Debra Mihalic Staples
2014 Fiction Contest Judge's Choice
What Has Become Of Us
On the day after what would become known as the Great Flood of 1870, Dan Bechdolt surveyed the mess the floodwaters had made of his millpond. First he’d had to nearly work himself to death to get the mill running again after the war ended, and now the Shenandoah seemed to have it in for him, too. The stench of waterlogged decay had already set in.
The pain in his joints was so bad this morning it had taken him half an hour to push himself out of his bed. For some time he’d been aware that he would soon be unable to keep the mill running by himself. Had the war not taken so many of the county’s men, he might have found a helper, but there was no one left. His was the only working mill for at least a half-day’s ride in every direction, a fact that made him grit his teeth and rise every morning, no matter how much his body ached. Most days it seemed his mind was in a fog, and his ailing body took him through the motions it remembered even when his mind did not.
Something black was barely showing above the opaque brown water, its rounded surface hinting that it might be something salvageable and useful, maybe an iron kettle. He would have to get his shovel to find out. He turned, grabbing at handfuls of weeds to help him keep his footing on the slick path, and that’s when he first heard the sound. It was a sort of mewling, followed by a faint cough. A cat, or some wild animal …
He paused, cocked his head. Along with his knees that often gave way without warning, his hands that were sometimes unable to hold onto his tools or his cup, and his eyes that had spread a veil of haze over the world, he’d learned lately to be distrustful of his ears, too. But the sound came again, followed this time by what sounded like a thin whimper.
Searching first close by, shading his eyes from the sun’s glare, he saw only the weeds, the mud, the detritus carried here from the south in the Shenandoah’s northward assault. He widened his gaze, sweeping the edges of the lapping floodwaters. Everything caught there seemed animate, bobbing and jerking with the water’s motion, until he had to close his eyes against the dizziness that swamped him.
When he opened them again, he saw the basket. It was tangled in the branches of an uprooted tree, a foot or two above the water, a pale buff color against the brown-black of the tree’s saturated bark. Beneath the handle the basket was covered with a dirty cloth that now and then pushed outward, almost as if the cloth itself was breathing, unevenly, in and out. The tree that held it seemed to be snagged securely in the mud and weeds at the edge of what had been the millpond.
The sound came again; thin, faint. But it was not an animal, he knew this now.
He had to wade at the water’s edge, thigh deep, to reach the tree, then had to wrestle with the branches that still amazingly held on to their mud-spattered leaves. He pulled his knife from his pocket and sawed through them, one by one, pulling himself forward until he finally broke through the larger one that held the basket wedged against the tree trunk. When he pushed back the cloth he nearly retched at the sour odor. The baby looked up at him with dull blue-gray eyes, then her face, framed in damp, dark curls and a blue knitted bonnet, crumpled. She began to keen weakly.
He stared, his mouth open in astonishment that quickly turned to panic. His heart was beginning to thump in that odd, clutching way it sometimes did, but he couldn’t think about that now. She was dressed in a wool sweater that matched her bonnet and she was also wrapped in a wool blanket; these had likely kept her warm enough, despite the river water that had soaked into the basket, but her lips were a bit dusky; he knew he needed to get her to his cabin and wrap her in something warm and dry. How long had it been since she’d been fed? What had happened to her mother? How would he find out? His mind stumbled over itself as the questions rushed in, until he had to shut a door on his rising panic and think only of what needed doing first. He wished he could get help, a woman’s help, but that would have to wait.
Slowly, taking care to hold the basket well above the water, he picked his way back to the stone steps. He dragged himself up, setting the basket two steps above him, then pulling himself up to the one just below it, the water pouring out of his pant legs. It seemed to take a very long time to reach the path. When he straightened after bending to pick up the basket, his ears roared like the floodwaters had entered his head, and black spots swam across the haze of his vision. He managed to make it into the millhouse and lower the basket to the floor before he followed it, sprawling on his back.
I’ll just rest here for a bit, he thought.
From the basket beside his head, the baby raised her hand into the air. To his tired brain, the tiny hand seemed to float bodiless, as if it were departing this earth. He reached out his own to touch it; the baby took his fingers in her weak grasp, pulled them to her mouth and began to suck.
