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Vital Signs

ISSUE:  Spring 1992

Sarah went to the hospital each day as soon as her daughter left on the school bus. She brought Maggie fresh hot tea in a thermos.

“Emily’s coming to see you this afternoon” she said to Maggie one morning. It was the first week of January. Maggie had been in the hospital since Thanksgiving.

“A hospital’s no place for children,” said Maggie. “You’ll give her bad dreams.”

Sarah didn’t think her daughter had many bad dreams. She was a sensible child and would manage the visit well.

They had arranged to meet in the coffee shop on the ground floor after Emily got out of school. Sarah waited until Maggie dozed off. She took the empty thermos with her to the coffee shop to rinse it out. It was stained inside because Maggie liked her tea dark and strong, nearly as dark as coffee and without sugar. “Sugar’s bad for your teeth, Sarah,” Maggie said, although Maggie had had false teeth forever, or so Sarah had believed when she was small.

If Sarah awoke ill in the night as a child, she slid from bed and went to the door of her room. She hesitated an instant on the threshold. If she turned right, she would come at the end of the hall to her parents’ room. It did not occur to Sarah to waken her mother and father if she was sick, although occasionally she went up to the door and leaned her ear against the panels to catch the indrawn exhaled rhythms of their apartness from her in the big double bed. Instead Sarah turned left and went into the back of the house where Maggie slept. She stood in her bare feet by Maggie’s door which was ajar. Maggie snored gently. Sarah wrapped her arms around her belly and stared through gradations of night until she could make out the somewhat scarred pine bureau with its neatly pressed white runner on which sat the picture of Maggie’s father. Then her gaze moved to the armchair by the one window and finally to the bedside table and the glass of water in which Maggie’s teeth gleamed, luminous.

Maggie told Sarah that having her teeth out was almost the first thing that had happened to her after leaving Scotland. “Novocain,” she said, “I had each one out with Novocain. It was a terrible experience.” But that had been a long time ago in Chicago, and now Maggie had these beautiful evenly spaced white uppers and lowers which rested each night distorted in the water in the glass. When Maggie woke up and said, “Sarah?” she would pop the teeth first thing into her mouth. They latched into place with a soft click, which might have been the sound of Maggie’s tongue. If she felt like it, Maggie could click her teeth part way out and suck them back in again, but she didn’t do that very often.

“Sarah?” Maggie reached for the glass on the bedside table.

“I’m going to throw up,” Sarah said. Throwing up was something Sarah, now that she was ten, felt she ought to do without disturbing Maggie, who had breakfast to look to the next morning. But nausea made her feel lonely.

“Well, get to the bathroom child. What are you doing in the hallway in bare feet? You don’t have a lick of sense. Go on now, I’m coming and I don’t care to clean up the rug when there’s a perfectly good toilet right off your bedroom.”

Sarah’s stomach heaved into her throat, and she fled back down the hall into her bathroom. The evening meal projected in a rush from her mouth, acid, dank, yellow, in no way resembling the meat, potatoes and vegetables she’d eaten with her parents. She flushed the toilet repeatedly, but the sour smell remained under her fingernails and in her hair. Sarah continued to retch emptily, and then, weary, knelt down and leaned her cheek against the cool, white edge of the bowl. “Now what brought that on?” Maggie muttered. She ran warm water into the basin, dipped the washcloth in it and wiped Sarah’s face. She ran the edge of the washcloth twice around Sarah’s lips. “That stomach of yours, lass. It’s something you’ll have to outgrow, that’s all there is to it.” Sarah loved it when Maggie said “lass.” She had almost no Scot’s burr left to speak of—the faintest cadence to the odd sentence here or there, but when she said lass or bairn it was like a caress.

“If you’re through for the night, get back under your covers, Sarah,” Maggie said.

“I’m through,” said Sarah. The light from the bathroom guided her into bed where she lay, purifed, listening to the sounds of Maggie as she poured a splash of Lysol into the toilet and rinsed out the washcloth in the basin. When Maggie came back into the room, she went to the window and closed it firmly. “No need to sleep in a draft,” she said. Maggie’s third brother, Jimmy, had died of pleurisy at the age of ten, from standing at a window in a draft. Maggie padded about the room in slippers and an old maroon bathrobe with the sash undone and trailing and her crisp permanented curls imprisoned in the black web of the hairnet she wore at night. Sarah imagined she heard Maggie’s teeth clicking disapproval and sympathy simultaneously. “You got chilled after you took your bath,” Maggie said. “The cold went right to your stomach and curdled your dinner. I’ve told you a thousand times to stay warm after you eat.” She put one hand on Sarah’s forehead. “Not even damp, no fever, but I won’t pass out from the shock if you wake me in the night again one of these days.”

