by R. HOYTE RANEY
he front door swung in and struck the wall with a crack as loud as hickory on bone. A second later, several crumbled up pieces of newspaper scurried through the long, darkened entranceway like mice beneath dried leaves. Thomas had asked Kyle, his first born, to clean the hallway the day the dust storm had started but, obviously, Kyle had forgotten. No one could really blame him, however, because Barbara, his mother and Thomas’s wife, had gone into labor two days earlier than anyone had anticipated.
Several of the women emitted muffled shrieks with the sharp retort. But then the heavy black curtains that separated the entranceway from the living room fluttered like summer dresses and returned to their casual hanging.
“It’s the Cutter!” little Margaret squealed before her mother, Susan, hushed her softly and smoothed her long, blond and lazy curls. She was thin and pale, like Susan, with wide, blue eyes that made her face look small in contrast. Mother and daughter sat on a peach colored sofa, a few feet from the dining room table. Just to the side of them, Elizabeth—six months old and capable of sleeping through any calamity—nestled in a bassinet.
“Is not,” Art said in a thick voice, made hoarse from shouting into wind. He was Thomas’s father, and he stood beside the bedroom door, leaning against the wall. “It’s probably Bishop. He said he’d be by with a present. He probably let the knob go too soon. Lucky the wind didn’t take the hinges off, that’s for damn sure. I don’t know how the Cutter would contend with that mess.”
In the midst of the table, a rapidly growing pile of gifts lay. Twelve chairs faced in, while the black box for the baby sat at the head of the table, as was customary. Several platters with snacks and hors d’oeuvres sat on the opposite end, neatly arranged around a silver plated punch bowl. A tall stack of paper cups leaned against it. The majority of gifts were wrapped in decorative paper, some with bows, while a few were wrapped in plain white tissue paper. They had begun to accumulate as soon as word spread that Barbara had gone into labor, sixteen hours earlier. Most of their neighbors would be unable to attend the delivery because of the storm, but the gifts would keep coming regardless. That was the way of tradition: even a dust storm wouldn’t dissuade those who wanted to share in Thomas and Barbara’s blessed moment from being there, at least in spirit. And even though it was a late Friday afternoon, Margaret wore her favorite dress just like the women, and reclined on her mother’s lap. The elfin girl immediately ceased in her careless fidgeting and brought her thumb to her mouth.
Art winked at Susan and smiled. Friendly wrinkles went upward from his mouth to his eyes.
“Watch your language in front of the child,” Deloris whispered.
Moments later, the sound of sand being wiped onto the floor came up from behind the curtain. A weathered and tanned hand grasped the curtain from the hallway side and pulled an edge away. Ted Bishop’s smile floated from the darkness before his husky, round and wind burned face followed. Ted was the deputy.
“Howdy all,” Ted said as he walked carefully between the black curtains with the white wrapped box. The edges were slightly worn, and dust had tanned the side furthest away from Ted’s ponderous abdomen. Margaret Atkins sat up as soon as the gift came into view. Before she could begin to whine, Susan leaned forward and hushed her.
“Now, honey, you know that that’s for the baby.”
Margaret’s reddened mouth turned into a pout.
“Only if it’s a boy,” she snipped as she pushed her thumb back into her mouth. A moment later she was eyeing a spider that descended toward Eileen Bishop’s forehead. Eileen rocked, with her eyes closed, in a decorative rocking chair that Deloris had received on her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Eileen was six months pregnant and prone to sudden naps.
Susan looked around with a lopsided grin until she had found the other women. Deloris made a clucking sound and then turned her head toward the bedroom. A high cry came from behind the closed door of the bedroom to coincide with the look. Ted Bishop grimaced with the sound and Eileen opened her eyes.
“Where’s Tom?” he asked.
Thomas Harding’s father, Art, nodded toward the closed door. His smiley wrinkles dipped slightly at their corners.
“He’s in there with Barbara,” he said loudly. Deloris gave him a frown, and his voice lowered into a whisper. “She’s having a little bit of trouble with this one.”
Ted’s face became even rounder as he smiled. “C’mon Art, this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Doc Pritcher’s back with’em, ain’t she?”
“Got here an hour ago,” Art said. “Went in there, but she said it was too soon to tell whether it was gonna be a boy or a girl.”
