I could tell that David had slept with her again last night. I tucked the sheets around her mattress and smoothed it until there wasn’t a single fold or wrinkle. The heavy blue quilt tugged against my efforts to get it up to the headboard. After I arranged the pillows, I folded the gray afghan and placed it on the end of the bed. I had crocheted it last winter and I thought it turned out really nice. As I picked up a pair of her nylons that lay in a heap at the bottom of the bed, a black lace bra came up with them like a water snake caught in a fish net. Seized by a sudden heat and a lump that grew heavier in my belly, I closed my eyes swallowed hard. It wasn’t even Beth’s night with him. I carefully unhooked the bra from the nylons leaving a tiny hole. I ran my fingers across the sheer nylons, smoothing the hole until it was nearly invisible and draped them over the rocking chair. David’s socks were in two black wads that had rolled across the room. I bent over and picked them up, shaking them hard, before tucking them together leaving them next to Beth’s nylons.
Water sloshing from the bathroom told me that Beth was climbing out of the tub. I glanced at the crib in the corner by the window. Eva was still sleeping. She had a thumb in her open mouth and it hung across her fat bottom lip. Her body was curled up like a dry leaf and her pale yellow pajamas were so small that her big toe had broken the seam and protruded in a pink bulge. I walked toward the crib and stood with one hand hovering over her black hair, the tiny folds of her ear, the whisper of her dark eyelashes. I tentatively touched her white round cheek and was surprised to find it cool. I reached out and felt her fist. Cold. I ran my hand along her back. She was freezing. Without thinking I pulled the gray afghan off of the bed and tucked it around the sleeping baby, adjusting it so that it covered her whole body and even around the back of her head. Just at that moment Eva squirmed and without waking, she grabbed a fistful of the afghan and pulled it up towards her chin, a hum escaping her lips before she was silent again. I was about to leave the room when the bathroom door opened and a plume of steam followed Beth as she entered the bedroom. She was wearing a thin, white satin robe that was barely tied at the waist creating a plunging neckline that revealed her breastbone and part of her abdomen. She sat down on the edge of the bed and lifted a bare leg, propping her foot on the arm of the rocking chair. The round curve of one breast was visible as she bent forward, rubbing her hands up and down the inverted V of her leg.
“You forgot to open the blinds,” she said, not quietly.
“Oh right, of course.” I looked over at Eva. She didn’t stir. Beth was rubbing lotion all over her legs, her manicured toenails painted with a clear polish. Her blonde hair was wet and had been brushed back from her face. I opened the blinds and tried not to look at her long, smooth legs, her pale skin so pristine it was as if it was made of silk and fitted to her body without a single seam. I was suddenly ashamed of my bony hands, cracked and dry, the pilled brown skirt that covered my legs and the old shoes that I had tried to repair myself with a heavy needle and brown thread. I rubbed both hands on my floral apron, feeling for the patch pockets I had sewn onto the front of it.
“If you don’t need anything else, I have to start breakfast.”
Beth looked up at me, her brows furrowed. She was looking at something in my hair.
“What’s wrong? I asked. “Is a hairpin showing?” I touched my hair lightly.
“No, I was just noticing how much your hair has grayed.”
I had found both pockets and was fingering the wadded up tissue inside.
“I guess that’s what happens when you get older,” I said, forcing a smile.
“I don’t need anything else.” she added before looking away.
We had all finally moved in together. One house, one family, one husband. It was something we had been working toward for years. Four wives, four corners of the house, west, east, north and south. I walked through the house waking up the kids in each of the six bedrooms, turning on lights and pulling blankets off warm bodies. I left each room to the sounds of sleepy groans and the squeak of springs on bunk beds. When I arrived at the kitchen Rose was just entering the house, the screen door slamming behind her. She was carrying two metal buckets of warm milk, one in each hand, her pregnant belly showing underneath her heavy coat.
“Here,” I said, reaching toward her, “let me help you.” I hauled one bucket of milk to the counter and she heaved the other one next to it.