“I don’t see how you can stand cleaning up after me.” Sarah said. “I couldn’t do it for my children. I’d vomit all over them.”

“You do what you have to do,” said Maggie.

Emily was waiting for her mother by the coffee shop. She was unsmiling, aggrieved. “Why did you make me walk from school? It’s cold. You could’ve picked me up in the car. I left my schoolbooks in my locker so we’ll have to go back afterwards anyway.” Emily was self-assured, like her father, and, like Jack, given to making strong statements.

“Hot chocolate will warm you up,” Sarah said. Her disappointment was keen. She had hoped Emily might hug her, although she knew 14-year-olds were not given to public hugs of mothers.

“Why didn’t you come for me?” Emily asked again as soon as they sat down. “My knees froze walking here. They’re still numb.” Emily was wearing her gym uniform and there was a long gap of rosy, chafed skin between the tops of her kneesocks and the hem of her abbreviated tunic.

“Honey, it’s only five blocks. I got a really good parking space this morning, and I didn’t want to give it up. All the lots are jammed in the afternoon.” She yearned to touch her daughter’s hand but didn’t. “Maggie will be so glad to see you. She’s sleeping now. We’ll go up together in ten minutes or so.”

A waitress brought them two cups of hot chocolate topped with swirls of chemically created fluff. Most of the waitresses in the coffee shop were black, as were the LPN’s on the 5th floor. This made Sarah uncomfortable, as though simply by noticing it, she was participating in a subtle form of discrimination. The LPN who changed Maggie’s sheets and bathed her each morning was from Jamaica. Her name was Louisa, and her voice was like a song. Sarah only caught her meaning after Louisa stopped speaking. The melodies hung in the air for brief seconds, forming phrases. Sarah put out her hand and touched her daughter’s cheek. Emily leaned imperceptibly away. Sarah felt the healthy, smooth skin of her child beneath her fingertips. She tucked a strand of Emily’s sandy hair back behind her ear.

“Gram says you spend too much time here,” Emily said. She was carefully spooning the white froth off the hot chocolate and plopping it into the saucer where it pooled and melted almost at once. Emily was a purist. She disapproved of adorning food in any way.

“Why are you talking like this?” Sarah said sharply. “I love Maggie. Don’t you care that she’s so sick?”

Emily sighed. “She’s really old, Mom. She took care of you, not me.”

“She took care of you, too,” Sarah reminded her. “Every time we came to Gram’s house, she fed and bathed you. She adored you when you were tiny. You and me, we were Maggie’s only girl babies. Did I ever tell you that before she came to Gram, she was nursemaid to a whole series of baby boys? She didn’t think she was going to like bringing up a girl.”

“I was your first girl, wasn’t I Maggie!” the child stated. There was triumph in her voice. “And you stayed and stayed with us so there were never any other babies after me.” Sarah was six years old. She sat in the bathtub with her head tipped back while Maggie washed her hair. Maggie washed Sarah’s hair once a week. She scrubbed Sarah’s scalp with strong fingers, two soapings, and the massage was nearly painful. Shampoo inevitably seeped into a corner of Sarah’s tightly shut eyes and then the stinging of eyes and scalp was washed away in quantities of warm water. Every few seconds, water sluiced over Sarah’s head and shoulders from the pitcher Maggie filled at the basin. Sometimes, when Maggie rinsed her hair, it made Sarah think of the picture in her book, Bible Stories for Children, where John the Baptist poured water over Jesus and there was a dove in the clouds saying, “This is my beloved Son.”

“You are never to go away,” Sarah told her. Her parents went away. They went out to dinner, away for weekends, disappeared on vacations. “I’ll be back soon,” Sarah’s mother said. She kissed her daughter on both cheeks and on the tip of her nose. “Be good for Maggie.” “Back soon” was her mother’s code word for goodbye. When she said it to the dogs, their ears drooped. Sarah knew just how the dogs felt. Maggie was not subject to such random comings and goings. She was there without fail except on Wednesdays which she spent with her widowed sister, Isobel Brown, and every other Sunday when she pinned on her hat and took the trolley to town where she had lunch at Horn and Hardart’s and went to the movies.

