The Circle of Light
by Ann Hite
It was the twenty-second of June, a Saturday night. One of the Brown Twins-she wasn't sure if it was Bob or Andy-ran up the path to her house. She was in bed with her book when she heard the beat of his bare feet on the path outside. "Miss Tuggle, Mama's finally having that baby. Can you come?" He stood on the front porch.
"I'll be right behind you. Which one are you?"
She gathered her bag, checking inside for the essentials: clean scissors, a variety of herbs and powders for pain, a needle and thread, and a hook tool, in the case the baby didn't make it and needed to be removed. She filled her lamp with oil. The Brown farm was just one farm over, a thirty-minute walk across the field.
Maude Tuggle walked out every morning to the view from high on top of Black Mountain, gazing into one of the most beautiful valleys, or so thought Maude. Her cabin, made from oak logs Granddaddy cleared himself, stood near a twisted apple tree, which provided her with pinkish red apples at the end of every June, keeping her in jam and apple butter. Most mornings she tended her lush herb garden filled with the medicinal plants. Whooping cough worried her the most. Grown people coughed so hard they turned black and passed out. Babies and old people sometimes died in a matter of hours. Maude had cooked up syrup with honey and red clover. It helped ease the coughing, but it wasn't a cure. Not even the book doctors could find a cure for that one. All the Tuggle women had been granny women, beginning with Maude's great grandmother, who learned the skills from a Cherokee Indian. So, it just seemed natural for Maude to follow in these footsteps. After all, she never married and chances were she never would. There were lots to keep her busy so living alone fit her like a nice loose dress.
Now, she followed Andy, the lantern provided a circle of light around her while the stars shone in the sky. Carlton's headstone loomed in the half-light. Her lantern light reflected the words she had hand carved so many years earlier.
"You know Carlton," she whispered into the dark night. "Lately, I've been thinking we probably wouldn't have even liked each other much after a year. You were from a rich family, or so you said. I never could find none of them. But, the baby is another thing. I will love him the rest of my life. He's thirty today, a grown man. And, where am I? Still here watching your grave, waiting to see if he ever shows. What will I do if he does? I really ought to move away from here. See some of the world before I spend another thirty years mourning you." She looked into the sky.
"I don't want to deliver babies anymore. I don't want to watch anymore people die from some disease that I can't help them with."
She knew most folks looked at her and saw a useful woman. Not in a million years did they figure she had a secret so big it would have ruined her life on Black Mountain. Only one soul on the mountain had known, and Mama took it to her grave. It was so long ago that Maude just stopped thinking on it. But, every year, in early summer, when the Black-eyed Susans bloomed, she allowed a catch to grab her heart. His memory walked the field just like the day he walked into her life wearing his town suit. His eyes were green and his hair the color of Georgia clay. His name was Carlton Parker, from the Asheville Parkers, or so he said. When it was all said and done, Maude tried to find his family, but not one Parker would claim him to a mountain girl with love in her eyes. So, Mama and her buried him under the big oak tree next to Daddy. Fever just ate him up from the inside out. He died before Maude could make things right and marry him, but not before she carried his baby. The baby kept her alive too, because she wanted to die too. Mama knew more about delivering babies than most doctors. Maude never blamed Mama for the plans she made. If the good Christian folks of Black Mountain found out the terrible secret, Mama would have lost her standing in the community and the Baptist Church. But, the morning that soft baby boy was ripped from Maude's arms and given to a missionary from Ashville, who took him to the state of Maine, Maude doubted God even existed. She held out one last hope he would stop the separation with his power. The baby was gone. A lifetime went by in the blink of an eye and reduced the whole story to a memory. That week She thought of leaving Black Mountain, leaving the care of the community to another. She was forty-six and tired. A tension rode the air like an electric charge. Bowls of multi colored roses, from her rose bushes, sat around the cabin, peach, red, pink, and yellow, as if they would sooth her wild thoughts. Each night she ate a cold supper of cheese and bread. In bed, she read by her oil lamp.
As the not sun rode the sky, Maude lay on the bed without her clothes, drifting into a deep dreamless sleep. The baby had come at sunrise and she was worn out. It was a week in early summer 1939. Maude spent most of the daytime hours inside the cabin trying to stay cool. It felt like late August, dragging on and on without water and relief. Some of the worse sickness came in hot weather. She awoke around sunset to the sound of a knock on her door. Not another baby. She pulled on an old dress. A man, his back turned, gazed at the valley. His red hair and town clothes made her suck in her breath.
The man turned around when the floorboard creaked under Maude's step. She recognized his square jaw and handsome face. He held out his hand.
"My name is William Green. Mrs. Conner told me I should see you concerning the community's health care." A smile spread across his face.
"Excuse me for staring, but she called you a Granny Woman. I expected an old lady."
Maude's hand tingled when she touched the young man's fingers. His long eyelashes made her think of a cool fall day with shadows stretching across the yard. His eyes were a dull blue like her mama's.