“I am getting too old for this,” she said catching her hip as she hung the coat on the hook behind the door. I noticed a thin string of gray hair that threaded its way into the long red braid that hung to her waist. I felt oddly comforted by Rose, in a way I hadn’t felt toward her before.
“Why don’t you sit down and rest while I start breakfast.”
Rose didn’t resist but pulled out the end of the long bench that was tucked under one of the long tables covered in a plastic tablecloth and plunked herself down onto it. I pulled out a dented twenty-quart pot and filled it half full of water and reached into the salt tin and sprinkled a little salt. The sound of Donna’s square heels startled me and I turned around to see her already dressed and ready for work. She was a secretary for a dentist’s office. She wore a white blouse and maternity jumper that showed just the new curve of her growing belly. She filled up a glass of water and swallowed two pills. I turned back to the stove and put a lid on the water that was just beginning to boil.
“Where is David?” Rose asked, standing up and gathering two big handfuls of spoons and arranging them on the table.
“He didn’t stay with me last night,” Donna said licking her lips and placing the empty glass next to the sink. Rose was carrying a tower of plastic bowls to the table. She set them down and leaned heavily on the counter.
“It was your turn wasn’t it?” she asked.
Donna rolled her eyes. “Since when did that matter?” she said, putting her arm in the sleeve of her long camel brown coat and buttoning the big brown buttons around her belly. “I heard his car start around five-thirty this morning. That’s all I know.” She grabbed the keys from the small plate next to the screen door. “I will have the car all day. Call me if you need it for something and I will see what I can do,” Donna said, to the sound of the screen door banging shut.
By the time breakfast was over, the house was in its usual morning commotion. The five big girls began gathering dishes and filling up the sinks with hot water. The eight older boys followed Rose outside where she had them cleaning sheds and feeding the animals. The little girls in their long wet braids hurried away from kitchen table, to play outside with the boys, who were already on the broken tractor like a troupe of circus monkeys. The little ones wandered the house, toddling from room to room until I sent one of the big girls to gather them up. I thought of Eva again. Had she woken up yet? It seemed awfully late in the morning for her to still be sleeping. Just then Beth came down the stairs. She was wearing a fitted yellow dress with a shiny black belt and matching flats. Her hair was combed up and a pile of blonde curls rested a top her head. She was buttoning the cuff of her left sleeve when she looked up. I was staring at her.
“What are you looking at?” she said roughly.
“Nothing . . .I mean, you look nice.”
Beth slipped on an ivory pea coat and picked up her leather purse.
“The baby is awake, she needs to be bathed and fed.” she said without looking up. “She stinks.”
“Of course, I will go right up,” I said, trying not to look too eager.
“By the way, who put that blanket in her bed? It’s ugly as sin,” she said digging through her purse and pulling out some lip balm. She looked at her reflection in the living room mirror and applied the lip balm as though it was bright red lipstick. She turned back to me.
“Where are the keys to the car?” she asked.
“Donna went to work this morning,” I said.
Her brow furrowed instantly and her face grew dark. “I am meeting David for lunch and I need the car.” She huffed toward the telephone in the hallway to call David.
I hurried upstairs and found Eva crying in her bed, the gray afghan thrown onto the floor. She stopped crying the instant she saw me and stretched out her arms to be picked up. I gathered her up, her wet pajamas were cold against my arm. She sat on the floor of the bathroom while I ran the tub full of warm water. I removed her wet clothes and diaper. After testing the temperature with my elbow I placed her in the tub. She cooed and splashed, gasping when the water got in her face. I hummed a little song while I lathered her up with soap and washed her body and her dark hair. When it was time to rinse her hair, I laid her over my arm and submerged her head into the water to rinse the soap away. She looked up at me, her body suddenly so still, her arms floating out away from her sides and her tiny feet bobbing silently like two toys. I stopped and held her steady, her dark eyes wet and needy, the steam dampening my skin. And then she smiled, broad and open, her small red mouth boasting two little white teeth. I broke into laughter and at that moment she kicked her feet, splashing the soapy water onto the front of my apron. I pulled her out of the tub, wrapped her in a towel and carried her to the bedroom on my shoulder, her wet hair dripping onto my sleeve.
