Tears for my Baby
Tears for my Baby; A Northwood’s Tale (PG)
Except for her walks, Milly hadn’t left the house in over a year. She didn’t care to go to town just to run into someone who might ask a bunch of questions about where she had been. Thank God for that neighbor kid who picked up her groceries. He wasn’t really a kid. He had to be in his forties, she guessed. The only other people she talked to was Ralph and Mr. Miltsen, but they were rarely around.
Every moment of Milly’s life was spent mulling over the past. Specifically, that one day. She slumped down into her old green rocker, and began to rock slowly. It had been so long ago, but it stuck in her head like it was the only thing she could remember. Some days it felt so real, it got her to thinking that if she rushed out there right now and dug her up, perhaps there was more she could do. . . Oh God. . . to bring her dear. . . Oh my dear God. . . to bring her dear, poor Kasandra back to life. My baby, she murmured. My poor baby.
Over and over she repeated it. And as the tears came, she cradled her arms across her bosom as if she were rocking a baby.
She had cried every day since. She had married and buried a husband since then, and had cried every day. He never knew. Not for one second did he ever know. She raised two boys with him. They never knew. They were gone now. Both of them moved out of state. They didn’t like how crazy Momma had gotten since Daddy died; although his dying had nothing to do with nothing.
Had she tried hard enough to resuscitate the baby? Was there more she could have done? She had only been a poor child herself, practically.
She had immediately decided to move out of town when she found out she was pregnant. She was two months along at her graduation from high school. She told everyone a big lie about moving to the east coast to experience life before she settled down. Just for a year, she had told them. Then she’d come back and go to college. Of course, her dad was furious about it, but before she left, he shoved a thousand dollars in her satchel, which was a huge sum of money in those days. He told her to put it right in the bank when she decided on a place to stay, and he also told her not to be afraid to come back home if things didn’t turn out as planned. He also promised to help put her through college. Yeah, he said all those things, not knowing she was pregnant. She never did go home to face him.
She never went to the east coast either. Never intended to. She took a bus north out of Minneapolis instead, kept going north until she didn’t recognize any names in the payphone telephone books. Almost to Canada, but not quite. Then she paid cash for a tiny cabin, on a small lake, on a dead-end road. In those days, it went for $600. It was remote but only two miles from town. Within walking distance, but remote enough that people would mind their own business.
Things got a little tougher when winter rolled around. She considered herself wise by comparison to other girls her age. She had pre-stocked the wooden shelves in the cabin for her and the baby. It included plenty of baby food, diapers, canned goods for herself, and dried meats. A young man who drove grader for the county and waved every time he went by, had dropped off two cords of wood, though it wasn’t her intention to burn wood unless she absolutely had to. There was a propane stove she hoped would keep the small cabin warm enough.
The baby was born the third of January. She had a little help from the widow who lived up the lane. That woman, like her, kept to herself much of the time. But she stopped occasionally to see how Milly was getting along. She helped to bring baby Kasandra into the world.
Kasandra was a good baby, and made good company, too. Always seemed to have a smile when Milly needed it most. She suckled well, and managed to keep herself occupied during the times Milly had to go outside to shovel snow. One day, it had taken a full hour to clean up from the doorway to the privy. Milly didn’t care much for the privy, but that was all she had.
Milly recalled the early thaw they had that March. The sun coming in through the porch windows brightened the inside of the cabin and warmed it almost above her comfort level. She sat in a rocker with Kasandra in her lap, a very light blanket covering them. They must have rocked for a full hour; content with living in the moment for as long as it would last. Life seemed so good. So simple, and pleasant. Milly sung in a whisper an old lullaby she remembered as a child. It was about a lamb, sunshine, and Jesus. And Kasandra slept so quietly and so soundly, Milly could barely see the little flaps of her nose moving as she breathed in and out.
And then a cold snap. The temperatures dropped to well below zero, and lasted for days and days. Milly had resorted to using the wood stove in addition to the propane heater because the heater alone was just not enough. Someone had dropped off a sack of groceries the other day with fresh baked biscuits, cans of beans, boxes of noodles and some baby food. She knew it was from the widow. It must have been some time before she noticed the bag outside her door for the biscuits and other items were almost frozen straight through. Or, it really was that cold.
That next night, it began to snow. The temperatures let up a little, but it snowed and snowed. Baby Kasandra had come down with the sniffles; God knows where she picked that up because they didn’t go anywhere to catch these germs. The only carrier of sickness she could think of was the sack of groceries. How ironic, she thought, a simple and kind act to be transformed into the deliverance of a cruel and inconspicuous illness.