“I hope it’s a girl!” Margaret exclaimed. Susan laughed like a startled hen, and leaned forward on the sofa. Long blond curls fell across Margaret’s forehead as her mother wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed her cheek.
“We all hope it’s a girl, honey,” Susan smiled, “and not just so you, Elizabeth and Kyle can share the gifts, either.”
“It’s too bad that Teddy can’t be here,” Eileen said as the spider landed on her hair, “but this dust would just be too much for his allergies. Couple’a months and he’ll probably be fighting over the presents with his own sister.” She patted her abdomen slowly as Susan clucked her tongue sympathetically and Ted Bishop blushed. Eileen closed her eyes and casually brushed the spider to the floor.
“I can tell it’s going to be a girl,” Deloris said before turning her eyes toward Art. Her face was thin and grave, framed by dull brown and white hair, pulled back behind her head in a bun. Deloris Harding possessed none of the happy wrinkles her husband owned. Instead, hers went from the corners of her nose, bypassed her small and severe mouth, and continued down to her pointy chin. She didn’t turn her head, purse her lips or change her voice even slightly. She just gave him a slight, sideward glance, like casual darts. The wrinkles that ran from his eyes to his ears disappeared and he looked to the floor.
“I know, I know,” Art sighed. “Baby didn’t drop until the night a’fore.”
“Always a sign when it’s high riding. A high riding baby’s bound to be a girl.”
“And you ain’t been wrong, yet.”
“Sending Kyle for the Cutter was just a waste of time and money...”
“Yeah, it might be, but it’s still better than it being a boy and then having to wait however many hours it takes for’er to get here to make the cut. And don’t forget two years ago, Jasper and Kate had Jeremy instead of Jane, and it took the Cutter nearly a week to come in from the Anderson’s. It’s always harder on a boy after the first couple’a hours or so...”
Margaret broke in, loudly.
“But Candy and Bob got even more presents then, ‘cause people felt bad for the baby. There were even more then if it had been a girl!”
Susan hushed her daughter with a whisper.
Ted Bishop laughed loudly, ignoring the cross look his smile generated from the stern old woman.
“You two haven’t agreed on a single thing since you been married, have you?”
Deloris’s cheeks became the color of sunburn and she turned her attention to the gifts. She sat in her favorite chair, wearing her gray, formal dress, with her legs crossed beneath it, while she clasped her hands together on her lap. After a moment of silence, while everyone glanced nervously at everyone else, Art smiled and raised his head.
“Well, we agreed on the Mauries, didn’t we Dee?”
Deloris let her breath out in a huff. The thin wrinkles beneath her nose tightened, puckering her lips. Her voice lowered as she frowned.
“Don’t get me started on the Mauries.”
Ted pulled out a dull-red package of cigarettes and started to pack it against his hand. No one bothered to complain because they all knew that Ted had quit smoking several weeks earlier. He just liked to carry his last package of cigarettes around in his pocket. When he was nervous, it was slow and steady, but the more irritated he became, the faster he slapped the pack into his palm. Most of his friends assumed that with his quick temper, the cigarettes would be reduced to a flat wad within a month; especially if the dust storm continued for more than a few days. His right hand hit his left palm in a slow, 4/4 cadence.
“One of them Mauries stopped by Sheriff Joyce’s place last month with one of his bastard kids and just left him there in the front yard. Didn’t come back for nearly a week.” He slammed the cigarettes extra hard. “It’s actually a shame he came back for it, ‘cause the Mauries’ kids seem pretty normal.”
Susan covered Margaret’s ears with both hands and whispered. “Ted, I wish you wouldn’t talk bad about people like that...”
“Well, she’s gonna have to find out sooner or later that not every one’s decent. Might as well be at a birthing.”
Deloris shook her head.
“Susan’s right, Art. They beat their children in public and run rough shod over their women, but swearing in front of a child isn’t going to change their bad ways or teach her that they’re wrong in the first place.”
Ted looked down for a few seconds. He returned the pack to his shirt pocket before raising his eyes and smiling.
“Well, I guess you’re right Dee. Violence begets violence, and bad people ain’t no excuse for bad manners.”
