As soon as I get to the fence, though, I notice loose dirt, and I get a bad feeling, and dig into the dirt and feel a tiny foot the size of my thumb….”
by brian doyle
One summer day my neighbor to the one side tells me that the daughter of the neighbor to the other side is pregnant.O, I say, and my heart goes right out to the daughter.
She’s maybe sixteen, this kid, as sweet and gentle a girl as you’d ever want to meet. Quiet but quick and diligent around the house and yard. Smart as a whip. Takes classes at the community college already. A great kid. Not averse to helping me carry grocery bags or prune the fruit trees and such when she sees I am having trouble doing stuff now that I am old.
I don’t see much of the daughter in the next few days, she stays inside the house, doesn’t work in her garden like usual, and her boyfriend doesn’t come around anymore.
It’s not like I am especially close to this kid. I am not even fully sure of her name, which is either Laura or Laurie. I missed her name the first time she mentioned it, when she and her mom moved in next door a while ago, and when people talk about her they don’t pronounce the ending of her name clearly enough for me, and now it’s too late to just ask her name. I’d look like I am getting senile, and I am a little touchy about looking like I am getting senile, because I think maybe I am getting senile, so there you are.
I see her at the mailbox a couple of times in the next weeks, and one time I meet her by the mailbox, and she smiles and I smile, but neither of us says anything, and she hustles home with the mail.
She doesn’t look too pregnant to me but what do I know.
Things go on this way for a while and by the holidays she swells up and there’s no question she’s pregnant. I watch her getting the mail. We all live on a steep hill and I see her working harder and harder to get back up the hill with the mail.
Pretty soon it’s spring and I am out in the garden most of the day. I may be getting old and senile but the knees and back and arms still work pretty well and I like growing things. I take a certain pride in my garden, which is carefully plotted out and very productive. I have stuff growing there all year long. You can do that here because even though it rains all winter it never freezes, so I can keep turnips and potatoes and chard and kale going right through the winter. The rest of the year I have beans, blueberries, carrots, garlic, onions, peas, peppers, radishes, raspberries, rosemary, squashes, strawberries, tomatoes, and thyme. Along the fence between my house and the girl’s house I have fruit — an apple tree, a pear, a fig, and some grapevines.
Pruning the trees and vines is where she’s been a real help to me, because she was deft with those shears, and she was studying botany and and stuff at the college, so she was actually interested in the way things grew and all, and it used to be that she was tireless, and one hour of her pruning was worth ten hours of me pruning because she was made of rubber and never got tired.
But now she’s not made of rubber and one day when I am out there pruning she walks out slowly and leans on the fence and apologizes for not helping.
Hey, no problem, I say.
I feel like I let you down, she says.
No no, I say.
I’m not in a condition to be much help.
How you feeling? I say.
Heavy, she says.
When are you due? I say.
Good Friday, she says. Can you believe it? Of all the days to have a baby. That’s the saddest darkest day of the year.
I am no particular religion but I know enough of the Christian thing to know what she’s talking about.
Maybe you can keep the baby inside you for a couple days and give birth on Easter, I say.
That’d be something, she says.
That’d sure be something, I say.
I’ll help you again when I’m in better shape, she says.
That’d be great, I say, and she walks slowly back to her house.
The older I get the less I sleep, and on Good Friday I am up before dawn. I make coffee and go out in the garden to watch the sun come up. There’s a place there where the angle of the fence is such that no one in the houses or the street can see you.
As soon as I get to the fence, though, I notice loose dirt, and I get a bad feeling, and dig into the dirt and feel a tiny foot the size of my thumb, so I dig like crazy and get the baby out in about three seconds, it’s all muddy but still breathing, I can tell from the tiny chest going up and down, so I stuff it in my shirt and walk quick into my house and and wash it off in the sink and there I am with a baby the size of a bird.
I wrap it in a towel and it looks at me but it doesn’t cry.
It’s a boy.
I get all rattled for a little while there and have to sit down.
The thing is so little you wouldn’t believe it. It’s about as big as a cup of coffee. It looks like Yoda in those Star Wars movies, to tell you the truth.
I take it into the bedroom and lay it on the bed and wrap more towels around it because someplace I read that newborns get really cold really fast, which makes sense because they have been in the wet oven for a long time and being born must be an awful shock. Not to mention getting buried by the fence.
I don’t know much about this all, because I never got married, and while I have a lot of nieces and nephews, and I really like kids, I don’t really know anything about them technically. So I was in a pickle.
But men are not as stupid and helpless as movies and television shows make us out to be. I mean, I was in two wars, I worked in the woods, I live alone, I can figure things out, so we figured things out, Yoda and me. We figured out that he could suck hot milk off the end of a moist towel, which he really liked, and we figured out that he liked to sleep a lot, and we figured out that he slept best when I put him back in my shirt and rocked in the rocking chair. He really liked that. The only time he really cried like he meant it was when we got up out of the rocking chair. He didn’t like that and he cried hard but he was so little that him crying hard wasn’t much sound at all. I didn’t tell him that because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, you know, but he sounded like a toy teapot. Plus as soon as he commenced to cry I gave him the milk towel again and that was that. He sure liked that milk towel.
Friday went by right quick, Yoda and me sleeping that night in the rocking chair, and Saturday was dusking by the time I made up my mind what to do.
We spent another night in the rocking chair, Yoda and me, and then before dawn I gave him another bath in the sink, which he liked, and wrapped him up tight in a towel, and gave him a huge dose of the milk towel, which knocked him out cold, and then I watched out the window for the girl next door getting the Sunday newspaper.
Soon as she went by my house, walking gingerly, I whipped out to the fence with Yoda in my shirt and waited on her. When she came back up the hill she came over to the fence to say hi and I worked her over to the place where the angle of the fence is such that no one in the houses or the street can see you and I pulled old Yoda out of my shirt.
Look what I found, I say.
She doesn’t say anything but her eyes are all wild.
He really likes sucking hot milk off a towel, I say.
She doesn’t say anything.
And he likes warm baths, I say.
She reaches over the fence for him and I hand him over and she pulls him in to her chest with a sound in her throat you couldn’t describe if you had a year.
Thank you, she says very quiet.
No problem, I say, very quiet.
We stand there for a minute, all three of us, and then she goes back to her house with Yoda and I pretend to examine the grapevines in case her mom is watching and then I go make some coffee and come back out and sit by the fence and watch the sun come up full power. Then I get back to work in the garden because there is an awful lot to be done and spring is most definitely sprung.
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)
Brian Doyle is the author of six books, most recently THE WET ENGINE, about hearts and all. It’s not bad. Among his awards and such are (a) a woman married him, (b) the Coherent Mercy granted them three children, and (c) he was named to the 1983 all-star team in the Newton Massachusetts Men’s League, which was a really tough league, you drove to the hole in that league you lost fingers, one time a guy drove the lane and got hit so hard his arm came off, but he was lefty anyway and hit both free throws. Supposedly he then left his arm in a toll booth basket on the Mass Pike but that might be apocryphal. More from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke. (bio/2004)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.