It really wasn’t the old woman’s fault. Or was it?
Perhaps she should have known better. Maybe there had been almost an epidemic of colds, flu, and other sicknesses in town, and she thought nothing of dropping off the whole works in a sack at her door step to be absorbed by her vulnerable and helpless baby. That stupid old woman. Damn her!
No, it couldn’t all be blamed on the old woman, Milly reasoned in her mind. Much of it was probably her fault. She should have gotten Kasandra to a hospital after she took a turn for the worse. But the illness moved inside poor little Kasandra so fast. And Milly didn’t want to leave her alone, even for a second, to go out and shovel a path to the road. That would’ve taken hours. Kasandra could not have been left alone that long. And most of all, she really thought she could take care of her. She thought faith, motherly love, and an attention to all her tiny needs would be enough.
And maybe it should have been.
Sometime in the middle of the next night, the propane stove stopped working. She didn’t know what happened to it. The pilot light blew out, the damn gas was all used up, or the heavy snows had plugged up the stove pipe. Who knows? All Milly did know was it was dark, it was cold, and the baby was crying. The baby crying actually woke her, but it had taken some time to wake her, she figured, because the little dear’s nose was so stuffed that she couldn’t cry with the volume that she normally would.
Milly jumped out of bed and went straight for the baby. They did have electricity, and a small nightlight lit her way to the crib—not necessarily needed as the crib was close to the bed and the trip made so many times over the past couple months, she could have done all the movements in complete darkness.
Milly laid Kasandra under the blankets in the warmth where she had been asleep. The down cover would keep the heat in for some time, hopefully long enough for Milly to get a fire started. There were only two pieces of birch left in the wood box, and she frowned at that. She had thought about bringing more in, she remembered thinking it, but again, she hadn’t wanted to leave Kasandra’s side, and never expected something like this to happen.
White snowflakes eased downward out of the dark sky as she peered out the partially open door. The wood pile must have had two feet of snow on it. She spat in its direction, disgusted. Then she closed the door while she put her boots and heavy flannel coat on. Of course, the wood was too damp to get started. The two quarters of birch burned up, but the two chunks of ash she laid on top of them, just smoked the room up.
Finally, she gave up and went to the bed where Kasandra lay, still crying. She tried to feed her, but the poor child just couldn’t take anything in with her sinuses being all messed up. She did quiet down after a while. Milly drifted in and out of sleep multiple times throughout the night before a dim light peeped through the east window.
Milly knew something wasn’t right immediately upon waking. First off, it was light inside the cabin. It was always dark those days when Kasandra woke for her early breakfast. And secondly, the little bundle upon her chest was as hot as the coals should have been in the wood burner. She jumped out of bed, holding Kasandra in front of her and screaming her name. There was no reaction from Kasandra. She grabbed a handful of snow from outside and dabbed it against her little face and forehead to shock her awake. Nothing. She slapped her hind end. Still nothing. She checked for breathing, but Kasandra was so small she could not tell if she were breathing or not.
But of course she must still be breathing, she thought, if she had such a temperature. Milly slipped on her boots and jacket, wrapped Kasandra in a blanket and ran out into the deep snow. The snow she had not shoveled yet. She fell three times just getting to the gravel road, luckily freshly plowed.
Milly remembered running down the road. She had headed deeper into the forest along the dead-end road. Her only hope was to get to the one person she knew—the old widow…
She had a car. She could get them to a hospital.
Although, the widow’s house was probably less than a mile, the road lengthened with impatience. And everything moved in slow motion. She continued to scream Kasandra’s name, and stopped every so often to try to coax her awake by pinching lightly at her fingers and cheeks.
Oh, Milly remembered… It took so long, so very long to get there. But it hadn’t mattered. It turned out it was a Sunday morning, and the old widow had gone to church. Milly fell to her butt on the widow’s shoveled steps and bawled out Kasandra’s name over and over. She stopped long enough to feel Kasandra’s forehead.
She felt as if a bolt of lightning had struck her in the chest! Milly could hardly breathe… She could hardly believe it—Kasandra’s fever was going down!
But then, almost immediately, Milly’s thoughts bounced back to a more rationale point of view. She realized that the cold temperatures had just helped to cool Kasandra. A false sense of her fever getting better. And then her final thought: Her baby’s body temperature was not cooling—it was turning cold. The shocking thought of it caused Milly to gasp so fast and hard that it made the sound of a muffled scream.
Milly instinctively pressed her mouth against Kasandra’s pale lips and blew air into them… Short breaths… Two or three times she did this.
