Thursday, December 22, 2011

This is getting to be a habit with me. I think that's a good thing. Here is this week's entry (a few minutes late, I'm afraid) for Rebecca Harris's Flash Fiction challenge at Bony Fingered Limbs.

The Homecoming

Matilda Matthews was born in a cabin in the woods. Her parents, Mike and Mary Matthews, were teachers. It was just before Christmas, 1975. Mary had taken maternity leave, because their first baby was due in a few weeks, and Mike was on Christmas break. When Mike had finished grading final exams, they decided to take a ride in the country, just for the beauty of it. Alongside the road, snow clung to drooping branches, and a hush lay over the countryside. It was like driving through a calendar. That is why they drove so far, watching the suburbs change to farm land, the farm land to forest, the daylight to dark.

They were very much in love, and they made a lot of plans for their life together. It never occurred to either of them that the universe might not co-operate with their schemes. Not, that is, until that night in the deep woods, when their old Ford's engine sputtered, the snow fell, Mary started to groan, and Matilda made it abundantly clear that she was about to be born, hospital or no hospital.

As Mary's groans increased in volume and intensity, Mike jumped out of the car and took off at a run. He insisted, later, that he had never intended to run away. He merely got out to have a look around, he said, to find a place for their baby to be born. Mary had her doubts. However, whatever his original motive for leaping out of the car, Mike did find a suitable shelter for his wife, a log cabin just a few yards from the road. There were no lights on in the cabin, so he didn't see it at first, but he shone his flashlight all around, and there it was, its windows reflecting the wavering light. Shouting “Wait right there!” Mike stumbled across the snow to the cabin's door. He knocked, but there was no answer, so he tried the door – it was unlocked. He left the door ajar while he went back to the car and helped Mary clamber out. Together, they made their way to the cabin.

A big, overstuffed sofa sat in the middle of the front room, facing a fireplace. Mary lay down on the sofa. Mike found a lantern and lit it with a wooden kitchen match from a box on the mantel. He used some of the wood stacked by the fireplace to start a cozy fire. Then he turned his attention to Mary, whose cries were becoming quite alarming.

Mike ran into the bedroom and opened the old wooden wardrobe. He found a stack of clean towels and took them out to the living room. The bed would have been a more comfortable place to give birth, he supposed, but the bedroom was still so cold that he could see his breath. He closed the bedroom door behind him, holding what precious heat there was inside the room where their baby would be born. After that, he had no idea what to do except hold Mary's hand and try not to panic. Between contractions, Mary tried to tell Mike what to expect, but this was her first baby, too, and the Lamaze classes hadn't prepared either of them for deep woods childbirth without doctor or midwife – “Mike, boil some water and let it cool down. You'll need to wash your hands really well before you deliver the baby.”

“Before I what?”

“Before you deliver the baby. Who else do you think is going to do it?”

“Oh, God.” Mike sat down suddenly and put his head in his hands.

“Don't fall apart on me, Mike. I'm warning you.” Mary was talking through clenched teeth.

Mike looked over at his wife. Her face was turning red, and she was clutching at her belly. As he watched, she curled up and started to groan again. He took her hand. “Don't worry. I won't fall apart. I'll be here for you. I love you. We'll get through this together.”

And they did. Calling on their Lamaze classes and what they had seen in countless Hollywood movies, they managed to bring Matilda, red-faced and screaming, into the world. They wrapped her in a towel and laid her on Mary's belly, and then they waited for daylight.

When the sun came up, Mike set off down the road in search of help. The nearest neighbours were half a mile away. They were surprised to see a weary, disheveled man at their kitchen door first thing in the morning, but they opened it – country people are like that. They gave him a cup of coffee, and while he drank it, Irma – the lady of the house – packed a thermos of coffee for Mary, along with muffins and orange juice for the two of them. She drove back to the cabin with Mike while her husband, Tom, went to milk the cows. She told Mike that the cabin belonged to her and Tom, that it had been their first home. They had built the larger house when their children came along. “We keep the cabin as a guest house now. We are expecting my sister and her husband to arrive tomorrow for Christmas. That's why you found it open.”

“Hello,” she said to Mary. “I'm Irma Baldwin. I live next door.” She unpacked breakfast and took the baby so that Mary could eat. After breakfast, Mike wrapped a blanket around Mary's shoulders and walked her out to Irma's car. Irma followed and handed the baby to Mike, who could hardly wait to hold her. She climbed into the driver's seat, and the four of them drove thirty miles to St. Patrick's hospital, where Matilda and Mary were both checked over and pronounced healthy. The doctor on call raised an eyebrow. Did Mary want to be admitted to hospital?

Tired as she was, Mary had to laugh. “What on earth for?”

Mike had arranged to have their Ford towed into town, and he had rented a Chevy so that they could get home. Mike and Mary both thanked Irma for all her help. As she was turning to go, Mike said suddenly, “Irma, would you mind very much if we named the baby after you?”

“But I thought you already had a name for her! Matilda, wasn't it?”

“Well, we did – but you have been so helpful – so wonderful – I – we – would like to do something to honour you.”

“I don't know what to say,” began Irma. “But wait! Why not use my name as her middle name?” So there it was. Matilda Irma Matthews.

Matilda grew up in Toronto, sixty miles and a world away from where she was born. She was only three when the old Ford sputtered to a halt again, this time on a Christmas shopping trip. It died on an off ramp from Highway 401, and all its lights failed. Within seconds, a tractor-trailer came off the highway and crushed the Ford. Both Mike and Mary died that night. Matilda was at her maternal grandmother's house when it happened, and that is where she stayed.

Her grandmother loved her very much, and Matilda had a happy childhood. In the fullness of time, she left childhood behind and became a lovely young woman, then, in the Spring of 2001, a bride.

She and Joe, her new husband, were very much in love, just as Mike and Mary had been. They lived in a tiny condo – hardly big enough for two – but within a few months of their wedding, Amanda was heavy with her first child, so they set about looking for another place to live. By Christmas Eve, their search area had extended right out into cottage country. “Are you sure you want to live this far out of town?” asked Joe.

“That's why we have the internet, Sweetheart. We can work anywhere we want – and it's beautiful out here. Just listen to the silence.” As she spoke, she saw what she was looking for – a charming log cabin, a few yards from the road, and in front of it, a For Sale sign. “Let's stop here,” she said. And they did.

It turned out that the house belonged to the lady next door, who had decided to sell the cabin after her husband died. “It's just too much for me to look after,” she said when Matilda called on her mobile. “I'll come right over and show you around.” She arrived within minutes, sturdy and cheerful in blue jeans and a tee shirt that had probably belonged to her husband. “How do you do?” she asked. “I'm Irma Baldwin.”

Matilda smiled and took Irma's hand. “I'm delighted to meet you. My middle name is Irma, you know.”

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