The Terrible Extracting Price of Cancer
Author Trigger Warning: This is not light reading on the topic of cancer. It is what I have had to live through with the disease as I continue to fight for a cure. If you truly want to understand what it is like for a patient to go through this journey from the inside, then read on. If you are not prepared for the sort of darkness this disease brings it may be best you pass on reading this post.
March 23, 2017. 9:27am
That was the exact time my life changed forever. I went to the doctor with something that for over two months had been eating away at my normal life. Before I walked into that office on that fateful day, I had been slipping in my day to day activities. I walked down a long hall at my work literally leaning against the wall. My knees often buckled when I rose from my seat. I tried to make myself eat lunch, buying the smallest amount of food that seemed at the time I purchased it would be enticing enough to eat – it often wasn’t and I’d stop only after a few bites. Nothing tasted right. I knew something was horribly, horribly wrong. For over a month I hid it from my husband. I said nothing, I just did my best to shower and get ready for work and slowly crept out of the bedroom and with wobbly knees I was so unsure of I made my way slowly down the staircase to the car (once seated I was safe for the journey) and then I drove myself to work.
My day to day for the first two months of that year were sketchy. Thankfully, being a network engineer I didn’t have to visit too many people at their desks when things went awry. I could use remote technology to remotely control their systems and rectify the situation. If it warranted further assistance we had it within our power to ask for one of the operations crew to make the physical visitation to assist. So, for the most part I could stay rooted to my chair and desk while I continued to play that things were still somewhat normal. Lunchtimes soon turned into me just putting down the back seat of my car and trying to rest for a half hour or so to gather my energy to finish the day. Once the trek to my car was so bad I nearly fainted in the parking lot. I was scared to the point of absolute silence over what I was dealing with. I tried every way to do things as normally as I could.
It was a lie I told myself. Because I desperately wanted it to be true.
Have you ever watched Lord of the Rings? I’m sure you have. It’s one of my favorite series of films. But lately I’ve come to see it analogous to my diagnosis of cancer.
I even had a moment like Frodo, Aragorn, Gimli, and Gandalf (with the others) at the Mines of Moria where they struggled to find the phrase to open the gates and enter. I called my doctor with the symptoms I’d been having. This was in February. I explained everything that I was dealing with and the scheduling nurse informed me that it would be three weeks before I could see him. I took the appointment. What else could I do? I asked that if there were a cancellation please call me and let me know.
When I saw the doctor on that fateful day, and his preliminary examination startled him, he asked why I had not informed the nurse of the severity of my situation. I told him what I said and he shook his head and murmured something about how they want to hear a certain phrase that would escalate the necessity for an earlier appointment. Somehow I missed the memo on that secret decoder ring phrase that would have gotten me an appoint sooner. I grumbled a bit inside, casting a heated gaze at my husband along the way but it was what it was. We had to deal with where we were at that time. But after he had me wheeled down for the ultra sound it was confirmed, I had a tumor and it was most likely cancerous.
I had no feeling about it. I couldn’t grasp onto anything inside to tell me how to feel about those words from his mouth. I just nodded and glanced at my husband but said nothing. Flash back a year ago and I was eating breakfast at the dining room table, my granddaughter was watching cartoons (it was a Saturday morning) and I remember as I finished up something in the back of my mind said, “You’ve got cancer …” I had to no reason to think that. I felt fine.
It was fleeting and I soon forgot about it. But I recalled it the moment the confirmation of my disease left the doctor’s mouth. I think this is why I couldn’t grasp at anything to express what was building inside over this shocking diagnosis. The next thing he said was that on Monday, the 26th, (this was a Friday morning) he wanted me at the hospital for surgery to remove the tumor. I had two days to prepare over the weekend. Now, up to this point I did everything in my life to avoid being in hospitals. No broken bones, no prolonged diseases or ailments that would require a stay in a hospital of any kind. I detested being there – even to visit others. Now, at 52, I was going to have my first operation. I was terrified.
But I dutifully went to the appointment, went through the process of being prepped for the surgery and even tried joking with the nurses while I was being prepped. Oddly enough, it was an outpatient surgery. As soon as I came out of it I was sent home. Two days later I was back at work. It all seemed so surreal. A part of me was missing, the cancerous part, but still it was something I was born with that was now taken from me – leaving me marked as some sort of freak. It was then that the cancer began to voice itself. Like Smeagol, Gollum began to whisper to me.
“I have you now, my precious …” Don’t laugh. It felt very real. I walked around much better and was able to start eating again in a normal fashion. But still that voice that I had cancer lingered. I knew the battle was far from over. In a week’s time from the initial surgery I had to go for a PET scan to see what residual cancerous cells still existed. This was news to me. I didn’t know that I could have it elsewhere once the tumor had been removed. The PET scan revealed that I had cancerous cells in various places along a chain of lymph nodes that lead to where the tumor was. I would have to have chemo treatment to eradicate them from my system.
The good news, according to my oncologist and my husband (who has a medical background having practiced medicine early in his career) was that the type of cancer I had was 98% curable. I had one of the “good ones” …
Nothing felt great about it. There was no “good” in any of this.