Then she got up and ran with Kasandra in her arms. She needed to find help. But every twenty or thirty feet she would stop and blow more air into Kasandra’s little mouth, and then run on again.
She couldn’t see the road in front of her anymore. She was lightheaded… confused…
She wasn’t going to make it. She wasn’t going to find any help. The trees surrounded her, the birch aspens acting like a blanketing white fog. The sky had turned blue, and the small branches of the trees spun overhead. She realized she had stopped and was giving Kasandra more mouth to mouth. Then she was running…
She had no idea how far she had run, whether she had passed her house. Who lived in the next house down? How far was it? She had never taken the time to meet them.
She fell, crushing her elbows hard into the frozen gravel of the road. She wasn’t about to let the fall hurt her baby. Her poor darling baby. She rolled over and got up.
She was running again. A deer was standing in the road. It watched her with big dark eyes as she ran toward it. It was a doe. Another mother. Could she understand what was going on at this very moment? That the life of her precious baby was being sucked away by the cold breeze brought on by the bag of death the old woman had left on her doorstep.
The doe turned and ran up a path. Milly watched where it went, then noticed footsteps in the snow. Someone had been here.I have to get to them. She followed them by stepping into and staying in the deep footprints the best she could.
The snow was blinding white. Everything was white. Milly held Kasandra by one arm as she struggled through the deep snow. And then she stopped. Frozen in place. Unbelieving. Horrified.
There she stood at the door to her tiny cabin in the woods. She stood for what seemed minutes, staring at the white door inside its white frame. She looked at the black of the cabin, surrounded by the white of everything else—the snow, the ice on the lake, and the damn birch and aspen trees.
She fell inside the door and ran to the bed. She pulled off all of Kasandra’s clothes, as if being naked she could somehow see the disease that was taking her child’s life away from her. There was no sign of anything. A small brown spot in her diaper, and a whitish fluid at her mouth. She didn’t bother putting another diaper on. She quickly wrapped the baby back up in a light blanket. Then she threw off her jacket and the pajama top that she still wore until her bare breasts thrust out into the cold light hues of the cabin. She pressed Kasandra against her breasts, and pulled another blanket over them as she sat down in the rocker.
And then she rocked.
Milly rocked with baby Kasandra until the sun went down. Deep inside, she hoped that her warm body against Kasandra’s would be enough to maintain Kasandra’s body temperature until she pulled through. Until whatever evil had come to them, had left and gone on its way. Deep inside, she hoped and prayed for a miracle. But sometime late that night, Milly conceded to her worst fears. Kasandra had died sometime that day.
Milly cried most of the day, and into the night. In her head, she went over and over what she could have done differently, and asked God many times Why? Why little Kasandra? What had her tiny little child done to anyone to deserve this?
Little did she know that this day would replay itself in her mind for the next fifty-six years.
Milly placed Kasandra into her crib, tucked the blanket up to her chin as if she were still alive, then headed to her bed. She was exhausted. She did not wake until the sun was already reaching in the one west window in the cabin. She came to, as if she had been dreaming something horrible had happened and it was all her fault. She had slept the whole day and forgotten the baby in its crib. It had gone without feeding or diaper changes.
She jumped out of bed and only took two steps on the braided rug at her feet before she stopped, and once again the tears came. She fell back on the bed and continued to fall all the way to the floor. The little jammies Kasandra had been wearing the day before dropped from the bed and landed on the floor in front of her. She stared at the pink cotton fabric and the little pink lace ribbon that had been tied in a neat little knot. Her baby was gone.
Milly spent the next four hours getting heat back into the cabin, warming water, then giving Kasandra a bath. She dressed the baby in her cutest outfit, a pink and light blue one piece, and put atop her head the two-toned cap that she herself had knitted. It had taken her a month to finish it. Then she put fresh bedding in the small crib, laid Kasandra in it, and once again tucked the blanket up to her neck.
Part of her time that evening also consisted of creating a space in the pantry. It was a part of the cabin that was lightly insulated and closed off by a wool blanket from the rest of the cabin. In there, she stored those things that saved better if they remained cool. In the corner near the door, she placed the crib with dear little Kasandra in it.
Late into a second night, she thought about what she should do next. Nobody in her family even knew she had a baby. She hadn’t told anyone. She had never planned on going home after a year as she had promised. Oh, maybe sometime down the line she might have told them when Kasandra had gotten older. The only person who knew she had a baby was the widow woman. Certainly she could explain to her what had happened.