“Take me with you,” Sarah begged. “I’ve never been on the trolley. I don’t know where Mrs. Brown lives.” Mrs. Brown came to Sarah’s house twice a month as a seamstress. She sat at the sewing machine in the room next to Maggie’s. Mrs. Brown was the smallest woman Sarah had ever seen. She was three years older than Maggie, but she was thin where Maggie was round, white-haired where Maggie had brown curls. Sarah was a little shy of Mrs. Brown. Maggie called her “Isie” and every other Thursday afternoon Maggie and Mrs. Brown talked for hours above the rhythmic chigachigachigachiga of the Singer needle as it stabbed through the fabrics. “You go play, now, Sarah,” Maggie said. “Isie and I are just chinning here for a bit.”

Only once did Maggie take Sarah to her sister’s house. It was the afternoon the puppy was run over. Sarah’s parents had given her the puppy a month earlier. “Nine is young for such responsibility,” said her mother. “But I think you need the challenge. You’re so vague, sweetheart.”

The Saturday the puppy died, Sarah’s parents were in New York. Sarah was eating a sandwich and reading a Hardy Boy mystery in her room when Maggie came in to her. “The puppy’s been run over, Sarah. Puir wee beast. He never suffered. The man who struck him brought him straightaway to the house.” Sarah gagged on the mouthful in her throat. When she had taken this bite of food, she had believed the puppy asleep outdoors. And before she could swallow it her puppy was dead. Maggie told the gardener to bury the puppy under the beech tree.

“I want my mother,” Sarah said. She was crying. Maggie didn’t love the puppy. She cleaned up after the puddles and messes and frowned when she saw the puppy on Sarah’s bed. “Great lazy lummoxes,” she called the grown dogs, shooing them off the kitchen stoop with a broom.

“Don’t carry on so, lassie,” Maggie said. And later that afternoon she telephoned for a taxi and took Sarah to Mrs. Brown’s for tea.

Mrs. Brown’s house was small and very neat. There were lace doilies over the arms and backs of the chairs and artificial flowers in the vase by the sofa. Pictures of Mrs. Brown and of Ronnie Jr. and his family who lived near Pittsburgh, were on the mantelpiece. Sarah sat mute on the sofa. Mrs. Brown served her scones—which she pronounced scons. The flat, crumbly hot biscuit caught in Sarah’s throat and she choked. “I’m sorry about your puppy, Sarah,” said Mrs. Brown.

Sarah looked at Maggie who seemed to have forgotten her. The tea kettle whistled from the stove, and Maggie set out cups and saucers on the kitchen table. She was wearing a print dress, as if it were her day off.

“Gram says,” Emily persisted, “that it’s not like it was family. Maggie has her own family Gram says. She says you should be with yours.”

“Well, it’s different for her. Mother was Maggie’s employer.” Sarah wished she hadn’t suggested Emily come. “How was school?” she asked, “Did you have a good day?” Emily was a more determined and serious student than Sarah had been at 14. Her report card was studded with A’s.

“Mr. Morse said I asked a good question in science.”

Science was Emily’s favorite subject. Sarah had never once in school asked a good question in science. The principles that ordered the world were as magic to her. She asked no questions of them, remained grateful that lights came on when she pressed a switch, that machines whirred, engines started, seasons returned. Once, in the early days of her marriage she had asked Jack to explain the workings of a radio. Jack had built crystal sets when he was a boy. But as soon as he mentioned the word “frequencies” Sarah’s eyes glazed. “You don’t try,” Jack chided her.

“What did you ask Mr. Morse, honey?”

“I asked a gravity question. He said it takes two leap seconds for the light of the moon to reach the earth. So I asked him if the moon left the sky whether it would take two seconds for us to feel the change in gravity.”

“Would it?” asked Sarah.

“Yes,” said Emily. “The pull of gravity travels at the speed of light.”

“What would happen after two seconds?” Sarah asked. “Would I pitch forward on my face, or would I be weightless?”

