of the mane and dig those heels into the mare’s side hollering “giddyap, giddyap.” Of course by then, Whisper was well into years and the most the poor horse could do was a sluggish trot. “Let me ride Malvania,” she’d say. “Please, Papa, please!” Of course, he wasn’t about to; especially when Will had not yet sat astride that gelding’s back. 

“He’s no horse for a girl!” William would answer.

“But I can do it Papa, I can, I can!”

William wouldn’t even hear of it. “Stop pestering me, girl!” he’d say. “Get in the house and help your mama like
girls
are supposed to do. The Good Lord didn’t see fit to make you a boy, and I swear, by Jesus, you ain’t gonna act like one!”

“But, Papa …” Abigail would whine and stand rooted in the spot as he turned his broad back and walked off. No matter how many times William turned away, Abigail didn’t give up; she followed after him, pestering him first about one thing and then another. “I can fix the tractor,” she’d say. “I
know
how to do it. I can tend cows too!”

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