And still that Gollum voice raged inside … with over tones of Darth Vader: I have you now … don’t think you’ll get away that easy.
Slowly I informed a few people I trusted at work what I had. Luckily, the company was a big advocate for cancer (often having huge company wide drives to donate for research for the disease and for additional resources to be funded). One of the programmers, a Brit ex-pat who I got along with came over and revealed to me he was dealing with stage 4 colon cancer. But his prognosis was excellent, he was beating the cancer. He told me that if I ever wanted to talk – during lunch or whatever – he was there for me. Then he gave me two points to take to heart: 1) Allow myself to feel (without guilt of any kind) what I wanted to feel; and 2) Find a support group – “You’ll need them more than you know.”
I have followed his advice on those two profound points and it has what’s kept me sane through out this long battle I’ve been on.
So where’s the darkness I warned of?
It’s been here all along. It whispers to me. When I cut up an apple to have as a mid-day snack, it whispers, “Enjoy this, it might be the last time you eat one.” When I’ve been writing, working on my latest novel, I type out a couple of thousand words and then I feel the need to nap, it’s there too, whispering, “Can’t keep up with what you used to do, huh?” I don’t sleep soundly now. Even with the drugs my oncologist prescribes to assist with that. It’s a restless sleep – with that Gollum voice ear worming into your mind terrible thoughts of how others close to you will deal with your death. You panic, you toss and turn trying to shut it down, find some sort of peace from the constant whispering that it does.
You know what else it does to you? I makes you one of the best actors on the planet. Laurence Olivier (were he still alive)? Bring it Larry, it’s on. I can out act normalcy to yours any damned day. My whole life is one long scene that has no resolution, no curtain call, no bows. I smile, I make jokes, I converse, all the while that Gollum voice has a hold of me inside, eating away at my resolve to present myself as I always have. Make no mistake, it’s an act. Underneath, I am white-knuckling it every damned day. Nay, every damned second.
In group we talk about how the disease affects our lives and those around us – our loved ones (friends and family). It often comes up that there’s that little squinch that happens to their bodies when our friends or family ask, “how are you feeling today?” – it’s almost imperceptible but it’s there. A slight pull back of, “Just say you’re fine so I don’t have to know too much.” So, you learn to edit yourself on the fly. You lie if you have to. To comfort them. Because that’s part of the gig now. This disease has you by the proverbial throat and is whipping you around like a favorite dog chew toy but you’re expected to say, “It’s okay, I’m dealing with it,” and move on so they feel they’ve done their part to inquire, but also your part to not say what’s really fucking happening. As if by imparting some small part of it they, too, will catch it somehow. That the mere exchange will cause those cancerous cells that have clawed their way into every part of you will some how choose that moment to release themselves and fly out of your mouth and into theirs.
It’s absurd, but people react to you very differently once they know you have it. There are exceptions, certainly, I am speaking in broader terms here. Family and friends who have been exposed to others who have had cancer and actually helped them through it, get it. They ask you sincerely and there is no pulling back in their body language. They know all too well what is raging inside: the anger, the hurt, the freakish Gollum like feeling that overwhelms you at every turn.
This disease is insidious. It robs you of your normalcy. It takes, cleaves and eats away at everything you hold dear in your life. I watch others complain of everyday things like co-workers or some asshole on the freeway, etc. I want to scream at them how I’d like to have those troubles again! How dare you give me your common place problems!
Instead, I blink, holding back angry tears, and just smile as best I can and nod while listening to their simple problems in life.
Or seeing their accomplishments. One part of me, the small part that used to wholly be me, is happy for them and celebrates what they’re going through. But the majority of me grows darker, more malevolent over their happiness. I don’t want it. I fight it. I don’t always win. But I still fight. Please know, the fight is there. Fucking tears …
My husband is a tremendous support. While I try to sleep at night he is busy researching for immuno-therapies that are on the rise and are providing wondrous cures for all sorts of cancer now. We are entering a new age of treatment – one where radiation, surgery and chemo will be a thing of the past. The trouble is, they are all in clinical studies that you have to match up to. So, he combs the net at 2 to 4 in the morning searching for studies that I might be a fit for. This is the same man that examined over 3000 pages of my medical records to distill them down to a narrative that we can present to any doctor or specialist we see that gives them exactly the points they would be looking for from a doctor’s perspective – sparing them the effort to comb through those records themselves. They often thank him profusely for the effort. It shortcuts our time with them and we can get to the heart of the matter. He’s truly a superhero when it comes to my care. And it’s not easy on him. I see the toll my disease is extracting from him. He’s tired, too. Being 16 years my senior it’s quite a bit for him to take on being the caregiver in this situation. I do what I can to alleviate that as much as I can but sometimes it can’t be helped. I hate myself when he has to do something for me. Not because it takes from him insomuch as I can see clearly how much this disease has robbed me.