Nicholas Farrell had been riding for hours; he’d left home at daybreak. The day before, riders from downriver had brought news of the devastation along the Shenandoah, and he was worried about the fate of his Uncle Dan, who ran the mill on the creek at Strothers Bend. Dan had been ailing the last time he’d seen him.
He called out now as he approached the mill, but there was no answer. The Shenandoah’s floodwaters appeared to have risen far enough here to drown the millpond, judging from the muddy waterline left near the top of the stone steps. The mill’s waterwheel was motionless, nearly submerged and jammed by broken trees and other debris; he should help Dan clear it before heading home. Beyond the mill rose a hill where he could see Dan’s goats grazing, the nanny and her kid seemingly unfazed by the chaos that had occurred below their pasture.
The millhouse door was open. He nearly tripped over Dan, who was lying on the floor next to a muddy basket which held, of all things, a whimpering baby.
Dan was incoherent, barely conscious. Nicholas managed to get him onto the bed, but from the look of things he feared that Dan was not long for this world. He turned then to the baby, a girl, he soon determined. For a moment he felt the agony of the previous spring when he and Susanna had buried their stillborn baby girl, Rebecca. But there was no time for dwelling on that; too much needed doing, and he was the only one here to do it.
He went out to search Dan’s springhouse, returning with a crock of goat’s milk. He mixed some of the milk with water. Remembering a trick Susanna had sometimes used with their children, he took his handkerchief from his pocket, twisted a corner of it and soaked it in the mixture. He shook a few drops onto the baby’s lips, then tickled them with the dripping, twisted handkerchief. After a few false starts, she began to suck, though she fussed pitifully each time he had to pull it away to soak it again. After having to work so hard for so little nourishment, she dozed off, her mouth still making sucking motions. He carried her through the door into the mill and found some clean flour sacks; he used a few to clean and diaper her, then he used another to line her muddy basket before he placed her back inside.
Nicholas tried to help Dan sit up to take a few sips of water, but the old man groaned so much that he gave up and let him lie still with his head propped slightly on the pillow. He took a few spoonfuls of the water and milk mixture that Nicholas offered, then, growing fretful, refused more.
There was still the mystery of the baby’s origins. If his uncle knew anything, Nicholas knew he’d better get the knowledge from him now, before it was too late. He stooped down low, close to the old man’s ear.
“Uncle Dan, where did this baby come from?”
Dan mumbled something; Nicholas could only make out the words “found her,” “basket,” “tree,” “river.” When he leaned closer and asked whose she was, Dan could only utter, “Don’t know.” Then, struggling to get the words out, he said, “Baby’s hungry.”
Nicholas patted his shoulder. “It was good that you found her, Uncle Dan. You did a good thing. I’ll take care of her, don’t worry.” He figured the baby would have most likely perished if she’d gone undiscovered much longer. As it was, she seemed weak and listless.
He stoked the fire in the stove, then got Dan to drink a few more sips of water until the old man winced and turned his head away.
Exhausted, Nicholas dozed in a chair as Dan slept. He got up once to feed and clean the baby, then once more to put another log in the stove sometime in the early hours of morning. When he woke at daybreak, Dan was dead.
Nicholas had seen tragic things on his passage through the flood-ravaged valley the day before—drowned corpses that people were pulling from the swollen river to try and identify before burying; someone’s stiff and bloated cow, wedged under what remained of a bridge; huge swaths of debris floating down the river like grotesque rafts; an intact, stinking coop of drowned chickens. He’d steeled himself against the devastation until it had seemed unreal. But here was Uncle Dan, whom he’d loved since childhood when he’d come to the mill with his father to get their wheat and corn ground. It brought back the loss he’d felt when his father had died, and then his mother soon after. Dan had been a link to his own memories.
He allowed himself some tears as he pulled the threadbare quilt up over Dan’s head. By then the baby was awake and fussing, so he mixed another cup of milk and water and then slumped in the chair to feed her and think about what to do next.
