Kelli B. Haywood was born and raised in Letcher County, Kentucky. She is the mother of two little girls, the wife of an artist and musician, a homesteader, writer, childbirth educator, and doula. She was the 2009 recipient of the Gurney Norman Prize for Short Fiction and had the immense pleasure of reading her work along with the beloved poet laureate during the 2010 Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
No Part of This
Estella was the talk of two counties. Folks wondered how she had made it all the way through the funeral and burial without shedding a tear. They speculated on many things as folks often do, but the answer was simple. Estella had always tried to do the best with what she had been blessed with, and that is what kept her from falling to her knees when Ransom Reedy called saying Mitchell had ran a back hoe over an embankment on the strip job, and wouldn’t be coming home. Mitchell had left her to have this baby alone.
It wasn’t until Mitchell had been in the ground two weeks that she took to her bed. Lying on her left side for the baby, like the book said. Her eight-months-swollen belly didn’t nag at her to eat, so she laid there clutching a Guns-n-Roses t-shirt that had been Mitchell’s favorite. Periodically, she would finger the holes, and remember the day he had cut the sleeves off. She had dared him to wear that dry rotted t-shirt to Marcus’s first t-ball game. He had cut the sleeves out and wore it anyway, looking at her with a goofy grin, like he had accomplished something.
Estella paid little attention when her mother came into the room fussing and begging her to eat. She didn’t lift her eyes to look at her. After three days, her mother said, “Stella, I’m calling the doctor. You can’t do this and you pregnant. You got to think about this baby.”
“You won’t be calling no doctor. They got no place in this.”
She waited as her mother stepped out of the room. The click of the closed door allowed her to settle, take deeper breaths. Her mother spoke from behind the door, trying to lower her boisterous voice. “Estill Blevins, it’s time you talked to your daughter. She ain’t took a thing but water in three days. That’s all I’m willing to wait. She won’t let little Mark see her. I’m calling the doctor today, and they’ll have to send someone to get her.”
“Leave her be. She’ll come around.” Her daddy was never one to get excited over anything, not even vacations or the best of surprises.
“You ain’t been in that room, Estill. You ain’t seen how bad off she is.”
The door opened. Her daddy filled the whole room. “You really going to do this, Stella? You’re going to just give up?”
“I’m doing it, Daddy.” Estella didn’t avoid his eyes like she did her mother’s. She met them head on and watched his look deepen on noticing her seriousness.
“I can’t be letting you. Get out of that bed before your mother calls the doctor.” He still spoke to her like she was fifteen despite that she had been a wife of a man for seven years, a mother, and now a widow. Part of her had appreciated it before Mitchell was gone, but now she felt thick and grossly solitary, not someone to be looked after.
“It ain’t a matter of you giving me permission. I ain’t having Mitchell’s little girl alone.” Her voice was hollow.
“You’re wrong there, little gal. That choice don’t belong to either one of us. God give you this youngun and it’s you who will bring it into this world.”
“No, it won’t be me. It’ll be Dr. Chandra with his scalpel, and Mitchell won’t be there to tell me it’s okay. He won’t be the first one to cradle our little girl. I’m not having surgery alone. I’m not.”
“That little girl is coming one way or another, Stella. You’ll have to be its mother. Your mother and I already raised our children. You’ll raise yours. Now, get up. Little Marcus is wanting to see his mama.” Estella could hear his breath swooshing through his mustache. She quit looking at him and motioned to the door. “I’m giving you until supper. Then, your mother will call the doctor.”
When her father left the room, his presence lingered like the smoke had from her grandmother’s pipe as she puffed and knitted. Estella cried for the first time. It came from a place close to where the baby grew. Her hard stomach rocked in the cradle of her body. She passed an hour, and at 2:47 picked up the old turn dial phone from her nightstand and the number written on a Wal-Mart receipt, and called Ransom Reedy.
His wife answered. “This is Estella Pack. May I speak to Ransom?”
“Oh, Stella, honey. Are you feeling any better? I just couldn’t imagine what you must be going through. They were telling me you’ve been in bed a few days. Are you up now?” She spoke without taking a breath, and sucked in air with a slurp when she was finished.
