THE INCONSOLABLE WOMAN

She was a conscientious child, which is no easy thing to be on a homestead ranch on the prairie. Also, she was an only child, which meant there was no way to share the load. Not that her parents were oppressive, but she could have shared more than work. Her mother, who had barely survived an infection at her birth, was grateful that there would be no more births. But that was a secret. In public or in her home, she claimed babies were wanted, precious, and valuable. Actually, she did like children and would have adopted, but didn’t go looking. Mainly her strategy in life was to hold still and let things happen however they would. So many times she had been wrenched out of her hopes.

So her daughter kept a pleasant house and cooked well and was actually quite a pretty “girl”. She dearly loved her husband, who was a singing man. All day he hummed and whistled and sang aloud, every verse of every song he knew. He was also quite homely but a strong high-testosterone man full of vigor and strength, which meant that for him work was a pleasure and the task rarely exceeded his ability. He was even a good lover. When his wife became pregnant quickly and easily and carried the baby with grace and cheer, they were both pleased beyond anything they’d felt before.

Then the baby was lost. At first they were both disconsolate, but as time went on, it became clear that the wife was inconsolable. The husband was open to the pleasures of life in a very direct way — the constant flow of new lives — and he had confidence that after a while things would resume as they had been. Of course, he had not been subjected to the hormonal stresses of pregnancy and then the abrupt end.
One day he came upon a flowering white bush and cut branches to weave them each a crown. No one they knew would do such a thing, but he felt the solemn power of ritual and took them home to crown his wife. His own wreath would not stay straight, but at least it stayed on his head. His wife’s hair was wound up tight to her head while she did housework, but the crown of blossoms just fit. He admired her pointed chin and winged eyebrows, thinking how very beautiful she was and letting love pour out of him.

She understood, but sadness would not release her. Gently she put her crown on the kitchen table and went upstairs to the sewing room once intended to be a nursery. She was not weeping. She didn’t weep out of consideration for others.

He took the crowns outside, putting one on the horse and one on the cow. “I proclaim you domestically admirable,” he said bitterly, and went to clear brush out of a coulee. Soon he was singing again. But she had looked into birth control and, when she could, her prevention was avoidance of sex or even their bed. It seemed as though her very grief was a prevention.

She had a rocking chair in her room and tilted slowly back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes she napped there. She didn’t look at the bureau drawers where she had put the baby things away. She had taken the crib down.

One day her mother came to see her. “Are you just afraid of having a baby because of me?” she asked.

“Oh, no. You have nothing to do with it, Mom.” But her mom had been the one who had told her that as an infant she had been hard to settle, cried all the time. Her mom had been the one who told her life was full of misery and suffering and it was our duty to just bear it without complaining. Her mom had been the one who speculated that maybe an inability to produce a baby was hereditary, though she also said, “Childbirth infections are far more manageable now, you know. Antibiotics and so on.”

“I know, mom. I’m fine.” She was lying. She just wanted her mom to go away.

One afternoon when her work was done, the wife went into town and took out a library card. She knew that she was emotionally dark and quickly becoming hard, and she thought she could find answers in books. Otherwise she’d never be fit to raise a child, even if they adopted. And her husband read the books, too. He never chose any and never asked her to check out anything different. In fact, they were both almost secretive about it, though each was aware of the other’s reading. The books helped more than their pastor, who was an old-fashioned man, but they continued to go to church. After all, the husband was key to the choir.

The reading sort of crept out of the library and the husband began to read county agent materials about ranch matters. He did very well as a manager and everyone was pleased, because they knew he would — a man who sings all the time is bound to succeed.

One day he came back to the house for something, walked quietly along the upstairs hallway, and glanced inside the sewing room. His wife had a book clasped to her chest, but she was asleep and the cat had jumped up to sleep in her lap. Then again on another day there was no book but she had the cat upside down in her arms and was rocking it gently. She might have been humming.

One of the agent’s pamphlets gave him an idea. He sent for the plans and built it in the back barn where his wife never went. Then one early summer day he brought it up to the front yard where it could be seen from the sewing room window. Sure enough, she was still a curious woman, and she came down to see what this was.

“It’s a talking swing,” he said. “We sit in it across from each other and tell each other what we think and — more than that — how we feel. Climb in!”

Her mind slipped into the way she felt when rocking with the cat. It was so much fun that when it got dark, they finally opened their hearts. All the feeling began to tumble out for sharing. “I’d better fix supper,” she said.

“Oh, let’s just eat something cold,” he said. “I’ll go milk the cow while you set the table.”

When he came in, supper was laid out on the dining table. In the middle was a huge bouquet of those white flowers he had made into circlets a year ago. “It took me a while to find where those bushes grow,” she said. “Eat fast so we can go back and and swing some more.” Luckily, the moon was full that night.

When the neighbors found out about the swing, some of them built their own, though kids could be hard on them, trying to go faster. Grannies loved to sit in them with friends. But no one ever figured out where those white bushes grew. They didn’t even know they should look for them. But the couple, now blessed with a new healthy baby, were happy to give them starts.

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