Over the next few days, she kept herself extraordinarily busy. She shoveled a path to the road, cleaned the cabin until it shined, and packed every last item of the baby’s things into a box. She didn’t allow a second to pass when she wasn’t doing something.
At the end of the third day, she took one last look at the pantry. She hadn’t looked at her baby in two days. And as she stood pondering it was the now empty, long wooden shelf that caused her to break down. It was void of all the baby food jars, cloth diapers, bottles, and clothes.
The emptiness paralleled the feelings inside her. What to do with all the emptiness…?
She rushed over to the crib and grasped its sides with both hands, then stared at the tiny face for a long while. Tears dropped upon the pink blanket until the droplets formed small pinkish puddles.
She had to find closure.
She glanced over at the empty shelf and blindly estimated its dimensions: one-by-eight, about six feet long. She reached over and yanked on the board. At first it was stuck. But she pounded at its underside with her fist, and then used her elbow to ram it.
Finally it broke loose. She dragged the board out to the kitchen table, then went back to get a jar of nails that had been on the floor of the pantry since she arrived. And a saw that hung out on the porch. And lastly, the wood-splitting maul.
With these crude tools and provisions, she made a casket for the baby. She had made up her mind. She needed to bury the baby or lose her mind.
The small chest was lined with plastic—to keep the critters from scenting her—and then double lined with pink blankets. Her favorite toys and trinkets were placed in the corners. And tucked in neatly and firmly by the blankets, almost as if packaged for shipment, was baby Kasandra. Milly had touched up the color in her cheeks with rouge, and lips with the only mild red colored lipstick she owned. She kept the pink outfit on her, and placed around her neck one of her favorite necklaces which had a small gold heart trinket.
And finally, in a tight roll, tucked into the tiny fingers of Kasandra’s right hand, was a note:
‘To anyone who might someday find me. My name is Kasandra. I was born in 1943 in a small cabin near here, and died in the same year of pneumonia. My mother loved me very much and did everything she could to save me. If I cannot stay here in this spot, please find a nice resting spot for me. That is all I ask.’
Milly nailed the top board onto the chest, then checked to make sure she could not pull it off. She etched Kasandra’s name into the wood, and the year: 1943. She took the box back into the pantry.
Two weeks had gone by. The weather had turned dramatically for the better, and the snows had been melting at the rate of a half a foot a day, it seemed. Now it was gone. Milly found she was frustrated by the lack of a visit from the old widow. There was only one of two things left to do, and one was explain to the widow what had happened. The task clamped down on her chest tighter and tighter as each day passed. She had planned out in detail exactly what she would say—the kind of facial expressions she would make, and the ones she would avoid. She had decided that her inner anger towards this woman was a waste of good energy, and would leave every word out about the grocery bag and how it had spread the illness to her daughter, and how it never would have happened if she had just minded her own damn business.
It was early morning, when she walked up to the widow’s cabin. She knew the old woman would be up on such a bright day. The gravel at the edge of the road was moist and spongy, so she made a beeline down the center. It was not as if she expected many vehicles to pass, and if she did, she would certainly hear them coming.
A small red squirrel chased across the road to her front and then popped up its head behind a fallen red pine to watch her as she passed. The chickadees actively searched the branches of nearby trees for food. A wood pecker could be heard in the distance pecking away at an old tree.
Milly saw the house up ahead, but not until she was almost in the yard did she notice a crusted layer of snow over the driveway. And no tire tracks. It was if the driveway hadn’t been cleaned off the last time it snowed. Milly stepped up to the door, and despite the darkness that stared back at her through the tiny door window, she knocked anyhow. She waited a few seconds, then knocked again. The widow was not at home, and it appeared she had not been home for some time. Maybe she had left the bag of groceries with her as a going away gift and hadn’t been around since, though a flashback reminded her that the driveway had been clear on the day her baby died.
Milly walked back towards her house, and almost unconsciously, continued down the road. The road eventually curved and headed to a T-section with the main road much farther down. She walked, and she breathed. She breathed in deeply. She looked deep into the woods as she walked. She noticed that the beams of light expanded down the trunks of the trees, farther and farther as the sun rose higher and higher. She looked up at the sky, and observed how the clouds looked so dainty; tiny pillows with the stuffing pulled out in ragged tuffs around the edges. All around her, the woods were alive with something. And then, as if instructed to, she stopped in the road.
