There was a crash and a shriek and Gid and I jumped from our bed. I tried to follow him out but he pushed me back in but only until we heard Lolly screamed, “Yulee!! Hurry!!!”
I rushed up the stairs, banging my shin when I missed a riser. When I got to the landing I had to push children of all ages out of the way until I could get to the room. Vaniece was having convulsions.
Lolly was trying to hold her still with little success. I rushed over and grabbed the spoon we’d been using to get liquids down Vaniece. I did what I could to keep her from swallowing or biting her tongue. Jace just stood at the foot of the bed in stunned disbelief. I snapped at anyone who would listen and said, “Get him out of here. Now.”
I heard a scuffle and angry words but Jace was gone. The convulsion ended at last leaving Vaniece in a state that left me no doubt another one too soon would kill her. “Lolly, fetch my bag.”
She didn’t need to ask what bag and ran down the stairs to get my yarbs. Lurna was only slightly less shocked than Jace had been but finally found her voice and asked, “What … what can I do?”
“Heat a pot of water. I’ve got to … to …” I took a calming breath. Lolly ran in with my yarb bag followed by Gid with an armload of wood. “Thank you,” I told him. “I need the fire built back up so that we can make a valerian tea. It is the only thing I know that might work. The large lantern from the Great Room would also be helpful.”
The rest of the night was a blur. I sent an exhausted Lolly off but she refused to go far. Lurna refused to leave - almost daring me to make it an order - except when she stepped out to check on Jace and to impress on the other children how important it was for them to be quiet. Ned went down stairs and sat with Jace who seemed to be having a painful epiphany.
For over an hour Vaniece struggled to find a rhythm her heart and breathing could fall into. Eventually however she seemed to relax and fall into a deep, true rest.
“How is she?” Lurna asked quietly after I finished counting heart beats yet again.
“Stronger … at least in some ways. I can’t say about others.”
“Was … was it the fever?”
I sighed. “Possibly but that explanation does not sound completely true. Perhaps it is part of it. I believe the other part is that Vaniece is simply slipping away. She seems to be fighting more to leave this world than stay in it.”
Lurna gave a little shiver. “She can’t do this.”
I looked at Lurna then shook my head. “It is a little late to be saying such. And saying it to me does no good at all. It was Vaniece those words should have been spoken to, and some time ago at that.”
“I didn’t know.”
A hand opened the door then a young woman stepped in and said, “Yes you did, and so did Jace. Yulee and I both told you. Plenty of times we told you. You just didn’t want to know.”
“Lolly!” her mother gasped.
“It’s true Mother. I didn’t want to know it at first either but at last I used my eyes instead of my hurt feelings to find the truth. At least I won’t have to live with that.”
Her mother gasped again and I could see that Lolly was angry. Carefully I stood up to go to her. “Lolly, remember what I said?”
She sighed and looked away. “I know. I know they don’t mean to … to …” She shook her head unable to find the words for what she meant to say. “But they were and now Vaniece … will she die Yulee?”
I shook my head. “I’m not God Lolly. My knowing is not that deep.”
“But … but there’s hope?”
“There’s always hope.”
Over the coming weeks Vaniece improved … at least physically. She was still frail but she no longer looked ready for a shroud. But the Vaniece that sat in the rocker by the fire or stared out the window was not the same Vaniece that lived in her body before she became ill. For one she lost her balance easily; on the even floors of the cabin she could walk unaided, but on the stairs or outside she wobbled and tripped far too easily to go without someone at her elbow at all times. She also wobbled in her thoughts. She rarely spoke and when she did she would sometimes be unable to complete a thought and would go back to staring at nothing. And she never smiled. It wasn’t that she seemed unhappy but more that she was so disconnected that she seemed to feel nothing. She reacted to very little. Not even to Jace whether he was trying to coax her or rail at her.
After a difficult morning I finally said, “Jace, go. Losing patience with her is not going to help.”