He had been gone from home now for two days, and Susanna would be worried. After what he’d seen on his way here, he realized he couldn’t wait for a coffin to be built or for help to come. Their only remaining relatives were scattered over the surrounding states, and no one else was nearby to help. Dan had no wagon that Nicholas could use to carry his uncle’s body home to bury. If he rode home and brought his own wagon back, it would take at least another two days, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to leave Dan’s body unattended. It was either tie his body across the horse and lead it home to Mulberry on foot, or bury him here.
The baby’s burp startled him. He looked down at her and shook his head; he’d forgotten he was holding her, he was that exhausted. That settled things; he knew he couldn’t manage the baby on top of trying to bear Dan’s body even as far as Front Royal, much less home.
After he put the baby back into her basket, he found Dan’s shovel and spent most of the day digging a grave at the edge of the woods, hacking through tree roots, piling up rocks, and stopping from time to time to tend to the baby. After a long rest and a few bites of the bread and cheese he’d brought, he wrapped and tied his uncle’s body into the quilts from the bed and then alternately carried and dragged it from the millhouse to the grave. Once he’d covered the grave with dirt, he then piled it with the rocks he’d dug up. He burned his uncle’s name and the date into a plank and shoved it down into the rock pile. Then he wrote a note explaining Dan’s passing, signed his name, wrote “Post Office, Mulberry, Va.” Beneath it, then tacked the paper to the door of the mill.
He was apprehensive about milking the goat—he was out of practice, since his daughter Bess had taken over that chore at home—but the nanny gave him little trouble. The kid skittered around outside the shed, bleating, until he let the nanny back out.
It was nearly evening by the time he climbed back on his horse, with the goats tethered behind. Worried he would drop the baby if he dozed off in the saddle, he tied her basket securely to the pommel and headed for home.
Susanna heard him come home the next morning just as the sky was beginning to lighten through the bedroom window. She met him in the kitchen; his face looked gaunt in the lamplight. Taking in his mud-caked, rank-smelling clothes, she quickly stoked the fire in the stove and put the kettle on to heat.
“Uncle Dan is gone,” he said.
She shook her head and sighed. “Oh, no, poor man. What happened?”
“He survived the freshet, but you know how he’d been poorly for some time. I had to bury him there. I didn’t know what else to. I brought his goats.”
She laid a hand on his shoulder as he rubbed his eyes. Then, after a moment’s thought, she asked, “Who will run the mill now?”
Nicholas shrugged, then turned suddenly and went back out the door, saying, “I’ve got to tend to Chicory and put the goats out back.”
When he finally returned, he was carrying a large, filthy basket in his arms. A faint mewling sound came from beneath the flour sack that covered it.
“No,” she said warningly, pointing to the door. “There will be no kittens in this house. Take them outside.”
He placed the basket on the floor, reached in, and pulled out a baby.
Susanna stared. The baby coughed, sputtered, then began a thin wail, and for a startling moment she felt her breasts ache.
“Nicholas, what have you done,” she whispered.
He held the baby out toward her. “Please, Susanna, take her. I’m so tired. I’ll explain later.”
She took the baby from him, wrinkling her nose at the smell. Nicholas sank into a chair.
“But whose is she? Where did she come from?”
Nicholas didn’t answer. He was bent forward with his head resting on the table and was snoring softly.
For the first few weeks, Susanna fretted, urging Nicholas to check the post office and newspaper for notices about a missing infant. Although their community sat high enough above the river that it had not suffered the devastation the valley had, they were still somewhat cut off from news. The train was not yet running because of flood damage farther down the tracks, but now and then a rider came through Mulberry on horseback with mail and messages to be posted in the post office and newspaper. Nicholas walked into town every Friday and checked the paper to learn if anyone was searching for a lost baby girl. He also checked the post office walls each time he picked up the mail; notes were posted there from people all over the valley who were searching for relatives missing since the flood, but he saw none from anyone searching for a lost baby.
Susanna herself had borne secret and potent anger toward God since her baby girl had been born dead, but she let Bess have her comforting beliefs. Life would wring them out of her soon enough.