And to be clear about the rigors of chemo – it is different for each – mine required a hospital stay for six days. The chemo would start at 10am and continue through the day and into the night ending at 6am the following morning for EACH cycle. I had roughly three hours to be free of that pump machine they had me connected to. Oh, and to make sure that the effects of chemo weren’t too harsh I set up a maze with the pump machine that I had to navigate amongst the table tray and the side cabinet next to my bed that let me know if I could do it without hitting anything that I was still in some sort of control of my muscles. That the neuropathy that the chemo causes hadn’t crippled me to the point of not being able to maneuver as I needed to. All the while I had to fucking get through it without pissing myself. But I did it so that each time I could get through the maze of tables, cabinets and that five pronged wheeled pump machine and still make it to the bathroom I was doing good. It sounds meager, I know. But to me, it meant the world. Don’t think I am not crying a bit as I write this knowing this is the level my life has come to.
There is this pervading feeling that like Frodo you are carrying the ring to Mount Doom. And every little horrible thing it does to Frodo along the way you can completely identify with it. You can’t have a moments rest from it. You can’t put it down and walk away just to breathe and feel like it’s going to sort itself somehow. It’s a race. It’s exhausting. And your beat. Like that chew toy you feel whipped around, battered and bloodied lying in a swill of piss and mud and someone inside of you says “Get up! I’ve got more where that came from.” And you’re strong because you’ve endured. But you’re tired.
So. Very. Fucking. Tired.
Tired of editing yourself, tired of lying to others saying you’re getting through it okay when you’re not. Raging at the disease every time it whispers it’s malignance to you. Watching yourself waste away – the chemo it is said adds ten years to your life from an appearance standpoint. I see it. It’s like those years were robbed of me in just one year of fighting this disease.
Yet, I am tempered in that anger and rage because there are those in my group who have been battling it longer than I have. There are some who are resigned that there is no cure for them in sight. They manage the rest of their lives knowing that chemo will be a part of it until they take their last breath. So, I count myself lucky (so far) to be amongst them but not in their shoes. “There but for the grace of God …” right? I’m an atheist through and through but I get the meaning behind that phrase.
I just received a call from the Cancer Center that is overseeing my case as I write this post. My PET scan has been approved by my insurance. With the last of my chemo completed this is the moment where we see if it did its job in getting rid of everything. Even if it’s clean this time, I have to have another six months from now and check it then. This is the nail biting time. A recurrence can spring up at anytime if the chemo wasn’t completely successful. So, while I have gone through two full rounds (four cycles each) of chemo to address my cancer, I am still feeling shaky that it took. The reason I stand on this is that my cancer has not behaved like these types of germ cells should – slow moving and responding well to chemo. I’ve been both resistant and the disease spread from two tiny spots on one lymph node in December to spread along my lymph chain within a matter of weeks. So, no, I don’t hold out that chemo did it’s job. I am expecting something to be there and that my journey to fight this thing will rage on.
And I am scared. I am fighting for my life while trying to keep a smile on for the rest of the world to see when all I want to do is scream to the heavens “Why me?!”
I write, escaping into my novels for some refuge from the Gollum voice telling me there’s no Mount Doom in my future. If I let my characters voices clog my head I can’t hear that Gollum creature trolling around back there. But I feel the blood it extracts from me – even when I can’t hear it. I’m strong … but I’m tired.
So, very, very, tired.
Until next time … (fingers crossed)
Announcing – The Cove Chronicles
So I’ve not posted anywhere lately. Seems to be a theme with not only me but several authors out there. I don’t think it’s intentional, but when you write it takes a lot out of you. I’ve just published two works that were but a few months apart. So, sorta busy on my end doing other stuff that authors do. Get the work out, and then start to promo it.
I am terrible with promo. I just hate being that guy who keeps screeching “BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK!” to the masses when most of those masses tend to be other authors. Like singing solos to the choir … I suppose. Well, that’s the way it feels.
BUT, there’s been other stuff in the works, too.
I’ve had this little gem of a story brewing for some time. In fact, I was working on it when Angels descended and took over my life. I can say now, as an author, NEVER utter those words that will doom you to the ninth level of writing hell:
Oh, this one will be easy. I’ll bang it out in a month or so.
Yeah, that soooooo doesn’t happen.
But moving on … With two works out on my Angels of Mercy series I think I am taking a small breather to get back to what I was writing before. It is a Sci-Fi novel (or as my husband calls them – Sifee (he hates the short term Sci-Fi and constantly makes fun of the SyFy channel – don’t get him going on that one, I’m just sayin’). But it’s a Sci-Fi/Sifee novel with Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Indians (ya know, my peeps) at it’s core. Gonna represent with this one.
It’s no small secret that my last post started a small fire storm in a Queer Sci-Fi Facebook group when I called JK Rowling out on cultural appropriation. She was guilty (IMHO) of such because she white-washed the Navajo culture in favor of her own books. My stories are based on Haudenosaunee culture (Mohawks, Oneida, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca (moving from the eastern door to the west)). Yet, I am doing it with a solid eye to being respectful, even if I am turning some of our core myths on end to tell my tale. First off, it’s set in an alternate universe, very much like our own but there are some events that did not happen here that have occurred there that subtly change the course of my people and I think it’s fairly epic. Can’t wait to get this one rolling.