“Is Ransom home?” Estella had made no plans to answer questions when she picked up the phone. She wasn’t ready to make up polite responses.
“Rany sure does miss Mitch. We all do. How’s Marcus?”
“Fine,” she said.
“I’ll get Rany, honey.” Estella heard her place the phone onto a hard surface and call to her husband as she walked away from the receiver.
It took him long enough to get to the phone. Estella couldn’t find her voice right away.
“Stella?” He was breathing heavy, like he had ran to the phone.
“I need you to take me up there where it happened. I need you to let me see it.”
“You sure you want to do that?” he asked.
“You said if I needed anything to call you.” She crinkled the receipt up in her palm, and then smoothed it out again.
“I’ll take you. When you want to go?”
“Tomorrow, first thing.”
“I’ll be by around eight.”
“I’ll be ready.”
Her mother stood up when she entered the kitchen. “What can I get you baby?”
The light that hung over the kitchen table made Estella squint. She shuffled over to a chair, pulled it out from under the table, and sat down. “Some of that tuna casserole will be fine.”
She watched the pendulum on the grandfather clock her daddy had made for her wedding present. She was on her feet as soon as she heard Ransom’s truck door slam. Before he made it across the yard, she was at the bottom of her front porch steps. He was awkward helping her into the truck.
“When are you due, again?” he asked
“Three weeks. October nineteenth.”
“Call us when you have it. We’ll come down to the hospital and bring you something.” Ransom’s face blushed.
The sky was the blue it can only be in the fall. It was cool in the truck, but the sun made up for it. People were on their way to work. Sheila Cummings spotted them at the four-way stop and threw up her hand. Ransom lifted two fingers from the steering wheel.
Before they started up the hill, he stopped the truck. “It’ll be a rough ride. I want you to hang on.”
“I’ve been on a strip job before,” she said, lifting one arm and taking hold of the handle above the door. Mitchell had called it the “oh shit” handle.
Ransom plowed up the hill oblivious to the discomfort his pregnant passenger was feeling. She sat thinking not of the bit of pain she felt, but how she would feel when she saw the spot. The top of the mountain was coming upon them fast. They turned a slight curve, and the bright light and bare piles of earth announced they had arrived.
A few men were gathered in the far left of the job loading a dump truck. One man with a clipboard stood looking over an embankment, making small marks on his paper. The wind whipped her hair against her face and filled her ears with a numbing whir, as Ransom helped her from the truck.
“That there’s the sludge pond.” He pointed to where the man with the clipboard stood. “Mitch was working that big pile of dirt right there.” He pointed to the right of the pond.
Estella walked toward the embankment. Ransom followed. She stopped at the edge, down a bit from where the man stood. She felt faint. She spoke to redirect her thought from her body to her husband. “He fell in there?”
“I reckon he backed a little too close to the edge of the bank. It gave and the backhoe started to slip. He was trying to save the equipment when the bank fell away completely. The backhoe rolled into the pond.”
The pond was black and thick. There were smears of purple, green, and pink across the top. Oil on water. She saw the spot where the bank had fallen.
Mitchell was still covered in black sludge when she saw him at the hospital. It had reminded her of the day they were married. He worked underground then, and had come off his final shift an hour before the wedding. When she put the ring on his finger, she couldn’t help but smile. The black had stuck in the creases of his hands. He wouldn’t be going underground anymore. She had asked him to take a job surface mining for a little less pay. It would be safer.
The baby rolled inside her bringing her back to the pond. She was crying. “I think we should go,” she said.
Estella’s appointment was for ten, but she had no intention of seeing the doctor again. She had only seen the doctor one time since Mitchell died, though she knew she should be going weekly in the final month. The baby was fine. It moved often enough. At the last visit, the doctor had told her the baby was head down and the heart sounded great. He said that bit about the heart every time. When he had asked her to schedule her c-section, her mother took over. “Estella isn’t quite ready to make those decisions yet,” she explained to the doctor. Mitchell’s mother was there too – to hear the baby’s heart. Between the two mothers, they settled on October 9th for the baby’s birthday. They told the nurse, who wrote the date in Estella’s chart and said she’d call the hospital to make the arrangements.