“And we don’t know that all the Mauries are bad people,” Art said. “After all, those families only came out of the mountains a little bit ago. Maybe they just need to watch us for a while to figure out how to raise their kids properly.”
Deloris shook her head and uncrossed her legs. They were thin and spindly, with crisp lines and sharp edges.
“Never should have let them move in to the outskirts near decent folks in the first place. Let’em stay in the mountains, that’s what I say.”
Art laughed again.
“Deloris Harding, if you had your way, things would stay the same for the next hundred years. And beside, the mountains is what made them crafty. Why, we would have never discovered them tar deposits if it weren’t for them. Remember the last roof? It was only three years old when it started leaking. They ain’t all bad. They work hard, they pay their taxes like everybody else. Life’s a lot harder in the mountains then it is out here. And when life’s hard, people sometimes get hard as well.”
Susan broke in.
“Life’s hard here, too. I mean, how many dust storms you see in the mountains? And the way it’s picked up, the girls and I might have to stay here another night,” she smiled quickly at Deloris. “And as nice as you’ve all been, I’d hate to take advantage of your hospitality. But the point is, you don’t see us brutalizing our kids.”
“Maybe brutalizing’s too strong a word,” Ted said. “They just use the back of the hand on them if they’re too slow...”
“Raising a hand against a child is never justified,” Deloris said. “I don’t care about their background or what their traditions are, and besides, it’s more than just the way they treat their children. Why, the Mauries don’t believe in any kind of etiquette or customs. Can you imagine how things would be if people just acted any old way? There’d be nothing but chaos, just like before.”
She looked off into the curtains that separated the living room from the hallway.
“I’m no expert, but just from seeing them from the distance, I can tell that the Mauries are a rude lot, and from the looks of them they rarely take baths at all. They’re...” she paused until she had found the right word. “They’re savages!”
The door to the bedroom was suddenly flung open and Thomas bolted out. In contrast of Art and Deloris, who were both short and slender people, he was tall and gangly. Margaret craned her neck to look past him. All she could see was the backside of Doc Pritcher as she leaned forward with her head bowed. Barbara’s knees were slightly visible at her sides, and they could all hear her grunting to herself.
“She’s starting to crown,” Thomas said, his face at once happy and concerned. “We might need someone to help.”
Eileen suddenly propelled herself to standing from the rocking chair. Even though she was barely six months pregnant, she looked full term. That was due in part to the fact that she was a large woman to begin with. In addition, Teddy Bishop had been nearly eleven pounds at his birthing. She patted the top of her stomach as she stepped past her husband and walked around the long, dining room table. She glanced down at the shiny silk that lined the sides and bottom of the baby’s box in passing and then followed Thomas into the room.
“I know I’m gonna need help when my time comes,” she said softly. The door was carefully closed.
Ted Bishop walked to the table, deposited the white package carefully on the outskirts of the gift pile and continued around to the now empty rocking chair. Deloris frowned as he lowered himself on to the cushioned seat and exhaled slowly. His jean-clad bottom bulged from the sides like sourdough, and the floor creaked ominously.
“Would anyone care for a snack?” Deloris asked with a tiny smile as she watched the large man rock slowly in the chair. When no one said anything, she recrossed her legs and wrapped her arms around her mid-section. Her smile puckered out until it had vanished. “Pigs in a blanket, in case you were curious.”
Ted rocked slowly in the chair and then turned his round face toward the picture window. Brown and red dust faded everything to dullness, and several pieces of a dead white bush flashed past. The glass was streaked and muddied.
“Storm seems to be peaking,” he said softly to himself.
Art limped to the punch bowl and helped himself to a paper cup before he fished the ladle from the bowl. Deloris watched his every movement as he raised the cup to his mouth and took a long swallow. A moment later, he was smiling again.
“Always does,” he said. “I hope it’s done by nightfall. That way I can get the street cleaned up in the morning.”
Three bright raps came from the front door. They were sharp and individual, exactly one second separating the first from the second and then the third. Art looked at Ted who continued to stare, absentmindedly, out the front window into dirt.
“Must be the wind,” Ted whispered to himself.
Nearly a half minute passed before they sounded again: one, two, three. Formal and concise; as quick and hard as rocks thrown against the front door by an errant child. Even less time passed before the same three knocks sounded a third time, on the window beside the front door.