I am calling it The Cove Chronicles.
So, with that in mind, I thought I’d share with you a piece of the prologue – told by a Clan Mother who is present for the birthing of twins who will change everything for the course of mankind on the planet. It’s an ominous birth, one that brings as much hope as it does doom. It’s a work in progress (WIP), so some of what I post here and in The Works section of my site are subject to change as I work on it and move through the editing process. But this is where it is now.
Mohawks, Sci-Fi (masquerading as magic), and the epic battle of twin brothers – Good (Spruce and his Haudenosaunee Guardians) and Evil (Flint and his Flintlings) and how a world very like our own hangs in the balance. The narrator of this prologue is not from the central protagonists of my story. Indeed, she is a character from their distant past. But she is important because she is the first to truly see what is going on around their people and is present when everything changes.
A note about the prose: The vernacular is leaning to the prose of the 1820s but with a keen eye to Audrey not coming to English as her first language (which is Mohawk). So there was a slight shift I am employing where Mohawk conceptual speech is trying to fit the English mode. It isn’t supposed to be an easy fit.
So without further ado, as they say, I give you Audrey Brandt, a Clan Mother to the Mohawk people as she tells you Where It All Began … Again:
Wherein we meet Clan Mother Audrey Brant who recounts the ominous birth of William and Rebecca Hallett
Where It All Began … Again
Hallett’s Cove, New York
September 3, 1821 – 3:12 PM
The problem is, you see, I have seen things. I have always seen things that others do not. I assume it had been this way from the tender age of seven when I happened upon a peculiar metallic ball while roaming the forests outside of my village. It was very like those they shoot out of a cannon, I remember thinking at the time. I did not go looking for it. I found it just laying there, tucked in amongst the brush, waiting to be discovered.
At first glance it appeared as an ordinary cannonball, save that this ball possessed the smoothest, shiniest, silver I had ever seen. Beyond that, it did not appear as if anything remarkable separated it from any other sphere. It had no markings or etchings to make clear its intent. It seemed as any other.
That is, until I dared to get closer. Oddly enough, I could not deny that it begged me to draw near.
Though apparently solid, it did have moments when something inside seemed to ripple across its smooth surface. When it did, I peered into it, and it began to assume a life of its own – as if my presence woke it from a deep slumber. As I watched it, it seemed to undulate and glow with amber and green light that would ripple across its surface as if something just under its shimmering silvery coat beckoned to be noticed.
That light, hypnotic and wild, would occasionally bubble up from within. I felt a wary smile move across my lips. I found myself quite beyond being intrigued. I felt drawn to it. This here, whatever its truer nature, could not be confused with anything mundane. Rather, it appeared … magical.
Its allure beckoned me. Try as I might to resist its call, I found I could not help myself – so I touched it.
The shock I received from that simple touch threw me back on my hindquarters several feet away with the back of my head colliding with a small log. No small doubt the pain most assuredly expressed itself plain upon my face when I landed. I tried to rouse myself, but found it very hard to do. I’d nearly been knocked unconscious. Without much in the way of warning the orb hummed, I gave in to its call and everything went black.
When I came to, bearing a slight headache, I remember feeling quite disoriented; though as soon as I gathered my wits about me, I noticed the ball had gone. I gruffly pulled myself up, putting my hands to my hips, realizing how rude to have some passing stranger abscond with the silvery ball and not bothering to assist a girl in need. Who would have taken it and not bothered to lend me hand? That troubled me greatly as I slowly started to make my way home.
Hearing my mother’s clucking tongue in my head, only because I knew she would berate me for my shaken appearance, I did my best to dust myself off. Only I as I did so I discovered, to my shock while ambling over the countryside, I was not alone. I could not see who it was at first. All I heard was the fluttering of air, like hundreds of birds taking flight, moving about me with alarming speed.
My eyes tried to follow the wisp of shadow as it weaved in between the tall pines. At times it appeared high above me, and at others it seemed to move level to my own position, as if trying to discern its best line of attack. A quite unnerving experience, to say the least. ’Twas no ordinary movement, only one thing could move like that that I had heard of: dark forest spirits.
In truth, I did not know if the apparition could be called as such, but one thing made itself plain – whatever this creature, its motives and movements proclaimed its dangerous nature to me. My only thought: get back home, Audrey … and fast.
As I scrambled over rocks and ravines – doing my seven year old best to reach the village – I saw her. Not a horrifyingly dark frightening forest creature as I had expected, but a breathtaking beautiful woman drifting among the trees, ambling over rock and brush with a snake-like grace.
Though her beauty was undeniable, she bore nothing shy of a malevolent wickedness about her. She was cold. Cold and mirthless. She floated through the forest with an agility that belied naturalness. No tripping over stones or wobbling about like I did. Witchery of some kind to be sure. I had heard of such things. Witches.
It was possible.