"Granny Woman is a midwife and such."
"So, you're the doctor?"
"Now that's a fancy town term. No, I'm just a Granny Woman. We do a lot more than a town doctor." The edge to her words came out clipped.
"What do you do that town doctor doesn't?"
"I make my patients comfortable. I live with my patients. I go to church with them. I grew up with most of them. They're my family. Their kids are my kids." Now this thought surprised her. "Why, Mr. Green, are you bothering me at supper time after an all night delivery?" His laughter vibrated the glass. "I'm sorry. I just jump right into my subject without explaining myself. Will you let me start again?"
"I have to eat." She stepped back from the door.
"I don't want to intrude." He stepped in the door.
"It seems to me, Mr. Green, you intended to intrude. What do you want on Black Mountain?" "I wish all the folks on this mountain were as straight forward as you." He formed his words with a different sound than mountain folks.
"Where you from?" She motioned him to follow.
"I spent most of my life in Maine."
"You'll find we're honest, but we like our own."
In the kitchen, she took smoked ham from the pie cupboard, along with some biscuits. "I'm not heating that old stove. It's too hot." He sat at the oak table, and picked up Mama's old recipe books. It held remedies of all kinds. "If the pain becomes too much, place a knife or an ax under the bed. This should help cut the pain. If that don't work, give them the powder." He looked up. "What kind of powder?"
She sliced strawberries. "What do you want, here?"
"What do you do about operations?"
"You're just full of questions. You think I'm going to tell you my secrets?" She laughed but again surprised herself with the passion of her answer. "Here's some tea. I brew it myself."
Maude placed dinner plates on the table along with the food. Mr. Green fixed himself two biscuits with a large piece of ham in each. His hands made her think of Daddy's. "I'm glad you like the food." She poured the tea, added mint, and placed the canning jars on the table.
He chewed thoughtfully. "This is good."
Maude sat down at the table. "So, answer my question. What are you doing up here?"
"I'm here to study your ways."
"We're a people that sticks together, Mr. Green. One day we'll be a dying community. You can see it in the eyes of the kids. They want to go down the mountain so bad they can taste it. Folks that go down don't come back up for long. We lose them." She looked at William Green. He looked up from his food. "I think I could make a difference if you just work with me."
She saw Mama's look of determination written in his wrinkled forehead, and she laughed with her joy. "You want to work with me. You'd be bored in the first week. You know too much, young man."
"I'm a doctor. I went to Harvard. I'm good at what I do." "A doctor from Harvard belongs in a city, helping city folk, not trying to make up for some mistake he never made." "You see, Miss Tuggle, my parents told me the truth when I was fourteen. How I was born here and spent a whole day in the arms of my birth mother. She loved me but couldn't keep me. She gave me a chance. I want to thank her." She liked the term birth mother, giving her credit for her work. "Your birth Mama has everything she's ever needed. Your mama and daddy is down that mountain. They love you. They know you. What your favorite color is, your best dessert. That's a family son. Take that knowledge and do with it what you should. I know your mama don't want you up here on this old mountain." A knock on the door interrupted her. "Let me see who this is." Markus Bibb stood on the porch. "It's the missus. It's her time." He looked at Mr. Green. "I see he found you."
"He's headed home to his family."
Markus nodded. "Want a ride in the wagon?"
She almost agreed, but she wanted to walk. "No. I'm going to say goodbye to my guest.. I'll be right behind you." She turned to face Mr. Green.
"I know you're my birth mother. My mama told me."
A crack formed in her heart. "She honored you by telling the truth. Go home to her."
"I'm a grown man of thirty."
"That you are. And, a fine man."
The next morning she crossed the field in the dawn. A shadow stood by Carlton's grave. When she came near it disappeared. "I seen him yesterday. He has your hair. Mama's eyes." She waited in the half-light. "I wish I could have kept him. I loved him just like that day."
She looked at the grave through tears. "I love you, too."
Maude never saw him again, but things were different in her mind, smoother, gentle like motionless water.
Ann: My short story, Gabriel's Horn, appeared in the January issue of The Dead Mule, a small southern literary magazine in business since 1995; Appaloosa Wind appeared on December 24, 2003 as the featured story in The Fiction Warehouse, a small literary magazine out of California; Shelter Belt will appear in the March/April issue of Skyline Magazine, an up and coming literary magazine-it's an actual glossy that makes money-out of New York; Perfect Christmas appeared in the December 20, 2003 issue of Saucyvox, a small Canadian literary magazine. Borrowed Time will be published in February issue of Poor MoJo Almanac, a small literary magazine out of California. Mister Snake Gets Religion will appear in the April issue of Cold Glass. I am the Fiction Editor for Quintessence, a new literary magazine. I studied creative writing under Jane Hill, author and former Senior Editor of Longstreet Press and Atlanta author, Emily Ellison. My writing has appeared in case history form with BP Oil, where I am a technical writer. firstname.lastname@example.org