Her face flushed with guilt as she realized she had gone almost a full thirty minutes without thinking about the baby. She started to turn back, but allowed for a quick glance around her to get her bearings. There was a house along the edge of a small field to her right. To her left, the woods thickened to heavy cedar, balsam and spruce swamp. She noticed a heavily used deer trail that went into the grasses of the road ditch right at her feet. The dual teardrops of several deer hooves had crossed the hard pack, unnoticed, but left heavy impressions in the sandy edge of the road. She followed the tracks with her eyes and then up the trail as it meandered into the woods.
A stick broke. Her eyes focused on a brown horizontal figure. Her heartbeat double-timed. Suddenly, she was focused in on the large dark brown eyes of a deer. It was a doe deer. Milly felt a sense of déjà vu. It’s not like she came across a deer this close that often. This was only the second time she had since moving here.
The doe’s head lowered as if to feed on the tip of a nearby branch, but its eyes never lost sight of Milly. Then the doe slowly turned around and started off in the other direction. Milly stood there and watched it, intending to watch it until it disappeared. Three times the doe stopped and looked back at Milly, and each time it also glanced down at the trail before turning and moving on. It was as if a message were being passed to her. Milly didn’t even bother to question it. She knew right then and there: later that evening, she would be walking along that same trail to find the final resting spot for Kasandra.
Just then, a large Chevy truck came down the road, splashing up water as it hit the puddles. It gave Milly a nervous feeling, as if she were up to something she shouldn’t be. She shook the feeling off, turned around and started heading back. Of course, someone was going to drive by eventually. She was going to have to get used to that. But she didn’t think they would stop.
“Hey Milly!” she heard some man yell from the window.
Milly froze. She didn’t know anyone from around here.
“It’s me, Willard. I mean,” and there was a silence before he added, “I’m the grader guy.”
Milly took a small glance over, and realized she did indeed recognize him a little. She walked over to the door, but with only one purpose in mind. “What happened to the widow woman? She’s gone.”
Willard looked surprised that she asked. “Well, she’s gone. She went to stay with her sister in the city after she broke her hip at the pancake breakfast this winter. Didn’t you hear about it?”
“Nah,” Milly replied. “I didn’t get out much once the snows hit.”
“Yeah, well, I noticed that,” he said, then pinched at the tip of his nose so hard it was if he were trying to wipe tar off. “Almost meant to stop by to see how you were doing.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Milly quickly replied, but then blushed. It’s not what she meant, really. “I mean, I don’t need anybody to watch over me.”
“Well, I can see that. I was just saying.”
Milly looked down at the road, and kicked at one of the larger rocks. “It was nice meeting you . . . Willard,” his name coming out as a question.
Willard grabbed the shifter and slipped it into gear. “Yep, it’s Willard. I’ll see you around then.”
Willard drove ahead, whipped it around, and headed back past her. He waved as he passed, and she gave a small wave back. He didn’t seem like a bad guy, but she wasn’t ready to be thinking anything about the likes of men. Not now. Not for awhile.
In the hour before dusk, Milly made her way slowly out the cabin door with the pine box that measured roughly eighteen inches long by eight inches in height. The box was light enough, but she knew it would get heavier the farther along she went. She grabbed the shovel that leaned against the tar paper near the door. She had set it out earlier.
She headed down the driveway. She got to the gravel and stood silent, listening for any traffic coming or going down the road. This trip, she didn’t want to be seen. She walked down the road until she came to the curve. From the curve and on around, she could be seen by those living in the house down the road, so she entered into the woods about thirty feet and walked parallel to the road.
It was a little rough going. There were old balsam trees that had fallen down laying everywhere. It was like a maze: Where there wasn’t a fallen tree, it was pretty easy walking; but the zigzagging… it must have taken half an hour just to get to the deer trail. There she stopped again to listen. Still nothing. Nothing but the light buzz of an early spring fly, and probably that same old woodpecker peck pecking in the distance.
She followed the path for quite a ways until the swamp got thick and dark. There she felt lost in the pines, balsams, old twisted cedars, and occasional aspens. The trail had trimmed down to one muddy line of gray when she rounded a bend to see a small rise in the ground, with one large old cedar tree coming right out the middle.
This was it. Right here.
She knew she’d know the spot the minute she laid eyes on it.
She set the wood chest on the ground opposite the tree, and started digging. She wasn’t sure how deep to go, but she knew it had to be deep enough to keep any critters from smelling it.
And hopefully deep enough never to be found.
It was already getting dark, and she was glad the mosquitoes weren’t out yet this time of year. Getting through the topsoil with all the roots had been hardest, but once she got into the sand it was just a matter of repetition. Push the tip of the shovel in, step on the shovel, and hoist out the dirt. Push, step, hoist…
She heard a vehicle coming.