“Well, I’ll be,” Art said, his eyes wide and curious. “Do you think that’s the Cutter?”
“Now why would anyone knock on the door?” Deloris asked, mainly to herself. “Who ever heard of that? Everyone knows a front door means welcome.”
“Maybe we should take a look,” Art said loudly, and then brought his eyes over to where Ted sat.
Ted Bishop cocked his head and then pushed himself from the rocking chair. He laughed lightly with his mouth, but his eyes remained narrow and suspicious.
“I better see what this means,” he said quietly as he pushed aside the curtains. There was a long pause as every one in the room imagined Ted cautiously eyeing the door before leaning forward and peeking through the window.
A few seconds passed, and then the twin curtains fluttered again as if danced by invisible hands. Ted’s muffled voice spoke up and was lost in the wind before the black curtains returned to their normal position. A few more muffled words drifted into the living room, and then the curtains were pulled back.
A thin, runty man with wiry arms and short cut pants walked in and glanced nervously at the small gathering. His suspicious, dark eyes darted across each face and then back again. He was bare footed and wore a black and dirty white checkered vest. On top of his head, a gray fedora was pulled down to his ears. His wiry arms were heavily tattooed with red and blue designs that continued, beneath the vest, and reappeared on his bare chest and abdomen. His legs were thick and muscular, and a black streak of either mud or tar ran across his knees in an unintentional swath. His hands were large and gnarled, nearly black, and he had an unblinking eye, tattooed in faded red ink, in the middle of his forehead. A quick glance later and two children walked in from behind and stood nervously beside the man.
The first was a teenager. His arms had several brightly engraved tattoos, but his chest was clear and dusty beneath his dirty vest. The same tattoo, bright red and angry, adorned his forehead and lowered suddenly as he squinted defiantly at the small group. The second boy had disarrayed black hair that hung from the back of his hat, and a long, slack jaw. He was, perhaps, seven years old, yet had the same physical characteristics as the man and teenager: muscular legs, short pants, checkered vest and fedora, dirty legs and hands, and his face was thin and mean looking, with a tight lipped expression. His and the other boy's chin were kept lowered onto their chests in such a manner so that they looked up, even when they looked down. There was no angry, red eye on his forehead.
Seconds later, a tiny woman with black ratty hair past her shoulders, and with a knee length, plain brown dress, walked through the curtains. A large, black as tar bag hung on her shoulder. She crept past the boys until she stood a few paces beside them. Her eyes darted from each member in the room and then back to the first, before she suddenly crossed her arms across her abdomen, and lowered her eyes submissively to the floor. Ted followed from behind the black curtains with a slightly crooked and bewildered smile upon his face.
“Well all,” Ted said softly. He glanced at Deloris, who looked straight ahead and didn’t acknowledge their presence. After a few seconds of thick and heavy silence, a low moan came from behind the closed door. With the sound, the ratty man took a half step forward and removed his hat. Both of the children followed suit at precisely the same moment until all three held their gray hats at groin level. The woman continued to stare at the floor.
“I’m Evian M’aurie,” he said in a soft monotone. Susan Atkins leaned forward and cocked her head, her eyes wide and curious. The man pronounced the name as Mee-or-ee. He smiled as quickly as lightening and nodded his head.
“This here is Jebediah, my eldest. And that one there is Ezekial, and my missus, Mary M’aurie.”
Once again, he flashed his quick, nervous smile while the boys continued to look with their chins dipped against their chests and the woman stared at the floor. After a few seconds, Art stepped away from the punchbowl and held his hand out.
“Well, glad to meet’chew, Mr. M’aurie, I’m Art. This is my wife Deloris. You already met Ted Bishop, the deputy. And this is Susan Atkins, Margaret and Elizabeth, the baby. Eileen, Ted’s wife, and Doc Pritcher are in the other room with our son, Thomas. Barbara, his wife, is about to birth.”
Evian M’aurie looked at the hand as if it were a knife, before they all—man, wife and thimble-headed children—nodded their heads simultaneously. Art studied his hand as if it had somehow changed, and then lowered it back to his side.