“Mom,” Emily sounded like Jack, exasperated and affectionate. “You know. There wouldn’t be tides or anything.”

Sarah rose to pay the cashier for the hot chocolates. Sometimes she didn’t think either Emily or Jack considered her very bright. She thought of subjects she had liked in school. Poetry. She had liked poetry. Maggie had liked poetry as a schoolgirl also. Sarah smiled.

“What’s so funny, Mom? Why are you smiling?”

“School,” said Sarah. “Maggie used to recite me poems she had learned in school. She recited nonsense poems, too. There was one that began, “Where do flies go in the wintertime?””

“Flies die,” said Emily.

“I don’t think so. I think they go to sleep. That’s why they’re so big and sluggish when you see them again in the spring.”

“You could look that up in an encyclopedia,” said Emily.


“Where flies go in the wintertime. If you really wanted to know.”

“I guess you could,” Sarah murmured. “That never occurred to me.”

There was a man in a wheelchair in the elevator that took them to the fifth floor. He was breathing oxygen through a plastic tube in each nostril. His eyebrows were in disarray. An orderly stood behind the wheelchair. “Men look sadder than women when they’re sick,” Emily whispered to Sarah when they left the elevator. She hung back a little. Sarah had to wait for her.

“Does Maggie look sad?” Emily asked.

“No,” Sarah thought for a moment. “I don’t know how you’ll think Maggie looks. She has a brain tumor and she’s lost a lot of weight. Don’t be scared though.”

“I’m not a kid, Mom. I know she has cancer.”

Sarah stopped at the nurse’s station. “You go on ahead, Emily. Maggie’s expecting you.”

“Yes?” asked the nurse. Sarah did not recognize her. Sarah knew no one’s name but Louisa’s.

“Will you let me know when Miss Macintosh gets weaker? I want to be informed when her vital signs change.”

“That information is reserved for her family. Are you a member of the family?”

“Yes,” said Sarah.

“I’ll make a note on the chart,” the nurse said serenely.

Her mother was right, of course. Maggie had her own family. Since her retirement, she had lived with Mrs. Brown who was 85 now. Mrs. Brown took a trolley to the hospital twice a week and stayed an hour in the chair by Maggie’s bed. Sarah could tell the hospital frightened Mrs. Brown. It’s me Maggie wants to be with, Sarah thought fiercely. She gave the nurse her name, address, and telephone number and went down the hall to Maggie’s room, where Emily stood by the window. She was relieved to see that Maggie wore a knitted cap which concealed her balding scalp and had pulled her bedcovers up to her chin.

“Hello, Sarah,” Maggie said. “You ought to lengthen Emily’s tunic. The child’s growing. No need to show all that thigh.”

Sarah studied her daughter, backlit against the fading winter light. Emily had long legs and slim hips. “She has my build” Sarah’s mother said proudly. Since Maggie had entered the hospital, Emily often went to her grandmother’s after school. She came home from these visits smelling faintly of her grandmother’s perfume. Emily and Sarah’s mother spent their afternoons in the greenhouse. Gardening was her mother’s passion. Long ago, she had tried to teach Sarah, but too often Sarah forgot to water the plants or to weed around them, and they drooped and died. Sarah preferred trees. Trees took care of themselves. Perhaps, sheltered in the hot mists of the greenhouse this January, Emily had discovered a talent for gardening. Emily would be a good gardener, Sarah thought.

“You should be getting along home, Sarah. Jack will be wanting his dinner.”

Sarah noticed the urine level rising in Maggie’s catheter bag. It circulated there without sound, cloudy and sluggish. She looked away, studied the poinsettia plant on the windowsill.

Sarah’s mother had brought the plant to Maggie before Christmas. It thrived in the hothouse atmosphere of the hospital, had grown to half again its original size. It was a particularly beautiful poinsettia. The sun sparkled in its leaves. Bright red sheets of tinfoil curled around the base like artificial fire. “Well, of course, I love Maggie, too,” her mother had said.

“But she doesn’t love Maggie,” Sarah said to Jack later. “She treated Maggie like a servant, always.”

“Maggie and your mother get along fine,” Jack said mildly. “They know where they stand.”

“They never got along,” Sarah insisted. “They pretended to, to keep the house running smoothly.”