Estella listened to them plan for the birth while staring at a black and white photograph on the wall of a man with a bare chest holding his newborn. The man had his nose buried in the top of the newborn’s head. They really think I’m having this baby without Mitchell, she thought.
The week before the scheduled c-section, she worked in the kitchen readying Marcus to go to her mother’s. She poured him a bowl of cereal. Powdery crumbs from the bottom of the box topped off the bowl. “I need to go to the store,” she said.
“Mama, you look sick. Are you sick?” She could hear the concern in his tiny voice. Every word that came from Marcus had had the sound of worry behind it since she had spent those few days in bed.
“No baby. I’m just thinking. Eat your cereal so I can take you to Mamaw’s. I got to see the doctor today.”
“Can’t I come? You said I could hear the heart one time. Mamaw said it’s coming out next week.” He knocked his spoon against the sides of his cereal bowl.
“I’m sorry, Mark. I can’t take you this time. I’m too tired.”
“I won’t get to hear it then.”
“Mark, I said I’m too tired. You have to go to Mamaw’s.”
“Daddy would let me go,” he said under his breath.
She grabbed his bowl, dumped his cereal in the sink, and handed him his shoes. “Put those on. I’m leaving now.”
Her mother’s mums were a brilliant orange. Looking at them made her eyes squint and grow heavy. She wanted to lean her seat back and go to sleep. To get away. She patted Marcus on the leg. “Go on and tell Mamaw I am too tired to come in. I should be back by noon.”
Marcus slammed the car door, and kicked gravels up the driveway. She waved to her mom, who stood on the front porch. She shoved the gearshift into reverse and eased her way out of their driveway. It wasn’t long before she was at the mouth of the holler, making the right turn toward home.
Mitchell’s parents weren’t home, so she stopped at the family cemetery that rested on the hill behind their house. She wished Mitchell had a stone. The rock and dirt were all that told anyone her husband laid there. She hiked the hill as if she weren’t pregnant, ignoring the pain it caused in her back. She knelt beside his grave. The dirt mound was packed down and cracking.
“I won’t be home next Wednesday. I’m taking Marcus and going to Johnson City to stay in a hotel.” She took a rock from the mound and made circles in the dirt. “Our mothers have a c-section scheduled for that day. They said it was your Granny’s birthday. They just don’t understand, Mitchell. I can’t have surgery without you there. I can’t let some foreign doctor tie me to a table, treat me like I’m stupid for crying, and cut this baby out. I can’t and I won’t. You’re not here to hold my hand. I can’t trust no hospital with our baby unless you’re there to be with her. You didn’t have to leave me, and I ain’t having this baby without you.” She dried her eyes with her shirttail, then rubbed her hard belly where the baby was still. A hard ache wrapped around the entire mound, then worked its way around her back.
At home, she called a Days Inn in Johnson City. She made reservations for one night. She’d have to come home before the parents were worried enough to call out a search party. Then, she called the doctor’s office to cancel her c-section. “I’ve decided to go with another doctor,” she told the receptionist.
The aches were consistent now, but she didn’t give any thought to them. Everybody got practice pains. She lay down. She remembered planning for Marcus to be born. She’d stay home until she couldn’t stand it anymore. She’d arrive at the hospital and push the baby out without any drugs, like God intended. Like her Mamaw had at home in the fifties with all six of her children. The planning didn’t matter. At the next appointment they told her the baby was too big, and her pelvis was too small. “I can’t even try?” she asked.
“To try would be taking the risk of shoulder dystocia, brain damage, cerebral palsy, and the death of your baby. We don’t recommend it.”
Estella had known, the way a mother knows, that they were wrong. But, she had seen no other option.
She slept a little. She dreamed of water – clean water – Mitchell and Marcus. When she woke it was near noon. Time to pick up Marcus.
The weight pressing in her pelvis made it hard to walk. She had to stop on the front porch steps. She sat down and bent forward, hanging her belly between her legs. The pain left. She rose, made it to the car, and left to get her son.