Through the trees, she could easily follow the headlamps… They passed.
She immediately questioned whether she had gone far enough in. Sure it was, she assured herself. Who would ever walk in this deep into a swamp? Maybe a hunter this fall, but by then everything will be grown over, and no one will know the better.
Three feet down. She worked the edges. It needed to be wider, and longer—she wasn’t planting a tree. Another hour later, she was standing in the hole up to her waist, with barely enough room for her and the shovel. It would have to do. She was exhausted. And she still had to cover it up. She climbed out of the hole and rolled over to the tiny casket. She was too tired to stand and walk over.
She moved the box along the ground until it was next to the hole. Then she paused and let her eyes pass through the cover and inside. She could easily imagine her young Kasandra cuddled inside with her blankets, the necklace dangling down. And her little note.
It all came to an end right here and now, physically speaking. She said a small prayer, then gazed through a break in the tree branches above her. One bright, shining star sparkled above them. She hoped in prayer that it was the eye of God looking over her baby. She put the box in the hole, and began the slow, laborious task of filling the hole back in. As she did, she softly sang the one lullaby she remembered. It was about a lamb, sunshine, and Jesus.
It was quarter after midnight when she stumbled in through the door of the cabin. It had taken a lot longer than she had figured. She slept hard that night, except for a short dream about her baby. Kasandra was sitting in someone’s lap, and playing with some of her trinkets. She had a smile on her face, and appeared quite content. Every once in a while the featureless figure dressed in all white would lift Kasandra up by the underarms until her feet danced on the person’s cloak-covered knees. And then Kasandra would laugh. It had been a pleasant dream. Peaceful.
The next months passed by rather fast. Milly accepted a lift from Willard to the hardware store one day where she bought a bike. Then she got a job as a waitress at the diner on the edge of town. Things got busier in her life. With her new job, she was able to put a cheap variety of grey siding on the cabin. “No more tar paper,” she exclaimed after she had finished. She did a little dance around the bonfire pit.
Yes, busier she was, but never too busy to walk down the road every single day.
At the hardware store, she had purchased a package of wildflower seed. And one early morning, she snuck down to the trail and raked out a spot near the road. There she planted the wildflower seed. And they were really coming up well. A little too well, she thought, hoping the sight would be a little less conspicuous.
Every morning, she would walk down the road, slowing considerably as she passed the patch of wildflowers. Sometimes stopping, if no one was around, to pick a few weeds from the patch or pluck one flower to bring home where she put it in a fruit jar with water. The walks brought joy to her life, and tears as well, but it kept Kasandra alive in her mind and in her heart.
A year later, she wrote a letter home to tell them her whereabouts. Three years later, she married Willard. She married him on one condition: that they never moved from the gravel road. It just so happened that an eighty-acre parcel came up for sale on the far end of the road, near the T-section. Willard had to buy it and promise to build them a house before she would even consider slipping on a ring.
And much of the rest of the story has already been said or can be assumed. But not everything.
One late Saturday afternoon, in the summer after her boys had graduated, there was a knock on the door. Milly was home alone. She opened the door to see two men standing on her steps. A younger man with a scruffy beard, and a shorter fellow, who looked older. She came to know the two men as Ralph and Mr. Miltsen. They had bought the property across the road. The same property her dear Kasandra was buried on. So you can see why these two men and their activities across the way would be of concern to Milly. She usually didn’t talk to anyone, but every time Willard mentioned seeing they were up, she would tell Willard to get on over and invite them up for coffee. It turned out they just intended to put up a small hunting and fishing shack. But it was less than one hundred yards from Kasandra, and that worried Milly. But in conversation, she realized anything they put up wouldn’t affect Kasandra. Who would build that close to a swamp anyhow? she figured. After a few summer weekends, the shack went up.
That’s when strange things began to happen.
One early weekend morning, while on her daily walk, and coincidently near the wildflower patch, Milly heard someone call her name. Her heart almost stopped. She didn’t know why she should be so frightened, but something that day just clicked inside of her. It was if she had just completed the task of burying the baby and she was still standing there with the shovel in hand. The feeling came over her with such a shock that she nearly fainted.
“It’s me, Ralph. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, stepping out from the edge of the woods.
Milly’s first response was, “Oh dear,” although she was sure he hadn’t heard it. Her eyes immediately connected with his, and she asked, “What were you doing out there?”
Ralph had a smile on his face, yet maintained a slight look of concern for her. “Just checking deer trails, nothing really.”