Susanna resisted growing attached to the baby at first; she cleaned her and fed her as necessary, but it was twelve-year-old Bess who was already smitten. She, too, had taken the loss of newborn Rebecca very hard, grieving in her own quiet way while she’d helped to care for her mother and three-year-old brother, David, until Susanna recovered from the difficult birth. Now Susanna worried about Bess having her heart broken again if someone came forward to claim the baby, but all she could do was gently remind Bess of the possibility.
“No,” Bess said. “I don’t think that will happen. God sent her to us because he knows how sad we were to lose Rebecca.”
Susanna herself had borne secret and potent anger toward God since her baby girl had been born dead, but she let Bess have her comforting beliefs. Life would wring them out of her soon enough.
As the weeks passed, and then months, and still no word came of anyone searching for a baby matching the description of this one, Susanna began to believe Nicholas was right when he said her parents had most likely drowned, but still she worried.
“There could be others left somewhere—cousins, aunts, grandparents,” she’d pointed out one evening as she rocked the baby after supper.
“We may never know,” he’d said, stroking the baby’s head. The little girl looked up at his touch, and suddenly, for the first time since he had taken her from Dan’s cabin, she broke into a smile. Two tiny teeth showed.
“Oh, you precious child,” whispered Susanna, gazing at the baby with delight. She too was smiling, and Nicholas realized with a pang that it had been a very long while since he’d seen that.
Little David was the one who began to call her Rebecca. They hadn’t realized how much he’d been aware of when they buried his infant sister; now somehow it had all become garbled, and no one could make him understand that this was not the same baby, miraculously returned from the dead.
“I suppose we need to call her something besides ‘the baby,’” said Nicholas, after yet another unsuccessful attempt to explain to David where this baby had come from. The little boy seemed to have cast her in his own interpretation of the Sunday school story he’d heard about Moses being found in a basket in the river.
“Yes, we do,” Susanna answered in a sing-song voice as she bounced the baby in her arms.
“I’ve been calling her Rebecca, too,” admitted Bess. She cooed at the baby, who reached for her and squealed until Susanna handed her over.
Nicholas looked at Susanna and raised his eyebrows. Rebecca had been his mother’s name. It had saddened him to think it would always be attached to the sorrow of losing their baby.
“We need to call her something,” she said. “Rebecca will do, for now.”
When Rebecca took her first steps, Susanna Farrell’s joy at first seemed excessive to her family and friends. After all, children learned to walk every day, and Susanna herself had a son and a daughter who had accomplished this feat. But then they remembered the other baby, the one who had been stillborn the year before. That baby, the first Rebecca, would never take her first steps, and so, they reasoned, perhaps Susanna was doubly thankful for the milestone her adopted child had reached.
Nicholas knew Susanna had been angry with him when he brought the baby home after the flood. But now, going on eight months later, she no longer asked him to check the notices on the post office wall. He knew she was growing more certain that Rebecca was here to stay. Their house was noisy and bustling again, full of the chaos that came with having small children underfoot, and at the end of a long, hard, dusty day in the pottery, he looked forward to coming home. He no longer feared that he’d find Susanna grim, disheveled and withdrawn, leaving Bess to care for David and the household.
When school was not in session during the summer months, Bess liked to go along with her father when he walked into town each week to call for their mail and do other errands. On her first trip that year, Papa went to stand in line at the counter as she stood reading the notices on the wall. People were always selling things: Mules, furniture, tools. But some of the notices, the ones from the flood last fall, made her sad. They were from people looking for their parents, children, siblings, grandparents. She thought the postmaster really ought to clear them away, at least the ones with the oldest dates. She wondered how many of these poor folks had actually located their lost loved ones.
The door opened as someone left. The notices fluttered in the wind, and for a brief instant Bess thought she saw the words “baby girl.” She closed her eyes. Maybe she’d imagined it.
When she opened her eyes again, she stared at the notice tacked on the wall just above her head. It was dated seven months ago. “Lost in September flood—Joseph and Betsy Goodroe, and baby girl, 3 mos. Write to Mark Eldridge, Post Office, Chinquapin, Va.”