“We’re new, and all,” Mr. M’aurie said in his clipped manner. “From the Eastern M’aurie Clan, and we’d heard there was a baby due, and we’d heard, y’know, we’d heard you had this custom with babies. So, well, we wanted to show our respects’n all.”
There was a long silence.
“Mary,” he said softly.
The mousy women walked to the table without once raising her eyes. She paused for a second. as if trying to figure out what was expected of her, before looking over her shoulder at her husband. He nodded his head quickly, and she suddenly reached into the black purse and pulled out a large black bowl. Once she had placed it on the edge of the table, she retreated, once again with her eyes lowered toward the floor. Art walked to the table and picked up the bowl. It was black, stiff and shiny in his hands.
Ted stepped around the M’auries and stood beside Art. They both studied the black bowl intently.
“Well, looky everybody,” Art said sheepishly. “It’s a...why, it’s a tar bowl.”
Deloris suddenly cleared her throat and turned her attention toward Mr. M’aurie. Art and Ted both cocked their heads, while Susan closed her eyes. Margaret continued to suck on her thumb. When every one had quieted, Deloris Harding slowly pushed herself to standing and then walked along the table. When she had reached the chair closest to the bedroom door, she held onto the back of it until her knuckles had turned white. More grunting could be heard over the sound of their breathing. Arthur Harding closed his eyes as well.
“Mr. M’aurie,” she said, her voice crisp and proper. “That was very thoughtful of you and your family to think of our daughter during this occasion. I do hope that you’ll consider staying with us for the rest of our little ceremony.”
Art breathed out as if he had been holding his breath.
“That’s a great idea, Dee,” he said while happy wrinkles covered his face. The tar bowl was set down again and he began to pour lemonade into several of the paper cups. He had finished filling two of them when the curtains drifted forward again and twelve-year-old Kyle Harding bustled into the room from the hallway. His face was streaked by sweat, and red dust and dirt creased his neck.
“The Cutter’s here!” he said excitedly.
Art limped toward the hallway and held the curtain. After a pause, the Cutter walked through in her long coat, with her ceremonial hood pulled up and over her head. Wisps of spidery blond hair drifted from the sides of the hood, and she carried a small black satchel in her right hand.
“How are we?” she asked.
“Oh, right this way,” Art said quickly. “She’s just about to birth.”
“Good,” the Cutter said. “Water and towels?”
“Towels are in there, but I held off on the water to make sure it was nice and warm.”
The Cutter followed Art into the bedroom. Barbara began to grunt from the other side of the door in quick and angry bursts as if she had anticipated their arrival. They closed the door behind themselves.
“Should be soon,” Susan said as she stood up from the peach colored sofa. Margaret slid down her lap as her mother picked up the small bassinet and carefully placed it on the table so that it faced the baby’s box. She then pulled two chairs away. Margaret climbed into the closer chair and watched the M’auries as if they had designs on the gifts. Her cheeks moved in and out as Deloris spoke in a soft and gentle voice.
“Kyle, honey, go on in with your mother. A boy should be with his immediate family at a time like this.”
Kyle disappeared through the door. An abrupt shout was cut short as the door closed behind him. Once he was gone, Deloris repeated her request.
“You’ll join us, Mr. M’aurie?”
Evian M’aurie looked nervously at his hat while he tilted his head.
“I reckon we stayed long enough. We don’t want to interfere with your business’n all. ‘Specially during a private moment, like this.”
Ted walked up beside him and patted him on the shoulder. Dust rose and scattered into the light that came from the living room lamp.
“C’mon, Mr. M’aurie this is a celebration, everybody’s invited.” he smiled at the remainder of the small gathering. “That’s just the way we are; it’s our culture. You don’t want to turn down hospitality like that when you’re new to town, do you?”
“Well,” Mr. M’aurie said slow and flat before he pursed his mouth as if deep in thought. “I guess I wouldn’t want to show you no disrespect. Us being new’n all.”
“Then it’s settled,” Deloris said. “I’ll just get some more chairs.”
“No,” Evian M’aurie said quickly. “We’d be better suited to stand.”
“Well, how about the boys?” Ted asked before he stepped in front, bent at his thick waist and looked into the youngest boy’s face. “So, Ezekial, what brings you out here with your friend and his kin?”