Estella honked in front of her mother’s house. Marcus came to the porch, but turned and went back into the house. Her mother appeared at the door, then stepped off the porch and came to the car. “What did they say? Are things still good?”
“It’s fine.” Estella laid her head against the headrest and closed her eyes for a second.
“Are you okay? You look a little off, honey.” Her mother reached in and felt her forehead.
“I’m tired, Mama. Really tired. Tell Marcus to get out here. I need to get home.”
“Let me come with you. I’ll get your supper and clean up. You can sit back and relax a little.”
“No, Mama. I’m fine. If I need anything, Marcus will call you.”
“Marcus don’t want to go home. He’s hurt you didn’t take him with you. I already told him he could stay, if you say it’s okay.”
“I wanted him home, Mother.”
“Your dad’s going to take the training wheels off his bike. Maybe take him fishing. Come on in. I’ve got pimento cheese and vegetable soup.”
“I want to go home. I’m tired.” Estella reached up to the rearview mirror and ran her fingers through her graduation tassel that hung there.
“You don’t look good, Stella. I’m a bit worried.”
She put the car in gear. “I’m fine.”
She got herself back into her house and onto the couch. The pains were demanding attention. She couldn’t deny any more that she was in labor, and that it wasn’t going away. The baby was coming.
She couldn’t sit still. She tried to watch television. It was nothing but noise. Estella got up and paced across her living room. When a contraction came she rested her hands on her knees taking deep breaths. She let them take her. She moved through the house becoming the steady rhythm of the pain.
She thought of Mitchell. He had talked her through her c-section. She couldn’t remember much of what he said. She wanted to. She wanted to know every word. The medical personnel had the radio blaring. We built this city on rock-n-roll, rang out into the operating room. She was vaguely aware of someone singing along. There were so many of them it felt like she was in the middle of a party. She cried.
“Why are you crying? It’s your baby’s birthday! You shouldn’t be crying,” the anesthesiologist had said.
She answered him with sobs. Mitchell had placed his hand on her head. He put his face close to hers. “It’s going to be fine, Babe. It’s almost over,” he said. Her eyes didn’t leave his face until she heard Marcus cry and Mitchell jumped up to see his son.
She found her way to the floor of their bedroom. Her elbows rested on the bed, knees in the carpet, as if she were praying. There was an odd pinch in her lower abdomen. A second later, fluid soaked her pants and the floor. She struggled to remove her pants and underwear.
“Where are you, Mitchell!” she screamed. She dug her hands into the carpet by her knees. The pain had changed, and didn’t allow for movement. She felt heavy in her bottom.
“I won’t push it out,” she repeated. Her face was wet with tears and sweat. Her whole body felt wet. “I’m alone,” she said, making a chant of it.
She thought about dying for a second, but realized Marcus would be alone. He couldn’t be left alone. “I can’t anymore, Jesus. It’s too hard.” The heaviness in her bottom grew more intense. Thoughts and words left her. She was overwhelmed and couldn’t fight. She was quiet.
She rose up on her bent knees bracing herself on the nightstand. Her body rocked forward, backward, and side to side. With every pain she moaned. She moaned until it felt like her crotch was on fire, then she screamed. She placed herself against her bed and pulled her legs close to her body. She saw the top of her baby’s head. Her little girl had thick black curls like hers. She touched them with the tips of her fingers.
A pain came and the baby’s head eased out into her shaking hands. With the next pain, she pushed for the first and final time. There was relief when the shoulders presented one after the other. The baby turned and they were face to face. Her pink lips were puckered and her dark slate eyes were opened and round as quarters. Estella gave a little laugh as arms and legs spilled out into her already full arms.
Keep her warm. Mitchell’s t-shirt lay on the bed within arm’s reach. She wrapped her little girl. The baby didn’t cry, but was alive with pink. “Are you going to cry, Michelle?” She tapped the bottoms of her moist feet, and the baby let out a small cry, coughed, then looked back at her with quivering lips. Estella held her closer and pulled the quilt off the bed. She covered them, and helped the baby girl latch to her breast. She held her in silence for a few moments before she realized she was alone. She grabbed the phone from the nightstand. When her mother answered, Estella said, “Mama, I need a bit of help as soon as you can.”