When I dared, I allowed my gaze to flit in the darkly woman’s direction. Each time I did, my skin would prickle – as the witch seemed shrouded in a billowing pitch-colored dress that undulated at the ends in wisps of smoke like her presence was burning the space around her. What skin did show glowed ghostly blue-white, even in the light of an overcast day. And her lips, the darkest blood red I’d ever beheld. Her eyes were black as pitch with no whites to them. A most alarming visage.
If I allowed my gaze to linger a second longer I saw that the woman would flicker and shimmer as if not wholly of this world – a tortured spirit caught between this life and the next.
I wish that spoke the worst of it. It did not. For then she bade me, in Mohawk no less, to come closer. It rattled me to the core of my being, I can tell you that. Yet I knew she was not Mohawk no matter how hard she attempted to assume the like. Her soft tones caressed my ears with a beckoning lilt to it, teasing me, as if we were but long lost friends.
The longer we made our way to my village her pursuit enraged me, with her purring giggles and a haunting laugh, as if trying to share a special secret with me that no one else could know. I would remember later that her laugh contained absolutely no humor. Just thinking upon it now, it makes my blood run cold.
But I pressed forward, pausing a couple of times – probably not the smartest thing I had ever done. I was young, and therefore, prone to stupidity and curiosity that my mother said would one day be the end of me. But I knew I should get a better view of the witch – if anything than to inform others. Though, why I felt that it fell to me to do so only confirmed my not understanding things fully – I was very much out of my league. Not surprisingly, each time I tried to get a better look, the witch would alter her parallel course and began to pursue me in earnest, giggling all the while. That damnable giggle. A powerful taunting wrapped up with its maddeningly hypnotic pull upon me. Nothing terrified me more than the idea of something so beautiful and alluring could embody absolute danger and terror. The bait and switch chasing had me in a perilous dance, and one I deeply wished would come to its conclusion.
Several times I swore I could just feel her at the nape of my neck, like the cold rasping hand of death reaching out and barely scraping against the skin. But in those terrifying moments, I did not dare take the time to look, for I knew that would cost my life.
By the time I reached the village, back to the safety of my people, I finally had the courage to turn about and look back, only to find the witch had vanished completely.
I stood there for quite a while, eyeing the forest for her presence but found none.
I always bear witness to unnatural things, things no one else would wish to witness. It has always been a part of my life – a constant, odd and sometimes mortifying companion. Now at the respectable age of seventy-three, I ought to have grown used to it, accustomed to the stares, the small talk behind my back when others do not think I can hear or see them as much as the oddity of seeing such things in the first place.
But the gossipers are mostly the new Americans.
My people, the Haudenosaunee, have other ways of coping with me, though coping may be too strong a word. Even at my age, I am still learning to master the English tongue. I came to it late in life and I must admit that its manner of construction is most strange. Mohawk has a strong visualization to it. The words and phrases are conceptual in nature and structure. I found English a much harder means of communication. Whenever flustered, English made it more difficult to express. I am old now. I supposed it would always be this way until my last breath upon this Earth.
Thunder rumbled outside as my thoughts wandered over that terrifying event so long ago. And while that story had a great deal to do with the events of tonight, it was not the whole story. No, that story had no real conclusion; the conclusion I sought those many years ago would happen tonight. I felt it in my bones. Coldness had taken root and eked into every part of my body. I just could not get warm enough despite the stifling heat of the room.
The violence of the stormy night bellowed about us. A hurricane had engulfed Manhattan and was raging outside. The birthing of babies should present itself as a joyous occasion, a celebration. But this afternoon played itself out to be something altogether different.
As a Clan Mother of my people, the Mohawks of Akwesasne, I have often been present at the birthing of babies. It is the way of things and has been this way for far longer than the people can remember. Birthings are the most potent power women possess – the creation of life.
For the Haudenosaunee, women govern the culture and guide them through the forests of life. It is our responsibility and our birthright to ensure Haudenosaunee longevity. The chiefs and warriors may be out front, but that is only so the women can point over their shoulders to tell them where to go. So a request for the Clan Mothers to be present at a birthing in our territories was quite common place.
To do so elsewhere – not as much.
This birthing however, was proving to be different. As one of our own had married into a prominent New York family and her son, who had also fallen in love with and married a Mohawk maiden, requested the birthing of their baby to be handled in the traditional manner; so they sent for the Clan Mother.
Not to appear out of step with the times, the Hallett patriarch had also sent for a doctor to ensure that should the Clan Mother fail in any way then the doctor would fix it. It frustrated me. I could not understand what he meant by that. As women, as well as Clan Mothers who not only birthed their own, but assisted in countless other births within the nation, we knew what needed to be done and yet this young man who takes money for what comes naturally to us stood by to fix it should it go wrong.
As the English are fond of saying, Poppycock.
Contented that two of our own had married into the prestige of being a Hallett of New York, they did the sensible thing to ensure the birth of their baby was going to be in the traditional way. It was a great comfort to me that even within the halls of New York high society the Mohawks were finally making headway in educating the Americans on civilized customs and behaviors.