The boy looked up at Ted with his chin tucked against his chest and remained silent. Evian M’aurie spoke up.
“They stand, too,” he said, slow and flat. “And that one there’s my youngest boy. They ain’t no friends.”
Ted stood up and looked at the older boy. His tattooed eye stared him down.
“But, I thought you said Jebediah was your first born.”
Evian M’aurie nodded his head.
“Well, he is my first born. He’s sixteen. Zeke’s his brother.”
Every one stared at the M’auries in silence. Even Deloris was at a loss for words. Margaret dropped her thumb into her lap and watched Ezekial with her mouth open. Finally, a high wail began from the other side of the door. The cry seemed to break the silence and caused Ted to laugh. It was a brittle sound: flat and bereft of humor.
“Well damn, Mr. M’aurie, you trying to grow an army or something?”
The door swung open and Art stepped out. His eyes went to Deloris, flashed once, just a quick glance, before he addressed the entire room:
“It’s a boy,” he said softly. His mouth lengthened itself into a straight line.
Margaret brought her thumb back up to her mouth and frowned while Susan rubbed her hair affectionately. Deloris looked off into the black curtains as if they were a distant and beautiful sunset.
“Let’s get started,” she said softly.
Ted Bishop pulled out two chairs and sat down. Once seated, he placed his flat palm on the second chair. He slowly rubbed it and glanced quickly at Mr. M’aurie before turning his head to study the bedroom door. The wind picked up outside the house and a shutter banged against its frame.
After several minutes of silence, the door opened. Eileen Bishop walked out and sat next to Ted, while Kyle took his place, two seats from Deloris. Art stepped out, followed by Catherine Pritcher, the doctor. She was bent and stooped, with tussled white hair. Her right hand went to her back and slowly rubbed it.
“How’s Barbara?” Deloris asked softly as she continued to look off into the black and still curtains.
“Oh, she’s fine, I reckon,” Pritcher said softly. “She’s going through a little post-delivery depression right now, but she’ll pick up as soon as the sedative wears off. Seen it before and it passes.”
“You’re staying, aren’t you?” Deloris asked. Her mouth tightened and curled at the edges, while the heavy wrinkles beneath her nose straightened slightly as if to lengthen and elongate her chin.
“Reckon I should. It wouldn’t be right to leave until the Cutter’s finished.”
And with their gently spoken words, the Cutter walked out with the baby cradled in her arms and with her black satchel tucked beneath her right elbow like a purse. She bent her head forward and allowed the thick and baggy sides of the hood to nearly envelope him as she cooed softly and whispered soothing, indecipherable words. The tiny, fat and pink baby shivered inconsolably as he was carried. All at once, a lusty cry came from him. Susan and Eileen smiled and formed their mouths into tiny little Oh’s.
“Samuel Harding,” the Cutter announced.
Art pulled his chair out from the table and sat down. He glanced at Deloris and then at the M’auries, still beside the curtain, still standing with their chins against their chests. When he leaned to the side, Deloris shook her head before he could speak. He turned his attention to the empty space in front of himself and stared at it in silence.
Margaret continued to suck on her thumb as Thomas appeared at the door. He glanced over his shoulder at Barbara, on her side with her head buried beneath her arms, and quietly closed the door behind himself. He walked to the first chair of the table, opposite his mother, and sat down. The back of his shirt was soaked through from perspiring and he appeared oblivious to the M’auries.
“It’s time,” Deloris said softly, vacantly.
With her words, the Cutter handed baby Samuel to Deloris. For just a moment, she looked away from the black curtains as she cradled the baby. She studied his face impassively and then lowered her head to kiss his forehead with her small and wrinkled mouth. She whispered into his ear. The baby was passed to Kyle, who blushed, kissed the baby, and then handed it to his right. Art smiled and winked, before he, too, kissed him. He then whispered a private thought into Samuel’s rosebud shaped ear and paused as if he expected a reply. Susan was next; she turned in her seat and brought him forward until he was poised above Elizabeth, who continued to sleep in her bassinet, before she kissed the baby and held him for Margaret. The little girl looked away with a frown.
