All the Things You Could Be
Her son is born on the side of the hill, just before sunrise.
When the pains began, the night before, she had climbed over her sisters in the trundle bed, stepped over the boys sleeping in their pallets on the floor, and padded across the hall to stand at her mother’s side of the bed in the dark, the way she used to do when she was a sick child. She had touched her mother’s shoulder, and watched as her eyes flew open at once. Saying nothing, her mother had gotten out from under her father’s arm and laid it tenderly across his chest. Together they had gone downstairs, and put on their coats and shoes.
While she had paced the kitchen, trying to be quiet, her mother had lit the stove and boiled a pot of water, then poured it into two heavy jars, which she sealed tightly and wrapped in rags. She tucked these into a large basket with several blankets and towels, needles and thread, and her sharpest pair of scissors, the ones she used for dressmaking. Then, she had opened the door into the cool autumn night.
They left the basket by the front door and walked in circles around the clapboard house and the barn, guided only by moonlight. People and animals alike slept, unknowing, inside. When the pain was too bad she stopped and bent double, groaning, and her mother rubbed her back and murmured gentle words to her, as though she were a nervous horse. Finally, when the pains were coming very close together, and getting worse, her mother ran into the house to light a lantern. Then she retrieved the basket and led her away from the house, out of the farmyard, past the garden. She had made it out to the hillside of the grazing field before she collapsed into the damp grass. Since her mother needed to see what was happening between her legs, it was with her back braced against a fencepost that she pushed her son into the world.
Now she lies there sweating and trembling, watching as the shadow of her mother uses her good scissors to cut the cord that ties her son to her body. She is no longer screaming through the wad of cloth she had stuffed into her mouth to muffle the noise, but her face is still slick with all the tears she’d cried, and the grass beneath her is soaked through with blood and sweat. She understands why her mother wanted to get her away from the house.
The world around her is turning light blue, and she closes her eyes for a moment. Do you ever wonder, the young schoolteacher asked her once, about all the things you could be? She hadn’t answered, because she’d had no idea what he meant, and thought of it often afterwards. It comes to her again, now, while she tries to catch her breath.
Her eyes open again. Perhaps she had fallen asleep for a moment; she does not remember her mother pulling her skirt back down over her legs, covering her with a blanket. The sky is now streaked with gold as her mother cleans the baby, wiping the red and purple mess from his skin with a clean towel. He cries in short little wails, his fists held close against his tiny, screwed-up face. There is some hair pressed wetly to the back of his head. She cannot tell the color yet, in this milky light of the early morning. She wonders what his eyes will look like, when they open.
The young schoolteacher with the kind eyes had told her of his loneliness, how much he missed his family back in Philadelphia. He had never been so far from home before, and he says his family hardly ever writes to him; his friends from the university not at all. He has a little room of his own in the rectory, and while he says that the pastor and his wife are kind, he has no real friends here, no one to talk to or confide in. She, who is so rarely alone, could not understand, but she could nod and smile softly. Sympathize.
Her father had said that, at nearly sixteen, she was too old to go to school for the first time, but her mother had insisted. There had not been a schoolteacher before, and there was one now. It was as simple as that.
She had been amazed by his youth, on that first day she went to the little schoolhouse, knowing not much more than her alphabet. She had expected a grandfather with whiskers, not the tall young stranger with dark curls and smooth cheeks that she had seen at church the day before. She was dazzled by the schoolteacher’s fine, spidery handwriting on the blackboard, and the shining buttons on his coat. She liked to rush through her chores and come to school early, ahead of her younger siblings and the others, to have him help practice her sums and explain words she did not understand. He was patient, and he did not make her feel ignorant. She liked to watch his long, shapely fingers as he wrote. It was on those early mornings, before the other students came, that he had told her of his loneliness, his longing for his home and for friendly faces. One day, when he had been near tears because his family had not sent train fare, and he could not go home for Thanksgiving, she had dared to lay her hand on the fine fabric of his trembling shoulder. He had not pulled away.
On the last day of school before Christmas, he had asked her to stay behind to help tidy the classroom. While the other children filed out and went home, she took her time stacking the worn books on his desk, wiping the blackboard in straight, sure lines. She clapped the dust from her hands when she had finished. Then the schoolteacher had taken her face in his hands, which were softer than she had expected a man’s hands could be. And when he pressed his mouth to hers, it had felt like the answer to a question she had not known she needed an answer to.
Afterward, he was apologetic. He asked if he had hurt her. He hadn’t, and she told him so, and he had seemed relieved. Then he had kissed her forehead, and told her to go home.
“My god, this is such a cliché,” he had said quietly, as he helped her lace up her dress. She did not know what the word meant, but she had not asked.
It had not happened again, though he had continued to help her on the mornings when she came early, and he was still kind to her. Her younger siblings reported that when she had stopped coming to school, he had asked after her, tried to send home books for her to read. They were instructed to tell him only that she was needed at home.
She has been forbidden by their father to go anywhere, including church, since she began to show. Her parents had told concerned neighbors that she was ill. What she will do now that her son is here, she doesn’t know. Nor does she know what her father will say, when she and her mother return to the house with a permanent reminder of her disgrace.
Her mother must know that it was the schoolteacher, and she thinks that her father knows it, too. But with her lips shut so firmly there is nothing he can do about it. There are other boys and young men from neighboring farms to suspect, after all. If only it were one of those farm boys; her father would have insisted that they marry, the easiest solution. But she does not want to burden the young, homesick teacher, who was only ever kind to her, and will likely return home before long. And in any case, she would not know the first thing about how to be a schoolteacher’s wife, or how to live in a city. She knows only earth, vegetables, animals, and her letters and sums. He talks of steam engines and horse-drawn trolley cars, bustling streets and restaurants, theaters lit with gas lamps. She knows only the ten square miles of Pennsylvania countryside around her home.
Despite her disappointment in herself, the moments of red-hot shame, she alone knows who her child’s father is, and it pleases her to have something that no one else can know. In a small clapboard farmhouse, with six children and only two bedrooms, there are very few secrets to be had. Her father’s broken heart, and the shame that will come to her family when word gets out: this is the price she pays for having just one thing that she can keep to herself. For these past months she has tended it like a little flame, feeding it with her precious memories of the schoolteacher. Felt it pulsing and glowing deep inside her, somewhere over the growing curve of her belly.
Beside her, her mother takes up the swaddled infant, turns him outward in her arms. His eyes must be open. Beneath them, the valley spreads out in every direction, the fields of her family’s farm and the others around it eventually giving way to dark patches of trees. The sky overhead is now turning the palest blue, but its edges are still a tender pink. The grass of the pasture sparkles wetly in the first rays of sunlight that have broken over the hills and trees. Near the silver ribbon of the river, the steeple of the church she has not been to in months draws her eye down to the rectory, where the schoolteacher surely still sleeps. No bells; it must not be Sunday. But the cows, now that the noise has stopped, are drifting back uphill, toward them, the bells around their necks a different kind of call to prayer.
“This is your world,” her mother says to the infant, looking out at the valley, then back to him. “And it is up to you, what you will make of yourself in it.”
All the things you could be, the new, young mother thinks. And from where she still lies against the fencepost, in the wet grass, she begins to cry anew, for what she is now, what she could have been, and what she will never be again.
Aidan Derrico earned a BA in English from Elizabethtown College in 2010. She divides her time between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. Reading and writing for as long as she's been able, this is her first creative publication.