Eva went back down for a nap at two and I was cleaning up the kitchen from lunch when I looked out the window. Rose was on the barn roof, her dress blowing in the wind, her pregnant belly rubbing along the shingles while she hammered angrily, three black framing nails protruding from her pursed mouth. David had been promising to fix the roof for months. I folded the towel I had been using to dry the dishes and opened up the screen door.
“Do you need any help getting down from there?” I called out to Rose. She looked up at me from all fours, her expression a determined scowl.
“I am not getting down until this roof is fixed.”
I went back into the house and closed the screen door. I couldn’t help but stand there and watch Rose with awe. I turned back to the kitchen and wondered if Eva would wake up soon.
That night, after cleaning up the dinner dishes I sat down in the brown armchair in the living room. I pulled the small basket of mending from next to the chair and settled on a plaid shirt of David’s that was missing three buttons. I threaded the needle and found the first blank space on the shirt placket and began moving the button into place with one hand and feeling the needle from underneath with the other. I heard a voice and David appeared in the doorway. He watched me for a moment pulling the dark thread up through the hole and then back down again. I knew my hands would not fail me.
“You okay?” David asked, walking in and sitting on the couch opposite me, the lines in his long face and angular chin were like permanent shadows.
I didn’t respond but continued to pull the needle in and through and back out again, always feeling for the prick underneath with my other hand, tightening the thread over the button, securing it in place.
“I know you are having a hard time,” he said reaching toward me. “It’s understandable; anyone in your place would be upset.”
I folded the shirt over the needle and placed it on the armrest of the chair.
“But remember what the doctor told Beth,” he continued. “This has been really hard on her, too.” He put his hand over my kneecap and squeezed, his gray eyes softening. “It was the right thing to do.” At the sound of those words my eyes welled up, blurring my vision.
“It feels like the most wrong thing I have ever done in my life,” I said quietly, wiping my eyes with the wadded tissue that was still in my pocket from this morning. There was a short uncomfortable silence and I rubbed the tissue between my dry fingers. David ran a hand over his dark thinning hair. He sat forward on the edge of the couch and spoke.
“That is what the devil wants you to think. That’s how you know it is the right thing to do, if the devil tries to make you believe it’s wrong.” David was leaning toward me, his dark suit coat pulling at his shoulders. I could see the roundness of his stomach straining against his white shirt that was fraying along the front. His eyes showed concern and he kept one hand on my knee. I took a deep breath and looked up at him, ready to tell him the truth, that I couldn’t do it another day. It was tearing me up inside. But instead of speaking, my mouth twisted tight and I nodded.
“You have been a good wife,” he said patting my leg and standing up. “God sees your sacrifice and you will be blessed for it.” I looked away, reaching for the shirt with the needle and thread hidden inside of the folds, to finish the job.
“She will be alright,” he added placing a hand on my shoulder. I gave him a slight nod. “Remember, she was never your baby in the first place,” he said. “She was given to me and I did what I thought was best.”
Later that night I stood outside Beth’s bedroom door in my nightgown, my hands balled up into fists at my sides. Eva was crying. It was a tired cry. She just needed to have someone rub her back while she settled down. I could hear the sounds of Beth pacing the room, her voice trying to calm the baby. Finally, after a few moments, I knocked on the door and slowly opened it up. The lamp was turned on, illuminating a small corner of the otherwise dark room. Beth was holding Eva who was arching her back and crying. When Eva saw me she reached out with both arms for me and wailed even louder. Beth’s face grew dark.
“Do you need a break?” I asked trying not to sound too eager. “I can take her for a while if you need me to.”
“I am fine. She needs to learn to go to sleep when I want her to. And you can mind your damn business,” Beth said in a flush of anger, still bouncing the baby.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to interfere.”
“By the way,” she said, bending down to pick up the gray afghan. “Keep your ugly things out of my room.” She threw the gray afghan in my face, the force of it startled me and I took a step backward.
I walked down the darkened hallway to my own bedroom and closed the door against the continued sound of Eva’s cries. I carefully folded and smoothed the gray afghan and placed it neatly in the empty crib.