Sarah looked at her husband and thought of Maggie’s body, emaciated and inert under the coarse hospital sheets. Sunday afternoons as a little girl she had sat on Maggie’s lap in the kitchen, rolling dough, and Maggie’s arms were as firm and rounded as the rolling pin. “Take your time, Sarah. The dough’s not going anywhere.” Maggie’s breasts were pillows, concealed and protected by the starched white uniforms. Sarah hugged Maggie as often as she could, as hard as she could. “You’re squeezing the life out of me, girl.” Maggie said. Sarah had no words to tell Jack how terrible she found the disappearance of Maggie’s body.

Sarah had noticed Maggie’s dizziness and loss of balance in late summer. “I think it’s your ear, Maggie. I’ve read about inner ear disturbances in older people.” She drove Maggie to specialists. August pressed down on them both. “It’s my eyes,” said Maggie. “I’ll have the prescription changed as soon as the doctor comes back from vacation.”

The tumor was diagnosed in November. “Well, that’s a relief,” Maggie said.

“A relief?” Sarah repeated.

Maggie sat on a chair in the neurologist’s outer office. She and Sarah filled out insurance forms. Age: 82, Marital status, Single. Maggie had been so plump. The loss of weight made her look trim rather than ill.

“Knowing,” said Maggie.

Emily and Sarah put on their coats and mittens, and turned to go. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” Sarah murmured. “Sleep well.” Emily hesitated for a moment at the door. “Happy New Year, Maggie,” she said. But in the elevator, Emily hunched her shoulders, stared at her shoes. She looked miserable.

“I didn’t know what to say. But that was so dumb—Happy New Year. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No one knows what’s right to say, Emily,” Sarah said.

That night she dreamt she was in Nairn, the village by the North Sea where Maggie was born.

Sarah grew up knowing many things about Scotland. She knew you said “Scottish” not “Scotch.” She knew it had annoyed Maggie when Sarah’s mother bought Sarah a kilt in the Royal Campbell tartan because the Macintoshes and Campbells were rival clans. She knew that Glasgow was in the Low Country and couldn’t hold a candle to Edinburgh. She knew that Maggie’s father had captained a fishing boat and that her mother had died when Maggie was 16. Her aunt in Chicago had sent her a steamship ticket to America the following year.

In the dream, Maggie and Sarah stood on a sea wall. Behind them, a cold wind was blowing and all of Nairn was gray. Maggie recited her favorite lines of poetry very fast into the wind.

“Who killed Cock Robin,” Maggie shouted all on one breath from the seawall with the windy grey of Nairn at her back. “I, said the Sparrow, with my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin.”

She took another breath. “Where do flies go in the wintertime? I’ll tell you where flies go in the wintertime!”

Maggie looked to Sarah in the dream the way Maggie had always looked—small, stalwart, round. Her knees were a little swollen, and her feet were encased in thick soled wide shoes because she had bunions that pained her at night. Seafoam blew over the skirt of her white uniform. ““Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die, Into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell rode the six hundred.” We’ll catch our death if we stay out here, lass. I’m going to Chicago.”

“One more,” Sarah begged. “Do “The Boy stood on the Burning Deck”.” Maggie placed her hands on her hips. “The Boy stood on the Burning Deck, his feet were white as snow.”“

No. Sarah cried. That’s wrong, Maggie. You made a mistake.

She woke up.

“What is it?” said Jack.

“I had a dream,” Sarah whispered. She reached for Jack’s hand. “I’ll tell you in the morning.” She moved closer to where his warmth was. She tried to get back inside the dream. She looked for the seawall where she and Maggie had stood with their backs to the village. But Sarah was no longer dreaming, and the images inside her head were of Mrs. Brown’s living room in November, with Maggie fallen backward on the stairs where she had stumbled on a piece of loose carpet and Mrs. Brown on her knees with the hammer.

Maggie clutched the bannister, and her face was beyond exhaustion. “Isie,” she cried, “I’ve been telling you for days to fix that bit of carpet!” And now Sarah was looking up Maggie’s spraddled legs at the floppy white undergarments of a siek old woman. Mrs. Brown ran into the kitchen. Sarah climbed the stairs and sat by Maggie. “I told Isie one of us was going to break her neck on this rug,” Maggie said. Sarah tucked the dress around Maggie’s knees and pressed her legs gently together. “Wait a bit,” she said. “Get your breath back.”