Suddenly her stomach felt odd and her armpits prickled. She glanced over her shoulder. Her father was busy addressing a letter while the postmaster had stepped away to retrieve their mail.
She snatched the notice from the wall and stuffed it into her pocket.
. . . other children had been swept from their homes during the terrible Shenandoah flood. Whole families had drowned. What were the chances that Rebecca’s real mama and papa were still alive?
“I’ll wait outside, Papa,” she called, and quickly pushed through the door. Her heart pounded and she was finding it hard to breathe. A cloud crossed the sun and the warm air grew suddenly cooler, as if the treacherous thoughts whirling through her head were somehow affecting the weather.
The description was vague. Yes, their Rebecca was a baby girl, and she had possibly been only three months old when Papa brought her home, but Bess had heard her parents talking when they thought she was out of earshot. They’d said other children had been swept from their homes during the terrible Shenandoah flood. Whole families had drowned. What were the chances that Rebecca’s real mama and papa were still alive? Old Uncle Dan had found her near his millpond, but he had died before he could tell Papa anything more. Papa had said the tree carrying the baby in her basket could have floated for miles, much farther away, or closer, than the town of Chinquapin.
Bess was a good girl. The lessons she heard in Sunday school meant something to her, and she knew the difference between right and wrong. But she also knew how frightened she’d been when Mama had grown so sad and ill after the first Rebecca was born dead. Bess had taken over the cooking and the care of little David during those months, missing school. But each time she’d taken a meal or some tea in to her mother, the vacant look in Mama’s eyes had made Bess fear that she had halfway followed the baby to Heaven and that nothing could keep her from completing the journey. Mama had just begun to leave her room for a few hours at a time when Papa brought the new baby home.
If it turned out that Rebecca had kin who were looking for her—Bess couldn’t bear to think about what would happen to Mama then. They all had come to think of the baby as theirs. She hugged herself and bent her head, shutting her eyes against the sudden tears. She set her jaw. No. God meant for Rebecca to be theirs, she was sure of it.
When Papa came out of the post office, he gave her a puzzled glance.
“Don’t you feel well, Bess? You look a bit flushed.”
She forced a smile, and they began walking up the hill toward home. Along the way Papa pointed to the wildflowers showing themselves here and there along the road. Bess nodded and answered when he spoke, but her thoughts were on the balled-up piece of paper in her pocket that might or might not be her family’s undoing.
They took the footpath that was a shortcut through the woods, and when they came to the little bridge over Baker Creek, she paused, as she always did, to gaze up the mountain. She loved how the sunlight pierced through the green leaves and lit the tiny waterfalls as they tumbled down the creek bed.
She waited until Papa had crossed and was out of sight where the path bent around the mountain. Then she turned, looking downstream to where the water gathered in a pool, then rushed over the lip of rocks in a noisy cascade. She took the wadded paper from her pocket and smoothed it out on the railing with shaking hands, appalled at what she was about to do.
“Lost in September flood—Joseph and Betsy Goodroe, and baby girl, 3 mos. Write to Mark Eldridge, Post Office, Chinquapin, Va.”
She stared at the words for a moment, then quickly tore the wrinkled paper into bits and dropped them over the railing. As they landed in the pool below, they began to drift, then swirl, and finally slip over the rocks to join the waterfall. She pictured them, a crooked line of ink-stained, waterlogged scraps, flowing down and down until they washed into the Shenandoah, which she had seen, then into the Potomac, which she had not, and finally into Chesapeake Bay and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which she could not even imagine.
When she looked up, Papa was standing at the end of the bridge watching her, his arms weighed down with their mail and parcels from the general store. She had not heard him come back and did not know how long he’d been standing there. They looked at each other for a long moment.
“Come along, Bess, don’t linger. Mama will wonder what has become of us.”
Debra Mihalic Staples is a two-time winner in the South Carolina Arts Commission Fiction Project. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, magazines and newspapers, including Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Catfish Stew: Tender Morsels of Fine Southern Literature, South Carolina Wildlife, High Country News, and The Denver Post. She was born in West Virginia and currently resides in northern Georgia.