“Honey, be nice to Samuel,” Susan whispered. After a few seconds, the tiny girl leaned forward and kissed the baby on the forehead. She then immediately turned her head away and looked toward the front window. The baby was passed down the other side, to Doc Pritcher and Ted. When the newborn arrived at Eileen, she nestled the baby against her abdomen as if to warm him, and placed her right ear upon his stomach. Finally, Thomas held his son. He looked at Samuel with a tired and vacant expression before the Cutter leaned closer and whispered. He then kissed the baby and held him out in front of himself as if he were trying to guess the baby’s weight.
“Go ahead,” Deloris said to no one in particular.
Margaret and Kyle began to open the accumulated presents in front of themselves. They ripped the wrapping off and began to pull the tiny presents out. As they did, Thomas lowered Samuel into the box and grasped his tiny hand between his fingers. The baby stopped crying with his touch.
“I got it, I got it!” Margaret said excitedly as she pulled the small blanket from the box and passed it down the row of people—Susan to Art and then to Deloris, who handed it to the Cutter. She nodded her head and tucked the blanket around Samuel until his shivering had ended. After a moment, the baby yawned. Art laughed nervously.
“That’s good luck, finding the blanket first.”
“She knows,” Deloris said, as soft as wind.
More presents were opened. A small, red ball was placed beside the baby, and then a carved, wooden horse. A jump rope was coiled beside Samuel’s legs and a picture Margaret had drawn was draped over his torso. Finally, the baby was nearly covered by the toys and clothes that had been brought for the celebration. And yet, there were still several packages remaining. The Cutter nodded her head toward Deloris.
“Kyle and Margaret,” she then looked toward the M’auries. “You two as well. You can each have one.”
The two children grabbed the two largest boxes.
“Don’t be shy,” Art smiled.
The M’aurie boys looked at their father. After a moment of indecision, he nodded his head quickly. They walked toward the table and were handed one present apiece. The tar bowl stood alone, like a round black orphan. They just as quickly stepped back to be beside their father with their small gifts.
Evian M’aurie clutched his hat as the ceremony began to wind down. Thomas and Deloris stood away from their chairs and walked to both sides of the Cutter. They closed their eyes as she began her incantation. Her left arm passed over the baby’s box in a figure eight as she recited the chant in a soft and steady monotone. The black satchel slipped from her arm and landed on the table.
Mr. M’aurie glanced at his wife. She kept her head lowered, but peeked up through her hair every other second. By the time he had returned his eyes to the box, the Cutter had removed the cutter from the satchel and was waving it slowly over the baby’s head with her left hand. Light from the living room lamp caught the edge and danced across Evian M’auries’ face. The baby began to cry in a strong and high pitched voice, its face scrunched into pink and glistening wrinkles. And all at once, the Cutter’s right hand cradled Samuel’s thin black hair and then lowered until it lay beneath his shoulders. Samuel’s chin rose into the air.
“Oh my GOD!” Evian M’aurie screamed as he lunged for the knife, “OH MY GOD!”
The two M’aurie boys fell back on to the floor as Ted and Thomas caught the wiry, runty man in mid-air. He tussled and clawed at them as they lifted and pushed him against the living room wall. Ted placed his forearm beneath his chin, while Thomas struggled with his thin and muscular tattooed arms. Margaret continued to unwrap her present with both hands, while Art cowered in his chair. All of the sudden, the ratty form of Mrs. M’aurie collapsed onto the floor like a shadow and her two boys began to whimper.
Deloris Harding remained at the Cutter’s side, impassive and silent, while Evian M’aurie continued to shriek. Thomas brought his hand up and attempted to clamp it over the wiry man’s shrill and opened mouth:
“Oh my God! Oh my GOD!”
“Mr. M’aurie!” Susan shouted as Elizabeth cried out from her sleeping. “You’re frightening the children!”
“I told you—” Deloris hissed, her eyes tight and feral. “They’re nothing but savages.”
Samuel’s crying abruptly ended. Seconds later, the Cutter lowered the lid on to the baby’s tiny box.
R. Hoyte Raney is a Paramedic Field Chief for the Chicago Fire Department. He is also the front man for the Chicago-based Americana band "Drama Junkies". His writing has appeared in N.E.I.U’s the Apocalypse, the Chicago Tribune, the Oklahoma Review (Spring, 2013) and Emerge Literary Journal (Fall, 2013).
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