Mrs. Brown returned from the kitchen with a hammer. She knelt on the stair and nailed the humped rug smooth to its tread. Thock. The sound of the carpet muffled the blows. Thock.

“What’ll we do, Mag? What are we going to do?” Mrs. Brown cried.

Sarah turned on her side away from Jack, pressed her knuckles against her eyes. She watched the yellow circles form within. Night flowers. She let herself fall into their black centers. Mrs. Brown’s upraised, age-bruised arm, quivered in the void.

The morning after Emily’s visit, Maggie waved away her tea. “I’ve no thirst, Sarah,” she said. “There’s an awful smell in my mouth. My tongue’s too sore for tea.”

“Give me your teeth,” Sarah said. “I’ll clean them for you. You’ll feel fresher.”

Maggie slid her tongue around her teeth with a grimace. Sarah reached down and helped jiggle the false plate from Maggie’s mouth. The teeth were coated with a film that smelled very bad. Maggie had thrush. “Her immune system is breaking down,” the doctor said. “We’ll make her as comfortable as possible.” Sarah took Maggie’s teeth to the basin and ran water over them. Her stomach lurched. Sarah could never depend on her stomach. Please, God, don’t let me throw up, Sarah prayed. She had to put the dental plate down and shut her eyes. Tangibly, sweetly, the nausea subsided. She began to scrub each tooth with Maggie’s Pepsodent. A deep peace moved in her then, thick and sweet as the honey Maggie spooned into her when she was a little girl and her throat was sore. She placed the cleaned plate in a glass of water and put it on the stand by Maggie’s bed. The artificial gums shimmered pink.

“Give your mouth a rest, Maggie,” Sarah said. She touched the outline of Maggie’s foot beneath the wrinkled hospital sheet. Maggie had bedsores now but she didn’t complain. Her body seemed not to interest her any longer. Sarah looked out the window, past the sunlight filtering through the scarlet leaves of the poinsettia. Someday she would tell Emily the whole story. Her mother only dropped hints. “Emily dear,” she would say, “you are our miracle child. We almost lost you.” So Emily knew about the threatened miscarriage and the month Sarah had spent in bed. But Emily didn’t know about all the blood. Nor did her mother. Only Maggie knew how much blood there had been.

Emily was Sarah’s third pregnancy. Sarah found this hard to believe because there had been no prior babies, no swollen belly, nothing to give weight and dignity to the term “pregnant.” She had known only the fact of conception and then its erasure. The spotting and cramping came somewhere between the tenth and twelvth weeks and both times the obstetrician said, “You’re young—there’s no reason you shouldn’t have a healthy child.”

This time, Sarah told no one but Jack that she was pregnant. They held each other in bed. “Nothing will go wrong,” they said. Her body began to prepare itself. She had vertigo, felt constantly tired, threw up if she scented Jack’s orange juice in the morning. Her breasts became tender, and she dared to hope. But in the supermarket in April, as Sarah pushed her thumb into the base of a melon to test for ripeness, there was a letting go inside her womb. It felt to Sarah like doors opening, first a crack, then wider. She could feel the gathering pace of the blood as it collected in her panties, began to coat her thighs. “Lady,” said the boy spraying the lettuce, “Are you okay, lady?” But Sarah was already on her way out of the store. She laid her sweater down on the car seat and sat on it as she drove, not home but to her parents’ house. A longing for her mother rushed up within as the blood rushed out of her. The idea of her mother filled her, as though going home would stop the bleeding.

Sarah stood in the entrance hall of the silent house. “Mother,” she shouted. “Damn it, damn it, Mother. It’s happening again. I’ll never have a child, never.” Maggie came from the kitchen. “Maggie, where’s Mother?” she cried. She could feel tears on her cheeks, the salt of them sliding into the corners of her mouth, the blood wet and sticky down the inside of her legs.

“Why, we’ll have to get you to bed right away, lass,” Maggie said. “You come upstairs now.” Sarah’s mother came out of her bedroom. “Sarah,” she cried, “Sarah, dear.” She held out her arms, but Sarah turned away. “Help me,” she said to Maggie. Maggie led Sarah into her old room and stripped off her stockings and skirt. “Lie down, Sarah,” she said. She put towels down on the bed and washed Sarah’s legs and thighs. “It’s only blood,” Maggie said, “there aren’t any clots. You haven’t lost the babe yet.”