Rose, the daughter-in-law and my second grand-niece, began to call out in pain. Her baby was close. Sweat beaded across her brow, and her breaths came out in a rasp. I instructed the burning of Seneca grass and sage to calm her. The bedroom was thick with it.
Rose sipped from willow and white pine tea that was common during the birthing, wincing whether from the taste or the heat, I was unsure. It helped for the most part but her pains were strong. They raged as powerful as the storm outside. Indeed, the very walls of the great Hallett familial home seemed to rattle along with Rose’s birthing pangs, the two of them caught in a horrifying rhythmic dance. When the storm relented, Rose cried out in agony; when she settled, the storm outside raged and rattled the house again. It did everything to shake our nerves.
The other mid-wives, some Clan Mothers from other clans, tended to Rose as best they could – wiping her brow and gripping her hands to guide her through the waves of it. I was sure from Rose’s perspective she was going through the worst pain imaginable, but having seen many of these, I thought it a relatively easy birth.
Thunder rattled the skies above. All eyes cast their gaze momentarily to the ceiling of the room, eyeing the creaking and buckling noises warily. The Sky People, it appeared, had their own agenda tonight.
“She’s calling for John, Elizabeth, and her own mother. I think she would even call for the Christian God himself if she bought into all of that and thought it would help,” Kathryn said as she approached.
My eyes glanced over at Rose who was seated in the wooden birthing chair so it would be easy for her to produce the child when the time came. Many a child came into this world through that chair, though none of those before carried the weight of the birthing happening this night.
My gaze returned to Kathryn and I gave her a look of resignation.
“Let her call them all she wants. The baby will be around for a long time; they can see it after it’s arrived. She knows better, but that is the pain talking.”
Elizabeth Hallett, the expectant grandmother, swept into the room in a simple dark but smartly tailored no-nonsense dress. The rustle of her voluminous skirts turned heads in the room as she made her way to me.
Her confidence seemed to billow the aroma of Seneca sweet grass that seemed to give way with little resistance to her formidable presence. Gracefully composed, as ever the proverbial eye in any storm, she returned to us carrying another small pot of tea.
“She complained about the tea being too bitter, so I…” in unison we stated the obvious, “… added the Maple sugar.”
We all shook our heads and allowed ourselves a small smile for we had been in Rose’s position and knew we should have added the sugar in the first place. Willow-Pine tea carried a brutally bitter bite upon the tongue.
Elizabeth grasped my arm warmly. It was her way of letting me know how much she appreciated my presence. Elizabeth smiled briefly before turning to take in the rest of the women busy with caring for Rose.
“Heavens, it is warm and thick with the grass in here.”
“That is Patricia’s doing. She’s always heavy handed with the grass. She would burn the meadow bare if she had her way,” I said as I poured a small cup of the tea and handed it to Kathryn who spared no time in getting it to Rose.
Another cry rang out as a wave overtook Rose’s resolve to remain calm. As it abated, the house groaned again as wind and water pounded heavily upon the window panes. Not that any of us could spare the time to observe the storm as Elizabeth’s husband had all of the home’s windows shuttered up against it, say nothing of the birthing pulling focus. There was but one small sliver of light where the warp of two boards did not quite meet up. That sliver was our only connection to the outside world. But we did not have time for taking in the storm, as a baby pushed to make its way into this world.
I began to move in Rose’s direction, to guide her through the final stages of birth, when the room swayed before me. The walls seemed to liquefy, rippling as if they were melting in place. Only one thing I could think of would cause this: the sight was coming on again.
Not now, I thought. The child needs me.
A shrill from Rose shocked the room. In that moment a chill ran through my heart for I thought I heard a small laugh nestled within that cry. It was a mirthless laugh, a malicious teasing laugh. I staggered for a moment. I could feel the pull against my life, sapping energy from my limbs as it leeched across my body to my very core and I had no way of stopping it. Like that seven year old girl being pursued in the forest I found myself truly frightened – convinced that I was on the precipice of my own demise.
“Audrey, she needs you.” Elizabeth nodded in Rose’s direction before turning to me where she saw my pained expression and asked, “Are you … alright?”
I braced myself against Elizabeth’s offered hand and the small bedside table for support. I shook my head to try to clear it. When my eyes focused again, I was in shock at what I saw: there before me were two glowing points of light undulating within the belly of Rose, each bearing down toward their entrance into this world.
“Twins …” I felt the words sputter from my lips before I scarce realized I had said it.
“Twins? Did you say … twins?” Elizabeth asked bewilderedly as she helped me to a full stance. I nodded. The very air was sapped from my lungs; I struggled as if attempting to breathe under water. But through it all, my gaze never wavered from the sight of those two glowing lights as they made their way to the birthing.
“They are coming …” I barely managed a rasp out to the other women as I struggled to focus on getting back into the fray. The doctor came forward and placed a cone shaped tube to her belly. With a sudden burst of energy that I did not know I possessed, I knocked the boy-doctor aside.
“Out of my way, child. This is women’s work.”
