He felt it first as a pinpoint itch just right of his sternum. Spider bite, he thought, and finished feeding the cows. The itch was persistent, but so was the work. A wife to feed. Three daughters—ages eight, five, and two. There’d have been four girls, but number two was in the graveyard down the road—stopped breathing a couple hours after the delivery. There’d be another child soon—a matter of weeks—perhaps a boy this time, though already his eldest, Sarah, thrived beside him, doing whatever he asked. A steady child. Not averse to work.
On March 4, the five of them assembled around the radio and listened to their new president—the oath of office, the inaugural address. Amos almost snorted at the opening words about nothing to fear but fear itself. Easy for Roosevelt to say, with three square meals a day on fancy White House china. Amos and Merlene were managing. Clothes on their backs. Animals, crops, Merlene’s garden to keep them fed. If only just barely.
At bedtime that evening, as was his habit, he took his pajamas from their hook in the bedroom and stepped into the bathroom to get ready for bed. Shrugging out of his shirt, he glanced at himself in the mirror and stopped. He’d all but forgotten the itch on this chest, though it had not gone away, marked now by a reddish welt the size of a quarter. For a moment he could feel his pulse there. He reached for his pajama shirt. Buttoning it over the itch, he put his spider bite out of mind.
The next morning, as Amos milked his little Jersey cow, Sarah came running with news of trouble from the sheep pens. Her favorite ewe was down and couldn’t get up. Sarah had witnessed the birth of a lamb, but this was her first breech delivery. Amos explained to his daughter that the lamb’s hind legs were tucked, that he would have to help by unfolding the legs and easing them out.
“Let me do it,” she said. “Your hands are too big. I’m afraid you’ll hurt the momma.”
Dauntless, born with a midwife’s hands, his daughter eased her right hand into the ewe and gently extended the breech lamb’s hind legs.
As she washed up after, Amos absently brushed fingertips across the warm spot on his chest.
“What is it, Daddy?” Sarah asked. “You keep doing that. Looks like you’re trying to pet the label on your overalls.”
“Nothing,” Amos said, planting both hands in his pockets. “Spider bite.” He winked at his daughter.
Two nights later, it woke him from a dead sleep, a heat like fever throbbing on his chest. As dawn approached, he made his way to the bathroom, opened his pajama shirt, and took stock. The welt seemed not much larger, but there was no mistaking the line of red arcing across his chest.
Years ago he’d watched his father doctor a snake bite—Papa’s steady hands, the carefully razored X on his little brother’s calf. His father’s mouth there, sucking out the venom. The inward hiss of breath between Donald’s clamped teeth, the glint of fear in his eyes.
Sarah nodded and her childhood was over.
The wife would be up soon, moving slowly from their bedroom, heavy with child. She would have to help him.
The aroma of freshly percolating coffee usually woke her, though not this morning. Odd, she thought, dressing. Amos was like clockwork with his morning routine. No sign of him when she entered the kitchen. She put on the coffee and stood listening to the quiet house. A doorknob clicked—the bathroom. When she stepped into the hallway, a band of shadow marked the opening between door and jamb, his face white against the shadow. Something about the eyes made her prickle at the nape. As she approached, the door opened inward, her husband out of sight behind it.
Amos was bare to the waist when she entered, his pajama shirt draped over the edge of the tub. He didn’t have to point. Merlene fixed on the raised welt, the smudge of red arcing heartward from it. Oddly, she thought of lipstick, her Sunday morning vanity.
A single-edge razor blade lay along the rim of the sink.
She looked from the razor to her husband’s face. He held her gaze for a moment. His eyes shifted to the razor, then back to her. She knew what he intended. She knew what her part was to be.
In the kitchen the percolator began to burble. At the sound, an angry heat flickered awake in her, purring like the fire that burned beneath the percolator.
“No,” she whispered—just once—a single feverish breath.
Merlene turned and stepped out of the bathroom. She turned again and closed the door behind her. The infant biding in her kicked. She put her hand there and the infant quieted. She stood in the perfect stillness, her rib cage hollow as a fresh-dug grave, her breath dry as the dirt shoveled out.
The others didn’t know it, but she was always the first to wake. A hint of gray at the window, the cool of early morning light. Being awake in herself while the others slept. Later, their stirring sounds—her father’s voice, her mother’s. Footsteps in their bedroom, in the kitchen. Footsteps again, coming to her door, to this room she shared with her sisters. She would dress for the outdoors, for the morning routine she shared with her father while her sisters stayed indoors with their mother.
But not this morning. The coffee was on, she could smell it. Otherwise, silence. Finally, she got out of bed and went to see about the quiet.
There was light from her parents’ bedroom, so she went there first. It was the lamp at her mother’s dresser, her mother’s face reflected in the dresser mirror, the eyes not shifting to her.
“The coffee’s done. I turned the burner off.”
“Momma, where’s Daddy?”
“It’s too late,” said this woman who only looked like her mother, a hand fluttering at her cheek, as if to wave a fly away.
There was light beneath the bathroom door. She knocked.
The door opened wide enough for his face, his voice.
“Not a word to your sisters.”
Sarah nodded and her childhood was over.
She knew the story of her uncle’s long-ago snake bite. She knew about blood poisoning, had heard about it from the grownups, their hushed voices, when a neighboring farmer had been taken by the infection raging in him.
In the bathroom, with the door closed behind them, her father was direct with her.
“I’ll need your help. We’ve got to get the poison out.”
A rank and rancid taste bloomed at the base of her tongue.
“We can’t ask your momma.”
She swallowed against the taste.
“Understand what I’m asking?”
She nodded. “Will it help?”
“We got to hope it does.”
He sat on the side of the tub, straight edge razor in his left hand, and made the double incision.
“Let the blood get started first.”
Outside, a burst of sparrow chatter.
“Now,” her father said.
She sucked long and hard, pulled back and spat into the tub.
“Again,” he said, and she did what she had to. “Again.” She grew stronger each time. “Again.”
Surely, the bacteria in her father’s blood had ventured beyond the bleeding X on his chest, beyond what she could do for him each time he said Again. Still, Sarah had never felt such power. In her final days, eighty-five years later, she would return to these moments in the bathroom with her father seven days before his death. She had done what she could. She had done what was asked of her.
“Enough,” he said at last, and she bandaged the wound for him.
“Your mother will need you,” he said. “Your sisters.”
She went to them. She did what she could. She did what was asked.