Sarah’s mother came to the doorway. “I’ve phoned the doctor and now I’ll phone Jack at the office. You can stay here tonight and tomorrow I’ll drive you home. The doctor says if you’re going to miscarry again, it will most likely happen in the next 24 hours. If you keep the baby, you’re to stay in bed for a month.” She put her hand on Sarah’s shoulder. Her fingers were light as butterflies. “Maggie can stay with you. Your father and I will manage here by ourselves.” The faces of the two women hung like full moons over her bed.

Maggie moved through that spring in Sarah’s house with her customary energy. She cleaned the closets, washed the windows, prepared large steaming casseroles for Jack’s supper. “You stay put,” she said to Sarah. “If I see you out of bed, you’re going to catch it.” Sarah was quiescent, listless. “You keep your spirits up,” Maggie exhorted. “We’ll not let your bairn give us the slip.” She brought Sarah her lunches on a tray. In the afternoons they watched the daytime soaps together on television. Maggie confused the actors and actresses with the roles they portrayed. “That Lisa Delaney is a snake,” she said. It was too much effort for Sarah to correct her.

Her mother brought flowers from the garden. Sarah’s room smelled of hyacinths, was bright with daffodils and tulips. “Maggie’s a wonder,” Sarah’s mother murmured. “She’ll outlive us all.”

Sarah leaned back in the chair by Maggie’s window. It was harder each day to tell when Maggie was awake. Outside, a pallid, unconvincing square of sky was visible between hospital walls and flat asphalt roofs. Steam rose from the chimney stack beneath the window. The poinsettia leaves danced in air blown upwards from the heat vents.

When the telephone rang the next day, Sarah was cleaning up after breakfast. “Hello?” she said into the phone.

“Miss Macintosh’s vital signs are depressed this morning,” said the hospital.

Sarah twisted the telephone cord between her fingers. “What does that mean exactly?” she asked. “Is she conscious?”

“Yes, but her vital signs have changed. It’s written on her chart that you were to be informed.”

“Thank you,” said Sarah. She felt bewildered. “How much time is there?”

“I really can’t say. We’re calling to inform you at your request.”

Sarah hung up. She rinsed the last dishes and placed them carefully in the dishwasher. Vital signs. That would be heartbeat and respiration. She wiped down the table. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, Maggie said. It was somehow important to leave the kitchen neat.

When Sarah came to the door of Maggie’s room, she saw the curtains pulled around Maggie’s bed. The other bed was empty, the clean sheets drawn tight as bandages. In the chair by the window, Mrs. Brown sat upright, rigid. She had not taken off her hat and coat. She nodded to Sarah. “She passed away a few minutes ago, lass.” Her voice was Maggie’s voice.

A great space carved itself in Sarah’s heart.

“A nurse will be here in a minute,” Mrs. Brown said. The chair seemed to swallow her up. She was so small her feet just reached to the floor.

Louisa entered the room with a basin of warm water. She smiled and bobbed her head at Sarah and Mrs. Brown. She peeled the curtains back and sponged Maggie’s face and arms. Then she arranged Maggie’s hands so that they were clasped together on the outside of the sheet. I didn’t know to come at once, Sarah thought. Mrs. Brown knew.

“She was awake, earlier,” Louisa murmured, and once again Sarah had to wait to catch the words within the singsong lilt. “She was calling for someone. What’s your name, madam?”


“That’s it,” said Louisa. “It was hard to make out.”

Mrs. Brown leaned forward in her chair.

“No,” said Sarah quickly. “It wasn’t me. She was calling her sister.”

Louisa frowned “It began with an S.”

Sarah came to the side of the bed. She placed her hand on Maggie’s folded ones and looked down at the face on the pillow. Stern, forbidding, the nose slightly hooked, it reminded her of the photograph of Maggie’s father on the pine bureau. Hesitantly her hand moved to Maggie’s cheek. Her fingers touched the cool hollows, the deep lines. She looked over at Mrs. Brown who clutched her large pocketbook to her chest and almost without motion rocked back and forth. Sarah stroked Maggie’s face as if the repeated motion could erase the formal mask that lay across its features.

“Isie,” she said, “She was calling for Isie.”


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