Rose’s cry escalated into a piercing shrill, if that were at all possible, as she suddenly removed herself from the birthing chair and squatted as instructed. She bore down with a guttural cry as the crown of the first baby’s head made its way into this world.
The door to the bedroom suddenly opened and John, the father, obviously concerned in the change of his wife’s cry, had come to investigate. His father, James, was on his heels as they both stepped into the room.
“It’s time, James.” The doctor approached the men. “The Clan Mother thinks it is twins.”
“Twins?” John murmured, as if the thought had never occurred to him that his family would be off to such a grand start. James clasped a firm hand upon his son’s shoulder and the men beamed at each other before embracing briefly.
“No time for celebrations just now. They have yet to be born,” Elizabeth called to both of them. The men nodded and eased back to the edge of the room in an attempt to stay out of the way.
“Quiet now; here comes the first!” I called out as my hands cradled the head of the first child as it pressed its way into the room. Thunder roared overhead. The wind howled surrounding the arrival of the first child, announcing to the world that the birth of these babies carried an ominous tone.
The great house shuddered and groaned. Thunder pounded upon the roofline. I looked at the boy I held in my hands as I received him into the world and began to wrap him up into a swaddling cloth. The other women moved in to tend to the afterbirth as I guided the young boy to the birthing cradle. My eyes tried in vain to focus upon him but he kept shifting and vibrating. I thought it must be something wrong with me, that I became overwhelmed with everything. To calm myself I ran my hands into a hot bath of water to wash away the birthing when my breath caught. A bone-chilling moment overcame me, leeching it out of my body and turning the water to an ice slurry in a matter of seconds. A puff a humid air billowed from my lips. The temperature of the room seemed to drop about 20 degrees within a matter of seconds.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the men in the room, seemingly unaware of the change in their surroundings, faces alight with delight of the birth of a healthy son. As I slowly turned, I became rattled by the way the room was beginning to lose its form. Walls rippled and undulated all about me, yet no one else seemed to take note of it.
A bright flash cut through the room as the shutters were forced open from their frames. In the brilliance of the lightning, the room became crowded with a collection of Haudenosaunee warriors. Unseen by everyone else, these spectral shapes dominated the available space in the room. These warriors were the likes I had never seen. Proud warriors in full battle readiness; they were silent sentinels who had but one focus in the room: the birth of these babies.
I knew at that moment that the others were watching. This was no normal birthing. A new chapter in Haudenosaunee history was being born.
Though I had never witnessed them myself, I knew what they were: the Unnaturals, preternatural beings akin to the Sky People of old, spirits who seemed to look like us but with a pallid, violet blue-white skin of the beyond. Each warrior bore different images and small patterns and pictorials tattooed upon their skin that changed and undulated across their flesh. They were creatures of immense power. As the storm continued to rage, pulsating lights seemed to burst from within their expansive bare torsos, matching the intensity of the thunder outside as if somehow the bombastic nature of the weather were tied to them.
They did not simply come with the hurricane. They were the hurricane.
I could not bear seeing them any longer and in haste I balled my fists to my clenched eyes to clear the vision. I did not know if I could make it through the birth of the second child. I feared losing my grip upon this world when I was needed most.
I kept my eyes closed to the horror of it, taking a moment to breathe deeply, begging for them to disburse … to leave us to our work. When I dared to open them, I was relieved that the warriors had all gone. But the oppressive feeling of their presence remained. They were still there, just on the other side, unseen. Their arrival served to underscore the significance of these births. These children were being watched and not necessarily by a benevolent presence, either. The Others were tricky; one never really knew the measure of their allegiance.
“Have to get back to her …” I stammered under my breath. My once sure and direct hands suddenly felt feeble and failing. I could see the light flickering within Rose’s groin, too much time passed between the birthings. She was going to lose the second child.
Rose’s head snapped up, her eyes wild with fear. “Something’s wrong. I can feel it.”
She looked at me pleadingly. She began to panic. I plucked up every ounce of energy I could muster and leapt into action.
“Look at me, Rose,” placing my hands on either side of her frightened face, trying to pull the woman from the terrified girl, attempting to catch her frenzied gaze, I tried with everything I had to soothe her rattled heart. “You will not lose this one. She’s much too important.”
Now, why I said that to her, I was not sure. I had no reason at all to assume that the second child would be female, much less the influence she would have in this world. But sometimes these things just come to you. I’d learned not to argue with it when it happened.
Rose nodded – together, she realized, we could do this.
I began to chant a song her grandmother had sung to her whenever she needed calming. As soon as I cooed the first few syllables I felt the room shudder. Some of the other mid-wives looked about the ceiling wondering if the home would hold against the storm or if, in the next moment, we all would be swept into oblivion. Without much warning the flickering light of the second child grew in earnest and pressed forward.
Her time had come.
“Now, Rose … NOW!” I called out and Rose did as I bade her. With every ounce of strength between us we brought the second child into this world. She was radiant. Her skin literally glowed in my hands. The delicate flower of a girl already had the fine wisps of dark auburn hair that was prevalent within the Hallett line. Had the brother had this trait as well? I honestly could not recall.