“Oh,” she said, with a nervous laugh trailing off, feeling a little relieved.
Ralph adjusted the weight of his medium frame until he leaned forward to Milly. “There was something…” a short pause… “Last night we were sitting around the fire just after dusk and we heard the strangest thing.”
“You did?” The words had spilled from Milly’s mouth without prodding.
“Yeah, it sounded like… well, sounded like a baby crying; like it was really afraid. I know sound tends to echo out here, and it could have been coming from a mile away, but it sounded like it was coming from somewhere inside this swamp.”
Milly’s knees buckled and Ralph rushed forward to hold her up.
“Are you all right?”
Milly wiped at her trousers as if she had actually fallen. “I’ve just been feeling a little out of sorts,” she panted. “I better get going home now.”
“I can follow you back if you’d like,” he said, with one hand still on her elbow.
She turned, “No, I’ll be all right.” Then walked away.
Milly made a decision from that moment on that all of her walks down the road would now be at dusk. And this promise to herself she did keep. And on some evenings when she walked up and down the road, she would hear what Ralph had been talking about. It really did sound like a baby crying. A baby scared, almost horrified. Crying out for comfort.
On these nights when the sounds occurred, Milly wept hard. She wept like it was the day of Kasandra’s death. But despite the sobs, she was determined to comfort the spirit of her poor child, if that’s what the sound truly was. And she would sing (as loud as she dared) the lullaby with the lamb, the sunshine, and Jesus.
When Willard died that fall of a surprise heart attack, she found there were no tears left to be had for her husband.
But now she was alone. Really alone. And every day the wood floor creaked as she rocked and cried for her baby.
One evening, as she passed the wildflowers, there was a shadow over the road. All else was lit by the sunset, but right in the area by the wildflowers, there was a cast that blanketed over her as she walked. She did not stop to pick a weed or pluck a flower on this night. She hurried past as fast as she could, but as she did, she felt a very heavy sensation upon her. It pressed on her chest, and made it hard to breathe. That was one night.
On another night, she met an animal coming down the (what she often referred to as her daughter’s) trail just as she was passing by on the road. At least she assumed it was an animal. It stopped just inside the darkness of the pines where she couldn’t see it. But it bothered her tremendously that this critter had glowing red eyes, like she had never seen. She turned around right there and headed back as fast as she could.
Yet, it was not like things happened every night. As a matter of fact, it was rare when you compare it to the fact that she walked the path every single night, unless it was too stormy or slippery. But it was coincidence that it happened again while Ralph and Mr. Miltsen were up at their cabin. This time, they both stopped by the house. Ralph explained to Milly what he had heard once again. Even said he had driven to the next town over to talk to the game warden. The warden told him it might be an owl or one of many other critters that live in the swamps.
Milly could see, though, in Ralph’s expression that he didn’t agree with that conclusion much. And it was at this point in the conversation that a sensation struck Milly, providing such a clear thought and sense of direction as she hadn’t had in years. Even the words that followed were a surprise to her.
“Maybe you ought to sing it a little lullaby,” she said, leaning slightly forward in her old green rocking chair, a strange and crooked smile across her face.
Ralph had an immediate look of ‘she’s crazy’ on his face, but quickly followed it up with a look of contemplation. “Yeah, maybe,” he said.
Milly wasn’t paying too much attention to his response. She was too busy trying to comprehend what was happening inside her head. Where was she going with this? She had a feeling that somehow she was passing the baton to him, like you would to your partner in a relay race. She was handing this bit of information to him because what? Was she preparing herself for death? Was she afraid that the haunting would go a step further and take her life? No. She didn’t sense the latter. But passing the lullaby might be a way to pass on Kasandra’s memory, even if they didn’t know she existed.
“I have to tell you something, fellas, and you are going to think I am crazy. But I just feel in my heart that passing this to you is something that will allow me to go peacefully—when it’s my time of course.”
“No, go right ahead,” Ralph said. Mr. Miltsen nodded in agreement.
“When I was a young girl, almost a baby, there was a lullaby sung to me that I will never forget.”
As the words came, Milly slowly began to rock, and instinctively crossed her arms across her bosom as if holding a baby. “It involved a lamb who had lost its mother and its hold on Jesus, and it went like this:
‘Lamb of God, you’ve lost your only mother; Lamb of God, he’s taken her away; In the dark, you will never find her; In the dark, there is only pain; Lamb of God, there’s light all around you; Lamb of God, you just have to believe; In the light, you will meet with Jesus; In the light, you will see your mother; Under the sunshine, we will all come together.’”