“I’m … I’m not losing patience. She can do this, I know she can.”
“No Jace, she cannot. She is better than she was but she has a long way to go. And you had best set you mind to the fact she may never be completely the girl she once was.”
He looked like I’d slapped him. “You said there’s always hope.”
“And there is. Always. But is what you are hoping for your gain or for hers?”
He stomped from the room barely missing trampling Gid in his rush to get out.
Reaching my side Gid said, “You’re being hard on him again.”
“The truth isn’t always an easy thing to hear but it is what he needs to hear.” I draped a quilt across Vaniece’s lap and turned to walk out with Gid. Suddenly she grabbed my wrist in a surprisingly strong grip. She’d done the same thing after another confrontation with Jace the day before. I patted her shoulder and said, “He’ll be back. He just needs some air.”
She slowly relaxed and let go so that Gid and I could go have some alone time. I had intended to pay some attention to Gid by massaging his shoulders. It had been far too long since I’d done it for him. Instead he sat me on the stool and did it for me.
“Oh Gid … I should be the one …”
“Hush woman and mind me. It’s my pleasure to take care of you as I will and it has been far too long since I’ve had you in my hands to do it.” I shuddered at how pleasuring his hands felt. “Better?” he asked.
Gid chuckled. “You sound like the furball when she’s getting her rump scratched.”
“Hmphf.” I tried to stand up and tie by top shut but he was having none of it.
“Don’t be so sensitive woman. I’m rather fond of the sound if you must know so the more you do it the more I like it.”
Relaxing once again I told him, “Silly.”
“Maybe, but we deserve a bit of silliness now that you’re able to leave Vaniece for more than a moment at a time. Ned said at breakfast that he would like to copy out what you’ve done so he can take it back for the library in Riverside. And stop your blushing, we all know without your learning Vaniece would have never survived.”
I shook my head and said, “I merely did as I was taught … and I’m missing the higher learning I would have gotten from the Sisters, or Old Annie if she had lived. But I have her book.”
“The one you carry that has the odd hide for a cover?”
“The same. That’s ostrich or so said Old Annie.”
I rubbed his arm with my cheek. “Ostrich. It’s a large bird that cannot fly. The bumps in the leather are from the quills of its feathers.”
He snorted, “I know what an ostrich is. Ned had pictures of them once upon a time. Strange looking animals.”
“Don’t be. It’s been so long I almost didn’t remember what an ostrich was. Seems a strange thing to have the leather from one as a book cover.”
I nodded, happy to get beyond my know-it-all-ness. “Old Annie said the book has been passed down in her family for generations, from not too long before the Great War; doctoring was hard to come by and expensive even back then so people had to learn the best ways to care for their own. Her parents migrated to our village from a territory called Arkaneessee. Her parents told her that they once raised ostriches and another large flightless bird called an emu. They bred them for meat, feathers, and leather. When the Mississippi moved the last time their farm was destroyed and raiders moved into the area out of the East so they fled with what little they could carry and this book was one of them. Old Annie’s mother taught her the yarbing way the same as her mother had taught her. Old Annie’s husband and infant son died of a plague and her sister’s daughters all died in infancy as well. She was my mother’s nursemaid for a time while my grandmother recovered from the same plague and they became like sisters, sharing my mother between them.”
“Your mother was a yarb woman?”
“No though she learned plenty from Old Annie, her skill was in stitching and cutting. It was me they picked out to carry the yarbing on when I showed some aptitude for it so early. And Old Annie was stubborn enough that she refused to even let Aunt Giselle keep her from passing on all she knew.” Quietly I ended, “Only death stopped her.”
I grew quiet and Gid said, “None of that.”
“None of what?” I asked.
“The sad thoughts that put a pucker between your brows. It makes me feel like I’m not … distracting you properly.”
I grinned and said, “If you distract me any better I’ll be fit for nothing for the remainder of the day.”