As I handed the girl to Kathryn and Elizabeth, I turned and saw the men as happy as they could be. I could only feel relief that I had made it through. The other women could tend to the clean-up there after.
Then, without warning, everything stopped. The sound of the storm suddenly abated. There was silence. Even the babies had calmed themselves from their birthing cries. A soft shaft of sunlight poured into the room, giving the moment a subtle glow, bathing it in tranquility. Every person seemed rooted to their spot. No one moved a muscle.
As soon as I moved the action in the room seemed to pick up again, as no one else had been trapped between time and for that single radiant moment the possibility of peace was real.
I took up the birthing chair as the other mid-wives got Rose back into bed. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, grateful that the birthing was finished and somehow everyone survived. For the next few moments I allowed myself to be wrapped up in finding a way to return to normal breathing. Just the flow of air to and from my lungs calmed me immensely and I relished these few moments to gather myself from the entire event.
“The storm seems to have let up. Heaven itself is welcoming these two brilliant children into this world,” James said brightly as he lit his pipe. How much I wished his sentiment were right, though inwardly I knew it could just as easily have been the reverse.
“Audrey, do you require anything? Something to eat or drink?” John asked as he knelt next to the chair taking my right hand into his. I could tell by his touch how deeply he felt the blessing these children brought into his life. I gently squeezed his hand to let him know I appreciated his gratitude. A wave of nausea overcame me, I became a bit light-headed.
My eyes fluttered open … and saw her.
The only creature that had ever truly frightened me. Gone, the days of forgetting her evil beauty. Gone, the intervening sixty-six years as if they had not happened at all. Within the span of but a few seconds, I was that frightened little girl again in the forest with Hell’s Witch upon my back. Only now, instead of upon my heel she faced me directly.
She was standing there behind James Hallett and to my great horror no one else seemed to notice or care. Time had not changed her radiant beauty. She was as luminescent as ever in the semi-darkened room. I lifted a hand and began to point at James. Every warning in my head began to sound, the horror of the witch’s presence pressing upon me. I was rattled, in shock. I found, to my confused dismay, I just could not get the words out to warn them all.
John looked at me quizzically and turned to his father for advice. James shrugged at my bewildered state.
WHY COULD THEY NOT SEE HER STANDING THERE?
I stammered with some spittle flying from my lips, “There, look out! Get … away … from him.”
I waved my hand about in the air as if swatting unseen flies. Everyone stopped what they were doing when they heard me. They looked quizzically to each other, not knowing how to respond to my frenzied antics.
The beautiful woman, completely shrouded in the same dark, ominous-looking tresses, her face and limbs the only thing protruding from the smoky visage, smiled wickedly as if this were the shared secret between us that no one else would ever be privy. She flickered in and out of existence. My eyes widened. Wracked with frustration, I couldn’t understand that no one else knew the danger the witch represented.
Though I had not laid eyes upon her in over sixty-six years, I knew that vile creature for what she was … she was death or something akin to it and she had come to claim a soul.
Helplessly, I watched as the witch moved around to James’ side and slipped one arm around his waist and the other she seductively ran up his chest and leaned her head against his shoulder. She pouted playfully at me, feigning an apology for what we both knew she was about to do, confident in the knowledge that no one would believe me should I even speak about what I saw.
“No, not James … not today” I muttered mournfully, knowing that the plea would fall upon deaf ears.
The seductress smiled again and plunged her hand into James’ chest. I knew what she was doing; she was squeezing the life out of his heart. A man who had loved Elizabeth so deeply that he had endured the scandal of marrying a Mohawk woman and bringing her into New York high society, of ensuring that the family was firmly rooted in both worlds. A man who had a heart big enough to love all who knew him and to be generous with that love of life and spirit. And now it was being crushed, obliterated, swept aside as if his presence was no longer required. His smile faded from his face, the pipe fell from his hand, his eyes dimmed and he was gone. He crumpled to the ground before his pipe hit the floor.
Elizabeth screamed as she and John rushed to his limp body. When I looked up at the she-witch, Death’s paramour, she had moved to a different part of the room. She hovered above the bed where the twins lay with their mother. Slowly, suspended from the dark billowing smoke that coursed about her, she lowered herself like a Black Widow moving in for the kill – a small hiss escaping from her lips. Her ravenous gaze moved slowly over each child, a cold hunger coursing through her. Then, without any indication why, she turned to look at me square in the eye with a deadly stare and a wicked smile before silently drifting up into the darkness of the ceiling and out of sight.
In the massive bed Rose sobbed as she cradled the crying babies in her arms. The room was consumed with grief from James’ untimely death. The doctor had immediately rushed to James’ side but I knew it was no use. He was gone. There was no bringing him back.
I leaned forward and pressed my face into my hands and wept with the enormity of the moment. The children’s birth would be forever marred with the ring of death. It was an inauspicious and yet a powerful revelatory moment, one that would prove to have far greater resonance in the time to come.
Until next time …