The death of a baby

But the story that haunted them most was that of the lost child. Jessie would remember it all her life, telling it again and again to her children and grandchildren, and to me. . . .

Born one month into the voyage, the baby was now some three months old and rarely stopped screaming with colic. He would fight the breast, gulping only a few swallows of milk before arching his back in rage, vomiting it up and howling for more. The little cabin could hardly contain the family, which included three older children as well as the screamer. Sometimes the mother shook him in exasperation, yelling that if he didn’t be quiet she would throw him out the porthole.

Her body was a mass of bruises from being buffeted against the walls, bunks and handrails. She had slipped many times on the wet deck, lying sprawled in the icy sea-foam then dragging herself back to the cabin, wet and freezing. For the past ten days, the ship had been bucketing east across the Southern Ocean in the tearing gales of those latitudes. In another week, the seamen told her, they would tack north towards the western coast of a land so alien and distant that it was known in Gaelic as ‘the country back of the sun’.

When the baby grew quiet from exhaustion, the mother laid him on the bunk under a blanket. She looked down at him with love and pity, at the dark smudges under his eyes, the snuffles and sobs that shook his body even in sleep. She hated herself for her bad temper. Cautioning the other children, she stepped outside to calm herself, perhaps to find her husband, or scrounge a little porridge for the others.

She returned to an unnatural stillness. She thought for a moment that one of the other women on the ship had taken the baby to give her a spell. But her three older children were smug, self-satisfied. ‘He cried again,’ they told her. ‘So we put him out the porthole.’

They had struggled to shove and twist him through the tiny hole, and he fought them. But at last he was out, spinning in the gale, where he was whirled into the mountainous seas behind the ship. He had wallowed for a moment or two, buoyed up by his clothes, then sank.

Impossible to imagine, that mother’s reaction. Her screaming must have shaken the very bones of the ship. Perhaps they tied her up so she could not harm herself, or the children. But then the Gaels had great reserves of stoicism. Their fatalism can easily be taken for passivity, but it was in truth a strength. Cover thy wound, fold down/Its curtained place, wrote the poet Mary Gilmore, herself a descendant of the Highlanders. Silence is still a crown,/Courage a grace. Perhaps the mother simply turned her face to the wall, pulled the blanket over her head to hide the tears, and rose later to go about her work. This is, I know, what Jessie herself would have done.

Shirley Walker, The Ghost At The Wedding (from here) 

 

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