Ralph and Mr. Milsten left soon after. Milly was afraid she had chased them away. Maybe she was going a little crazy. She didn’t know what had come over her. She knew one thing though: She hoped they would never have to use it—the lullaby that is.
Later that Sunday night, she walked down towards their cabin to find they had headed back home for the weekend. She couldn’t help but notice how slow her walk was tonight. It really took a lot of effort to keep on moving along. The clouds and a light breeze had moved in, and a cool, moist air with it. It was the end of summer—Labor Day. It was getting dark early, and she felt like moving along a little quicker to get back to the house, but her body didn’t necessarily agree with that. She stopped by the wildflowers, now brown, with thick patches of seeds on the end of each long stem. The path to Kasandra’s grave was just as clear in the grass and through the woods tonight as the night she had carried the small box out there and buried it. She thought about taking one last walk out there. But could she even make it? Would she even find the same tree? Things had to have changed over all these years. Maybe that big old cedar fell and ten grew up around it. Ridiculous, she thought.
Then from somewhere within the swamp, she heard it again.
It started as a light murmur, then grew into a muffled cry. It wasn’t too loud tonight. It didn’t sound frightened. “That’s my dear,” Milly said. “I won’t be long now.” Then she turned and headed down the road, softly singing the lullaby. She was sad, but peaceful at the same time.
When she got home, she slumped down into her old green rocker, and began to rock slowly. It had been so long ago, but the death of her daughter had remained in her head like it was the only thing she could remember. Some days it felt so real, it got her to thinking that if she rushed out there right now and dug her up, perhaps there was more she could do to bring her dear Kasandra back to life. My baby, she murmured. My poor baby, and she repeated it over and over. As the tears came, she cradled her arms across her bosom as if she were rocking a baby.
Later that night, sometime after she had gone to bed in her cleanest white gown, she began to dream. She was sitting in a chair, bouncing Kasandra, and she was just laughing and laughing…
Milly never awoke from that dream.
Ralph and Mr. Miltsen didn’t find out about Milly’s death until they came up for deer hunting that fall. They made a stop out at the cemetery to look at the grave, knelt down, and sent a quick prayer.
The years continued on. On and on.
“It’s strange,” Ralph said one night, while they sat around the bonfire at their cabin nestled into the woods.
“What’s that?” Mr. Miltsen asked.
“We haven’t heard that baby crying in the swamp in a lot of years.” Then he leaned forward in his lawn chair and pointed his ear towards the swamp as if it would help him hear better.
Mr. Miltsen gave him a strange look, then replied, “Yeah, well, I guess whatever it was, it’s gone now.”
READ THIS FIRST
This short story touches on the extremely sad and tender moments when a mother loses a child. I just want people to know this before they continue reading in case this type of material causes distress or is uncomfortable to you.
Secondly, a little background on this story. The plot of this story is fictional. The character of Milly is 100% fictional. But, there are parts of the story that are true.To add to that statement, I feel there was a spiritual energy that helped me write this story. You writers out there know what I am talking about.
Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the origination of this story; originally called:
The Crying Baby Ghost
Over the years, I have spent a lot of time in the Northwoods. I have hiked back to spots that seemed rarely traveled. I have sat around bonfires with nothing but dark shadows and balsams surrounding me. There was a woods I visited where twice I heard the sounds of a crying baby late at night. Now, there may be many explanations, such as echoes or animal calls in the night, ant that is fine. But it didn't describe the sounds I heard. On two occasions, I walked back in this part of the woods and found myself deep in the swamp. I took some photographs as I passed through. On one photograph, a strange apparition appeared. I have been shooting photography for many years. I know that strange white spots on my photos could be just about anything. But in this case, there was no way I could explain it. And ever since, I choose to explain this unexplainable apparition as my sighting of the Crying Baby Ghost. Believe what you will. The picture is below for your viewing.
In those years, my son and his friend were into scary stories. The story of the Crying Baby Ghost was born one late night around the bonfire. The original story focused more on the ghost, and was something I had just made up. But the story you are about to read or have just read, is something I have kept inside me for years. It is something that I picked up while wandering about the dark swamp. Something that connected its self to me like the seed of a wildflower or that of a weed. Something that grew for years under the skin like a lipoma or a tumor. On the 22nd of January 2012, I could no longer keep this part of the story inside me.
I have to thank my editor EM531. You did fine work in helping me polish this piece. And an additional thanks to Katie who proofread the story and cleaned up my mistakes.
The Crying Baby Ghost
- photographed by Russ Victorian